Author's Notes: Written for the latest round of founders_gifts on LiveJournal.
The Draw of Magic
Helga wakes to the sound of crows calling out in the morning grey, black beaks rasping a rooster's call. Her mother eyes crows with distrust, and her father wards them from his crops with the falcon that loves him almost as much as Helga does; Helga hears the crow song and thinks of the coolness of dawn, the clouds that greet the early risers, the damp forest earth and the trees that wend their way from it in the slow journey of centuries. Sunny, freckled Helga loves all the times and kinds of days, all good things that live and grow. Like her mother, she likes to find the symbolism in these things, so that her life is full of meaning.
This morning, the crows tell her that it is Market Day.
By the time Helga has dressed and plaited her hair, her father has already loaded his cart, and hitched their family's dappled horse to its front. It is early yet in the autumn season, and so the bulk of their vegetables are still small on their vines and stalks, though Helga's father has gathered a barrel of their apple trees' earliest fruit to sell. She can see layers of wool from the sheep's last shearing cushioning a small collection of cheeses and the armies of bread she and her mother had baked with hard work and magic. The little charms and tokens crafted by her younger brothers are knotted into a cloth and stored safely in a corner.
Helga greets her father with a kiss on the cheek. "Some day," she says, "one of us will wake before you, so that we might at least aid you in this task with which you have burdened yourself."
"It is no burden," he replies with a smile, and Helga shakes her head with a fond sigh. Though all of them are busy before the sun rises over the mountains, Helric Hufflepuff makes them seem like layabouts. On Market Day, he begins his tasks in moonlight; the farm cannot be stalled even while its chief workers are busy selling wares, and so the things that cannot be done early are primed with skillful Charms while the cows still sleep in their pastures. Helga's mother and brothers have their own chores, in addition to magic lessons.
Helga goes to market with her father. The day this honor had been bestowed upon her five years prior had been one of the proudest and brightest of her life.
Helric is unwrapping two slices of bread for their breakfast when Helga hears the crows again. This time, though, their calls are angry, frightened, challenging. The brows of both father and daughter furrow as they look to one of the fallow fields. Crows fly about in a flurry, disappearing and reappearing from behind a tall patch of weeds.
Helric draws his wand, but Helga is already running. Who knows what thing is causing the crows' alarm? She reaches the weeds, and gasps in surprise and shortness of breath.
A long snake, mottled green as the forest floor and thicker in body than her wrist, hisses out in warning at the screaming crows. Its skin is flecked with blood, drawn by what appear to be more than talons. Helga has seen the snakes that inhabit the fields; none of them has ever looked like this, neither in size nor in color. What surprises her most of all, however, is the tingle she feels when she regards it, not of fear, but of something else far deeper, something akin to recognition. She cocks her head to one side, and all of a sudden, the snake swivels its head to stare directly into her eyes – into, she thinks, and inconceivably, beyond.
Helric thunders up behind her then, wand raised.
"What the Devil?" he swears. "Helga, do not stand so close!"
Helga takes a small step back, but her eyes remain locked with the snake's. "I do not think it will harm me," she murmurs, nigh unto herself.
All of a sudden, the snake falters. Its entire body rolls like the waves on a vast lake, and then it collapses onto the dirt with a sound like death. Before her father can stop her, Helga rushes to it, her skirts blooming around her as she sinks to the ground beside it.
For all her quick actions, she is hesitant to touch the snake, yet only for a heartbeat. Then she takes its head onto her lap, strokes its smooth scales. It shudders violently.
And then it transforms, and her fingers catch in the dark curls of a filthy, naked boy.
The crows cry out their surprise in time with Helga and her father.
Helric conjures a cloak to cover the boy, then levitates him, furtive glances cast around to make certain no one watches. The boy's arms hang limply, and his head lolls to one side. Helga gently reaches out to cradle him, smoothing the curls from his fevered brow.
"You are safe," she whispers into the boy's ear. "We will protect what you are." His cracked lips part, and he shivers slightly, though Helga does not know if this is a response.
She hopes so, for she can feel the magic surging in the places where her fingers touch his skin, and knows it does not all come from her.
It has been so long since she has met someone new with talents so very old.
Once Helric has gone to wake his wife, footsteps creaking over stubborn boards, Helga sets to work. She knows she will not be going to market today, though her father will need to depart as soon as he can break away from this unexpected morning, and so she rolls up her sleeves, finds a bucket, water, and cloth, and kneels beside the boy on his makeshift bed by the glowing hearth.
He looks so young with his face coated in grime, like a fairy child grown savage in the woods, yet as she takes the wet cloth to his skin, he seems to grow older before her eyes. He has long, dark lashes, a thin, pointed nose, and cheeks that look as if, even fully fed, they would still be hollow. Helga wonders at what color his eyes might be, and if they might age him a thousand years when he opens them – the cuts on his face and those on his skin when she gingerly opens the cloak loudly hint that they might. Her heart aches when she finally notices his more than visible ribs, like flesh stretched over a birdcage. With trembling fingers, she reaches out to touch him.
There is a sharp intake of breath – is it hers, or the boy's? – at the contact. He flinches. His eyes fly open, and he catches her wrist, somehow strong in spite of his battered state. A moment later, he winces at the action – it must have strained some wound.
