Elwyna had always felt Helga’s small cottage to be one of the most tranquil and cozy places she’d ever been in. Now however, hospitality was thin on the ground, and the air vibrated with tension. Elwyna reacted by carrying on a nearly ceaseless flow of chatter which, though void of real content, did serve to fill the shrieking silence that followed the unprecedented scene that had taken place outside.
Helga had sat for some time with Egbert, reassuring him and herself that his injuries were not serious, and trying to soothe both their nerves. When Egbert had risen lumberingly to his feet and slunk sulkily away into the woods, Helga had turned back to the two women.
Rowena had pulled herself together sufficiently to sit up, then drag herself reluctantly to her feet. She was ashamed of her display of weakness, and consequently her expression was even more stern and forbidding than usual. Elwyna had stepped back from Rowena, and was about to attempt an introduction when she saw Helga’s face. Never had she seen or even imagined such an expression on the face of the placid healer, and Elwyna took another involuntary step backward.
If Rowena had been the sort of woman to show her feelings directly, or offer an apology, things might have gone differently, but her stony expression, and what Helga perceived as a faint air of condescension, fed the flame of Helga’s rare fury.
The row that followed was spectacular. Helga accused Rowena of being an unwelcome interloper, an animal-hater, an interfering busybody, and an incompetent witch unfit to wield the pathetic excuse for a wand, which now lay on the ground, a charred and useless twig. Rowena charged Helga with recklessness, ingratitude, snobbery, needless aggression, and coarse behaviour.
Elwyna, grasping for courage, stepped forward, her baby resting on her hip, and tried desperately to find some way to stop this terrible scene. She cared deeply for both women and had expected them to be glad to know one another. Now she feared for her safety as she strove to keep them from harming one another. She tried feebly to explain that Egbert was Helga’s friend, and that Rowena had been only trying to help.
“Mistress Helga,” she said, when these explanations seemed to be gaining no traction at all, “We have come a very long way. Rowena has come through the forest of Andredsweald to find you. Might you have a cup of tea for weary travellers? And as you see, Rowena’s arm is burned, she requires your services.”
Almost involuntarily, Helga’s eyes dropped to the forearm Rowena was cradling against herself. “Let me see,” she said peremptorily.
Rowena would have refused, but Elwyna said pleadingly, “Let Mistress Helga see, she can help.” The burn did hurt quite a lot, and not knowing what else to do, Rowena held out her burned forearm.
Helga inhaled a deep slow breath, then let it out in a gusty sigh of resignation. “All right then,” she said grumpily, “Come inside.”
Helga had been preparing potions and salves for fever and wounds, and had let her burn salve jar run very low. While she ground chopped and blended, Elwyna set about brewing a calming tea, and telling of their journey from Wessex.
Finally when the salve was ready, Helga sat on her stool and gestured Rowena to the bench before her. Rowena laid her arm on the small table, and Helga began to clean and anoint the burn. Her anger was rare. Like an armload of pine needles thrown on a mellow fire, it flared violently, but died quickly. She felt no warmth for the woman before her, but the instincts of the healer had taken her, and as she worked, she found herself studying the woman before her.
Up close, Helga could see the puffiness of weeping around Rowena’s eyes, and it startled her. She took in the guarded expression and the rigid bearing, but she sensed that they concealed depths that were unclear to Helga. Rowena’s closed and austere expression was unappealing to Helga, but Elwyna’s words came back to her and she said, in a calm tone Rowena hadn’t yet heard, “Elwyna says you came a long way to find me. Why?”
The cleaning of the burn had hurt a lot. Helga had begun to apply the salve, and Rowena sighed involuntarily with relief. She tried to frame a reply out of the jumble of thoughts in her head, but all she could think to say was, “To save you.”
Helga laughed unkindly. “You? Save me? From what? Egbert? You’re doing a great job so far.”
