My chambers are dark, lit only by the glow of the midnight moon.
The castle creaks with rawness of stone and antiquity of magic, filled with the power welling up from beneath the mountain and the fire of intention fuelled by our four vibrant streams of magic, combined.
It is nearly impossible to recognise this expanse of land from just six months ago: pristine grasses as far as the eye could see, cresting on a tidal wave of green, the shadow of grey stone a skeleton underneath. A spider's web holding together an enterprise that, tonight, feels like folly.
I had expected to feel exultant.
The Great Hall is nearly complete, large enough to hold hundreds of students.
I fill my lungs with air and my mind with the possibilities. Imagining.
Our dream—to throw open the doors of the castle, to embrace young witches and wizards. To educate them. My dream—to bring them together, no matter their origin.
My stomach turns.
I look around the enormous hall, at the tables that line it and at the expanse of windows that arch up to meet the ceiling. My eyes rise with the line of glass and I gasp. She has finished it, then, and it is magnificent—a fitting capstone to this room, with all its intrinsic promise.
Today, for the first time, the soaring ceiling of the Great Hall reflects the sky beyond the castle. We bring students here from far and near, together under one roof, it means to say, but we never forget our connection to the world outside. And today, the day of the culmination of all our work, the heavens are a perfect blue, white clouds cavorting across the morning sky.
I pause for a moment just inside the threshold to watch Rowena puzzle through one of the documents Salazar left with her last night. We are nearly ready for the final and most important layer of the enchantments we have woven into wood and stone and glass, preparing the castle for the children who will one day live here. Rowena has taken on the job of blending our magics together: balancing our strengths; compensating for each of our weaknesses.
Right now she's obviously vexed, twisting a dark curl around her finger and tugging hard. Even from here I can see the shadows beneath her eyes. She must have been up all night again, sifting and organising the endless array of threads that must be woven together in order for everything we are building to hold fast.
She sighs, putting the parchment down, and glances towards me.
"Break your fast, Helga?"
Rowena moves her parchments aside and gestures to the table laden with plates of fresh fruit and elf-made breads. It's a peace offering from her, I think, after our most recent skirmish. Unspoken acknowledgment that giving safe haven to the elves had been, in fact, the right thing to do and not just for the exquisite food.
I'm not especially hungry, but that isn't the point of this interchange.
"Yes, thank you, Rowena."
I sit with her at the far end of the long table, an oasis of life in the midst of this enormous, empty hall, and fill my plate with fruit and cheese. The men have not yet arrived. We two rise early and are often first to the table. Most mornings of these long winter months have been spent together, she and I buried in piles of parchment, designing and planning, letting ourselves envision our hopes made real—the castle alive with young voices teeming with magic.
But this morning, the air between us is strained. We've come to the end of the journey and, along with sealing the final enchantments into the bedrock of the castle, decisions must be made. Today we must charm the Great Book, the Grimoire that will record the births of witches and wizards from these isles from today onwards. One might not expect such a task to be as fraught as it is with conflict, but it lies at the core of differences that once, not so very long ago, we appreciated in one another, but which now threaten the foundations upon which the castle stands.
The door swings open, announcing Salazar's arrival. I wonder, sometimes, if he expects us to stand.
I watch for Godric, at his heels, somehow making it appear less like he's a few steps behind and more as if Salazar has paved the way for his entrance.
"What cheer with you, ladies?" Godric asks. He looks as tired as Rowena.
My throat is tight and I can only nod.
"I trust," says Salazar, indicating without a word that Godric should sit alongside him, "that you all passed the night restfully."
Godric's head bows and his lips curve into the hint of a smile. He leans into Salazar as if he might touch him, and I wonder how they spent last night. I catch Godric's eye and smile at his blush. They are so careful, these two, even with us. We, who have known one another so long, we who know them best, who love them.
Rowena rustles a long roll of parchment and raises her eyebrows. It's clear how she passed the long night hours. I haven't asked how her husband and small daughter, Helena, have been faring all these weeks. I see them out and about, revelling in the alterations to the castle day by day, but rarely take the time to stop and talk, to ask Magnus his thoughts about the changes occurring beneath his feet.
There is too much to say, and so I say nothing, focusing my attention instead on the fruit and cheese on my plate.
"Is everyone prepared for the Hallowing?" Rowena asks.
