Hrödwyn pulled off her woolen cloak. The weather was much warmer in Mercia than her native Northumberland, and even that was preferable to distant Hogges Maed, where she, her husband, and her young daughter had lived the past year. There, snow was still thick on the ground. Here, springtime had arrived. For a minute, she let the gentle breeze blow through her long, dark hair. She strode down the muddy path that would lead her, she had been told, to her destination.
"Have you ever heard of Slegth-hring?" she had asked a Muggle peasant in the market at Lindon. He gasped and made the sign of the cross.
"Aye, missus, but surely ye're not lookin' fer the Circle o' Cunning?" It didn't take a skilled Legilimens to detect his fear—indeed his revulsion—at the thought.
"In fact I am," Hrödwyn said. She pulled up to her full impressive height and bore into the man with her deep, dark eyes. Most people thought Hrödwyn was rather good looking, but she could also be quite intimidating when she wanted to be.
"'Tis out on the fen," the peasant offered. "Take the cowpath north an' turn left at the first fork. There's nothin' out there but a burned out keep, mind," he shuddered, "but people say that's where ye'll find 'em."
"Thank you," she said.
"But, missus, I wouldn't be caught out there after dark if I were ye."
Despite the man's obvious misgivings, his directions proved accurate. An hour later, Hrödwyn had found the left fork, trudged into the fen, and at last spied a small stone keep ahead of her. Though certainly old and a bit run-down, and there was no sign of the castle that must have once surrounded it, the ancient tower was far from the burned-out ruin the peasant had described.
There's a fine trick, Hrödwyn thought. He's given the Muggles something to see that isn't quite the truth. I'll have to ask him how he did it.
It was mid-day, but the clearing she had discovered was largely shaded by the tangle of woods all around. Hrödwyn heard the call of birds, the wind rustling through the branches, and the hiss of snakes all around her.
Between her and the keep, a teenaged boy sat on a tree stump. He eyed her suspiciously as he deftly pulled a short length of wood from a leather strap at his waist. Hrödwyn's wand was close at hand beneath her cloak, but she chose not to draw.
"Good day, young sir," she said. She was now close enough to see that the boy had been gathering roots and placing them in a bag at his shoulder. He stood and answered her—but in a language she couldn't quite make out. Was it Norse, or simply a dialect of English that somehow evaded her?
"Loqueris linguam Latinam?" she asked.
"'Course I speaking Latin," he answered, and they continued in that tongue.
"I'm looking for a Castilian named Salaçar. Is that where he lives?" She indicated the keep.
"And if it am?" the boy said. He didn't seem to be a bodyguard, but Hrödwyn thought he would make a good one.
"Then I should like to tell him that I bring news from an old friend: Godric of Wessex."
The boy shrugged noncommittally. Hrödwyn resumed her stroll down the path.
Three younger children rounded the corner of the stone tower. They also had wands in their hands. Under the direction of an older girl, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, the youngsters were practicing a variety of simple charms. They took turns attempting to hover a good-sized rock, but so far were merely pushing it forward. Apparently, they had been following it around the keep for some time.
They stopped when they noticed Hrödwyn's approach. The tall, dark woman nodded in their direction and proceeded without a word.
She knocked at the sturdy oaken door. Of its own, it opened before her.
Inside was a large rectangular room crammed full of tables, bookshelves, and cabinets. Doors at the back led, no doubt, to storage rooms, a kitchen, and perhaps the private quarters of the man Hrödwyn had come to see. Two rickety ladders on either end of the room led to the upper level.
Salaçar was a balding man with a fair bit of white in his long, tapering beard—although Hrödwyn had been led to believe he was only a few years older than Godric, who was still an energetic lion of a man. He was not what anyone would call attractive. In fact, something about his face seemed vaguely simian.
As Hrödwyn entered, he had just closed the cover of the dusty tome he had been reading. He stood and offered a slight bow—enough to demonstrate his manners, not enough to reveal what he really thought of her intrusion upon his day.
She decided to address him in English. "Good day, milord. Are you Señor de Salaçar of Slegth-hring?" she asked.
"I am Salaçar," he answered. He gestured for his guest to take a seat at his table. "And the children you no doubt met on your way here are my Circle of Cunning. Or, part of it—two of my older pupils are off studying giants in Cornwall. And you are…?"
