But for several reasons, none of them was going anywhere soon. Salazar and Helga mended slowly. Godric was concerned with ensuring the safety of the village, and he spent many days reinforcing magical protections, and training villagers in rudimentary defense tactics. And apart from everything else, the winged horses who had been involved with the fight were now deeply suspicious of all humans. They communicated their mistrust to the rest of the herd, and Edwina, Emmeline and Cadogan had their work cut out to regain their trust.
Rumie continued to dose Salazar with blood-replenishing potion, but he was slow to heal from his internal injuries, and remained weak. Helga’s physical injuries healed quickly, but she stayed even closer to the hearth than usual in the chilly winter days.
On the first night that Salazar could sit up for any length of time, he, Rowena and Godric joined Helga by the fire. Emmeline had moved her things permanently to Rumie and Edwina’s, Aidan and Cadogan were with Alfred, and it was the full moon, so they were alone in the common room. Godric wondered when the last time was that they had been alone in this way. Being in the village had pulled them each in different directions, and looking around fondly, he felt again the special connection that bound them.
Helga’s lap was full of scarlet. She was sewing Rowena’s cloak. “I hope Emmeline will have time to embroider this before we go,” she remarked.
“Did any of you find out what that blue fire was all about?” Godric asked.
“Yes,” Rowena answered. “It was an invention of Rumie’s. Emmeline didn’t know exactly what was inside the glass vials, but something very dangerous. Rumie put a strengthening charm on the glass to contain it, but any kind of impact from the outside of the glass would cause the fire to be released. Rumie had started work on it quite some time ago, and forgotten about it. She’d told Emmeline about it though, and it was Emmeline’s idea to use it as she did.”
“It was a brilliant idea,” Salazar said, “And well executed.”
Godric looked thoughtful. “It was so strange to watch soldiers who might once have been my comrades, so effectively defeated by magic. Fighting by magic was something I never considered, and I’ve done a lot of fighting.”
“Godric, what happened to your sword?” Rowena asked gravely.
Godric frowned. “What do you mean?”
“It…, it seemed to glow; it was the most extraordinary silver when you attacked the soldiers. I think it scared the fight out of them quite as much as anything else.”
“It was certainly magical light of some kind,” Salazar remarked. “I’ve never seen your sword do that before.”
Godric was flummoxed. “I have no idea.”
“You say you’ve never thought to use magic in a fight? How could you stop yourself? You weren’t trying to use magic this time were you?” Salazar asked.
“No…, but just before I charged them, I was thinking about…, I was thinking about why I fight. You know how sometimes things can be happening so fast, and yet your mind finds time to think about other things? That’s what happened. I was thinking about all the reasons I’ve fought in the past, and that none of those fights were in a cause I truly cared about, I mean really cared about. This time, I was fighting for my….” His voice trailed off. “I was fighting to protect people like me, people I truly wanted to protect. I’m an expert swordsman, but then, I did feel something else, something more than mere skill. My sword must have shown that somehow, or…, I don’t know.”
“Magic isn’t just spells and incantations,” Salazar said seriously. “What we did with the binding fire, that wasn’t a spell, that was magic wielded by powerful witches and wizards, real magic, only to be mastered by the best of wizard kind.”
“Salazar!” Helga said, a little shocked.
“I thought you had stopped denying it,” Salazar said gently.
Helga looked uncomfortable. “Well, if we are more powerful than many, it doesn’t make us the best of wizard kind, we still…,” Her voice broke, and Godric understood that she was thinking of her failure to act decisively in the face of fear.
Godric said, “Such power as we have, should make us try to be worthy of it. Look at Cleodna. She is a witch of immense power, but she has lost something of her humanity I think.”
“Such responsibility as she takes,” Helga said with a sneer, “I’d sooner be a muggle.”
“You speak of responsibility,” Rowena said thoughtfully. “What we did to those soldiers, we did defeat them, and we hadn’t even prepared. I am no soldier, but such weapons as we have could defend many who are helpless, not just magic folk. Armies fight, rulers squabble for riches, but it is the helpless ones who suffer most. That’s one thing I’ve seen above all on the road from Sussex.”
