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Chapter 2: A Birthday Feast
The sun had only been aloft over the land for an hour, but the inhabitants of Norfolk were already working steadily, knowing that the thin slivers of light that permeated the thick cloud cover would be enough to raise the temperature as the day wore on. In the distance, a handful of men could be seen navigating a boat along one of the more prominent rivers in the Broads, their eyes searching the muddy water for a large codfish or herring that might make an appearance on the dinner table that evening. Other peasants worked in the fields around them, carefully separating the masses of cheaper grains they harvested from the wheat grasses intended for the rich.
Up above, Venn Selwyn watched the peasants work from his place at the balcony of his bedroom tower. As he scanned the entire estate, he wondered why these men worked so tirelessly despite the knowledge that they would be barred from partaking in the evening meal with the nobles. It occurred to him briefly that they might be sneaking out some of the food for their own families, but he dismissed this thought, unwilling to allow himself to become paranoid like his uncle.
“You’re up early.” A woman’s voice came up the stairs behind him, and he turned to face her. His mother strode into his room, a lone house-elf trailing behind her to ensure that the train of her dress didn’t gather dust on the ancient palace floors. “Do you enjoy witnessing the preparation of your birthday dinner?”
“I merely wish to ensure that it is prepared properly,” he lied, allowing his back to face the intrusive sunlight and turning his full attention to the older woman. Her sand-colored hair cascaded down her back in thick waves, secured only by the glimmering crown inset with emeralds that adorned her head. The young man took her hands gently in his, navigating the small fortune of jewels that graced her fingertips and planting a soft kiss on a bit of exposed skin. “I have received adequate rest.”
“Good.” Edeline nodded, smoothing her long silk dress. Without being told, her elf began to reconstruct the bed behind them. “Are you looking forward to the evening’s events?”
“Yes,” Venn replied. “Not only the feast, but the hour in which I will inherit this fine castle.”
A smile crept across his mother’s face. She knew this was no ordinary birthday; her only son was turning twenty-five, which meant that he was now eligible to inherit his father’s sizeable wealth and the massive estate in which he currently resided. However, family tradition stated that the youngest Selwyn needed to find a bride before he could take his father’s place at the table. When Edeline became a widow seven years ago, she had begun asking Venn to escort her to various balls and social events, hoping he might find a young lady who was both attractive to him and appropriate for his standing. To her dismay, seven years had passed without any such victory.
Venn frowned slightly, interpreting her expression accurately. “Mother…”
“Darling, I was blessed with a son, but many of the other ladies at court were not so fortunate.” She placed her hands softly on his broad shoulders. “It would be to their benefit and ours if you made a baroness of one of their fine daughters, don’t you agree?”
“I have met them all, and while they are lovely indeed, none seem suitable for me.” Venn sighed, turning back to the balcony as the house elf finished its work and disappeared without a sound.
“I don’t understand,” Edeline persisted, her smile fading. “Some are more beautiful than others, certainly, but all are of noble birth and well-versed in the duties of a baron’s wife. I have even witnessed several of them playing in the courtyard with the children of the Duchess of Suffolk when she and the Duke come to visit with our own Duke and Duchess. They are both lively and restrained, and I believe they would make for very attentive mothers…”
“Why pursue the issue of fatherhood when I have not yet agreed to be married?” Venn interrupted, causing his mother to fall silent in her musing. “I know that it is my duty to take my father’s responsibilities, and I’m prepared to do that as soon as the rising of the next dawn. I simply disagree that it’s wise to invite the chaos of a new wife and children so soon afterwards.”
“It’s what our family has always done, sweetheart,” the woman said softly. “Your father and I began our marriage when he inherited this estate, and while any change requires some adjustment, I assure you that we kept our own domains. When I was blessed with your birth, the elves assisted me in your care, and your father ruled quite attentively.” She paused, stepping forward into the light and taking the empty place at her son’s side. “When we came together as a family, we were at our strongest. We worked as one to build a stable inheritance for you.”
Another sigh, and Venn glanced over at Edeline. “I will consider your request, Mother, as I do not wish to cause you distress. However, I wish to consult with my uncle on the matter.”
