She waited until she could see his broad shoulders rise above the crest of the hill before she crossed the grounds to meet him. Her owl had returned to earlier that day with the promise of his visit and she had been on edge all day. Sir Godric was her only escape from the fate she would surely face after the sun set that evening; the Baron was returning to ask her once again for her hand. She dreaded to think what would happen if she did not accept his offer yet again.
Helena curtseyed briefly out of habit when she finally reached him, not allowing him to utter a word before she ushered him towards the North Wing once again. The soft scent of summer roses drifted cloyingly towards them as she forced Sir Godric to increase his pace; they did not have long, for the afternoon was already upon them. They had much to discuss.
They ducked into the shadow of the manor, Helena peeking through the window by the servants’ door to check that nobody would find them. She held her breath as they crept inside and deep into the building. The servants must still have been clearing up the dishes from their meal at noon, for they did not come across a single soul as she led her handsome companion through concealed passageways she had discovered as a young girl. They trod lightly on stone floors, concealing rushed footsteps.
Stopping by a door Helena knew to be concealed behind a tapestry in the gallery, her breath came in short bursts. She tried not to think what must be racing through her companion’s mind; she was behaving most peculiarly for a lady and she wished that she did not have to conceal themselves in such a manner. She really only had herself to blame for this unfortunate situation; she would have to deal with it accordingly. Leaning her ear against the small door, she hoped she had managed to conceal her growing blush in the gloomy light.
All she could hear was the deep thudding of her heart as her pulse raced. Blonde curls had worked their way out of her blue ribbon and tucked it hastily behind her ear as she pressed herself against the door. There was still no sound, so she had no choice but to slowly edge the door open and hope that there was nobody outside.
Luckily, the gallery was deserted, allowing them to sneak unnoticed up the West Tower and into her father’s study. She pulled the drapes across the dusty windows, the afternoon sunlight obscured. Then, she hastily crossed the room to draw the bolt across the heavy door. Her mother must not disturb her today.
“I left as soon as I received your letter, my lady.” Sir Godric finally spoke as he observed her nervous behaviour.
He sat down with his back straight against a tired armchair, the frail seat creaking under his weight. She felt his gaze upon her as she lit a candle and pulled a chair up beside him. Her forehead was a little damp from the tension building up inside her.
“I appreciate it, sir,” Helena said once her breathing had returned to normal. “I apologise for all this secrecy,” she murmured, lowering her voice. “Things are not as simple as they once were. We should not be interrupted here.”
“I sense there is something you’re not telling me,” Godric said in an equally hushed tone. “Why have you invited me here? Is this regarding my offer? Have you come to a decision?”
Helena grimaced, tucking another wayward strand of her hair behind her ear. “That is exactly the problem, sir. I have made a decision, but I fear my time to enforce it is limited.”
Sir Godric frowned. “I am not quite sure I understand your meaning, my lady,” he said gruffly.
Her next words were crucial; a slip of the tongue could reduce her plan to dust. She needed to coax him onto her side without revealing her disguise.
“There is a very powerful man who wishes to marry me,” she murmured, her eyes finding his and measuring his reaction. He did not look away. “But I refuse to marry him. Do you understand? He will never allow me to leave without considerable effect on my reputation.”
Her companion looked thoughtful, a strong hand massaging his temple. The movement was mesmerising and she felt drawn to each flex of his fingers. Clearing her throat and looking away to hide the blush that was creeping up her neck, she awkwardly covered up her staring.
“I am a respectable gentleman,” he began pensively. “I am a knight. Surely if I spoke with this man we could come to some agreement?”
Helena smiled ruefully. “I’m not too sure my mother would approve of our acquaintance. She is insisting I learn to behave like a proper lady. She might think something untoward is behind your kind intervention.”
“I will assure her that my intentions are purely honourable.”
Helena’s cheeks tingled as the blush slowly spread. She did not want Sir Godric’s intentions to be honourable; the secrecy and the deception had been the most thrilling experience she could ever recall. Her whole life had been dedicated to following the path of honour and no longer could she stand it. If she was going to deceive her mother she would have to do it properly.
