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Chapter 9: Blackberries
He watched the sky shed away its stratums of black and blue, waiting in stillness by the window. The process was ever so gradual, since time seemed to inch along at its leisure here in Cliodna’s Clock. Dawn was always Colin’s favorite part of the day; the moon blossomed into the sun, its petals a blazing orange that speared through mist and clouds and spangled shadows to light the world on fire.
He was already dressed, the first person to rise in the boardinghouse. With his ear cocked to the side, both eyes still pinned on the sky beyond the window, he could hear water working its way through pipes between walls, traveling up two floors to someone’s bathroom tap. Through the double doors past the dining area where Vesper Lovegood provided exceptionally strange meals three times a day, Colin could hear the sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down the length of the narrow kitchen, and a ladle stirring the contents of a cauldron.
The aroma of black nettle tea wafted between cracks in flower-papered walls and gleaming teak doors, a delicate tinkling of silverware being arranged on the tables just barely audible. The elves assisting Vesper whispered excitedly amongst themselves, joining Vesper in her delight for a fresh new day. Their voices were high, carrying through the empty dining area to the foyer where Colin sat. Their general enthusiasm made him smile.
The doors creaked open and Vesper tread softly into the foyer, a silver tray balanced in the crook of one elbow. Five china dishes filled with an assortment of snacks rested on it, wobbling as she walked. On her other side, their handles dangling from her fingers, five teacups clinked together against her wrist like an invitation to some mad tea party.
“Good morning, Colin.” She followed his line of vision with eyes the color of fog. “It looks beautiful outside.”
He tapped an issue of the Daily Departed, which had arrived twenty minutes ago. A moving illustration of storm clouds blew violently across the front page, the bold 30 MAY 1998 underneath electrified with lightning. “Miss Trelawney calls for rain in the afternoon.”
Vesper merely looked pensive about this, and said, “Good. It’s always best to pick Dirigible plums while the weather’s poor. Otherwise the gnomes gather up all the ones I let drop.”
Colin raised his eyebrows slightly, taking note of the wand she’d stabbed through a messy ash-blonde bun. “Why do you drop them?”
“Well, they bounce, you see…” The tail-end of her words trickled off into serene silence as she peered outside, temporarily losing focus. “I do like the view now,” she said fondly, and Colin turned to see that she was looking at Salazar Slytherin’s house. “I hope we stay here for just a little while longer. Mr. Slytherin’s house always reminds me of my home in Ottery St. Catchpole.” She stared for a little while longer, whistling a flute-like tune between her teeth, until remembering Colin’s presence at last. “Would you like something to eat?” She offered him the tray of food.
Colin recognized pomegranate seeds in one, a bowl of squirming yellow noodles in another that smelled a bit too astringent to be a viable option, regular blackberries, and tomato stems. The fifth and final dish he could not identify; they resembled sprouts, but were a poisonous shade of purple. He recalled one evening when Mrs. Lovegood served spiced gillyweed to a round of unsuspecting patrons and they’d all had to stick their heads in vases of red flowers that sat on every table. The flowers, as it turned out, were actually Fanged Geraniums. It was not a pleasant scene. “What are those purple things?”
“Heart of sneezewort. They taste wonderful in Gurdyroot salad.”
Colin hastily plucked a few blackberries from a bowl. They were shining, still wet with dew. “Thank you, Mrs. Lovegood. I’ll have these.”
“I know they look strange,” she said thoughtfully, referring to the sneezewort. “I don’t think you like my cooking very much, but you’re much too polite to say so. The tea’s nearly ready, if you’d like some. Unless the smell repulses you?” She didn’t say this in a rude or offended way. In fact, she was smiling in such a friendly fashion that it rather daunted Colin.
“I’m not very thirsty at the moment.” He stood up, giving the street outside one last searching look. “I’m going out for a short while. Thank you for breakfast.”
“Oh?” Her ever-marveling gaze lingered over his jacket and the berries cupped in his left hand. “In that case, you should take a few more. You’ve only got enough for one.”
He swallowed. How did she know? But before he could say anything, she had taken his hand and funneled more blackberries into his palm, then closed his fingers back over it with another smile.
“See you later, Colin Creevey.”
It took a bit of difficulty to locate the holly tree nursery, as Florean’s new ice cream parlor had taken up residence at its previous address, but he soon discovered it along one of the beaches, halfway merged with the Memory Garden. In between bits of driftwood and tombstones, holly trees climbed out of the sand like hands reaching for air. He passed one of the gray marble tombstones, reading an epitaph that said ‘Thiago McBride, 1603. Your sister waits for you’.
