Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This story is set a few years after the founding of Hogwarts. Since there's not much in canon about the Founders' era, I'm making some assumptions regarding it; if anything sounds strange, just let me know, and I'll try to explain my reasoning. Also, unlike most of my fics, this one does contain some ships, one of which is m/m slash. It's mostly implied at this point, and I don't expect it to go beyond the PG-13 level (if that), but if you think you may find it upsetting, please consider this your cue to stop reading. Otherwise, welcome, and away we go!
In addition to its greenhouses and vegetable patches, Hogwarts had an ancient walled herb garden, so old that many said the Founders themselves had planted it. No one knew whether this was true or not. However, the plots were certainly arranged in the style horticulturalists of that age had deemed proper. Seasoning herbs -- savory, chive, basil -- lay near parsley and leeks for the kitchens. Several rows contained hollyhock, mallow, comfrey, feverfew and other medicinal plants. There was even a small section of madder and woad, though no dyes or paints had been made at the castle in at least a century.
At the rear of this enclosure, near the aromatic herbs, lay a door that no one now alive had ever seen; a door that only a few people had ever known about at all. It was a small door, made for the smaller witches and wizards of the past, and behind its curtain of clinging moss and twining vines, it blended into the surrounding wall without a trace. An anonymous door; an insignificant door.
And a door wholly unguarded by magic.
"Wake up, lazybones!"
The tip of a hard, sharp object - most likely a wand - prodded between two of Godric's ribs with uncanny precision. Growling in protest, he rolled away to avoid it, and tumbled off the stone bench he had been lying upon.
"The sun will be down soon," lectured the voice that had woken him. "At this rate, by the time you're well awake, everyone else will be in bed!"
"Mmph," said Godric, and turned over again, preparing to go back to sleep on the scraggly autumn grass. It prickled his face and made him itch, but he wouldn't notice that in a moment or two - if only the voice would hush.
"And also," continued Helga, to whom the voice belonged, "I think it's going to rain."
Brought fully awake by the prospect of getting wet, Godric scrambled to his feet and reached for the woven shoulder harness that held his sword and scabbard. Helga grinned up at him, showing a deep dimple in her left cheek and an oddly charming gap where she had lost two bottom teeth.
"Don't look at me as if your sloth is all my fault, my lord. If you had not been up arguing with my lord Slytherin till all hours last night, you wouldn't be lying here like a slug in my herb garden now!"
Since he could not deny the slug remark, Godric seized upon the first half of her statement instead.
"Slytherin and I were not arguing. We were having a ... a discussion."
Helga's smile faded a bit.
"On the same topic as always, I know. If he would only see reason --"
"I will convince him sooner or later," Godric said, fastening the last of his straps and re-sheathing the sword.
"I heard your method of convincing," said Helga. "Two corridors and a staircase away." She cast a sly sideways look toward him. "Perhaps you should present your arguments earlier in the evening, so we honest, hard-working folk can rest. Or consider using a Silencing Charm. I don't mind the shouting, but I can do without the moaning and groaning that comes after."
"I don't know what you mean," said Godric stiffly.
"You know exactly what I mean, my lord," said Helga. "I've nothing against it myself - men's private affairs are no concern of mine - but I would advise you not to let my lady Rowena overhear. A witch she may be, but the sisters who educated her taught some lessons she has yet to unlearn. She would not approve."
Seeing Godric's discomfort and growing anger, Helga smoothly changed the subject.
"Come now, that's enough of that. Now that you're awake, you can help me get these things in before the rain comes. I've picked apples, and I collected the honey from my hives earlier today. There'll be something sweet with supper."
"You treat me like a boy half my age, my lady," said Godric, smiling in spite of himself.
"Only when necessary," said Helga serenely.
Helga was correct: there were sweets at supper that night. What was not there, notably, was Slytherin. His absence quite spoiled her ability to enjoy the almond pastries and baked apples she had been looking forward to all evening.
Later in the year, it might not have been so obvious that Salazar was not in the hall. The four Founders sat with the students of their Houses at meals, instructing them in manners and making sure they didn't use their fledgling magic to kill each other. But only a handful of children had arrived at the castle so far - sons and daughters of craftsmen, who weren't needed at home to help bring in the harvest. The rest would trickle in over the next few weeks, arriving on rough broomsticks or tame hippogriffs if they were wizard-born, in carts or on foot if they were from Muggle families. Until they arrived, the long feasting tables were nearly empty, and one missing person made a great difference. Especially if that missing person was Salazar, and the one missing him was Godric.
Helga picked up a sticky tidbit of apple and nibbled, watching Godric all the while. The man was eating with his usual enormous appetite and talking across the table to old Aelfstan, who handled the hippogriff stables and gave the children their riding lessons, but Helga could see his eyes flicking to the hall doors every few seconds. Looking for Salazar; always looking for Salazar.
