Helga wasn’t the only one Trying to figure Colby out. Salazar’s curiosity was of a different character though. Colby seemed like a mass of contradictions: strong but mild-mannered, magical, but content to hide his gifts, the son of an extremely powerful druidess, but feeling no honor for it. Whatever else Cleodna might be, there was no denying her greatness. Salazar himself was the son of a powerful witch, and it troubled him to see Colby turn away from all he had been given.
More than anything though, it was the power radiating from Colby that drew Salazar. Salazar was irresistibly attracted by power. He had sensed it in each of his companions, in Cleodna, in her son, and in himself. He knew he had a great destiny, and he was drawn by others who possessed a similar force. The thing was that he couldn’t put his finger on the source of Colby’s power. Salazar hadn’t seen Colby do magic, and somehow didn’t think that the force Colby emanated was related to spell-casting. It was something else, something in the man himself.
When he and Godric returned to Colby’s cottage, it was to find it empty. Where ever Colby had stormed off to, it wasn’t to his home. On the pretext of getting some fresh air after so much time indoors breathing smoke, Salazar left the cottage, and looked carefully around him. The night was dark, but, looking up the side of a hill, he saw occasional flickers of light, such as might come from a torch born in a hand. Not knowing exactly what he intended, Salazar went toward the irregular glimmers through the trees.
Colby couldn’t have been very far ahead of him, but Salazar thought the man must be running, for Salazar didn’t catch up with him as he climbed the hill. Salazar was quickly winded by the ascent, but the unsteady light retreated rapidly before him. It didn’t quite look like torch light either; it was more like sudden sparks and small tongues of flame. Finally, he reached the top, to see Colby standing, head thrown back, scanning the sky in all directions. Salazar hung back, watching him. If Colby was waiting for a visit from an angry dragon, Salazar was happy to keep well in the background.
But time passed and nothing at all happened. Finally, Colby sank down onto a fallen log, resting his elbows on his knees. Despite his powerful frame, he looked like a dejected man. Salazar realized that Colby did not, after all, carry a torch.
Colby lifted his head wearily, and called out, “Come and wait with me. There’s no point lurking around in the trees like that.” His voice bore no hostility, so Salazar left the tree he’d been sheltering under, and walked out onto the bare hill top. He paced idly about a bit, before coming to sit beside Colby.
“You are waiting for the dragon?”
“I’m waiting for the dragon.”
“How will you fight it?”
“Fight it? I will not fight it. Is that what you think? Well, it’s what Hollis thinks. Maybe it’s even what she hopes.”
Salazar didn’t understand this at all, but waited, not even knowing what questions to ask.
“Where are your parents?” Colby asked finally, as though craving a distraction from his own thoughts. “Do they yet live?”
“My mother is dead, and my father, well I know not where he is, nor care either. My mother, like yours, was a powerful witch. She was the Vala for our village, the wise woman, the magic woman. My father was a dealer in dragon eggs who travelled, and didn’t stay long with my mother. He came from the east I think.”
“We have a lot in common then,” Colby remarked.
“Perhaps, but my mother was neither so famous nor so long-lived as yours.” Colby made a sound in his throat that Salazar couldn’t interpret. Curiosity finally getting the better of him, Salazar asked, “If you’re not here to defend the village against the black dragon, what is your intention?”
“The village doesn’t need protection from the dragon. Oh he’s coming, but not to harm the village. He’s coming for me. He will have taken some time to hunt for himself and stretch his wings, but he’ll be here. He’ll know I’m waiting for him, and he will come soon.”
“But you won’t fight him? Why does he seek you?”
“He’s not coming to kill me; he’s coming to rescue me.”
Salazar was completely at sea. “Rescue you from what?”
“What indeed?” Colby sounded bitter. Then he sighed a deep and tormented sigh. “He thinks he’ll save me from an ignominious life among muggles, from my inane existence in the muggle world.” That sounded like a fine idea to Salazar, but Colby clearly didn’t think so. “The dragon would take me away with him, away from here, out of Cleodna’s reach.”
“Did you somehow manage to befriend it when you lived in your mother’s house?”
“You might say so. I wanted so much to let him go, but I couldn’t. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be Cleodna’s son. Well, maybe you can. You’ve met her, and your own mother sounds like a formidable woman too.”
Salazar could imagine. He had felt the force of Cleodna’s personality, and remembered how it had been to grow up as the son of the most powerful person in his world. He wasn’t one to question someone about the morality of their choices, and if Colby said he hadn’t felt free to liberate the dragon, Salazar believed him. “Does the dragon think you a prisoner here?”
“No, not the way you mean it, but he can’t understand why I would stay. He thinks that it’s some bewitchment of my mother’s that keeps me here. He can’t understand that….” Colby’s voice trailed off.
