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Seven years ago on a blustery December night, a stooped old woman picked her way through the snow and ice along a slippery overgrown lane. With shoulders hunched under a heavy array of tattered, moth-eaten shawls wound around her forehead and pointed chin, she began to sink through the banks of snow further and further, until her knees were soon skimming the drifting white mass and she could no longer see her way forward.
The old woman’s knobby knees and poor eyesight were no match for the harsh weather, and after panicking for a good quarter hour over whether she was going to die in a horrendous blizzard so unnatural on this side of Wauning, she spotted a dozen pinpricks of light glowing like beacons of welcome through the snow-swirled haze.
A massive black castle with spiky turrets and crumbling towers stood jagged against the ominous dark sky, snow clouds swooping low into the fog. This dwelling had been erected in the middle of a steep valley between two purple mountains with forest all around, and a great shining lake mirrored the castle’s lit windows like blazing fire, orange flames dancing across the black capped waves.
Warmth! Hope trembled through the old woman from the top of her matted gray head to the tips of her toes in their thin, worn slippers. Her only nemesis in the world was cold; it sapped her energy and disabled all of her powers. But no matter now – with a sanctuary nearby such as this one, which was bound to hold at least fifteen fireplaces on the ground floor alone, she would be able to summon her strength once more and perhaps have a bite to eat if a servant or two still stirred at this hour.
The prospect of regaining her powers, the powers now dormant in her magical blood, cheered her so much that she didn’t mind tumbling down the hill three times in her effort to descend into the valley. Her left pinky toe may have been frostbitten, and her cheeks beaten red and raw with the lashing wind, but her eyes were bright and full of life. Bless this inhabitance! She inwardly vowed to reward whoever lived in the castle simply for existing and giving her the opportunity to nest in its warmth for a few minutes while she recovered.
Anything they desire will be theirs, she swore. She could bestow luck, wealth, and beauty in a cinch. Of course, being a sorceress who was capable of providing these gifts proved cumbersome most of the time, and therefore she found herself usually hiding under a disguise such as she did tonight, as to avoid straggling Muggle beggars who threw themselves at her feet.
Sometimes it was quite inconvenient to be a fairy sorceress, especially in winter. Her sisters used to tease her mercilessly about being afflicted with such a weakness, as normal fairies from the cursed city she grew up in met their match with rain rather than temperature; but she supposed it had been less problematic during the flood ten years prior when the rest of her sisters clung to the rafters for fear of being wet, and she could conjure a boat out of thin air and drop smugly inside, floating down the Oaupe River amidst their terrified screams.
Her thin lips pressed into a leer upon remembering, and she crept steadily closer to the colossal castle and its intricately carved arched doorway flocked with stone gargoyles. Very soon she would be able to escape this wretched night and disappear south in the blink of an eye, something she should have done long before the weather turned foul. It was very reckless, absurdly foolish, to stay in this country so late in the season, tempting fate to bathe the world in frost and ice. What was she thinking, sticking around so long? If her sister Marietta could only see her now, she would be laughing her head off.
The old witch was glowering with her unpleasant thoughts for company, feeling ludicrous and ashamed, and she attempted to arrange her mouth into something like a smile before she raised her mottled left hand to knock. Small imprints in a burnished plaque read Malfoy Manor. The knocker was smooth and brass in the shape of a grizzly bear’s head, and through his open mouth she could see a wooden slot opening just a fraction, and one deep blue eye.
“What do you want?” replied a brisk male voice.
“Please, sir,” she spoke to the bear head knocker in a croaky tremor. “It is terribly cold and I only want to warm myself by your fire for a few minutes.”
“I have no fire,” he responded in an impassive tone.
“A little shelter from the wind, then?” she inquired. “I promise it will be no trouble. Just for a few minutes, and then I’ll be out of your hair.”
“I have no room for you.” He was quiet for a while, and hearing that she had not receded, said, “Go away.”
The witch grew frustrated. She had not anticipated this. “You do not understand!” she called, trying to smother the budding rage. “My name is Circe. Open the door. Open the door at once or else suffer my wrath!”
The door flew open to reveal a haughty-looking young man. He had a fair, handsome face framed with a curtain of white-blond hair and he was lifting his jaw away from her in a mocking sneer, holding a burning lamp high above the pair of them. “Suffer your wrath, ancient one?” he replied in a dangerously low voice. “I do not fear walking corpses. Get away from me before I set the dogs on you.”
The witch leaned around him to see a luminous fire roaring in its grate, and elsewhere through the cavernous depths there seeped the tantalizing aroma of roasted pheasant and spiced apple tart. “Allow me houseroom and a meal,” she demanded, “or you will sincerely regret it.” She knew that he was going to refuse, but her goal was to keep him talking. The longer he stood there with the lamp swinging between them, the longer she could bask in its slender rays of heat.
“I will give you nothing,” he spat. “Get out of my sight.”
She had already absorbed enough heat emanating from the small fire flickering in his lamp to replenish her magic, however, and her age turned back the pages into youth before his eyes. Her spine straightened, her skin smoothed, and the thin film of cataracts over her eyes cleared away. Her heavy wrappings fell apart to reveal a mane of auburn hair and green irises that were startlingly round and glittering, narrowed in their reproach.
The young man’s mouth fell open and he withdrew. “But you are a witch!” he stammered accusingly. He then took note of her strange eye color. “As well as a fairy. You aren’t an old Muggle at all.” Indeed, there was something so disturbingly unnatural about her that gave him the feeling that she wasn't any ordinary witch, either.
The sorceress drew herself to her full height, channeling her darkest magic that was inwardly churning higher and deeper with increasing disgust. “You have judged me from my outward appearance and denied me any mercy, and your punishment will operate accordingly. Henceforward, you will be cursed to this castle. You will never cross its threshold, and the spell is such that your staff will suffer along with you as well until you can fulfill my challenges.”
The young man merely stared at her, his eyes widening in bewilderment as a crease developed in his forehead. “Your physical appearance will mirror your soul,” she continued, “and no one will be able to love you so long as you are this blackened and beastly inside. Your conscience is stained, and so will be your beauty." She examined him shrewdly, tapping her chin in thought. "Until you find someone who is capable of loving you in all of your disdainful arrogance, and you can freely love in return, everyone who inhabits this castle will become its slaves.”
She vanished in the wake of her curse, and the young man staggered back into the foyer, the invisible barrier not even permitting him to stand in his own doorway. Every flame in the massive house snuffed into darkness and the air grew steadily thicker as though in a stagnant fog; upstairs the small staff ran shrieking through the pitch black corridors, stiffened by the rebounding spell that echoed from every surface and knowing at once, like a knife to the chest, that there was no hope of ever being relinquished from such a spell if it depended on their young master falling into something as vulnerable and inferior as love; and furthermore, of ever hoping that anyone could so much as tolerate a person as selfish and arrogant as Lucius Malfoy.
