Chapter 3 : Chapter Three
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We stumbled out of the room immediately, Salazar slamming the door behind us. He had tried putting the fire out with his wand, but nothing had happened. And as real as the flames looked, there was no stench of smoke or burning wood. It was clearly an illusion, but my fright was entirely real. My breath came hard, as if I had just run a great distance, and my heart threatened to burst from my chest.
In my head the scene replayed itself endlessly; the eerie shadow, the sudden wall of flame. I wondered if Salazar’s mind was doing the same. The two of us slumped back against the cold walls of the hallway, facing each other.
“We have to find Rowena now,” I said, still winded.
He said nothing.
Something was wrong with him; I could see it even in the half light of the dungeon. I was alarmed by his pallor, and the troubled look in his eyes.
“Salazar! What’s wrong?”
He blinked down at me then, as though he was surprised to see me there. Clearly he had been lost in thought.
“Did you hear me? We have to tell Rowena what we saw.”
“You go,” he said in a strangled whisper. “I will stay here and…make sure the door is securely locked. We must take no chances.”
I stayed where I was, unconvinced that I should leave him alone. “Will you be all right?” I asked quietly.
“Of course I will,” he snapped, his voice stronger in defiance. “Why shouldn’t I be all right? Just go, Hufflepuff.”
His tone invited no further questions, so I tried to convey my concern with my eyes. When he did not look up at me again, I turned and fled the dungeon despite my better instincts, leaving him in silence.
Rowena was astonished to see me burst into her tower chambers, winded from my long climb up the staircase. Before she could get a word out, I wasted no time in telling her what had transpired. She watched me intently all the while, her eyes never losing their focus once. When I finished, she abruptly rose from her chair and strode to the large bookshelf at the back of the room.
“So Evan’s story was true?” she asked, scanning the titles for something applicable.
“Every word. We saw the shape-shifter with our own eyes.”
She looked somewhere between concerned and fascinated. Even after such an alarming turn of events, her thirst for knowledge was irrepressible.
“None of these books deal with magical creatures,” she said, sounding disappointed. “But there are a few in the library that I can try.”
“There is no need to rush,” I said. “We are safe as long as we don’t venture near Salazar’s storeroom. He was securing the door when I left him.” This was a comforting thought, and I hoped it reassured Rowena as much as it did me.
“A giant whip, and now a wall of fire,” she mused. “This cannot be ignored. Perhaps we should call Godric in, and inform him now. He should know of this.”
Normally I would have agreed without reservation. Godric was spectacular in a crisis; simply being near him gave one a sense of safety. But I had taken a look out Rowena’s window, and the view there changed my mind.
“Oh, it can wait,” I said with a smile, beckoning her to join me. From our vantage point we could clearly see Godric walking the grounds with three year old Gareth atop his shoulders. His mouth was moving continually, stories for the boy’s ears only. A jolly smile spilled across Gareth’s cheeks, his little hands clasped to his father’s head. The sight calmed my heart considerably, and made our current problem seem much less urgent. Godric spent far too little time with his family as it was; his duties to the school often kept him busy at all hours of the day. I was loath to interrupt this moment between father and son, since there was no telling when they would get another. Rowena sighed, looking at the pair of them, and I thought I saw a wistful softening in her dark eyes. But before I could ask about it, she had turned back to the matter at hand.
“So, tell me everything you saw again,” she said, producing a quill and a length of parchment. “And take care not to leave out a single detail.”
“It happened just as I said. Salazar entered the room first, and I behind him. There was a shadow in the corner, and I could just make out its form in the darkness. It turned towards Salazar when he entered, and then the flames just materialized in its place.” I omitted Salazar’s strange reaction to the sight. That was not my place to tell.
“I see.” Rowena stoppered her ink bottle, and then fixed me with a look. “Do you believe the creature highly dangerous, Helga?”
“I could not say without examining it further.”
“Then you should do so, if you are willing. We must learn all we can.”
“Of course. If Salazar will consent, I will visit his storeroom as early as tomorrow.” I sighed; this day had been taxing, and I had not even started dinner yet.
“You are tired,” said Rowena, and there was a bit of an apology in her voice. “Perhaps you should rest, Helga, if you are capable of it.”
“No, I’m perfectly all right,” I replied with a smile. “You know how I hate to waste daylight, even though there is precious little left at this hour. I must be off to the kitchens soon.”
“Well, before you go,” she began, pausing dramatically as she retrieved several scrolls of parchment from her bookshelf, “I would like you to see something I’ve been working on.”
“Is this the project you spoke of last week?” I asked eagerly.
“Oh no, not that. This is something with more immediate relevance.” She handed me the parchment. “I think you will be pleased.”
The word “pleased” turned out to be quite inadequate. I gasped as I looked at the first scroll, and Rowena beamed with pride. In my hands I held the floor plan of Hogwarts castle, except these drawings included things that no ordinary dwelling would. Secret passageways wound inside the walls, and I was amused to see one leading directly from my chambers to the kitchen. And most enchanting of all, Rowena had added several staircases that moved before my eyes on the parchment.
