Chapter 1 : The Offering
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Based on the 17th century English ballad “The Twa Sisters” known also as “The Cruel Sister”, “Binnorie” and “The Bonny Swans”.
The light of the dying sun colored the banks of the river blood red. Two women walked on the hem of the twilight. Their long gowns made shadows in the whispering grass.
It was the hour for herb gathering, when the swelter of the summer day had passed and left the rocks bleached white like bones. With a wooden trowel in hand, Helga knelt just outside the veil of a willow tree and splayed her lily palms on the soil. The earth pulsated beneath her touch, speaking in tongues not yet lost.
“It was asphodel Slytherin asked for, was it not?” she asked. “Hand me the basket, dear Rowena.”
Her companion obeyed, fracturing the silence as the wicker creaked in her hand. “Take care not to damage the roots,” she replied. Her fingers brushed Helga’s and as she felt her living warmth, terror raged within her.
This task, she thought, is not for me.
Although she had often accompanied Helga onto the sloping lawns of the castle, Rowena wished to flee the closeness their friendship brought.
Trust was indeed a wicked virtue. A sin, as Salazar had been so keen to point out. And he also spoke of weakness and how stone could turn to ash if the ancient magic was not appeased.
But the ancient magic was primal, raw. An impulse. Dangerous.
Unless…unless it was harnessed.
Behind them, Hogwarts stood bare and cold, the towers new, the dungeons odious. Rowena thought of what Salazar had promised her.
Secure the legacy. Set the foundations.
But oh, the price would be ghastly.
Helga harvested the delicate tubers, which crawled like luminous veins against the black of the soil. Once she had filled her basket, she pressed down the dirt with her hands and hummed to the disturbed sod.
Such a gentle creature, Rowena mused. And here she stood, a lady of darkness, although it was Slytherin who acquainted himself with the night and it was Slytherin who had created the spell to seal the future of Hogwarts.
Stone for stone. Blood for blood. Four could only become three.
And Godric would never know. He was abroad and they would lie to him when he returned.
Helga pushed herself to her feet and for a moment, the slanting sunlight colored her young and fair.
Rowena turned away, pained.
“My friend, you suffer,” Helga said, sympathy touching her voice and rendering it delicate. She stroked Rowena’s arm.
“It is the stale air of the castle,” Rowena assured her through hidden tears. “Walk with me by the river for a while.”
Helga, trusting soul, could only comply. She did not suspect, she did not know what lurked in the floundering heart of Ravenclaw and what had dwelled in the blackness of Slytherin’s mind.
She knew nothing of sacrifice.
For centuries, a swift and deep river cut its way around the grounds of Hogwarts, until the land changed and trees were felled and the water pooled in a basin and became a lake. But in the early days the river ran, gurgling in the morning, roaring at night, an angry tyrant trapped between two solid banks.
Rowena led her Helga past the shore swathed with green grass and dotted with small flowers. She guided her until red clay coated the bottoms of their gowns and their feet ached from the damp. They came to the place where the river curved like a coiled snake and narrowed enough so the branches of an oak on the opposite bank could stretch overhead.
“Isn’t it lovely?” Helga sighed.
Rowena offered her companion a smile, but her eyes trailed to the sleek rocks jutting out from the shore and the frothing waves that licked them.
Stone for stone. Blood for blood. Why must it be this way?
“The breezes are coolest by the water,” she mused, her throat tightening with anguish.
Her own dear friend…but Salazar insisted. The ancient magic demanded it of them.
Helga gathered her basket and reached her left foot out among the rocks.
“The spray tickles my feet,” she said and panted as she fought to gain her balance. At last she sank to her knees on a flat rock and laid the roots to the side.
The rhythm of Rowena’s heartbeat changed from its watchful cadence to a mad pulse. She stepped out on the first of the rocks and skidded her way to the second until she stood behind Helga. “Tell me, dear friend,” she said. “what do you see?”
“Nothing,” Helga replied. “I can see nothing.”
And so shall it be, Rowena thought. She thrust out her arms and struck Helga in the middle of her back.
Helga began to slip forward and teetered for the briefest moment on the edge of the rock before she crashed into the river. The foam lurched and painted her golden hair. The cloth of her gown fanned out on the rushing waters.