“Are you saying you think it is our duty to use our magic to protect people, muggles?” Godric asked.
“I don’t know,” Rowena replied, “but when I think of Cleodna, then of someone like Colby, hiding his gifts, or Æthelrand, hiding an entire village, it seems there must be some other way.”
“It’s Colby’s children who haunt me,” Helga said sadly. “They are being raised so that they will fear and distrust their own magic, so that they won’t even have words to describe or name it. Surely that’s as wrong or dangerous as anything we’ve seen.”
“Trying to better the muggle world is folly,” Salazar said definitely. “You would achieve nothing before you were seized, and disposed of by those who mistrust witches, who seek to destroy us.”
“But we have magic!” Godric exclaimed. “Why should we not use it to fight those who invade our country? It is our country to defend, same as it is the country of non-magic folk.”
“Witches and wizards who were surely wiser than us chose against that course,” Helga replied. “Don’t you remember what Cleodna told us? The druids and druidesses of the sacred isle departed rather than fight.”
“Most of them,” Godric retorted, not all, some stayed.”
“And what happened to them? I did good work as a healer for both magic and non-magic people, but I know not what our country will become, and either way, I myself am not a fighter, and will have nothing to do with defending our country. Since I left my home, I begin to think that the best thing I have done is to teach magic to those children we’ve come across. What magic children learn, if they learn, is haphazard, left to chance sometimes. If our gift is something that bears great responsibility, surely there is nothing more important than safeguarding it, and passing it on.”
Godric looked dubious. “You think to renounce the muggle world then, to live apart?”
Have you forgotten Elswyth, the woman we rescued from the soldiers on the road?” Salazar said bitterly. “We saved her, took her in, shared food and protection, and the first chance she got, she denounced us to folk who would have killed us.”
Into the tense silence that followed this statement, came raucous relief, in the form of Aidan and Cadogan bursting excitedly through the door yelling, “Godric! Godric!” They burst grinning into the room, and skidded to a halt before them. “Wait till you see!” Cadogan exclaimed. “Alfred’s bringing it now! Just wait till you see!”
They danced with excitement until the door opened again, and Alfred came in, carrying something that was wrapped carefully. Looking mightily pleased with himself, he laid the package in Godric’s lap. It was flat, and vaguely triangular. Godric unwrapped it slowly, not knowing what to expect. They all gasped, as a beautiful eleven-string harp was revealed.
“Rumie and I went to have a look at the manner house,” Alfred said, his smile sliding off. “It had been well picked over before they burned it. We thought to look for signs of magical concealment, things Æthelrand had been able to hide. We thought he might have been better prepared than we were, and he was. We found this among some other beautiful and valuable things that were well hidden from muggle eyes.”
“They were under the manure pile!” Aidan contributed gleefully. “Alfred told us! Someone must have used a spell to move the pile, buried the harp, then used magic to move it back again.”
Godric sat stroking the harp wonderingly. “Where is Æthelrand’s harper?”
“No one has seen him,” Alfred replied. “Some of Æthelrand’s servants wound up here, but it’s not known where the others are. Hopefully some got away to go back to their own kin.”
Godric began plucking the strings experimentally, smiling involuntarily as the sweet sound stole into the room. He began automatically to tune the instrument, his face assuming a characteristic, absorbed expression.
Helga watched him. She liked his look of concentration, and the deft way his hands moved. Even un tuned, the sound of each individual string plucked was a tiny pleasure, pure and uncomplicated. When the tuning was complete, and Godric began to play, she sat utterly still, transported.
It took many days of patient, and in some cases not so patient work, to convince the horses that humans were worthy of anything other than a swift kick to the chest. Many backsides were dampened by contact with the wet ground, and many feathers spat out irritably, before they reached the stage of training they’d had before the soldiers came. Helga in particular had a difficult time. She spent hours grooming and tending her horse, trying to make her peace with the desirability of flight over walking.
