False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
~ Macbeth


CHAPTER TWO

All is Not Fair in Love and War


A frustrated sigh shattered the peaceful taciturnity in the library of Winthroe Castle. "What a load of old tosh!" growled Godric, closing Isle of the Sultans with a snap. "And Salazar is officially one whole hour late!"

"And that is officially the tenth time you have informed me of that in the space of fifteen minutes!" Helga told him, not looking up from her book.

"Well, I'm sorry, but how much longer do we have to wait for him to show up? I'm tired, and now I'm hungry, too. Didn't I specifically state that he should be here by seven o'clock? Or is the man deaf?"

"How should I know?" Helga angrily demanded of him. She was starting to lose her patience, though she was known as one of the most patient women who ever existed. "I'm not a Seer and I don't float around him all the time - "

"Though Merlin knows you want to," smirked Godric.

"I do not! Why do you always assume such things about me? Just because you might think that something is true, doesn't mean it is. You're not some omnicient deity, you know. Or has that escaped your arrogant little mind?"

"Arrogant!" exclaimed Godric in indignation. "Your Salazar's the one who's arrogant! Listen to the way he boasts about those damned horses of his, not to mention his estate. You'd think he owned half the world!"

Helga snorted. "And have you forgotten how you fawn over that black beauty he rides? Or how you charged around the halls of his manor, praising it like a little boy would do to Excalibur?"

"I did nothing of the sort. And Minuit isn't black; he's midnight blue," sulked Godric.

But Helga smiled serenely and continued with her book. A few minutes later, they heard a soft pattering on the glass windows of the room which swiftly increased to a dull roar.

"It's raining," Godric gloomily observed.

"Nice to know that your observation skills are not confined to determining how late Salazar is," announced Helga.

"Now he'll get wet and I'll finally be able to call him a bedraggled rat. That is, if he doesn't fall off his horse and break his neck."

"Godric!" cried Helga, shocked. "How dare you say that about one of your dearest friends? You know that he'd do almost anything for you! He'd give up his life to save your ungrateful hide!"

Godric, who now looked even more sullen than before, mumbled something incoherent that Helga didn't quite catch, but she was sure that it was not something she especially wanted to hear. Just then, they both heard a door slam somewhere upstairs and feet thumping down the stairs and then suddenly, delighted feminine laughter, a deep male voice, and another door being shut forcefully.

Helga and Godric both looked at each other and rolled their eyes. "He's arrived," they said in unison.

"And he's not my Salazar, Godric. Georgiana would happily stake a claim on him if he only said the word, so I needn't even bother thinking about it. Not that I'd want to, of course," added Helga.

"Of course," mocked Godric, and they strode out of the library, Helga clutching her book close to her body with both hands.

Emerging into the entrance hall of Winthroe Castle, they immediately spied four people, two of which were very wet. Helga easily recognised three of the people; one was Salazar, clothed in black and dripping water from his cloak and hair, still as unbelievably handsome as when he was dry. The other man was Arbuthnot, Godric's ancient and very devoted butler, who was hovering anxiously beside Salazar's shoulder, apparently trying to coax him into taking off his cloak.

One of the women was, of course, Georgiana, laughing and fussing over Salazar as if her life depended on it. And the last woman was standing behind Salazar, looking forlorn and seemingly about to collapse. Her long chestnut hair was plastered to her neck and shoulders, and her slim body was drenched in rain.

Not another brunette beauty!
thought Helga in anguish. Perhaps I should just let her fall down on the marble ... then the world will be one siren less!

But as good mostly triumphs over evil, so did benevolence overpower any malice that resided in Helga's chiefly virtuous soul, and drove her to exclaim, "What kind of host are you, Godric, that you leave a young woman to stand soaking wet, without any attention bestowed on her person?"

The said young woman seemed to have realised that she was the subject of Helga's question because she protested, "Oh, no, no! I am quite all right, just a little wet ..."

"Just a little wet?!" cried Godric, with every appearance of horror. "My dear, you will freeze to death if you do not change into something else! And indeed, Helga, how could I be such a terrible host?"

