Rowena detested bodily discomforts. It wasn’t that she was soft, or a lover of luxury, rather the opposite. Having dedicated her life to the pursuit of scholarship, she felt matters of the body to be beneath her notice. As a child, she would look on with scorn as, each week, her pleasure-loving mother would conjure a person-sized tub in the middle of their small cottage, use magic to fill it with water, then stir it with her wand till it reached a temperature that filled their tiny home with steam. Now however, weary, saddle-sore, and aching from nights of sleeping on the cold ground, she felt her lofty ideals to be at an all-time low. She spent the last hour of daylight daydreaming about sufficient privacy in which to do a re-enactment of her mother’s weekly program, and soak her various physical complaints away. She wouldn’t act on her desire, but it helped pass the time to imagine it.
There was only one spare horse for riding, and she knew it was generous of the peddler’s family to let her ride at all. She had been prepared to walk all the way to the coast, and as she slid down off the tired beast and hobbled bow-legged to begin helping to set up camp for the night, she thought she’d best return to walking in the morning. It was a tossup between competing aches.
As she reached to pull down a load of blankets from the wagon, Draugur, the unpleasant elder brother of the peddler’s wife materialized at her side to help her. Tired and unfit though she felt herself to be, she would gladly have dispensed with his aid. He was a reticent, scrawny young man with an incongruously ruddy complexion, who seemed to like staring at her. He was one of the burdens she must bear in exchange for protection on the road.
The peddler’s wife Elwyna had tried to shrug off Rowena’s stated discomfort, but there was no denying that the woman looked shifty even as she attempted to reassure. “He travels with us,” she had remarked unhelpfully. “My husband needs the help of a strong man in his work sometimes.” This statement was so obviously absurd that it would have been rude to say anything, so Rowena said nothing. Feran, the peddler, was a strong and extremely capable man. The buying, selling and transportation of goods across Sussex with the aid of draft animals and a sturdy wagon seemed unlikely to require the help of someone as stringy and indolent as Draugur. If Elwyna had her secrets, Rowena did too, and so she didn’t press the matter, out of respect as much as courtesy to her hosts.
Rowena had in fact come to like Feran and Elwyna very much. Feran was cheery, practical and efficient. Elwyna was kind, humorous, and sufficiently firm with her small children. Elwyna had a baby at the breast, and a boy of eight or so named Aidan.
With the inscrutable motives of a child, Aidan fixated on Rowena almost from the moment she joined their company. He was always hanging about, asking her questions, talking guilelessly of his childish fancies, and generally disturbing her peace of mind. As a guest, she couldn’t openly snub him, and her attempts at indifference or stern looks seemed only to heighten his interest in her.
They were travelling generally eastward. Feran’s custom was to move goods from French traders on the Sussex coast westward toward Wessex, and produce from the rich Sussex farm and pastures east to the sea coast. Sometimes this meant travelling on droverways that led from settlements toward outlying farms and pastures. At other times it meant traversing the great forest of Andredsweald, relying on the remnants of old Roman roads to speed them past the dangers of wolves, wild boar, and the occasional bear that dwelt in the forest.
The forest was sparsely dotted with small settlements, but folk there seemed so removed from the farmers and herders of the downs and coastal plains that Rowena was unsure whether they even spoke the same language. The people of these small settlements were as likely to fend them off with spears and pikes as to welcome them. After years of plying the same routes, Feran generally knew whom to avoid, but these isolated folk could be unpredictable, so he always approached with caution.
At the end of a particularly long day of travel, Feran chose to set up camp in a small clearing made by a burn off of the previous season. Lightning would cause occasional small fires, but the damp climate ensured things never became serious.
Having made sure that Draugur was occupied in helping Feran to cover the wagon’s contents of grain against the damp of evening and early morning, Rowena set off to fill the water skins for the camp, and to have a little private wash by the stream. She had stuck by her self-imposed injunction against doing magic. She didn’t warm the water before washing, nor lighten its weight as she trudged up hill, a heavy skin in either hand, back to where Elwyna had lit the cooking fire. Rowena tried not even to think about doing these things, but to her own disgust, she was unable to sufficiently discipline her mind.
The sun had gone below the horizon, and in the forest, twilight came easily. As Rowena crested the small hill, it took her a few seconds to take in what she was seeing. Feran and Draugur were busy at the wagon on the far side of the clearing. Elwyna, having got the fire nicely alight, was flinging the saddle blankets across some low shrubs to air. Needing both hands, she had placed the baby on a blanket. Having turned her back briefly, she didn’t see the wolf that slunk silently toward the fire. Rowena’s mouth opened in a silent scream as the wolf lunged toward the oblivious infant. Then, several things seemed to happen all at once. With no thought in her head of what to do, Rowena dropped the water skins and bounded forward. Sensing something, Elwyna turned, a saddle blanket still in her hand. Before either of them could do anything however, there was a piercing shriek, and a dark shape descended on the wolf like an arrow shot from the bow. Before either of the women knew what was happening, the wolf’s right eye had been gouged out by the fierce claw of the raven. Howling with agony, the wolf turned and fled into the darkness under the trees.
