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Chapter Two
A Stranger In The Dawn

Stephane Slytherin.
Breathtaking image by Eponine at tda.

In cloths of pied and brightly robed
On his black mare the piper rode.
His hair as dark as his eyes were bright,
He came to Hamlin in the night.

-old wizarding folk song, artist unknown

Only the guilty rise before the sun. Its bright rays are barely beginning to scorch the horizon and kiss the thatched roofs of the cottages of Hamlin as Marigold Peverell makes her steady way back towards the village. She is clothed simply, barefoot, her hands dirty as she clutches the St. John's Wort which her father has requested for a potion he hopes will alleviate the burning of the Plague victims skin as they die.

"I can do nothing to protect them, to preserve their lives once Death has chosen them," he told Marigold last night, washing his hands slowly in the basin of warm water Mrs. Peverell had drawn for him. "But perhaps there is something we can do to keep them from suffering as He takes them for his own."

Marigold respects and loves her father above all, yet sees a certain, aware sadness in his being, a sort of tragic reckoning. In the shadows of his eyes she sees the faces of the lost ones, her brother and her sister who died young, one trapped beneath a fallen standing stone, helpless as the life was squeezed from his lungs, the other cold and thin with the cough which wrought her frail and seized her like a beast for the shaking. They were both too weak. Death took them both for His own, as Marigold and her father watched helplessly, the silver cloak, a priceless family heirloom, running through his fingers like empty water. Even unearthly magic cannot hold Death at bay when He is this close, this hungry.

Mr. Peverell held the cloak over Marigold as Death took her small, broken sister for his own, protecting his last child from the notice of Death. Invisible, she closed her eyes tight, heard her mother's muffled cries and her father's whispers of comfort and blessing. A coldness, an unbearable coldness filled the room, along with another strange sense. Triumph. Death was again the master of the Peverells.

Now, a kingdom away, Marigold senses His presence still. Wickedness and desperation mate in the air.

She is sure that it is her magical blood which has protected her family and many other wizards in the community from falling victim to the Plague, but surely even its resistance has a breaking point. She has seen dozens, maybe a hundred lives depart this life. The Plague knows no mercy, no pity, allows no hindrance for the prayers and allowances of the desperate congregation.

Then there is the matter of her dear friend Trip, one of the bravest boys she has ever known, and the power which he has kept so secret. She fears the reactions of his parents, who are good, simple folk, and the other Muggles of the town. They respect, even sometimes take advantage of the special skills of their wizard neighbours, but what will they think if magical blood begins to appear in Muggle families? Will it be seen as a blessing, or a curse, a curious and deadly invasion of the blood they once deemed so common and safe?

In the distance, the steeple of the town church looms against the dawn, it's solitary bell hanging silent. Soon, the people will begin to rise, and as usual, Marigold fears what the morn will bring.

These thoughts preoccupy the last of the Peverell line as the sun rises, and she barely startles at the rustling of rats in a nearby rubbish heap. Since the extermination of most of the cats and dogs of the town the rat population has exploded: they are to be found in every yard, lurking in cuboards, scavenging among the stores of fresh food. No place is safely warded against the pests.

Turning to look behind her, Marigold is temporarily blinded by the red rays of the sun, and spots appear on her vision. Chiding herself, irritated, she shakes the darkness away.

A shape on the horizon. A gathering of light and dark to arrange themselves into a black horse and a man, cloak billowing in his wake, a small snake coiled round his neck.

For the first time he sets eyes on her, a plain girl with hair of golden fire, framing her face like a halo, standing stark and lonely against the silhouette of the town. And she sets her eyes on him, a face so dark and still he could be the envoy of Death himself.

She waits for him to arrive, and paints a curious smile across her face.

In the church which overshadows the town kneels the mayor of Hamlin. Well versed in the ways of the Muggles he has chosen to surround himself with, Mayor Radley feels a trickle of sweat settle as he looks up at the crucifix. It is fine, one of the richest treasures in Hamlin, wrought of careful silver and mounted in the place of honour in the center of the town. Mayor Radley forces his lashes to meet his cheeks, though he is painfully aware of how vulnerable he is in this position, his back to the door, his wand stowed beneath the rich robe. It would be a struggle to extract it should an attacker appear. Purple is the color of royalty, and far too fine for a man of his standing, but he is content to wear red, its richness promoting him as one of the richest and most powerful men of the town, a wizard who rules over magical and Muggle folk alike. Yet he is always frightened.

