Beautiful chapter image by Carnal Spiral @ TDA
The next afternoon found me in the library, perched in a wide windowsill with a thin volume from the Herbology section. Classes had just ended for the day, and I could see many of the students enjoying their afternoon freedom on the grounds. I would have loved to join them (if I could have spent every minute of the day outdoors under the wide sky, I would gladly have done it), but it had been far too long since I’d studied. The knowledge gap between me and Rowena seemed to be closing a bit every day, but I was still painfully aware of the skills I needed to improve on. Things like Potions and Herbology, for example, were disciplines I’d been completely ignorant of before meeting Rowena and Salazar. I had taken many a mental note while Rowena was planning the curriculum, nodding my assent as though I knew of every subject she mentioned. Then I would study ravenously, in order to gain at least basic knowledge of these disciplines.
I was determined to make up for the education I had lacked as a child, and the only way I knew to do it was to work my way through the endless selection of books in the library, nearly all of which had been supplied by Rowena. Once, I had asked her where she’d gotten them all.
“An old friend,” was her surprisingly vague reply, and a faraway sort of smile had graced her features. The sight had brought a smile to my own face—it was rare indeed to see Rowena’s expression anything less than tightly controlled. Whoever this friend of hers was, the two of them had certainly been close. It was another mystery, one that I was content to leave unsolved. After all, the four of us respected one another’s secrets. Wherever the books had come from, I was grateful to have them; as was Godric, who made use of the great library as much as I did.
It wasn’t for the sake of our students that we studied so much. Even with the unorthodox learning methods Godric and I had been forced to use as children, our magical skills were still more than satisfactory for teaching our classes. In fact, our background had given us a level of creativity that Rowena and Salazar could not match. The true reason we worked so hard was seated right in my line of vision; I only had to glance up from my reading to see Salazar there.
He was also the reason I was finding it difficult to keep my concentration fixed on the pages in front of me. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, I simply could not stop watching him.
Salazar was sitting properly in a chair at a table; I felt a bit silly for choosing the windowsill, but moving to a more conventional seat would betray my lack of confidence, something I was unwilling to do in front of him. I hadn’t seen him there till I had already settled, and he had given no indication of ever noticing my presence in the room. For all outward appearances, he was completely absorbed in a battered volume I had never seen before.
I snapped my head back down toward my own book and resumed reading with vigor, determined to keep my eyes away from him. I did not understand my sudden preoccupation. Ever since the incident in the kitchens the day before (the memory of which still made me chuckle), I had scarcely been able to keep my mind off Salazar. We had not had cause to interact again since then, and I had spent an unreasonable amount of time wondering what would happen when we did. Surely my students had noticed that I was only half watching as they’d practiced their Levitation charms earlier that day. I felt a stab of guilt at that, and resolved to loosen Salazar’s hold on my thoughts by tomorrow, somehow.
It shamed me to be fixated so strongly upon the man, but I couldn’t deny that he fascinated me. There was so much for me to dislike about him—we seemed to agree on so little that I could scarcely imagine finding common ground on anything—but even so, I had the distinct feeling that there was some part of him that I had yet to see, something more than glares and pride. I supposed it was because I wasn’t quite so intimidated by him anymore. There was something about catching him off guard in the kitchens that made him more accessible, more human. Now that I had proven his mask of cold perfection to be just that—a mask—I was curious about what else lay beneath it.
I sneaked another glance over the top of my book. Nothing had changed about his appearance, of course. He was clad in his usual black, and his shoulders were hunched over the table. This posture effectively hid his face from view; I could only see the back of his head and a pale sliver of his neck, graced with the silver chain that carried his amulet.
My scrutiny was interrupted as the library door suddenly burst open, clattering against the wall. I snapped my book shut and cast my gaze around for the intruder. Salazar did the same, but he looked much more composed than I felt at the moment. It didn’t take long for Rowena to emerge from behind the bookshelves, making her way toward us in haste. Her features were sharply focused, and her long sheet of black hair swung back and forth as she moved. A short, gangly boy walked behind her, struggling to match her lengthy strides. I had not spoken with him much, as he was Rowena’s student primarily, but I remembered that his name was Evan and that he loved to experiment with potions. Rowena often spoke of him with pride, saying that he was one of her brightest students.
