“–but of course, Godric being Godric, he refused to listen, the stubborn oaf– where are you going? Rowena!”
“To see an old friend,” Rowena called back, and disappeared into the crowds of people at the fair before Salazar could protest her abrupt departure. Rowena had never had much– nay, any regard for social niceties, despite coming from a fine, old family. On the whole, Salazar had grown used to it (inasmuch as one ever grew used to a lady as strange as Rowena), but at times she could be every bit as irritating as she was fascinating. With a scowl, he decided against remaining where he was to wait for her and instead strode off toward the tents where several traders were peddling a variety of exotic potion ingredients. He, unlike Rowena, had business here. She would find him when she wished– Rowena had a way of finding anything she searched for, even if she hadn’t been doing so deliberately.
It was high noon by the time Salazar had acquired all that he had need of (and a few things more besides), and the rising heat of the day and the noise of the throngs of people were grating harshly on his nerves. Rowena was still nowhere to be seen, and Salazar was beginning to entertain thoughts of unpleasant retribution for her abandoning him in this mess of people without any acceptable company whatsoever as he followed the scent of roasting meat toward another cluster of tents. The heat there was even more unbearable, but he couldn’t very well go all day without food– once he had it, however, he made his way out of the fair and to the relative quiet a little ways beyond it, empty but for a few small clusters of witches and wizards who had apparently had the same idea.
It was unmistakably Godric’s hearty bellow; Salazar’s gaze flicked sharply in the direction of the sound to catch sight of him seated in the grass opposite Rowena and beside a golden-haired woman who Salazar did not know. He gave a nod of acknowledgement, enough to quiet Godric, and unhurriedly made his way over to the three, settling himself carefully opposite the stranger once he reached them.
“I thought you intended to watch the duels,” Salazar said to Godric, who grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Aye, but I could hardly refuse the company of two such charming ladies.”
“You are a shameless flatterer, Godric, but you are not very good at it,” Rowena interjected placidly. “Salazar, this is Helga Hufflepuff. Helga, Salazar Slytherin.”
Salazar took her hand and pressed a polite kiss to the backs of her fingers, and Helga smiled at him. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said, and he looked at her with rather more interest at that– Helga sounded like she genuinely meant the words, rather than merely saying them for the sake of propriety, and she was watching him with clear, honest blue eyes that, had he been a man given to poetry, would have recalled the summer sky on a clear day.
“Likewise,” he replied. “I am always pleased to meet any whom the lady Rowena calls friend.” Particularly since I was not aware any such existed, he added mentally, glancing over at her. Rowena’s lips curved into one of her rare, faint smiles.
“She studied under my mother for a time when we were younger,” Rowena told him before he asked, but she offered no further information.
“Indeed. You must be quiet a talented witch, then,” he said to Helga. Her smile grew rather shy, though no less pleased.
“Talented enough, master Slytherin,” she replied, a very faint flush colouring her fair cheeks. The corners of Salazar’s lips twitched, ever so slightly, but he said nothing more for the moment, rather letting the conversation of the other three carry on around him as he watched. Godric, it seemed, had taken to the newcomer as readily as did most anyone, and lovely women in particular, but that was hardly surprising, any more than the way she seemed to have taken to him in turn. More interesting was the clear fondness between the two women. One could say any number of things about Rowena Ravenclaw, but that she was warm had never been one of them– cold as the frozen winter night, Rowena was. Possessed of a mind keener than a knife’s edge, aye, but passion for aught but knowledge. Rowena’s mind could cut a person open with no remorse whatsoever, if she thought it would lead her to a truth she was missing. Yet the gaze of Rowena’s pale eyes when it chanced upon Helga neither pierced her nor went beyond her, but rested upon her with something very like affection.
“Milady Hufflepuff,” Salazar said smoothly, during a lull in the conversation, “do tell me, from whence do you hail?”
“Quite far to the south,” she answered, “but I live near here, now.”
“I told her earlier,” Rowena interjected, “that she ought to come back north with us for a time. I’ve ample room for one more.” It was calmly said, but something in her voice nonetheless caused Salazar to narrow his eyes slightly, appraisingly.
“You’ve plans for something.”
“I? Not at all.” She was silent for a brief moment. “I will concede, however, that I’ve reason to believe it would be a wise course of action for Helga to join us.”
“I presume, however, that you do not see fit to tell us why.”
“You presume correctly.”
Salazar huffed out a quiet, irritated breath, but said only, “I have no objections to her accompanying us, should she so desire.”
“She is more than welcome,” Godric amended, getting to his feet, and grabbed hold of Salazar’s arm, pulling him along. “Come, I’ve scarce spoken to you this day, and the duels ought not be over yet.”
