The car stopped in the proximity of the cabin, on the gravel road that snaked around the vineyards and the first trees of the wood. Once out of the vehicle, they all stretched out, stiff because of the long drive. The bloody Lake was so far away, it was a shame really. The sun was high and burning, just as Gian had thought. He was annoyed by the waste of time, but there was nothing he could do about it. At least he would get to shoot with Mario’s new gun, as he kept reminding himself.
They took their arms and left for the wood, walking around the Lake Lucone: there they nudged each other in the sides, pointing excitedly at the swans, swimming lazily in the twin lakes. Some of the birds turned to look at the men, almost observing them as they walked, but mostly just minding their own business. Gian counted quickly and he decided that there were about a dozen swans, enough for them to shoot. He could hardly wait, they would shoot those beasts once they were done with the pheasants, because they were so big and heavy.
The hunters reached the cabin in a few minutes, passing also a wide clearing among the trees. The air inside the cabin smelled of ammunition and sweat, a vague hint of blood and feathers. Gian hoped the stench would not get to his stomach too much. They only communicated through short sentences, often spaced out with insults and not such best wishes, as they always did when they talked to each other. Then the long wait started, with the gun barrels sticking out of the sloths in the four walls of the cabin. Every time a bird passed, they would shoot, without moving an inch.
Twang was not happy. Victoria could tell, for the girl was pacing up and down all the time, shaking her head and muttering to herself, while pursing her lips. She had not been pleased by the bangs of the hunters, although Susanna had specifically told her that it was hunting season. They also had a… brief exchange of opinions -that is what one would call it- on the subject of celebrating Michaelmas during all this firing of shot guns. The woman had explained that this fact could not be avoided, that she was sorry the Dragon Handler had misunderstood, but there was nothing she could do about it. So Twang had let her dragons off their trailer, about twelve beasts, as big as horses, shining in the late afternoon sun. Victoria was used to Omobono’s dragons, as big as dogs, red or yellow, always happy and cheerful. But these ones were a totally different story: they were a lot taller to start with, their colours varied from midnight blue to candy floss pink. They all looked like some kind of noble breed, like they knew they were royals! Victoria felt intimidated by them, a thing that never happened with the others. Omobono was with all his dragons and his wife in the middle of the clearing, just having fun tossing some twigs in the air so that the animals could blast them away, before they even touched the ground. Joe was keeping Twang’s dragons together, they were very nervous, as their Handler seemed to be. Susanna looked quite annoyed by her behavior, the hunters were not so close after all, Twang was blowing everything out of proportion!
Victoria had left Sara at the Institution in the morning because Luca had showed up. He had been in a hurry to see her, he had said, ‘I want to explain! I was happy for you, honest, I would be happy if you really had found someone. I don’t want to see you sad, though, in tears because of me. What good would it do if we tried.’
Sara answered ‘I would very much like to see where that would take us!’ and he had sagged on the floor.
Victoria had looked particularly sour.
‘How could you both be so delusional? It’s utter madness…’
Sara had flashed one of her dirtiest looks on her:
‘It’s worth trying, so you should let it be!’
Victoria was astonished. When she left the room, she saw Sara sitting on her bed and Luca sitting next to her, concentrated in an attempt to caress her cheek with his impalpable hand.
Back at the Domus, Lucio had been the only company, pressing her again and again to work hard on her skills, until they were perfect. Joe had been at Omobono’s all day, helping out with the dragons. Victoria felt a little jealous, of course she did! He had been mad at her, and she very well knew. And maybe he had been right, but so had she. Susanna had kept to the kitchen, only to study on some ancient documents, as she often did when she had no-one to bother. At the end of the afternoon they had gone to the Lake, to set up the celebrations. Nothing too fancy, Susanna had warned, as she had baked apple pies and had made some sandwiches with a nice salad. She had also brought some fresh apple juice. Victoria liked Susanna’s apple juice, it always made her feel healthy somehow. But once they had arrived at the clearing, Susanna’s mood had changed together with that of Twang. Omobono and Teresa had stayed well out of shot, keeping to their own dragons and not minding the young poeple. Victoria, on the other hand, had tried to stay away from Joe mostly, she wanted him to seek her first, to say he was sorry, not so much that she had to be right, but that he did say he was sorry they had that fight.
Out of the woods came the slender figure of Penelope, walking graciously towards Victoria and Susanna. She was smiling, but her smile was not so warm as it had been on the day before. Again she greeted them with her palms turned to the sky.
‘Dear sisters and brothers.’ She called out.
‘Dear swan sister.’ Answered Susanna back, walking away from the dragons and from Twang’s temper. The others started gathering around, only Joe lingering by Twang’s dragons.
‘I have come to see how you are settled. The Moon will be very clear tonight, the wind will not bother us and hopefully the hunters will go away very soon.’
‘The air is still very warm, dear swan sister. We are pleased that we can celebrate with you. We have everything with us.’
The nymph smiled timidly. Then she turned her face to the sky and froze for what seemed like a million years in that position. Victoria was quite sure she was having a kind of seizure, it could not be anything else! When she regained her consciousness, she spoke to Susanna with great effort.
