Chapter 1 : Guardian
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This had been the hermit’s answer, when Godric had asked if there really were those who could see things to come. It was just one of a hundred, even a thousand questions he had asked, and there were still a thousand more waiting to be answered.
“The hill of lights? What hill of lights?”
But the hermit had not said more, thinking (perhaps hoping) that Godric would let the matter go. He had not reckoned, however, on his protégé’s fierce will. Godric held onto the subject of seers like a hound with a rabbit in its jaws, unable to rest until he knew what his own future held. And when the hermit refused to indulge his pleas for more information, Godric decided that he would find the hill of lights himself.
He told no one of his plan; it would have undoubtedly raised questions that he could not answer freely. For Godric was a member of a feared breed; he had been blessed (cursed) with the power of magic. He did not know how it had happened or why, and he had spent most of his fourteen years hiding it from the people closest to him. Magic in any form was punishable by a swift death, and Godric knew that Lord Gryffindor did not take the law lightly. The fact that this lord was Godric’s own father might make a difference, but it might not, and Godric was unwilling to put that to the test.
He had shared his forbidden gifts with exactly two people, neither of whom were part of the Gryffindor household. The hermit was one. It was this man who had made Godric’s wand, and taught him much of what he knew about the technique of magic. Thanks to the hermit’s teaching, Godric had learned to control the flood of power running through him.
The other was Helga Hufflepuff, a girl of the traveling folk that came to settle in his father’s holding every summer. She was like him, as the hermit was. Once they had discovered their common link, the two had quickly become inseparable, despite a difference in age of just over two years. Time with Helga was a refuge, for with her he could be his whole self.
When they were young children, the two of them would sneak off to have many adventures. No one in the household would question where they’d been when they returned, sweaty and grinning, from an afternoon of play. The great house was positioned near a vast meadow; there were trees to climb and places to hide, to play games and tell stories that no other could hear. But Godric had reached an age at which such escapades were no longer possible. At fourteen, his days were now spent almost entirely at his father’s side, learning to wield sword and dagger, and watching as he settled disputes among the villagers. Even at his tender age, Godric had to show the people that he would be a fit leader when it was time. It would have been passing strange for him to take to the meadow with a traveling girl, and the Gryffindor reputation had no place for oddity.
Godric was mostly unperturbed by this, for he understood the necessity of change. And since Helga worked in the kitchen during the summers, he would still get to see her nearly as frequently as he liked. But now that Godric knew of the seer, he wished that they had the freedom to do as they wished again. That would have made it far easier for Helga to lead him to the hill of lights, for she was the only one who could.
The traveling folk arrived on the first good day of summer; there was not a cloud in the sky, and a breeze from the north kept the air from being unbearably heavy. There was a promise in such days; surely such a fine beginning surely bode well for the season to come.
Godric and his family heard them well before they reached the house. The beat of hooves along the path, the creaking of the carts, the laughter and singing of the folk themselves—all signaled the gypsies’ imminent arrival. They seemed the most carefree people Godric had ever met, but he knew that beneath this lay the efficiency of an army. They were ready to pack up and depart at a moment’s notice; their summers at the Gryffindor holding were the closest they came to settling down.
He could normally find Helga quite easily, but today he had trouble picking her out of the crowd of folk. Indeed, it was not until they had reached the house that Godric recognized her, freckle-faced and curly haired, standing close to her mother. She was much taller than she’d been the summer before. Perhaps little Helga was finally beginning to grow up; after all, she would be twelve by summer’s end.
Her smile was very contained, almost shy, as she met Godric’s eye. In return, he inclined his head slowly, as he’d seen his father do when they entertained guests. But he found himself wishing for her customary ear-to-ear grin. And why did he not give the lark call he’d perfected—their usual signal—as she approached? They always used to greet one another this way. But his father would never behave in such a manner, and his watchful eye held Godric back. So he greeted his best friend as he would a stranger.
Was this what it was to become a man?
The day passed, and the folk retreated to the place where they made camp. It was not until right before the evening meal that Godric got a chance to speak with Helga alone, to ask about the hill of lights.
“I have seen a place like that!” She brightened, and for a moment the terrible awkwardness was gone. “It is near the wood, only a day’s ride from here. I always see it near the end of our journey here, but no one else does. If they did, they would surely say something. Oh, it is beautiful, Godric!”
“And you could take me there, couldn’t you? I know you could.”
