“I’ve been wondering when you’d drop by.”
The figure at the massive oak table did not even raise his head from his work, nor look over his shoulder as a bear of a man strode past impeccable bookshelves to a mountain of scrolls, unearthing the chair beneath them and seating himself, uninvited.
The smile on the great man’s lips had the grace to pretend to be abashed. “You could wait. I knew you would.”
“As if I don’t have anything better to do than humor your flights of fancy. I’m not known for my patience.”
“For your curiosity, however...”
The man at the desk still did not turn, but his smirk was palpable. “I heard you have already visited essentially everyone but me – Iceland is a rather long ways away.”
Now the other was earnestly abashed, and his already normally ruddy cheeks burned somewhat brighter. “I admit, I set my sights rather high – “
“ – but I thought if I could get the Hanged Man, anything would be possible.”
“Indeed. Master of, what, eighteen runes? Nothing quite to shake a stick at, though I imagine the lady of the house would have been a nice consolation prize. What a pity.” Long fingers set the quill aside, and very gently, he lifted the sheet of parchment up to his lips to blow softly on the still-wet ink. “Though I’m not sure about some of your other choices – what possessed you to believe the Geat would be of any use? He is a brute.”
“He managed to slay the progeny of Cain, if you recall.”
“Very well, a skilled brute, but he is rather lacking in what we shall call ‘thaumaturgic finesse’.” The absolute slightest of glances over his shoulder, dark eyes glinting sardonically. “And we shall not even speak of your visit to the swineherd.”
Pushing his hair from his forehead, the great man sniffed at a decanter and, satisfied, poured himself a healthy portion of wine, swirling it in the goblet before raising it to his mouth. “Ah, Pryderi’s got a good heart.”
“And not a drop of magical talent. He’s as like to ensorcel a problem as he is not to have one to ensorcel.”
“True enough, at that. When I found him, he seemed sore on the subject of magic, without my even bringing it up. Red in the face, he was – I told him I’d get back to him when he found his pigs again, though I can’t say I’m so keen on it anymore. Brave man, but – “
“Dumb as a sack of hammers.” The man at the desk glanced at the stack of books by his elbow, canting his head as he skimmed the spines with his index finger.
“Aye, but there are worse things.”
“I fail to see.” Having not found the title he wanted in the stack closest him, the man at the desk half rose from his chair, reaching awkwardly for a thin volume perched on a shelf to his right. Satisfied, he resituated himself and flicked through the tome, muttering passages under his breath as he turned the pages.
Another gulp of wine burned his throat, so good he winced. “Bloodlust, methinks.”
This was met with a derisive snort. “You should have known better. No fury like a woman scorned, and no woman scorned as she. If it’s frighteningly clever you’re after, I hear tell of a bird in the glen with a significantly smaller chip on her shoulder.”
The great man eyed the bottom of his empty goblet with interest, turning his head for a better look at the dregs. “Yes, yes. My reach exceeded my grasp yet again – “
“But certainly not for the last time. What did Emrys say?”
This gave the great man some pause. His forehead creased in a frown, and he set the goblet beside the decanter, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “It was as ever. Cryptic. He...laughed. He told me he would see the like of me again, when he was younger, but that he was not quite old enough as yet.” He shook his great copper head. “I understand the verbiage he utilises, yet...when he reaches the end of his sentence, I often feel it was I who misspoke, despite speaking first.”
The book snapped shut, and again the man at the desk stretched to return it to its home. “And now you are stuck with me.” There was a mordant iciness to the words that stung.
“It’s not as bad as that.” The crease between the great man’s brow deepened, his tone an attempt at mollifying. “I came to you last, my old friend, because I knew you would be with me regardless of who else I had or had not spoken to.”
Finally, his friend turned in his seat, black eyes tired but friendly above an aquiline nose. Salazar rested his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers. “What is it you want, Godric?”
Teeth were bared in a grin, haughty, ambitious. “I had an idea I’d like your help with.”
“I shall fetch my lyre.”
As it turned out, Salazar had only heard rumors of the lady’s whereabouts – grossly exaggerated rumors, if one were to put it lightly. Indeed, he was quite unwilling to vocalize exactly what he had heard of the Scottish witch; he had simply cleared his throat and adjusted his collar, the heavy blanket of clouds suddenly fascinating as he insisted he had heard from a very good number of sources.