‘Be aware, my sister, that there are ignorant men about. They do not know, they do not care, they do not live here and they lack the connection to the place. Be careful!’
She turned on the spot and walked quickly away.
‘What did that mean?’ Victoria asked. Susanna only frowned at her and shrugged. So she had no idea, and Victoria had to buy it. The girl knew the woman well enough to understand that she, too, was worried about something, but did not want the others to worry as well, so she had kept her thoughts to herself. Typical! She decided to let it go. For now.
The others all went muttering back to their own real or fictional occupations. Omobono challenged Twang right away, probably trying to distract her: he positioned a couple of dragons behind a rock that stuck out of the grass, motioning her to do the same with hers. The girl gave in, readjusting her long black skirt and giving a rough pull to her corset.
‘OK, Omobono, now let’s see how far your little dragons can spit. You always brag about them!’
Gigiò, Victoria’s favorite, spat for the entire length of the clearing, licking at a wooden panel placed against a tree. Then it was Twang’s turn, she took one of hers and made it spit, which it did, reaching just as far as the little one. She was astonished!
‘Right, let me try another one!’ Omobono’s trick had worked: her mind was not set on her anger anymore.
Susanna remained quite turned in herself, as Joe passed Twang one dragon after another and Teresa helped Omobono. Victoria watched, impressed and baffled at the scene: the grace these animals were able to move with, the ease with which they were able to spit fire, yet were always very gentle to the people around them. They could have easily burned them all to ashes, but they did not: they all looked with great respect and love to their handlers, even the very big ones!
The night started falling, the bangs of the hunters calmed down and died away in the setting sun. The sky turned first orange, then pink, and finally the blue of the evening came from the east. As the shots grew fainter, the dragons relaxed even more, and Twang with them. Only Susanna did not relax: apparently Penelope’s comment on the foreign hunters had not given her peace of mind.
‘I think it’s safe enough to go to the lake now!’ Susanna called out to the others. The air was still warm, although it had definitely lost its heat. Every now and then they heard voices coming from the woods, male voices, rough, hard. A few shots were fired still in the evening sky.
Susanna maneuvered the others towards the lake, took care that every dragon and trailer would leave in the direction of the swans, in order to await for the Moon to rise.
The walk through the woods, in the dark, turned out to be a longer one then on the previous day: for one thing, the bigger dragons were not so bendable as the smaller ones, they could not so easily walk between the trees. And they really were more prone to anxiety, as, with every broken little twig, they would all look around bulging their eyes. Victoria noticed the soothing sounds Twang made the entire time, and Joe trying to imitate her, as he had appointed himself to the role of helper. He had brought his guitar as well, Victoria saw. Now she came to think of it, she had actually never heard him play anything, she always felt embarrassed at such displays of skills though, and she was afraid she might have to leave in order not to melt down with embarrassment. It was silly, she knew that very well, but she could not help it, that was just the way she was. The sky got darker and very soon they had to walk in procession, Susanna up front, in order to reach the Lake Lucone. Victoria closed the line, Gigiò trotting merrily at her side. Every now and then she would look down into his big eyes and he would wink back, as he had done in the summer, the very first time they had met. She really liked him, he was sweet and gentle and he seemed to understand that she could be scared stiff!
Caught up in her thoughts, she almost failed to realize that the woods were behind her, the hill had sloped down gently and come to the spectacle lake, where the sky seemed less dark and the willow was bending over the swans like a loving father would. A treacherous branch lay on the ground and Victoria tripped, like she would sometimes do, but she did not fall, and this was an improvement on her general condition. She caught up with the others, reaching the shores of the lake and smiling at the little dragon, that started puffing smoke in the shape of hearts. The others had assembled around the bench, Susanna had placed the food on it for them to take and the naiads had all changed into their human aspect, conjuring torches out of thin air. Twang made one of her dragons, a shocking pink one that went by the name of Portos, enlighten the torches all around. Victoria was amazed by the beauty of the scene, the dark sky embroidered with stars, the willow over their heads, the lake with the swans white in the dark waters, the torches burning and the colourful dragons all around. If someone had told her that she was in a dream, she would have believed it straight away. She realized that she would have been happier if she had known that Joe was not mad at her though. Once in a while they still heard bangs coming from the woods, distant reminders that there still were hunters around. Susanna looked up every time, annoyed, but Victoria noticed also a hint of worry in her eyes. Was it possible that the thing that had happened with Penelope earlier really was something that scared the woman? Was there something that scared Susanna at all?
They all sat down on blankets and had something to eat, chatting lively about life and dragons, mostly dragons. Joe talked mostly to Penelope and Maena, although he sometimes looked in Victoria’s direction, who was seated between Omobono and Teresa and was being forced to eat more than she would have under more normal circumstances, that is not in their company! When they were finished, Susanna stood up and talked:
‘Very well, my dear friends. Here we are, Michaelmas again, and we are happy to celebrate together again! Thank you for coming, I’m especially thrilled, because we have Victoria with us this time, and Joe of course. For Victoria it’s the first time, so I’ll explain what will follow: we will sing until the Moon rises high enough for the light to touch the lake. After that we will have to wait until the dragons turn invisible and then we go home.’ Then she turned to the nymphs and continued ‘Dear swan sisters, thank you again for hosting this wonderful celebration and letting us call this place home for one night.’
