Nobody was up at dawn. The lucky ones had space upstairs; everyone else either stumbled home, or found space in the common room.
Emmeline was awake and building up the fire in the kitchen when Helga stumbled in through the back door. “Good morning,” Emmeline said in some confusion, “I thought you were upstairs.” Helga looked puzzled. “The red sash,” Emmeline explained, “It was tied on the outside of the door.”
Helga made a silent “Oh” of astonishment, and shook her head. “I too saw the sash. I thought it was you who’d…. It wasn’t?”
“No. I spent the night on the settle. It looks like you spent the night in the barn.”
Helga reached up and pulled bits of straw from her hair. Her colour deepened. “Well, I did. If it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t me…,” Their eyes met.
In a fair imitation of Rowena’s austere tone, Emmeline said, “I don’t think that will be necessary here.” They burst out laughing.
Helga’s first act was to begin brewing a restorative potion to treat headache. She used the largest caldron. Slowly, they got things going for breakfast, helped by some of the serving maids who drifted drowsily in from the common room. One of the maids put a goblet of potion and a few boiled eggs on a tray to carry up to the chamber where Æthelrand slept. Helga took Aidan and Cadogan in hand, pushing them by force outside to go milk the goats, and bidding them to do it quietly.
Some of those in the common room drifted back to their own homes to await the signal that Æthelrand was ready to do battle. Others remained, and shared the breakfast. Salazar and Rowena slunk quietly and separately down the stairs, obviously hoping to avoid detection. It was quite a bit later before Celina came down. The potion had done its work. She was clear-eyed, and though her dress was the sensible clothing of everyday, she wore a jeweled necklace none had seen before.
It was some time later when Æthelrand himself appeared. He too looked none-the-worse for a late night. He was dressed in a wizard’s robe of blood red, and wore his sword conspicuously at his side. There was a stir of excitement when he appeared. Godric, coming in from the inn yard, saw, and no longer grudged Æthelrand his showmanship. Æthelrand stood surveying the room, and smiling confidently.
“Today’s the day!” He exclaimed, as though announcing the arrival of a carnival. “It’s never too late to stay abed a while, no need for noble deeds to be carried out at sunrise eh? Nobility can be found in every hour of the day if we but know where to look.” He turned to his clerk. “Did you get that?” The clerk nodded, scribbling eagerly with his quill. Æthelrand sighed with satisfaction. “Is that ham I smell?”
The broadest outline of Æthelrand’s plan was known to all. At his signal, everyone who wished to watch the battle, which meant everyone in the village, was to depart, walking around the lake to a rise of ground. Æthelrand, travelling alone, would start off in the other direction, to a place where the lake was overhung by a tall cliff. The two vantage points were across the lake from one another, hopefully ensuring the safety of the spectators, while at the same time offering them a clear view of the combat. No one knew exactly what Æthelrand was planning, but before they all departed, Godric got a preview.
He had once more offered to accompany Æthelrand, impressed anew by the lord’s courage in the face of such danger. Æthelrand had once more refused, but had asked him to help prepare. Given what Æthelrand was about to face, there was no room in Godric’s heart for petty judgments about personal style, and he took the offer for the honor it was. As he helped Æthelrand with his leathers and ringmail, Æthelrand sketched his plan of attack.
“The key is the scarlet sheep,” Æthelrand explained.
“The scarlet sheep. The chimaera can’t resist them; it goes for them every time.”
“Some years ago, Brumhilda acquired a vial of insect eggs from the east, renowned both for their magical uses, as well as their uses in dying, to produce a remarkable scarlet colour. I don’t know what Rumie meant to do with the eggs, and she won’t tell anyone what actually happened, but the following season, several lambs were born with the most extraordinary scarlet wool. Edwina saw the potential right away, and began breeding carefully, until there were quite a few scarlet sheep wandering around. It pleased the women no end to have such vivid colour without having to work for it, and it became quite valuable as a trade item.
‘No one knew the trouble it would bring down on us. We didn’t put the pieces together right away, but eventually, after the chimaera had injured or killed beast and human alike, it was noticed that, while it would grab any game available, if there was a scarlet sheep in the herd, that was always the first to go. We tried to separate out all the scarlet sheep and drive them into cover, but the chimaera won’t leave us alone.