The dressing had been wound skillfully around Rowena’s forearm, and she rose haughtily to her feet. “You’re a competent healer, and I suppose I must thank you for attempting to repair the damage you yourself did to me, but you are a shallow and foolish woman, and I see that my journey here has been a wasted one.”
Helga rose also, and replied tartly, “You speak as a well-educated woman, but no amount of learning can make a wise woman out of a fool.”
Seated at the table with her tea, Elwyna dropped her head into her hands.
Rowena, with no sense at all of where she would go, strode aggressively out of the cottage. She hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps however when she grunted with the impact of Aidan’s small body running firmly into her. He flung his arms around her to steady himself, and inadvertently jarred her injured arm. She cried out and he stepped back.
“Oh you’re hurt! Can I see? His hand reached toward her injured arm.”
“No, you may not. I thought you were with your father.”
“I was, but he sent me here with a message for my mother.”
The message was that the army was moving north, and quickly. Word had come that Harald of Norway had landed in the north, and the whole of the English army was heading off at tearing speed to meet his onslaught. As a trader possessed of a sturdy wagon and provisions, Feran would go north to support the English fighting men. Feran had sent Aidan to find sanctuary with Mistress Helga if she would have him, and to ask Elwyna what she would do.
“What you will do?” Rowena asked incredulously.
Elwyna put hands to her head in a gesture of deep distraction. “Whether I will go with him,” she explained. At Rowena’s look of shocked concern, Elwyna dropped her hands and said seriously, “Most women don’t normally travel with armies moving so urgently, but Feran knows that I can help in ways no muggle woman ever could. He wouldn’t ask it of me, but he knows that, as I’m a witch, he cannot command me. Magic is very useful in a battle and on the road. He’s leaving it to me to decide. I’d have to bring my baby; he’s too little to survive without nursing. It’s a terrible choice.”
“How can you even consider it?” Rowena exclaimed.
Elwyna’s eyes sharpened briefly as they looked at Rowena. “Men will offer themselves to fight and die to protect their home, our home, why is it so strange that I should choose the same?”
Out of courtesy for her friend’s feelings, Rowena pursued the argument only in the privacy of her own mind. Because you’re a woman, because you have a babe at your breast, because using your magic to affect things in the world around you is dangerous, because these are muggle concerns. But all these reasons she kept to herself, knowing only that she would choose the path that took her as far away from battle as she could get. Then, considering the journey she herself had just made, she shook her head and went to gather fire wood.
Helga agreed to keep Aidan with her, and so Elwyna decided to go north with Feran and the army. She looked around Helga’s cottage that night after the evening meal, taking in the guarded expressions on the faces of Rowena and Helga. Helga’s eyes asked a silent question. Elwyna sighed. Apprehension over what was before her had drained away diffidence and courtesy.
“Rowena has nowhere else to go,” she said baldly. The two of you haven’t taken to one another as I’d hoped you would, but Helga, may she stay here also? The road is no place for a woman alone, especially now. She’s a good woman, not afraid of work, and well educated. How often I’ve heard you say how you’d like to know about magical books and scrolls, and the wisdom they hold.”
Rowena would have objected to this portrayal of herself as a helpless beggar, but exhaustion, and the brutal truth of her situation robbed her of speech.
Helga eyed Rowena warily, but said merely, “very well.”
Elwyna’s departure left a tense atmosphere in the cottage, which was alleviated somewhat by the presence of Aidan, with his small boy’s exuberance, and his devotion to Helga. Rowena still bristled inwardly at Helga’s treatment of her, but conscious of her status as unwanted guest, she sought for ways to make herself useful. She tried to accompany Helga as the healer gleaned herbs and edible plants, but her ignorance of such things was an impediment to Helga and an embarrassment to herself. She was an apt pupil when it came to the preparation of medicines, and she tried to help with household tasks, but her life thus far had focused on scholarship rather than domesticity, and it wasn’t long before Helga once more took over the cooking.
