The People of Hamlin
Beautiful chapter image by Eponine at tda.
Down the street and up the close
the ghostly song which came to play
and lead our children far away.
-Old wizarding folk song, artist unknown
There is a place outside the village where no souls scarcely go, that empty assembly in the lands past the shack, in the shadow of the great castle. The villagers know it is a cursed place, and only the brave will venture there, wands lit against the spectres of the past. Bereft, lonely, it is the site of a thousand-year old massacre.
The story lingers at the edges of storybooks, in the whispering softness of the first snow, in the eyes of the storm bringers who tread the cracks between love and hate. Not quite history, less than legend, the story fades with each passing year, the eyes of the elders who learned the tale at their grandmothers' knees beginning to dim with the veil of forgetfulness. In the village, a lonely clock still chimes in the place where she fell to her knees and wept and beat her fists into the treacherous, barren ground. A church has grown up in the place where he stood and watched her, his heart a beating, burning drum, his face a cool composition. A barbed wire fence protects the house on the outskirts of town from intruders. The villagers say the ghosts of the lost ones still haunt its hollow walls.
The year was 1092, a great year of influence and change in wizarding Britain. The village of Hamlin, a melting pot of wizarding and Muggle migrants from all over the British Isles, had grown up based on the potato crop and the promise of trade with the wild Scottish clans which roamed the areas around, though they were careful to keep away from the village. The villagers, under the guidance of the wise and imposing Mayor, flourished: educating the local children in reading and writing, skills which were not commonly circulated to the common masses. The wizarding children were taught a few useful spells and tricks, using rough wands hewn from wood which had been imported from London by the shrewd peddlars who passed through Hamlin.
Can you see it, the clean, white-washed walls with tidy gardens in which children played, dirt around their ankles? On a windy day does their laughter trickle through your ears like the echoes of a dream? Hamlin is thousand year old ash, but if you listen closely you may hear the call of mothers at dusk, the smell of fresh bread from the bakers on the corner, the whir and buzz of the potter's wheel beneath the hands of an old man.
A popular haunt and resting place for travellers, both magical and Muggle folk alike, Hamlin quickly exploded through trade and import. It's pretty, tidy streets and general lack of poverty and disease made it desirable to the wizards who sought refuge from less-accepting non-magical communities. It was not that the Muggle population was strictly aware of their neighbours' special abilities: in fact, it was well-known that Mrs. Bones from down the way could test food and drink for decay and poisoning, that the creature Master Pettigrew kept as a pet was something slightly more than a simple dog, and that Master Peverell, owner of the resident apothecary, had knowledge of healing plants and methods beyond the average midwife. Of even more silent speculation was Master Peverell's daughter, Marigold, who had cheated death twice and was largely avoided, even by the other magical adolescents of Hamlin.
Marigold at fourteen was a slim thing, with large, thoughtful blue eyes and fair hair which she usually wore in a long braid hanging over her shoulder with a few loose strands. She was kind, even as a young child, accompanying her father to visit his patients and holding their hands soothingly. She was often to be found rushing to help her old neighbour, Mr. Jorkins, tend to his turnips as the old back grew stiff and bent, or to help the little children learn their letters, a patient, intent smile on her lips. Yet there was something disconcerting about Marigold and her parents, a sort of terrible knowing of something beyond normal imagination, of grim reality in the hopelessness of human existence which if the townspeople of Hamlin could have put into words would have perhaps called reckoning.
No other children tried particularly hard to befriend or be Marigold's companion save the son of the local potter, Trip, whose name suited his tendency to tumble over his own feet and rise, clumsily blushing the colour of the tomatoes which Widow Hunter down the road lovingly tended and sold in the season. Marigold and Trip's heads, fair and dark, were often seen bent together, and the wizarding parents of the former suspected that Trip himself, despite having Muggle parents, was in fact a wizard himself in that strange phenomena known as Muggle-born wizards which were miraculously born into non-magical folk. No wizarding schools existed yet, and children were taught by their own parents to harness their powers and perform simple spells, after which the brightest could be sent to the colleges in Oxford in London at seventeen to compete for a place.
