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Diamonds into Coal by academica
Chapter 1: Erised
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The inscription on the Mirror of Erised comes from the chapter “The Mirror of Erised” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, American Hardcover Edition (pub. 1997), page 207. It belongs to J. K. Rowling, as do any characters, events or details that you recall from canon. The title of this story was taken from “The Stable Song” by Gregory Alan Isakov.
I show not your face, but your heart’s desire.
He stood before the ornate gold frame, tracing each and every intricately carved letter with his dark brown eyes. He had been down to this room hundreds of times before, and he had long since deciphered the meaning of the strange phrase that decorated the mirror’s edges. It was a testament to his boredom that he had ventured to visit the mirror so many times, never expecting to behold a different vision no matter how many nights he spent standing before it.
But perhaps it wasn’t boredom at all. Perhaps he, in his barely tangible silver form, looking not one day older than twenty-five, simply wished to allow himself to waste away like all other men.
His eyes traced down into the mirror’s shining surface as she finally appeared, the sentient object realizing which of its admirers currently stood before it. He couldn’t resist reaching out and lightly tracing the mirror’s edge as he watched her twirl before him, picking up the hem of her long, featherweight wedding gown as she spun, her heels clicking on a nonexistent dance floor.
The gown had been made especially for her, but she’d never worn it. In fact, she’d returned it to her mother’s team of tailors no less than seven times for alterations, asking that the neck be cut a bit lower, then a bit higher, requesting the addition of pearls at the waist and then immediately having them taken back off. He had endured her for a while, amused by her perfectionism, but then she took off into the forest with the tiara she should have worn and he knew the truth at last.
The jeweled crown adorned her rich dark locks now, the sapphires embedded in the white gold frame glittering at him, taunting him with the life he might have had in some other universe. But he felt no bitterness, no anger. None remained in him after what he spent that fateful evening.
She turned to face him and he could have sworn that he felt his heartbeat jump to life, quickening rapidly until it achieved an unnatural pace. Her beautiful blue eyes glittered with the joy of a new bride, a perfect compliment to the easy smile that resided upon her face with its other fair features. She was looking at him and beckoning him to join her, and he almost stepped forward.
His feet did not touch the floor. He looked down, ashamed that the mirror had so easily deluded him once more, entertaining him with a fantasy that would never come to life. He could never step in time with her, for neither of them inhabited mortal bodies. He had no heart left to beat.
Another man ambushed him, approaching out of the nothingness of the mirror’s surface, capturing the delicate fingers of the woman and moving her about in an elegant waltz.
He had not seen his corporeal form in many weeks; the Fat Friar had employed all of the ghosts to help Professor Flitwick decorate the Great Hall for the closing feast, and between that duty and his personal job of helping to keep Peeves the poltergeist in line, he hadn’t been to visit the mirror since the last depressing passing of the anniversary of his birth. He took his eyes off the beauty of his bride-to-be for just a moment and tried to remember looking as happy as this man.
The man in the mirror wore a ceremonial blue coat emblazoned with the medals of a war hero, a young second lieutenant who had seen a few significant battles but managed to avoid serious injury. Atop his fair hair sat a coronet inlaid with six identical white pearls, and around his neck hung a gold locket that bore a large ‘S’ formed with minute emeralds, a loan from his uncle. Amidst all these jewels, however, the broad smile on his face, which matched that of his new wife, outshone each and every piece.
He stood there in the darkness, rooted to the spot, knowing what was coming next but unable to avoid it, unable to simply turn away and break the mirror’s spell. The light with no source glinted off the sapphires in the tiara, tracing along the groom’s war medals and flashing back at him at last, illuminating the deep scarlet stains on the front of his aged shirt for a mere moment.
The man in the mirror dipped the bride gently and kissed her lips, and he fell to his knees.
He couldn’t stare at her any longer, not as long as he had the terrible knowledge that what she became was not who she was meant to be. Neither of them had the chance, not after what he did, not after the two lives he took on that cursed evening. The bloodstains were deceivingly fresh.
But no, it was her, at least somewhat her fault. He had never seen the magnificent smile she wore in the mirror, placid and blissful, but he had seen something like it when they were younger. That was many years ago, though, too many to count. The last smile she’d given him… it was colder.
He glanced up in time to catch her eyes, to see that wicked tiara twisted up in her long hair.
Chapter 2: A Birthday Feast
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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!
Chapter 3: Of Wit and Learning
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I never thought I would run out of books.
A pair of blue eyes searched the wide expanse of bookshelves that encircled the small tower, highlighting upon each volume and struggling to recall whether or not it was presently occupied. Her fingers, following the lead of her bright irises, traced along the thin spine of Beowulf, a epic that had failed to capture her interest, and passed over The Canterbury Tales, a recent purchase that she had finished over the course of forty-eight sleepless hours. There was an empty spot next, the resting place of La divina commedia when it was not occupying her small writing desk, waiting to be reread. She frowned slightly, beginning to worry about finding a vacant place.
The hand that was not assisting in the search lay still at her side, two fingers idly tracing along the delicate fabric of her dress while the others clutched the piece of parchment she wanted to tuck away. Though she stayed up late into the night, when the candles had burned nearly all the way to their holders and dripped a small moat of wax around the bases of the brass stands, she forever feared anyone finding her beloved sketches and seeing the result of her long lone hours. Some of the designs showed vast ballrooms decorated with orange blossoms and rich tapestries, whereas others demonstrated the young lady’s grand desires on a slightly smaller scale, such as a series of sketches that included variations on a fine set of bridal jewelry inlaid with sapphires. The picture she currently held was one of a few that she wished most desperately to conceal.
The anonymous bride in the picture had no face, no expression of joy, but it would be difficult to imagine any young woman having less than a perfect wedding day in such an exquisite gown. The unblemished white fabric fell like a smooth river and was marred only by the splashes of royal blue ribbon that were draped lightly at the bustline, the waist, and about the slender hips. The current design was an improvement upon the last one, especially since the artist had made the decision to move the pearls around the bride’s neck down to help mark the trim midsection. Their place had been taken by one of the sets of sapphires, which would match the white gold tiara that perched carefully atop the bride’s dark mane, a prize piece she’d enchanted to glimmer.
The precious stones set into the fragile crown sparkled in their impatience to find a home, and Helena frowned, struggling to decide which work her mother would be least likely to borrow. Suddenly, the sound of approaching footsteps hastened her choice, and she grabbed her barely touched copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and shoved the drawing amongst its pages.
“Helena, darling, we have no time to waste!” Rowena Ravenclaw said as she came charging up the stairs, cursing softly under her breath as the hem of her heavy purple gown caught the edge of a rough stair near the top of the case, resulting in a tiny rip despite the resilience of the fabric. She smoothed her hair, which was of such a dark brown hue that it might have well have been black, and tucked the few tendrils that had fallen from their places underneath the brilliant blue-studded crown atop her head. It closely resembled the diadem featured in the hidden sketch.
The girl before her turned, and the blue eyes met dark gray ones with thin, soft edges.
“No time until what, Mother?” It was a weak attempt, but a worthwhile one nonetheless.
“Oh, you know, my dear! The Grand Prince and Princess Blishwick of Glasgow are expecting us at their estate this evening, and we must depart from here shortly if we expect to arrive on time.”
Helena knew, indeed. The reason for the gathering was merely a second opportunity for her to spend time with the Blishwicks’ only child, a twenty-year-old boy named Brenner whom she had already allowed to court her for one evening. In truth, the boy was very handsome, and Helena had been disappointed to find that he entertained no thoughts except those of sport and wealth. During a spare moment of privacy, she had successfully convinced her potential suitor to seek the hand of a family friend and fellow princess instead. He must not have informed his parents.
“Mother, you know how I despise attending social gatherings,” Helena said as a gentle reminder, settling herself in the window seat where she had been known to spend hours with a new book. “I’ve had no breakfast, and I don’t feel well enough to travel so far, especially enclosed in a cramped carriage with uncomfortable shoes, trapped in one of those blasted girdles.”
“Sweetheart, your waist looks so perfect and delicate, and with your height…”
“They are dreadfully out of fashion,” Helena reminded her.
“You are not thinking reasonably with an empty stomach,” Rowena tried, sitting down beside her daughter. Were it not for the difference in age, the two would appear as mirror images of one another. “Did you not reveal to me when we returned home that you found the boy handsome?”
“I did, yes, very handsome,” Helena admitted with a soft sigh. “But all his talk of Aingingein and sending inflated goat gallbladders through burning barrels put me off my supper, and when I requested that he find a new topic of conversation, all he would speak of was his inheritance.” She glanced at her room, decorated with finds from the Muggle market in an array of colors. “A man like that, handsome or not, would never allow me to bring all of my books into his home.”
“I am certain that he would become more appealing to you with time, Helena,” Rowena said, but her voice held a touch of sadness; as a woman of much wit, she could sympathize with her daughter’s plight. It was rare enough for a mother to allow a daughter of noble blood to complete her education without an impending wedding, however, and Helena’s advancing age came with dwindling chances. “Have you considered attempting to broach the subject with him tonight?”
“That would require space enough in his speech for me to insert a word or two,” Helena replied. “It matters not, Mother. I have already informed him that I will not be attending this evening.”
“Helena, you are too impetuous.” A frown darkened Rowena’s pale features. “Fortunately for you, your beauty and the skills I have painstakingly instilled in you over the years may be enough to salvage this match, if you send an owl ahead and tell him you have found your head.”
“Please, I would never dream of it!” Helena appeared distressed, though whether it was because she wished not to disappoint the older woman or merely because the thought of actually marrying the empty-headed prince made her stomach churn was unclear. “All I desire is a life like yours! You were so fortunate to meet a man who would allow you to busy yourself with studying the wonders of the earth. I would be blessed to enjoy the same privilege as a wife.”
Rowena was tempted to remind her daughter that it was shameful to be so directionless at twenty-three, but she swallowed the thought, unable to come down upon her beloved girl. “You must promise me that you’ll allow me to continue looking, sweetheart,” she said tentatively.
“Naturally, Mother,” Helena said readily. “I assure you, I have no aversion to marriage, merely the thought of spending my life as the bride of someone with whom I cannot properly converse.” Indeed, the many sketches and drawings that she so cleverly concealed from her mother were proof of her girlish desire to meet a man worthy of her. She had even dreamt of the day when she could see the dress of her design come to life, custom fitted to grace her form along with the priceless sapphire jewelry that matched the diadem passed down through the women in her family. Her mother could never know of these desires, lest she hurry the match process along.
“What were you doing when I arrived?” Rowena asked, shifting the topic of conversation and inwardly resigning herself to the idea that she would need to change into less elegant robes.
“I was thinking of taking one of the mares down to the market,” Helena replied. It was a common hobby of hers, particularly on Thursdays, when sunny weather meant the successful delivery of a new shipment of literature fresh from the printing press in Edinburgh.
“Oh, the weather bodes well for that,” Rowena said approvingly. She didn’t mind Helena mingling with the Muggle peasants, not when it meant that new books might come to inhabit the empty spaces between the well-worn wizarding books in the vast bookshelves of their home.
A moment later, Rowena had enclosed herself in her chambers for a hot bath, and Helena found her boots and made her way down the spiral staircase and out onto the grounds of the estate. She stepped daintily through the mud, pleased to see that the rain had arrived to bless the infant crops growing in their vast fields, and journeyed over to the large barn that housed the family’s horses.
As she neared the doors, she noticed a small crack separating them just enough to allow in a bit of fresh air. The opening also revealed the sound of scattered conversation within the structure, and a smile broke out across Helena’s face as she recognized the pleasant voice of her father. She edged carefully inside, not wanting to let in too much light at once and startle the horses.
“Daughter, what a lovely sight!” Witter Ravenclaw said, taking his daughter gently about the shoulders and pulling her against his portly belly. His blue eyes sparkled upon his only child. Behind him, several servants were brushing down the three stallions and five mares that the family owned, and a gaggle of house elves were working steadily to clean up after them.
“Father, what brings you out to the horses this morning?” Helena asked with a smile. He normally made an appearance in the barn on Thursdays to inspect the horses and ensure that none of the beasts were injured or too sick for his wife and daughter to take them riding. However, that event usually took place in the late afternoon, not at this hour of the morning.
“Are you and your mother not preparing to depart from this place within the hour?” Witter asked, bringing her attention back to the gathering she had never formally declined to attend.
“Ah, no, our plans have changed. I would like to take Eostre to the market today instead.”
“You are in luck, my beauty. The men and I have just finished tending to her, and the elves have taken care in cleaning your saddle and reins. You may take her out anytime you like.” As he spoke, Helena glanced behind him at the beautiful mare she’d been given as a young girl. The horse was tall enough to match her and wore a coat of pale gold with black patches at the hooves.
“Excellent, Father, I am grateful,” Helena responded, stepping lightly around him and saddling Eostre carefully. After taking a moment to smooth Eostre’s mane and gingerly untangle the horse’s hair, her way of expressing her gratitude to the beast for carrying her the short distance to the marketplace, she gently guided Eostre out of the barn and onto the road that led into town.
They walked slowly, Eostre seeming to enjoy the chance to breathe fresh air instead of the stale oxygen that resided within the barn and Helena listening to the sounds of the birds seated around them in the trees. At times she even let her eyelids fall, concentrating on the slight breeze that rustled the leaves lining the road and the slow rise and fall of the horse underneath her. Before she knew it, they had reached the top of the long, shallow hill that marked the edge of town. Both mare and mistress stopped to admire the wide valley that stretched out before them, with the small marketplace cradled in the center of a collection of farmhouses, streams and open fields.
As Eostre turned into the market, Helena caught the smiles of several young men about her age who were helping organize goods for the shops around the edges. She was too proud to admit it, but the sight of the handsome local boys was one reason she made this weekly trip, though she knew none of them could afford an education as lavish and unusual as the one she had received. She indulged herself just briefly, fluttering her eyelashes at them and suppressing a chuckle, and then she guided the horse gently on down the line until she reached her planned destination.
The tiny bookshop was barely noticeable in the busy atmosphere of the town, especially being flanked by a shop that sold rich silk scarves and another that offered a variety of exotic birds. Only the few nobles who kept residence within town and the Ravenclaws had enough time or money to spend reading books, and these sparse customers knew exactly where to find them. Helena dismounted from Eostre, leading the horse along behind her gingerly as she browsed the selection of literature that had been neatly stacked on the table when they’d arrived that morning.
“Do you see anything you like?” A young boy stepped out of the shadows, and Helena couldn’t help but smile as she observed his professional demeanor and the obvious effort it took for him to stand so straight and tall, like a miniature gentleman. She recognized the child as the grandson of the old woman who usually ran the shop; his mother had passed in childbirth, and he thanked his grandmother for taking him in by helping to run the business when she felt under the weather.
“Yes, always,” Helena remarked cheerfully. “Unfortunately, I can only take one or two of them.”
“What do you mean? You could afford them all, couldn’t you? I mean, if you really wanted to,” the boy responded, his manners temporarily forgotten.
Helena blushed slightly but felt no anger toward the boy for his bluntness. “I suppose, but then I would have no money to build the shelves it would take to hold them all,” she answered.
The child seemed appeased by this reply. “Well, just let me know when you’ve made a choice.”
“I will do that, thank you,” Helena said, turning a couple of books with interesting cover art over and examining the amount of wear the journey had lent them. As she skimmed the selection, she noticed a volume with a title written in beautiful script. She picked up The Song of Roland and offered it to the boy, withdrawing her small purse from the bag at Eostre’s side.
“Just this one?” the boy said. “But wait… it’s in French!”
“I can read French,” Helena said. It was, after all, customary for young women of her stature. She supposed it was because the most handsome princes had traditionally been French, but she also thought it logical that the nobility of the time would favor a pretentious, flowery language.
“Oh,” the boy said, nodding. “All right.” He accepted her money, and Helena tucked the book carefully into the saddlebag so that it wouldn’t fall from her grasp as she journeyed home. Bidding the boy farewell, Helena guided her horse out of the busy marketplace and back onto the road that led toward the estate. Before she knew it, she had reached the barn, now devoid of men.
Her mother rushed out to greet her before she could even re-enter the house with her latest purchase. “Helena, we’ve received a letter!” she called. “It’s from Salazar Slytherin!”
Helena recalled the man well; he had enjoyed many fine dinners at her father’s table, and he had assisted her mother in founding the school where she had enjoyed seven wonderful years. She smiled, certain that the note would contain as many flattering references to her beauty as those that occurred when Salazar was physically present in their home. “What did it say, Mother?”
“He has requested that you consider meeting with his nephew, a young man called Venn Selwyn. He is due to receive a large barony in Norfolk, and he is in want of a wife, as I understand it.” Rowena could hardly contain her excitement. “I wonder if he is very handsome?”
“I am certain that our friend would not recommend an unflattering man to wed me,” Helena said quite matter-of-factly, but she offered her mother a polite smile. “When are we to meet?”
“He awaits news of your response,” Rowena replied. “I hope you are willing, my daughter.”
“If he comes recommended by someone so dear, I can hardly refuse,” Helena replied. “I know that it would bring you happiness, Mother, and thus I confess that I look forward to the event.”
“Excellent,” Rowena said. “Your father also hoped you would be amenable to such a meeting. We will send an owl to Salazar and express our readiness to welcome the family into our home.”
Helena nodded, watching her mother retreat hurriedly into the castle. As the evening air rustled her waist-length hair, she closed her eyes again, trying to imagine the face of one Venn Selwyn. Inside, she hoped that the beauty of his appearance would come second only to that of his mind.
The following works of literature belong to their authors and not to me: Beowulf (by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author), The Canterbury Tales (by Geoffrey Chaucer), La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (by an anonymous English author), and The Song of Roland (by an anonymous French author).
For those with lingering curiosity regarding names, Brenner is English and means “little raven”, Witter is English and means “wise warrior”, and Eostre is English and refers to a pagan goddess.
Finally, The Blishwick family, who are purebloods related distantly to the Blacks, and Aingingein, which is an ancient Irish predecessor to Quidditch, both belong to J. K. Rowling, as do any characters, events or details that you recognize from canon.
Chapter 4: Vanity
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The jacket was too big, the ends of the wide sleeves that hung heavy with gold silk embellishments concealing all but the final two-thirds of his fingertips. His father had been a slightly larger man, not heavy but broad-shouldered and more muscular than his only son. The elder man had seen numerous wars with the Scandinavians, fulfilling his duty to assist the Muggle rulers who commanded the surrounding baronies, but Venn had only six months’ duty for a civil war in Suffolk, during which he’d celebrated his eighteenth birthday, to his name. As a result, his lean frame looked awkward under his father’s coat, even with the crown atop his head.
The youngest Selwyn stared at himself in the mirror, finding that he preferred the scarlet hue of his usual outer covering instead of the brilliant blue that characterized his father’s overcoat. The jacket had been a gift from Witter Ravenclaw, another leader against the Norman conquest. Edeline had thought it more than fitting, an extra reinforcement in the connection to be made.
As his fingers idly traced the edges of the coat, his eyes occasionally straying to his crown, his mind wandered to thoughts of the young woman who would come to life before him so soon.
Venn had endured enough of his mother’s society balls to meet nearly every combination of woman available, or so he presumed, as the flurry of elaborate dresses and pinned-up hair was much too varied for him to recall clearly. His mind lighted upon a slender blonde with deep brown eyes, and then it shifted like an indecisive butterfly to a brunette whom he remembered as a brilliant dancer. At another party, there had been a Welsh princess who had been brave enough to discuss foreign politics with him, and when he tired of her, a slightly chubby redhead had entertained him for the remainder of the evening by making crude jokes about the other guests. None of these girls had aroused his affection, but what of a woman who held all of their talents?
The sound of familiar footsteps was sufficient to jerk him away from his improbable fantasy, and he returned his gaze to the mirror just in time to remove the crown before his mother entered.
“Are you nearly ready to depart, my son?” Edeline asked, unable to resist admiring the black lace hem of her long green gown in his mirror for a mere moment. As she smoothed the folds in her train, she caught sight of his room, noticing not just the crown on the nightstand but the fact that his bed remained un-made and the toes of several pairs of his shoes peeked out of his wardrobe. “It is well that the Ravenclaws are not coming here, with the house in such a state…”
“Mother, you know it is not the house, merely the space I occupy,” Venn replied, smirking a bit.
“It is no laughing matter,” Edeline countered, folding her arms. “You are not a boy anymore, Venn. You are a grown man, and for someone who wants his father’s throne so badly, it seems shameful that you should be unable to remember to have the house elves tend to your things.”
“It is only habit,” Venn said, sitting atop his rumpled covers. “They would clean up after me when I was a boy, and it was always completed well before I thought to request the service.”
“How can you expect to control a kingdom if you cannot master a small team of elves?” Edeline’s voice held judgment, but her smile betrayed her true feelings. “I simply wish that you would recall the words of your father. ‘Leadership is the combination of small victories’.”
Venn nodded, pacified by the kind curve of his mother’s lips. “I understand. My room will be in a better state when the lady and her parents return the visit on a future evening.”
Edeline found the direction of the conversation pleasing, but she nonetheless returned to business, having found a habit of her own in her position as temporary ruler until Venn’s ascension. “Come, my child, the carriage awaits us.”
Venn distracted himself from cringing by looking upon the crown one last time, his lucky charm. Then, he turned to follow Edeline, stepping lightly about her train as they descended the stairs.
