“Godric is convinced that it will be another boy,” said Elaine, unable to keep the smile out of her voice. Her hand fluttered to her stomach, as if anticipating the swell the next few months would bring. Rowena watched her with rapt attention.
“And what do you think?” she asked. “Can you tell, even so early?”
Elaine shook her head, smiling sheepishly. “No, I wouldn’t dare to guess. When I carried Gareth, I was certain until the day I gave birth that he was a girl. So my instincts are clearly not to be trusted about such things.” She gestured toward her little son, who was sitting across from me on the crimson rug, showing me the wooden horse Godric had carved for him. I put on a bright smile and ruffled his fair hair, making him laugh. Gareth’s innocence was a welcome change of focus after the agony of the past few days, and I let the sound of his laughter wash over me. Since that awful day in the library, my mind had rarely been occupied with pleasant things.
We were gathered in Elaine and Godric’s tower chambers, just the three of us and little Gareth. Rowena and I had a full evening ahead, which was set to include a meeting Godric had called to discuss something “important,” so we had decided to use our free hour before dinner to call upon Elaine. She and Rowena had been making an effort to get to know each other better, and we embraced any opportunity to spend time together. Elaine, in particular, seemed happy for a chance to converse with adult women. Coming to Hogwarts had limited her social world mostly to Godric and her son, and while she loved them dearly, there were times when she needed female company. Rowena and I were happy to oblige her whenever we could, and the Gryffindor tower was the perfect place for visiting. It was warm and inviting, with deep red fabrics and furniture carved out of rich, dark wood. When winter came there would be a jovial fire crackling in the grate beside me.
I looked up at the two women who had become so dear to me, and felt fortunate despite everything. I loved hearing the three of us laugh together, and seeing Elaine look at Rowena without her usual guarded expression. My instincts had been right about the two of them. They were kindred spirits in many ways; their serious demeanors and affinity for all things practical made them well suited as friends. When we were all together I often found myself waiting for a chance to include myself in their conversation. But I hardly minded; I was used to being the chatty one, and a change was nice. After the months of adjusting, it seemed that we were all growing more comfortable in our new lives at Hogwarts, even the reluctant Elaine.
“It’s fascinating,” Rowena breathed, still staring at Elaine. “I just can’t imagine what it must feel like. A little life, growing inside you.” She trailed off, unspoken words hanging heavy in the air. I turned away from Gareth for a moment to look at her, wondering at the wistful tone of her voice. Elaine just widened her smile, seeing nothing strange about Rowena’s demeanor. She was absorbed in her own happiness.
“I cannot feel much of anything yet, but before long…oh, I wish I could describe it to you both, but it is beyond words. It is as though I am no longer simply myself. My body is a vessel for another being.” She flushed a bit. “It is like nothing else in the world.”
From her face, and her voice, I could not quite tell if she meant this in a good or a bad way. I thought it might be a little of both, for she looked the way I always felt when I came upon something I could not quite fathom. I felt so young listening to her. Even though Elaine and I were close to the same age, she seemed years older, and infinitely more knowledgeable of things I had not yet learned. Rowena and I were scholars (strange as it may have been to apply such a lofty word to myself), but our experience in the ways of typical women our age was painfully limited.
Still, I enjoyed Elaine’s stories of motherhood. After all, I had long ago accepted the fact that such a fate might never find me. I was nearly nineteen, far past the age when most of the girls I’d grown up with had been wed. Teaching my students might well be the closest I would ever come to being a mother myself. The thought made me sad sometimes, and I had occasionally wondered of Rowena felt the same.
I remembered the way she had looked as we’d watched Godric and Gareth playing several weeks earlier. At the time I had not been able to name the shadow that had passed over her face, the slight sag in her posture, or the softening of her deep brown eyes. But as I watched her more closely now, I wondered how I could have missed it. There was longing in her face, plain as day.
“Here, darling,” I said to little Gareth, who was banging his toy horse against the ground in an exaggerated gallop. “Why don’t you go and play with Rowena now?”