“Good, Salazar, you’re here,” she said, looking slightly winded. “I’ve searched the castle up and down for you.”
“Is something the matter?” I asked, concern knitting my brow. Evan looked like he’d seen a ghost, and Rowena seemed decidedly uncomfortable. Now that she was close, I could read her face much better.
She nodded, giving me a wry twist of her lips before turning to Salazar. “One of my students has seen a creature in the dungeon,” she said bluntly, never one to mince words. ”His description is unlike anything I have ever heard of before. Is this anything you are familiar with?”
Salazar shook his head. “Not that I am aware of.” He stood up then, eyes darting toward me as he did so. The glance was fleeting, and then he gave Evan his full attention.
“You had better tell me what you’ve seen,” he said curtly.
Evan swallowed hard, avoiding Salazar’s eyes. I could not blame him.
“Yes, Professor,” he complied with a slight bow. “I was in your storeroom getting some salamander tails. And in the corner of the room there was…there was…”
Salazar watched with an arched brow as Evan struggled for words. “Speak, boy!” he barked impatiently as the pause stretched. “What was the creature?”
When he still seemed unable to articulate his thoughts, I stepped in. “Can you tell us what it looked like, Evan?” I prompted gently, shooting Salazar a glare that I hoped would keep him silent. The poor boy was already frightened; the last thing he needed was harassment from Salazar. “Or what it did, perhaps?”
Evan bowed his head in my direction as well (a gesture that still seemed jarring to me), got his bearings, and spoke again. “I think it was black, before. I could only see an outline of it, and the room was dark. But when it saw me, it…changed.”
“Changed?” Salazar repeated. “How so?” At this, he fixed me with an icy stare of his own, as though daring me to challenge him again. Frustrated, I turned away, fixing my attention on Evan’s strange tale.
“Well, it shifted toward me a bit, and then it turned into a…a horsewhip, sir.”
He ducked his head and mumbled the last bit, visibly aware of how unbelievable his story sounded. Salazar and I were dumbfounded, though he was much more adept at hiding it. The only sign he gave of confusion was in his barely wrinkled brow, while I could feel my own jaw drop gracelessly to the floor.
“A horsewhip,” Salazar repeated flatly.
“Yes, sir, a giant one. And it attacked me. I came to look for one of you as soon as I could escape.”
I hopped down from the windowsill and stood at Evan’s side. He looked so shaken by the ordeal that I wanted to take him into my arms and hug him, but I thought such an action might make him feel childish. So I simply fussed over him instead, smoothing his hair and straightening his collar. He endured my attentions with only minimal squirming, which I thought was commendable.
Predictably, Salazar and Rowena were more focused on the problem at hand than on the child’s feelings.
“What do you suggest we do?” Rowena was saying.
Salazar sighed. “As…incredible as the story sounds, I suppose I will have to go and see this for myself.” He still sounded deeply skeptical. “Lead on, boy,” he said, gesturing to Evan with a nod of his head. I felt the boy’s shoulders tense beneath my hands.
“You’re going to make him go back down there?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well, as he’s the only one who has actually seen the creature,” said Salazar, as though talking to a small child.
“Not when he’s already so frightened!” came my vehement protest. “It isn’t right! Rowena, surely you agree.”
She was quiet for a moment, and I could tell she had no opinion one way or the other.
“I would gladly go in Evan’s stead, to investigate the creature.” I looked into her eyes, pleading. If she wouldn’t agree on principle, perhaps she would do so as a personal favor to me. It was her turn, after all—I had taken over her Transfiguration class every day the week before. She had needed the extra time to work on some mysterious project, which she refused to show me until it was finished. After days without success, I had stopped asking about it. Sometimes I thought Hogwarts castle held even more secrets than books.
“Perhaps this is a matter best settled by adults.” Rowena glanced pointedly at me as she spoke, and I shot her a look of gratitude. “One of you, please come to me immediately afterwards and tell me exactly what you saw. If there is any danger lurking in these halls, we must eliminate it as soon as possible.”
