Chapter 16 : Fight or Flight
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"You are fortunate that your land is somewhat contained," Salazar said, glancing over at Venn to gauge his reaction. "Were we surveying my estate, it would likely take several hours, which is a chore on especially warm or cold days. For you, it will surely come to be seen as a hobby, a brief jaunt out of the castle and away from your fair lady."
"I wish I could say that my mother had not asked this of you because of your opinion, but sadly, I suppose I must endure it," Venn grumbled.
"You seem so unpleasant. It is shocking to think that you will soon be married."
Venn felt a rush of frustration course through his veins. As if anything about that dreadful occasion could merit my joy at this time.
"I suppose you merely want to avoid being embarrassed by your bride a third time."
Venn looked down at the ground. As much as he wished to dispute it, Salazar was correct. He could not juxtapose Helena's rude behavior at the party, including her breach of his authority, with the kind, beautiful woman he had been getting to know.
"What would you do if you were in my place, uncle?" he asked quietly, trying to ignore the worry rising in his stomach that he may regret asking for more of Salazar's opinions.
"The girl needs to be reminded that she is entering into a new family with new rules and responsibilities," Salazar commented, as if it were simple. "You should proceed with the wedding and make it clear to her from the moment she steps foot in your house that you will not tolerate any further insolence on her part. A true lady will learn her place."
Venn contemplated this for a moment. The plan seemed to make sense to him.
"You must act quickly, nephew, if you wish to retain your position in this house."
The younger man looked at him. "What is your meaning?"
"I trust you have heard the joyous news of your mother's imminent re-marriage."
"I witnessed the engagement," Venn replied shortly.
"For now, my beloved sister retains ownership of your father's property. Her intended presents a threat to you, should they marry before you have secured the union between you and Rowena's daughter."
"If so, how long must I wait to have what is rightfully mine?"
"It will be until Nentres Peverell passes."
Venn nearly fell off his horse. The man was not young, but with Edeline to worry over him, surely he would have several decades to rule over the land that should come straight to the next male in the Selwyn line. "You would advise me to go and speak with the lady about moving forward with our plans?"
"She has already delayed the ceremony twice due to making changes to her bridal attire. Surely she will come to reason about this matter soon enough, but then who is to say that she will not turn her indecisive eyes upon another superficial component of the wedding day? If you allow her to speed along in her obsession, your subjects may lose confidence in you. They may worry that you and your father are not equals after all."
Venn sighed. Again, painfully, he admitted to himself that his uncle was correct.
"As men, it is our burden to secure power and prestige for ourselves. As a graduate of my house, Venn, the burden is doubly heavy." Salazar looked idly at the servants tending to the wheat growing in the marsh. "Fortunately, maintaining a hold on my position is not the only method I have for retaining my superiority."
His nephew looked away. He could not stand to discuss the beast in the pit even once more. It hurt even more now to consider following his uncle's advice, correct or not, while knowing the source from whence it came. Either Salazar did not notice his discomfort, or more plausibly, he simply chose to ignore it.
"The serpent grows stronger every day," Salazar began, the note of pride in his voice sending a shiver up Venn's spine. "I had considered capturing a few peasant children, given that it seems to be growing tired of a diet of slain birds and forest rodents, but I can hardly resist the thought of letting it flourish naturally and display its strength. Perhaps I will let it loose near the Muggle villages around the school. If the Muggles see the destruction wrought by the Basilisk, they will be too fearful to send their children to Hogwarts." He paused, grinning gleefully as if he had just discovered the extent of his wild idea's possible benefits. "Godric and the others will be able to do nothing."
Venn suddenly felt as if he wanted to empty the contents of his stomach.
"Come, uncle, ride with me along the rest of the path, so that we may return inside and enjoy the midday meal. We still have much to complete before the sun rises too high."
Then, he sped up, unwilling to give Salazar even the option of conversing further.
"I believe it is your turn, my lady."
Helena grinned. "I choose question."
"You always choose question," Isobel complained, leaning slightly forward in the saddle as she rode alongside the noblewoman.
"Isobel, quiet," her older sister Ainsley cautioned from the other side of Helena.
"It is a fair comment," Helena cut in. "Isobel, I will allow you to choose a task for me to complete instead, providing you are also willing to undertake such a challenge."
