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Diamonds into Coal by academica
Chapter 10: Houses Asunder
It was a bright, beautiful Sunday morning, perfect for a solitary breakfast.
Edeline looked small sitting alone at the broad wooden table, especially considering the vacant state of the place at the table’s head. Songbirds streamed in through the window, though they did not stay for long before a servant casually ushered them back out. The birds’ path was marked by soft sunlight and air tainted by the stench of the fen outside the castle’s walls. Without the birds’ song, silence reigned over all.
A warm smile lit her face as she thoughtfully chewed a piece of bread, washing it down after a moment with a sip of elf-made wine. In the kitchen, the castle’s cooks were busy preparing a more elaborate spread for lunch, but she had felt hungry too early this morning and had decided to temper her desire with a small snack. Unfortunately, even the familiar taste of bread and wine could not distract her from the churning in her mind. Her turbulent thoughts had sadly also haunted her sleep.
Her only son was finally doing what she and her brother had begged him to do for months. He had come home from Cepheus’s wedding looking as radiant as the bride, and it was not until suppertime that his mother had finally gotten him to divulge the nature of his joy. The problem was not that Edeline bore hard feelings toward his choice of bride – despite Helena’s peculiar behavior at the joust, Edeline still considered her to be an agreeable girl, and the match would produce lovely children. Edeline had come to the conclusion over her meager breakfast that she would feel the same strange emptiness if Venn had chosen another young lady.
Despite her gentle prodding, Edeline was sad to know that her son had grown up.
The corners of her fickle lips turned up again as she remembered her first few days with her newborn, which she had spent savoring the chance to get to know him while his father was away on the battlefield. The whole week before the elder Selwyn had returned, Edeline had carried her precious bundle all over the castle, showing him each room and each stone that built up each corridor. She had taken him up to the tower from which he would one day survey his kingdom, and she had brought him down into the library where he would spend summers away from Hogwarts, quietly perusing the tales of his ancestors when the weather deemed hunting unsuitable. Tears dotted Edeline’s eyes as she realized that soon Venn would be giving his new wife this grand tour, discovering these wonders anew without her.
Behind her came the telltale footsteps of a man, not a small boy, and his boots.
Edeline hastily wiped at her eyes with the immaculately pale skin of her wrist just as Venn entered the room. He paused at the head of the table, giving her a smile.
“How does this beautiful day find you, Mother?”
“I am well, my son,” Edeline replied, beaming up at him. “I must admit, you seem to have an adventurous look about you. Are you setting out on business so soon?”
“Indeed, though it is surprising,” he replied, handing her a crumpled piece of parchment. Edeline recognized Salazar’s broken seal, which marked the edge where the letter had been closed.
“My uncle has summoned me to Hogwarts,” Venn continued. “He suggests that I survey the grounds of the castle and consider it as a possible location for my wedding to the fair Helena. The scope seems to be grander than this estate.”
“Yes, I would agree,” Edeline replied, though the idea seemed unconventional.
“I feel as though I should prepare the finest ceremony possible for my bride.”
His mother nodded, handing the letter back to him before fresh tears rushed back into her eyes. “It is fitting to envision a perfect ceremony for a perfect bride.”
“I thought perhaps you could sympathize,” Venn said, smiling at her broadly. “He has insisted that I come and meet him at the castle today. I will return for supper.”
Then, just in case his mother wanted to protest, Venn quickly exited the room.
It had been years since Venn had last been to Hogwarts, but it seemed quite familiar. His feet had no trouble following the uneven path that led up past the boathouse to the main entrance, and he casually greeted a few of his former professors, though he paused only to ask one of them where he might find his uncle. The answer he received was that Salazar had last been seen helping the elves repair a large hole in a dungeon wall, the result of a particularly nasty explosion engineered by first years. Thus, he proceeded past the students enjoying a meal in the Great Hall and traipsed down the stairs, as if he were merely returning to the Slytherin Common Room.
As he walked, Venn listened attentively for the sound of elves squabbling amongst themselves, repairing spells, or his uncle’s strong, confident voice, but none of these signals reached his ears. He continued to move slowly down the dark corridor, the thudding of his boots following after each footstep. He traversed the dungeons once in their entirety without coming upon his uncle or a single elf. When his boots brought him back to the stairs that led to the Great Hall, he decided to check the common room. Vaguely, he wondered if the password had ever changed.
He came to a stop in front of the section of wall that moved aside to allow entry to the common room. Venn’s fingertips traced the familiar edges, easily remembering the places where the brick would separate from the background, only to move smoothly back into hiding once the student had cleared the passage. Suddenly, the wall moved outward, causing Venn to step backward quickly and move his fingers out of the range of being pinched. As the brick slid to the side, the very person he had been looking for emerged from the common room, his hands covered in dirt.
