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Chapter 11: A Day of Surprises
Helena stirred, feeling the chill of her bedroom sink into her cheek as she turned over beneath her blankets. She had experienced much disturbed sleep that night, though it had not been the wild exploits from her bedtime reading, The Travels of Marco Polo, that haunted her dreams. Every time she closed her eyes, her mind advanced to the impending dress fitting that was to occur the following afternoon. With each blink, her dress became too small, then too big, then a horrid green shade.
Sighing, she turned her head, glancing up at the window by her small writing desk. As of now, the darkness remained strong against the slowly invading dawn, but with every second, it weakened, letting a little bit of light through the glass panes. To her dismay, Helena realized that soon the dawn would fill her room, robbing her of any chance of catching the sleep she’d lost throughout the long, tumultuous night.
She sighed a second time, accepting her fate and putting her delicate toes upon the floor. I will surely have the freshest berries at breakfast this morning, she thought, attempting to remain positive. Mother will be pleased to see me alert with the dawn.
Helena reached into her closet, pulling from it a thin baby blue robe, which she draped about her shoulders. She tied the strings loosely in front of her belly button and took her heavy winter robe from the edge of her bed. Now, with both layers on, she was warm enough to consider going downstairs for a morning meal. Her fingers brushed through her hair and captured tangles, prompting her to retrieve her brush from the vanity. She twisted it up and secured it with a bronze pin that was supposed to be reserved until the wedding. Cannot make Mother too happy, can I?
A few wavy tendrils fell out about her face as she moved quietly down the stone stairs, stepping lightly onto the ground floor. The table was only one room over, and she could tell that breakfast was a work in progress, based on the subtle sounds of house elves scurrying about in the kitchen and the smell of fresh bread in the oven. However, the young maiden found herself drawn instead to the set of front doors.
The wood creaked as Helena pulled one of the doors open softly, looking out at the morning with wide and girlish eyes. Her lashes fluttered as her gaze fell downward, lighting upon a beautiful bouquet that had been placed delicately upon the doorstep. With careful fingers, she lifted it to examine the contents. There were bright yellow daffodils, which Helena knew referred to chivalry. Among them were beautiful little pansies of every imaginable color. Loving thoughts, she recalled, having studied flower meanings as part of her training as a noblewoman. On the outskirts of the bouquet was a border of day lilies, their pristine white color signaling enthusiasm. Helena marveled at it, absently stroking the pretty lace that tied the plants together. It was not unusual for the children of the neighboring village to bring her gifts of flowers, but they usually came only on holidays and her birthday. Moreover, these flowers grew all over the country, and some of them were not due to bloom again until next spring. These could only have come from someone who possessed magic.
There was a note tucked inside the lace, which Helena retrieved and read quickly.
My lady Helena,
I request the honor of your presence this afternoon.
I will arrive on horseback to receive your permission.
Helena blushed brightly, clutching the note and bouquet. Could this romantic gift really have come from the stubborn baron whom she was to wed in mere months? It had the flair of a clandestine lover, or at least of a man with a more tender heart. Yet the thought of spending a day with this strange version of Venn was much preferable to languishing with her dressmakers and mother in the drawing room.
Mother did raise me to maintain an attitude of curiosity, did she not?
She turned, rushing past the dining room with her bouquet in hand even as the elves began to set the first dishes on the table. She did not even stop to greet her mother as they passed on the stairs. She had rather important preparations to make.
The leaves crackled under the hooves of Venn’s horse as he slowly made his way along the familiar forest path to Ravenclaw Castle. He smiled into the cool autumn breeze, though it did nothing to soothe the unceasing pounding of his heart. As hot blood coursed through his veins, his mind filled with the worries he had entertained since leaving his own estate early that morning. Perhaps it had been foolish to deliver the bouquet in the dead of night and leave the fair lady ample time to send an owl asking him not to return. Then again, he knew that even the most beautiful of ladies required some measure of hours to dress themselves, applying makeup and perfumes to accent their fine features. Perhaps Helena would be grateful for this.
To be exact, Venn had been so preoccupied by anxiety that he had scarcely begun to plan the events of the coming afternoon. He wanted to take his bride-to-be to a small clearing he had once discovered, to show her the anemic stream and wildflowers, but he had no intention of remaining with her for long. It was improper to be alone. Being a Ravenclaw, she would take up enough time with her idle, womanly chatter.
Ahead, the tall towers spiraled into the sky, reminding him to keep his thoughts quiet. He needed to impress the girl, to keep her safe from any attempt his uncle might make to drive them apart. He needed to secure a wife, for his mother’s sake.
His steed quietly clopped along the path leading up to the front doors, and the young Selwyn glanced to the side, spotting Witter tending to his own horses in the barn. He raised a hand to the older man, offering a friendly nod, and Witter waved back slowly. He could tell that Helena had kept the gift a secret from her father. A sly girl.
