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Chapter 8: Chapter 8: For Worse
Two figures wended their way across the Central Siberian upland, one taller and dark, the other fair of hair and skin.
They were not hunters like the Tunga, who had inhabited the land between the two Katanga rivers for millenia. The Tunga were now known as the Evenki, and the two rivers had been given different names by the Soviets, then again by the Russians, but none of these changes had meant a thing to the land. It continued as it always had, permafrost and evergreens, inhospitable to mankind, be it wizard or Muggle.
It was a strange thing, for hikers to cross the taiga. To the curious eyes of unseen Evenki, fishing or herding reindeer, the two men seemed to have come from nowhere, and were heading toward nowhere in particular. Nothing but wilderness stretched around them for hundreds of miles. In a way, they had indeed come from nowhere; they had Apparated into this land, but were forced to stop miles short of their target. Now they moved purposefully, approaching a secret encampment, about which the Tunga knew not. It had been built recently and hidden very thoroughly, for its chief inhabitant was not quite ready to entertain unexpected visitors.
Severus Snape stopped to drink from his canteen, peering across the gentle, green slopes of the land. The sun was beginning to set, which, in this remote northern part of the world, meant it was after midnight. He called to his fellow sojourner to stop and make camp. Had any Tunga been watching, they would have been shocked to see a tent appear out of thin air, looking barely big enough to hold one of them, yet both climbed inside immediately and did not emerge until the next morning.
Draco Malfoy blinked, recalled where he was, and wriggled longingly under the blankets for a final cozy moment. "I'm up. What time is it?"
"Does it matter? Come on, if we keep moving, we'll make it to the keep today."
Draco settled obstinately into his pillow, holding it tight to his chest. He wanted to say something along the lines of, "All the more reason to just stay in bed," but he dared not. He did not ordinarily fear Snape, but he had other terrifying concerns weighing on his mind, and at this point, he wouldn't risk anything that might cost him the professor's goodwill. Sighing, he set aside his pillow and sat up on the bed, thankful that his feet had landed on a rug today, instead of that harsh icy ground.
Snape had conjured some breakfast on the crude plank table in the tent before he went outside for water, but Draco just sat and stared at his plate. He had no appetite, despite the endless hours of walking the previous day. His stomach was too knotted with anxiety to have room for food. He pulled on his boots, thankful again that they were so well made; despite the mud and water, the leather remained soft, and the soles were still solid. Of course, he mused, if he'd had blisters from his shoes, that would give him an excuse to slow down, to postpone the meeting that would come soon. He picked up his wand for a moment; he knew a hex that would render his feet pathetically travel worn. He set the wand down just as quickly, knowing that the Dark Lord would not be fooled, only annoyed, by such a ploy.
Draco Malfoy burst into tears.
When Snape returned with the canteens, he found Draco sobbing uncontrollably. He understood. It was very difficult to walk with head held high into an unknown but certain doom. Snape sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulder until the worst of the hysteria had spent itself.
"Come now, boy. If you're going to survive this, you must pull yourself together! Don't tell me you are this frightened of pain? You've got to get past that, it's a fact of life in his service. You won't last a month if you fall apart in fear of punishment."
Draco sniffled and caught his breath. "I know! You don't have to tell me! It's just..."
Snape nodded. "You've never felt the Cruciatus curse, have you?" Draco shook his head, shuddering. "Well, if that's what he choses to do, you'll survive it. Take comfort in that! He'll know how much you can tolerate. Hang on to that thought, Draco. You can endure it if you remind yourself that he'll stop before it's too late."
Draco did not look at him, but nodded and tried to compose himself--but after two breaths his face contorted again and a new wave of tears burst out. "H-h-how do you know?"
Snape sighed, and got up to pace beside the table for a moment. "I know because I, too, have disappointed the Dark Lord and had to face his wrath afterward. But I survived, and not only that, Draco, I have even managed to learn a little about him in almost 20 years of service."
