Chapter 1 : The Fourth Horseman
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He was running, his feet pounding hard against the dry earth. Running for his life? No, that wasn't it. If he had been running for his life, his breath would have been ragged, harsh, tearing through his throat and strangling him with fear. His limbs were humming with adrenaline and every breath was tinged with excitement.
This was what it truly meant to be alive.
“Back, you foul beast. Crawl back to your cave to cower or die,” he yelled, and his sword flashed in bright sunlight. He laughed as he stabbed at green, shining scales, and leapt aside nimbly when a long, massive tail tried to knock him to the ground.
The dragon's claws dug into the earth. He gazed into its eyes without fear or hesitation. He looked into its slowly opening jaws, at the glistening, pointed teeth. Its throat filled with fire and still He did not retreat, did not lower his sword nor his steady gaze.
He would die laughing and alive.
Godric Gryffindor awoke with a gasp, his eyes flying open and searching the dark stone ceiling above him. He was looking for fire, for open jaws, but the reason why was quickly escaping him. His shadowy room was silent and still. The only light came from the silver moon that filtered through a slit of a window on a far wall, slicing a line across the cold stone floor. The others he shared the room with slept on soundly, and the only noise he could hear was the sound of his own harsh breathing mingled with the light snores of the others.
He gradually became aware of his fingers clutching the sheets tightly, of his legs tangled in the thin blankets, and of the light sheen of sweat on his brow. He had been dreaming, he knew, but it hadn't been a bad dream. And as it so often was with dreams, the subject was quickly escaping him. He finally managed to recall what it was about, but waking, it all seemed bizarre and ridiculous.
He lay awake, restless and strangely alert, until morning. He kept trying to recapture the joy that the dream had been so tinged with, but it was like trying to capture smoke in a clenched fist. With daylight fast approaching, he finally rose from his straw pallet in the dark. He dressed, pulling a thin tunic over his head, and gently kicked his fellow squires to wake them.
“Always the first to rise, and the last to bed,” Rowan muttered. “I don't understand how you've the strength to move, let alone do your work.”
Someone grunted in agreement, but in the dark Godric couldn't tell who—and to be honest, he wasn't paying them any attention. He leaned against the wall to survey the land through the slit of a window. In the dark he made out a narrow view of rolling hills. They stretched far, as far as he could see presently. Beyond the hills lay wild marshes, dusty plains, towering forests, and then a ring of mountains so high they disappeared into the clouds. These mountains marked the border of the kingdom. Something inexplicable was always tugging him towards those mountains, urging him to move on.
“And always staring out the window. You're predictable, my friend,” Rowan said, coming up behind him. Rowan was pale and thin as a sword, with dark, unruly hair. He was the youngest of the squires, just promoted from page the past year. He and Godric had grown up together in the court of Lord Geoffrey Drake, having both come to live in the castle when they were children.
“Let's go see if Gemma can spare anything from the kitchens,” Godric said abruptly, tearing his gaze away from the shadowy landscape.
“Now that is a surprise! I thought you were too concerned about getting your little sister in trouble?” Rowan raised his eyebrows and grinned good-naturedly. “Not that I'm complaining.”
“No...she's fine. They don't notice. Lucia takes food for her son every other day,” Godric replied distractedly. He turned and strode from the room quickly, and Rowan tore after him. Aubrey, who had naturally “overheard” their conversation, followed with a grin on his face like a smirking fox. The man did little else but lie, cheat, and smirk, yet the others put up with him because he was like family—they all were. It was somewhat expected that if extra food was to be had, Aubrey would somehow always be there to partake in it. Godric and Rowan ignored him.
They made their way through the narrow, winding corridors and through a courtyard bathed in the bloody light of the rising sun. As they neared the kitchens, smells of meat, fish, pastries, and fire assaulted them. Rowan grinned and rubbed his stomach animatedly. They crept into the back of the kitchens, and Godric scanned the chaotic scene for his younger sister.
“What's this? A couple of hungry food thieves?” A light, almost musical voice came from behind them, and the three squires spun around. Rowan was the only one who looked even slightly guilty.
“Jacquelyn, I'm looking for my sister,” Godric said. The girl was tall and willowy, with long brown hair and quirked eyebrows. She smiled and nodded. It was clear that she had eyes only for Godric, but though she was beautiful he had never sought to return her advances. He didn't return anyone's affection, ever, and it mystified his friends.
