She turns gracefully away from you, as if to Apparate on the spot, but you can see that she is laughing. With the click of a button she has been immortalized, frozen in time, with one man’s eyes on her waves of dark hair and another man’s eyes fixed on the hand that she keeps wrapped around her wand at all times, the hand that should have beheld a sapphire ring.
Even as you move, adjusting to view the photograph’s subjects more clearly – to admire it and memorize every face in the background – she moves as well.
The man who is standing far behind them all can see through her to her heart, and the man standing just to her side can only see what she wants him to see – which is her laugh. He doesn’t hear it, though. When he looks at her with his leaf-green gaze, all he wants to hear are wedding bells, and so that is what he listens to while he watches her form his name on her tongue.
A light tease, warm affection that is somehow never enough. She drips wit, a quality that he deeply admires. He holds out his hands to her as if to catch some of it.
The photograph soon disappears. Everyone searches for it, even you, but it now belongs in the hand of the jilted man in the background, who is a receding suit of black robes, black eyes, and black heart.
I am powerless, he thought as he watched the willowy figure dismount from her horse. She was wearing a long cloak that draped around the hindquarters of her horse, falling between the clipped tips of grass chewed almost bare by wandering sheep. She revolved her waist just fractionally to sweep the doors of a tavern with her shrewd gaze, and then the chapel sidled snugly up next to it, before her attentions came to a rest on the rigid shoulders of a gentleman who was clearly waiting for her.
“My dear.” He was by her side in six strides, extending a hand for her to grasp. A sapphire sat in the middle of his fingers, a delicate queen among many kings, but the woman paid it no mind as she slid downward into his arms, falling into his dark eyes and bright smile that he reserved only for her.
“And mine,” she replied demurely, lowering her gemstone-studded hood. The red dawn spangled her face, weaving a pattern of diamonds that matched everything else about her. “Come, let’s move away from here. I don’t want to linger in the open.”
Salazar’s smile faltered just slightly, but he regained his pleasant demeanor soon enough. “You were not followed, I presume?”
Her voice was light, but her eyes were tight with ill-concealed worry. “Why should I have been? I’m an unmarried witch and Helena has her nursemaid to care for her. I’m at liberty to go wherever I please, whenever I wish to do so.”
“A wealthy widow running around without a chaperone is cause for great distress in our tiny, meddlesome country,” Salazar responded tartly. “If a woman of elevated rank sneezes before ten o’ clock, it’s practically news.”
Rowena tugged reprovingly on his arm while looking up and down the street, noticeably distracted. The lane was slick and wet from a twilight bath, snaking between shops and cottages like a black river; the only prominent lights in the vicinity were from the tavern and a crooked building across the street, its wooden placard bearing the words CANDLEWICK INN that hung from long chains. A broken tumbler of ale had been tossed out of one of its windows, and a married couple could be heard already arguing with each other even through the closed shutters. “Let’s find somewhere else to go.”
Salazar couldn’t help the resentful feeling that passed over his expression as he observed her. “Afraid that he’s going to see you with me?”
“Oh, I don’t care,” she contested, cupping her elbows in her hands. It was late autumn, and while the ground was still thickly smattered with rotting leaves, it had snowed three days previously. The snow had melted, but the cold remained in a curling vapor that rose around their ankles. The chapel’s stained glass windows were blurred in the morning mist, and a bell in its tower was soon to strike six.
“But you do care,” he couldn’t resist saying, still nervous about her body language. “I thought you were done with him? I told you not to respond to any of my letters until you were ready to give him up.”
“I am done with him, and I did give him up – which was easier than you imagine it to be, so spare me a bit of credit. There is nothing more to be said about that matter, Salazar, I’ve already promised you.”
She lifted her fair palms up to cradle his face, and he couldn’t suppress a slight smile that marred his otherwise troubled expression. “I’m yours. You’re safe.” She hesitated – he could see it written plainly across her face in Godric’s fancy penmanship – and added, “But he does live here. It’s his Hollow, after all. I don’t particularly wish to rub his nose in it.”
“You’re the one who arranged that we meet in this village.”