Helga pries his grip from her wrist, finger by finger – having younger brothers, she is accustomed to escaping inescapable grasps. This grasp, though, is much older than theirs; with his eyes open now, he looks to be near her own age.
"Don't," she commands quietly. "You'll only harm yourself."
"Who are you?" he asks. His voice is rasping and harsh, so parched it has become like a crow's call. He tries to sit up.
Helga pushes him back down. "Don't," she repeats. She summons a goblet of water and brings it to his lips. "Drink."
His eyes are stubborn – and almost as deep a brown as his hair, she notes – but his thirst battles and overcomes this stubbornness. Helga watches as closely as her father's falcon to make certain he does not choke on the water, so quickly does he inhale it. When he has finished, she waves the goblet away with her hand, dabbing at his face again with her cloth, despite his scowls.
"You are a witch, at least," he says, still frowning. "Have you a reason, then, for allowing me to bleed to death instead of healing me?"
"I'll excuse your rudeness because you are in pain," she begins archly, and he looks away, slightly flushed. "I confess, I'm not yet as much a healer as my mother, who will tend to you as soon as she is able. Your wounds are many; I do not wish to harm you further. I might have used a salve, if we'd had the time to brew more during the week, which we did not, as we were preparing for Market Day. I know my herbs, boy, and with them I could have helped you, if only I'd had the foreknowledge that you would faint into my lap early one morning."
"Only old maids call me boy," he says, flushing deeper at – but rigorously ignoring – her comment about fainting. "Are you in disguise, as well as a witch who lacks healing powers? Or are mine eyes bewitched with fatigue, and those yellow plaits of yours are really grey?"
Helga sighs, annoyed, yet also fighting a smile. "No one here is bewitched," she promises, "except perhaps that goblet from which you drank. I am but seventeen."
"An important age," the not-boy remarks. "One which we share."
Helga eyes him then, curious and shrewd. The fire is low in its grate, and not so hot as to cause the perspiration on his brow. She soaks her cloth once more, waits as it wrings the excess water out of itself, and again begins her ministrations to his forehead. He tries to watch her, but she has positioned herself above his head, and he does not seem eager to crane his neck to look at her. He can talk through his fever with alarming lucidity.
"Why have you come here?" she asks at length. "What has happened to you?"
"Tell me your name," he says – not asks – in response.
Helga, who almost always trusts and almost never lies, tells him the truth. "And yours?" she adds. "For the sake of fairness."
When he smiles, it is without humor. "Nothing is fair," he replies, though he tells her anyway.
"Salazar Slytherin." Helga tries the name on her tongue. "Such a hissing name. How appropriate. Tell me, do you always disguise yourself as a serpent? I have heard of such talents, yet never seen them for myself. We are somewhat... isolated, here."
"Many of us have this skill out of necessity, where I come from."
Helga feels her heart lighten and her interest pique, not only at the word 'us,' but at the prospect of learning more about her new acquaintance. "And where is that?" she inquires.
Her interests, however, are disappointed. For his only reply is, "The fenlands," and nothing more.
"Will you tell me what happened?" she tries once more, hesitant.
He remains silent.
"Don't you trust me?"
He almost seems to scoff. "I trust no one."
Helga stops stroking his forehead, the cloth already warm from the temperature of his skin. "Yet you trusted me enough to tell me your name. A name is a powerful thing, Salazar Slytherin."
"I might have lied."
She regards him closely, considering. "No," she decides. "No, I don't believe you have."
"Then my mind is addled with fever."
Helga cannot help it; she laughs. "If this is your mind addled, then you shall make us all look fevered fools at our best. I am intrigued, but rather wary of what your character will be when your wits return to you."
Spying a cut she had missed on his left arm, she moves to his side, dabbing the wound with a featherlight touch. To his credit, Salazar winces only slightly from the pain.
"Please," she murmurs, "if you will not tell me what happened, at least tell me why you came here, to my family's farm."
"Is it not obvious?" he asks with another humorless smile.
And again, Helga sighs. "Nothing about you is obvious to me," she admits, "except that you are in great pain, and have been in great pain a long while, perhaps your entire life."
Salazar blinks – is that surprise in his slackened jaw? – but does not acknowledge her insight.
"It was the magic," he says at last, and Helga wonders if this is some sort of answer to her comment, after all. Yet then he adds, "What brought me to your farm, I mean. I could feel it."
She nods, remembering the tingling in her gut when she had first lain eyes upon his serpentine form. Her mother has always believed serpents to be living symbols of rebirth, of new beginnings. Looking at this boy who is insistent upon not being called such, Helga feels something new awakening, something set into motion. Something magic.
She wants to translate some of these thoughts into coherent words, to tell Salazar that she felt it, too, this magical connection, yet before she can, she hears loud, hurried footsteps on the stairs. Salazar stiffens, flinching more violently than he ever had at her touch. At once, Helga finds his hand, and cups her own around it. His fingers are cold and long, and hers are warm and small, though somehow, they fit together in comfort.
"Shh," Helga soothes. "It's only my mother, come to heal you."
He relaxes, but does not move his hand away from hers. Every so often, his fingers give the slightest tremble.
Outside, the crows are quiet as the sun crests over the mountains. As she has listened to them, to everything in the world that has something to tell, so will she listen to Salazar, and someday, she decides, she will decipher his story, piece by wordless piece.