“But we are looking for food,” Aubrey clarified loudly, pointing to himself and Rowan. “Some pastries, or some meat, perhaps, madam?”
Jacquelyn rolled her eyes and tossed them each an apple, then led Godric to Gemma, who was elbow-deep in flour. She was a slight girl, small even for her thirteen years, with wispy blonde hair and a kind, open face. Her face lit up when she saw her brother approaching.
“Godric!” She flew towards him, and he lifted her off her feet and spun the girl around, flour flying into the faces of everyone present. He set her back on her feet, cheeks now covered in white powder. She burst out laughing while he sneezed, a smile flitting across his face.
“Every time,” Aubrey muttered, brushing flower off his sleeves. “You'd think they hadn't seen each other in years.”
“Can you spare a minute, Gem?” Godric asked, looking down at his little sister with a more subdued expression. She quirked an eyebrow before nodding and wiping her hands on her apron.
“Jacquelyn, could you...?”
The older girl nodded. “Of course. You're covered, and in the meantime, I'll see if I can dig up something for these insatiable fools.” Jacquelyn smiled kindly, and Gemma returned the gesture before the two siblings ducked out of the chaotic kitchens.
The sun had risen higher, and a cool wind ruffled the deep purple banner at the top of the main tower. They leaned against a roughly hewn stone wall, looking out onto the vast and wild moor where they'd been born, in a tiny village. Godric had only vague memories of his mother, who had died giving birth to Gemma, and their father had passed on only a few years previously. Godric stared out onto the untamed land for a long moment before looking down at the fair-haired girl at his side.
“Did you have a bad dream?” she asked, eyes shrewd. He gave her a look of surprise.
“How did you know?”
She shook her head. “I'm not sure. I just get feelings about things sometimes. Right now I have a strange feeling something bad is going to happen, Godric.” Her delicate face was troubled, then she shook her head, focusing her attention on her brother. “What was the dream about?”
“I was... battling... a dragon. I know, it sounds mad, but that was my dream. It felt so real, Gem. I can't explain it. It wasn't a bad dream, though, I felt really... happy.” He flushed slightly, expecting his sister to laugh. After all, dragons were incredibly rare, and it made no sense for him to be fighting one. No one could slay a dragon. It was like dreaming for death.
“A dragon? Perhaps your dream will come true. Like mine do.” She looked up at him, eyes wide.
“Me, fighting a dragon?” he asked. Their startled eyes met, then they relaxed simultaneously. Godric's face cracked into a grin, and she smiled, laughing. It was easy, in the sunlight with his sister, to dismiss the dream as a foolish fantasy. The ridiculousness of it had them laughing for a while, interrupted only by Aubrey and Rowan striding out of the kitchens, pastries in hand, and looking at the siblings as though they'd gone crazy.
“What are they laushing ash?” Aubrey asked, words muffled by a mouthful of food. Rowan shrugged, and the Gryffindors exchanged amused glances.
“Ey, Goshdric, I have a queshun,” Aubrey announced, thankfully swallowing the reminder of his pastry a moment later. “Why don't you like Jacquelyn? She's had it bad for you, since, I don't know, forever.”
“She's had what for me?”
“You know, I don't know, the love disease!”
Godric laughed abruptly, but Aubrey ignored him and stubbornly plowed on. “And she's pretty. Isn't she pretty, Rowan? I don't understand it.”
“Sure she's pretty,” Rowan replied. “But maybe she's not Godric's type.”
“He's just waiting for someone,” Gemma interrupted serenely. Aubrey stared at her blankly.
“Waiting for who?”
“The right person. One particular person. He hasn't met her yet, but he will.”
Godric raised his eyebrows at his sister's confident assurance, but remained silent. He wasn't interested in Jacquelyn because he had other worries—taking care of his sister, performing his duties... but perhaps she was right. Perhaps he was waiting for someone.
Aubrey blinked several times, then shook his head. “You lot are barmy.” He tapped a finger against his forehead, then headed for the stables. Rowan waited patiently for Godric.
“We'll continue this conversation later, when Aubrey isn't around,” Godric promised his sister before he and Rowan left for the stables. Gemma said the occasional odd thing, so he wasn't particularly taken off guard by her calm prediction. More than once, she'd inexplicably had predictions come true—before their father died, she'd awoken screaming in the middle of the night from a dream about him bleeding to death on the forest floor.
