The jarring thud as her horse’s hooves hit the ground, jolted Helga out of her stupor, if not out of her fear. She came to herself facing an astonished collection of soldiers, some on conventional horses, and some on foot, but all heavily armed. She felt that she couldn’t breathe, and moving by instinct rather than thought, she drew her wand from her sleeve.
The group’s leader, a shrewd, decisive man, was the first to recover from the shock of her arrival before them. As she sent an unstudied shower of sparks toward the men, he yelled, “A witch! Kill her!” He was not at the front of the group, but placed some way back. The soldiers closest to her were on foot, too close for arrows, and didn’t look eager to approach something so unpredictable as a witch, mounted on a winged horse. Her horse wasn’t at all keen on the idea either, and kicked out with its hooves, sending a few men falling backward, with shouted curses. Eventually though, one man caught hold of her cloak, and was able to drag her off, pulling her, tumbling toward the ground.
Godric surveyed the oddly assorted group of villagers who’d chosen to fight. He’d gathered them together at a spot where he hoped to be able to stage something of an ambush. They might be able to muster some element of surprise, but they were a motley collection of inexperienced farmers and herders, facing trained and battle-hardened soldiers. They were witches and wizards however, and he hoped that would be enough.
He had done a brief reconnaissance from the air. The soldiers were likely a scouting party, ready to fight if they must, but not expecting heavy resistance. They had likely been sent to this backwater in search of plunder to supply the larger force, that would be concentrating on securing more important military targets. This didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. To untrained and nearly unarmed villagers, they posed a dreadful threat. Anyone who got in their way was fair game for sport, and anything they saw that took their fancy was there’s for the taking. Godric had his sword and a couple of spears, and little in the way of strategy.
Instructing the others to wait for a sight of the enemy, he rose into the air once more, to scan for any advantage the terrain might yield. If his small band of fighters struck exactly at the right time, and were exceedingly lucky…, maybe…. He stopped thinking about what could happen, trying to focus on the needs of the moment. As he got high enough to get a clear view, his worst-case scenario spread itself out before him.
There were the soldiers, just as he had seen them before, the conical helmets of the mail clad among them looking oddly contorted from his position above them. Before them, was the last thing he wanted to see: figures, mounted on winged horses, and in plain sight. Not only in plain sight, one of them, Helga, was diving toward the ground in an uncontrolled descent that ended right in front of the astonished Normans. Rowena and the boys were turning, flying back toward safety in the wood, but Salazar was following Helga down, his descent controlled, but no less precipitous. As Godric watched, Helga was pulled roughly from her horse, and he lost sight of her in the disorder of alarmed fighting men.
With a roar of rage, Godric urged his horse forward and down. He wasn’t concentrating on guiding the beast, and it carried him to land behind the soldiers. This wasn’t what he’d intended, but it did mean that the attention of the group was divided, sometimes an advantage when surprising the enemy. He didn’t dismount immediately, knowing the advantage of height and reach of being on horseback. This mount was not trained for combat however, and didn’t care for it one bit. Before it threw Godric in disgust and flew off, it did get in a few good kicks at the foot soldiers.
Salazar, landing sloppily near Helga, was completely distracted by an attack from a war horse. It objected violently to these feathered intruders, who looked at once like, and offensively unlike itself. The war horse charged Salazar’s mount. Thus, Salazar failed to see that the soldier responsible for killing Helga, was having second thoughts. He seized her and dragged her away, but once he’d gotten a good look at her, he decided that killing her right away might not be strictly necessary. He pulled her behind the cover of some bushes. Everyone knew that a witch worked by using her wand and uttering incantations. With the application of some quick knot work, he made these activities impossible, and looked forward to finding her again when the fighting was finished, which shouldn’t take long.
Fending off the war horse, Salazar saw Godric land out of the corner of his eye. Offering two separate targets might be good strategy, but instinct made Salazar try to edge closer to Godric. Without thinking about it, he felt that they would be stronger together. He wanted to find Helga, but was soon surrounded. Only his will kept his horse from taking off out of this chaos. It kicked and blew, holding off some attackers merely by its alarming appearance. Salazar found that he was unable to think of a single offensive spell, and spent his energy erecting a wall of force around himself and his mount. This allowed him to get closer to Godric, but wasn’t doing anything to even the odds. Finally, he took pity on his horse. He dismounted close to Godric, and the horse leapt into the air, nocking a few soldiers to the ground as it went.
