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Ghosts in the Snow by Athene Goodstrength
Chapter 1 : The Sentry's Pledge
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7

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Chapter image by ColouredSkies @ TDA

All men kill the thing they love
By all let this be heard

The sun had long since ceased its useless battle with the clouds swirling above the battlements of the castle, yet the young sentry would not be permitted to bed himself down for many hours yet. It was the longest night of winter and William shivered as snow began to fall around him onto the stone walkway. It landed in his dark curls and on his lashes; it reddened his cheekbones and cast a bluish light on his delicate features. Were it not for the fearsome blade at his side and the irritable oaths he breathed into the freezing air, the thirteen year-old might have looked quite angelic. He stared out into the night, across the sweeping grounds of the castle and towards the distant lights of the village. Surely, thought William bitterly, it was not right that the second son of Simon, the great Baron Sangfort, should be shivering to death whilst the lowliest of peasants were gathered comfortably around fires, no doubt tending a cauldron full of something hot and delicious. William’s stomach growled as he thought of the time that had passed since dinner in the Great Hall.

‘Was that the howl of a wolf, or the cry of a young man’s stomach, Sangfort?’

William whirled in surprise, drawing his wand from the depths of his cloak and pointing the bright tip towards the voice in the shadows.

‘Who goes there?’ he stammered, ashamed at being caught unaware.

A tall man unfolded himself from the shadows of the parapet wall; snow had begun to settle on his broad shoulders and it seemed he had been watching William quite unnoticed for some time.

‘I do, boy,’ the man growled, his handsome features severe. ‘Dim your wand.’

‘Sire, I ... forgive me, I did not know...’ William thrust the wand into the belt and bowed his head. ‘I was distracted by the cold.’

The man looked at his young squire thoughtfully, his arms crossed against his body beneath a great black cloak that enveloped his muscular body like furled wings. William gazed up in awe at his master, remembering the words of his father as they had parted some six months previously. ‘He is sharp-eyed, and fast, and if you move too slowly he will strip the meat from your very bones. That, Will, is why they call him the Raven.’ His father had laughed at the terror and admiration on William’s face, and had clasped his shoulder. ‘Otherwise, he is quite harmless.

The man before him now did not seem harmless, but William drew himself up and met Reynald Ravenclaw’s gaze. After all, he thought, a raven is but an overgrown blackbird. Ravenclaw’s grey eyes narrowed for a moment, but then the man laughed, his white teeth glinting in the darkness.

‘You truly are of strong blood, boy. Here,’ Ravenclaw reached into his cloak and brought out a leather drinking pouch. ‘This will warm you.’

William took the pouch gratefully and took a swift gulp of a hot liquid that tasted strongly of spices and berries. Instantly, his body was aflush with a tingling warmth that spread to his blue fingertips and numb lips. He could not help himself; he looked up at his lord with an expression of such innocent delight that the Raven laughed once again.

‘A marvellous concoction is it not?’ smiled Ravenclaw, who looked out into the darkness of the mountains with a keen and searching eye. ‘My lady wife brewed it for me. Like you, she cannot bear the cold.’

A look of consternation had suddenly come upon the Raven’s features, and William, emboldened by the heady potion, glanced sidelong at the imposing man. He had not seen the young Lady Ravenclaw in many a week, since she had retired to her private chambers with her ladies, exhausted by her swollen belly and the winter’s cruel winds.

‘Is she well, sire?’ William asked quietly.

A few minutes passed, and it seemed that Ravenclaw had not heard him, for the only reply to William’s question was the whistling of the wind dusting the battlements with a thick layer of snow. William had decided that the question had been rather impertinent, and that he was lucky to receive only silence and not a sharp slap to the back of the head, when the great man beside him sighed deeply.

‘My wife has been crying out in pain since sunrise yester morning,’ said Ravenclaw gruffly. ‘I am well accustomed to the screams of men on the battlefield, but it is a dreadful thing to hear the woman you love in such a state, and know there is naught you can do to ease her suffering.’

William felt a stab of fear in his chest and he turned away quickly to hide it from Ravenclaw’s quick eyes. He remembered well the terrible silence that had followed his mother’s long struggle to bring his youngest sister into the world. The midwives and apothecaries had cast their enchantments, brewed their potions, and done whatever secret things happened behind the closed doors of the birthing chamber, but it had not been enough. William’s mother and the baby had left the world together, and the thought of the Lady Rowena suffering similarly brought the cold chill of the night air into his very heart.