“Forgive me, sir, but I know my mother and I know that she will not make it easy for us,” Helena said eventually, facing him once more. She did not lose eye contact even though she knew that one wrong word would tear down the façade. “No gentleman would ever consider marrying an educated lady, especially not one who is often in the company of other men; my reputation would be ruined. My mother cannot know of this.”
“What do you propose we do?” Sir Godric inquired curiously as she stood and wandered over to her father’s parchment-littered desk.
She could feel his eyes burning into the nape of her neck, where wisps of fair hair were falling from her neat bun. Her cheeks were heated, her eyes alight with passion and an idea she hardly dared voice. Her fingers flitted between the old documents in front of her, trying to banish the image of her father in her head. He would certainly not approve of what she was about to do, but had he not passed away she would not even need to consider such a brash course of action. He was not there to dissuade her.
“I shall leave,” Helena announced eventually, her hands sifting through the old pieces of parchment.
“Leave?” Sir Godric repeated warily. She heard the floorboards creak as he stood up. “What about your mother?”
Helena smiled wryly, having found the piece of parchment she had been looking for. She traced the drawing with her index finger, wondering how long it had been buried in the mess.
“My mother will cope, I am certain,” she said dryly, folding the parchment and tucking it into her sleeve. “Will you help me?”
She turned to face Sir Godric, finding herself far closer to him than she had anticipated. She could reach out and cup his face if she dared, she could brush a wayward strand of hair from his forehead and she could touch his lips with hers. Helena swallowed, enchanted by his gaze. She momentarily forgot her plan and the lies. If he took her with him she could be free from the clutches of her controlling mother; she could achieve things her mother could not. Hidden up the sleeve of her dress was her route to success. One day her mother would fear Helena’s talent which far outstripped her own.
Sir Godric’s breath was uneven, as though her mere presence unsettled him. She found herself searching for hope within his eyes so that she could dare believe she had succeeded. She was so close; she could not bear it if she failed now.
“I do not approve of this betrayal,” Sir Godric began slowly. “You may regret hurting your mother in this way.” Helena could feel the bitter taste of failure on her lips and she held her breath to try and regain her composure. “However, I can see that you have considered your options. Your talent is too extraordinary to waste; if this is what prevents you from joining me then I shall have to concede to helping you.”
Helena smiled in what she hoped was a coy manner and curtseyed. “Thank you, sir. I cannot express what your generosity means to me. I will be forever in your debt.”
Sir Godric nodded stiffly and an awkward moment passed between them. Helena’s heart was beating so hard she feared it would tear open her chest. She was going to elope with a knight. She was going to defy her mother and make her own way in her life. Thoughts of the Baron could be banished.
“I should leave,” Sir Godric said eventually, stepping back from Helena and interrupting the silence. “But I shall return tomorrow night.”
“I will wait in the rose garden,” Helena said, approaching the door. She unlocked it and cracked the door open. She and Sir Godric held their breath whilst she listened for anyone nearby. After deciding that it was safe for them to leave, she turned to him. “Follow me.”
They retraced their steps as quietly as they could, Helena very aware from the sounds of the monks singing their evening chants that time was running out. The sun would soon be setting and the Baron’s arrival was imminent. She had to get Sir Godric out of the manor before he arrived, for fear that the Baron would discover her deception and reveal it to her mother. She would not be in his favour after their last meeting and she could not afford to reveal a weakness. She could not risk her mother knowing what she had done.
A new set of footsteps echoed through the dimly-lit corridor and Helena bit back a gasp. She stopped in her tracks, causing Sir Godric to collide with her. The footsteps were drawing closer and she was frantically searching the dark corridor for a hiding place. Sir Godric took her hand and dragged her into an alcove behind a bust of one of Helena’s ancestors. She could barely breathe for nerves; she was pressed so close to him that she could feel his heartbeat against her shoulders as it beat erratically.