The cool morning breeze gently ruffled the dark hair in the manes and tails of the identical gray horses that waited just outside the castle’s doors. Venn affectionately patted the nearest of the twins on the head as he waited for a servant to help his mother into the carriage, and then he climbed in after her, closing both of them inside. There was even less space to move around than he remembered, and he felt a sense of dread about the day-long ride ahead rising up within him. With a sigh, he settled on the green velvet that lined the small seat on his side of the carriage, glancing out the window as his mother retrieved a tiny mirror from a hidden pocket in her bodice and began tending to her hair, sitting upright on the matching seat across from him. After a few moments, the carriage sank into life, the horses that pulled it trotting delicately through the muddy landscape as the servant commanding them wiped dirt from his own shoes.
Venn drifted in and out of sleep as the carriage trundled along, frowning each time as he woke to the itchiness of his formal clothes and the uncomfortable heat contained within the closed space. Edeline stretched out easily upon her own seat, resting comfortably with her nose in a novel so worn that Venn could not even make out the title. Every once in a while, she glanced up at her son, smiling as she noted the similarities between his current self and the five-year-old version. As a small boy, he would often amuse himself by making lists of the birds he saw in the trees they passed, comparing them with varieties of fowl that his father had hunted near the estate. Now, he was much quieter, but she still envisioned him counting the seconds until they arrived. Inwardly, she hoped he could use his excitement about being able to emerge from the carriage as a mask for the lack of joy he had previously expressed regarding his impending choice of a wife.
As soon as she looked back down to find her place, however, she heard her son speak to her.
“Has Salazar said anything else about this girl?”
“We spoke a little on the evening of your birthday, yes,” she replied.
Venn frowned slightly. “Are you going to share that conversation with me?”
Edeline closed the book, placing it lightly on the empty part of the seat next to her. “He told me a great deal about Rowena. Apparently she enjoys growing herbs, much as I do… delightful…”
“Mother, please,” Venn frowned, resting his elbows on his knees and leaning closer to Edeline. “As much as I wonder about the affairs of women, my interest does not lie with the countess.”
“Indeed.” His mother tucked a strand of flax-hued hair behind one ear, turning her green eyes fully upon her son and settling herself into a more comfortable position. “He said little about her, and I have reason to believe he has never properly met the girl, though he spoke kindly even with his sparse commentary.” She watched Venn’s eyes flick subtly upward to meet the centers of her own pupils, and a benign smirk curled the corner of her delicate lips as she noted the display of interest. “Helena is said to have hair so dark and fragile that it matches the feathers of the ravens which gave their family its name, the very ones that have populated the estate since time began. The sound of it settling upon her shoulders, they say, imitates the graceful dismount of a bird.”
Venn paused, taking in this information. “What of her skin? Is her complexion pleasing?”
Edeline glanced out the window for a moment before returning her gaze to Venn’s dark eyes. “I know not of her skin for certain, my son, but if it is of the same caliber as that which clothes the few Scotswomen I have seen in my days at court, it is nearly as white as the highland snow.”
Venn glanced out the window, wondering how his mother could conjure up such a vision when there were green blades of grass and fully dressed trees to be seen for miles in all directions. He closed his eyes momentarily, and in the expanse of a few seconds he lost himself in a dream, a blinding image of a young woman so delicate and fair that she could take off with a flock of birds and disappear completely in the rustling mayhem of their gentle cacophony of feathers. He felt his heartbeat begin to quicken as she rose higher and higher into the horizon of his mind.
“He said that her eyes are like ice, like her father’s,” Edeline added. “Perhaps a bit unkind.”
Venn found that he did not care. She would not have to be kind. She would be glorious.
His pounding pulse had moved to his ears and the heat of the small carriage was getting to him. “Mother,” he said quietly, but she had turned to retrieve her book and had not quite heard him. He longed to hear her speak of him with such pleasantries, to return to the days when he was a little boy in the bath and she would sit patiently by his side and compliment his future reign. Venn, you are everything to us. You are my most prized possession. You are the perfect child.
“You look very handsome.”
He looked up and offered her a tiny smile in return, satisfied for now with this sentiment. Though mothers occasionally embellish the truth for the sake of their children’s well being, it was not the first time a woman had acknowledged his strong jaw or broad, sinewy shoulders. He would be a fitting match for this strange woman from Galloway, no matter her perfection.
English woodland bled all too easily into Scottish forest, and before he knew it, the road before Venn opened up and he caught his first glimpse of Ravenclaw Castle. He stared out the window, much as the boy of his youth might have done while bird-hunting on a long journey, unable to peel his eyes away from the slender turrets that spiraled into oblivion with the tallest trees. Unlike his own home, which was rigidly embedded in a century of mud and damp moss, this building stood on firm ground, looking much like a jewel in the crown of surrounding pine. Silver-rimmed panes of crystalline glass dotted the pale white brick on all sides, and with the dark blue color of the wooden roof, Venn saw a stark contrast, like that of Helena’s features.
The carriage slowed to a halt, and Venn glanced into one of the windows, catching a glimpse of what appeared to be a rather large bookshelf just on the other side of the room. He stepped carefully out of the carriage, having to remind himself at the last minute that there was no need to be cautious about putting his expensive shoes into the dark, cloudy water he knew from home. As his mother got out of the carriage behind him, the servant who drove the carriage pausing to help her fluff the edges of her full skirt, Venn took another long look at the huge castle.
It is not so impressive, not really. It is too tall, too slender. There cannot be room on the inside.
His mother was speaking to him but his mind was full of his own guilty thoughts. He should have no more talk of the feeling of inadequacy, the distinct sensation that he would not deserve his potential bride-to-be. He would not allow himself to get lost in the serene beauty of Ravenclaw Castle and its surrounding estate, no matter its magnificence. No matter hers, either.
“Venn,” his mother spoke gently again, and this time he attended to her. But her eyes were behind him, seeking out the origin of the sound of an ancient door closing. He turned his own face back toward the castle, seeing two figures approaching with some haste. On the left was a tall, stout man, wearing an elegant jacket much like the one currently covering Venn’s torso. To his right was a woman with hair just as his mother had described, long and flowing and as black as the most starless night he had ever observed from his tower bedroom. She clutched the man’s arm gingerly, as if she felt the need to stay herself lest she trip in her rush to greet the visitors.
As she approached, Venn noticed that she was closer to his mother’s age than his own. He bit back a grimace, noting the raised blue veins in the woman’s pale hands and wondered what Salazar had been thinking. Surely he did not intend for his nephew to choose a bride so old!
However, his fears were relieved when the woman stepped gently past him and took Edeline’s hand graciously, revealing herself as the countess. “Welcome! I trust your journey was smooth?”
“Yes, not a drop from the sky,” Edeline confirmed, smiling at the woman and gesturing to Venn. “This is my son, Venn, and I am Edeline. My dear brother sends his greetings from Suffolk.”
“Oh, please give Salazar my regards when you return,” the man said, clasping Venn’s hand with surprising force. “I am Witter Ravenclaw, and this is my wife, Rowena. Helena awaits within.”
Venn felt his heart jump shamelessly to life at the mention of the girl’s name, and he nodded as curtly as possible, unwilling to put his cards on the table when there was yet no prize to be seen. His mother put a warm palm on his back, guiding him along as they followed their hosts inside.
He was wrong again. While this castle’s foyer was not as wide as his own, the ceilings stretched up into a broad expanse of white, an endless sky that made the room seem quite large indeed.
“Dinner will be served in a few moments,” Rowena said, sending an elf to gather their coats. Venn refused the service, not willing to let even an ill-fitting jacket abandon him in this strange land. His mother, on the other hand, easily parted with her warm woolen covering, which had been gifted to her by his father and made entirely of the coats of the sheep that inhabited their lands. Behind him, Venn heard Witter mention something about Edeline’s wine preferences.
The sound was so soft and delicate that he might have missed it had he not been trying so hard to remain disinterested in the event’s events. But there, just visible in the edges of his periphery, he caught a glimpse of a figure standing near the bottom of the staircase, her hand nervously caressing the silver railing. Her dark hair fell just below her shoulders, the tender man-made curls twirling elegantly about the fragile diamond tiara that shone from the top of her head. Her pale blue dress made her white skin seem almost bloodless and perfect in its transparency. For a moment, she looked like a flower, the kind that would wilt with the slightest breeze or touch of heat. But then her tiny fingers gripped the banister with an unforeseen sense of purpose.
She took a step forward and, as if by magic, his eyes swept up and drowned in the depths of hers.
Helena gave him a polite smile, and he regained his strength, pressing his lips to her soft hand. Her feet made no noise as they moved down onto the thick carpet and brushed silently past him, the scent of an inviting meal providing an excellent distraction for the butterflies in her stomach. Venn, on the other hand, found within himself a sudden craving for the wine his mother carried.
It was not until his feet pulled him toward the dining room that he realized he was smiling, too.
Chapter 5: Reflection
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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!
Chapter 6: Second-Best
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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!
Chapter 7: Midsummer
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Fistfuls of petals, flimsy pieces of nature in every size and color, rained down upon Helena. They lodged in her hair like victims in a spider’s web, tumbling through her open fingers and decorating the tops of her bare feet. She spun with no regard for her age or her present company. He merely stood by, watching her wordlessly and ignoring the shards of pastel that fell to their rest atop his broad shoulders.
Next to Helena, a little girl with flaxen hair giggled, tossing another bunch of daffodil heads up into the air and watching as they separated in the slight breeze just before raining down to their deaths. Helena turned her palm, catching a few, and a friendly smile split her pretty face as she sent the petals scurrying with a delicate puff of breath. Another giggle, and the little girl scampered away shyly, her tanned skin betraying her as a commoner too poor to avoid helping her parents in the fields.
The elder girl straightened now, turning to face her escort. “I love Midsummer,” she said, taming her smile as she looked upon him. “Are you pleased that I invited you?”
“Indeed, m—Helena,” Venn replied. He was still learning to obey her command.
“Good,” she replied, turning to gaze at the remainder of the festival, which spread out before her like a welcoming banner of many colors. As she moved forward, Venn paused to check behind him, noting that Salazar, Edeline, and Rowena had paused a few feet in the distance to allow them the semblance of privacy. Edeline met her son’s eyes, a warm blush tinting her cheeks. Venn followed her line of sight, and his own eyes fell upon the vision of Helena playing with two small peasant boys just ahead. She laughed as they tugged at the hem of her skirt, and he averted his gaze.
Venn had never felt comfortable associating with commoners the way that Helena did, much less those without magical breeding. His father had always been kind to the people in their realm, but behind closed doors, he was quick to blame Muggle jealousy for any report of an assault or robbery of a fellow witch or wizard. In fact, though he had learned to welcome any opportunity for prolonged exposure to Helena’s fair face, Venn found the festival itself rather boring. If Helena wished to twirl in a shower of petals, that could certainly be arranged with a mere flick of his wand. Between his money and his magic, she could have anything she ever desired.
“Venn!” Helena called from up ahead, her jewelry glittering as she reached for him.
He lost sight of her momentarily, her blue dress easily camouflaged by the bright costumes of a group of musicians who crossed before him, instruments in hand. As he watched, they formed the tail of a long serpent of bodies, the head of which was nearing Ravenclaw Castle, nestled in the distant mountains. He frowned, remembering his father’s warning and experiencing the distinct thought that it would be quite easy for someone to break in during the chaos and celebration. A pair of women hoisting a large roasted duck unknowingly pushed him out of their way, and his frown deepened. Venn opened his mouth to warn Helena of his suspicions, but his eyes found her out of earshot, approaching the church that bordered the town square.
By the time Venn and the others reached her, Helena had knelt in the dirt among the peasants and begun weaving wildflowers into an unbroken branch. All around her, mothers were instructing their children on how they should pray, and a few young couples precariously balanced candles as they tried to find an empty place for the lights at the base of the church wall. Venn watched as an old man left a candle emblazoned with an image of a saint outside and then went into the church.
“Who is that?” he asked, pointing to the candle.
Helena glanced up at him and then over at the object. “Saint John,” she replied. “This day is for him. This festival, Midsummer – it is a celebration of his life and deeds.”
“What has he done to deserve such merit?”
Helena chuckled. “It would do you well to read, Venn. A good ruler understands his people.” She stood up, dusting off her dress and leaving her creation against the wall. “They say that he forecast the coming of their savior, the one who will give them strong homes and full bellies, things they can hold for more than one day.”
Venn watched several children leave the church. “I do not understand this legend.”
“The thought of him brings them hope,” she said, and her eyes darkened a little as she looked at the children. “You and I do not know want in the way that they do.”
“So these things are the subject of their prayers?”
“Yes,” Helena said, brightening again. “They pray for plenty for all. Even for us.”
Venn smiled a little despite himself. Perhaps he had underestimated the Muggles.
Rowena had moved past the church, making her way slowly to the town square. As Venn tired of watching the petitioners, his gaze began to follow her instead, observing as she kissed the hands of several peasant women. A child sitting by the roadside complimented her beauty, seemingly unable to move from his position, and Rowena returned his praises with a smile. Before Venn’s eyes, a bouquet of flowers appeared in her open hands, though her wand was nowhere to be seen. The child clapped excitedly as the flowers flew up into the air and fell freely around him.
Salazar frowned slightly, and Venn reverted, putting his hand on his sword. Was she mad, using her magical abilities to delight Muggle children, and in open public?
Just then, Helena moved up beside him, having satisfied herself with her offering to Saint John. She gingerly took his fingers in her own, and Venn looked at her, surprised. He tried to move his hand away, but her grip was unexpectedly strong.
“This is not proper,” he murmured, resisting the urge to melt into her eyes.
“I am only preventing you from being swept away by the crowd,” Helena whispered.
By the time they arrived in the square, Venn had gained the upper hand in the battle of tangled fingers. Ahead of him, Rowena had moved onto a crudely constructed stage, the train of her dress dragging along the jagged boards and threatening to catch on one of their corners with every deliberate step. When the noise in the crowd had settled, her smile fell away, and her lips readied themselves for speech.
“What a wonderful day for a feast!”
The audience cried out in pleasant agreement.
“I am honored, truly, to have been asked by my husband to do his duty and break bread with you today. It is such a precious thing to be among friends, to enjoy the fruits of a bountiful spring harvest and the offerings of the livestock in the kingdom. Indeed, my husband will be more regretful than he can know to have missed the pleasure of your company and to take the feast from his bed of recovery.”
“Recovery?” Venn heard Salazar ask his mother.
“A recent hunt,” Edeline explained softly. “He fell from his horse and broke his leg.”
Rowena was speaking again, having paused to allow the crowd to chuckle at Witter Ravenclaw’s expense. “I believe I am most proud to live among you on days like this, when I witness you giving of your own houses to help your neighbors in need. I am also fortunate to be able to announce that the House of Ravenclaw has also provided many rich foods and fine wines for you to enjoy as part of the feast today. I have heard it said that the game on our land is the finest in the kingdom, and I expect that some of you may be willing to confirm or deny that to me upon tasting it.” Another small murmur went through the audience, but Rowena had adopted a solemn expression.
“In return for the graciousness of our house and your neighbors, good people, I simply ask that you make every effort to be courteous to your fellows on all days of the year, not merely this one. Remember that Saint John gave of himself to pave the way for another, one who could offer far more than he. Whatever it is that you have to offer, be it prayers, a place at your table, or any other unique talents…”
She had stopped moving and was looking directly at Salazar, who stared back at her.
“…remember the purpose of this feast, and share your gifts with those in need.” She smiled again, opening her arms to the crowd. “Now, brothers and sisters, let us enjoy the harvest of another prosperous season! May Saint John bless us all!” She waved her arms, and Venn blinked as the elegant midnight blue tablecloth covering up the feast flew into the air, just as the flowers before the child, and vanished.
Rowena’s indiscretion could not taint Venn’s view of the feast. The spread was truly magnificent, and at least five times larger than what he had amassed for his birthday. The roasted duck that had nearly bowled him over rested with several of its brethren on fine bronze platters, and a long trail of bowls held fresh vegetables recently retrieved from the fields. The line of bowls was punctuated every few inches by a wooden tablet covered in a variety of cheeses, meant to ease digestion. At the end of the table furthest from him, Venn saw an endless assortment of fine wines, surely imported from every noble household in the nearby kingdoms. It was no wonder that everyone, peasant and noble alike, looked forward to this festival.
“Perhaps someone should remind her not to show them…” He began, turning, but only Edeline was still standing behind him. Helena was planted at his side, beaming up at her mother. Venn looked around the busy square, but Salazar had seemingly followed the tablecloth out of sight. He suddenly felt a hand touch his arm, which promptly flew to his sword.
“Venn!” When he turned, he saw Roldan there, with Emilia at his side. “You seem uneasy, my friend. Perhaps you should request that fair Countess Ravenclaw’s speech be repeated, so as to soothe your nerves?”
“No, no, it is merely the heat toying with my senses,” Venn said, embracing Roldan and nodding to Emilia. “I did not know you would be in attendance today.”
“Nor did I, not until this morning,” Roldan replied. “I sense that my mother and father will be displeased when I do not return in time to take afternoon tea.”
Venn smirked. “Have you been swept away by a tempting damsel?”
“Yes, every day this week! I am finding it difficult to make excuses for myself,” Roldan said, smiling at Emilia. “Life has scarcely been so pleasant.”
Emilia had barely looked at Venn since they had arrived. She only had eyes, it seemed, for Roldan. Venn’s suspicion of this was confirmed when she stepped forward and kissed her companion full on the lips, holding him there for a long moment. Venn could barely keep his footing with the shock, and he found himself feeling quite embarrassed that the object of his own affection was a fellow witness.
As if on cue, he felt a familiar warmth spreading into the pads of his fingers.
Roldan broke it off at last. “Should we sample the delights of the feast, my lady?”
“Indeed,” Emilia said, blushing brightly.
Roldan nodded to Venn, pausing and lowering his voice as he turned to go. “Perhaps you should be vigilant for temptation yourself, Selwyn. It appears that your mother may soon fall prey to smooth lips as well, if you allow them to continue speaking.”
Venn turned, leaving the lovers to their meal, and saw that his mother was no longer alone. A man with sleek brown hair and dark black eyes was engaged in conversation with her, and the joyous peals of her laughter suddenly sounded bitter to Venn’s ears. He looked away, surprised to find himself immediately desiring the comfort of Helena’s company. Fortunately, his eyes quickly found the lady examining a booth of wooden trinkets on the perimeter of the square.
“Who is that gentleman?” he asked, moving closer to her.
Helena smiled before she had even turned to face him. “Who?”
Venn gestured to Nentres, who had now followed Edeline to the line of people waiting to be fed. He seemed to be asking her opinion on each of the hundred or so dishes on the table. “The man conversing with my mother. Is he familiar to you?”
Helena followed his extended hand. “Ah, yes, that is Nentres Peverell. Upon seeing his face, I recall that my mother once considered him to assist her in building Hogwarts.” She looked back down at a table of fine silks, touching the fabric softly.
“Why was he not selected?” Venn asked, attempting to keep her attention.
“His wife succumbed to childbed fever following the birth of their third son. He sent an owl stating his conflict of interest shortly after her funeral. I suppose now they are old enough to allow him a wider expanse of free time.”
Venn considered this, feeling the pain of mingled pity and jealousy. When he next looked up, he met the eyes of the strange man and his mother, both of whom were watching him. He wished momentarily that Salazar would emerge from where he had hidden. “Have you knowledge of what he could be discussing with my mother?”
Helena turned her blue eyes upon his face, trying not to smirk. However, her sparkling eyes betrayed her utter lack of trust in his ability to use logic. “Well,” she began, speaking more slowly than she had perhaps intended. “He may be lonely, living in a large castle with only his sons to keep him company, and perhaps he has tired of this empty succession of days. Such a man may be in want of a wife.”
Venn felt the heat of the afternoon growing a bit thicker in the air about his face. In an effort to distract himself from this uncomfortable sensation and the knowledge of his mother’s girlish flirtation, he began to idly follow Helena as she picked up one tiny village trinket after another, moving slowly from booth to booth and gifting her smiles to the peasants. Soon, the crowd in the square began to thin, as children who had eaten their fill complained of wanting to go home and sleep away the meal. After several hours, only the older children and some adults remained, and the attention of these festival attendees turned to an open field near Ravenclaw Castle.
Venn’s boots dug into the soft ground as he walked, gingerly holding one of Helena’s hands while her other hand grasped her skirt, keeping it away from the dirt. The sharp tips of the spindly blades of grass tickled his exposed palm, and he closed his eyes, momentarily focusing on the feeling. His mind wandered backwards in time to the passionate kiss he’d witnessed, and he imagined Helena’s lips tickling his softly. Before he could shame himself for thinking this way, Helena’s strides came to a halt.
“Here,” she said, releasing his hand and using both of hers to begin gathering the tallest blades of grass. She plucked them from the soil and began to make a pile directly in front of where she had stopped. Rowena moved along beside her, retrieving the driest-looking twigs and branches that she could find and using them to line Helena’s pile of grass. Venn simply watched for a few moments, wondering what they were doing, and then he realized that many other small groups had begun to make similar piles around them. The field was beginning to resemble a valley of anthills, a tiny horizon that adopted the life taken from the dark, silent square.
An elderly man and his grandchildren were the first to finish their pile of sticks and greenery. Carefully, with shaking knees, the old man bent to the ground and retrieved a small rock from the dirt, wiping it off onto his shoe. He moved so low that it looked as if his nose would be buried in the soil, and then he emerged, leaving a tiny spark in his wake. The children gathered in a circle, blowing on it in unison, and slowly, carefully, the spark grew into a respectable flame. It set the pile ablaze.
“Venn, would you like to do the honors?”
He looked over at the sound of his mother’s voice, his reverie shattered, and saw the three women and Nentres watching him. “What honors are these, Mother?”