She had been the first to welcome William to the castle half a year previously, when Baron Sangfort had agreed that Ravenclaw might train his second son as a squire, and later perhaps bring him to knight. Lady Rowena was perhaps the most beautiful woman William had ever seen; a sparkling tiara was set in curls of black hair which tumbled to her waist, and her eyes were the green-blue of an unsettled sea. Her slender waist was just beginning to thicken, and as she had bent to kiss William on the cheek, she had seemed womanly and comforting to a boy far from home. Whilst her husband had taken charge of William’s martial training, taking his defensive spells and swordcraft in hand, Lady Rowena had found in the young man the sort of intelligent eye and quick wit that she found most compelling, and had taken it upon herself to teach him wandlore, arithmancy, and herbcraft whenever Reynald could spare him. She seemed to William to be perhaps the cleverest witch in the world - although he had to admit that his sisters and their nurses were the only women he had ever known and he had, for the most part, found them merely irritating.

The thought of losing her now caused tears to start, hot and unwelcome, to William’s eyes. He blinked them back hurriedly, and handed the drinking pouch to Ravenclaw, who took a long swig, his own eyes glassy although whether from the biting cold or a troubled heart, William could not tell. Suddenly, the door to the parapet banged open, making both William and his master jump and turn in alarm, each with their wands instantly drawn.

An elderly man stood in the doorway, his sparse hair blowing in the gale as he stared down the cloaked men with no trace of fear.

‘Edwin,’ Ravenclaw muttered with relief as he saw the familiar face of his old seneschal, and lowered his wand. ‘You startled us.’

The man bowed his head.

‘I apologise, my lord. I come with urgent news.’

‘Of Rowena?’ asked Ravenclaw urgently, hurrying along the battlement with William trailing in his wake. ‘She’s not -’

Edwin raised a hand calmly, a patient smile spreading across his lined features.

‘She is well, sire. All is well. You have a daughter.’

The Raven stopped mid-stride, and William saw the great shoulders drop with relief. As he watched his master move forward and clasp Edwin’s arms in delight, he felt his own body flood with joy, as if he had a whole gutful of the hot spiced potion.

‘Come then, Sangfort,’ said Ravenclaw, turning to face William with a broad smile. ‘Let us meet my daughter.’

William looked up at Ravenclaw with surprise.

‘But, sire - my watch is not yet over,’ he said, looking anxiously down the length of the wall. ‘I am still under punishment for breaking Roland’s broomstick.’

Ravenclaw laughed and put a strong hand on William’s shoulder, pulling him towards Edwin.

‘It seems our young squire has something of a temper,’ he explained to the seneschal, ‘And did not take it kindly when the bailiff’s son mocked his admittedly feeble Summoning Charm.’

William flinched inwardly at the memory of Lady Rowena’s disappointment. ‘Roland Bailey may be a bully and a fool, but he is not the son of a baron,’ she had chastised softly. ‘A great responsibility comes with the privilege of your birth. Anger can cloud an intelligent mind like blood in water, William; and then all will go thirsty.’ Her husband had ordered the broom mended, and given William longer and harder duties for a fortnight.

Now though, Ravenclaw looked down at William with pride and excitement.

‘Our land is quite safe tonight,’ he said and waved his wand expansively through the air. ‘Expecto Patronum!

There was an explosion of silvery light and William watched, astonished, as a flock of hundreds of shining birds burst from Ravenclaw’s wand. They soared like comets into the air and hovered, casting a brilliant glow over the enormous fortifications.

‘Reynald,’ breathed Edwin, forgetting that he and the man he had known since boyhood were in company. ‘That is surely the most impressive Patronus I have ever seen.’

Ravenclaw stowed his wand, grinning.

‘I have never been so happy, nor had so much to protect. Now, let us go; I want to kiss my wife and child.’

William followed the two men down the dark stone steps of the tower, wands illuminated, and into the silent yard where they were met by Morli, one of the Raven’s faithful, loping hounds. The dog butted at his master’s hand excitedly, and his tail whipped gently against William’s legs as they fell into step together behind Ravenclaw. The haphazard procession of master, servant, child and dog hurried through thick oak doors to a dark hallway where another curving flight of stairs stood. Here the motley crew paused, and William watched as Ravenclaw bounded up the stairs two at a time with a lightness of step that made him realise with a start that the tower of a man he so feared and admired was barely more than a boy himself.

From the darkness at the top of the stairs there came a sudden shriek, and as one William and Morli took off, dog and boy sprinting up the stairs towards the commotion. Edwin was left to limp as fast as his old knees could carry him, and he called words of caution after the young squire.

The chamber door at the top of the tower stood ajar, and William drew his wand as he heard raised voices. The door banged as he threw it open, and there was another shriek.

‘No! No more people in this room!’

William staggered as a small, round woman launched herself at him. Catching the furious midwife by the shoulders, he gently drove her back as her hands reached to push him out of the room.

‘Master?’ he breathed, looking to the Raven for instruction.

Ravenclaw was standing by the fire, a smile playing about his lips as he glanced across the room.

‘Let him be, Maude. Master Sangfort is welcome,’ said a soft voice.
William’s gaze slid to the great oak bed and gave a start as he realised Lady Rowena lay beneath the covers, her shoulders naked and her black hair flowing freely. He felt his face turn aflame and averted his eyes, staring at the floor rushes in embarrassment. Ravenclaw gave a hoarse laugh, and strode across the room to clap William on the back.

