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Diamonds into Coal by academica
Chapter 6: Second-Best
The firm, punctuated beat of four hooves burst against the forest floor, the sound kicking up echoes between the trees even as the dust settled in its wake. The solid muscle of the beast to whom they belonged shuddered with each impact, and the horse snorted when it occasionally struck a rock, though it continued on with a steady rhythm toward a destination to which it was not privy. Atop the magnificent black courser, another heart beat out an evenly spaced tune. The organ within Venn’s breast beat with a steady strength, sending blood rushing to his extremities as he gripped the reins and urged his steed onward through the thick underbrush. Up ahead, through the weak morning sunlight, he saw the path draw to a close in a narrow clearing. With a triumphant smile, he pulled back on the reins, bringing the horse to a relatively quiet halt.
Venn carefully got down from the saddle, placing one foot at a time softly upon the ground. As his hand habitually touched the beast’s sleek coat, he was reminded of Helena’s smooth black hair. Like his horse, her hair was warm to the touch, or at least he had imagined that it might be when he juxtaposed it with the pale pink shade of her cheeks and the soft skin of her small hands. However, he could imagine that Helena’s locks smelled a great deal sweeter than that of a horse.
He was supposed to be seeking out his prey, a young buck that had turned the corner into the clearing and out of his line of fight, but the young baron was finding himself unusually distracted during this morning’s hunt. His slumber of the previous evening had been lighter than normal, peppered with thoughts of the maiden he’d met less than a day ago, or more specifically with visions of how her beauty and grace had outdone even his mother’s expert description of her.
A sharp cry rang out from above Venn, reminding him that he was not alone. He frowned, glancing up at the tawny owl that was perched up in a tree over his head. Venn waved his arm at the bird, but this only succeeded in summoning the owl to light upon the leather band that covered his arm. It was not the owl’s fault, really; this was precisely what it had been trained to do before Venn’s mother had purchased it for him. She had been worried, as mothers often are, about him going out alone to hunt after his father’s death, and had bought the owl for him as a safety precaution, just in case he was injured and needed to send a message asking for assistance. Still, Venn took the owl only begrudgingly. The breed she had chosen was said to be unlucky.
Thankfully, the second time Venn waved his arm, the owl took the hint and returned to the sky. However, even as the fluttering of its wings began to fade, a new sound reached Venn’s ears. He turned to see his auburn-colored boarhound, Thane, stepping through the trees toward him, the dog’s large paws gently crushing leaves and creating a path in their wake. This creature was his preferred companion, one that had belonged to his father before the elder Selwyn’s death. In fact, Thane was the only thing that had belonged to his father that Venn had been allowed to take possession of before his recent coming of age. Unlike the owl, the dog had proven useful in terms of tracking some of the quicker animals in the forest and helping take down large game.
Venn stood still, watching as Thane stepped lightly across the clearing and headed for a thick patch of bushes over toward the right side. The baron followed slowly, reaching behind him to grasp at the shortbow strapped across his back. He paused to withdraw it from its restraints, watching with quiet breath as Thane sniffed a little closer at the bushes, and pulled an arrow from his quiver, notching it in the bow and keeping the tip pointed at the ground. Behind them, the horse snorted softly, bobbing its head toward the dirt and tossing its mane lightly.
Suddenly, Thane stopped sniffing at the leaves and stepped back. Venn raised his bow higher, stepping closer to the bush, and fired one arrow directly into the thicket. However, the sound that returned to him was not the familiar cry of an animal, but a flatter noise, one that left no echo.
The boarhound moved forward bravely, growling slightly. As his body parted the thicket, Venn could make out a pair of leather boots standing over the corpse of the buck he had been pursuing. He moved aside the leaves, getting a better view of the tidy wound that marked the animal’s heart. As he watched, the arrow ejected itself from the wound and returned to the hand of a tall young man with dark, curly brown hair. He turned the arrow, pointing his wand at it and cleaning off the small bit of gore that decorated its tip, and then returned it to its friends in the quiver.
