Rowena woke early, as the first strips of winter sunlight fell across her pillow and coloured the room gold. So this was what a frosty December dawn looked like? Bugger it to hell and back on a particularly nervous donkey.
She rolled over, pulling the bed sheets tightly over her face until breathing became slightly difficult. Light still filtered through the blankets, but she ignored it.
Her limbs ached. Her head ached. Her headache ached. This was not usual. But after a night of gallivanting around Hogwarts in search of a Gryffindor-shaped werewolf, one couldn't expect butterflies and daisies. But that was days ago, now…
Yes – Gryffindor the werewolf, who'd somehow decided to forgo the "wolf" bit. Gryffindor the werewolf, who'd collapsed wearing nothing but the skin he was born in and, through general consensus, somehow ended up sleeping in her room for the following three days. She wasn't sure she remembered agreeing to that, but there you go. Salazar could be very persuasive when he wanted to be.
…Well, she wasn't going to think about him. Not now. It was far too early for that sort of thing.
And so, figure three: Helga Hufflepuff, step on down! Memory Lane awaits your badger-loving presence. Ah, dear Helga. Poor, dear Helga, destined to live out the rest of her days snubbing Godric's advances and devoting her life to woodland creatures in some kind of primitive nunnery.
Perhaps. You could never tell with Helga.
And you could never tell with Salazar—
Not him! Not now! Too early! There was more to her life than Salazar W. Slytherin, wasn't there?
Damn straight, there was! There were responsibilities and friendships and a dirty great castle with her name on it. Things to do, people to see. Brutal murders to solve. That sort of thing.
The sun continued to shine, in its usual stubborn way. Eventually accepting the majority vote, she emerged from her tangled blankets and welcomed the new day with some light blasphemy.
The floor was cold. It served her right for not buying rugs, she supposed, but really…tallest tower in the castle? In winter? Damn Salazar and his damn dungeons and his damn…house-elf fetish. She had half a mind to flog him. But she also had half a mind to lick his eyebrow, so she decided not to risk a confrontation just yet. Not now. Too early. Too licky.
Gone were the days of, Oh Slytherin, what a big nose you have. Gone were the days of, Oh Ravenclaw, you couldn't charm your way out of a paper bag and it's a very small bag I'm talking about. Gone were the mindless insults. And she could handle mindless insults…
She brushed her hair a couple of times and yawned, unattractively. Her gaze fell across the unconscious figure of Godric Gryffindor, which, on reflection, was quite difficult to miss, being about six foot seven and ginger. And wearing nothing but a pair of trousers. And being manacled to the floor, snoring quietly while charms and curses bounced off every muscle in an attempt to keep him unconscious.
Three sodding days he'd been asleep there. On the positive side, he hadn't turned into a wolf and torn her legs off. On the negative side, many were the times she'd forgotten his presence and fallen over him. On the positive side, he made an excellent doorstop.
She washed. She dressed. She thought. She stopped. Too early.
Alright, things to do:
Find out who's running round slaughtering students once a full moon. She glanced at the slumbering figure by the door, who said "hrumph" and snorted. She had a terrible feeling this would be achieved quite easily.
Ensnare the large-nosed one whose name I shall not mention due to time of day. Yes. Using feminine wiles, good grace, virtue, killing his girlfriend, et cetera.
Snub Anatole Amery. Gently, though. The man has pleasant thighs.
Try not to destroy all possibilities of school's success. Yes. Because she was not at home to Mr Cock-Up, despite him being a near-permanent lodger in her life up until now.
So…look at you, Rowena Ravenclaw. Barely eighteen and already you co-run the school, the staff and the cookery department. And you've faced about, oh, six near-death experiences? Jolly good. At least the holidays are approaching, and you can send the hyperactive little tits home…
And the students, as well. Oh dear me, I am funny when I want to be...
It was round about this moment, as Rowena giggled quietly at her rather questionable sense of humour, that Godric Gryffindor sat up, slightly dazed, and said, 'Shit me, I'm knackered.'