Feeling herself an ineffectual burden, Rowena remembered Aidan’s interest in reading, and decided to take on his education as her special project. She would sit with him outside where the light was good, and trace for him first the patterns of letters, then of words. Increasingly, she noticed that Helga seemed to find sedentary tasks like shelling pees or spinning yarn, which allowed her to sit, as though by coincidence, near enough to see what they were doing. When one morning Rowena saw Helga’s lips moving soundlessly as Aidan slowly spelled out words, Rowena said with unaccustomed shyness, “Would you like to try?”
Helga put down her bowl of pees, let the spindle sink gently from midair onto a flat rock, and approached them.
In the days that followed, the antagonism between the two women gradually ebbed in the satisfaction that a dedicated teacher and an enthusiastic student can achieve. Rowena had never found herself in this role before, having believed herself unsuited by temperament for it. Watching Helga each day however, energetic in field and wood, cunning with potions and salves, kind in the soothing of hurts and injuries, she felt a new humility, and it made her more patient. Aidan was sporadic in his enthusiasm for reading, but Helga’s interest was persistent, almost forceful. When Aidan got bored and ran off to find Egbert or some other pleasant distraction, Helga stayed, and the two women worked together for hours.
After the long and trying journey she had taken, and the tensions of her life before it, Rowena found life in Helga’s cottage remarkably restful. It didn’t take her long to learn that Helga was a woman who enjoyed her comforts. Though modest from the outside, the cottage had secrets. Rowena discovered this on her first night there. Expecting to bed down wrapped in a rough blanket on the floor by the fire, Rowena had been led through the small door into what she supposed was Helga’s bedroom. But here was magic even Rowena’s pleasure-loving mother had never dreamed of. Beyond the door was a sumptuous chamber, not ornate in decoration, but adorned with thick rugs and feather beds. Too tired to ask questions, Rowena had simply sunk down with inexpressible gratitude for the best sleep she had known in years.
One morning as Rowena was sweeping the hearth, she looked up to see a man’s face peering at her through the cottage’s single window, left uncovered for airing. She supposed he was someone there for a potion or salve, but his expression stopped her in her tracks. His face wore a look of mingled vagueness and perspicacity. At first, his childlike gaze made her wonder if he was perhaps simple in his mind, but then would come a sharpness in the eye she couldn’t interpret.
“You’re not Mistress Helga,” he said simply.
“No, she’s off gathering. She should be back soon. Do you need something?”
He studied her without answering, as though he hadn’t heard her. His face took on a look of pleasure and faint surprise. “Oh, you!” He said as though recognizing someone he’d heard of but never seen. He peered at her with an intensity that made her uncomfortable. “The lines of your face show great dignity and wisdom.”
She stepped back, deeply offended. She had no lines on her face…, did she? Just then Helga appeared in the doorway.
“Ah Odo!” She said merrily, “Where have you been? Oh never mind, it doesn’t matter. Come in and share some tea.”
The man entered and sat down, continuing to study Rowena. She wished he wouldn’t, his persistent regard was making her uneasy, and his remark about lines on her face rankled. He and Helga had an obscure conversation about a potion which Rowena couldn’t interpret, then after a brief meal, the man left, moving in what looked to Rowena like an aimless manner.
Normally reserved and well-mannered, Rowena’s curiosity was too intense to suppress.
“That’s Odo,” Helga said with a fond smile that hid something troubled beneath it. She laughed not all together kindly when Rowena repeated Odo’s remark about her appearance.
“You must just bear with him; he’s a very unusual person. He…, he sees things.”
“He’s a seer?”
“Well, not exactly. You see his mother was a very powerful witch, and she liked to experiment. She meddled with time, and Odo was born with some very peculiar powers, not all of them good. He inherited his mother’s power, but he’s somewhat adrift.” Helga scratched her head. “He sees things out of focus you might say. His senses sometimes perceive what ours do, but sometimes they perceive past or future, and unfortunately he’s not always able to tell one from another. I see by your face that you think it a great thing, but I can tell you it’s no blessing. Either because of this peculiarity, or some other, he can never settle in one place, but wanders up and down the country looking for he knows not what. His home is far in the north, but we met many years ago, and he often visits me. I worry for him. He returned here several months ago and…,” her voice trailed off, and she looked sad and concerned.