He briskly strode over to the woman and bowed most gallantly, a roguish twinkle in his eye. The woman tried to curtsy but as she bent her knees, she gasped and crumpled. Godric's arms shot out and caught her before she fell to the floor, holding her as she feebly protested and waved her hands.

"Please! I won't faint, I'm all right ..." she croaked, her eyelids straining to close.

"Indeed you are not, madam!" Godric roared. "Where are the rest of the servants, Arbuthnot?"

And just then, a small army of people rushed into the room from the heavy oaken double door on the other side. Six of them there were in total: a plump grey-haired woman who was the very strict yet very kind housekeeper, Madam Markinsey; three young handmaidens and two equally young manservants. Instantly, all six began fussing over the state of the two arrivals, Madam Markinsey in the lead and sounding remarkably like an irate hen.

"Quiet!" bellowed Godric, temper finally getting the better of him. Immediately, all the clamouring died down and only the sound of the water dripping from the guests could be heard. "Good. Now I can hear myself think," continued Godric, glaring round at his shamefaced servants. "As you all can see, we have two new guests who shall be staying at Winthroe for as long as they both shall please, and will be treated with the utmost respect and care. If word gets to me that one of you is disobeying my orders, you will be out of this castle for good before you can say 'Excalibur'. Is that understood?"

Every servant in the room nodded silently, looking almost bored. Godric dished out the same speech to them whenever guests arrived at Winthroe Castle, and all of them could repeat it backwards word for word, they knew it so well. The late Lord Winthroe, Godric's father, had always given a speech to the servants of the castle who would be tending to the guests and gave them strict warnings, but the consequences of breaching Lord Winthroe's rules were never tested.

All the servants of the castle were fiercely loyal to the family and always had been for generations, as the Winthroes had made it a point to only employ those who had been with the family for at least one generation. And, of course, there were no Muggle servants.

"Madam," Godric addressed the housekeeper. "I ask you to prepare a room for ... er ..."

"Rowena Partholain," supplied Salazar lazily.

"Er ... yes, for Madam Partholain and ask cook to whip up something warm and perhaps something that will prevent illness," finished Godric, and the housekeeper bustled off.

"You three," Godric pointed at the handmaidens, "will help Miss Helga and Miss Georgiana take Madam Partholain - "

"She's young and unmarried, Godric," intervened Salazar nonchalantly. "You can stop calling her 'Madam'."

Godric looked askance at Salazar for a few seconds and lifted his eyebrows inquisitively, but the other man was not paying him the slightest attention as he almost lazily eased his gloves off his hands. Georgiana was glaring with barely disguised suspicion at the unmoving figure of the woman still in Godric's arms, as though she might suddenly jump up and attack them all. Helga herself stared pointedly at Salazar, hoping to catch his eye but with no luck.

"Right," said Godric. "Anyway, you five girls will take Miss Partholain upstairs and find her some clothes. And you boys," (he nodded at the manservants), "will look after our dear all-knowing Lord D'Ornoir."

"Thank you Godric, but I don't need anyone to look after me," said Salazar. "I shall find a room in the west wing, as I always do. Expect me at dinner in twenty minutes."

And with that, he stalked off across the marble floor without even removing his cloak, which was still dripping rainwater. But Helga wouldn't let him go without a couple of questions; her curiosity was burning her up inside very badly. So before Salazar had even put a foot on the first step of the grand marble staircase to the west wing, Helga hurried over to him and inquired, "Where and why did you pick her up, Salazar? And how did you know she was not married? Just because she has no ring on her finger, nor bear any other sign of matrimony, doesn't mean she isn't wedded."

"And of course you had to check, didn't you, Helga?" answered Salazar without turning around. "Curiosity is a most objectionable quality of the female mind, and I'd be very surprised if neither you nor that irritating cow of a woman, Georgiana, would ask me something about Rowena."

"So she's Rowena now, is she?" spat Helga. "You've only just met her and you're already on first-name terms with her! Or is that just your impertinence at work?"

Salazar slowly turned around and gazed at Helga's angry face through lowered eyelids. "You don't know for sure if I've just met her. In fact, you don't know anything about her except all that I've told you, which isn't much, and I could be lying ... you never know."