Helga was off at the paddock one afternoon, when Celina found Godric in the common room. He had moved his things back to the inn, complaining that Alfred’s cottage smelled of smoke and farts, and that Alfred was a terrible cook. All felt better when he had done so, and a feeling of excitement for their departure was growing.
“I have something for you,” she said gravely. She held out a sword belt and scabbard. They were of expertly worked leather. The scabbard was studded with precious gems, and lined with fine animal fur, making for a quick, smooth draw. He took it, looking impressed. “It belonged to Æthelrand,” she said soberly, “He said you should have it if…, if anything happened.”
“Celina, do you think he knew he was going to die, maybe what I mean is, do you think he intended to die?”
They had always been able to speak the truth to one another, and she didn’t flinch at his question. “He had a formidable ego, there’s no doubt of that,” she replied, “But no sane man takes on a chimaera in single combat and expects to live, don’t you think?”
Godric sighed. “I do think. Did he mean me to stay here Celina, to take his place?”
Celina looked uncomfortable. “Perhaps he did, well, all right, he did. It wasn’t a bad thing for you to want to do.”
“I know, but it wasn’t the right thing.”
“I’ll miss you. I always do.” Tears filled her eyes, and he reached out unselfconsciously to embrace her. They stood together, memorizing again how it felt to be close. They didn’t speak; it wasn’t necessary. They knew that they would most likely meet again, and if they didn’t know when, they did know where. It was a tie that bound them in a way that was at the same time disturbing, and oddly comforting.
Emmeline came to see them off this time. She had become protective of Helga, in a way that surprised both of them. They embraced warmly. “I was concerned when I first heard that you had decided to stay here,” Helga said. “I don’t entirely trust Rumie’s judgment, and…, well…, I didn’t see you as a healer, but I may have been wrong, on the second count at least.”
“Healing is more than binding wounds, or tending to a scullery maid with a burn.,” Emmeline replied.
“Yes, that’s true,” Helga said, thinking of those on the battle field in Sussex too far gone for any kind of help save one, and of sitting beside Odo, singing to him while he died. There was more to healing than curing the body. Maybe Emmeline had gifts Helga hadn’t suspected before. Helga rested her hands on Emmeline’s shoulders, peering closely into her face. “You are a woman now,” she said gently.
Emmeline nodded, and said, “I hope we will meet again.”
The horses were still skittish. They might have done better to wait a few more weeks, but they all felt impatient to be off. Winter was ending. As the six of them rose easily into the air, heading north, the land beneath them showed swaths of green. The air was softer, warmer, more gentle, unless of course you were flying through it, high above the treetops. Helga pulled her scarlet cloak more tightly around her. She looked over at Godric, feeling an immense satisfaction to see him beside her. She tried not to think of the other time, of leaving without him, and what had happened afterward.
“Focus on right now,” Emmeline had insisted more than once in the past weeks. “Find something to focus on right now, right in front of you, that’s real, good, or reassuring. Focus on it, and the bad things will fade into the past, where they belong. You must just keep doing this again and again. That’s how you move forward, without being stuck.” Helga let out a breath of wonder. Such a troubled girl Emmeline had always seemed, so difficult to really know, until now.
It was good to be on their way together again; all of them felt it. They felt renewed in their dedication to carrying Odo home. So many things were beyond their control, so many things were in flux, but this one honorable deed they could and would complete. As they continued north, the country below them became wilder, less settled. Villages were more widely spaced, and it became easier to avoid being seen with their flying horses. Finally, late one afternoon, Helga began to recognize features of the land below. Her father had been a traveling healer, and it was here in the north that, traveling with him, she had met Odo.
She peered carefully down, ahead and behind, trying to fit what she was seeing into her memory, to superimpose this odd view from above, onto what she could recall of reaching this place on the ground. “There!” She burst out, pointing to a place where two streams met to form a small river. They could see what might be a village there, and they made cautiously for it. They landed at a discrete distance, and Helga and Godric went to reconnoiter on foot.
The next day, in a gentle rain, they buried Odo. In extricating him from his basket to lay him out, they found that Rowena’s preservation spell had worked perfectly. However, in the vagaries of travel, Odo’s wand had been snapped in half, and his hat turned inside out. They decided to bury him thus, a testament to the long journey he had made. He had kin in the village, but no close kin.