A respectable distance behind the mayor kneels his son, ten year old Vincent. Mayor Radley can hear his child's heavy breathing and creaking: he is uncomfortable. Vincent, his only boy, was born with twisted legs, his knees turned inward: he walks with a stick that barely affects his heavy limp. He is the silent pity of the town: his face constantly twisted in an expression of pain, dark eyes squinted against the morning sun which shines in through the coloured glass of the church. Vincent's disability affects everything: his ability to do magic is severely limited, his mind dulled and slow by the pain which permeates his every movement. Secretly, Mayor Radley fears constantly for the boy, who is flighty and unpredictable. Even now, he startles and jumps as a rat scuttles in the corner of the church. Or perhaps the sound was made by the scullery boy, son of the town drunk, who is paid a few pence to sweep silently in the church, his eyes low to the ground. Mayor Radley often dwells on the unfairness of old man Malchance, drunkard and dead-weight, yet fortunate enough to have a strong, healthy boy while Radley's own Vincent is so afflicted.

A stranger has come to speak with him. Mayor Radley is first shocked and then scandalized by his strange method of dress: the heavy, dark clothes which cover the slender body in summer, when the sensible and humble dress in light colours to ward off the sun's deadly heat. He listens to the young man's tale, a fanciful thing of wizards and schools and proper education and liberty. The Mayor thinks of the talented young magical folk of the town, bright minds and gifts like the Princes and the Blacks and the Peverell girl, dried out and common among Muggles, surviving from what few spells their parents can teach, of the accidents which have occurred in which a young witch or wizard has lost control.

And yet... if he should propose this idea to the other councillors, then what will the Muggle villagers say as half the children of the town are sent away? Worse, will his own poor, beloved son be rejected as a Squib, as a weakness of the wizarding race due to his affliction and inability to properly exercise magic to the level of his peers? The thought of lonely Vincent being left behind, painfully aware of his own failure sends the Mayor into a state of stubborn denial. He will not give this confident young Slytherin man what he desires. He will never yield to the wishes of inferior strangers, and he tells the boy thus.

Frustrated, Stephane returns to the corner, where Marigold waits, holding two cups of fresh well water.

"Have you had no luck with the mayor, then?" She asks sympathetically, recognizing the frustration and idleness in his eyes. There is something familiar there, a reckoning sort of knowing. She wants to trust this man; she wants to know him, and after showing him to the mayor she is eager to wait and find out more.

"Alas, your leader is far too stubborn for my cause," Stephane sighs, accepting the cup with a grateful nod. He drinks deeply, and Marigold resists the urge to wipe the droplets of water from his upper lip. Such would be quite improper. "But, strange little girl, I fear that great darkness and strife continues to flow this way." He toys with the idea of revealing the snake's information about a Muggle uprising. "I want nothing more than to help the magical folk of this town survive, yet I fear that ignorant man is determined to make this difficult for me." He looks at her pleadingly, those inviting brown eyes which seem to know. "Do you think I am mad, pretty Marigold?"

"Not I," she whispers, and lowers those eyes to the earth. "I reckon that in your words, there is nothing less than truth." In the summer winds, in the closed shutters against the hot day, she senses the greedy paws of Death. The smell of the pestilence pollutes the very country air, Death's chosen flavour of perfume.

Stephane sets up his things in a small house on the outskirts of the town, which he quickly fortifies with a few quick spells. It is small, with simple furnishings, but shall do him nicely for his time here. He lets the small messenger snake lie on the table and eat a mouse it caught outside as he writes a letter describing his failure with the mayor to his father.

I fear the magical folk of Hamlin may be more difficult to persuade than originally thought. The mayor of the town is a stubborn wizard, and all the town cleave to his demand. He is proud- I know not how to address such stubborn ignorance. I have other tidings as well- a girl of the town has spoken to me of magical blood being born into non-magical folk, of a boy with Muggle parents yet who may wield a wand. What is this peculiar phenomenon? I urge you, my father, to discuss this with your cohorts at once. -S.

