Helga checked to make sure the fire was sufficiently banked to be left to itself for a while, placed her mug of ale on the table beside the platter containing her supper, and sat down with a contented sigh. She looked over her meal with satisfaction. She liked to do this before beginning to eat, believing that an aesthetic appreciation of food was as important as a gustatory one. The bread had risen beautifully, and the rabbit stew had a particularly savory aroma. Thick with vegetables, it had been seasoned with onions and wild garlic. With an inward complement to the chef, herself, she prepared to tuck in. She tore the loaf in half. She reflected on how extraordinary the smell of fresh bread was; it could simultaneously stimulate and satisfy. She was about to dip the edge of the bread into the rich gravy when there was a knock at her door. She sighed deeply and set down the untasted bread, beside the unsampled stew, right next to the full mug of ale.
She tried to impress upon those folk who sought her out for potions and curatives not to disturb her at meal times, but some failed to heed, and others were simply unable to schedule their ailments and injuries appropriately. Slipping her wand from inside her sleeve, she cast a charm over the table to keep hot things hot and cool things cool, and rose to answer the door.
In the doorway stood the blacksmith’s young apprentice. The reason for his visit was proclaimed immediately by the livid burn on his forearm. With an expression of dismay she drew him inside, and bid him sit down on the bench designated for visitors. As she gathered what she needed, she was surprised to see that he seemed little bothered by the pain. Something more exciting was preoccupying him. As she cleaned the wound with a greenish liquid, then anointed it with a purple salve, he told her what it was.
“Soldiers?” She asked vaguely.
“Many and many of them! And they say the King himself is with them!”
“The King is it?” She replied, interested despite herself.
“They say he’s brought all the men he can muster here to await William of Normandy!”
“William of who?”
“Not who, where! Normandy, it’s…,” he gestured vaguely with his uninjured hand, “Over there, across the water. William is a duke, Duke of Normandy. They say he thinks he should be King, not Harold.”
“I wonder why he thinks that,” Helga said as she set about dressing the burn. “How many soldiers did you say?”
“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more!”
“Hm, now you be careful of this dressing. Don’t get it wet, and come back tomorrow so I can have a look at it: after supper mind.”
The lad nodded and thanked her. He scrabbled around on his person for something to give her. Folk who came to her always left something for her when they could. Appreciating his good manners and knowing his poverty, she merely tapped him on the backside with a sweet smile, told him to be more careful in future, and hustled him out the door. She was just mopping up the last of the gravy with the last of the bread when another knock sounded. Sighing once more, but with the contentment of a full belly rather than the irritation of an empty one, she rose to see who it was.
This time it was the wool spinner. She was an aging woman, and often came to Helga for help with the pain of swollen joints. Helga pulled up a stool to sit opposite her, opened a jar of blue salve, and began slowly massaging it into first one hand then the other. Being older, the spinster’s excitement was less overt, but Helga began to think she had come as much to share her news as for help with her hands.
“I saw King Harold with my own eyes; a huge, strapping man he is, looks like a king. They say he’s been gathering men from all over the kingdom, and it surely looks that way. The King and his Housecarls have taken over the inn, and folk about have been told to take in as many men as they can, and to feed’um too. When the Duke comes, they say there’ll be a terrible battle.”
Helga’s expression, normally of a striking sweetness and placidity, grew deeply puzzled. “But why?” She asked.
“Well…, the Housecarls can’t be expected to sleep in the fields, and the men have to eat.”
“No, I mean why will they fight?” Helga’s strong fingers ceased their massage, and her eyes, suddenly serious, looked searchingly into the older woman’s face. “Why must men do these things?”
The older woman was slightly discomposed. “I don’t know Mistress Helga.”
Helga’s eyes did not leave the older woman’s face. With the simple sincerity of a child trying to understand a grownup problem, Helga said almost plaintively, “Do they not know the suffering they will cause? They will injure and kill one another, they will suffer, their wives and mothers and daughters and sisters will suffer.”
The older woman’s excitement drained away by Helga’s dismay, she lowered her gaze and said merely, “Duke William has sworn to take the throne away from Harold, and Harold will fight to keep it. We do not want to be ruled by Normandy!”
“Better to be ruled by Normandy than to be hacked to pieces by swords and spears!”
“I do not know Mistress; it is just what men do.”
Helga gave a sigh of such depth that it seemed to have been exhaled from her entire body and soul, not merely her lungs. Slowly she began massaging the other woman’s hand once more. “I suppose I must begin collecting the herbs for bleeding and fever, and to gather as much material for dressings as I can.” Her features gradually resumed their placid character, but the older woman saw how a single tear slid, seemingly unregarded, from the corner of her eye.
Though protective of her comforts, Helga was an industrious woman, and early morning found her roaming through woods and pastures in search of herbs that would be effective against blood loss and the fever that often accompanied wounds. She carried a deep basket over one arm, and a digging stick in the other hand.