“Is it Hollis and the children that keep you here then?” Pragmatic to the core, Salazar had calculated the calendar and noted the twins’ colouring.
“Partly. I want to keep them safe, to keep them all safe. This dragon means them no harm, but he’s not the only creature with reason to hold a grudge against my mother, and who might be tempted to take their grudge out on anyone who seems to give her obedience. I can’t stop her praying on these people, but I can do my best to help them.”
Salazar gazed at him with profound confusion. Such a sense of obligation was completely baffling to him, and he didn’t even try to understand it, moving on instead to what really interested him. “The black dragon, you know we flew it away from her house. I released it, and we flew it, him, north. She followed in her dragon form. They fought, and he bested her. She went back to her home, and he flew off.” Warming to Colby, Salazar described for him the havoc they had reeked in Cleodna’s courtyard on their departure. By the time he had finished, Colby had thrown his head back and emitted a hearty, booming laugh that seemed to shake the last remaining leaves from the surrounding trees.
“Merlin’s beard but I’d have loved to see that!” He exclaimed. She must have been furious! You’re a brave man young Salazar!”
“I don’t like to see such noble beasts captive for anyone’s amusement.”
“Nor I. The black was the prize of her collection. She will not soon forgive you for its release.”
Salazar shrugged. “Our errand is to the north; we’re unlikely to meet again.”
Colby sighed. “Oh to be indifferent to her. What is your errand?”
Salazar liked Colby, so as they waited, Salazar told of Odo, and the battle, and their oath to carry him home. It transpired that Colby knew of Odo. Odo’s mother had spent time as an apprentice to Cleodna. Colby had met Odo, and knew of his strange gifts. “I’m not surprised to hear the manner of his death. He was a lost man. I’m glad he found his purpose.”
Salazar thought that Odo had taken remarkable power and thrown it away, but he didn’t argue.
“A potion for luck is it? That healer friend of yours is an uncommon witch. It’s no wonder my mother sought to keep all of you with her.”
“Yes, she looks soft and mild, but she’s as stubborn as anyone I’ve ever met, and she has remarkable gifts with animals and plants. She helped me most in keeping the dragon calm enough to let us ride him. When he comes, will he simply take you?”
“I will have to try and make him understand that I can’t go.”
“Make him understand? How?”
“I hear him in my mind, and he can hear me.”
Salazar was impressed. “I was stretched to the end of my limit merely to keep him from stomping all over us. You must have powerful magic indeed!”
It was Colby’s turn to shrug. “Magic? Well I suppose you could call it that. You know who my mother is, but have you not guessed my father?”
Of a sudden, Salazar was aware of warmth radiating from Colby, as though the man was fevered, or had a tiny forge inside him. Salazar thought to wonder what had lighted Colby’s way up the hill, since he’d had no torch. Salazar’s eyebrows rose, and he shifted slowly away from the other man. “You’re not…?”
Colby turned his head to one side, and with no warning, puffed out a breath of flame which lit the hilltop in a brief, eerie glow.
“You’re a…! You’re not a…!”
“No, and no. I’m not, but not quite a man either. The black dragon is coming because he wants to save me from my own captivity, because he cares for me, feels responsible for me, as I feel responsible for them.” He gestured down the hill toward the village. He will expect me to go, but I can’t go.”
Salazar was still puzzled, but he wasn’t one to try and save people from themselves, so he instead indulged his curiosity by asking questions about Colby’s powers. He’d barely scratched the surface however, before there was a flickering light in the sky to the east, then, thrilling in the silence, the slow, steady flap of enormous wings.
“Go back into the trees for a time,” Colby said. I don’t think he’ll be hungry, but you never know. There’s no point having a stranger around; you might wind up as supper before I could stop it.”
More than willing to protect his own skin, Salazar melted into the trees, and watched as the scaly black form glided overhead, and landed with remarkable grace. Salazar felt a chill of awe run down his back. He had subdued this noble beast and ridden it, and still, he felt that, till now, he hadn’t truly appreciated its agility and raw power.
Colby approached it slowly, but with no trace of fear. He went to stand on one side of the beast’s head, upwind from its flaming breath. He reached out both hands, placing them on the dragon’s neck. The dragon’s long body curled ever so subtly toward the man who stood silent, with his eyes closed. Salazar closed his own eyes in an attempt to follow the silent conversation. He got a sense of some of the emotions, urgency, anger, protectiveness, guilt, frustration…, but he couldn’t read any direct meaning from the exchange. Anxious not to offend two such formidable beings by any intrusion, he withdrew his awareness from the exchange, and simply stood watching.
