‘I thought you were sleeping. I actually almost came down to your room…’
The boy turned to her and lighted up in a fantastic smile that knocked the air out of her.
‘Maybe you should have… Coffee?’
‘Yes, please.’ She sat down next to him, a fresh cup ready for her.
Victoria considered her options: telling him about the dreams, which was too stupid to be a real option, or just start talking about something completely different. She chose the second one.
‘So, dragons… and Twang. She seems to know an awful lot about you.’
He looked at her in silence. Victoria accepted the staring contest and looked back, but got quickly lost in his wonderful eyes, the exact same shade of the sky on a spring morning… Her thoughts got lost in counting the million little specks of gold and green that deepened his colour, watching his pupils widen and reflect the tiny image of a doll, losing completely the train of her thoughts. She never noticed how and when, but suddenly he was kissing her, his lips lightly brushing hers, while still looking at her in the eyes, for one brief moment, that lasted an eternity.
Victoria woke up from her dream and opened her eyes. She was still in her bed, in her bedroom, it was bright and sunny outside, so she must have slept for a few hours in the morning. She closed her eyes again, tears welling up: this had only been a dream, a beautiful, long lasting, amazingly lovely… dream. Nothing more than a dream! Frustration washed over her as she wiped her wet temples with the back of her right hand, her left hand was still angrily holding the bed sheet. A million curses bubbled up on her lips, she wanted to swear loudly at the ceiling, at her stupid imagination that had mislead her so! She was angry with herself. Why, oh why, had she fainted when she had just seen him? Why had she been so afraid of the normal things of a first love? Victoria cursed her adolescence, the real cause for her shyness, for her reluctance to step up and just grab with both hands what she longed for and what was there for her to grab. She knew that Joe felt the same way about her as she felt about him, she knew he knew, but somehow her ignorance in love matters made it all so very impossible to enjoy, to live the romance, planting seeds of self-consciousness in her.
Victoria turned on her right side sniffing, she reached with her left hand for the note Joe had left on her pillow, carefully folded on her bedside table. She took it and held it before her face, read it again, sniffed again, suppressing a sob, and pressed it to her heart. Why? Why did it have to be so bloody difficult?
She decided to get up, get dressed and start practice with Joe in the garden. But first she forced herself to look at the bright side of life, as she would always do when life threw up in her face: at least he had not kissed her with a morning breath!
Victoria went for a quick shower and, since the weather was still very nice, she dressed in a light cotton dress, then went to the deserted kitchen to find something to eat. The big round clock on the wall next to the door indicated that it was already 11 a.m., an hour shamefully close to lunch time for Italian standards. The girl also noticed a note on the table with her name on it in big square letters, she picked it up, turned and found the handwriting of Susanna on it:
‘I’m out for a bit of shopping with Twang, I’ll be back around noon. I didn’t want to wake you up, now that you could sleep. When you’ve had something to eat and drink (!), go down to the garden and practice with Joe, please. Susanna.’
Well, that was clear, she had to follow orders. Susanna could be impossibly bossy, but she was also normally quite right about things. The girl took a croissant from the counter and drank a glass of apple juice, then went down to the garden, not sure of what she might find there. The memory of her dream haunted her thoughts, embarrassing her even more than usual: she was afraid that Joe would be able to guess what she had been dreaming about and blushed violently at the thought. Which was nonsense, she told herself, so she took a deep breath and braced herself. As she approached the open door to that little bit of paradise, she heard Joe’s voice, but she also heard someone else talk, another male voice she did not recognize ad once. Yet she did not want to eavesdrop, she was familiar with the terrible things one might learn from eavesdropping and was always very thorough not to do that.
‘Good morning Joe!’ Victoria called out loud. The talk stopped and once she was outside, she found that he was standing under the pear tree and Lucio standing on the bench.
‘Good morning…’ he answered her. Lucio chimed in and called ‘Hey, sleepyhead! You kept us waiting…'
‘Sorry! I was so tired…’ she lied, ‘What shall we do? Susanna wants us to practice.’
