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Diamonds into Coal by academica
Chapter 5: Reflection
He was more handsome than she remembered from school.
The first class at Hogwarts had been tiny, with only twenty-two members. Helena had known she would earn a place within it as soon as she learned of her mother’s plans, and she suspected Venn had enjoyed a similar inkling. They were among the privileged few children with a blood relation to the four great witches and wizards who had built and organized the institute of magical learning. A handful of others, prominent sons and daughters of the noble families in neighboring cities and countries, were invited to join, but otherwise, it was quite exclusive. Their days were spent sitting in small classrooms crafted with smooth stone and shining new wood, listening to great men and women pass through to share their talents and recent discoveries. Hogwarts did not enjoy a permanent faculty until Helena’s fourth year, when a traveling potioneer named Oswyn Oglethorpe found Hogwarts so much to his liking that his single lecture turned into a week of talks, and then several months, during which he set up quarters in the dungeons. He was still in residence the next year, when Godric Gryffindor announced that the position of Headmaster or Mistress should be taken in turns so that the Founders could save a bit of money and each take up formal faculty positions of their own. This system still continued.
Unfortunately, the legacy of Helena and her classmates had not been so eternal. Gustavus Gryffindor, the Founder’s only son, enjoyed a proud legacy at Hogwarts, with the dual honor of being knighted by King Iago ab Idwal of Wales on his seventeenth birthday. However, he perished in a skirmish with the Norman armies three days prior to his graduation from Hogwarts. Three of the witches in Helena’s class never completed their coursework, succumbing to their mothers’ demands for marriage and the presentation of an opportunity for a wealthy match. In the end, only twelve of the original twenty-two actually finished, Venn and Helena among them.
She had only ever stolen glances at him, admiring his fine hunting jackets from across the lecture hall or looking up in time to see him pass her place at the single table shared by all the students. In seven years, they had never found cause to have a conversation, and barely one to make eye contact. Now that she had no essays to complete, however, Helena found herself painfully mesmerized by the careful way in which he ate his soup, paying just enough attention to her father’s incessant rambling to know when to answer a question but ignoring him otherwise. Normally her suitors set flattering Rowena and getting to know Witter as equal priorities, but this man appeared to be focused on his own hunger more than anything else. It was a bit of a shock.
Suddenly, Helena was distracted by the slight tap of a cold leather boot against her shin. She turned to look at her mother, and she could barely make out the words that Rowena mouthed, twisted as they were by the obvious expression of pleasure on her lips: don’t stare.
She averted her eyes, carefully bringing a spoonful of soup to her lips and tasting the savory brew. The liquid was warm and felt surprisingly filling as it slid down her throat and into her stomach, and for a moment, Helena wondered what it would be like to be a peasant and dream of a meal as succulent as what she had been offered for a mere appetizer. However, the thought deterred her only long enough to tap into her curiosity, and she smiled with everyone else at the table when a fine roasted goose was brought and placed before her as an edible centerpiece.
“Do you often enjoy meals so rich?” Venn asked, finally turning his attention to her.
Helena smiled politely, folding her hands neatly in her lap. “Yes, we are indeed blessed.”
“We feast upon goose often, particularly in the winter months,” Venn continued, and Helena could not tell whether he had even acknowledged her response, let alone shown any interest in it. She watched as he bit into the meat, stripping it from the bone and wiping the juice with the back of his hand before it could proceed precariously down his cheek. “You have good elves. This is very tender.” He glanced over at her once again. “Or do the peasants prepare your food?”
“Elves, mostly,” Helena replied, disliking his arrogant tone but playing along all the same. “The peasants offer to help sometimes with the seasonal dinners, so that they may take the scraps.”
“Yes, I have had the same experience,” Venn replied.
“Will you not dine with us, darling?” Witter interrupted, and Helena looked up at him to see that the others at the table were staring at her plate, where a full leg of meat sat untouched, cooling.
“Of course, Father,” Helena said, picking up the leg and carefully pulling a sizeable strip of flesh from the bone, folding it into her mouth and letting the rich, fatty taste fill up her senses. She ate the rest of her meal with silent lips, finding herself too concerned with her manners to busy herself with conversation. Following dessert, her father stood up and broke the quiet atmosphere.
“Shall we have a dance?” he asked. Rowena smiled, and Edeline blushed, nodding shyly at him. Venn stood up as well, extending his upturned palm to Helena. She let him help her to her feet.
