In the morning, Rowena and Salazar slept even later than usual. Godric wandered off to fish, while Helga and the boys milked the goat and looked for fresh eggs, and Emmeline got things going in the kitchen. Celina hadn’t returned.
Over breakfast, Godric gave a highly edited version of his tale of the night before to the others. He glossed over the nature of his connection to Celina and the west country, and anyway, everyone was distracted completely by the revelation that Celina was a werewolf. The boys would have leapt up and run outside to look for her return, but Helga quashed them with a scorching look, and firm words.
“You’re not to stare at her, and you’re not to drown her in questions; it’s rude. Do you understand?” She had to repeat the question twice to get their attention, but they agreed sullenly that they wouldn’t stare, and they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
After breakfast, Salazar, Rowena and the young people went off to have another look at the winged horses. Salazar had confided his idea to Rowena the day before, and she thought it a good one. He didn’t say anything to the others however, not wanting to get anyone’s hopes up.
Godric and Helga remained behind. She swept the hearth and got the bread going, while he chopped wood, and set about several small tasks of repair that had been neglected. They didn’t talk much, but when their paths crossed, they smiled at one another, both conscious of a pleasant sense of nesting. At her cottage, there had been too much going on and too many people about for any such feelings, and the road was no place for settling in. They had no plan to stay or not, but being alone together, and doing such comfortingly mundane tasks, made them think inevitably of housekeeping.
In mid-morning, Celina returned. She looked exhausted and extremely disheveled. There was dirt under her fingernails, and her skirt was covered in burrs. She flopped down, boneless and heavy-eyed, at a table in the common room. Helga couldn’t help staring, despite her warnings to the boys.
Finally, made self-conscious by her own ravening curiosity, Helga asked, for something to say, “Are you hungry?”
Celina’s head came up, and she gave a short, bark-like laugh. “Ha, no, absolutely not. I’m dead weary though.” Her gaze drifted slowly around the tidy room. “You’ve certainly earned your keep, you’ve done a wonderful job here, and is that bread I smell?”
Helga nodded. “We’ve milked the goat and gathered eggs, and Godric has chopped more firewood for you.”
Celina smiled gratefully at Godric, in a way that unsettled Helga a bit, but Helga told herself firmly that she must get used to it, and that it didn’t mean what she had feared. Indeed, seeing Celina and Godric together, you could feel the bond between them, like a brother and sister almost? Or no, not that. Godric saw her troubled look, and in plain sight of Celina, reached out his hand to cover hers in a brief reminder of the night before. Celina saw, and smiled contentedly, and Helga’s heart was eased.
Celina drew herself together and sat a little straighter. “It’s well that you’ve taken some care around here. On my way back this morning, I heard that Æthelrand is coming, will be here before sunset.”
The other two looked a question, and Celina explained. “He lives outside the village. He built himself a fine manner house, and dwells there all the time, now that he’s been more-or-less exiled. He’s not a bad lord. He’s heard about the trouble, and is coming to see to it, if he can.”
“Trouble?” Helga asked.
Celina rubbed her eyes. “Did I not tell you? It’s the reason the inn has been so empty of late.” She looked seriously at them. “The village is being preyed upon by a chimaera.” The other two stared back in horror. Celina nodded. “No one knows quite where it came from. They’re certainly not native creatures. Some say it was the long-lived druidess who brought it back with her from the east, but folk say that about any dangerous creature. The truth is no one knows where it came from. It’s been harrying the flocks and herds around here for some time, and it’s done for a few hapless herders as well. Word’s gotten out. As an all magic settlement, we normally have a steady trickle of magic folk on their way from somewhere to somewhere, or simply wandering through the country and looking for a home. Lately though: nothing. You’re the first visitors we’ve had in months. A few have tried to do battle with it, but that hasn’t gone very well. Aunt Rumie has been kept busy treating burns and bruises.”
“Aunt Rumie!” Godric exclaimed, distracted momentarily from the prospect of dangerous, blood-thirsty beasts. “Is she here?”
“Oh yes. Of course, our home village isn’t far from here as you know, and when Æthelrand established this safe place for witches and wizards, all the magic folk within a week’s ride came to live here. She shares a cottage with Edwina, the winged horse herder. We had high hopes of the winged horses. We thought they might be trained to battle the chimaera, but nothing doing; they won’t go anywhere near it, and no wonder. Anyway, Æthelrand has said he will come to give it battle. He’s a competent wizard, though I know nothing of his fighting skills. I don’t know what we’ll do if he fails; we’ll just get picked off one by one I suppose, until the beast grows bored and moves on.”