Malfoy looked up at him for the first time, his eyes pleading, hopeful. Snape sighed and settled onto his cot in resignation. A day's delay may or may not irritate Voldemort, but the boy would certainly die if he displayed this much terror in the presence of the Dark Lord.
"You didn't do the task that he assigned you. For that, he will punish you. But the task was done, and you did have a role in it, though not the one he wanted. And you didn't refuse him, or defy his order, you only...failed to complete it. So he would not lose face if he opted to show you some leniency.
"He sees it this way, Draco: you have proven yourself to be weaker than he estimated. This is a disappointment to him, but in a way, he...appreciates it. After all, if you were strong enough to do anything he asked of you, then you'd probably be strong enough to challenge him. He accepts that his followers have limitations, because he has none." Snape turned his head away, carefully, as he said that last sentence, then returned to meet Malfoy's gaze. "Anyone with no limitations would be his equal. This is why he doesn't simply destroy his followers when they fail him: every time one of th--us fails, it affirms his superiority. Do you understand that?"
Malfoy nodded with a hint of conviction, though fear still shone clearly in his eyes.
"Of course, he doesn't simply forgive failure either," continued Snape. "My hope is that he has used this exercise as a barometer of sorts, to measure where you fit into his heirarchy. He'll probably test you again, actually--he gave you an extremely difficult task to start with. In fact, he must have expected you to fail. You lacked sufficient training and practice to carry it out, which is a product of your youth--and obviously you have no control over that. I suspect he had...other motives."
Snape paused, but seeing that Draco was clinging to his every word, decided to continue. "Listen to me: this is pure speculation on my part." Malfoy nodded again. "Your father served our Master devoutly during his previous reign, but during the...quiet years, he renounced the Dark Lord and sought power on his own. He became deeply involved with the Ministry, as you know. Lucius claims, of course, that he was seeking only to advance himself through conventional means because he thought the Dark Lord was finished. This is a plausible claim. It might even be true." Snape watched the young man carefully, and was pleased to see that his mouth barely twitched into a sneer, despite his agitated state.
"The Dark Lord is by nature a very suspicious man. He did not gain tremendous power by simply accepting explanations such as that. Lucius could be a spy for the Ministry, or biding time while he plans to seize power, or any number of things. Unless the Master is certain of your father's intentions, he will keep some form of leverage handy, that he can use to manipulate Lucius if necessary.
"It is possible that you are that lever, Draco. It is not unusual for him to invite someone so young to become a Death Eater. But to assign them a task that even he would be hard pressed to complete--that is most odd. Now that you have failed him, he is free to do with you as he sees fit. He knows that Lucius does not want to see you humiliated, or placed in the front lines as 'cannon fodder,' so to speak."
Understanding was dawning in Malfoy's eyes. "Is that why Mother is with him, too, then?"
"Of course. He made sure she had nowhere to run but to him, after your attempt on Dumbledore's life. Understand, Draco, that this is the nature of service to the Dark Lord! He will reward you handsomely when you please him, but he will never trust you. He will always have assurances to make sure you dare not betray him. You cannot resent this fact, nor resist it--you have to accept it, or die."
"But as long as I'm loyal, the Master won't need to use his 'leverage,' right?"
Snape nodded. "And as long as your father is loyal, the Master will not need to use you. He undoubtedly appreciates having all three of you close at hand, any of you will suffice to coerce the others if necessary."
"Professor," said Malfoy in a thin voice, "...what do you think he'll do to me?"
Snape took a long time to answer. "I don't know. If part of his agenda was for you to fail, his punishment could be rather mild, really. He may have ultimately wanted to test me, for example, to see if I would betray Dumbledore when you failed. Had you actually killed Dumbledore, the Dark Lord might even be furious with you, for robbing him of his chance to test my loyalty." Draco nodded again; that concept had never occurred to him.