“Rowena, this is a wonder! You designed all this yourself?”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” she said with a smile. “I can be quite inventive when it suits me.”
I laughed, still unable to tear my eyes away from the designs. “It’s just how I would imagine a school of magic to look.”
“So you approve, then?”
“Wholeheartedly. Rowena, it’s absolutely surreal.”
She could not hold in another smile. “I hope to begin the construction as early as next summer.”
“Godric and Salazar will be pleased,” I said, grinning back at her. “This is the school of their visions.”
“A castle to be renowned the world over,” she jested, gently mocking the two with a good natured roll of her eyes. Godric and Salazar had irrepressible dreams of fame, while Rowena and I took it upon ourselves to keep them grounded. Their thirst for recognition provided the two of us with plenty of amusement, perhaps because we simply did not understand why they craved it so.
“History will remember the Founders Four,” I said in a booming voice, mimicking one of Godric’s favorite statements. It was such a poor imitation of his voice that we fell into laughter. Rowena’s laugh could only be described as graceful, which would also be a good description of the woman herself. She was much calmer about it than I, though her amusement still radiated like a glow from her beautiful face. Beside her I felt every bit the clumsy oaf Salazar and Godric thought me.
“There is some truth to that, as silly as it sounds.” Rowena said as we settled down. “We are making history here, by starting this school.”
The idea was sobering. “Hopefully we will be looked upon fondly.”
“Time will tell,” she said quietly, gazing out her window again. “It is only our first year, after all. There will likely be many challenges ahead for us.”
She was getting into one of her introspective moods, and I saw this as a cue to take my leave. With a smile and a final parting wave, I retreated from the chamber, giving my friend the solitude she needed.
I half-expected Godric to come visit me in the kitchens as I prepared the evening meal, just to steal whatever food he could lay his hands on. But it turned out to be his wife Elaine who sought me out that day. I enjoyed her company, though I usually supplied most of the conversation. Elaine had been quiet for as long as I’d known her, but since we’d moved to Hogwarts she had become even more reserved.
“Your men are out wandering the grounds,” I said, grinning as she entered.
“Oh, Helga, please don’t call Gareth a man yet,” she replied, settling on a stool across the table. “He grows too quickly as it is.”
We laughed. “All right, a new subject, then. You will never guess what I have been up to today.” I recounted the events for a second time, but my words were no longer laced with panic; after spending time with Rowena earlier, I was calm. Elaine, however, was horrified by my story.
“Helga!” she exclaimed. “You must have been so frightened!”
“I suppose I was, but it all seems so distant now. And Salazar was directly in front of me, so I was protected.”
She frowned. “I think Salazar’s presence would have made it even more frightening,” she said with obvious distaste.
“I would have thought so too, truthfully. But it was strange, Elaine. I felt safer having him there.”
Elaine shook her head, her eyes hardening. “I find that extremely difficult to believe.”
I wasn’t sure how to reply. This turned out to be just as well, since Elaine had more to confide.
“I do not trust him, though Godric regards his friendship highly. There is just something unsettling about the way he acts, as though I don’t even exist.” Her voice lowered to a whisper, as though worried that Salazar could hear her. “And sometimes when he looks at me, I think he wishes that were true.”
“Believe me, I understand.” Elaine’s misgivings echoed mine. I had seen his anger, how he could go from calm to irate at the slightest provocation. I knew of his ideas about Muggles, and how nervous they made me. A chill ran through me when I thought of the encounter in the dungeons, when he’d come so close to voicing my secret. And I couldn’t imagine how much harder it must be for Elaine, as a Muggle herself. I knew all this. And yet…
“But I know there is more to be discovered about him, beneath the hate. I have seen a glimpse of it just today. And Elaine, you should have seen him after we saw the fire. He looked so…haunted.” My voice trailed to a quiet musing, and my mind traveled back down the dark dungeon hall where I had left Salazar. I had forgotten my earlier resolve not to speak of that moment, but Elaine was trustworthy; I did not think she would allow this conversation to leave the room.
“Well, you won’t get me to feel any sympathy for the man. Not when my family is affected by his ideas. I worry night and day, Helga.” Her eyes, normally subdued, now locked forcefully onto mine. “For Gareth, and any other children Godric and I have in the future. And even for my husband himself, once Salazar learns of his true heritage. Do you honestly think he will accept it?”
She had raised her voice, and I saw a fire blazing in her eyes. Elaine’s love was as fierce as her temper, though she rarely showed either, except to those who had gained her trust. If I was a mother hen, then she was a lioness, ready to protect her family from any and all threats. Still, I thought she was too harsh.
“Yes,” I said firmly. “He will learn tolerance, in time. He must.”