“Yes, I did. I still have a home here. You mentioned your dislike of Herringsworth in one of your letters, so I thought this location to be a compromise.”
Salazar frowned. “You have a home here? You still have property here, even after you’ve finished with Gryffindor?”
Rowena let out an exasperated groan. “I have properties up and down the entire country. Come, now, I only have an hour to spend. Are we going to waste it bickering again?”
His eyes flashed, despising that she alluded to their most recent reunion, in which both of them had left each other in a flurry of anger. “Of course not. How could I waste such valuable time?” To emphasize his statement, he drew Rowena close and kissed her, folding both arms around her back to press her closer to him. He enjoyed it quite ardently until he realized that Rowena’s attention was, once again, being spent on something out of his range of vision.
She didn’t even notice when he stopped kissing her.
“What?” he snapped, turning around to pierce the sleepy village. Without having to consciously think about it, Godric’s foggy cottage slipped into his mind’s eye; he knew it was situated in the direction Rowena’s focus routinely darted to.
She bit her plush pink lip, staring down at one of the buttons on his sable cloak instead of meeting his critical eyes. She rested both hands on his arms, which were turned skyward, and leaned into him again. She recalled the timber frames of her unused house and its wattle walls, and her patiently-waiting pallet stuffed with dried rushes. She could have possessed something grander, something riddled with magic, but had found the idea of that beyond her tastes. She felt safe in Godric’s Hollow, her property aligned at the seams with Glengale Abbey. It looked lovely at this time of year, radiant with the fiery reds and creamy yellows of autumn. “Somewhere private,” she murmured, giving her tone an edge of a plea.
“I don’t care if he sees us,” Salazar confessed, his insides beginning to boil. “Let him see us. I had to endure the sight of the two of you together this time last year, and you made no efforts to conceal yourself from me. If you spare his feelings now, then you shall injure mine.” He turned them both so that all she could see was the tavern and church, trying to force her to forget. He wanted her to absorb him and only him, and not have room in her thoughts for anyone else. “Do you love me?”
“Of course I do. How could you ask such a thing?” She peered up into his fathomless black eyes, desperate. Her eyelashes beaded together with cold, clear droplets. “But I am not heartless. Please. I don’t want to make this more difficult for him than it already is.”
He sighed, disappointed. “Of course. Whatever you prefer, my love.”
As they trotted off together, leading Rowena’s horse by a leather rope, a third pair of eyes looked on at them from the bell tower. His gold hair glistened, made grizzly by the infant stages of rain, and his wide green stare bore down on them with equal measures of jealousy, pain, and loathing.
Far as we can tell, she died of a broken heart.
That’s what the letter from Helga had said, although Salazar had never been able to make sense of it, no matter how many times he turned it over in his mind. A broken heart because Helena ran away from home and wouldn’t return? A broken heart because she ended her engagement to Godric?
Because of Salazar himself?
Salazar had not lived much longer after receiving the news of Rowena’s death. He could still remember the morning his owl delivered it, and how he had been gazing out the window at a portrait of rising dawn, feeling like he might finally be able to start over. Now that he was away from Hogwarts and presumably finished with Rowena – soon to be Rowena Gryffindor, the way he heard it – he would be able to recover from his emotional wounds. He had smiled and closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of late spring blossoming on his face, bringing a cup of hot tea to his lips. Today will be a good day, he’d decided.
And then the owl came.
He’d cried so much that his eyes were plagued with popped blood vessels, and he began to swiftly age, growing old over the course of a month. When he lay in his coffin, his once-black hair now curls of silver, his thin supply of friends had barely recognized him.
They’d whispered to each other that Salazar wasted his life pining over Rowena, who had never been able to choose between her two colleagues. She was disgusted with Salazar’s pride and proud of Godric’s selflessness. One was too clever for his own good and the other a humble hero, and she was perpetually confused with herself for loving Salazar at all. Surely, in light of Godric’s many majestic qualities, Salazar didn’t hold a candle to him. Rowena, for all her wisdom, had become nonsensically enamored with a man who did not deserve her, and so all three were destined for a lifetime of emotional torture until met with death.