Salazar cast a pointedly withering look at Godric. “Unhand me, and I shall indulge you.”
Godric chuckled throatily and obliged, and the pair set off back toward the fair, leaving the two women seated in the grass and watching them go.
“I am not certain what to make of Slytherin,” Helga said at length. “Might you tell me of him?”
“He is not harmless,” Rowena answered, but no amount of questioning could get her to say anything more.
Helga’s stay in the north stretched from days into weeks, from weeks into months. She had slid easily and delightedly into life with the other three in Rowena’s remote keep, filling tables with food at meals and filling gardens with all manner of fantastic and difficult plants to occupy her time on the rare occasion she was not with one of the others. Even Salazar found himself reluctantly taken with this bright, sweet creature who flitted about the place with all the life and cheer of a butterfly, yet saw through her plans with the steady, warm patience of the earth itself. Oh, Helga was a naive girl, too ready to overlook the evil in other people, too quick to forgive, too willing to trust, too generous with her time and her heart; Helga was blind to so many of the vile parts of human nature that at times Salazar could scarce stand the sight of that glowing smile she wore so easily. Yet she was quick and clever, and for talent no lady he knew save Rowena could match her.
It had been Helga who had dreamt up the seeds of a revelation, sitting wrapped up in her cloak one chill spring afternoon. She was watching Godric, some distance away from her jealously-guarded gardens, teaching one of his students the finer points of dueling. Closer by but well away from any danger of stray curses, Rowena sat calmly in the centre of a wide space of clear, bare earth, her skirts spread out around her and her own pupil sitting opposite, watching her with the quiet mix of awe and fear and intense curiosity that any student of Rowena’s seemed always to possess. Salazar was nowhere in sight, and Helga knew better than to seek him out– he had locked himself away inside some hours previous, with a handful of plants that he had managed to talk her into clipping early. It was best not to disturb him when he shut himself away for his own mysterious pursuits.
How foolish it seems, thought Helga, that we all should choose to teach alone. There shall ever be things that each of us cannot do... is it right that we should pass on our weaknesses along with our strengths when it need not be so? A faint frown creased her brow, and after a moment, Helga rose to her feet and made her way back inside, hurrying down the silent halls to the kitchen.
She needed to think.
Helga set to work on supper, keeping her hands busy whilst her mind dwelt on questions, on half-formed ideas. None bothered her in the kitchen; she was left to her own devices, the meal becoming more and more extravagant as Helga considered and planned– when at last the food was served, Godric asked what they were celebrating, and Rowena regarded her knowingly for a long, unsettling moment and asked nothing at all.
“I’ve a proposal to put to you,” Helga finally said to them, during a lull in conversation near the end of the meal. Salazar arched a brow.
“Plying us with food and drink for a favour, Helga?”
She shook her head. “It is not a favour.”
“Let her speak, Salazar,” Godric interrupted, watching Helga curiously. “I would know what she would say.”
Helga smiled gratefully at Godric as Salazar subsided with a scowl. “I was watching you and Rowena with your pupils, today,” she said, “and I could not but think how... how very foolish, how utterly absurd our ways of teaching are. Each master limited in how many students they are able to instruct, leaving some without any proper teaching whatsoever, some who could well have been great, given the opportunity. It seems such waste! We are fortunate, we four. Others are not so. Yet there remains so much that is left untaught even by those who find an able master– a student of Godric’s might be the best duelist to command wand or blade, yet never able to heal any wounds he might receive.”
“Your point is well made,” Salazar said after a moment, “but what course of action, then, do you seek for us to take?”
Helga drew in a slow breath. “I think we ought to work together, us four,” she said, “what our kind needs is a place safe of the fear of those who do not understand, a place where students might come together to live and to learn and devote themselves to their talents. In such a place, we four would be able to accomplish so much more– just think of it!”
Godric grinned broadly at Helga. “You, my dear lady,” he said, “are a woman of most extraordinary vision.”
“Of dreams,” Salazar said, still watching her coolly. “That is a most ambitious plan. Indeed, some might say it is aught but a fantasy.”
The set of Helga’s jaw became stubborn. “And would you say that, Salazar?”
He held her gaze a moment longer, then his lips curved into a faint, sardonic smile. “I would,” he replied, “but only until it is finished.”
For a moment, Helga floundered– she had not expected him to acquiesce so readily– but then she began to laugh, bright and pleased. “Tis fair.” She turned then to Rowena, watching her friend expectantly, but Rowena’s gaze was as distant and unfathomable as it ever was. “I must think,” was all Rowena said, and she left the table without another word, leaving the other three to stare after her as she slipped from the room to retreat to her own chambers.