Joe looked sour for the first time since she had known him. It startled her, his distress was somewhat private, intimate, yet displayed for her to see. She felt uneasy right away, not sure why she felt that way. The boy recovered quickly from his foul mood and flashed a startling smile towards her.
‘Yes! We are lucky Lucio is here with us, he could help us…’ His enthusiasm was definitely overdone, but Victoria decided to play along.
‘OK. Lucio, where do you want us and what do you want us to do?’
The gnome hopped off the bench and indicated two spots in the garden quite distant from one another. Then he took a couple of twigs from under the fig tree and positioned them between the two.
‘Very well,’ he said, ‘now you both will make your twig levitate from the ground, make a loop in the air and land again on the same spot where you started from. On the count of three, one, two, three!’
Victoria concentrated on her twig, she stretched out one hand, after a fraction of a second it started levitating gently, she moved her hand in a loop, the twig followed her movement, and she let it float gently to the ground again. Then she looked up to see what Joe had been able to do, too concentrated to notice so far. She felt shock run through her back as she became aware of the fact that the boy was all red and sweaty, his hand stretched out like hers had been, yet trembling terribly, his twig merely shaking in slight convulsions on the ground.
Lucio walked to it, inspecting the scene very closely. This seemed to make the boy even more nervous about his incapability to move the twig: he clenched his teeth and tried visibly harder, making the twig shake even more, but not making it levitate as he should have. The gnome held out one hand and said with a firm voice:
‘Stop right there! You are getting frustrated, which is bad for magic, you know that. Now I want you to sit down on the bench, relax a little and I’ll work with Victoria. We’ll talk about this later, OK?’
Joe merely nodded and went towards the bench. Victoria felt terribly sorry for him. This was probably what the two had been talking about before her arrival. She even figured that they had tried to practice without her, just to check if his powers were really gone or not. The girl felt the terrible urge to comfort him, to hold him tight and tell him that it would be all right in the end. But she was also afraid she might hurt his feelings by letting him think that she felt somehow superior to him… she knew how touchy he got about his abilities, after all, as she had never been able to get more than a few sentences about the place he came from and his powers since its destruction. Torn between the two urges, she had not noticed that Lucio was standing in front of her, a malignant grin on his face, his feet planted on the ground and wide apart, his hands balled into fists on his hips.
‘Now it’s just you and me, young lady. I’ll have you beg for mercy!’ and with that he made her practice until Susanna came home, making large objects fly through the garden, blowing them up and shrinking them very fast, turning their colours in mid air, changing their shapes as they went past, making them merge into each other and pop back to their original shapes. He kept her under constant pressure, Victoria fighting hard to keep up and trying not to feel hurt by his boot camp methods, reminding herself again and again that he had been the one who had helped her the most when she was starting to learn how to use her new powers. She also very well knew that she had not practiced once from the day she had left Italy in August. And probably so did Lucio, who seemed to enjoy himself beyond reason.
Finally, when Susanna called out that lunch was ready, the gnome winked at Victoria and said kindly
‘You did very well. I think we’ll all have another shot at this tomorrow. Would you mind going upstairs now? I have to talk to Joe for a sec. Tell Susanna he’ll be up in a moment, will you?’
‘Of course.’ And she went upstairs to meet her hostess.
‘Have you been practicing as I had told you to?’ was Susanna’s first question.
‘Well, good day to you too. Yes, I was just down in the garden. Lucio wanted to talk to Joe, so he sent me upstairs. He said I had to tell you that Joe will be up in a minute.’
‘Oh, thanks.’ Susanna fiddled with an apple for a moment, absorbed in concentration, then looked at Victoria in the eyes and asked, ‘How did it go?’ she started carving half rounds in the apple, absentmindedly, with the nail of her index finger.
‘Not very well, I suppose.’
‘I was afraid of that… We are all very lucky that Lucio is here to help us.’ And with that she turned her back on the girl and continued torturing the apple. Victoria decided not to ask anything, certain that the woman would not give her any explanation for the moment, maybe out of respect for Joe, who dragged himself to the kitchen only a few minutes later. They would go to the Lake Lucone right after lunch, they had already settled that, so their meal was a very quiet one.
