SO. This story is dead-on 3000 words. Holy cow. To my judge, I will send you anything you like to confirm that, but PLEASE NOTE that the line break and author's note have added about 200 words.
Panicking to get this all in on time. Love you all, thanks for reading!
The prompt this round was to do a crossover-mine had to be with a movie. :) The optional prompts: silver / "Laughter is the sun that drives winter from a human face." - Victor Hugo / 'now or never'
"Rowena," said Helga, nudging the chestnut horse she rode along the wooded path, "I have to tell you, I think you have gotten us lost."
"We are not lost. The dream I had was very specific," Rowena said irritably, drawing her black-and-white mare alongside Helga. "I followed the winged boar over three hills to a loch surrounded by a sprawling forest, entirely isolated and alone. It is where we are meant to build the school."
"Rowena," said Helga hesitantly, "not to discourage you, but perhaps it was just a dream."
Rowena blushed and sighed. "If it is not at the top of this hill, then we will find a place to stop for the night."
"Perhaps Godric and Salazar are having more luck," said Helga cheerily. "We're sure to find something."
"Hm," Rowena said thoughtfully as they continued up the sloping path. She hung back as Helga crested the hill.
"Is it there?" she asked, evidently too nervous to look for herself.
"There is a loch," said Helga. "Unfortunately, someone has beaten us to building a castle."
"A castle, out here?" Rowena asked incredulously, spurring her horse forward.
"And a village," Helga informed her. Their horses stood above a wide, open field; their current path lead to a large, walled castle, around which were clustered a number of small homes and cottages. "What shall we do now?"
"Let me think," Rowena said, running her hands through her hair in frustration. "Perhaps if we continued to the next loch…"
"We won't be able to climb another mountain today," Helga warned. "The horses need rest, and the sun is setting. This seems like a good place to stay the night. And perhaps someone in the castle could help us find your loch."
Rowena snapped her fingers. "Of course. The ruling clan must know these mountains. You're right, Helga. We'll go to the castle."
Helga laughed as they started along the path again. "That's the spirit. It's rather nice having some time away to travel, isn't it? Even if it's a bit frustrating…"
"Can you imagine Salazar climbing these hills? He'd be insufferable," Rowena laughed.
"Isn't he always?"
At the mouth of the lane that led up to the castle, a wooden pole supported a deep green flag adorned by a most unusual symbol, at which Helga stopped and stared.
The image of short-handled sword stood vertically over an interlocking knot of dark green, but coiled around either side of the blade were the long, curled paws of a black bear, whose head peered over the hilt of the sword.
"I didn't realize that there were bears this region," said Helga, frowning.
Rowena shrugged. "Excuse me, miss," she said, approaching a passing woman with a load of firewood. "Would you tell me the fastest way to get to the castle?"
"It's that way," she said, and then her expression darkened. "But I'd be careful if I were ye. Strangers that pass through here tend to be the kind to cause trouble."
Rowena frowned and shared a startled glance with Helga, "Th-thank you."
The Muggle woman glared back at them both, watching as they rode away up the lane.
"What on earth was that? What kind of trouble?" Rowena asked, once they were out of earshot.
"I don't know," said Helga worriedly.
"Who goes there?" barked a voice as they rounded a bend and found themselves approaching a drawbridge, which lay open. An armored guard stepped out of a gatehouse that bore a wooden carving of a bear's head over the door.
Rowena raised a hand in greeting. "We have traveled a great distance. We seek the counsel of the king and queen, and a warm meal."
The guard considered her for a moment. "Where've ye come from, that ye dinnae know Her Highness does nae have a king?" He shifted his position, resting one hand on the hilt of his sword.
Helga held up both hands calmly, and nodded at Rowena to do the same. "Sir," she said, "we mean neither you nor your queen any harm. We are simply in need of shelter."
"Captain!" yelled the guard over his shoulder, barely taking his eyes off of them. A moment later, a group of armored guards appeared, and one of them strode forward.