“Of course I could,” she said with a little haughty lift of her chin. “But why?”
He told her what the hermit had said, about the seer who lived there. Helga’s eyes, blue as forget-me-nots, went very wide as he spoke.
“It will be just like a quest, Helga!” he said, cajoling. “Like in your father’s stories.”
“Thought you were too old for stories,” she said with a frown, crossing her arms. “Thought they were for babies and common folk.”
Godric sighed. So here it was, that ugly thing between them.
He had said something to that effect the summer before, when Helga had asked him to gather with the traveling folk around their fire once more before summer’s end. But it had been a long day, and tiring, and couldn’t Helga just leave him alone to think? There was so much more to think about now that he spent his days training instead of playing. He’d been overwrought, and he had snapped at her. Regret had flooded him immediately, of course, but to apologize to a girl of ten? Such an idea had been out of the question; he was nearly grown, after all.
That was the first summer, the only summer, when she had left without saying goodbye. And now here they were, wondering how things could have changed so much in only a year’s time.
“I shouldn’t have said that, Helga, really. But think of it. Surely the hill of lights is a place of magic. What would it be like to visit a place where we didn’t have to hide?”
She softened despite herself, imagining such a place. He found himself smiling at her, a real one this time, and was glad to see her return it.
“My father and brothers ride out to that place often, to cut firewood,” she said, adventure in her voice. “If you can find a way to come with us, I can take you to the hill.”
There would be only one chance to carry out the plan. Godric’s mother and father had announced plans to accept an invitation from their neighbor to the north, to stay on as guests in his household for a time. Godric and his younger brother would be left at home with the steward, who was quite a lax disciplinarian. Even better, his parents’ rare absence coincided with Helga’s relatives’ excursion to cut wood for their fires. It had all fallen neatly into place, and when the day came Godric could scarcely believe he was on his way to the hill.
Helga had grown tall enough for her own mount, so she rode alongside Godric at the back of the small group. Ahead of them, her father and two brothers joked and reminisced among themselves, not paying their young companions much mind. Between Godric and Helga there was little chatter; Godric was focused solely on the journey to come. He craned his neck to see around the curves in the path, waiting for his first glimpse of the hill of lights. But it was not until they stopped, and the men had set about their work, that Helga pointed it out to him.
“Look,” she whispered, pointing off to the left. And there it was, nearly obscured behind the tree line. The hill shone bright through the branches of the wood; it was as though glittering gems of all colors covered the rising earth. Godric could only stare; it was indeed beautiful, as Helga had said. Until now, a part of him had believed that it was not real.
“They aren’t looking,” Helga hissed, gesturing to her family. “We must go now.”
Without a word, he followed her off the path and into the wood, sneaking behind thick brush and towering trees. The voices of Helga’s relatives grew faint behind them, and soon Godric could not hear them at all.
Helga was the one to direct their steps as they walked; he had long since learned to trust her instinct on matters of location and distance. She was a traveler, after all. But it was more than that; Helga had always had a sense of where to find things, without knowing exactly why. Godric knew he would be wise to listen to her. And it became clear, as they went on, that this wood was not entirely ordinary. The trees were innocuous enough, and the calls overhead were those of familiar birds. But there was something distinctly uncanny about the place, something that made his hair stand on end. They had entered a place where non magical folk were unwelcome; Godric felt sure of that. And he could have sworn that there were eyes on them, hidden among the trees.
He was eager to move quickly, to reach the hill of lights as soon as they were able. But his navigator was in much less haste; Helga’s spirits had risen with each step they took. Her constant cries of “Godric, look!” rang through the air, pointing out everything from strange flowers to little winged creatures that could have been butterflies, but could have been something else entirely. It was the happiest he had seen her since she had arrived at his home. Godric nodded politely to each of her outbursts, while inwardly he strained at the slow pace they were taking.
“Through there,” Helga said suddenly, pointing. The forest had thickened with every step, and she had directed him to a gap between two of the countless trees. He did not know how she had determined the place, but he did her bidding, stepping between the trees to emerge in a wide clearing. The hill of lights looked much closer than before, dazzling brilliant in the midday sun. And at their feet lay two paths, leading in opposite directions.
Helga considered them for a moment. Godric watched, searching for some method to her strange talent, but finding none.
“It should be this one,” she decided, pointing to the broader path. The one that clearly led away from the hill.
