Chapter 3 : Of Wit and Learning
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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.
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