The footsteps of what Helena presumed to be a servant faded as they remained unnoticed. They did not move for a few minutes, finding their breath and steadying their pulses. Their close proximity did nothing to lessen the heat in her cheeks. Eventually, she afforded herself a sigh of relief and stepped out from behind the statue. Her hand was still tightly clasped in Sir Godric’s and she made no move to release herself.
They crept onwards more cautiously this time, fingers entwined. She could hardly believe that the servant had not heard her harsh breathing or the thudding of her heart inside her chest, for they sounded unnaturally loud to her ear. She felt as though if Sir Godric had not been holding onto her she might have stumbled from the sheer fear that was building inside of her.
Helena froze, feeling Sir Godric’s grip on her hand tighten significantly.
The voice was coming from behind them. It was a man’s voice, Helena was certain of it. She turned on her heels. There was a small stream of light spilling around the corner, slowly inching towards them as the source of the voice drew closer.
Slowly, Helena realised there was nowhere for them to go; their previous hiding place was too far from where they were and she knew that there was nothing similar nearby. If they ran, they would surely only attract more attention; they would not make it out unnoticed.
“What now?” Helena whispered in a panicky voice.
Before Sir Godric had time to respond, they were blinded by a bright light. Helena flinched, turning her head away from the light.
“My lady?” If there was one voice Helena dearly hoped never to hear again it was that one. The Baron stepped closer, lowering his light. Startled, she tugged her hand free of Sir Godric’s grasp but it was too late; they had been seen. Her heart was racing at an impossibly fast rate. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I…,” Helena began and then faltered. If her pulse would stop pounding in her ears, she could think of an alibi. “I was showing my companion the manor.”
“I see,” the Baron said slowly.
Through the dark, Helena observed the man in front of her. Shadows were cast eerily over his face from his lantern, giving him a hollow face and skeletal cheekbones. His eyes were submerged in darkness. Fear fluttered in her breast and she wished dearly she had not let go of Sir Godric. She was feeling faint.
“What are you doing up here?” Helena managed eventually, her throat dry.
“Your mother sent me to search for you,” he stated. He hesitated, frowning so that the shadows that plagued his face disfigured his features even further. “Lady Helena, may I have a word?” He glanced at Sir Godric. “In private?”
Helena’s breath caught in her throat as Sir Godric turned to face her. She could feel the pressure mounting in her temples and she did not dare face him. It was the first time he had heard her true name.
“Lady Helena?” He repeated with disbelief. Helena closed her eyes in shame, hoping that she could shut out the chaos she had created. “I do not understand.”
She swallowed audibly and she was sure she heard it echo in the silence of the corridor. “Please forgive me.” It was all she could manage.
“Do you mean to tell me that what you lied to me?” Sir Godric accused indignantly.
The Baron smiled smugly. “Although this intercourse is riveting,” he began smarmily, “I must interrupt you both. My lady, I require a word.”
She could not bring herself to look at Sir Godric as she stepped aside with the Baron. Her face had never been redder and she kept her eyes trained to the floor.
“I have returned to once again ask for your hand, my lady,” the Baron started evenly. “However, I fear that you have been unfaithful to me.”
Beneath the shame, Helena felt anger bubble inside her. “My lord,” she said curtly, finally looking into his disfigured features. She stared into the dark pits of his eyes and clenched her teeth. “I have told you once before and I will say it one last time. I refuse to become your wife. I never pledged my faithfulness to you and so your expectations are unjust. I suggest you leave before I resort to more forceful measures of ridding you.”
Her voice was raised and full of hatred. She loathed herself for creating a web of deceit; she loathed her mother for forcing her to do so; she hated the Baron for tearing it all down. She knew it was over. Sir Godric would leave, as would the Baron and she would be forever trapped in her mother’s home, slowly becoming the woman she would never be, a lie.
Before the Baron could respond to Helena’s words, Sir Godric had stepped between them. “I suggest you leave, my lord,” he said gruffly, his tone cold.
The Baron snarled in anger. “Who do you think you are to give me orders? You have no business here.” He took a step towards Sir Godric, brandishing the lantern in his face. “Why protect her?” he hissed. “She did not even tell you who she was. You are defending a lie.”