"All that you've told us about her is her name, and I don't see much reason for you to lie about that!"

"Then you, my dear Helga, are a very ignorant fool," pronounced Salazar unashamedly. "I think that perhaps you have a green-eyed monster settling itself inside you?" At Helga's blank expression, he added, "You are not, after all, immune to envy."

All the warmth and pleasantness faded from Helga's eyes and she stood with a reddening face, pursed lips, and balled fists shaking at her sides. She felt murderous, worse than she ever had during a conversation with Salazar, and their conversations almost always ended with her being phenomenally angry. She hated him with all the passion and fire in her soul. Hated his beautiful silver-blonde hair and alluring grey eyes, his stupid expensive clothes, stupid fancy horses, stupid prosperous estates, and most of all, she hated his damned stupid way of remaining calm and controlled when she was boiling with rage!

And then he raised one well-crafted eyebrow and all the rage trickled out of her, leaving her face pale, her lips dry and cracked, her hands hanging loosely. No, she could not really hate him. She was just tired of the way he tormented her, tired of the way he was always right about her, tired of the way he always tricked her and made her seem so stupid. She could never outsmart him, and she hated not him for it, but herself.

"I see that you don't deny my - ah - accusation?" smirked Salazar.

Helga sighed wearily. "You know what? I'm not going to take your bait this time. I'm tired and hungry, and I want to go to bed, meaning that I don't want to play these mind-boggling games of yours right now. You can accuse me of anything you want because I won't argue with you. And anyway, you'll probably be right as you always are."

And with that, she turned around and dragged her feet back to where Godric was worrying about whether or not Rowena was strong enough to walk up the staircase to the east wing. Helga didn't notice that, as she walked away, Salazar's eyes followed her carefully and were filled with wonder, regret, and above all, a pain that she shared unknowingly.

It wasn't too amazing that this escaped her notice since she even forgot to feel glad that Salazar didn't feel much affection towards Georgiana, and that would have been unimaginable to her had she been in a more cheerful state. But at that time, Helga didn't even want to think about Salazar because he reminded her of her very poor and very pathetic love life, which was one of the most hapless things in her tragic existence.

~ ~ ~

"Honestly Godric, you're starting to sound like Madam Markinsey!" remarked Georgiana with disgust. "Miss Partholain is perfectly capable of mounting the stairs and if she isn't, then Helga and I will assist her. And then we also have the three maids coming with us! Stop your fussing; it's really very unpleasant."

"Yes, but maybe I really should carry Miss Partholain upstairs ... you might choose the wrong room for her," argued Godric.

"Oh ... please, good sir ... I don't mind what room you give me," Rowena told Godric earnestly. "And do stop calling me Miss Partholain. I would much prefer it if you addressed me as Rowena."

"I will, of course, and what a lovely name! What is the meaning of it? Mysterious maiden? Divine vision?" quizzed Godric energetically, while both Georgiana and Helga rolled their eyes.

"Actually, it's fair-haired in Celtic and comely in Anglo-Saxon," provided Rowena, hiding a smile.

"Well, I don't know about fair-haired but comely you certainly are!" enthused Godric.

Rowena laughed, and Helga's jealousy grew with each echo of the sound that reminded her of delicate crystal bells. And it was that same jealousy that prevented her from observing the acrimony in Rowena's eyes which was shadowed as quickly as it was uncovered. "I do thank you, Master Winthroe - " began Rowena, but was cut short by Godric's insistence that she call him by his first name. And then Georgiana followed suit, obviously very pleased to be so close to "so lovely a creature" as she said. Then all eyes turned to Helga, evidently waiting for her to do the same, but the fatigued redhead was silent and stared sullenly back at each of them in turn.

"Helga ..." Godric said pointedly, giving her a sharp look.

But she fixed her eyes on Rowena and said through gritted teeth, with all the coldness she could muster, "You may continue to call me Miss Turnlovey."