Venn smirked slightly, withdrawing his own wand and pointing it at his arrow, which had become lodged in a tree at approximately the height at which the deer’s head might have been had it still been standing upright when Venn attacked it. The arrow shot out of the wood, sending a few splinters out into the open air, and landed in his hand. He tucked it back into the quiver with the others, feeling slightly disappointed that there was no blood to remove. “Black.”
The other boy looked up, revealing an identical smirk. “Your marksmanship could be improved, Selwyn.”
“It is not every day that I find myself competing with other men on my own land,” Venn replied. No true malice tainted his voice, for he was speaking with an old friend. The Blacks and the Selwyns had socialized since before he was born, and he and Cepheus were practically brothers.
“For that, I apologize,” Cepheus replied. “I am an honorable man, and I would offer to give you a portion of the kill, but I must beg that you allow me to take the entire animal for myself.”
“Much has changed if your family is in danger of starvation,” Venn remarked.
“No, the Blacks continue to prosper, just as you do,” Cepheus replied. Behind him, a branch moved, and a third young man joined them in the thicket. This one also had hair that hung to his shoulders, but it was black, and sleeker than that of Cepheus. He was Roldan Lestrange, Cepheus’s closest companion and a face only slightly less familiar to Venn and his family.
“We need the buck for Cepheus’s engagement celebration,” Roldan said with a smile.
“Engagement?” Venn said with surprise, looking from one friend to the other.
“Yes, my family has made an excellent match for me,” Cepheus replied. “I must correct my friend, however, because we do not need the additional meat. I merely wished to be able to provide my bride to be with a demonstration of my prowess. Surely you understand?”
“Indeed. She must be a beauty, if she is an excellent match, and thus it is only right that you demonstrate some ability to her in return.” Venn returned his bow to his back, having lost interest in the hunt for the time being. “Who is the fair lady in question?” Part of him did not want to query his friend about her identity, due to his fear that Helena had already lost interest in him and chosen a more willing suitor. The other part of him, though, could not wait to find out.
“A beauty she is, and well educated, considering that she graduated from Hogwarts along with all those present here,” Cepheus replied. “She is Priscilla Pyrites. Perhaps you remember her?”
“I am afraid I do not,” Venn stated. “I extend to you my congratulations all the same.”
“Thank you. I accept them graciously.” Cepheus glanced at Roldan, who was already hefting the dead buck onto his shoulders and moving toward his waiting horse. “We should return to my land now, to prepare for this evening, but I cannot leave until you agree to celebrate with me. Will you and your mother join our families at my home tonight?”
Venn nodded, and Thane stood up from where he had laid down on the forest floor, sensing that his master was also about to depart from this place. “I would consider it an honor to do so.”
“Excellent, we shall prepare a place for you,” Cepheus said, turning to his stallion. “We will see you this evening, my friend. Perhaps when you see my bride to be, you will recall her face.”
Venn smiled, watching as the two boys mounted their horses and rode away, carrying the deer. After he could no longer follow them with his eyes, the thick trees hiding their retreat, he returned to his own horse. As he settled into the saddle, a curious thought entered his mind.
It was possible, he supposed, that he might recognize the lovely Priscilla Pyrites when he saw her at the Blacks’ castle that night. It was even possible that he would be impressed with her beauty. However, all he felt at the moment was pity, a strange sense of regret on his friend’s behalf.
No matter how perfect Priscilla Pyrites was, she could never compare to Helena Ravenclaw.
“This is a lovely feast,” Edeline said, lightly clutching her son’s muscular arm as he led her through the gates of the Blacks’ castle and into the main area of the building. As they passed through the entrance hall, they saw a collection of the region’s finest lords and ladies seated around a wide dining room table, conversing of politics and sampling the food before them.
“Yes, Cepheus has staged quite the affair for his future wife,” Venn agreed, concealing the unpleasant taste that the word left on his tongue from his mother’s ears. It was still difficult for him to believe that Cepheus would be married soon, and he wondered whether the boy’s parents had goaded him along in the pursuit of a mate. Indeed, though the party was lavish and thoughts of Helena still haunted his mind, Venn did not desire to host his own celebration anytime soon.