He slowed to a stop outside the doors, making a move to dismount as a few elves spilled out from the castle. One began brushing the mane and tail of his horse. Then, the door opened a little wider, and a familiar face bearing a bright smile appeared.
Venn opened his mouth, but Helena spoke first.
“Hello, my lord,” she said happily. “I am so honored by your unexpected visit.”
“The honor is mine, dear Helena,” Venn said, stepping forward and placing a kiss upon her pale, soft cheek. Helena blushed again at his sudden lack of chastity.
“May I inquire as to the purpose of your appearance?”
“I thought I had made it clear with my gift,” he replied. “I would very much like to pass the afternoon with you. My horse can find a very pleasant meadow nearby.”
“My horse, being native to this part of the land, can certainly do a better job,” Helena said, stepping outside into the light. He was taken aback by her dirty riding boots, which looked as if they belonged on someone not wearing a navy blue velvet dress.
“Perhaps I should greet fair—” Venn suggested, watching her move toward the barn.
“No need,” Helena replied shortly, offering her father a smile. She emerged a moment later with her fingers wrapped around the reins of a small grey mare. “With more notice, I would have chosen Eostre, but she is due for a thorough bath today.”
Venn wondered who or what Eostre was. “We could both sit comfortably on—”
“Are you ready?” Helena asked, looking at him expectantly as she fitted the saddle.
“I suppose,” Venn said, trying not to give the appearance of ruffled feathers. He slid into the saddle on his stallion once again, watching as his companion put a basket ahead of her on the horse. “What are you intending to bring with us?”
“A midday meal. I was too excited to partake in breakfast,” she confessed.
Venn could not conceal his smile. This strange woman had an effect on him.
They rode side by side in silence, except for Helena’s occasional remark on the pretty autumn weather. For his part, Venn was pleased not to discuss the wedding. He was almost disappointed to see the clearing as they approached it, knowing that with mealtimes usually came unnecessary conversation. Was it too much to hope that the fair lady would be too famished to speak? Then again, with their combined nervous energy, the conversation would certainly be humorous for any passerby.
Helena dismounted first, tying her horse to a tree and putting the basket on the ground. She opened it, withdrawing some bread that still smelled wonderful though it had surely been baked hours ago. Then there was a bit of soft-looking cheese, followed by some preserved herring and salmon. The last thing to emerge from the basket was a bottle of rich red wine. The sight of it all made Venn’s mouth water.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, taking the blanket from his horse as soon as he had tied it up with hers and spreading it onto the ground, all without asking permission.
“Yes, my lady, I have been riding all morning.”
“I have asked you not to call me by anything except my name.”
“I accept them,” she said, gesturing to the empty space next to her.
Venn took a seat, removing his sword and placing it on the ground nearby. She handed him the wine, which he uncorked, taking a large swig from the bottle. She reached out, and he passed it to her, watching her drink in a similar manner.
As Helena took some cheese and placed it upon her tongue with a small chunk of bread, she noticed that she and her future husband were sitting among an epidemic of orange blossoms. She blushed once again, recalling their meaning all too easily.
“Is something wrong?”
Her eyes shot back over to his. “No.”
“Thank you for providing such a fine meal,” he said, ignoring her awkward response.
“It is my pleasure,” Helena said. “I am pleased that you are enjoying it.” She momentarily imagined her mother storming about the grounds, searching high and low for the maiden who was now officially late to her first wedding dress fitting. “Perhaps we should bring some of my family’s elves to dwell in our home.”
Venn nearly choked on his bread. It was true, then, women talking about weddings.
“If you would prefer that we not…” Helena added, frowning slightly.
“If they cooked this hearty meal, I have no objection,” he responded quickly.
“I am glad to hear it.” She plucked a blossom idly. “Have you been doing much to prepare for our upcoming union?”
“As much as can be expected, I suppose,” he said, holding back a sigh. “Naturally, most of the true preparation is done by the bride and her family, or so I understand it.”
“Yes, but you must prepare a home in which we shall dwell.”
“My estate is more than suitable,” he said. “It is clean, and quite spacious.”
Helena, being bright, knew what those words meant. Children. She grimaced.
“Have you eaten a rotten piece of fish?”
“No,” she said again. “It—the cheese is a bit stale.”
Venn shrugged, giving his remaining piece to his horse instead.
“Do you come to this meadow very often?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Only recently. I like the quiet, and my horse can have a small drink.” He gestured to the stream a few feet from them, which trickled a small but steady measure of water. “In fact, I gathered the flowers in your bouquet only a few miles from here.”