A very heavy silence ensued. All persons present could feel the tension in the room intensify until it was as thick as the walls of a truly impregnable fortress. Godric was glaring at Helga with sparks flying from his eyes, while Georgiana gaped at her with ill-disguised surprise. But Helga continued to survey Rowena with mounting dislike as the latter blushed and averted her eyes from Helga's stony gaze.

It was Godric, however, who made the first move.

Grasping Helga's elbow, he forcefully steered her out of the hallway after muttering, "Excuse us," and into the library from which they had come. Then he shut the door, spun Helga around to face him and let loose his anger.

"Helga Turnlovey, what the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded.

"What the hell is wrong with you, is the question that should be asked. In my opinion, I am behaving like a very normal human being ... I have a right to express my wish of not proceeding to first-name terms with Miss Partholain, am I not?"

"But that doesn't mean you have to be so rude about it!" Godric put his face up close to hers for full effect. "And I don't understand why you have to refuse to be friends with her in the first place! You were perfectly agreeable before she came."

"Yes, exactly! I was perfectly agreeable before she came," echoed Helga, her voice trembling. "Before she came ... "

Godric frowned at her, understanding suddenly dawning in his bright green eyes. "Helga, you don't - surely you don't think that - that - " he faltered, looking quite astonished. "Dearest Helga, tell me that you're not jealous of her ... "

"Well, you're not as stupid and imperceptive as you make yourself out to be then," said Helga sourly.

Godric sighed and scratched his dark hair, apparently thinking of what to say next that would be most tactful. "Well, you must know that you have nothing to be jealous of. Rowena could never replace you no matter how hard she tried," he assured her gently. "And someday, you might just become good friends. She doesn't seem to be anything like Georgiana, so you should get on with her better."

But Helga was still staring morosely at the floor, a very gloomy expression marring her features. For Helga looked her best when she was happy; sadness only disfigured her beauty and gave other maidens, who looked good in all emotions, a better chance.

"At least try, Helga. Just try. I don't think she's at all as bad as you think she is," murmured Godric soothingly. "Come, give us a hug." He wrapped his big arms around her, enveloping her in a cocoon of warmth and brotherly love. And Helga's despair began to flow out in angry little rivulets of tears.

"I'm so sorry, Godric! I am a terrible person, I am !" wailed Helga despondently. "I just thought that after you fell in love with her, you wouldn't need me anymore!"

"Oh Helga," sighed Godric, patting her back as she sobbed into his shoulder. "What am I to do with you? That imagination of yours is far over cultivated and it's getting worse. Soon you'll be thinking that I want to murder you!"

"Well, I wouldn't be too surprised actually," returned Helga, taking her handkerchief from her sleeve and wiping her face viciously with it. "After all the trouble that I've caused you with my quarrelsome spirit I'd half expect you to turn me out of the castle. But I promise that I'll try to be good. I really will try!" She gazed up at Godric's face hopefully, her face still showing all signs of a recent crying fit.

"Then try to be nice to Rowena. You never know, Helga, you might just come to like her," suggested Godric. "Now come along, we can't keep everyone waiting." And he tugged her out of the library, red puffy eyes and all.

"Well, finally!" exclaimed Georgiana. "Someone would've thought that you two were making wild and steamy love in there, judging by the time you stayed away."

"That just shows the way your mind works, doesn't it?" observed Helga acidly.

"All right, enough," intervened Godric, raising a hand between the two bristling women. "Both of you will escort Rowena to her room, help her change and then bring her down to the dining room in half an hour. Does roast lamb appeal to you?" He turned to Rowena.

"Oh, yes!" enthused Rowena. She had not eaten any for nigh onto twelve months and she would have loved to roll her tongue around the lovely meat again.

"Then I shall see you all at dinner." And with that, Godric strode away to the kitchen, the housekeeper and manservants trailing behind him silently.

When he had gone, Georgiana turned to Rowena, smiling pleasantly. "Shall we go to your room now?"

"Yes, that would be good," agreed Rowena, smiling back, although a degree less warmer.

Helga steeled her resolve and kept repeating her promise to Godric in her mind, as she began ascending the ornate crimson-carpeted staircase to the east wing on the right side of Rowena, Georgiana being on the left, and the handmaidens following behind them.