“Ah, my nephew!” Salazar exclaimed. “I am pleased that you heeded my request.”
“I was told that you were repairing damage from a misbrewed potion,” Venn replied. “It is a shame to see such a proud man with such filthy hands.”
“Yes, I completed the job some time ago,” Salazar said.
“As I recall, you called me here to look at a location in which to hold my upcoming wedding. I must say that I hope you did not have these bleak dungeons in mind.”
“Of course not. Come, let us journey outside to seek out better ideas.”
The two men exited the castle and began to traverse the sprawling grounds of Hogwarts. Venn felt almost certain that they would pause by the Black Lake, and he nearly opened his mouth to protest when Salazar continued past it, leading the two of them into the Forbidden Forest. They walked further and further into its depths, until they finally came to rest by a hole in the ground that was shaded by the trees.
“What is the meaning of this?” Venn asked.
“I apologize for deceiving you as to the purpose of this visit, but I feel quite certain that you will understand when I reveal it to you fully,” Salazar commented, glancing down into the hole. “For this to be done, you must follow me into the earth.”
Venn stood his ground until Salazar had completely disappeared from the surface, but finally his curiosity got the better of him, and he moved down into the hole. He climbed down carefully, feeling for strongly rooted rocks at every pause, and gradually moved downward until the soles of his feet connected with solid ground again.
He turned slowly, staring into the darkness. What was this? Where was Salazar taking him?
Suddenly, a flash of light caught his eye. Salazar stood a few feet to his right, carrying a torch in one hand and his wand in the other. He motioned to Venn, who withdrew his wand and lit the tip. Then, the two of them set off down a shadowy passage.
“Where does this tunnel lead?”
“The tunnel itself is the place of interest, my boy,” Salazar replied, and in the torchlight his features looked haunting, especially his triumphant smile.
“I am afraid that I cannot yet grasp understanding.”
“This tunnel remains this wide and deep all the way to the castle. It is located under the dungeons, which is how you came to find me seeking out a possible place to carve out an entrance there. Unfortunately, no place secret enough seems to exist.”
“For what purpose have you built it?”
“I need to know that you can be trusted, Venn,” Salazar said, turning to face him.
Venn stopped walking. “We are family, Salazar. You can always trust me.”
“Your heart has grown soft. Our last conversation left me feeling concerned.”
“I will never let my loyalties be swayed by a woman,” Venn scoffed.
“No matter her beauty?”
Venn shook his head. “Come, out with your secret. It must be painful to keep it.”
In response, Salazar fished in the pocket of his robes. He handed a folded piece of parchment to Venn, who opened and studied it by the fading light of his wand. He could see a rough sketch of a snake-like creature, as well as what appeared to be notes on a transaction involving a considerable amount of money. Venn looked back at his uncle, his face incredulous.
“There is a reason this secret chamber is so large in size,” Salazar said slowly. “The creature pictured there will grow to be a massive, fearsome beast. It will need space to move around, room to shed its skin, many additional tunnels to explore…”
“Tell me the purpose of such a monster,” Venn demanded.
“It is not a monster. It is our salvation, and the salvation of my noble House!”
Venn stared at his uncle angrily. “What will you do with it?”
“When the time is right, and the beast has matured…”
“I will dispatch of the Muggle children who have sullied this fine school.”
Venn stepped backwards instinctively, and the tip of his wand disappeared into oblivion, leaving only Salazar’s flickering torch to shine upon the space between them. “Uncle, I beg of you, abandon this foolish plan. The feats of true wizards will always win out over those with fraudulent skill, no matter the education they receive. There is no need to pursue this violence. Nothing here requires saving.”
Salazar said nothing, but the smile vanished from his face.
After a few minutes of tense silence, Venn’s confident tone filled the dark corridor once again. “Let us return to the surface. I think the lake is worth considering.”
“The basilisk could drown if the water leaked into the tunnel, my nephew.”
“For the wedding,” Venn remarked firmly, failing to conceal the note of panic in his voice. He turned, quickly finding two steady rocks and leaning heavily upon them as he journeyed back up toward the forest. Not once did he look behind him to see if his uncle was following in his tracks, the possibility of empty darkness a bit too real.
Helena’s head jerked upward, and her eyes met those of a young peasant girl wearing plain robes and a hesitant smile. There were several others just like her standing about the room, all of them patiently waiting for Helena to speak to them.
“Yes?” she responded, genuinely confused.
“I wished to inquire about your plans for your wedding gown,” the girl replied.
“Oh,” Helena said softly, calling up the vague memory of her mother saying something to her about dress commissioning that morning at breakfast. She could scarcely be blamed for her slowed thinking; the moments since her formal re-engagement to Venn Selwyn had been a blur of pleasant voices and warm embraces. Curiously, she could not remember if she had received such things from Rowena.
