Chapter 1 : laughter like bells
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On Good Friday, the ceiling of the Great Hall was a shadowy swirl of clouds, swelling with rain that was eternally imminent. Most of the students had left Hogwarts on the eve of Passion Sunday to return to their respective homes for the Holy Week and Easter celebrations. Those who had chosen to remain in the castle were now congregating in the chapel for morning prayers. The low chanting of Latin had, over the course of the week, become a background to all the sparse conversations whispered in the Great Hall or in the vacant chambers of the castle.
Not among the devout was Helena Ravenclaw, daughter of Lady Rowena Ravenclaw, one of the revered Founders of the school. The sombreness of Good Friday bothered Helena – the constant prayers, and the doleful expressions worn by everyone she met. She swept through the passageways, brushing past the embroidered tapestries, heading toward the Astronomy Tower, the highest point of Hogwarts, and the quietest.
She turned, irritated, recognising the scratchy baritone and the uninflected words, complementing the usual expressionless face of the speaker. Barabbas Barron, a close affiliate of the family of Slytherin and trusted friend of her mother’s and therefore, a much praised suitor of Helena’s affections, now approached her. Barabbas Barron was a tall man; Helena’s forehead came up to his thin liveried chest, a grass-green cloak trailing behind his boots.
“Barabbas,” Helena greeted him, her knees dipping into a perfunctory curtsy. “You are not at the chapel for prayers?”
“I have just concluded a meeting with your mother,” Barabbas answered, clasping his hands behind his back, his shoulders straightening. Probably colluding with her mother on the best way to breach the subject of wedding preparations and a suitable date for the ceremony. Helena resisted the urge to raise a fist and strike him square between his shoulder blades, if only to make a dent in the rigid line of his body, to beat some crooked life into this waxen, cast-iron man. “I might ask the same of you.”
“And I might ask the same of my mother,” Helena murmured. “You need not worry; I shall be down at the chapel by noon.”
“I do not judge you. Will you walk with me, Helena?” Barabbas inclined his head toward her. She continued striding along the same passageway, refusing to deviate from her path. “The Great Hall is exhibiting rather unfavourable weather – but outside, the sun still shines.”
The point of her lip ticked upward ever so slightly. She kept facing forward, careful not to let him witness that twitch of displeasure.
“I need to send a letter, Barabbas.”
“The Owlery is the other way.”
“I prefer not to let my owls mingle with those of the students.”
Barabbas stopped abruptly. She had to stop as well. To walk on would be discourteous, and to openly display discourtesy would be revealing too much of her frame of mind to this man.
“Helena,” Barabbas began. There was a skill that she had learnt over the years: the skill to recede. She used it now; she receded deep into herself, into a quivering point between her lungs, pretending to be a speck lost in the vastness of the body she inhabited. Her translucent grey eyes became dull, unpolished glass. It was this look that Barabbas beheld, which made him pause.
“I understand, Helena, that you are not accustomed to my presence, that perhaps I might make you uncomfortable. I assure you that I do not harbour any ill intention toward you. I only seek your gracious company, nothing more.”
A white-capped Healer from the hospital wing hurried past, eyebrows tipping downward with disapproval at her and Barabbas, loitering in the middle of the hallway, engaged in frivolous conversation on such a sacred day.
“Good day to you, Barabbas. I will see you later, perhaps.”
She whirled around in a blue spin of satin and marched off. She had affronted him. It had been a gentle snub, but it was enough to cause a fissure in that composed expression of his, a dark glimmer bolting through his eyes. Good. Let him simmer. If fortune was with her, he would not trouble her for another week or so, or at least until her mother nudged him on with his pursuit of her attentions.
The highest room of the Astronomy Tower was a narrow, low-ceilinged space, accessible only through a trapdoor from the room below. A slash of sunlight lay on the floor, entering through the narrow window. On the window ledge sat Helena’s owl. From a pouch tied at her sash, she drew a wax tablet and a stylus made of polished dragon claw, before kneeling on the floor. The strip of sun fell across her lap, and her thighs tingled with the sudden warmth.