I had never stepped foot into the Hogwarts dungeons before, and after this little excursion I never planned to again. The place was absolutely vile: the smell of mildew was inescapable, the halls were uncomfortably narrow, and wall torches provided the only meager light. And I was quickly learning that moist dungeon floors and bare feet did not make for a pleasant walk.
Evan had warned me about this as we’d exited the library shortly earlier.
“Should you not be wearing shoes, Professor?” he’d asked timidly. I had lifted my skirt a bit to avoid tripping on the stairs, and he’d happened to glance down at my unshod feet. “It’s a bit damp down there.”
“Thank you for your concern, dear, but I am perfectly fine,” I’d said brightly, brushing off his advice. Shoes were one of the many things that caused me discomfort, along with low ceilings, small windows, and clothing that fit too tightly. I needed open space and freedom to move; any constraints on my body made me feel anxious and fidgety. But even so, I wished fervently that I had, for once, conformed to social norms and put on a pair of shoes. The floor was cold, and I did not even want to think about the grime I was wading through.
Salazar had still not said a word to me, and our silence was made more uncomfortable by the squelching sounds my feet made with every step. My face burned with embarrassment, and I tried to walk as softly as possible to dull the noise. So far I was failing miserably. I had never been light on my feet, a fact that Godric had often teased me about when we were children. As hard as I tried, I had never been able to sneak up on him—apparently I “walked like a clumsy giant.”
“Do you make a habit of going around barefoot in front of the students?”
His voice startled me, and I jumped before I could stop myself. I looked up to see him staring derisively down at my grimy feet.
“Not…exactly,” I said, blushing. “I suppose I just haven’t formed the habit of wearing shoes yet. I have gone barefoot for most of my life, after all.”
He shrugged lazily. “If you wish to behave as a peasant before the entire castle, I suppose that’s your business.”
He meant to hurt me. I could tell by his self-satisfied air that he thought he had dealt me a grave blow by calling me a peasant. Truthfully, though, I thought it was the most pointless insult he could have given me. At Hogwarts, it was as though class distinction did not exist. The four of us made all decisions by a majority vote, and we each had equal say. My opinion carried exactly the same weight as Godric’s. So even though I wasn’t particularly hurt by Salazar’s words, his tone was so pompous, so snide, that I could not remain silent.
“Oh, not this!” I burst out. “You’re just as common as I, Salazar, and don’t you dare try to deny it!”
Without warning, he stopped walking and turned on me, livid.
“You dare to question my background?” he demanded, so harshly that I took a tiny step backward. His detached, cool mask was slipping off once again, and the rage it revealed frightened me. “The Slytherin line is the purest in the nation. Not an ounce of filthy Muggle blood runs in my veins. I’m confident that you cannot say the same.”
A wave of sheer panic crashed over me at this. Had he guessed at my Muggle parentage despite my painstaking attempts to hide it? But then I remembered something else I had learned by listening to Rowena; many people in the wizarding community had a few Muggles somewhere in their ancestry. This was the only thing that kept the magical race from dying out. That must have been what Salazar was referring to. I exhaled shakily and wiped my clammy palms on my dress.
“But that’s all beside the point, isn’t it?” I countered, trying to cover my fear with bravado. It was a tactic that always seemed to work for Godric. “Your blood may be pristine, but you still have no title to your name.”
“What of it? Titles mean nothing to me.”
I was confident that this was blatantly untrue.
“You scorn me for being a commoner, and then claim not to be concerned with social status? I think not,” I said, thrusting the words at him. “You are no different than the countless other peasants who crave nobility, so you can look down upon everyone from some imagined pedestal.”
He said nothing, staring at me with steely eyes. I was shocked at my own audacity; part of me wanted to apologize for my lack of tact, while another part wanted to slap his self-righteous face. I wondered if encounters with Salazar would always cause me such confusion.
He spoke again at length, and this time his voice was like a serpent: slow and controlled, but unsettling all the same. “Well. It appears that you know me better than I thought, Hufflepuff.”