"On the other hand, if he devised all of this to make a strong point with Lucius, he may be extreme with you. Lucius did fail to retrieve the prophecy, and the fact that he was also captured did not improve his standing. I'm sorry, lad. It's impossible to predict what the Dark Lord plans for you."
Malfoy's eyes widened in terror again; seing this, Snape grabbed tightly him by both arms. "Listen to me, Draco, this may mean the difference between life and death. No matter what he does, you must not break down like you are now!
"The Dark Lord despises weakness. There is no surer way to enrage him than to display terror. This, again, is his nature; he exploits weakness automatically, instinctively, just as you are inclined to swat a fly the more it buzzes around you. When the Master sees someone cringe, it does not inspire mercy; it makes him want to inflict greater pain.
"He will make you kneel before him to explain your failure with Dumbledore. Never say that you are sorry, or make excuses like 'you tried your best.' By doing so, you admit that you are weak or regretful, and this will only fuel his anger. You will hold yourself still and speak in a firm voice--not defiant, but matter-of-fact. Leave out any shame, guilt, hesitation, anything that portrays doubt about your actions. Think of it this way: if the Dark Lord meant for you to fail, then you have not disappointed him. You don't know his ultimate purpose, so you should not assume the worst. However, if you indicate that you are disappointed in yourself, he will gladly pursue that concept further.
"Answer his questions honestly. Leave out your opinions. Don't guess or conjecture as to other people's motives, or what might have happened beyond your field of vision. Just describe the facts as accurately as you can recall. Don't try to hide any unfavorable or embarassing details, because he will know. He will reach into your mind with Legilimency, and if you have misled him, you will suffer greatly for it.
"Stay still the entire time he questions you. Do not allow yourself to tremble, or shift your weight. Once he is satisfied, your punishment will follow immediately. You probably won't be able to stop yourself from crying out when he hurts you, but always try. He expects you to accept your punishment and immediately show your continued loyalty. So, once it is over, get back to your knees as quickly as you can. He'll know whether he has damaged you, or if you are capable of getting up. If you lay there malingering or wallowing in self-pity, he will hurt you again. Get up as soon as you have the strength and the wits. You can wobble a bit, or even fall back down if you must--just don't fall onto him. If, however, you can keep from collapsing by leaning against him very briefly, do it. He rather likes the connotation, that you need him to steady yourself.
Malfoy stared, slackjawed, at his professor, until quietly squeaking, "My father never told me any of this."
Snape nodded slowly. "Your father is a proud man, Draco, as are all the Death Eaters. Many of them are ashamed that they submit to these rituals, like servants, or slaves. Shaming them is another way the Dark Lord exerts control over them."
"Why do you admit it, then?"
Snape stared evenly at the young man for some time. "Because, Draco," he said, slowly and deliberately, "I have also gleaned some things of value from my service at Hogwarts. Sometimes one must swallow their pride in order to be a friend."
Despite the late start, they arrived at a rough stone barracks that evening. It had a thrown-together look, as if constructed in a hurry; some rocks were crumbling at their surfaces, as veins of mineral crystals collapsed inside the substrate from the new distribution of weight. Nonetheless, it was tightly sealed with mortar; it would weather the Siberian winter for a few years at least.
They circled the structure to find a door made of black wood, which hung open but was nonetheless impassable. Five dementors stood guard, two on either side and one blocking the center. Snape approached as close as he could manage without succumbing to dread. He started to say, "We have business inside," but it struck him as absurd to announce something so obvious. He stared at the dementor hovering before the door for a moment, then said, with as much menace as he could muster, "Give way to the Mark."
Nothing happened. The dementors remained in formation around the door, silent and expressionless. Snape cursed inwardly; they were calling his bluff. He weighed the notion of summoning a Patronus. The Dark Lord could interpret that as an act of aggression. Yet these shades hardly had minds of their own; they could force him to stand out here all night, even as Voldemort sat inside, growing more annoyed by the minute at their tardiness. Without knowing whether they had been ordered to keep him waiting, or were simply too stupid to recognize his right to pass, he could not be sure of the proper course. And now that he had accosted them, he dared not back away.