It was only after their father had been murdered by bandits on his way home from town, after her nightmare had come true, that Gemma confessed the cause for her screams in the night. Godric knew she wouldn't invent such a tale, and that knowledge sent chills down his spine.
At least this latest prediction, an airy one that hinted at him finding true love, was far less ominous.
She trailed a pale, delicate finger across her neat, tiny stitches. Her ladies-in-waiting were chattering happily amongst themselves, bent over their needlework, paying her no heed. Their idle, silly words were almost insufferable. She would gladly be anywhere else, were it considered proper—riding with her older brother, helping in the kitchens, feeding the animals in the stables... But she was doomed to this, this life of uselessness.
“...I heard they might make a match of Lady Mirinthia and Lord Drake's son,” one of the women was saying, leaning forward with a conspiratorial glint. As though what she was divulging was truly fascinating, which it wasn't.
“Well, she certainly hopes so!” countered another woman, setting off a round of giggles that made Rowena want to stab herself with her needle.
All of her ladies were the same. The only person she really thought she might have something in common with was the chambermaid—a lovely girl with a sweet face who had only been working in the castle for a few months. The girl was standing against the wall, ready in case Rowena wanted anything, but clearly struggling very hard not to display the extent of her boredom. It was quite useless to try to hide anything from Rowena. Her sharp eyes and discerning nature made her a keen judge of character. And she noticed everything, which was sometimes a useful trait and sometimes downright irritating.
Now, for instance, Rowena caught every vicious and jealous implication of her ladies' words. She knew that they tried to look at her with admiration, but more often than not she saw how much they disliked her—because she wasn't one of them, a noble lady who loved to gossip about other noble ladies. They fancied she thought herself better than them.
And she did. She knew she was better.
Rowena dropped her hand down and drew out a small book she'd been concealing in the folds of her skirt for the past ten minutes. She causally flipped to the chapter labeled Alchemy, balancing the light tome out of sight, dark eyes flitting over the words hungrily.
“Princess! Come quick, you must—it's your brother,” came a voice from the doorway.
Her head snapped up and she dropped her book on the floor—but in the excitement, thankfully no one noticed the faint thud. She kicked it under a desk as the red-faced squire haltingly tried to explain himself.
“He—he won't listen to reason! And I, I tried to find your father...”
“My father is away,” Rowena replied calmly, rising from her chair. The chambermaid was the only one who had the decency to look concerned—the other ladies simply seemed scandalized that a squire was speaking to the princess at all. And that Rowena was permitting him to do so.
“Please, please m'lady, you must come. He's bent on participating in the tournament,” the squire panted. Rowena didn't need to hear anything more—it was common knowledge that her older brother was in love with jousting, and since no one ever dared beat a prince, he actually thought he was good at it.
She followed the squire down the corridors at a brisk walk, at first. She could tell the young man wanted to break into a sprint but didn't dare ask a princess to run. It wasn't proper, after all. She gathered her skirts, and, holding them up as best she could, jogged past him.
“Are you COMING?” she yelled over her shoulder as she rounded a corner. She ran down the hall, flew down the stairs, and right out the nearest door. She ran all the way across the wide meadow to the colorful cluster of tents and long wooden stands where the jousting tourney was taking place. She'd campaigned quite hard to be permitted to watch—it was a gruesome sport, she much preferred archery, but it meant fresh air—but her father was stricter than most. He seemed bent on keeping Rowena locked up in her tower, safe and sound from the outside world.
She shoved her way through the crowd of standing spectators, the peasants. It occurred to her that she had no way of knowing which knight was her brother—they were all wearing their helmets, preparing to take their turns. And Peter wasn't particularly clever, but he was clever enough to know that he had to disguise himself to be allowed to participate.
She managed to make it to the front of the throng. She watched the first two knights set up, desperately trying to analyze their builds and mannerisms. The crowd pushed against her, calling for blood, shoving her into the wooden railing. She recognized her brother as one of the knights the very second they started charging.
Her heart leapt into her throat. She felt utterly powerless as they drew closer to each other, their horses' hooves pounding against the ground, their lances leveling at each other. She stared at the lance leveled at her brother. She stared as it crashed into him, as he dropped his own lance, as his whole body was thrown from his horse and flew through the air.