“It can’t be that one,” Godric protested. “Is it not always the more difficult path that leads to the end of the journey? And besides, this one leads right to the hill.” He took a step toward the narrower path, strewn with rocks and holes, but Helga stayed where she was.
“You are the one who asked for my help,” she said, crossing her arms. “And I say we must go this way. In two hours you could be asking your seer anything you wish to know.”
He told himself that Helga would not steer him wrong. Her instincts never failed in these matters. But it went against all logic to take her path, the one leading away from the luminous hill.
“No,” he said firmly, shaking his head. “This path is the only one that makes any sense at all. We must choose this way.”
Helga gave him her most vicious glare, wrinkling her freckled nose.
Fine,” she spat. Godric had never seen her so angry; indeed, he could hardly remember seeing her angry at all. Things had indeed changed. “It will take us another day to get there now. But I suppose the man must know best.”
And she stalked off, traversing the rocky path. Godric rolled his eyes and followed, comforted by the sight of the hill of lights in front of them, where it should be.
They trudged silently along. Helga’s bubbly commentary had dried up entirely, and Godric was grateful. He could focus solely upon the hill, and the seer. Soon he would be certain of his future; it would no longer be a fearsome cloud looming above him.
They came upon the mouth of a wide stream, the shallow water splashing leisurely across their path. Godric went in first and Helga followed, letting the hem of her skirt drag.
“What do you think the seer will tell you?” Godric asked as they picked their way across the slippery rocks of the riverbed. He thought that he might at least attempt to smooth things between them. It seemed like something his father would advise.
“I don’t know,” she grumbled, still out of sorts.
“Well, what do you want him to tell you?”
“How do you know it isn’t a lady, Godric?” she retorted.
“Oh, stop,” Godric said, annoyed now. “You aren’t answering my question.”
“Maybe I don’t want to know what will happen to me. Did you ever think of that? There are dangers.” Her voice fell to an ominous whisper, but Godric just laughed.
“What could you know of dangers?”
She was quiet for a little, and Godric thought the subject closed. He walked on ahead, letting his irritation prickle inside. Helga couldn’t understand; she was only a girl, and a common one. She could not know the responsibility that he faced. Gryffindor was a large household with many people employed within its walls, and many more who lived on the surrounding land. He would have to look after them all someday. Godric’s father had proven himself capable, and he was well-loved by his people. But when Godric himself became lord? He was much less certain of his own ability to fill the space his father would leave. So many would depend on him.
No, Helga could never understand Godric’s fears, or why he had such a fierce need for something to light the way ahead. She could have made an attempt to sympathize with him, but instead she was just babbling on about dangers.
The whole day he had looked at her as a troublesome little sister, rather than a trusted friend. The gap between their ages seemed to have grown wider in their year apart. Perhaps, he thought sadly, it was simply too wide to cross anymore.
He heard a cry of shock—or was it pain?—behind him, and the sound put a quick end to his grousing thoughts. In an instant he splashed to Helga’s side, finding her whimpering at a bloodied finger.
“What happened?” he demanded.
She pointed at a large rock with her other hand. “There was a turtle there. I only wanted to touch him, but…”
“All right,” Godric said, making no comment on her red face, or the folly of sticking fingers near a strange animal’s mouth. “All right. Just get your hand in the water, the cold will help the pain. There now, see?”
She had crouched to do as Godric bid her, and now she was getting up, holding out her finger for further inspection. He took her sunbaked hand into his fairer one. The puncture was deep, but the shock of cold water had lessened the flow of blood.
“Now, hold still,” he said quietly, holding his wand to the injured finger. The hermit had taught him no spells of healing. But Godric and Helga had found that incantations could be cumbersome in the wielding of spells.
“Magic without words is seen as a difficult skill to master,” the hermit had said when Godric mentioned this to him. “Your power must run very strong indeed.” After that, he had looked at Godric with a new respect.
He called up this memory for a quick burst of confidence, placing his wand’s tip as close to the hurt as he could. Blood was beginning to flow anew, and Helga made an anxious little sound. With a deep breath, Godric pictured the wound in his mind, imagined it mending. And soon enough Helga’s skin closed over the bleeding puncture. Godric lifted his wand away and inspected her finger, breathing a shaky sigh of relief. The skin puckered at the place where the wound had been, but there was no blood.
“There,” he said. “Does it hurt very much?”
“A little,” she replied, looking at the finger. “But not so much.”
