On the outskirts of the village of Llangwnadl, Ansgar dragged a sled carrying a large, flat stone across an open field, the tall grass flattening under the sled’s weight. He walked slowly because he was weary from hauling stones, which he had done for endless hours every day. Blisters dotted his feet, and where the rope chafed his hands, his skin ached with raw redness.
But sorrow weighed him down, too.
On each trip he passed by Evelina’s hut, where she sat on the porch sewing clothes for her neighbors. He wondered if Evelina made his tunic and trousers. Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Evelina’s long, black hair flowed like silk in a breeze, and her round, bright face reminded Ansgar of the full moon. Her lips were the color of rose petals.
Ansgar wanted to ask Evelina to marry him, but whenever he thought of trying, his stomach bubbled and his throat tightened, locking the words inside him. All he could manage was a tepid wave “hello.”
Ansgar knew that Wynter, who lived on the far side of the village and owned seventeen sheep, eight chickens, and one cow, making him a desirable husband, also had an eye for Evelina. If he didn’t ask Evelina soon, Wynter would, and anguish would forever encase his heart.
Rhythmic susurrations reverberated out of the nearby cave. Ansgar stuck his head inside. “Hello. Who’s there?” His question echoed back at him.
The rustling of footsteps. A scraggly, old man emerged from the cave. His long, stiff, gray beard dropped from his chin like a stalactite. He leaned into the branch that he used as a cane and wobbled toward Ansgar.
Ansgar took three swift steps backward to avoid contact with Swiþhelm. He had heard about a villager who touched the sorcerer without consent and turned into a toad. Ansgar wasn’t sure if that was because an angered sorcerer cast a curse or if the sorcerer was so powerful that even a slight touch would unleash his black magic.
But Ansgar needn't have worried. Swiþhelm shot his arm forward and set his wide-open hand on Ansgar’s face. With his fingers bracketing Ansgar’s eyes, nose and mouth, he rotated his hand to the left, then the right. Swiþhelm probed Ansgar’s forehead, nose, cheeks, and lips with his fore and index fingers. “Is this Ansgar?”
Ansgar cocked his head to one side, regarding Swiþhelm for a few beats. The sorcerer is blind. Even the most powerful of magicians can’t thwart time’s ravages.
“Aye. I’m Ansgar.”
“Is this your home?” Ansgar asked.
“It is,” Swiþhelm replied. “Does it surprise you that I dwell in a cave? A sorcerer with great powers can reside anywhere, but I chose a dark cave with bats and centipedes.” He took another step forward, clutching the cane with both hands.
The sorcerer’s breath smelled of lilac and juniper, which surprised Ansgar. He expected the old man to reek of rotting teeth.
“Spirits are easier to summon in the shadows.” Swiþhelm rapped Ansgar’s leg with his cane. “How is my circle coming along? When will you be finished?”
“It will be completed during my generation. Ælfhelm, Cædmon, Earnwulf, and Ohthere are strong and, like me, require little sleep.” Ansgar beamed a smile even though Swiþhelm could not see. “We labor fast and place the stones exactly where you ask.”
“Your father was a good worker, too. He laid the circle’s first stones fifteen years ago.”
“Thank you.” Ansgar scratched his chin. His green eyes lit as an idea exploded in his brain. He shuffled his sandaled feet and spoke, casting his gaze to the ground. “Though we work day and night, the stones are heavy, and the right ones are difficult to find. Just in case I can’t complete your magic circle in my lifetime, I should produce offspring to continue the task.”
The sorcerer nodded. “You are clever, like your father.”
“But I’m having trouble acquiring a wife.” Ansgar blushed, and his speech slowed like a snail wandering through the mud. “Would you cast a spell on Evelina, the seamstress, who lives in the hut on the road to Skenfrith, and make her love me? I will sire a dozen, strong boys who can complete the circle should the duty befall them.”
“I will do that.” Swiþhelm retrieved a deerskin pouch from his pocket. He spoke in an ancient tongue as he scattered the powder. The powder coruscated like embers adrift in a fire. His eyes rolled back into his head as if in a trance, the incantation cascading faster and faster. Ansgar heard the words “love forever” and “unconditional love.”
The powder sparked red, blue, and gold, brighter than the late afternoon sun. Swiþhelm’s magic cloud rustled like a pile of leaves caught by a sudden gust of wind before taking the shape of an arrow. Love’s arrow, Ansgar thought. The undulant arrow aimed at Evelina’s house, its shaft coiling like a snake.
Ansgar pivoted to the noise behind him.
Dozens of wild dogs—all breeds and shapes, long furred and hairless dogs, some with prominent snouts, some with pug faces and everything in between, dogs as large as ponies and as small as kittens—wandered into the arrow’s path.
The blind sorcerer did not see the dogs. He raised his cane and shouted to the arrow, “Go to Evelina. Love the man!”
The arrow lurched forward and struck the dogs, encircling them with the glittery powder. The dogs raised their noses, sniffed the strangeness, and chomped on the cloud until the air cleared.
Their tails, which had been stiff and low, now wagged. Their eyes, just moments ago narrow and fierce, opened wide. Their fangs no longer bared, and soft barks replaced harsh growls.
Several of the dogs ran over to Ansgar, their tails wagging faster than a cricket’s beat. One carried a stick in its mouth, depositing it at Ansgar’s feet. Another stood and rested its paws on Ansgar’s chest, its tongue lolling.
Ansgar petted the dogs as they nuzzled his legs and licked his cheek and hands. He tossed sticks that they chased, ran in circles with them, and let them climb all over him as he laid on the grass. He forgot all about Evelina.