The first few moments were truly harrowing. None of them had properly secured themselves, and the dragon, unused to freedom, was not as graceful in flight as they’d expected. The beast was so huge, that it eventually proved possible to find hand and foot holds among the scales, being scrupulously careful to avoid the raiser sharp spines. Helga kept peering around, counting their party convulsively, sure in her panic that someone had been left behind. She kept repeating mechanically, “Stay low, stay down. Stay low, stay down.” She meant this as sage advice to guard their safety, but it was far too loud for anything below a shout to be heard by anyone. The wind roared passed their ears, and the dragon, out of sheer exultation, let out random growls and bellows that were quite as alarming as anything else.
When the initial desperate fear had been dulled to a manageable level by the finding of somewhat secure hand and foot holds, each of the party, one by one, began cautiously to lift their head, to stare about themselves in wonder, to really begin to feel the incredible sensation of flight.
Rowena felt every hair on her body standing on end. She opened her eyes at first only in tiny movements, allowing herself the briefest of glimpses of the dark Earth beneath, and the sky, illuminated by dragon’s breath ahead, and the powerful, rhythmic beating of wings to either side. Eventually however, she became able to keep her eyes open, and to truly take in all that she saw. She was unaware of the high, breathy cries of fear she had been making, and was equally unaware when they shifted from a kind of pitiful moan, into an incredulous laughter. Her voice rose in a kind of fierce exultation, a defiant scream of laughter that straddled the line between fear and joy. There was a fresh burst of panic as the dragon turned in flight. Though frightening, this course change took them in the same direction as the wind, and the noise was greatly diminished.
“Does anyone know where this beast is going?” Godric called.
“North,” Salazar and Rowena called back at the same time. They were both adept at astronomy, and could read their direction from the stars. Helga was on the point of asking if anyone had given thought to how they were going to reach the ground, when there was a terrifying roar, not from before them, but from behind. Craning his neck dangerously to see, Salazar saw, not entirely to his surprise, the form of a green dragon in hot pursuit.
In a burst of speed, the green dragon flew up beside them on their right. The black had seen it. The green flew a little ahead, and began a lazy kind of sinuous roll that undulated along its body, not impairing its flight, but lending it a graceful kind of rhythm. Later, Aidan would call it, “Showing off.” Salazar and Godric called it something else. Far from enticing the black however, the movements seemed to enrage it. Nearly unseating its passengers, the black darted forward, and reached out to swipe a deadly front claw toward the lambent green eye of the other dragon. The green shied, and the black pursued, clearly intent on inflicting damage. The next few moments were terrifying, as the two beasts engaged in a mid-air combat that took no heed at all of the humans clinging desperately for dear life.
They swooped and dived, lashed out, retreated and attacked, rapidly losing height all the while. The black was out of condition from having been in captivity so long, but the green seemed reluctant to inflict any serious injury on it. This stalemate took them closer and closer to the ground. Finally, in a quick rotation, the black bested the green by the simple expedient of causing the chain still attached to its rear leg to swing around, and smack solidly into one glowing green eye. With a shriek of pain, the green plummeted toward the ground, the black close behind.
Luckily for them all, the battle had occurred over a meadow. The black touched down with bone-jarring force, but the green was nowhere in sight. Salazar peered around, finally spotting what he’d been looking for, the crumpled figure of a woman, curled up on the ground.
“Everybody down!” He called urgently. Doing their best not to be sliced by spines, abraded by scales, or incinerated by fiery breath, they all managed to slide, slither and tumble their way to the ground. “Helga,” Salazar said, come quickly, we need her help.”
Things were moving too fast for Helga to keep up, but she had learned to obey Salazar in a crisis, and followed him at a shaky run, to the crumpled figure on the ground. She shouldn’t have been surprised to find that it was Cleodna, and yet she was surprised. The poised and exquisite druidess lay in an undignified heap, emitting piteous moans of pain. Salazar used his wand to cast light on her, and Helga saw the bright red of blood gushing from Cleodna’s eye. To Helga’s relief, instinct took over, and she raised her own wand, performing rapid healing spells. Before she was ready, Salazar was pulling Cleodna to her feet.