"Hrödwyn, milord, sometimes called Hrödwyn aet Hraefn-clawu. I'm pleased to meet you," she said. "I bring greetings from our mutual friend, Godric of Wessex."
"How is Godric these days?" he asked. "I haven't seen him since Poictiers, ten years ago. I heard he's gathered a band of apprentices since then, much as I have."
"You've heard correctly, Señor. In fact, that is the reason for my visit."
"Godric dreams about far more than apprenticing a handful of children. He wants to establish a proper school, where those with magical talents can be given a proper, structured education. To that end, he has recruited two others who have been teaching the wizarding children in our respective lands—I in Northumberland and another witch in Ireland."
"But that is our way," Salaçar interrupted. "We witches and wizards have always schooled our young ones through apprenticeship."
"It always has been our way, Señor. Times change, and we must change with them. I can't help but notice that your tower is in need of repair. No doubt you spend so much time preparing lessons, journeying with students, and handling the day-to-day details of leading your Circle of Cunning that you don't have time to perform more than the most necessary maintenance on it. I suffer the same constraints at Hraefn-clawu, my husband's estate, where I conduct my classes."
"I will admit, I don't have as much time for my own studies as I would like."
"Nor I," Hrödwyn said. "But together we could share the burden. You know as well as I there's never been a better duelist than Godric of Wessex—"
"The Count of Poictiers used to call him the Golden Griffin," Salaçar mused.
"A name he still bears with pride. And I daresay, it would be positively criminal for me to try to teach my students defensive magic when they could learn from a true master. And with colleagues alongside me, sharing the teaching burden, I look forward to devoting more of my time to my own preferred areas of expertise."
Salaçar steepled his spindly fingers as he considered what Hrödwyn had said.
"This school of yours, does it already exist or is it still just a flight of fancy in Godric's head?"
"I should say it mostly exists," Hrödwyn confessed. "We've found a good location on which to build it, and of course all of us are donating our spell books and other equipment."
"Well, to be honest, we've run into a bit of a snag."
"…And I expect now you're going to say this was another reason my dear friend Godric has sent for me?"
Hrödwyn did not blush, but she feared her expression gave herself away even so.
• The earliest attestation of the name Rowena refers to the daughter of Hengist, who established an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Kent in the fifth century. Unfortunately, this attestation only comes from the mid-1100s, when Geoffrey of Monmouth renders the name as Ronwen or Renwein. In Middle English Arthurian literature, it is spelled Rouwenne, Rouuenne, Rouwen, Reowen, Rowenne, and Rowen. There is no evidence the name was ever used in the period of the Founders. Hröðwyn is a scholarly reconstruction of a hypothetical Old English form, which is the best one can hope for.
• "Æt Hræfn-clawu" is Old English for "at Raven-claw." Proper surnames, family names passed from generation to generation, were unknown in tenth-century Britain. Instead, people had personal bynames based on their occupation (e.g., Potter, Granger [=farmer]), parentage (MacMillan, Parkinson), location (e.g., Longbottom, viz., of a river valley), or personal traits (e.g., Weasley [=like a weasel], Malfoy [=bad faith]). Ravens are associated with wisdom and perception in Germanic folklore.
• Assuming the Count of Poictiers (Poitiers in southern France) was classically educated, his Old French version of "Golden Griffin" might have been Gryphon d'Or. Spelling was not standardized, however, until centuries later. After 1066, French was the language of England's ruling class.
• Salaçar is a Basque surname well attested in tenth-century Castile (central Spain). Since it is a surname, not a given name, Salaçar's actual given name is unknown.
• Slegth-hring is a hypothetical Old English expression meaning circle (hring) of cunning or craftiness (sleght, ultimately from Old Norse slægþ). After 1066, the Middle English form would be Sleythe-ring. The Slegth/Sleythe element is found in the English surname Sleith, Sleeth, etc., first attested in Lincolnshire, part of what was (in the tenth century) the Kingdom of Mercia.
• Hogges Mǽd means "Hog's Meadow," or a grassy area where hogs are kept. Such a meadow might be sown with barley, rye, clover, or root crops. In medieval times, swine were allowed to forage for food in a semi-wild state, then were rounded up and slaughtered in the fall.