“That is agreeable to me.” She nodded, feeling grateful that the older man had stepped in to take the place of Venn’s father, who had perished unexpectedly in battle. “I am certain that Salazar will be able to offer wise counsel to you, as always.” However, she retained her doubts. Salazar had seen his fiftieth birthday nearly six months ago, and he had spent his entire life as a bachelor.
“Mother, I’d like to spend a hour or two in reflection to consider the importance of this evening,” Venn said, partly speaking the truth but also wishing that the matter might be laid to rest.
“Of course,” Edeline replied, realizing as she turned to go that the elf had forgotten that it had been involved in a duty before the situation with the bed had presented itself. She scowled for just a moment, marring her fair features temporarily, and swept down the stairs after the creature.
With the setting sun, the men who had been working out in the fields of the estate came inside to work on building an elaborate fire upon which to cook Venn’s birthday meal. The cod and herring that were caught on the river earlier in the day were roasted over the flames, and several men went into the vast cellar of the castle to tap barrels of ale, mead and wine for the evening. Various kinds of nuts and cheeses were assembled in decorative bowls by the women of the estate and, at Edeline’s special request, a cake made with fresh peaches was crafted for dessert.
The scent of all these fine delicacies struck the nostrils of Salazar Slytherin as he entered the castle, and he readily abandoned his coat to a passing house elf when he noticed a bit of fresh bread and cheese lying unattended on the grand table in the dining area. He took a seat, idly watching the servants bustle about the house as he indulged in the taste of the food in his mouth. Without thinking, he smoothed his dark brown hair, accidentally scattering crumbs in the strands. However, before he could reach up to knock them loose, a softer hand disposed of the intruders.
“Edeline,” he said with a smile, watching as she stepped quietly around the table and came to a halt before the fire, the rich gold of her hair and elaborate dress catching the light of the flames. “You look lovely.”
“Thank you, Salazar,” Edeline replied, choosing a small bit of cheese for herself.
“The celebration is shaping up to be quite an affair,” he commented further.
“If only,” Edeline said with a small sigh, taking the seat across from him. “The women at court are sure to be unhappy with me when they learn that I hosted this tiny family gathering instead of putting together a proper party and welcoming the rest of the country’s nobility into my home.”
“Why not invite more of your friends?” Salazar inquired. “The ballroom upstairs is so seldom used, and… if it was a question of money, I would have been willing to assist…”
“We have all of the necessary resources, though I appreciate your offer,” Edeline quickly corrected him. “Actually, Venn requested that only family come to honor him tonight.”
“I suppose it is his choice,” Salazar mused, his dark eyes searching the fire lazily. The feast was nearly ready, and the servants were beginning to set the table around the two of them.
“It is regrettable,” Edeline said, her expression falling slightly. “I attempted to speak with him again today regarding the many unwed young women I’ve seen at court in the passing months. Despite my urging that the daughters of my friends are lovely and suitable for a man of his stature, he still shows no interest in finding a bride.” She met Salazar’s eyes. “I do not know how I can expect him to choose a wife and produce a family if he refuses large social gatherings.”
“I see,” Salazar replied, plucking a small bunch of grapes from a tray that had been placed before him only moments ago. He offered one to Edeline, which she accepted after a moment’s hesitation. “As it turns out, my dear sister, I may have a solution for your troubles.”
“What solution is this?” Edeline asked, looking curious.
“I had not considered it fully until this moment, but I have recently made the acquaintance of a lovely countess from Galloway, a Scotswoman named Rowena Ravenclaw,” Salazar explained. “Her beauty is matched only by that of her daughter, a girl who shares her mother’s dark hair and fair skin but whom has also received her father’s blue eyes.” He continued, slightly amused at the way he had so easily captured Edeline’s attention. “Her name is Helena, and she is but two years younger than our own Venn. She remains unmarried.”
“It is indeed surprising to hear of such a fair noblewoman who is yet unwed.” Edeline considered this prospect for a moment. “Why has this gentle Helena been unable to secure a husband?”