Some minutes later, he became aware of sounds behind him. Someone, someone none too subtle or fleet of foot, was making a loud and ungraceful progress up the hill. It was Helga. She arrived at his side puffing with the exertion. She came up beside him, and stood peering through the trees at the astonishing sight of Colby, his eyes closed, caressing the terrifying black dragon, as the beast curled its body protectively. Helga gasped, and raised a hand to her mouth. She was awed, but not as shocked as Salazar had been. He explained things to her, as she stood, her eyes fixed on Colby.
“I wondered,” she breathed. “I couldn’t see what he put in Aidan’s potion, but it was something red, and it cured him almost immediately. Dragon’s blood is powerfully magical. I thought Colby was reaching up his sleeve for an herb, but he must have cut himself on purpose. And you say he won’t go? Oh the poor man; the poor, poor man. What a destiny: giving his whole life trying to make up for all his mother has done. It’s a task that will never be completed. He won’t marry Hollis; you know that? He’ll protect her and the twins, but he won’t marry her.”
After some time, Colby opened his eyes, and drew away from the dragon. The black lay, apparently resting at its ease. Colby walked slowly toward where Helga and Salazar stood. In the flickering light from the flaming breath, he looked sad.
“I have persuaded him,” he gestured to the recumbent dragon, “To take your party from here, to a place where they will be safe. Go collect them and bring them here. It will be better if you depart unseen.”
Helga reached out a hand and placed it on Colby’s arm. As an unmarried woman, this was a bold thing to do to a relative stranger, but she was moved by his expression, and by the fate he had chosen for himself. “Colby,” she said warmly, “Won’t you come with us? You can’t spend your life…,” He stepped back from her and looked away. His skin had sent a powerful warmth through her hand, and she felt chilled when he moved from her side. “Go,” he said simply, and Salazar took her arm to lead her down the hill.
Colby remained with the dragon as Helga and Salazar waked the others and explained things to them. They gathered together their belongings, and climbed the hill, wafting Odo’s invisible basket before them. Considering that they were about to ride a dragon once more, the mood was remarkably somber.
Drawn irresistibly to him, Helga made one last plea to Colby. “Let us take the twins. They could so easily be discovered for what they really are. It isn’t right for you to choose for them in this way, making them hide what they are.”
Beside her, Rowena twitched uncomfortably. She could make out Godric’s face in the flickering light, and saw his grumpy expression. She gave a bitter inward laugh. It was all right for Godric to be irritated at the prospect of two small children, but Rowena knew perfectly well who would bear the brunt of caring for them, and it wasn’t Godric or Salazar. She hadn’t liked seeing little Edgar chastised for using magic either, but it didn’t make her eager for more children to herd.
Colby shook his head. “I will watch over them. I wouldn’t try to take them from Hollis, and she won’t leave. They will be fine: now go.”
Helga’s eyes rested on him. She felt a desperate need to save him from this life he had chosen. She still felt a strong attraction to him, and didn’t want to leave him here. Hollis, she thought, Hollis will care for him, love him, as much as he’ll let her. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and took his hand. It was astonishingly warm and strong. She felt the strength, and thought of his gentleness. She stared wordlessly into his eyes, trying to communicate, she didn’t know what. She wanted to save him, to heal him, and felt the bitter frustration she associated with an ailment she couldn’t cure. Regretfully, she let go his warm hand, and turned away.
Their ride this time was both more and less thrilling than the first had been. The first time they’d been so shocked at what they were doing that it had been a bit difficult to truly enjoy it. At the same time, the utter improbability of it had been its own unique thrill. This time, they were less frightened, and better able to fully take in the experience.
The night was cloudy, and none of them had a very clear sense of their direction. Still, the soaring, swooping sensation was absolutely absorbing. The enormous wings beat powerfully on either side, seizing the air as the fins of a great fish seize the water. The dragon’s breath offered brief glimpses of the ground below, the impenetrable darkness of woods, and the occasional gleam of flame on water. They had had time to position themselves more carefully this time, and each of them felt their hearts lift in wordless exhilaration as they left the ground behind. They spoke hardly at all. They each felt better able to really take in what they were doing, and wanted to fix the memory of it in their minds.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, when exhilaration had begun to give way to bone-deep chill, they felt the dragon begin to descend. Unable to let it alone, Salazar had been trying to make contact with the dragon’s mind, but with little success. All he could sense was regret, and purpose. Their flight wasn’t random. The black knew where it was going, even if they did not.
In the illumination of its breath, they caught a brief glimpse of the land rising to meet them. They had crossed over the surface of a lake, and were descending toward the end of a dark peninsula. The black touched down in a clearing, and to their astonishment, they were greeted with a hail out of the darkness. Two men approached them bearing torches. The men wore pointed wizard’s hats, carried wands, and looked remarkably unsurprised by the appearance of a black dragon and several passengers. When they drew nearer however, their interest rose, apparently not because of the passengers, but because of the identity of the dragon.