Rowena’s skin prickled in horror. The waves swirled where her companion had plunged into the river. She waited and watched, perched on the rocks.
A white hand broke through the waters and clawed at the rocks. Helga’s head followed and burst through the surface as her lips fell open. She gasped for air.
“Rowena!” The cry sounded gurgled. “Rowena!” Helga’s final breath choked out the word.
And Rowena watched. Not until the seething river devoured the woman’s body did she leave the shores and make her steady ascent along the banks.
Slytherin would have his sacrifice and Hogwarts would stand forever.
Stone for stone. Blood for blood.
The ancient magic was pleased.
Durwyn sat amongst the reeds and sang to the river. He sang of the land and the tiny hut he called home on its banks. He sang of the trees lining the meandering and the bright birds nesting in their branches. And sometimes, he sang of his wish to leave his hut and the trees and the birds to wander as a minstrel throughout the land.
The river never answered back.
But he sang to it and watched as the waves slowed and came over the shallow waterfall without a ripple.
On a morning when the sun struggled to reach the eastern horizon, ringed with tiny clouds of pink, Durwyn sat and sang amongst the reeds. The river flowed soft and hollow this day as it surged over the fall.
It did not like the sound of his voice.
Durwyn stopped his song. His long fingers pushed back the reeds and laid the river bare before him. Beneath its surface he saw a length of white. A swan’s feather, his blue eyes said. But then a delicate hand and golden hair arose from the waves and floated up on the tide.
Durwyn sighed as he watched the maiden’s body come to rest by the shores near his hut. He thought perhaps she could be his muse, sent to him by the ancient forces of the world to help him summon his music. He remained crouching, waiting for her to move or speak, for her soft eyelids to release and reveal her eyes. But the maid did not move, save for the waters brushing against her silken arms.
And with the rising of the sun and the coming of the afternoon, Durwyn’s hopes sank. She could not be his muse dispatched to aid him…only a corpse.
Durwyn moaned as he rose to his feet. His joints stiffened and the pain of his loneliness settled back upon him. The girl’s body shuddered once as the water harassed it. The foam circled her like white flowers scattered on a funeral pyre. The sweet face mocked him as he bent over her. Fine-boned it was, with an innocence death could not sweep away.
“You were a gentlewoman, you were,” he said to the river and the girl.
They did not answer.
“It must have been a far way for you to come,” Durwyn continued. With as much reverence as he could muster, he scooped her into his thick arms. “There are no gentlewomen round here, least none I’ve seen.”
He meant to carry the corpse to the small grove beneath the willow trees bordering his land, but his feet moved towards his hut instead.
Durwyn paused by the door. Bits of twine held the crude leather flap in place. The walls were made of old wood and mud. A poor place to put such a maid, but he couldn’t imagine laying her corpse in the ground and covering her with dirt.
That would be an even greater sin.
He ducked into the hut and kept the girl locked in his arms. Musty air assaulted him. Tendrils of smoke shifted, leftover from the morning’s fire. He laid her on his pallet and cringed as her white limbs contrasted with the dirt floor.
For the first time, he turned his back on her and threw open the flap. Sunlight glided into the small space and landed on his rusty hunting knives perched in the far corner.
He wanted to better this place, even if it became a crypt for his silent guest. Rushing back to the river he gathered the long reeds and tied them in a bundle until the ends stuck out at odd angles. It seemed like a desecration at first, the destruction of his place of solace, the place where he sat and sang and prayed for his muse to come.
But her face drove him to different places and different thoughts. With her closed eyes she demanded things of him. And Durwyn could never refuse a gentlewoman.
So with his new broom, he cleaned his home. He drove each twig and bit of straw from the hut. He brushed the corners free of cobwebs. He cast the ashes of past fires out to the wind.
Yet she demanded more. Durwyn could feel the cold touch of her fingers on his back as he made ready the hut. She would not be pleased with his small efforts.
When night fell and the fire’s tongues lapped at the cool air, Durwyn sang for her. He sang of the river and where he thought it flowed. He sang of the castles he’d heard of, their stone towers and great courts full of glittering ladies like her. And he sang of the wizards living to east, the wizards who built the castles and filled their courts with whatever pleased them.
Her demands had been silent until his songs spoke of wizards. Durwyn stopped mid-verse and watched her. The demand she echoed seemed stronger. It seized his mind and at last his body. But he did not want to do what she asked of him. It was cruel and he was not cruel like the river.