Helena pointed at his wand, which was lodged in his belt next to his sword.
Venn nodded, withdrawing it, and pointing it straight at the pile. “Incendio.”
All of them smiled as they watched the spell’s result consume the brush, and Rowena and Helena promptly forgot their fine skirts and settled down upon the ground. Edeline mimicked them, situating herself between her son and Nentres. As the excitement of the initial fires faded, the noise died with it, and soon the five nobles became mere participants, indistinguishable from the others in the darkness. Venn looked over at Helena, smiling as he watched the bright colors of the fire play over her delicate features and briefly soften the frozen hue of her irises.
“What is the purpose of this ceremony, Helena?”
“This is our final offering as a kingdom,” she said quietly. “This is the way we have chosen to show Saint John that we intend to carry on his message of sacrifice.”
“Unity is the purpose of the entire day,” Rowena added, watching the fire.
Unity. To Venn, it seemed as respectable a virtue as any. Was unity not his mother’s purpose in driving him to wed, her way of preserving their family line? Salazar, if he were present – and Venn now remembered that his uncle had never emerged after Rowena’s blessing – would surely agree that the Selwyn legacy merited preservation. Yet now, another man sat ready to take all that belonged to Venn, all that his father had intended for him. In fact, that man sat mere inches away.
He stood up, taking care not to move too close to the fire while doing so.
“Friends!” Venn called aloud, and the surprised expressions on the faces of the other people in the field signaled to him that his voice had carried throughout the space. “I am Venn, from the House of Selwyn, and I bid you thanks for allowing me to share in this wonderful celebration of unity. So impressed was I with your community that I feel no less than overcome with the desire to join my baronage with yours.”
He paused, feeling the presence of attentive eyes and ears, and then continued.
“As a way of demonstrating my appreciation, I invite any man who is able and willing to journey to my kingdom in one week and enter a jousting tourney at my home. I beg of you to spread the word to all the kingdoms, to invite one and all to be entertained.” Venn looked down at Helena, whose expression was unreadable. “More than that, friends, I propose that if I am able to defeat all challengers, the most prized beauty in all of the kingdoms – fair Helena – will agree to become my wife.”
He next reached beneath his cloak, withdrawing his prized pair of dragon-hide gloves, which were well worn from many years of sword fighting and hunting. Venn separated the brothers for the first time in memorable history, deciding that the one worn on his non-dominant hand was the best looking of the two. He let his eyes drop down, taking in Helena’s beauty anew, and extended the glove to her.
Helena sat silently for a moment, as if attempting to regain her balance now that the pressure of the eyes and ears had shifted to burden her instead. Her heart fluttered, its beats growing stronger and stronger until they resembled the wings of a bird resisting a cage. Next to her, Rowena placed a warm, smooth hand on top of hers.
“Well, my lady, what will your answer be?” Edeline encouraged softly, smiling.
Quietly, Helena stood, taking the glove and slipping it gently onto her hand.
The crowd applauded, and excited shouts could be heard from a few brave men who appeared ready to undertake Venn’s challenge. Helena sank back to the ground, staring at the glove on her hand. For days and days, she had been thinking of Venn while reading her books in the garden, putting his face in the place of the strange knights and princes who lived in their pages. He had even ridden through her dreams on occasion, and now she was sitting here, admiring the way his glove was far too big for her dainty fingers. She had watched many friends and classmates find gloves waiting for them over the years, hidden cleverly in common rooms, carriages, and beneath platters at dinnertime, but she had never received an offer of her own. This was not the wisest or most sophisticated man she had ever met, and yet the sight of him had her blushing and dancing in the street. It must mean something. Helena thought of the bride in her sketches. This is what it means to be romanced.
She glanced up at Venn, who grinned as he shook another hand in congratulations.
You had best win that tourney, Venn Selwyn.
Hello again! I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and please leave me a review.
The midsummer festival depicted in this chapter, also known as St. John’s Day, was actually celebrated in the United Kingdom around this time in history. My sources seemed to indicate that the festival was originally meant to honor St. John the Baptist, who predicted the coming of Jesus Christ (according to Christianity). However, as the centuries passed, the less religious folk in the land apparently began to use the festival to celebrate the harvest and prosperity of the kingdom. Offerings to St. John, parades, costumes, feasting, music, and nighttime bonfires were all part of the day’s festivities. The way that I interpreted and used these components is more a matter of artistic license.
Nentres, the name of Edeline’s supposed suitor, means “name of a king”, but my choice went a little deeper than that. Can you identify another historical allusion that I’ve folded into the story of the Peverells here? (Hint: I chose the name based on the first initial.) As for Nentres’s widow, she perished from “childbed fever,” which is also known as Puerperal fever. This deadly sickness, which results from a bacterial attack, cost many women their lives in medieval times and in later years. Some of its more famous victims include two wives of Henry VIII (as well as his mother) and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft.
Finally, an explanation for the gloves – in medieval times, gloves were used as the mechanism of marital proposals. A suitor would send a pair of gloves to a lady he wished to marry, and if she wore them to church on the following Sunday, it signaled her acceptance of his offer. Obviously, I needed to tweak a few things to make it fit here, but I still thought it was too cute not to include :)
Thanks for reading, and as always, anything that you recognize belongs to JKR.
Chapter 8: Feats of Bravery
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“I simply do not understand why our presence is required.”
Rowena spoke from behind a large roll of parchment, her clear blue eyes fixed steadily on the lines only inches from her face. She nodded to no one, satisfied, and placed the paper back down upon the cushioned seat of the small carriage. Immediately, a quill decorated with a cluster of ravens’ feathers sprang to life, and it began to scrawl across the open space of the page in midnight-hued ink.
“Will the young man not be more inspired by the sight of his trophy?”
Helena looked to her right, where a pretty woman clad all in yellow sat with a peaceful smile upon her face, and frowned slightly. Given the tension between her mother and Salazar Slytherin, she had thought that inviting Helga Hufflepuff, a longtime family friend, would help to distract her. She longed to speak of something other than her new fiancé, however, especially with several more miles to traverse.
“Do not speak of her that way,” Rowena admonished. “She is worth more.”
“Oh, naturally,” Helga agreed. “I am simply answering your question, my friend.”
“He hails from Slytherin, and as such, should his ambition not be sufficient to propel him to the victory?” Helena cut in, looking from Helga to her mother.
“I should say so, particularly being a descendant of Salazar himself,” Helga said with a chuckle. “Fair Helena, you have spoken so little of him that I can hardly believe you to be in love. Can you tell me no more of his handsome features?”
“Oh, he is very handsome,” Rowena said, picking up the parchment again.
“My friend, I must hear it from Helena’s own lips,” Helga corrected gently.
“He is quite fair-skinned,” Helena said. “His hair is light as well.”
“I hear that they have little sunlight in the realm from which Salazar comes.”
“Of that I cannot speak,” Helena replied. “But I can say that he is handsome.”
“His features cast a sharp contrast with those possessed by my lovely daughter,” Rowena cut in. “I fear that the mixture will not bode well for their children.”
“Mother!” Helena blushed furiously. “We are not even yet married!”
Helga smoothed the silk of her dress, the goldenrod color of which stuck out against the blue attire of the carriage. “For me, dear girl, I find it a shame that you did not seize the opportunity to ask this young baron for his hand in earlier days. The practice has become quite popular in my land. You would wear the progressive attitude well.”
“The very idea is preposterous, Helga, though I beg your pardon,” Rowena said.
“I have never heard of a woman proposing to a man,” Helena added.
“The custom is fairly new, and I believe it requires the maiden to perform many rites of superstition,” Helga explained. “To find a man who would receive such an offer with gentleness, however, would be a prize indeed.”
Helena smiled. “I suppose you would want to prepare a bit of Felix Felicis, as well.”
Helga chuckled. “Oh yes, my lovely girl. One cannot toy with her own fate lightly.” She glanced over at the parchment, her eyes following the quill back and forth. “What is this that you are working on so steadily, dear friend?”
“I have been asked to write a biography of the Ravenclaw Family,” Rowena replied.
“If I may say so boldly, Rowena,” Helga stated. “You do not appear to be dictating.”
“Not with my lips, my observant friend,” Rowena said, smiling. “I have crafted a spell that allows the charmed quill to access my thoughts and memories. I merely have to direct it about my mental faculties. Naturally, the spell will have a place on the list of accomplishments that comprises my section of the book.”
“How interesting!” Helga said, nodding. “I would ask that you share the incantation, except that the Hufflepuff lineage is surely much less interesting than your own.”
Rowena waved a hand. “Of course I will reveal it to you. You may need it someday.”
Suddenly, there was a knock outside the door, accompanied by Witter’s jovial voice. “Fair ladies! I am pleased to announce that we have arrived at our destination!”
The carriage door opened, flooding the small blue space with light, and Helena felt for her father’s wrinkled hand in the brightness. When at last she found it, she stepped out of the carriage, placing one foot after another securely on the ground. To her dismay, however, her fine shoes sank almost immediately into the swamp.
“Goodness,” Helga observed, frowning down at the wet soil.
“Mother, am I to live here with Venn?” Helena asked, making a face.
“I am certain that you will find that every land has its charms,” Rowena said idly.
The ladies followed Witter around the winding garden path behind Selwyn Castle. Along the way, Helga and Rowena took to jointly admiring Edeline’s fine flowers, leaving Helena to ponder the events of the afternoon to come. She had never been to a joust before, given that her mother found violence distasteful, and it felt strange to now be the one venturing into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps it was fair, given the way in which Venn had accommodated her wishes thus far in their journey together. Do I simply sit and smile? Should I have brought some sort of well-wishing gift for him?
The path opened up shortly, and Helena took in the beauty of Venn’s estate for the first time. Edeline had left her touch in little garden patches all over the place, lining every staircase and seating area. All around Helena were beautiful, healthy blooms, and her girlish center could not resist feeling delighted by the sight of them. Off to one side, she saw a small stable area, and the closest stall to her stood empty. He must keep his horse there, she thought, glancing over to the other side of the grounds. There, a large empty space had been converted into a crude jousting arena, with several young men walking around it, leading their horses along behind them.
“The challengers,” a voice said, and Helena turned to find herself facing Salazar. He smiled coldly at her and placed a brief kiss on her hand. “Please, my lady, allow me to escort you and your guests, with my fair sister, to select the best available seats.”
Edeline was waiting at the end of their walk, clad in a beautiful forest green dress. She gestured to the seats next to hers in the front row of the temporary stands. “My friends, I hope your journey was pleasant,” she said, smiling brightly at Helena.
“Yes, quite,” Rowena said. “Edeline, I am pleased to introduce my friend, Helga Hufflepuff. She is another of the Founders of Hogwarts School.”
“Oh, a pleasure indeed!” Edeline exclaimed, curtseying to Helga, who returned it.
When they were settled in their places, Edeline turned again to Helena. “I must say, my son chose an ideal time for you to visit our home, with so many flowers in bloom.” She patted Helena’s hand. “Perhaps you will use some in your bouquet.”
“Yes, your gardens offer quite the selection,” Helena agreed.
“Have you commissioned your dress?”
“I have not,” Helena began, but her mother interrupted her.
“I think she will look most elegant in the royal blue of our household.”
“Mother, I thought that perhaps I would wear white,” Helena stated.
“White?” Rowena made a face.
“Progressive, just as I thought,” Helga said with an approving smile.
“I am certain she will look lovely in any shade,” Salazar commented dryly.
“There he is!” Edeline said, looking toward the other end of the arena. Out of the shadows around the other half of the seating, Venn rode slowly toward them, wearing chain mail and a dark blue tunic lined with bronze-colored thread. His horse, a black courser, wore a protective covering in his familiar Slytherin green. As he approached the group, Venn glanced up at Helena, offering her a timid smile.
Helena felt her heart begin to beat faster. She had never seen him look so tender, and this shyness seemed miles away from the arrogance she had come to expect. He seemed to stand before her for hours, and she worried that she might faint.
“My lady,” Venn said, reaching out to her.
Helena offered her hand, and he turned it over, placing a soft kiss upon her palm. Delicate shivers raced up and down her spine, carried along by her rushing blood.
When he had returned her hand to her, Venn simply stood there, waiting patiently.
“Helena,” Edeline said softly. “Do you have a token of affection to offer my son?”
Helena blushed deeply, cursing her unfamiliarity with this practice. Realizing that she had nothing of substance to give, she awkwardly reached down and tore a piece of silky gray fabric from the bottom of her dress. She nervously passed it to Venn.
He took it, tucking it between the chain mail and his tunic, right above his heart. “I will have one of my servants sew it into place,” he said. “I thank you for your affection.” With another unsteady smile, he guided his steed on past the stands.
Soon, it was time for the joust to begin. Helena kept her hands planted firmly in her lap, finding it difficult to understand why Venn would propose that such a crude and violent event be held in her honor. She looked over at Rowena and surmised that her mother was thinking something similar.
Salazar settled down next to Edeline, turning to look at his nephew’s bride-to-be. “My lady, I hear that many men from across the kingdoms have come to compete.”
“I have seen several, all of whom are handsome and foreign to me,” Edeline agreed. “But never fear, fair Helena, my son will outstrip them all in strength and courage.”
Helena smiled weakly. “Salazar, were you not invited to join in the joust?”
Salazar laughed loudly. “I would not want to embarrass Venn!”
Rowena frowned, looking away from the arena. Helga sighed audibly in response.
A trumpet sounded, and a short line of men rode out into the arena to display their colors and announce their names. Helena watched them go by one after the next, realizing that their names and faces had congealed as one in her mind, until it was Venn’s turn. As his name was announced, he looked over at Helena, and she could see the patch from her dress sewn right above his heart on the dark blue tunic. His horse pitched its mane, and Venn began to circle back toward his end of the arena.
The first couple of rounds went quickly. A portly young man from Helga’s kingdom rode forward on a yellow-clad steed, but Venn feinted at the last moment, causing the horse to throw its heavy rider. The second challenger was caught off guard by Venn’s sudden burst of breakneck speed and accidentally drove his lance into the dirt instead of his opponent. A Scotsman who had bragged of his speed during his announcement prepared himself for another feint. This time, Venn moved out of the way at the last moment, and horse and rider crashed into the half-empty stands opposite Helena and the others. Fortunately, it did not look as if anyone was injured.
“Cheat!” the man cried, wincing as he balanced his aching back against the wall.
“What say you?” Venn replied angrily, drawing his sword, the emeralds on the handle sparkling in the afternoon sun. Salazar stood up and moved to draw, too.
“I say you are a cheat, sir,” the opponent spat, glaring up at Venn as the other man covered him with his shadow. “The lady you are competing for today is a noblewoman from my land, and I say she deserves better than a dishonest man.”
To Helena’s surprise, Venn laughed loudly at this statement. He turned, walking over to where Helena and her family sat, carrying his sword in one hand and the reins of his horse in the other. “Rowena, my fair lady, do you know this gentleman?”
Rowena stiffened. “I cannot say that I do.”
“Helena, my fair bride – what say you?” Venn offered her a smile, but something about the coldness of his eyes and the flush of his cheeks was off-putting to her.
“I do not know him,” she replied shortly, resisting the urge to wring her hands.
“I have not seen you before, sir,” Venn concluded, turning back to his opponent. “I wonder if perhaps you are a peasant, attempting to live the life of a noble knight.”
A few people in the crowd gasped. Salazar actually did draw his sword. The man stared up at Venn, not saying anything for a moment.
“What is your coat of arms, sir?”
The man said nothing, but his eyes guiltily shifted toward the ground.
Venn put his sword away, folding his arms in triumph. “Servants, if you would, please escort this man from the grounds of my castle. He may never return.”
The man reluctantly allowed himself to be gathered up by several guards, but on his way out of the arena, he met Venn’s eyes one more time. “When you came to my land, the people found you charming and genteel, and they desired to see fair Helena in the arms of such a man. They will be disappointed to hear of your true nature.”
The arena fell silent, save for the sounds of the man’s boots dragging on the soil and the impatient scuffling made by the hooves of Venn’s horse. Salazar sheathed his sword, turning to his nephew. “Perhaps a short break, to enjoy some fine wine?”
“No,” Venn said, mounting his horse. “I do not want to bore my lady any longer.”
Helena looked down uncomfortably, staring at the pattern on Edeline’s dress.
The line of challengers continued to dwindle, and Helena began to see Venn’s Slytherin versatility in its true light. Having realized that overt cheating could only be deflected so many times, he resorted to concealing his wand within the sleeve of his armor and using it against Muggle and magical foes alike. Watching him attentively, Helena saw Venn summon a branch to fall in the path of one enemy, causing the man to look away long enough for Venn’s lance to strike his horse. Another man was surprised by a flash thunderstorm with high winds; after Venn insisted that they finish the fight, the mud became too much for the man’s horse.
His final opponent rode out into the arena to face him like all the others. However, he came to a halt before Venn and dismounted. He did not draw his sword but his wand. Venn stared at him, along with many of the others. Some of the Muggles present began to sneak away, afraid of the potential consequences of combining these strange powers with angry tension. A couple of the losing challengers drew their swords, watching the combatants closely.
“I am Antioch Peverell, son of Nentres,” the man, clad in black, announced to the crowd. “I entered this tournament seeking a new opportunity to demonstrate my skill, and I consider it a shame that I have been forced to wait for all of your other opponents to fall, for I have been disgusted by this gross display of cheating.” He looked hard at Venn, gripping his wand. “Thus, sir, I challenge you to a duel, in which you may properly display what powers you possess, before the fair Helena and all these witnesses. If you lose, you must forfeit your right to her noble hand.”
Helena began to feel ill. She looked from her mother, who harbored a slight smile, to Edeline and Salazar, who wore outraged expressions. Venn looked over at Helena, swallowing, and then drew his wand, putting his sword away and calling a servant to come and move his horse back to the stable. “It is a fair challenge. You may begin.”
His first shot was a stunning spell, which caught Venn roughly by the shoulder. Helena’s fiancé winced in pain, but he steeled his gaze and shot a Confundus Charm back at Peverell. Unfortunately, he missed his mark, likely because of his pain.
Helena stared down at her hands, refusing to watch any more of it. She found herself getting lost in thought about everything that she had seen and heard that day. Helena hated dueling to begin with, but to watch her fiancé cheat had been a cruel shock. It occurred to her that she did not know this man, not very much at all, and yet she was supposed to marry him. Then again, if he lost this duel – she heard him cast a Protego Charm back at Peverell, deflecting what sounded like flames – she would be left alone again, or worse, be faced with yet another unknown suitor. How could she marry a man she barely knew? It was all too much, all too soon…
She stood up, causing those around her to divert their attention from the duel to her. Venn, engaged in combat, did not seem to notice, nor did his opponent.
“Helena?” Rowena asked, reaching for her daughter’s hand, but Helena jerked it away. She looked over at Edeline, but she could not come up with anything to say. Salazar was gripping the wooden railing so hard that his hands were turning red. Helena grabbed her skirts and hoisted herself off the stands, breaking into a run.
She did not know for how many yards she fled, dodging Edeline’s perfect flowers and ignoring the frightened tears spilling down her cheeks. At last, when the wet swamp air filled her lungs one time too many, she stopped and looked around. She was standing in the castle vegetable garden, only a few feet from the back door.
Over in the makeshift arena, the action had ceased. She could not tell who had won.
Helena let out a quiet sob, for she knew what she had done. However, getting away was more important than having to endure another of her mother’s lectures about the importance of marriage. Perhaps this time, her mother would leave her alone.
With that thought and a small popping noise, Helena Ravenclaw disappeared.
It’s time for another round of “Did you know?: Medieval History Edition!”
As some of you might have heard, “leap day” has been touted as the one day a year that a woman can propose to a man. My research indicated that this tradition began around the time of the Founders. Furthermore, I learned that the reason for choosing “leap day” is because that day had no legal status and thus people believed that traditions did not have to be upheld for it, either.
Before Anne of Brittany (1499), white was not usually the color of choice for a bride. However, the bride still wanted to be the center of attention, and she would sometimes wear silver. Otherwise, she would put on her best dress. I imagine that Helena’s best dress would be a deep Ravenclaw blue, don’t you?
If a knight chose to ride in honor of his lady, he would usually take a token of hers, called a “favor,” and wear it on his upper arm to symbolize her affection. However, I romanticized it a bit more for Venn, as you can see in this chapter.
I love all of my reviewers, especially those of you who have returned for every chapter thus far. I continue writing this story with you in mind :) CloakAuror9 deserves special thanks this round, because her review inspired some of Venn’s behavior in this chapter. Thanks again to all of you wonderful readers!
Stay tuned for chapter nine!
Chapter 9: Houses Joined
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Rowena had hidden her face within her hands for hours, so long that Witter had to wonder if she knew that it was day and not a dark night outside the windows of their castle. He cleared his throat softly, afraid to disturb her, and continued to wait patiently at the other end of the banquet hall table until she wanted to speak to him.
Finally, after a few more tense minutes, Rowena’s sobbing quieted, and she put her palms down on the table. Witter could hardly recognize the woman his wife could become, though he tried his best to conceal his alarm. Her dark gray eyes were red-rimmed, and the flush had bled down into her normally fair cheeks. Her nose was also tinged with pink though it was a bright, beautiful summer day. Her hair, which normally fell in a sleek curtain below her shoulders, was tangled and limp.
“I simply cannot believe what Salazar has become,” she said, sniffling. “When we met, when the four of us worked as one to build our magnificent school, he was a different man. He was honorable, and now… he has become so foolish.”
Witter stood up, moving closer to her and placing a hand atop her own. “I, too, recall Salazar as a noble man, my dear wife. I cannot explain what has become of him.”