Godric stood at the grave side, his arm protectively around Helga. She wept bitter tears, which she made no effort to control. One by one, folk stepped forward to remember Odo.
An old man spoke first. “He was my sister’s boy,” he said simply. “She was living with us when Odo was born. Funny he was, right from the beginning. He was born with a tiny fuzz of hair, as some babies are, and you know, that hair was gray. Oh it fell out and grew in again a normal colour, but we all knew he was different right off. Never knew a gentler lad though. No matter how distracted he’d get by his visions, he’d always be watching out he didn’t kill anything, you know, critters and such, never liked anything getting hurt.”
A woman stepped forward, one of Odo’s aunts. “He’d always be wandering off, even when he was tiny. One time I found him just sitting on a log, staring around at trees. He told me he was watching them when they were as small as him, and when they’d died and fallen over to rot. It was like he could see their whole life at once. He said it was beautiful. I wasn’t surprised when he took to the road. I think he got tired of knowing too much. We did miss him when he went: such a sweet lad he was. I remember the women who were expecting sometimes went to him to find out whether they bore a boy or a girl. He’d tell them, but sometimes he wouldn’t, and they could tell that their baby was going to die. It wasn’t Odo’s fault, and those women had gone to him, but some did hold grudges I’m sad to say.”
All of the tributes were like that, Odo’s goodness and gentleness, cushioned amid a persisting wariness. Helga stepped forward, wiped her face on her sleeve, and told them about Sussex, how Odo had known what was coming, and given his life to prevent suffering and death. No one looked surprised, but some, like Helga, wept.
Odo’s home was one of those rare villages where magic and non-magic folk lived side-by-side, with no more friction than is usually present in a group of people living in dangerous times. There were empty cottages because of villagers who’d gone to fight at Stanford Bridge, and hadn’t returned. The travelers were invited to occupy one for the night, and they slept warm and dry. The others asked Helga if she wanted to stay longer, to talk more with those who had known Odo, but Helga declined. The place served only to remind her of what Odo’s peculiarity had denied him in life. She only hoped that somehow, their long journey to carry him home might finally achieve what his life could not: peace.
They set off the next morning. They still traveled north, pushed on by Aidan’s insistence that his mother and sister waited for them somewhere to the north, and also by an inner conviction none of them could explain. Though they had achieved their goal of carrying Odo home, still they all knew their journey wasn’t complete. For Helga and Rowena, the desire to see Elwyna again, to see Aidan reunited with her, was a powerful motivation, but there was something more for all of them, though they didn’t know what it was.
They weren’t making very good time. The horses were proving to be often untractable, and sometimes took their own heading, regardless of what their riders wanted. Aidan and Rowena had the clearest sense of the direction they wanted, and it was they who led the others, despite Rowena’s indifferent riding skills.
There came an afternoon, however, when they felt themselves to be truly lost. They had been following the course of a river, but that had run out, and the cloudy sky made navigating by sun or moon impossible. It had been days since they’d spotted human habitation, and the landscape was becoming increasingly lonelier and wilder. Finally, the oncoming darkness caused them to look for a place to land and set up camp. They chose what looked to be a smallish clearing, near the head of a stream. As they touched down, they saw with some unease that it was much darker than they’d realized. Light lingered in the sky above, but here on the ground, little was visible in the mirk that settled beneath the trees.
As they slid to the ground beside their horses, they were stunned into immobility, as a sudden and shocking light filled the clearing. It was brighter than midday. Everything around them was so sharply lit that they felt as though they were inside a bolt of lightning. The breath caught in all their throats, and as the light vanished, they stood, unable to see anything at all, their eyes dazzled by the dramatic light, and its equally dramatic withdrawal.
In the ringing silence, there came the mad laughter of a cackling old man. Whoever it was seemed quite entertained, though the travelers felt their blood chill. Godric called out boldly, “Who are you? Show yourself!”
