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Chapter 13 : The Paths We Choose
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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.
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