Chapter 11 : Chapter Eleven
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“This is insanity,” he said in a huff. “Someone has got to fetch him back.”
“You speak of him as you might a wayward hound,” Elaine remarked, never looking up from her mending. Predictably, she had not been distressed by the news of Salazar’s flight. If he did not come back at all, I did not think she would raise any objections.
“Nevertheless, I will ride out in the morning. And I will not return until I have found him.”
“Godric,” said Rowena cautiously, “are you sure you are the right one to go out after him? After all that has happened?”
“Who else is there?” he demanded. “Helga, tell her I am right.”
I stared out the window. Autumn had come, bringing deep orange sunsets that poured fire over the trees. The grass was still mostly green, but as the cold grew sharper it would turn brittle and brown. I was aware of how I looked, despondent and wretched, but I could not bring myself to fully engage with my companions. I offered Godric a nod and a shrug, which was more than enough support for him. True to his word, he rode out the next morning.
Three more days passed. Rowena and I were up to our necks in work, taking on the load of four professors between the two of us. Duelling classes, in particular, suffered under our poor tutelage. Godric and Salazar were the warlocks of the castle; Rowena and I knew next to nothing of the combative arts. Still, I was grateful for the extra distraction. This way, I did not spend every moment inside my own mind, wondering where they might be.
Then, on the seventh day of Salazar’s absence, we saw Godric’s mount returning to the castle, with another riding alongside him. My heart seemed to plummet and leap at the same time; I would know that black hair and proud posture anywhere.
Salazar had returned. Godric had somehow found him, and convinced him to come back to us.
When they came inside to greet us, he barely spared me a glance.
The autumn months were an agony. I felt as though I became a ghost whenever Salazar was near, willing myself to fade into the blue-gray stone of the walls. He never looked my way during that season, not even once. Not even at times when the four of us were all together, during our meetings or over the dinner table. It seemed that I was indeed fading from his sight.
His willpower amazed me; to look at him, one would think that nothing at all had changed. It was as though the two of us had only just met, and his impression of me was thoroughly unfavorable. He took care not to cross my path except when necessary, as though the slightest contact with me might soil him. With a sad pang, it occurred to me that this was exactly the way he had acted when we’d first met. Everything in between may as well have been entirely erased.
Meanwhile, I felt myself crumbling. Visibly. Every time I saw him I opened my mouth to speak, and more often than not some sound would come out. A sigh or a gasp, sometimes even a stuttering of his name. And each time he would turn from me and stride away. I ached to see him go, but at the same time I almost did not want him to see me in those moments, when I thought I might die if I didn’t speak to him. I did not want Salazar to see me desperate, not when he himself seemed so utterly indifferent.
It shocked me, when I thought about our time together, how brief it had all been. Our involvement had scarcely spanned a few months; there had been no time at all, not really. We had never even used the word love. And I did not realize, until the opportunity was long gone, how much I did love Salazar Slytherin. Every time I looked at him, and my heart clenched with regret, I felt it. But next to that love was a definite wariness. I would have been a fool to keep ignoring the fact that Salazar had committed unspeakable acts in the name of vengeance, and of blood purity. And I could not help but feel a ripple of fear when I thought of that terrible night in his chambers. Forgiveness was one thing, and I knew myself to be fully capable of that. But that ugliness would always be between us, no matter what.
Even with this clarity, though, I still ached at the sight of him. There was an intense wish there; for what, I could not say.
I longed for someone to talk to, just so that I could get all my twisted feelings out in the open. I felt that if I held it all inside me, it would grow bigger and bigger until it was beyond my control. I would no longer be Helga then, but simply a churning mass of grief and tenderness, longing and bitterness, all housed in the body of a stranger. But talking with any of the other three was out of the question. They were sorry to see me in pain, but they had already said everything they knew to say. Elaine, in particular, had been quite direct in saying that I should have moved on long before now.
“This has gone on long enough, Helga,” she said to me once. “You must cast it from your mind. Whatever involvement you and Salazar had is over now. The sooner you face the reality of it all, the better able you will be to recover.”
I had simply nodded and murmured something vague about trying harder, knowing that she could not understand. She had been wed at fifteen to a man of her father’s choosing. Her future had been neatly laid out from the start, and I had always held a touch of pity in my heart for her. What must it be like not to have any sort of say in your own life? I was always thankful that I existed outside the rules that most women lived by, and I could not imagine having my every decision made for me. But it was all Elaine had ever known.