They reached the elaborate archway that led into the area that would be used for dancing later in the evening, and both Venn and Edeline paused to take in the scene. All around the enclosed courtyard, ladies in dresses of various hues gossiped with one another, their outfits adding splashes of vibrant color to the ivy-draped stone walls and floor. A few gentlemen paced between them, stopping once in a while to ask a particularly beautiful maiden for a future dance, and Venn noticed Roldan talking to a pair of young women. Cepheus was nowhere to be found.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Edeline said, sounding like a young girl for a moment. “Come, my son, the festivities are sure to commence shortly. Let us find somewhere to take a seat together.”
Venn nodded, but as soon as they moved again, a house elf appeared before them, extending a tray of empty goblets shakily toward them. “Fresh wine, my lord? And for the lady as well?”
“Yes,” Venn replied, watching as the elf filled two goblets with a rich red liquid. He took them from the tray, handing one to his mother, and glanced at a small group of women in a nearby corner. They were watching him in an odd way, looking at one another and giggling every few moments. At first he smiled, certain that they were fixated on his handsome features, but when this motion did not alter their behavior, he began to realize that it might look somewhat strange for him to arrive at this party with his mother on his arm. Indeed, the other noblemen in the room were escorting their wives or apparently attempting to entrance a maiden and find a good match. He turned his head, afraid he might flush, and gently nudged Edeline back toward the banquet.
Within the hour, the remainder of the guests had seated themselves and it was time for the engagement feast to begin. Cepheus’s father, a tall, slender man with hair like his son’s, stood up at the head of the table. Directly across from him, a man with a slightly stouter figure rose to his feet as well, and two maidens sitting near him sprang up and moved quickly into the corridor.
“Welcome to our home,” the elder Black began, spreading his arms wide and extending a smile to the entire table. “This evening marks a celebration, one that will unite my house with the house of another proud family, the noble Pyrites.”
At this, the other man inclined his head slightly toward the speaker. Cepheus’s father went on.
“As such, please enjoy the feast before you. Eat and drink your fill, for you are all friends, and I am certain that I speak for both our families when I say that we are honored to have you join us.”
He sat down, but the other man remained standing, and the table gradually fell quiet. Edeline gently nudged her son’s arm, and Venn followed the eyes of the other guests to the foyer entrance. Her footsteps barely making a sound, a young woman slowly entered the room, with the two maidens who had previously exited ensuring that her gown’s train did not drag behind her. She had hair the color of straw that fell in thin, effortless waves, though it was apparently thick enough to hold several large orange blossoms, and her forest green dress seemed to have been fitted precisely to her form. Two features in particular caught Venn’s attention; royal blue velvet, the color of fidelity, lined the hem and bustline of her outfit, and her face held two eyes of a soft, pale blue color. She came to rest beside her father, who was still on his feet.
Those around him gasped audibly at her gentle beauty, but Venn could only think of Helena.
“My only daughter, Priscilla, is surely my most prized possession. I am honored to give her to you, Cepheus, and I trust that you will make her the happiest bride a woman could hope to be.” The man turned to his servant, taking a small silver chest from the boy and placing it among the food. “My house offers you her bridal jewelry, a set of exquisite emeralds, and this portion of the money I have to my name, which would have been hers had she been born a male instead.”
Cepheus stood up now, bowing slightly to the older man. “I am pleased to accept this dowry, and I assure you that I am quite thankful that she was not born a male.” He smiled, motioning for one of the Blacks’ servants to take the chest, and those present at the table applauded him softly. Even Venn laughed a bit, as it was easy to see that Priscilla was perfect in her true female form.
Edeline took a sip of her wine. “Do you remember this girl from your days at school?”
“No, but I am surprised not to have noticed such a beauty,” Venn commented.
Cepheus was still standing, and as the bride’s father took his seat, two more servants from the House of Black retrieved the buck he’d slain from the kitchen. It was placed in the center of the table, and Cepheus stepped forward, cutting off a small piece of the tender, juicy meat and offering it to his future wife. Priscilla accepted it, folding it between her lips and chewing delicately. A moment later, her smile told him he had succeeded in impressing his new bride.
“Thank you for your gift, Cepheus,” the elder Pyrites said. “You will make a fine husband.”