"Yer looking fer a place to stay, then?" he asked.
"Just for the night," Helga said, clearing her throat impatiently. "Our horses are tired, and—"
"What's happening here?" asked a bright, cheerful voice.
A very tall young woman with wild, flyaway curls the color of fire sat astride an enormous black horse. She was approaching the group gathered at the gatehouse at a walk. Her curly hair was partially tamed by a gold hairnet at the crown of her head, which matched the golden brocade on the green dress she wore. She beamed when she saw Helga and Rowena, her enormous blue eyes alight with excitement.
"Hello!" she said brightly. "Who are you?"
The captain of the guard scowled. "Yer Highness, they're strangers—"
"I can see that, Diarmaid," said the woman, snorting amusedly. "I was hoping for a few more details. I'm Merida, Queen of DunBroch. How can I help you?"
"We are travelers," said Rowena right away. "We were hoping to impose upon your hospitality. Our horses are exhausted, and—"
"Ach, so's Angus," said Merida, leaning forward and slapping her horse's neck affectionately. "Aren't you, boy? Diarmaid, take the guests to the throne room, and then get their horses to the stable. I'd come with you," she said, still patting her horse's neck, "but he's an old man and he only eats when I'm the one to feed him. I'll be right in, though, so make yourselves at ho—"
The captain stepped forward again. "M'lady queen, this is nae safe—"
"Are you on again about all strangers being out to get us?" Merida demanded. "How many times have I said to let it alone now?"
Diarmaid glared sullenly in turn at Rowena and Helga, and then nodded. "Yes, Highness."
"Excellent," said Merida, all bright cheerfulness again. "I'll meet you inside, then," she said, with a nod to Helga and Rowena, before trotting her horse in the direction of the stables.
"Follow me, then," said Diarmaid gruffly.
Helga and Rowena dismounted and were shown into the castle, followed by four armed guards. Diarmaid walked them along a narrow hallway hung with tapestries that looked as though they may have been hand-woven; this led past a foyer and down two more narrow corridors, which finally opened up onto an enormous reception chamber.
"Wait here," said one of the guards. "Her Highness will see ye shortly."
Helga nodded. She and Rowena stood side by side in the vast room, which had a gallery on the upper level, gazing around in stunned silence. "Well…this is unusual," Helga said quietly, once the guards had retreated conspicuously to just outside each door of the room.
A dais at the front of the hall bore five wooden thrones—one at the center, with three to the left side and one to the right. This could easily have been the most curious part of the room, but Helga's attention was drawn irresistibly to the other adornments of the chamber.
Nearly every inch was bedecked with wooden carvings of bears. Flags draped along the walls bore the bear-and-sword crest. The outlines of dancing bears were etched into the woodwork; there were bears carved in relief along the rafters, the furniture, shelves, and tables bore wooden bear figurines and statues ranging from a few inches to several feet high, and, largest of all, a wooden replica of the crest hung over the thrones at the front of the room.
"Where are we?" Rowena asked, squeezing Helga's arm nervously.
"You're in Castle DunBroch. I think the better question is who are you?"
Helga and Rowena looked up to see a very thin, older woman with long gray hair descending the nearest staircase; she was laughing. They curtsied as she approached—although she seemed just as good-natured, this woman was not as informal as Merida in her entrance-making.
She was quite as tall as the queen, and had the same gentle smile, except that her mouth and eyes were framed by fine lines, and her silver hair hung sleek and smooth down her back. "Good evening," she said warmly, her dark brown eyes flitting over them. "Welcome—ach, there you are," she said, her smile widening as a nearby door opened and Merida appeared.
"Oh, good, you've met!" she said gladly. "May I present my mother, Queen Elinor?"
Something like pain flickered over Elinor's face, but she smiled. "Lady Elinor, please."
Merida blushed. "You'll always be the queen to me."
"Your Highness," said Rowena. "I am Rowena Ravenclaw, and this is Helga Hufflepuff."
"Good to meet you," Merida said, smiling. "Where is it you're traveling to?"
