Salazar stood still. His mind had gone disturbingly blank. For a moment he couldn’t even wrestle with the riddle, for all reason seemed to have left him. Then, mentally shaking himself, he asked her to repeat the riddle, which she did patiently.
“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.
Salazar’s mind began to grind slowly through possibilities, but nothing coherent emerged: shapes, prisoners, bales of hay, sticks carried by birds, heavy pottery, ghosts; all of these ideas floated across his consciousness but he knew he was missing the vital connection. He had her repeat the riddle several times more, focusing on the sounds of the words, their pattern, the expressionless face of the sphinx which was no help at all, and increasingly, on his own rising panic. If he failed, they would be forced to turn back. Sphinxes were powerfully magical creatures, and not to be resisted. He’d seen the lay of the land, and knew they were on the only path that didn’t lead straight into the lake. His senses had told him clearly that the black dragon was far more alert and in command of itself than it had been when they’d left Cleodna’s house, and Salazar was certain that their chances of riding it out of here were exactly zero.
He was suddenly uncomfortably conscious of how he appeared to the others, standing alone, facing the beautiful sphinx, whose claws, now that he stopped to notice them, were remarkably vicious looking. He had a deep-rooted fear of looking ridiculous or inept. His attempts to decipher the riddle were becoming subsumed by his fear that he would be unable to do it. He let his mind drift, his eyes sweeping what he could make out of the woods around them, which was very little. He let himself glance back at the others, who stood in a tense knot, watching him.
Sound, ground, wound, bound, voices without people? His eyes rested longingly on Rowena, who stood shifting restlessly from foot to foot as though she needed the chamber pot. If only the sphinx had asked Rowena, surely Rowena, with all her learning, would be able to answer. He felt an unexpected swell of fondness for her. He found her self-possession and cool-headedness intriguing and attractive. He had, in fact, removed something from Cleodna’s house to give to Rowena as a gift, and regretted that he probably would be eaten by the sphinx before he could give it to her. Rising panic making it harder and harder to focus on the riddle, his mind retreated to the peaceful, warm afternoons in Cleodna’s library, struggling through books and scrolls of magical learning, sneaking glimpses of Rowena, bent over some enormous tome, or guiding the children through recitations of complex spells. How pleasingly austere she had looked. He had disdained books and the written word at first, but she had helped him to see the magic in them, the way they connected past and future, the way they made the transient permanent. Writing was power, it was…, it was…, it was words without sound! It was voices without people! It was set down in books and scrolls, carried through the quills of bird feathers!
“One more time please?” He asked the sphinx, trying to suppress his eagerness. Once more she posed the riddle. He nodded with each phrase, then brought his hands together in triumph. “Writing!” he shouted in his exultation, “The answer is writing!” The sphinx smiled, then nodded, then stepped aside to vanish into the trees.
The others ran to Salazar, all speaking at once, demanding that he tell them the riddle. He did so, reveling in their admiring expressions, and so relieved to have solved the riddle, that he felt his feet barely touched the ground. Of all of them, only Rowena failed to look joyful, but this didn’t trouble Salazar. He understood perfectly that she was only disappointed not to have been the one tested. He could see that she was impressed at his ability to reason, and that was all that mattered.
At last, their excitement ebbed enough for them to continue, and they followed the path further on, to where they found the inn. There was no light on. They only knew it was an inn by its size, and the tall sign above the door, that they couldn’t make out in the darkness.
They entered cautiously. There was faint light from a banked fire, and to their surprise, the common room was entirely empty. Godric lit his wand, and they saw evidence that the room had been occupied recently; tankards and platters left carelessly on tables, the smoldering embers on the hearth, but no one was there now. Deciding not to wake anyone, Salazar built up the fire enough for warmth, and they simply rolled up in their blankets and found what comfort they could on the mismatched furniture, or on the floor.
Godric and Helga were usually the first to wake each morning, and both tended to wake up alert. Seeing that the others still slept, Godric murmured to her that he was going to go off in search of good fishing. Who ever the inn keeper was, her welcome of seven guests was likely to be warmer for the contribution of some food.
Godric liked fishing. Though a sociable man, he wasn’t one who required the company of others. He enjoyed both the solitude and simplicity of fishing. It required skill, but also stillness and patience. Salazar generally preferred the chase and challenge of hunting, and in general they’d eaten well on their journey so far.
Godric walked out into the crisp dawn air, inhaling with pleasure. Curious, he turned to look up at the inn’s sign. The words, The Panting Wolf, were carved below the image of a lean wolf in profile, seated, head up, looking alert, its tongue lolling with thirst. Something in the image appealed to him, and he smiled as he went in search of a stream, or failing that, the lake.