Godric couldn’t care less if the rumors were exaggerated – that was what one did with rumors, and it always began with a nugget of truth. All he had to do was find this woman himself, and he could be the judge.
And that was the rub. This woman, for as heavy a reputation as she had, was absolutely impossible to find. They had searched high- and lowland, the had asked old friends, they had made new friends, they had found a genealogist to grill about her family’s settlement habits, and they were scarcely closer to finding Rowena Ravenclaw than they had been a month ago.
“Perhaps we could just – “
“Don’t you say ‘give up’, because – “
“Nonsense. It hadn’t worked the last six times, and I rather like to think I’m a faster learner than some. What I was going to suggest is that we put together a tracker.”
Godric cast an incredulous look at his friend. “A tracker? With what, the lock of her hair we happen to have lying around?”
Quiet for a moment, and refusing to meet the other’s eyes, Salazar murmured, “There are other ways to do it. New ways.”
The ruddy man looked pained. “Not this again, Sal. It’s intrusive, a slippery slope, is what it is. No, we’ll do this the old fashioned way.”
“As you like.” Salazar spoke no more the remainder of the day.
Finally, they happened upon a village where the people seemed familiar not only with her name, but also with the lady herself, her family, and their habits. One or two shook their heads sadly when the name came up, and tutted something about “the poor dear”, but pointed them in a general direction all the same.
All other leads had run bone dry, their horses had refused the journey so far north, neither men had touched real food since the day before, and the rain hadn’t ceased since they left for Scotland – and yet, staring up the stones of an imposing broch, the two men glanced at each other and found they wore matching ear-to-ear grins.
This would be a good day.
Resolve freshly rallied by the barest glimpse of success, the two made their way around the property, ignoring the nagging feeling that grew with every step; either someone was watching them, or the place was abandoned. Neither could say for sure which it was.
A twig cracked behind them; by the time Salazar had even begun to turn, hand halfway to his wand, Godric had his wand between the eyes of a young girl. She did not even blink, nor indeed bother to feign interest as the wand lowered.
“My mother isn’t here,” she said to them, scarcely giving them a chance to catch their breath before she breezed past them.
Salazar took a step after her. “Your mother is Rowena? Where is she, then?”
Godric cooled his friend’s ire with a placating arm on the shoulder. “Peace, Salazar,” he murmured. Then, calling to the girl’s back; “We would much like to meet with her. Please, when shall we return?”
The girl gave him a look, fairly dripping with her scorn. “When she comes back.”
The sound of the heavy pine door shutting rang in their ears; Salazar turned to his friend, incredulous fury lighting his eyes. “‘When she comes back’,” he intoned snidely.
Indulgent smile on his face, the great man patted his friend’s shoulder once more, and the two turned, making their way towards the inn.
They tried again the next day, walking from the small inn in the town to the Ravenclaw estate, the heavy rain from days before coming down as merely a fierce drizzle. Approaching the main entrance, they knocked, and waited. Even through the thick pine door, they could hear the sounds of life coming from inside.
“If that girl is ignoring us, I’m going to – “
“Hush, friend.” Godric rapped his knuckles against the door once more, more firmly this time, and listened; the sound inside flurried, then stopped.
More quickly than was appropriate (or, indeed, natural), the door swung open, and a woman, older in the eyes and carriage than she looked in body, leaned against the doorjamb, canting her head at them expectantly. “You must be the men looking for me,” she sighed before either had a chance to open his mouth. She paused only slightly before stepping back from the doorway, turning her back to the two and disappearing around a corner. “Come on in, then, and take some tea; I imagine you’re quite tired of the rain.”
The kitchen was massive but, surprisingly, sparely stocked, and quite humbly furnished:
a simple dining table, straight-backed chairs, a stool by the hearth.
The woman motioned for them to sit, the barest of gestures over her shoulder that caused the chairs to shift from beneath the table. She bustled about silently, both intensely focused and absently indifferent on the task of filling and heating the kettle, which she achieved merely by glancing at it as she rummaged through a small, fiercely tidy cupboard.
Seating themselves, the men exchanged a look.
“Helena tells me you’ve been asking about me.” She measured the tea leaves, deftly deposited some in each tankard.
For the first time since the door, she looked at her guests, the ghost of a smile curving the corners of her lips. “My daughter.”