"I see no Mark at the door," said a voice from the dark foyer. They both recognized it at once. The dementors glided apart as Lucius Malfoy stepped outside. He walked up until he was nose-to-nose with Snape, unsmiling, and stared at him coldly.
"There is nothing on your arm but the stain of betrayal, Severus. And my son has not yet taken the Oath." Neither man blinked for a long moment.
Finally Lucius Malfoy took a slow step backward and inclined his head with the slightest hint of deference. "Yet you are welcome to enter the keep. The Dark Lord has been awaiting your arrival." Snape made a fraction of a bow and strode briskly through the door.
Lucius turned to his son, who showed every sign of wanting to run to him, and raised his fingertips in warning. "Later, Draco," he whispered. "He's watching. You must answer to him first." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand to indicate the door, and Draco, eyeing his father nervously, followed Snape into the darkness.
His father steered him slowly to a large room, lit by only a handful of small torches flickering with eerie green flames. There was a circle in the center, a mosaic of glossy pink chrysopase in the otherwise dull, gray stone floor. Lucius tipped his head toward the circle and gave Draco a stern look. Draco gave him a tiny nod and moved into the center, though his knees shook harder with every step. He started to kneel, but when his father coughed, he looked back with a hopeful expression. His father made a tiny twirling motion with one finger, and Draco understood again; he slowly turned around until his father's hand flicked out to halt him, then he sank to his knees. Lucius gave one last signal to his son, pointing first to his own eyes, then Draco, then the wall directly ahead of him. Draco fixed his gaze straight ahead for a brief instant, then glanced one last time at his father. He was shuddering, his eyes closed, his lips pinched tightly as though holding in a groan of agony.
Though his knees had begun to protest as soon as they touched the cold, uneven floor, Draco would have gladly waited longer before he heard footsteps approaching. A white light, oddly devoid of warmth, suddenly filled the circle, making it impossible to see the spot on the wall beyond, but he had the point fixed well enough in his mind. He noted some movement out of the corner of his eye, and despite himself, his breath became fast and shallow.
"Severus has confirmed that he carried out the order I gave to you, Draco," said the unmistakable voice of Lord Voldemort. He wasn't sure how to respond...was that even a question? He very nearly leapt to his feet and ran; he didn't know what was expected of him, only that the pain would be severe if he failed to perform it. He recalled Snape's warning: You won't last a month if you fear punishment. Though he couldn't slow his breathing, he remained kneeling in the light, eyes front.
"I am not averse to my servants assisting one another, at times," Lord Voldemort continued, his voice now coming from a different part of the room. Voldemort was slowly pacing around him, just outside the beam of light; Draco caught a hazy glimpse of two glowing red eyes when the Master passed through his line of sight. "Particularly on important tasks. There was, however, a reason I chose you to kill Dumbledore, and I am disappointed that you let slip the opportunity."
Draco was becoming lightheaded from panting so hard, and began to wish the Dark Lord would just ask him a question and get it over with. Presently, though, Voldemort stepped into the light.
"What stayed your hand, Draco?" Voldemort said, continuing to circle him.
He had to speak. He couldn't. He didn't even know the answer; he'd been asking himself the same thing ever since that night. He was taking too long; Voldemort had stopped at his side.
"Did he? They always do, you know. What did he say?" Voldemort had not resumed pacing; if Draco had not been panting so hard, he could have heard the Dark Lord breathing.
"He said...he said..." Draco had to force himself to think; his mind had gone blank. "He told me not to say 'Mudblood' in front of him." That was the first thing that came to his mind, that Dumbledore had calmly chided him to mind his manners.
Voldemort sniffed. "That would be Dumbledore." Staring straight ahead, Draco could see him in the periphery, shaking his head. "What else?" His voice was sharper now.