A/N: Hello there! Something I would like to say about this novel is that it will be more fairy-tale than modern. In coming chapters, although it will be 1974, the story is going to be twisted into a different kind of world - very AU - so that it is more classically fairy-tale like. You will see many different fairy tale stories woven throughout the story, some more subtle than others. Narcissa Black will be the Rapunzel, the Snow White, the Cinderella, etc.
Anything you already recognize can be credited to Rowling and authors of the very, very old and original fairy tales - unfortunately, there are so many versions and many of the origins are unknown, so this crediting is a bit vague. But I do not own Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, or any other fairy tale themes you see featured in this story.
“I’ll sort this out, I promise,” I replied through the open window before turning out the garden and swinging the gate shut behind me. Father nodded sleepily, glasses askew and shining a milky opalescent in the reflected sunrise.
Starting down the road, I noticed that as was usual, the only people stirring in their houses were the older women whose children were grown. They took it upon themselves to get the chores settled first thing of the day, and wrung out wash on the lines to dry while their husbands flitted around inside trying to avoid helping. Other gardens I passed were strewn with toys and untethered animals, clearly marking the dwellings as belonging to families with young children. A baby centaur cantered joyfully through a vegetable patch, chasing squawking chickens as the town’s inhabitants snoozed lazily despite the rising ruby sun.
The air was unseasonably heavy and warm for an early September morning, and as I passed a thin bubbling stream I was extremely tempted to take a dip; however, my father counted on me to make a plea on his behalf, and I didn’t want to keep important business waiting.
Truth be told, I was terrified. I had only been in the castle once – when I was born, to be introduced to the Wizengamot – and of course I have no memory of that event. The small castle – which serves as the quarters for the Minister for Magic’s appointed administrators in this region – was perched on top of a steep hill overlooking the large village of Wasteir, its seven golden flags rippling in the morning wind.
Cows lowed in a wide pasture as I turned down the pebbly street on the outskirts of the village. From behind me I could distinctly hear the rattling of carts loaded with diseased beetle eyes and overpriced potions working their way toward the heart of the town, the greasy scam artist salespeople dressed to the nines in their very best robes because they thought it made them look more professional. No one noticed that at that moment, a girl of nineteen was cresting the hill with her head held high, trying to summon all her bravery and mentally calculating the best arguments to make.
As was usual, the castle entrance was flanked by four tall guards wearing stiff red tunics and heavy black boots that thudded against the earth in their circling formation. When I approached them, two of the men crossed the blades of their swords in the air over the doorway to bar my path. The stoutest of the four, a wide fellow with a curling ginger mustache, drew his wand and spoke in a crisp voice, “What business does madam have today?”
“I am here to discuss fines,” I told him evenly. “With the Minister.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Discuss? Odysseus Pravus does not discuss fine policies with his subjects. He gives orders and you’re expected to obey them. There is no negotiation.” I wanted to shoot back that I was not a subject, and that Pravus was not a monarch no matter how much he may have wished otherwise. The Pravus family had somehow maintained Ministry control for the past thirty years, and reckoned themselves royalty because of it. Since I wasn’t about to spoil my chances of saving my family from living on the streets, however, I kept my mouth shut.
I continued to match the guard’s gaze, indicating that I was not going to back down. He sighed and motioned for the other men to drop their swords, and I slipped through the thick wooden doors into a splendid hall. The walls stretched high into a cathedral-style ceiling, sparkling like garnets in the extraordinary stained glass windows; and the diffused light cast a rosy glow over a relatively good-looking man occupying the Minister’s chair. His black hair was clipped short and parted neatly at one side, and there was a thin mustache over his lips. His chin was resting in one hand and he looked vaguely bored. A tiny little courtier elf bounced around nervously, straightening the silver-threaded rug and shuffling papers.
When the elf saw me, he rushed forward and spoke his words in one quick breath, and I had to ask him to repeat himself. He jerked his head in apology and replied, “Please be waiting right here, miss, while I alerts my master.”
He ambled back up the long narrow rug and relayed to the man in the jeweled chair, “My Highness, there is young lady here, sir, to see you, sir.”
The man reluctantly swiveled his head to peer at me, and waved his arm lazily. “What is her name?”
The elf ran toward me again, panting and clutching a stitch in his side. “Master wanting a name, miss. Have you be having one?”
“My name is Cissa,” I told him. “I’m here to represent my father, Cygnus.”
His eyes woozy with exhaustion, the elf tottered back to the throne-like chair and squeaked, “Master, it is Sitters, here to be giving you presents of feather cypresses.”
At this point I stepped forward, fingering the wand in my pocket. “If you please,” I replied, continuing despite the elf’s astonished expression. His eyes were nearly popping out because I addressed this apparently important person without invitation, but I’d never had the patience for formalities; it was not how I was raised. “I am here to see the Minister.”
“You will talk to me instead,” he replied. “The Minister is busy elsewhere.”
I hesitated. “He can’t Floo in for a few moments? Who are you?”
He looked highly affronted, and narrowed his eyes. “I am his son, Gaspard,” he informed me in an annoyed tone. “As well as Senior Undersecretary. You may not recognize me; I have been quartered in the country of Doorturn these past eight years, which is a customary tradition for Ministry heirs. You are Sitters, then? I do not remember anyone of that name on the census.”
“My name is Cissa – Narcissa,” I amended, wondering what he meant by ‘heirs’. The position of Minister had been passed down within the same Pravus family for years, yes, but that was due to the Wizengamot’s votes. Gaspard couldn’t assuredly know that he would be next in line quite yet.
“And your parentage and location, Miss Narcissa?”
“My mother was Druella, but she is dead. My father is Cygnus Black. We live in Wasteir and I am here to see the Minister on my father’s behalf. He could not come, because it is imperative now more than ever that he not miss a single day from working.”
“My father has dragon pox,” Gaspard responded sharply. “I will be attending to his business today.”
I nodded and straightened my posture before looking him squarely in the eyes. My father taught me to always look people in the eyes when speaking to them, for he believes that it siphons a little of their power and confidence into you. “We have been warned that my father is behind on his fines that he owes from breaking the Statute of Secrecy on multiple occasions, you see,” I stated calmly. “You sent a letter.”
“Cygnus Black has committed a heavy crime,” he stated matter-of-factly, settling back into his chair and curving his fingers into a steeple. “It is my understanding that he builds inventions for Muggles, correct?”
I gave a tentative nod.
“He knows the law. You are prohibited to use magic on any items created for distribution to Muggles. The magic will not work properly with them; we have had reports of broken fingers and noses from up and down the country because of his crackpot creations that backfire on Muggle owners. We have warned him several times about the law. I believe this was made quite clear in the letter?”
“Yes.” I took a steadying breath. “But my father cannot afford the fines, you see. He has given everything he has to fulfill his debts, and inventions are the only way he knows how to get by ever since Mum died.”
My mother was strictly against Muggle interaction and now Father’s a bit out of practice after so many years of being forbidden to make anything, and that was partly the reason why he was forever forgetting that he couldn’t use magic on his inventions. At one time, he had been a very successful merchant, until one of the ships carrying his cargo got lost in the Bermuda triangle, and after that he decided to try his hand at being an entrepreneur of sorts. He made whatever he believed the Muggles were lacking and would consider in-demand.