‘My plan is really quite simple. I’m going to lure the chimaera with a scarlet sheep, which I’m sure would be pleased to give its life in the cause of saving our village, if it was given the choice. There’s a narrow strip of land at the bottom of the cliff. If my plan works, the chimaera will go for the sheep, ignoring me at the top. There’s good cover up there, and anyway, chimaeras are so vicious and bloodthirsty, that a fresh kill will be enough distraction. The chimaera will be both below me, and near water. If my aim is true, this spear will injure it mortally. It’s impossible to kill a chimaera with one blow, but if I can immobilize it long enough, and keep it near water to give some protection from its breath if things go badly, I think that a combination of arrows, and my sword if I can get down that cliff fast enough, might finish the job. It’s all about timing”
Godric stood, Æthelrand’s mail shirt in his hands, and gaped. Accomplished fighter though he considered himself to be, he couldn’t come up with any plan of attack against a fire-breathing monster that sounded any more credible than the one he’d just heard.
When Æthelrand was at last ready, he looked fearsome even to Godric. High quality, well-tended mail worn by a brave fighter couldn’t help but look well, Godric thought, and Æthelrand fairly bristled with weapons. Besides his sword and wand, he carried three spears, a throwing ax, and a bow with a quiver full of arrows.
The air rang with cheers and shouts as Æthelrand appeared before the assembled crowd. Helga and Celina stood side-by-side. When Æthelrand looked at her, Celina smiled confidently back, but Helga felt her trembling. Æthelrand jumped onto the mounting block beside his horse, and turned to address the crowd, checking first to make sure that his clark was ready, quill poised.
It was a good speech. Æthelrand was a man who knew how to speak to a crowd. If his manner was somewhat overbearing in the common room of an inn, it was perfectly suited to addressing his people, on his way to single combat with a fearsome magical creature.
“And if I come not back, as unlikely as that sounds, I urge you to maintain our isolation from the muggle world. Their world is changing in many ways, and it grows less and less a place where folk such as we, can live freely. I have no heir, so I bid you choose a leader from among yourselves, one who balances strength with wisdom.
‘But I say these things only because I must. The truth, as we all know, is that we will all enjoy a feast this night even more wild than the one of last night. Now off all of you, to the greatest spectacle you’ll ever witness!”
The crowd loved it. They cheered and stomped, egging Æthelrand on as he mounted his horse. His banner bearer rode beside him, Æthelrand’s device of the silver owl on a green background spreading in the brisk wind. The bearer was ordered to turn back once the crowd was out of sight, but Æthelrand wouldn’t consider setting off to combat without him.
The mood of the crowd was celebratory. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that Æthelrand might fail. Godric, who had considerably more fighting experience than any of them, held his peace. The crowd made its way around the curving shore of the lake, and up the rise of ground Æthelrand had indicated. From here, they looked down on the peninsula the travelers had arrived on, and across to the cliff, on the other side of the lake. The cliff wasn’t quite sheer, though even at this distance, it seemed barely possible that a lucky and sure-footed person might make it down at need. The top was dotted with shrubbery and trees, and the bottom sported a small bit of beach. There was no sign of Æthelrand or the chimaera thus far, and the villagers huddled in their cloaks, passing around flasks to keep the chill out.
After they’d begun to get really cold, Æthelrand finally appeared on the narrow strip of beach, a newly killed scarlet sheep hovering before him. With his wand, he lowered it to the ground. Wild cheering greeted his appearance, and continued as he began to make his painstaking way up the cliff. All looked on in admiration as he climbed, slowly, but methodically. Godric couldn’t bring himself to cheer, for he knew that this might be the most dangerous moment. If the chimaera was close and spotted the sheep too soon, Æthelrand would be a sitting, or climbing, duck: unable to defend himself.
Luck, if one could call it that, was with Æthelrand. He made it to the top of the cliff, and reached concealment behind a dense mass of shrubbery. He had been careful to trail the maximum amount of fresh blood around once he’d reached the beach, and the wind proved to be from the right direction. Before much longer, a hideous creature came into sight.
The first indication of its approach was its fiery breath. It was coming from the left of the cliff, from the perspective of the watchers. It emerged from some trees onto the narrow strip of beach, and was fully visible, in all its grotesque improbability.
