A breath of cool air caressed her cheek as she left the palace for the evening, now eager to get home to her mother and brother. It was often like this for Rowena--work in the palace kitchens, lunch with friends, more work until at the seventh hour, she was able to set aside her apron and hurry home.
Rowena never thought in her wildest dreams that a girl of her...talents...would ever become a mere servant. Like all women in the Ravenclaw family, Rowena had been raised with the finest education and manners, learning everything from Greek and Latin to philosophy and mathematics from the very best scholars her parents could afford, which was considerable. Her father, Lorcan, had made a fortune through the use of alchemy and thus was able to provide every luxury for his only daughter.
But Lorcan also made sure that his daughter was well educated in the longtime family tradition--magic.
* * * * *
As a small girl, growing up in a magical household seemed normal and natural. While the servants of the house did not possess magic, both of Rowena's parents did, and they made sure that she learned as much as she could. The precocious Rowena received her very first wand at only eight years old, and before long, she had mastered the most refined magic, both with and without her wand. After her mother's early death, Rowena dedicated herself even more to the study of magic, in many ways as a remembrance of all her mother had taught her for so long. Lorcan took great pleasure in watching Rowena develop all her gifts, both magical and intellectual, and he continued to spare no expense in helping her along.
But then came the Great Purge. King Uther Pendragon, once a friend to magic, suddenly turned his wrath on all things and all people who possessed even the slightest trace of magic, making it absolutely illegal to practice any sort of sorcery throughout the kingdom of Camelot. Lorcan had no choice but to take all his possessions and especially all his magical artifacts and trinkets and abscond with Rowena to a faraway place where they would be safe from Uther. It broke his heart to hear of so many horror stories of wizards and sorceresses hunted down and executed like dogs. Story after story of atrocities committed at the hands of the tyrant reached all witches and wizards throughout the Island of Albion, sending a deathly chill throughout the entire community.
"Camelot is a cursed place for us, my dear," Lorcan told Rowena again and again.
"But they don't have to know about us, right, Father?"
"They just will. They always find out."
But Rowena wondered about that, even as she continued her education in their new home. Now living by the sea, Rowena had made a few new friends and even caught the attentions of some of the local gentry. As she matured and grew in beauty, many young men proposed marriage to her, none of them knowing who or what she truly was. And when she reluctantly refused them all, she knew she could never explain why. The danger was far too great and she had no idea of how far Uther's reach could possibly be. Better to be safe and alive, even if she did have to hide her magical identity.
Still, Rowena never stopped thinking about Camelot, even if she couldn't live there, at least not as a witch. News came, too, less of purges and atrocities now, and more of the elegance and peace that now prevailed throughout Camelot. Uther's son, Arthur, had grown into a talented fighter, by all accounts, even if he had also become something of a spoilt brat. From what she heard from visiting minstrels and bards and other travelers, this young Arthur was also greatly admired, mostly because he seemed so different from his father. That gave Rowena hope.
And then tragedy struck, brutally and decisively. One lovely Spring day, just as the new blossoms emerged from their winter slumber and the hills and vales had become a vivid green, Lorcan took off on his horse for a quiet day of fishing by the river and talking a leisurely stroll along its banks. He often did this, just to get away from the pressures of business for a few precious hours, returning revived and refreshed and ready for a new day of alchemical research.
He was not expecting a band of hunters that day, and when they shot a crossbow at a deer and missed, accidentally hitting Lorcan in the back, he never had time to apparate out of the line of fire. Horrified at what they had done, the hunters rushed to the fallen man, but seeing that he was already dead, they ran, fearing being executed for murder. It was only when a local blacksmith, Ruairi, found Lorcan a day later that a very distraught Rowena learned of her father's fate. She wailed and screamed and broke every glass in the house before collapsing to the floor, spent from profound grief and shock.
Ruairi didn't quite know what to do. He was a blacksmith, not a physician! All he could do was rush to the inn where he knew a visitor was staying--he had heard through various conversations that this visitor was a physician from some distant place. Ruairi didn't care where, but only that this man could help Rowena recover from this collapse. Thankfully, the man showed great sympathy. Ruairi cold only hope that he was as good a physician as he was sympathetic.