“We simply do not have the gold. My father has been struggling with sales; he is drowning in the attempt to pay what he owes while leaving my sister and I something to survive on. It seems to me, sir, that the steep fines are somewhat unfair. They don’t really fit the crime. Mostly, the problems with Muggles and his business efforts have been relatively harmless. Just a sprained ankle here, a coma there…” I trailed off, hushed into silence by his expression.
The Senior Undersecretary leaned forward, his eyes stony. “Are you accusing your government of being unreasonable?” he thundered. “Is this how you repay us for our tolerance and lenience?”
“No!” I rushed quickly. My palms were beginning to sweat. Gaspard watched me beadily, and I wished he would break eye contact for a few seconds. His steel gaze was unnerving, his irises an abnormal shade of pale blue – so pale they were almost clear and colorless – and I could feel my chances of a plea bargain slipping through the cracks. “I only meant that it is impossible for my father to come up with sixty-five Galleons in the time frame that was dictated in the letter. Our vault is empty. We have nothing to give you. If we did…if we had any money at all…it would be yours.” I rubbed my hands together earnestly, hoping against hope that he would see how sincere I was trying to seem.
His gaze slid to a man standing near the door and he motioned with two of his fingers. “Enough excuses. We have put up with Cygnus for far too long, and he is a joke and a liability to the wizarding community.” The other man stepped forward, gripping my arm tightly in one gloved hand.
“But –” I entreated desperately.
He cut me off. “I do not care how poor you are, Miss Cissa. If your family does not provide the amount owed in three days, my people will come to your house and take something worth selling to pay his debts.” A second guard seized my other elbow and they bullied me through the arched wooden doorway as Gaspard turned away from me. In a lofty voice he called, “If I were you, I would hope he finds a way to raise some money.”
I tried to resist, but the guard on my left whispered, “Best not make a scene, miss, or it’ll be Azkaban for you.” I gave up my struggle and followed him out into the bright morning, feeling gloomy and worried. The event had not gone at all according to plan; I had rehearsed several speeches and arguments in my head but never got the chance to repeat them, and Odysseus Pravus’s absence had thrown me off. The Minister was marginally fairer than his son had been, and always listened to the entire case before making a decision.
Despair swelled in my chest. I took the long way home, around the creek and across the narrow stone bridge where blue hollopy fish jumped out of the water in vibrant arcs. We didn’t have any possessions worth sixty-five Galleons. Mother’s jewelry might fetch a fair price, but I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with her things. The tarnished silver chains inlaid with sapphires were the only truly valuable belongings of Mother’s we still owned; everything else had long since been sold or lost under the jumble of cogs and pipes and busted sheet metal that Father dragged home.
When I warily entered our cottage, the distant tinkling of bells and whistles signaled that Father was hard at work in his shed. I traipsed through the back garden and found him bending over a mammoth gray contraption, wiping sweat and soot from his brow.
“Cissa, dear, will you help me find my Wrippet Wrench?” He waved his wand over the rubbish scattered at our feet. “I seem to have misplaced it.”
I had no idea what a Wrippet Wrench was, but I hastened to crouch on my hands and knees and began picking through everything, ducking my head so that he could not see my face. “The Minister wasn’t there,” I told him with an attempt at nonchalance. “So the Senior Undersecretary listened to me, and I’m afraid he was not in any temper to go easy on us.”
A few bolts from the creaking gray contraption shot out at odd angles, and a copper one whizzed by my face, missing it by an inch. Father shoved his glasses farther up the bridge of his beaky nose and ran a leathery hand through his tuft of white hair, sticking straight up like stretched cotton. “This Purification System is missing something, but I just can’t put my finger on it,” he lamented. “It’s supposed to clean water, you see. All you do is pour in your old dirty bathwater or dishwater through this slot,” he jabbed a funnel jetting out of one end, “and it goes through here.” He thumped the side of a large iron gray cylinder and sighed.
Father picked up a bowl of murky green water and tipped it into the funnel. I heard some funny sloshing noises as it swirled around the cylinder, and then it spurted out the other end and into a basin. If possible, the water was even dirtier than before. “It’s supposed to be clear,” he murmured, scratching his chin. “And then you can use it again, good as new. I nearly had it working last night; it was just a bit peppery looking… If I could get this to work, Muggles would pay me a fortune for it. But I can’t seem to get it right without using magic. Maybe if I just gave it a simple spell or two…”
“They refused to give us an extension,” I told him flatly, unable to put it off any longer. “If we don’t pay the fine in three days, they’re going to come and loot the house.”
“You found my Wrippet Wrench?” he wanted to know, turning in circles in his distraction. “I just need to tighten a few things and that should do the trick.”
I picked up a dirt-encrusted tool with a few springs dangling from a bulbous knob on the handle and offered it to him. His eyes lit up and he grabbed it at once, plastering himself to the machine with his tongue poking out, concentrating hard. “This should do it, Cissa,” he muttered. “This should do it.”
I stared at him. “Did you hear what I just said? They’re going to come to the house. We’re out of chances.”
Father turned to look at me as though he didn’t quite understand how I had gotten there. “We come from a credible pure blood family,” he replied, brushing it off with a warm smile. “We keep a low profile. We’re not criminals, for Merlin’s sakes. I don’t see any reason why they should come to the house. It’s just an empty threat, Cissa. They have to act firm for the sake of appearances. Don’t worry.”
“But we don’t keep a low profile,” I argued. “Everyone thinks…” I picked at my skirt, unwilling to go any further. The words burned on my tongue. Everyone thinks you’re mad.
“Everyone thinks what, dear?” He scratched his head absently, peering around the side of the basin. He tapped it once, twice, and smiled at the reverberating ping sound. “Hear that? Isn’t it beautiful? I love the sound that copper makes.”
I sighed and reached in to give him a swift peck on the cheek. “I’m going in. I’ll call you when supper’s done.” I hurried into the house, ducking through the tilted doorways in search of my sister. “Andromeda!”
“In here!” a voice shouted. I trekked toward the sound of the voice, which was coming from the attic, and found her immersed up to her elbows in fabric that was streaming out of an old trunk.
I stopped short, my throat constricting. “What are you doing in Mother’s clothes?”
She smiled apologetically. “Bellatrix owled me with a letter asking for Mother’s blue robes. Remember that one with the lace collar and all the taffeta?”
I crossed my arms stiffly. “What does she need it for?”
Andromeda turned back to sifting through the trunk, her eyes wistfully lingering over jade-green robes. “You forget that she doesn’t have any memories of Mother at her new house,” she told me softly. “Ever since she got married, Bella’s been quite lonely. She doesn’t have a lot of reminders of Mother, and I think she just needs something to hold.”
I leaned against the doorway, slumping in defeat. “Maybe it would be a good idea to just send the whole trunk to her. If it stays here, we’ll lose all of Mother’s clothes.”
Andromeda’s head snapped up. Her black hair was curling with the humidity, her face veneered with sweat. “What do you mean?” she asked sharply.