Godric rolled to his feet, whipping his sword from its sheath as he did so. Charging toward the first soldier he could reach, he was aware of some force in himself that he hadn’t felt before. He was no stranger to battle. He knew its fierce, reeking violence, it’s absolute immediacy. He knew that your weapons must be part of your own body, an extension of yourself. His skill had been praised by teacher and comrade alike.
In an instant of clarity, he realized that, despite his love of a fight, and of the soldier’s life, he’d always fought for another’s purpose. When you fought, you had to fight for your own life, and for victory, but why? He had fought for Harold, fought for William, fought for his own honor, but always he had been in disguise. Now, he fought for his own kind, a village of magic folk who wished only to be left alone, and for Helga, who’d gone down amid a group of the enemy.
Watching, Salazar couldn’t follow, Godric moved so fast, and it wasn’t only speed. Godric’s sword had always been remarkable for its quality, and its jewelled hilt, but now it glowed with a flashing silvery light that Salazar knew was magical. Salazar wasn’t the only one to notice. Soldiers began falling back from him. He’d taken down several, but Salazar, the pragmatist, knew he couldn’t fight off the entire band. Desperately trying to think of an offensive spell, Salazar moved closer, and extended his magical wall of force to include Godric. The soldiers had fallen back to regroup, and the two wizards stood side by side, surrounded by carnage.
Godric was trying to catch his breath, and examining a wound on his left shoulder, that was bleeding freely. Salazar looked around desperately for inspiration, and saw two figures approaching from above.
Emmeline stood watching Godric as he took off on his horse to join those who would fight. All around her was chaos, as folk tried to gather valuables, wrangle children, pack food and belongings, put out hearth fires, and generally make ready to evacuate, in case the village was overrun. The fear was palpable. Emmeline was no stranger to fear. As she imagined herself huddling in the woods with the other women, she felt a twist of revulsion in her belly. She turned from side to side, surveying the panic. She had always felt herself to be weak, too weak to fight or even defend herself.
She didn’t feel that way when she was riding plume though, she didn’t feel that way even when she was merely grooming him or nuzzling his withers. She went to Rumie and Rowena’s cottage, but she didn’t collect her belongings. Instead, she went to a shelf where there was a collection of glass vials, that emitted a sinister blue glow. She swept them into the pocket of her cloak, and went in search of Plume.
When Rowena yelled to Aidan and Cadogan to follow her away from the soldiers, she first thought they wouldn’t obey. They had all seen Helga go down, and Rowena was afraid the boys would do something fatally reckless. They did follow her though, and the three flew some distance from the road, then touched down in a tiny clearing, hidden from the road by trees. They slid from their horses, panting for breath, and frightened into speechlessness. She felt she should say something comforting. She tried to imagine what Helga would say were she here, but that only made her fear grow. The boys roamed restlessly, and when they began pestering her to let them fly above the trees to see what was happening, she lacked the strength of will to stop them. She too wanted to know, and so, extracting their promise to stay close to her and far from the fight, she rose with them into the air once more. Some of the soldiers were on the ground, wounded or killed, but too many of them were still standing, brandishing swords and spears. Godric and Salazar seemed to have fought them off temporarily, and were together at some distance. It looked like the soldiers were gathering themselves for a charge at the two men, who seemed to be sheltered behind a faintly shimmering barrier. They couldn’t see Helga anywhere.
Suddenly, another winged horse appeared, flying toward the soldiers. They recognized Emmeline, and saw that she was hurling something down at them. Whatever she threw was so small they couldn’t see it, but the next thing they knew, one of the soldiers began shrieking, and fell to the ground. Something had struck him on the back of the shoulder, and burst into flame. His leather armor was charring as they watched, and it was easy to guess what was happening to the flesh beneath. Emmeline took aim, and let loose once again.
Beside Rowena, Cadogan let out a fierce yell, and urged his horse forward as fast as it would fly. His rapport with the beast was excellent, and as he flew, he withdrew stones from his pockets and began pelting the soldiers from above.
