Rowena woke with a start. She had dreamed of the flaxen haired woman again. She sat up on her straw pallet and rubbed her eyes. She normally didn’t remember her dreams, but these were of such clarity and vividness that it was as though she’d actually lived them. She viewed such excesses as signs of an undisciplined mind, and frowned in deep dissatisfaction with herself as she rose in search of a drink of water. Her throat was dry, and the dream had left her twitchy and restless.
The dreams had started harmlessly enough, uncommonly vivid and coherent, but not menacing. She was like a silent observer of the other woman’s daily life. Along with flaxen hair, the woman had a pleasantly rounded figure and a remarkably sweet smile. Rowena watched as the woman tended a well-organized herb garden, milked several goats, used magic to heal an owl with an injured wing, and dispensed remedies of many kinds to a succession of folk who sought her out.
Over several nights, the dreams had become less coherent but much more alarming. The pleasant-faced woman seemed threatened from many sides by dangers Rowena couldn’t quite name. Standing, cup in hand in the darkness before dawn, Rowena exhaled sourly through her nose. She didn’t need to be an interpreter of dreams to know what dangers might threaten a witch who took little care to hide her abilities. Something in the other woman’s guileless expression told Rowena that a prudent caution was not one of the healer’s gifts.
Rowena slipped quietly between the straw pallets where other women slept the sleep of the untroubled. She made a stealthy way into the tiny scriptorium. She wouldn’t be so unthrifty as to waste a candle on such a frivolous errand, so she felt her way in the dark, following along the table until she came to the shelves where books and scrolls rested: an island of reliable wisdom and calm in a world that often felt too complicated to be born. She rested her hands flat on the surface of the book that had been preoccupying her of late.
The other sisters couldn’t imagine what Rowena found so compelling about an old dry book dedicated to the minutiae of grammar, but they were accustomed to her idiosyncrasies, and left her to it. She always accomplished her days work of copying, was studious, quiet, disciplined and dedicated. She was certain that none of the other sisters were capable of imagining what she found so engrossing in the grammatical tome. She didn’t judge them for this. Imagination wasn’t anything she valued.
The book had come into her hands not long before. Her mother had died several years ago, and only last harvest, a box of her mother’s possessions had come to light. As many did, Rowena’s mother had chosen to leave her valued possessions in the safe-keeping of the Priory. She had not told Rowena this, and the box, having been lost and forgotten, had only recently been rediscovered.
Rowena had recognized the book’s true identity immediately. With the discipline of years, she kept her face expressionless as she examined it in front of the prioress. The moment she was alone with the book however, she fell on it like a starved child on a minced pie. Despite her dedication to scholarship and her pursuit of any and all literature, she had come across very few books of magic. Anyway, such books were risky, especially here. Each time she so much as touched the book, she could feel the power of the magician who was its author. She delighted in the cunning and artistry of the mind that had devised such a skillful disguise.
She had been given some tutelage from her mother, so the spell on the first page of the book presented no obstacle to her. The magic beyond that though was a different matter. When she was alone in the scriptorium, she would complete her day’s work by magic, then spend the time till nightfall poring over the book, puzzling over the complex instructions, and wondering if she dared try any of the spells. Only last week she’d had a terrible turn when, having accidentally transformed her long dark hair into bright feathers, she’d been temporarily unable to change it back. The panic engendered by this near catastrophe had scared her badly.
Before coming to live here, she had spent many sleepless nights agonizing over the decision to do so. She had given up much in exchange for the safety and opportunities for scholarship it afforded. She had forced herself to accept many onerous obligations in order to be here, had spent time earning the trust of her sisters. The thought of losing her hard-won position because of a reckless mistake was intolerable. She vowed to go more slowly, to be more careful.
Her mother had been dismayed at Rowena’s choice. They had argued about it. Her mother, a less serious-minded woman, pleasure-loving and easy going, couldn’t imagine choosing the life Rowena contemplated. “You’ll be shut up with the same people day in and day out!” She exclaimed.
They were sitting companionably by the fireside in the single room of their cottage. A spindle hovered in midair beside the older woman as a smooth length of green thread emerged from it, rolling itself into a neat ball on the table. Rowena, whose task it was to make the soup for their evening meal, caused a spoon to stir the caldron in precise circles as she sat across from her mother, leaning forward and speaking with intensity.
“How else can a woman be a scholar?” She asked passionately. “You know that’s all I care about. I don’t care about children or husbands or pretty things.” She cast a glance around the cottage, half impatient half indulgent, taking in the many signs of ornamentation her mother managed to produce from their meager income.
“You’re my only surviving child. Am I never to have a granddaughter then?”
Rowena’s eye’s softened and she reached out to lay her hand briefly on her mother’s arm, almost in apology. Rowena rarely showed affection. Her mother sighed, and allowed the spindle to come to rest on the table.
“Ah well, it’s for you to choose. If that is what you wish, then I will not hinder you.”
Rowena smiled. She had been prepared to defy her mother if she must, but she was glad not to have to. Also, she was glad not to have to bring forward the most grim of her many reasons for choosing as she had. The tide of belief and custom was turning in Britain. Magic, once revered and sought after, wasn’t quite so stylish anymore. In fact, it could be downright dangerous in the wrong company.
Rowena’s mother knew this as well as anyone, but she would not be careful. Rowena had remonstrated with her many times over indiscretions, but her mother would just laugh. Only last month, Rowena had watched in horror as her mother stopped the cheese maker’s youngest son grievously injuring himself, by magically arresting his fall from the limb of a cherry tree he’d been forbidden to climb.