Immediately, the smile turned sardonic. “I am the lady of the house, Rowena Ravenclaw. I am sorry to say, I am rather older than I appear.”
It was Godric who picked up his jaw first, cheeks darkening. “No, sorry, I – we – that is to say...”
But it was Salazar who recovered first: “Your reputation precedes a somewhat sterner image.” He inclined his head graciously as Rowena brought the tray of steeping tea to the table. “We were expecting a, ah, ‘handsome woman’, but what we got was – “
He smiled, all charm. “In the best way possible.”
She arched an eyebrow, and placed a tankard in front of each. “Please, drink.”
Her face regained its intensity as the three brought their mugs to their lips, each pulling a long draught. Gently, she placed hers in front of her, and rested her chin on her knuckles.
The brew was pleasant going down, and thoroughly warming, though Godric had to clear his throat before he spoke. “Madame – “
She stood abruptly, leaving her tea where it sat. “I’m afraid I’m rather short on time at the moment – you caught me as I was in the middle of something. If you’d like,” she added, at their aghast expressions, “you may come back tomorrow. Please, feel free to finish your drinks. I’m sure you recall the way out,” she called over her shoulder as she swept out of the room.
Godric stared after her, brow creased.
After a moment of silence, Salazar drained his tankard. “Well. We made it into the house this time.”
Again, they returned the following day, trudging the long, muddy path. And again, like the first day they had come, they found the place to be quite empty; birds chirped merrily in their treetops, a horse knickered softly in his stall, but of signs of human life there were none.
Exasperated, Salazar’s lips twisted into a grimace. He opened his mouth to say something, but Godric hushed him, listening to the air intently.
This time he whirled before Helena had the chance to announce her presence (deliberately, he now suspected). She eyed him dourly. She sniffed once through her long nose, but Salazar cut her off before sharply.
“Don’t tell us. Your mother is ‘out’.”
The girl stiffened, back now ramrod straight. “Yes.”
“When will she return.”
A tongue sticking out wouldn’t have been malapropos to the expression on her face. “When she is done, I expect.”
Before Salazar even had the chance to snarl, certainly before Godric had the chance to quell him, there was a sharp, “Helena,” followed by a muffled laugh. All three turned as the lady appeared from the forest, clutching to her hip a basket full to the brim of herbs and weeds. “You are being rude to our guests,” she chided, much softer than the steel in her eyes.
Helena averted her gaze, glancing back at her mother once before she turned on her heel and fled to the house.
“You will, I hope, excuse her. She has been irate this last week, since my husband died.”
This time, it was Salazar who was at a loss for words; Godric’s brow creased. “I’m...sorry, Rowena.”
A pause, as though she had not heard, then she inclined her head a fraction, in thanks.
The ruddy man glanced at his friend, who met his gaze and then very studiously because interested in the amount of bricks the broch held. Clearing his throat, Godric placed a hand very gently on his swordbelt, looking up at the lady through his lashes. “If I may...I’d like to talk to you about an idea I had.”
It hadn’t taken much to get Rowena on board with the idea: a part of it was that it was an objectively and undeniably good idea. Being the fastidious kind of person that she was, she had to admire a plan for organization on a scope such as this.
But another, greater part of it was her pride: a logical, immensely intelligent person, there was no point denying that she had gifts to share, nor, obviously, would she want to deny it. Knowledge was her greatest power, and logic dictates that somewhere along the line, the power must either be passed down or it would wither, die.
And she could not bear the thought of that.
She had invited them in once more, insisted they stay for yet one more cuppa, and very plainly, she asked who else was supposed to help them.
Both men had been slightly at a loss. Rowena herself, while an excellent addition, had taken most of their resources, not just to find, but to think of to begin with. Godric had recounted to whom he had first appealed; politely, the lady had listened, but he could count on both hands the times she had pressed her fingers to her mouth to keep from laughing.
There had been a great pause, then, both men watching her expectantly while she appraised them.
“I have a friend,” she had said finally, “who might be willing to help.”
And so, while Godric stayed behind on the Ravenclaw estate, brainstorming a veritable typhoon with the lady of the house, Salazar took it upon himself to pay a visit to the Lady Helga Hufflepuff.