“Well, he saw something, something terrible. He saw what’s coming, the battle, all the death and suffering.”
“But the army has drawn away north.”
“Yes, north to meet Harald of Norway, but the army will return. Odo has seen it. He does not know when, or how events will turn, but he has seen a great battle and much death. He has a great heart Odo, and he has sworn himself to…,”
“Surely he cannot alter fate?”
Helga sighed deeply. “I don’t know. My mother had the seer’s gift, and she told me that it is folly to set yourself against the large tides of what will happen, but that sometimes the small eddies and currents may be changed. Who can say about such great matters? But Odo has vowed to spend himself in order to save as many lives as he can, and he has asked for my help.” Her eyes drifted to the corner of the room where, on a high shelf stood a small caldron. Rowena hadn’t noticed it before, but she saw now that a tiny magical fire burned beneath it. She rose and went to the caldron. Helga warned her not to disturb it, but by standing on a chair and craning her neck, she was able to peer in. A clear, sparkling potion bubbled merrily. “What is it?”
“It’s the kind of experiment my mother would have scolded me for and poured onto the ground. I don’t know what it’s called because I haven’t named it yet. If it works, which is by no means certain, it will give anyone who drinks it perfect luck for one day.”
Rowena looked skeptical. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Didn’t I just say I invented it myself? Of course you haven’t heard of it. If I’ve done everything right, and my theories are correct, a draft of this potion will protect the drinker for the space of one day. Odo begged me to help him carry out his vow. On the day of the battle he will put himself in harm’s way in order to save as many as he can. If I have done what I tried to do, he will have magical luck to keep him from harm himself.”
Rowena questioned Helga closely about the contents of the potion, but though Helga answered as thoroughly as she could, Rowena’s insufficient herb lore was unequal to understanding much of what Helga said.
Despite the omens, and the threat that loomed over them, the next weeks were some of the most peaceful and pleasant Rowena had ever known. The army was gone, the land quiet. Folk still came to Helga, but these were mostly women, children and the elderly. Helga’s cottage was sequestered, and extremely comfortable despite its modest appearance. Rowena had seldom taken more notice of animals than she needed to, but sharing Helga’s cottage made such indifference impossible. Birds and small creatures were everywhere it seemed, but not in a troublesome way. Rowena could see that Helga enjoyed a special relationship with them which Rowena respected, and the occasional truffles Eartha brought them were delicious.
Living with Helga and Aidan she had no need to hide her true nature. Never since childhood, and not always then, had she been free to exercise her powers openly. Now, she sat with Helga and Aidan on sunny afternoons while they all taught one another. Rowena continued to train the other two in their letters and in reading aloud, and in the magical lore she had gleaned from books. Helga, versed in different kinds of magic, helped Rowena to fashion a new wand, “A real wand,” she called it, and taught Rowena much about magical plants and their properties. Aidan was an acceptable student of reading, but what he liked best was when Helga taught him simple spells and enchantments. She made him a wand also, and Rowena was fascinated to see how this greatly focused and increased his magical abilities.
One day as Helga was instructing him on simple levitation, Aidan lost his concentration, and the goblet he was causing to hover before him tipped, and would have fallen. Helga quickly raised her wand with a swish and flick, and the goblet stabilized in midair. This gave Rowena an idea.
“Have you ever heard of witches or wizards combining their powers to affect spells more powerful than one could do alone?” She asked.
Helga looked interested. “No, I don’t think I have.”
This set them off into conversations and experiments that ran on over days, and were exciting to them both. Each was impressed by the strength of the others’ magical abilities, and as the forces of war and conquest from the muggle world drew nearer, they drew closer together in a growing passion for stretching the boundaries of their power.