As the humans slid carefully down from the scaly back onto the ground, the two wizards circled the beast, exclaiming in astonishment. Then, they turned to survey the party of riders. It transpired that they recognized the black, and were greatly interested in Salazar’s abbreviated account of its release. They seemed to greet the dragon as an old friend, and one produced the carcass of a deer as though from thin air. The black made short work of the offering, then went to the edge of the lake to take in deep drafts of the cold water.
The two wizards were once more circling the beast, apparently examining it minutely for signs of harm or injury. They seemed concerned by what they saw, and engaged in quick, low-voiced conversation. The others stood by unsure what to do, until one of the men turned, as though just recalling their presence.
“The village is that way.” He gestured up the peninsula. The first cottage you come to is an inn. The inn keeper won’t thank you for rousing her, but you’ll find beds and a fire to warm yourselves. Just keep going that way and you’ll come to it before long.”
Bemused, but encouraged by mention of beds and warm fires, the party gathered themselves and their belongings, and struck off in the direction the wizard had indicated. Using their wands to light a path, they saw several burnt patches on the ground as they passed, from which they deduced that this wasn’t the first dragon to pass this way. The attentive air of the wizards who’d greeted them suggested a friendlier inter-species relationship than any of them had ever imagined.
There was a path of sorts, though in the surrounding darkness it took some concentration not to lose their way. At last, when their fatigue was really starting to overwhelm them, the path levelled out, and they felt sure they were getting close to whatever passed for civilization around here. Before they had proceeded another 20 paces however, Godric, who was leading, stopped, pointing ahead.
“What’s that?” He gestured toward a silvery light on the path ahead. They all looked up instinctively, but the moon hadn’t risen. The light was emanating from something before them. It didn’t draw any closer, neither did it retreat. Godric and Salazar moved forward once more, but cautiously. The others followed at a short distance. At last they were close enough to see it clearly, and they all gasped. Their sojourn in Cleodna’s house had left them each with a very mixed set of impressions, but they had all benefitted from studying in her library, and so all were prepared to be dazzled by the rarity of what they saw.
Before them, standing so motionless that it might have been a statue, was a tall figure. Its body was that of a lion at rest, its head, that of a beautiful woman with almond-shaped eyes, an uncommonly rich complexion of a sort they’d never seen, and waves of dark hair. She seemed to emit a gentle glow that made her easy to see in the darkness. They had seen some rare creatures in their travels thus far, but they all thought they’d never seen one who combined grace, beauty, power and danger in such a blatantly improbable form. They all knew what she was, and Rowena felt a thrill of anticipation, knowing what was to come.
Without hesitation, Rowena stepped forward and spoke bravely. “Oh noble sphinx, we wish to pass this way. I am ready to speak for us, and answer whatever riddle you will set.”
“The sphinx studied Rowena for a long moment. She smiled a mysterious smile. The look blended the wisdom of a gracious matron with the carnivorous candor of a great cat. “Indeed you may pass this way my daughter,” she said in a low voice of remarkable musicality, “But it is not you who shall be tested.” She turned her eyes to Salazar, and the gracious matron became more of a knowing maiden. “It is you sir who shall answer my riddle, or all of you must turn back from whence you came, and shall not be allowed to pass this way.”
“But please!” Rowena said almost plaintively, “I have always wished to meet one of your kind, and to prove myself equal to the test.”
“I know that my daughter, but it is not to be this time. This young wizard will answer my riddle, or none of you shall pass, and that is how it shall be. Now step back all of you save this one; he alone will hear my riddle, and he alone will solve it, or none of you will proceed.”
Rowena looked as though she’d had a great gift snatched from her hand, and made no move to retreat as ordered. Godric had to put an authoritative hand on her arm and draw her away to where the others had stepped back, leaving Salazar standing alone before the sphinx, looking perhaps a little smaller than he normally did.
He felt himself to be cunning in the ways of people, and getting them to do as he wished, but when it came to riddles and learning, he was solidly with Rowena. He felt firmly that it should be she standing here, but he sensed clearly that a sphinx wasn’t someone you argued with. He felt a rising excitement. Could he fathom the ways of such a magical creature? Was his mind equal to its test? He stood before her, watching her steadily, determined to show neither apprehension nor impatience.
Finally, she smiled at him once more, with a glimmer of approval for his composure. “I see that you are ready young wizard. Hear then my riddle, and answer if you may, and if you may not, then you must go back.” She widened her eyes at him, suggesting that she knew where he’d come from, how he’d gotten there, and how impossible it was for them to retreat. She rose at leisure, and paced back and forth across the path, as though considering. Then, she stopped, standing before him, looking down at him, her smile subsumed by an enigmatic expression, and then she spoke.
“I am straight and round,
I’m bound up or wound.
Born by birds,
yet never leaving the ground.
I can’t be picked up,
but only set down.
I’m voices without people,
I’m words without sound.