As he landed with a sickening thud on the ground.
As he lay there, as the crowd roared with nauseating pleasure, as he didn't move.
“No!” Rowena screamed desperately, finally finding her voice. She gripped the railing and hoisted herself over it, dragging her unwieldy dress along with her, stumbling over to her brother. Others were already surrounding him, pulling off his helmet. She knelt beside him and stared into his empty, lifeless eyes. She reached out and gripped his hand, clinging to it like a lifeline. She was sure she would pass out if she let go.
“Lady, lady, he's gone,” someone was saying, but the sound didn't make any sense to her. She didn't want to make sense of it because she knew that she could: He's gone! her infuriatingly clever brain repeated insistently. He's dead, Rowena. You know he's dead.
“Godric,” someone whispered. “Godric! Wake up!”
He awoke suddenly, but this time from Rowan shaking him roughly instead of a dragon's hot breath in his dreams. For a moment he felt relief at the absence of any nightmares, until he caught sight of his friend's shadowy face in the dark. It was hard to tell much, but Rowan definitely looked upset.
“What is it? I didn't oversleep, did I? It's still dark,” he replied, forehead creasing in confusion.
“No, no, it's—” Rowan choked on whatever word came next, and Godric realized that his friend was far more than just upset.
“It's Gemma,” another voice said from the dark, then a pale hand deftly lit a lantern and held it up, revealing Jacquelyn's face in the doorway. Servants were only allowed the use of lanterns on special occasions, and women never entered the squires' quarters. A dark feeling of foreboding seized Godric, and he stumbled to his feet.
“What is it? Is she well?” he asked anxiously.
“No, Godric,” Jacquelyn said gently. “She's taken ill. It's... it's not good. Come, I'll take you to her.”
Godric just looked at her, then nodded mutely. He didn't quite trust himself to speak without revealing the extent of his fear. Taken ill... not good... He hardly remembered the journey they took to reach Gemma's side. It was all a blur, though he thought that he'd stumbled more than once and had to be steadied by Rowan's hand. They entered the women's quarters and found Gemma lying on the head cook's bed, a few women sitting at her side. One was mopping the young girl's brow with a cloth. Both moved aside immediately to make room for Godric, who fell to his knees beside the bed.
He could see at once that she was in great danger, though he tried to reject the horrible thought. He gently brushed away few strands of hair clinging to her face. Her brow was hot, her face ashy and waxen, and every strained breath rattled through her thin frame. He took her hand, so small and fragile between his own.
She stirred and her eyes opened slowly to gaze at him through a feverish haze. “Godric?”
“It's me, Gem,” he breathed, trying to steady his voice. He couldn't break down now, not when she needed him to be strong.
“I guess now we know what the bad thing I had a feeling about was,” she whispered, smiling slightly. Then the smile faded from her lips and a round of coughs racked her body.
“You're going to be fine. It's going to be okay,” he said, careful not to betray too much emotion.
“I'm not, though,” she replied faintly. He opened his mouth to protest, but she shook her head to silence him. “No, Godric, it's silly to pretend. We're not supposed to lie to each other.”
He stared at her mutely. It was true. It was a pact they had made years ago, as children, when he'd never dreamed of watching his little sister die before his eyes. He swallowed, his eyes betraying the struggle it was taking to stay calm.
“Will you promise me... Godric, promise me you'll become a knight after I'm...” she coughed. She looked scared, too, though she was doing a better job of hiding her fear than he was.
“What?” his jaw tightened.
“You know what I'm talking about. Everyone says King Ravenclaw makes knights of lowborns if they can prove themselves worthy.”
“Gemma, I can't...”
“Yes, you can. You won't have... there will be nothing holding you back when I'm gone.”
“You've never held me back,” he protested fiercely, his voice cracking.
She just looked at him sadly.
Rowena returned to her room after the funeral. Her black dress was heavy and cumbersome, and she angrily tore off the mourning veil that made it difficult to see. She curled up on her bed and finally allowed a few tears to fall. She and Peter had never been close, nor really had anything at all in common, but he was still her brother. And he was a good person. Had been a good person. It wasn't right that he had died so young, wasn't fair, didn't make sense. She could make sense of everything except death, which just seemed unnaturally cruel.
Death had already taken her mother. And now, in his greed, he had stolen her brother too.