I had never begrudged her happiness before. But now I looked at her, honey-brown eyes shining, belly heavy with the child of a man she would grow old with, and I felt a rush of envy so strong my knees threatened to buckle beneath it.
It was a strange thing for my mind to constantly wander back into the past. In an effort to control my wayward thoughts, I threw myself into school, the one thing that brought me any amount of comfort. We had gained about a dozen new students in our second term, and the halls of Hogwarts bustled with more activity than usual. Classes were a bright spot, especially Transfiguration; it was such an obscure art, and it took imagination as well as finesse. I enjoyed challenging my students and seeing them stretch their creative wings. Salazar would have scoffed at such thinking. Perhaps this was why potions, with its precise timing and measurements, was his strong suit.
Mary’s potions lessons with Salazar never began. I sent her to Rowena instead, which probably would have been a more suitable arrangement from the start.
Autumn waned and became winter. The castle was cold no matter how many fires we lit or charms we placed on the walls; the slicing wind would always find its way in through a crack in the stone or a door left open. I could have stared at the gloomy sky for hours, seeing familiar eyes reflected in the chill gray color. Even if he did not speak to me for the rest of the winter, he would be with me every time I traversed the grounds I so loved.
I looked up from my desk to see a student approaching. My final class of the day had ended about an hour before, but there was a fire burning steadily in the grate, and I had not mustered up the will to leave the blissfully warm room.
I recognized the boy’s dark eyes and sharp jaw; they belonged to a bright twelve-year-old who studied under Salazar. Atticus Black was descended from an unquestioned pureblood line, and possessed exceptional cleverness. He was Salazar’s favorite student. I smiled at him and put away my quill, inviting him to speak.
“Professor Slytherin asked me to bring you this.” He thrust a tightly folded piece of parchment at me, and I took it with more than a little trepidation. It was held closed with white candle wax; the seal had not been broken, but it was clear that someone had picked at the edges of it.
“Atticus,” I asked, raising a sly brow. “Did you read this?”
“I could not break the seal, ma’am,” he said after a moment’s pause, at least having the decency to look abashed. “Not even with magic.”
I shrugged a shoulder at him and attempted to open the paper myself. It came apart with ease; I surmised that it had been charmed to recognize only my touch. If there was anyone on earth who would know such a spell, it would be Salazar. Always suspicious, always on guard.
“Be careful, dear,” I said vaguely to Atticus. “Someday you may have to place your property into the hands of another. Would you wish to be disrespected thus?”
“No, ma’am.” He seemed contrite, but there was never any certainty of that with Atticus. I dismissed him with a smile, hoping that some of my advice would stay with him. He left quickly, and as soon as he was gone I almost wished he had taken his time about it.
I got up to close my classroom door. I poked at the fire and added another log. I wished fervently for essays to mark, but I had finished the last of them the day before. And when I had exhausted every diversion I could think of, I forced myself to sit down and open the letter. The handwriting was small and pointed; I had to squint and hold the paper close to my face in order to make it out.
God, even the act of forming your name with my quill is a torture. I wish I could speak it aloud. I wish I could feel it pass my lips in a whisper, right at your ear. And at the same time I wish that I never had to see your face again, for it transports me to places I no longer allow myself to go.
I will regret this deeply. The hour has grown quite late and I scarcely even know what I am saying, or what I wish to say. But I believe that I owe it to you to speak frankly, even if I cannot do so in speech, face to face. My cowardice in this regard is contemptible. But then again, before I knew you I might not have made even this feeble attempt at courage. Even as I write to you I wonder at myself. No matter what you may think of me at this moment, I am a different man today than I was a year ago.
You have no doubt seen the way I run from you now, since I have returned to Hogwarts. I had hoped that, with time, the sight of you would no longer be painful. But each time we cross paths I am struck by a clash of longing and rage and bitter regret. Looking at you is like a dagger to the heart. And yet I cannot stop. I hate myself, and I long to hate you as well. You cannot know how much I wish I could.
I suppose I should tell you that I understand why you kept the truth from me for so long. I gave you no reason to trust me with it. If our positions were reversed I can say without a doubt that I would have lied, exactly as you did. But still my rage shoots in all directions. I do not know how to stop it.
You were unthinkably cruel to let me come close to you, knowing what would happen in the end. I cannot forgive you for that, not yet. But I have treated you with equal cruelty. When I think of the filth I said, that night when it all fell apart, I am overcome with fury and shame. Most of all, I am angry that fate would bring you to me and allow me to make you the object of all my hopes, only to reveal that you possess the one quality that would divide us forever.