Which was certainly a first.
But, oddly enough, not the last.
Chapter One: Mad
Rowena still remembered the day of the witch-hunt, because that was the first time she'd successfully turned someone into a goldfish. She'd intended to disarm him, but the goldfish thing had basically the same effect.
It was said later – and privately, for obvious reasons – that the whole thing had actually been her fault. Yes, a group of muggles may have invaded the castle, yes there may have been a hint of terror in the air and yes, there could have been violence at any time. But it could have all washed over so peacefully if the damn girl hadn't turned him into a goldfish.
The "him" in question was a drunk man with a low brow and, as she remembered, a fine covering of orange scales. He'd barged into the classroom with a short stick in his hand which, Helga later explained, was intended to be a mocking gesture of some sort. And the next minute, he was swirling away down the latrine. Blubbing.
But that wasn't the event of the day, nor the issue that the assembled staff privately discussed in a state of worry and intrigue. The issue was Rowena herself.
'Well,' said Lady Summers, from within the soft confines of the headmistress' chair, 'who here actually knows about the…event in question?' Lady Summers was a shrewd, pointed woman, with an expression once generously described by Salazar as that of an angry cat licking piss off a bunch of nettles.
There was a vague mumble of "oh yes, I do". Most of them didn't, but were quite willing to bluff their way into finding out.
'Hm,' said Lady Summers, doubtfully. 'And did it appear serious?'
'Quite serious,' volunteered the wide-mouthed potions master, Professor Harper. 'Certainly legitimate, no doubt about that.'
'Displayed all the correct symptoms,' another teacher chipped in, 'the serene expression, for example – save for a few facial twitches – and apparent lack of control over her own voice.'
'Oh yes,' said Lady Summers, wearily, 'not at all unusual in Miss Ravenclaw, I'm afraid.'
'I am…not convinced,' said the wiry-bearded charms professor, Mrs Nesbit, 'not at all convinced, I'm afraid, that what she experienced was anything more than a cry for attention. Or a simple hallucination. Or...worse.'
'Well…you remember her grandmother, yes?'
'I've just been a bit sick in my mouth.'
'Agnes Ravenclaw,' said another teacher, with a mournful shake of his head, 'now, she was insane.'
'Crackers,' said Lady Summers, with a wince.
'Loopy,' said Mrs Nesbit.
'Off her tits,' agreed Professor Harper.
The room was filled with a diplomatic pause. Then followed a quiet murmur of agreement.
'Perhaps not…quite how I'd phrase it, Richard,' said Lady Summers, contemplatively, 'but not far off.'
'She showed me her haddock, once,' said the gamekeeper. Another diplomatic pause followed, tinged with just the slightest edge of disgust. Several imaginations actually shut down at this point.
Lady Summers hastily explained, 'Agnes collects stuffed animals, and holds them very dear to her heart. I believe – hope – that this is what you were referring to, Clifford?'
The gamekeeper said, 'Er…yeah, alright.'
'But surely,' said Lady Summers, desperately ploughing onwards, 'you're not suggesting that Rowena—?'
'Her parents weren't completely together upstairs, either,' said Mrs Nesbit, 'gods rest them.'
'Oh, no,' said Lady Summers, 'they were just—'
'Free spirits,' Harper suggested.
'Yes – slightly eccentric, perhaps, but certainly not in league with Agnes. Besides, Agnes only became…strange following her son's death.'
'However,' said Mrs Nesbit, who Lady Summers was beginning to dislike, 'it was Agnes who raised the girl. Besides, there is still the possibility that it was all a hallucination.'
'A strange hallucination,' said Harper, 'bearing nearly all characteristics typical of a psychic trance – no, it seems far too much of a coincidence. Recall, her great-grandmother on her mother's side was a psychic, professionally.'
'She was a fraud,' said Nesbit, waving a hairy hand dismissively, 'everyone agrees that, nowadays.'
'I don't,' said Lady Summers.