The five of them glided into the adjoining private ballroom, and Venn took only a few moments to admire the elegant familial tapestry on the anterior wall before gently pulling Helena onto the dance floor. She moved along with him, although she was a bit surprised at his forward nature. As he turned her about, she noticed that her parents and his mother were enjoying a friendly conversation, but that all three pairs of eyes were locked firmly upon her and her handsome suitor. She smiled and found herself able to ignore her displeasure over not being properly asked.
After several minutes, Witter bowed low and made a show out of asking Edeline for a dance, and Rowena clapped and cheered them on until it was time for her to take a turn about the floor with him. Meanwhile, Helena finally found the courage to look Venn in the eyes for a second time.
“Do you like to dance?”
He blinked. “Not particularly,” and there was a pause, “but I suppose it is good exercise.”
“Indeed,” Helena agreed, adjusting the position of her hand on his broad shoulder and relishing in the subtle breeze created by her bustling skirts. “Though not equal to that which is had on horseback, I must admit.”
“Horseback?” His eyes moved back to hers. “Do you ride often?”
“Yes, nearly every day,” Helena replied, and the thought brought the smile back to her face. “I prefer it to the carriage whenever possible. Fresh air is difficult to come by in this old castle.”
“I can sympathize,” Venn remarked, and a smile peeked out of his lips at last. “As a boy, I found much joy in hunting game on our land with my father. I do go out occasionally on my own now.”
“How lovely,” she said, and her curiosity got the best of her. “Where is your father this evening?”
“He has passed away,” Venn said, and she was sad to see the smile scurry away nervously.
“I’m very sorry,” she responded, referring to her comment and the incident itself.
“You did not know,” he remarked flatly, shifting his concentration back to the dance.
After a brief reprieve, she attempted a second time. “I remember you from Hogwarts.”
Venn glanced back up at her. “Yes, your face seems somewhat familiar.”
Helena tried not to frown. Her face should have been instantly recognizable, as she had often overheard other students conversing in private about her flawless skin and dark, thick hair. At the very least, he should have commented on the clarity of her eyes by this portion of the evening.
“It seems a pity now that I did not take the chance to know you better,” she added emptily.
“Most did not. I kept primarily to myself,” he said, moving his hand an inch or two higher on her waist and adjusting his pace slightly as the speed of the music quickened. “I prefer the quiet.”
Helena could not disagree but so much with his point. Although her fine figure and pretty face would have been most appropriate on a social butterfly, she found it more to her tastes to ignore the gossip and flattery and take her coveted beauty upstairs to her room and a good book.
“Have those habits remained even following your years as a student?” she asked.
“Very much so,” Venn said, and he glanced into her eyes as he turned her about, daring to take an additional dip in those light, clear irises, which cast such a sharp contrast against the darker hues that adorned nearly every inch of her palace. He found himself uncomfortably pulled in, though he could not have known how much of the tugging was Helena’s own effort, beckoning him to her. “I find myself spending long hours in my room, admiring our family’s land or reading.”
“I also enjoy reading,” Helena answered, and her tone took on a new levity. “In fact, the pastime commonly intersects with my love for my horse, as I often take her into town to visit the Muggle marketplace. I scarcely return without at least two or three new volumes,” she added breathlessly.
Venn broke eye contact with her now, but she failed to notice, so enthralled as she was with his dancing and the stiff, clean odor of his freshly laundered jacket. She was having such fun—
And then, his hand fell away from her waist, and the music had stopped, and his mother was exchanging salutations of farewell with her parents. When she found a rooting place for her feet once more, she glanced up to find him watching her anew. “Your gardens, my lady, are quite lovely. Would you care to join me for a walk before the sun has sunk too far beyond our reach?”
“Indeed, it would be my pleasure, good sir,” Helena responded, taking his arm.
Outside, the flowers and trees went on for several miles in all directions, encircling the castle in a protective embrace. A season’s worth of fireflies had taken up residence in the greenery, lighting the path of the two young nobles as they stepped softly along the garden path. A warm spring breeze guided the fading sun down toward its grave, the horizon that would grant it slumber. Helena had often taken a night of fitful sleep out into this central clearing, soothing it with one of her precious tomes as she watched a new sun take its first breaths, but here, moving in the gathering darkness with a handsome young Baron at her side, she found pleasure all the more.