Rowena sighed. “I am convinced, Witter, that he is to blame for the boy’s behavior. His arrogance and dishonesty must simply be a part of the family line.”
“Perhaps you are right, Rowena. Fortunately, our lovely daughter seems to have inherited your good sense, or at least it is evident to me in her recent decision.”
Rowena smiled weakly. “Yes, naturally fair Helena would be unimpressed by his display. I worry for her, I must admit, because of what her future may hold.”
“Helena is far too kind and beautiful to never find a suitable husband.”
Rowena’s eyes met her husband’s. “If she does not, Witter?”
Witter said nothing, and Rowena collapsed anew into an ocean of tears.
The sound of Rowena’s wailing was not lost on her daughter. Helena had confined herself to her private chambers ever since the failed tournament, and she had begun to feel guilty for alienating her parents for so long. She closed her eyes, sitting perfectly still before her mirror and wishing she could incinerate the drawings in her bookshelf without having to reach for her wand. Sighing, she picked up a brush, running it idly through her hair and ignoring the sounds of crying that carried up the stairs and through the floor.
Her blue eyes stared at the bejeweled comb as she considered her mother. They had always been close friends; the pain Helena felt seeping into her heart with every shuddering rise of her mother’s chest was a reminder of that. To heal Rowena’s wounds, Helena would need to find a husband, and she needed to do it quickly. She ran the brush through her hair several more times, repeating to herself mentally with each stroke: You will find a suitable husband. You will have a proper marriage.
Helena stopped suddenly, staring at her image. She had been quite close to that, hadn’t she? Despite the barbaric and dishonorable way Venn had acted at the jousting tournament, she could also remember the warm, gentle way he had gripped her hand just days before at the festival for St. John’s Day. She could also recall the butterflies swarming in her stomach as she took him out into the castle garden on their first evening together, and she could not ignore the way he kept asking questions when spending time with her, as if he were genuinely interested in getting answers to them. It struck Helena that he might have been the best she could expect.
Yet, he was not good enough, not for her. To admit it filled her heart with woe.
She stood up, leaving the comb behind and crossing the room to her wardrobe. She had a fine gown stashed away in there, having saved it for her family’s attendance of a nobleman’s wedding that was one day away. Helena touched the thin fabric gently, forcing herself to smile. What better opportunity than a wedding to believe in love again? Moreover, what better place to locate a new selection of available bachelors?
It was a beautiful day for a wedding, and yet things felt imperfect to Venn.
He held two rings, one simply a more feminine version of the other, which he had taken from Roldan. The latter, the true keeper of the rings, had taken a few moments before the ceremony to speak with his lady, Emilia, and her family. Cepheus, a bundle of nerves, had gone up to his chambers to await the arrival of the bride and her family, hinting at practicing swordplay to get his mind off of his churning stomach. Thus, only Venn remained in the quiet room next to the banquet hall.
He had not told his friends of his failure at impressing Helena. They might even expect her to make an appearance today, to circle the room on Venn’s strong arm and glow just as Priscilla had following her engagement. For one, there seemed to be no sense in ruining Cepheus’s mood with a story of love lost. More to the point, however, Venn had not worked out for himself precisely where he had gone wrong.
“My former sword looks well-placed on you.”
Venn turned, though he felt his uncle’s eyes on his back before doing so. “It fits comfortably in my father’s holster,” he commented. “It is a pleasant sort of weight.”
“Many battles have been won with that sword,” Salazar said. “To bear it is to bear the glory of my name, as well as your own. You must never forget that, nephew.”
Venn sighed. “Thank you, Uncle.”
Salazar frowned. “What is troubling you?”
“Is it not obvious? My loss of the fair Helena weighs heavily on my mind.”
“Who is to say that she is lost? Perhaps she disliked the violence of the fight…”
“She did not come to congratulate me when I won the duel, nor has she sent me any owls since her untimely departure on that afternoon,” Venn said, anger in his tone.
“Women’s hearts are more fickle than the wind,” Salazar replied dismissively. “Do not count this as a loss, Venn. There are many fair women to be found, I assure you.”
“I have seen them all,” Venn retorted. “None are as beautiful as my Helena was.”
Salazar clucked his tongue. “What have I told you about allowing the girl to get the best of you? Perhaps her mother has burrowed too far into your mind as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rowena has spoken of strange things lately, and she has demonstrated an increasing desire to integrate our ways with those of the Muggles. The idea is as preposterous as a peasant marrying one of our own. I assure you, I intend to mount my defenses, lest she try to destroy what we built with her ever-changing mind.”
“Do you no longer believe Helena to be an appropriate match for me?”
“I admit that I did not predict this change of heart when I suggested the idea,” Salazar said. “The weight of an intelligent mind can be difficult for a woman to bear, naturally, and I might have thought about the girl, but I, too, was lost on her beauty.”
Venn put the rings down on the table. “I will not permit you to speak that way.”
“Permit me?” He almost laughed. “Are you already so inundated by love, my boy?”
“Tempestuous she may be, but I will not allow you to sully Helena’s honor.”
“Now, Venn, listen to the counsel of a wiser man,” Salazar replied, putting his hand on Venn’s shoulder. “Do not waste your time with a woman who does not value your sword and promise. Come and help me work to reverse Rowena’s poison at Hogwarts. I imagine working on something constructive will clear your mind.”
“I will not,” Venn said. “Now release me, Uncle, so that I may serve my duty.”
As he approached the door, Salazar turned to face him. “What has happened to you that you would strive so much for a lady whom you know so little?” he called.
“She is the only one I have ever been able to tolerate,” Venn said under his breath.
Helena could not help having her spirits lifted as the wedding began. The first thing she noticed was the beautiful setting; the castle looked just like the ones in the fairy tales she’d read as a small child, and it was even more magnificent than her home. The spacious banquet hall had been lined with exotic, expensive orange blossoms, and the flowers led the way out into the small courtyard. The bride was expected to emerge here and enter the banquet hall in a magnificent procession, and Helena had taken to passing the few moments that remained by imagining how she might look.
Suddenly, as Helena admired the courtyard, a beautiful figure appeared within it. She wore a dress of deep, regal blue, which was lined with a forest green fabric, and a crowd made of emeralds sat upon her light hair. Indeed, emeralds sparkled at her neck, wrists and ears as well, giving her the look of a true princess. In one hand she carried a brilliant bouquet of flowers to match the hall’s decorations. Her other hand held gently to one of her father’s as he escorted her down the center of the room.
Helena watched the bride pass, her eyes following the regal train of the lady’s gown. As her gaze brought her attention to the front of the room, she felt a paralyzing sickness overtake her stomach. Venn stood there in his fine red jacket, patiently awaiting the bride’s arrival from his place at the groom’s side. Inwardly chiding herself for not expecting his presence, Helena forced her eyes to look at the floor.
“Lords and ladies of the court,” said a man standing between the proud-looking Cepheus Black and his wife-to-be. “The noble families who are to be joined this day thank you for your presence and assistance in witnessing this glorious moment. Today, as a community of magic-born people, we will unite a son of the House of Black, Cepheus, with a daughter of the House of Pyrites, the beautiful Priscilla.”
Priscilla blushed slightly, which only made Cepheus beam all the more. If he battled with his nerves on this long-awaited day, no sign of it could be detected in his smile. At the wizard’s instruction, he reached forward and took her delicate hands in his.
“Cepheus, is it your intention to remain faithful to this lady, to honor her with your sword and heart, and to ensure her safety and happiness for the rest of your days?”
“With honor, I say that it is,” Cepheus replied.
The man now turned to the bride. “Priscilla, is it your intention to be a support to this nobleman, to trade affection for his gifts, and provide him a suitable heir?”
“With honor, I say that it is,” Priscilla answered.
“Please cross your wrists,” the wizard instructed, and he withdrew an ancient-looking wand from his white robes. He pointed the wand at the pair of hands and whispered an incantation that sounded like a melody. His voice was the only thing that could be heard in the room, and all eyes were focused on the two beams of bright white light that were released from the tip of the wand. They wove around the hands like snakes, tightening until they encircled the crossed wrists perfectly.
“With this spell, I declare that you are bonded for life, and the purely magical blood in your veins shall intermingle in the bodies of your offspring. Your union will be a representation of the eternal power of magic and its dominance over earthly things.”
Helena glanced up, careful to avoid Venn’s eyes. She had only been to so many weddings in her young life, but she had never heard the ceremony extend beyond the simple life-bonding spell before. What was all this talk of magical supremacy?
“I now present you to society as Lord Cepheus and Lady Priscilla Black.”
With the man’s final words, the white light that joined Cepheus’s hands with Priscilla’s faded, and they turned to face the audience, their fingers still entangled. Priscilla looked positively radiant with joy, and Cepheus’s smile grew ever larger. Helena watched them proceed back down the aisle in a shower of orange blossoms, feeling a slight twinge in her heart as she realized that she, too, could have had a moment like this one. Behind her, Venn had noticed her presence for the first time.
He broke rank, leaving Roldan standing alone at the front of the room and moving to Helena before she could exit into the courtyard with the other guests. “My lady…”
Helena stopped, knowing that she should walk on. “Yes, good sir?” she asked.
“I wonder if perhaps you would join me… in the kitchen.”
Helena frowned. “What has informed your choice of this location?”
“It is nearest, and I believe it will afford us a moment of privacy.”
Helena glanced toward the courtyard, where several handsome young men were greeting the bride and groom. She looked back at Venn. “This appears improper.”
“I suppose it is,” he admitted, glancing away from her. Helena had never objected to mildly scandalous acts before, but perhaps he had underestimated her anger.
“I will allow you to escort me to the kitchen,” Helena said finally, offering her arm.
Once in the kitchen, Helena closed the door, turning to face Venn with her arms crossed over her chest. “For what purpose did you request such privacy?”
“I would like to apologize if my behavior at the tournament was offensive to you,” Venn said, and Helena noticed that his tone lacked its typical arrogant note. His eyes continually flickered between her and the table, as if he were unsure of himself.
“Yes, I was offended when you did not fight honorably,” she replied coolly.
“I suspected that this was the case,” Venn responded, and Helena fought the urge to point out that one would have to be quite thick to even come close to missing the significance of her departure. “I thought that perhaps you would appreciate my display, Helena, given your similar reliance on mental quickness and strategy.”
Her mouth opened slightly. She was flabbergasted. “Your desire to achieve the upper hand, however cunning it was, is not a trait that would be valued by my family.”
Venn’s gaze fell upon the table again. “I see my gross misunderstanding in full light.”
A silence formed between them like cobwebs in an unused space. Helena pondered his response, seeing another example of him falling short of her true expectations. However, she could not deny the earnest look in his eyes nor the comfort of his face.
“Do you swear that you behaved dishonorably only to impress me?” she queried.
Venn looked up, nodding. “I swear by my sword, my lady.”
Helena swallowed. “I forgive you for your error, Venn.”
An expression of relief broke out upon his face, and Helena felt a rush of warmth and familiarity enter her veins. She stood still as he approached her, noting that he wore no gloves. His hands took her own lightly, and he looked into her brilliant blue eyes.
“Does your forgiveness carry with it the intention to maintain our agreement?”
Helena thought briefly of her mother and the way that Rowena’s tears had bloodied her heart that very morning. She thought of Witter, overjoyed at the opportunity to escort his only daughter to her groom. She thought of Venn’s soft touch on her skin.
She thought of her drawings, and her dreams, and never having to be lectured again.
“Yes, I would like to marry you,” Helena replied, stating it firmly.
Venn bent slightly, placing a kiss on her cheek and holding it there for a long moment. Helena closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of him, and then she moved and placed a few kisses of her own on his face, and even down along his neck. They stayed there for a moment, sharing bodily warmth, hoping that no one entered the room or opened the door. For just a moment, they never wanted to be apart again.
Hello again! I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and that you’ll leave me some of your thoughts (the good and the bad, naturally) in the review box down there.
Thank you to all of my wonderful and faithful readers and reviewers!
Chapter 10: Houses Asunder
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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!
Chapter 11: A Day of Surprises
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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!
Chapter 12: Salazar's Last Stand
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Rowena’s chilly gray eyes stared out the window as she rumbled along in her powder blue carriage. Though the air outside hinted at a bleak winter to come, the atmosphere inside the enclosed space felt stuffy. The sensation was heightened by the tight feeling of her expertly laced corset, which pushed relentlessly against her ribcage. Her dark hair seemed heavy atop her shoulders; the steady movement of the carriage, which normally soothed her on long rides, had unsettled her stomach.
She knew that the true source of her discomfort stemmed from the piece of parchment curled in her fingers. The contents were not particularly interesting—it would likely resemble any other meeting among the four founders of the school. They gathered several times a year to discuss the mundane details of running Hogwarts, from the curriculum to new student activities to rule adjustments. She and her associates had even hand picked students from the first few batches of applications for courses at the school, having to turn many hopeful children away.
Rowena wanted to smile fondly as she remembered sifting through rolls of parchment, laughing with Helga at the lackluster writing skills of some applicants and praising the fine accomplishments of those who would go on to become Hogwarts graduates. Truly, she wished she could lament the fact that all four founders had become too busy to review individual applications, having left it to the faculty of the school and the headmaster, who was put into place only one year ago. Unfortunately, her mind was preoccupied by the fact that Salazar had written this meeting request—Salazar, who all too often complained about having to travel so far from his home to attend meetings and tended to spend them badgering servants. Rowena was, admittedly, bothered by this sudden show of initiative on his part.
The carriage finally stopped, and Rowena stepped carefully out of it, facing the magnificent estate of Godric Gryffindor. The elf that had accompanied her closed her door, getting back into the driver’s seat and ushering the horses around the corner toward the stables. Sighing, the countess picked up her silver skirts and walked up to the front door. An elf clad in scarlet answered, and then it led her to the dining room, though she had been so many times before that no leading was necessary.
“Rowena, my darling!” Helga chirped, embracing her old friend and pouring a glass of wine at the empty place next to her. Rowena took it, nodding politely to Godric.
“Where is Salazar?”
“He owled to say that he would be late,” Godric replied. “Given his usually minimal participation, I believe it is safe to say that we may begin the meeting without him.”
“Agreed,” Helga said. “What is our agenda?”
Godric cleared his throat, accepting a scroll from a house elf. “From the last meeting, I see that we need to discuss implementing optional courses for the students.”
“Optional courses?” Helga frowned, not remembering this part of the meeting.
“Yes, in addition to the required set of courses, we want to offer the opportunity for students to expand their magical knowledge into more specialized realms,” Rowena clarified. “In fact, I would propose that they be required to take at least one or two.”
“I agree with such a proposition,” Godric replied.
“I see,” Helga said, nodding in approval. “In truth, I have always thought it would be wise to provide the students with some practical work outside the classroom. Perhaps learning to care for other magical creatures would teach them the value of hard work. Surely there are many interesting beasts to study across the grounds.”
“An excellent idea,” Rowena stated, motioning for a passing elf to give her a clean piece of parchment. She retrieved a raven’s feather quill from her bag and wrote Care of Magical Creatures on the sheet. “I have given this considerable thought since we met in June, friends, and I have found several additions that I view as valuable.” As she spoke, she began writing things down below Helga’s suggestion. “I believe that our students will have an advantage over those from other schools, should they ever come to exist, if they receive training in the classical magical arts and skills. Namely, I believe courses in Arithmancy and the reading of Ancient Runes would be helpful. Additionally, I propose adding the option of Divination—I have little patience for the subject myself, but I view it as an opportunity for our students to train their minds, which will no doubt serve them well in all of their subjects.”
Godric nodded, watching as she wrote these ideas down. “These are fine suggestions, ladies.” He took a sip of his wine. “What of a course focused on Muggles? Perhaps it would foster cooperation between our kind and theirs.”
Helga was about to respond to Godric’s idea when the door to the dining room opened and Salazar entered at last. “Good morning, my friends,” he said warmly.
“It is indeed,” Godric greeted him. Helga smiled, and Rowena remained silent.
“I apologize for my late entry.”
“We have only just begun,” Helga said. “We are discussing optional courses.”
Salazar nodded. “I ask that we hold on that discussion, for I feel that we have matters of much more importance to entertain for the moment.”
The others looked at him questioningly, though Rowena avoided his eyes.
“I would imagine that I am not the only one who has recently received letters from friends and allies across the kingdoms, telling tales of Muggle children they have witnessed performing the beginnings of magic,” Salazar said. “I believe that now is the time to discuss this matter, before these children become aware of our school.”
“Certainly,” Godric said. “We should create a more formal process of admission.”
“You misunderstand me,” Salazar replied. “I have taken the first steps and notified the Ministry of Magic of this problem. There is a hearing scheduled for two months from today, in which we can formally ensure that Muggles are barred from Hogwarts. That, I hope, will mean the end of these obnoxious, intrusive letters.”
“Bar them?” Helga said, with a note of surprise. “If they have produced magic—”
“I intend to keep our institution one of prestige,” Salazar countered. “If we admit children of a Muggle background, how are we to keep out the impoverished? And will the breeding of wizard-kind with Muggles not be an inevitable outcome?” He laughed, as if unable to comprehend the thought. “Friends, I beg you, simply attend the hearing with me and help our magical community put a stop to this.”
“You will find no support for your fanatical shielding of Hogwarts,” Rowena said.
“I am saddened, though far from surprised, to hear this from you, my dear Rowena,” Salazar answered, and there was a discernable venom in the way her name sounded. “Think on it a little longer, Helga and Godric. Do not fall prey to Rowena’s hurry.”
“Enough of this,” Godric said with a sigh. “We have matters on the agenda yet.”
Then, with no one in the mood to discuss coursework, the regular meeting resumed. As she idly wrote down ideas, Rowena allowed her mind to wander back out to her carriage and patiently waiting house elf. She decided to detour on her way home.
Edeline had found it difficult to control her husband’s estate in his absence. It was unusual for a woman to have to take such a burden upon herself, and though she liked having freedom and a voice of her own, the aging widow could understand why. She had finally given in to the petitions of the villagers and had set aside this cold, rainy afternoon to go over some of their complaints and requests by torchlight. Now she sat in her husband’s personal library, surrounded by piles of parchment.
She had just approved a request for a winter solstice when the elf appeared.
“Duchess Selwyn, madam, there is a visitor here to see you.”
“Dippa, who is it?”
“It is the honorable Countess Rowena Ravenclaw, my lady.”
“Well, allow her in, certainly.” Edeline stood up, smoothing her skirts and backing away from the table. “I shall greet her in the foyer in a moment.” By the time she made her way downstairs, Rowena was already seated, looking sadly out the window. The mud from the wet weather outside clung to her skirts and boots.
“My lady, for what reason am I permitted the pleasure of your company?” Edeline said warmly, motioning for Dippa to go and get more wood to renew the fire.
“I don’t foresee any pleasure in this visit,” Rowena said, standing and speaking stiffly to the other woman. “I have come to request an audience with your son. I would like him to release my daughter from her agreement to marry him.”
“This is a cruel joke,” Edeline replied. “Nevertheless, he is out on a hunt.”
“Perhaps he will catch something that will satiate him enough to halt the pursuit of my Helena,” Rowena retorted. “No matter. If he is any relation to Salazar, he will likely be unable to see reason. I implore you, my lady, to reconsider this match.”
“I have scarcely seen my son so happy, particularly since the loss of his father! I could hardly think of depriving him of his beautiful bride to be!” Edeline exclaimed.
“I suspect that you are also a relation of Salazar’s,” Rowena mused coldly. “Forgive me for wanting to spare my daughter—and your boy—the pain of a loveless union.”
“For what reason do you predict it to be loveless?”
“Their personalities could not be more different. My Helena is intellectual, quiet, regal, and your Venn is impulsive, reckless, interested in pushing forward no matter the cost. The two are incompatible, and worse, they are too young to realize it.”
“I am more concerned that neither of them is yet married, given their ages.”
“You will pass on my message to your son, I trust,” Rowena said, turning to go.
“You speak of sparing pain, and then you ask me to wound my only child,” Edeline said, her tone slightly choked. “I tell you, I would never dream of it. If the marriage is not to be, I trust that Venn and Helena will discover it in time. For my part, I do not predict such a bleak future, not for the two young lovers I have observed.”
“I can hardly expect you to possess an intelligence to match mine,” Rowena spat.
“Get out!” Edeline cried, and a small group of elves came running. “Out of my house, and my husband’s home, soon to be inherited by a noble young man I call my son!”
Rowena stole out the door, rushing through the mud to get to her carriage. She climbed inside, ushering her elf to move the horses along at a quick pace. If the boy’s mother would not help her, she could only implore her husband, or Helena herself.
As the miles between them expanded, the two mothers cried identical sets of tears.
If it had been any other young man accompanying Venn on today’s hunt, the young baron would most likely have cancelled their plans. The air had a tinge of freeze, signaling the imminent winter, and drops of water poured steadily from the heavens. The conversation between the two riders had even been interrupted several times by stray claps of thunder and faraway bolts of lightning. But if either of the men felt fearful or dismayed by the weather, neither of them cared to show it.
“Cepheus, marriage has been good for you,” Venn commented, extending his friend an easy smile as their horses trotted slowly across the wet landscape of his estate.
“How do you mean, my friend?”
“Your stance is straighter, and if I may say so, your belly looks a bit fuller.”
Cepheus laughed, greeting the raindrops with a joyous backward toss of his head. “My lady is a wonderful cook, or at least she does well with instructing others. I have never bothered to ask, you see. I am content merely to sample the fine results.”
Venn nodded. Surely not the least of her talents, he thought daringly to himself.
“I suspect that your bride, in her perfection, may give my wife a fair challenge.”
