He knew this was coming. Had known it was coming for quite some time actually. But knowing and actually experiencing it was something else altogether. Merlin hadn't been able to keep the shock off of his face when Helga contacted him.
Then again, knowing the circumstances, was there any other way in which he could act?
It was with these thoughts that immortal wizard apparated into the front foyer of the new Wizarding School his children had opened a few years ago. The name had been given to the four by Arthur and funnily enough, they decided to keep it, whether as a joke or out of respect, the name stuck and now, Merlin was bizarrely father to four children who now ran "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry". Things had gone well for the first 10 or so years in the run of the school, until Salazar had begun to butt heads, as he was wont to do, with his elder brother, Godric Gryffindor. There were arguments concerning the types of students that were to be allowed entry into the Academy and in the end, the four were unable to resolve it, resulting in Salazar leaving them, having stolen away in the middle of the night and used magic that prevented even the cleverest of witches and wizards from finding him.
Merlin knew where he was of course, but he knew when to leave well enough alone and it was clear that Salazar would not be convinced that his brothers and sisters were not making a mistake. Until they could promise that only pure-bloods were being admitted, Salazar would not be returning. If anything, the others were just as stubborn, none of them were willing to deny any burgeoning witch or wizard the ability to control their power. They had seen what occurred in the terrified people who attempted to suppress their powers. Obscurus, he called it. It was one of the most horrific things he had seen happen to people and that was knowing things like the Cruciatus Curse existed.
Merlin almost laughed as he walked into the main hall of the school, seeing the wreaths of flora and fauna that adorned the walls and doors. He couldn’t believe that he was resorting to thinking of his destroyed family in order to make himself feel better about what he was going to face here. In the last year, Gwaine had died, Lancelot had left who knows where, Arthur and Gwenivere had both died in the last war for Camelot and Merlin was reduced to raising their son in secrecy in Carhaix and in the end, all he had to look forward to was more of the same. In times like these, Merlin viewed his immortality as an abominable curse, not the gift the Gods meant for him to see it as.
He ascended the main stairway towards the Ravenclaw Wing and came face to face with a large bronze eagle shaped knocker on a massive regal wooden door. When Merlin approached, it took on a sleeker and shiny quality as it came to life, and spoke.
"Greetings Master Merlin, tell me, on this night, what can be broken without being held?"
Merlin sighed, even the riddle knew his failings. He had done exactly what he told his children he wouldn’t have done that first day they met.
"A promise, you bronze knucklehead. A promise."
The knocker bowed its head in deference despite the insult and the door swung open and Merlin walked over the threshold. It was eerily quiet, save for some of quiet sniffling which Merlin could hear coming from a room off of the main Ravenclaw common room.
Perhaps it was the sound of the door swinging open, or the sound of his voice outside the door but in seconds, there was the sound of rustling and suddenly, through the doorway that Merlin knew led to Rowena's private chambers, Helga came bustling through. Her hair remained for once was wrapped haphazardly into a bun on her head, and her face was smudged with tears, her nose red. Merlin could tell she had been crying.
"Oh, Father!" Without so much as a hello, the witch wrapped her arms around him, and began to sob anew. Merlin patted her back and fought back his own. If he broke now, he would never stop and then he would be of no use to anyone.
Soon, however, Godric appeared, his own eyes red rimmed as he drew Helga away from Merlin and into his own embrace. He motioned with his head towards Rowena's chambers, the doors of which were closed and bathed in the torchlight coming from the pathway to her rooms.
"She's been asking for you." Merlin locked eyes with his eldest son and the unspoken question passed between them and Godric shook his head.
"I've tried everything, but he remains steadfast in his wishes. I sent word through the man you mentioned. He believes this to be a ruse to draw him out." Helga wailed louder at the words.
"How could he?! His own sister is dying!" Merlin winced, hearing it said out loud and Godric only wrapped his arms tighter around her. Knowing she was waiting for him, Merlin ventured towards the door.
Towards his dying daughter.
Knocking on the door, Merlin was rewarded with a faint voice, bidding him enter. And when he did, he was nearly shocked speechless by the sight by which he was greeted. Rowena, the robust, intelligent, and curious girl he had raised now lay wasted and near death. Her color was pale and her breathing shallow. Her skin now lay like paper over her bones, not a trace of flesh appeared to lessen the stark vision of hard lines, nothing like the lithe figure that he was used to seeing.
Her chambers were lit only by candlelight, bathing her room in a warm orange glow, and the silence of the room was only interrupted by the sound of water being wrung in a pail before being laid over her brow by the healing maid that stood by her side. Merlin recognized her as the woman Godric had hired to look over the health of the students at Hogwarts. He beckoned her to him and she rose, demurely folding her hands in front of her as she approached him.
"How is she my Lady?"
The hesitance before she spoke told Merlin more than everything.
"Master Merlin. I cannot discern the source or the cause of the ailment, she is losing blood and her ability becomes worse as the night deepens. If things progress like this, I do not expect Madame Rowena to last until sunrise."
"There is nothing you can do?"