‘Madam Maude and I had a slight disagreement about the presence of men in the birthing chamber,’ he said, lifting William’s chin. ‘I felt that as I was present at the creation of the babe, there is little my lady wife has to hide from me.’

The midwife tutted and motioned for her ladies to help her with a pile of sheets that William noticed, his stomach turning sickly, were covered in patches of blood. Nervously, he looked to Lady Rowena who smiled and waved William towards her.

‘I am quite well, William; come.’

Casting a wary eye towards Maude as he tucked his wand into the loop of his belt, he sidled towards Lady Rowena. As he drew near, William saw for the first time the tiny body held to her chest. A pink downy creature lay against Lady Rowena’s white skin, curled up like a frog. The new mother shifted her baby so that William could see, and he did not even notice her nakedness, so enthralled was he by the sight of the child.

He leaned in, staring openly at the tiny tufts of black hair fringing the baby’s head, and at the tiny overgrown fingernails clutching at fat cheeks. She was simultaneously the strangest and most beautiful thing he had ever seen. In the darkness of the room, her eyes were blinking sleepily, even as a pink tongue poked from the downturned lips, smacking and rooting hungrily.

‘A baby,’ William whispered with fascination.

Lady Rowena laughed throatily.

‘What were you expecting, my dear?’

William grinned and shook his head.

‘I was accustomed to your swollen belly. I had forgot there was a baby within.’

‘A girl,’ added Ravenclaw. ‘A daughter.’

Lady Rowena nodded, stroking the baby’s hair gently.

‘Just as Helga foresaw,’ she said quietly.

Ravenclaw leaned in, over William, and carefully lifted the infant’s tiny fingers.

‘I will write to the others. Helga will want to bring you her own curatives, and no doubt the Griffon will want to whet the baby’s head.’

William looked suddenly up at Ravenclaw’s handsome face.

‘And Master Slytherin?’ he asked eagerly. ‘Will he come, too?’

William had encountered Lady Rowena’s cousin a few times previously, and had been amazed to hear the man speak. Slytherin was as ugly as Rowena was beautiful, but his face had a noble bearing and his tongue was of gold. He spoke with such charisma and painted such wonderful pictures of the world as it could be that William had sat at the man’s feet for hours at a time, silent and in thrall. The Griffon d’Or, magical advisor to the King, had jested that as young Sangfort had never closed his mouth for such a stretch of time, Master Slytherin had surely cursed the boy’s tongue.

Now, Ravenclaw ruffled William’s hair and assured him that Salazar Slytherin would no doubt be at the castle before week’s end. William beamed at the thought of meeting the man again, and turned back to Lady Rowena.

‘What is the baby’s name?’ he asked. ‘She should be called something beautiful.’

He blushed suddenly, realising that he had allowed his excitement to get the better of himself.

Lady Rowena smiled at him sleepily, and reached to touch his arm.

‘An appreciation of beauty is part of being a knight, William. You should be courteous and gentle whenever possible. But part of being a wizard should be to see what is behind the beautiful face.’

She looked down at the baby and her eyes softened.

‘That being said, I am looking at this child and all I see both outside and in is beauty.’

‘Helena,’ murmured Ravenclaw. ‘As in your favourite tale of Troy.’

The Lady Rowena smiled, and William thought of the hours he had spent repeating the ancient tales she had told him to Morli, the only creature who seemed happy to listen.

‘The fate of that city might have been very different, had the prince given his golden apple to Athena and received wisdom beyond compare,’ she said, her eyebrows arching. ‘But you are right, husband. Our daughter will be named Helena.’

William observed the look of tender regard that passed between the two and realised he had intruded too long on a sacred moment. Taking Lady Rowena’s hand from his sleeve, he kissed it carefully and made to leave, but Ravenclaw placed a hand on his shoulder.

‘There is another lady in this room now, Sangfort,’ he said, dark eyes twinkling in the firelight.

William hesitated, then reached out towards the baby. Her fingers splayed and then curled strongly around his knuckle, pulling William’s hand to her tiny wet mouth. He laughed, surprised.

‘I am meant to kiss your hand, not the other way around,’ he said, and his guardians laughed.

Gently, he ran his thumb across the dimpled back of her tiny hand, and looked down at the new life, already so beloved.

‘Helena Ravenclaw,’ he murmured. ‘Just as your good father and mother, you have my eternal fealty.’

The Raven chuckled at William’s seriousness, but as the boy left the chamber, Lady Rowena followed him with a look of keen thoughtfulness, which glimmered through her exhaustion

Author’s Note:
The title ‘Ghosts in the Snow’ comes from two My Chemical Romance songs, ‘Vampires Will Never Hurt You’ and ‘The World Is Ugly’. They’re both awesome songs and you should listen to them.

The line ‘All men kill the thing they love/By all let this be known’ is from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde.

Thank you for reading, and please review!

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