Stephane bites his tongue and sets down his quill before he is further angered by the utter pigheadedness of the mayor. Can he not see the coming danger, how uneasy is the tension in the town, how the Muggle councillors mutter and whisper amongst themselves? Stephane has been exposed to the four great powers of the Hogwarts founders: he does not understand how to cope with those who ignore reason in favour of selfish will.

Yes, he will need a new plan. The spies trace the Muggle attack as set to unfold within a week: he must rescue the children before that tragic day. To fail is to be unforgivable.

Stephane wonders how Rowena Ravenclaw would confront this problem. By turning the situation to her advantage, most likely, by gaining power over those who oppose her, having them indebted to her. How can he achieve this? Hamlin is prosperous enough, with enough witches and wizards of considerable skill to make the crops grow and the finances flourish. It is only the Plague which baffles them, which makes them weaker. If he can change the effect of the Plague, perhaps he can hold sway over the heads of the leaders of Hamlin.

How can I stop the Plague? he wonders aloud, in the tongue of the serpents. His small companion, the garden snake which plays both spy and messenger, has finished her mouse. She is taught, eager, refreshed. Stephane wonders at the curious intelligence of the creature, unlike any animal he has ever encountered, save the sly watchfulness of the great snake his father keeps as a familiar.

There are whisperssss among the sssnakesss of this place, of poisssoned meat, tainted food, she murmurs, voice soft and velvety. They are ssstarving, they no longer eat the great ratsss which roam among the streetssss, as too many have died of the dissseasse which lingersss on their fur, bile in the mouth.

Stephane listens carefully, his hand poised carefully over his wand. Ssoo, you are sssaying that the disssease is carried on the backss of the ratss?Isss thisss what you ssssussspect, little friend?

I fear it is sssso, the snake tells him, and he is grateful once again for her help. Already his mind is flooding with ideas of the exodus of the rats. The snakes will not touch them. But can he lure them from their lairs, from the village of Hamlin, with the use of the special magic he has learnt at the knees of great Slytherin and mighty Gryffindor? His mind strays to the small pack he brought with him, and the posessions among it, including the beautiful, carved wooden flute, a beloved childhood gift, a pipe he placed among his spellbooks and cloak without truly understanding why he was doing so. He places it on the table, under the watchful eye of the garden snake, and points his wand to the mouthpiece.

The following dawn breaks chilly and still. In the air is a mysterious piping, an unearthly music unknown to the minds of simple men. Few rouse themselves from their beds, attributing this to the funeral march of the aggrieved, or perhaps the sly melody of the fairy folk roused from the hills as the new day begins, dancing away the revels of the night.

Yet in her bed Marigold Peverell lies awake, and listens with attentive ears. She moves slowly to the window, and stifles a gasp, not wanting to wake her exhausted father and weary mother.

In a pattering of feet walk the rats of the town. Brown rats, black rats, rats of mottled colours and long, mangy fur, claws scraping against the uneven cobblestone, eyes dark and unfocused. Pulling a cloak over her nightclothes, Marigold runs barefoot through the close, and onto the high street.

A sea of rats streams past her, through her legs, tails trickling behind them and tickling her bare calves. Marigold suppresses a scream of wondrous horror. They are as if in a trance, these rats, eyes fixed on a single figure in the distance, dark in the dawn. Marigold runs, hopping over a few stray rats which join the river of beasts, to lay her hand on the Piper's shoulder and turn him gently to face her.

"How are you doing this?" She demands in wonder. He looks at her, his hair falling in his eyes, the colourful patchwork of the cloak billowing about him. She wonders fleetingly if he is cold. To Stephane, Marigold Peverell is troublingly beautiful in the dawn, he stutters in his song for a moment, breaking concentration, catching a glimpse of her thin white nightgown through which the skin of her legs lies pale and exposed.

He cannot speak now, mouth concentrated on the flute, but his eyes promise to tell the tale. She watches, an island in a flood of fur, as he walks on, more and more villagers turning to their windows to watch the exodus in wonder, at the curious Peverell girl stands watching the Piper lead the rats to the lake, where they will drown themselves one by one in the cold morning water, taking the seeds of the Plague to the lake's unforgiving depths.