I cannot ever look at you as I did before. The woman I knew was a fabrication. But I know, objectively, that your blood does not diminish the things about you that I admire; the generosity of spirit that you possess, your gift of laughter, your effortless ability to connect and to care. These things radiate from you; I would have to be blind not to still see them.
Yes, I am already regretting this. By the time you have this paper in your hands I will be wishing quite intensely that I had never written it at all. But I longed to communicate with you, somehow. I take pleasure in the idea that your fingers will touch these words, that your eyes will take them in, and that—for once—the thought of me might not bring you such pain.
We cannot be as we were. That much is certain. But I hope that we will be at peace someday. I will require time, and distance. Please oblige me this, Helga. I know you are bursting to speak with me openly about these matters, but as you see, I have not yet come to grips with it all. I will come to you when I am ready.
You were the light in my days. Please know that. For all the darkness that has shrouded my memory of our time together, there will always be light.
I did not realize that I was weeping until I let out the breath I’d been holding, and the shuddering sound of it reached my ears. It took a moment before I knew that they were mostly tears of relief. Of course, seeing the words We cannot be as we were was almost more than I could withstand. But I knew now that Salazar’s cold stares were not empty; that there was, in fact, a maelstrom of emotion behind them. I should have known it all along. There had always been a great deal more than met the eye when it came to Salazar; from the very start of our acquaintance, I had perceived that.
I picked up my own quill and scrambled for a bit of parchment, swiping at my streaming eyes. What could I say? What did I want to say? He had expressed everything quite eloquently: he wanted to be apart, and yet he did not. It was a sentiment that I could echo. A union between us would never be the same, not now.
I placed my quill to the parchment, my shaking hand impairing my already clumsy penmanship. Even through letters, I was ungainly compared with Salazar’s perfect composure.
Of course, I will give you all the time and distance you require. It is the least I can do. I was wrong, but then again, so were you. I am no longer sure which of us was more wrong.
There needed to be more. But expression through writing was not my way; it almost felt like I was speaking to no one at all. I longed to gaze upon him, and finally meet his eyes instead of his back.
I love you, I wanted to write. I love you more than I can bear. I am drowning in it, and I don’t know what to do. But it was too overpowering, too much. I pressed my quill back to the paper, starting again.
I miss you. But I am glad you’ve come back to us. There is something wrong about Hogwarts if we four are not together. You make this castle home
“Wake, Helga. You must come to Elaine and Godric’s chamber now.”
I pulled myself from the doldrums of sleep, blinking awake to see Rowena’s wide dark eyes. She looked like she was strung tighter than a new fiddle, much more tense than usual. For a moment I grasped for any possible reason for her to summon me in the middle of the night—but then the answer was quite obvious.
“Elaine?” I asked, springing up.
“Yes, the child is coming! Godric needs us all there with him.”
Dread dropped into my stomach, solid and cold; Elaine’s child was not expected until much closer to spring. It was not unheard of for a babe to be so early, but it certainly did not bode well. Without another thought, I pulled a gown over my shift while Rowena bounced impatiently from foot to foot. Feeling around in the darkness for a warm pair of shoes, my fingers alighted upon Salazar’s letter. It had been nearly a week since Atticus had delivered it; I had read it at least once every day since. For a wild moment I thought about bringing it with me, feeling as though I might forget the precious words if I left it behind.
“Hurry, Helga, please! I do not want to leave Godric for long.”
Startled by Rowena’s sudden voice, I snatched my hand from the letter and scurried from my bedchamber, close at her heels.
Godric and Salazar were there when we arrived at the Gryffindor tower, waiting in the red room. The bedchambers were up the stairs, far from view and nearly out of earshot. Elaine would be there now.
Gareth was downstairs as well, looking a little bleary-eyed. No doubt they had wished to bring him far enough from the bedchambers so that he could not hear the sounds of childbirth. Godric’s empty gaze was fixed upon the boy; clearly, his mind was far away. He leaped up from his chair as we entered.
“Thank God you have returned. The midwife says that Elaine has asked for you, Rowena.”
She blanched. “Oh Godric, I do not think I should be with her while—“
“Please, Rowena,” he pleaded. “My wife is quite alone. She needs…she needs…”
Rowena held up an unsteady hand, relieving Godric’s burden of finding words. Her eyes were wide. “All right. I’ll go,” she said, steeling herself. “I am not sure how much help I can be, but I will go.” She offered a small parting smile, trying to ease Godric’s obvious worry. It did not seem to be effective.