The Peverell parents had moved from Godric's Hollow, a primarily wizarding village in the south of England, to escape the pain of two dead infants and the presence of an overbearing and powerful extended family. They were humble folk, who hid their wealth carefully, preferring to blend in with the ordinary state of survival of the townsfolk. Mr. Peverell had inherited an object, a most wondrous gift from his own father, which he guarded from public knowledge. It was said to be an object of great wealth that had been in the family for generations.
Death was a true reality to Mr. Peverell, a character or entity which lingered at the edges of his thoughts, prodding his mind, an inevitable friend and follower who would someday claim him for his own. Mr. Peverell held Death firmly at bay, locking Death to scratch at the door at the houses of the sick, leaving empty handed from the hastily-thrown together hospitals at the battles and skirmishes of the South.
Yet there was one form of death which pervaded Master Peverell's knowledge, and it came festered on the hairs of rats from faraway ships, spread as they nibbled at the stores of meat and cheese, exploding in great pustules and grotesque mutations on the faces and skin of the people of Hamlin. This was a time of great despair, of fear, in which Master Peverell worked tirelessly to save those he could and soothe the dying brows of those beyond his help, watching helplessly as their skin began to spell over their eyes, the mouths wrenched in silent screams of burning, internal agony. This was the Black Death, the outbreak of enemy which came swiftly and without warning. Plague.
Now. It is on the fourth day of the fourth month since the first victim had been slain that Marigold Peverell sits on a low wall at the outskirts of the village, her skirts dangling a foot from the buds of grass pushing through the soil. The hot summer is fast coming, the heat which will claim more lives and bring the sick to greater discomfort: they will die sweating and whimpering in their beds. The ships and trade which brought the rats arrived in the early spring, as the seas sent warm winds with traders from the Low Countries, and Marigold's father had sighed wearily to her just last night that the disease would only strengthen in the heat. On her left sits Trip, his trousers rolled up from his ankles, which are dirty with the same clay which lingers beneath his fingernails. He was apprenticed to his father, who makes beautifully crafted bowls for the village. On Marigold's other side sat Blind Johnny, a slim waif who Mr. Peverell had taken on as his apprentice, whose aptitude for potion-brewing and herbal remedies eases his role as a burden on the Peverell house. His eyes, unseeing and dull, are the color of pale rainwater.
Can you see them? See the almost-summer sun glimmer on the girl's fair head. See the gentle slope in Blind Johnny's frail shoulders, the faint sprinkling of freckles which constantly permeates Trip's cheekbones. Can you hear them? Her voice a clear bell against the lower tones of the boys, the gentle rhythm as Trip taps a nursery rhyme on the grey stones. Let us go there now.
Chiding herself to know better, Marigold still wished for the classic, pale beauty of the Prince sisters in that insatiable jealousy of the young, smoothing small hands over her apron. Trip himself glanced at his friend, admiring the strong curve of her jaw, how her eyelashes cast shadows on her cheek. She is oblivious to her friend's attention, picking the petals gently from a flower captured from the neighbour's garden.
"Did you hear about the MacSmithy family's outbreak?" Blind Johnny asks, wiping a thin film of sweat from his jaw. He frowns. "All three children and the father bedridden and stricken. Mister Peverell said it was horrible, all of them begging and crying for death."
Trip shudders and crosses himself. From the coffin-maker's workshop next to his father's shop comes the clatter and saw of four new coffins being constructed, three no higher than the wall on which he is now sat. Marigold stares at the ground. These last months have hardened the children of Hamlin.
"Father is very tired, very concerned," she offers. "I am fearful that one day he will catch the disease from a patient, and even the spells and preventative potions will not be able to stall it."