This made no sense to me. “I…what?”
“Clearly, you have discovered my ambition quite easily. Is it possible that you have been watching
His smug expression told me that he knew the answer to this question, and I flushed. Talking with Salazar was like trying to cross a river on slippery stones; just when I began to feel steady, his next words would throw me off balance. Apparently my scrutiny of him had not been so discreet after all. Hot shame forced my eyes toward the ground.
“You don’t have to sound so conceited about it,” I muttered, cringing.
I was fully expecting a snide remark; Salazar’s wit could be a spectacular weapon, as I well knew. Apart from the students, I seemed to be the most frequent target of his barbed words. But I was surprised, yet again.
He laughed, and the sound was so unexpected that I almost forgot my embarrassment. My father had often said that one could learn much about a person by listening to their laugh, and so I often took careful note of such things. Salazar’s laughter was soft and smooth, quite unlike my own boisterous variety, but the half-smile that accompanied it added uncharacteristic warmth. I found myself enjoying the low, rumbling sound of it, even if it was at my expense.
“What is so funny?” I demanded, trying to sound stern.
“I pray that you don’t take this wrongly,” he said, still chuckling, “but you have the subtlety of a charging bull, Hufflepuff. I felt your eyes upon me whenever we crossed paths today.”
I could not help but give a shaky laugh. “I cannot take offense. Godric has often said much the same thing.”
“Godric has no room to talk,” he scoffed, but I did not miss the fondness that came with the mention of his friend. “If I compare you to a bull, then he must be an entire herd of cattle.”
At this, my own laughter echoed loudly off the dungeon walls, and Salazar smiled as well, no doubt imagining what Godric would say had he been present. We lapsed back into silence as we continued down the hall, though it was more amiable this time. This Salazar was tolerable, infinitely better than the angry man I had witnessed just minutes before. When he wasn’t using it to hurt me, I found myself engaged by his dry humor and quick wit. It seemed that the mask he wore concealed many faces; someday, perhaps, I might see them all.
“I have one question.” He still seemed amused, and I felt the tension in my muscles ease further.
“I’m happy to answer it.”
“How could you tell that I…am not of noble birth?” He faltered toward the end of his question, and I got the sense that it pained him to speak the words aloud.
“One needs only to look at you,” I said simply. “Well, perhaps that’s not true. It’s likely that you could convince many people by sheer intimidation alone—“
He smiled at that.
“—but to a more experienced eye, your status is obvious.”
“And you count yourself among the experienced?”
“I have spent a good deal of time in the company of nobles. And I notice things.” I kept my words vague.
“That much is clear.”
“In fact,” I ventured, not sure how far I should push this, “I can think of ways that you could appear highborn even to the most experienced.”
“Do tell,” he said as he casually pushed open the door to his storeroom. He showed no caution at all; I suspected he had not believed a word of Evan’s story about the shape-shifter. I was still trying to decide whether I believed it myself.
“Relax,” I told him, in the hushed tones that the pitch-black room seemed to demand. The torch in Salazar’s hand cast strange shapes on the walls around us. “A noble is comfortable in his skin. He isn’t threatening unless he needs to be. If you want people to view you as such, you mustn’t try so hard.”
He nodded, considering this.
“You are free to stay in the hall if you wish,” he replied curtly, after a bit of a pause.
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I have seen how small rooms disquiet you,” he elaborated, “and this one has very low ceilings. Although the hall is not much better in that regard.”
I was astonished. “You have noticed that?”
“You are not the only one who watches, Hufflepuff. I just happen to be better at it.”
For the second time that day, I found myself staring agape. Salazar seemed to enjoy my bewildered expression, and it was with a chuckle that he turned back into the storeroom. I followed him despite his suggestion that I stay in the hall, curiosity pulling me forward. My glance fell onto the corner of the room just in time to see a faint shadow move slightly toward Salazar.
Then, without warning, the room burst into flame.
A/N: I love a cliffhanger every once in a while...they're so much fun! :) And I know this chapter is a little long (trust me, they won't all be this long), but I hope you enjoyed it. Please remember to leave a review...even just a few words would make my day!