The town is in wonder. Five days pass, and nobody falls to the illness. Five days, and the last of the contaminated are buried or burned, according to their religion, and the people are mad with excitement. Already, the Plague is beginning to feel like a half-forgotten nightmare, a story to tell future generations. The Piper, as Stephane Slytherin is now called, is hailed as hero, a genius by the simple wizarding folk. Mr. Peverell, Marigold's father, invites the man for dinner each night, demanding insightful tales into the power of his magical pipe, and the peculiar powers which he has learned at the knee of his father and god-father, whose names and deeds are known in the local wizarding folk.

Mr. Peverell is astounded to learn of the plans of the Piper's father: to create a school, a wondrous school of magic just round the corner from Hamlin itself, to educate the masses of young magical folk in the arts of such precise sciences: Transfiguration, Divination, Household Charms, Healing and Hedgewitchery, Potion-making, those skills to which a talented witch or wizard will often spend their entire life in the art of practicing and mastering. Hamlin, and Scotland, is a place of trades and hierarchy, and the fact that the wizards of Hogwarts wish to train the elites and peasants equally is puzzling yet appealing to the fair medicine man.

Growing eager, Stephane begins to describe with scarcely-concealed wonder the intricacies of Hogwarts, the great, re-built castle with corridors and dungeons and secret passageways, of the magic which binds the stones together. Eyes shining, he tells of the mighty deeds and great kindness of Godric Gryffindor, magical knight who serves the Muggle king himself, of the wise and cunning Salazar Slytherin, his own esteemed father; of Helga Hufflepuff, who can coax a sprout from the earth like a tender mother and out-duel even a master of the Dark Arts; and of the young and beautiful Rowena Ravenclaw, whose fiery powers are masked by a cool, rational exterior.

Marigold Peverell is smitten. She thinks of the incidents and explosions of power from the other magical children of the town, and how in a school such as this they could learn to harness their powers. She thinks of the good that could be done, the spells she will learn, the secrets of the cosmos to be unravelled as she organizes her mind. She thinks of a place of magic, where two of the great founders are women and girls will be encouraged to speak their minds as equals. Blind Johnny, too, is wary yet curious of the concept. He dreams of a place where he will not be discriminated against or judged as worthless, fit for no better than begging in the dirt. He dreams of power.

Only her old friend Trip, the Muggle with mysterious magic, is troubled among the Peverells and their companions. He has never heard of a Muggle wizard before, and neither has Mr. Peverell, who has traveled well through England and Scotland in his lifetime and encountered many strange folk. Trip cannot help but fear that he will be left behind, alone in Hamlin with his magic, an anomaly among ordinary men.

But perhaps he is not to worry, as the mayor of the town, Old man Radley himself, is still reluctant to be approached or swayed by the Piper. He admits, grudgingly, that the Plague has not yet arisen, that the exodus of the rats of Hamlin has liberated the town. Yet how does he know that the rats and the disease will not return, or be replaced by something worse? Why should the people of the town entrust their precious children to a strange man in a brightly patched cloak whom they have no reason to trust? As the Peverells expected, most of the wizardfolk of the town follow the will of the mayor. Stephane Slytherin, despite his temporary success, feels more and more dismayed, ignoring the vicious correspondence from his father and even a concerned owl from Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw's bored signature adorning the bottom of the parchment as well. Have you heard more? Have you learned more about the coming attack?

Stephane is concerned about the planned attack on the magical folk of Hamlin as orchestrated by the Muggle leaders, and for good reason. Mssrs. Bermondsey, Cooke and McDonald, true Scottish gentlemen one and all, are the only ones dismayed by the turn of events as the Piper piped. A town of chaos is a realm of opportunity, and a well-orchestrated attack on the magical folk on the town, the creation of a common enemy for the Muggles to band against and fight against wandfire, would have been a great move of power for the Muggle councillors. They could unseat Mayor Radley, the overbearing prune and his pathetic son once and for all, putting their own fit sons in the position of honour; they could undo the popular influence and respect they so resented in men like Mr. Peverell, the miracle healer who only seems to save a very select few ; and perhaps most importantly, shaming and punishing the rich wizards of the town would immediately forgive all the debts the Mssrs. owed to men like Mr. Prince, who controlled everyone's purse strings. Indeed, ridding Hamlin of the pompous merchant would free a great burden from more than one man on the council.