Blind hope was the only evidence I had for this statement, for I had never allowed myself to really imagine the alternative. I already grew exhausted keeping our secret from Salazar, and I was not a particularly skilled liar. Something told me that I would be unable to hide the truth for much longer. For Godric’s sake as much as my own, I hoped that Salazar would open his mind by the time all was revealed.
Elaine remained unconvinced. “I know you would like to believe that, Helga. I know you see the best in everyone. But I fear that you may be dreadfully wrong about him.”
“I will judge that for myself,” I said, leaving no room for further discussion. I was not a child to be coddled. “And you have no cause to worry. Your family is perfectly safe within these walls.”
“Oh, dear. I have offended you.” She looked regretful, and instantly I forgot the twinge of annoyance I had felt. “I apologize, Helga. It just seems as though I will never be truly at home in my husband’s world.” She sighed, and I tried to imagine how alone she must feel. “But I shouldn’t have spoken about Salazar that way. You and Godric seem to trust him, and I shall try my best to do the same.”
Instinctively, I reached across the table to take her hand. She looked surprised, but not displeased, by the forward gesture.
“I know it is hard for you, being here,” I said, giving her small hand a gentle squeeze. “And I am truly sorry for that. But Elaine, you have so much. Your son is beautiful, and your husband loves you better than life. He has told me as much himself.”
That brought a smile to her face. “Godric told you that?”
“He tells me that constantly, in one way or another. In fact, he talks of you so much that it gets rather exhausting.”
We laughed, and her cheeks went a bit pink. It was good to see a real smile on her face; she looked more like the confident young woman Godric had married four years ago.
“And I will always welcome you, as will Rowena. I know the two of you haven’t spoken much, but I think you would like her.”
She looked thoughtful, and perhaps a little more hopeful. “Perhaps I will try, then.”
“Good. That’s wonderful to hear, Elaine.”
After a final soft smile, she puffed out a breath and got to her feet. “Enough of this,” she said briskly. Elaine was like me in that she could never sit still for long. “I thank you for listening to me, but I have taken too much of your time as it is.”
“Godric should be bringing Gareth inside any time now,” I responded with a grin, hoping to direct her energy, to help her find purpose. There were many pleasant things for her to focus on; things that were more worthy of her attention than Salazar’s many oddities. It seemed a good idea to remind her of them from time to time. “I know they would love to see you.”
Salazar was present at dinner, but he kept his eyes cast downward and only seemed to pick at his food. I tried not to be offended by this.
Meanwhile, Godric continually tried to engage him in conversation, even challenging him to a practice duel at one point. This was a pastime that both men enjoyed, but tonight Salazar just shook his head and mumbled something about being tired. This only served to increase my worry. The meal was passed in relative quiet after that; even by Godric and I, who were usually most talkative. The students’ chatter provided steady background noise to fill our uncharacteristic silence.
More often than not, the adults would stay in the hall long after the children were dismissed, talking and laughing until someone (usually Elaine, and Godric with her) decided to retire. Tonight, it seemed, was not to be one of those nights. Merriment seemed ill suited for the odd mood that had settled over us. We parted for our separate chambers; Godric and Rowena to their respective towers, and Salazar and I to the lower levels.
The events of the day—and the stricken expression on Salazar’s face after we’d seen the fire—had stayed in my mind. I kept a few paces behind him as we walked, trying to think of a delicate, sensitive way to approach him. When none came to mind, however, I simply blurted out my first thought.
“You seemed quiet, at dinner.”
It wasn’t my most witty observation, and Salazar didn’t seem to feel the need to honor it with a response. He did, however, slow his pace to allow me to walk alongside him.
“I wondered if it had something to do with…what happened earlier today.”
“Is there something you need, Hufflepuff?”
Clearly, the subject was closed. I fought my urge to press him further. In my experience, men were not overly fond of pity, and though I longed to bring him some sort of comfort, I sensed that it would not be well received.
“I wish to go and confront the shape-shifter again tomorrow,” I said, making my tone businesslike. “Rowena requires more information, and I plan to visit the storeroom and investigate further. With your consent, of course.”
“As I recall, the two of us are equals,” he said, a sarcastic nod to our earlier discussion. “You need not ask my permission.”
“I know that,” I replied, jutting my chin out a bit. “It just seemed…polite.”
He bit back a smirk.
“Very well. I will consent, and I will go with you—”
“Oh, Salazar, I wish you wouldn’t. You have clearly had a fright—”
“I will go with you,” he repeated loudly, stopping my protest. “If one condition is met.”
It would be easiest, I decided, to just let him have his way. “Of course. What is the condition?”
“You will enter the room first, this time. I have a theory, but I cannot know if I am correct unless you do this.”
I nodded, suddenly apprehensive. “All right.”
“Then it’s settled. Until tomorrow, Hufflepuff.” He inclined his head to me, and I realized he was bidding me good night. We had reached my chamber door, and I had not even noticed.
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