"I am sorry, I have exhausted every item, every bit of knowledge I have, I have even taken a look at Madame Rowena's own medicinal texts but she does not respond to anything that is given to her. " She scrubbed her hands up and down her arms as if cold in the warm room. "There is nothing more I can do. She is beyond my help." Merlin bit his lip, willing himself to be calm. The idea of losing another person so close to his heart frightened him more than he could admit to himself.
"Father?" The weak voice, perforated by coughs alerted Merlin to the fact that Rowena was now conscious. With a nod of his head and a pat on her arm, Merlin dismissed the maid and took her place, removing the towel on Rowena's forehead and dipping it into the cool water again.
"I am here, Rowena. I came as soon as I could."
"I missed you, Father." The sighed statement made Merlin feel all the guiltier that he had not been around more as the children grew older, having thought they would prefer the freedom.
"I wish I could do more, Rowena." He wiped her brow as she turned her head to look at him and whispered.
"If you want to do something, then help me."
"I'm sorr - Rowena, I can't - " She grabbed his hand and clenched it tight.
"Not me, Helena. You must find her." Merlin sat up straight, only now noticing her absence.
"Helena? What do you mean find her? Where is she?" Rowena closed her eyes and Merlin began to see the tears that escaped her.
"She has stolen it." Merlin still didn’t understand and Rowena could see it, her face scrunching up with the effort to keep speaking. "The diadem, Father! She believed the fools in this village who told her that the diadem made her smarter, better, more intelligent. She believed them and stole it! She ran away, a fortnight ago, I have sent Baron to find her, but neither has returned and I am at my wits' end! I cannot die without having seen my daughter before I pass. There is much I wish to tell her, to teach her, but I if I die before that, she will never know how much she meant to me!"
Merlin patted her hand as Rowena came down from the exertion of talking at length. He thought quickly, he had a vague idea of where she might have gone, but he was more worried about the fact that Rowena had sent Baron after Helena.
"Are you sure that was wise? We know their relationship is not one in which Helena views him favorably." Rowena looked away, refusing to meet Merlin's eyes.
"I know you disagree with me Father, but I have chosen Helena's husband, and Baron is who I trust. He is intelligent and clever. He will keep up with Helena's wit, and keep her mind alive."
Merlin sighed. He had had this conversation time and again with his daughter, but the outcome remained the same. Rowena believed that she knew better than Helena in the matters of choosing a spouse. Merlin had tried to explain that love is what made a relationship, not matchmaking. He had seen it backfire when it was forced on Arthur and in the end, he could think of no worse way to be married than to be forced into it.
Rowena however, did not believe in love. She had told Merlin this quite distinctly at dinner a year ago, the first time the subject had come up. All at the table were aware of Rowena's ill-fated tryst some years ago that had resulted in the birth of Helena. Perhaps the heartbreak of knowing your "lover" never intended for the relationship to become anything more than a "goodtime" had ruined her for love. Rowena never believed in the notion again and quite firmly refused her heart and put her confidence in her intelligence instead.
Merlin knew this was not the time to pursue such matters and stood, opening the door to beckon the nurse back in.
"Alright Rowena, just sit tight, I shall find her and bring her back."
With that he swept out of the room, shutting the door behind him and went back to Godric and Helga. She had calmed down by this point and now sat, leaning into Godric, eyes swollen with tears and trembling lips.
"Have either of you any idea where Helena might have gone?" Godric shook his head mutely, while Helga thought.
"In her chambers, I have seen branches of Black Pine. I believe she's spoken about the forest from which they came from, in Albania, and said that she would like to live there in old age."
Merlin almost smiled. The sentiment was similar to that of her mother who always longed to return to Carhaix, having always said that the little eccentric cottage was the first true home she had had.
Camelot had been home for some time, but there was too much heartbreak, too much sorrow here that Rowena could never truly be comfortable.
Merlin always felt guilty for the pity he felt for his children. He had tried to give them a home and loving family, but even he couldn't have foreseen the splintering that overcame them. Rowena would never speak about it but he knew that Salazar leaving had a profound effect on all of them. He could see it in the way Godric took over the Slytherins despite having his own kids to look after. Godric seemed to understand the destructive power of fury and always worked to keep in contained, and after Salazar's departure, the instances of Godric's anger grew far and few in between. Everyone knew that Helga and Salazar had loved each other, even if they had never said as such and when he left, Godric knew that no one could ever compare to Salazar in Helga's mind. So Merlin watched as all of his children nursed their broken hearts. Sometimes, when he spoke to Arthur in his head, Merlin wondered if he should have rescued them.
Perhaps it would have been better to let them die, than having them grow old with the pain of abandonment, unrequited love and the sorrow that tinged their every action. He could help but wonder if he had done more harm than good.
When he finally arrived in the Albanian forests, Merlin immediately felt something was not right. Something about the forest was dark and unforgiving, colored in anger and fury. It set his teeth on edge and put Merlin immediately into high alert. He made his way through the woods, following the feelings he felt, until they grew so strong he felt as if he were about to be overcome.