He picked his way between trees that had been crafted into monkeys, hippogriffs, and horses kicking at the wind with their hind legs, mid-jump, tromping over clumps of seaweed that had washed up onto the dunes. An elderly man was kneeling beside a tombstone with a horned toad carved from stone perched on top, speaking quietly. He trailed the tips of a flower bouquet – belladonna and narcissus – over the engraved words marking someone he knew: Druella Rosier Black, 1979. Just behind him at his heels, a seraph headstone grew slanted out of the soil. One of its wings was clipped and its bulbous, staring eyes were haunting without irises to give them direction. Aberforth and Albus Dumbledore, 1899. When three becomes five, we will be whole again.
Slightly unsettled, Colin continued through the maze of Memory Garden and twisting trees, the holly animals staring at him with knotholes for eyes and carefully-placed thorns for teeth. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching him trespass and did not approve. He passed a bat whose wings fluttered in a lifelike quality, a sea breeze stirring its leaves; and a hippopotamus with its mouth frozen wide open in a vicious roar. Queerly enough, the animals seemed much friendlier at night than they did just presently, offering their branches for protection rather than extending them to seize, to harm. Birds of sadness circled stones erected throughout the Memory Garden, making their nests on weathered graves of those left behind.
It didn’t take long to find the dragon tree. It was one of the largest constructions in the garden, snaking between a gorilla and a bear Colin guessed might be a panda. As he approached, a few of the higher boughs shook and he bit back a smile, keeping his eyes purposefully glued to the ground.
It was shady and cool underneath the rows of shrubbery serving as the dragon’s underbelly, the sand preserved from sunlight. Through a lattice of skinny branches waving all around his head, he could see faraway clouds, crumpled white paper on a bleached blue sky. They reminded him of adventure tales his father used to read to him and Dennis when they were small – of pirates on the open seas and messages in bottles and creatures that could drown an entire crew with one tug of their tentacles.
Colin plopped one of the berries in his mouth while rolling another between thumb and forefinger, listening. His eyes ran up the gnarled tree trunk, observing the blood-red fingerprints smudged all over, and he withdrew his wand from a pocket of his robes.
Pointing it at a berry, he said, “Wingardium Leviosa.”
One by one, he began to levitate the blackberries in his hand. They rose before his face, forming a hoop of droplets. Colin was not an especially gifted wizard. He’d had profuse troubles learning spells and charms during lessons, and more often than not he ended up making something explode. But there was a trick he’d once witnessed another boy perform that he knew he simply had to learn. He’d tried it and he’d perfected it after a lot of practice, and it had been very gratifying to entertain his fellow classmates with it in the Great Hall during meals.
The ring of berries started to juggle of their own volition, the topmost one throwing itself higher and higher with every round. He counted each one as it looped full circle, hopping about in the air like rain. Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen. Twelve. Ten. Colin grinned, tilting his head back after half of his breakfast disappeared before his eyes. Above him, an identical grin stared down at him with juice stains on her chin.
“Back again?” She licked her lips and then wiped them off with the back of her hand, the ends of her very long braid close to tickling Colin’s hair. “You don’t give up easily, do you?”
“You were gone all last night,” Colin remarked conversationally, as though they had long ago established a friendship and were now catching up.
“There are a lot of things to see around here.” The girl’s eyes flashed mischievously behind spectacles much too large for her face. She swung her knees around, letting two legs drop over the side of one branch. Colin had to move his head quickly so that he wouldn't get kicked in the face. “I know you.”
“You ought to. I’ve been following you around every day.”
“No, I mean I know you, know you. I’m in Dennis’s year at Hogwarts,” she replied matter-of-factly, legs swinging. “We’re in different Houses, of course – he’s in Gryffindor and I’m in Ravenclaw. I do remember you, though. Dennis called out to you before our Sorting.”
Colin smiled upon remembering. Dennis had fallen out of the boat that was supposed to transport him across the Black Lake, and both boys were quite certain that the giant squid, of all things, had helped Dennis back in to the boat.
“I remember you, too,” he said. “I never learned your name, but I saw you around a few times, sitting under tables in the library and sometimes hiding way up high in the Owlery.” He squinted at her, tapping the tapered end of his wand on the sand to make pockmarks. “Why’d you do that?”
She shrugged, dropping out of the tree. She landed cross-legged right in front of him, the force of her fall spewing sand granules all over Colin’s lap. “I like to hide. People will tell you all sorts of things when they don’t know you’re there. And I see everything, too. It gives me magnificent inspiration for stories.”