“Good.” A little smile, a tug of her thin curls. Perhaps that would help her feel just a little better. “Turtles can be quite fearsome, you know. Now let’s hope we don’t run into a rabbit next, or a toad. Oh, Helga, don’t cry!”
But now that she had begun, she seemed quite unable to stop. Godric stood before her, shuffling his feet, unsure.
“Here, perhaps we should stop for today. It will be dark soon.” She nodded and allowed him to lead her to the stream’s bank. It had been a long day, and the hill of lights looked no closer than it had at the place where the paths diverged.
Godric looked at it for a long moment, feeling the beginnings of despair. The sun was just beginning to go down, setting the hill ablaze with color. If he had taken Helga’s path, they might have been on their way home by now, and she never would have been hurt. The knowledge was sobering indeed.
He looked back down at her, and was pleased to see that her tears had stopped. She had distracted herself by making pictures in the muddy banks of the stream, with a pointed stick. Godric watched as she drew a feather, a tree, a little cat. She wrote her name, the letters large and clumsily shaped.
“You’ve been practicing,” he remarked as she finished her name and began writing his.
“I can do more than this,” she said, scoffing at her work. “You taught me well, remember? We used to practice every day.” She looked down at the bubbling water. “I miss you, Godric.”
“I didn’t mean for everything to change,” he said, seating himself next to her. “Not so quickly. But I can’t be a child forever, and neither can you.”
Helga just shrugged, unimpressed by this. He had not seen her smile since early that morning, and it unsettled him. What was this? Could he say nothing without hurting her? He had imagined that this journey would somehow mend things, make them right again. But for Helga the day had been filled with nothing but disappointment and weeping. They no longer understood each other, not as they once had. And he could not think of a single thing to say that might fix it.
Above them, the sky was quickly darkening, but the hill of lights shone bright. Tomorrow they would be there. That was the important thing.
Godric woke with the rising sun, stiff and aching from the long night spent on the ground. He was surprised that Helga had not risen already; looking at her, he saw that she had not moved a muscle since she’d lain down the night before.
It was strange; Helga never slept in, and she had fallen asleep quite early. He shook her shoulder and found, to his horror, that she would not wake.
“Helga!” He shook her again, and slapped her face, but she still lay silent. At least her heartbeat was strong, Godric found, but there was no predicting the course of such a sudden ailment. It was no ordinary turtle that had bitten her in the stream. He felt panic and guilt squeeze around his heart, like cold hands. If he had not insisted upon taking his own path, the wrong path, Helga would be well.
There was no time to think. He used a charm to lighten Helga’s weight (something the hermit had taught him), and ran at full tilt, back the way they had come. He would get to the crossroads and take her path, the one that might get them to the hill in time. If this seer was indeed powerful, Godric reasoned, he would be able to help Helga.
Or she, he could almost hear Helga’s voice admonishing him. It might be a lady, you know.
He did not stop running, not even once. Did the rocky path seem shorter today? There was no time to examine it; Godric’s mind was consumed by the task at hand. He paused briefly at the crossroads, to catch his breath and make sure his little sister still breathed. Her freckles seemed to jump out at him as he looked upon her face; was her skin growing paler before his eyes?
The broad path also turned out to be shorter than he had anticipated; this was a blessed relief, for he could not maintain the blistering pace he had set. He thought he might weep when he turned the last corner and there it was, the hill of lights. Up close, it was lovely beyond belief. The unearthly lights came from flowering plants that covered its surface, winking open and closed of their own accord. Godric took in the sight in a hurried instant; today, he cared nothing for its beauty.
He did not even have to cry for help. Before he could think of what to do next, two figures emerged from behind the majestic hill. One was a lady of middle years, clad in simple garb and draped in a shawl of ivy green. The other was a creature that he had seen in the hermit’s books; half man, half beast. A centaur. They approached quietly, their faces like still water.
“Please,” Godric panted. “Please, she needs help.”
“So I see,” said the lady, gesturing to the centaur. “Take her, Aeson, and return when she is well. The little wanderer will need all her strength for the journey home.”
A part of Godric wanted to protest; giving Helga up to a strange being felt foolish in the extreme. But at the same time he knew it was her best chance for help. Reluctantly, he allowed Aeson to take her from his arms. He could only stand beside the lady and watch as the great figure disappeared into the forest behind the hill.
She turned to him. “I have waited for you, young guardian. And you are late.”