“Give her time,” said Godric.
“I don’t believe doing otherwise is a choice that is open to me,” Helga answered. “Thinking is ever what Rowena does. I doubt anything exists in this world with the power to keep her from it.”
“So we shall leave her to her thoughts. I know you can be patient. Come, let us three retire to the sitting room.” He smiled reassuringly and rested a hand solidly on her shoulder. “We’ve plans to be making.”
“I have no intention of apologising,” Rowena said coolly, without bothering to look at Salazar. “Such an undertaking should not be entered into lightly.”
“No one is entering into anything lightly, Rowena, but you are not entering into it at all.”
“I am not, as of yet, convinced of the wisdom of the endeavour.”
“You do not want to do it,” Salazar retorted. “You do not want to, yet you have not yet found the nerve to say as much to your precious Helga.”
“My Helga?” Rowena arched a dark brow. “Helga belongs to no one.” She was silent for a moment. “It is true I have no particular enthusiasm for teaching,” she said at last, “for on the whole I find very few students capable of truly appreciating what it is to learn, and those who do not are tiresome to me, occupying time I might have otherwise spent more fruitfully on my own pursuits. Yet Helga’s idea holds a certain intrigue.”
“I’ve no great patience with students myself,” Salazar pointed out. “Teaching is a tiresome business on the whole, but remains an unfortunate necessity.”
“Ah,” Rowena answered, “but you cannot resist the lure of moulding so many pupils to your will and way of thinking that this notion presents.” She glanced over at him with a brief, sharp smile, gone as soon as it appeared. “I know you far too well to expect selfless motives from you, Salazar.”
“As you are doubtless tempted by the prospect of being able to teach others to think the way your feel it ought to be done,” he replied, “which brings me back to the question of what, precisely, is the cause for your delays in the making of a decision.”
“My deliberations are no concern of–”
“Rowena,” he snapped, and seized her sharply by the arm, pale eyes boring into her own. “Answer me,” Salazar demanded, and Rowena regarded him evenly, calmly, and twisted free of his hold with a sure strength that seemed it could scarce come from such a slender limb.
It almost seemed she would not, but after a time she murmured, “Tell me, Salazar. What would you sacrifice, to leave a legacy to last the ages?”
“Anything,” he answered immediately, and Rowena watched him a moment more, her expression perfectly unreadable.
“I thought you would say that.” She sounded almost sad. “Leave me, Salazar. I shall speak with Helga on the morrow.”
Salazar’s lips curled into a faint, self-satisfied smile. “Good,” he said simply, and Rowena watched him retreat back inside.
“I think you’ll find that not to be the case,” she whispered after him; the resounding thud of the door falling shut was the only answer she received.
“He cannot possibly need a tower that high,” Helga said incredulously, staring at the latest changes Godric had made on the plans for the castle. “What under the heavens does he intend to do with it?”
Salazar’s lips twitched into a crooked smirk. “If I know Godric,” he replied, “his masculine pride simply will not permit him to let the lady Rowena have the taller tower.”
“What– oh,” Helga said, cheeks flushing faintly pink. “Of all ridiculous– Rowena has legitimate reason for her tower!”
“It is not I you need to say as much to,” Salazar said mildly. “I am well aware of it.”
“Yes, of course. My apologies.” Helga sighed and picked up a quill, which she proffered to Salazar. “Would you care to do the honours?”
“What is one more dispute between he and I over the plans at this point?” Salazar drawled, plucking the quill from her hand and dipping the tip into the inkbottle to alter the measurements Godric had given– not in his usual precise, looping script, but in a willfully untidy scrawl very close to Godric’s own. Helga raised her eyebrows at that, and Salazar glanced smugly in her direction. “One more, that is, only if he should actually take notice of it.”
“Salazar,” Helga said reprovingly, and he arched a brow.
“You would prefer an argument with Godric on the subject, Helga?”
“I– of course not,” she said, frowning, “I would prefer that we resolve it calmly, as reasonable adults.”
“Trust me, we haven’t the time for that.”
She scoffed slightly. “I know better than to trust you.”
“And yet you shall do it nonetheless,” he replied smoothly, “because despite your cursory protests, finishing the plans is more important to you than Godric’s considerable pride, no matter how much you may like and respect him.” He smiled– it was not a pleasant expression, and it did not reach his sharp grey eyes. Salazar set the quill down and stepped closer to Helga. Too close. “Everyone,” he murmured, watching her intently all the while, “has something for which he will sacrifice anything. Everyone.” One thin finger, pale and cold, traced a line along Helga’s jaw and down the side of her neck, brushing back wisps of golden hair. “There is nothing you would not do to see this dream of yours come to fruition.”
