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Chapter 4 : Chapter Four
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Chapter image by the amazing Carnal Spiral @ TDA
Salazar and I had agreed to meet in the library after our classes ended the following day, and the hour arrived much faster than I would have liked. I had tried not to think about the dungeon at all that day, focusing instead on staying attentive to my classes. But even with my attention so occupied, I could not suppress the dread that had settled in the pit of my stomach. Had I been mad to agree to Salazar’s condition, to voluntarily expose myself to the shape-shifter? I had seen the effect the creature had had upon Salazar himself, and I had no desire to experience such a thing myself. But I had found it impossible to refuse him.
As I prepared to take my leave, I was surprised to see that not all my students had left the classroom when I’d dismissed them. One had stayed behind, a girl with thin brown hair and very round eyes. She was looking dejectedly down at her wand, and I could guess the reason why.
“Was there something you needed to ask, Mary?” I tried to make my voice especially gentle.
“I can’t do it, Professor,” she whispered despairingly. “It’s too hard. I’m hopeless.”
“Oh, nonsense,” I said cheerfully, coming over to kneel next to her seat. Even after only a few months of teaching them, I had come to know each of my students like the back of my own hand, and I knew Mary’s problem was not a lack of aptitude. It was simply a lack of confidence. “You have the skills, love. But tell me, why do you find it so difficult to use them?”
“I just can’t do it with people looking at me.”
“We all feel unsure at times, and there is no shame in it. I have many such moments myself.” The shape-shifter came to mind yet again, unbidden. “But I have a secret that helps me to overcome it. Would you like me to share it with you?”
She nodded eagerly. “Yes, please, ma’am.”
“All right then. The secret, my dear, is preparation. Hard work brings confidence; if you learn nothing else from me, remember that one thing.” I got to my feet, grinning at Mary’s mystified expression; apparently mine was not the quick solution she had expected. “Hogwarts castle is vast, and there is many a secluded corner for you to practice in, away from prying eyes.”
“Yes, Professor.” She shuffled her feet, as though reluctant to leave just yet. I went to my table and busied myself with some imaginary task, waiting for her to come out with whatever she had to say.
“Professor?” she asked after finally plucking up enough nerve.
She cleared her throat. “Do you think I would be better at magic if my parents weren’t…” Her voice faded away, but she did not need to go on.
Of the few dozen students we had acquired for our first term, only four of them were Muggle-born. One of them studied under Godric, one under Rowena, and the other two, including Mary, were in my house. They had found us despite our best efforts to keep the school secret from the Muggle world. We’d placed a fortress of charms around the castle to keep it hidden, but we could not be there to stop each stray whisper, each little hint that might reach Muggle ears. The two worlds touched, after all.
“Mary,” I said firmly as I turned back to her, “your blood has absolutely no bearing on how skilled you are. Have no fear of that.”
“But how do you know?” she burst out, then reddened at her own boldness. I smiled.
“I know,” was the only answer I gave. “Now, why don’t you go and practice what I’ve taught you. Tomorrow will be better, I promise. And remember what I’ve told you about wand movement; a strong flick of the wrist is all it takes. The rest of the arm is not nearly so important.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, bowing her head to me before rushing from the room. I had turned back to my desk, still smiling, when Mary spoke up again. “So sorry, Professor.”
“Mary, don’t be silly. You have not done—“ I abruptly stopped when I turned to face the classroom door, and realized that she had not been speaking to me.
Salazar leaned against the doorway, his eyes fixed down the corridor.
“You were late,” he remarked, and I did not have to look at him to see the sneer. “Now I see what has caused your delay. Your precious Muggle-born should learn to look up when she walks. Nearly barged straight into me.”
I had not wanted to start out this way. The shape-shifter was worrisome enough; I did not need Salazar’s talk of blood adding to my stress, especially after seeing Mary’s anxiety about the matter. And not to mention my conversation with Elaine the day before.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked pointedly, stalking past him without waiting for an answer. He fell into step beside me, thankfully making no further comment on the subject. But the smirk on his face remained.
I chatted idly about school, just to keep the conversation well clear of anything that might spark conflict. Salazar responded politely enough, and this mindless talk carried us down the corridor and into the dungeons. I suppressed a shudder as we entered.
“So, are you planning to tell me anything about this theory of yours?”
He shrugged. “I thought I would keep you in suspense.”
“Of course you did.” I was tense, and it was getting more difficult to hide. Salazar just raised his eyebrows.
We reached the storeroom door; the moment could be put off no longer. After reminding myself that I had volunteered for this, I took a deep breath and stepped into the room, aware of Salazar peering inside from the hallway. I was grateful that I knew something of what to expect, at least at first. The shadow would probably be lurking in the corner, it would move a bit, and then it would take its new form at a safe distance across the room—
With a loud clang, iron bars suddenly materialized a hair’s breadth from me, surrounding me on all sides. There was no room at all for me to move; I could not even turn in a circle. I was trapped, and I had no idea how to get myself out.