Many of the decorations inside Winthroe Castle were either a deep red colour or a warm gold, and there were not a few old-looking tapestries, vases and paintings gathering dust in the east wing. No one ever reminded the servants to dust the many rooms of the castle, and they themselves very seldom remembered to.

When Helga first moved into the castle, she was surprised that Madam Markinsey, didn't order the whole castle to be scrubbed and dusted from the doorstep to the roof. She later found out that the old wrinkled housekeeper had a memory worse than a goldfish because the latter was constantly forgetting Helga's rightful name and adopting various others instead.

But even in its dust-covered state, Winthroe Castle was a very grand and impressive residence in which the inhabitants were very proud to live. Godric had not told Helga how many rooms there were in total but she estimated over a hundred, what with its many levels, turrets and towers.

As they walked down the corridor, Rowena turned her head to look at the various paintings and tapestries on the walls, occasionally commenting on one if it caught her fancy. Before long, they reached Helga's suite and Rowena, ignorant of that fact, chose the elegant blue-themed one across from it. She only realised it the next morning but never really regretted it, for such was her nature to believe that every action and event had a special purpose.

Helga, of course, did not share the same view and was ready to change suites with Georgiana who seemed to have overcome her previous wariness of Rowena and was on the point of declaring her the best friend she ever had, though they hadn't even known each other a whole day. She swallowed her words, however, when she saw the pleading look Rowena shot her from behind Georgiana.

"I trust you don't snore too loudly?" Helga raised one eyebrow in Rowena's direction. "I would hate to have to wake you up in the middle of the night."

Rowena smiled almost cheekily. "I trust the same of you. I don't snore at all so you needn't worry about me."

"Likewise," was Helga's curt reply.

"Shall we get dressed for dinner then?" burst out Georgiana, obviously flustered by the tension between the two other women. "We can all meet here when we're done and go downstairs together." And she walked off down the hall to her own room.

Rowena turned to Helga. "Do you think you could possibly lend me one of your garments for the evening? I'm afraid I don't have anything suitable to wear and this dress won't dry in time." Seeing Helga's pursed lips she added, "I won't keep it, I'll return it to you before I go to bed."

Helga ran her eyes over Rowena's figure. "You'd better borrow something from Georgiana. My clothes would all be too large for you." And with a toss of her head, she turned and stepped into her room, slamming the door as loud as she could.

"Well!" exclaimed Rowena, shaking with rage. "All right then!" She stormed off down the corridor, shooting angry glances at Helga's door every few seconds. She knocked loudly on Georgiana's door, sighing in frustration.

Georgiana appeared in nothing but her chemise, making it very obvious that she hoped it wasn't Rowena who knocked. "Oh, it's you," she said, her smile wilting slightly. "Is everything all right?"

"May I borrow one of your garments for the evening?" Rowena asked without preamble.

"Well, of course!" squealed Georgiana gleefully, opening the door further to let Rowena in. "You and I must be about the same size! But you have so much more grace than I do!" She waited, seemingly hoping that Rowena would deny it and insist that Georgiana had the grace that she, Rowena, had always wanted but never attained.

She waited in vain. Rowena merely strode in and silently stared around the room.

"I was planning on wearing something red," said Georgiana, looking slightly put-out as she closed the door and walked over to her open wardrobe, which was overflowing with different coloured dresses, shawls and bonnets. "What do you think of this one?" She was holding to her body a long-sleeved maroon gown with no shoulders but a plunging neckline and sequined bodice instead.

Rowena shrugged nonchalantly. "It's a lovely dress," was all she said.

"You can wear this grey one." Georgiana tossed her an equally elegant dress made of silk with a high collar and almost translucent sleeves. She obviously wanted to be the centre of attention tonight.

Reluctant to change clothes in front of Georgiana, Rowena thanked her and hurried out of the room, ignoring the other woman's protests. She didn't feel like being an exhibition at that moment.