'And if it was neither a hallucination nor an early sign of genetic insanity,' Nesbit continued, ignoring her, 'then it must have been a mere joke – a way of getting attention.'
'That doesn't sound like Rowena,' said Lady Summers, 'she's really quite a sensible child.'
'She's always been quite content with the company of that Huffpuffle girl,' said Harper, 'you know the one. Ravenclaws are far more likely to talk their way through a lesson than cause a big stir.'
Lady Summers agreed, 'She's not the kind to summon a donkey, whip off her shirt and sing an inappropriate song about—' She broke off and sighed. 'That bloody Slytherin boy – one of these days I'm going to kick him in the face.'
There was a mumble of sympathetic agreement.
Nesbit sat back in her chair, haughtily scratching her beard. 'I'm sorry,' she said, in a tone that implied the opposite, 'but I remain unwilling to accept the girl has even the smallest drop of psychic blood in her veins. I've been teaching her for three years now, and can say with some confidence that she is distinctly average. Knows all the theories, I'll admit, but has no…gusto. No confidence in her wand. I taught her brother, Richard – now, he's the opposite. Quite happy to curse his head off, but he's got no idea what he's meant to be doing. That's how people lose fingers,' she added bitterly, glancing down at her own deformed hand.
There was a common mutter of "bloody Richard Ravenclaw".
'So you maintain that Rowena did not glance into the future tonight?' said Lady Summers.
'Certainly,' said Nesbit. 'Boys with lightening on their heads? – Ambiguous nonsense. Either she wants attention, she's over-tired or…well,' she said, darkly, 'we all remember what Agnes did to poor Mr Green. And his nipple.'
As the room emptied, some time later, Lady Summers said to Harper, 'Has Mrs Nesbit always been so hairy?'
Harper said, 'I thought it impolite to look.'
And some time even later, when the excitement of the witch-hunt had passed and life continued as normal, Rowena had looked up from her homework to see the thirteen-year-old Salazar Slytherin watching her.
'They think you're mental, you know,' he said, with the smug grin that was typical of his young expression, 'the teachers. I heard them.'
Rowena set down her quill and said, 'What for?'
'For pretending you can see the future. We all know that's a load of bollocks.'
'But I did,' she insisted, rallying against the injustice of the unknown "we", 'I honestly did. Why would I make it up?'
'Because you're insane.'
'But I'm not—'
'Look,' he said curtly, rising from the seat he'd assumed, 'I haven't got time to stand here and insult you, I've got people to see. So: you're insane, you fancy Professor Harper's gangrenous leg and you've got mumps. I'll give you until five o'clock to think up some witty defences, and I expect them to be extremely scathing.' With this, he stalked off.
Rowena stared after him for a moment or two, feebly mumbled, 'I have not got mumps,' and returned to her homework. A few minutes later she added, 'You big ponce.'
Back in the here and now, the slightly odder couple continued thus:
'Hurry up and get a shirt on, there's a good lad—'
'How long have I been asleep?'
'Long enough. Godric, you're going to have to help me here, you're bloody heavy—'
'Where am I?'
Rowena sighed and quit her attempts to lift him. Granted, it was natural for anyone who'd spent three days unconscious on the floor to ask stupid questions for about half an hour, but she had places to be! Some barely-conscious people are so inconsiderate…
'You're on my floor,' she said at last, as he groaningly climbed into a nearly-upright position, 'in Ravenclaw tower. The year is 1789, and you have been sent from the past to protect the virgin Empress, Cassandraneena—'
'It's Thursday,' she said, quietly amused, 'and you fainted.' For three sodding days. In all fairness, Godric was a fairly big chap; he probably had a lot of faint to go around.
He shook his head groggily, and attempted to rub his eyes. There was a quiet clanking of chains, followed by a delicate pause.
'Ah,' said Rowena, 'yes. I almost forgot about those.'
Godric stared at his wrists for a while, his drowsy mind attempting to work a thread of logic into the situation. After a while, he ventured, 'I'm…manacled to the floor with thick chains, handcuffs and, er, leather.'