She begged it of him now, pleaded until he found his feet and groped in the corner for his hunting knives. Durwyn bent over her and fingered her tresses.
Strings, he thought. Strings for a harp. And a harp must a minstrel make.
By the light of the last embers, he severed one of her thick braids.
Just as the river ran, so did the road and it was on the road that Godric was found, baldric, sword and mail all joining the creak of saddle leather to create the song of the warrior and the wanderer.
Winter had driven him from the Great Hall of Hogwarts upon a journey he hoped would be endless. But now it was midsummer and on his sorrel war horse he drew nigh of the hut of Durwyn.
Moody smoke rushed into the sky and the rotten stench of burnt bones made his mount rear and plunge.
Godric dropped from the saddle, brazen with his usual curiosity and walked round to the yard.
A pyre of sapling wood, softened with fronds, had been erected in front of the dwelling’s door and even now, the errant flames graced the thatched roof of the hut. The tinder ignited.
Godric turned from the blaze and back to the smoldering pyre. A body had indeed been laid atop the bed, though only blackened limbs remained and a face that was now nameless.
He would have left the funeral, had not fresh tracks drawn his eye and a trail that curved down to the river bank.
Godric grimaced, conjuring taboos in his mind. What primitive ritual was this? He feared, perhaps, that the pyre was in fact an altar and that some ghastly sacrifice had been made, a willful sin committed on an innocent.
Down to the river he went and was troubled to find it angry. Fresh swells tormented the steady banks, spat mud and silt onto the shore.
There was but one creature sitting amongst the reeds, a man slumped over a crude harp held in his lap.
“My fine fellow,” he began, only to silence himself as he caught the first notes of a practiced melody.
He stood for a moment entranced.
Although the man’s lips were closed, a voice rose from his stiff form and teased Godric.
For the first time in many years, he felt a stirring of fear tempt him.
“What mischief have you conjured?” he asked the minstrel, laying a firm, calloused hand on his shoulder.
But the player’s flesh was stone cold.
He was dead.
It was then that Godric realized that the man had not strummed the harp, no, the instrument was playing on its own.
Unable to withstand the mystery, he took the crude thing into his hands.
Crude, yes, the instrument was a wretched thing, made of old wood and strange, golden string.
Godric despised its touch, cold as it was, though echoing with memories of the living. He had never seen such a thing of false innocence, of sinister simplicity.
But he could not destroy it. A wind tossed smoke from the pyre towards him and the strings rippled on their own, enchanting him with a half-formed melody.
Lost magic tormented Godric’s fingertips.
The harp had a power within it, a power too deep to leave it lying by the riverside and too dark to be trusted in the hands of any fool.
Godric returned to his horse and strapped the foul thing to the side of his saddle. He would take it with him to Hogwarts and Slytherin, who knew of all things dark, would interpret the unknown for him.
But as he rode, the harp sang and the voice of it, ah the voice, was woefully familiar.
He found himself lulled by its trilling.
The long road stretched before him and with each passing league, Godric felt his mind begin to slip and give way to the music.
Yes, Slytherin must see this wonder.
The young bodies of Slytherin’s students packed the rows of tables, the banners of his colors streaming from the rafters. Children submitted to the will of their teacher with happiness no matter what the circumstances. True, they loved Helga and pretended to be vexed by her unexplained absence. But they soon cast off their mourning when offered feasting and festivals, much to Slytherin’s delight. He would win the younglings’ affection and secure the legacy of the school.
It had not been an easy task. Rowena did not believe in dark rites and she did not believe that in sacrificing Helga they had appeased the ancient magic and made the walls of Hogwarts invincible. But Slytherin had conjured lies to suit her needs and now Ravenclaw took to her grief, locked away in some cold chamber while the castle feasted.
Slytherin rose from his chair, the new weight of his Headmaster’s robes falling about his shoulders. He relished in his place on the raised dais and surveyed his pupils with ease instead of being pressed between the elbows of his fellow founders. The light from the evening stars slanted through the great windows overlooking the river. Steam rose from its banks and pressed against the walls. The ancient magic was thick about them.