The clearing was so dark that no one expected this command to be obeyed, but instantly, a sizable fire appeared within a ring of stones, and they could all see an old, wizened man sitting by it, a staff lying on the ground near him. He was tugging on his long gray beard, and laughing fit to burst.
“Oh if you could only have seen yourselves!” He guffawed. “The looks on your faces! Sometimes the simplest magic is the most amusing!”
“I don’t know who you think you are,” Godric blustered, irritated to have been so frightened by a simple spell, “But your parlor tricks are childish.”
“Childish is it? Oh Godric my son, if you only knew…!”
“How do you know my name?”
“It’s about time you got here,” the old man said, his amusement fading into irascibility, “I’ve been sitting here all afternoon waiting for you. What took you so long?”
“I stopped to fish for our dinner at midday,” Godric said defensively, then caught himself. Why was he bandying words and defending himself to this crazy old man?
The old man rose arduously to his feet, peering from one to the other of them, showing no surprise. Rather, his face wore a look of satisfaction, as though he knew them, and had indeed been waiting for them. When his eyes lighted on Rowena, he almost smiled, but instead said sharply, “Where’s my book?”
“What?” Rowena asked, utterly flummoxed.
“My book, the Metamorph Magi, where is it?”
“What ever do you mean by calling it your book? It belongs to me.”
“Oh does it now, little girl?” Rowena lifted her head, very offended.
“Yes it does. How do you know about it?”
“Know about it? I wrote it you silly chit. Where is it? Show it to me. I suppose you have it jammed in those scruffy saddlebags next to the infants’ clouts.”
Instantly, Aidan and Cadogan burst out with angry assertions that they weren’t infants, and didn’t need clouts. The old man cut them off with a chopping gesture and a nasty glare. “Shut up you two little weasels, I know more about you than you do. Now where’s my book?”
“Now look here old man!” Godric began, but Helga laid a hand on his arm, murmuring quietly, “Don’t be rough with him, can’t you see he’s old, and a bit daft?”
“Daft! You would call me daft young lady? You, who befriends badgers and wild dogs? Keep a civil tongue in your head when speaking to your elders. Now show me the book before I jinx you all into oblivion.”
Not knowing what else to do, Rowena dug in her saddlebag, producing the book, and holding it out reluctantly, to the old man. His face softened immediately, and he took the book lovingly into his hands, gazing at it as though it were a long lost child. His expression disarmed Rowena’s apprehensions; anyone who treated books with such respect could not be dangerous.
He didn’t open the book, but stroked the cover affectionately. “You’ve taken good care of it, despite how far it’s traveled.” Still holding it reverently, he returned to his place by the fire, collapsing feebly onto the log he’d been sitting on, and resting the book on his knees. He continued to stroke the book, and his face assumed the dreamy, vacant expression of the very old. Finally, Helga stepped diffidently forward. “May we share your fire grandfather?”
He looked up as though he’d forgotten about them. He smiled at Helga, an oddly childlike smile, completely at odds with his earlier crabbiness. “Of course Helga my child. You are even prettier in person, despite how dirty and ragged you’ve become on the road, or in the air you might say.”
“Can you tell me how you know us?” Helga asked gently.
The man’s expression became suddenly cogent and world-weary. “Know you? I know everyone, and everything.” Salazar laughed scornfully. “You doubt me young Salazar? I do, though I’ve rarely seen such an odd bird as yourself.”
“Now you watch your tongue old man!” Godric burst out. “This man is a powerful wizard, and my sworn friend. You keep your manners about you.”
“Godric!” Helga exclaimed, “Take your hand off your sword. You’re not going to attack an old man, no matter how ill-tempered.”
The old man smiled. “Ah, aging does have its benefits. I’ve never been one to filter my words for the comfort of others, but as an old man, I get to watch people fighting with themselves over how not to strike me for insulting them. Here, I’ve brewed a nice soothing tea for you. The heavens know it’s had long enough to steep, as long as I’ve been waiting for you, and this other caldron bears a rich stew. You may not care much for my manners, but I’ve got excellent ideas about cookery.”