"He asked me...how I got...Death Eaters...into Hogwarts. He was so...calm, like we...were having tea." Long, cool fingers began to stroke Draco's hair. He clenched his teeth tightly.
"I see. You felt that your prey did not fear you in the slightest?"
"Yes. I had him...but somehow...he was so sure...he was safe."
Voldemort gripped his hair, though he did not pull it. "And what did you learn from this, child?"
Draco coughed; it had started as a yelp, but he had been inhaling at the instant his fear bested him, so the cry was constricted in his throat. "To strike quickly!" he gasped.
The fingers relaxed slightly. "Very astute," said Voldemort. His tone was even, matter-of-fact, as though he were a professor at Hogwarts explaining a difficult spell. "Most prey, when cornered, will stall for time by pleading, or reasoning--trying to talk their way out of death. It can be amusing, the desperate fantasies they weave for you. But when they don't fear you...it's fascinating, isn't it, Draco? The ones who cower may as well be insects, for all the satisfaction their death brings, but those who look you in the eye, they are truly human, truly alive--the only ones you can truly murder."
Voldemort let his arm fall slack, so all its weight shifted to the hand gripping Draco's hair. Not daring to resist the subtle pull, Draco's head slowly tipped back, forcing his gaze straight into the light over the circle. It was immediately eclipsed by Voldemort's silhouette, stark black against the brightness except for the glowing red eyes. His voice was not so much a whisper as the hiss of a snake carved into words.
"Tempting as it may be to savor such moments, it is a terrible mistake, dear boy. Your father knows; he has made it himself. You will serve as a constant reminder to him never to repeat it." The eyes swung out of view as Voldemort glared outside the circle for a moment.
Voldemort straightened up, though he did not release Draco's head. "I accept your worthy service, Draco Malfoy. You are bound to me until your death." He turned back to Draco and slowly bent over him, eclipsing the light not just with his head, but his upper body; Draco could see his features, not just a blur of shadow surrounded by blinding light. The hand in his hair suddenly gripped his scalp painfully hard. Voldemort looked deep into his eyes and breathed, "Stay very still."
Voldemort leaned closer, too close. His eyes were blazing, though half closed, his thin, white lips slightly parted. Draco knew what was happening. Voldemort was going to kiss him, the same way Draco had kissed Pansy Parkinson in the dungeons under Hogwarts Castle. But unlike Pansy, he could not pull away, not ever, no matter what Voldemort did to him. And unlike the dungeons, his father and Professor Snape were standing outside the circle, watching. They would look on as he surrendered his body to this...thing, not human anymore, but definitely male. Shame is another way the Dark Lord controls them. It was too much. He was ready to withstand the Cruciatus curse, but he couldn't submit to this. "Please stop," he begged, only to find that his mouth was so dry from panting that nothing but a thick whimper came out.
At that moment, Voldemort opened his mouth wide, impossibly wide; Draco registered a glimpse of long fangs, then felt them pierce his throat. Venom blinded him with pain; he may have even blacked out. When he came to himself again, he heard something like a waterfall splashing on the floor, felt himself growing cold, saw the bright light grow dim. A strange thought bubbled to the surface of his mind, and he felt compelled to say it, though he could only manage a whisper: "I die without flaw, Master, though I would rather live to serve you imperfectly." He could no longer keep his eyes fixed, or even open. He felt himself slumping backward, but oddly, he found that he settled gently to the ground.
Voldemort waved his wand again, to seal the punctures in the boy's carotid arteries. He had intended to let him die, but that bold comment intrigued him. It was just as well, Voldemort thought. Alive, the boy could be used to torture Lucius even further.
Outside the blinding light, Snape lifted his hand carefully from Lucius Malfoy's mouth, and relaxed his hold on the arm he'd twisted and pinned behind Malfoy's back. Malfoy had bitten his fingers to the bone, but that would heal; all that mattered right now was that Draco would live, Lucius would live, they all would live.