'Yes,' said Rowena, 'it's amazing what Helga keeps in her cupboard, isn't it?'
Godric glanced at the chains again, and gave them an experimental tug. 'Helga?'
'Yep.' The one whose curly yellow heart you broke, thou villain, thou. 'I suppose the badgers get a bit rowdy sometimes. It's always best to be prepared, don't you think?'
Oh dear. She much preferred his earlier questions. 'Well, you didn't rip her lungs out, if that's what you mean. Look, Godders, I've got a meeting to get to—'
'You – oh, for Christ's sake. Right, what happened was…'
Thursday was a good day for travelling, if you were the kind of person who could charm your way onto a trading cart, tell a few jokes, keep good company and tip the driver every five miles or so. Unfortunately, this man wasn't that kind of person. Accordingly, three miles into the journey he was punched in the teeth, thrown into a ditch and forced to run across six fields with a stolen chicken under his arm.
At the seventh field, his foot caught on a dead vegetable root and he slid across the mud, rolling and cursing for some time before hitting a tree. As he groaned, the chicken flapped happily and settled on a nearby gatepost.
The stranger sat up, dazedly, and clutched his chest. For someone who'd very nearly broken a rib and sprained at least two of his joints, he appeared quite perky. He jumped to his feet and, in a rather jovial if slightly winded voice, said:
'Well…bit of an overreaction there, I thought.' He sniffed away the indignity of the chase and patted Clarence's wing absentmindedly. Barren fields surrounded him, covered with the hard glimmer of ice and frost. The mud beneath his feet was stiff and unyielding. He could kill for a potato.
After a while he said, 'Righty-ho. Balls to that plan, then.' He scratched his bearded jaw and, seizing Clarence again under one arm, set off walking in what he hoped was a northerly direction. 'Can't be far now. Should be a cinch. And if we come to starvation, Clarence…' He raised his pointed chin nobly: 'We'll eat me first.'
'Well, you needn't agree so quickly.'
Elsewhere, Xavier Malfoy and Sophia Bruntt exchanged glances. The latter said, 'He's talking to a chicken, isn't he?'
The Dark Forest was so called for a reason, as Salazar discovered; even hovering by the edge of the trees, a certain darkness seemed to fill the air. It was as if the shadows were something solid and breathing, and every noise and flicker from within was another part of the monster. Around him, the icy wind slapped at his skin and whistled by his ears, but inside the forest the air seemed oddly still. Like it was holding its breath—
Alright Salazar, said his brain, there's no need to be melodramatic about this. You'll be jumping about in garters writing poetry next, having sex with swans or whatever it is they do.
Still…it would be just like Ravenclaw to buy them a haunted forest.
But it's not haunted. There's nothing in. You didn't put anything in – who else could? Cray is dead. Who takes their dreams seriously, in this day and age…?
Well, you've always done so before, and they haven't been wrong yet.
Shut up, brain.
Something crunched in the snow behind him. He inhaled sharply, but managed to smother his shock with hard logic, and turned around looking as placid as ever.
Helga Hufflepuff folded her arms. Under three layers of cloak and covered in snow, she looked exactly like a pissed-off snowman.
'Ah,' Salazar drawled, 'Hufflefuzzle. Just the bottom-feeder I wanted to see.'
'Save it, sausage face,' she snapped back, 'and explain, using a maximum of five words, the reason you're stood knee-deep in the snow in a mountainous region of northern Scotland in early December, on your own, looking miserable, staring at a tree.'
He raised a mocking eyebrow, attempting to look unfazed, and asked, 'Or…?'
'Or,' she said, simply, 'I'll cock-drop you.'
Salazar stared at her for a moment or two and, unsure that he really wanted to know, demanded, 'What in hell isa cock-drop?'
'Do you want to find out?'
Bloody hell. 'Just bored,' he muttered, his tone suggesting that her very presence was aggravating the condition, 'thought I'd spend the morning exploring the territory.' Helga glared at him. 'To put it in to terms you might understand,' he continued, speaking very slowly, 'I'm doing the thing that badgers do when they rummage through the undergrowth. Badgers? Yes? Do you understand?'