With the feast drawing to a close, Venn began to notice the others around him standing up and moving toward the dance floor. It was all that he could do not to groan too audibly at this realization. Dance lessons had been a large part of his boyhood education, but he had never had the patience required for such an activity, much preferring to share his father’s outdoor hobbies. Nevertheless, his mother was now smiling at him in a rather persuasive manner, and he found his feet moving along with the small crowd and his eyes turning toward the maidens around him.
At first, Venn chose to follow his normal ritual for society parties, which consisted of taking a place along the wall and waiting for some of the more confident young ladies to introduce themselves to him. Indeed, within a few minutes, two fair maidens had approached him. The first was relatively pretty, her chestnut brown hair falling nicely over the yellow fabric of her dress, but she stumbled over her words nervously, and this touch of imperfection caused Venn to ignore her hints about wanting to dance. The next, a blonde wearing a gown of baby pink, took her place with a rather determined expression, which Venn found mildly entertaining. However, she looked into his eyes a bit too intensely and touched his hand a bit too much, and thus, he found himself moving away from her even as she pushed closer and closer to him.
In his hurry to escape the blonde, Venn accidentally bumped into a more familiar face.
“Venn! How lovely to see you here!” Emilia Rookwood stood before him, wearing a light blue dress that contrasted with her black curls. “I was not aware that Cepheus had invited you.” He had often danced with this short, slender girl at the parties his mother forced him to attend, if only to pass the long evening hours with someone who possessed an active sense of humor.
“Yes, I encountered him this morning in the woods, and he asked my mother and I to attend this celebration,” Venn replied. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the blonde seething across the room and, not far from her, Roldan watching them with a curious sort of frown. “A dance?”
Emilia looked a bit surprised, but she took his hand, following him into the center of the room. As they moved about with the other couples, Venn found himself regretting his choice, given Emilia’s slight resemblance to the true object of his thoughts. He suddenly stumbled, nearly tripping on the hem of her dress, and he had to work not to betray this mistake in his face. “Is it not considered rude to wear blue to another’s engagement feast?” he asked, shifting the blame.
“I suppose,” Emilia replied. “You should know by now that I am not one for tradition.”
Venn should have smiled, but he could not, as he was too focused on keeping his feet in line. He looked up once again to find Cepheus watching with a smile and Roldan’s hand moving subtly to his sword. He looked back at his partner. “Perhaps I should allow Roldan to finish this dance.”
“If I have my say, I would prefer to complete it in the arms of a baron,” Emilia said matter-of-factly. “However, you appear to have lost your footing since we trained in dance as children, and perhaps a change in partners would be wise. Is something wrong?”
Venn glanced over at Roldan, whose hand had not moved, and then over to where Edeline was speaking with the father of the bride. For once, her eyes were not fixated on her bachelor son. He took this rare opportunity, leaving Emilia without an answer, and snuck out into the night.
It was early in the morning when the lights of the castle that held Helena came into Venn’s view. He slowed his horse, bringing it to a halt and dismounting as quietly as he could. The clearing that housed the castle was quiet, the silence broken only by the faint chirping of crickets and the occasional scurrying of a squirrel’s feet as it jumped from tree to tree. Now that he had arrived, Venn found that he did not know exactly what to do. How could he impress the girl with his brave midnight journey if she continued to sleep as he told the tale? He thought briefly about climbing up to her window, but he was not sure which one belonged to her, and he thought that such a display might frighten away any feelings she had in return. His next idea was to sit outside her door and wait her for her awaken, but his morning hunger pangs deterred a plan with such an extended timetable. He frowned, ashamed at himself for following his foolhardy scheme.
Suddenly, a vibrant flash of blue caught his eye. He turned, watching the window where it had passed, but it did not come again. Venn wondered if it might be Helena, and so he approached cautiously, moving with care until he had found a good vantage point just next to the window.
Inside the castle, he could see Rowena standing over a large table. A house elf moved along quickly behind her, replacing several cups of tea around the table with its small, jittery hands. Venn could not follow the elf for long, however, fixated as he was on Rowena’s expression. This was not the jovial, pleasant woman he had encountered not so long ago. Rather, she wore the face of an enraged harpy, and as Venn followed her eyes, he could see that the object of her ire was none other than his uncle, sitting across the table and appearing to struggle with his calm.