The four of them nodded smiling and heaving their palms to the sky. Another loud bang was heard at a shorter distance, they all froze. Slowly, Susanna took a deep breath and looked around. Her eyes remained fixed for a moment, then she turned back to the others and said in a calm yet urgent tone:
‘We need to see this through. Victoria and Joe, would you come with me to look for those hunters and tell them to leave?’
Victoria was not exactly thrilled by the idea, but she was not willing to let things be either, so she nodded and saw in the corner of her eye that Joe did the same.
‘Very well. Let’s go. I think, you guys,’ she said to the others hesitantly ‘that you could better stay here with the dragons. I don’t think we would have enough time to move them all and the Moon hasn’t risen yet…’ The others agreed, so she nodded to herself and got up, followed by Victoria and Joe.
The three of them went straight for the woods, in silence, walking fast. When they reached the first trees, Susanna stopped and turned around to face the other two.
‘Victoria, you go that way, in the direction of the clearing. And Joe, you go a little more south, I’ll go north and see what I can find. Now remember, those men are armed, we know that much, and there’s more than one, we know that too. We don’t know how many of them there are, I hope it’s just two, more would frankly be too complicated to convince to leave. But let’s not be hasty in our speculations. In case you find them, call me. You will do that by sending a light to me. Now, try doing that, point your palms to the sky and see in your mind’s eye a silver light going from you to me.’
They both obeyed, turned their palms upwards, thought of a silver light and it appeared from their hands, rising to the sky and bowing down to touch Susanna. The woman noticed that Joe’s was much fainter than Victoria’s, and Joe noticed too, making him clasp his hands impatiently. Also the girl had noticed and she stopped the light, closing her own hands into fists and letting them drop on her sides.
‘Good.’ Said Susanna ‘Now, let’s go. Good luck.’ And with that she turned around and walked briskly away. Victoria turned to say something to Joe, she had no idea what that would have been, but she was panicky enough to need his comfort, even though they still had not talked about their fight of the previous day. Yet, when she wanted to say something, he interrupted her straight away and said:
‘Please, don’t play the hero, OK?’ and he turned and left as well.
Right. She was left alone, astonished by his behavior once more, so she decided to go straight for the clearing, praying not be the one to find the men. The night was still dark, the Moon was not shining, so she had to try not to trip or bump into anything while walking among the trees. She was afraid she might get lost, but she recognized so many trees that she imagined she was going the right way. Victoria kept playing Joe’s last words over and over again in her head, but she also tried to picture herself finding the men and “calling” Susanna. The ground rose under her feet and then went gently down. She felt the earth, soft and dry, slide precariously, the trees all around and the dark sky above. Victoria froze. This was the exact same setting as in her nightmares! The ones she had had for the past weeks, every night, repeatedly, without ever coming to the end of it… Her heart started beating furiously in her chest, her breathing quickened, and she was about to start screaming with fear. NO! She must regain control of herself! There were people and other creatures depending on her too. On her not falling apart at once. She closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths and opened her eyes again. She was not even close to calm, but this was the best she could manage, and she hoped very bad that this was just a sick joke of her imagination. A silly fear that popped up and made her believe she had had a premonition. Right, as if there were such things as premonitions! Please!
Victoria reached the clearing, but stayed in the shadows of the trees. She wanted to have the element of surprise, she had decided. Although she had no idea what or who she intended to surprise, but this was pretty traditional, the element of surprise.
Just when she had decided to come forward and step into the clearing, she heard several male voices discussing.
‘I told you! That must have been a cat, not a pheasant…’
‘Are you still drunk from yesterday?’ said another voice, irritated.
‘Now stop it! You wanted to try my shot gun, you said. If you still want to, mind your manners!’ said the first voice.
‘Hey! You made me loose half my day with your stupid being drunk yesterday! You bloody will let me use your shot gun!!’ argued the second voice.
‘Please, stop!’ interrupted a third voice, this man seemed calmer than the other two ‘I still want to kill a swan, I promised one to my mom. If you keep shouting, they will hear us! Now move!’
Victoria was in shock. She must have been, because she realized quite quickly that she could not move one limb, she felt as if she was made of stone, as if she was imprisoned in a trunk, that was actually her body. Her mind was empty, panic flooding her thoughts and washing everything away. But she forced herself to regain some sense, she needed to do something! She knew that she had to go and save the others, somehow. She also knew that she had to warn Susanna and Joe. But she thought that warning would be useless, for they would come to the clearing and not go to the lake, and so the whole thing would turn into a flop!
Just like in her nightmare, she turned around and started running back to the twin lakes as fast as she could. Suddenly the slope she had just descended from felt a lot steeper then before. And considerably longer! Her legs felt hard and heavy as she scrambled upwards reaching the top of the low hill. Once up, she tried to decide the distance of the men: she knew she did not know which direction they would take to the swans, and the dragons, but she also knew that the best way to push them away would be to do it together.