There was a ringing silence, in which the crackling flames took on an ominous character. All eyes were fixed on Colby, searching for the truth in his words. His eyes certainly recalled Cleodna’s, but where her demeanor was smooth and calculated, his was of a candid friendliness that made it hard to feel nervous around him. And yet, each of them felt the impulse to stir, to move ever so subtly away from him. He sighed, as though he perceived their instinctive aversion.
“yes, it’s true. Folk usually react this way.”
Helga shifted uncomfortably. After all, his parentage wasn’t his fault. “Your mother,” her voice cracked on the word, “Is a very powerful witch.”
“Indeed,” his tone was rye. “She makes no secret of it.”
“Does that have something to do with the aversion to magic around here?” Godric asked.
“I’m afraid so. She’s been living yonder for quite a long time. She’s been living for quite a long time, as perhaps you know?” Helga nodded soberly. “It has…, it has misshapen her in some ways, especially when it comes to muggles. She sees them as…, well let’s say as servants. She doesn’t hesitate to take what she wishes from them, including themselves. The village next to her house, it wasn’t there first. She chose the spot, built the house by magic, then bewitched folk to come live there to grow food, and otherwise do her will. When times are lean, she thinks nothing of liberating stock, produce or labour to suit herself. I think she sees it as her right. Not so different from many a ruler, but of course her methods are quite different, and her…, her tastes, her ways are very different. Those in closer proximity to her have grown used to it, but here, well she’s neither liked nor trusted. When she is in her dragon form, she’s careful close to her own home, but not otherwise. This village has felt the fires of her predation, and views her and all magic folk as evil.”
“Do they not know who you are?” Salazar asked.
“They know I am an able blacksmith who came here some years ago looking for a new life, after his family perished. Though they hate her, they’ve rarely actually seen her in her human form, and so they don’t think to question me or my presence here.”
“And if they knew?” Helga enquired.
“Oh it’s better not to wonder about that. There have been incidents,” his eyes clouded. “They’re welcoming enough, but when it comes to magic, there have been several forced to leave, or worse, because they were suspected.”
“And yet you stay?” Salazar was puzzled.
Colby shrugged. “Everybody’s got to live somewhere. It grows late.” He rose easily to his feet. Helga reflected that perhaps it was because he was a blacksmith, used to heavy work, but he moved with a grace and power that even Godric, a master swordsman, might envy.
“Come,” Colby said easily, “And I will offer what hospitality I may, in payment for my life. I will ask you though, in courtesy, do no magic, and speak not of it. Your welcome will vanish like pine needles in that fire there, if any hint gets out of who and what you really are.”
They followed him across the bridge, and up-river. His dwelling was modest, in keeping with the simple surroundings. It transpired however, that he lived next to a young widow, with whom he appeared to be on excellent terms, and she agreed to take Helga, Rowena and Emmeline into her cottage. The weather turned in the middle of the night, and as rain drummed on the roofs, and no few drops fell through the roofs and on to their blankets, all the travellers were glad at the circumstance which had led them to have shelter.
Waking up to drizzle, and the prospect of muddy roads, Helga convinced the others to delay their departure. All of the walking had left many shoes the worse for ware, and some of their clothing needed mending. Somehow, none of them had thought about such things in the luxury of Cleodna’s house, thanks possibly to some magic of Cleodna herself. These tasks could have been attended to with some focused wand work, but Helga was naturally gregarious. She was curious about this place, so decided to visit the cobbler, and engage some local women in mending, in exchange for diagnosing and treating some minor ailments with herbs and simple, non-magical remedies.
She admitted to herself that she was even more curious about Colby. His physique continued to draw her; he was muscular, but capable of fine work also. She liked his open, friendly manner. There was something more though, something she couldn’t put her finger on. Most people were simple enough, motivated by things that were easy to understand. When they weren’t, Helga was usually able to see below the surface to what drove them. With Colby however, there was some kind of darkness or unease beneath his pleasant manner. Hiding one’s true nature must lead the soul down some strange paths, and she supposed that growing up with Cleodna as a mother couldn’t have meant an uncomplicated childhood.
