Helga and Salazar questioned Rowena excitedly about her water spell. “It would have been a lot more effective if I’d been able to carry it off sooner,” she said a little grimly.
“That was impressive magic, Godric said. You figured it out just in time for Salazar eh? And is there something you’d like to tell us about that raven?”
“I wouldn’t know what to say: it comes, but I don’t know….”
“I know how you feel!” Godric expostulated. He stopped, causing them all to stop too. Everyone else had departed for the inn, and a riotous celebration, and they trailed behind.
Godric looked suddenly serious. “What does it mean? The raven, the griffin, the dragon, why?”
The others looked back unflinchingly.
“It is our fate,” Salazar said simply. “It’s as I said before. The four of us have a great destiny, I know it. Look what we have done here. Who can say they’ve killed a chimaera? And it’s not just this. You know we are…, special.”
Slowly, solemnly, they each nodded. “We should stop denying it, accept it.”
“What do you mean?” Helga asked.
“I don’t know yet. All I know is that we did something great here today.”
“Each of us,” Helga said smiling, “we each had something necessary to do. Perhaps you are right.” She shifted restlessly. “I want to get to the inn and help Rumie.”
They set off, once more talking excitedly about the battle. “I will tell Alfred,” Godric said with satisfaction, “The arrows were perfect; they seemed to practically aim themselves.”
“Your sword work on the ground Godric,” Rowena said in awe. “Well, I know nothing of sword work, but the way you were so light on your feet that the chimaera couldn’t touch you!”
“I know,” Godric said unselfconsciously. “I can barely understand it myself, but these things happen in combat sometimes, and you never really know why, just luck maybe.”
Salazar was not one who found working in the shadows uncomfortable. When it came to distributing honor however, the shadows didn’t suit him as well. If he’d let himself think about it much before hand, he would have said he’d meant to keep it to himself, but now, in the euphoria of victory, discretion seemed irrelevant.
“Lucky indeed,” He said, with an enigmatic smile that made them all turn to look at him. He grinned back, sure they’d praise him for his forethought. “Have none of you guessed? Helga, before we left, I drained that little caldron of yours into a vial, and I’ve carried it with us in case of dire need.”
There was a ringing silence, then Helga stepped menacingly forward, leaning in close to Salazar, and said, “Which caldron?” Instinctively, Rowena and Godric backed away.
“Your potion for liquid luck,” Salazar replied, his voice cracking slightly, though he tried to keep his expression bland. “If ever there was a time for a luck potion, surely it’s when you’re about to battle a chimaera.”
Helga raised her hand as though she would strike Salazar. Her face worked, as though several unpleasant statements were warring with one another to be spoken. Finally, she turned her back on him, and thundered off toward the inn. Salazar looked to Rowena for enlightenment, but her eyes were on Godric. He had his hand on his sword, and was beginning to draw it from its sheath.
“Godric,” she said calmly. “Do not dishonor this glorious victory by attacking an unarmed man.” That stopped him. His face was rigid with anger. He stared at Salazar. “Never speak to me again. Our friendship is ended. I warned you once, never to deal so with me again. The next time I find you prepared to defend yourself, I will show you how little I need your interference.” He too turned, and strode away.
Rowena approached Salazar. She was an undemonstrative woman, and so when she rested her hand on his arm, it broke through his stunned immobility. “Walk with me,” she said, and gestured away from the inn and the crowd. He followed. Reassured by movement, they didn’t speak until the sounds of celebration had been swallowed up by the trees. Finally, Salazar said, “Rowena, what just happened?”
Rowena sighed. “You know I’m not the best at understanding people, why they do what they do, or feel the way they feel. You must remember that Helga still grieves for Odo. She thinks his death her fault, the fault of her potion. She is afraid of her power. You know this.”
Salazar tried to understand, but couldn’t. “Does she think I stole the potion from her?”
“But she left it behind, with all the other things she left behind. Surely it isn’t steeling to take what someone has discarded? And Godric! I secured victory for him. He can have the glory too, but why should we not share it? Helga brewed the potion, I had the forethought to save and use it, and Godric defeated a chimaera and rode a griffin. Why is that cause for him to tell me our friendship is ended, and to swear vengeance on me?”
“I think it is his honor. He feels you choose for him.”