“Yes, I write them.” She fiddled with her honey-brown fringe, which was quite thick and in need of a trim. It came down over her eyebrows, brushing against the rims of her glasses. Her face, like the rest of her, was small and slight, and her expression carried a spirited, dreamy determination. Colin thought to himself that she seemed like the sort of person who didn’t need to hear tales of swashbuckling pirates beforehand in order to imagine them. They were already there in her mind. He looked down and noticed that she had tied her wand to her side with a belt made from shoestrings.
She saw him examining her belt and patted the shoestrings affectionately. “Someone threw them at my tree. So, are you going to redo your sixth year here? Since you couldn’t go to Hogwarts last year?” Colin’s head jerked up to view her properly again, surprised by the change in topic. “Lots of people were gone this term because of the new Muggle-born laws. It was really awful, I was forced to go. Mum and Dad wanted to keep me home, but they said I wasn’t allowed. Mandatory for everyone with approved bloodlines.”
She stuck her hand out for him to shake. “Orla Quirke, by the way.” He shook it, surprised by her vigor. “Last time I saw you, you were hiding in that big room with all the House hangings and hammocks,” the girl went on. “How’d you get into the castle, anyway?”
“Same way you got out of it, I reckon.”
Colin and Dennis Creevey had gone into hiding at the start of their sixth and fourth years, respectively, due to the proclamation that no Muggle-borns would be granted admittance. Furthermore, Muggle-borns possessing a wand were wanted for questioning at the Ministry. It was with this horrifying new regime pressing densely down upon them that the Creeveys went to stay with Aunt Delia in Tunstall for a brief spell. They had hoped that Hogwarts restrictions would relax, and that Colin and Dennis wouldn’t miss more than a few weeks of school; however, the rules became, if possible, even more constricting, and they fled Tunstall for fear of being found.
After that, it had been a long succession of gloomy hotels and looking over their shoulders, finally settling in a hut in Scarborough. This was where they’d been hiding when Colin Creevey inspected a Galleon in his pocket – which, unbeknownst to his parents, was not a real Galleon at all – and shook his brother awake.
“’S it?” Dennis had questioned blearily.
“Dumbledore’s Army needs us. Urgently.”
They’d Floo’d to Hogsmeade, which was dangerous since they knew the Floo network was being closely monitored, but it hadn’t mattered at the time. It was nearly midnight, the world was in chaos, and Colin’s Galleon was simmering in his hand with numerals for that very hour inscribed on its surface. This was it, he could feel it. The Creevey boys had been summoned by other members, alerted that the time had come to fight.
And then they were promptly turned away for being underage.
But they were born Gryffindors, both of them, and this did not stop them. They’d originally Floo’d to Honeydukes in Hogsmeade, and, seeing all of the commotion going on outside The Hog’s Head, they’d jogged over there on the heels of Oliver Wood, Katie Bell, and Angelina Johnson. So after Professor McGonagall told them to evacuate with all the other students who were not yet seventeen, they’d hid in the Room of Requirement, waiting for everyone else to pass. They then meant to return to the Great Hall, but never made it there. The battle had already commenced, and the furthest they could go was the sixth floor corridor.
Colin and Dennis had stayed together until one of the walls collapsed from a giant sinking its fist through the window, separating the brothers with mountains of rubble. Colin had been trying to curse, trying to jinx, but there was so much turmoil…the foundations were shaking and his head was dizzy, and there were people everywhere. Flames of light were being thrown back and forth, and he didn’t know who to attack, or how…
All he wanted was for everyone to stop so that he could dig through the wreckage and find Dennis. In retrospect, his mind stored those scenes in the form of photographs, a way that could be easily documented and retrieved. The physical parameters of those photos kept him from envisioning all of the other people who had been strewn in grotesque heaps around him while he stood fighting, limb over limb and chin over chest, dead. It was too surreal to be his life.
Confusion was the last thing he remembered, wondering what he should do next and praying that Dennis was all right. He must have been struck from behind while he was deciding. He hadn’t gotten a glimpse of who his attacker was, never saw the face or the jet of light. Colin knew enough about the wizarding world to know that a respectable person never casts a spell on an opponent whose back is turned. He’d never done it, not even then, and he found himself baffled afterwards that such a betrayal could occur there in Hogwarts, in the world he loved so much and couldn’t believe his luck that he belonged to.
“But you didn’t die in the battle,” he mentioned after a while. A bird of sadness had hopped onto a branch near him, eavesdropping on his memories. “You’ve only been here for two weeks.”
Orla smiled grimly. “That’s right. I made it out of Hogwarts safe and sound and then died two weeks later.”