Her eyes roved over the foliage of late summer, but all of her senses were alert to the life around her, and there was a lot of it. When Helga was alone, the animals of wood and moor did not shrink away or use immobility to fade into their surroundings. She knew their habits, and knew that stillness and concealment were their normal reactions to people, but she had always known that she was different. As long as she could remember, animals had not feared her, nor she them. She had her special favourites of course, but their ease with her was not the result of coddling or courting their favour, but simply because she instinctively understood them in a way no one else she knew could.
Long before she herself saw or heard anyone approaching, she knew she wasn’t alone. Around her, the birds and rodents told her by their distinctive reactions that someone other than herself was nearby. Soon she saw Edwina, her friend, the daughter of a prosperous trader who dealt with the trading vessels that frequented the coast. Edwina had a basket over her arm as well, and was peering into the underbrush for berries.
Helga offered a merry greeting, and almost immediately was regaled with the news of Harold’s army. As with her two callers of the previous evening, Edwina seemed excited rather than alarmed. “King Harold is so handsome!” She exclaimed. Helga shrugged. She said nothing, but behind her sweet smile, she was thinking about pretty Edwina surrounded by soldiers, men drawn from all over the kingdom, from all walks of life. As they cheerfully discussed the fruit harvest that year, Helga was wondering how she could protect Edwina from the soldiers, and from the young woman’s own guilelessness. Helga was not characterized by guile herself, but neither was she a fool.
When Edwina seemed disposed to return to the topic of all the new young men around, Helga waved the subject off with a graceful gesture of the hand holding the digging stick. “When these handsome fellows have stripped the countryside like a plague of locusts and left nothing for even the birds to eat, I dare say they’ll look a might less attractive to everybody.”
“Helga! They’re here to defend us! Don’t you want to see them? To help them?”
Helga’s placid expression didn’t change, but she gave a small sigh of resignation. “Oh believe me Edwina, I will see more of them than either of us could wish, and I’ll try my best to help as many of them as I can.”
She and Edwina parted after expressions of affection and a mutual kiss on the cheek. Helga, her basket full, turned her steps back toward her house. As she got close, she was pleased to spot Eartha between the roots of a large tree. The badger had been off on her own business for several days, and Helga had missed her. The woman bent and held her hand out toward Eartha, who sniffed it, then rubbed her snout fondly against it. Helga stroked the black face, tracing the white marking with pleasure. “Where have you been Eartha? I’ve missed you.” The badger leaned its head into Helga’s hand, and Helga began rubbing behind Eartha’s ears in the way she especially liked.
Prodding the assortment of roughage in her basket, Helga pulled out a carrot intended for that night’s stew and held it out to Eartha, who snatched it and chewed energetically. Helga watched with patient satisfaction. When the carrot had disappeared, Eartha began digging industriously between the large roots. Knowing that Eartha meant her to wait, Helga sat down to rest on a fallen log. After a time, Eartha emerged from a small flurry of dirt, walked over to Helga, and dropped a perfect truffle at her feet. Helga exclaimed with pleasure. “Ah Eartha! Delicious!” When Eartha departed about her own affairs, Helga set off for home, savoring the thought of a breakfast of fried eggs sprinkled with freshly grated truffle.
After her highly enjoyable breakfast, and before the carpenter’s lad came to have a cut dressed and tell her about the soldiers, she sat outside in the sun to shell a bowl of peas for that night’s supper. She liked sitting, and the repetitive work relaxed her. She listened to the pleasant sound of birds busy in the trees and grass, the humming of insects who obligingly stayed out of her hair and her peas, and watched as rabbits foraged in the shrubbery. She had reached an understanding with them, and the deer who occasionally wandered by. She routinely set out produce from her garden or the surrounding woodland that was not perhaps the most luscious, but which offered easy pickings. She left these offerings at the edge of the wood, and in exchange for not having to risk the dangers of open ground, the herbivores satisfied themselves with these offerings, and left her cultivated patch of herbs and vegetables alone.
As she watched, her favourite of the half wild dogs that made their home in the woods surrounding the village emerged from the trees and came trotting toward her. She hadn’t seen him in several weeks, and greeted him with joy. Setting her bowl of peas aside, she threw her arms right around him and nuzzled him as enthusiastically as he was nuzzling her. He was exuberant. Pulling his lips back from his teeth in the dog version of a grin that he knew she found irresistible, he convinced her to roll around on the ground to wrestle until they both lay panting and exhausted.
She often felt that all the animals she saw had names, but usually they were animal names that she sensed, but could never have spoken aloud. To her special favourites however, she gave people names. She had seen this dog hunt, sleek and efficient, and had called him Egbert: bright sword. He was of an indeterminate brown colour which blended well with the tree trunks in the forest, but had a silver tipped tail that she delighted to see wag.