A dozen swans were scattered over the calm surface of the twin lake, floating lazily, sometimes reaching each other slowly. The afternoon sun shone warm and bright, almost as if it still were full summer. The green low hills all around were covered with thick woods, on the east farmed with vineyards; the mountains in the north were blue and dark green against the light blue sky. The grapes had already been plucked, the buzzing of the harvest was a distant memory of a few weeks back, although the air still smelled vaguely of sour grape juice. The only sound that filled the air was that of the birds singing loudly when Victoria, Joe and Susanna reached the Lake Lucone.
‘This place was already known in very ancient times,’ Susanna explained, ‘it been chosen because of the light that forms with the rays of the moon shining in the lakes. The name Lucone already means “light” and the woods here are magical, as the ancients knew long ago. There should be a stone near the willow, saying “here be dragons” in Latin.’ Victoria was amazed at the place and its history.
‘The hunting season has just started, we are lucky that the hunters aren’t out shooting today!’ Susanna continued, ‘Tomorrow it will be a completely different story, they will be out very early and will continue until sundown.’
‘Will they be around here as well?’ Victoria asked.
‘They shouldn’t… this is a sanctuary for the swans, they are protected. Come, I want you to meet Penelope and the others.’
They continued their stroll towards the lake, a willow grew very predictably on the western shore of the glasses’ southern half. Under the branches stood a stone bench and a little further Victoria saw a triangular shaped stone sticking out of the ground. The rock had a rampant dragon in relief and it carried the inscription: HIC SVNT DRACONES, which, as Victoria knew also from Susanna’s explanation, meant “Here be dragons”. She imagined that the stone had been placed many centuries ago, since the edges were worn and it fitted Susanna’s story. The three went straight for the bench and set down. A few swans looked in their direction and slowly approached them, swimming languidly. Once they had reached the bench, they walked out of the lake, wiggling their tails as they emerged and shaking off the drops of water from their feathers. In a fluid movement, they stretched their long necks to the sky and the dark skin around their eyes transformed into long black hair reaching their waist, the white feathers turned into white cotton tunics that reached down to their ankles, their webbed feet were suddenly sandals, and instead of beaks Victoria saw beautiful round faces with intelligent eyes and sweet smiles.
‘These, my dears, are the Naiads. Meet Penelope, Maena, Dilva and Delia.’
All Victoria and Joe managed to do, for one long moment, was stare at the nymphs with their mouths open. Penelope, the tallest of the four, took a step forward, smiling. She had a little charm in the shape of a moon attached to a thin silver chain that she wore around her head, the charm hanging in the middle of her forehead. Penelope opened her hands towards the two youngsters with her palms to the sky and said with a ringing high voice:
‘Welcome, my new friends. These are my sisters, Maena,’ who stood on her right side, she had a little moon charm on her silver necklace and nodded right after her name, ‘Delia,’ who was on the left of Penelope, her little moon charm attached to a silver bracelet, and nodded as well, ‘and Dilva.’ The last nymph was standing on the outer left side from Penelope, she too gave a nod, her little charm was also a moon that adorned the belt she wore around her waist. Victoria noticed that the four nymphs looked like one other like sisters would, but were not identical, she could easily tell them apart. They were all quite small, maybe a bit smaller than Victoria herself, they were slender and moved graciously, all greeting them with the palms of their hands turned to the sky.
Susanna approached the four nymphs and embraced them one by one. Victoria saw that there was real affection between the nymphs and the woman, but also great respect. Then Susanna turned to include Victoria and Joe, introducing them.
‘My dear sister nymphs, this is Victoria, our very own Protector, and this is Joe, a Protector from far away.’
Delia and Maena exchanged a look of understanding behind the back of Penelope, who took a step forward and smiled mildly to the boy and the girl.
‘We are very happy to see you today. We are very excited about tomorrow night, we long for the Moon!’
‘Yes, the Moon will shine bright on us all.’ Answered Susanna, chiming in on the nymph. ‘Have you had any troubles with the hunters?’