Yes, the attack must be carried through, with the help of some leased violence and anger. The barbaric, unnatural devils posing as men and women in the town would be brought to their knees at last, and honest, good folk of the earth would purge the town of the filth which so contaminated it. With the Plague, the Holy Father had surely been punishing the townsfolk for allowing the demonic creatures to practice their black arts for so many years, and to free themselves from sin they must avenge these lost virtues and prevent further Purgatory from raining down from the heavens.

The men call for more ale, and young Master Quince Malchance, ironically the son of the town drunk, scurries forward. The men pay him no mind. When the boy returns home to his father's hovel on the margins of the town he will hand over the few pennies he earned for his troubles working around the town, perhaps be smacked for not making enough to fill the old man's stomach until he is fat and tired with cheap beer, numbing the agony of his own uselessness.

A young wizard himself, the blond boy listens carefully to the council men's plans as he impassively brings food from the kitchen. He wonders idly if they know he himself is one of those they plan to massacre, yet is distracted by the warning of his father's red, unhappy face. As the family name suggests, the Malchances are cursed with generational bad luck, never winning fortune nor happiness and always occupying the bottom rung of the social order, from their home in France, which christened the boy's great-grandfather with the nickname 'Malchance' until no soul could remember what they had been called before. Disaster seemed to follow those of the blood, and, Quince thought bitterly to himself, it appeared Hamlin was no exception.

No, it would not be pretty. Witch trials never were, and that was the word spat from Mr. Bermondsey's spittle-filled mouth, his breath smelling of rotten teeth as he pounds his fist on the table. The councillors - Mssrs. Cooke, Bermondsey, McDonald and then some - are first frightened, and then strengthened by their plans. Years of suspicion and confusion over certain members of the community boil into one word- witch. If the witch is not one of the us, then surely he or she is other, and an enemy to the people. It is the Christian- no, the moral duty - of the good villager of Hamlin to protect his children and the people he is pledged to serve from the evils of the witch.

Now they must simply convince the rest of the town.

Let them burn, let them hang, let usss be cured.

These are the words which the small snake, serving again as a spy, relays to Stephane Slytherin as he sits in his small house high on the hill, alone.

Sssoon, they will ssstrike.

Voice full of horror, Stephane wonders aloud what his duty is. Protect the children, bring us the children, the mighty scholars of Hogwarts commanded. Yet how can he bring the children away when the magical mayor himself is so reluctant and will not listen to reason, blind to the corruptions of his own council? How can he protect the wizarding children when half the town is planning to attack the other? He is but one man, with peculiar gifts.

Marigold Peverell believes him. She comes to his small residence that night to tell him so, fully cloaked against the chill of the summer night, her hair curling behind her ears, and knocks with her small fist.

"Good evening, Piper," she says, pleased by his confused expression. "Good evening, Stephane."

The obvious familiarity sends chills through the ridges of his spine: he hides his shiver by turning into the candlelight. "Would you like to come in?" Stephane asks, tucking his snake into his pocket. It would not do to startle the young lady, after all.

Marigold sits in the small front room, observing the roughly hewn wooden beams which join together in splinters and caulk. This was a peasant's home, before it was abandoned and taken over by the visiting Piper. A witch-fire crackles merrily in the dusty hearth, a sheath of parchment and dark ink pots scattering across the table. Marigold can tell that the entire place has been reinforced by magic, probably Stephane's: it seems sturdier, as if it will last a thousand years more and remain preserved on the outskirts of the beautiful town of Hamlin, nestled in these most magical of mountains.

He serves her a cup of wine: water is often contaminated, and so the local people drink beer as a regular substitute. The wine is different, a mark of wealth and taste. He has brought this bottle from Hogwarts as a special treat: now, they toast like old men drinking at the local pub, a broad grin escaping across Marigold's delicate features.