He didn’t want to ask, was afraid to be rude. Colin sprinkled sand between his fingers, sifting it in patterns over his knees, hoping she would volunteer the information. She did not, and he didn’t press.
She could see both of them quite well from this angle. From Salazar’s point of view, this would probably seem like cheating – and if he noticed, he made no sign that he did. Godric, of course, was completely oblivious of her scrutiny. He was busy examining his manuscript, crossing out lines in order to lower the outstanding word count he’d produced over the past three months of writing. Every now and then he lifted his hand to scratch at the stubble on his chin, and his eyes would flicker over the room, restless, but then they would fall back to his parchment without noticing Rowena’s keen gaze.
A small smile tugged at her lips. Salazar was so adept at pretending, and it all led back to his arrogance, his conceit. He would love nothing more than for Rowena to seemingly admire him, and of course would not wish to interfere. In his own mind, if he himself planted even a fraction of his attention on the fair Ravenclaw, he in turn must be the permanent fixture of her romantic attractions as well. He’d always told her this, and was determined to make her believe it was true.
The trouble was, she had no idea whether or not he was right.
Salazar was handsome in an illusory sort of way. His overall appearance could be considered pleasing, Rowena supposed. But when she thought about it, analyzing his features individually as she was apt to do when she didn’t care what he thought of it, there was nothing particularly striking about him – not in his iron eyes or black hair or the hard angles of his cheekbones and jaw. Overall, he was handsome. But if someone asked why, and took a closer look, it might leave them confused. In fact, it might leave them marveling that Salazar was rather unhandsome. His eyes are too lidded. His nose isn’t long enough. His teeth are too square. And then they might blink and suddenly he would become deceivingly handsome again, and they would shake their heads and wonder if perhaps it was just a trick of the lighting.
Godric Gryffindor was the exact opposite. His features were beautiful, but in a mishmash way that didn’t quite go together. His green eyes were wide-set with flecks of gold; his curling hair like copper wire, dark freckles scattering down his sunburned temples and across his broad forehead. It was usually the wide-set eyes that severed the attention of anyone observing. They beheld a strange innocence that didn’t quite flesh with the Godric the Warrior image, an incorruptibility that failed to match his character.
He might have gotten a bit ridiculous in death, jousting with chairs and stools he animated with magic, but he could never be as naïve as he looked. And while most people went about their days with impressions that both Godric and Salazar were good-looking men, none of them gave either more than a fleeting glance. So how could they be sure? It was better not to question such things. Hogwarts founders must of course be handsome. No highly successful, reputable wizard could ever be plain.
“I think sometimes you forget that you didn’t choose me,” said a rigid voice. Rowena’s mouth turned down at the corners, her hands roaming to her mug so that she would have something to throttle. Maybe she could pretend it was his neck. “I’ve been watching you watch me for…oh…” Salazar examined his invisible wristwatch, drawing up his dark eyebrows in exaggerated shock. “About thirty minutes now. Trying to have our cake and eat it, too, are we?”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” she said with a sigh, her attention drifting over to the other side of the room. Godric had gotten up and left; Helga Hufflepuff, a social butterfly if there ever was one, was busy helping herself to a fountain of hot chocolate behind Odo’s counter. “If you want to read into anything, let it be the fact that I waited at the door for ages for a table to clear, just so that I wouldn’t have to sit anywhere near you.”
“That’s just because you’re so intimidated of my good looks. And you wouldn’t have been able to sit near me, anyway. I cast a few spells to give my neighboring tables the lovely scent of decomposing flesh.” He winked at her above his glass. “So that I wouldn’t have to listen to any of their drivel.”
Rowena rolled her eyes. “You should consider getting a necklace to hang your many charms from.” Salazar chuckled into his drink, his eyes flicking warily to the necklace that hung around Rowena’s own throat. It was a gift from Godric – the first token of affection Rowena had accepted from any man since Helena’s father died. Rowena’s relationship with Godric had been received badly by Helena, and contributed in part to their estrangement.
This fed into Rowena’s misgivings about Godric while both of them were still alive. Maybe she wasn’t completely satisfied with him because Helena disapproved? Maybe she felt guilty for moving on from Amadeus. After all, Amadeus was waiting for her on the other side, if such a place existed. Ironically, soon after she got to Cliodna’s Clock, Rowena discovered that her husband had already perished in the Devil’s Duel.