Helga lounged at her ease, not ill pleased for the opportunity to do nothing while the others slept on, and the slovenly inn keeper remained conspicuous only by her absence. When the others woke, Helga spent some time examining Aidan closely for signs of fever or illness. He seemed recovered, but was weak and listless. She rummaged through what herbs and remedies she had left, and brewed a fortifying potion over the fire. Finally, when the sun was well over the treetops, the inn keeper appeared, making a languid way down from an upper floor. She looked surprised to see the room full of guests, but not displeased.
Helga studied her with interest. She expected an old or indigent looking person, but the woman who stood, stretching and rubbing her eyes in the common room, was young, very healthy looking, and, despite a somewhat rumpled appearance, attractive. She had a lean, strong body, vigorous looking red hair, and a pleasant, rather sharp-featured face. If her nose was a tad long for symmetry, it lent her an appealingly feral quality.
“Welcome,” she said, running her eyes over them. “You must have come in the middle of the night. I’m sorry I wasn’t awake to see to your comfort. How did you arrive?” A frown touched her features. “We haven’t had many visitors for a while.”
“We…,” Helga hesitated. The wizards who’d welcomed them the night before, and who’d tended so carefully to the black dragon seemed open enough, but their travels thus far had taught her caution. “We came from that direction.” She indicated the way leading to the path they’d traversed. “There were two men there who made us welcome. They said we could find lodging here.”
The woman looked interested but not startled. “Well,” she said cheerfully, you’ve neither wings nor fins, so if you came that way you must have had help.”
“We…, we rode here.”
“Not on horses, unless they be winged horses. Have you thestrals? I know someone who will be eager to meet you!”
“No,” Helga said, encouraged by the woman’s nonchalance in discussing magical creatures. “We flew here on a black dragon.”
“A black dragon…. I haven’t heard of any Hebridean blacks around here for a long time, accept of course the one held captive by the druidess.”
Helga nodded, and the woman’s eyes grew round with astonishment. “You rode the Hebridean black from captivity? By the staff of Merlin, you are an accomplished witch indeed!”
“It wasn’t me,” Helga demurred, making a humble fending motion with her hands. “Really it was Salazar.” She gestured toward him, and introduced him. This led to a general round of introductions. The woman gave her name as Celina, at which Rowena started, though she didn’t say anything.
Celina was slowly becoming more animated. She reached out to a platter on one of the tables, picked up a large bone, and gnawed unself-consciously on it. Helga was startled by such unmannerly conduct, but Celina’s manner and bearing had a kind of natural raw grace that made the behavior less shocking than it might have been from a more ordinary looking person.
The meat seemed to restore her, and she rose energetically. “I will prepare food for you to break your fast.” Her eyes surveyed them. “Six of you?”
“There is one more in our party,” Rowena explained. “He has gone fishing, thinking to add to your larder if he may.”
“Oh that will be welcome,” Celina said easily. “You rest here and I will return shortly.”
She swept out toward the kitchen at the back. She had looked sleepy and lazy at first, but now she seemed to exude vitality in a way that made them all watch her as she left.
“I have heard that there are all-magic villages,” Helga said speculatively. “We must have come to one such. Colby said the dragon would take us somewhere we’d be safe, but I assumed he meant some wood or valley somewhere.”
Emmeline’s face was alive with interest. “You mean everyone who lives here has magic?” She was clearly excited by the idea.
“It certainly seems so,” Rowena replied.
The children were all for rushing out immediately to see what an all wizarding village was like, but Helga said firmly that they must wait until they’d eaten. She didn’t want them wandering off on their own until she knew how things really were here. The world was so much larger than she’d ever imagined, when she had been tucked away in her own small, safe corner of it.
Celina emerged a short time later with platters heaping with eggs, ham, mushrooms, and some of yesterday’s bread. The breakfast was lavish, and even the pleasure-loving Helga was impressed by its preparation. She sat across the table from Celina, questioning her carefully about the village.
The village was, in fact, an entirely wizarding settlement: so much so that muggles and squibs were unwelcome, and forced to leave. It turned out that the black dragon had carried them some distance west of their original course. They were now on the lands of a Thane named Æthelrand. This Thane owed allegiance to an ealdorman, who owed allegiance to King Harold Godwinson. At any rate, that was how things had been thus far. Helga and their party had sped north faster than the conquering army of William of Normandy. What would happen when William’s front men penetrated this far into England was anyone’s guess. Celina seemed quite unconcerned by the prospect.