After several yards, the trees opened up upon a quiet pool, the middle marked by an elegant statue of a raven. Beneath the water, tiny precious sapphires knitted together to form a base.
Helena lighted on the stone edge of the still fountain. “I hope you have enjoyed your visit.”
“Yes, the feast was excellent, and the dancing enjoyable,” Venn replied, sitting next to her. “You must pass along my compliments, and surely those of my mother, to your mother and father.”
“I will, of course,” Helena replied. Her eyes found his face and witnessed her suitor staring down into the pond, around at the flowers, anywhere but back at her. “Venn,” she said in a soft tone.
His eyes shot back up to hers, and she slowly crossed the distance and touched his forearm.
“It would be my pleasure to welcome you both back to our home again, sometime soon.”
He blinked, but said nothing, and then a new voice shattered Helena’s perfect reverie.
“Venn!” It was Edeline, calling for her son. “Venn, darling, we must begin our journey!”
Venn stood up without a word to Helena, and she too kept silent as she followed him back toward the warm light of the castle. As they stepped through the entryway to the ballroom, Edeline smiled, extending a hand to Venn. “We have a long carriage ride ahead of us.”
“Indeed, Mother, and I desire my rest,” Venn said, shaking Witter’s hand as the party made their way back to the front entrance of the palace. “I have had the happiest of times. Thank you all.”
Behind her mother, Helena placed a hand on the stair railing once again to steady herself.
“Yes, we have all enjoyed your company,” Rowena replied. “Especially Helena, I am certain.”
The attention of those present in the room turned to her, and it was Helena’s turn to avoid Venn’s eyes, but she responded all the same. “Certainly. It has been my pleasure to have you in our home.”
“And ours to be within it, gentle Helena,” Edeline responded, offering her a kind smile.
With that, the two of them exited from the house, walking side by side along the paved entryway until they reached the other end of the path. Their carriage awaited them patiently, except for the horses, whose restless feet suggested that they were looking for their final meal of the day. The servant attending the carriage stepped down from his post and opened the door, and he and Venn together helped to fold Edeline’s elegant train carefully into the carriage. Then, the younger Selwyn moved into the carriage, and the door closed before Helena could catch a final glimpse.
From the castle’s entrance, Helena watched as the carriage moved slowly into the forest, the torchlight flashing against the trees with every rocky movement it made until the flames could no longer be seen. Servants moved around her, replacing Witter’s fine dinner jacket in a wardrobe and taking the last of the dirty dishes into the kitchen. Before her eyes, two small elves climbed on top of one another and efficiently put out each of the large touches that marked the entryway.
As the life in the house slowly died down, Helena’s beloved nature outside the door began to retire for the evening as well. The fireflies faded one by one, shutting out their lanterns and concealing themselves within the safety of the bushes until the next night would arrive. With this light gone, the precious blooms became less and less conspicuous, put away by the starless sky. All became still and silent, until it was only her, still standing in the door in her fine blue gown.
Helena could vaguely hear her mother calling from upstairs, alerting her to the fact that her evening bath was prepared. Still, she lingered in place for a moment longer, hoping to once again feel the magic she had yearned for, sitting day after day in her room with her pages of white. As her eyes fruitlessly searched the dark forest where her prince had vanished, she could not quell the chord of fear struck by her girlish heart, the threat that she had not impressed him enough to ensure a happy ending. If it were so, the diamonds in her crown may as well turn back to coal, as it had been a rare thing to find a young man at all interested in a girl of her age and intellect.
But her feet were aching, and the dress was growing a little tight with her dinner in her stomach. Gently, so as not to pull her dark strands, Helena slipped the tiara from her hair, gazing down at it. She recalled the inscription from her mother’s crown, the one she had forever coveted.
Then, with a hint of sadness, she turned up the stairs, hoping to fetch a book to go with her bath.
Hello, lovely readers and reviewers! I’m sorry this second part of Venn and Helena’s meeting took so long, but I hope the wait was worth it! A few notes from this chapter: ‘Oswyn’ is an Old English name that means “God’s friend” and ‘Gustavus’ is a variation of the Scandinavian name ‘Gustave’, which means “staff of the gods”. Also, Iago ab Idwal really was a Welsh ruler during this time, in case you were wondering about that.
Thank you for your faithful interest in the story, and please review!