The owl clicked its beak, holding out one leg, expectantly. She stared back at it. She knew exactly to whom she wanted to write, but now that she thought about it, there was nothing that she particularly wanted to say that would not sound so dreadfully banal.
It had been six months since his last letter, written on a scrap of worn and beaten leather, splotched with brown grease and furled into a sloppy roll. How careless the letter had been, how ridiculously merry he had sounded. The lines of writing sloped at such an angle that they were nearly horizontal, clumping whenever he was describing a topic that excited him (usually something culinary-oriented). The letter was signed off with his usual God bless you.
She had not deigned to write back.
The town of Hogsmeade was bright with sunlight and anticipation on the morning of Holy Saturday. The cobbled streets were clean and the marketplace was bustling with peddlers crying out their wares on the trays hung around their necks, and merchants hauling their wagons into place, erecting wooden frames for stalls to sell cheese, eggs, salt, pottery, knives and cloth.
Helena paused at a market stall selling leather goods. Clumsily-stitched costrels and pointy-tipped pattens hung from the top of the frame, and a sleek, fat bundle of cattlehide for fashioning into shoe soles was propped against a low bench. A boy with a tray of hot meat pies passed her; the whiff of pastry was thick and floury in her nose, and the itch of nausea rose at the back of her head. Helena was not entirely sure what she had been thinking when she had decided to visit Hogsmeade; there was nothing about this town that pleased her. It was a place of noise and grit and trade. She sighed, pulling her cloak tighter over her plain woollen kirtle. Despite the spring sunshine, the cold still lingered, and the mild wind sifting through her clothes had an edge of ice.
Perhaps it was time to her to return to Hogwarts and suffer the castle’s emptiness. She was just about to set off when a loud voice called her name, startling her.
“If it isn’t the fair Lady Helena Ravenclaw herself at the marketplace!”
She knew who it was; of course she did. They used to attend Mass together in the chapel and how he sang – no, boomed the hymns from the unplumbed depths of his lungs, his voice reverberating around the stone walls, bellowing above the choirs. When she sat next to him and their shoulders brushed, she felt the tremors of his singing pulse through her own arm and always, she had to fiercely swallow that urge to giggle.
“Thomas,” Helena said, her mouth slackening into a smile as she turned to greet him, “Thomas Tuck. Or should I call you Brother Tuck now? This is indeed unexpected.”
Standing before Helena was a burly young man in a brown cassock cinched at the waist with a length of rope. The crown of his head had been shaved in a tonsure, and his scalp seemed to gather and peak into a bald mound, pale as an egg, within the round border of floppy hair. He had grown fatter since she had last seen him, his belly straining against the linen robe he wore, and his grin was as wide as ever, his cheeks, apple-tinged and jolly.
“Many still address me as Brother Tuck, even though I’ve left the monastery. I live on the road now, going from town to town. I suppose I’m little more than a beggar.”
He had not changed, then. Even during his Hogwarts days, he had been restless – fidgeting during lessons, always having trouble with the readings and the theory of magic and attaining mediocre grades, which hardly ever bothered him.
One day, he had failed to turn up for a Potions class and later, she discovered him in the kitchens, standing on a trestle table, creaking dangerously beneath his weight, surrounded by delighted house elves as he sang – or hollered, rather – for them. One of his hands was laid over his chest, and the other held an empty wooden bowl. When he finished his song, the elves heaped his bowl with food.
“I was merely strolling through Hogsmeade. The school is rather lonely at this time of the year.”
His eyes lit up. “Is that so? Well, I am on my way to The Cackling Stump, and I’d be delighted if you came along.”
“The tavern, Thomas? You’re a monk, a servant of the Lord.”
Thomas’s cheeks darkened into a shade of plum. He spoke too quickly. “It is not as you think! Alfric the innkeeper, is an old friend of mine, and I have been helping him in the kitchens. Word has gone round that I cook a good, hearty pottage.”
It was true. Thomas had always been Helga Hufflepuff’s favourite student, poring over her recipes and following her around in the Hogwarts kitchens as she watched over the house elves bustling about with the dinner preparations.