I told her about Gaspard’s ruling, and the warning that Ministry officials would be coming in three days to acquire enough belongings to recompense our debt. Andromeda’s mouth dropped open in horror. “Her telescopes! We still have those silver ones in the cellar. And those bracelets with the serpents on them…we can’t let them take her things! Have you still got that comb you inherited from Grandmother? What about the glass jewelry box that boy gave you?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I have them, Andromeda, but they won’t be enough. And no one –” I glanced at the small oval window that overlooked Father’s work shed. “No one is going to buy Father’s inventions; they never buy Father's inventions,” I went on in a lower voice. “He’s working on something out there right now, but we both know it’s going to be a failure.”
She winced at the cruelty in my words, but she knew just as well as I did that I was right. “I wish I could contribute,” she said, “but the apprenticeship doesn’t pay. I still have six months of training left before I get on a payroll.”
I bit my lip. It was all my fault, really. I had finished Hogwarts two years ago, but had yet to enter some kind of field of employment. At the time I left, I had fully expected to work as a Historian. There was an opening for trainees in Northampton, and I was all lined up to take it. I would be studying under Bathilda Bagshot’s experienced eye along with two other lucky classmates who’d been squeezed into the opportunity; but then Mother caught a nasty sickness and I had to care for her. Bellatrix wasn’t patient enough to brew the potions for her ailment, or to tidy up the house. And although Andromeda had the perfect disposition for caretaker, she and Mother had never seen eye to eye. In Mother’s final days, the pair of them didn’t speak at all.
Now that I had been out of school for two years, I felt that my opportunities would be thin on the ground. I couldn’t remember half of what I had learned in History of Magic, and I hadn’t been keeping up with my book-reading as well as I should have. Most of the time I found myself running around like a hippogriff with its head cut off, trying to clean the house and care for my father while baking Pumpkin Pasties and the like to peddle downtown. It didn’t bring in more than a dozen sickles a week, but it was enough to buy a few scant necessities. Most of the money we acquired after Mother’s death was shipped directly from my eldest sister Bellatrix, whose husband Rodolphus was quite rich.
Last year Bellatrix gave us as much as she was able to, whenever she got the chance. Lately, though, the post had been coming less and less frequently; and now, we didn’t expect much from her except for perhaps a few knuts. It was a touchy subject with Andromeda, who worked all day long for no money at all at her apprenticeship, and she resented Bellatrix for being selfish. With all of her resentment, however, she still loved our sister dearly and would deny her nothing.
“We’ll have to hide everything,” Andromeda told me, gesturing around the attic. “Transfigure the jewelry to look like old parchment; bury the telescopes; Vanish Father’s tools. Anything else will have to go, even Mother’s perfume bottles. A few of the stoppers are emeralds and those will account for a nice bit of gold. If the Ministry thinks that we’re giving them everything we possibly can, then they’ll leave with the little we show them and be none the wiser.”
“Here they come,” Andromeda whispered, snatching her hand away so that the curtains would slip back into place. “They’re here.”
Father peered curiously through a narrow gap in the yellow curtains, his glasses sliding down the tip of his nose. Andromeda and I exchanged terrified glances. “Breathe,” she reminded me. “Just breathe, Cissy. We don’t want them to be suspicious.” She placed her hands on my shoulders, her eyes leveling seriously with mine. “Whatever you do, don’t look around at the places where things are hidden. They’ll be watching us very closely.”
I nodded, trying to smother my nerves. “Put your hands in your pockets,” she added under her breath just as we heard the tell-tale stomp of boots crunching over gravel outside the front door. “That way they won’t see how you’re clenching them into fists.”
I glanced down at my hands, and sure enough, they were tightly balled. Tiny half-moon shapes were embedded in my skin from where my nails dug into it, and I obediently slipped my hands into the pockets of my oldest, most raggedy brown robes. It was extremely important to appear as dirt-poor as possible (which we already were, anyway, despite our few valuable possessions which we refused to part with out of pride), so that the Ministry would hopefully take it easy on us and drop the charges.
Without a doubt, there would be many neighbors watching us today with their noses over their fences, chattering like it was grand old gossip. Andromeda and I had begged Bellatrix for money, but whether or not she ever received the letter, we would never know. Our next step was to ask our neighbors for donations. A few of them had kindly given us what knuts they could – but for the most part, many of them thought we deserved it. It was no secret that Wasteir thought Cygnus Black to be a lunatic. Look at the way he lets his daughters run wild! Serves him right! He ought to be chucked right out of town, and good riddance.
Three loud knocks echoed throughout the kitchen. I could detect a low scattering of voices outside, and caught sight of the forehead of a man trying to peek through our window. “Her wedding ring,” Father said suddenly, clinging to Andromeda’s wrist. He abruptly looked old and shrunken, and so vulnerable that it frightened me. “Where is Druella’s wedding ring?”
“I have it,” I assured him. The delicate crystal band had been sewn right into the lining of the robes I was wearing, along with two antique ivory needles Mother once used for embroidering. The robes chafed against my skin, coarse as a potato sack, and I could feel the stowaway objects burning right through the material. Andromeda, whose own hem contained ten sickles, moved coolly and collectedly toward the door. No sooner had her fingers turned the knob than our kitchen was invaded by a horde of Ministry men and women, their hawk-like eyes already sweeping the room from floor to ceiling.
“Cygnus,” a woman named Griselda Marchbanks greeted him, bestowing my father with a courtesy nod. My father nodded slightly in return while staring in disbelief at one man in the center of the swarm.
“Senior Undersecretary,” Father blubbered, stepping forward. “What a pleasant surprise. It is not usual practice for someone of your status to come along for this kind of thing. I am so honored –”
Gaspard pushed past him, inviting himself into our pocket-sized dining room just off the side of the kitchen. I couldn’t stop my mouth from turning down at the corners into a resentful scowl. My eyes watched him, fuming as he ran his fingers over our stubby candlesticks, over our modest collection of books, over the tops of velvet-upholstered chairs. My mind was already two hours ahead, mentally wiping down every surface he had touched. The whole house would have to be sanitized immediately.
“That,” Gaspard murmured to one of his fellows, pointing at a silver picture frame on a shelf. I closed my eyes, angry with myself for forgetting about that one. The silver picture frame had been a part of the room’s scenery for so long that I didn’t even think about it. I barely ever noticed it was there. In an instant, the man with a pointed red cap took the frame, picture and all, and it was swallowed up by a black bag slung over one of his shoulders.
They proceeded into Andromeda’s bedroom, turning items over and inspecting them with critical eyes. My sister remained utterly calm, not even breaking a sweat as one woman flipped over the mattress and shook out the sheets. One of the men stood directly over where a pair of amethyst earrings were hidden beneath the floorboards. “That,” Gaspard said again, nodding his head at a Goblin-made hair comb resting on the dresser. Andromeda frowned, but it was just for show. She had left the comb there on purpose so that they would think they were uncovering all of our petty treasures.