From the point of death, it was worse. Godric and Salazar swirled back and forth around Rowena, alternating between bitter envy and being consumed in love but also wary, knowing that it wouldn’t take much for Rowena to trade one for the other. Other men would not have put up with it. They would not have thought the fair Ravenclaw woman worth the effort, but both Gryffindor and Slytherin had invested too much of their hearts in Rowena to pull back. So she kept one broken heart and one vital one in her possession at all times, and only when she exchanged lovers did the broken heart begin beating back to life.
But the afterlife was long – it was so very long and boring, and Rowena decided to stop trying to make herself choose. She let one suitor halfway into her life – as he was the safer one, the stronger one – and shut out the other altogether.
Salazar’s heart, therefore, had been dead for centuries.
Salazar sat at a small writing desk overlooking the window. Rowena’s house was in full view, with her bed of flowers and the lamp in her first-floor parlor lit as usual, for she never switched it off. He’d long since memorized every inch of her dwelling, taking it in turns to hate and love the silhouette who flitted behind the five narrow windows. On nights when there were two silhouettes rather than one, Salazar yanked his curtains closed and rolled into bed, although he could not find sleep.
Tonight, while he’d watched and ensured that Rowena was quite alone, he still could not sleep. Rowena hadn’t permitted Godric to enter her house for the past month, and for once in their lives, this did not mean that she wanted Salazar instead.
The vision of Godric and Rowena together burned in Salazar’s brain, igniting his wrath, and he realized after this month of Rowena preferring neither of them that as long as he had that wrath burning bright, he needn’t feel those pangs of loneliness. He told himself that the only thing standing in the way of a warm and rosy future with Rowena was idiotic Godric and his fistfuls of bouquets. Now that Godric was seemingly being shunted aside and Rowena had drawn no designs of reuniting with Salazar, the latter was forced to come to the conclusion that she would rather be alone than with him at all.
He pressed his hands to his forehead, relishing the cool pressure of his thumbs against throbbing memories, while Rowena’s horse and long riding cloak and Salazar’s rich sable furs whirled together in a horrific dream.
Below, lying on his antique desk, was the second draft of a letter to Vincent Crabbe. He’d outlined specific disadvantages of each contender, including Vincent’s own flaws so that the boy could hopefully work on them, but the words had started to blur together into meaningless sentences and Salazar, of course, could think of nothing save for the bruising question of where Rowena’s love belonged, and where his own love now lived if she wasn’t using it.
His arms collapsed at the elbows, his hands now smearing the drying ink on his parchment. His memory from Godric’s Hollow was from another life, from another time. Godric’s Hollow had been in its infancy, long before the Dark Lord met his first downfall in baby Harry Potter there. The autumn leaves blowing east into winter and the spooky church bell that beheld too many stars in its rounded, reflective surface, had gone up in a pinch of gray smoke. The lovers in that dream were extinct, as well.
You’re all that I need, she had once told him. And don’t ever let me forget it.
Somewhere between the space of now and then, Rowena had chosen Godric over emptiness and Salazar had ended up alone, unwanted. What did it say about himself if Ravenclaw would prefer to be lonely, as well, instead of with him? How could he have allowed her to forget that she loved him? How could he have singlehandedly destroyed his senses, thinking about her so frequently and with such despair that it ruined him?
Salazar rubbed his bleary eyes, wiping yet more ink onto himself.
“She could never love me again if I continue to help the races persist,” he murmured, folding his hands together over the parchment. His mind was a flat canvas, all of his previous problems battered with blow after blow to his pride until there was no more room left for arrogance. There was nothing except for the hope of a fresh start. Until Salazar decided to give up his smug façade and make himself vulnerable to rejection – rejection of his genuine self and not the easier, more bearable rejection of the persona he fronted – then Rowena would not want anything to do with him.
Dear Vincent, he began to write.
It has been a tedious honor to help you along your path in the Devil’s Duel, but I regret that I can do so no longer. I am hereby withdrawing from my agreement to keep you under my tutelage. Good luck in Rounds Four and Five. If you focus on the third plan we discussed, I have no doubts whatsoever that you will be the champion.
The letter shimmered in the candlelight, growing dim until it gave one last shudder in Salazar’s ink-splotched hands, and then it was gone.