She changed nimbly and dried her hair with a simple spell, letting it tumble about her shoulders in chestnut waves. The length of the dress thankfully prevented from the state of her shoes being revealed but Rowena tidied them up as much as she could with her wand anyway.

When she came out of her room she saw that Helga was already waiting in a beautiful brown dress with a high collar three quarters around her neck that opened her bosom in a W shape. Her red curls were tied back with a brown ribbon, though a couple were left to fall around her face prettily. Apparently Helga wanted to make an impression as well. She was staring into space and didn't notice Rowena until she said, "That's a beautiful dress."

Helga blinked, looking surprised. She quickly set her face into a stony expression once she saw Rowena. "Oh?"

"Yes. It suits you very well," said Rowena earnestly.

Helga must have taken her words to heart and realised her sincerety because she let a small smile escape from the fortress of her mouth. "I suppose Georgiana is planning to be a temptress tonight?"

Rowena grinned. "Indeed she does, and very boldly too. Such fanfare I have never seen before."

"You haven't seen the least of it, I'm sure." Helga rolled her eyes. "On special occasions she's positively demonic."

"Who's demonic?" called Georgiana, closing her door and walking upto them, her hair piled on top of her head and a heady fragrance emanating from her.

"That perfume, now let's go! We're already late as it is." Helga ushered Georgiana through the corridor and down the stairs, not noticing that Rowena remained standing by her door. Just before she set her foot on the stairs, Helga turned and smiled in an exasperated fashion. "Oh, come on!"

It seemed that those three words were the ones that Rowena had been waiting for because she rushed to Helga's side and smiled widely. Helga linked her arm through Rowena's and together they walked down the stairs.

~ ~ ~

Dinner was a quiet affair at Winthroe Castle that night. At least, it was for everyone but Georgiana who made a point of chattering with Salazar almost unceasingly, which caused Helga and Rowena to exchange many grins.

Godric noticed this as he remarked, "You two have made it up, have you? Thought you would. Helga's not one to stay mad at anybody for more than a couple of hours."

"I'm the exception to that rule, though," remarked Salazar tartly. "She's been mad at me ever since we first met."

"I have not, you liar," retorted Helga. "You just make me mad more than anyone else."

"And we all know the reason for that," said Georgiana, cutting her food. Everyone turned to look at her. "Oh, come on, it's so obvious. Just because Salazar doesn't love you, Helga, doesn't mean he's a bad fellow."

"More lamb, anyone?" asked Godric loudly, hopefully peering around.

"On the contrary," Georgiana continued calmly, "he's simply splendid, aren't you, darling?" She smiled sweetly at Salazar who stared at her rather boredly. Disappointed by his lack of interest, she went back to diligently slicing her food. "You're just not his type, Helga."

"Oh, and I suppose you are?" Helga shot back.

"How about some more wine?" Godric almost shouted, lifting the bottle.

"Actually I've always preferred blondes," said Salazar almost disinterestedly.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with a little variety in your life," persisted Georgiana.

She and Helga glowered at each other for a few seconds before Godric roared, "Don't fill yourselves up too much, there's still pudding to come!"

"For goodness sake, Godric, no need to shout." Georgiana glared at him accusingly. "Have some decorum, dear brother. And I won't be having any pudding, I'm too full already." She pushed away her full plate and leaned back in her chair as though tired.

"But you've hardly eaten anything!" protested Godric, seizing the opportunity to steer the conversation away from dangerous waters. "How can you be full?"

"If you haven't noticed, Godric, I am a lady." Georgiana sniffed disdainfully and folded her hands on her lap.

Helga snorted. "Just because you want to impress Salazar doesn't mean you have to hurt Cook's feelings."

Georgiana looked livid. "Who ever said I wanted to impress Salazar?"

"Well, if you're not trying to impress him, you must be trying to live up to your reputation as an arrogant, self-centered harlot," replied Helga composedly.

"Oooh!" Georgiana leaped up, her face red with anger. "I'm sick of this! Sick of it, you hear?" And she stormed out of the room, her hands balled into fists.

"Shouldn't someone go after her?" Rowena asked tentatively.

"No," Helga and Godric said in unison.