They hadn’t noticed before, but there were now two caldrons hovering over the fire, which did prove to contain tea, and a hearty stew, just as the old man said. When they had eaten, Aidan and Cadogan went off to find fire wood. They returned, Cadogan carrying wood, but also a quantity of pine needles, which he threw onto the flames, liking the dramatic effect. For a moment the flames were smothered, then burst up in a quick flash. They all gasped. In the sudden illumination, the old man was no longer an old man. His beard was dark and luxuriant, his bearing erect, arrogant and potent with force.
“You wish to know who I am?” He said in a rich, deep voice, “I am the hand of your destiny. I am come to show you where you shall go.”
“And where is that sir?” Salazar asked eagerly.
“North, as you have been. Tomorrow, you will reach your goal, find your fate. There is a castle. There,” he gazed down at Aidan, “There you will find your mother.” His eyes took in the rest of them. “There are many others there as well, who wait for you, though they know it not. Many folk have wound up there as the troubles of this land grow once more: wizard folk who know that fear and violence bring more fear and violence, especially to those who are different. Many have come, bringing their children,” his somber expression cracked into something resembling the irritable old man, “So many children, loud, mischievous, grubby, uncontrolled children.” He made a restless movement, as though trying to rid himself of pesky flying insects. “They were endearing for a little while, but after a time I simply couldn’t stand them anymore. And that castle, so squalid and confining, up here in the middle of nowhere. I was glad to leave. I’m restless to wander once more, and it’s your turn now.”
“Our turn?” Rowena asked.
“Yes, you will know what to do.” His eyes lit up. “There is a library there such as you have never seen before, my library. There are books and scrolls from Greece, and Rome, from the Near East, a lifetime of scholarship for you my daughter.” Something flickered in his eyes, but Rowena didn’t notice, excited as she was by his words.
“Oh you have quite a look of your mother about you,” he continued, “Though I dare say she was a merrier sort than yourself, but not a bad scholar.”
“You knew my mother?”
“Indeed, very well. I gave her this book. It is a copy of the original, which I kept with me. Apart from its fine illumination, and its excellent spells, it has its own powerful magic. I have been using it to bring you all here. When the two books are read simultaneously, the more powerful wizard can put thoughts into the mind of the less powerful one, and of course, no matter who else is reading it, I’m always the more powerful wizard. I saw by my art that troubles threatened, threatened you my child,” he gestured toward Helga. “Armies come and armies go, invasions, migrations, restless people, they mean little to me anymore, but I saw you mistress Helga, and, much as I didn’t want to concern myself, I was concerned. I remembered this book, and took the chance that someone still read it. I used the book to put images and desires into your mind Rowena, so that you could see to this young lady, save her from harm.”
“You gave me those nightmares!” Rowena burst out, more agitated than any of them had ever seen her. “Those nightmares upset me so that I betrayed my own vow to hide my magic. Because of those nightmares I was forced to leave the quiet and safety of the scriptorium! You had no right to do that!”
The man made the same impatient chopping gesture he’d made earlier. “The four of you really must learn that you can’t control everything. Don’t be foolish child. Did you want Helga swept up by the invading army? And that scriptorium of yours, what do you think has happened to it since you left? Gone up in flames, like so much else before the wave of an invading army.”
Rowena’s rage, fueled as much by being called foolish, as by the machinations of this strange man, froze, and dissolved in horror. “Burned? But why? And what of…, what of my…, what of my sisters?”
“That isn’t a matter which need concern you,” he said, speaking more kindly than he had yet done. “Such things happen, and neither you nor I can stop them, and even I cannot explain them properly. Can you wish you had remained there to see those things? Can you wish that you had never met these three, who have become so important to you?”
Godric was reminded of Salazar, defending his own manipulation of circumstances, by their outcomes. “Have we no real choice at all then?” He asked the man. “Are we all like chess pieces?”
“You believe in fate. You must live as though each choice matters, and at the same time accept and embrace your fate. Your fate,” and his glance included them all, “Is to live on in legend for more than a thousand years, for you are all great witches and wizards.”