Seen from the front, the first impression might have been of a lion, for it had a lion’s face and mane. The spectators saw it in profile however, and many gasped and cried out in shock and horror, for the beast across the lake looked like something out of nightmare, or something constructed by a powerful magician with demons in his head. It looked as though the creature had been cobbled together by a madman with extraordinary powers and a fearful imagination, or else that it was a creature who had more than once tried and failed to transform itself from one thing into another. The lion’s head wasn’t complete. Seen from the back, the head would have looked like that of a goat. In profile, the transition was disturbing to both eye and mind. The body was that of a goat also, but toward the hind quarters, it transformed again, this time into the scaly body and powerful tail of a dragon. The chimaera stopped, sniffing the air, so all were able to truly take it in. Griffins or winged horses were noble and magical looking creatures; the chimaera looked like a ghastly mistake, or a malevolent apparition. It was large. Its body rippled with muscle, its forelimbs ended in brutal lion’s claws, and its breath sent flames fanning in the capricious wind.
The mood of celebration died instantly at sight of the beast. As it stood sniffing the air and looking around, the crowd collectively held its breath, then the creature sprang forward, and everything began happening quickly.
Its reputation for viciousness was well-earned. Even though the sheep was dead, the chimaera fell on it and began tearing it to shreds for sheer savagery. This was Æthelrand’s chance. He leapt forward from his concealment, spear at the ready. There was no sound from the crowd as he took careful aim, and lobbed his spear downward. At first it looked as though the spear might have accomplished something, but at the last instant, the chimaera moved its head, shaking it back and forth like a rabid dog with its prey. Æthelrand had been aiming for the junction of neck and shoulder, but the spear fell harmlessly to the creature’s side, unnoticed by the beast.
Undaunted, Æthelrand took aim with his second spear, but the chimaera was moving too much, and the second did no more good than the first. The third grazed its shoulder, but did more harm than good, as it caused the beast to look up. It spotted Æthelrand standing on the edge of the cliff, and it bellowed with fury, actually lifting its front feet off the ground in rage. It opened its mouth in a fearsome roar, and looked as though it would have liked nothing better than to launch itself into the air and pluck Æthelrand off the cliff like an unwary sparrow snapped up by a cat.
Æthelrand moved like lightning. Instantly, he had an arrow on the string. He loosed it. He’d been aiming for the eye, but the arrow got caught in the chimaera’s fiery breath, disintegrated into ash, and fell unnoticed into its mouth. Æthelrand restrung his bow so fast his movements were a blur. He let fly. The watchers saw the arrow in flight, and then it was gone, following the first, to be swallowed like a bug. In a flash, Æthelrand had his throwing ax in his hand. Bracing his feet, he swung it back two-handed, and launched it down toward the beasts head, but once more, he was thwarted. The chimaera was a constantly moving target.
Godric felt his body tense in sympathy as he saw Æthelrand draw his sword: his only remaining weapon. “He should have kept one of his spears!” Godric snarled between his teeth, knowing well how easy it is to strategize when you were only watching combat, not participating in it. His own sword arm tensed with the need for action, the absurd certainty that, in Æthelrand’s place, he could triumph. There was nothing for him to do though but watch.
The chimaera was in a frenzy because of the wound on its shoulder, and because its mind, like its body, was a chaotic abomination. It could see Æthelrand, and wanted nothing more than to reach him, and tare him limb from limb. It actually began trying to climb the cliff toward him, and given its various physical attributes, it was doing a fair job. Æthelrand was looking for the safest way to begin a descent, but his eye was caught by rocks and boulders strewn about the landscape. Desperate for any tactic to slow the beast down, he began kicking large and small stones off the cliff’s edge. The fiery breath was getting slowly nearer, and he didn’t know what he was going to do when it got too close.
The stones and small boulders began having an effect. Some of the larger and more well aimed ones occasionally kicked a foreleg out from under it, or struck its torso with an impact that made it stumble. Æthelrand was choosing his path downward with extreme care. He needed to ensure safe footing, but he also had to keep upwind of the chimaera’s breath if he could. Just before the worst part of his descent, he came on a likely looking boulder: small enough to be lobbed by a strong man, but large enough to do some real harm. He laid down his sword, picked up the boulder with both hands, took careful aim, and launched it into the air, straight down toward the chimaera’s head.