Today at sunset is most auspicious. We have agreed to take advantage of this moment of good fortune to complete our work.
"I have the stick," says Godric, producing what he has told us he prefers to call a wand. Made by his own hand, as all of our gifts to the castle must be, it is a thing of beauty, polished Elder wood, long and pulsing with energy. We lean forward and admire it, for its elegance and for its capacity to channel magic with focus and power never before witnessed.
"Salazar?" Rowena asks.
He places his hand on the table in front of us. He is wearing his gift as a ring, the stone, its deep, vibrant green nearly a match for Godric's eyes. 'The stone of memory,' he calls it. Of course he would keep it close for as long as he could.
"It is magnificent, Salazar," Rowena says, and his colour rises just a bit. This stone holds a piece of his heart, I think; it is so precious.
Godric leans forward as if to speak, and Salazar angles his head closer to him. He's whispering but I can hear the words, soft and desperate in Godric's ear.
"Please, maíte," Salazar whispers. Both men flush at the endearment; they cannot seem to help themselves.
Godric's eyes look unbearably sad, and my stomach twists at witnessing so intimate an argument, even as it is tangled in the fabric of the broader conflict among us all. Their eyes meet again; their struggle is silent, the agony of its cries nearly bursting free from beneath the surface.
Godric's hand envelops Salazar's, covering the stone, and long fingers wrap around his hand. It takes a moment, but finally, Salazar threads his fingers through Godric's and both men breathe easily again.
Rowena rushes in with her offering, as if afraid tensions will rise once more.
The tiara is dazzling. A crown worthy of the spirit of exploration and mystical receptiveness it embodies.
"Beautiful, Rowena," I murmur, and she smiles. Each of our offerings is so personal. It's no wonder we're on edge, exposing ourselves like this, hoping what we offer is sufficient. Hoping that together, the gifts will assuage the worst of Salazar's fears.
Finally, it's my turn. It took me seven months to weave it of Demiguise hair and protective magic. It feels like water in my hands, and I will miss it when it's gone.
"The cloak," I say and lay it on the table between us.
Salazar reaches for it with both hands, examining it, testing it, I think, plumbing the depth of its protective magic. I watch him, hoping that it, together with the rest, will be enough.
He holds onto the cloak for a long moment, then brings the cloth to his eyes as if it will show him the extent of its power and reassure him. After one long moment, then another, he bows his head. Regret and grief lay heavy on his shoulders.
Godric buries his face in his hands, and Rowena looks at me, her eyes wet.
My heart is pounding and I can hardly breathe.
We must finish this conversation, though we've started and stopped it a thousand times.
"Salazar," I say, though there is a knot in my throat.
Salazar scowls as he angles his body away, and Godric's face falls. Salazar's fist pounds the table, and a slice of pear slides from my plate.
"The danger to us is far greater than the loss to them," Salazar growls, and it doesn't matter that he's diving into the conversation midstream. We have discussed this issue ad infinitum.
We believe we understand Salazar's views, though none of us can fully appreciate the gravity of the threats his people endured during their years in Spain, nor the reality of the horrific losses they bore when all else failed.
He comes by his isolationist tendencies honestly, at least.
"We can protect them, Salazar," Rowena is saying, and there's desperation in her voice. She's trying to soothe him, but his expression is still thunderous. "Between the stick and the cloak, we have the power to guard—"
"To guard?" Salazar's face is flushed crimson. Bright as the blood he keeps reminding us has already been spilled and will be spilled over and over again if we are not forever wary.
"More power than the people of Nava´rre who were massacred in their sleep by rageful non-magicals, jealous of what they could not have?" He pauses to look each of us in the eye. "Non-magicals who should have iunderstood/i them and loved them, despite their abnormality. After all," he hisses, "they were family."
I wince at the venom in his voice.
I look again at Salazar. I will make one last attempt. It's all I have left, I think.
"Salazar," I say, keeping my voice soft. More steady than I feel right now. He is a Legilimens, but I make the effort to appear calm. He is my friend, and I am his, no matter how deeply we disagree nor how much I fear his position on this issue. "I understand your concern. I do. But you work with dangerous potions ingredients every day. I never would have thought you the sort to eliminate one simply because it posed a potential danger."