“If others around him manipulate events, he isn’t in control, and that’s what he cannot stand.”
“Salazar, you might have told him you had the potion and convinced him to take it.”
“Look what trouble it’s caused with victory in our hand. What do you think would have happened if I’d proposed that? Helga would have talked him out of it, and a lot more people would have been killed, maybe us.”
Helga’s anger was rare. Like a lightning fire in the woods, it came suddenly, burnt fiercely, then dissolved in the firebreak of her nature. Salazar was wrong to have done what he did, but he was Salazar, and he had only acted as his nature dictated, just as she did, in letting go of the edge of her anger against him. Godric was different. He was slow to anger, but once kindled, the emotion grew like a bonfire on Beltane, stoked with a will.
Godric moved his things into Alfred’s cottage. Helga avoided Salazar, spending the chilly days by the fire, working with the scarlet wool. Celina often joined her, and it made the work go faster. Salazar entered. He’d been avoiding Helga, but now he approached the hearth, something cupped in his hand. It was an immobile bird. He placed it delicately on the hearth stone, and crouched to inspect it.
“What have you there?” Celina asked.
“I think its still alive.”
Helga came to kneel beside him. “It’s a snow bird.”
“They come this far south in winter sometimes, but their home is the high north.” Salazar explained.
“Is this one injured?” Helga asked.
“I don’t think so, I think it was very wet, then got exposed to the wind. I think it’s half frozen.”
Helga reached out a light hand. The bird didn’t move. “Hmm, I hope so, pour thing.” She straightened, caught Salazar’s eye briefly, then looked away.
When she’d resumed her chair, Salazar said a little awkwardly, “The work with the horses is going well. They’re as ready as they’re going to get. I think we should prepare to leave soon.”
Helga swallowed. She wasn’t ever going to be a fan of flight. “Very well, when?”
“Four more days.”
“I’ll tell Godric.”
Emmeline stood, leaning against her winged horse. Edwina hadn’t had names for all of them, so Emmeline had called this one Plume. She liked running her fingers through the beautiful, vigorous feathers, and the horse seemed to like it too. Salazar approached, smiling, an act even more rare than usual these days. “You’ve done very well with him; that was an excellent flight.”
“We understand each other.” She rubbed her forehead a little against Plume’s neck. Something she couldn’t describe, even to herself, had happened as she and the horse started to trust and understand each other, and it had become the most important thing in her world.
“We’ll be leaving in four days. I have no worry about how you’ll handle this one.” He stroked the horse’s nose.
Emmeline took a deep breath. “I’m not going with you.”
Salazar withdrew his hand. “Why not?”
Emmeline shifted a little uncomfortably. “Why should I go with you? What’s the reason in it? You helped me, I know it, but we’re not…, I mean you helped me get away from a bad situation, but you’re not responsible for me. I like it here. I love the horses, and Aunt Rumie has said I can apprentice with her.”
“You’re not cut out to be a healer,” he said, rather unflatteringly.
“That’s kind of you to say,” she replied a bit sharply, “But it’s not only tending the sick you know. Rumie even knows things that druidess knew, and Rumie’s a…, well she’s not whatever that druidess was.”
Salazar smiled again. “You didn’t like her, did you?”
Emmeline shook her head. “She scared me, it’s like she wasn’t quite a person any more.”
“Hmm, extremely powerful witch though, you can’t deny that.” Salazar sighed. “It’s for you to choose whether to stay or come with us. I’ve like knowing you, but it’s wise for you to think of your future.”
“I always felt like you understand me better than anyone else even though you’re a man. You’re a really good teacher too; I’ve learned a lot from you.”
Godric was by the inn at least once a day for one thing or another, so Helga waited until he arrived to chop wood for Celina. He came into the common room to have a look at the leg of a table that had been broken in the raucous celebrations that followed the defeat of the chimaera. That had been an awkward evening for the travelers. They should have been jubilant, but the tensions between them had been impossible to ignore, though more than one tried, with some success, to drown them temporarily.
Rowena had just returned from milking, which she’d fervently hoped was an occupation consigned to the past. Seizing the moment, Helga said flatly, “It seems the horses are ready. We can leave in four days.”