I stayed in the hall while the Ministry searched my bedroom, not trusting myself to disguise my skittishness. I heard one of the men say, “What is this?” in a curious voice, and my nerves began to jumble together, the blood rushing under my sensitivity-heightened skin.
But a moment later, another voice – female – replied, “It’s just a diary. It’s of no use to us.”
“Oh, you never know,” someone else spoke, and I recognized it to be Gaspard. “Let’s take it, anyway…to serve as a lesson…”
Andromeda’s hand reached around the doorway and caught my wrist, stroking it soothingly with her thumb. I forced my pulse to slow, reminding myself that it was just parchment in binding. It was replaceable. There was very little in there that would be of any interest to anyone – it was more of an account for how much I was able to sell every day in town. I felt myself smile somewhat. Let them read it all they like. It was just a record of how poor we were.
We gradually moved into Father’s bedroom. My father bobbed up and down between the inspectors, wringing his hands nervously. It couldn’t be more obvious that he was terrified they would find something of Mother’s we had forgotten to hide. Andromeda and I shot him warning glances, hoping he would back off, but he looked very nearly on the verge of a breakdown. He brought his hands to his face, whimpering and moaning when they plunked out Mother’s drawers and rummaged through everything, leaving it in careless disarray. Portraits on the wall of Blacks and Rosiers tittered amongst themselves, aghast that anyone would dare insult us in this way. But, as we had threateningly instructed them earlier, they refrained from shouting any obscenities at Gaspard.
They found more success in Father’s bedroom than any other room in the house – they made off with three phoenix feather quills, a tarnished brass set of scales, a broken bracelet fashioned from ugly chains, Mother’s silk wedding gown (Andromeda gritted her teeth at this, as Father was supposed to have shrunken it to look like a handkerchief but was evidently unable to taint the beloved garment in any way), and one item in particular that made all of us gasp in horror, even Andromeda.
“Her wand!” Father implored. “Please don’t take my Druella’s wand.”
Gaspard examined the stick, which had been tucked inside a hollow curtain rod in the window overlooking Father’s bed. The man’s mouth cracked open just a fraction, and the evening light glinted off his teeth like prisms. “Is this willow?”
Father swallowed, his forehead heavily lined with distress. “Yes. I believe so, yes.”
“And the core?”
“Unicorn hair.” Gaspard nodded appreciatively, and Father added, “But please, sir, don’t take it. It’s my Druella’s. It belongs to my Druella…” His hands were shaking as though he was afflicted with tremors, his thin chest rising and falling rapidly with wheezy breathing. “I beg you. Take anything else…”
“What does a dead woman need a wand for?” Gaspard Pravus mused, handing the wand to the man with the black bag. Andromeda’s fingers tightened in my grip as our mother’s most prized possession – her lifeline to magic – disappeared into its depths. I couldn’t stop staring at the black bag. My eyes stung, livid.
How dare they treat the noble Black family with such utter disrespect?
We trailed after Gaspard as he meandered back into the kitchen, his hands clasped pompously behind his back. Andromeda scurried over to the door, opening it wide in hopes that they would leave, but Gaspard’s eyes flitted lazily over the cauldron in the fireplace, the worn shoes on the rug, the painted wooden soup ladles nailed to a wall over the sink.
“Accio galleons,” he spoke.
Several seconds passed without incident. When nothing happened, he looked all around, his thin black mustache twitching. “Ah. Worth a try, I suppose. It’s too bad, Cygnus, that you didn’t have more. Just to think – had there been just another cheap brooch, or just another gold-hinged wand box, we would be done with you here. So whether it is due to your genuine poverty or due to your deception and a stubborn unwillingness to surrender what you owe, I regret to say that what we have found is not enough.”
“Sir,” Griselda Marchbanks rebuked, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Be quiet,” Gaspard ordered, still scrutinizing my father with his strikingly strange-colored eyes. “What would you say, Cygnus, is a fair trade for your long history of breaking Wizard Law?” Silence filled the room like smoke, and my father spluttered unintelligibly.
“I don’t – I’m sure I don’t know –”
And then, just like that, the black-haired man reached out and removed the wand poking out of my father’s pocket, and snapped it in half. Andromeda’s face paled, absolutely stricken. We stared at the broken pieces in the man’s slim hands, and he let them fall to his feet with an empty clink. They rolled into the grimy grooves in the stone tiled floor, broken beyond repair. It was nothing short of a sin, destroying such magic.
“You!” Andromeda accused, her face twisted with rage. She looked so much like Bellatrix when she was angry, and I thought it was very intimidating. Gaspard, however, only raised an eyebrow in disdain. He held up three fingers to his round of guards, who withdrew their own wands at once and advanced on my sister. Andromeda moved away from them, sliding a protective arm around Father, who was still staring at his ruined wand with unfocused eyes.
“I am done here,” Griselda announced resolutely. “I think we have done quite enough. Let’s go.” She nodded at another woman with strawberry blonde curls, and they both exited quietly. Gaspard did not follow their example.
“The law, Cygnus,” he drawled, “is not something you can choose to obey when it pleases you. You must obey, or there are consequences. You will come to understand, in time, how I am right.” His pale eyes locked on mine, sparkling in a sinister sort of way, and he pointed at me with one long finger. “That,” he said to the fellow with the red pointed cap.
A wand was raised, a jinx was fired, and I fell into an unconscious heap on the stone floor.
“More than fair trade –” someone was boasting. It was a reedy voice, the kind you would expect would belong to one of those shady characters at the market, trying to hawk cursed crystal balls and handing back two-headed Sickles as change.
“Absolutely,” replied a second voice. I could tell just by the sound of him that he was portly. With my eyes still closed, I studied my surroundings.
We were moving. I was not accustomed to this kind of moving. It was shaky and clattering, like the trolley I use for my Pumpkin Pasties. At first I thought I might be in some kind of lift, but then I felt the smooth dragon hide interior sliding around under my fingers and legs and recognized it at once. A carriage. A windowless carriage, too, judging by the fierce gusts of warm wind blowing in from all sides. There was no click-clack of horses, which meant that it must have been pulled by thestrals.
My long blonde hair was trapped behind my back, and the way that I was seated against it made it tug at the roots in my scalp. I wanted to adjust my position to free it, as it was quite painful, but I didn’t want to give whoever was in this carriage any kind of clue that I was conscious.
“The girl’s awake,” Portly Man declared. “Her hand just moved.”
“Oh, really?” Shady Character sounded mildly interested. I could feel him cocking his head to examine me. Being in such an enclosed space with these two strangers sent a violent sense of uneasiness stirring deep in the pit of my stomach. “No use pretendin’, Narcissus.”
My eyes flashed open. “Narcissa.”
“You’re goin’ on a trip,” he announced brightly. Both men smiled at each other in sneaky camaraderie, clearly pleased with themselves.
I sat up somewhat, patting my pockets for my wand.
“Lookin’ for this?” Shady Character inquired, jerking his thumb at my wand. It was perched on top of the black bag that rested between Shady Character’s left thigh and Portly Man’s right thigh. “Don’t even think about it. You move an inch, an’ we’ll curse you.”