“No more talk of women,” Venn countered, steering his horse around a large mud puddle. “I requested your presence today because I missed the company of my friend.”
“We are as close as brothers, Venn, but never again shall we be just that. As our families and fortunes grow, our happiness will multiply. Such a blessing should be eagerly embraced, do you agree?”
Helena’s groom considered his friend’s words. “May I speak freely?” he asked.
“Of course, my friend, we are and will always be equals.”
Venn sighed, glancing up at the approaching forest rather than risk seeing the earnest look on his companion’s face. “You know better than any other my impulsive nature… I have long prided myself on boyish habits and stubborn attitudes.”
“I am surprised, but pleasantly so, to hear you admit this aloud,” Cepheus observed, with a smile playing at his lips. “Perhaps you are not so boyish as you insist.”
“As such, I have always assumed that my choosing of a wife would invite the end of my long days full of hunting and idle surveying of my kingdom,” Venn said, ignoring his words.
“Yes, you have indicated as much before.” Cepheus sounded almost concerned now.
“I scarcely expected that Helena would change these feelings, lovely as she was when presented to me. I must confess in confidence to a true friend, however, that the sentiment I have found myself experiencing lately… is of a different quality.”
“How so, brother?”
“I fondly approach every new opportunity to look upon her breathtaking face. I find myself paying close attention to her words when she speaks, for they are typically full of the wisdom that brought fame to her family. She displays a talent for compassion and grace which is as soft to the touch as her skin or her sweet voice.”
“My lord!” Cepheus laughed so loud that it startled his horse. “You are in love!”
“Aye, I feared it,” Venn said, sighing again. “The lady has ruined me.”
“You have found a bride who is competent in every way, or thus it seems,” Cepheus said, stopping his horse and looking at Venn. “That, my friend, should be celebrated.”
“How can I feel jubilant over the death of my very self?” Venn replied.
“I realize that I have only a little time and experience to my advantage over you, and thus you may freely reject my counsel. Do not doubt that I harbored the same fears, though perhaps to a less vexing degree, as my own wedding day drew near. But I would urge you, in brotherly love, not to discount what you have only just begun to discover for the fear of losing that which has been fully explored.”
Venn nodded. “You mean to say that to fight is to lose, rather than to conquer.”
“Yes, I believe that is an appropriate summary.”
“It has been a difficult fight, far worse than that for any animal I have ever attempted to ensnare,” Venn added. “I have grown so convinced of my affection for her that I cannot deny it even to myself any longer. I have even admitted my joy to my mother, and my uncle as well. I have at times felt concerned that my erratic behavior, my refusal to admit my feelings, would be enough to put the lady off my advances entirely. Yet she remains my betrothed; more and more I am content to let it be so.”
“I assure you that you will know happiness, and it will abound even more so if you attempt to smooth the waters now. Allow yourself to enjoy your fortunate prize.”
“I cannot refuse to trust in your judgment, not if the continual smile upon your face represents but a hint of the fulfillment I will shortly grasp for myself,” Venn replied.
“Your words are too wise to be spoken by a boy,” Cepheus stated. “In the spirit of wisdom, let us turn back from this futile endeavor and let our prey live another day.”
“Indeed,” Venn said, turning his horse around and steering it back toward the castle.
“Does the lady Helena also love you?” Cepheus asked suddenly.
“My hope for that was the first sign of my changing feelings,” Venn answered quietly.
At the change in volume, Cepheus fell silent, and the two young men rode steadily back toward the estate. Like in the journey out into the woods, the bleak conditions and cold, wet atmosphere could do little to dampen either rider’s spirit. However, now Cepheus sensed that it was for an entirely different, less temporary reason.
The rain had begun pouring in sheets by the time Rowena returned to her home. She rushed inside her castle, not even bothering to thank the elf who had transported her, and stole up the stairs to change into drier clothing. Before she could make it onto the first landing, though, a happy voice reached past her wet hair into her ear.
“Mother!” Helena called a second time, this time seeing her mother’s soaked form appearing in the corridor. Rowena’s expression changed immediately from one of exhaustion; Helena was surprised to see a new horror etched into her features.
“Mother, you must go and change into a new dress. You will catch a dreadful cold.”
“I have felt a chill for weeks, daughter,” Rowena said bitterly.
“I—” Helena said, shocked. She pressed her lips closed, twirling in a slow circle. The beautiful white gown she wore fell in a pure curtain to the floor, interrupted only by the brilliant blue ribbon at her tiny waist. The dazzling sapphire crown on her head was a perfect accent. “Please, tell me that I look as beautiful as I feel,” she tried.
“No one would be so foolish as to deny your beauty,” her mother answered softly.
“But Mother, you must know that to hear it from your lips—”
“Please, go and take the dress off.”
“Oh, I have no concern for dirt. I can easily fix it with a Mending Spell.”
“Never put it on again,” Rowena instructed icily.
“But Mother!” Helena’s eyes began to fill with tears. “What is the meaning of this?”
“It is a waste of a gown, and more so a waste of a lady, to hold this farce of a wedding,” Rowena replied. “It is best that we halt the preparations now.”
“Mother!” Helena cried. Rowena heard Witter’s footsteps on the staircase.
“As I recall, my daughter, you never had desire for this union in the first place. Did you not say, following your first meeting, that your intended was dull and boorish?”
“He is charming!” Helena insisted. “He cares for me! Did you not see the beautiful vase full of flowers that were gifted to me? Only a perfect bride would merit them!”
“Charming?” Rowena pursed her lips. “When did you become so easy to please?”
“Mother, I don’t understand,” Helena said, with a touch of desperation in her voice.
“You are not a child, and thus I recognize that you possess an allowance of independence that you did not have at a more appropriate age for marriage. Still, you should realize, Helena, that you have no fortune of your own. Everything you possess, all that you hold dear, belongs to either your father or future husband.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Helena repeated, a tear trickling down her face.
“I shall recommend to your father, should you choose to proceed with this disgraceful engagement, that your inheritance be given to the villagers instead.”
Helena stood in silence for a moment, the tension as thick as winter fog between her and her mother. Finally, she adjusted the diadem, which had begun to droop a little in her burst of emotion. “He’ll never allow it,” she said evenly, staring at Rowena.
“No matter what he decides, my support is officially withdrawn,” Rowena countered. She strode forward, snatching the jeweled crown roughly from her daughter’s head. The elder Ravenclaw took her prized diadem and disappeared into her chambers.
Helena barely moved once her mother had departed the room. She heard her father rushing downstairs to comfort her, to try to find some measure of peace between the two tempestuous women who inhabited his household. She looked outside, her eyes enraptured by the falling rain, her tongue fighting for the power to speak. At last, she realized that there was nothing to say, nothing to erase these last moments. She crumpled to the floor with a sob, feeling just as delicate as her wedding gown.
Welcome to another chapter of Diamonds into Coal! I’d like to take this moment to ask that you please review and let me know your thoughts on this chapter or the story as a whole. I recently received two out-of-the-blue reviews for my other work-in-progress novel, Post Scriptum, and they were such a pleasant surprise. Additionally, please note that I believe a writer can always improve, and I take the critiques offered by reviewers seriously. Several details in this story so far were suggestions from readers like you.
On another note, you may be pleased to hear that I have plotted out the skeleton of the rest of the story. I will say that you are in for some twists and turns, and you may find your expectations of Venn and Helena challenged. Hold on tight and watch for more chapter updates over the coming months!
As always, thank you for your continued readership. I don’t get to update often because of school and other work-related commitments, and I am always happy when I see that readers have stuck with me through my slow updates. Of course, anything from canon that you recognize belongs to J. K. Rowling.
Chapter 13: The Paths We Choose
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Helga Hufflepuff held the firm belief that good things always came to hard workers. She had lived it as if it were true her whole life. From a young age, she and her brothers had worked side-by-side in the fields owned by her parents, tending the sheep and bringing in grain to the mill. Her father had a tradition of allowing impoverished children from the surrounding valley to come and help with the work to feed their families, and her mother had begun a tradition of her own by being the first to allow Muggle orphans to live and work in direct contact with their family. As a result of this assistance, the family’s estate flourished, and the Hufflepuff clan rose to prominence and leadership in their region. When she began attending society balls as a teenager, Helga met a young Scottish maiden named Rowena; by the time the girl suggested that they and two others build an elaborate magical school, the two were so close that Helga did not even hesitate. Helga brought her family’s legacy to the school, working in the kitchen and training house elves to prepare the food.
Now a middle-aged woman, Helga did not regret spending her life working instead of seeking out a husband and beginning a family of her own. After all, her tendency for hard work had brought her good friends, and with them families that she could love. Of these, Helga had always been fondest of Helena, Rowena’s only child.
Naturally, then, when Helga had received a midnight owl from Helena, begging her to come and make amends between the two Ravenclaw women, she had responded as quickly as possible to the call of duty. She climbed into her carriage and rode the four hours to Ravenclaw Castle. Now she sat outside the gate, trying to decide how best to approach the situation. Rowena had demonstrated quite the temper in the past, and Helga was admittedly a little frightened about how her friend may react to her sudden and timely appearance. Helga also considered herself a fair person, and so she wanted to understand both sides of the conflict before attempting to intervene. After a few moments of deliberation, she decided to seek out Helena first, so as to offer some immediate comfort, and then to go with the girl to find Rowena.
After she emerged from her goldenrod-hued carriage, Helga approached the castle’s front doors. Something to her left caught her eye; turning her head, her hand still poised to knock, she noticed Rowena’s husband directing servants to trim the trees.
“My dear Witter!” she called cheerfully. “I seek your lovely daughter, fair Helena!”
“Helga Hufflepuff!” Witter called back brightly. When he came closer, however, she noticed a frown etched into his portly features. “All is not well in the House of Ravenclaw. My Helena and her mother have been feuding bitterly as of late.”
“Helena has informed me of this schism. I seek to offer her a kind word.”
“Blessings to you, compassionate Helga! Perhaps you could spare one for Rowena. For now, though, you may find my heartbroken daughter tending to her steed.”
Helga briefly clasped his hands in thanks, and then she turned her steps to the large barn in the center of the field. As she entered, she could hear the steady sound of a brush being applied to a horse’s coat. Helga went all the way to the last stall in the barn. There Helena was, gently petting her horse’s neck as she brushed its flank.
“My lovely girl, your letter conveyed much pain. Why not let an elf do this work?”
The girl turned, her eyes shining with exhausted wetness, and embraced Helga. “I am so happy to see you, though I admit that I cannot muster a smile at this time.”
“I would never ask you to try, dear Helena,” Helga replied, holding her close. Finally, she released Rowena’s daughter, giving Eostre a friendly pat between the eyes.
“I woke before my mother this morning, and I avoided breakfast so as to keep from seeing her. She has not come to speak with me, though she must know I am here.”
“You must reveal to me the source of this heart-wrenching conflict.”
Helena sighed, putting the brush away and wiping the dust from her hands onto her dress. “My mother has asked me to break my promise to marry Salazar’s nephew. I sense that she believes him to be unfit for me, that we are simply meant for more appropriate mates, but she has not divulged the specific reasons for her concerns.”
“I see,” Helga answered. “Admittedly, my lady, you seemed appropriately dismayed by his childlike behavior at the joust. As I remember it, the event was supposedly held in your honor, and yet I recall little honor being displayed on that fateful day.”
“I was appalled by it, truly. My intended has sworn never to engage in such immature behavior again, and I confess that my affection for him seems sufficient for me to accept his apology and forget his previous errors.”
“It sounds as if you have fallen in love. I can see why your mother is worried.”
Helena smiled faintly. “I have scarcely felt so pleased to be in the presence of another. He romances me as if I were a princess in one of my beloved books.”
“I could tell you what I would do if our fates were reversed, if you would like it.”
“Yes, dear lady, you possess as much worldly experience as my own mother.”
Helga sat on a nearby stool, smoothing the wrinkles in her dress, which was black with rich gold accents woven into every pleat and seam. “I believe that there are many ways to happiness. Each person must determine his or her own path to follow. I suspect that the source of this argument is your mother’s discovery that your path differs from hers, differs even from the one she envisioned for you. If this is the case, that is no cause for tears. You will follow your path; one day she will understand.”
“Even with all of her wisdom, I fear that my mother will never comprehend this.”
“That is part of her journey, Helena, and does not need to be addressed in yours.”
Helena considered her words. “This is valuable advice, but how can I utilize it? My mother and father still govern my daily life, as well as all of my life’s decisions.”
Helga smiled. “You must not repeat to your mother what I am about to tell you.”
Helena idly stroked her horse’s mane with the ends of her fingers, watching Helga.
“I have heard peasant girls talking in the village in my kingdom. At times, when they disagree with the young men their parents have encouraged them to choose as partners, they will flee into the night with the gentlemen of their choosing instead. I have never heard of a maiden of your status committing such treason, but I suppose if any young lady possessed the wisdom to carry out such a plot, it would be you.”
Helena nodded, thoroughly in favor of this plan. She could disappear with her beloved, and her mother would never again be able to interfere with her future.
“You must be confident that your husband-to-be will agree with this course of action, dear one. Otherwise, the consequences could be quite fearsome for you.”
“I am certain that he will share in my approval of this delightful new path.”
“Then you must go to him! I will busy your mother with my desire to heal her.”
Helena beamed at the other woman. “Thank you, my dear Helga. I swear upon my family name—though I must trade it for his—I will write to you when we are safe.” Then, she climbed aboard Eostre, riding the horse hard out into the open field.
“Daughter, where are you going?” called Witter, from his place beneath the trees.
“To the market, my father, for something new to read!” she cried, not looking back.
Helga stood still at the entrance to the barn, glancing back at the place where Helena and her horse had been just moments ago. She remembered her desire to hear both sides of the conflict before taking any action. Could she have responded too rashly? I have done what I can for fair Helena, she decided. I must do the same for her mother.
The silence in Salazar’s dungeon-based office was nearly perfect, despite the fact that two warm bodies currently inhabited the space. The only sound that broke it was the slow rise and fall of Salazar’s chest, along with the slightly tenser breathing of his nephew, who was sitting across from him at the wooden table. There was a long roll of parchment spread out on the table, with a decorative green hourglass sitting on the end closest to Venn to keep it from re-rolling itself. The young man in question moved his fingertips along the thin snakes that made up the frame, watching as the conversation-timed sand fled quickly into the bottom half.
“Well,” Salazar said, his deep voice resounding in the small room. “I have finished reviewing the terms of your father’s will and his plan for you to rule his kingdom.”
Venn leaned forward slightly, nodding. He had not seen his uncle since their tour of the secret chamber beneath the school, and thus he had given his mother a sour look when she insisted that he meet with his uncle to review his father’s last wishes for him. On the bright side, at least their conversation was focused on his future reign.
“You are due to assume control from your mother the day after your wedding. You are permitted to ask for assistance when necessary from me for six months following this transfer, but your father expected you to take control following that.”
Venn nodded. “I spent much time observing my father as a boy. I am capable of this.”
“As with your mother, your wife’s duties will include managing the servants to ensure that your household is kept in order, and of course, providing you with a suitable male heir within five years of your joining with her.”
“What will become of her if she does not produce a child within that time?”
“You are permitted to pursue a breaking of the marriage contract, or to take a mistress, should you find that your wife is suitable in terms of her other duties.”
“I will not leave my bride,” Venn insisted. “I do not foresee troubles with fertility.”
“As I have recently observed, you often speak with your heart when you should keep your head, my nephew,” Salazar said, sighing. He turned back to the document. “Your primary duties will be overseeing the upkeep of your land and responding to the requests of your subjects.”
“What requests are likely to be brought to my attention?”
“Commonly, you will pass judgment on simple matters, such as the scheduling of holiday celebrations, the approval of arranged marriages, and christenings for the village children. However, if there is conflict, you will also be expected to take charge of protecting your subjects and leading the army to defend your land.”
Venn remembered this particular duty, having lost his own father during regional warfare. Fortunately, most of the conflict had been settled prior to the man’s death.
“It is difficult being responsible for so many, Venn. You will be faced with demands large and small nearly every day, not only from outside your castle, but also from within,” Salazar cautioned him. “Remember that I can offer aid for a limited time.”
“You will be consulted if necessary, in accordance with my father’s sentiments,” Venn said coldly, standing and rolling up the parchment. “Thank you, uncle.”
“Wait, before you depart—there is something I would like to show you.” Salazar stood up as well, reaching for his winter cloak. “Would you accompany me?”
The two men walked down the hill toward the forest, holding their cloaks pulled tightly around them to keep out the snow-sprinkled wind. Venn had just begun to consider the thought of turning back and retreating into the warmth of the castle when Salazar came to a halt. He realized they were standing over a familiar pit.
“Look,” Salazar said, pointing into it. “It has already made Hogwarts its home.”
Venn peered down into the darkness, between the bars in the grate that had been placed atop the hole. He thought he saw movement deep down below, so he squinted and looked a bit closer. Yes, he could detect the edges of a large serpentine form writhing in the mud, as if trying to keep itself from freezing to death. Shocked, Venn stepped back, reeling and falling onto his side. “This is a grave mistake, uncle!”
“The basilisk is beautiful, my nephew, and it cost a sizeable fortune. Even now, it still has only reached half of its anticipated growth. Imagine what a fearsome creature it will become in only six months time!” Salazar grinned, offering Venn his hand.
Venn rejected him, standing up and backing away from the pit. “Uncle, I recall learning of this beast as part of my education at this fine school. If it had chanced to turn and look directly at me, I would be dead where I stand! How could you lead me to this place and risk my demise?” he said angrily.
“Have you forgotten my secret talent? I would merely have kept the snake from looking at you by ordering it to keep its head tilted away from you. That, too, is the least of my precautions. You see, I have been ingesting small amounts of Mandrake Restorative Draught for two years now, which protects me from the effects of the creature’s eyes provided I do not gaze into them for extensive periods, and that I view it through another lens.” He gestured to his emerald ‘S’ pendant.
“Two years? Is that how long you have been plotting this monstrous act?” Venn stared up at him. “I apologize, but I must inform someone and put a stop to this.”
“I must confess my curiosity as to who you would use to overrule me,” Salazar said, with a hint of cold amusement. “No matter, there is no need to reveal this to others.”
“Perhaps Rowena, fair Helena’s mother, would be interested in your activities.”
“Rowena is aware of my disdain for the Mudbloods, as are our fellows Helga and Godric,” Salazar replied coolly. “But I have a right to govern the school as I see fit.”
“Salazar, I beg you, reconsider. Your monster could easily escape from that cage.”
“I hope it will, except that I crave full and total credit for its wave of destruction.”
Venn drew his sword, aiming the tip at his uncle. “Then I shall dispatch of it myself.”
“I would caution you against it. I daresay you will not survive the battle.”
The young baron turned briefly, hearing voices nearby. Several students were running down the hill, approaching a Quaffle that had fallen a few feet from the edge of the forest. He sheathed his blade, glaring at his uncle. “Think on it, please, uncle.” Then, he moved up the hill, attempting to wipe the serpent’s image from his mind.
Salazar watched his nephew go, wondering if he would ever see the boy again. He found himself feeling relieved to, by missing the upcoming wedding, be able to avoid another social obligation. It would give him more time to spend with his new pet. He smiled at the children collecting their ball, and when their backs were turned, he shifted his eyes to the forest. A slender doe stood watching him, holding its breath.
His lip curling with comprehension, Salazar raised his wand.
Venn rode hard through the gathering wind, pushing his horse to get back to his estate as quickly as it could. He wanted to put as much distance between him and his uncle as possible, as if it could help wipe the image of the slimy snake from his mind.
As he exited the forest and began up the path that led directly to the castle, he saw a figure on horseback riding out to meet him. At this rate, they would meet in the orchard, which his father had planted for his mother as a gift for the remembrance of their wedding. Venn looked ahead, noticing his mother standing in the doorway. She had been vigilant to watch him go and come for the past few days, though she refused to admit to feeling ill or worried about anything.
He rode underneath the trees, grateful for the temporary protection against the wind provided by their broad trunks. As he watched, the figure drew closer, and he could make out a dress billowing out from the horse, along with long black hair.
Helena, he realized urgently.
“My bride, what brings you out in these torturous conditions?” he asked, immediately getting off his horse and going to help her down from hers.
“I come with glad news,” she replied breathlessly, pink in her cheeks and a delirious smile upon her face. “My mother has weighed me down with her qualms about our upcoming union. I am unhappy to admit that I have spent many hours steeped in my tears and worries, wondering how to retain both my blessed future with you and a pleasant relationship with the wise Rowena. The pain was enough to ruin my joy.”
“Fair Helena, to hear these tidings from your beautiful lips wounds me more than what would be possible from any blade,” Venn said, placing his gloved hand on the side of her face tenderly. “What cuts ever deeper, I must confess, is that my own uncle has inflicted similar pain upon me. His fanatical obsession with the purity of blood among the students of his school causes him to distrust Rowena, and therefore to think the worst of you—how he cannot see your purity, I will never understand.” He sighed. “I know not why we, who should be joyous, must suffer so.”
“But we must suffer no more!” Helena exclaimed. “My beloved, the dear Helga Hufflepuff has provided me with a solution to our mutual trouble. We should do as the peasants do and run away, where we will be free to live together in peace.”
“Run away?” Venn looked into her eyes, puzzled. “What can you mean by this?”
“We will likely find a traveling elder who may be willing to make us man and wife. We can return when my mother and Salazar have soothed their nerves, and we will be free to rule your kingdom just as everyone has intended, with no need for pain.”