Godric and Salazar looked on in amazement, as two of their protégés threw themselves into the fight. Emmeline’s weapon, whatever it was, was doing real damage. One man after another found himself rolling on the ground. Sometimes he was able to stifle the blue fire that exploded as her small missiles struck, but it seemed to be something other than ordinary fire, and not all were able to extinguish it. Cadogan’s attempt to re-enact the fight with the chimaera was of doubtful effectiveness, but did serve as a distraction, and Godric inwardly praised the boy for his bravery.
“By the beard of Merlin!” Godric exclaimed, “What are we to do? There aren’t enough of us.”
Salazar screwed up his face in concentration. Emmeline’s use of fire had reminded him of something. That day in the woods when the goblin had cornered him, the goblin had limbed Salazar in flames, used magic to immobilize him. He hadn’t been able to move without experiencing the burn of fire on his skin. How had the goblin done that? The goblin had had no wand, had spoken no word, no spell, no incantation. He remembered the games the four of them had played in Helga’s cottage, pulling their magical abilities together, using all of their force as one, to do more than any of them could have done alone. Something clicked in his mind, and suddenly spells and incantations seemed like letters on a page. Letters by themselves had no meaning, they were just pieces. The meaning was in the idea.
“Godric,” he said quickly. “Do you remember when the four of us experimented with combining our magic? Close your eyes for one second. I’m going to put an image in your mind of what to do, and then we’ll both try to do it. Try also to send the idea to the minds of others who can help us.”
Not knowing what else to do, Godric closed his eyes. His mind was suddenly full of an image: the soldiers, caught in a kind of fiery armor, fire that didn’t consume, but that encased each man, burning him if he tried to move outside of it. His eyes flickered open. Salazar was right. They needed to do something to stop this fight. They had magic, but they were unprepared, and outnumbered. They could keep fighting, but they would most likely be overcome, and the others left defenseless. Godric nodded, and the two men turned to face the soldiers, staring intensely.
It didn’t take long. Tongues of flame began to appear first around the mail and helmets of the better armed fighters, then around their limbs, then around the bodies of those on foot. Salazar spared regret for their horses, but there was nothing to be done about it. At last, the entire group was held, immobile, shouting with either fury or agony. Working hard to maintain his concentration, Godric stepped forward, raised his sword, which still sent forth an unnatural silvery glow, and said in a voice of command, “Those of you who drop your weapons will be spared. Those of you who will not yield, shall die by blade or by fire.”
Most dropped their weapons immediately. They were hardened fighters, but they had never seen anything like what was going on around them, and most were frankly scared nearly out of their wits. Those who didn’t drop their weapons inevitably tried to use them, which led to either a quick and crisp end, or to them falling to the ground, and becoming immobile by the simple expedient of losing consciousness. Salazar moved forward, withdrawing his small knife. It was clear that he meant to kill, not out of blood lust, but out of necessity.
“No,” Godric said sharply. Salazar turned an inquiring look on him. “If none of these report back, others will be sent. Rumie has told me of memory charms. We must keep some alive to send back with stories that will make this place sound harmless and unprofitable.” Salazar nodded slowly, seeing the sense in this.
Rowena touched down behind them. “Axio weapons!” She called out, and immediately all of the swords, spears and bows of the soldiers gathered themselves together, and flew in a lethal cloud, to fall at her feet. Godric caught movement out of the corner of his eye.
The man who had dragged Helga off hadn’t been in any hurry to rejoin the fray. As events unfolded more and more strangely, he continued to hold back. Now however, feeling a growing panic at being the last man standing, he stepped forth, drew an arrow on the string, and shot straight for Godric’s chest. Salazar had seen Godric’s eyes flick past the group of soldiers. He turned to see what had caught Godric’s attention. Without thought or hesitation, he flung himself to the side, taking the arrow under his collarbone. A fountain of blood issued from the wound, and Salazar fell to the ground.
Godric leapt forward, kneeling at Salazar’s side, turning him over onto his back. He didn’t see the man who had fired the arrow, burst into a pillar of blue fire. Neither did he see Rumie, until she crouched on Salazar’s other side, examining the wound closely. All of the villagers intending to fight had arrived, and Alfred, who had heard Godric’s instructions to Salazar, took charge of binding the unarmed soldiers. They’d been freed from their fiery captivity when the spell casters were distracted by the bow shot.
