Chapter 17 : Rowena's Last Hope
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It was a difficult and unenviable position to be trapped between his lost daughter and Rowena, whose despair had reached an entirely new level. Witter felt as though he had aged ten years in less than one. As for his wife, every bottomless sob seemed to bring with it a new wave of discomfort, and her condition was deteriorating. She could barely speak above a whisper and her lovely eyes were forever wet and red. Unable to move, she simply laid in her chambers like a corpse and refused to eat.
Much of Rowena’s dwindling strength had been used to speculate about Helena’s unexpected departure. This morning marked the second day that she had been gone. At first, Witter feared that she had been kidnapped, perhaps offered to a foreign prince, but then the servants had turned up her empty wardrobe and missing traveling bag. It was clear that she had not simply ventured into town as she had falsely claimed. Witter’s next step was to contact the Selwyns to ensure that Helena and her husband-to-be had not escaped into the night and wed in secret. He had received a reply from Venn quickly; the groom stated that he also had not spoken with Helena since her last known appearance at Ravenclaw Castle and that he had no ideas as to where the lady may have disappeared. Witter thought to ask the young man to come to the castle and help him and the servants search the village, but Rowena intervened before he could do so, frantically begging Venn to meet with her directly.
The Ravenclaw patriarch rose from the bare table, seeing Venn’s horse approaching outside the castle windows. He stopped short in the courtyard, dismounting quickly and leaving his stallion for the servants to tend. Unlike the other times Witter had seen him, the twenty-five-year-old was dressed in a simple white tunic and black trousers. A dark gray traveling cloak adorned his shoulders, fastened by a snake pendant made of brushed steel and painted a forest green shade. Despite the hint of color riding in the fields had given him, his skin was pallid and his eyes were dull.
As soon as he entered the house, his gaze connected with Witter’s. “Is there word?”
“No, no one has yet heard from my beloved Helena,” Witter replied sadly.
“Where is the fair Rowena?” Venn tried, swallowing.
“She rests upstairs in her chambers.”
The young man moved up the stone staircase. He could hear Rowena faintly calling his name, as if she perceived that it was his horse that had just arrived at her castle. He followed the raspy sound of her voice until he found her room, the door slightly ajar.
“My lady, you have summoned me,” Venn said, standing at the foot of her bed.
“Come closer, please,” Rowena said. “Our conversation is important, and you may not hear my words from that distance. I do not know if I will be able to repeat them.”
Venn reluctantly stepped over to the side of the bed where she could face him. To his surprise, she reached out with a shaky hand and gripped his fingers lightly. Her once-steely gray eyes were watery and faded, barely able to hold his gaze steadily.
“I know not what transpired between you and Helena on the day that she disappeared. I am not even certain that you had anything to do with her sudden departure, but—forgive me—the timing of the wedding leads me to believe…” She paused for a shallow cough and Venn nodded, as if to say that she needn’t continue.
“What can I do to assist with the search, my lady?”
“It is no secret that my days on this earth are numbered, for the Healers have tried countless methods for ending this grave illness and all have fallen short of a cure. I only desire to see my sweet daughter once again before I perish. It no longer matters if she is wed or unwed as long as she can stand in my presence and I may behold her soft skin and kind eyes one last time. I ask, then, that you bring her to me. Tell her of my condition and beg her to return. Beg her to forgive me for my anger.”
“I fear she will not listen to my counsel. She will perhaps accuse me of lying to her.”
“I trust that you care for her enough to keep pressing until she does as you ask.” A tear slipped down Rowena’s cheek. “Perhaps we can still settle our affairs as planned. A happy occasion approaches in a mere four days’ time, if you can bring your bride back without any harm coming to her. I am depending on your success in this.”
Venn nodded. Helena was nothing if not stubborn; she would surely never return without a fight, and perhaps not even then. But if Rowena, who had long doubted their union, could look to the possibility of a pleasant future, he wanted to do so, too. If he could indeed bring Helena back to see her mother and reconcile their bond, perhaps he could cause her to see reason. The wedding and his coronation would go on as planned, and all of the unpleasant exchanges of the past would be forgotten. “I will ride as hard as my horse can stand,” he vowed solemnly. “I will not rest until I have recovered your beautiful daughter, who will surely then become my wife.”