"Thank you so much, sir," Ruairi said as they rushed along to the Ravenclaw home. "Rowena is such a special girl, and I'd hate to see anything bad happen to her."
"Well she certainly has a good friend in you, sir," the physician replied. His little bag of potions clinked as they finally entered the house.
Standing at the threshold, the physician could only stare in wonder. The Ravenclaw home was as luxurious as any in that day, with rich tapestries covering the stone walls and Persian rugs on the dark wood floors in nearly every room. Everywhere he looked, the physician saw rare antiquities, beautiful paintings and gold. Lots of gold. He also noticed something else--on a long table in the main room, a parchment was laid out, held down on its corners by a mortar, pestle and a glass phial. The physician frowned as he glanced briefly at the series of symbols arranged on the parchment, symbols denoting all the elements in nature.
"Where is the girl?" he asked.
* * * * *
Rowena laid on her bed, frozen by trauma, incapable of thought or speech or comfort of any kind. Ruairi lit a few extra candles around the bedchamber as the physician fumbled through his bag, taking out several glass bottles and phials and powders and other strange things. Ruairi was sure he saw something that looked like a beetle.
"Ruairi, if you would please get me some water. I shall need quite a lot of it. I believe there is a bucket right outside?"
"Right away, sir," Ruairi said, rushing out.
Now alone, the physician turned to the still prostrate Rowena. He felt her forehead--cold. He looked into her eyes--bloodshot but otherwise healthy. He felt her thyroid, pressed her abdomen and looked into her ears. Normal. He took out a little purple fluid from one of the phials, swirled it about for two minutes until it turned a soft lavender, and then pressed it to her lips, tipping the fluid into her mouth. Within seconds, her complexion warmed and her eyes brightened. She groaned a little as the physician helped her to sit up.
"What was that?" she croaked, wincing as the candlelight hit her tired eyes.
"Just a little restorative. My own concoction. I'm sure it's nothing to what your father could do with lead."
Rowena frowned. "You know my father? I've never seen you before in my life! Who are you?"
"My name is Gaius, and I am a physician." He paused. "I am, however, familiar with your father's art, though I have never practiced it myself."
"What are you then?"
"I am merely a physician. I believe the more important question is what are you?"
She blanched for a moment, then squared her shoulders. "I am my father's daughter. Nothing more."
"Has he trained you in his art?"
"Why do you wish to know that? This isn't Camelot, you know. I'm free to do what I wish!"
Gaius nodded. "True."
Rowena's face fell. "But no. He never taught me."
"I'm sorry to hear of his passing," Gaius said.
"Do you know what you'll do now? Are you on your own?"
"I'm of age, but yes, I'm on my own. I don't really know what I'll do."
Gaius gave her a gentle smile. "A beautiful young woman like you? I'm sure you'll marry before long, populate Albion with children and live a good life."
"Marriage would be...challenging for someone like me."
"Why? You have wealth, beauty, intelligence."
"My father is...was...an alchemist! Even if this isn't Camelot, he still kept his art to himself. You never know what someone like Uther Pendragon might do. I could see someone like him using people like m...like my father to control other kingdoms, threatening violence unless they purge their own sorcerers!"
"Uther's only concern is Camelot, my dear," Gaius replied. "He is very aware of relations with the other kingdoms, and I doubt he would do something that risky unless he felt truly threatened."
Rowena scowled. "Maybe." But... "How do you know so much about Uther Pendragon?"
Gaius looked her in the eye. "I am his personal physician."
Her spine stiffened and her blood ran cold. "Get out," she seethed.
"Who do you think you are? Get out of here!"
"I didn't mean to..."
"What are you? Some sort of spy or something? Why are you even here, so far away from your home? Get out!"
"I am traveling on business, my lady, nothing more. I am here because I was needed. My lady, I would never betray you to Uther, believe me."
"Wouldn't you? I don't even know you! I don't know whether you're trustworthy!"
Before they could go on, Ruairi finally returned with a huge bucked filled to the very brim with fresh, cold water. He also returned with his wife, Enid. The two of them plunked down the heavy bucket with a slosh, relieved to see Rowena awake and her usual fiery self again--but her expression of anger bewildered them. It must be the trauma of losing Lorcan that mixed up her emotions, they reasoned.
"What's this?" Enid exclaimed. "Good sir, what have you done to make her so upset?"