"She always makes a scene whenever I'm around," explained Salazar airily. "Probably hopes I'll run after her and swear my undying love for her." He took a sip of wine from his goblet and smirked. "It's very difficult being a wanted man."

~ ~ ~


When the whole process of dinner had been completed (sans Georgiana) the party moved to the drawing room adjacent to the dining room. It was decorated in the same colours as the former (crimson and gold) and in the same style (mahogany furniture and velvet upholstery). All the windows were covered by floor-length drapes and a fire blazed in the enormous hearth.

Helga plonked herself down on the sofa and Rowena seated herself beside her, while Godric chose the armchair opposite them and Salazar stretched out on the chaise longue on the other side of the room. The silence was broken only by the crackling of the fire.

Finally - "Salazar tells me that he picked you up in Mulfaver Wood," Godric addressed Rowena.

Rowena glanced briefly at Salazar's supine form before answering, "Yes, that's correct."

"I take it that you lived there with your parents?" said Godric.

"I did indeed."

Godric seemed to mull over this information in his mind because he stared at the floor and rubbed his hands slowly. He couldn't seem to find the words to say what he wanted. "And - and I suppose they told you - well - what they should have told you?" He lifted his eyes to Rowena's frowning face.

"I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean," she said warily.

"What Godric is trying to say is that you are not a peasant or Muggle-born," Salazar put in. He sat up. "You've got an estate in the country and a healthy amount of monetary wealth."

This only made Rowena frown even more. "I have got nothing of the sort," she said in a low voice. "My Muggle parents and I lived in a cottage. We barely had enough to eat."

"Well, in that matter I suppose Salazar and I are the only ones who can give any explanation," said Godric. "The Partholains may have lived among Muggle peasants but they never were like them. The Partholain lineage can be traced back to King Arthur's time. In fact," he raised his black eyebrows and cocked his head to one side, "in your veins runs the blood of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake."

"The late Partholains - your parents - were on the run from the one called Morgan Le Fay," said Salazar, lying back onto the chaise. "Morgan originally had nine priestesses serving her and her cause. These priestesses were forbidden to have amorous relations with anyone, but one of them fell in love with a Knight of the Round Table. The priestess eloped, Morgan was enraged and put it into her head to punish the priestess and her lover." He paused. "However, the priestess put a charm around herself and her lover which extended to their descendants, including your parents and yourself, so that Morgan could never find them."

"Perhaps she did succeed, "said Rowena with a stony face, "my parents are dead."

"You, however, are not," Salazar pointed out, "which means that your parents died of entirely natural causes. If Morgan got her hands on you, she'd kill you as well."

"May I ask how is it that you knew about this and I did not?" Rowena asked, her eyes flying from Godric to Salazar.

Godric glanced at Salazar and opened his mouth as though about to say something, but Salazar beat him to it. "We have connections," he said in a tone that allowed no further debate. "If you wish, I could take you to your estate tomorrow."

"I'd like that." Rowena smiled faintly at Salazar.

Helga, who had remained wholly silent and still throughout the entire revelation, now jumped up and clapped her hands. "And now I think it a good idea for us to adjourn. It is past midnight. Goodnight, gentlemen. Come, Rowena!" She grabbed Rowena's arm and forcefully propelled her out of the room.

She did not let go of Rowena's arm until the latter had closed the door of her bedchamber after wishing Helga a pleasant sleep. Helga slowly shut her own bedroom door and leaned her forehead against it. A fat tear squeezed itself from under each of her eyelids and quickly trickled down her cheeks. Helga grimaced and furiously wiped them away. There was nothing to cry for. She was stupid to do so. She cried too much anyway.

Helga undid the clasp holding her hair up in a bunch and the red curls tumbled around her shoulders. She stood in front of the mirror, gazing solemnly at her reflection, but quickly turned away and began to prepare for sleep.

Yes, there was nothing to cry for. Yes, she was stupid to do so. Yes, she cried too much anyway. But as she lay on her bed in her flowered, cotton nightgown she lost all pretenses; she turned on her stomach and stuffed a corner of her pillow in her mouth to deaden the sound as she wept.