'The correct term,' she said, curtly, 'is snuffling. And I'd appreciate it if you did it elsewhere.'
He scowled, which is quite difficult to do in gale conditions. 'And why's that, exactly?'
'Because you keep staring into the forest in a way that is very disconcerting and only adds to the high level distrust I already feel for you. Forest? Yes? Do you understand?'
'There's nothing wrong with looking into the forest—'
'In this weather, Slytherin?'
Outwitted by a Hufflepuff. His knackers were too cold for this kind of verbal sparring. Christ. Dinghy. 'Fine,' he muttered, 'if it's all the same to you, I'll take my snuffle elsewhere.'
He grudgingly began his return to the castle, closely following Helga. As he ploughed through the snow, he threw the forest one final pleading glance, as if looking for reassurance. But the forest hissed back.
Salazar froze. 'Ah,' he said, quietly. Helga also stopped walking, and threw him a confused glance.
'What?' she said.
He wavered for a moment or two, and said, 'I think we ought to walk by the lake.'
The forest hissed once more. Salazar said, 'Because there's a dead body over there, and…I think we ought to take a look at it.'
Rowena passed a group of students in the corridor, resisted the urge to leg them up and thought about how much she utterly despised staff meetings. It was, she decided, a lot. In fact, the only way she managed to survive each meeting was by adding to her already very detailed mental description of how utterly boring the task was.
So…the meetings were mind-numbingly tedious acts of drudgery and grinding dreariness that made Death's cold, fatal blow seem a welcome distraction from the achingly tiresome and uninteresting seconds of precious life she squandered by gracing these hoary, ancient, withered souls (who were completely undeserving of the mass amounts of time they absorbed) with her comparatively bustling and joyous presence.
They weren't actually that bad, of course, but at least she'd discovered an exciting new grasp of adjectives.
She approached the staffroom door, noting she was five minutes late but not truly caring. Even without Godric's presence, Salazar or Helga would have begun the meeting, leaving her free to add to her list of Things I'd Rather Do Than Be Here.
But Salazar and Helga weren't within the room. Rowena stepped inside, noticed the fact and mentally cursed every fibre of their respective beings. And, too late, she attempted to discreetly exit the room—
'Ah, Miss Ravenclaw,' said some teacher or another, 'the cavalry has arrived, eh? Hnah, hnah.'
Hnah hnah? What the hell kind of laugh was that? 'Professor Ravenclaw,' she mumbled, reproachfully, 'yes, that's me. Er…'
'Is something wrong?' asked Anatole, standing to greet her.
Feeling particularly eloquent, Rowena said, 'Huh?' Fifty eyes watched her closely, with vaguely worried twitches.
He lowered his voice to ask, 'Have you any idea where the others are?'
'Godric's still…sickly,' she said, slipping into the pre-planned lie. She was fairly certain Anatole knew the truth of his condition, but she wasn't about to confirm it in a room full of prying ears. 'He's very ill; vomit everywhere. Yuk. Disgusting.'
'She's, er…she'll be along soon.' She'd better be, or I'm castrating her badgers.
'He'll be along soon,' she said, definitely. Salazar didn't keep badgers; she was quite willing to cut out the middleman.
'Right.' He lowered his voice even more, so the rest of the room accordingly listened harder. 'Is everything alright?'
'Er…I think so,' she said, honestly.
'Oh.' The room's volume returned to normal. 'In which case, I think you ought to start the meeting.'
'You're the most senior member—'
'But I hate these people!' The volume dropped again. So did the temperature. 'Shit.'
Anatole smiled sympathetically. 'You'll be fine, Professor. Just review things.'
'Good grief.' She cleared her throat a couple of times and, watched closely by the same fifty eyes – or was that fifty-one? – took up a place at the front of the room. Usually, this was Godric's place. Her place was in the corner, leaning slightly against the wall with a faraway look in her eyes, nodding occasionally.