The interior of The Cackling Stump was smoky and smelt of unwashed underarms, grease and fresh meat roasting on a spit. The room burst into raucous laughter when Helena and Thomas entered as the other patrons raised their hands and tankards in greeting.
“Bless my soul, it’s Brother Tuck! Will you bless the food, Brother?”
“Where’s the stewed pigeon you promised us?”
Thomas threw back his head and rumbled out laughter, his heavy red cheeks wobbling. “One thing at a time, lads!” He swept his arm in a broad arc toward Helena, who did her best to smile, though her lips felt stiff. “And this is my old friend, the lady Helena Ravenclaw, daughter of one of the Founders of Hogwarts!”
Already, she regretted her decision to follow him here. She sat primly at one of the tables farthest away from the crowd. Thomas sat opposite her and the innkeeper’s wife brought two tankards of ale over.
“Well, Helena, how have you been? It has been some time since you wrote.”
She smiled wryly. “I’m afraid I have very little interesting news. I have not left the castle since your departure.”
He had not stayed to finish his studies. It was something of a betrayal to her when he crossly tore up a scrawled essay and announced that he was leaving, that he had planned to live a life of peace, prayer and manual labour in a monastery. And by the end of the week, he was gone. She remembered his hurried farewell, his eyes shining, promising to write and time to time, send her those sweet elderflower cakes that she liked so much.
As Thomas lifted the tankard, she said, “Perhaps you have better stories to tell?”
Indeed he had plenty. The monastery life, he said, was fine for a while. Morning prayers, breakfast in the refectory, digging in the gardens and growing fruit trees, afternoon prayers and reflection in the cloister, a light dinner and evening prayers. But the abbot and some of the other monks disapproved of his thunderous singing and his love of food and corresponding hatred of fasting, and so Thomas had left. He still donned his monk’s habit and tonsure as he roamed from village to village, cooking in inns, healing sick and unsuspecting Muggles with magic, and standing on streets, singing with his wooden bowl in his hands. People tipped copper pennies into his bowl as they passed.
She could imagine it, village folk eager to help this merry servant of God, and him nodding vigorously, proclaiming, “Bless you! Thank you, bless you!” at each new penny rattling in his bowl.
“I’ve lived at a Muggle castle as well, conducting Mass every Sunday for the lord and lady!” he recounted happily. A few of the other patrons of the tavern, drawn in by the liveliness of his voice and his spirited hand gestures had drifted over to their table to listen.
The castle he lived in had been besieged by a rival lord, and the air buzzed with flaming arrows, and men had emptied cauldrons of red-hot sand over the walls. Swords rang against armour, soldiers died and their blood ran through the channels between the flagstones. He, Thomas, had stayed in a room in the gatehouse, and the wounded and the dead were brought to him, and he uttered prayer after prayer over each lost soul.
For some reason, Helena imagined Thomas bellowing out those prayers, his fingers sweaty on rosary beads and a dead man’s head on his lap. “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them!”
She resisted the urge to giggle again. Not that he would be offended, no; she could never offend him, nor could she ever comprehend the extent of his good-naturedness.
A crowd had gathered at their table now and Thomas – or rather, Brother Tuck, – had moved on to another story about meeting a band of friendly outlaws in the woods, with whom he had taken shelter for some months.
Helena did not want to hear anymore. She slipped through the laughing crowd and out the tavern. Brother Tuck did not notice her leave. She Apparated to the gates of Hogwarts.
The castle towered before her. It had been a magnificent place to her once, but now gazing upon it, there was nothing but a leaden ache settling in her bones. The afternoon sun glinted off something silvery on one of the turret roofs, and for a second, she thought the flash of light was a flame, and that the far cry of a bird wheeling through the air was the thrum of a bowstring letting loose a singular, icy arrow.
The next day, the skies cleared and the Great Hall was gilded with sunlight. For hours, the bells of Easter sang, echoes chasing each other across the empty valleys before rising into the air, like laughter.
A/N: I have plans to develop this story further, but for now, it is complete. I cut out a lot of this story to meet the word limit. Thank you for reading!
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