The next morning found Godric in the courtyard with the children. Feeling especially combative, he’d gone to the library and coopted them, to their delight, from under Rowena’s nose. He’d had an idea born of the frustration he’d experience trying to teach Cadogan fighting skills. The boy seemed incapable of the balance and coordination necessary to make a competent knight. However, lying awake on the previous evening, Godric’s mind dwelt unwillingly over the time of his friendship with Salazar. He remembered the little magical contests with which they’d sought to pass tedious hours waiting to sail with William’s army.
Godric had spent some time in the library too. He’d taught himself several spells and charms for fighting an enemy with magic, and he now set about teaching the children what he’d learned. He faced the three of them, instructing them to do their worst. It wasn’t as satisfying as thrashing around with a sword, but it did take the edge off. Rowena sat off to one side with a book in her lap. She had no wish to join in, but she took a clinical interest. Salazar watched with approval, but he was careful to stay out of Godric’s line of sight.
While simultaneously maintaining a shield around himself to guard against the hexes the three children sent erratically toward him, Godric caught Aydan with a well-aimed curse that caused an enormous rack of antlers to appear fully formed on his forehead. Aydan’s head fell forward as the weight began to pull him to the ground. Cadogan and Emmeline shrieked with laughter. Godric took advantage of their distraction by catching Emmeline with a hopping hex, but over-confidence caused him to let down his guard, and Cadogan surprised him with a jelly-legs jinx. As he and Emmeline tried to get control of themselves, Cadogan whooped with delight, and promptly tripped on an uneven flagstone.
Just then there was a commotion. On one wall, it turned out that a mural depicting nymphs and satyrs, concealed a wide door which led out to the village. Two women from the village were leading a creature on a long rope, and when the three children saw it they rushed over, their practice duel forgotten. At the end of the rope, not struggling but not making it easy for its handlers, came a unicorn. Unlike the one already resident in the courtyard, this one was not pure white, but had a silvery sheen. They all knew from their study of the Compendium of Uncanny Creatures, that this meant it was not fully mature yet.
The women led the reluctant creature to the fenced off enclosure where the purely white unicorn was housed. The children followed closely, Emmeline and Aydan trying to pet the creature, and Cadogan looking stormy.
Cleodna soon followed, coming through the smaller door that led to the entrance of the house. Her green eyes were bright with excitement. She came to Aydan’s side, tucking his hand into her elbow, and smiling in a proprietary way as the young unicorn was led into the enclosure. “Isn’t it beautiful?” She said to Aydan. “Such a rare find! I’m so hoping that in a few years I might have a baby unicorn. Wouldn’t you love to see that? And I have another surprise for you young Aydan.”
She laughed indulgently. “Not yet young master. You’ll have to wait for supper to find out.”
Separated by the length of the courtyard, and not looking at one another, Godric and Salazar both watched the proceedings. Both noticed something about the women leading the creature. They were not young women. They handled the unicorn competently and as kindly as possible under the circumstances. But what both men noticed particularly was that each woman bore a subtle resemblance to Cleodna: something about the shape of the eyes, and their vivid green color. They both noticed it, and neither knew what it might mean.
Cleodna’s surprise at supper was the addition of another house guest, and it didn’t have quite the affect she’d anticipated. When they joined her at the magically enlarged supper table, it was to find her seated next to a rather stringy looking man with an extremely pale complexion. When Rowena saw him she stopped in her tracks, and when Aydan saw him, the boy cried out in shock, “Uncle Draugar!”
Cleodna looked on indulgently, not at first seeing Rowena’s reaction. Cleodna’s eyes were on Aydan, but his face wore a complex expression, not the joy she had expected.
She looked to Rowena, hoping for some way to smooth over the moment. “Draugar has told me that not only is he Aydan’s uncle, but that he is a great admirer of yours as well.” Taking in Rowena’s intense discomfort, she cleared her throat a little awkwardly, and turned her eyes to the others. As graciously as possible, she introduced Draugar as a friend.
“Draugar and I have known one another for many years. He occasionally visits me here, and often brings me rare creatures to add to my magical menagerie. He has a unique speed and stealth. It was he who brought me my snidget.”
“A particularly difficult catch,” Draugar said in his serious way. He had a trencher of what looked like raw meat before him, and was cutting it up into very small pieces. Helga and Godric did their best to cover up the awkward tensions running around the table, and Salazar sat, quiet and cat-watchful. It was an uneasy supper all round.
Later, when Cleodna and Draugar had retired to the bath house, the seven of their party gathered in the courtyard.
“Tell me about your uncle Aydan,” Helga said kindly to the boy.
“Well,” Aydan said, looking at the ground, “He’s my uncle, my mother’s brother.”
Helga thought she understood the trouble, but kept her tone light. “Did he live with you?”