"What was it like, growing up with a man such as your father?" Marigold questions, her lip stained from the red liquid. It makes her seem even paler, her blue eyes larger and lighter in the glow from the candles. A shadow moves across her cheek. "Travelers from far and wide have come to this town and spoken of the wisdom and goodness of Gryffindor and Slytherin, the magician knights who studied under the apprentices of Merlin and fought the dark wizards of the Welsh." She inclines her head curiously, studying Stephane's features, admiring the delicate, almost feminine slope of his jaw and chin.

Stephane sighs, taking a careful sip of wine. "My father is good, but hard. My mother passed away shortly after my birth and I fear he never quite recovered. He was often too preoccupied with the pursuits of knowledge and power to give much nurturing to a sickly child nobody thought would last each winter."

"You were a frail child?" Marigold inquires.

Stephane nods, feeling chilled at the memory. "I was born quite small for my age, and was never robust, catching consumption and other small ailments which caused my father's healers to fear for my life upon many an occasion. I think I reminded him of my mother as well: he was never the same after losing her. He became harder, wearier, or so his great friend Gryffindor tells me when he has had too much to drink."

Marigold thinks that Stephane Slytherin does not seem weak at all. She sees a great strength in him, something which is mirrored in her own father, who has seen so much loss. She settles her chin on her knuckles, looking into the dark eyes.

"Tell me more about the school, Master Slytherin."

And as the night grew later, Stephane begins to paint tales of a mighty castle across the wooden corners of the cottage: of fiery torches which burned without being lit, of a maze of dungeons winding far into the earth, of a forest home to a clan of centaurs, their arrows tumbling upon a tapestry of stars.

And in the lake a ways away, the bloated and swollen bodies of thousands of rats rot slowly in the night.

Marigold finds Trip at midday, in his father's workshop. She had left Blind Johnny in charge of knitting bandages, though his poor fingers quickly grew swollen with the exertion of the meticulous task.

Trip is perched at the potter's wheel, hands slowly easing the clay into the shape of a large bowl. She watches for a moment from the doorway, admiring his careful skill, the gentle feeding of the wheel as it hums, filling the dank room with a soft stillness.

Yet perhaps there is something else where which she never noticed before, at the magic running in Trip's veins and flowing through his hands, filling his creation with magic. She wonders if he realizes, if he can sense his own magic the way she can. Surely, cups and plates created by Trip must be stronger, slightly more beautiful than the plain work of his father.

This, this calmness and companionship in the summer sun, the breeze weaving through Marigold's hair and laying its cool hand on the back of Trip's neck, the smell of fresh bread wafting from the baker's up the road, this is Marigold's Hamlin, and for the briefest of moments she resents Stephane Slytherin for fighting to remove her from it.

"Trip," she murmurs, slightly sad to disturb her friend from his beautiful work, and Trip turns at the sound, a natural grin rising upon his features until he recalls that he is upset with her and grimaces awkwardly. This irritates Marigold and she crosses her arms against her chest, trying to imitate the glare her mother gives her father when he has begun to eat before saying grace.

"Trip, why are you angry with me?" She decides playing innocent is the safest course of action for now. The boy scowls, wiping his hands against his leather apron.

"How can you ask that, when you know half the town is muttering about you and the Piper? You were at his house late into the night, weren't you? Do you not know how dishonourable that is, Marigold? Little Greta Perks spotted you walking back down the hill. She was scandalized, and rightly so!"

"Little Greta is deaf and basically dumb, I'm shocked any man could understand who she was bloody well spying on!" Marigold cried out indignantly, though she felt a little jerk of guilt for mocking Greta, who was quite unlucky in life and often mocked by the crueler children. The wicked, pretty Prince sisters even mimicked her featureless roar of a voice, to the great amusement of their friends, and both Marigold and Trip were quick to defend her.

"Besides the point," Trip sighs, descending his head into his hands in a tired gesture completely stolen from his father. He has forgotten the clay residue on his hands and sits up abruptly, cursing as he struggles to wipe the hardening pieces from his dark head. Marigold stifles a giggle. "The point is, you don't know this man. He could be dangerous: he's some kind of wicked sorcerer. How do we know he doesn't do the devil's work?"