“Quickly,” he said to both women, we must combine our minds and make that dragon believe you are still in the air Cleodna. He’s confused because you’ve changed form. He doesn’t know where the green has gone. We don’t stand a chance of escaping him if he keeps blundering around down here looking for you. We must put the elusion into his mind that you’ve flown away.” None of them liked this idea, but all saw that it was their only chance not to be stomped to death by and enraged dragon in search of vengeance. Helga had never attempted anything quite like this before. Eartha and Egbert were one thing, but a dragon? Nevertheless, she closed her eyes and concentrated all of her will on communicating the elusion into the dragonish thoughts. The black was stamping around the meadow, emitting fiery blasts of frustrated anger. It looked up into the sky and roared in fury. Yes, the three thought at it, yes, up there, follow!
And finally it worked. With a bellow of rage, the black gave one heave of its powerful hind-quarters, raised its huge wings in a mighty flap, and rose into the air, making the tall grass wave in the wind of its departure.
Rowena, who had fallen limply to sit on the ground, now leapt to her feet and cried, “Odo!” She raised her wand, yelled, “Finite Incantatem!” The dragon was already so high up that at first they didn’t see the basket detach itself from the scaly back, and come hurtling down toward them. Using her wand, Rowena slowed its progress until it was sinking gently down, and drifted to the ground, alighting like a handkerchief dropped on a summer day.
The next few moments were chaotic. Helga made a rapid check of all, and found only a few minor burns and abrasions to deal with. Cleodna had collapsed on to the ground once more, exhausted. The young ones were all talking at once. Salazar went to where Rowena stood next to the large basket. He had to say her name three times before her eyes focused on him. “Are you all right?” He asked solicitously. She took a long time to respond, as though the question had been posed in a language she didn’t know. Slowly, her eyes got bigger and bigger in the dim light. She tipped her head back and looked into the sky. “I rode on a dragon’s back,” she said wonderingly. “I rode on a dragon’s back!” Then, she was laughing hysterically. “I rode on the back of a dragon!” He reached out to hold her shoulders, afraid that she would sink once more to the ground. Her streaming eyes focused once more on his face. “You…,” she said in wonder, still gasping. “You…, you did that! You made that dragon do your will, you saved us! You saved me from….” Words abandoned her, and her laughter turned into a violent shudder that shook her from head to toe. “I belong in a library,” she said shakily. “I’m not brave or cunning like the rest of you.” Still shaking, she hid her face against the nearest thing, which happened to be Salazar’s shoulder.
“You, not brave?” He said, and she both heard and felt his rich, infectious belly laugh. “You who stands against vampires, and bids a dragon be your packhorse? You may prefer the library, but you can no longer say that you are not brave.”
She looked up into his face. She had defended him against the accusations of the others about his devious methods, but, with the clarity that sometimes attends great fear and its aftermath, she saw the larger pattern of how his choices, his cunning, his resourcefulness and daring, had carried them all, so improbably, to this moment.
Having assured herself that all were as well as they might be, Helga returned to Cleodna. The bleeding had stopped and the eye seemed essentially undamaged, but Helga could see that Cleodna was still in pain. Godric had followed Helga, and as she raised her wand, he muttered, “That…, woman, that serpent barely deserves your kindness, all the trouble she caused.”
“I will not allow someone to suffer if I can do ought to prevent it,” she replied stoically. She knelt at Cleodna’s side, and began a kind of soft, crooning chant, moving her wand slowly along the side of Cleodna’s face. Finally, Cleodna sat up, pushing her hair back. Her first words were, “Will there be scarring?”
“I don’t think so,” Helga replied levelly.
“That’s perhaps more than can be said for your victims,” Godric said darkly.
Cleodna’s head turned slowly toward him, as she tried visibly to pull herself together. “Victims? What victims?”
Godric studied her, frowning. She attempted a beguiling expression, but gave it up. “Most people,” he began conversationally, “Start fires to warm themselves or cook their meat, but some, like you, start fires merely for the pleasure of watching things burn.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Cleodna replied loftily.
“Have you not? You attempted to set us against one another. You imprison creatures and people for pride and your own amusement. You welcomed a vampire into your home to peddle his wares in exchange for…, I cannot even speak it.”
Cleodna was physically exhausted, angry at the mayhem that now reigned in her courtyard, disappointed that her plans had crumbled into dust, and distraught especially at the loss of her dragon. All of these she might have born graciously, but the sight of a good-looking man frowning judgmentally at her was too much. Her face tautened, and her eyes grew bright, reminding Godric and Helga forcibly of the green dragon’s eyes.