“Well no, not really. My father was a peddler, and sometimes uncle Draugar travelled with us…, helping out.”
Aydan seldom spoke of his parents. He maintained with confidence that his mother was safe in the north, but never referred to his father, and turned conversation away from his family. Taking pity on him, understanding that Draugar’s presence was an uncomfortable reminder of those absent, Rowena spoke.
“He was with Aydan’s parents when I travelled east with them. Aydan’s mother said that he came with them sometimes to help with the heavy work but….” Her voice trailed away. She was reluctant to speak her suspicions in front of Aydan, and the other children too if it came to that.
“He looks none too healthy,” Godric observed. Is he ill do you think?”
“He looked like that when we travelled together,” Rowena said, and shivered.
“He always looks like that,” Aydan mumbled uncomfortably, “But then sometimes he looks really red, like he’s been running or something, always after he comes back from…, well he goes off on his own a lot.”
Helga looked like she was doing some fast thinking, but she said nothing.
Finally, Rowena abandoned caution. “I am afraid of him. I didn’t like the way he used to look at me. I certainly wouldn’t like to think of him as an admirer. Travelling with him, I began to suspect that he’s…,” even having made up her mind, she found it impossible to speak the word, saying instead, “I began secretly carrying garlic and hawthorn, and he started leaving me alone.”
Helga’s mouth was an O of astonishment. “One of those, in the same house as…,” her gaze swept their party with concern. “This isn’t good.”
“Why would Draugar bring Cleodna creatures that are so valuable, and so difficult to catch? What’s in it for him?” Rowena asked.
The calculating expression returned to Helga’s face. “You don’t think she gives him…, gives him…, lets him….”
“I’m afraid so,” Salazar replied reluctantly. “There’s definitely complicity between them. I couldn’t get it all, they both have very guarded minds, but he brought her the unicorn with expectation of something in return, something he wants very badly.”
“I think it’s time we were on our way,” Helga said in a business-like tone.
“That would be a good idea,” Godric replied, but I went to check on the horses this afternoon, and each and every one is suffering mysteriously from some kind of hoof-rot.”
“What?” Helga exclaimed in distress. “I thought you checked on them regularly.”
“I do. The problem came on with uncommon suddenness.”
“I’m beginning to fear you and Salazar may have been right,” Rowena said to Godric. “I think she doesn’t want to let us go.”
“I said that first,” Cadogan said a little petulantly. He knew Rowena thought him slow, and was always eager to impress her when he could.
But it was Helga who reached out a hand and ruffled his hair. “You did,” she said consolingly, “And we should have listened to you. But if the horses aren’t fit to travel, what will we do?”
Salazar stood up. “We will leave tonight,” he said implacably. “All of you act normally with Cleodna this evening. Go to bed as though you suspect nothing, but gather your belongings and be ready when I come for you.”
All save Godric tried to ask Salazar what he planned to do, but he refused to answer, saying he had much to prepare, and hurrying from the courtyard. Godric frowned after him. Salazar always seems to have a plan,” Godric said darkly, “And his plans are rarely simple or straightforward.”
Helga looked troubled, but Rowena said placidly, “His plans have never yet led us astray. His ways are devious it’s true. He is very different from you Godric, but do not seek to change him, for that is a course which can bring only trouble to both of you.”
The first of them to be bundled from his chamber by Salazar was Cadogan. It was no small feat to extract the boy without waking Aydan, but Salazar managed it, drawing the small boy into the courtyard before imparting the first phase of his plan. When Cadogan heard it, he beamed with pleasure, and actually bounced on the balls of his feet in eagerness to be about his task.
Next, Salazar woke Godric, Helga and Rowena. In a hoarse whisper he bid them gather their belongings, round up Aydan and Emmeline, and follow him to the courtyard. There, they discovered an incredible sight. The wide door that had admitted the young unicorn, stood open. Through it ran, shambled, skulked, slithered, crept, darted and flew a veritable arc of magical creatures. Cadogan, like a demented leprechaun, was flitting from cage to cage, unbarring doors and opening enclosures.
Helga opened her mouth to speak, but Salazar raised an imperious hand. “Not one word,” he hissed. “We’re going to do this my way, and talk it out later.”
Salazar and Cadogan were making a careful visual survey of the courtyard in the moonlight. Salazar fixed his eye on the unicorns, and began moving in a herding pattern which urged them toward the open door. Giving the older one an encouraging pat on the rump, he sent them out into the night, and closed the door quietly behind them. He gave a signal to Cadogan, who sped around the courtyard releasing all the other creatures who had not yet been freed. Helga saw that these were the rarest and most exotic, creatures who stood little hope of surviving in the forests of Britain.
When all the cages had been opened, Salazar swept their party silently toward the much smaller door leading into the entrance of the house. Stealthily, they made their way out into the notably chilly night. The air in the courtyard had been warm, and the sky had been bright with moonlight, but outside, clouds intermittently obscured the moon, and a light mist made visibility a real problem. Nonetheless, Salazar led them patiently and quietly.