Ever agreeable, he wandered over to stand at her feet, pressing his horse into her hand with an enthusiastic shout of, “Look!”
“Yes, I see,” Rowena said quietly, her voice completely lacking the strength it usually carried. This little child made her timid in a way I had never seen her. And yet she was enraptured by his presence, his clumsy movements and wide smile.
“Rowena?” I questioned softly.
“I’m all right,” she said, in a voice that did not make me believe her.
“We are allies, remember?” I made a sweeping gesture to include all three of us in my statement. “You can speak freely with us.” Elaine nodded her agreement, and Rowena sighed.
“I just…I always thought that I could have everything.” She spoke slowly, and I imagined she was choosing her words with utmost care. “I wanted a life devoted to learning and academia, but I wanted a family as well. And I never thought that I would have to give one up to have the other. But here I am, one and twenty years old and still alone…” Her voice seemed in danger of breaking, and she stopped for a moment to collect herself. I just gazed up at her, amazed. Rowena had always seemed so content with her life as it was; of all of us, she had seemed the least restless. But this surge of emotion was new.
“You are so fortunate, Elaine,” she concluded at length. “I fear it must be too late for me.”
“We each made sacrifices for the sake of Hogwarts,” I reminded her. “But think of the good you are doing for these students. It is a noble cause, Rowena. Take some comfort in that.”
“And besides,” Elaine put in, “hope is never lost. As long as you breathe, it will never be too late.”
This was rather optimistic, I thought, especially for the ever-straightforward Elaine. But her message was gentle, and I was glad to see Rowena’s shaky smile upon hearing it. For me, however, Elaine’s words rang false. No matter what she said, it was too late for me.
The image caught me unawares when it came, painfully vivid in detail. In my mind, I held a newly born child in my arms, with black hair and little long fingers that would someday match those of his father…
It was cruel. I cursed my traitorous mind for such an image, for allowing me even the smallest indulgence of hope. For I knew now that such childish fantasies would be utterly wasted.
I had spent the past few days in anguish, my mind running in torturous circles as I tried to decide what to do about the issue of my blood, and my dishonesty. Rowena’s advice had repeated itself in my thoughts over and over, and I had known my decision must come soon. I could not stay suspended in this hellish tension; there could be no more waiting. So, after many hours of constant thinking, I had made my choice. And even though I was far from comfortable with the conclusion I had come to, I had vowed to stand firm.
“If you would like to watch Gareth some days when you are not busy, I wouldn’t mind,” Elaine was offering. “He can be a handful, but I think the two of you might enjoy each other’s company.” Her smile was kind.
“That is gracious,” Rowena replied, her composure returning. “Helga, perhaps you could help me for the first time or two—“
“I want to tell Salazar the truth,” I blurted out abruptly.
It took a moment to sink in. Rowena’s face was an impassive blank, while Elaine’s eyebrows practically flew into her hairline. I wished I could have broached the subject with more grace. But it was out now, at any rate. My manner of speaking may not have been eloquent, but at times like these it was certainly efficient.
Elaine recovered first. “The truth about…”
“About my blood, and Godric’s. I want to tell Salazar that we are Muggle-born.”
She let out a breath. “I suppose I should not be surprised. Godric has mentioned the idea to me as well.” The ease in her stance had disappeared quickly, and now she stood rigid, with arms crossed tightly over her stomach. “Do you think it safe?”
“Safe?” I echoed incredulously. “Elaine, I know how you feel about Salazar, but I hardly think that is a question you need to ask.”
“How should I know what he is capable of?” she asked, bristling. “I must think of my family, Helga. You know that.” She squared her shoulders and drew herself up to her full height; from my vantage point on her rug, this gesture was more formidable than it would otherwise have been. I tried not to feel cowed by her.
“Salazar is no crazed tyrant,” I said, infusing my voice with more assurance than I felt. “In all the time we have known each other, I have never once seen him lose his head.” For a split second my mind traveled back to the dungeon, to the time he had screamed at me for questioning his blood status. The fury in his eyes still blazed hot in my memory. But surely that was nothing Elaine should have to worry about. Surely it was no sign of violence.