I meet his eyes and hide a shiver at the remoteness there. He's determined, loss and fear driving him towards what he believes to be the only solution.
There is nothing left to say.
I can see only one way out now. It's not what I want, but I have prepared for this, weeks of research and hours of practice with the spell, though I cannot fully predict the repercussions.
Still. It is the best choice. The only choice. I must act before the decision is made and the opportunity lost forever.
Salazar is shouting now, and the way his voice breaks rips into me. Even so, I know what I must do.
I lay my hands flat on the table, the four Hallows surrounding them. I take a deep breath, drawing wisps of each one's essence from the magical items that lay in a circle on the table.
Rowena is sobbing now, and Godric's face is mottled, his jaw tight with fear. I look at them, my three friends, my three comrades – we who had hoped to unite and strengthen our world.
I fear there can be no our anymore.
"Findere per Speciem," I whisper. White light flows from the palms of my hands, and my body shakes.
The air shimmers with magic. The light of my spell, ethereal and blindingly white, swirls around us, faster and faster; air particles and magic collide and fill the room with sound. We are holding our breath, and then, without warning, the funnel cloud of light breaks, splitting into its component parts. Seven strands of colour, ribbons streaming as if broken by a prism on to the heavens.
Three sets of eyes look at me in shock.
Rowena is the first to speak, the first to grasp it. She is looking at me with wide eyes, but Godric and Salazar are staring at the ceiling. The blue of the sky has deepened as if its very hue has chased the clouds away to make room for what is now stretching across it end to end.
A rainbow. Vivid. Enormous. White light shattered into an arc of colour across the sky.
Salazar looks at me, confusion and anger shadowing his features.
"What have you done?
I tilt my chin and meet them head on. They can say what they will; now they can do as they please…
It is finished.
The potions laboratory, for all that it occupied the dungeons, deep below the castle, always seemed to emit its own sort of light. Fires beneath the cauldrons lining the work benches accounted for some, but Hermione was certain the iridescence of the potions fumes themselves brought about the glow she loved so much. Sometimes the deepest grey, but more often shimmering with every colour of the rainbow, each detail of colour and texture and shine marked its potion as unique in the world with a job and a function all its own.
Hermione held her hands over the cauldron simmering in the middle of her lab table. As she drew in a deep breath and exhaled, diffuse blue light flowed from her hands, bathing the bowl of the cauldron, shifting its colour from umber to shimmering sapphire.
Hermione looked up at her mentor and nodded, giving the cauldron one last glance. The Potions mistress smiled and came closer to examine the potion.
"It's nearly time for the Welcoming Feast, so let's see if this is ready to test, and then we can both prepare for tonight. It won't do to keep the headmistress waiting."
"What do you think?" asked Hermione, trying not to lean over Professor Evans's shoulder as she decanted the potion into a narrow tube and brought it to the desk at the front of the room.
"You tell me," she said, perching at the edge of the desk and holding the clear glass so that the torchlight sent sparks off the surface of the potion.
"The Nosce Ipsum potion is a derivative of the solution used to create both the Foe Glass and, if the Grimoire we found is accurate, the Mirror of Erised. It utilises mercury and beryllium from the Foe Glass and the technique of condensing dreams into oneiric distillate from the Mirror of Erised to, we hope, create a substance that will allow the imbiber to interact with the reflective glass so as to reveal his or her… destiny."
Hermione stumbled over the last word but Professor Evans didn't comment.
"So, does this potion display the properties that would predict such an outcome?"
Hermione raised the flask to the torchlight and examined it. "It's the right colour," she said, eyeing the glistening liquid. "Thickness looks appropriate and it has the characteristic shimmer that revealing potions must." Unlike the last four they'd tested. She leaned her nose closer to the opening to smell. "It smells of Amortentia base, just as we predicted it would."
"Excellent, Hermione. The Ministry will be pleased," said Evans.
"If it works," added Hermione.
"Can't be any worse than the Astronomical methods they're using now, and they know it," muttered Evans, and Hermione snorted.
"Maybe they should just stop altogether," said Hermione, "and let people work it all out for themselves. My mum said that she's heard stories of times when—"
"It would be total chaos," interrupted Evans. "People competing for position, hurting each other to get what they want. People striving for jobs unsuited to them and others languishing or taking the path of least resistance despite their potential. No, no. It would be a disaster."