This time his aim was true. The boulder struck the side of the lion head, and the beast bellowed as it stumbled and fell, sliding back down the Cliff side. Æthelrand was after it in a flash, his sword back in his hand, heartened by his first real success. He was sure-footed as a mountain goat. He stepped quickly and lightly, maintaining perfect balance. He held his sword aloft as he slid down the last slope, letting out a yell that sounded, from across the water, like exultation. The chimaera lay on its side, stunned by the blow to its head. Æthelrand circled it like a panther, getting upwind, and close to the creature’s neck, ready for the killing blow.
Then, as sometimes happens in combat, luck turned. The fretful wind changed, and a large tongue of flame was blown across Æthelrand’s unprotected lower legs. Æthelrand leapt back, distracted by the appalling pain. In that instant, the chimaera stirred, shook its head, then bounded to its feet with astonishing speed. Almost too quickly to be seen, it lifted its front claw towards Æthelrand’s helmet. What followed was savage, but mercifully brief. What was left got kicked dismissively into the lake by the chimaera, before it galloped back into the trees, the way it had come.
The crowd at the top of the low hill stood in shocked silence for a moment, and then a chorus of wailing, sobbing, moaning and shouts broke out. Godric couldn’t bear it. Feeling sick, he slunk away. In the centre of the crowd, Celina shook from head to foot, as tears rolled down her cheeks. Helga put her arms around the other woman. She herself felt little grief, not having known the man, but the horror shook her too, and she could only be grateful that such a fate hadn’t befallen someone she loved. Aidan and Cadogan were in a huddle of boys from the village, all of them looking simultaneously frightened and excited. They jabbered almost incoherently to one another about what they’d just seen. Emmeline, Rowena and Salazar stood close together, grim-faced, and silent.
That night, the common room was once again full, but this time there was no music, and almost no conversation. There was no cheerful fire in the inn yard. All huddled inside, needing the reassurance and warmth of human contact. More ale and mead flowed, but with no joy. Celina sat in a corner, taking no part in sharing out food or drink, and talking to no one. Helga stayed beside her mostly, but sometimes went off to check on the younger ones. Aidan and Cadogan didn’t come to her as they had done after the battle in Sussex. They were growing up she supposed, but she still fretted for them. She found them sticking close to Godric and Salazar, who were drinking with Alfred. She sighed inwardly. She supposed that it was the company of men the boys needed now, not the comforting of women. Emmeline was sitting with Rumie and Edwina, all looking stunned by the day’s events.
“It was bad luck,” Alfred was saying in a low, despairing tone. “Victory was in his grasp, but the wind changed just at the wrong time.”
Godric gave a sigh that came up by the roots. “He was a brave man. To face a chimaera in single combat, I’ve never heard of such a thing, and he showed no fear. I can still see him coming down to the bottom of the cliff, his sword raised.” He stopped talking suddenly, and buried his face in his goblet. “Luck,” he concluded firmly, “Sometimes all the bravery and skill in the world just aren’t enough.”
In the days that followed, life continued in its comforting familiarity of necessary work, and the rhythms of ordinary tasks. Animals must be tended, wool spun, cloth made, firewood chopped, buildings maintained, children looked after, and food prepared. The first shock of Æthelrand’s defeat faded. However, the village was overhung by the twin facts that the chimaera was still at large, and that they now had no lord to dispense justice, or oversee the village and its relationship to the outside world.
Emmeline, Salazar and Edwina were absorbed with training the winged horses. This continued to go well. At intervals, they would bring Helga, Godric, Rowena, Aidan and Cadogan to train as well, so that the mounts they would eventually take away north with them, had a chance to grow accustomed to them. Cadogan continued to do so well at this that Edwina kept him on to work with other horses too.
When she wasn’t training, Emmeline began to spend more and more of her time at Rumie and Edwina’s cottage. She felt comfortable there, and was intrigued. She had showed little interest in Helga’s work of healing and potion making, but Aunt Rumie’s experiments fascinated her. Being around the two women gave Emmeline an intoxicating sense of limitless possibilities opening up before her. It seemed to her that, before the battle in Sussex, her life had been hemmed around with rules, constraints, and subtle dangers. Since meeting Salazar and the others, the sense of subtle dangers had retreated, but there had been nothing like safety or freedom.
Helga fit herself easily into the life of the village. She shared the work of the inn with Celina, and joined naturally into the communal work of the women. She couldn’t help admiring the scarlet wool from Rumie’s sheep, and was making gowns and cloaks for herself and Rowena.