The two servant girls had been asked to take Rowena's two favorite horses for bathing and brushing by professional grooms in town. Witter seemed to think that if Rowena had some knowledge of all that she was missing outside her bedroom walls, it might spur her to awaken and heal faster. Helena, never one to miss a chance to ride into town, had taken the opportunity to ride along with the sisters and have Eostre groomed properly as well. To pass the time, Helena proposed they play her favorite game, "Question or Task."
"We race to the top of the hill, and if you lose, I may ride Eostre back to the castle."
"What will we do if you lose?"
"I will walk and lead the horse along beside me," Isobel said. "But Lady Helena, you must promise not to cheat. It will have to be a fair race."
"Cheat?" Helena asked, bemused by this comment.
"Isobel!" Ainsley admonished her, but Helena shook her head.
"There is something about you--I do not know what it is--that seems to allow you to ride faster and move more gracefully than I ever could. You must ride normally, my lady."
"I suppose you are asking me to give you the victory before the race begins."
"No, my lady, never. I, too, want a fair race."
Helena chuckled under her breath, bringing her horse to a halt at the bottom of the hill. She looked over at Isobel, and they both smiled at each other. Then they took off.
Eostre was smooth and quick, just as she always was, but Isobel's horse must have sensed her adrenaline and responded accordingly. She climbed the hill swiftly, crossing over in front of Helena and climbing to the top of the hill. Helena resisted the urge to charm Eostre's hooves and instead came to a gentle stop as she reached the top of the hill, only a few feet away from where Isobel sat wearing a triumphant smile.
"I have always wanted to ride your beautiful horse, my lady," she said, petting Eostre.
"It was difficult for even me to hold her back in the race. You must be careful with her when we return to the castle. She has a fierce spirit and may ride too hard for you."
Isobel nodded, and Ainsley joined them as they continued on their ride toward town. As they began to descend the hill, Helena looked over at Ainsley. "Question or task?"
"Question," Ainsley replied, offering the lady a soft smile.
"An excellent choice." Helena thought to herself as they rode in silence for several feet. "Which is the largest town in the province governed by my mother and father?"
Before Ainsley could answer, however, the sound of rough hoof beats filled the air. The girls turned, seeing Venn riding over and down the hill toward them. When he finally came to a stop, his horse gave a snort of protest, and he looked at Helena grimly.
"My lady, please, I beg a word with you."
"You may have it," Helena said shortly, ignoring the urge to touch his face reassuringly. Would it be to remind him that she had affection for him, or to remind her that he carried a living, beating human heart inside despite the awful things he had said to her of late?
"Must the servants be present?"
"Yes, for it is you who have interrupted their work, and mine."
"As you wish." He cleared his throat. "I came to call upon you this afternoon and encountered your father instead. He informed me that you have recently requested further alterations on your dress. Is it your intention to hold the wedding as planned?"
"I do not comprehend your meaning, my lord."
"You have returned your gown for changes no less than three times in the past month. Several of our wedding guests, who arrived in town for the engagement party and intended to stay until the wedding, have been forced to return home and attend to other business due to the delay these adjustments have caused. In a week's time, I am due to be crowned and take my father's position to govern my realm, but my plans cannot proceed until we are united as husband and wife." Venn paused to take a breath. "My lady, I beg of you, put these girlish concerns aside and proceed into the future with me. I assure you that you will carry an unearthly radiance that outshines any wedding dress."
"Perhaps you do not understand, given that men have only a small role in planning an event such as this," Helena replied, feigning gentleness. "I am certain that the gown will meet my specifications after this round of alterations, but what of the other decorations? I will need time to go back over the plans with your mother--more than a week, I fear."
Venn frowned. He could scarcely believe that he had let Helena hold sway over him for even this long. He had found himself willing to give up some independence for the woman he had come to love, but now he regretted it, having seen that her true aim was to take it and adopt it as her own. Her behavior was unacceptable. "If the frail trappings of wedding preparations captivate your attention more easily than the thought of a husband and crown, you are not the woman to whom I believed myself to be betrothed."
"How could I wish to rush my wedding to a man with such a callous way of speaking?" Helena replied sharply. The two servant girls behind her turned their horses toward town, as if they unconsciously meant to escape the uncomfortable scene before them.
"Helena, it is my intention to hold this wedding as scheduled on the day before my coronation. I plan to adhere to my duty; if you do not do the same, the embarrassment will fall only upon your shoulders and those of your family." Venn lowered his voice slightly, meeting her eyes. What was the emotion present there, if anything at all? "I beseech you to consider this plan while you wait for your dress to be returned. For my part, I shall be awaiting you at the end of the aisle, along with all those who will attend." With that, he rode quickly toward his point of origin, disappearing into the bright horizon.