Trembling with reaction, Rowena moved like a sleepwalker toward the baby, who, frightened by the noise, began a howling of her own. Galvanized into action, Elwyna dropped the blanket and lunged forward to snatch the baby up into her arms. Above the baby’s head, the eyes of the two women met. Even through her shock, Rowena felt the knife of Elwyna’s piercing gaze, which asked a silent question.
Rowena, her strength drained by reaction, let herself sink onto a mossy bolder and dropped her head briefly into her hands. She didn’t want to look at Elwyna, who seemed to be asking, maybe even accusing. Finally however, she forced herself to look up. Elwyna was rhythmically stroking the baby into calm, while her gaze continued to rest on Rowena. Rowena saw that the older woman’s eyes were not accusatory however, only intensely curious.
“How did you do that?” She asked.
“Do what?” Rowena asked limply. “I didn’t do anything, it was the raven.” But even as she said it, the word raven caught in her throat. Had she done something? Of course not. The raven had clawed at the wolf, not she. The raven had done it…, because…, because ravens…. She rubbed her index finger across the bridge of her nose, a habit she had when very distressed. She dropped her head into her hands once more. When she looked up again, she said mechanically, “It was a miracle.”
Elwyna gave her a hard stare devoid of the awe miracles usually inspired, but said merely, “Say nothing to the men. We’ll tell them the wolf tried for the raven who it took for injured, and got more than it bargained for.”
Rowena spent an uncommonly uneasy night. Apart from the cold hard ground, she was troubled both by the events of the evening, and by the occasional strange sounds that came from the forest around them. She could identify many of the night sounds by now, but there were odd rumblings, growlings and keenings whose significance wholly escaped her, and which chilled her blood.
Toward dawn she fell into a dream in which the fair-haired woman was stirring a caldron over a fire, while sounds that might have been the roar of battle could be heard in the distance. The woman seemed not to hear them, and continued placidly stirring the caldron’s contents, which were emitting turquoise steam.
It was not turquoise steam she awoke to however, but rather a driving rain and capricious wind. Feran decided that they should stay where they were till the worst of the weather passed. They were at a point where they would soon need to take one of the droverways to bypass a particularly dense growth of trees in the Andredsweald, and Feran was wary of bogging the wagon down in mud.
Rowena was unashamedly relieved to have a day of rest. Feran and Draugur had pulled the wagon well beneath a stand of leafy trees. Wrapped in all the clothing she possessed, and tucked in between sacks of grain, Rowena felt uncommonly warm, cozy and safe. She had retreated there with her precious Metamorph Magi, as much for the comfort of the weight of the book in her hands as for purposes of scholarship. It travelled with her, by far the most substantial of her meager possessions, wrapped carefully in waxed cloth to protect it from the elements. When asked about it by Elwyna, she had said only that it was an inheritance from her mother.
Draugur, as he often did, had taken himself off into the forest on whatever mysterious errands occupied him. Rowena was glad to know nothing about his business. Reading and daydreaming, she had lost track of where the others were. She had, in fact, dozed off, the heavy book open on her lap, her head lolling against a grain sack, when faint scrabbling sounds disturbed her. She stirred faintly and opened her eyes to see Aden’s small face and mischievous bright eyes appear between the other sacks and bundles packed in the wagon. Seeing her eyes open, he abandoned his intention of scaring her awake with a blood-curdling scream, and settled for grinning at her and scrambling up onto the wagon bed, shimmying his way toward her. Sleepy and contented, she made no move to dissuade him.
On an inspiration, she whispered, “I’m hiding here. Let’s make a game of seeing how quiet we can be.” Aden was instantly interested by any use of the word game, and immediately put his finger to his lips and curled up at her feet, making himself into a tiny ball of warmth that she found oddly appealing. Her flighty mother had often allowed cats to share their small cottage as a way to keep rodents out of their modest food stores, and Rowena was reminded of them by Aden’s small weight against her. The sound of the rain was soothing, and to her delight, the boy did actually doze off as she’d hoped.
Some time later, they both woke to find that the rain had lessened in intensity. Still drowsy, Aden attempted to climb into her lap. Still sleepy herself, she allowed it, shifting the book carefully aside. She was not a maternal woman, but something in her responded to the warm, confiding weight of the small boy in her lap.