Of all the forms the shape-shifter could have taken, this cage was the worst. It was every irrational fear I had tried since childhood to master; imprisonment, suffocation, immobility. Panic gripped my heart like a vice, leaving me gasping for breath. All thought flew from my mind, other than the desperate need for escape. I let out a scream fit to chill the blood, grabbing at the bars like a madwoman. How could the creature have known? How could it know to take the form that would cause me greatest terror?
“Hufflepuff!” Salazar’s voice was loud above the sound of my screaming. “Stop. Think.”
I struggled to quiet myself, but I felt as though the bars of the cage were moving toward me, suffocating me. My breathing remained ragged and wild.
“Listen to me, and I will.” His monotone was strangely calming. I found that if I placed all my focus on his stoic face, my panic eased just a little. “Close your eyes and do not look at the cage, whatever you do.”
“Why?” I cried, but I had already obeyed him. In this moment of desperation, it was easy to put my trust in Salazar.
“I have an idea. Just keep them shut, and I will tell you when to open them again.”
I covered my eyes with my hands, just to be safe. Now that I was marginally calmer, I could guess what he was attempting to do. I had recognized that the creature took on a different form for each person it encountered. If Salazar could attract its attention and cause it to change forms, I would be free. It was a courageous gesture, and I admired him for it. If the situation were reversed, I was not sure I would be able to do the same.
An eternity passed. I waited and waited, dying to uncover my eyes but mindful of the consequences that would come with doing so. And finally, when I thought I could bear the suspense no longer, I felt empty air in the places where the bars had touched me. Somewhere off to my left, the sound of a roaring fire entered my ears.
“All right, look up,” Salazar said. I uncovered my eyes and raced out the door without looking behind me. After a last look at the fire, he followed me and slammed it closed.
As soon as we were safely back in the hallway my legs seemed to give out beneath me, and I sank to the floor. Already it was plain that I would not easily shake this encounter from my mind.
“How do you feel?” Salazar asked curtly. He was standing above me, his towering presence making me feel even smaller. If Godric had been there, he would have sat on the ground beside me. He would have ignored propriety and given me a tight hug, or made some silly joke to distract me. There would have been none of the uncertainty that was almost tangible between Salazar and me.
“Overwhelmed,” I said quietly, unable to stop my voice from quavering.
“Why was the cage so frightening for you?”
“Salazar, I would really rather not talk about it.” Suddenly I wished I was out of doors, under the open sky instead of the oppressive ceiling, feeling the wind at my back instead of a cold stone wall. “I need to leave. I can’t be here anymore.” Hot tears came to my eyes as I struggled to my feet, and I swiped vehemently at them. I had no wish to cry in front of Salazar.
I was turning to leave when his voice stopped me.
“Hufflepuff, wait.” He stepped toward me tentatively, looking as unsure as I had ever seen him. I relaxed my posture, intrigued despite my burning desire to flee the dark hall.
“I should not have asked this of you,” he said more quietly, looking down at his feet. “I wanted to see if I was correct in my assumptions about the creature. But it was wrong of me to use you as a means to this end.” A pause. “Forgive me.”
I must have looked wretched indeed, for Salazar to say such words to me. Never had I seen him humble himself this way: not quite an apology, but it warmed my heart all the same. He had moved quite close to me. The torches cast their eerie glow into the hollow of his cheekbones, across the slanted lines of his jaw. Color was barely discernible in the dim light, but these details were ingrained in my mind: pale skin, coal black hair, eyes as gray as a winter sky. He was looking at me intently, and even in the half darkness, his gaze was enough to twist my stomach into knots. But whether the feeling was discomfort or something quite different, I could no longer tell.
“Thank you,” I said quietly, my eyes flickering toward his and back down again. “But really, it isn’t your fault. I offered to face the creature. I brought this upon myself.”
He said nothing. The silence was setting me on edge.
“You had better tell me about this theory of yours, I think.” I attempted a smile. “I feel I’ve earned the right to an explanation.”
His answering smile was even more half-hearted than mine. “The creature preys on fear,” he began. “When it encounters a person, it takes a form that will symbolize that person’s greatest fear.” He looked back at me. “Would you agree, after what you’ve just experienced?”
I nodded. “It was like it could read my mind. In an instant it knew exactly how to torture me.”
“I know you may not wish to answer this, but what frightened you so about the cage?” Was that concern in his voice? Was it genuine? My heart seemed to turn over in my chest.
I hesitated. “It is completely irrational. Completely silly. You will think me weak.”
“Fear makes weaklings of us all." His tone was heavy; there was a world of experience in it. "It is a trial unlike any other; you need not be ashamed of it. And as for being irrational, I have found that logic rarely applies when strong emotion is involved.”