Salazar, Godric, Aidan and Cadogan lurked around the forge, all frankly interested in Colby’s craft. The women gathered in the widow’s cottage, sorting through their gear, and separating out things to be washed and mended.
The widow’s name was Hollis. She was friendly enough, if a little reserved. All of the villagers were like that: pleasant, but prone to look suspiciously on the strangers. They accepted Colby’s assertion that he owed the guests a debt for helping him with the trolls. Nevertheless, the travellers all got the feeling that the villagers would be glad to see the back of them.
Hollis had two children, twins, a boy and a girl of perhaps four years old, sturdily built, and dark of hair and complexion. They were named Eadlin and Edgar, and were constantly under foot in the cottage’s crowded single room. Emmeline had taken up Hollis’s spindle. As the daughter of a laundry woman, she was a competent seamstress, but mending clothes brought back uncomfortable memories. Seeing that the other women had things well in hand, she set herself to spinning. This had been an occupation of her early childhood, a time when life had been much less chaotic, and she found it soothing. Thinking to ease the congested feeling of a room in which two small children prowled, she drew Eadlin to her, attempting to teach her how to spin. Hollis found some crude wooden blocks that Colby had fashioned for Edgar, and the boy subsided busily but quietly, to the floor by the hearth.
Helga smiled at the boy, then, turning to Hollis, who was small and fair, remarked, “The children certainly didn’t get their colouring from you. Do they favour their father then?”
Hollis blinked. “Yes, yes, they favour their father.”
“Is your husband dead long?” Helga asked, with her characteristic blend of practicality and compassion.
Hollis took a deep breath. “Yes, about four years or so, maybe three.”
“That is a long time for a mother of small children to be without a man. Will you not marry again?”
“I would like to,” Hollis’s eyes drifted wistfully in the direction of the forge. “Colby sees to it that we…, he hunts for us, helps to repair my roof, sees that we are safe and…, safe.”
Helga raised her eyebrows and smiled kindly. “Safety is important.” Her eyes asked a silent question, and Hollis shrugged. Helga had a gift for inspiring confidences. People naturally trusted her, with good reason, and despite Hollis’s caution toward them, she answered candidly.
“Yes, he cares for us, but he will not wed me: not for lack of feeling, but because…, well, he has his reasons. He is a complicated man. There are things in his past that make him….” She stopped speaking, and her eyes slid away. She shifted uncomfortably, as though fearing she’d said too much, and Helga tactfully changed the subject.
By the hearth, Edgar was slowly building a tower with his blocks. It had reached a height he’d never achieved before, and turning to call out to his mother to show her, he knocked it, and it toppled toward the fire. Crying out in dismay, he pointed angrily at the fire. The blocks promptly popped out of the fire, extinguished themselves, and climbed on to one another until the tower stood once more.
“Edgar!” Hollis shouted. She dropped the stocking she’d been mending, grabbed the small boy, and shook him fiercely. “You’re not to do that.”
Edgar immediately began to cry. “Do what?”
“What you just did,” Hollis returned rather lamely. “Things can’t just jump out of a fire like that!”
“Yes they can! I make them.”
“No! You’re not to do that!”
There was an extremely tense feeling in the room. Edgar was crying voluably, and Hollis was looking distressed. She sought desperately for a distraction. “That’s enough playing. Go outside and bring in some more wood, we’re nearly out.” Sniffling hard and looking persecuted, he went.
None of the spectators could blame him for feeling sorry for himself. Hollis was trying to teach him not to do something, but refusing to name the forbidden thing. Clearly Edgar at least had magical abilities. Living in an environment like this, they could see why she might want to discourage him from using them, but refusing to give words to the problem was unlikely to solve it. Rowena and Emmeline felt identical stabs of confusion and grief. Emmeline had been similarly discouraged by her mother, and Rowena had, for her own reasons, tried for years to hide what she was. Helga felt only grief. What kind of twisted result could come of such a state of affairs?