She disappeared up the stairs, hastening to reach Elaine. I stifled a yawn and sat gingerly in a vacant chair, taking in the peculiar energy of the room.
Godric was beside himself. He said little, but the tension in his muscles and the stark white of his knuckles was very telling. I did not think he would remain seated for long; if it had been proper, I thought he would have stormed the tower and stayed in the chamber with his wife. Indeed, I had scarcely finished this thought when he sprang up and began to pace the floor. Gareth watched him from the floor for a moment, then went back to playing. Tonight he had a sword fashioned from wood; he seemed to enjoy carrying it about, but beyond that he was unsure of what to do with it.
Salazar sat near the fire, following Godric about the room with watchful eyes. I drank in as much of his appearance as I could in a quick glance, then shifted my gaze to the floor.
The wait was long, and mostly quiet. Salazar and I made small talk with Godric, and soothed his frequent bouts of impatience, all without actually interacting with one another. Gareth was a comfort and a welcome distraction. He was not a talkative child, but he was active enough that we could occupy ourselves keeping him out of trouble. Godric had shown him how to wield the little sword; I often had to follow him about the room to keep him from knocking things to the ground.
Once in a while we would hear, very faintly, a long scream from the top of the stairs. Godric would pale at these moments, and I would place my hand over his. Sometimes he clenched onto it.
“It’s quite usual, I am sure,” Salazar said once, in an attempt to appease him. I nearly gave a start at the sound of his voice; it had been so long since I had heard it in any meaningful way. His tone was not quite so self-assured as it usually was. Godric nodded vigorously, but still looked ready to tear his hair out with frustration and worry.
“Father,” Gareth asked, tugging at Godric’s sleeve, “can we go out?”
“Son, it’s the middle of the night,” he said wearily, shrugging the little hand from his arm. Pouting, Gareth wandered over to me and raised his arms to be lifted. I pulled him into my lap, murmuring little words to soothe him. The silence dragged on; Salazar and I tried, alternately, to engage Godric in conversation, but he seemed to no longer be capable of it.
We waited and waited until the first tendrils of dawn crept in through the narrow windows. Surely it could not be much longer now. Gareth had fallen asleep in my lap, curled against my chest. I raked gentle fingers through his curls, the hypnotic motion nearly lulling me into sleep myself. I sent up a silent prayer for Elaine as I felt my eyes slip closed.
The next thing I heard was Godric’s voice in a near whisper; I did not know how much time had passed. My neck was stiff and I wanted to rub it, but I willed myself to remain still.
“…glad you have returned to us?” Godric was saying.
“It has been easier than I imagined it would be,” Salazar replied. His voice sang in my chest. “You have done much to ensure that, my friend, and I thank you. It takes one with great strength and acceptance to stand at my side after…all was revealed.”
“I could say the same for you. To come back to Hogwarts even after such an ordeal was admirable, as I have told you before. It was the right decision.” Godric’s voice had a smile in it. “And I am relieved to see that our friendship has withstood this great test. But if I may ask, how have you been able to continue working with us as though nothing had changed?”
“I have become skilled at…separating the parts from the whole,” he said wryly. “Because I know you, I can see you as a man of honor and as a friend, not simply a Muggleborn. But my views on the race itself remain mostly unchanged, despite all logic. Surely you understand.”
“Just so long as it does not interfere with our work here,” Godric cautioned firmly. “That is the most important thing.”
Salazar gave a sound of acquiescence, and I thought their conversation was at an end. But Godric spoke again.
“If knowing Helga could not change your mind, then I fear that nothing can.”
A lengthy pause. I felt sure that my absolute stillness must be giving me away, but I was afraid to make the slightest breath or movement.
“She responded to my letter.”
“Did I not tell you it was a good idea?” I though Godric might have laughed, had his mind not been occupied by weightier matters. “How was her reply?”
“Short.” I could hear the faint smile in Salazar’s voice. “Teeming with things unsaid.”
“She is dying to talk with you, Salazar.”
He sighed. “I don’t know how to face her. Not after we have hurt each other so.”
“And there is not a chance…”
“No.” Salazar’s response was resolute. “I’ve told you, there is not enough left of me to withstand something like this again. The happiness is not worth the hurt.”
I squeezed my eyes shut desperately, but I felt tears spill across my cheeks and down my neck. If Godric or Salazar were looking my way they would surely see. But neither commented.