At first, Helena’s scheme sounded like a perfect escape. But Venn could not shake the memory of the basilisk pacing in Salazar’s pit; how simple it would be for the creature to break free from its cage! What if it stumbled upon them in the dark, in the middle of the forest, their bodies and minds too drunk with love to notice it? No, as much as he wished to abscond with his bride, the threat of Salazar’s beast prevented him from doing so. Sadly, he considered that this may be the only chance.
“Fair Helena, I love you, so much so that I fear nothing, not even the wrath of those who would stand against us,” he said finally. “Please, let us not deny our supporters the opportunity to see us wed and become rulers. What of my mother, and your father? What of kind Helga, who clearly wishes to see you become a happy bride?”
“Are you certain?” Helena asked, distressed tears shining in the corners of her eyes.
“You should trust me, my love, as you should for all the days that we are together.”
Helena sighed. “I will follow you in this, if you truly think it best.”
“I promise that I shall make you a joyous bride.” He stepped forward, stroking her cheek with his fingers and pressing his lips close against hers. Helena’s eyes fluttered closed, the wind drawing her hair off of her shoulders. Her hand fell to a seemingly natural position on the hilt of his sword, and his responded by encircling her waist and coming to rest on the small of her back. Helena’s tears fell to her cheeks as she kissed him in return, not wanting to stop and face the world again.
When they parted at last, she met his eyes. “I am already joyous, if only in eager anticipation of the day when I will become your wife, and you my husband.”
The baron nodded, offering her a smile. He took off his gloves, putting them atop his saddle, and took her smaller, smoother hands in his own. “Daughter of Ravenclaw, go and make amends with your mother if you can, so that your conflict may cease. If you choose not to, or if you are unable, take solace in the love of your father and Helga, and know that you are not alone, for I no longer seek peace with my uncle.”
Helena nodded in return, kissing his cheek, and he helped her climb back onto her horse. “I will send an owl,” she said. “I will seek your mother to help with my plans.”
He thought of the basilisk again. “Would it cause pain for me to escort you home?”
“I fear as much,” Helena replied.
“Keep to the main route. Do not stop,” Venn said. “I will yearn to join you again.”
“I love you all the more until that day,” Helena said, wiping away her tears.
Then, with concerned hearts, Venn and Edeline watched her vanish into the woods.
Chapter 14: Devil in the Details
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Helena sat alone at the broad table in her family’s house, picking at her breakfast. Lavish spreads of fresh fruit formed the centerpiece for the table, including apples, pears, plums, and strawberries. There was a platter containing salted beef, a delicacy reserved mostly for those in the Ravenclaws’ social class. So far, though, Helena had only sampled a servant’s portion from this feast—a bit of bread and some cheese. Though she sipped on her wine, she seemed to have lost her appetite.
As she considered an expensive fig, her father came down the spiral staircase.
“Good morning, Helena! Do you have plans for the day following breakfast?”
“No,” she said, offering him a tired smile. “Why do you ask?”
“I would like for you to meet with me in the hall after you finish your meal.”
Helena was struck with a sense of fear at his request. She worried that he had set up a reconciliation meeting between her and her mother, something for which she was not yet prepared. Holding back a sigh, she stood up. “No, let us go now. I have eaten my fill for now, and the food will not spoil should I decide to return afterwards.”
“Excellent!” Witter exclaimed. He put an arm around her tenderly, guiding her along to the main room in their castle. As soon as she passed through the doorway, Helena realized she’d been mistaken. Rowena was not there; she must still be upstairs in her chambers, actively trying to avoid human contact. Instead, a mixed group of servants and house elves stood in a line against the fireplace.
“Helena, my darling, I know that your spirits have been low in recent days, which is no way for a beautiful bride to appear. I yearn to see you smile again, and so I present you with a reminder of your upcoming marriage. You may have your choice of these servants to take with you when you leave our home for the Selwyns’ estate.”
Helena could not help but give her father the smile he so desperately needed. Like any wealthy young woman, she had need for servants to freshen up dresses that had been crammed into her wardrobe, style her hair, and sneak her bits of fruit and cheese well past dinnertime. But she sensed that Witter’s demonstration meant more than this—the servants would be a reminder of home, familiar faces in a strange new place. They would already know her routines, likes and dislikes.
She looked from one to the next, finding it difficult to choose. She had picked wildflowers with most of the young women, some scarcely older than her, as a little girl. As for the house elves, it had always been her privilege to name them, and she had learned their mannerisms well over the years even if they had rarely served her directly. She supposed she should also select a young man or two, just to provide assistance for any maintenance work and some healthy faux competition for Venn.
“I will take my two maidservants, Ainsley and Isobel,” she finally said, gesturing to the two girls standing patiently at the far left of the line. The sisters were barely as old as Helena had been when she had graduated from Hogwarts. Ainsley, the eldest, had chestnut hair that reflected the sun when she went outdoors and kind brown eyes. Her younger sister, Isobel, had inherited her father’s blonde waves and green eyes. At the sound of their names falling off her lovely tongue, the two girls smiled at Helena, nodding politely to her.
Helena glanced at the remaining servants. “I would like Kendrick as well. Eostre has always responded most kindly to his touch, and she will need someone to keep her healthy and clean once she is relocated to the marshland.” As she spoke, a handsome young man in his early twenties stepped forward, bowing slightly to Helena. The lady took in his dark hair and gray eyes with a girlish smile that she quickly concealed.
“As you like, daughter,” Witter said. “Would any of the elves be of use to you?”
“No, my husband-to-be will have plenty of them already in residence at his estate.” Helena had not grown particularly attached to any of the elves, and she saw no reason to take more than necessary. She looked forward to starting over afresh.
“So be it. Your chosen few will help you begin organizing your things tomorrow.”
“Thank you, my dear father,” Helena replied, embracing him and placing a kiss upon his cheek. “For today, I shall call upon Helga to come and assist me in my wedding plans.”
With that, she turned and moved back upstairs, immediately taking a seat in front of her writing desk. As she reached to move her bound copy of Tristan and Iseult, which was covering her supply of clean parchment, she noticed a letter laying against her inkwell. Her nimble fingers picked it up, smearing the fresh ink on the front just slightly and obscuring several letters in her name. She opened it, reading quickly through the neat penmanship, her eyes speeding along to the signature.
My son tells me that you and your mother are in a place of strife.
As I was never blessed with a daughter to make a lovely bride,
will you grant me the honor of helping to arrange your wedding?
With endless love,
Helena smiled, shooting the owl a sharp glance as it reached down to help itself from the small brass tray of food sitting on the windowsill. Then, she dipped her favorite raven’s feather quill in the inkwell, composing a reply to her ally.
The honor would be mine.
I will ride to your estate this afternoon, and we shall begin.
The air was unnaturally warm today, a hint of the spring that had seemed forever away during the past few frost-laden weeks. Helena was glad to have ridden her horse out to the Selwyns’ castle in lieu of a carriage, taken as she was with the gentle breeze and welcoming sunshine. As Eostre’s hoofbeats slowed to quiet in the courtyard, Helena dismounted smoothly and moved around back to meet Edeline.
As she turned the corner, her future mother-in-law greeted her with an embrace. The pair began walking amongst the flowerbeds, taking in all of the new blooms.
“There are so many beautiful flowers here, dear Edeline,” Helena remarked, walking slowly along the path and taking care not to drag the hem of her dress in the mud. As the two women traversed the garden trail, several house elves scampered from bed to bed, giving the flowers water and creating wet fingers of muck on the stone pavement. The falling sunlight caught the reflection of the moisture on the petals.
“Do you see any that you would like to include in your bouquet?”
“Yes, these,” Helena replied, gesturing to a small patch of speedwells. “They remind me so of my beloved family crest, and they will be a nice contrast to the orange blossoms. I cannot decide between catchflies and Parnassus grass for the white.”
“White?” Edeline inquired gently.
“Yes, to match my gown.” Helena smiled brightly. “You must see it; it is perfectly—”
“Do you mean that you are moving ahead with plans for a white wedding dress?”
Helena tried not to look disheartened. “Indeed, my lady.”
“You will look lovely in any hue, dear girl, and it will go nicely with the traditional orange blossoms,” Edeline offered. “I hope it bodes well for eventual grandchildren.”
Helena blushed brightly, wondering if Edeline had witnessed her passionate kisses with Venn one time too many. She quickly changed the subject. “I must say, Edeline, one of my greatest sources of intimidation in preparing to be wed is the thought of planning festivities for so many loved ones. I would greatly appreciate your help in reconciling my family’s list of invitations with those from my groom’s side.”
“Of course! Please, let us retire to the hall and discuss the matter over tea.”
Edeline and Helena entered the castle and seated themselves next to one another at the long dining room table. Helena’s eyes fell upon the empty seat at the head of the table. She briefly imagined herself sitting opposite it, the chair now occupied by her husband, a fire roaring in the hearth and an elegant meal spread out before them. She was still smiling when she realized that Edeline was speaking to her.
“I apologize, my lady, but your words did not reach my ears.”
“I only asked if you were still planning to hold the wedding at Hogwarts.”
“Yes, that is my understanding,” Helena replied. “But I have entertained private thoughts of moving it to a more intimate location. There is a beautiful wood near my home, with a lovely spring and green trees. There would not be room for many there.”
“It sounds very beautiful,” Edeline mused. “But you must know how many are looking forward to your union with my Venn. Since the death of poor Godric’s son, you two are the only heirs to the legacy of the Hogwarts founders. Do you understand why the wedding should be held at the site of their accomplishment?”
Helena nodded. “I suppose. Has my fiancé spoken on this matter recently?”
“No, but I am certain that he would agree. It would mean so much to Salazar.”
The younger woman looked back at the empty chair at the head of the table. Perhaps holding the wedding at Rowena’s beloved Hogwarts would help to appease her mother. Still, she felt disappointed to have been defeated so easily on the topic.
Edeline continued. “The selection of Hogwarts is also ideal for the guest list. Naturally, you will want to invite all of the nobles from your land and ours, and also those associated with Godric and Helga. Everyone must see how beautiful you look.”
Helena smiled, imagining a crowd of people rising to observe her grace and beauty as she proceeded down the aisle, just like Priscilla a few months ago. Her thoughts proceeded along with her, her imaginary eyes falling upon the handsome figure of her groom. He was waiting there for her in a scarlet jacket, smiling blissfully at her. “Yes, and only those closest to our families will join us for dinner after the wedding.”
“My dear, have you ever attended a wedding?” Edeline said, her smile fading slightly. “Everyone will want to witness your first dance with my son, and to break bread with you in celebration of your union. Why deprive them of such a blessing?”
Helena’s eyes fell to the table. “I apologize, my lady, I did not mean to offend you.”
“You have not, dear Helena, and never could,” Edeline said reassuringly. “You are young and have some unorthodox notions. I am here to help you sort them out.”
“I only feel as if my husband and I should work together to plan our marriage.”
“You are a noblewoman. There is, in truth, little to plan, only small details. Men never desire to be more involved than they must be, and that is very little, considering that your wedding—and marriage—will follow traditions as usual.”
It was shocking how words spoken in such a kind tone could hurt Helena so deeply.
“Do not worry yourself over this, my dear. Soon you and Venn will be together.”
Helena suddenly felt very claustrophobic. Edeline acted as if planning the wedding was a chore, when in reality Helena had dreamed of the day for years and years. Now that she finally had a face for her perfect groom, she was more excited than ever, even with the misery of her relationship with her mother clouding it slightly. A faint sense of discomfort rose in her chest as she heard the door close. Footsteps.
“Helena, are you all right?” Edeline inquired, looking upon her with a worried expression. With uncertain movements, she poised to stroke the girl’s hair.
She looked up, finding herself face to face with Venn. At once, her heart began to mend itself. Helena stood, smoothing her dress and putting a smile upon her lips. “My darling Venn! What an unexpected pleasure to see you.”
“It is interesting to see you as well. I have been out preparing a gift for you.”
Helena looked at him quizzically.
“I had planned to save it for the wedding, but our meeting today can be nothing but fortuitous.” He extended a gloved hand to her with a confident smile. “Come.”
Helena followed him outside, attempting to leave her worries behind with Edeline, and saw his horse waiting. The baron climbed onto the horse first, setting himself back into the saddle. Venn offered his bride his hand; taking it, she climbed aboard the horse, sitting in front of him. It was impossible to resist the simple ease of relaxing against his chest. When the horse began to travel with a gentle rocking motion, she almost felt like drifting off into sleep, returning to her girlish dreams.
After a few moments, the lady’s eyes fluttered open. “Where are we going?”
His voice came as a tender whisper directed straight into her ear. “I have a surprise for you. The journey will only be so long. In a moment, you will see it for yourself.”
Then, just as he had foretold, the path opened up and Helena could see the wide expanse of the Selwyns’ estate. The road they were on seemed to join with a hundred others, all of them cutting around the edges of endless, marshy fields. As they rode past the few servants still out working, the men and women humbly bowed their heads to the man who would soon take his place as their ruler. Helena imagined them bowing to her as well, the future baroness of Venn’s vast territory. She held her head up, the sunlight spilling into her hair, and looked ahead.
“Have you discovered the result of my planning?”
“No,” she replied, a smile gracing her lips. “I am beginning to feel like a dullard.”
“You could never be a dullard, fair Helena,” Venn replied, reaching around her and tugging firmly on the reins. The horse came to a stop. As her groom helped her dismount, Helena realized that they were standing at the intersection of several paths, none of which appeared to extend any further. Before her was a new-looking fence, and she could barely make out figures working on it at various points around the field that it enclosed. The tall wheat grass grew in solid ground, with little muck.
“We appear to have reached the edge of your estate,” she observed.
“That is correct,” Venn answered, getting off of the horse. “This morning, my love, the expanse before you was one of many fields, albeit the driest in my possession. There was nothing to distinguish it. The fence was installed this very afternoon, and I admit to you that I put in some of the posts with my own hands, as a demonstration of my affection for you.”
Helena looked at him, listening somewhat impatiently. A field? What unorthodox notion is this?
“When you are no longer a guest but a permanent resident in my home, you may journey to this sanctuary of quiet whenever you desire. No one will disturb you.”
“I am afraid that even my intellect cannot grasp your meaning,” she admitted finally.
“This is for your horse, Helena. It is yours and yours alone, much like my heart.”
Helena’s mouth opened slightly with realization. It was truly an unexpected gift, and yet it meant the world to know that he had paid attention to details of her life all along. In her mind, Helena returned to their first dance, to the moment when she told him how she loved to ride her beloved Eostre. He must have noted even the small moments in which her face showed her dislike of the muddy ground here. Venn was not only more intelligent that she had supposed; he had studied her.
“Thank you,” she murmured, smiling at him with a delighted surprise in her eyes.
“It is but a small token. I hope to offer greater gifts when we begin a joined life.”
Helena looked at him, sweeping her hair out of her eyes as the breeze picked up slightly around them, filling the satisfied silence. Venn moved to take the horse’s reins, to take her back to his castle and the mundane details of a traditional wedding. She stepped forward to follow him, but then she spoke up once again.
“Could I inquire about another favor, my darling?”
“Anything you wish, of course.” Venn adjusted the saddle, patting the horse’s neck.
“I feel a certain pressure from others around us in planning the day when we will make our courtship permanent. Though you have emerged as nothing less than the man of my dreams, I fear that the ceremony in which you and I are united will fall short of that which I have envisioned since I was a young girl.” Helena placed her hand softly upon his where it rested on the saddle. “I had hoped that perhaps you could speak for me, insist that I be given a louder voice in these preparations.”
He looked at her curiously. “I had not planned to participate in these formalities.”
“I beg of you, please consider my feelings on the matter. It would mean a great deal.”
“You wish for me to direct this process with my own voice?”
“Yes, I trust that you will communicate my wishes with perfect comprehension.”
Venn climbed into the saddle. “Helena, you must remember that I am poised to inherit all that you see here and more. I have been increasingly occupied with my inheritance. I do not have time to add to my own burdens with woman’s work.” He offered a hand to her once more. “I will speak to my mother on the matter. She cares a great deal for you, as you must know, and she will serve well as your advocate.”
Helena nodded, taking his hand and sitting still as they began to ride back toward the castle. Despite her future husband’s condescending verdict, she wanted to retain confidence in his soft tone and pleasant smile. She wished she could just lay back against him and enjoy the ride back to the castle, concerning herself with the wedding no more. Still, she could not shake the feeling that Venn was passing off her dreams just as easily as his mother, and in truth, her own. The idea troubled her. She had never anticipated that her almost-perfect suitor might not only fail to deliver precisely what she wanted but even show such a lack of interest in her request. In the context of her whirlwind romance, her marriage seemed frighteningly boring.
No, she thought, looking straight ahead. A good wife believes in her husband. Then, with her head held a bit too high, Helena settled back into the saddle—and her fate.
Hello, lovely readers! I’d like to thank CambAngst, patronus_charm, and ValWitch21 in particular for being such faithful reviewers of this story. There are so many wonderful people out there who help motivate me to write through those nasty periods of lacking inspiration, but these three deserve a special shout-out for surprising me almost daily with truly beautiful reviews. If I haven’t yet heard from you, here’s your chance—I’d love to get your feedback, and who knows, you could see your name in a future chapter!
A few notes about this chapter, as per usual: Ainsley means “one’s own meadow,” Isobel means “consecrated to God,” and Kendrick means “royal chieftan.” Tristan and Iseult was written by Joseph Bédier and published in 1900 under the title Le roman de Tristan et Iseut. However, it was inspired by the Tristan legend from medieval times, made popular by Thomas of Britain. As for Helena’s bouquet ideas, speedwells (also known as Veronicas) signify fidelity (particularly for females), white catchflies mean “I fall a victim” or betrayal, and Parnassus grass relates to the colors gray and bluish-green. All are native to Britain.
Naturally every story comes to an end eventually, and I’ve come to realize that I’m very attached to Venn and Helena and their tale. It’s shocking, because I thought this story would be such a challenge—and it is, but it’s one that I look forward to taking on with each new chapter. It’s become one of my favorites. That said, I’ve thought about the possibility of writing more in this world when this story is finished. We can’t really talk details until all is said and done, but I’d love to hear if anyone would be interested in such a project, which could take the form of a one-shot or potentially a longer story. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about who or what you want to know more about, so please, won’t you share them with me in the little box below?
If you made it to the end of this author’s note, kudos. See you in chapter fifteen!
Chapter 15: Pieces of a Dream
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It was to be, in many senses of the term, a magical evening.
Ainsley, Isobel, and Kendrick had been informed that their first duty as Helena’s servants in her soon-to-be new home was to help the Selwyn’s small staff of peasants and house elves decorate the estate for Venn and Helena’s engagement party. Witches and wizards from many wealthy counties would be coming to celebrate, some from hundreds of miles and long carriage rides away. Unfortunately Venn’s small castle was not quite enough to contain them, and so the party was meant to spill out into the field nearest the castle, the one bordered by the orchard.
The ladies remained indoors, dusting the hearths and tables and hanging bright silk ribbons in the two families’ colors in the main hall. The young men ventured outside. Kendrick brandished his wand, the only thing left to inherit when his father died, and dried the ground under his feet as he walked. The nobles would never deign to decorate their robes with the filth so common to this region. The elves scurried continually underfoot, assisting the Muggle children and a few witches as they worked together to prepare a feast in the kitchen. There would be endless food.
Twelve hours of work produced not only the feast, but also gorgeous decorations lit by soft candlelight in the house and out in the trees. Tables were arranged around an open area, which was carefully dried and flattened to produce a rudimentary dance floor. The servants themselves were the last to be cleaned, dressed, and put into position.
Kendrick stood stiffly at the end of the line nearest the courtyard. As the sun began to set and the cool touch of night in springtime lighted upon his shoulders, he heard the familiar sound of hoofbeats and carriage wheels coming to a subtle stop nearby.
With the first movement of his feet, the highly anticipated event commenced.
“I hate her,” Helena whispered, frowning and folding her arms across her chest.
“Please refrain from using such harsh language, my darling,” Witter said softly, looking over at his daughter. “Rest your arms at your sides, like a lady. You are putting creases into the fabric of your gown.”
She sighed, dropping her arms obediently. “You could send an owl and ask her to come. She would listen to you. It embarrasses me for her to not be in attendance.”
“As I have told you, your mother is not feeling well today. The evening chill would be too much for her to withstand.”
“Her illness is rather convenient,” Helena remarked callously.
“I am certain she wishes she could be with me at your side.”
“In another life, perhaps, had I become the woman she wanted me to be. You cannot simply explain away her mood over the passing weeks. She no longer loves me.”
“You are being overly dramatic,” Witter replied, and his tone was harsher this time. “How can you expect to enjoy your engagement party with such a sour disposition?”
His daughter’s eyes drifted about the small foyer in which they stood, facing a closed door that would open and allow Helena to make her grand entrance when the time was right. She could see the main area of the party inside the dining hall from her position. Helena peered through the nearest open alcove and caught sight of her groom, sitting at the head of the table where his father—had he still been among the living—would have been seated. Interestingly, his gaze was fixed on something besides the door that would reveal his bride in mere moments. Helena followed his line of sight, her eyes falling upon Edeline. She was standing in the corner with a handsome man around her age, politely chatting with some of the party guests while keeping a careful eye on the varying amounts of food and drink that remained on the servants’ trays. In her hand, clutched like a bouquet, was a black leather glove.
Helena glanced back at Venn, noticing that his jaw was clenched.
Suddenly, the doors before her creaked to life, and she took a deep breath. Witter’s arm, into which her own was tucked, gently tightened as if to offer her support. The music swelled slightly. Helena stepped forward confidently, though her knees shook underneath the thick, expensive fabric of her navy blue gown.