Sighing, she pushed the apple away and downed the last of her wine. The closeness between that pair was both asset and liability, she mused. Godric might grow weary of Salazar's long-winded discourses on history and bloodlines, but he cared about Salazar's opinions more than he did anyone else's. Troubles only arose when he thought Salazar's opinions were wrong.
"My lady?"Startled, Helga glanced to the right and found a very young girl standing at her elbow.
"Can I - may I have another apple?" the girl asked, with an expression that said she expected Helga to refuse.
"Of course you may. Eat as much as you like; we never run short here."
"Truly," said Helga, and smiled as the girl snatched not one, but two more apples from the platter, then scurried back to her place on the bench. Some of the Muggle-born children were so used to being hungry that they could not believe the overflowing tables of Hogwarts were really for them. Many arrived with the crippling, bone-softening disease that afflicted undernourished people among their kind - the same disease Helga's colleague Rowena had suffered in childhood.
During a relentless series of famine years, Rowena's Muggle parents had reserved the best of their meager food for her brothers, until she had become too frail and sickly to do any physical labor. There had been nothing for it then but to give her to the sisters at the abbey, where she could be taught to make herself useful with quill and needle. By the time she had found her way into the wizarding world, it had been too late for her to be completely cured; magic had arrested the progress of the disease, but it could not repair the old damage from ill-healed fractures. Even now, she walked with a pronounced limp. She was small, and thin, and not very strong, and Helga, who had never been anything but robustly healthy, worried about her a great deal. In fact, Rowena looked as if she could use a winter tonic already, before the leaves had even fallen.
Perhaps, Helga thought, I will brew one for her after the meal is over. And I will make her drink it whether she wants to or not!
Just as they were dismissing the children, the main doors of the hall opened, and Salazar slipped in, looking slightly out of breath. He went the long way round the perimeter of the room, painted wall hangings fluttering in his wake, until he reached his own House's table. There, he bent to speak to one of the eldest boys. The boy listened with a grave expression, nodded, clapped his hands once to get his fellow pupils' attention, then rose and herded them out of the hall.
Rather than watching them go, Salazar edged his way through the crowd of departing children to Godric's table, where his colleagues had gathered. He bowed to Helga, nodded at Rowena, and hesitated for a bare heartbeat before giving Godric a friendly slap on the shoulder.
"I am sorry," he said. "I lost track of the hour. They have not sent the other courses down to the village yet, have they?"
"Not yet," said Godric. After every meal, the leavings were Banished to the tavern in Hogsmeade, where the proprietor, Hengist, passed them out to poorer villagers. There were few hungry people now, with the grain just in and the gardens still bearing fruit, but in a few months, when winter's bite was at its cruelest, there would be many.
"The women are gossiping in the kitchens again, I'm sure," said Rowena, "or they would already have been here to do the job. I wish you would let us take Muggle servants, Salazar. They're far more diligent than witches."
Salazar's greying eyebrows drew together in a scowl. "And have them fainting with terror every time we cast simple spells, or sending their menfolk after us with flaming brands? I think not. Perhaps some of those creatures you saw, my lady -" He turned to Helga.
"Only if you've a sack full of gold to pay for them," she said. "That old man drove a hard bargain." She had met him over the summer at a fair; a shifty-looking wizard selling tiny creatures, brown as dried leaves, which he claimed to have bred himself.
"Love to work, they do," he had said, patting one of the creatures on its bald head. "Makes them happy as anything. This one built his own cage and thanked me for the opportunity afterward." Helga had thought the creature looked pitiful rather than happy, with its large ears drooping in the heat and its humanlike fingers clutching at the lashed-together bars of the cage, but she had dutifully reported the find when she returned to the castle.
"Perhaps we can trade for a pair of them," Godric suggested. "The man may have a child or grandchild who needs teaching." He had Summoned untouched platters from earlier courses to the Gryffindor table, and now he pushed a trencher heaped with stewed eels and chicken in wine sauce over to Salazar, who seated himself and dipped his fingers in a nearby bowl of water before beginning to eat.
Helga, still standing, had a rare chance to view Salazar from above rather than looking up to him. Though not excessively tall for a man - Godric stood a hand's breadth higher - he was much taller than she, and she usually found herself addressing comments to his chin. He looked more vulnerable from this vantage point, where she could see the spot of thinning hair at the crown of his head and the loose thread on his collar. And --
She frowned. There was dust all over the back of Salazar's robes; a coarse, gritty powder that she was sure she had seen somewhere before.
Stone dust. That was it. She should have recognized it straight away. They'd all lived in a cloud of it during the week when the castle was being built; Godric had joked if he breathed in one more speck, he would be too heavy to fly a broomstick. What in Merlin's name had Salazar been doing to cover himself in stone dust? He was a historian, not a stonemason or an artist.
She wanted to ask him, but he was talking to Godric, and Godric was responding with such warm relief that she couldn't bear to interrupt them. Perhaps she'd ask later, or mention it to Rowena when she brought her the tonic. Rowena always had logical explanations for things. Surely she would have one for something as simple as a bit of dust.