“How dare you judge me! You…, you mere boy. What know you of me or my life? You think yourself invulnerable, unstoppable, a ‘brave warrior’. I have seen hundreds, thousands like you go down into dust. You, you child, would dare to say a word about how I conduct my affairs! I, who ruled on Ynys Mon when your ancestors were making stone tools and living in caves! I would have offered you and your friends wonders and riches you can’t even imagine, and you would dismiss me as a mere chit with no wisdom.”
Her angry tone had drawn the attention of the others, and all saw her turn to Helga. “And you,” her expression softened. “I could have taught you arts of healing that no one alive today remembers save myself, and you would throw that away.”
Helga’s eyes were huge, and her voice reverent. “Were you truly the ruler of Ynys Mon before, before it was overcome by Rome?”
“She’s lying,” Godric said flatly.”
“Those women,” Salazar said, “Those women who brought in the unicorn, who are they?”
“They?” Cleodna said bitterly. “Those are my grand daughters, my great grand daughters, my descendants.” Her voice lost some of its anger, trailing into a kind of bitterness utterly at odds with her usual gracious demeanor. “Some of my female descendants I allow to stay, but the men I send away. None of them, men or women, can match my power, and I grew so weary of….” The sentence trailed off, as though she’d forgotten they were there.
“By what art have you lived so long?” Salazar asked.
Her lashes lifted and she focused on him. “I have made a philosopher’s stone. You doubt me? I permit you to look into my mind and see that what I say is true.”
Salazar gaped. “It is true!”
“But how…?” Rowena was starry-eyed.
“It is not the telling of a moment,” Cleodna said scornfully, “It is the accumulated wisdom of centuries. There are many ways to prolong life. You could have learned so many things in my house, from me, from my library, but you ran like a frightened rabbit. You don’t really think I was going to let Draugar have you do you? Draugar is a mere amusement, a useful connection who serves me. But you,” she looked intently at Rowena, “You could be my equal in study and skill. It’s not too late, you can come back with me even now.”
Helga experienced an unexpected wave of sympathy, at the same time as a chill went down her spine. Cleodna, exhausted and oddly vulnerable outside her lair, suddenly appeared to Helga as what she was: a desperately lonely person, trying any tactic she could think of to keep the loneliness at bay. What must it be like to outlive everyone, and to keep doing it, one’s children, one’s grand children? To see the world around you change, then change again. Cleodna’s bizarre household and odd ways now made sense. She had built herself a refuge from a world that no longer honored her, and from which all those she’d once loved had gone. Helga caught her breath, and unconsciously moved a little closer to Godric.
Aidan spoke up, his child’s voice serious for once. “But we read about Ynys Mon and the Romans. How could witches and wizards, druids, be defeated by muggles?”
Cleodna let out a deep sigh, the most genuine sound they thought they’d heard from her. “There were druids, and then there were druids. Those who perished on Ynys Mon were…, well, some of them were truly witches and wizards, druids and druidesses, but not many. Those of us who were truly magic, we didn’t stay to see the end.” Her tone was somber, and the silence of the night around them seemed at once peopled with the ghosts of Cleodna’s youth, and horribly empty. “We debated it for years: was it right for those of us with powerful magic, to fight those without it? Was defending our homes and our folk, reason enough to bring our power to bear on those who couldn’t hope to stand against us? The councils were endless it seemed, but finally, the most powerful among us decided to leave, to live apart. For, to go down that road, to use the full force of our magic against muggles, where would it end? Some did believe that this was how it should be: that witches and wizards were clearly meant to rule, but most chose to leave the muggles to fight and kill one another as they saw fit, and to take ourselves off, away, to live hidden, separate.”
“And where have they gone?” Salazar asked keenly.
“Who can say? Many have gone to foreign lands, as I myself did for a time. Some still live on in hiding, but few have lived as long as I.”
Moved by compassion, Helga reached out a hand and placed it over Cleodna’s. “You must often be very lonely sister…, mother.” Helga smiled a little at her own confusion.
“Sister,” Cleodna said wistfully, “It has been long and long since anyone called me that.” She looked directly into Helga’s eyes in the wand light. “I was so glad when you came. Many of my descendants have magic, but you, you are the most powerful witches and wizards I have encountered in many a long year. Will you not stay with me? What is there in the muggle world to hold you? I know enough of the world to see that magic is not revered in this land as it once was. If you stayed with me….” Her voice trailed off. Pleading did not come naturally to her, and Helga was the only one she could have brought herself to speak to in this way.