"Don't you ever wonder, though?" asked Hermione in a low voice.
This was touchy ground, but she and Professor Evans had spent so many hours together during the last school year and over the summer, they'd grown comfortable with one another. Starting her apprenticeship early—during the summer instead of the beginning of September when the other students returned—had been a stroke of genius, Hermione thought. Here it was the night of the Welcoming Feast and she already had her fifth potion to test, and, perhaps, the opportunity to have a conversation she'd been aching to have for ages.
"Wonder?" Evans's green eyes looked curious but not angry. Hermione breathed a bit more easily.
"What it would have been like to take a different path. You know, when you were still in school. To have studied something else, or maybe even to have got married and gone off and had a family. Had a partner."
Evans stood up and walked behind the desk, placing the glass tube in its holder on the wooden surface. For a moment, Hermione was afraid that she had crossed a line, that her teacher was going to reprimand her for challenging the status quo, for questioning the methods that had been used for centuries.
After all, she knew what was expected. She had done since childhood. Nobody decided for ithemselves/i what path to take. The Ministry decided that for you. And, really, if a potion (to take if you were magical before looking into the glass) or a looking glass alone (to gaze on if you were not) could improve the accuracy of those decisions and, as a result, the happiness of the population, wasn't that all for the better?
The trouble was, Hermione wasn't sure any of it was for the better. She loved potions work, really, she did, but she would have given up her favourite potions book for the option to do research without also having to teach. She shuddered. All those students. All those essays to mark and exams to give. Why icouldn't/i she just do the lab work?
Worst of all, though, was the bitter reality that she could have this life –which was at least part of what she wanted – but not with a partner; not with children of her own. Of course the Ministry would never iforbid/i anyone to marry, and there were other career choices that permitted both work and a family life. But that wasn't the path Hermione had been assigned. So if she ever did want to marry, once the Ministry had agreed on the suitability of the match, she could choose to step down from her position—walking away from an academic career—and start a family.
One or the other. The path not taken, forever lurking.
"Sorry," she said. "Just thinking."
"As was I," said her professor, looking contemplative. "There have been times in my life when I have wondered, yes." She paused, glancing at Hermione and then back to the tabletop. "I have occasionally imagined how some of that sort of chaos might feel."
Hermione felt a surge of excitement and fear, imagining a world where she could do ianything/i. Make any choice she wanted and then change her mind, too, if she wanted to try something else. She wrapped her arms around herself.
"I'm afraid people will feel even more trapped by the potion," said Hermione. "As if a magical reflection is even more binding than the Astrological pronouncement."
"I know," Evans said. "Still, we don't even know if the potion works. So." She smiled. "Will you do the honours?"
"Seven, precisely," answered Evans.
Hermione took the dropper from her instrument bag and carefully drew out the fluid. One by one, she dropped them on her tongue, letting the liquid pool before swallowing it all. It tasted slightly bitter with a sweet note underneath. She tried to trace its path as it entered her body, as if she might learn something essential about herself by feeling it work.
"No rash," said Evans, looking closely at Hermione's hands and face. "So we've eliminated that problem. Now, we wait."
Four hours. In four hours, she would return to the dungeon and look in the mirror and see whether the future the Ministry had chosen for her matched the future (the hopes the fears the dreams) bubbling up inside her.
She wasn't sure which she was more afraid to see. That the Ministry had been right, or that they had been wrong. Utterly wrong.
The office of the Headmaster of Hogwarts had lain empty for weeks, though from the look of it, one might think its former occupant had just stepped out for a walk and a cup of tea. Books and oddities still lined the walls, and the desk sat piled high with parchment to be sorted and books to be examined before being returned to their shelves. It was a place still busy with work to be done, pupils to supervise, and bigger world problems to manage.
Severus sighed and sat behind the enormous desk.
The portraits all around the office were empty, as if their usual occupants were pronouncing judgement on his appointment to the position. Still, the door had opened to him, verifying his right, even perhaps the necessity that he occupy this seat. Surely the castle knew better than the readers of the Daily Prophet or the pupils (and parents) whose whispers followed him as he strode down Diagon Alley in preparation for the year to come.
Fawkes' perch, too, stood empty. Bereft.