Upon seeing the Headmaster rise, the steward fetched a chalice and filled it with mead, sweetened with honey. Slytherin took the gold cup and raised it. The Headmaster always made the first toast. He knew which words to speak and who to thank for their courtesy and he went through the list with no difficulty, coming at last to the name he wished never to speak again. Slytherin raised her chalice once more.
“To Helga of Hufflepuff,” he said and mustered a little solemnity, “she who was fair but perhaps not meant to live amongst us. She guides us o’er any distance and watches the walls even now.”
A cry arose from the feasting students. With the tedium of toasts out of the way the happy chatter filled the hall. The steward once more approached the Headmaster.
“My lord,” he said. His thick brows knitted over his yellow skin. “Godric of Gryffindor has of late returned and comes to the school. He is troubled and wishes your counsel.
“Troubled?” Slytherin did not let the news bother him. He expected Gryffindor’s return, had heard of it from Rowena’s Cassandra shrieks.
But Godric was a fool, easily mastered and controlled now that the founders were only three.
“Invite him to join us,” Slytherin ordered.
The steward obeyed. In a few moments the carved doors, inlaid with gold not yet burnished with age, swung open. Godric strode into the hall and paused by the first row of tables, encrusted with the last of the road’s dust. His regal skin was bronzed from the sun though a strange pallor diluted his eyes.
It was unlike Gryfiindor to be so subdued, so silent amongst revelers. Slytherin shifted uneasily in his chair.
“Lord Gryffindor!” he called and the hall fell silent. “What is this reluctance?”
But the warrior folded further into himself. With a loping stride he crossed the hall and stood before Slytherin who peered into his face. He looked defeated, compressed by the weight of a burden he did not wish to bear. From out of his cloak he drew a harp and placed it on the stone floor.
The students leaned forward to see. Some stood upon their benches. They began to murmur, too distracted to realize the steam ceding from the river’s banks and the low growl rumbling over the waves.
“Such a harp,” Slytherin breathed. His black eyes shone with curiosity. The instrument was made of decayed wood. Golden strings too delicate to be plucked stretched along the harp. Godric took a step back and the harp began to play alone.
The children fell into silence as light strands of music permeated the air. The strings rippled. Slytherin settled back onto his chair and listened. To him it seemed a voice accompanied each note, a gentle voice, a female voice.
A cold hand slid against Slytherin’s. Startled, he glanced to his right. Rowena stood by his chair, each breath ready to burst through her breast.
“I heard someone singing,” she whispered. “Helga.”
Slytherin shuddered and tore his hand from Rowena’s. “I hear nothing, Ravenclaw. You must have dreamt it.”
“No.” Rowena slumped against the chair. “See the river is rising.”
Slytherin stood. The starlight dimmed and darkness pressed upon the windows. Hissing waters caressed the banks and rose above the rocks and tree roots. He looked to the Godric, his eyes locked on him, bright with some secret knowledge. Slytherin’s anger rose. The students sat enchanted by the music.
“Treacherous Gyrffindor!” he spat. “You dare come here with your conjurer’s tricks?” The harp continued to play. It drowned out his voice and returned the gurgle of the river. Slytherin’s heart quickened.
The eyes of the Godric remained on him, along with another’s, one he could not see. They knew the black things he kept in his soul.
“Dark arts!” Slytherin cried. “I will not have them in my hall.” He hurried forward and snatched the harp to break it in his hands. But the instrument shuddered. The strings, made of Helga’s hair, tightened around his fingers.
“Murderer!” Helga’s voice rang out from the harp. “Murderer! Murderer!”
Slytherin cried out and released the gruesome harp. But the voice continued. It sang its message over and over until all their students clambered to their feet. Rowena fell to the ground and wept upon the stones. Godric, shaken from his enchantment, bellowed like a wounded beast.
But the harp still sang.
And it would not cease its singing until Slytherin left the grounds of Hogwarts. He was driven from his dungeons by the sweetest of melodies, forced to wander fetid thickets with the same beguiling notes ringing a death knell against his skull.
Stone was traded for stone. Blood for blood. And with the ancient magic appeased, four became three.
Author’s Note: My first attempt at a Founders fic. I do not know if it was successful or not, but I had this story lying around for ages and I just had to do something with it.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read! If you have a spare moment, please leave a review. I would love to hear what you think.
Have a great weekend!