“And what of you?” Helga asked, the steadiness of her voice belying the swift pounding of her heartbeat. “What is it that you would pay any price to obtain?”
“Know you not?” he asked in turn, fingertip dipping to skim along her collarbone, and Helga swallowed and shook her head.
“Nay,” she said softly, scarce more than a whisper. “Tell me.”
“I think not,” he said coldly, and turned and strode from the room without another word, leaving Helga alone and staring after him in puzzlement, wondering what had (or had not?) just come to pass between them.
“It is said, among some peoples,” Rowena told them one morning, “that the blood of a dragon will bring a fortress strength and greatness.”
The four had been awake through the whole of the night, the plans for the castle spread out on a table and illuminated by the steady, silver glow of Rowena’s witch-fire. Rowena herself, however, had been quiet for much of the discussions, writing an occasional note on a piece of parchment in her lap as the others made yet more alterations to the plans. Godric and Salazar had been quarrelling over whether mundane means of defense were superfluous in a castle to be filled with wizards and witches; they both fell silent when Rowena spoke, however, and turned to look at her.
“You learned of this in your travels?” Godric asked her. He knew very little of Rowena’s youth– Rowena was closemouthed at the best of times– but near every tale she had related had been one of journeys to distant lands, places with names that sounded strange and fantastic to his ears.
“Yes,” she answered simply. “It is custom that the would-be master of a fortress prove himself worthy of the responsibility by slaying one of the great wyrms. The blood is used in the mortar of the fortress.”
“A fascinating tradition, undoubtedly,” Salazar cut in, “but the true question is whether it works, for it would be insupportably foolhardy for us to risk such danger for a mere folk story.”
“The blood is, to be sure, a strongly magical substance– it is not coincidence that some choose to make use of the heartstrings of dragons in their wands, or in any such instrument of power,” Rowena said thoughtfully, “but I never did get the opportunity to directly observe the ritual.”
“In other words, you know not,” Salazar said, and Rowena narrowed her eyes at him.
“If you think my ideas impractical and my experience irrelevant,” she bit out coldly, getting to her feet, “I see no further reason for my presence here.” With that, she flung her parchment down sharply on the table and swept out of the room, and after a moment the light winked out, leaving the room illuminated only by the faint dawn light just beginning to slant inside. Helga sighed and picked up the roll of parchment, glancing reprovingly at Salazar. Rowena’s temper was rarely piqued– she was calm and cold by nature– but the surest way to achieve it was to accuse her of not knowing something.
“You might have handled that a bit more diplomatically,” Helga said. “She will refuse her assistance for a week at the least, now.”
“We shall get along without her in the meantime,” Godric reassured her, but Helga was not listening– she was reading the notes written on the parchment, squinting a bit at the sharp, small script in the low light. It had little to do with the discussions of the past several hours: Rowena had, apparently, been in the early stages of planning something far grander and more complicated, though it would take more time for Helga to puzzle out the odd shorthand Rowena habitually used when writing a spell.
“Look,” Helga said, holding the parchment out to the other two, “look at this.”
Godric plucked the parchment from Helga’s hand, and Salazar leaned over to read it as well.
“Consciousness,” Salazar breathes, pale eyes alight and hungry. “She would make this castle into a living, changing thing of our own power. Our own will.”
“Is that even possible?”
“If anyone would know, it is she.”
Godric was silent for a moment. “If this could be done,” he said at last, “it would be one of the greatest feats of magic in the land.”
“The greatest,” Salazar corrected him, and Helga, watching, smiled very briefly to herself.
“Then it appears I must go speak with Rowena.”
“If one were to journey to the South and to the East, one would come eventually to a great desert,” Rowena said, “and through this desert runs a river which sustains the existence of the people there. It is in this place that the great pyramids are found, tombs of their kings of old. It is the only use of magic such as this that I am aware of. The people of the region believed their rulers to be gods; in fact, they were a group of wizards of great power, and their wealth and bodies were protected by these tombs, which were imparted the magic that allowed them to willfully guard all that is within.”
“It sounds like the stuff of legend,” Godric said, and Rowena smiled faintly.
“It is,” she replied, “but that does not mean it is untrue.” She rose gracefully to her feet with a soft rustle of her robes. “Come. Your wands will not be needed.”
“You have done this before?” Helga asked, falling into step with her, and Rowena gave a brief nod.
“I could hardly hope to achieve it on such a grand scale if I could not do so on a small one,” Rowena pointed out. “I must caution that we will all be quite thoroughly useless for the rest of the day after this is done.”
“Unfortunate,” said Salazar, “but unsurprising.”