There was a grave silence, which the man broke at last, by saying in a lighter tone, “Godric young master, let me see that sword of yours.”
Almost numbly, Godric drew his sword from its sheath, and handed it to the man. “You’ve tended it well,” the man said approvingly. “It looks just as fine as the first time I saw it, so long ago that was.” His expression grew distant, and a little sad.
“You’ve seen it before?” Unaccountably, Godric looked a little shifty.
“Yes I have,” the man replied, “And I’ve seen it wielded by one of the finest swordsman who’s ever lived.” He handed it back to Godric. “It’s in good hands. Cherish it, and guard it well, it still has noble work to do. And you my strange friend,” his eyes moved to Salazar, “You have responsibility in this too. Once already you have laid down your life for your friend. It may be that you will be called to do so again.” The man’s face clouded briefly. “You do have a look of Mordred about you.” The man shrugged. “You are as powerful as any of these others. Together the four of you will do great things.”
“Who are you sir?” Godric asked again.
“Have none of you guessed?” He ran his fingers through his beard. “I am old, and young too. I’ve seen invaders come, go, be absorbed and forgotten, I’ve put kings on the thrown, and toppled others. I’ve wandered, learned, taught, raised stones, and brought down monuments.” He gestured off to one side, and they saw that a harp lay there, wrapped, but ready to be slung across the back of a man on foot. “I’ve composed songs, and enchanted men to sleep, and to battle with them.”
Helga’s mouth opened in an O of astonishment. “Are you…, you aren’t…, are you…, Merlin?”
His face broke into a wide, dazzling smile, the charm of which erased all the acerbic comments he had made. “Aye, I am Merlin. I have been tucked away up here for…, I can’t remember for how long, but I have left to wander the land again.”
“Will you not come with us sir?” Salazar asked.
“No. The old restlessness is upon me. It comes every few centuries, and then I’m off to wander up and down the country, seeing what mischief I can find. I leave my castle to your keeping. You will know what to do when you get there. I’m looking forward to sleeping rough once more, to fooling credulous bumpkins with my simple tricks, healing the common folk, sticking my nose into the affairs of others, visiting old friends.” A light appeared in his eye, “I might even drop down to look in on Cleodna.” His eyes met Salazar’s, and they exchanged a knowing smile.
“If you are really Merlin sir,” Godric said, “What is the best way for us to fight the invader?”
Merlin laughed. “Fight the invader? It’s too late for that young Godric! The invader was crowned King of England just after the solstice. Whatever fighting you were going to do, you missed your chance.”
All but Salazar looked crushed. “It’s no more than has happened many times before,” Merlin said nonchalantly, “Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans….” He made a dismissive gesture. “Who do you think your own ancestors were?” As they continued to look distraught, Merlin sighed. “Living in my solitary way for so long, I forget what the young are like: so ardent. Life will go on, the country won’t be overrun, but it will be changed, and times of change are usually dangerous times, especially for folk like us, well, folk like you; I’m much too powerful to be threatened by anything. This is why what you four will do is so important.”
They sat up late into the night, listening to merlin tell stories. Considering who he was, there wasn’t much point in them telling him stories, and Merlin enjoyed few things more than the sound of his own voice. He played the harp for them also. Godric watched and listened, enraptured, as Merlin made the harp speak under his hands, producing subtleties and patterns Godric had never even imagined.
In the morning, Merlin did a piece of magic for them, which Helga and Rowena particularly appreciated. He conjured a large wooden tub, and magically filled it with steaming water. “You’ll make a better first impression if you arrive clean,” he said pragmatically.
Rowena smiled. “My mother used to do this!”
“I remember,” Merlin replied fondly. “Where do you think she got the idea?”
When they were all clean and dressed, ready to depart, Merlin changed his appearance back to that of a bent, gnarled, and crusty old man. He refused to hear their words of parting. “Get on with you,” he said irritably, “And leave an old man to rest his bones before such a long journey.” But he didn’t rest. As they rose gracefully into the air, they saw him below, striding energetically southward, head turning to survey the countryside, staff swinging jauntily at his side.