The inn yard was a boiling mass of merry-makers. The more prestigious among them funneled into the common room. Not eager to press his way in-doors, Godric drifted around, gladly taking a tankard of ale from a serving maid who’d come as part of Æthelrand’s retinue, and watching the crowd.
Many were watching him in return. Any guest was interesting, and a young, good-looking man even more-so. Several women were beginning to sidle toward him, when a lively, excited voice called out his name. It was Aunt Rumie, accompanied by Edwina, whom he’d not yet met.
Godric greeted her warmly. She had been an indifferent guardian to Celina, but her hearth had often been a refuge from a grim home after his father had died, and he had fond memories of her. What had happened with the binding spell wasn’t really her fault; Celina had always been reckless, which was possibly Rumie’s fault. Godric hugged her, a tender moment shattered when a live toad, disturbed by the embrace, leapt from the pocket of Rumie’s apron.
“Merlin’s beard I thought I got them all!” She exclaimed, reaching for it, and missing. She let it go, holding on to Godric’s shoulders and scanning his face. “It’s so good to see you again, such a surprise, but then, not so much of a surprise I suppose. Such a fine man you’ve grown into! Here is my friend Edwina, the winged horse herder. You must be here with Salazar and Rowena! They told me there were others travelling with them, but I didn’t know they meant you!”
Her words poured over him like summer rain on a parched landscape, bringing back so many memories from his childhood. He’d been so sure that the west country was somewhere he must leave behind him, but Celina and Aunt Rumie made it feel dangerously like home.
He had lingered in the yard deliberately, intending to keep to the shadows, unwilling to be recognized by any refugees from his home village. Aunt Rumie wasn’t someone to chat with if your goal was remaining inconspicuous however, and soon word had spread among those who’d known him in childhood. Under the influence of the general spirit of celebration, and Æthelrand’s excellent ale, Godric let go of his reservations. He was here now, and it was clearly too late to conceal the fact.
As darkness fell, a fire was lit in the inn yard for those who couldn’t fit into the crowded common room. The door remained open however, and the sounds of music and merry-making drifted out onto the cold, still air. Ale and mead were circulating freely, and circles of dancers continuously formed and broke apart both inside and out.
Godric was in the common room, sitting across the table from Alfred, someone whom he’d known in his youth, but whom he barely recognized. They were locked together in a furious but nearly immobile arm wrestle. Alfred was the local blacksmith, and his strength was a good match for Godric’s. They strained and strained, but finally Godric prevailed, and they sat back gasping with fatigue and laughter. Godric lifted his ale cup in his other hand, saluting Alfred. “I’m here for a rematch any time!”
Alfred picked up his own cup and drained it. “All that sword wielding has paid off my friend; I’m the acknowledged champion around here!”
Godric banged his cup down on the table in satisfaction. It felt shockingly good to be here, drinking with Alfred, watching Celina out of the corner of his eye, sweating with the honest sweat of friendly competition. He saw familiar faces dotted everywhere. Salazar and Rowena were perched on a bench near the kitchen door, both looking predictably uncomfortable. As Rowena got up to go help in the kitchen, Godric gestured to Salazar to join them.
“This is my good friend Salazar,” Godric said, laying a comradely arm on Salazar’s shoulder. “We met in a tavern…, on the continent. In fact, he challenged me to a duel that night!” Speaking loudly to be heard in the noisy room, they told the story of their meeting, and their discovery that each was a wizard. “Salazar here is very powerful, and can often see someone has magic just by looking at them, but you know me, I need to be banged over the head with a leaky caldron.” Godric looked around the crowded room. “I’m surprised how many are familiar to me here. I knew some of the folk in our village had magic, but there are some here I had no idea at all about.”
“Aye,” Alfred replied. “It’s been good for all of us to be here, where we don’t have to be careful. Æthelrand is a bit of a braggart perhaps, but he’s a fair hand with both wand and sword, and not a bad ruler.”
Godric looked over to where Æthelrand was sitting with Celina. As Godric watched, Æthelrand leaned toward her, taking her hand in his. Godric frowned. Celina was smiling, and the firelight caught the jewels of broach and bracelets. “The inn business seems to have done well by her,” he said.
Alfred smiled. “Depends who your guests are. I remember you two were great friends, or maybe something more?”
Godric shifted his eyes away from Celina and back to Alfred. “A long time ago that was. Now we’re good friends.”