Marigold, seeing the words of others coming through her friend's mouth, sighs. "The same way we know that my father, or Blind Johnny, or any of the other witches and wizards in the town do not do the devil's work. The same way, dear Trip, that you yourself carry power inside your veins."

Trip's eyes flash. "You know what people are whispering? That magical folk are mutants, freaks sent by the devil to test us, that the Plague was a warning from God sent to punish them."

"If anyone's the freak, it's you," Marigold snaps. "I was at least born to be a witch. You were meant to be ordinary. Did you steal your powers through some black art? You're the one we should be fearing, Trip!" And with that she is gone in an irritated rage, Trip's hands shaking furiously as he rips a freshly dried plate from the mottled table and smashes it to the dirt floor with a resounding roar.

Later, Marigold asks Stephane about Trip's strange powers. He is curious, claiming he has never heard of such a thing before. Laughing slightly, he inquires about the fidelity of Trip's mother, to which Marigold replies, a little disdainfully, that the boy is the spitting image of the older potter.

She extends her hand gently towards Stephane's shoulder and lets the small snake wrap itself around her fingers. Snakes have never frightened her, and she admires the smooth skin, the bright, unblinking eyes of the beast Stephane tells her that he keeps as a sort of magical familiar. His other animal, the great black mare, chews grass and snorts loudly, hardly the image of a dignified and fierce charger.

I like thisss human, massster.

Stephane does not respond to the snake in Parseltongue, not wanting to frighten the girl with this unusual talent.

"I do not understand why people fear snakes so," Marigold says instead. "For they eat mice and other pests, and are usually harmless and out for themselves, nothing else. Perhaps it is the fact that they do not blink, that common weakness of men, instead staring straight to our souls."

"My father's friend says that people fear the unknown," Stephane parrots, thinking of Helga Hufflepuff's thoughtful words as Stephane once cried as a child, wondering why everyone so preferred the strapping, handsome young sons of Godric Gryffindor.

"I suppose," Marigold says, and sighs. "Do you think Trip will stay angry with me, Piper? For he is a wizard as I am a witch, and it would not do to be divided amongst ourselves. I am most grievous for the unkind way in which I treated him, my poor friend."

"He will recover," Stephane says, the jealousy a little too plain on his voice. For Marigold is so beautiful to him, the one person who seems to respect and choose him above others. He looks at her little hand, pale and gentle upon the grass. "Indeed, I have never heard of this... abomination, a wizarding boy being born to Muggle parents, like some changeling. But, miss, how goes your father's task to convince the mayor of sending the children to my father's school?" He hides the desperation in his voice carefully, for the evening prior he had received harsh words from his father. Indeed, Stephane greatly feared his father's anger should he return without the children of Hamlin.

Marigold shrugs her thin shoulders, delicate beneath her dress. "My father holds little sway, I'm afraid. The man is stubborn as they come, and set in his ways and thoughts." She pauses, wanting to say something good about the mayor in case someone is listening. "But... his son, Vincent, the cripple, is very sweet and kind, so perhaps the man cannot be all bad. She smiles fondly. While many in the town find Vincent Radley unnerving, Marigold has always pitied the poor lad for his affliction, believing there to be a good soul underneath the twisted expression.

"You are most kind," Stephane says, a little forcedly.

"Perhaps. I try to be kind, as my father would wish me to be, to those who are less fortunate or pushed away by others, to see that which is important in them as well. There was an old woman- she sadly died to the disease, a few months past - who was quite mad and could barely speak, yet spun the most beautiful threads. She was a Muggle, yet there was magic in the flow of her fingers, the gentle humming of the spindle." She pauses. "I don't think anyone else cared to see that. They cast her onto the street quickly enough, but I tried to be kind to her. And yet..." Marigold glances down the hill, where the pretty Prince sisters are climbing their way, expensive skirts clutched in their puny hands. "There are some in this town who I find it most difficult to even exchange a civil word with."

