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On the Cusp

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Since it was an unbearably hot day, Helga thought that it would be a fantastic idea to take a dip whilst she was eating her cake. Oh, it would be luxurious indeed: the pleasant cool of the lake waters, three slices of the cake she had baked herself, and alone time in the middle of the woods.

This plan was unfortunately stalled when an obvious fugitive came stumbling out of the shrubbery.

Helga shrieked. She snatched up her gown and clutched it to her breasts.

“Forgive me!” the fugitive was saying. “Forgive me!”

A woman.

Helga stopped shrieking, and gulped. It was a woman before her. And what a woman she was, thought Helga.

The woman was tall, and she gave the impression that she was taller because even though her shoulders were hunched it still felt like she was commanding Helga to forgive her. The woman had thick black hair in a wild tumble around her shoulders. Helga could also see that the woman’s gown, though leaf-strewn and filthy in places, was of dark blue silk with its hems delicately embroidered in golden thread.

It seemed like the woman was one of those great ladies, Helga thought as she pressed her thighs closer together to hide her nakedness. She tucked her chin to her chest, letting her red curls shield her. Helga knew nothing about great ladies. No one so great had passed by their village in Helga’s twenty years.

The lady averted her eyes. “Forgive me,” she repeated.

Helga wished with all her heart that she had asked Mother the spell for concealment.

“I should, uh,” Helga mumbled, “let me – let me clothe myself. M’lady.”

“Of course.” The lady tilted her head and then her body to the right.

Helga scrambled to put on her hose and gown as a faint wind rustled through the trees. She hurriedly swept back her hair. Then she nervously dragged her palms on the wool of her skirts.

Helga wondered why the lady would not just carry on with her travel.

The lady slanted a glance at Helga, took in her clothed state, and fully faced her. “I saw you,” the lady said in a low voice.

Yes, thought Helga, your ladyship rather saw a lot of me.

When the lady continued with, “I saw you do something with the cakes,” Helga felt as if the wind had come rushing back through the trees in an icy, pricking mass.

Helga had done the spell to make the freshness last longer. It required no wand, and so Mother had taught her the trick to do it surreptitiously just before handing the cakes over for custom. Theirs were the most famous cakes and ale in all the surrounding villages.

The lady was still looking at her, an expression that was neither accusing nor hateful. A strange expression, ebbing and flowing amongst blank and curious and – fraught.

It was on the tip of Helga’s tongue to deny it.

Instead she found herself saying, in a trembling voice, “I’ll tell m’lady a story about it. If m’lady tells me a story about – well.” And she feebly gestured at the lady’s dishevelled state.

The lady’s lips twitched. Her dark eyes seemed less intimidating then, although she remained to be intimidatingly beautiful. “How clever,” she said. “Very well. By all means, do tell your story first.”

Helga worried her lip. She hadn’t thought of that. What if the lady did not fulfill the bargain?

But Helga decided to keep her bargain, and see. If she were loyal, it could inspire loyalty to herself. There was nothing as precious as loyalty: it was easier to comprehend than love. Loyalty kept her village together. The villagers said that Helga’s and Mother’s cake and ale talents were a manifestation of a divine Creator. Such was man’s talent, the villagers said.

She gripped at her skirts, and took a deep breathe.

“Once,” began Helga, “my mother found out that those who buy cakes like cakes to stay fresh. And those who buy ale like for ale to stay warm. Long enough to hear a song or two. It’s just a trick for the cake and ale, m’lady. It’s nothing wicked.” Helga’s voice trembled on the last word. “Just for hearty ale and cake. To make people happy. Isn’t it good, happiness?”

“That is not a trick,” said the lady. Beneath the stern beauty of her face, Helga saw a ripple of something else. Something swiftly wavering. “I find it uncomfortable to hear trickery alongside happiness.”

Helga worried her lip again. She glanced around them.

“It’s something like these.” With her arms Helga gestured at the white and gold gleam of the sun on the lake, at the curving hush of the trees over their heads, at the leaf-laced wind stirring the grass and their hairs.

“Something like the rising and setting of the sun,” Helga continued. She flexed her outstretched hands. “Something like having control on your fingers. Stretching them when you want them stretched. Curling them when you want them curled. Something like the pouring of the rain. Of thunder. Of lightning. Something like the beating in your chest. Something magical.”

When Helga paused she found that she had tipped up her face. Above her the edge of the forest’s canopy mildly stroked the clear blue of the sky.

Helga realised that she was grinning. She could feel the warmth on her cheeks and the rather fast beating in her chest. Something magical. Helga loved something magical.

The lady was gazing at Helga’s hands. Then, slowly, the lady looked down and gazed at her own palms. “Magical,” she murmured. She turned over her hands. “That does sound pleasing. Magical.”

“And – and m’lady’s story? Is it magical, too?”

