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.