“Ah, good friends is it. Well, she’s even more of a handful these days than she used to be. You wouldn’t want to find yourself in a situation that might cause her to bight you now.” Alfred’s tone was mischievous, deliberately provocative. Salazar laughed, and Godric aimed a mock blow at Alfred’s head. “I pity the man who tries to rule her,” Alfred said more seriously.
“I never tried to do that,” Godric said mildly, “And I’m not about to start. Besides….” His eyes moved to where Helga and Emmeline were dancing in a circle with other women.
“Oh?” Alfred said with interest, “Which one?”
“The fair-haired one holding hands with the girl in the embroidered shawl.”
Alfred leaned forward with frank curiosity to get a better look. “Ah. Are you promised?”
“Well, not exactly. We’ve a journey north to complete, but after that…,” Godric trailed off. After that, what? He’d not thought past returning Odo to his home. There had been so much to occupy his attention, and the future for everyone had become so uncertain. He realized with surprise that he had no idea what.
Alfred saw the troubled expression on Godric’s face, and slapped him hard on the back. “Don’t worry my friend,” he said easily. “There’s always a place for a fine-looking lad like yourself, with a strong arm. Give me your cup and I’ll fill it along with my own. Can I bring you some ale friend?” He held out his hand for Salazar’s cup.
Helga and Celina sat together on a bench against the wall. Both had been dancing energetically, and fanned themselves. Rowena approached them carrying a tray with cups of mead. They both took one eagerly, and Helga said, “Why don’t you let one of Æthelrand’s maids do that, and come sit with us, or better yet find Salazar and dance?” Rowena shook her head though. “No, I don’t mind.” They watched as she drifted into the crowd.
Celina looked after her. “Is she always so serious?”
Helga considered. “Yes, I suppose she is. She’s not as…, as cold as she looks. I love her as a sister, but she is rather serious, more serious than me at any rate; she often makes me feel quite light-minded!”
“Well, aren’t you?” Both women dissolved into laughter.
“Oh look!” Helga exclaimed, “Godric will take a turn at the harp!”
Celina looked wistful. “It is one of the things he learned when he left us. I knew he played, but have never heard him. Is he good?”
“Oh yes! I had a harp that was passed down to me. He played it the night before…, before the battle. He is very good.”
Godric took the harp on to his lap, and quiet descended slowly on the common room. He began with something light, then played something more intricate.
Celina’s face was wrapped. When the piece was finished, she turned to Helga with a look of amazement. “I had no idea!” She said in the applause that followed. Her eyes rested on Godric, as she thought how very well he looked. She’d been hypnotized by watching his hands, deft and strong on the strings.
Helga was watching her closely. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said in her gentle but forthright way, somewhat emboldened by the mead, “He told me about what is between you. Do you love him?”
Celina’s eyes snapped away from Godric to Helga in surprise. “Love him? Well yes, but I…, we…, not in a way to keep you from…. Do you love him?”
Helga blushed. “I don’t want to…, to tread on the hem of your gown.”
Celina laughed. “What a funny expression. You won’t. If he’s told you everything, you’ll know that we will never truly be free of one another unless one of us leaves the country, which is perhaps what he tried to do, but it didn’t work. We’re both free.”
At the end of a song, Godric’s eyes roved around the room, and found Helga and Celina on their bench. He smiled. He held out a hand to Helga saying, “There sits one with whom I’ve sung a song or two. Will you not join me and offer better entertainment?” He bowed toward her from where he sat, and, flushing but not unwilling, Helga rose and made her way toward him.
Together, they brought down the house with spirited duets of Oh Bring Me a Caldron of Ale Fair Maid, Tale of the Vanishing Garter, The Witch with The Wind in Her Skirt, and The Saucy Sorceress. When they’d finished, Godric handed the harp back to Æthelrand’s bard, who settled to perform a long ballad about Æthelrand’s defeat of the dragon Firefang.
The common room was quite warm with so many people packed inside it, so Godric and Helga slipped out into the inn yard. Some benches had been moved outside, and logs for sitting were drawn up by the roaring fire. Godric found Alfred gambling over a game of knuckle bones. Alfred stood up, and was introduced to Helga. They found a bench, happily took cups of mead from a passing serving maid, and sat down together.