And there would sit Helga, to her right, and four seats down the row would sit Salazar, perched on a table. Generally, he was whooping. Sometimes he shouted "You tell it, sister" when Godric said something particularly interesting. The other week, he set his wand on fire and swayed it gently from side to side, apparently hoping Godric would ban him from the meetings once and for all. He wasn't yet successful.
Right – okay. Fifty-one eyes. She cleared her throat again, and shuffled some papers. Inspiration struck, and she pretended to scan them for notes. Yes. As long as nobody noticed the paper was entitled "Anatomy of a Pie" she had nothing to worry about. She cleared her throat again.
'Er…righty-ho,' she mumbled, taking half a step backwards until her shoulders made contact with the wall, 'let's review the events of the week. Does anyone have any old business?' She didn't know what this meant, but Godric began every meeting with it. 'Does anyone have any new business?' Silence. 'Righty-ho, then. Er…
'It has come to my attention that several members of staff have expressed their interest in an official Sausage of War sports club.' What else did Godric do? 'All in favour of an official Sausage of War league, say aye.'
There was a surprisingly enthusiastic chorus of "aye". Anatole found it necessary to cover his mouth with his hand.
'Oh,' said Rowena, 'my. That's quite…surreal. Alright, Sausage of War league it is. We'll arrange a national team, that sort of thing. Wednesday at six? Yes? Alright. Oh my. Well, the first rule of Sausage of War club is that we don't talk about Sausage of War club. Second rule of Sausage of War club is…no smoking. Aye?'
There was another enthusiastic "aye", and a few claps. Anatole apparently began to choke.
'Right then,' Rowena said, mind reeling, 'okie-dokie, in that case.' She glanced out of the window and said, 'Secondly, it's very snowy outside so I suggest the students spend their breaks either indoors or within the central quad.' Wow, that sounded incredibly professional. This was piss! All this time, she'd assumed Godric had some kind of magical quality, and all she really had to do was say long words! 'Thirdly, Professor Amery successfully completed the protective spell the other night, and as such we are invisible to muggles. Er, also you can't apparate anymore. Sorry. Fourthly—'
The door creaked open, and Salazar entered. Rowena very nearly vomited in shock, but managed to maintain her level of cool to continue, 'Er, fourth-erly, um…investigations into the murdery-things are continuing, so…' Salazar mumbled something to Anatole, who flashed an apologetic look at Rowena and followed him from the room. A few people watched them leave, and a low mumble began.
'Er,' said Rowena, over the noise, 'fifthly, er – that's a very difficult word to say, fifthly – er, we think the spell's worked because nobody's dead yet. Sixthly, I maintain that a war against sex and violence should be enforced on our students. Particularly our senior students, who I think are, er, letting their minds wander.'
A few heads turned to the window as Salazar and Anatole passed, striding intently through the snow. Rowena continued—
'Heather Bettany, for example – a seventh year, I believe – is very unfocussed.' The mumble increased. The gamekeeper stood up and exited the room, stating that his help would be needed. Rather pathetically, Rowena continued, 'I mean, it doesn't have to be sex and violence. Just sex, really. I think Heather Bettany is very distracted by sex—'
'She achieves consistently high grades in my lessons,' said an old woman – possibly the only person still listening to her at all.
'Well she doesn't in mine,' said Rowena, defensively, 'and where will she be without the skill of cookery at her disposal?'
The old woman muttered, 'You seem to get on fine.'
'Shut up. Er, seventh – sixthly? Erm…Look, would you all please…no?' Another teacher left the room. Another followed. A few more people turned towards the window. Under her breath and very quickly, Rowena said, 'I am the co-founder and headmistress of this school, and I will assert my authority. Now, either you all pay full attention to me this instant or I shall be forced to cancel this meeting early and find something more interesting to talk to – for example, the underside of a damp log.' She remained unheard. 'Very well, you leave me with no choice.' She left the room, grabbing a cloak as she did so, and ran out into the snow.