Helga glanced at Rowena. "We were looking for a free plot of land that we might call ours."
Merida and Elinor frowned curiously. "Which clan are you from?" Merida asked. "I've never seen your colors, and you carry no flags."
"We have no clan. We're from the south," Helga said, "and, as we've promised, we mean absolutely no harm. We are simply looking for a safe place for our students."
The queen mother's expression lightened. "Students, you say?"
"We are educators, Your Highness," said Helga, "without a place to educate. And Rowena has…heard of a piece of land that we believe may be near here."
"I didn't realize there were many people other than the immediate clans who knew we were here," said Elinor. "What is it that you teach?"
At this, Rowena hesitated.
"Ah—well," said Helga slowly, "we…we study many things. I, for instance, am trained in healing."
"She's very talented," said Rowena supportively, and Helga had to restrain herself from cringing too noticeably.
"Right," said Merida slowly, sharing a skeptical look with her mother.
"Perhaps it would be best if we showed our guests to their rooms," said Elinor gently, resting a hand on her arm. "We can discuss this more productively over dinner," she added.
"Yes," said Merida agreeably. "I'll have someone see to it that rooms are made up for you, and we'd be glad to have you join us for dinner tonight."
"Thank you, Your Highness," said Helga, and Rowena nodded eagerly. "We would greatly appreciate that."
"Merida, please," she replied, beaming again.
That evening was filled with hospitality and good-natured conversation in the bear-decorated dining hall. When Rowena had ventured a question about the decorative choices, the queen and her mother shared a laugh.
"It's a bit of a long story," said Merida, with a rather mysterious smile. "Suffice it to say, we're quite fond of bears, here."
Helga and Rowena explained that they had entered into their educational venture with both Godric and Salazar, and Merida promised to help get messages to them if need be. They were also treated to a number of stories about Harris, Hubert, and Hamish, the triplet princes of DunBroch, who were away with the leaders of the neighboring clan McGuffin.
"It's been rather difficult to find an outlet for their…energy," said Lady Elinor. "My husband encouraged them constantly," she said, nodding at her daughter, "and Merida, too."
Merida grinned at her mother. She addressed Rowena and Helga, "My dad used to say that laughter's like sunshine on the face; it brings you back to life, like spring driving out winter. But getting out to ride Angus is about the only way I have fun when my brothers aren't around."
Rowena and Helga, though they had only planned on staying a day or so, found themselves unexpectedly welcome in Castle DunBroch; both Merida and her mother seemed eager for the companionship, and Merida was more than willing to take Helga and Rowena riding in search of a place that might serve well for the school.
The only difficulty was that the young queen was perpetually high-spirited and curious. Helga, still feeling cautious at the initial welcome they had received, advised Rowena quietly that they should maintain their assumed identities as Muggles.
But, dishonesty or not, after a nearly a week of daily searching for just the right location, Rowena, Helga, and Merida were feeling ready to give up; they were particularly dejected one afternoon, while making their way back to DunBroch.
"I'm sorry I can't be of more help," said Merida.
"It isn't your fault, Your Highness," Helga replied.
"Merida, please," Merida reminded her, smiling.
"It's disappointing, to be sure," said Rowena with a small sigh, "But…" she trailed off, an odd expression suddenly stealing over her face. Then, quite without warning, Rowena yanked her horse around and galloped off along the path. "Follow me!" she shouted over her shoulder.
"Rowena? What are you doing?" Helga cried, nudging her horse after her; she heard Merida following close behind.
"What's happened?" Merida shouted, as Rowena led the way down a path, across a stream, and up an enormous hillside.
"I knew it!" she shouted jubilantly. "I knew we would find it, I recognized that path!" Rowena leapt off her horse's back, her smile broadening as she took in the view.