Rumie had pulled a knife from somewhere on her person, and was delicately attempting to cut the shaft of the arrow at the entry wound. Her face was more serious than Godric had ever seen it. “It’s bad,” she said tersely. “I’m going to have to pull the arrow out from the exit wound, and then see where we are. He still breathes, and his heart still beats; that’s all I can tell you for now. Back up and give me room to work.”
Godric stood up, emotions roiling unbearably. The road was a ghastly sight. Fallen fighters lay everywhere. Most were Norman soldiers, but villagers had been injured also. The air was filled with the scents of battle, which were familiar to Godric, but they were overlain with an uncommon smell of scorching: product of their binding spell, plus whatever it was Emmeline had been throwing down from her horse’s back.
Having assured himself that Alfred had control of the prisoners, Godric roared, “Where is Helga?” Rowena was ahead of him however. She beckoned to him as she circled around to the other side of the sight of battle. He ran to catch up, and arrived in time to see Rowena turning aside from the road, into the cover of trees and underbrush. Emmeline was kneeling by a crumpled figure on the ground. It was Helga. He saw Emmeline raise her wand, and the ropes that had bound Helga flew apart. He felt bile rise in his throat when Helga didn’t move. She lay on her side, curled into a protective ball, and she didn’t move.
He made as though to approach, but Emmeline said sharply, “No Godric, leave her to us. She lives. Rowena and I will tend to her hurts.” He had never heard the soft-spoken Emmeline use such a tone with him, and his belly clenched with fear. Feeling as though he would burst with the need to do something, he went back to where Alfred was herding the prisoners. Godric helped to rope them together, and as he passed the burnt body of the man who had shot Salazar, he stabbed him through, in a futile and unsatisfying act of vengeance.
Trying hard to focus his mind on necessary tasks, and leave healing to those better skilled, Godric assigned a group of villagers to deal with disposing of the dead soldiers. Others he charged with helping the wounded back to the village. He wouldn’t let anyone tend to the wound on his shoulder. He felt more isolated than he’d ever felt in his life, denied the company of those he cared about, and as he trudged back to the village behind everyone else, he told himself that it was no more than he deserved.
Back in the village, he set about the sorts of things he told himself he should have been attending to weeks ago. He made up a schedule of guard duty so that the road was under constant surveillance, in case more soldiers came. When this had been done, he stuck his head inside the inn common room, and called peremptorily to Rumie, telling her to come as soon as she could. He sent Edwina to gather the most powerfully magical folk, and when Rumie joined them, they discussed which protective spells and enchantments should be used to hide the village from notice by any more roving bands from William’s army. As they went off as a group to begin circling the village and casting their various protective magic, Godric came to Rumie’s side.
“Salazar is badly off,” she said frankly. “His lung was pierced by the arrow. We can only be grateful it didn’t injure the heart. He breathes, but I can’t make any promises. He’s resting quietly at the moment, we might know better by morning.”
“What of Helga?”
“Her arm was broken, and she’d had a blow to the head. I’ve mended her arm, and done what I could elsewhere, but she’ll need to rest too.” Godric thought there was more, but Rumie’s lips closed on whatever else she might have said.
Helga lay on a pallet beside Salazar, focusing on the sound of his stertorous breathing. It was laboured, but regular. She closed her eyes. She wanted nothing more than to lie still, never move again. She had tried to tend to the wounded, applying spells where she could, but she simply couldn’t remain upright any longer. She gave instructions to Celina and Emmeline, then laid down where she could see and hear Salazar, even if she couldn’t do anything for him. She understood that Rumie had gone off to work protective magic, but not even the knowledge that she was the only healer in the room, was enough to keep her going.
Some time later, Emmeline was crouching beside her with a hand on her shoulder. “Helga,” she said authoritatively, “You must sit up and drink some broth.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“I know, but you’re going to sit up and take some anyway.”
“No, I’m not. Go away.”
“Not until you take some broth.”
“Emmeline, go away.”