“Nor have I,” Rowena put in, seamlessly following the sudden turn our conversation had taken. “In every other matter, Salazar is the model of a logical mind. I am confident that he would learn to accept the truth, given time.” She shrugged. “Or tolerate it, at least.”
Elaine looked back and forth between the two of us. “Well,” she said with an air of skepticism, “I suppose I must trust your judgment. The two of you know him far better than I do, after all.”
“It is only right to be forthcoming about it,” I reasoned, grateful that she had backed down. “We have reached a point where secrets will no longer keep us safe. They will only divide us. And besides, it feels wrong to deceive Salazar.”
“Helga?” Rowena asked quietly. “Have you considered what might…happen if you tell him who you are? How he might react?”
She must have heard something in my voice, some tenderness when I spoke his name. Rowena had the perceptiveness of an eagle. I nodded, closing my eyes for a moment. “It matters little, in the grand scheme of this.”
It was difficult, so difficult, to put a voice to this truth. But I could not deny it. My feelings for Salazar had to be set aside if I was to take the moral high ground. I could not put my own foolish hopes above doing the right thing. But the thought was still there, a tiny whisper in my mind that I could not shut out.
If you reveal this, he will never love you.
I shook my head, as if that would chase the thought away. It didn’t matter now. Elaine looked curiously at me, but said nothing, and I sent up a silent prayer of thanks. I had no wish to defend my feelings to her.
“When will you tell him?” Rowena asked.
“I thought I might do it later tonight, when the four of us meet.”
She nodded her approval. “A sound choice. You will need allies,” she said, grinning knowingly at the word.
“I want to be there,” said Elaine, looking at me and Rowena as though daring us to challenge her.
“Of course,” I said, and Rowena nodded her agreement.
“And I must make one request of you, Helga.”
“When you speak to Salazar, please leave Godric out of it. If he wishes to reveal himself, let him do so with his own mouth. I would not have you unveiling his secret as well as your own, in case—“
“In case he changes his mind?” Rowena asked gently. Elaine met her eyes.
“I hope he will hold his tongue,” she said with a wry smile. “But I know my husband. Secrets burn in him like fire. He will not be able to hold onto this for much longer.”
“Nor will he wish to,” I added. “Honestly, I am surprised that he has waited even this long.”
“Perhaps he was waiting for you,” Rowena offered. “He mentioned something of that sort to me in the library. He did not want to mention it to Salazar until you were ready.”
“Well, I am ready now.”
“Are you sure?”
I let out a shaky breath. “No. But perhaps if I keep saying it, it might eventually be true.”
Dinner passed amiably enough, considering the circumstances. After checking to see that the food was to my satisfaction (I had begun charging my students with preparing it, for I hated to see them idle during the summer months), I was free to observe my companions at the head table—two of them in particular.
Salazar and Godric had spoken shortly after the incident in the library, and though they had been friendly toward each other since then, there was a new distance in their interaction. I did not know the details of what had passed between them. I did notice, however, that Godric let his left arm drape about the back of Elaine’s chair, as though making it clear where his ultimate loyalty lay. Even though the two men seemed at least to be making an effort to leave hard feelings behind, things were clearly not as they had been before.
We did not linger at the table long after the meal; I could tell Godric was anxious to begin our meeting, and his restlessness spread to the rest of us. Salazar excused himself directly after the meal, saying he had to add a vital ingredient to a potion he was brewing. The rest of us filed into a small room adjacent to the hall, where we conducted most of our meetings. Godric seemed shocked to see his wife follow us as we entered.
“Elaine?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
She glanced at me quickly before turning to smile at her husband. “I simply wished to know what the four of you discuss when you meet. You don’t object to that, I trust.”
“No, of course not. I was surprised, nothing more.” He placed a hand upon his wife’s elbow, with a lingering look into her hazel eyes. Such gestures of affection seemed to come more often between them since the news of their second child, and the sight never failed to warm me.