For they are wizards, these three, and as Trip and Marigold watch Blind Johnny pulls his wand slowly from his pocket, murmuring a spell beneath his breath. Marigold glances around, then seizes his wrist.
"You mustn't, John! Far too many Muggles live on this street, it would not do to flaunt the fact you are a wizard."
"As if they are not already aware, my being apprenticed to your good father," Blind Johnny retorts, but stows his wand away anyway. "I sought only to summon a cup of water from the nearby well."
"I'll fetch you the water," Marigold sighs, and rises, tucking her skirts beneath her. She has been close with Blind Johnny since he was first a beggar child on the street, and sees him as a sort of adopted brother. She returns, ensuring Blind Johnny's hand is securely fastened around the cup before releasing it. Blind Johnny finishes the water in a few messy gulps before setting the cup on the wall beside him, an uneven place where it promptly clatters to the ground with a resounding thump. Blind Johnny swears loudly.
"Oh, John," Marigold sighs, feeling sorry for the disabled boy. She crouches to the ground. "Broken clean and half. This is your father's work, isn't it, Trip?" Glancing around behind her, she slips her wand from her pocket, bites her lip and points it at the cup.
"May I try?" Trip asks suddenly, scooting from the stone wall. Marigold glances at him, puzzled. Blind Johnny smirks a little.
"Mate, don't you know what happens when Muggles attempt to use magic?"
"Just let me try," Trip says evenly, offering Marigold his empty left hand. In Muggle lessons, he is forced to write with his non-dominant hand: his competency with his left is said to be a mark of the devil.
Marigold hesitates, horror stories dancing about in her head, of Muggles sprouting extra heads and arms, or incinerating themselves, or rising high into the air, never to be heard of again. She meets Trip's even, confident eyes.
"Here, lad, but let the consequences be upon your head!"
The potter's son wraps his long, artisan fingers around the wand, settling into a familiar, natural knowing. He clears his throat, thinking of the words he has heard so often uttered from the mouths of Marigold and her parents.
A glowing, a brightness as the boy demonstrates his power for the first time, as the cup knits itself together clumsily, finding itself. A thin bead of sweat drips down Trip's back as he hands the cup triumphantly back to Blind Johnny, who runs his hands over its completed surface.
Marigold stares at Trip, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Trip... you're a wizard? You must be... How did you do that?"
Trip shrugs. "I knew I could. I've known for years." These are the beginnings of the Muggleborn, the freak born into the normal family who will someday belong to another world. "I guess I'm one of you now." And he cannot prevent a raw grin from cracking his somber face, for even in these times of sickness and despair he has finally grown the courage to face his destiny, and his best friend knows the truth. And he is ready for it.
"We'll speak with my father when he returns from his rounds tonight," Marigold says decisively. "But for now, I think it best we return to attending the Potions, Johnny, and you to your father's workshop, Trip." She jumps lightly to her feet, straightening the skirts which billow around her, creating a light breeze. She secures her wand out of sight. "And, Trip, perhaps it is best you don't mention this to anyone else."
Trip nods solemnly, but his eyes are shining.
None of these young folk know that as they speak, innocent and bold, the Muggle leaders of the town are gathering their counsel. Their names: McDonald, Bermondsey, Cooke, men grown rich from the trade of Hamlin and fat and comfortable in their prosperity. They have assembled without the knowledge of the mayor, a wizard, met by candlelight though the sunlight rages outside beyond the small assembly. They hold pomanders to their noses, giving them the look of bulbous monsters, each especially prepared by Blind Johnny and Marigold Peverell to distribute to the townsfolk in a defence against the disease.
"I fear we have tried everything," Councillor Bermondsey moans, wiping his heavy brow in the heat. He inhales the sweet scent of the room, itchy inside his fine cloths. "We have quarantined the patients, boarded them up to die, yet more are still infected, whole families falling to the Plague. We have had all the cats and dogs rounded up and slaughtered to stop the spread of the disease."