“Sit up this minute, and take some broth. You’re acting like a child. You know you need nourishment, now sit up.”
More to keep Emmeline from pestering her, Helga sat up slowly, and took the cup of broth. Emmeline knelt beside her, an arm around her shoulders to steady her. Helga didn’t want to eat or drink. She only wanted to lie perfectly still, where it was quiet. The broth didn’t appeal to her, but there was something unexpectedly comforting about being told what to do by this odd young woman, who she knew wanted the best for her.
“I’ve never heard you speak so before,” Helga said wearily, her voice husky from fatigue and disuse. Emmeline didn’t reply, but stayed where she was, propping Helga up against herself.
“How is it with you?” Emmeline asked.
“My arm is well enough, though weak. My head pains me, and I feel….” Her throat closed.
“Have you other hurts?”
Emmeline’s question was low-voiced, but so matter-of-fact that Helga felt a tiny loosening of the tightly coiled thing that lurked inside her. “Torn clothing, bruises, I….” Helga shifted in a sudden movement of fear and unease. “I…, he didn’t…, wasn’t able to…, I have other hurts.”
Helga found that she was leaning against Emmeline, shaking with reaction. Where she had desired nothing but immobility before, now stillness had abandoned her. She shook like a leaf in the wind, shifted with a bone-deep restlessness, clutched Emmeline as though she might drown or be swept away. Her breath was ragged. Emmeline held her tightly, saying nothing. Helga glanced up, and saw something she hadn’t seen in all the months they had known one another, and all the things they’d been through. Emmeline was weeping. Somehow this opened the knot of the thing that was lurking inside her, and it burst. They sat together amid the pallets spread on the floor, shaking, grieving, and rocking quietly together, two more, among the wounded.
It was a bad night for everyone. Salazar’s breathing continued to be a source of worry. Rumie came back after dark, and took over the tending of those who required care. Though Helga was faint with exhaustion, she insisted on sleeping next to Salazar. Godric, returning with Rumie, was warded away by Emmeline’s uncommonly fierce expression, and flopped down dejectedly on a bench at the side of the room. Celina placed a cup of mead in his hand, and sat down beside him.
“I’ve never felt so bad in all my life,” he said simply. “She said nothing, merely sipping companionably by his side, watching his face. “I’ve failed at everything. I should have known the soldiers were coming. I should have taken steps to protect the village. I was so busy playing lord that I neglected to fulfill the most basic duty. I abandoned the oath I made to Odo, and I left Helga. I should have been there to protect her. If I had gone with them….” His face twisted and he looked away.
“You take a lot on yourself,” she said unargumentatively, “But then you always did.”
“I’m of no use here,” he said bitterly. “I’m going to Alfred’s. I can’t bear to be here with Helga and Salazar, and utterly helpless to do anything for them.”
In the morning, he returned, irresistibly drawn to those he loved, even if he could do nothing to help them. Rowena met him at the door, with a wan smile. “Rumie says Salazar will recover.”
His shoulders slumped with relief. “And Helga?” Rowena’s smile faded. “Her arm is completely healed. Rumie says her head wound will heal also, but that she must stay quiet for some time.” Rowena’s eyes slid away, and Godric didn’t bother to ask what else she wasn’t saying.
Godric went first to Salazar. He was awake, but his colour was terrible. Godric thought him asleep, but as he crouched beside the pallet, Salazar’s eyes opened. Slowly they fixed on Godric.
“Are you thirsty?” Godric asked, desperate for something to say, something to do. Salazar nodded, and Godric, knowing enough of chest wounds not to try and move him, took up a cup of water, pouring some carefully into Salazar’s mouth. Salazar swallowed, but didn’t speak, his eyes on Godric’s face.
“You put yourself in the way of that arrow to save my life,” Godric said simply. Salazar nodded again. “If you can speak, tell me why you did that.”
In a slow, halting voice that croaked with effort, Salazar said simply, “You are my friend.”
Godric looked down. “Even though I told you our friendship was at an end.”
“You can’t control everything Godric. Just because you say a thing does not make it so. Friendship isn’t something for one person to choose. I’ve never had a friend like you. Maybe I’d never had a friend before. I did not want you to die, so I chose. All choices are not up to you, my friend.”