Once outside, Rowena instructed them to disperse, one in each direction: Godric to the South, Salazar to the North, Helga to the West, and Rowena herself to the East. There was no great ceremony, Rowena had told them, no wands or potions or even speech– to lend one’s consciousness (one’s soul, Helga corrected internally)– was wholly a personal affair. It sounded like far too grounded, too human an undertaking for Rowena’s tastes, but none ever could truly fathom what went on in her head. Alone in the cool wind, Helga sighed softly and laid her hands flat to the stones of the castle wall and leaned forward, letting her cheek rest against it and her hair tumble forward over her face. Give yourself to the castle Rowena had said, and Helga realised belatedly that she hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant. Have I not done so already? she thought. This place is already dear to me as a child.
Helga smiled faintly at the thought, and her eyes fell shut. No price I would not pay.
There is nothing you cannot love. The thought came unbidden, not Helga’s own, and she shivered against the stone. It sounded like Godric... nay, like Rowena...
It sounded like Salazar.
Nothing at all, Helga affirmed, and knew it to be true. The stone warmed against her skin; the cold indifference fell away until the castle became a great embrace, and Helga laughed and gave and lost herself in something so much greater than she. Its strength thrummed in her veins, and her heart beat in its stones, welcome, welcome.
The castle was wise; it knew always what needed to be done, and when to do it.
The castle was brave; it would never falter, it would always keep its own from harm.
The castle was ambitious; it would shrink from no challenge, it would become a legacy undying.
The castle was kind. The castle was home.
The ceiling of the Great Hall had been Godric’s work; Helga, seeing it, had laughed in delight and flung her arms about his broad shoulders, and Godric had grinned expansively and spun her round. Salazar had watched them.
Rowena had watched Salazar, and her pale fingers worried a small, curiously shaped bone between their cool tips. “I believe,” she said at last, “that the time is nigh upon us to call for students.”
Her quiet pronouncement made the other three turn to her, but Rowena paid them little mind. She drew from her robes a small velvet pouch and upended it over the great table; small bones scattered and clattered across the wood, and Rowena watched them fall, her lips silently framing words none of the others could discern. None spoke, watching and leaving Rowena to divine undisturbed and silent under the ceiling of a cloudy sky. Her pale fingers glanced over the bones, one by one, tracing a senseless thread of destiny– and then, just as quickly as she had cast them, Rowena swept the bones back into their pouch.
“A snake,” Salazar said flatly. “The spine of a snake, Rowena?”
She did not deign to answer him. “We depart on the morrow, come dawn,” Rowena said instead. “Make ready.”
The years passed.
“Fools,” Rowena said sharply, “you may both use whatever criteria you like for choosing your own students, you have always done so. Why change now what has long proved a mutually acceptable way of doing things that is perfectly effective?”
“It is a disaster waiting to happen,” Salazar snapped. “Just because they cannot burn us doesn’t mean they cannot kill us. What of the slaughter to the South? Tell me, Rowena, with all your Sight and knowledge, how long before the violence takes our own? We cannot allow those born of non-magic family in, none of us can, they are a danger!”
“The only violence within these walls will be of your own making, Salazar,” Rowena said quietly. “I pray you, consider your words. What of Helga? Would you turn away a wizard or a witch who could be so great as she over a matter of blood?”
“Leave Helga out of this.”
“Hypocrite!” Godric boomed. “You know so-called purity of blood means naught, yet you would cling to old privilege for your own ends when this place ought to be one of fellowship and opportunity for all our kind–”
“They are not our kind!”
“Of course they are! Yet you would curse them to a miserable half-life for all their years sooner than let them be taught– and think you that the volatile nature of uncontrolled magic would not bring your fears to pass that much sooner? It is more dangerous that they should remain untaught than that they should be brought here!”
“There is the matter of the future of our kind to consider.”
“Quite so,” Rowena interjected. “There are not many wizarding families, you realise. If we should refuse to intermingle with those born of ordinary family, our kind will surely die out within the space of a few generations. Hardy conducive to a legacy, is it?” Rowena asked pointedly, and Salazar narrowed his eyes,
“You agree with him,” he said accusingly, “you would reject your own noble blood for those animals–”
“I would do nothing of the kind,” Rowena answered coolly, “and your differences of opinion only concern me insofar as they directly affect me– until I am swayed either way, I shall continue as I have always done. I simply think you have not, perhaps, given the matter sufficient thought with regards to the potential consequences of what you propose.”
“You never think anyone has given sufficient thought to anything.”
“True enough,” she conceded. “You both raise valid points. I merely advise that you– both of you,” she added, glancing at Godric, “think more carefully before you have this argument yet again. I do not think it an unreasonable suggestion.” There was a brief silence, and Rowena sighed. “Godric, come away. The both of you need time to calm yourselves.”