“I could hear you singing from out here mistress,” Alfred said to Helga, “And such a sweet voice I never heard! And was that you scraping on the harp young master?” He thumped Godric genially on the shoulder. “So they did teach you more than hacking and slashing away there in the big city! Is that the Ballad of Æthelrand and Firefang? It’s a good story, but I’ve heard it often, and if you stay here long enough you will too. Æthelrand has his bard compose a ballad about his deeds for every festival.”
“Is Æthelrand so heroic as all that?” Helga asked.
“He certainly likes to think he is. Did you see the clerk riding in with him? He keeps a clerk with him at all times, not to record tribute or debts, but to write down everything he says, for posterity you know.”
Godric snorted. Remarking one’s deeds in song was common enough among those who could manage it, and did deeds worth immortalizing, but Godric knew self-aggrandizement when he saw it, and it didn’t predispose him to like the magical lord any better.
When the ballad was ended, serving maids began to circulate with platters of food: fish pie, cups of venison stew, fresh bread, pasties filled with wild boar, bowls of nuts, and apples roasted with honey. The platters eventually made their way outside, and the young boys, who’d been rolling around in imitation of adult wrestling matches, stopped to gorge themselves.
Helga looked on with approval as Aidan stuffed an entire pasty into his mouth. “It’s so good to see them laughing with other children,” she said. “Aidan misses his parents, and Cadogan, well I don’t think he’s ever had a proper home. Being on the road has been hard, on all of us I suppose. Children should have a home though, a safe home.” Her eyes clouded, she, who now had no home.
Godric put a hand over hers. “Alfred here got me thinking about what we’ll do once we’ve taken Odo back to the place that he knew as a lad.”
“And what did you think?” Helga asked, comforted somewhat by his use of the word “we.”
“Well, I didn’t have a chance to get very far before a harp was thrust into my hands.”
“But why would you not come back here?” Alfred asked, as though this should have been obvious. “This is a place where you don’t have to live in hiding, and Godric it’s practically your home. I gather mistress that your home is no longer yours.”
Helga felt a twist in her guts. “I don’t know what’s become of my home. I had powerful enchantments on it when I lived there, but now that I’m gone, and Sussex has been overrun, I don’t know. I suppose I have no home.”
Her cup was empty, and Alfred held his out toward her. “Drink,” he said authoritatively. “This is a night to be merry. The lord has arranged all of this to raise our spirits, and his own most of all. He will face grave danger tomorrow, but tonight he’ll drink, dance and…, and so should we all.”
She took his cup and drained it, grateful for his cheery warmth.
The music indoors was once more lively, and the floor was thick with dancers. Emmeline was dancing with Edwina and Aunt Rumie. Rumie was an enthusiastic dancer, but moved in a jerky, ecstatic way, flinging herself around to the peril of all near her. Edwina was clearly used to this, and kept a safe distance, and Emmeline laughed as she watched. She had rarely seen women so free of constraint. Men were one thing, they drank, and diced, and generally seemed to take what suited them when they could, but in her experience, women moved within strict boundaries: not here though, it seemed.
After a time, the three of them moved away to a bench along the wall. Emmeline noticed that even as they sat side by side, Edwina and Rumie held hands. It was common enough for women to clasp hands in a dance, or for girls to hold hands with affection. There was something subtly different between Rumie and Edwina, but she didn’t know what it was. Rumie was gazing as though entranced by the dancers, and Edwina and Emmeline leaned across her to talk about the winged horses.
Rowena and Salazar were once more seated on a bench near the kitchen. It was a little less chaotic there, despite the constant flow of servers carrying trays of food and drink. Rowena was watching Helga and Godric as they danced together. “Helga dances so easily,” Rowena said a little enviously.
Salazar shrugged. “I suppose so. She’s a very merry sort. She and Godric suit one another well don’t you think?”
“yes. They’re both so…, so alive.”
“If somewhat frivolous?”
“Perhaps sometimes, but I love them both none-the-less.” Salazar raised an eyebrow at her. “You know what I mean,” she said, and reached shyly for his hand on the bench under the cover of her spreading skirt.
“I do,” he said close to her ear, and smiled the smile so few ever saw. “Emmeline seems to like it here.”
Rowena followed his gaze, to where Emmeline and Celina danced. “It’s well I suppose, though I’m not sure Celina is a good role model for a young woman.”
Salazar laughed. “I think you just don’t like Celina, or Emmeline either.”
“I don’t dislike Emmeline, I just can’t understand her, and I don’t trust her.”
“Oh? She makes perfect sense to me. We understand one another well. She’s alone in the world, and has learned to take care of herself.”