“Would you have had me let him break his leg or worse?” her mother had asked in shock.
Rowena frowned. “He’s a horrid little boy and he’s been told over and over not to climb that tree,” she said.
“You haven’t answered my question,” her mother replied. For a light-minded woman, she was capable of a logical rigor in conversation that Rowena had learned from, but which she didn’t always appreciate.
Rowena hated above all else to be at a loss for words, or incapable of answering a question. This, however, was a riddle beyond her skill. Should magic be used to save others from suffering, even if the potential victim was unworthy? Even if it put the sorceress herself at risk?
Choosing to sidestep the question again, Rowena said, “If the wrong person saw you do such a thing, folk might begin to mutter against you. You yourself have told me tales of witches and wizards being driven away by folk who feared or mistrusted them. Sometimes an even worse fate awaits those accused of dark practices.”
“What dark practice is there in saving a child, no matter how wretched, from injury or death?” It was an argument they had, in one form or another, at least once a season, and it always ended with her mother saying blithely, “I’m a sorceress, no one can harm me!” Rowena hoped passionately that this was true, but she wasn’t sure.
Now, standing in the darkness, her hand resting on the cool cover of the Metamorph Magi, she felt a stab of longing for her dead mother. Friendly as the other sisters were, Rowena had no true friend among them, and she missed the intimacy of having someone to love, who loved her.
The next few weeks offered little opportunity for scholarship, mundane or magical. It was planting season, and all hands were needed in the fields, even hands which normally touched only parchment. During this time, Rowena’s dreams receded into their former forgettable recesses. The physical fatigue of the work had its benefits. She hoped that this would be the end of the matter. Not long after her return to the scriptorium however, she was once again wakened by compelling but unfocussed sequences in which the fair haired woman was surrounded by forces that sought to harm her.
Although the sources of the threat were unclear, certain details of the woman’s surroundings began to build in Rowena’s mind until she felt sure she would recognize the village and the people in it if she encountered them in the living world. The woman wasn’t far from the coast. The countryside she called home was hilly, and there was a Saxon castle somewhere nearby. Storms were violent, and sometimes caused destruction, or even a change in the shape of the coastline.
Rowena couldn’t have said when or how she began to believe that the woman was real. By the time she thought to wonder how it had happened, it was too late. Rowena was not given to fanciful notions. In fact she found fanciful notions distasteful. She had never dreamed like this before, and she knew that her mother had sometimes learned things about the real world through dreams. The compelling vividness of the dreams convinced Rowena that they betokened something in the real world. This certainty was rivaled only by her fervent wish that they would go away.
One of the most disturbing aspects of these dreams was how oblivious the fair haired woman seemed to the danger that menaced her. The sweet smile that was her typical expression alternately charmed and infuriated Rowena. The woman began to seem like the younger sister Rowena had never had, and she longed to shriek warnings as the other woman dispensed charms and remedies with ingenuous disregard for the risks.
It was around this time that Rowena began noticing the raven. It didn’t do anything showy, but ravens are ravens, and she noticed. The first time she saw it, it was perched on top of a barn, another raven next to it. Immediately she thought of Huginn and Muninn, the ravens of thought and memory. Thought, or perhaps memory, took to the wing, and Rowena didn’t see it again. The raven’s continued presence, combined with the dreams, were undermining the tranquility she’d come here to find, and distracting her from scholarship.
She began to get careless, a failing she loathed in others. One evening, thinking herself alone in the scriptorium, she used magic to prevent her candle from tipping over onto the manuscript she had just finished illuminating. She heard a gasp of shock behind her, and whirled to find she was not alone. She tried to say that she’d caught it with her hand, but she saw the incredulity mingled with fear. Nothing was said, but Rowena’s place there, never warm, became distinctly cooler.
It was the incident with the raven that forced her hand. She’d been helping (reluctantly) with the milking, and some foolish village children were throwing stones at the raven, which had perched on the barn’s roof. Rowena hadn’t known what they were doing until she stepped out of the barn. If she’d had more time to think, she’d have done differently, but, seeing the bird about to be pegged off by little Willie, who had a vicious and accurate shot, she acted before thinking, another flaw she despised in others.
Using magic, she stopped the stone in midair and sent it back to tap Willie smartly on the forehead before falling to the ground at his feet. This time, it wasn’t just one person seeing something odd in the half light of evening. There were witnesses: lots of them. In the shock of what she’d done, she lacked the presence of mind to dawn an astounded expression to match those of the people around her. Instead, they all looked stunned, while she alone looked guilty and frightened.
Some clarity returning at last, Rowena broke the awed silence, sounding as normal as she could, she upbraided the children for their idleness. Disliking children, she was fairly accomplished at upbraiding, and the children, like the adults, not knowing what to do or say, merely slunk off, muttering vaguely. Rowena Picked up her pail of milk, and made a remark about the weather before scuttling away.
After that, things began to be markedly uncomfortable for Rowena. She could feel tension building. No one had said anything yet, but instinct told her that her place there might no longer be a safe one. She had heard many stories from her mother of such times: when security turned to suspicion, and it became prudent or even necessary to move on.
She was not yet permanently committed to the house where she lived. When she asked, a peddler’s family bound for the coast agreed she could travel with them. She had heard of an Abbey with a library there, and, having no other destination in mind, abandoned what she had expected to be safety and permanence. Folk were unflatteringly pleased to see her go. She held her head high as she left, but felt a twinge of sadness she was careful not to show.