Helga ducked into the shadows as they left the room, waiting there silently for some time until at last she deemed enough time had passed for her to show her face. She made a point of rustling her skirt as she approached and pulled open the door; Salazar, seated in his uncomfortably straight-backed chair, scarce glanced up when Helga entered.
“Did Rowena send you?” he asked disparagingly, and Helga shook her head.
“No one did. Why?”
“No reason,” he answered, and Helga regarded him for a moment before sinking into the chair beside his.
“You three quarreled again, I take it?”
“I don’t wish to discuss it.”
“Salazar,” she chided gently, and laid her hand over his with a sigh. “I’m afraid, my dear friend, that one cannot win a battle all on one’s own. Godric is every bit as stubborn as you are, and well you know it... and I think it unlikely that Rowena can be swayed to either side.”
“Of course not. Rowena does not concern herself with the future as an abstract thing subject to her influence; the future influences her.” Salazar let out a breath. “I already know your opinion on the matter.”
Helga frowned slightly. “I understand why you think as you do,” she said carefully, after a moment, “and I think... you are right to be concerned. But how could I refuse a student over their blood, when I was once in the same position? I would not have any of this were it not for the kindness of Rowena’s mother.” Helga fell silent, and Salazar regarded her keenly for a long, tense moment.
“You truly mean that,” he finally said, sounding faintly bewildered. “I would have thought that you, of all people, would reject my concerns out of hand.”
“I do not think any of us are doing that,” she answered, “but they are right to have reservations; you must admit what you propose is rather extreme. If we could come to some sort of compromise...”
Salazar let out a dry bark of laughter. “That is your solution to every problem, is it not? But then, anything to end a conflict.” He met her gaze squarely. “Perhaps it would make you happiest if I were to leave.”
“Salazar!” The horror in her voice at the suggestion was, to his intrigue, entirely genuine. “How could you so much as consider that?” Unthinkingly, she gripped his hand tighter, curling her fingers around his.
“It would settle the matter, would it not?” he responded, a trace of dark humour in his tone that only seemed to distress Helga further.
“What’s the good in settling it by losing you?” she asked in turn. “Salazar, please, be reasonable. After all you have done here, all you have accomplished and all that is yet left undone– please. Say you’ll stay.”
Salazar watched her for a very long moment, his expression impassive and impossible to read. “I was not aware it would matter so much to you.”
“Fool,” Helga murmured, exasperated and fond and worried all at once, and she stood up and stepped in front of him, leaning down to press a warm, anxious kiss to his lips. Salazar reached up a hand to catch her by the nape of her neck, keep her close, thin fingers weaving into her honey-gold hair.
“What else, Helga,” he murmured, “what else have you been keeping secret all these years, locked away behind your smiles?”
“Will you stay, Salazar?”
“You don’t know how not to love,” he said, drawing back. “It will destroy you, one of these days.” His lips twisted humourlessly. “The world is not a nice place, Helga, and you cannot make it so.”
“Life does not last forever, either,” she answered, watching him keenly, “but you would be immortal if you could. That is what you want, is it not, Salazar? That is the price at which you would be bought, and if I am a dreamer, then so too are you. The one is no more unlikely than the other.”
“We have the seed of greatness in us,” Salazar said, eyes flashing with desire and certainty and the manic gleam of obsession. It lit him up, and Helga nearly flinched from the ugliness she saw in him then. “We stumble in the dark like deaf, dumb things, groping for something and never knowing what, comprehending nothing and wasting our days in a fool’s half-life. We should be gods.”
You want something empty, Helga wanted to tell him. You want purity, you want divinity, you want to be everything a man is not, and it will burn you away to nothing in the end. You cannot be a god and be also a human man; you cannot live forever and still know the worth of a life.
She said none of those things.
“Should we?” she asked instead. “Should I, the daughter of a mere servant? We are not the same, Salazar.”
He smiled grimly, sharp and unpleasant. “You do resent me, Helga, no matter how you seek to hide it.”
“No one is that good.”
She was silent for a moment. “Perhaps not,” she finally said, “but that doesn’t stop me from caring for you.”
In one swift movement, Salazar rose to his feet and pushed Helga back down on to her chair. “How much would you give?” he asked, his voice low and dark like leather over a knife. “What would you do to keep me here?”
Helga looked up at him and swallowed hard. “Whatever I must.”
He smiled slowly, and the door swung shut at a flick of his wrist. Helga heard the lock click but did not look; Salazar had not once glanced away from her, nor even blinked.
“I will stay as long as you wish me to, and it will drain you dry.”