Rowena merely nodded. Godric stood up. “Helga, I’m not coming with you. I cannot be within sight of Salazar and not want to…, I will not travel with him. I’m sorry Helga. Besides, I’m needed here. The village lost several men to the chimaera, not only in the last fight, but over the past months. Many have begged me to stay. I know that Salazar will protect you, and now that you have the winged horse’s, your journey will not be a long one.” Helga was speechless. “I’m going outside to chop wood,” he concluded, and left.
Celina took one look at Helga’s face, mumbled something about the bread, and retreated into the kitchen. After a time, Helga rose deliberately, put on her cloak, and went out. She sat on the mounting block, watching him: saying nothing. He was working at a furious pace. There was something oddly satisfying about watching the work, she could see why one might do it, especially if one was angry or….
He continued for quite a while. Finally, he stopped, exhausted. He dropped his ax, and collapsed onto a stray bench. “All right, just get it over with. Say what you’re going to say.”
She had meant to talk about debts of honor, but what she said was, “Godric, you’d leave me to go on alone?”
“Only to carry Odo home! Then you’ll come back here! At least I hope you will. We’re both needed here. Since they lost their lord, they look to me for solutions to their problems, to decide their disputes. Some are people I’ve grown up with. I’ve spent so much time trying to avoid the west country, but this is my home. We could make a good life here together. Will you come back?”
A tiny not of tension eased, but she said, “Godric, you swore an oath to Odo, and to us. I thought such things mattered to you.”
“You, who’ve so often dismissed my talk of honor, now you throw it in my face? How about this. I swear you an oath not to kill Salazar if he stays out of my sight. Now I cannot go with you, because I cannot share the road with him each day and not give him what he deserves.”
“Godric you talk like a brute. No one understands better than I do that Salazar did a terrible thing, but will u let that get in the way of the respect you owe to your word to Odo?”
“You don’t need me with you to carry him home. This was always more your obligation than mine. Mine now is to help here, and make a home for us.”
She knew he was right, she would be safe, and Odo had been her friend not his. Still, she felt betrayed and abandoned. As she rose from the mounting block, she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “You just like being lord. Perhaps you should find yourself a clerk.”
It was the night before their departure by the time Emmeline worked up the courage to come and see Helga. Salazar had told her of Emmeline’s decision to stay. Helga had been hurt not to hear it directly, and had not gone in search of her. She felt a kind of relief when Emmeline entered the inn common room, shaking rain from her cloak, and hanging it on a peg by the door.
“Come here by the fire where it’s warm,” Helga said, removing her work basket from a chair. Emmeline sat down, folding her hands in her lap like a disobedient child awaiting a rebuke.
Helga smiled sadly. “You needn’t look like that. The only thing I’d reproach you for is not telling me yourself.”
“I’m sorry. Salazar was there, and I just told him, and then I couldn’t make myself come here because…., you’ve been so kind to me, I didn’t want to disappoint you or…, or seem ungrateful or….” Her voice trailed off.
Helga let her squirm for a moment, then said kindly, but with a sigh, “Go on and tell me about it.”
Emmeline took a deep breath. “Some of it is what I told Salazar. You’ve all been kind to me, and I truly had nowhere to go with my mother dead. Even so, being the daughter of a laundry woman following an army, with no father or brother to protect you or to…, can you imagine such a life?”
Helga shook her head. In attempting to understand Emmeline’s aloofness, her guarded nature, Helga had tried. The girl had a watchfulness, a tendency to become tense at odd moments. Helga had tried, but she doubted she’d succeeded.
Emmeline shook her own head and gazed into the fire. “Well, maybe you can’t. In fact, you’re so sweet and good, I hope you can’t. But here, here it’s different. It’s not just because everyone has magic, at least I don’t think it is. I’ve never met women like Edwina, and Aunt Rumie, and Celina. They deal with men, they laugh with men, but they don’t fear men, and don’t seem to especially need them.“
“And does that seem a good thing to you?”
“Yes. I see how it is for you and Godric, or Salazar and Rowena, and maybe someday I’ll care about that, or want children, but I see here that you can live without them if you choose, and that maybe you can not be afraid of them. Odo was your friend and I know you’ve sworn an oath to carry him home, but what happens then? This is a good place for me.”
“Salazar tells me that Brumhilda has agreed to take you as an apprentice.”