That was true enough. After a few soft words from Salazar, I was suddenly prepared to reveal more to him than I ever had before. Some emotion had surfaced in me, but it was unfamiliar and unnamable.
“I may not have ever told you this,” I began haltingly, “but I grew up as a gypsy, with traveling folk. We were constantly out of doors and moving, free always. I think that must be why I am so frightened by small rooms and tight spaces. The very thought of losing that freedom sickens me.” I remembered the sensation of the bars holding me fast, and my body tensed.
“Interesting.” His expression was unreadable.
“I told you it was silly,” I said, a bit defensively. “I suppose I have little to fear from life.”
“You should count that as a blessing,” he said quietly, his eyes taking on a faraway look. I wondered what he could be seeing.
“Salazar,” I said softly, “why did the creature show you fire?”
At this he gave me a wry smile, a warning. “Don’t come too close, Hufflepuff.”
“I just don’t wish to see you burdened,” I pressed. “It may help to put words to it.”
He shook his head, and I let the matter drop.
“Listen,” he said, his voice considerably gentler. “Forget this. Forget the creature. I was selfish to put you through it, especially after experiencing it myself." I opened my mouth to protest this claim of guilt, but he held up a hand to stop me. "Find other things to think about today, better things. Unhappiness does not suit you.”
I managed a small smile, still deeply touched. Just for a few moments, Salazar had cast off his pride for me. I had not believed such a thing possible. And I could not tell him that he had given me an abundance of good things to think about.
“You should have let me accompany you,” Godric said later that day after hearing my tale, concern furrowing his brow. I had finally seen fit to tell him about the events of the past two days, and he was not happy about being left out of the loop. “I could have faced the creature in your place.”
“I was fine, Godric,” I said with a sigh. I knew he meant well, but I still bristled under his protectiveness. Godric had played older brother to me since we were children; perhaps he always would. “Completely unharmed.”
“Even so,” he said, looking unsatisfied with my answer, “I don’t like the idea of you facing off against dangerous creatures. You could have been hurt.”
“But I wasn’t, was I?” I turned in a circle to show that I was whole. Inwardly, though, I was shocked that I could sound so calm.
“And you have Salazar alone to thank for it. Had he not been there, you would still be out of your wits and trapped in that cage.”
“I would have escaped on my own eventually,” I grumbled. “I didn’t need him there to rescue me.”
My statement did nothing to convince either of us; even as I said the words, I knew they were untrue. Salazar had been exactly what I’d needed in that moment of sickening terror. He had figured out exactly what to do with no aid from me at all. And afterwards…afterwards he had been so gentle, so comforting. Yet another face beneath the mask. But I would tell no one of that, not even Godric, my oldest and most trusted friend. I wanted to clutch those moments close to me.
“Well, I won’t bother arguing with you. We both know the truth, even if you are too stubborn to admit it.” He nudged me, and I shoved back, and for a moment we were children again. It made me laugh, a welcome change from the hours previous.
We had decided to conduct our discussion outside, while taking a stroll around the grounds. I hadn’t been able to stand being indoors for another second, and Godric was always happy to be moving. It was a fine spring afternoon; the sun shone warm on my face, and I drank it in with deep gratitude. We reached the lake, and Godric sat down at its bank. I followed suit, leaning in to trace the water’s inky surface with my fingers.
“I am glad to see you and Salazar on good terms, though,” he said after a comfortable pause. “I wondered if you would ever begin to get along.”
“We surprised each other, I think,” I said with a smile. “He thought me a bit of an idiot, and I thought him emotionless and cold.”
“First impressions can be woefully off the mark,” he said. “But it is good that you’ve corrected them. The four of us must form a strong unit and learn from each other, so that our school can grow.”
“That’s true enough,” I said with a nod. “But we still must be careful. We cannot risk Salazar learning too much about us.”
Godric sighed, turning away from me. Such brooding behavior was not like him.
“What?” I asked. “What are you thinking?”
“Helga,” he began wearily, “I think we should just tell him.”
“What?” I cried, disbelieving. “Have you lost your senses?”
“I am simply tired of hiding the truth. It is cowardly, Helga! Would it really be so terrible to let him know of our heritage?”
“He would despise us!” I exclaimed. “You have heard the way he talks of Muggle-borns, as though they are lower than the dirt beneath his boot. I have no wish to be thought of that way, not when he has just begun to treat me civilly.”
But it was more than that. I remembered Salazar’s eyes on mine, his voice guiding me, soothing me. If I told him where I had really come from, I would lose that. And I found that I was unwilling to let it go.
“Do as you will with your secret, Godric,” I said, leaving no room for further talk. “But let me do the same with mine.”
A/N: So Helga just might be a little bit smitten...and who could blame her? I hope you're still enjoying the story, and I would be so excited to see a review! Also, if you have any questions, feel free to check out my Meet the Author page (the link is in my profile.) Thank you for reading!
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