“If it is love you seek,” Godric told her gently one day as he and Helga walked along the forest’s edge, “I do not think you are looking in the right place.”
Helga glanced up at him. “Did he say something to you?”
“Nay. It is not difficult to see, however.”
She was quiet for a moment. “You are probably right,” she agreed, “but it is not a simple thing. I... of course I know how Salazar is; I have known him for years and years. But it isn’t as though he’s... evil, or any such thing. And I have always... cared for him a great deal.”
Godric snorted. “He may not be evil, but that does not make him good.”
Helga smiled, a little sadly. “You are the only good one of us, my friend. You have never done a selfish thing in all your days.”
“Come now, Helga, you are–”
“Please, don’t. I do not wish for reassurances,” she interrupted. “Godric... you and I both know that Salazar can be–”
“Difficult,” she corrected reprovingly. “Yet I wonder, is he so lonely a man because he is difficult– or is he difficult because he is lonely?”
Godric frowns lightly. “You truly think all Salazar needs is your love to be content?”
“Of course not; it is patently ridiculous to assume that is all there is to him. But I do think it would be good for him. Who has ever loved him, Godric?”
“Salazar...” he trailed off. “You may have a point. Forgive my meddling, my dear; I am only concerned for your own wellbeing.”
“I know that,” Helga said, and reached over to briefly squeeze his hand. “I do appreciate your concern, certainly. But I want this– and not only for him.”
Godric smiled. “Ah. Say no more.”
Helga giggled, and the conversation moved to less weighty topics– the progress of their pupils, Helga’s garden, Godric’s youngest son’s travels. A pleasant day, and pleasant company– it was enough to make Helga forget her lingering doubts in the warmth of Godric’s presence, and they whiled away most of the afternoon thus, until at last Helga reluctantly called a halt in order to prepare supper. The two had scarce set foot in the entry hall when Salazar appeared, a frown deeply etched on his brow.
“You must come immediately,” he said tersely, “Rowena is not well, and I am no healer.”
She followed him quickly down the corridors and up the long spiral stair to Rowena’s chambers to find her friend lying in her bed, eyes closed and skin ashen and slick with sweat. A touch of her hand confirmed that Rowena was burning up, and Helga made a quiet noise of worry in her throat and brushed Rowena’s hair back from her brow. “Leave us,” Helga said to the men, “I would not have you two ill as well.”
To their credit, neither argued with her, and Helga began raiding Rowena’s own supply of healing herbs for the ones she would need.
“Do not bother.”
Helga looked up sharply to find Rowena awake and watching her with wide, fever-bright eyes. “Rowena, what–”
“You cannot heal this fever,” Rowena said, and closed her eyes again. “No one can.”
“Why say you that?”
“No ordinary illness is this,” she murmured. “I am missing too much of myself. My diadem.”
“What about it?”
“It was never anything so trivial as an adornment,” Rowena said slowly. “It was... me. A part of my. My mind, my soul. I told you once... that I had practised the magic we used on the castle on something smaller. But the diadem was much more concentrated.”
Helga paled. “So without it...”
“I am dying. Yes,” Rowena finished, and opened her eyes again. “I cannot expect to remain lucid for very much longer, either. I have quite literally lost a part of my mind.”
“What happened to the diadem, then? If we can get it back, you shall be well again, correct?”
“Correct,” Rowena agreed, “but first you will have to catch that wayward daughter of mine– wherever she may have run to.” She sighed. “Motherhood never suited me.”
Helga refrained from commenting on that, though it was something of a gross understatement. Rowena and Helena had been in constant conflict the whole of the latter’s life. “We will find her,” Helga promised softly, “now rest.”
“How can you not have found her?!”
“The same way you did not find her,” Salazar snapped. “She does not want to be found.”
“She must be!”
“Well, if you have any inspired ideas, Gryffindor–”
“Enough!” Helga interrupted, much more forcefully than she had meant to. “Arguing about it won’t do any good. Of course neither of you found her, the only person who can match wits with Helena and win is her mother, who is in no position to do so.”
“Actually,” Salazar said at length, “that is not, strictly speaking, entirely true. Baron Black–”
“Absolutely not,” Godric interrupted. “The man is half mad to begin with, and entirely so in Helena’s presence. Besides, the girl despises him– what under the heavens makes you think she would listen to him, if indeed he were to succeed in tracking her?”
“Some people,” Salazar answered silkily, “will stop at nothing to succeed where love is concerned.” He was looking right at Helga as he said it, and she felt her cheeks burn at the memory of his lips, his hands, his skin touching hers. She quickly dropped her gaze.