He reached out a grubby hand toward the book. Instinctively, she grabbed his hand and rubbed it on the edge of her cloak lest her precious book be soiled. With a slightly less grubby fingertip, he touched the cover. “Will you teach me to read?” He asked ingenuously. “What does this shape mean?” He traced the first letter M in Metamorph, and looked up at her inquiringly.
“That’s the letter M,” she said drowsily, “it makes the sound mmm, like in mother.”
“And this one?” His finger traced the E.
“That’s the letter E,” she replied automatically, “It can make lots of sounds, like….” Her voice trailed off, as a shot of adrenaline jolted her into full awareness. In her disciplined way, she showed nothing of her shock to Aden. “Trace the other letters you see.” Dutifully, he traced all the letters of the title: Metamorph Magi, Enchant Your Way to Anonymity. “Now open the book if you want to.” Her tone was neutral while her insides roiled with shock and vague alarm.
He opened the book, then made a sound of scorn and disappointment. “There’s nothing here!”
Rowena rubbed an index finger across the bridge of her nose. She was doing some fast thinking. She was quite accomplished at fast thinking, and said calmly, “This is a very special book. You can only see what’s written there if you know how to read.”
“That’s no fair! How can I know how to read if I can’t see the writing?”
She turned the pages carefully back to the opening page, which held the spell necessary to make the book’s true contents visible, visible that is, to a witch or wizard capable of reciting it. “Trace the first few letters on this page,” she said. When he had done so, she leaned back against the grain sack. Anyone looking at the cover of this book should have seen the title: An Old Man’s Guide to Great Rammer, and anyone looking at its pages should see pedantic passages concerned with verb conjugations, anyone, that is, who was a muggle. Therefore, Rowena was forced to the reluctant conclusion that Aden wasn’t a muggle. She wasn’t immediately sure why this fact should distress her so, but it did.
“Will you teach me to read?” He demanded. “Will you? Will you?”
“Yes, I will,” she replied, “but not today. I hear your mother coming. Isn’t it time to eat?” Distracted as she’d hoped, he scampered down out of the wagon in search of Elwyna.
They resumed their journey the next day, and Aden, in the way of little boys, seemed to have forgotten all about Rowena’s book. Rowena, however, hadn’t forgotten what he had seen. When they stopped to make camp, Rowena waited until Feran and Draugur had gone off in search of dry firewood, and produced the Metamorph Magi, as if by chance, from her meager possessions. Trying to sound as if it was a statement of no import, she said to Elwyna, “Aden saw my book yesterday. He seemed quite eager for me to teach him to read.”
“Hm,” said Elwyna distractedly, eyes closed as she nursed the baby.
“As I’ve said, this book belonged to my mother. It is beautifully illuminated. Would you like to see?”
Elwyna opened her eyes slowly, and glanced to where Rowena stood, holding the book open to a page half way through, which described, to any witch or wizard who had properly recited the opening spell, how to changed your ears into mushrooms. Elwyna’s eyes opened wider in puzzlement. “The pages are blank,” she said blankly.
Rowena closed the book and sat down on a fallen log across from Elwyna, staring at her intently. “The pages are blank only to a witch or wizard who hasn’t recited the spell at the beginning of the book. It’s an enchanted book. A muggle would see verses about grammar. Even a muggle who couldn’t read would see the writing.”
Elwyna sat up straight, disturbing the baby, who let out an outraged howl. Quickly righting things with the baby, Elwyna returned her attention to Rowena, and smiled broadly.
“I knew there was something about you! That raven, and there’s something in your face…, I thought, but you didn’t….” She reached out her hand to clasp Rowena’s hand tightly. “I’m so glad to know this my sister!”
Rowena was moved by the woman’s kindness. Of all the people who had had occasion to call her sister in the past several years, none had ever done so with such warmth and sincerity. The vague alarm she had felt yesterday now dissolved into a rare feeling of inclusion. She had spent so much effort hiding her nature. Here was one at least, with whom she could be truly herself.
As they neared the sea coast, they became aware of an increasing bustle and unnatural activity. Feran told them what it was. “You’ll know Harold Godwinson had himself crowned King this winter past. The previous King’s court was thick with Normans, and some say Edward promised the throne to William, Duke of Normandy, and they call Harold a usurper, a pretender with no right to be King. William has been running around all over the continent rounding up support for his claim. He even got the Pope to agree, and it’s said that William will bear the Papal banner. William’s forces are gathering across the channel, and wait only favourable winds to bring them here. King Harold Godwinson has massed all of his men here to await them.”
Rowena felt a tightening in her belly. Why oh why had she come here, of all places, to the sight of what promised to be a terrible and bloody battle?