“She is a tempestuous girl, intently focused on her studies and uninterested in attending social gatherings at court. I believe her mother shares the frustration you feel with regard to Venn’s indifference,” Salazar mused, taking a sip of wine and finding it to his liking.
Edeline watched him closely. “You suggest that he will view her as a kindred spirit?”
Before Salazar could respond, Venn found his way down the stairs, just in time for the platter of freshly roasted fish to find a resting place before his regal seat. “Uncle!” He received the man in an embrace, gently touching his mother’s shoulder as a way of thanking her for the celebration.
“Each year, you resemble your father more and more closely,” Salazar commented.
Venn nodded, taking his seat, but his attention was suddenly stolen from his uncle’s words when he noticed the glimmering pendant that hung about the man’s neck. The locket, a golden container emblazoned with an ‘S’ crafted from miniscule emeralds, never seemed to leave his uncle’s body, and Venn had long suspected that the man wore it even while bathing and sleeping. He could hardly blame his uncle for this paranoia, considering the monetary value of the necklace. Venn was proud to know that he would receive the heirloom upon Salazar’s demise.
The three nobles took a moment to enjoy the fine feast, and when one wineskin was completely emptied, Salazar stood up and went upstairs without a word. He returned a moment later, carrying the unmistakable crown of a Baron, the very one that had belonged to Venn’s father.
“Are you prepared?” he asked, coming to stand next to Venn, who remained seated.
“Yes,” the younger man replied, folding his hands on the table and sitting very still. Slowly, deliberately, his uncle lowered the crown, but it came to rest not on his head but atop his hands. Venn unlocked his fingers, taking the crown and looking over at his mother. “I…”
“Family tradition still dictates that you be wed before you rightfully wear the crown, my child,” she said, biting her lip nervously. “It is ultimately your decision to wear it now or in the future, of course, but…”
“Mother, if it’s my decision, I choose to wear it now, as its true owner,” Venn said in protest, looking over at Salazar for assistance. “Uncle, please, come and place the crown where it belongs.”
“My dear nephew, your mother is a righteous woman, and she speaks the truth. I beg you at least consider her words,” Salazar said, causing Venn to frown slightly. “I have recently encountered a young lady who is scarcely two years younger than you, a noblewoman of the county of Galloway in Scotland. I believe that you would not regret making her acquaintance.”
“How would she be any different from any of the young women Mother encounters at court?”
“They say that her beauty is legend,” Salazar responded. “I have seen her myself, and I can confirm that this is indeed truth. I have scarcely viewed a fairer maiden in all my fifty years.”
“A legendary beauty, you say?” Venn considered this for a moment. Though he had not yet felt any desire to begin a family of his own, the idea of meeting such a creature was intriguing to him. “I suppose she is at least worth a look, so to speak.”
Salazar smiled, nodding. “Indeed. I will speak with her parents and arrange a meeting.” He shared a knowing look with Edeline, thankful that Venn’s baser instincts had caused him to reconsider, at least for now. “I will be happy to lend you my prized medallion on the day of your wedding, my nephew. After all, your ascension will represent great things for our family.”
Venn nodded in response, allowing a smile to escape his lips. “I look forward to the encounter.” He glanced down at the glittering crown at his side, adorned with precious pearls and fine gold. His eyes traced over the exquisite feast to the priceless necklace that he knew would soon be his. In truth, he could not recall a fonder birthday, not a single competitor in twenty-five long years.
I have attempted to be as historically accurate as possible when composing this piece, but I make no claims of perfection. For instance, I pulled the inheritance age of twenty-five from my own thoughts, though I suspect the actual age of inheritance would have been much lower in the Middle Ages. My excuse is that wizards typically outlive their Muggle fellows. By the way, the Broads are a series of lakes and rivers in the southeastern part of England, in case readers are wondering.
I do maintain a fairly strict adherence to canon, and those details are credited to J. K. Rowling. Also, for those who are interested, “Venn” is an Old English name that refers to someone who comes from a marsh, and “Edeline” is Old English and means “noble”.
Thank you for your continued interest!