Stephane laughs, a silvery, unexpected sound. He longs to ask Marigold if she would follow him from the town, if this gentle, charming girl would entrust her life into his hands and let him lead her away from the coming uprising. He would risk losing his father's approval and his task if he could only protect this one soul, and would go on the run with her if that was what it took to keep her alive and safe. Yet, as he is about to ask for the impossible, Marigold rises to her feet, sending a look of disgust down towards the approaching figures.

"I'll be off then. Goodbye, Piper. Stephane." And with a spin of her skirts she is gone, running barefoot towards the town.

Sssstay focusssed on the tasssk, Massster. The snake warns.

I am focusssed. Stephane snaps back, before painting a tranquil expression across his face as the two Prince daughters reach him, huffing a bit from the steep climb.

"Good afternoon, Piper," says the elder and prettier of the two, Camilda Prince, seating herself boldly in the place Marigold Peverell has just vacated. The folds of her skirt and the rich bold colour boast of her father's wealth, who many believe owns half the town. Her sister is darker, more sallow, not as plump and pale as Camilda. Having been himself in the presence of wizarding aristocrats such as Rowena Ravenclaw and Godric Gryffindor, Stephane finds the uppity, nouveau-rich attitude of families like the Princes disgusting. His father has taught him to be suspicious of those who appear as something they are not: though perhaps coming from the prince of secrets himself, these thoughts are not so comforting.

"Can I help you with anything?" Stephane asks diplomatically.

"There is nothing, we are only seeking a reprieve from the busy, hot town," Camilda says breezily, casting a small levitation charm to rip a dandelion from the ground and send it hovering above her head. "Was it that Peverell girl I saw up here? She hasn't been pestering you, has she, Piper? My father would be most willing to have a word with her father if she has. Doesn't know when to quit, that wench."

"There was no issue with Miss Peverell," Stephane says coldly. The Princes exchange glances.

"She is most strange, is Marigold," the younger sister says matter-of-factly. "There have been... whispers, if you will, among some others, that you aim to persuade her to leave Hamlin with you, abandoning her parents and those rag-tag boys she calls friends." Her dark eyes settle on Stephane's. "Is this true, Piper?"

Stephane resists the urge to laugh at the irony of it. Here he is, wishing just Marigold could run away with him, and already rumours are beginning that was his intention all along.

"For let me tell you, if you seek a beautiful wife from the town for your efforts in proecting us from the Plague," Camilda juts in importantly, "there are much more suitable candidates who would be most willing."

Stephane wonders to himself if all girls in Hamlin are so forward. He rubs a blade of grass between his fingers, wishing fervently that the persistent Prince girls would leave him alone to his scheming. Looking down the hill again, he sees the light-coloured head of Quince Malchance collecting scrap wood to fill the fireplaces of the poor, his head bowed.

"And Marigold would never leave her family," the younger sister adds, catching her sister's eye. "She is her father's only child, and very dear to him. And she helps that useless Blind Johnny with the healing potions, and navigates him through the town on many a day. And everyone knows she has always meant to marry Trip P-"

Here Stephane stops listening, his core filling with a dull kind of rage, a storm raging in his ears. Does Marigold truly intend to wed that scrawny friend of hers, the dirty blooded Muggle? He wonders furiously.

"I must go," he mutters to the offended girls, and stalks away, whistling to his black mare who abandons her grazing with indignant eyes. The hope, excitement he felt at the thought of Marigold accompanying him away from Hamlin, into safety, grows dim and cold.

He is awake long into the night, stretching down to the early hours of the following morning, until finally he rises, pulling the brightly coloured cloak against the chill.

I mussst do sssomething, Stephane complains as he stalks back and forth in the main room of his little cottage, wringing the letter from his father between his slim hands. He remembers the empty corridors of the great castle they are calling Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He thinks of Gryffindor's warm, disappointed eyes, set deep into his broad and honest face; of Rowena Ravenclaw's cold interest, his father's rage which he will unleash upon Stephane the moment they are beyond the watchful eyes of the others. Of Marigold Peverell, bright and trusting, in her soul a sort of unusual beauty.

And Stephane Slytherin acknowledges what he must do, his hands gliding like soft mist over the betwitched flute. He wraps his fingers around his wand, feeling the potential for power coursing through him.

Today, the guilty will rise before the sun.

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. I would love to hear any thoughts or reactions to the story!

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