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Chapter 7 : Midsummer
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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.
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