Rowena, who admitted freely that she had no hand for such work, tried to make herself useful by rounding up what books were to be found in the village, and combining them with her own two, in order to devise a curriculum of study for the village’s children. This almost universally depressed the children at first, but many parents saw the value in it, and eventually, some of the children did too. They gathered in the common room each morning, and Rowena began teaching them first reading, then other elements of magical lore. She had little liking for healing, or for the women’s pursuits that Helga entered into cheerfully. In teaching, she recaptured the sense of meaningful and fulfilling work she had first discovered in teaching Aidan, and then Helga and Salazar.
Salazar would sometimes join her in this when the weather was too bad for flying. Many of the boys, and some of the girls, seemed to relate better to him, and take his authority more seriously. She felt an immense, quiet pride watching him tutor a student in reading or pronunciation, remembering that it had been she who first showed him the value of the written word.
Godric, it seemed, was everywhere. As a former soldier, he was much in demand among the men when it came to deconstructing Æthelrand’s battle with the chimaera. As a healthy man with a strong back and powerful magic, he was asked to help with the heavy work. The men also wanted to talk with him about what they should do next. Godric had some ideas, but he wasn’t ready to share them yet, so evaded answering. As a man who’d lived in the wider world, but who was a wizard, and known to some of them from childhood, he began to be someone to whom folk brought other problems.
In their third week in the village, Alfred said to him, “There is no one now to hear disputes or dispense justice. Many matters were left unsettled when Æthelrand died. He has no heir. You should sit in his place.”
Godric was aghast, then laughed. “I? What nonsense is this? I’m no lord!”
“I’m not saying you are, but although you can’t count past 20 with your britches on, you have had more experience than many, and folk here trust you to be fair. Because you’ve been away so long, you’re not partial.”
“I don’t know what flask you’ve been drinking from, but pass it over.” Thus, Godric dismissed Alfred’s suggestion out of hand, but the idea continued to linger in his mind despite himself.
Helga was sitting by the fire in the common room, a spindle in midair beside her, creating an even scarlet yarn, which wound itself into a basket on the floor. She watched as the children, freed from the morning’s lesson, leapt up and made a dash for the door. Aidan and Cadogan were lost in the trampling hoard of village boys as they burst out into the inn yard.
As Rowena gathered up books and quills, Helga said, “I see Emmeline no longer attends your lessons.”
“No, when she’s not flying, she’s busy peering into Brumhilda’s caldron.”
Helga frowned, and made a low grumble of disapproval.
Rowena looked up in surprise. “I’d have thought you glad. That woman is a healer is she not? Wouldn’t you be happy for Emmeline to study such matters? It’s better for her than picking up the strange ways of the werewolf.” Rowena looked around a little guiltily, but, as so often since Æthelrand’s death, Celina had gone off on her own, and not for the full moon.
“I don’t think you should call her that.”
“Well, why not?” Rowena asked a little defiantly. “That’s what she is.”
Helga’s mouth turned down at the corners. “I know, but she’s Celina first, a kind woman, who happens to be a werewolf, an unconventional woman, a woman with some odd habits and strange ways….”
“You mistrust her too.”
“No I don’t,” Helga replied defiantly, but her cheeks flushed a little. “Well, I trust her to be a better role model than Aunt Rumie.”
“I don’t understand you, or not entirely. I think perhaps you fear Celina will seek Godric as a cure for her grief, that I understand, but how could you think the company of a healer worse for Emmeline than that of a werewolf?”
Helga’s shoulders sagged. “You’re right of course my sister; you see me more clearly than I see myself. I suppose I am worried that Celina will seek…, comfort from Godric, but I don’t blame Celina for that. She is an unusual person, but I don’t think she’ll try to turn Emmeline into a werewolf. I do worry that spending too much time with Rumie might turn Emmeline into something almost as dangerous.”
“What ever do you mean by that?”
Helga sighed. “I know Rumie is a healer, but I sometimes think she’s only a healer by accident. If she was more ambitious, I might think her an alchemist. She has the ruthless curiosity, the careless need to know. Such people can be dangerous, because they will stretch what is known and what can be done, with no thought to the consequences.” Helga thought privately that Rowena should understand this, having something of the same inclination herself.
Rowena seemed to sense her thought however, and said without resentment, “You think of me in the same way.”
“No!” Helga exclaimed. “You have the curiosity, but not the mischief.”
Rowena smiled. “And you see me just as clearly sister.”