“Do you think she’s…, virtuous?”
Salazar threw back his head and laughed his rich belly laugh. “Oh Rowena! Virtuous? What is virtue, especially to such as us?”
“That’s doubtless the sort of wisdom she’ll learn from the werewolf.”
“She’s very good with the horses, almost as good as Cadogan. I saw the boys out in the inn yard playing magic throwing games with some of the village lads. Cadogan can scarcely keep his feet under him, but he has reasonable skill with magic.”
“Did you see Æthelrand’s banner?”
“I did. I thought it quite striking. I didn’t care much for the owl of course, but I liked the silver and the green.”
“Your device would be the snake,” They smiled into one anothers’ eyes.
Helga and Godric took a break from dancing. She wanted to go outside to cool off, and to see what the boys were up to. Celina was dancing with Alfred and Aunt Rumie, and to his surprise, Godric saw Æthelrand sitting alone on a bench watching the crowd. Æthelrand had been an unavoidable presence all evening, talking loudly, laughing uproariously, dancing with Celina, eating heartily, and drinking deep. Godric wanted to dislike him. Naturally charismatic himself, he generally disapproved of men who made a show of themselves, and Æthelrand’s air of familiarity toward Celina was an irritant, no matter what he told himself. Nevertheless, Æthelrand possessed an undeniable force of personality, and Godric couldn’t help feeling curious. Casually, he made his way over, and sat down beside the nobleman.
Æthelrand perceived him from beneath half closed lids. “And are you enjoying yourself young Godric?”
“If I am, I’m in good company, Godric replied noncommittally. “You’ve certainly given your people quite a feast.”
“They deserve it. They’re good people, and I’ve let this chimaera business go on too long.” From across the room, Alfred looked over at them. Æthelrand smiled broadly, raised his cup to his lips and tipped it back. When Alfred looked back to Celina, Æthelrand held out his cup to Godric. “Here,” he said evenly. “Drink this. I’ve been using an emptying spell all night, but I’m afraid it will be noticed.”
Bemused but willing, Godric took the cup and drained it. Then he stared hard at Æthelrand. Now that he stopped to notice, Æthelrand looked remarkably sober for a man who’d been conspicuously drinking all night. “You’re not drunk,” he said accusingly.
“No, I’m not,” Æthelrand replied pleasantly. “I here you’re a fighting man. Do you get stumbling drunk the night before battle?”
Godric considered this. “Sometimes, but I suppose not the night before a single combat. I wouldn’t say no to a deep draft in the morning though.”
Æthelrand smiled. “Ever fought a chimaera before?”
“Merlin’s beard no! I doubt many have, at least few that still live.” He recognized the tactlessness of this answer after he’d spoken it, but Æthelrand merely nodded.
“Just so,” Æthelrand said without resentment. “I choose to keep my senses acute and my wits about me this night. His eyes lingered on Celina. Godric felt a familiar heat rising in his belly, but then he had another look at Æthelrand’s expression. Seen out of the center of things, his bluster was gone, replaced by a look of resignation. Unwillingly, Godric felt a stab of sympathy. Fighting a chimaera was no joke, and Æthelrand was facing it with admirable courage.
“Is she your woman?” Æthelrand asked, startling him.
Before he’d sat down here, Godric would have been offended by the question, but he valued courage above all, and seeing it in Æthelrand, he couldn’t muster anything but laughter. “My woman? You don’t know her as well as it looks if you can ask me that. She’s no body’s woman!”
Æthelrand laughed too, the most genuine sounding laugh Godric had yet heard from him. “Well, I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t a claim. I dare say she’ll have the chance to refuse me this night.”
Watching Celina dancing energetically, Godric felt fairly sure he knew what the result of that bid would be, and to his surprise, the expected stab of jealousy didn’t come. If this was to be Æthelrand’s last night in this world, Godric couldn’t think of a better way for him to spend it. “Do you fear you will not prevail tomorrow?”
“Of course, But every man has to go sometime, and I can think of few ways more glorious. Oh, I wish I could hear the odes the bards will make of it. Tell me, what will happen when William’s army begins to move north and west, as they must certainly be doing already?”
Godric heard the serious note in Æthelrand’s voice, and began to understand that there was more here than he’d realized. He thought carefully, then said, “England has no more army. Those not killed fighting at Stanford Bridge were killed in Sussex. There will surely be some resistance, but William is ruthless and determined. The Normans know how to effectively occupy conquered territory. They tend to leave the common folk more-or-less alone when it comes to daily life and social order, except of course for looting of supplies, and the sorts of things all soldiers do. Normans rule by cutting the head off. They will depose the nobles, take the strong places, install their own in positions of power.”