Helga had an excellent stew for her supper, flavoured with the few non-medicinal herbs she had found that morning. Obligingly, the villagers left her undisturbed during her meal. She had expected the blacksmith’s apprentice to return to have his burn seen to. When he arrived, she was unsurprised to find him accompanied by a soldier who had been injured during a practice fight. She had not yet had the time to prepare the store of medicines she would need, but she could cope with what she had on hand if the demand didn’t rise sharply too soon. Her habitually sweet expression in place, she dealt efficiently with what she knew sadly was only the first in what would become a long line of such patients.
Rowena followed closely behind Elwyna trying not to let her anxiety show. They were making their way through a large clearing that had become an encampment for soldiers, more people than Rowena had ever seen in one place before, and almost exclusively men. More worldly, Elwyna showed no signs of nervousness as the two women picked their way between tents, cooking fires, and groups of men who gambled, practiced fighting with spear or blade, or stood around cheering on pairs who were gripped together in hand-to-hand combat. Rowena had spent the past three years almost exclusively in the company of women, and so many men in any context would have made her uneasy. The frank aggression all around her was extremely unsettling.
Spotting her tense expression, Elwyna said lightly, “Don’t fret, it’s only practice fighting. They don’t really mean to kill each other.” Rowena knew Elwyna meant to reassure, but it didn’t work.
It’s only because I’m so tired, Rowena thought, defending herself to herself. She had woken before dawn from a vivid and terrifying dream in which the fair-haired woman was pinned to the ground by a wild looking dog, whose teeth were bared, and who was clearly bent on violence. The woman on the ground was struggling, but her strength was obviously failing her. Rowena woke suddenly, feeling as panicked as if it was she herself being attacked. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her body longed for movement to ease the terrible anxiety. She wanted to get up and walk around, but so close to the encampment of soldiers, she was cautious, and forced herself to stay where she was. The hours before dawn were long ones, and sleep eluded her.
Some days ago, rattled by the talk of soldiers and war, Rowena had abandoned pretense, and confided in Elwyna that the abbey was no longer her goal. Rowena felt more strongly than ever the need to rescue the woman from her dreams, and had told Elwyna all. She had resigned herself to skepticism and a long search, but to her amazement, Elwyna said, “You’re looking for Mistress Helga!” When Rowena merely looked blank, Elwyna added, “The leece, the burgrune.”
“Yes I think she is a healer.”
“I’m sure that’s her, especially the way you describe her sweet smile. Such a dear woman you’ll never meet: kind to all, and a healer of surpassing skill.”
“Can you take me to her?”
“Oh yes, and a good thing for you too, for you’d never find her by yourself.”
And so Rowena found herself walking right through the thick of King Harold’s army on her way to find a woman she’d never met, in order to rescue her from dangers Rowena herself couldn’t fully name, but which were getting clearer rapidly. Finally they came to the edge of the clearing and found a path through tall trees. Rowena began breathing more easily as the sounds of curses and rough male laughter were swallowed up by the forest.
Just as Rowena perceived a thinning of the trees ahead suggesting a small clearing, the sound of a sharp bark was heard. Instantly alert, Rowena tensed and sped up ahead of Elwyna till she reached the edge of the trees, which gave way to level ground where a small cottage stood. Rowena immediately spotted the woman she had been dreaming about for months. The woman, Helga Elwyna had said, was in profile to Rowena, but there could be no doubt that this was the woman Rowena had come so far to find. On the other side of the clearing was a figure who chilled Rowena’s blood. It was the dog from her dream of the previous night. Its teeth were bared menacingly, and it was bounding straight toward Helga. Rowena didn’t stop to think. All the force of months of tension and fear was in the strength with which she used her magic to repel the beast. She sent a wall of force towards it, and it spun away with a yelp of pain, all four feet leaving the ground before landing in a heap.
Instantly, Helga spun on her heel and perceived a tall, dark-haired, stern looking woman, holding a pathetic excuse for a wand, which was still aimed at Egbert. Enraged, Helga lashed out, and Rowena fell back with a yell of pain. An angry burn appeared on her wand arm, and the force of Helga’s anger sent Rowena sprawling.
Elwyna rushed to Rowena and knelt down at her side. Helga ran to Egbert. Elwyna’s eyes followed her briefly and she shook her head in amazement. “I’ve never seen Mistress Helga do anything like that! I’ve never even heard her raise her voice or say a harsh word!”
Rowena rolled onto her side facing away from Elwyna. Months of tension, lack of sleep, uncertainty as to whether she had done the right thing to come here, fear of the violence that loomed before them all, anger at Helga’s treatment of her, and the pain of the burn on her arm all combined to overwhelm her, and she gave way to silent but wracking sobs.