She pulled away first, and allowed Rowena to lead her to a seat. Seizing my chance, I pulled Godric aside at once.
“We have to talk. Before Salazar arrives.”
He was still watching Elaine out of the corner of his eye. “Is everything all right?”
I threw my hands to the heavens. “I don’t know. Do not ask me that. I just feel that it is only right to prepare you in advance, so you are not surprised.”
“Prepare me for what, Helga? You are worrying me.”
I rocked back and forth on my heels, struggling for words. Even before the meeting had begun, my nerves were getting the best of me. My stammering was cut off by Salazar’s entrance, and I knew that my moment was lost.
“So what is this urgent matter you have called us to discuss?” Salazar tone was tinged with sarcasm, a thin attempt at the jesting the two of them used to share. I smiled at this move toward normalcy; Godric did as well, though his was uncharacteristically tight. The three of us moved to join Rowena and Elaine at the round table.
“As you all know,” Godric began, looking around the table at each of us, “we have been personally choosing the students we wish to admit into each of our houses. But the days of our youth are nearly behind us, and we will not always be here to make those decisions.”
He spoke in a solemn tone, as though we were on our deathbeds right then. My eyes narrowed in concern. This was coming from Godric Gryffindor, who had always believed himself invincible?
“What brought this on, Godric?”
“I suppose becoming a father again has reminded me of it.” He glanced at me, and the weight of his new responsibility showed in his face. But I had to wonder if that was the entire reason for his sudden proposal. “Someday my sons will be grown, and I will be gone. This school will last far longer than we will, and I wish to prepare it for future generations.”
Rowena nodded her assent. “A little foresight is always wise, I think. Have you a solution, then?
“Possibly. At the moment it is just an idea, but we can work out the details if it’s agreeable to all of you.”
“Well, bring it forward, then,” I said with a smile.
“I would like to create some sort of device that will sort the students on our behalf,” said Godric, glancing around once again to gauge our reactions. “Something that can read their inner traits magically, and place them in the house most suited to them. This way, our legacies will endure long after the four of us are gone.”
The smile slid from my face. I didn’t know what I’d been expecting to hear, but it was not this.
It was bad enough that Hogwarts had separate houses in the first place. I had always found that concept disturbing; where were the benefits of creating division between students? But the other three seemed to think it was a good idea, so I never protested; I simply worked within the system they’d set up, welcoming any student who wished to study under me. But as the months had passed I’d grown less and less content with it. If anything, I wanted my legacy to be one of unity, not division.
I had to speak. I knew that, but I had trouble summoning the nerve. Tonight of all nights, I was far from ready to challenge Godric. I sat numbly while the others discussed possible particulars: what nature of device would it be, and how would we charm it into reading the students’ minds? It made me feel sick with dread.
“Helga, you’ve been quiet,” Rowena observed. “Have you anything to add?”
I took a deep breath. “I do, actually.” My voice shook a bit, and Salazar raised his brows. I tried to ignore both things, and pressed on. “I think the entire idea of houses is…misguided, at best. At worst, it is destructive to the children we house here. It pits them against each other.”
Godric sighed, sounding exasperated, but Rowena silenced him with a glance. “Go on, Helga. You have a say in this, and we will hear you.”
I shot her a grateful look, taking a moment to steady myself. “I think the best course of action would be to eliminate the house system entirely. We are doing our students a great disservice by separating them, and I do not wish to see Hogwarts continue down this path. If we all combine our houses, every student would receive the same education, the same opportunities. That is the tradition I wish to pass down to future generations of Hogwarts students. We owe them that much, do we not?”
My declaration was met with silence, the others appraising me. My stomach churned, and I wondered where the conversation would go from here. Would I have supporters? Somehow I doubted it; my three friends were very proud of their houses, and would be loath to give them up. Elaine’s supportive smile was encouraging, but she would be little help. I prepared myself to argue my case alone.
Godric gave another deep sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Helga,” he said dismissively, “please. You don’t understand this.”