Councillor McDonald snorts into his hand deliberately. He is a shrewd man, weedy and runty from birth, who takes his joy in nit-picking and pushing at the woes and failures of others. He twists the bottom of his gray beard round his forefinger.
"There is one cure we have not yet attempted," he says carefully, training his eyes on the third member of their party. Councillor Cooke looks up slowly, a sly grin painting his hewn features. He is the youngest of the trio, and the quietest, yet when he speaks, people stop in their tracks to listen.
"Indeed, Master McDonald," he says, voice like oil, carefully undermining his peer by referring to him by his common name. "There is a certain... infestation, of sorts that we have not addressed. Something which we, the people of Hamlin, have graciously allowed to persist among us, that most devilish invasion."
All three councillors crossed themselves at the mention of the devil. It was well enough known, though not often voiced, that magical folk resided among the ordinary townsfolk: indeed, all three councillors were indebted to at least one other Hamlin witch or wizard. It was well known to all three that the powerful, currently absent mayor was at least a wizard-sympathizer, if not one of the things himself. Many suspicions had already been whispered about the town doctor, Master Peverell, particularly after a patient he had treated passed away anyway.
"Perhaps, gentleman, it is time we rid the town of the angel-fearing wretches and rescued our people from this terror of a disease. After all, who knows what other horrors they have the will to release upon us?" Councillor McDonald uttered in a hushed tone. The wine began to flow.
Bermondsey, wincing from the gout which constantly plagued him, nodded vehemently. The more the thought spread like poison through their minds, the more sense it seemed to make. Why not rid the the town of some of its most influential and dangerous citizens while proving to the other inhabitants that the council was taking drastic measures against the rapidly spreading disease? Did not the Bible warn against consorting with those who bore the Devil's mark and practiced his own Dark Arts? The more they pondered the matter, the more sense it seemed to make. Who better to have caused the disease than those who least suffered from it? The more the men thought, the better assured they became that their magical neighbours were to blame, and were to be brutally punished and cast from the town's ranks.
Sssso sssssimply convicted, the hatred of human beingsss.
As curls of smoke and the scent of wine fill the small room, a small garden snake curls itself around a tree outside.
The Next Night
Hooves pound up a dark path, the cloaked rider bent against the wind. The beast whinnies, throwing its head to the sky with a clanking of bit, his hindquarters dancing. The lithe rider, small among men, pats the horse on the neck before gracefully dismounting, throwing off the hood to reveal a mane of dark curls and bright blue eyes which sharply survey the enormous stone fortress before her. Stephane, watching from the window of the Great Hall on a stage of brilliant light, admires the proud, sure way the rider throws the reigns in the direction of the expectant groom, barely panting despite the hard ride behind her. She is alert, sharp, like a panther waiting to pounce, or perhaps with the carefully concealed talons of the raven's whose name she bears.
Stephane turns to survey the scene before him, where magical candles flicker on wicks of bone, filling the Great Hall with light, the shadows of its inhabitants cast long beside the place where the four tables will stand. A fortress used by a local clan for a century, the castle has been renovated thoroughly with the might of both magic and manual labour to expand and grow, even rooms and corridors that the founders themselves cannot trace onto a map. This is the mighty structure which will become Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it's shell nearly complete.
All heads turn as Rowena Ravenclaw throws open the doors with a flick of her wand. Every movement she makes is deliberate and precise: there is something fierce, unyielding, calculating in her gaze. She is an integral part of the school's founding, the champion of academics and rigorous schooling, matching the more socially powerful men in conviction, making it clear she will take an equal part in teaching and running the school. In the privacy of his own mind, where he allows himself to let loose sometimes, Stephane finds the older woman fascinating and terrifying.