There was a temporary lull in the rain at twilight, and Helga accompanied Godric down to the river while he tried his hand at fishing for their supper. Both were glad to be out of doors, and breathed deeply of the clean, damp air.
“A blacksmith’s workshop is a smoky place,” he remarked. “I don’t know how Colby bears it, and yet it seems not to trouble him at all.”
Helga peered at him closely. “Can’t say the same for you, but I don’t think it’s the smoke.” His natural expression was one of openness. He wasn’t one to hide his feelings unless he meant to, and it was clear he had something on his mind.
He let out a long breath through his nose. “I don’t think we should stay here any longer than necessary,” he said at last. “Colby is right about folk here, and I don’t think he’ll be sorry to see us go. Today, a man came to have his horse shoed: Hollis’s brother it was. He didn’t seem pleased to have guests around. He questioned me closely about who we were, where we came from, our plans, more than just casual politeness. I told him only that we were fleeing Sussex, and heading north. I even invented a kinsman or too up that way. This fellow didn’t seem much reassured. He kept looking at Salazar, who doesn’t exactly look like he’s from Sussex, or from the north either. This man started telling a story about travellers who’d been through here a few years ago. He said they were demon folk, folk with unnatural powers. He said they’d hanged such folk before, and that they were ready to do it again to protect their village. He was giving us some very hard looks, but he eventually left.’
‘Some time later, Cadogan ran in from outside. You know how clumsy he is, and how likely to injure himself. He ran in, took one look at the blade Colby’d just removed from the anvil, and made a grab for it. Salazar flung up a shield and pushed the foolish lad away.”
“Is Cadogan all right?”
Godric waved his hand in dismissal. “He’s fine, knocked to the ground by the shield spell, but I doubt it will teach him caution. Colby turned on Salazar and I, and he was…, he was furious.”
“Just so. He blamed us bitterly for doing magic, asked us had we not just heard the fate of magic folk in this place, he really looked quite…, quite unlike himself, quite angry. Salazar got angry too. He asked if Colby himself would have let the lad be seriously injured if magic could prevent it. Colby only got angrier. He said that a forge is no place for a stupid and careless child, and that one of us should have snatched Cadogan bodily from harm’s way rather than using magic. It was a pretty feeble defense though; none of us could have reached the lad in time to prevent him being terribly burned.” Godric looked deeply troubled. “Colby is so…, frightened by these people that he would allow a child to be harmed before he’d lift a wand to help him.”
“He doesn’t seem like a frightened man,” Helga said unargumentatively.
‘No,” Godric replied thoughtfully, “He doesn’t. Maybe frightened is the wrong word, but I don’t know the right word.”
Godric made a good catch, and they brought back a substantial contribution to the evening meal, which Hollis accepted with ill-disguised relief. It seemed that Colby regularly took meals with her. Her brother also tended to stop by at meal times, and did so this evening. It made for a full cottage.
That night after supper, Helga noticed that Aidan was quiet, and looked flushed. When she touched his cheek she felt heat radiating from him, and he admitted unwillingly that he felt poorly. When the men left to sleep in Colby’s cottage, she insisted that Aidan stay with her. His failure to argue with her about it worried her far more than his fever. The fever grew quickly worse over night, and Aidan had developed some kind of rash, and was coughing by morning. Helga dosed him with what she had on hand, but nothing seemed to bring the fever down.
As the sun rose, she was becoming seriously concerned. She had only the most basic herbs and ingredients with her, and she berated herself for not having paid more attention to gathering as they travelled. When the men came scrounging for some breakfast, Godric and Salazar looked on with mild concern at Aidan’s flushed and blotchy countenance, but Colby squatted down beside the boy, looking very grave. He touched Aiden’s neck, peered closely at the rash, even bent to smell Aidan’s breath. He sat back on his heels, looking at Helga.