The lady carefully put her hands together and regarded Helga.

She regarded Helga for quite some time.

Helga started to fidget. Should she bow? Say some fancy words? But she didn’t quite dare: Helga remained by the sun-warmed shore of the lake, and the lady remained on the edge of the forest’s shadow.

Finally the lady said, “Six years ago, on my fourteenth birth day, my father sent me to court to be the queen’s lady. It was the greatest gift he could give me, he said.”

Helga tilted her head questioningly. “The queen?”

“The queen in the north,” the lady said. Helga glimpsed the flicker of disapproval on the lady’s face, so she bit on her lip and resolved not to interrupt.

The lady continued, “I knew only how to read and write mine own name. But the queen’s father had let Her Grace be educated alongside Her Grace’s brother as a child. The queen has many books. The queen knows how to write poems, and such poems they are.” A faint smile touched the lady’s lips. “I learned to read in the service of the queen. Her Grace said that I learn fast.” The lady’s lips briefly trembled.

Helga waited. At home, when her sister would become disconsolate, Helga would pour her a cup of ale until her sister recovered herself and she would put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. But this was a great lady. Helga didn’t know what to do with great ladies.

“The queen said that I learn fast,” the lady repeated, “and that I was brilliant at it. I read all that I could. I started to write as well. It was akin to a whole different world opening up before me. It is not incomparable to, shall I say, beholding the world one day and then on the morrow beholding the same world again, but somehow it has got different. It is not incomparable to – to something magical.”

The lady’s dark eyes turned wistful, and she was no longer looking at Helga.

“The queen said that if I were a man I would have been the king’s chief adviser. Her Grace loved it when I wrote poems for her, and treatises as well. The queen loved to hear my thoughts and my questions. She called me her brilliant Lady Rowena. She loved me despite my entering on scholastic arguments with the courtiers and a king’s adviser one too many times.” The lady swallowed. Her eyes turned even more distant. “Then I was arrested and sentenced to burn because I was much too brilliant.”

Helga covered her mouth in shock.

“They said,” Lady Rowena continued, in a flat sort of tone, “they said that no woman could ever be so brilliant unless she was a witch. Witches are burned or drowned. I was tied to a stake. It was ever so horrifyingly undignified. I did wish I could fly and escape when I was being led up to the stake.” Lady Rowena paused, swallowing viciously. “Even when Her Grace pleaded that surely there has been a misunderstanding, I was still tied to the stake. Then they set the stake on fire.”

Helga wanted to put her arms around Lady Rowena. Oh, the poor lady. The poor, poor lady. Mother had heard, once when she bought her wand in a distant town, that there was a spell being crafted to make the fires only tickle you.

“I thought,” Lady Rowena said, her voice rattling, “and I thought, as the flames grew, no. No, I thought. I will not burn. I kept thinking so. Strange things have always happened around me. My father said those were due to evil spirits abroad. I do not know what my mother thought of it for she ran away when I was a babe. But as the flames grew I thought I needed just one strange thing to happen at that moment. I kept thinking that the fire was not hot. The fire is not hot. The fire is not hot. Just so, akin to a prayer, perhaps. I kept thinking so, until I could not hear the queen’s screams anymore. It was long after the sun has set when the flames died down, and I – I remained alive. I am a witch, after all. I ran as far south as I could.”

“Oh, m’lady,” Helga sniffled, and thought: “Oh, m’lady, you are a witch. You are magical.” She sniffled again and thumbed away her tears.

The look in Lady Rowena’s eyes were as flat as her voice.

Then Lady Rowena tilted up her face and was rapidly blinking.

And then her face crumpled and she started to cry.

Helga could only helplessly watch as Lady Rowena slowly sank to the grass, one noble hand doing its best to muffle her sobs, the other crumpling her silken skirts in a trembling fist.

“I did nothing wrong,” Lady Rowena gasped out between sobs. “I only – I only wanted to learn.”

Oh, poor Lady Rowena, thought Helga. The lady was still in shock. She and her queen must have been so heartbroken, and books were terribly rare and expensive out here.

Helga stooped down and fetched her little basket from the shore of the lake. Carefully, she approached where Lady Rowena was sat, just beyond the point where the sun-warmed grass ended and the shadowed forest began.

And then, just as carefully, Helga settled herself and her basket on the grass in front of Lady Rowena.

Lady Rowena looked up sharply. Her eyes and nose were still red, and when she saw Helga she gulped and fiercely swiped at her cheeks with her silk-clad arms.

“Have a cake, m’lady,” Helga said, and proffered up a thick slice rich with the smells of fruit and cream and rosewater. A beat of hesitation, and then Helga let the magic pool in her hand with the cake. Her hand and the cake glowed a faint coral colour.

A fresh cake, Helga wanted to say. You are not alone, m’lady, Helga wanted to say.

