After what to her seemed like an eternity, Joe came running out of the trees, looking bewildered.
‘Where are they? Have you spoken to them? Please, tell me you haven't!’ he was urgent, scared.
‘No, don’t worry, they were at the clearing and when they said they would come here to kill the swans I ran away and called Susanna from here. Although I didn’t know I’d be calling you as well. I’m glad I did, though.’
He looked at her for a long moment. He was about to say something when they heard hoofs stomping on the ground and approaching quickly. Victoria thought for a moment: those could not come from the dragons, for dragons did not have hoofs. The only possibility was… a horse. And she was afraid of horses. Oh dear! Victoria felt the blood leave her face and she took a few steps back.
‘What’s the matter?’ Joe asked worried.
‘Have I ever told you that I’m afraid of horses?’
The boy chuckled. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘Actually, no, I’m not.’ The chuckle became laughter, not roaring, but still audible. He came closer to her and wrapped his arm around her waist.
‘I’ll protect you.” He said smugly.
‘I don’t think this is the right moment for sarcasm.’ Victoria replied icily.
The sound grew louder and quickly there came a dark horse with a white spot on his forehead into view, carrying two people on his back. The horse stopped in front of them and they saw that the first horseman was actually a horsewoman. The second one was definitely Susanna! The other woman was rather short and plump, she had a round face and keen eyes behind her almond shaped spectacles.
‘You called? Where are they?’ Susanna asked at once. Joe slowly let Victoria free from his embrace.
Victoria was silent for a second, and Susanna understood her hesitation: she was afraid of saying too much in front of someone who did not belong to their world, who did not know about the dragons and the nymphs.
‘Victoria, this is Jessica, Teresa’s niece, she’s the ranger here, and was already looking for the men. She had heard the shots as well and is actually very determined to have them arrested.’
‘I see. Well, I heard them say that they want to kill the swans. They were back at the clearing, I think they are coming this way... they won’t be long now…’
Susanna meanwhile had dismounted and said to the ranger:
‘Why don’t you go and warn the police? We’ll try to push them towards the road. You could pick them up there.’
‘Sounds reasonable. I’m off!’ and she went, spurring her horse.
As soon as she was gone, the three of them heard the distinct rough voices of them men approaching.
‘How many are they?’ Susanna asked.
‘At least three. Two were having a kind of fight. One must have been very drunk yesterday. This one has a new gun or something, and the one who's angry wants to try it. On the swans. I think they want to shoot one swan each.’ Once Victoria had said the words, she noticed an icy chill going down her spine, the meaning of what she had just said sinking in.
Susanna nodded a few times.
‘OK, there isn’t much we can do really. Except try to convince them first. You must not use your powers against them, they might tell someone, they might expose us. We have to be very careful! Remember. And they must not see the dragons, we have to keep them at least this far away from the lakes.’
Victoria remembered one little thing she had practiced with Lucio early that morning: he had wanted her to create an illusion, it had been a very tiny one, but it had worked.
‘This morning I created an image with Lucio, it was a little firefly. Maybe I’m able to do the same with swans…’ Susanna thought for a moment, then she nodded and said:
‘Try right now, let’s see what it looks like.’
The girl concentrated very hard on the image of the swans, her eyes close tight. Then she felt her hands prickle lightly and when she opened her eyes again, she saw the small image of a swan shimmering slightly next to her.
‘Can you try to make it a bit bigger? It’s the size of a cat now, they wouldn’t buy this, I’m afraid…’
Victoria nodded and concentrated harder. The image grew bigger as they watched, until it was a full sized swan, wiggling its tail and looking around.
"Excellent!’ Susanna was clapping her hands, enthusiastic. Which often worried Victoria.
‘And now try to make more then one! Maybe we’ll be able to fool them…’ she said, hope dripping from her voice.
Victoria obeyed again, making other six swans popping up and shimmering as they looked around, moving their tales and wings and walking in circles. The images never touched each other, they looked real animals used to living in a group.
‘Good! Great! Good girl!! OK, make them disappear now. Let’s try and reason with them first. Try to project the images over there, in the direction of the road. In case these men want to harm your images, the police will be able to see them.’
Victoria concentrated again and conjured the images of about ten swans near the deserted road. In the meantime the men had come out of the trees, shot guns over their shoulders, still muttering curses to each other under their breath.
Susanna approached them and with one of her most delightful smiles she said:
‘Good evening gentlemen. I’m here with my family for a celebration. And I was wondering if you had been the ones shooting.’
The men stopped. They all looked quite alike, all had the same posture, the same shallow faces and dark hair, although one had a very weak chin, while the others all had the same thin lips and set of the nose, as if they were related. Two of them looked almost like identical twins. The man with the week chin answered.
‘If you don’t go away at once, we’ll shoot you too! It’s bloody hunting season and we want some swans too.’
‘But swans are protected!’ replied Susanna, faking horror in her voice.
‘Bull shit! Now if you don’t leave…’ and he took the gun from his shoulder, motioning it towards the woman.
‘Come on Gian! This is insane, put that gun down…’
‘Piero, mind your bloody business!’
‘Gian, this isn’t necessary. You don’t need to hurt the woman, she’ll back off.’
The man grunted, not really convinced, but turned his gun, so that it did not point to Susanna anymore.
One of the two almost twins nudged him and pointed in the direction of the road.