At the head of the table, his girth wide and shoulders broad, sits Godric Gryffindor on a chair of golden thread, sagging slightly beneath his weight. A mighty sword and scabbard hang casually across the back of his chair, and his golden beard shines in the candlelight, topped by a faded brown hat. Flanking him are his sons, strapping boys a few years Stephane's senior: Arthur and Julius, both who tower a head above Stephane, with broad, open faces and flat cheekbones, dressed in the livery of their mother, a Muggle heiress whose fortune financed Gryffindor's campaigns and finery as a knight. Down the table, Helga Hufflepuff sits primly, a small kitten cradled in her arms. She is dressed plainly: from common wizarding stock, she is one of the most compassionate people Stephane has met, and a calming influence on the other three. But she is a great witch in her own right, and anything but weak: behind the gray eyes are flashes of fire. Even proud Gryffindor lowers his head in shame when Hufflepuff chastises his antics; even sly Slytherin listens to what she has to say, his head inclined in respect. She is accompanied by her husband and eldest daughter, Derinda, who gives Stephane a shy smile, blushing pink when he catches her eye. Derinda, he is sure, will make a fine wife someday, for a man far less plagued by wanderlust and greed than himself. Around the great table, seated and standing depending on their rank, are a handful of other academics, scholars and magicians, all lesser members, all trusted.
And at the end of the table is old Slytherin himself, a thinning head of black hair through which he runs a shaky hand, then moves to stroke the patterned skin of the great snake coiled around his neck. Only Stephane can hear the whispering of the animal familiar to its master: it is the gift of the Slytherins, to hear the whispering and bargaining of serpents. Stephane studies his own reflection in the glass: he is his father twenty years younger, his sallow, slim build, the eyes on the edge of darkness, the hollow bones which are slightly too prominent. Beneath his robes he is a willow in the wind, a flat expanse of white skin and muscles, nothing like the handsome Gryffindor boys.
Stephane watches as the small child playing at the foot of the table flings her doll to the side and runs into Rowena Ravenclaw's arms, dark curls flying behind her. The mother, looking irritated at being forced to play the role of the feminine, attentive mother, smiles sternly at her little daughter and mutters something to her. The child, little Helena Ravenclaw, straightens, her eyes losing the excited shine, and she walks primly beside her mother before dropping again to the stone floor, retrieving the abandoned doll and her game. Stephane thinks of her like an abandoned puppy, eager to lap up any sign of attention and adoration. He reminds himself to give the girl a sweet later, or send the family's house elf to keep her company.
Ravenclaw takes her seat, dark robes curling around her body. A draft from her cloak travels towards Stephane: she smells of wind.
"I have come from the outskirts of Hamlin," she declares, ignoring all formalities. Here, at this table, they are equals, and she has pressing news. "The town is full of magical folk, and at least a hundred magical children. Magic is there, in the air. We must have them at the school."
"And what of the other news?" Gryffindor asks, rubbing his fingers together thoughtfully. "Did you bring the... messenger?"
"Of course." Ravenclaw reaches into the folds of her cloak, and, concealing a shudder, withdraws a small bundle. With a slightly reluctant hand she reaches in and draws out a small garden snake, which recoils from her. Stephane's father leans forward expectantly, but it is to Stephane himself that the woman beckons, and the snake slides eagerly from her fingers to his, coiling round his thumb in relief.
It wassss a long and hard journey, my master, the snake whispers to Stephane, and he strokes her head gently, painfully aware of the stare of everyone in the room.
Tell me what you heard in Hamlin, little one. He listens. The tiny snake speaks in his ear. When she has finished, he addresses the humans again, wishing their stares were as trusting and friendly as the little reptile in his hands.
"The Muggles will strike against the wizards in a week: they plan on raising the town against the folk known to be magical and driving them from their homes..." He swallows nervously. "They spoke of exile, stripping them of the belongings... and worse. Beatings, lynching, even execution."