“Æthelrand has made himself something of an outcaste,” Celina explained. “He was born into a noble family, but unlike some magic folk, he was unwilling or unable to hide what he is, or to disappear from notice by being unnoticeable. Folk like you and I, if we’re a bit unusual, we can either blend in by choice, or find refuge in obscurity. If we have strange powers or gifts, our village may simply look the other way: come to us for cures or aid, but shield us from notice by people who would fear or hurt us. When you’re born into a noble family though, things get harder to hide. It may seem safer to be of high birth, but in some ways it really isn’t.
‘Anyway, Æthelrand is a law unto himself, and he couldn’t make a place for himself with the other thanes. There were some nasty incidents, a lot of trouble one way and another, and the ealdorman sent him here, agreeing not to call him to military service so long as Æthelrand would stop making a spectacle of himself. It was kind really. He could have set the bishop on Æthelrand, nobleman or no. Now Æthelrand has created this village as a refuge for witches and wizards, and we’re glad to have a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be open about who we are.”
All listened to this explanation with fascination. “And have you yourself always lived here?” Emmeline asked, round-eyed.
“No,” Celina replied. I came here when I was a bit older than you little sister.”
Aidan and Cadogan, though interested, had been becoming increasingly restless with forced inactivity. Seeing this, Celina asked whether they’d be willing to milk her goats, and collect eggs for her. They made a show of reluctance to be offered such mundane tasks, but bounded up when Celina rose to show them where things were. Helga rose too, preceding them out the door.
“And where has your fisherman got to I wonder,” Celina said, rising to follow Helga and the boys outside.
Helga smiled over her shoulder. She had taken a liking to Celina, appreciating her vitality, her plain speech, and the warmth of her manner. “Oh he’ll be along soon I expect. The best of the fishing will be done till dusk. Oh!” She exclaimed, looking around in the bright morning sun, “Here he comes now.”
Godric was striding confidently along a track toward them, a string of fish swinging merrily from his hand. He’d made a good catch, and it was a fine day. He was looking forward to a hearty breakfast, and to showing off his catch to Helga and the children. Helga thought how fine he looked, and turned to Celina, who was coming out behind her. She turned just in time to see the most extraordinary series of expressions chase one another across Celina’s face. Polite curiosity changed to instinctive admiration for Godric’s good looks, then, to a remarkable, arrested expression, as though she was trying to hear something a long way off. Her face registered shock, disbelief, wonder, and then settled into a look of pure joy. “Godric!” She screamed in excitement, and ran forward, throwing herself into his arms.
Godric dropped his string of fish. None of them could see his face, but all saw how his arms went around her at first reluctantly, then fiercely, then familiarly.
All stood agog, watching this unexpected scene. Finally, Helga said to the children, a little more snappishly than she’d intended, “Well, come on, there’s milking to be done.”
Godric and Celina drew apart, seemed to speak briefly, then turned together and, without a glance at the others, began striding back the way Godric had come, clearly in search of privacy. Looking after them, Helga noticed how well their energetic strides matched one another.
The others found themselves at loose ends, unable to make plans without Godric. Helga tried to get Aidan to come back and lie down once the outside work was done, but her replenishment potion had worked well. Unfortunately, this left her no obligations with which to distract herself from wondering who Celina was. The others set out to roam the village, but Helga stayed behind, helping defer the cost of their stay by doing the indoor work Celina should have been doing, instead of being off frittering away the day as though….” She punched the bread dough with unnecessary vigor.
Æthelrand’ s Hollow was a village like any other in most ways. The differences were sometimes in the small things: a bucket lowering itself down into a well and rising full again, fires starting all at once, washing sailing down off lines to fold itself into baskets, ale tubs being stirred with no hand touching them, an ax competently chopping wood.
Sometimes however, the differences were disorientingly dramatic, as when they came upon a blacksmith shoeing a winged horse. They had seen and recognized other magical creatures here, but had seen nothing so exciting. They stood back in awe, their minds full of questions. A middle-aged woman sat nearby platting harness leather, while an oiled cloth cleaned saddlery on a bench beside her. She was keeping one eye on the horse, not nervously exactly, but attentively. When the smith had finished, the woman rose, went to the beast, and put a firm, affectionate hand on the horse’s withers. The horse nuzzled her, just as an ordinary horse would. It was a large chestnut.