Venn went downstairs, pausing only to pass on his promise to Helena’s father before moving out the door and summoning the servants for his horse. He would ride back to his home and fetch his dog to help track Helena’s scent, and then he would seek out hoof prints, following the trail as far and wide as was required of him.
He glanced down the path toward the clearing where he and his beloved had once shared an afternoon lunch. That glade, if anywhere, was a reasonable place to start.
After riding for nearly a week, Helena finally stopped to give Eostre a rest.
She dismounted near a small stream, taking off her traveling cloak and the horse’s saddle and sitting down on a large, flat rock next to the water. As she moved to get a drink, however, Helena caught sight of her reflection in the stream. She was shocked at what she saw there. Her dark, wavy locks had reacted unfavorably to the heat and her porcelain skin was dirty with soil and sweat. Her dress was badly in need of a wash, and the hem had gotten torn after becoming caught on a large fallen branch. She no longer looked worthy of wearing her mother’s beautiful and famed diadem, much less pairing it with a wedding gown and marching obediently down the aisle.
“Eostre, I was foolish not to pack any food,” she groaned softly, glancing around. “Perhaps I may forage some berries from this wood or capture a fish in the stream.” Even if she could, though, she would have no idea how to tell the poisonous berries from the safe ones or how to properly clean and cook the fish in order to eat it. She had not brought any weapons; she had not even thought to bring a book to momentarily distract herself from her hunger. Thus far in her journey, she had been fortunate enough to pass small towns in which she could beg for a bite to eat or wash and sweep up a tavern after hours in exchange for a small, hot meal and drink. She was too hungry then to worry about being recognized and was far from home. The last day of her journey had been nothing but long, shadowy stretches of forest, however, and she worried that perhaps her luck had finally started to run out.
Helena washed her hands in the stream and decided to rest for a few moments.
Judging by the number of sunrises and sunsets she had witnessed while riding, she had been traveling for six days. That meant that her wedding day was tomorrow. She should be enjoying a final meal at home with her family, working with her mother to orchestrate last minute hemming of her dress, and saying goodbye to the booksellers in the Muggle village below the castle.
And her husband to be—had he been crowned even in her absence? Helena had been thinking of him more than she wished to admit over her past few days of solitude. She had wondered several times if he would be different after his coronation, after all the pressure related to his father’s position had been resolved. Perhaps he would return to the romantic man who comforted her in the orchard. Every time these thoughts emerged, Helena found herself pushing Eostre a bit harder, as if she were trying to outrun the doubts before they festered in her brain.
Thankfully, being a Ravenclaw, Helena had a few logical thoughts that sparred with those concerning her love for Venn. They returned to her now in the quiet of the forest glen. I would be forced to sacrifice true happiness to become his wife, she remembered. Even if she brought her entire library to his home, eventually she would read all her books, and then what would be left for her to learn? When would she find time for adventures with a household to manage and children to raise?
Although she missed Venn, the truth was that she would miss herself even more.
Helena stood up, deciding that this was as good a place as any to settle for the night. The sun was beginning to set and her stomach was growling. She used a nearby branch to help her get back up on her feet and took the blanket from under Eostre’s saddle. She would lay it on the ground and sleep there in the warm summer air. Before that, she would wash her dresses in the river and hang them from branches nearby, where they would shield her kirtle-clad body while they dried overnight.
Suddenly, she heard a rustling noise nearby.
Keeping her footsteps as quiet as possible, Helena withdrew her wand from the bag strapped to Eostre. She had not seen another person for several miles, but the sound could be a rabbit, which she could attempt to kill and cook for dinner. It would keep her full for days. Alternatively, it could be a wolf, in which case the wand would be helpful in defending herself. Taking a deep breath, Helena gathered her skirts and approached the bushes from where the noise had come. She searched the surrounding leaves vigilantly in the growing dark, looking for any sign of movement.
Wondering what she would do after tomorrow, Helena stepped into the foliage.
I know this chapter was a little on the short side, but there is one more coming, so please stay tuned. I’m so, so excited to finish this story!
One historical note here—a “kirtle” is a garment that was worn by both men and women at one time before it became a garment popular only among women. It is a relatively plain-looking dress that was worn over a smock and underneath a formal gown. It was used to ensure modesty in women’s dress. Here, obviously, Helena is treating it like a slip or improvised nightgown.
Until next time, keep hanging on tight to that cliff :)
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