“What have you tried?” He asked briskly. When she told him, he nodded, then looked down at Aidan once more. “Those were all worth trying, but I know this sickness, and it is difficult to cure.”
“But it can be cured?” The question came from Rowena. Despite herself, she’d grown very fond of Aidan. Though his mischievousness was a trial to her, he had a quick mind, and a roving curiosity.
“Yes.” Colby glanced down at the wooden cup in Helga’s hand, half full of a greenish liquid. “Give him half of that, and if he’s not better by mid-day…, well we’ll see what can be done.”
“Are you a healer too then?” Helga asked.
Colby shrugged and looked away. “I grew up with one,” he replied enigmatically, and went to his work.
Aidan wasn’t better by mid-day. His cough was worse, and he was beginning to toss and turn in a fevered sleep. Colby returned, knelt briefly by the boy’s side studying his face, then reached for the wooden cup, which still held some of Helga’s concoction.
“I will add what I can to this, and I think our young friend here will be better by sunset.” Colby took the cup away to Hollis’s work table. He turned his back to them, and Helga saw him reaching up his sleeve. She thought it odd that a blacksmith should carry remedies secreted in his clothing, but all her concern was for Aidan, and she went back to bathing his face with a cloth dipped in cool water.
When Colby returned, he knelt by Aidan’s side, put a gentle arm beneath the boy’s shoulders to raise him, and held the cup to his lips. Helga saw that the contents had gone from green, to something a bit rosier in colour. She wondered, but asked no questions, peering anxiously at Aidan as Colby laid him down once more.
Helga could see that the effect was almost immediate. Aidan grew calmer, and both his fever and the odd rash seemed to abate somewhat even as they watched. Colby rose, leaving no time for Helga to inquire what he had done, and told her to send for him if Aidan’s condition worsened.
By sunset however, just as Colby had predicted, Aidan was exhausted, but no longer feverish. He slept peacefully as supper was prepared, and the men, including Hollis’s brother, trailed in.
Hollis’s brother was named Acwellen. He had a stoic expression, and sat shifting his gaze continually from one guest to another, as though waiting for one of them to burst into flower, or to do something otherwise unnatural.
The younger ones ate first, then went to kneel by the fire to toast small pieces of bread on sticks. This left the table free for the adults. Godric tried to keep the conversation light, asking Colby intelligent questions about metal working as applied to armor and weapons.
“Not that weapons do us much good round here,” Acwellen put in morosely.
Several people around the table hoped hard that no one would reply to this truculent statement, but Salazar asked imperturbably, “Why’s that?”
“Not that easy to put a sword through a witch, nor an arrow neither. Not that we get much chance to try. She takes what she wants, but she’s too cowardly to do it herself. Oh we must give what she demands, for you can’t stick a sword nor arrow into a dragon neither.”
Hollis and Colby were beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable, but before either could interpose some sort of distraction, Salazar asked blandly, “Oh, have you a troublesome dragon in the area?”
“Only when she doesn’t get what she wants,” Acwellen replied. “That’s what happened to Hollis’s man. Didn’t she tell you?”
“No,” Salazar answered placidly, “She didn’t. What happened?” Hollis and Colby were now staring determinedly at their trenchers.
“’Bout four years ago it was. She, the Witch, her who lives yonder,” his arm made a sweeping gesture toward the south, “She came here a-scavengin’. She likes to do that every now and then. When it’s just livestock or grain she wants, she sends her servants, but sometimes, when she wants somethin’ special, she’ll come herself. She’ll decide she needs one or two more healthy, young men to work in her house or fields, tendin’ her horses, she’s always got a reason, but it’s always the good lookin’ ones she takes first. Hollis’s husband there, he had a way with horses, and she said she’d need of him, and he must go. She gave him a day and a night to settle his affairs, then, the next morning, flies a fire-breathing green dragon over the village, set the river steamin’, even caught a storage shed afire. The meaning was clear enough, do as she says, or we’ll all pay.”