"He's from Camelot!" Rowena shouted, pointing an accusing finger at Gaius. "He's trying to entrap me, snare me so he can turn me over to that tyrant, Uther!"
"Why would he want to entrap you?" Enid asked. "You ain't no witch. Honey, you're exhausted. You've suffered a terrible loss. Please, just rest and let the physician help you. He's a good man, truly! I've heard nothing but praise about him for the least three days and..."
Rowena rounded on Gaius. "You've been in town for THREE DAYS?"
"My horse is lame," Gaius replied defencively. "I've had to rest him for a few days. Surely you can understand that. You have nothing to fear from me. Uther regards me merely as a servant, and little more. And he certainly wouldn't give a servant a hearing about anything...dodgy several kingdoms away."
"Dodgy?" Enid asked. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing, Enid," Rowena replied brusquely. She sighed. "Just a misunderstanding."
The next day, after several more hours of rest and a little food, Rowena awoke feeling much better. Still mourning the loss of her father, she nonetheless felt well enough to leave her bed, get dressed and take a little walk through town. She didn't plan on running into Gaius, however. There he was, leaving the stables, heading off towards the riverside she figured. Rowena decided to follow him, her mind filled with questions. As bitter as she felt about Uther Pendragon and his edict against magic, there was something about Camelot that drew her in. Knowing that this Gaius was from there piqued her interest keenly.
Rowena caught his eye and waved. Thankfully he waved back, stopping to let her catch up with him.
"You look much better!" he said eagerly. "So well recovered."
"Healed in body and mind, I think," she replied. "Gaius, I wish to apologise for yesterday. I was beastly towards you. You came to help me and I ended up taking your head off!"
"I don't blame you, to be honest," he said. Together, they wandered off into the woods, making their way slowly towards the river. Rowena noticed how deliberately Gaius walked, as if he were studying every new breath of nature like an ancient tome.
"So how did you end up as a physician?" she asked.
"I apprenticed for it as a boy, actually. I came to Camelot about twenty years ago or so..."
"Before the Purge?"
"Yes, before the Purge. Those were terrible times."
"They were. I used to live near Camelot, actually, as a girl. We moved, for obvious reasons."
Gaius nodded. "That was a wise move on your father's part." He stopped. "Did he ever teach you any..."
"I already told you, he never taught me alchemy," Rowena shot back. "What about you? Physicians have a bit of a reputation when it comes to that stuff...to magic."
"I admit I dabbled in it a long time ago."
"And yet Uther hasn't had you killed?"
"I renounced magic before the Purge."
Rowena scowled. "To save your life?"
Gaius nodded reluctantly. "Somewhat. There is much in Uther that is good, despite his attitude toward magic. He has brought very good things to Camelot in the last several years, so don't discount him entirely. Some see him as a tyrant but most do not."
"Most people don't have magic," Rowena reasoned.
"True." He chuckled. "You know, there are still sorcerers and warlocks and even Druids still living in the region, but they know how to keep their heads down and their magic a secret."
"And do you know of any of them personally?"
"I keep a safe distance."
"And if I, Rowena Ravenclaw, daughter of Lorcan Ravenclaw, the notorious alchemist, presented myself at Uther's court to ask for a place in his society, what would he do? How fast would he burn me at the stake?"
"Who's to say he would?"
"Ravenclaw isn't an unknown name in Camelot."
"True. But who's to say you need to introduce yourself as a Ravenclaw?" He gave her a sly wink and turned toward the river.
What if? That night as she ate a solitary dinner of stew and vegetables, Rowena allowed her mind to wander where she knew all too well it should never go. Thoughts of the great castle at the centre of Camelot entranced her mind as she hadn't allowed it to in years. She could smell the treetops and the tall grasses and the sweet yellow flowers that graced the fields all around Camelot.
But how? After all, it was much more than simply being the daughter of an alchemist. Uther couldn't do anything to her necessarily, despite her origins. On the other hand, as a witch, Rowena stood in mortal danger should she dare to enter Camelot and try to find a place in that pristine society. Gaius' words to her haunted her more than she was willing to admit. Present herself not as a Ravenclaw...but then as what? Rowena supposed she could make up a name, or use some distant relative's name. That wouldn't be a total lie.
Maybe it would work.