“I was very angry over what you had done,” Godric said without heat.
“I think Rowena was angry too, though she wouldn’t say so. It may be that I have something to learn about friendship too.”
Godric put a firm hand over Salazar’s. “Thank you for my life. When you and Helga are well again, we will continue our journey north together, if you will have me.”
Salazar smiled his rare smile. “There’s no question of that my brother, but you should go to Helga, it may be her consent you need to win.”
“Rest now,” Godric said, and got to his feet.
Helga was sitting in her accustomed chair near the hearth. Her work basket lay on the chair next to her, but her hands were still, and even her spindle lay idle. Rumie had said that her arm was completely healed, but Helga was cradling it with her other hand as though it ached.
“Does your arm pain you?” He asked diffidently, sitting on his heels before her.
She looked startled. “No,” she said flatly, and folded her hands.
He had seen victims before; you couldn’t avoid it in a soldier’s life, and he recognized her expression. In the past, this expression had elicited an impersonal pity. Now, he felt it like a cramp in the belly. He remembered a day in Cleodna’s house. Helga had come across him in the weapons room. The unexpected sight of so many blades had caused Helga to step back, to shelter against the wall, trying to fend off the memories of the battle in Sussex. He had gone to her, held her, she had laid her head against him and been comforted. He thought of Emmeline’s warning look, and stayed where he was. “Rumie says you had a blow to the head also.”
“Yes. I think it will be fine. I just need to be careful for a time.”
There was a terrible silence, then Godric said simply, “Helga I’m sorry. I should have been with you. What can I do?” His hands moved restlessly on his knees, as he tried to stop himself reaching out to her.
“Do? Nothing I suppose.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“I have spoken with Salazar. You know what happened?” She nodded. “I asked him if I would be welcome to come north with you. He told me I must speak to you.”
“Yes, all right,” she said as though her mind was elsewhere.
“Helga, have you…, have you other injuries?”
She let out a cynical breath of laughter, nothing like her usual merry chuckle. “Yes, here and there.”
“I should have been there!” He said with self-disgust.
She looked at him. “You don’t think that would have helped do you? It was my fault, I lost control of my horse because I….” Her throat closed, and she hesitated before saying, “Because I was afraid.”
Godric let out a laugh, bitter as her own. “Of course you were afraid. Being afraid isn’t a fault, it’s what you….” He’d been about to say, “It’s what you do in the face of fear that’s important,” but he stopped. He didn’t know what she had done, and suddenly realized his easy words might be a mistake.
She looked down and away. “It’s what you do in the face of fear that’s important. I know. That’s why I lost control of my horse, because I was afraid, so afraid I couldn’t move or think or do anything at all. If Salazar hadn’t made my horse land, I would have fallen off and died.”
There was a long silence, as Godric thought about this. Finally, he said, “Helga, you’re not a soldier.”
Tears prickled her eyes, but she held them back. “No, I’m not, but you are, you know about courage.”
“About some kinds of courage perhaps, but not all. I don’t know how to do what you did after the battle in Sussex. I don’t just mean the healing, I mean the things you had to do, and the way you were with Odo while he died. Those things take bravery I know nothing of.”
She took a slow deep breath, and something in her bearing relaxed. “You have a wound on your shoulder.”
He gestured it away as nothing. “It’s fine, Rumie saw to it.”
“You spoke to Salazar? He shouldn’t be speaking much you know.” You made things right with him?”
“I think so. He was willing to give his life that I might live. Can I hold a grudge against such a friend? I know not why he does the things he does. Perhaps it is because he was…, isolated in life, never learning how to…. I don’t know why he is as he is. What he did was wrong. Hopefully he can be made to see it. When you are better, will I be welcome to continue north with you? I shouldn’t have abandoned my oath to Odo, and I’m sorry for that too.”
There was another silence, and then, unable to bear it any longer, he reached out and covered her hands with his. Large hands: a flash of panic caught her like lightning, fierce, quickly gone, but leaving an after-image on her nerves. When that too had faded, she was able to notice how warm and gentle his hands were. She remembered how they looked on the harp as he played. She really looked at him for the first time, and it helped.
“come with us,” she said, “Where you belong.”