They slid around the house, avoiding the village, and heading toward the woods. It was clear that Salazar was leading somewhere specific, but none of them had any idea where.
Salazar stopped suddenly, causing Rowena to walk into him. She suppressed a grunt of discomfort, and stood still, listening. There was a rustling of dead leaves off to their right. They all stood as still as they could. Salazar and Godric, experienced hunters, drew together to confer, but there was no further sound, so, concluding that it had been merely a small forest animal, they continued on their way.
Their way seemed long. All began to be cold, and to doubt that Salazar still knew where he was going, but then they all began to see a dim, unsteady glow in the distance. It was like the glow of firelight, but irregular, and too high in the air. Godric was beginning to think that perhaps they were about to stumble into range of some strange watch tower, when the light ahead grew suddenly clearer, and the trees before them came to an end.
All had been diligently silent as Salazar had demanded, but several of them gave involuntary gasps, ranging from terrified to jubilant. Salazar had led them unerringly to the clearing, where languished, in all its raiser-backed, purple-eyed, fire-breathing splendor, Cleodna’s captive dragon.
Salazar stopped them at a good distance. He spoke quietly, but with an intensity that kept them from interrupting, they were anyway too shocked to speak.
“I have been visiting this dragon daily for some time. I believe I can control it sufficiently to allow us to ride it out of here. I’ve levitated Odo from the corner of the stable, and he’s resting over there. I need to concentrate on keeping yon beast still, while the rest of you levitate him onto the dragon’s back, and secure him there. After that, you must all try to aid me in subduing the dragon sufficiently so that we’re not flung off, or devoured. Once we’ve mounted, we will cast a shattering spell on those iron links, and we’ll be far from here before you can say ‘freed dragon’.”
There was a stunned silence, then Rowena burst out, “Salazar you are out of your mind! I’ve defended you before, but this is absolutely…!”
“Keep your voice down,” Godric hissed. “Whatever’s about to happen, the last thing we need is Cleodna or her minions finding us here.”
“You can’t possibly be considering doing as he says!” Rowena exclaimed.
“Yes!” Cadogan and Aydan exploded joyfully.
“Quiet you,” Helga snarled at them, then turned to Rowena. “What do you propose we do?”
“Go back to the house, talk this all out, wait for the horses to recover, then….”
“You wish to spend another night in a house with a vampire?” Helga burst out. “You know what he is, and it looks very much like Cleodna has an arrangement with him, the Goddess only knows what it is.”
Rowena didn’t speak, and in a flash of light from the dragon’s breath, all saw the expression of fear on her face as she gazed at the captive beast.
“Do you think I am not afraid?” Helga demanded. “We would be mad not to be. But Rowena, you’ve…, you’ve walked through armies, you’ve tricked your way through enemy soldiers, you’ve summoned the raven, you’ve crossed through the forest of Andredsweald! Will you spend your life here with your wings clipped, Draugar’s teeth at your throat and Cleodna’s knife at your back, captive like that dragon, for the sake of safety and a few books, or will you honor your word, and ride a dragon?”
“We can’t go back,” Salazar added pragmatically. “She’ll know who freed all those creatures. Look at that beast,” he gestured toward the dragon. “Does a creature so noble deserve to be imprisoned merely for the amusement of one like Cleodna? It’s the right thing to do.”
Rowena inhaled perhaps the deepest breath of her life so far, and said matter-of-factly, “The sticking spell from Sophid’s, Charms of the Carpenter. Godric and Helga, if you will levitate Odo and find a suitable spot, I will stand back a bit to work the charm. You,” she indicated the boys and Emmeline, “Stay right here, don’t move, and don’t do anything.” Bossing the children seemed to give her fresh heart, and she stepped forward firmly, leading the others.
Salazar stood, his eyes half closed, focused on his rapport with the dragon. He was able to keep it half asleep as the others approached. Helga made Odo’s basket visible, and together she and Godric used their wands to guide it up on to the dragon’s back.
“Unable to see clearly however, Godric was eventually forced to climb up the scaled body to find a flat surface. This was no casual feat. The dragon had raiser-sharp spines protruding from its back, and this left little that you’d call safe footing. Between them, Godric from the dragon’s back, and Helga from the ground, maneuvered the basket into a flattish spot between the ends of two vicious spines. They called in the darkness for Rowena, but there was no answer.
Hanging back at a safe distance, Rowena watched in the patchy light, as Godric and Helga worked. She heard no sound beside her, but before she knew it, her wand arm had been pinioned against her side, and a hard hand clamped over her mouth. Her wand fell to the ground, and a man’s forearm was pushed against her throat, making her feel dizzy, and as though she was about to fall. The man began dragging her back toward the deeper darkness of the wood.