“You plucked them yourself?” Helena asked, surprised he had not asked a servant to do it. Just a wave of his wand, she figured, and the bouquet was tied neatly and perfectly. In fact, the thought of him pulling flowers out of the dirt was quite funny.
“Yes, I chose each stem individually,” he replied, and it was his turn to frown.
“Thank you,” she said sheepishly. “I appreciate your gift. It was a lovely surprise.”
“I could have hoped for nothing more.”
Silence fell again, though it seemed to deepen in the small space of the meadow, with only the soft bubbling of the brook to provide a background melody. For a while, Helena contented herself with enjoying the rest of her breakfast, letting the breeze tickle the ends of her hair, and watching the horses paw at the ground in boredom. The few glances she stole in Venn’s direction made her think that her contribution of food was a bad one, given that he had seemed to lose all interest in her. Finally, she sighed, standing up and brushing the grass from her dress.
Her groom-to-be looked up at her. “Have you another appointment, fair Helena?”
“Yes, a dress fitting,” she lied—sort of. “I am afraid that I must bid you goodbye.”
“I am saddened to hear it,” he said, slowly standing up and putting the remainder of the food in her basket.
“No, please, take it. You have a long ride ahead of you, I am sure of it.”
“Thank you, my lady.” He spoke softly, tucking it in his saddlebag instead.
“I thank you for your company. I have enjoyed this lovely afternoon.”
“Indeed,” he replied, offering her his hand. She hesitated, not interested in another meaninglessly formal kiss, but she soon realized he meant to help her into her saddle. She held back another girlish blush, settling atop her horse and taking the reins.
“Might I escort you back to the castle?”
“If you would like to do so.”
“Of course,” he said, turning to climb aboard his own steed.
“Venn,” she said, causing him to pause and return to her side.
Helena finally let out her sigh, meeting his eyes carefully. “I would like you to know that I very much look forward to becoming your wife,” she said slowly. “I am honored that you selected me, and I will be very sad when you leave today.”
He looked at her for a moment, unsure how to respond. Her face held an honesty that he had not often seen, except perhaps from his mother. The corners of his lips turned downward thoughtfully, and he gripped her hand loosely. Finally, once he had formed his words mentally, Venn spoke them aloud to the waiting Helena.
“I thank you for your kind words, my lady,” he began. “Furthermore, I cannot express how grateful I am that you have excused—“ At her raised eyebrow, he altered his speech. “—rather, forgiven my behavior at the joust I held in your honor. I should have risked a thousand men to prove that I am deserving of your hand, and I hope I have shown with my actions today that I am willing to do anything for your happiness.”
Helena bit her lip. “Please, Venn, refer to me by name,” she said softly.
“My apologies,” he said again, disappointed in her response.
As they turned their horses onto the path, Venn could not help but feel that even his carefully chosen words remained inadequate in the face of Helena’s admission. He wanted to tell her how much he had worked lately to organize the wedding, even though his uncle’s support was all but nonexistent. He wanted to attempt to convey with words the feelings he had experienced riding home after his renewed proposal.
Venn helped Helena put her horse away and said a proper hello and goodbye to Witter, and then he was standing in front of her door and watching her go inside. She turned at the last minute, offering him a smile, and wished him a good evening.
Then, before he could stop himself, he did it.
Helena nearly fainted at the feeling of his lips touching hers, the shock of it more than any words could ever produce. She wanted to remind him that the whole thing was wildly improper just so that she could urge him to go on with her own lips. Instead, she just let him kiss her, pressing back softly until he released her at last.
The sudden stop of a pair of heels behind her revealed that Rowena had found her.
Venn stepped back quickly, getting back into his saddle and stealing one last glance at his fiancée before turning and riding off into the autumn evening. Helena watched him go, taking as long as possible to ensure that the smile fell completely away.
After a long minute, she looked at her mother. Rowena’s face was unreadable.
Helena smiled again, with triumph. I cannot believe it! She is rendered speechless. Then, with the same gusto that had propelled her excitedly past breakfast this morning, she marched through the house toward the stairs and her bedroom.
Rowena did not look at her, gazing instead at her husband where he still stood by the barn. He shrugged, and his grin was evident even across the expanse of field. She pursed her lips, her cold eyes holding fast to the retreating form of Salazar’s nephew.
Hello once again, lovely readers! Know that I sincerely appreciated your patience as I worked to get this chapter posted, and I hope it makes you happy to hear that I’m already working on the next one for after the queue re-opens!
I worked a bit on the characterization in this chapter, so I hope you’ll give me some feedback on that and the abundance of fluff. Oh, and as for the meaning of orange blossoms… I’ll pretend to be quite modest and let you figure it out :) The Travels of Marco Polo were written by Marco Polo and published in 1300.
Thank you, once again, for all of your wonderful support thus far! Stay tuned!