Gasps spring up around the room. Helga Hufflepuff is incensed, whispering fervently in her husband's ear. Gryffindor is enraged, Slytherin calculating. Rowena Ravenclaw only looks slightly bored. Stephane imagines that she is grudgingly acknowledging the Muggles' logic, untouched by sentiment or pity.
"We must do something," Gryffindor cries, his comment met by shouts of support round the room. "The children must be brought to the school to be taught, the adults given asylum. I have heard stirrings and whispers of this growing hatred and suspicion against wizards all across Britain- it is a tragic atrocity, one that I fear has set wickedness into the hearts of good men."
"Surely we must act, interfere," pipes up one of the wizards: Stephane was constantly forgetting his name.
Hufflepuff nods eagerly. "We must surely rescue those poor lambs from a terrible fate, and have them fill the halls of this school. For if it is our duty to educate the magical children of this world, to keep them protected from the darkness that is stirring, there is surely no nobler calling than to be the salvation of the people of Hamlin." With her words the councillors seem to become assured of their decision: nods and ayes resound. "I could go myself, and speak with the mayor."
Ravenclaw rolls her eyes, resisting a snort. "These are country-men, Helga. They will not take well to being told what to do by a woman, mark my words."
Helga scowls, but says nothing. Stephane notices Julius Gryffindor nudging his brother eagerly.
"We shall send one of my sons," Godric Gryffindor declares, and both boys straighten proudly. "They are able warriors, and fearlessly up to the task of Hamlin."
Yet, Slytherin taps his fingers against the wooden table. It is a quiet, subtle gesture yet draws the immediate attention of the other inhabitants. "What of my own son, Stephane?" He says quietly, and the great snake round his neck hisses in approval, and Stephane knows this is his cue to approach and stand dutifully behind his father. "He has proven himself to be a great wizard, and a great speaker and representative of our goals and methods to humble men. I propose that he shall approach the people of Hamlin, sway their minds in our favour." Slytherin sends a wry grin to the sons of Gryffindor. "Were either of you fine young men to parade into town, it would raise questions. You cannot conceal your great height or presence. My son will be quiet and subtle, thoughtful and diplomatic, as I have taught him."
Gryffindor, to Stephane's surprise, nods in approval. He stands and slaps a heavy hand round Stephane's shoulders, and he sinks a little beneath the weight. "My godson is a fine choice for this task," he intones, deep voice commanding. "He is brave, and strong at sixteen years, and clever as a fox. He will do well at this task, and bring honour to his father, and to our fledgeling school."
The small snake makes her way to Stephane's ear, her skin hard and cool against his. Be careful, young master, she cautions, a message for him alone. Thingssss in Hamlin are more tense than first appearsss. I fear for you.
Do not fear for me, but for the innocents who will be slaughtered were I to fail. The words slip from his mouth as a whisper in an inhuman tongue, and within a moment he is accepting congratulations and handshakes, instructions and maps, and little Helena Ravenclaw stares up jealously from her folded position on the floor.
After the meeting, Slytherin takes his son aside, and tells him sternly to bring the magical children to the castle at all costs.
"Do not fail me this, boy," he warns in Parseltongue, his eyes dark fire. Stephane thinks of the mystery that is his father, the veiled churning beneath the laughter, the ambition which drives his every thought and movement, the secrets which will take countless generations to uncover. Like Marigold Peverell, who Stephane will soon encounter, the Slytherin heir has a bit of the power of reckoning.
"I will not fail in Hamlin," he promises his father. The next day, he will ride his black mare the day's journey to the village of Hamlin, bringing students and salvation. He will be a hero, a missionary of truth and learning. Hogwarts will become vibrant, the place of magical learning and power that the founders dreamed into being, and the name Stephane Slytherin will be on the lips of all.
Tomorrow, he will ride.
A/N: All references and inspirations from the story 'The Pied Piper of Hamlin' is credited to the Grimm Brothers, though many creative liberties have been taken. All references and inspirations from the Harry Potter books are credited to JK Rowling. The song at the beginning is written by me.
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