The reasons for the auras he kept feeling were finally revealed when Merlin reached a narrow section of the forest where the brown tree trunks had gone black. The effect was baffling and putting a hand on the trunk, Merlin recoiled nearly instantly when the blackness of the tree transferred to his hand, like a waxen covering. He went to investigate further when he noticed a foot in fur boots out of the corner of his eyes.
With some trepidation, he approached it, navigating his ways around the trees, hearing the abnormally loud rustling of leaves and branches underfoot. Every sound seemed amplified in the quiet, the sun setting casting an eerie orange glow on the blackened fauna. When he came around fully, he muffled a yelp of shock, coming upon the body of Baron, a large ornate dagger imbedded through his cloak into his own chest. It didn't take more investigating to know that Baron was beyond help, his eyes having gone glassy. Merlin then noticed the Baron's left was outstretched, and his eyes seemed to be looking the same general direction. Merlin got up and followed the line of sight and stumbled back to see Helena's corpse.
For it could be nothing else, Merlin saw the pooled on the ground under her and knew that the darkned patches he could see on the purple bodice of Helena's gown were stab wounds. He now understood what had transpired. It was a common enough occurrence in their relationship but one that had taken a deadlier outcome this time.
He had told Rowena that Baron could not fit Helena. She was too independent for Baron who yearned to make Helena his, and to make her voluntarily submit to him. Their fights frequently echoed through castle and Merlin himself recalled several instances in which Baron had slapped Helena and he had intervened with Godric's help. No matter how much he had tried to make Rowena understand how disastrous the situation was becoming, Rowena never budged.
Now Merlin crept over to Helena's body, tentatively touching her arm, noticing how cold she felt. They had been dead for at least five days, the cold of Albania's climate having preserved their bodies and slowed the process of decay. Her eyes were open, and Merlin nearly wept, seeing the naked fear in Helena's expression. He bit his lip as he closed his granddaughter's eyes.
How frightened she must have been, the last thing she witnessed in her life was Baron's knife embedding itself in her flesh. He picked up her head and rested it in his lap, stroking the dirt and hair away from her face.
It was obvious that Baron had done what he assumed he would. He had demanded Helena come back with him and knowing Helena, she would have refused, and she would have done it haughtily. It would have incensed Baron beyond control. He would have tried to hurt her for her rebellion. But afterwards, he was overcome with remorse, since Merlin knew in his own twisted way, Baron had loved Helena, but what he never understood, was that he had fallen in love with the Helena he had created in his mind. The Helena that was loving and obeyed his commands and treated him with deference, loving him unequivocally. The true Helena was every bit as haughty if not more than her, and believed she needed no man in her life, no doubt aspiring to her own mother's life style.
Then Merlin noticed it, in Helena's hair, tangled in the raven tresses, was Rowena's Diadem, still radiant in its brilliant. The older wizard remembered it with fondness, having gifted it to Rowena the day the doors of Hogwarts had opened. Rowena had such joy reading the inscription he had carved into it. Wit beyond measure, is a man's greatest treasure. He lifted it from her hair, gently untangling it and put it in his pocket, then getting up.
It was time.
Merlin walked into the entrance of Hogwarts, finding Godric and Helga there, trying their utmost to keep their composure.
He entered taking exceptional care to deposit the two makeshift coffins on the ground. In the essence of time, he had come doing what he could in a short amount of time and thus hadn't had much time to make their bodies more presentable.
Meeting Godric's eyes, Merlin strode forward, aware of Godric's gaze. He handed the younger wizard the blood crusted dagger, wishing he could unsee the widening of their eyes as they looked at it.
"I told Rowena he wasn't the man for 'Lena. He was too possessive, too angry." Before either of the two could stop her, Helga ran to the smaller of the two boxes and pried the lid off, using brute strength. Godric caught her when she stumbled back, letting out a horrified scream, covering her mouth and looking at Merlin in shock. She sunk to the floor, still embraced in Godric's arms, shaking.
"W-why? He was supposed to bring her back! She hadn’t done anything wrong!" Merlin then realized that neither of the two was aware that Helena had stolen the diadem and he resolved to keep it that way knowing that Rowena wouldn't want them to know, her pride wouldn't withstand the humiliation.
He crouched down next to Godric as Helga struggled to understand.
"I have to tell Rowena. Look after her." Receiving affirmation from Godric, Merlin set off down towards the Ravenclaw common room, for once thankful for the fact that the student were all home as the year had ended. The reaction to one of their Househead's dying would have been too much to deal with whilst going through it themselves.
Still he didn't enjoy the task of delivering the news to Rowena, watching her hopeful expression melt into one of complete anguish. The wails permeated through the halls and Merlin could hear them hours later. All the strength had left her then, and it was not long after that Merlin, Godric, and Helga sat on Rowena's bed, holding her hands, and watched their friend and sister fade and fade until she no longer remained part of their world, the sounds of her pain lingering long after she had passed.
The illness aside, Merlin maintained, whenever he told the story that in the end, Rowena, beautiful, clever, witty, logical Rowena had not died of sickness.
No, she had died of a broken heart.