The man named Gian looked and his eyes bulged out in surprise.
‘Never mind, lady! Now, let’s go, there are even more than we thought…’
They all moved towards what they thought were the swans they desired to kill.
‘No!’ Called Susanna ‘Don’t!’
Gian looked around ferociously and he pointed his shot gun at her again.
‘I said don’t mind us! I still could kill you if you don’t bugger off…’
She took a step back, her hands held up in surrender. Victoria thought she understood Susanna's little game: she wanted to grant the police a little more time. Joe gasped at the gesture of the man, while Victoria tried to remain focused on her task, pretending to be very scared, but in fact not letting fear get to her.
‘I’m sorry.’ Susanna said, ‘I won’t bother you anymore.’
‘Gian, come on, we still have to reach the swans without scaring them.’ The almost twin said, tugging at his sleeve.
‘Piero, let me go or I’ll shoot you instead!’
‘Now calm down! What’s the matter with you, we were supposed to have fun today.’
‘Fun is when you actually get to shoot something, and not when every time you are about to kill some bird someone makes you miss the aim or vomits all over your shoes!’
‘I said I was sorry!’ said the man that was not the other twin. Victoria recognized his voice: he had been bickering with this Gian person before. ‘Now, let it go, will you? We still can go home with more then a few robins…’
Gian calmed down a little and turned around to go away with the others. Victoria hoped earnestly that the ranger and the police would soon be there, but still she did not see anyone. The Moon was almost high enough now to shine in the lake and She was already bleaching the vineyards all around.
The men, worked up by the upcoming killing, noticed under their breaths how well they could see the birds a little further and moved towards them. When they thought they were close enough, Gian took the aim with the shot gun he had pointed at Susanna and shot. Bang! The shimmering image blurred slightly, then recomposed into the bird it had been before. The man was baffled.
‘How can this be?’
‘Let me!’ said Piero. Another loud bang. The blurring again, and the subsequent astonished look on their faces.
‘It’s impossible!’ Cried the other almost twin. The last man took his shot gun from his shoulder and gave it to Gian.
‘Here, try this, it has been fixed, you should be able to get them all in one go.’ Gian looked at him, even more baffled.
‘And you didn’t manage to kill anything anyway?’
But he took the gun and shot. A louder bang. While the echo was still dying away, a man stepped out of the shadows of the vineyard.
‘Put your guns to the ground, you are under arrest for poaching and death threat. We have a guns too, so don't try anything funny.’
The men understood at once that their party was over. They carefully placed their guns on the ground and put their hands in the air. Then ranger Jessica stepped out of the shadows, smiling at Susanna, who gave her a nod. The woman turned to Victoria and Joe.
‘OK, Victoria, you can stop. Jessica told me that they had been busy with poachers all day and she was glad she could take care of these. Let’s go back to the lakes or we’ll miss the magic.’ And she took off at high speed.
The two youngsters jogged behind her, until they reached the shores. Twang’s dragons were restless again, they too had heard the bangs of the guns. Joe and Victoria went straight for them to help their Handler calm them down.
The dragon named Portos rose on his hind legs and threatened to run away when Victoria approached him. She made the soothing sounds she had heard from Twang and Joe. She patted him carefully on his side in order to bring him back to the ground, sending golden light to him from her hands. It took a little while, but the dragon finally calmed enough. When Victoria looked around, she noticed that the other dragons had all relaxed visibly and the Moon had shot her first rays in the lakes. Suddenly the whole valley was flooded in a white thick light, it had an almost misty texture and it covered everything. The dragons instinctively lifted their muzzles to the Moon, as the nymphs lifted their faces in unison. They remained in that position for a very long time, almost congealed by the white light. Victoria was fascinated, taking in the whole scene with her mouth slightly open. Then the dragons flickered until they completely disappeared. This must have been the point Susanna had said, the Michaelmas magic completed.
The nymphs turned into beautiful silver swans, they flew up in the night sky, making complicated patterns in the air above the lakes, always careful not to leave the white light, always gracious as they swooshed over the others. A faint silvery rain fell from the sky, touching and illuminating everyone.
Then the nymphs touched the ground again and returned to their human shape in one heartbeat. They all smiled serene to the others.
The Celebration was over, Michaelmas was going to be Victoria’s favorite day. She decided to join Joe, who was standing a bit further away and looking at her.
She ran into his arms, happy, relieved. He smelled warm, had a vague woody scent that made her feel at home, while he held her tightly in his embrace.
‘How are you?’ he asked tenderly.
‘I’m OK now. And you?’
‘Never been better. I’m sorry, for the fight, for… everything.’
It did not matter, not anymore. Victoria had understood, finally.
‘So am I. Let’s pretend it never happened and I know it will never happen again.’
‘What if you do feel like there is something that is not right, what if you want to leave?’
Victoria thought for a moment, holding him tight and her heart beating madly.
‘All I know, is that without you it wouldn’t feel complete. My life, or the world for that matter, wouldn’t feel complete.’
Joe smiled hugely, he lifted her chin with his finger and whispered, looking at her in the eyes:
‘You are my sky full of stars.’
His lips found hers. He kissed her gently, warmly, intensely. They kissed for a long time, she never knew how long, however, and the rest of the world only saw two people aglow in the moonlit night of Michaelmas.