Through the thin glass, it was easy to make out her words. “…dare you use that word…”
A deeper voice interrupted her now, and another man stood up to her left, clad all in scarlet. “Salazar, I agree. Mudblood? Where did your classically trained tongue pick up such filth?”
Mudblood? Venn frowned again. He had not heard the term before. What did it mean?
Salazar shook his head. “Godric, I simply think that we should hold off on allowing the Muggle-born children to enter the school. Hogwarts has not been open long enough to know how effective our teaching can be for students who were not raised with a propensity for magic.”
A woman to Rowena’s right, wearing a beautiful yellow gown that contrasted with her firm expression, spoke up. “When will we be prepared, then, Salazar? What is your hypothesis?”
Venn’s frown deepened, sinking ever closer to becoming a permanent fixture on his face. Why were the other three standing so firmly against his uncle? Salazar had a perfectly legitimate point. Venn had not even realized that the Founders were considering allowing Muggles into Hogwarts. The frown turned to a smirk as he considered this. It was a truly preposterous idea.
He could hear Rowena again now, speaking up above the noise that had picked up in the room. “What is the point of having these early meetings if my family can hear you? Do you not recall my warning about my daughter’s tendency to spend her sunrises in the garden just outside?”
Venn’s eyes darted toward the small crowd of trees that blocked the garden from his current view. He stepped lightly past the window, moving over to the greenery. Yes, he could see her there, sitting and smiling at the pale pink sky without an inkling of what was going on inside.
He had nearly darted out into the garden when he remembered that he had just ridden through the night from a feast several towns away. He looked down, realizing how disheveled he looked for the first time. His clothing for court was really quite ill suited for long trips on horseback. Venn withdrew his wand, carefully attending to each aspect of his physical form. Little by little, the mud on his boots melted away, the wrinkles in his robes faded, and his hair returned to its usual cleanliness and tranquility. After checking himself over again, he moved quietly into the garden.
Helena picked up on the sound of his footsteps when he had come a few feet into the garden, and she turned quickly, dropping the novel in her hand, its newly bound cover marred only by her fingerprints. “Venn,” she said softly, her voice barely a whisper, but the surprise within evident.
“Hello,” he said in a similar tone, inwardly shaming himself for leaving yet another portion of his plan without proper deliberation. He glanced down, not sure what to say next.
“Why are you here?” she asked, her tone carrying no malice, but merely curiosity.
“I was in the midst of a hunt,” he replied, as it was the first idea to come to mind.
“Do you often hunt in your dress robes?” Helena asked, a smile playing at her lips.
“No,” Venn replied shortly, busying himself with returning her novel to her hands.
“Did you come with Salazar? I will not betray you, I swear it. I know Mother does not like for her friends to bring guests. She is very secretive about their meetings.” Helena took the book from him gently. “What are they talking about in there? I thought I heard raised voices.”
“I do not know,” Venn lied, not wanting to distress her. It was only a half-lie, after all. He cleared his throat, letting only a few seconds of silence slip by before he spoke to her again. “My lady, I must confess that I have thought fondly of our last meeting, and I would be forever in your debt if you agreed to share another occasion with me in the near future.”
Helena blushed slightly, taken aback. “It would be my honor,” she said.
Venn nodded, hearing doors begin to open in the castle. He and the object of his affection both turned at the sound of her father calling for her to come and enjoy breakfast with him. Venn looked back at Helena and, without asking permission, took both of her hands in his and pressed his lips lightly to them. He could not tell if the moment lasted mere seconds or a hundred years. “Until then, my lady.”
“Until then,” Helena agreed, lightly letting her hands fall to her sides. “I must ask, good sir, that on this future occasion, you will agree to call me by my name. Do you consent to do so?”
“I do,” Venn said, quickly leaving the garden before she could see his white skin begin to color.
“Venn Selwyn, I cannot believe your audacity.”
The voice of Edeline had also taken on a tone reminiscent of a harpy by the time Venn had made the journey back to his own estate. She was pacing in their foyer, pausing every few steps to send a look of pain at her son, and berating him for leaving her at the feast and setting out in the night.
“You must at least tell me what you were doing, to still my heart that has been beating strongly.”