“Yes. It’s really the horses I love, but I’m interested in what Rumie does too. It’s like she’s not afraid of anything.”
“hmm, that’s likely true enough.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I’ve come to believe that there are some things we should be afraid of. Just because a thing can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. Try to remember that. I hope you will be happy here.”
“But you are coming back are you not? Godric said you will!”
Helga made a face. “Godric does not speak for me. I know not what I will do.” The truth was that this place was appealing, but she was so angry at Godric for abandoning their quest, that she couldn’t think clearly about the future.
Rowena came down from where she’d been packing upstairs, and Celina joined them from the kitchen, where she’d been tidying after the evening meal. The four sat companionably by the fire, and when Helga proposed that they switch from the mild ale to the much stronger mead, no one objected. When the boys ran down the stairs with Salazar, it was to find the women laughing uproariously at a joke they refused to share.
Suddenly, it seemed to Helga that if she had to deal with one more male and their alien, barbarous ways, she would burst. She fixed the boys with a beady eye and said, “I think you should go spend the night at Alfred’s. We’re going to sit here and talk about childbirth and women’s ailments the entire evening. You want no part of that, do you?”
At the steely glint in her eye, the boys departed smartly, and Salazar discovered that he hadn’t quite finished his own packing after all, and retreated back up the stairs.
As the evening wore on, and they laughed and told stories, few of which had to do with childbirth, Helga felt an increasing sympathy for Emmeline’s choice. The world was a dangerous place, especially for women. This village was as likely a refuge as any, and probably safer than most.
Women made sense, Helga mused. Women were generally peaceful, reasonable, comprehensible. They cared for one another, for children, they gave life, and made life comfortable and good. Men fought, squabbled, were messy, disorderly, reckless, dangerous, and made the world into a place of violence. Looking at Emmeline’s flushed young face, more relaxed than she’d ever seen it, she hoped there would be peace here, for Emmeline at least, who, perhaps more than any of them, deserved it.
Helga was suddenly immensely tired of the world, of how men, who ran the world., did so with violence. It seemed the answer to all for them. They would fight to conquer, fight to defend, fight to protect, fight to take, and sometimes fight for no reason at all. Here was a village of all magic folk, where witches and wizards need not hide what they were. Where was the place where women were free to order the world as they would, where their children could grow in safety, and not have to learn how to fight?
Emmeline returned to Rumie and Edwina’s cottage that night, and didn’t come to see the travellers off in the morning. The rest of the village did, but Godric hung back. He bid a sincere farewell to Rowena and the boys, but Helga would only utter polite words, and stepped back when he would have embraced her. The boys were wild with excitement. Aidan was anxious to be on there way, because every wing beat would bring them closer to his mother, who he still maintained, waited for him in the north. Cadogan was eager for any excuse to take to the sky on his winged horse.
Salazar checked the load on the pack horse one last time. He had chosen the most docile of all the horses for this task, reasoning that in case of trouble, the horse would simply follow its fellows. Odo had been retrieved from his corner in Celina’s barn, and his basket secured on the horse’s rump. Their more conventional luggage was in saddle bags, which had had to be modified to accommodate the feathered wings.
Helga mounted. She was still ill-at-ease as a flier, and wasn’t looking forward to the days of flight ahead of them. She felt empty and angry leaving Godric behind, but it seemed to her now that her vow to carry Odo home was the only real and certain thing in a shifting and dangerous world. Her home was gone, her country taken by an invader, her…, no, she resolved, she wouldn’t think of Godric anymore. All there was left to do was fulfill her oath made to her oldest friend, who’d given his life in an honorable cause.
Rowena instructed the boys to cast the spell she had created, which they hoped would conceal them during flight. She watched closely as the boys raised their wands, and cried, “Cumulo Obscura!” She gave them a rare smile of approval, as they were blurred by a foggy, blue-white mist. It looked out of place on the ground, but she’d seen it from below, and was pleased with the results of her work. The adults cast the spell as well, and then they were up, the powerful wings beating strongly.
To her own surprise, Helga felt her mood lightening as they rose. Her mount was really quite reliable she told herself, just so long as she herself remained calm, and in control. The boys whooped with youthful high spirits as they flew, executing little swoops and turns, showing off. Despite how she’d felt mere moments before, it was good to be in the air, good to be on their way again.