“Never threaten a lady,” Sir Godric said quietly. “No matter what name she goes by.”
The Baron’s bark of laughter echoed down the corridor and Helena shivered. He took three steps backwards, his facing twisting in the strange lighting as he looked between the two of them. “You are welcome to such a lady,” he growled. He turned to walk away, looking back over his shoulder briefly to whisper harshly, “this is far from over, my lady. You made a grave mistake in making a fool of me.”
The light disappeared as he rounded the corner, plunging them into darkness. Helena shuddered.
“Why did you lie to me?” Sir Godric asked after a long silence.
Helena considered her answer carefully. Why had she really chosen to lie? She had needed a way out, which he offered her. Perhaps it had been because he was easily the most handsome gentleman she had ever met. Or was it because she was so keen on sabotaging her mother’s endeavours; had jealousy really twisted her mind that much?
“You were looking for my mother,” she mumbled eventually. “I wanted you for myself.”
They lapsed into silence again. “I will not speak of this again, my lady,” he said. “Your mother does not need to find out.”
Helena gasped, taking his hand in her own. “Thank you, sir.”
He removed his hand from her clutches, but she could have sworn she felt him squeeze her hand first. “But that is on the condition that we do not see each other again.”
At first, she could not quite believe she was hearing him correctly; after all they had experienced, it was inconceivable that he would not be in her life. However, she knew that this was a small price to pay for the consequences of her actions. She had brought this on herself. Sighing, she conceded. “I understand. I am truly sorry.”
She could make out the outline of his features through the dark; they were so close that she could hear his every breath. Briefly, he brushed his hand against her cheek as placed a chaste kiss on her lips. Helena’s heart thudded sadly inside of her and she knew he would feel it. She could feel his own heartbeat against hers.
Her cheek was cool were his hand had been. She felt him draw away from her. As his footsteps sounded on the floorboards, she called softly to him. “My heart never lied.”
She heard him pause and she hoped briefly that he would turn back. A moment later, the footsteps continued and then he was gone.
Helena stood alone in the dark, enveloped in silence. After a few minutes, she remembered the parchment tucked up her sleeve and tugged it free. Although she could not see the detail, she knew the drawing of her mother’s diadem by heart. All that remained was to retrieve it from where it was kept safe in her mother’s chambers.
Thoughts of gentlemen were banished from her mind as she set off with renewed determination. Her plans were in tatters at her feet but that did not prevent her from carrying out one last act of betrayal.
Her mother’s chambers were empty, as she had known they would be. The curtains were drawn, the dying sunlight obscured. Helena found the cabinet behind her mother’s favourite tapestry; it was all too easy. Her mother had shown her from a very young age where their most valued possessions were kept. It was one indulged family secret too many.
The diadem, a powerful magical object that her mother told her would bring knowledge and wisdom to the possessor, was kept in the bottom drawer. She could imagine it, sat snugly in its velvet casings, polished to perfection. Soon it would be free to be used for her own gain; she would make sure she was known for her own prowess and her intelligence. Her mother would not be able to supress someone so influential. Freedom would be hers.
Placing her hands on the handle, she pulled forcefully. The drawer did not give way. Frowning, she tried twisting the handle and pulling; that did not work either. Smiling ruefully, she realised she would have to use the gift she had always despised. Focusing on the small handle, she concentrated all her energies on opening it. She felt the wood go warm under her grasp and a few sparks flew from her fingertips. She tugged hard, falling sharply backwards as the drawer came free.
Peering into the drawer, she saw it; a small black box. She took it in her palm and undid the clasp. Just as she had imagined, a tiny silver tiara lay nestled in folds of blue velvet. Helena carefully lifted it from its box and held it in her hands, inspecting it. Glancing over her shoulder, she lifted it carefully above her, guiding it onto the bed of fair hair.
Without the diadem, her mother was nothing. Helena possessed magic and intelligence beyond what her mother could conjure. It was hers and hers alone. Wit had set her free; knowledge would let her soar.