A grassy slope hung over a vast, dark lake. In the distance, Helga could see a forest, the trees black and thickly grown, forming a natural sort of border in a ring around the slope and the lake. She slid off of her horse, too, feeling a chill chase up her spine. "Oh, my…"
Merida had dismounted as well. "I hadn't thought of Loch Dubh before" she didn't seem quite as moved, but she looked pleased at Helga and Rowena's reactions. "D'you like it, then?"
"Like it!" Rowena said, laughing wildly. "It's perfect—it's exactly as I saw it, exactly what the dream showed me! We could have all kinds of protective enchan—"
"Rowena!" Helga laughed and smiled at Merida, who was eyeing them both curiously. "Rowena's a bit excited, that's all," she said airily, trying to seem nonchalant.
Merida narrowed her eyes in a way that made Helga's stomach sink horribly. "Right," she said slowly. "Perhaps we ought to get back, then…"
"Of course," said Rowena quickly, sharing a nervous glance with Helga. "Yes, Your Highness."
They rode back to the castle in silence. From the moment they left the loch, Merida had avoided making eye contact with either one of them, and she did not invite them to join her and her mother in their private conference, which she'd sought immediately.
"We've completely ruined this chance," Rowena said miserably after two hours of agony. "We'll be lucky if we aren't put in the stocks and tried for witchcraft."
"Don't despair like that," Helga admonished her, though she too was very nervous and unable to stop fidgeting.
Another hour crawled by, and much to their shock, Merida herself came and knocked on the door of their guest rooms. "Can I see you for a moment?" she asked quietly. "In my mother's parlor?"
"Of course," said Helga, rising at once. Rowena stood as well, but touched her arm hesitantly. "It's now or never, Rowena," Helga whispered.
Merida led them to a cozy room where the queen mother sat, and closed the door behind them.
"Sit down, please," Lady Elinor offered; they did as she said.
"So," said Merida, sitting down at her mother's side.
Helga sat forward at once. "Your Highness, if you wish us to leave…"
"We truly mean you no harm—we did not want to alarm you with…anything we may have said." Rowena clenched her hands in her lap.
"See, Mum?" Merida laughed, holding up both hands in surrender. "I told you I'd scared them. I just needed to talk to my mother. I figured out you were lying to us last week; you aren't very quiet guests, and this is a very empty castle."
"And Merida is a terrible eavesdropper," said Lady Elinor to the ceiling, her eyes cast upwards.
"Ach, shush," Merida snapped, swatting her mother's knee.
"Honestly, we didn't mean to frighten you. We understand who you are and what you do," said Lady Elinor, "And we'll keep your secret."
"We're not afraid of magic…but…" Merida looked suddenly apprehensive.
"You need us to leave," said Helga, sighing. "I thought as much."
"That's not it at all," Merida said quickly. She shared a glance with her mother, "We wondered whether you'd be willing to help us, if we offered a trade."
"How could we help you?" Rowena asked.
Elinor sat forward in her chair. "We have had many people like you living in DunBroch for years, but recently, they've started to run into trouble."
Merida continued, "They're getting blamed for things like the weather being bad, or food spoiling, and we've had a lot of trouble because of it."
Helga hesitated. "Yes, we've heard of…such things."
"What is it that you think we can do to help these people?" Rowena asked slowly.
"Perhaps you could give our magical families a safe home…" Merida prodded hesitantly.
Helga raised her eyebrows. "You want us to relocate them for you?"
"No," Elinor said firmly. "We want them to stay here, among their friends and neighbors. But, if you were to offer them a chance to go with you when you leave here, it would provide an opportunity for assured safety, should they choose to take it."
Rowena frowned. "And in exchange, you'll give us the loch?"
"The loch, the forest, and a parcel of land for a new village," Merida said firmly. "We won't rule you; you'll be entirely left alone, if you want it."
"We…would need to speak to our counterparts," said Helga after a long silence. "But…it's an agreeable plan. Rowena?"
"It seems very sensible," she nodded. "Our door stands open to all your magical families."
"Then we'll be glad to have you as our neighbors," said Lady Elinor.
"And perhaps you'd like a bear statue, for the front gate?" Merida asked hopefully.