“Then I suppose I should give up trying to convince you. But I will always say that the two of you bring out the best in each other. Yes, there was hurt, but did you yourself not tell me of the light she shed upon you? Take care not to forget that.”
There was nothing Godric hated more than being called a romantic, but after such a speech the fact could not be denied. Salazar did not respond; I hoped it was because he found Godric’s words worthy of reflection. I knew that I myself would be taking them to heart. Nothing was simple, after all; the world was full of morning and night, darkness and dawn. Had Salazar not said as much in his letter?
There was silence again for a while, until the sound of footfalls on the stairs startled us all. I craned my neck to look, rubbing my misty eyes and avoiding eye contact with both my companions. Godric sprang to his feet again as Rowena emerged. Her face was tired and splotched with red, but she was beaming.
“Godric,” she said in her soft way. “Your son has arrived.”
We all gave sighs of blissful relief; even Salazar let some tension out of his shoulders.
“Oh, Godric, a son!” I exclaimed, delighting in his beaming face.
“Well done, man,” said Salazar, smirking. I grinned as well, ducking my head so that he wouldn’t see.
“He is well?” Godric asked, forgetting us. “And my wife?”
“They are both very well,” Rowena assured him. “Elaine is exhausted, of course, but she was quite strong. Amazing, truly. The midwife is tending to her now. And the babe is clean and warm. He is beautiful, Godric, just beautiful.”
“May I see him now?”
“Elaine is not yet ready for you, but she has given me leave to bring the babe down. And she asked me to tell you that he looks very much like your father.”
Godric stared at the ceiling; he seemed quite overcome. I pictured Lord Gryffindor in my mind; tall and broad, like Godric, but with rounder features and hair like fox fur. Godric raised his hand to his own fair hair; perhaps his thoughts had followed along the same vein.
“I will go and get him, then. It will just be a moment.” Rowena disappeared up the stairway again, leaving expectant silence behind her.
“Do you think he will look like Corin?” Godric asked me softly, as not to rouse his sleeping son. But Gareth had not stirred during the commotion of Rowena’s arrival; the sound of our conversation was unlikely to touch him.
“It is possible,” I said, smiling. Godric may not have inherited his father’s looks, but Corin certainly had. Salazar gave Godric a quizzical look.
“My brother’s name,” Godric explained. “Seeing this child could be like watching my brother grow before my eyes, all over again.”
I could not tell whether this thought made Godric happy or sad. Most likely it was some of both. Reminders of home never failed to be bittersweet.
A few minutes later Rowena emerged again, holding a squalling bundle of brown cloth in her arms. Godric rushed to meet her, and she passed the new Gryffindor son to his father. I felt a prickling of more tears, happy this time, at the sight of them. Godric stared down at the bundle in absolute wonder, touching his child’s nose and cheeks as though they were precious gold.
Gareth was heavy in sleep; I roused him gently so that I could stand, shifting him to my hip. He yawned and rubbed his eyes, and together we peered over Godric’s shoulder for our first glimpse of the baby. His eyes were still tightly closed, but his little fists were fighting to escape their prison of cloth, and he never stopped squirming. And indeed, there was already a fine crop of flame-red hair atop his head.
“This one will be an adventure, Godric,” I said with a laugh, unable to tear my eyes away from the new little boy. “We will have quite a time keeping up with him, I daresay.”
He barked out a laugh, and the babe let out a scream of protest at the sharp sound. This only served to increase our mirth, though we tried to hold it into our chests. Still smiling, Godric brought his son to Salazar.
“Congratulate me, my friend,” he said, and Salazar’s smile was genuine. Slowly, he stretched out a hand to the child of impure blood, cupping the back of his head with a feather touch.
“An adventure, indeed,” he murmured.
I laughed. I could not help it. And I thought I saw a quick twitch of Salazar’s mouth—a hopeful sign by all accounts.
“This new life is a blessing.” Rowena looked around at each of us, her features perfectly relaxed. “A sign of hope.”
“A bright path ahead.” I smiled as I said the words.
“A step forward.” Salazar lifted his eyes, and I lifted mine. For the first time in far too long, we really looked at one another, bridging the first of many gaps between us. Perhaps later we might be able to smile, and then finally, to speak. But this was as good a place as any to begin.
I gazed down again at the newest Gryffindor child. While looking into that tiny face, the very image of innocence and possibility, the path ahead of us did indeed look brighter. Morning was breaking, just as it always did, and the four pillars of Hogwarts were standing strong.
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