Salazar was still wearing a sapphire on his middle finger, small and dingy amidst all of his other grand jewels. Perhaps he thought it went unnoticed, but she’d never once seen him without it. The band had changed, of course, because his fingers were larger than a woman’s – but the gem was supposed to have been hers. He tried to give it to her twice. Once was a year after Amadeus’s death, and the other was just before she’d accepted Godric’s proposal for a marriage that never materialized. Things had gone swiftly south after that, ending with Rowena sending the Baron to collect Helena for a final goodbye. Helena had never come to her. Even in death, Helena had managed to successfully evade her mother.
He caught her staring at the blue gem and gave her a knowing smirk that was much too riddled with resentment to pass for a smile. Rowena felt herself grow rather hot.
“So who’d you find?” she asked briskly, trying to keep her voice even. “I know that’s what you’ve been up to.”
“I haven’t been actively up to anything. Not that you’ll believe me no matter what I say, but I don’t go hunting for them. They just show up on my doorstep.” Rowena raised her eyebrows, disbelieving, and he cracked another strained smile. “I have a rather ostentatious doorstep, you see. It’s like a magnet for fools.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“That’s because I don’t remember his name. Miserable lad, and none too bright. I don’t expect him to make it past the first round if he gets selected by the committee, unless the others have wits enough to notice how obtuse he is and save him for later. He would be easy pickings in the third or fourth round.”
“I pity him already.”
“Why should you? He’s almost guaranteed not to enter the fifth round. You’re always complaining about the ethics of the races, so consider it one more boy spared.”
Rowena eyed him shrewdly. “I don’t pity him because he won’t go far in the duel. I pity him because he has someone like you whispering in his ear. What is the worth of a mentor who does not believe in his student?”
All of the light went out of Salazar’s eyes. Annoyed with her, he focused on draining the last of his wine and ignoring her pointed sighs indicating frustration that he was still sitting there with her. After a long, uncomfortable pause during which Salazar drummed his knuckles on the table and Rowena gazed everywhere in the room but at him, Salazar opened up his mouth to speak. He’d convincingly disposed of his surly airs, reaching for a friendlier turn of the conversation, but found himself interrupted before he began.
“Rowena, my dear.” It was Godric, sopping wet from the thunderstorm brewing outside. He had one hand on her back and his lips at her cheekbone. “Merlin’s been looking for you. Registration for the Devil’s Duel closes tomorrow and your attendance is desired in the Town Hall so that they can begin to make preparations.”
“Town Hall?” Salazar repeated. He hated having to converse with Godric, and never did if he could help it, but he’d spoken without intending to. As a result, his mouth was twisting into an exceptionally ugly shape, as though he’d just tasted some vinegar and lemon. He looked at Rowena instead. It still wasn’t easy, what with Godric’s hand resting on her shoulder in a way that growled ‘she’s mine’ without anyone having to get their wands involved, but she was still pleasing to the eyes. And she, at least, didn’t bring out any of his urges to hex.
“Yes,” Godric answered, obviously gloating because Rowena had failed to share this information with Salazar. “She’s on the committee this year, or haven’t you heard?”
“The committee?” Salazar’s face contorted with anger. “Are you serious? After all the self-righteous remarks you’ve made about the whole organization?”
“If you must know, I’m doing it because I dislike the organization,” she insisted stiffly. “If you can’t beat them, join them. This way, I have a hand in who gets chosen. I can protect those who aren’t stable enough to care about their own self-preservation.”
“Are you sure you’re not just keeping busy so that you won’t have to spend more time with this one?” He motioned towards Godric, who scowled at him. “You’ll do anything to stay out late, won’t you? Can’t hardly blame you, though. I wouldn’t fancy getting into bed while he’s watching me through my window, either. I see that you still haven’t let him move in with you.” A clap of thunder boomed from overhead, shaking the walls.
“Got it all out of your system yet?” Godric asked impatiently. Rowena’s voice rose over his, flattening it. Her face was quite close to Salazar’s, chin jutting out with all of her teeth bared.
“Shut up,” she snapped. “My personal life is none of your business.”
“You’ve got that right.” Salazar lifted his glass to his lips again, even though it was empty, and turned coldly away from them both. His expression was murderous. “Have fun being a hypocrite, sweetheart. Your soul will sell for a lot more than Galleons here.”
Rowena stomped across the room, anger blinding her to a few people who got elbowed roughly in the chest on her way out. Godric followed suit, ruffled but secretly glad that Salazar continued to supply Rowena with a heavy list of reasons to hate him. He did all the work himself, keeping her at an icy distance with his venomous words that could so effectively wound.
After Rowena and Godric were gone, probably halfway to the Town Hall and raving heatedly about how much they loathed Salazar, Salazar himself was still sitting at Rowena’s abandoned table with only his regrets to quarrel with, twisting the sapphire around and around his finger.