She stretched luxuriously, and shook herself. “I’m exhausted,” she said unself-consciously. “I’m going to go sleep in one of the small bedrooms upstairs.” She turned to Helga. “You’ve been so kind to do the work here. Would you mind getting the large bedroom upstairs ready for Æthelrand, and preparing a good meal? I’d be so grateful. I believe he means to make rather a festival tonight, you know, hearten us all, and himself for the fight too I suppose.” She looked down at herself as though in surprise, and murmured, “I really must tidy myself up too when I wake.”
Helga tried to hide her shock at the scandalous idea of sleeping during the day, and agreed. She liked Celina, despite the woman’s odd ways. And anyway, the routine chores of keeping a house would be comforting after so many strange experiences, and so many miles from home. She had a sudden stab of longing for her own place, her own things, for Eartha and Egbert, for the friends she’d left behind, and the cozy settled life she’d known. Would she ever have a hearth of her own again?
On the edge of the village, Salazar watched critically as Emmeline alighted on the ground, mounted on one of Edwina’s winged chestnut horses. The landing was smoother this time; girl and horse were getting used to each other. Salazar nodded to Emmeline. She dismounted, her face bright. She was normally a serious, watchful girl, but delight in the horse made her glow with happiness.
Edwina was keeping a gimlet eye on Aidan and Cadogan, who were circling above the field on two of her more tractable horses. Hopelessly clumsy on the ground, Cadogan showed a surprising affinity for the winged creatures. Always in sympathy with animals, he was the best of the three young ones at soothing and controlling the beasts. Cadogan executed a lazy spiral downward, and his horse’s hooves touched lightly as it landed.
Afterward, Edwina showed them how to groom and curry their mounts. This was tricky, as the herd was only partially tamed, and wouldn’t always submit to such attentions, and of course it took a delicate and careful hand to tend the feathered wings. It was common for a horse to simply become bored with the proceedings, give a shocking bunch and heave, and leave the groomer on their backside in the mud, with a face full of feathers.
Edwina was patient with Cadogan. He was a slow learner, but had a true sympathy for the beasts, and once he’d learned a task, he was plodding, but thorough. Aidan was less tractable, but his shortcomings were self-correcting when it came to the horses. They were quick to sense weakness or inattention, and by the end of it, Aidan looked far more disheveled than any of the animals.
At midday, Edwina took them to her cottage for a meal. There, they met Celina’s Aunt Brumhilda, although not having heard the whole story by the fire the night before, they weren’t really prepared for it. She had been Celina’s mother’s younger sister, and while the two women were similar in colouring, Aunt Rumie’s features had a much more predatory look. She had a prominent nose, and wide-open, restless eyes that made her look like a large bird.
They entered to find her seated at the table extracting toad hearts, the centre of a delicately shifting circle of inquisitive cats. The boys were instantly captivated by the toads, and surged forward to look, while Emmeline hung back, and Edwina sighed, averting her eyes.
“Don’t get up,” Edwina said unnecessarily. “I’ve brought our guests for a meal. Have you started the stew?”
“No,” Aunt Rumie said unrepentantly, to the guests’ relief. “I got busy working on this potion to treat scrafungulus. It calls for heart of toad. Do you know what fiddly work it is to get the heart out of a toad? And the potion calls for 47 of them!” A scruffy looking tomcat was sniffing cautiously at the bowl of toads, and Rumie nudged it away with an elbow.
Edwina sighed with resignation, but no surprise. She shoed the boys outside to get them out from under foot, and divided the work of chopping between herself, Rowena and Emmeline, while Salazar sat helping with the toads. While they waited for the stew to simmer, they talked.
“I have a proposition to put before you,” Salazar said to Edwina. “I and my companions have sworn an oath that requires us to travel north. We have been on the road for many weeks, and will be for many more. How many more may depend on you. We lost our horses when we freed the Hebridean black from its long captivity. Happening upon enough horses to carry us and our…, gear is highly unlikely, and here you are with a herd of flying horses that you yourself have said is troublesomely large. I grow weary of travelling on foot, and anyway it’s beneath the dignity of such a group of witches and wizards to share the road with common folk and footpads. I propose that you thin out your herd by letting us take some away with us. In return, we will commit to train not only the mounts that are to be ours, but the rest of the herd as well. You’ve come a long way with them, but the work will go far faster with us to help you.”
“But what can you know of training winged horses?”
“What did I know about flying a dragon?”
“That’s different. That dragon wanted nothing more than to leave that place. Why one of these cats could have flown it.”
Salazar looked affronted. Rowena stepped in quickly, knowing how easily Salazar took offense. “How can Edwina know your power? We know, but she just met you, and you’re asking her to trust you with creatures she has raised and trained with her own hand. Surely in her situation you would be cautious too.”