The woman noticed the group of onlookers. “I heard there were folk at the Panting Wolf,” she said, studying them with a forthright eye. She glanced down at Aidan and Cadogan, who were being physically prevented by Rowena, from darting forward to see the horse up close.
“You can come closer if you want, but slowly. This one’s still skittish around children.”
The boys tried to jerk out of Rowena’s grasp. “Slowly!” Rowena snapped, letting them go. Emmeline looked as though she would have liked to get closer too, and Rowena thought the girl was having one of those moments where she couldn’t decide whether to act like a child or a woman.
The boys approached cautiously. “Wow!” Cadogan exclaimed, “You’ve got a flying horse!”
“I’ve got more than one,” the woman said cheerfully. “I’ve been breeding them and domesticating them. This is one of the more docile ones. He’s very friendly, most of the time, aren’t you?” She rubbed his neck fondly.
“You’ve got an entire herd?” Salazar asked with amazement. “A small one. They’re not stable horses you know, but they know me well, and will do my will, usually.”
Salazar looked impressed. “May we see them?”
The woman looked unimpressed. Children were one thing, but she wasn’t operating a country fair. “Have you experience with magical creatures?”
Salazar was battling with his own smugness in choosing his reply, when Aidan saved him the trouble. “We came in on the Hebridean black last night. Salazar freed him, and then we rode him here.” Aidan spoke with a fierce pride, which allowed Salazar to merely nod in a dignified sort of way. The woman looked impressed.
They spent the afternoon with the woman, whose name was Edwina. Despite what she had said, there was a large stable that the horses did condescend to use in bad weather, and where they came to eat the hay that Edwina provided when grazing was poor. In exchange for cleaning and stocking the place, she let the three children ride the most tranquil of the winged beasts. They returned to the ground brimming with excitement, and overflowing with praise for the horses.
As the children ran and flew, Edwina and Salazar talked. She heard with rapt interest about their departure from Cleodna’s house. In turn, she told him of her efforts to train the winged horses.
“The truth is,” she said candidly, “I’m actually considering that I might have to thin out the herd somehow. There are too many stallions, and that causes trouble. Salazar, who was growing conscious of exciting idea, drew her out with intelligent questions. Rowena, less interested, but engaged by watching Salazar’s absorption, was attentive but quiet.
When the sun was low in the sky, they prepared to return to the inn. Salazar and Edwina agreed that they would talk more. As they were parting, Edwina smiled at Salazar and Rowena and said, “It’s full moon tonight. As you’re new here, you won’t know this, but there a field outside the village that’s renowned for its herbs and flowers.” When they didn’t react at once, she said with a mischievous smile, “Mooncaps.” Her listeners were suitably dazzled.
“I’ve read about them!” Rowena said enthusiastically. “Their dances are said to be wondrous to behold.”
“Many’s the young couple, and not a few old ones too, who steal out on the full moon hoping to catch a glimpse of them.”
Rowena’s cheeks grew pink, but Salazar merely thanked her for the information, and the five of them headed back to the inn. They found Godric not yet returned, and Helga sitting in an armchair by the fire, a spindle spinning thread in mid air beside her, and an uncommonly distant expression on her face. She looked up sharply when she heard them, and if she felt any disappointment that the sounds were not those of Godric returning, she strove hard not to show it. She heard all about their afternoon with the winged horses, checked Aidan’s colour and temperature, then bustled off toward the kitchen, dragging Emmeline with her, to see about supper.
After the meal, Salazar and Rowena tried to convince Helga to come with them to look for mooncaps. She said she’d rather stay by the fire where it was warm. With characteristic practicality however, she gathered as many seeds as she could from her remaining herbs.
“Take these,” she said, “And before moon-rise, spread them in the field. Do you remember what the Compendium of Uncanny Creatures said about fields where mooncaps dance?”
“Cadogan jumped in eagerly at this point, ready to show that he was capable of scholarship too. “It said that their poop makes flowers and herbs grow really really fast!”
“That’s right,” Helga said tolerantly. “Now off to bed with you. I don’t care that you haven’t been sick like Aidan, it’s time for you to be going to sleep.”
Salazar and Rowena strolled in a leisurely way out of the village in the direction Edwina had pointed out. As they went, they did indeed see other couples making their way toward the remote field also, but the other couples kept to themselves. Rowena felt a rising anticipation. It was the prospect of seeing another type of magical creature she hadn’t seen before, she told herself.
They came to the edge of the field, and after casting Helga’s seeds about at random, found a dense and private patch of shrubbery to hide in. Mooncaps were notoriously shy, and quiet concealment was essential if you hoped to see them.