“Have you envisioned a particular design, my lady?” the girl pressed gently.
Helena nodded, reaching for the pile of parchment she had brought down with her. She had managed to remember it even in her drowsy state, though her wrinkled nightgown and sleep-littered eyes betrayed her resistance to the early hour. Surely laying out the design for her bridal gown would only take so long, and then she would have the chance to return to slumber for a few more precious hours.
Beauty rest indeed.
She instinctively thrust her hand forward, and the girl took the drawings from her, handling them as carefully as if they were her own visions of a future wedding day. She and her associates perused the sketches, tracing their fingertips over the curves Helena had given her representation, the pretty, pale lace, and the brilliant crown.
“Mother has requested a high neck,” Helena said, speaking over the murmurs of the peasant girls assigned to make her dream a reality. “Not too high, of course, but reasonably so, enough to appear modest. I would like the lace inside the corset…” She paused, unsure whether the girls were even listening to her, but out of the corner of her eye, she spotted one of them writing notes on a bit of parchment.
“When will it be ready for me to check the fit?”
“A month, my lady,” a dark-haired girl answered.
“How expedient,” Helena said, marveling inside at the lengths to which her mother had surely gone to hire this expert team of seamstresses. A selfish part of her reveled at the paradox; these girls would spend hours working with cloth they could never afford. However, she chased the thought away, pursing her lips and attempting to see over the small crowd of young women to peek at their treatment of her precious designs.
“Helena, you have given them your ideas. Allow them to work their special magic.”
The younger Ravenclaw turned, coming face to face with her mother. Rowena’s face bore more lines than she had noticed in recent weeks, and Helena swore that the hue of her eyes was growing increasingly darker. However, the familiar shrewd smile remained upon her bloodless face. “Come, daughter, take a walk with me.”
The two women strode from the castle out onto the vast grounds, passing by Witter and his aides as they brushed and fed the horses just outside the barn. The cool morning breeze helped to awaken Helena’s slovenly senses, though she wished she had thought to take her jumper out of her wardrobe before exiting the warm castle. She pulled at her elbows, wrapping her arms tightly around herself.
Rowena looked up. “Are your nerves troubling you this morning, my daughter?”
Helena smiled widely at her mother. “I feel only happiness this day.”
“Forgive me, child, but you appear most disinterested in your dress preparation.”
The smile faded. “I merely did not anticipate that it would occur so early.”
“I see,” Rowena replied, dragging her fingertips lightly along the stone fence that lined the horse pasture. “I can hardly believe that you are almost a bride.”
“What do you mean?” Helena stopped. “I thought you were most excited.”
“I am, naturally. I only worry—marriage can be difficult for a young girl—”
“Then what of the pressure you have continually placed upon me?”
Rowena’s eyes flashed briefly. “If I am honest, Helena, I must admit that I hoped to see more maturity develop within you over these passing months. Yet you seem more impulsive and improper than ever before. You should know that most husbands would not tolerate this wild nature you seem to adore.”
Helena was frowning now. The two of them were standing in the path, the only sound between them the blithe breathing of the wind and the braying horses. The younger Ravenclaw crossed her arms. “Mother, as much as I value and respect your wisdom, Venn does not require that I be any other woman than the one that I am.”
Rowena did not respond straight away. She waited just long enough for a keen mind to perceive that she was deciding between several inappropriate things to say. Instead, she met her daughter’s eyes, finding a whirlpool of outrage within them. “You have mistaken my meaning, daughter,” she said slowly. “I express these concerns only so that you might feel less pressure to go through with this union.”
Helena said nothing.
“I realize now that I may have been foolish to urge you toward becoming a wife before your proper time. There is certainly no shame in pursuing further education, as an alternative. Perhaps you could travel for a year, or visit foreign libraries…”
Helena’s face softened. “Mother, why this change of heart? I still do not understand.”
“Because I love you, my darling,” Rowena said, offering a tiny smile. “You are my only child and the pride of my life. I want only the best—only your happiness.”
Rowena stood up, wrapping Helena’s slender form in a warm embrace. Helena closed her eyes, holding tightly to the sensation. She could not remember the last time her mother had requested a moment with her or used such tender words. She was still attempting to reconcile this version of Rowena with the learned scholar she portrayed to the remainder of the world when she felt her mother step away.
“Think on it, my beloved girl,” Rowena whispered. Then, she turned and headed back down the path, leaving Helena standing by herself, hands touching the fence.
Helena blinked, her intended words still ringing in her ears. But I am happy.
Another step closer to the wedding of Venn and Helena—or are we? Thank you so much for your support of this story, and please take a moment to leave your thoughts on this chapter in the box below. Look out for chapter eleven!