She tried to resist smiling at the sound of the few audible gasps that erupted from the crowd, but she could not help herself. The party guests could not take their eyes from the beaming bride, looking radiant in her beautiful gown trimmed with lace and sapphires. Her dark hair tumbled down her back in loose waves, and her bright eyes sparkled with her joy. Even Venn, despite his previous preoccupation, could not look away, feeling himself drawn to Helena as he stood up to greet her and kiss her hand. A few blissful moments later, she and her father found their seats. Helena was somewhat surprised when Salazar rose to his feet, holding his goblet.
“My beloved sister and I extend our greetings to you, our guests, on this happy occasion,” he said, looking around at all in attendance. “I offer a special welcome to our Scottish neighbor Witter Ravenclaw and the lovely Helena, who will be given in marriage to my nephew in only a few short weeks.”
Helena felt butterflies crashing into one another haphazardly within her chest.
Salazar continued. “In celebration of the long-awaited event, I have selected a gift for the young lovers, something that I would only bestow upon those for whom I cared very deeply.” He put his goblet down on the table and reached for his neck with both hands. As Venn and Helena watched, a stunning emerald locket emerged from beneath his silky black dress robes. The pendant, which was emblazoned with an ‘S’, hung on a heavy gold chain, perhaps meant to represent the prestige and burden of managing a school like Hogwarts.
Salazar placed the locket upon the table in front of Venn, but the boy refused to touch it or even take his eyes off his uncle. Helena gently picked it up, carefully turning it over and finding an odd inscription on the back. Before she could attempt to make out the language, Venn took it from her. Helena looked up to see Edeline’s guiding hand resting upon his shoulder.
“Thank you, uncle,” Venn said quietly, putting the locket on. “What a gracious gift.”
“I can think of no better occasion for it than the joining of my house with that of Ravenclaw,” Salazar answered, raising his goblet dramatically. “Friends and honored guests, let us drink to the health and prosperity of the union we shall witness!” Everyone around the room took a sip of wine, including Venn and Helena.
Salazar sat down, turning his eyes to Witter as the other man rose. Edeline turned to speak to a maidservant, and Salazar whispered to Venn. “It is only yours for the wedding. After you and your bride are united, I expect it back, in perfect condition.”
Helena looked over at her father now, trying to focus on what he was saying.
“My wife sends her regrets, as illness keeps her bedridden and unable to share in this joyous night. Fortunately, along with her sentiment, she sends a gift of our own.”
He withdrew a bronze box, placing it upon the table in front of him. Next, he took a minute bronze key from his robe pocket, inserting it into the tiny keyhole and turning it carefully. The box opened soundlessly, revealing a blue velvet interior. The eyes of everyone in the room instantly fell to the stunning blue diadem sitting perfectly in place within the box. “This crown is Rowena’s pride and joy, and she will love nothing more than to see it placed upon her daughter’s head for the much-anticipated ceremony. Unfortunately, she has asked that it be returned after my Helena settles into her happy new home—” He paused, and a few people around the room laughed softly. “—but the remainder of the family jewels may stay with her. I am certain that, just like her mother, Helena will never fail to shine in them.”
As the guests toasted her well being, Helena stared down at the tiara. She had dreamed of wearing it her whole life, but suddenly it seemed too heavy to bear. Her fingertips delicately traced the words inscribed upon the cold, smooth structure; this sensation was counteracted, however, by the warmth of Venn’s hand on hers.
“Join me for a dance,” he said softly. She could not read his expression, except that he seemed almost nervous, just as overwhelmed as she felt. It was oddly comforting.
“Yes, my lord,” she whispered, allowing him to help her to her feet.
As Helena spun in her husband-to-be’s arms, she found it hard not to relax, even with the eyes of so many upon her. To her, it seemed that they moved much more easily together than they had months ago in her parents’ ballroom when they met for the first time. He led her around the floor in graceful circles, the light catching their regal jewels and reflecting off the many fine furnishings in the room. The scene was so perfect that Helena was surprised when she felt the hand holding hers stiffen suddenly. She offered Venn a smile, but he was no longer looking into her eyes. Instead, his gaze traversed the room, moving from face to face as he made judgments.
“What is it, my love?” she asked tenderly.
“There are many here whom I do not recognize,” he commented.
“There are many nobles from my land, and associates of my parents.”
“Those I can identify by their expensive dress and good posture. But there are some—their clothing seems less proper, and they reach greedily for the platters of food and drink whenever they pass, as if they have barely begun to get their fill.”
“Perhaps they are peasants from the surrounding towns,” Helena suggested.
Venn returned his gaze to hers, and it was hardened. When he spoke, his voice was firm. “My family and I would never invite Muggles into our home, to eat our fill and enjoy our music. It would be wasteful.”
Helena swallowed. “There are some from my land…” she trailed off softly.
“Who invited them?” His eyes shot accusingly to Witter, who was on at least his fourth glass of wine and making jolly conversation with Cepheus’s father.
“I asked that they attend. I wanted them to feel as if their concerns still mattered to me in my transition to a new land and new people.” Helena recalled the occasion of the joust, during which Venn had handily alienated himself from the Ravenclaws’ subjects. She thought allowing them to attend the party would mend these wounds, but perhaps it was destined to fail, considering the way her fiancé was behaving.
“How could you invite them to enter my house without my permission?”
“Is this house not to become mine as well, in due time?” she protested quietly, careful to maintain a smile so as to avoid arousing suspicion from their audience.
“You shall dwell here with me, but make no mistake, this is my land and my castle,” Venn corrected her. “You should not trouble your mind with deciding how to maintain the subjects of my baronage. I will take care of that myself.”
It was Helena’s turn to stiffen, perhaps in the hope that the pressure would stall any tears. Around them, the music swelled in anticipation of the final refrain.
“It had brought me some pain to see you separated from your mother in such an important time, but now I suspect that you spent too much time with her even before now. You should view the schism between you as a blessing, for she will soon be unable to poison you further against reason. We must think of our own safety, my bride. There is a reason that we are in our station in life and they live apart from us.”
The music could have not ceased at a more opportune moment. As the last notes faded, Helena tore herself gently from Venn’s hands, smiling demurely at the onlookers as she retreated from the dance floor. Behind her, Priscilla Black stepped into her place, striking up a friendly conversation with Venn about their good fortune in finding appropriate partners as they twirled loosely about the floor.
Helena did not notice this turn of events. She ventured through the crowd and around corners until she could see no more party guests. At last, she was alone.
But she was not alone. As Helena drew nearer to the outer walls of the castle, seeking some fresh air and a moment’s peace, she could hear a pair of male voices, both of which were making poor attempts at keeping the commotion to a minimum. She swallowed her impending tears and peeked around the corner. Salazar stood on one side of the corridor, frustration etched into his face, and Godric Gryffindor faced him. Helena stood still and quiet, listening to their tense conversation.
“—don’t understand the meaning of this,” Salazar was saying.
“Certainly you do,” Godric replied. His voice was steady, but Helena observed one of his fists clenching and un-clenching every few seconds. “The opinions you have voiced at our last few meetings are obviously unpopular, and yet you persevere. I am concerned that you may hold your own agenda, whatever that may be, to be more important than the good of the school.”
“Hogwarts is as dear to me as the day we built it. How can you question that?”
“I can suggest a compromise. You may retain membership on the administrative board, continuing to go about your current activities with your house and give guest lectures, but you will no longer have a voice in the future of our school—or attend our meetings.”
“I do not perceive a suggestion in your words, brother,” Salazar hissed.
“Lady Helga and I have agreed upon it, and though I have not spoken with Lady Rowena in recent days, I am confident that she will find my decision suitable.”
“Godric, I beg you to reconsider.”
“The decision is made, Salazar.” Godric lowered his voice. “I have tolerated your divisive perspective for far too long. Helga has confessed that your recent manner makes her… nervous. In times like these, one must step up as a proper leader.”
“That is precisely what I have been trying to do,” Salazar cut in. He stepped forward, looking straight into Godric’s eyes. “And brother, as you stated—I shall persevere.”
As his footsteps echoed down the corridor, Helena leaned back against the wall, trying to understand what she had just overheard. But her grief over the turn her seemingly idyllic evening had taken prevented her from processing the exchange. She decided not to concern herself with the Founders’ business, not when she had plans of her own to make. She needed to get in her carriage and return home—now.
The castle was silent when Helena returned. She insisted on putting the horses away herself, too concerned that the elves and servants would make noise and wake her mother. Another of Rowena’s lectures was the last thing she wished to endure at the moment. Once inside, she moved softly up the stairs, closing her bedroom door behind her and collapsing onto her bed. Tears rolled freely down her face now.
Through the wetness, Helena spotted it, staring at her from across the room.
She forced herself up, half-wanting to rip her cumbersome evening gown but resisting the urge to ruin the expensive fabric. She picked up the book from her writing desk, running her fingertips over the two names inscribed on the cover. Next, she flew to her bookcase, pulling her copy of One Thousand and One Nights and letting it fall to the floor. After it came The Daughter of the Skies, The Enchanted Canary, and The Flower Queen’s Daughter. Clutching The Ill-Fated Princess in her hand, Helena sank to the floor, wanting to rip out the tear-stained pages.
What good were fairy tales if they never came true, not even for a noblewoman? Not even for a great witch, the daughter of the most powerful witch in all of Scotland?
Dislodged from its position, The Princess and the Tin Box slipped off the shelf, bringing with it all of Helena’s sketches. A quiet knock sounded from the other side of the door.
“Enter,” Helena said, sighing and sitting back down on her bed.
“My lady?” One of the servants poked her head around the door. “I heard a commotion, and I wanted to ensure that you were all right.”
“There is no trouble,” Helena replied, avoiding eye contact.
“I did not suspect you would return so early from your party.”
“It was boring.” Guiltily, she found herself wishing that the girl would just go back to her work and leave her alone.
“My lady, perhaps it will bring cheer for you to know that your dress is nearly ready for the final fitting. I witnessed the seamstresses working on it today. It is fit for a queen.”
Helena’s eyes fell onto the sketches. She looked at the embellished gown and flowing hair, and the charmed diadem that still sat lopsided on her head. “I do not want it.”
“Pardon me, my lady?”
“The dress—it must not have the pearls, nor the lace in the bodice. They are too bold. I do not wish to remind the commoners who attend of their poverty.”
“I must caution you that altering the dress will likely delay the wedding, my lady.”
“I am aware of that, but the wedding must be perfect, including the dress.” Helena looked at the girl. “Please pass along my wishes to the seamstresses. I do not even wish to look upon my gown again until it meets my specifications.”
“Of course, my lady. I will instruct them to begin their work at dawn tomorrow.”
Helena did not look up until she heard the door close. Then, she got up and walked over to her window, admiring the starry view. She knew somewhere in the distance the party was likely still going on. Perhaps her groom had finally realized her disappearance. Her father would be angry when he returned home later that night. For now, though, only one thing sank into Helena’s tired mind—the quiet. Peace.
It was nothing short of beautiful.
The servant could not contain herself as she walked back down the spiral staircase from Helena’s bedroom. She could not imagine the good fortune of having a handsome baron and dream wedding, and moreover, she could not fathom someone being so shallow as to make waves about it. As she neared the second-floor landing, however, she quieted her thoughts. She had heard rumors in the village that the elder Ravenclaw woman could read minds and even put thoughts in others’ heads.
“Mistress Rowena?” she asked carefully, cracking the door open and slipping inside.
The small circular bedroom inside was lit by candles, though the dark spilling in from the balcony still permeated the space. The broad bed contained one inhabitant, her thick, dark hair spread across the pillowcases and her heavy eyes closed peacefully. A half-eaten tray of bread and cheese awaited the girl at the end of the bed. She retrieved it, placing a fresh silver pitcher of chilled water on a nearby table.
“My lady, are you thirsty?” she tried, having heard Rowena coughing earlier.
She waited with held breath, but no sound issued from the woman, save for her somewhat labored breathing. Her chest rose and fell; she was otherwise still.
The girl exhaled with a muted sigh. The master of the house would not be pleased to return home to no improvements. The healers would need to be called after several weeks of nothing but sleep and picking at food. She reached down tenderly to the exposed right arm, frowning at the slightly blue tinge of the skin, and thought better of searching for a pulse. She did not want to risk waking the quietly sleeping woman. This was the most peace Rowena had enjoyed since her ride home through a storm.
The servant turned, propping the door open with her foot and exiting with the tray as gently as she had entered. As she moved downstairs toward the kitchen, her thoughts returned to Helena. I hope Lady Rowena is well in time for the wedding.
This chapter is dedicated to nott theodore—thank you for your faithful reviews!
The fairy tales in Helena’s bedroom do not belong to me. One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of stories written by various authors before the year 850. The Daughter of the Skies was written by John Francis Campbell. The Enchanted Canary was written by Charles Deulin. The Flower Queen’s Daughter was written by Henrich von Wlislocki. The Ill-Fated Princess was written by Georgias A. Megas. The Princess and the Tin Box was written by James Thurber. None of the last five fairy tales have identified dates of origin. Everything in the chapter you recognize from canon, obviously, belongs to J. K. Rowling.
I hope you are enjoying the story. As you can probably tell by the events of this chapter, there is only a little more to go! Won’t you please leave a review? :)
Chapter 16: Fight or Flight
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Though he did not feel like a ruler, Venn had to attend to a ruler's duties, even after the disastrous engagement party. With the wedding and his impending coronation approaching in just a week's time, his mother had put some pressure on him to practice his rounds and ensure that the grounds and castle were kept in good shape, just as his father had done when he was not away at war. He rode slowly along the main path between the fields, conversing briefly with each servant he passed to judge the pace and quality of the work. Though he had counted himself fortunate to participate in only a small portion of the last war and earn merely superficial wounds--his primary purpose there being to inspire morale among his father's men--Venn suddenly longed to return to the battlefield. For one, it was dreadfully boring to pace back and forth along his estate; the task seemed meaningless, given that the servants were well-rehearsed and no orders needed to be barked at them. For another, at his mother's insistence, his uncle had accompanied him on today's rounds, ostensibly to guide him in estate ownership.
"You are fortunate that your land is somewhat contained," Salazar said, glancing over at Venn to gauge his reaction. "Were we surveying my estate, it would likely take several hours, which is a chore on especially warm or cold days. For you, it will surely come to be seen as a hobby, a brief jaunt out of the castle and away from your fair lady."
"I wish I could say that my mother had not asked this of you because of your opinion, but sadly, I suppose I must endure it," Venn grumbled.
"You seem so unpleasant. It is shocking to think that you will soon be married."
Venn felt a rush of frustration course through his veins. As if anything about that dreadful occasion could merit my joy at this time.
"I suppose you merely want to avoid being embarrassed by your bride a third time."
Venn looked down at the ground. As much as he wished to dispute it, Salazar was correct. He could not juxtapose Helena's rude behavior at the party, including her breach of his authority, with the kind, beautiful woman he had been getting to know.
"What would you do if you were in my place, uncle?" he asked quietly, trying to ignore the worry rising in his stomach that he may regret asking for more of Salazar's opinions.
"The girl needs to be reminded that she is entering into a new family with new rules and responsibilities," Salazar commented, as if it were simple. "You should proceed with the wedding and make it clear to her from the moment she steps foot in your house that you will not tolerate any further insolence on her part. A true lady will learn her place."
Venn contemplated this for a moment. The plan seemed to make sense to him.
"You must act quickly, nephew, if you wish to retain your position in this house."
The younger man looked at him. "What is your meaning?"
"I trust you have heard the joyous news of your mother's imminent re-marriage."
"I witnessed the engagement," Venn replied shortly.
"For now, my beloved sister retains ownership of your father's property. Her intended presents a threat to you, should they marry before you have secured the union between you and Rowena's daughter."
"If so, how long must I wait to have what is rightfully mine?"
"It will be until Nentres Peverell passes."
Venn nearly fell off his horse. The man was not young, but with Edeline to worry over him, surely he would have several decades to rule over the land that should come straight to the next male in the Selwyn line. "You would advise me to go and speak with the lady about moving forward with our plans?"
"She has already delayed the ceremony twice due to making changes to her bridal attire. Surely she will come to reason about this matter soon enough, but then who is to say that she will not turn her indecisive eyes upon another superficial component of the wedding day? If you allow her to speed along in her obsession, your subjects may lose confidence in you. They may worry that you and your father are not equals after all."
Venn sighed. Again, painfully, he admitted to himself that his uncle was correct.
"As men, it is our burden to secure power and prestige for ourselves. As a graduate of my house, Venn, the burden is doubly heavy." Salazar looked idly at the servants tending to the wheat growing in the marsh. "Fortunately, maintaining a hold on my position is not the only method I have for retaining my superiority."
His nephew looked away. He could not stand to discuss the beast in the pit even once more. It hurt even more now to consider following his uncle's advice, correct or not, while knowing the source from whence it came. Either Salazar did not notice his discomfort, or more plausibly, he simply chose to ignore it.
"The serpent grows stronger every day," Salazar began, the note of pride in his voice sending a shiver up Venn's spine. "I had considered capturing a few peasant children, given that it seems to be growing tired of a diet of slain birds and forest rodents, but I can hardly resist the thought of letting it flourish naturally and display its strength. Perhaps I will let it loose near the Muggle villages around the school. If the Muggles see the destruction wrought by the Basilisk, they will be too fearful to send their children to Hogwarts." He paused, grinning gleefully as if he had just discovered the extent of his wild idea's possible benefits. "Godric and the others will be able to do nothing."
Venn suddenly felt as if he wanted to empty the contents of his stomach.
"Come, uncle, ride with me along the rest of the path, so that we may return inside and enjoy the midday meal. We still have much to complete before the sun rises too high."
Then, he sped up, unwilling to give Salazar even the option of conversing further.
"I believe it is your turn, my lady."
Helena grinned. "I choose question."
"You always choose question," Isobel complained, leaning slightly forward in the saddle as she rode alongside the noblewoman.
"Isobel, quiet," her older sister Ainsley cautioned from the other side of Helena.
"It is a fair comment," Helena cut in. "Isobel, I will allow you to choose a task for me to complete instead, providing you are also willing to undertake such a challenge."
The two servant girls had been asked to take Rowena's two favorite horses for bathing and brushing by professional grooms in town. Witter seemed to think that if Rowena had some knowledge of all that she was missing outside her bedroom walls, it might spur her to awaken and heal faster. Helena, never one to miss a chance to ride into town, had taken the opportunity to ride along with the sisters and have Eostre groomed properly as well. To pass the time, Helena proposed they play her favorite game, "Question or Task."
"We race to the top of the hill, and if you lose, I may ride Eostre back to the castle."
"What will we do if you lose?"
"I will walk and lead the horse along beside me," Isobel said. "But Lady Helena, you must promise not to cheat. It will have to be a fair race."
"Cheat?" Helena asked, bemused by this comment.
"Isobel!" Ainsley admonished her, but Helena shook her head.
"There is something about you--I do not know what it is--that seems to allow you to ride faster and move more gracefully than I ever could. You must ride normally, my lady."
"I suppose you are asking me to give you the victory before the race begins."
"No, my lady, never. I, too, want a fair race."
Helena chuckled under her breath, bringing her horse to a halt at the bottom of the hill. She looked over at Isobel, and they both smiled at each other. Then they took off.
Eostre was smooth and quick, just as she always was, but Isobel's horse must have sensed her adrenaline and responded accordingly. She climbed the hill swiftly, crossing over in front of Helena and climbing to the top of the hill. Helena resisted the urge to charm Eostre's hooves and instead came to a gentle stop as she reached the top of the hill, only a few feet away from where Isobel sat wearing a triumphant smile.
"I have always wanted to ride your beautiful horse, my lady," she said, petting Eostre.
"It was difficult for even me to hold her back in the race. You must be careful with her when we return to the castle. She has a fierce spirit and may ride too hard for you."
Isobel nodded, and Ainsley joined them as they continued on their ride toward town. As they began to descend the hill, Helena looked over at Ainsley. "Question or task?"
"Question," Ainsley replied, offering the lady a soft smile.
"An excellent choice." Helena thought to herself as they rode in silence for several feet. "Which is the largest town in the province governed by my mother and father?"
Before Ainsley could answer, however, the sound of rough hoof beats filled the air. The girls turned, seeing Venn riding over and down the hill toward them. When he finally came to a stop, his horse gave a snort of protest, and he looked at Helena grimly.
"My lady, please, I beg a word with you."
"You may have it," Helena said shortly, ignoring the urge to touch his face reassuringly. Would it be to remind him that she had affection for him, or to remind her that he carried a living, beating human heart inside despite the awful things he had said to her of late?
"Must the servants be present?"
"Yes, for it is you who have interrupted their work, and mine."
"As you wish." He cleared his throat. "I came to call upon you this afternoon and encountered your father instead. He informed me that you have recently requested further alterations on your dress. Is it your intention to hold the wedding as planned?"
"I do not comprehend your meaning, my lord."
"You have returned your gown for changes no less than three times in the past month. Several of our wedding guests, who arrived in town for the engagement party and intended to stay until the wedding, have been forced to return home and attend to other business due to the delay these adjustments have caused. In a week's time, I am due to be crowned and take my father's position to govern my realm, but my plans cannot proceed until we are united as husband and wife." Venn paused to take a breath. "My lady, I beg of you, put these girlish concerns aside and proceed into the future with me. I assure you that you will carry an unearthly radiance that outshines any wedding dress."
"Perhaps you do not understand, given that men have only a small role in planning an event such as this," Helena replied, feigning gentleness. "I am certain that the gown will meet my specifications after this round of alterations, but what of the other decorations? I will need time to go back over the plans with your mother--more than a week, I fear."