Lady Rowena looked at the cake. She looked at Helga, and then at the cake again. When she lifted her eyes to Helga again and accepted the cake, she said, “What is your name?”

“Helga, m’lady.” Helga beamed. “Daughter of Hufflepuff.”

“I am Rowena of House Ravenclaw.” Lady Rowena delicately bit into the cake. Her lips curved into a small smile around the bite. “This is unreservedly lovely.” She took two more bites.

Helga beamed again, pleased.

“Your mother – Hufflepuff – she taught you? She taught you magic?”

“That she did.” Helga scooped up a slice of her own and took a huge luxurious bite.

“And who taught your mother?”

“Her own mother and father, m’lady.” Helga chomped on her slice again. Oh, the bliss. She added, “And they, their own mothers and fathers before them.”

Lady Rowena finished her cake in three more delicate bites. “Do you know your letters?” she asked, rubbing her thumb with her other fingers in small dainty motions to discard the crumbs. Helga was fascinated.

And then Helga remembered the question. “Afraid not, m’lady,” she admitted. She hadn’t needed them. Her forebears had taken no chances and left no traces of spells.

“What do you say to a bargain?” The tip of Lady Rowena’s nose was still red, but now her back was stiff and she looked so collected that Helga found herself straightening her shoulders, too.

“Bargain, m’lady?”

Lady Rowena briefly smiled. “I will teach you letters, Helga, and you will teach me magic.”

“I’m still learning, myself, m’lady,” demurred Helga. “My mother, she know more than me. She has a wand. She can make objects float. She flicks and swishes her wand – like this – and pots or cups or hay float.”

Lady Rowena turned even more upright, which Helga didn’t think was possible. “Do you have a – wand? Where was it acquired?”

“From a distant town.” Helga could feel a flush climbing up her neck. Lady Rowena’s eyes were very dark and very intense. “We’ve been meaning to go there for my wand, and for my sister’s, but we haven’t got the chance yet.”

“Will your mother be willing to instruct me?”

Helga played with the hem of her plain, woolen gown. “Of course, m’lady. It will be an honour, a great lady like – I mean, Mother has never had a great lady for a pupil.”

Lady Rowena glanced away, and Helga could see her swallow. If Helga were the sort to gamble, she would bet that the both of them were rather embarrassed right now.

“I will still teach you letters in return for the magic lessons,” Lady Rowena said, her eyes steady on Helga again. “I do not know how to bake, or to cook, or to make ale. But I learn fast, and I can help you. What do you say to the bargain, then, Helga?”

Helga stopped playing with the hem of her plain woolen gown, and regarded Lady Rowena. She was of an age with Helga, but noble and gently-bred. Helga didn’t know what to do with great ladies.

But, Helga thought, she could now imagine them sharing the third and last piece of cake in the basket. Helga could now imagine them sharing the faded skin of ale. Would it be too bold to continue with her plan to take a dip in the lake? Helga smiled. She could imagine them weaving their way through the woods, a forest removed from the paths of bandits, and then passing by the village and on to Helga’s home. Helga could now imagine Mother looking up from the butter she was stirring, to squint at the door through the escaped red curls from her knot, and then becoming simultaneously flustered and practical. Helga could now imagine lending one of her plain woolen gowns to Lady Rowena. The gowns would be looser on Lady Rowena on account of Helga’s well-fleshed breasts and wide hips. Helga could now imagine them sitting around the table in the evening, her and her sister and mother and Lady Rowena. There would be fresh-baked bread and hot butter, and ale and fruit. Helga could now imagine the lessons beginning the next day.

Would she and Lady Rowena be more than village girl and great lady, then? Helga wondered. Perhaps student and pupil, and pupil and student, both at the same time. Perhaps they could be friends. Helga didn’t know what to do with great ladies, but with friends – with friends, Helga could manage.

Helga stopped keeping her shoulders upright. Instead she propped her left hand on the grass, easily leaned on it, and beamed. With her other hand, she broke off half of the third and last slice of cake and offered it to Lady Rowena. “I say yes, m’lady. I say yes.”

Lady Rowena’s shoulders seemed to breathe out, now gently sloping. The corners of her lips tipped up, and she accepted the halved cake. “Yes. Wonderful. Splendid, yes. Marvellous.” And she added, in an almost hesitant lilt, “I want to learn how not to burn, and how not to drown. Is that possible?”

“I think so. Few things are impossible for those like us.” Helga bit on her own half, still leaning back on her other hand, feeling rather luxurious. There was a beating in her chest. Her sister called her naïve, but Helga called herself hopeful. When Helga giggled around her mouthful, Lady Rowena sent a little and polite questioning smile her way.

Helga beamed and Lady Rowena smiled, and they smiled and smiled at each other, there near the shore of the lake, on the edge of the woods, on the cusp of something magical.