Stealthy enough on his own, Draugar was less adept at silence while dragging off pray. From where they stood watching the dragon, Aydan, Emmeline and Cadogan heard them. “Lumos,” Emmeline hissed, and light was cast over the shocking spectacle.
“Accio Rowena!” Cadogan roared. Though bravely meant, the charm wasn’t very effective. Rowena’s body did jerk a bit though, which distracted Draugar just long enough for Aydan’s cry of “Stupefy!.” Draugar lurched backward, losing his grip on Rowena. The spots before her eyes disappeared, but she slid to the ground. The three young people gazed around frantically, but just as Aydan opened his mouth to call out for help, Emmeline grabbed his arm fiercely. “Don’t call out,” she said between her teeth. “If Salazar loses his concentration, that dragon will wake up!”
Draugar was beginning to stir. The three looked wildly around for inspiration, and Cadogan’s eye fell on the iron links tethering the dragon. They were attached to a heavy stake that had been driven into the ground. Buoyed by his earlier success, Cadogan raised his wand, pointed it, and said, “Accio stake!” Just as Emmeline and Aydan hissed “No!”
The stake rose from the ground, dirt clinging to it in clumps, and hurtled toward them. Realizing one of the plan’s drawbacks immediately, Cadogan saw that, while the stake had pulled free of the iron links, it was now heading straight for him, rather than Draugar.
“The shield charm!” Emmeline gasped, and together they raised their wands. Focusing ferociously on Salazar’s admonitions about bringing the will of your intent to bear on your magic, Emmeline concentrated as hard as she could. The sharp point of the heavy stake was flying toward them with deadly force. At the last second, it deflected off their shield, passed them, went through the chest of the vampire, and embedded itself once more in the ground.
At this point, another drawback of his plan became evident. The removal of the stake had sent a vibration through the iron links, which communicated itself to where the chain was bound around the dragon’s rear leg. At the same time, the deadly missile flying through the air passed him, distracted Salazar from his rapport with the beast. The dragon twitched alarmingly, and Godric waved his arms about like a windmill, trying desperately to keep his footing.
Until this point, all had been moving quietly, stealthily. Now, all caution was abandoned, and pandemonium reigned. “Rowena! Now!” Godric bellowed. Picking herself up hastily from the ground, Rowena ran toward the dragon. She focused on Godric and the basket in the flickering light, and brandished her wand, fixing the basket to one strong, black scale. The basket secure, Godric reached down for Helga. The dragon was becoming more alert. In desperation, Helga leapt upward, even levitating herself a few feet, and caught Godric’s hand. He pulled her beside him, leaving her to find a purchase as he turned back for the others. “Come now!” He roared. His voice was an irritant to the dragon, who lifted its head, and breathed a cloud of grumpy fire.
“Your robe!” Cadogan yelled to Emmeline. Turning her head, she saw that the back of her robe had been touched by the flames they had barely dodged. She panicked, and began jumping up and down in distress, but Cadogan hadn’t been raised in poor and highly flammable huts for nothing. He ran at her and toppled her to the ground, wrestling her into a frenzied roll until her robe was extinguished.
“Oh come on!” Aydan screamed, pulling at them, and the three of them ran to where Godric was beckoning urgently. One by one he pulled, tugged and grappled them on to the dragon’s back. This was getting harder by the second, because the beast was growing increasingly restless.
Salazar stood rigid, his face a mask of concentration as he tried to keep the dragon passive enough for them all to clamber to what could hardly be called safety. Finally, only he remained. So strong was his rapport by now however, that he merely stood like a statue, feeling dragonish feelings, thinking dragonish thoughts, and anticipating how glorious it would feel when he finally spread his wings and left this smothering captivity behind. The others bellowed his name repeatedly, but he heard nothing.
With a luxurious feeling of freedom, hewriggled, stretched, shifted experimentally, let out a fiery plume of triumph that lit the night sky, spread his wings, and leapt into the air.
As his powerful back legs pushed off from the ground, he was unaware of the stick figure man standing rigid and still on the ground. Hoarse with shouting, Godric raised his wand in one hand, clinging desperately to the edge of a black scale with the other, and cried out, “Accio Salazar!” Seeing what he was about, all the others did as he had done, and to their mutual amazement, it worked. Salazar was lifted from the ground, and shot toward them, impacting Godric’s stomach with his shoulder, and knocking the wind out of him. Hands reached desperately to steady them, and in a chaos of limbs, bodies, scales, robes and wind-blown hair, they were off!
Later, every male present would assert fiercely that they had met the wild moment of their ascent with stoic composure, but as the huge black dragon rose at last from its long captivity into the crisp and biting wind of freedom, human and dragon voices were mingled in one ecstatic shout of victory, underlain with a good measure of terror.