My jaw clenched. “What am I doing here?”
Portly Man merely laughed. His robes were stretched tight over a ballooning stomach, and he brushed the crumbs from some previous meal off of it. Suddenly, I was feeling extremely hungry. I frowned in confusion, staring up at the brilliant blue sky, the sun unusually high in its roost. “It’s a different day,” I observed accusingly. “What day is it?”
It was Shady Character’s turn to laugh. “It’s been a whole day since you got conked out,” he sniggered. “You slept rock solid all night. Abrams here thought you might be dead.” He slapped his knee. “But choo weren’t, o’ course, an’ now we’re involvin’ you in a bit of business. Teachin’ your father a lesson, he said.”
“Teaching your father a lesson,” his friend echoed jovially.
“What kind of business? What lesson? Where is Gaspard?” My eyes widened, remembering Father’s broken wand. “Where’s my family? What the hell did you monsters do with my family?”
“Oh, calm down now,” the man who was apparently called ‘Abrams’ chided. “Your family’s just fine. And you’re fine, too, if you play your Gobstones right. Mr. Pravus put you in our care, said to get you to this place up north. He trusts us with this kind of job, see.”
“But the problem with that, is that we can’t app’rate,” the other man cut in. “Not witchoo with us. You try an’ app’rate with an unconscious person, they’ll get splinched! Damaged goods, see. An’ you can’t floo with ‘em, neither, since they’re dead easy to lose hold of. No, no, it’s much safer to just travel the long way.” He beamed again, amazed by his own genius. One of his eyes rolled the wrong way, making him look even more demented.
I could feel my insides crawling. “Where are you taking me?”
Abrams wagged a pudgy finger at me. “Well, I can’t tell you! You’d try to escape! Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” He reached into his pocket, groaning from the exertion of it, and pulled out a squashed Chocolate Frog wrapper. My stomach grumbled audibly, and he winked at me before ripping it open with his teeth and unsticking the melted chocolate from the foil.
He plopped it into his wide mouth, swallowing it whole like a bullfrog swallows a hornet. Still grinning, and now with chocolate smearing his teeth, he said, “We still have today and a whole day tomorrow to go. I’m doing you a favor, not giving you any food. Best get used to being hungry; where you’re going, there are no Chocolate Frogs.”
I soon learned that the under-handed, brown-faced weasel was named Lewisberg. He and his scumbag accomplice Abrams were carrying out Gaspard’s orders to deliver me to some point up north – they were keeping the exact details quiet, but I suspected Doorturn. For the most part, they were both eager to say anything they pleased about the operation – it was terrifying. It meant that they were supremely confident that I would never be able to repeat their words to anyone else.
They agreed to sleep in shifts during the second night – Abrams was arranged to sleep first, and then Lewisberg got second. Lewisberg trained his wand on me, one of his eyes (which I discovered to be glass) sliding sideways as he stared.
“Don’ try nothin’,” he warned, “or I’ll do ‘Petrificus Totalus’ on you.”
I folded my hands primly in my lap, matching his gaze. “How could I try anything? I’m clearly outnumbered here.”
“That’s right.” He flashed a nasty grin. “You certainly are.”
The sky outside deepened to black, and Abrams soon began to snore. My stomach was too empty for me to sleep comfortably, and I didn’t trust Lewisberg not to try anything. We watched each other beadily in the dark, me folded into the corner as far as I could go.
City lights swished by as the carriage rolled smoothly over paths of bricks and Muggle road. Gradually, they snuffed out one by one like flames from candles, until we were left with nothing but black forest on all sides and the carriage rattled uncomfortably over snarled roots that reached out of the darkness, twisting across the overgrown road.
“So,” Lewisberg spoke after a long while. His glass eye gleamed reflectively; I could see the shadows of pine trees racing behind me in his eye, as well as my own ghost-like form. “Not gon’ sleep?”
“Not tired,” I replied. It was evident that we were waiting each other out. “You forget that I slept for so long after you kidnapped me.”
“So tell me about yourself, Cissus,” he demanded tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment before wiping his thumbs over his eyes. He opened his eyes and mouth wide and shook his head, presumably to waken himself more. I knew that he wanted a conversation so that he would be forced to remain awake.
“The air is quite dry in here,” I told him after a minute. “No moisture at all. It’s like ash.”
Lewisberg ran a tongue over his chapped lips. “I s’pose.”
“What I wouldn’t give for a drink,” I sighed desolately. “Or just something moist. Like a sweet. Aren’t you thirsty, too?”
He considered this. “Yeah, I s’pose I am.”
“Of course,” I continued, “you could always borrow one of Abrams’s treacle toffees. He’s got plenty of them right there in his pocket. Why should he have the last of the sweets? He’s been eating them left and right and I’ve only seen you eat three. It’s hardly fair.”
“You’re right,” he observed. “I only ‘ad two, as a matter o’ fact!”
I made tut-tut sounds with my tongue. “That’s awfully selfish of him, keeping them all to himself. But it does make sense that he gets his way and you’re just the one who follows orders.”
“What d’you mean?” Lewisberg retorted defensively, jerking his thumb at his chest. “I’m the one givin’ orders here, missy. I’m the one in charge.”
“Really?” I mused, my gaze drifting over Abrams and the slobber dripping down his double chin. “He seems to get his way a lot, for someone who’s not giving orders here. He even gets to sleep first. By the time you get to take a nap, it will be sunrise and the sun will be right in your eyes, burning. He gets to sleep now when it’s cool and quiet and dark, and you have to be awake. You’ll be cranky and tired when it’s your turn to sleep and it won’t be satisfying at all. Maybe it would help you to stay awake if your mouth wasn’t so uncomfortably dry.”
Lewisberg licked his lips again, frowning. “Just thinking about those toffees makes my parched mouth water,” I went on. “They would certainly be delicious, and Abrams isn’t awake to enjoy them. You deserve it, don’t you?” I leaned back, folding my hands together. “But what do I know, anyway?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then swiftly reached across and pulled a toffee from his friend’s robes. “There we are,” he said greedily to himself. Not bothering to offer me one, he plucked the toffee from its wrapper and popped it in his mouth, chewing slowly. I’d seen Abrams and his enormous jaws working on those things for twenty minutes at a time, and I knew Lewisberg wouldn’t be able to talk much for at least half an hour. His teeth might as well have been glued together.
I bit my cheek, allowing my gaze to flit beyond him and out his window. Every now and then, there would be a dip in the skyline of trees, and I would see a smattering of stars. “You feel that?” I asked in a low voice.
Lewisberg responded in a grunt that sounded like, “Feel what?”
I rested my elbow on the window’s edge. “The cool breeze. Doesn’t it feel nice?”
He blinked. “I shupposhe sho, yesh.”