Thankfully, in no small part because it was significantly more than the hearsay he and Godric had had to go on, finding her was a fairly simple matter. Rowena had even lent him her most sturdy horse for the journey, and made sure to stock him up with provisions aplenty. Of her tea in particular he found himself growing quite fond; it warmed him from the inside out, and he vaguely wondered what it was she put into it (and, in the back of his mind, what it would do to him).
He arrived on Hufflepuff lands with little ado, and found that the raven had beaten him to it: he would be expected in her ladyship’s quarters at his leisure, and would he not like some bread or bed first?
He dismissed the serving girl for the third time, assuring her that he was quite fine, thank you. She curtseyed prettily, and bustled out of the room; he wondered how long it would take for her to return to offer him wine again.
The door opened once more, and Salazar allowed himself a smirk. Sixty whole seconds – perhaps she was learning.
But before he allowed himself to become too smug, a warmly glowing sprite of a woman glided in, eyes raking up and down his frame in a way that made him feel almost abashed at his travel-disheveled state.
She smiled softly at him. “You must be the impatient Master Slytherin.” Her voice felt like treacle in his ears, and he had to shake his head once to clear it.
Swallowing roughly, he rose, inclined his head. “Pardon the intrusion, I’m here on behalf of Lady Rowena Ravenclaw, and my good friend, Godric Gryffindor. We would like to speak to you – “
“Oh, but you are soaked to the bone!” She crossed the room in less strides than one of her stature should have, clapping her hands twice briskly. “We must get you a goblet of wine, something to eat, a dry change of clothes. Let us get the fire lit, shall we?” she instructed the serving girl, whose eyes rested on Salazar briefly before darting to comply. Turning back to her guest, Helga placed the back of her hand gently on Salazar’s brow.
The effect was immediate; blood rushed to his head, his senses seemed to simultaneously dull and sharpen, and for the first time since he was a very young child, he felt positively faint.
His eyes narrowed and locked with hers, stormcloud on honey. Slowly, deliberately, he stood again, reaching up to take her wrist firmly in hand. Despite the fact that he towered over her now, she merely smiled, and fluttered her lashes coquettishly.
They stood like this for a moment, very still, very silent, ignoring when the serving girl returned and dropped the tray carrying golden goblets full of golden wine with a breathless shriek. The metal clanged against the floor, swerved a pathetic circle at their feet, where it remained, disregarded.
Now that their skin was not in direct contact, Salazar could feel the majority of the cloud lift from his head, but even looking directly into the woman’s eyes, even pushing as hard as he ever had to see what he should be seeing, there seemed to be nothing beyond the veil of her bright smile and golden eyes.
Finally, he barked a laugh, giving her wrist a vicious squeeze before releasing. “I...I don’t even think I can be angry. I’m...impressed. I had only ever heard of tactile charms.” He raked a hand through his hair, straightened his collar before sitting once more.
Primly, Helga quipped, “I would have thought Rowena would have warned you.”
“That a guest would do well to be on guard in your house?” It came out rather colder than flippant, as he had meant it. Ruffled as he was, Salazar only managed to keep his temper at bay. This had been unexpected.
“As much so, I suppose, as I must be in my own house.” Those eyes pinned him very pointedly. “I daresay you, sir, have not been quite so innocent once you set foot past my threshold.” She waved to her serving girl, delicately trailing a finger over the girl’s wrist and beaming at her before she accepted a fresh goblet of wine. Meeting his eyes again, she dimpled innocently. “I will not take kindly to being intruded upon, Master Slytherin.”
Silence for a moment.
“No, of course not.” At last, he accepted the drink offered him, though he glanced into it skeptically through the firelight.
With a tinkly sort of laugh, Helga reached across (here he tensed), gently placed her hand over his and, keeping her gaze steady on his face, took a slow sip from his goblet.
A long moment passed before he could bring himself to politely, if stiffly, decline the proffered chance to drink as she had, from her goblet. The air was damnably hot.
Back to business. “Lady Hufflepuff,” he began.
“Helga.” Perhaps sensing the length of the conversation ahead, she reclined on her couch, tucking her legs underneath her. Goblet of wine in one hand, she waited, poised, supporting her head with her other hand.
After a pause; “Lady Hufflepuff, we – Gryffindor and myself – we’ve had an idea.” Toying with how to best broach the idea, he set his untouched wine beside him, shifting his weight. “About a school.”