Tears were glimmering on Hollis’s lashes, and Colby was looking distinctly uncomfortable, as well he might, Rowena thought sympathetically. She herself felt a twist of distaste in her guts. Cleodna’s courtyard and library suddenly seemed very remote indeed.
“Is he then still alive?” Rowena asked reluctantly.
“Ah no mistress,” Acwellen replied, almost it seemed with relish. “We heard it from one of her servants next time he came for stock. You know the witch keeps a lot of captives, not only human. She got herself a big black dragon she did. Lured it to follow her, then used her witchy powers to prison it. Someone got to feed it though, hunt for it and feed it too. That’s one of the things she needs men for. Hollis’s man was feedin’ the beast and…, well guess he weren’t quick enough, and he got cooked and ate too.”
“Acwellen that’s enough,” Hollis said sharply. Acwellen shrugged, sitting back and saying no more.
Impelled by the desperate need to say something, anything, Rowena said, “Well that’s one less danger, one less captive creature.” At the blank looks of Acwellen, Hollis and Colby, she explained, “The black dragon has been freed.” Just in time, she caught Helga’s warning look, and said rather lamely, “We saw it as we travelled, a large scaly black dragon flying north. Surely that must have been her captive. I mean, how many black dragons could there be wandering, I mean flying, I mean in this area of the….”
She knew she was babbling, but couldn’t seem to stop, until Colby leapt to his feet crying out, “The black is free?” He looked quite distraught, but the others merely nodded mutely. Inexplicably, Colby brought one large fist down hard on the table, then turned and left the cottage.
Either Acwellen was accustomed to displays of temper, or impervious to social dynamics. Either way, he rose at his ease, bid them good night, and left as though nothing had happened. At the table, Hollis said nothing, but dropped her head into her hands, her entire posture radiating despair. With eye and gesture, Helga communicated to Godric and Salazar that it was time for them to round up the boys and head off to the forge where they were to sleep. Eager to leave whatever was going on to someone else, the men rose. When they’d gone, Helga turned to Hollis.
“I don’t know what is going on here,” she said quietly, “But I can tell you that dragon seemed quite determined to fly north. I don’t think you need fear for your village.”
Hollis shook her head slowly. “I hope that is so but….”
Thinking about Colby setting out alone to clean up an entire nest of trolls alone, Helga said hesitantly, “Is it Colby you fear for?”
Hollis nodded sadly. “Has he told you of his parentage?” She asked.
“He has told us that Cleodna is his mother, but that no one here knows.”
“Only I. He confided in me years ago. You see we loved one another even before my husband was…, was taken. We did not…, I am an honorable woman, but there was no great love in my marriage, and after, well…, Colby and I became close, and he told me things no one else here can ever know.”
Rowena looked over to where Eadlin, Hollis’s daughter, lay curled up, black hair glossy in the fire light. She thought of Colby’s colouring, and wondered what Hollis’s husband had looked like.
“Why does that make you fear for his safety?” Helga asked kindly.
“He feels that all of the things she has done are his fault, or at least that he must bear responsibility for them. He was raised in her house of course, and he hasn’t told even me all that he saw and did as her son. He disliked the black dragon’s captivity, but he feared its release. He’s afraid it might take vengeance for its imprisonment on anyone nearby.” Maybe he even thinks it will try to avenge itself on him personally. Either way he won’t allow harm to come to anyone, no matter what he must do to prevent it.”
“That’s why he stays here,” Rowena said. “Even though he…, he is different from the people in this village, even though they would turn on him if they knew, he feels, guilty, for all the things she has done.”
“And so he stays,” Hollis agreed, “But he won’t marry me, nor be a true father to Eadlin and Edgar, nor find peace in himself. I know not what he will do now.” She rested her arms on the table, and dropped her head on to them, her entire posture eloquent with despair.