Helena stared after him, feeling faint between the pounding of her heart and the tumult in her stomach. He had been so close, too close. Her entire world seemed to spin. She tried to steady herself, standing very still and gazing at the last place Venn had been.
"My lady?" Ainsley's voice echoed faintly in the back of her head.
Helena held up a hand. "Go on and have my mother's horses groomed. I must return to the castle and settle the matter of my wedding gown." With that she turned, glad to have reserved Eostre's strength before so that she could run against the wind now, thundering down the path at breakneck speed back toward her childhood home.
At the top of the hill, Isobel watched her go, surprise etched into her young face. A gentle whisper from her sister reminded her that dark was approaching, and then she turned, wondering when Helena would fulfill her part of their impromptu agreement. For now, she had duties to consider, with no time to think of a young noblewoman's woes.
All was quiet when Helena returned to her father’s house. Witter was away for several days, having ridden to meet with several other nobles in the surrounding towns, and her mother still lay speechless in her room upstairs. Taking slow breaths to still her racing heartbeat, the young Ravenclaw tucked Eostre into her stall and moved into the castle.
Helena walked softly up the stairs, wishing her footsteps would not send echoes to remind her of how alone she felt inside and out. She entered her tower room and closed the door, turning to her wardrobe. Inside were several glimmering purses she had taken to many balls and ceremonies and the trusted leather bag that she always took into town. She chose the latter, hoping her parents would believe she had simply ridden to the market—at least until the moon rose. Helena pointed her wand at the bag and whispered a charm that would allow it to hold anything she desired to take with her.
First, she carefully rolled up several blank pieces of parchment, a quill, and a half-full glass inkwell. It was only practical to bring these items so that she could communicate with her father or Helga if needed once she was a safe distance away. When she turned back to her wardrobe, she had to think for a moment about how to properly fold her gowns, having had servants to do it her entire life. For a fleeting moment, she considered only packing some of them and trying to wash them in a stream before wearing them again. Thankfully, she had no difficulty fitting all of them inside the bag.
The last thing Helena packed was the dull bronze box sitting atop her bookshelf. She opened it and looked down upon the shining sapphires set into the polished metal. The stones caught the fading afternoon sun as it painted the horizon in shades of gold, as did the glistening surface of Helena’s eyes. She closed the box and strung the small bronze key that accompanied it on a thin silver chain that she hung about her neck. Then, she placed the box gently into the top of her bag and closed it up with her wand. If she found no better purpose for it, perhaps she could sell the crown to sustain herself.
Carrying her wand in one hand and her blue velvet traveling cloak in the other, Helena re-entered the staircase. She paused outside her mother’s door, afraid to even exhale for fear that Rowena would come tearing out of her room in suspicious fury. When she recognized the sound of her mother’s quiet breathing, however, the girl proceeded. A few servants and a house elf were working in the foyer, cleaning up after afternoon tea.
“Mistress, where are you going? Do you desire any assistance?” the elf asked, looking at the traveling bag strung across Helena’s torso.
“No,” Helena replied, putting on her cloak. “I—I am going into town.”
She did not wait for them to answer her but turned and moved out the door. Her feet took her back to the barn, where someone had draped an evening blanket over Eostre. Helena left it, not knowing how chilly the forest would be at night, and put her worn saddle over the blanket. After fastening the bridle and reins, she climbed onto the horse.
“Never fear, my love,” Helena whispered, hearing the horse shuffle her hooves nervously as she realized that they were venturing out at an unusual time of day. “We shall be together, you and I, just as we always have been.” The young woman recalled with fondness the days she had spent riding Eostre freely across the fields, with no concern for a husband and future children, no doubt that she was exactly who she was expected to be. She did not need a castle, not when all of nature could be her home.
This peace sank into her mind like a kind infection, and she prodded Eostre with the heels of her boots, riding off confidently into the uncertain shadows of the nearby wood.
Welcome to another chapter of Diamonds into Coal! As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we only have a little left to go. What do you all predict the next chapter will hold? I’m a little concerned about the pacing and readability of this chapter, in terms of the language maybe being too cumbersome, so I’d love feedback on that as well.
As always, thank you for all of your reads and extraordinarily kind reviews.
Everything that you recognize from canon belongs to JKR. Obviously “Question or Task” is modeled on “Truth or Dare,” which actually had variations in existence almost all the way back to Helena’s time. The true inventor is unknown.
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