There were a few seconds of silence. “I suppose I can see that,” he replied neutrally, “Perhaps a small demonstration will help convince you.”
They all became aware that the cats had, silently but definitely, stopped circling the toad dismemberment. In an utterly unnatural manner, they lined up before the hearth, sat down as one, and each raised a front paw into the air, just as a person might do when they were trying to interrupt a torrent of speech.
Brumhilda opened her mouth to protest, but Edwina, who secretly disliked the cats, laughed out loud. “You’ve got to admit Rumie, that’s an impressive display.”
Salazar quickly let go his control of the cats, and they each slunk away through the door, clearly ashamed. Rumie took a deep breath, glanced at Edwina, then made up her mind to ignore the situation, returning to her toads.
Edwina looked thoughtful. “It won’t be quick,” she said, “Either for you to bond with the horses you’ll take, or for you to train the ones I’ll keep. I won’t let any of the herd go for less, and I’ll be the judge.”
Salazar smiled confidently. “I’m very good. I don’t think it will take all that long, certainly no longer than we’d spend trudging through mud and rain, maybe with an army at our backs. Do we have a deal then?” To his amazement, he felt her mind probing his, seeking his intentions. Since he had nothing to hide, he raised no barrier to stop her, but he made a mental note not to underestimate these people.
“We have a deal,” she said finally. “Good thing Celina’s got lots of space at that inn of hers; you’ll be here for a while.”
Celina came down stairs in mid afternoon looking refreshed. She found Helga in the kitchen rolling out pastry for a fish pie. Platters and bowls were dotted about, filled with ingredients for stews, and meat for the roasting spit. Celina smiled widely. “Oh sister!” She exclaimed. “This looks wonderful!” She reached out, snagged a piece of raw venison, and popped it unself-consciously into her mouth. When she caught Helga gaping, she looked a little abashed, and rubbed the back of her hand across her mouth. “Oh sorry,” she mumbled, “I forget myself sometimes.”
Helga stood motionless for a moment, not knowing what to say, then broke out laughing. Celina was startled, then she began to laugh too, and then she couldn’t seem to stop. Between gasps, she said, “I know, I know! You know, I couldn’t find my silver goblet last month, then I realized…, I’d buried it in the garden!”
Helga clutched the side of the table, doubled over.
“Last week,” Celina got out, “One of Aunt Rumie’s cats was pestering me, and before I knew what I was doing, I’d chased it up a tree. She was Furious!”
“Do folk here know…, what you are?”
“Oh yes; it’s hard to hide something like that. Some of them were nervous at first, but it’s not like it comes on unexpectedly. Everyone knows when the full moon is, and I’m careful to take myself well away in time. There are others, not from this village, but not terribly far either. We usually meet, spend our time together. It helps keep us from feeling predatory toward humans.”
Godric appeared in the doorway. Celina spotted him. “I’ve just been telling Helga about some of my…, my newer habits, chasing cats and the like.”
Godric approached, and touched the tip of her nose with his finger. “Hmm, it’s cold and wet,” he said approvingly. “And If I scratched you behind the ear, would your leg twitch?” He made as if to do so, and she stepped quickly back from him.
“Don’t you dare to try it. What have you there?”
Godric went to the table and laid out an array of assorted greenery. “I went to the clearing where Salazar and Rowena passed the evening. It seems the legends of mooncaps are true.”
Helga leaned forward eagerly, peering at the treasures and exclaiming with delight. “Oh, and even some fresh rosemary! This will be wonderful in the fish pie! Just look at all this!”
“That’s only a sample,” Godric said complacently. “I didn’t know what was what of course, so I just picked a few things to show you. You’ll have to go back and take what you wish.”
Helga gasped in amazement. “Imagine that, fresh herbs in early winter!” Her natural expression was a gentle smile, but now she positively beamed with pleasure. “I must go!” But then she looked around the kitchen. “There is so much to do here, but if there is frost tonight, some of the herbs may spoil.”
Celina waved a dismissive hand. “Go, go. I can manage here. I know it doesn’t look it, but I’m a fair housekeeper, and a rather good cook. You’ve made a wonderful start. Go, take my gathering basket there. Maybe you’ll even find some fresh greens for supper.”
When she’d gone, Celina followed her with her eyes. “She’s a sweet, good woman,” she said to Godric. “Don’t let the past hold you, and don’t let the grass grow under your feet either.”