A knock on the door startled her, and she quickly dried her tears on the bedspread. “Come in.” She was pleased with how little her voice shook. She was free in private moments like these, but in front of others she was always as strong and unfeeling as possible.
“Your father wants to see you, my lady,” a servant said from the doorway.
She gave him a brisk nod and followed him down endless corridors until they reached the throne room. She hoped all signs of her tears were gone—she hadn't been crying long before she'd been interrupted.
Her father was standing with his back to them, staring out a window, but after a moment he turned around. He was still wearing his mourning clothes, too. His black hair was streaked with gray, his back straight, his dark eyes keen and piercing. He intimidated everyone, except for Rowena.
“Rowena. We have matters to discuss,” he said, dismissing the servant with a wave of his hand. The door fell closed behind him, the sound of it echoing in the enormous hall. They were alone.
“Father, we laid Peter to rest not an hour ago. Surely, this can wait.”
He ignored that. “You are my heir now, Rowena. There is no one else.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh? Surely you can dig up a bastard cousin from somewhere, if the idea of my ruling is distasteful to you.”
“Rowena. I do not doubt that you would make a good queen. You have always been superior to your brother in every way, save one.”
She didn't like the way he was talking about Peter, so callously, but she couldn't bite back a retort of her own. “My gender, I presume,” she drawled, narrowing her eyes.
“Correct. It is imperative that you are married as soon as we can manage.”
“Married,” she repeated, and the floor felt a little unsteady, strangely. “Why?”
“Because you cannot rule alone! You need a king, Rowena.”
“You just said that I have always been superior to Peter. I am as smart and strong as any man. I don't need a husband to make decisions for me,” she shot back.
“That is not how the rest of the world will see it,” he replied flatly. “A lone queen is a target. Our enemies will assume that you are weak and attack you relentlessly with forces you cannot imagine. They will try to swallow up our lands the moment I am dead.”
“They will fail,” she snarled, no longer trying to disguise her ire.
“Yes, they will, because you will have Lord Slytherin as a husband to protect our kingdom! They're a wealthy family, but we have more land. The match is advantageous to us both."
"I don't understand how you can be forward-thinking enough to knight lowborns, but backwards enough to demand I marry a man to rule for me."
Her father narrowed his eyes. "The common men I knighted have probed invaluable on the battlefield. It was a decision of practicality, one that has served the best interest of the people. As will your marriage."
"So I am not invaluable to you, I take it? My rule would not be in the best interests of the people?"
He ignored her. "Lord Slytherin is set to arrive in a week, and you will be wed within a fortnight."
“I will not,” she replied angrily. “Do not think you can order me about anymore, father. I am not a child.”
“Precisely, you are not. You are 19 years old, and you should have been married long ago. Be thankful you have remained unmarried this long, and give up your childish fantasies about love.”
Rowena stared at him, feeling stung. Was this truly his opinion of her? She'd thought he, of all people, understood her. Because they were both so very alike. Her mind raced as she tried to think her way out of this trap of a marriage she did not want. It would involve uprooting her life, it would change everything. But if she was going to proceed with her only option, she would have to lull her father into a false sense of security. Easier said than done—he was just as perceptive as she was about people.
“I don't believe in love,” she said, more calmly. This, at least, was true. She'd learned long ago that a lie is easier to accept with a touch of truth thrown in. “You're right. I do need a partner in protecting our lands.”
She crossed to the window, gazing out across their great kingdom in a thoughtful manner. “I was thinking only of myself, father. But our land and our people are what truly matters, and if they will be better served with Lord Slytherin by my side, I will consent to the marriage.”
She looked over at her father, scanning his face for some sign that she had succeeded. He sighed, and suddenly he seemed to her very, very old. He wasn't in his fighting stance anymore—his shoulders relaxed, hunching over slightly, and his face sagged. She could see great sadness in the lines of that face. He had lost her mother to sickness, and Peter to foolishness. Perhaps he was not as cold and unemotional about his losses as she'd believed.
“I am glad, Rowena. I don't enjoy fighting with you,” he said tiredly.
She took his hand and looked into his eyes. “I hope we never again have cause to,” she said. She felt a twinge of guilt, but only a twinge. This revelation about his frailty was not enough to overcome all the betrayal she felt at being forced into marriage with a total stranger, at giving command of her lands over to that stranger.
No, the people would be served best by Rowena alone.