‘No, luckily we have not seen hunters around. The forester rangers have been patrolling the area quite often these days, especially on horse back. We saw Jessica, Teresa’s niece, passing by a few times. Her presence always comforts us.’
'I can imagine. How about the wild life, is everything all right?’
The nymphs all exchanged looks, then Penelope nodded and said to Susanna
‘Well, the poachers are hunting down all the small birds, that is a problem. The rangers do as much as they can, but there are so many poachers around who do not care at all, it breaks our hearts.’
‘Wait. Why should they hunt small birds?’ she asked.
‘Because they eat the smaller birds in a local dish called spiedo, which is meat cooked on the spit really. Traditionally small birds were eaten because there wasn’t much else to eat, and people still like the bitter flavour they give to all the meat on the spit.’ Susanna explained.
‘That’s disgusting!’ Victoria said, making faces. Meanwhile Joe had turned pale. He was a strict vegetarian, Victoria knew, and Susanna had been very careful not to cook any meat or fish since he had come to live at the Domus. Penelope resumed her tale with a sigh.
‘It saddens us to see that this kind of behavior has not yet changed over the centuries. On the other hand, the quality of the air and the water are very much improved. Farmers are all turning towards organic farming, thankfully. They seem to have learned from the mistakes of the Eighties. We used to see little sparrows dying with foam bubbling out of their mouth. They would eat some insects that had been poisoned, you know.’
Victoria felt utterly appalled! She never even imagined that this kind of things could happen, she never stopped to think about the consequences of regular farming, not even once had the thought of the impact of pesticides on the environment crossed her mind. But now she heard about them, she felt like she had been a cause to the horror too. Joe, next to her, had stiffened, conscious and in the know of it all. She instinctively turned to look at him, and he, looking at her and reading her expression, took her hand and squeezed it gently.
‘But, my dear Moon sister, we are safe as swans. We are protected, they cannot hunt us. We hear the shootings, they are still quite far away. We hope people will stop soon considering it a sport.’
‘I’m glad, dear swan sister,’ Susanna answered, ‘and we hope with you. Keep me updated if anything funny happens before the celebration of Michaelmas. Twang is here too with her dragons, so we’ll have about three dozens of them all together!’
The nymphs nodded all and smiled gently.
‘We’ll see you tomorrow. We have to go check on the clearing now, I want to be sure that everything is set for tomorrow night, I don’t want people to call the fire fighters on us!’ Said Susanna laughing.
The phone rang three times before the man answered.
‘Pronto, Gian?!’ said the male voice, a little husky and low.
‘Yes, who is this?’ he was on his guard, as every time the other person seemed to know his first name.
‘It’s me, Piero.’
‘Hi. Listen, I just spoke with my brother, he and my cousin are picking me up at 7.’
‘That late?’ Unbelievable! They were supposed to start shooting at the break of dawn, not in full daylight. They knew as much!
‘Yes, my cousin is going to a wedding today, he will be so drunk tonight, you’ll notice his hangover even tomorrow at noon!’
Oh, right. The drunk. Well, he had good shotguns, Gian might even have a go at one of his, maybe the new one…
‘Well, if it can’t be otherwise, than it’s OK, I’ll see you at half past seven. How about the hut in the wood? Can we still use it?’
‘Of course! I have it covered with my colleague, I gave him the money and all! He also told me there is a lake over there, not very far away, with swans, about ten of them. If we shoot one, no one will notice! We could let my cousin get one, even with a hangover he would see them!’
They both laughed very hard. Gian remembered something his grandmother had told him once about swans, she had eaten one during the war, she had said. It tasted like game, she had said.
‘And the pheasants?’
Piero answered right away.
'What? There’s enough for all of us! I told you, they release them every day there is no shooting. Those beasts have been only in cages, they are shocked because they have never even seen the sky without bars, they are very slow, even you could kill more than two in a day!’ And he barked another loud laugh.
‘Screw you! I’ll shoot more than you do, you’ll see! Well, see you.’
The man named Gian hung up. He was getting excited: swans! If there were more than ten, they even might get one each… That was an interesting thing to think about. He hurried to the kitchen to make room in the freezer, swans were big birds!