Helga’s ready sympathy brought bright tears to her eyes, but her practical nature reminded her of the captive creatures, Cleodna’s devious tactics, and Draugar hunting Rowena in the dark. Whatever her past, Cleodna was not someone you could trust for long. Helga knew the others felt the same.
“We owe a debt to an honored friend. Our road is to the north, and that is where we must go. We are grateful for your hospitality, and for such of your wisdom as you have shared with us. I’m honored to have met such a venerable druidess.” She heard Godric muttering something mutinous, but kicked him hard, and he kept his peace.
As Cleodna rested to regain her strength, she also began to regain her spirits, and when she left them, it was in the best of her flamboyant style. She stood among them, said enigmatically, “You haven’t necessarily seen the last of me,” winked coquettishly at Godric, then spun on the spot, and vanished into thin air. None of them had ever seen such a thing before, and they spent a lot of time over the next few days discussing what she had done, and how.
They camped that night where they were. Exhausted themselves by the night’s events, they greeted the chill and damp of an autumn night with mixed feelings. Godric professed heartily that he was glad to be sleeping once more on the solid ground with the stars overhead. Helga said he was welcome to it, and produced her trusty green satchel from beneath her cloak. Rowena offered no opinion on the matter, but followed Helga into her tent with alacrity.
The next few days were a mixture of relief, exertion and preoccupation. Despite their varied reactions to life in Cleodna’s house, they all felt glad to be on the road once more. The autumn air was crisp and invigorating, and a spell of dry weather helped their morale enormously. A few weeks in Cleodna’s cushy courtyard hadn’t improved their stamina, and they were on foot now. The end of each day found them tired and foot-sore, but rather pleasantly so. Several of them remained reflective. Helga in particular, was haunted by Cleodna’s tale.
“Imagine!” She burst out one night as they sat around the fire. “Imagine living for so long: all of your friends dying, your family, everyone you’ve known, and the world changing over and over again.”
“I wonder if it deformed her character,” Godric said caustically, “Or whether she started out that way.”
Cadogan laughed, but Helga said reprovingly, “Godric, what a thing to say. She is a great witch.”
“Powerful yes, learned, skilled, but she has little honor.”
“Who needs honor when you’ve got a philosopher’s stone?” Salazar remarked. Godric looked shocked, and Salazar added quickly, “Only jesting. I do wish I’d known about that sooner though.”
“What good does it do her?” Aidan asked in his uncompromising way. “I thought she was happy before, but the way she was talking before she vanished, she didn’t sound very happy then.”
“No,” Helga agreed,” she didn’t.” At this point, Rowena and Salazar began a highly technical discussion about the intricacies involved in successful alchemy, and the others, bored, drifted off toward bed.
As they continued to make their way north on unfamiliar roads, the druidess lingered in their thoughts, and they would soon come to understand that the long shadow she cast wasn’t only in their imaginations.
It was twilight on a clear evening. They’d all been feeling renewed energy that day, and had covered a lot of ground. They normally stopped earlier, in order to have light for setting up camp, but they’d felt energetic, and anyway, the terrain had been boggy and damp. They were approaching a small river spanned by a sturdy looking bridge. In the half light, they saw the flicker of flames on the bank. Clearly someone else, or several someone else’s had camped there.
As they drew closer, it began to be clear that something wasn’t right. There were intermittent hoarse shouts carried on the shifting breeze, and as they got closer, they could see dim shapes moving in a way that made Godric put an arrow on the string, and loosen his sword in its scabbard. Salazar pulled his wand from his sleeve, and by tacit consent, the others dropped back, allowing Godric and Salazar to approach alone.
When they got closer, they saw what Salazar identified immediately as a group of trolls. Godric had never seen the creatures before, but knew what they were once Salazar told him. They were clustered around one, much shorter shape, a man, who seemed to be fighting them all at once. Indeed, several of the brutes lay unmoving on the ground. Clearly the man was handy with a blade, but he was starting to get the worst of it, fighting the four remaining trolls alone.
Before Salazar could formulate a plan, Godric had loosed an arrow, knocking one of the tall, hairy beasts in the shoulder. Godric was an indifferent archer, and cursed at his inaccuracy even as he strung another arrow. The troll, with predictable stupidity, thought the piercing pain in the back of his shoulder was somehow related to the little man thing before him, and pursued its attack with renewed ferocity. Salazar sent a successful stunning spell at one of the purplish creatures, but things were really getting serious for the man, and a bigger distraction was needed.