“I ought to check on Rowena,” Helga said. “I shall leave the rest of it to the two of you.” She retreated from the room and back to the tower, pausing outside the door of Helena’s empty bedchamber for a long, unhappy moment before continuing to Rowena’s room.
“So loud,” Rowena mumbled feverishly into the pillows as Helga drew near to her. “Heart’s too loud, trapped little animal beating beating the cage bars before it drowns, drowns. Goodbye beating, goodbye cage. Makes you sad, goodbye. Goodbye trapper, goodbye trap, goodbye darling, goodbye...”
“Shh,” Helga crooned softly as she moved to sit at Rowena’s side, stroking her tangled dark hair. “Shh, Rowena, be calm now. All will be well.”
“Lose what you bought, won’t be well, won’t ever be well. Saw you weeping once, saw you bruised and hurting and you said be calm, be calm, all will be well. Saw you happy once. Very long ago. Do you think dying hurts very much? I won’t be able to tell you once I know, of course.”
“I don’t know,” Helga said thickly, through the catch in her voice. “You just sleep now, Rowena. Just rest.”
Salazar was waiting when Helga left the room, shutting the door behind her and leaning against it with a shuddering sigh. He stood, just watching her, watching the tremors of barely restrained sobs make her shoulders quiver.
“I spoke to Baron Black,” Salazar told her, and Helga shook her head and sank miserably to her knees.
“I don’t think it will help,” she said hoarsely. “She speaks as if she is going to... to die any second.”
“She is not in her right mind,” Salazar reminded her, and offered his hand to pull her to her feet. “Come. I will walk you to your chambers.”
“And will you stay?”
He glanced at her sidelong. “For a little while.”
It was late at night when Rowena Ravenclaw breathed her last. It was late at night when Rowena Ravenclaw slipped without a word into the cold embrace of death and Helga wept at her bedside under the indifferent light of the waning moon through the window.
It was scarcely an hour later when a familiar voice said, “I don’t suppose it matters now where it is, then,” and Helga spun sharply to see Helena– no, not Helena, not really. For long minutes, Helga could only stare helplessly, too lost and shocked and uncertain to force any words past her lips. For once, however, Helena showed no sign of impatience or irritation. She merely waited.
“Helena,” she finally whispered, “where have you– what happened?”
“Corvus Black.” She spat the name like a curse. “Thrice-damned fool. I hope he burns.” Helena fell silent then, drifting past Helga to hover near Rowena’s bed. “I did not know,” she said quietly, “you know that, do you not? I would never have taken it had I realised what would be wrought.”
“None of us knew,” Helga murmured, “and even if you did, I think you have paid quite enough for your actions, Helena my dear.”
“I suppose I have.” A pause. “I did not want her dead; I would never have wished that on her, much less deliberately caused it. But I did hate her.”
“You hated all of us,” Helga said, though her tone of voice was oddly gentle, and Helena almost smiled.
“No,” she said, “I did not hate you. No one can hate you, not even Salazar.”
Helga’s shoulders tightened minutely. “Well,” she said quietly, “that is... good to know. If you’ll excuse me, Helena, I... I need to talk to the others.”
“Of course,” Helena replied, and began drifting up toward the ceiling. “If you see Black, curse him for me, won’t you?” she said, but was gone before Helga could reply.
She came upon Salazar first, with a full satchel slung over his arm and a riding cloak about his shoulders.
“Salazar,” Helga called, and hurried to catch his arm, “Salazar, I... Rowena, she’s–”
“Dead,” he finished coldly, “and so is her daughter.”
“You saw her?”
“I saw the Baron.”
“He is already returned?”
“In a manner of speaking. Unhand me.”
“Where are you going?”
Salazar’s lips thinned. “It has been made very clear to me that my presence is no longer welcome here. It was, after all, my fault what became of Helena.” His tone was dry, dry and bitterly sardonic.
“Did... Godric said that?”
“What Godric said was hardly fitting for the ears of a lady,” Salazar answered, and twisted his arm free of her grasp, unwilling to wait for her to let him go. “I am leaving.”
“Your dream is broken, Helga,” Salazar hissed viciously, “you cannot bring Rowena back, and you cannot mend the rift left in her wake, and so I am going.”
“You told me,” Helga said quietly, “you told me once you would stay as long as I wished it.”
“What good am I to you? What you desire, no one can give you now. Everything you nurtured is dead, dead and gone and crumbling into dust to be forgotten. I will not be forgotten along with it.”
“You would break your word, then.”
Salazar smiled cruelly. “No. You do not want me here any longer, my little liar; you and I both know better than that. You hate me, you hate all I have done to you and the ones who are as your own family. Love doesn’t change those things, Helga. Love is worth nothing.”
And so Helga watched him go.