They huddled in their cloaks against the evening chill. They stood close together for warmth, and were uncommonly aware of one anothers’ nearness. They waited patiently as the full moon rose, and a long, long time later, there was movement on the far side of the field. A collection of some of the oddest looking creatures they’d ever seen, was making its stealthy way into the clearing.
They had bodies of a smooth, pale gray. They walked on four spindly legs, which ended in absurdly large feet. Their eyes were round, bulging, and placed almost on top of their heads. They looked clumsy, ungainly, improbable and not in any way prepossessing, until they started to dance.
They formed themselves into two concentric rings, the inside ring facing outward, and the outside ring facing in. They all rose onto their back legs, and began moving. Given their odd appearance and ungainly bodies, the dance should have been comical, but it wasn’t. The two rings of dancers turned, sometimes one way, and sometimes the other. Individuals wove between the rings in complex and mysterious patterns so that the rings were always maintained, but dancers shifted from one to another. Each dancer moved as though guided by an inner impulse, but watching the entire group, it was clear that there was a structure or meaning to the movement. Washed of normal colour by the moonlight, the whole scene had a remarkably hypnotic quality. The dancers moved with surprising grace and delicacy. The odd placement of their eyes made it seem as though their heads were thrown back in a kind of ecstasy. Their upper bodies swayed in time with one another, bowing, rotating and turning in slow patterns. Lifted off the ground, their large front feet became bizarrely eloquent, moving delicately, as though communicating some subtle meaning. The dancers wove in and out, and back and forth, so that one almost expected to see an elaborate tapestry being created on the ground. In so far as she was able to think at all in the face of this spell-binding spectacle, Rowena thought that if only their steps did weave a tapestry, it would surely show a pattern to make clear all the mysteries of the world.
After a timeless time, during which time ceased to exist, the dancers slowly drifted to a halt, put all four huge feet back on the ground, turned, and made a lumbering progress back the way they had come. The field was just a field once more, unremarkable, and autumn-bear.
Rowena and Salazar remained still where they were, overwhelmed by what they had witnessed. Gradually, they became aware of small rustlings, as other couples retreated quietly back toward the village, but neither of them felt any urge to do so. They remained close together, linked by the magic of what they’d witnessed.
Finally, Rowena exhaled slowly. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Salazar said nothing, but he reached out, and they joined hands. After a long time, he spoke.
“I have a gift for you. I’ve been carrying it with me for some days, but I couldn’t find the right time to give it to you.” He let go her hand, and reached into the bundle he’d carried with him from the inn. He drew out something large and flat, holding it out to her. As she reached for it, he lit his wand so that she could see.
She gasped out loud in a rare display of wonder. “Oh Salazar!” In her hands, broad, heavy, and smelling of parchment, was a book. She gazed in awe at its title, Sumerian Spells and Hellenic Hexes: Ancient Arcana for the Modern Magician. Rowena’s eyes were huge. She longed to open the book, but it was so large that she didn’t think she could hold it. She longed for a large table in a quiet library, where she could open the cover and lose herself. She raised her shining eyes to Salazar’s face. When he saw her expression, he smiled.
She knew that many thought him ill-favoured. He had an unusual appearance it was true, but she found it foreign and intriguing rather than off-putting, and the smile he saved for his friends, was an expression that transformed him. She sometimes thought that if he showed that part of himself more often, he would have had more friends in his life, but he was a complicated person, and she liked that too.
“It’s got both languages and spells,” he was saying. It’s a primer for Babylonian and Greek, as well as a comprehensive spell book for incantations in those languages.”
Rowena gasped. This was a treasure indeed. “Salazar! Where did you get this? You mean it for me, truly?”
“Of course I mean it for you. Why else would I have carried it all the way out here if I didn’t mean it for you?”
“Where did you get it?”
“From Cleodna’s library. I found it tucked way back on a shelf one day, and I knew you would like it. It wasn’t steeling. Cleodna herself said she intended to give you one of her books when we left, do you remember?”
“Yes, I do remember.” She also remembered the intense longing Cleodna’s casual words had ignited in her. Owning one book was almost unheard-of for a poor woman, for any woman; owning two was a kind of miracle.
“Oh Salazar!” Though more conventionally attractive than Salazar, Rowena habitually maintained an austere expression. Now, her face looked as alive as his. He stared. He was very fond of the way she looked, but, like her, he was enchanted by an expression he’d never seen on her face before. Slowly, he reached out and took the book from her unresisting hands. With due reverence he laid it safely on top of his bundle, turned to her, and held out his arms.