Salazar and Rowena returned to the Panting Wolf in late afternoon, eager to share their news, but there was no time. Godric was moving furniture, and Helga and Celina were upstairs tidying themselves. They had, in fact, arrived just ahead of the gale force wind that was the arrival of Æthelrand and his entourage.
Rowena and Emmeline found Helga and Celina making a tiny whirlwind as they readied themselves. The inn would be full of guests that night, and the women had gathered all their belongings into one small room that they would share. The three travelers had little in the way of finery, but Celina was pawing through a chest, emerging with clothing and ornaments that Rowena recognized vaguely as decorative. Celina’s own gown was surprisingly elaborate for a woman who seemed to take her appearance as casually as Rowena herself,
Emmeline smiled as she looked through Celina’s treasures. “Where did you get such fine things?”
“Oh, gifts mostly,” Celina answered distractedly, pinning a broach on one shoulder, and considering a selection of bracelets.
Emmeline wound a finely embroidered shawl around herself. “Oh how I’d like to have such pretty things,” she said longingly. “When the mistress was away, we used to go through her clothing and jewels, deciding what we’d have for ourselves if we could.”
Emmeline rarely spoke of her life before meeting Salazar on the battle field in Sussex, and Helga was curious. “Were you a lady in waiting to her?”
Emmeline laughed derisively. “I? No. I was but daughter of the laundry woman, but I knew her maids and ladies, and when the mistress was away from home, we sometimes made free with her things.” She pointed to a red sash set with semi-precious stones that Celina had taken up, then discarded. “She had one much like that.” Emmeline smiled mischievously. “The ladies used to use it as a way to tell each other that they had a…, visitor. If a lady wanted to entertain a man for the night in privacy when the mistress wasn’t there, she would tie that sash on the outside of the antechamber door as a sign to the other ladies that they’d need to find somewhere else to sleep for the night.”
Celina laughed, Helga looked both shocked and interested, but Rowena frowned disapprovingly. “I hardly think anything like that will be necessary here.”
“It’s late in the year,” Celina remarked evenly. “There will be cold comfort for couples seeking privacy in the hedgerows, not like Beltane.” She considered a hair ornament, then cast it aside. “Oh well, there’s always the barn, for those who can’t wait till spring.” She grinned wolfishly, and winked at Helga.
Celina’s inn was the largest public space in the village, so it was natural for Æthelrand to come there when he wished to meet his villagers. All Celina had said was that he was coming to fight the chimaera. What she hadn’t explained was the manner of his coming.
Godric happened to be outside at the time, mending the door of Celina’s barn. His first intimation of the tidal wave was the sound of trumpets in the distance. Being no stranger to pomp and those who craved it, he stood idly swinging his hammer, and watching Æthelrand’s approach with a slightly jaundiced eye. His first sighting of the party was of Æthelrand’s banner. It was a green background, and bore a silver owl holding a wand in its talons. Godric smiled despite himself. He’d seen many devices, but never one like this.
When the procession finally came into view, Godric gaped, wondering who all the people might possibly be. The identity of some was obvious: a young clerk with his implements, a middle-aged man with a harp slung across his back, and several people supervising the transport of many large casks. Godric’s spirits lifted at sight of these. Any man, no matter how self-aggrandizing, makes friends more easily when he bears ale and mead.
Eventually, the center of all this pageantry came into view. It was hard to judge the height of a mounted horseman, but Æthelrand was certainly broad and sturdy looking. To Godric’s surprise, he was dressed not as a knight, but as a wizard. He wore a wizard’s robe, and conical wizard’s hat, both in a flamboyant purple. He bore a wand conspicuously in his hand, but also wore a sword belted at his side. He had a broad, florid face, and waved energetically at the crowd which had gathered to cheer his approach.
He gestured repeatedly with his wand, sending bunches of flowers sailing out over the onlookers to alight in the outstretched hands of the women. The musicians at the front of his entourage had begun playing a merry tune that engendered a festive mood. The musicians and heralds disbursed in the yard, so that Æthelrand could dismount at the inn door.
Watching from the barn, Godric was engulfed by the crowd. He saw Celina emerge to welcome the wizard who was, after all, the local lord, and the founder and ruler of the village. She had clearly taken some pains with her appearance. Her hair was dressed elaborately, and she wore a gown of a richness that startled him. He was used to seeing her in scruffy, oft-mended dresses, or even sometimes in boy’s clothes. She looked remarkably attractive, and as she stepped forward graciously to welcome her lord, Godric felt a quick stab of possessiveness, which he firmly set from him. His resolve was good. Nevertheless, he didn’t like the way Æthelrand stooped over her hand, or the warmth with which he greeted her; there was an unmistakable familiarity between them. “Not my concern,” he said firmly aloud.