Seems appropriate enough, Severus thought. He's no longer going to rise from the ashes, and neither will I. When I burn, it will be for once and for all. Let it at least be for good.
He turned to look out of the windows that stretched behind him. The sun was setting and the Hogwarts Express would soon arrive. How many students would be missing this year? There would be no Muggle-born students, of course. They should already be in hiding or, if they weren't, would be on the run soon enough. Potter and Weasley and Granger would be absent, he knew. On a quest Dumbledore wouldn't reveal. Hidden away.
A pounding on the door startled him.
If he could find a way to avoid giving those idiots the password to his office, he would. The Dark Lord would, unfortunately, not approve.
He sighed and willed away the headache that was pressing at the edges of his eyes.
"Headmaster!" shouted a voice at the door followed by more pounding.
Severus flicked his wand, and the door swung open, revealing Amycus Carrow, red-faced, arm raised for yet another bash at the heavy wooden door.
"Yes, Amycus?" Severus said, his voice pitched low. "An emergency already?"
"Otherwise why would you deem it necessary to make such an exorbitant amount of noise merely to speak with me?"
Amycus fidgeted. "Well, Headmaster, I jus' wanted to be sure you'd received my proposals, didn't I?"
"Did you?" repeated Severus. "How thoughtful."
Amycus stood, perhaps waiting to be invited to sit. Severus lifted his eyebrows but said nothing.
"Erm," said Amycus.
Still, Severus said nothing.
"Erm," said Amycus again.
"Will that be all?" asked Severus, sorting through a thick pile of parchment, tossing one after the other into the bin.
Amycus's face grew even redder, but he only grunted.
"Then you may go," said Severus, still not looking up.
Only when the door slammed shut behind the retreating wizard did Severus lean back in his chair and throw the remaining parchment back onto the desk. Proposals, indeed.
He lifted a sheet out of the pile and curled his lip.
Two columns. Both excessively long.
Suggested list of transgressions: followed closely by, Suggested punishments for transgressions:
Severus shuddered. He knew the Carrows were cruel, but this was beyond the pale. Whipping for being out after curfew? Crucio for suggesting that Muggle-borns could be magical? How was he supposed to—?
He looked up at Dumbledore's portrait. The old wizard had finally returned to his frame, but his soft wheezes indicated his unavailability as surely as his absence had done.
"I need you, old man," he whispered, but there were only Dumbledore's snores to answer him.
The Great Hall is silent, sunset's final moments leaving stripes across the sky, a counterpoint to the rainbow that still arches above us all. The whirlwind has stripped the day away, casting us on its wings from sunrise to sunset.
I had been braced for an assault, but, in truth, my decision to act came so quickly that I wasn't prepared. Not really.
"This is no solution."
Even so, Salazar has been unable to tear his eyes from the ceiling.
"It is the only solution," I answer. The only way to ensure that no matter what happened today, some version of our world would survive. Segregated or not. Fragmented or whole. Each ribbon of life free to unfurl into its own identity, to develop its own distinct self.
"How will you even know the impact of what you have done here, Helga?"
Trust Rowena to be concerned about the veracity of one's conclusions.
I smile. She doesn't think me simple, but she persists in underestimating me. Did she think I would ever do what I'd done today without ensuring the existence of a portal?
It's small, as magical looking glasses go and about the size of the palm of my hand. Edged in gold and polished to a sheen, its face reflects all the colours of the rainbow. I touch one—red—and I see the four of us, sitting just as we are now. And another—yellow—where the hall is empty, almost bereft. Then, another—violet—and I see the argument in full swing, louder than before by the looks of it, and I flinch. One by one, I stroke the tip of my finger along the ribbons of colour. One by one, I see us in all our permutations. Crying, shouting, clinging to one another, storming off.
The possibilities—the probabilities—unfold before us. I look to my friends, my partners. They will forgive me. They will not forgive me. We will repair our relationships. We won't. They will understand. They will not. The Hallows will follow us into our new worlds, or they won't—each world shaped by the magic contained there.
But here, right now, I open my mouth and, at first, I'm not sure I am capable of producing sound. One by one, my friends tear their eyes from the mirror I hold. One after the other, they place their arms around me. The setting sun streams in through the window, throwing yellow light onto the walls, bathing us in warmth.
Finally, safe in their embrace, I find my voice.
"It is begun."