I waited for some sort of continuation, some statement that would signal a debate, but it never came. This was to be the end of it, I could see; apparently, my contribution was not even worth discussing. My cheeks burned with irritation and shame; this was worse than I had imagined. I tried to think of a retort, but an unexpected voice stopped my thoughts.
“Helga understands far more than you realize. She is not a child, Godric. You would do well to learn that, as I have.”
We all turned at the sound of Salazar’s comment. He was looking Godric straight in the eyes, but his open stance and raised brows spoke of peace. Even while issuing a challenge, Salazar seemed keen to make it clear that his words were not meant as a personal attack. I was a little surprised, and deeply touched, that he would churn the already turbulent waters of his friendship with Godric just to defend me. And he had used my first name, something he’d never done before. I tried not to think about what that could mean, or the way my breath had caught upon hearing it. Such thoughts could only hurt me, I knew. Still, I gave him a grateful little smile, which he did not quite return.
“We don’t need this device you speak of,” I said to Godric, gentle but unwavering. Salazar’s statement had bolstered my courage. “As long as you persist with this idea, I will oppose it.”
“I’m inclined to disagree with you,” Salazar said a bit loudly, angled toward me but looking at Godric from the corner of his eye. “Even when I am gone, I wish for a certain…caliber of students in my house, to study under my name.”
I had no doubt of what he meant by the word “caliber,” but I did not comment on it. I was only capable of fighting one battle at a time; blood prejudice was the last issue I wanted to confront at the moment. Godric gave Salazar an approving nod; surely he must have caught Salazar’s offensive double meaning, but in the heat of a debate nothing was more important to Godric than coming out victorious. He seemed happy to have Salazar on his side, which I suspected was part of the reason he had stated his view on the subject. Elaine just arched a slender eyebrow at the exchange; I had no doubt that Salazar’s message had not been lost on her either.
“And besides, humans are fallible.” Rowena was quick to steer the conversation to safer ground. “I believe it would be prudent to have a more reliable sorting method in place for future generations.” She gave me an apologetic look across the table, but I couldn’t fault her for giving her opinion. I couldn’t fault any of them, really, and that served only to increase my frustration.
“Of course it would,” Godric said. “Thank God some of us are able to see reason.” This last part was hurled in my direction with an exasperated look. My eyes narrowed. I knew I had no grounds to be angry with Godric for bringing an idea forward. But making me feel inferior just to win an argument? That was much more difficult to forgive.
“Godric, it’s clear that there will be no decision made on this issue tonight,” said Rowena calmly. “Put it to rest for now.” She sat up straighter in her chair. “Does anyone else have anything to discuss?”
She stared at me pointedly, as did Elaine. To my shock, I realized that I had completely forgotten my own agenda for this meeting. If there was ever a time to come forward with my secret, it was right then.
But I found that I could not speak. I was shaken still by Godric’s swift dismissal, and found myself utterly incapable of fighting another battle tonight. I shook my head along with everyone else at the table, feeling my weakness intensely.
Over the course of the evening I had tried not to look at Salazar any more than was necessary. As I had planned to effectively shatter all hope of anything more than friendship between us (if that was even plausible once he knew who I truly was), I did not think I could bear it. But as we prepared to retire for the night I could not help just glancing at him, just one more time. To my surprise, he was looking back at me. When I met his eyes, he gave me a fleeting smile (the one I had been seeking earlier), and my heart stilled in my chest. I remembered the sound of my name—my first name—on his lips, and suddenly wondered why I had thought it so imperative that he know my true heritage so soon.
My confession could wait until another day. It would not be so terrible to keep the secret for just a little longer. And in the meantime I could bask in every smile he offered me. I could take his words and clutch them close to my heart.
Vaguely, I knew that my thoughts were traversing a dangerous path. A tiny voice in the back of my mind warned me that I could not forget myself, that I must adhere to the things I valued. Just a few hours before, I had been so sure that honesty was the most important thing. But in that moment, morals seemed distant and abstract compared with the man who stood in the flesh before me, so exquisitely real.