“Ho, brutes!” Salazar bellowed across the distance that separated them. “Look,” he gestured expansively behind him. “Fresh meat! Humans, human children! Tender and delicious, and ready for the cook pot!” This had exactly the effect Salazar had anticipated. All of the trolls turned as one to look toward Salazar’s voice coming out of the twilight. The man, quick to seize the advantage, ran one through the guts, as Godric’s second arrow found its target this time, laying out another beast on the ground. Salazar took care of one more with a stunner, and the unknown man’s blade dispatched the last.
As their party approached, the man stood, swaying a little, and brushed his sleeve across his forehead, which gleamed with sweat in the fire light. He stabbed his blade into the ground to clean it, and sheathed it with a practiced movement.
He was breathing heavily, and stared at them with open curiosity. “Thank you friends,” he said genially, “You may have just saved my bacon, though considering my assailants, I wouldn’t have lasted long enough to be bacon.” His eyes took in Godric’s height and strong build, and the jewelled sword in his hand, then paused briefly on Salazar’s wand. He didn’t look shocked, but said mildly, “There’ll be no need for that friend, nor that either,” indicating Godric’s sword. He stood, obviously waiting for them to disarm, which they finally did.
Curious, the others came forward, the children craning their necks for a view of the trolls, which they’d never seen before. “Can we go look?” Aidan asked eagerly.
Helga and Rowena looked disgusted, but Salazar led them forward, warning them that their work wasn’t entirely finished. As Salazar led the boys and Emmeline forward to finish the job of dispatching the trolls and committing their bodies to the fast-flowing river, the four left moved aside, and sized each other up.
Helga thought the man quite good-looking. He was tall and broad, with black hair, a dark complexion, a physique that bespoke an active life, and an open, kind face that engaged her sympathies. His eyes seemed oddly changeable in colour, but that may have been because the light was poor.
Salazar and the young people returned, Aidan, Cadogan and Emmeline looking simultaneously excited and nauseous.
The man, who introduced himself as Colby, produced a flask from his belt, drank deeply, and offered it to the others. Godric and Salazar sipped, finding it to be a strong whisky. Colby expressed himself to be in need of a rest, and invited them to sit with him around the trolls’ fire, assuring them they could find hospitality for the night with him, and needn’t worry about making camp. With open geniality, he drew them out about where they came from, who they were, and where they were bound. They gave him sufficient information for courtesy, then asked how he came to be fighting alone against so many.
“I live across the bridge and up-river some way,” he said easily. “Those…,” he gestured dismissively down-river, ‘have been troubling the area for some while. I was only waiting for the right time to come and take care of them.”
“Is there no one else in your village to fight with you?” Helga asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t say no, some might have, but I’m well equipped to handle them, and…, well, my village has an extremely low opinion of magic or anything suggesting it, so I thought it most prudent to take care of it myself. Turns out timing was on my side. I’d been sure I could handle them alone, but it’s well you came along when you did.”
“You were doing quite well on your own,” Godric said respectfully, I think you would have been successful without our help.” He wasn’t being strictly truthful in saying so, but the man’s open manner, and open hand with his whisky, predisposed Godric to be complementary.
“That’s kind,” Colby said with a casual wave of dismissal, “But I suspect I owe you my life, and I’ll be glad to offer such hospitality as I may.”
“Do you share the opinion of your village when it comes to magic?” Rowena asked. “No,” Colby replied judicially, then his face relaxed into its habitual good-natured expression. “Oh no, I’m a magician myself you see.”
“Then why were you allowing yourself to be outnumbered by those beasts?” Salazar asked. “Magic could have taken care of all of them easily.
“You like to keep your sword arm strong,” Godric said with a comradely smile.
“Well yes that, but also…, I have chosen to renounce magic. I live without it.”
Everyone except Godric and Rowena looked shocked. “Why?” Aidan asked directly.
“I have made this place my home, and the folk here have reason to distrust magic and its practitioners. Magic can bring great harm, and I wish to…, to repay these folk for some of what they have suffered at its hands.”
The fire flared up briefly, and Helga got a better look at the stranger’s eyes. She sat up straighter, and stared hard.
“Where did you dwell before coming here?” She asked quietly.
“To the south,” he answered nneutrally.
“We have come from the south,” Helga said. “We met a great sorceress on our travels, a druidess.”
The fire flared again, and this time they all saw it. The stranger’s eyes, in this light at least, were a vivid and striking green. “Cleodna,” he said resignedly, “Is my mother.”