Æthelrand nodded, as though Godric’s words had only confirmed what he already knew. “I want my folk here to be safe, but there’s nothing I can do to protect them. If what you say is true, they might be better off without me. There are protective enchantments around this village and my manner house, but that’s a lot of ground and a lot of people to hide. When these lands are confiscated, I don’t know what will happen here. From what you say, not much, so long as I’m not here to try to defend them.”
Godric was following this slowly, and coming to his own conclusions about Æthelrand’s fatalism regarding the battle with the chimaera. “I will fight at your side if you wish it,” he said, knowing no other complement to pay.
“That is well meant, but I must face the chimaera alone. If I fail though…, these are good people; they deserve a good leader.”
Alfred was making his way across the room toward them. As he got closer, Godric saw the subtle shift of bearing and expression, as Æthelrand once more assumed his bombastic guise. “Did I not see the two of you arm wrestling earlier? I think Godric bested you Alfred. I’ll wager this gold coin that it’s your turn to triumph.” He had spoken loudly, and many around heard, and began cheering, and making wagers of their own.
Helga had come in, and was sitting companionably with Rowena and Emmeline. She was light-heartedly teasing Rowena, trying to get her to come dance. “If Godric loses,” she said playfully, “I’ll let it alone, but if he wins, then you’ll come dance with us.” Rowena lifted her cup of mead, drank, then nodded gravely.
The musicians played on, and the dancers spun and stomped, as Godric and Alfred positioned themselves across a table. The combat was fierce and prolonged. There was much cheering and whooping, until finally Godric forced Alfred’s hand down to the table, and sat back, his brow shiny with sweat. Those watchers who had bet on him exploded with cheers and applause, and Helga jumped to her feet.
“Come!” She cried joyfully, “Come and dance!” Half reluctantly, half eagerly, Rowena rose, letting Helga lead her by the hand into the cleared space. Her head buzzed and spun pleasantly with mead, and she felt a swell of affection for Helga, as her body began to respond to the music.
Alfred and Godric retrieved fresh cups from a tray, and drained them. “Sorry about the gold coin,” Godric said with insincere regret.
“That’s all right,” Alfred replied genially, “Eldwin there, he’s the carpenter, he owes me. He’s been putting me off, but Æthelrand will dispense justice here day after tomorrow, and he’ll rule in my favour. I’ll be in fine state in a few days.”
“Dispense justice,” Godric said in some surprise. Æthelrand was so flamboyant, and so pragmatic about his upcoming battle, that Godric hadn’t thought about his other duties as lord.
“Oh aye, he comes once or twice a season to hear cases and decide. He’s fair and reasonably wise; folk abide by his rulings willingly enough. Your Helga is a sweet dancer, and I see she’s even got your friend with the broomstick up her backside up off the bench.”
Godric looked over and saw Helga and Rowena dancing. Rowena did look rather stiff, and Godric laughed. “It’s true Rowena is not light of heart, but I love her as a sister.”
“And mistress Helga, is she your sister too?”
Godric thumped him on the shoulder, and said heartily, “Not on your life man!”
Rowena felt completely absorbed by the music and the dance, but suddenly and unexpectedly, she was reminded of the last time they’d amused themselves so. Unable to stop herself, she leaned close to Helga and said, with drunken intensity, “I can’t forget Samhane. We danced, and the musicians played….”
Helga caught her breath, then shook her head. “Think not of that,” she said firmly. She herself, with the emotional force that accompanies drink, had successfully fought off memories of the night before the battle in Sussex, spent singing and keeping close in her cottage. “Where is Salazar? He and Emmeline must join us, and Godric, and Celina, and Alfred.”
The wings of the specters of the night of Samhain touched Helga too, and she strove to fend them off with movement, and the presence of friends, old and new. She looked around, catching the eyes of each of the people she sought, and beckoning them urgently. Something in her intense expression spoke to them, and they all came, even Æthelrand.
In a circle, they danced, old friends and new. Hands clapped, feet stomped, eyes smiled, lips parted, mead poured, ale flowed. In that powerful but elusive comradeship, they had no past and no future, only the vibrant, harmonious present, and the closeness of those they loved.