“Mmhmm.” I smiled slightly, closing my eyes and tilting my face heavenward. “It’s such a peaceful time of night. Everything is calm and serene. There isn’t a care in the world, nothing to worry about. The air is so icy and refreshing after such a long, hot day. You can just feel the sweat cooling on your skin, the breeze restoring you. It feels wonderful on your eyes, yes? They’ve been wide open all day, staring at the brilliant, radiant sunlight. They sting from being open for so long – they sting so much that it burns. The cool wind on your eyelids is like ice water, soothing it.”
Lewisberg made a few sounds of contentment, still chewing on his cement-like toffee, and I knew he was closing his eyes and leaning in to feel the breeze, too.
“I just love the whistle of the wind through the trees,” I told him dreamily. “How the grasshoppers seem to sing to you. And the carriage is moving steadily like the waves of an ocean. You can feel its rhythm calming you, steadying you. It feels like you’re in a ship, rocking back and forth.” I lowered my voice to a feather-light drone. “Back and forth, and back and forth. Back and forth, you swing. It is almost as if you are in a hammock, trundling side to side on a cool, peaceful evening.”
I opened my eyes, edging closer to him. His eyes were still closed, and he squinted somewhat, deeply absorbed in the image I was painting. “You feel safe and protected. Heavy. You feel so very heavy. There are three strings that have you tied down to Earth. Very slowly, like moving through water, you raise one arm and sever a string. And then, you rise a little higher in the sky. You can feel the promise of weightlessness inside your body, how it lifts you. You raise your arm once more and cut the second string. It makes you feel even more buoyant than before.”
“Mmmgh,” Lewisberg murmured, his head lolling sideways on his neck. The crease between his eyes was gone.
“And then the third string snaps of its own accord, and you are sent soaring into the soft clouds. You can feel the mist caressing your face. You feel secure. You feel as though you are dreaming deeply, skimming into space. Your fingers relax, and then your feet, and your hands. Very soon, it is as though your whole body has been disconnected from the world. You are like a rock embedded in the river, and everything flows around you. It moves around you, but you are still there, safe. You are dreaming now.
“In this dream, you can do anything. You are cool and comfortable and as light as a snowflake as you swing deep inside your hammock high in the sky, floating along for eternity. You rock gently and serenely, back and forth…” I moved closer to him, monitoring him carefully. “Baaack and forth. Baaack and forth. Baaack…..” I paused for a moment, and my words came out in a whisper, “and forth. Back and forth.”
He was out like a light. Just like Mother, who could be lulled to sleep during her fits of pain while she was ill, he couldn’t help but succumb to the rhythm of a catatonic voice.
Silently, I reached out and tugged on the black bag. My wand tumbled over the canvas and into my outstretched palm, and I smiled triumphantly. Pointing it at Lewisberg, I growled, “Stupefy.” A crack of red lightning spurted from the tip of my wand, hitting him right between the eyes.
“Hey!” Abrams cried, wrestling to his senses. He sat up, reaching for his wand, and I shouted, “Stupefy!” He immediately fell into an insensible slump, useless.
The carriage began moving much faster, speeding along so quickly that the body of the carriage rolled precariously on its side before dropping with a violent thud. One of the wheels split, and we fell at an awkward angle. Abrams and Lewisberg both were skidding toward me. “Ergh!” I yelled, fighting their deadweight bodies off of me. “Slow down!” I hollered at the thestrals. “Slow down!” I poked my head out the window, glaring at the winged black creatures. “Stop!”
In response, they kicked off the grounder harder, the muscles under their bony ribs circling like clockwork. I could feel the wheels of the carriage lifting off the ground, moving upward. And then, in a burst of intuition, I realized that these were no ordinary thestrals. They were Gaspard’s thestrals. And they knew that the balance of power had been tipped into the wrong hands.
They would take me straight back to him.
I only had seconds before we would be too high for me to act. I grabbed the black sack, threw the drawstring around my neck, and hooked my right leg over the window’s edge. I bent double to fit my head through the frame, and then carefully worked my left leg over, too. We were rising rapidly, gaining height; and before I could lose my nerve, I launched myself out of the carriage and plunged down, down, down through the trees.
I waved my wand, casting Cushioning Charms, but it was so dark that I couldn’t tell where the cushions were landing. Branches slashed at my arms, my hair catching in thorns and leaves, and my legs kicked the air as I fell. Reaching out, pawing at the leaves in hopes of grasping them, my face tilted back for just a fleeting moment and I could see the smoke-gray carriage trickling across the sky like a bat out of hell.
And then, without warning, I smacked into the ground.
Or rather, into a pumpkin. It wasn’t nearly as nice as a cushion would have been, and my brown robes were now covered in gooey pumpkin bits, but it was better than a broken spine.
I sat up, brushing some of the seeds off of myself, and ascertained my surroundings. Pumpkins. I had plummeted into an enormous pumpkin patch in the middle of a forbidding-looking forest. But the most alarming part of the whole scene was the size of the pumpkins themselves. They were enormous, beastly things, throwing shadows twenty feet long. The one I slid into had smashed to pieces, but all of the others stood so high that they could have been tiny houses. I patted the ground for my wand, as it had slipped from my clutch in midair, and slowly became aware of the twin lumps pinned underneath my left shoe.
My wand. Broken, worthless, the dragon heartstring snapped cleanly in half. The tip glowed oddly, reminding me of a body whose nerves may still operate moments after death, twitching and convulsing. The pale light shone brightly over one of the pumpkins, illuminating it.
The enormous thing smelled strangely musty, like a mausoleum. I frowned, kneeling next to one of the pumpkins, and saw that it was a fuzzy blood-red hue.
I glanced over my shoulder, wondering where the road might be, but couldn’t make sense of the forest. It encompassed everything, shrouding the world in softly waving trees and the ominous cracking of twigs. I sucked in a breath, suddenly missing the false sense of safety of the carriage, and began weaving through the pumpkins in a random zigzagging pattern.
A loud cry escaped from a section of trees far in front of me; I panicked and stumbled, turning around to dash in the opposite direction. I got lost in the labyrinth of pumpkins that sprouted from the ground like sleeping giants, twisting and turning, as the cry grew louder and louder. It sounded like a dying thing, shrieking – but long after its cries faded, the sound still carried through the wind like lingering voices in a cave. I knew that cry, and I also knew that my main object now was to get as far away from it as possible.
I swallowed, heart beating fast, and hurried past the last row of misshapen pumpkins into the trees. I should have known soon after entering that these trees were too sparsely set apart to be the ones our carriage had passed, but soon I was so incredibly lost that there was no chance of ever locating the road again.
I stepped quickly, humming in a frenzied sort of way in hopes of calming my nerves, thinking all the while of Andromeda and my father. How could I be sure that Lewisberg and Abrams weren’t lying about my family being safe? How did I know that Andromeda hadn’t been taken away in a carriage just like the one I’d just fled from? There was no way of knowing anything. I would have to fight my way through the darkness until I found some sort of civilization again, and then I would…would what? I couldn’t Apparate. I was as useless as a Muggle right now, with no magic to guide me. I gripped my broken wand in hand, muttering bitterly and hating myself for not apparating inside the carriage when I had the chance.