Venn considered this momentarily. Perhaps it would be beneficial for him to tell his mother about his romantic midnight ride to Helena’s home. He experienced a brief visual image of Edeline calming, sitting at the table, and demanding to know the flowery details of what had transpired, all the way down to the kiss on the lady’s hand, the sensation of which still lingered on Venn’s lips. The thought brought a smile to his face and an expression of rage to Edeline’s.
“Why are you smiling?”
Just then, the door opened, and an elf pattered in, ready to introduce their visitor. However, Salazar entered the room without this courtesy, coming to stand next to his nephew.
“My dear sister, I apologize if the absence of your son at breakfast this morning caused you distress. Last night, I experienced a longing for the midnight hunts I once enjoyed with your late husband, and I could not stop myself from sending an owl to Venn about the matter.” Salazar glanced down at Venn, and the younger man wondered for a moment if his presence at Helena’s castle had truly gone undetected by all others save her. “Unfortunately, the game was difficult to catch, and I apologize for keeping him out into the morning. I hope you were not distressed.”
Edeline’s expression faded slightly. “No. I only wish he had informed me himself.”
“Indeed, Mother, my apologies,” Venn said quietly, afraid to look up lest the ruse be uncovered.
“If you will allow him to come and clean the game with me, I will have him back for the midday meal,” Salazar added, placing a hand on Venn’s shoulder. He was to come outside immediately.
Edeline nodded. “Please do not keep him long.”
The two men walked in silence for a while, simply traversing the grounds of the castle so as to take up the time that would be needed to flay a kill. At last, Salazar stopped moving.
“How was your meeting with the Ravenclaw girl?”
Venn looked at him, unsure of how to answer.
“You and your mother did journey to her home in recent days, am I correct?”
“Yes,” Venn replied, attempting to hide his relief. “I must admit, Uncle, thoughts of her beauty are what kept me from my bed last night. I wandered in the woods for hours, unable to sleep.”
“You are not the first, my boy, but you must not worry your mother so on a regular basis,” Salazar said, barely concealing a smirk. However, his face turned serious. “I have seen the girl myself, and I too can attest to her perfect physical form. You must try to keep your strength, Venn. It is important for you to remind her that you also come from a house of honor.”
“Of course, Uncle,” Venn said. “I shall cause her to dream of me instead, so that I may sleep.”
“Good,” Salazar replied, clapping the boy on the back. “Do let me know what transpires.”
As Venn watched him walk away, it occurred faintly to him that he should be returning to the castle and his mother shortly. However, his thoughts again drifted to Helena, only this time they were shadowed by his uncle’s words. Helena’s beauty and gentle heart were prized features, that much was certain. He thought of his father’s elegant jacket and the crown in his bedroom.
No more thinking of her, he thought. I, too, am a prize to be won. One day, she would know that.
Hello, lovely readers! It has been so long since I had a chance to write, and so I hope the length of this chapter makes up for that, and that you enjoyed returning to the story!
A few things require further explanation. A courser is a special type of horse used for hunting in Medieval times. Though all owls apparently meant bad luck to Shakespeare, the tawny owl seemed the most likely breed to be found in the area of Venn’s home at this time, and thus I singled it out. Thane is Old English and means “attendant warrior”. Cepheus is the husband of the constellation Cassiopeia, in keeping with Black family tradition. Roldan is Old English in origin and means “powerful and mighty”. Priscilla is also Old English and means “dutiful” or “obedient”. Emilia is a Latin name used in Medieval times that means “rival”. The Pyrites are actually taken from canon (ish); they are an old pureblood family that never made it past one of JKR’s drafts. Orange blossoms were used only by nobles in weddings because of cost, and brides in this time typically wore blue to symbolize fidelity, not white. A harpy is a female bird-like creature taken from Greek mythology; they are known for becoming very vicious in a short time and can be found in numerous works. Finally, as always, anything from canon that you recognize belongs to JKR, not me.
Lastly, I must apologize if anything in this chapter stands out to you as being grossly historically inaccurate. I did try to research elements in this chapter, but time constraints and a desire to update may have prevented me from getting the details down perfectly.
Thank you for your faithful readership, and please review!