Venn frowned. He could scarcely believe that he had let Helena hold sway over him for even this long. He had found himself willing to give up some independence for the woman he had come to love, but now he regretted it, having seen that her true aim was to take it and adopt it as her own. Her behavior was unacceptable. "If the frail trappings of wedding preparations captivate your attention more easily than the thought of a husband and crown, you are not the woman to whom I believed myself to be betrothed."
"How could I wish to rush my wedding to a man with such a callous way of speaking?" Helena replied sharply. The two servant girls behind her turned their horses toward town, as if they unconsciously meant to escape the uncomfortable scene before them.
"Helena, it is my intention to hold this wedding as scheduled on the day before my coronation. I plan to adhere to my duty; if you do not do the same, the embarrassment will fall only upon your shoulders and those of your family." Venn lowered his voice slightly, meeting her eyes. What was the emotion present there, if anything at all? "I beseech you to consider this plan while you wait for your dress to be returned. For my part, I shall be awaiting you at the end of the aisle, along with all those who will attend." With that, he rode quickly toward his point of origin, disappearing into the bright horizon.
Helena stared after him, feeling faint between the pounding of her heart and the tumult in her stomach. He had been so close, too close. Her entire world seemed to spin. She tried to steady herself, standing very still and gazing at the last place Venn had been.
"My lady?" Ainsley's voice echoed faintly in the back of her head.
Helena held up a hand. "Go on and have my mother's horses groomed. I must return to the castle and settle the matter of my wedding gown." With that she turned, glad to have reserved Eostre's strength before so that she could run against the wind now, thundering down the path at breakneck speed back toward her childhood home.
At the top of the hill, Isobel watched her go, surprise etched into her young face. A gentle whisper from her sister reminded her that dark was approaching, and then she turned, wondering when Helena would fulfill her part of their impromptu agreement. For now, she had duties to consider, with no time to think of a young noblewoman's woes.
All was quiet when Helena returned to her father’s house. Witter was away for several days, having ridden to meet with several other nobles in the surrounding towns, and her mother still lay speechless in her room upstairs. Taking slow breaths to still her racing heartbeat, the young Ravenclaw tucked Eostre into her stall and moved into the castle.
Helena walked softly up the stairs, wishing her footsteps would not send echoes to remind her of how alone she felt inside and out. She entered her tower room and closed the door, turning to her wardrobe. Inside were several glimmering purses she had taken to many balls and ceremonies and the trusted leather bag that she always took into town. She chose the latter, hoping her parents would believe she had simply ridden to the market—at least until the moon rose. Helena pointed her wand at the bag and whispered a charm that would allow it to hold anything she desired to take with her.
First, she carefully rolled up several blank pieces of parchment, a quill, and a half-full glass inkwell. It was only practical to bring these items so that she could communicate with her father or Helga if needed once she was a safe distance away. When she turned back to her wardrobe, she had to think for a moment about how to properly fold her gowns, having had servants to do it her entire life. For a fleeting moment, she considered only packing some of them and trying to wash them in a stream before wearing them again. Thankfully, she had no difficulty fitting all of them inside the bag.
The last thing Helena packed was the dull bronze box sitting atop her bookshelf. She opened it and looked down upon the shining sapphires set into the polished metal. The stones caught the fading afternoon sun as it painted the horizon in shades of gold, as did the glistening surface of Helena’s eyes. She closed the box and strung the small bronze key that accompanied it on a thin silver chain that she hung about her neck. Then, she placed the box gently into the top of her bag and closed it up with her wand. If she found no better purpose for it, perhaps she could sell the crown to sustain herself.
Carrying her wand in one hand and her blue velvet traveling cloak in the other, Helena re-entered the staircase. She paused outside her mother’s door, afraid to even exhale for fear that Rowena would come tearing out of her room in suspicious fury. When she recognized the sound of her mother’s quiet breathing, however, the girl proceeded. A few servants and a house elf were working in the foyer, cleaning up after afternoon tea.
“Mistress, where are you going? Do you desire any assistance?” the elf asked, looking at the traveling bag strung across Helena’s torso.
“No,” Helena replied, putting on her cloak. “I—I am going into town.”
She did not wait for them to answer her but turned and moved out the door. Her feet took her back to the barn, where someone had draped an evening blanket over Eostre. Helena left it, not knowing how chilly the forest would be at night, and put her worn saddle over the blanket. After fastening the bridle and reins, she climbed onto the horse.
“Never fear, my love,” Helena whispered, hearing the horse shuffle her hooves nervously as she realized that they were venturing out at an unusual time of day. “We shall be together, you and I, just as we always have been.” The young woman recalled with fondness the days she had spent riding Eostre freely across the fields, with no concern for a husband and future children, no doubt that she was exactly who she was expected to be. She did not need a castle, not when all of nature could be her home.
This peace sank into her mind like a kind infection, and she prodded Eostre with the heels of her boots, riding off confidently into the uncertain shadows of the nearby wood.
Welcome to another chapter of Diamonds into Coal! As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we only have a little left to go. What do you all predict the next chapter will hold? I’m a little concerned about the pacing and readability of this chapter, in terms of the language maybe being too cumbersome, so I’d love feedback on that as well.
As always, thank you for all of your reads and extraordinarily kind reviews.
Everything that you recognize from canon belongs to JKR. Obviously “Question or Task” is modeled on “Truth or Dare,” which actually had variations in existence almost all the way back to Helena’s time. The true inventor is unknown.
Chapter 17: Rowena's Last Hope
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Witter had never known pain like that which he felt when he came home to find his daughter missing.
It was a difficult and unenviable position to be trapped between his lost daughter and Rowena, whose despair had reached an entirely new level. Witter felt as though he had aged ten years in less than one. As for his wife, every bottomless sob seemed to bring with it a new wave of discomfort, and her condition was deteriorating. She could barely speak above a whisper and her lovely eyes were forever wet and red. Unable to move, she simply laid in her chambers like a corpse and refused to eat.
Much of Rowena’s dwindling strength had been used to speculate about Helena’s unexpected departure. This morning marked the second day that she had been gone. At first, Witter feared that she had been kidnapped, perhaps offered to a foreign prince, but then the servants had turned up her empty wardrobe and missing traveling bag. It was clear that she had not simply ventured into town as she had falsely claimed. Witter’s next step was to contact the Selwyns to ensure that Helena and her husband-to-be had not escaped into the night and wed in secret. He had received a reply from Venn quickly; the groom stated that he also had not spoken with Helena since her last known appearance at Ravenclaw Castle and that he had no ideas as to where the lady may have disappeared. Witter thought to ask the young man to come to the castle and help him and the servants search the village, but Rowena intervened before he could do so, frantically begging Venn to meet with her directly.
The Ravenclaw patriarch rose from the bare table, seeing Venn’s horse approaching outside the castle windows. He stopped short in the courtyard, dismounting quickly and leaving his stallion for the servants to tend. Unlike the other times Witter had seen him, the twenty-five-year-old was dressed in a simple white tunic and black trousers. A dark gray traveling cloak adorned his shoulders, fastened by a snake pendant made of brushed steel and painted a forest green shade. Despite the hint of color riding in the fields had given him, his skin was pallid and his eyes were dull.
As soon as he entered the house, his gaze connected with Witter’s. “Is there word?”
“No, no one has yet heard from my beloved Helena,” Witter replied sadly.
“Where is the fair Rowena?” Venn tried, swallowing.
“She rests upstairs in her chambers.”
The young man moved up the stone staircase. He could hear Rowena faintly calling his name, as if she perceived that it was his horse that had just arrived at her castle. He followed the raspy sound of her voice until he found her room, the door slightly ajar.
“My lady, you have summoned me,” Venn said, standing at the foot of her bed.
“Come closer, please,” Rowena said. “Our conversation is important, and you may not hear my words from that distance. I do not know if I will be able to repeat them.”
Venn reluctantly stepped over to the side of the bed where she could face him. To his surprise, she reached out with a shaky hand and gripped his fingers lightly. Her once-steely gray eyes were watery and faded, barely able to hold his gaze steadily.
“I know not what transpired between you and Helena on the day that she disappeared. I am not even certain that you had anything to do with her sudden departure, but—forgive me—the timing of the wedding leads me to believe…” She paused for a shallow cough and Venn nodded, as if to say that she needn’t continue.
“What can I do to assist with the search, my lady?”
“It is no secret that my days on this earth are numbered, for the Healers have tried countless methods for ending this grave illness and all have fallen short of a cure. I only desire to see my sweet daughter once again before I perish. It no longer matters if she is wed or unwed as long as she can stand in my presence and I may behold her soft skin and kind eyes one last time. I ask, then, that you bring her to me. Tell her of my condition and beg her to return. Beg her to forgive me for my anger.”
“I fear she will not listen to my counsel. She will perhaps accuse me of lying to her.”
“I trust that you care for her enough to keep pressing until she does as you ask.” A tear slipped down Rowena’s cheek. “Perhaps we can still settle our affairs as planned. A happy occasion approaches in a mere four days’ time, if you can bring your bride back without any harm coming to her. I am depending on your success in this.”
Venn nodded. Helena was nothing if not stubborn; she would surely never return without a fight, and perhaps not even then. But if Rowena, who had long doubted their union, could look to the possibility of a pleasant future, he wanted to do so, too. If he could indeed bring Helena back to see her mother and reconcile their bond, perhaps he could cause her to see reason. The wedding and his coronation would go on as planned, and all of the unpleasant exchanges of the past would be forgotten. “I will ride as hard as my horse can stand,” he vowed solemnly. “I will not rest until I have recovered your beautiful daughter, who will surely then become my wife.”
Venn went downstairs, pausing only to pass on his promise to Helena’s father before moving out the door and summoning the servants for his horse. He would ride back to his home and fetch his dog to help track Helena’s scent, and then he would seek out hoof prints, following the trail as far and wide as was required of him.
He glanced down the path toward the clearing where he and his beloved had once shared an afternoon lunch. That glade, if anywhere, was a reasonable place to start.
After riding for nearly a week, Helena finally stopped to give Eostre a rest.
She dismounted near a small stream, taking off her traveling cloak and the horse’s saddle and sitting down on a large, flat rock next to the water. As she moved to get a drink, however, Helena caught sight of her reflection in the stream. She was shocked at what she saw there. Her dark, wavy locks had reacted unfavorably to the heat and her porcelain skin was dirty with soil and sweat. Her dress was badly in need of a wash, and the hem had gotten torn after becoming caught on a large fallen branch. She no longer looked worthy of wearing her mother’s beautiful and famed diadem, much less pairing it with a wedding gown and marching obediently down the aisle.
“Eostre, I was foolish not to pack any food,” she groaned softly, glancing around. “Perhaps I may forage some berries from this wood or capture a fish in the stream.” Even if she could, though, she would have no idea how to tell the poisonous berries from the safe ones or how to properly clean and cook the fish in order to eat it. She had not brought any weapons; she had not even thought to bring a book to momentarily distract herself from her hunger. Thus far in her journey, she had been fortunate enough to pass small towns in which she could beg for a bite to eat or wash and sweep up a tavern after hours in exchange for a small, hot meal and drink. She was too hungry then to worry about being recognized and was far from home. The last day of her journey had been nothing but long, shadowy stretches of forest, however, and she worried that perhaps her luck had finally started to run out.
Helena washed her hands in the stream and decided to rest for a few moments.
Judging by the number of sunrises and sunsets she had witnessed while riding, she had been traveling for six days. That meant that her wedding day was tomorrow. She should be enjoying a final meal at home with her family, working with her mother to orchestrate last minute hemming of her dress, and saying goodbye to the booksellers in the Muggle village below the castle.
And her husband to be—had he been crowned even in her absence? Helena had been thinking of him more than she wished to admit over her past few days of solitude. She had wondered several times if he would be different after his coronation, after all the pressure related to his father’s position had been resolved. Perhaps he would return to the romantic man who comforted her in the orchard. Every time these thoughts emerged, Helena found herself pushing Eostre a bit harder, as if she were trying to outrun the doubts before they festered in her brain.
Thankfully, being a Ravenclaw, Helena had a few logical thoughts that sparred with those concerning her love for Venn. They returned to her now in the quiet of the forest glen. I would be forced to sacrifice true happiness to become his wife, she remembered. Even if she brought her entire library to his home, eventually she would read all her books, and then what would be left for her to learn? When would she find time for adventures with a household to manage and children to raise?
Although she missed Venn, the truth was that she would miss herself even more.
Helena stood up, deciding that this was as good a place as any to settle for the night. The sun was beginning to set and her stomach was growling. She used a nearby branch to help her get back up on her feet and took the blanket from under Eostre’s saddle. She would lay it on the ground and sleep there in the warm summer air. Before that, she would wash her dresses in the river and hang them from branches nearby, where they would shield her kirtle-clad body while they dried overnight.
Suddenly, she heard a rustling noise nearby.
Keeping her footsteps as quiet as possible, Helena withdrew her wand from the bag strapped to Eostre. She had not seen another person for several miles, but the sound could be a rabbit, which she could attempt to kill and cook for dinner. It would keep her full for days. Alternatively, it could be a wolf, in which case the wand would be helpful in defending herself. Taking a deep breath, Helena gathered her skirts and approached the bushes from where the noise had come. She searched the surrounding leaves vigilantly in the growing dark, looking for any sign of movement.
Wondering what she would do after tomorrow, Helena stepped into the foliage.
I know this chapter was a little on the short side, but there is one more coming, so please stay tuned. I’m so, so excited to finish this story!
One historical note here—a “kirtle” is a garment that was worn by both men and women at one time before it became a garment popular only among women. It is a relatively plain-looking dress that was worn over a smock and underneath a formal gown. It was used to ensure modesty in women’s dress. Here, obviously, Helena is treating it like a slip or improvised nightgown.
Until next time, keep hanging on tight to that cliff :)
Chapter 18: Desire
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…However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth.
Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen,
or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible…
Venn clearly remembered the evening he woke up as a dead man.
He was on his back in his uncle’s office when his eyes opened. He could not see quite as clearly as he had in life; it was as if his vision were permanently clouded by tears no matter how many times he blinked or rubbed his eyes. His muscles were stiff and it hurt to use them for more than the slightest of movements. When he finally looked down at himself, he was startled to see a crimson stain on his chest seeping through layers of fabric.
“I wrapped you in your cloak,” Salazar said from his desk. “But you bled still.” He stood up, walking over to Venn and offering him a hand. Venn took it, slowly sitting up with great pain. As he did so, the cloak fell off, revealing a wound in his abdomen.
The next beat of his heart sent a chill coursing through his veins, a poison that reached out to his extremities and pooled there to torture him. With every pointless breath he grew colder, but no weakness welcomed him to death’s door this time.
He blinked, leaning on the table for support, and then it all came back to him.
He was delirious, having ridden for days without stopping long enough for a substantial meal or sufficient rest. He rode on when his servants paused, and as such, when he finally found her he was a day and a half ahead of them. All the while he found himself obsessed with the sounds of the forest; every rustle and groan could be a predator waiting to lunge at him. Venn had never been so far from home.
In a moment when he was half-asleep, a rustle turned out to be Helena’s wand.
She demanded like a child to know why he had come after her, although she should have already known. He made the mistake of pointing out that she clearly had not thought out the full outcome of her plan and insisted that she abandon her nonsense and come back to attend the wedding, which was still scheduled for the next morning. When her expression betrayed no vulnerability, he coldly remarked that her mother would likely not live long enough to be present for another wedding.
His mention of Rowena was the last straw. With tears shimmering in her eyes, Helena swore never to see him or speak of him again. She turned back, stating that she intended to return to her mother’s side at once, and disappeared into the forest.
As her footsteps faded, Venn felt his heart being taken over by grief. Suddenly, a new sound replaced the quietly crunching leaves, the kind of noise produced by something large moving through the forest. An elk, perhaps, or a wild boar, his brain was saying, but the dread infiltrating his bloodstream screamed basilisk, basilisk! with every frantic beat of his heart. Automatically, Venn drew his sword, looking around for the source of the foreboding sound. Then, another thought entered his mind—Helena, despite her stubbornness, was still a lady. An unprotected one.
The next few moments were a blur induced by adrenaline. Venn remembered charging through the forest, a scream, a flash of gray silk and blood on leaves. He recalled finally being close enough to touch her skin again and finding it lifeless. Her kirtle, stained with fresh blood, bore a remarkable resemblance to her funeral gown.
Unlike her, however, he was never washed clean, another torment of the afterlife. When his men finally caught up to him and discovered what had happened, they put his cold body in chains to transport him back, just in case he awoke and killed them. He would be forced to walk in bloodstained robes and heavy iron for all of his days.
They should have known that it was a mistake. They had found him slumped over her, still cradling her head in his lap even after he had chosen to take his own life.
He looked up to see his uncle studying him.
“Do you love her still, after all the pain she has caused you?”
“Yes,” he said, sighing softly. “And now I must pay for my weakness. I have no choice but to return to my home, forced to exist alongside my mother, in whose eyes I will surely only be a disappointment. I will have no wife, no land, and no title.”
“The story of how you murdered the lady Helena will live on, and thus I am sad to report that the prospect of your name being forgotten is unlikely,” Salazar said. Venn could see what looked like genuine emotion on his face. “If it is any solace, I have seen the lady walking these very halls. I hear she weeps endlessly for her mother and desires to make amends by existing eternally within Rowena’s school. Perhaps I could offer you a place here with me, so that you may be in her presence.”
Venn met his eyes. “Would you be willing to grant me this kindness, uncle?”
“In return, I ask that you never mention the existence of my exotic pet.”
His nephew’s face fell. “Surely it, and you, will be found out. And what of the possibility that one day it escapes and slaughters innocent pureblooded students?
“I intend for my basilisk to be free one day,” Salazar explained calmly. “Eventually the right student will attend Hogwarts, and I will identify him as my heir. He will complete the task I began and I will be left alone to conduct my affairs in peace.” He sat down at his desk, and Venn looked down in resignation at his uncle’s last words.
“I hope you will still be here to see my legacy unfold.”
The man, centuries older than he looked, turned at the sound of his name. He had not heard it in many, many years, particularly not from the lovely mouth of the nearly transparent woman who now shook him from his reverie. She seemed to deliberately avoid him as she trod endlessly around the castle, slipping behind columns to miss him and ignoring his saddened gaze at feasts. It was shocking now to think that she had stopped here upon seeing him before the torturous mirror.
“My lady,” he said in a shaky tone, automatically kneeling before her.
“I cannot comprehend your fixation with this cursed object,” she said, tearing her eyes away from his and approaching the mirror. She traced it idly with several fingertips. Venn could not help but wonder what she would see if she looked in it.
“I have endless time, as you do, and little activity with which to fill it.”
“You think me foolish in my old age?” she replied. “I know of this mirror. It only shows you fantasies, dreams, things that could never come to pass despite your yearning. Am I right to suspect that you see our wedding day in this glass?”
“It is the deepest desire of my heart even to this day.”
“But you turned your back on that dream when you murdered me in the forest.”
“Please, I beg you, choose another word,” Venn pleaded. “I never meant to destroy your life, to take away the only woman with whom I could see my life unfolding. What passed between us was a terrible accident, one which I regret for all my days.”
His eyes fell to his eternal chains, as did hers momentarily. As she looked upon him, she fleetingly remembered the man for whom she had briefly turned back in that cursed forest, an action that had effectively ended her life. She should have pushed on to her father’s castle just as she swore to her groom. Sighing, she shook her head.
“Your lies in this moment cannot erase your cold words regarding my mother, with whom I will never be reconciled as a result of your final, selfish act of jealous rage.”
“Rage?” He looked petrified. “My fair Helena, my perfect bride to be, I made a number of errors in my time as a mortal man, but never could I desire to harm you.”
“Bride to be? You are deluded even now.” Helena turned to leave the room.
“My lady, please, if you no longer desire a marriage with me, even a cruel imitation of friendship in death—at least forgive me my final error. You must know that my every step in this life is torture knowing that you hate me still for my mistake.”
Helena turned and looked at him, and he saw no shade of the girl whom he had loved, only a younger impression of her mother. “When you stole my life, you showed me no mercy, no opportunity for vengeance. I take it now, and forever.” With that, she disappeared, leaving him still on his knees in the center of the room.
He stayed still for a while, soaking up the silence, unwilling to turn back to the mirror. Even its strong, illusory magic could not counteract the power of her departure. He only wished he were as ignorant and deluded as she thought.
Slowly he stood, his chains making no sound. As he had in life, he would persist in death; given his sentence, he could not leave the castle, and would not if he could. Perhaps one day, her heart would soften and she would see him for who he truly was. They could traverse these grounds together with nothing left to hinder them. Perhaps it was possible that she could change, just as he had changed after death.
Venn turned and looked at the mirror one more time.
Enough for this day, he thought. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall dream of her again.
Ugh, my feelings. I made the mistake of getting attached. Readers, I need a hug.
This has been a crazy, crazy journey and I’m so grateful to all of you for taking it along with me. When I first came up with the idea for this story, I desperately wanted to write it but was convinced that no one else would take an interest in it. I’m so proud of how it turned out and I hope you enjoyed it. I really found a new interest in the Founders era by writing this, which was surprising. It just goes to show you how much un-mined territory there is left.
The quote that introduced this chapter was spoken by Albus Dumbledore and was taken from pg. 213 of the U.S. paperback version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (published in 1999). Obviously it belongs to J. K. Rowling.
I’d love to hear any final thoughts you have on this chapter and Diamonds into Coal. Again, thank you endlessly for your many wonderful reads and reviews.