So this was the seer beneath the hill. The hermit had told him true; she really was here. And she was a lady. How he wished that Helga was here to tease him about that.
“Come,” she beckoned, crouching to tap her wand on the bottom of the hill. Before Godric’s amazed eyes a tunnel emerged, tall enough for them to stand comfortably inside. “We have much to discuss, I daresay.”
She led the way, her lighted wand-tip guiding them through the dim tunnel. With her dark hair and dark shawl, the seer was nearly invisible.
“You waited for me?” Godric asked, wrenching his mind away from Helga and the centaur. Worrying would not help her.
“Yes.” Her deep voice seemed to hum around them, vibrating against the earthen walls. “It is rare that I am visited by someone with such a…weighty destiny.”
“What do you mean?”
They had reached a small chamber, and the seer gestured for Godric to seat himself on the ground. He watched as she moved about the room, gathering strange herbs and placing them in the grate with her firewood.
“There is much I could tell you, young guardian,” she said, settling near him on the floor.
He looked at her curiously. “You call me guardian. Why?”
“You watch over your friend, do you not?”
Guilt dropped into his stomach like a stone.
“I’m not really her guardian, you know.”
“Really?” She did not smile, though her eyes did crinkle a bit at the corners. Godric imagined she must have been very beautiful when she was young. “Is that not the role you have set for yourself?”
This silenced him. If he was really supposed to be Helga’s protector, he had done a poor job. Having no response to her question, he watched her at her work. Despite the summer heat and the utter stillness of the air beneath the hill, the seer lit the fireplace. The herbs burned quick, and it was not long before a thick, fragrant smoke rose filled the little room. She took in a deep breath as it passed over her face.
“You have many questions, guardian,” she said, her voice ringing. “From this point forward I will grant you only one. Choose wisely.”
Godric thought of all the things he had longed to know yesterday. Would he be as good a lord as his father was? Would he be able to carry on the Gryffindor legacy? But today he thought of those things and could not bring himself to care. There was only one question he truly needed the answer to.
“Will Helga be all right?”
The seer looked at him curiously through the haze, and then she began to laugh. It was a pleasant sound.
“You have chosen selflessly, boy. This is much more than I expected from you, I must confess.” She smiled. “Yes, big brother, I daresay she will. She is quite safe among the centaurs.”
Godric heaved a sigh. “Thank you, lady.”
There was quiet between them then, for a time. Godric’s mind strayed back to Helga. The little wanderer, as she had been called. When would he see her?
“I do not often offer advice,” said the lady suddenly. “But for such a one as you, I feel…compelled to do so.”
“Please,” said Godric, thinking that advice would be quite welcome after the morning he’d had.
“Very well. I would advise you to anticipate turns in the path you walk. You think it neatly laid before you, now, but this is a child’s understanding. Such thinking will not prepare you for what lies ahead. You must learn to keep your mind open to all possibilities.” A pause. “Your choices will alter scores of lives. More than you can imagine. The way may be hard, but there is indeed a great leader in you, guardian. That is apparent to all but yourself.”
Aeson bore Helga upon his own back as they emerged from the forest, and they were flanked by a dozen watchful centaurs. As they drew level with Godric and the seer, he noticed tiny red flowers braided into her curls. She had regained her tanned complexion, and indeed looked none the worse for wear. Blissful relief swept through him.
“Godric!” she cried, giving him the happy smile he was so accustomed to seeing. For a moment he was uncertain. What could he say to her, after he’d hurt her with his folly and pride? But he saw no resentment in her eyes as she looked at him. Helga forgave easily. Perhaps there was still time.
He brought his fingers to his lips and whistled, a flawless lark’s call. Helga grinned, and so did the seer at his side.
“You would do well to keep each other close, in the time to come,” she said, watching as one of the centaurs lifted Helga from Aeson’s back. Each of the creatures approached her in their turn, touching her curls, her brow, her shoulder. Aeson was last; he kissed her brow with the tenderness of a father.
“We will,” said Godric firmly, and Helga nodded. They could both see that advice from such a one was not to be taken lightly. But this was one warning that Godric did not need. If he was indeed to be Helga’s guardian, he would prove himself worthy of the role.
“Let’s go home, Godric.”
She had drawn level with him. He looked around and saw that they were quite alone; the seer and the centaurs had gone without a word.
“The way may be hard.” He did not know what made him say it.
She pressed her shoulder into his, smiling. “Then we will walk together.”