Emmeline couldn’t concentrate on Rumie’s erratic lecture about the properties of rat spleens, and instead took herself off to the paddock. Plume galloped toward her, and they nuzzled one another affectionately. On impulse, Emmeline leapt onto Plume’s back, and they rose, circling the field lazily.
Her eye was caught by something startling. It was a pillar of smoke off to the south. There was far too much of it for a simple cooking fire, and she knew something was burning that shouldn’t be. Edwina had just left the ground on her favourite mare, and Emmeline called out to get her attention, gesturing meaningfully toward the smoke, rising on the still air. Emmeline saw Edwina grow stiff with alarm.
“It’s the manner house,” she called in alarm, and flew off, obviously intending to see what she could see. A few moments later she was coming back, urging her horse not toward the paddock, but toward the center of the village. She landed, dismounted, and ran for the forge, shouting for Godric.
“Soldiers!” She gasped, unable to catch her breath. “On the road, maybe two dozen or more, coming from the southeast, some mounted, some on foot. They’ve set fire to the manner house. They’re coming this way.”
Godric swore volubly. He didn’t think he’d ever been angrier with himself. He should have seen this coming, and prepared for it, but he hadn’t. He swore some more. “Go fetch Rumie!” He exclaimed, and ran to where Edwina had left her horse.
When Rumie came running, he said, “What protective enchantments are on this village?”
Rumie looked confused. “I don’t know exactly. Æthelrand consulted me about it, but he wouldn’t let me be involved with the casting. He said it was his duty to protect us. Whatever he did,” Rumie looked suddenly horrified. “Whatever he did is no longer in affect. A spell ends when its caster dies.”
Godric swore even louder. How could he have been so careless, so stupid? He gave rapid instructions to Rumie and Edwina. They were to gather those who had fought the chimaera, and send them toward the road, armed with everything they could lay hands on. The women, children, anyone who wouldn’t fight, should take to the woods with what valuables they could carry. Those who could, must fly the horses, either to battle, or to safety.
As he leapt onto the horse and urged it frantically into the air, he reviewed the litany of his failings. Distracted by Celina, by the flattery of being sought after, by his pride in defeating the chimaera, by his grudge against Salazar, he had failed in the most basic task he should have been concerning himself with. While he busied himself arm wrestling with Alfred, and settling petty disputes among the villagers, William’s army was moving systematically through the country, conquering as it went, and plundering where it chose. He knew how ruthless and efficient William’s forces were, and how vicious soldiers everywhere can be. He’d known all of this, and he hadn’t thought about it, hadn’t lifted a finger to prepare. And what of his friends? Were they safe away? They’d been headed north. Surely, they were long gone.
Helga’s high spirits persisted. Salazar suggested circling the village once or twice to settle the horses. He didn’t say so, but he was nervous about Helga. Her affinity for animals was equally balanced with her dislike of flying, and he was concerned that her anxiety would spook her horse, once they’d flown beyond its familiar territory. The others agreed with his suggestion, and they began a lazy circle that carried them vaguely southward.
“Look!” Cadogan called out excitedly, “Soldiers!” He was pointing toward the ground. They all looked down. Below them, looking like toys from this distance, was a group of men, some on horseback, some on foot. Some of the men wore mail, others did not, but all were clearly armed, and they moved as a unit. Salazar saw the smoke in the distance, and knew instantly who these men must be, and the danger they posed.
“We have to warn them.” He gestured toward the village. “Rowena, go with Aidan and Cadogan. Take them off into the woods and hide until….” He didn’t finish his sentence.
They were turning, intending to fly away from the soldiers. Helga was frozen with terror. The sight of the soldiers filled her with a paralyzing panic. Her affinity with her mount proved to be their undoing. It felt her panic, and jerked sideways in flight. Helga was so frightened that she barely saved herself from plummeting to the ground. Rowena called out to her, trying to wake her from her paralysis, but Helga didn’t respond. Salazar reached out with his mind. Overpowering the horse’s urge to flee, Salazar forced it downward. There was no choice. Helga was seconds away from losing her grip, and falling to her death. Her horse dived at a dangerous angle toward the ground, and landed hard, right in the path of the oncoming soldiers.