“Please,” I begged. “Reparo. Reparo. Please.” The broken stick did not respond in any way, and its tiny light was dying.
“No,” I pleaded. “Not now. Not here. Please. Reparo!”
My pulse raced, and my eyes swerved all around in the darkness. Everything was as black as pitch and I couldn’t see so much as a tree right in front of my face. I wanted to sink down at the base of one of them and cry hysterically, feeling very much sorry for myself, but another wolf howled – closer this time – and I had no choice but to hurry blindly.
Other wolves issued cries of their own – hollow, lonely pangs that reverberated in the still night all around me – and I picked up my pace. The faster I walked, the more I stumbled. My shoes tangled in tree roots that reached wickedly high off the ground, curling over anything with substance. I exclaimed in terror and kicked at them, rushing through nothingness and feeling like I was travelling into never-ending abyss.
I gripped the canvas bag tightly to my side, absently wondering why it felt so much lighter than it should have, and picked my way through leaves. For all the use they were, I could have shut my eyes; however, I kept them pried wide open, as though they were helping me along somehow. My feet tested the ground, searching for changes in slope or rocks that threatened to send me face-first into a bushel of thorns. My hands were extended like wings, grazing the bark of trees and providing me with a sense of balance as well as numerous slices and scratches.
“Reparo,” I kept repeating as a mantra. “Reparo, Reparo, Reparo.” I tried to Apparate several times, hoping that I would move through time and space and not constantly find myself slamming into concrete air. I had heard so many stories of my parents conjuring magic with their bare hands in dire situations, without wands. Was this not a dire situation? Was my desperation not enough to spark the magic that could transport me home? What would I even find at home? It could be a pile of simmering rubble, for all I knew…
“Reparo,” I whispered softly, more to block out the sounds of the forest than anything else. The utter quietness left my stomach twisting uneasily into knots. To imagine all of the horrible things that could be awaiting me on all sides…I could be running straight into the hands of death. A dragon, maybe – or a giant – or another person. A Muggle with one of those frightening little metal objects…those things that can kill you in the blink of an eye and leave you bleeding with worse damage than any spell could cause.
I screamed in frustration, pausing to kick a few trees, and hopped about on one foot. The foot that I used for hopping purposes promptly caught on a tree root and I flipped over onto my back, flat on the rocky ground.
“Ohhhh,” I moaned pitifully. “Stupid trees.”
A wolf, as if on cue, cried out again and I scrambled to my feet. Brushing the dirt from my cheek, I glanced up and stiffened.
Where there had not been a light before, there certainly was now. It blazed through the darkness, twinkling invitingly at me, beckoning me. Another wolf howled, and then a range of other wolves echoed his example. They were growing louder with insistence, the howls throatier. Hypnotized by that dot of light emerging through a shaft of tree branches, high up somewhere but not high enough to be a star, I staggered forward.
The light reached me from two miles away.
It moved from left to right, and up and down, and I wondered if I might be hallucinating. But the light, surely, was vanishing from one spot and then reappearing there – and then, suddenly, there were a dozen of them. They all blazed to life simultaneously, dotting through the trees and growing larger and larger as I raced down a steep, stone-covered hill.
The trees thinned significantly, and they seemed to decrease in age as well. I knocked short, skinny cedars out of my way as I tumbled downhill, my concentration never leaving the patches of light for fear that they would extinguish if I broke eye contact.
And there it was.
A massive black castle loomed against a backdrop of stars and moonlight, and a sequence of windows that circled diagonally across the highest towers winked down at me. It promised of food, and shelter, and perhaps an owl that I could use to send a letter to Andromeda. Rejoicing on the inside, I walked briskly along a sloping groove in the earth. I could see a wide, empty bowl extending far into the shadowy darkness. Tiny grass seedlings popped up through the soil, converting what must have once been an impressive lake into a field.
The distance from forest to castle was much longer than I approximated. The long shadows and the height of the building tricked my eyes into thinking it was exceptionally closer. I could feel the footsteps of wolves at my back as I curved around the dried-up lake toward the castle. Another howl broke through the air, almost as if to caution me. Almost as if to say, “Get away from here. This place does not belong to you.” But I ignored them, my feet padding silently over the ground, thinking single-mindedly of something to eat and an owl to contact my family with.
Fog curled away from the damp grass, winding around my ankles like serpents of smoke. Two crows were perched on a nearby juniper bush – overgrown – that was planted beside a crumbling stone wall. The wall must have stretched all around the entire property at one time, judging by the trails of broken rocks, but it had fallen away over the years. It looks abandoned, I thought warily. But then why are there lights on? Perhaps someone was trespassing…hopefully they wouldn’t mind another fellow trespasser for company.
I passed by the crows, but neither of them took flight. Instead, they merely twisted their heads to stare at me with sharp, glassy black eyes. The wolves howled again, seemingly surrounding the place with their echoes of warning, and in response a series of crows shot into the sky, having been gathered on an ugly gargoyle that hovered just over the front door.
The castle could have been handsome, I supposed. Even the gargoyles, upon a second glance, were not exceptionally horrid. There was simply something claustrophobic in the air that hung all around the castle, like a leaden spiderweb, that veiled it in…what exactly was it? It reminded me of the deep timbre of the wolves’ howls, hovering just on the edge of a message. Whatever the message may have been, real or imagined, I did not have the patience or inclination to discover. This castle was my first step toward getting home.
My fingertips grazed a brass knocker in the shape of a grizzly bear’s head, its mouth yawning wide open in a fierce growl. Its rounded handle was strung with thin, sheer strands that indicated a billywig nest. My eyes traveled upward, reading the letters on a plaque that was hung directly over the bear knocker. Malfoy Manor. I squinted my eyes, trying to remember where I had heard that name before. Malfoy. It was so very familiar, like something I had once read about in a book.
I raised my fist and knocked. Once. Twice. Three times.
A square patch of soft yellow light in the grass behind me wavered slightly, rippling like water. And then it disappeared, leaving behind even more blackness than before. Startled, I turned over my shoulder to see six other patches of yellow light scattered beyond the juniper bush, beyond the crumbling wall and into the hollowed out portion of land, all vanish. Someone inside the castle had heard my knocks; and in response, they had put out all the lights.
My teeth snapped together. I brought my fist to the door and beat on it again. “Hello?” I called, concentrating hard. My ear was pressed to the solid wood, but I couldn’t hear any movement from within. “Are you going to answer?” I shouted, my lips an inch from the door. I shifted my weight, gripping the black sack tightly in one hand. “This is the only place around for miles. I’m not going away.”
I pressed my hands to the door, groping for a handle. Absence of a door handle generally meant that the dwelling was occupied by magical people, not Muggles, as they used wands to open them. Only the oldest, most respected wizarding families would own a door like this, which refused to open for those without wands. I recalled Aunt Walburga’s house; her door was much the same as this one. But I knew that there was a little trick to open it without a wand, so that it could still be operated by her two children who were not old enough to use magic outside of Hogwarts.
I examined the knocker closely, raising the metal circle and smiling triumphantly to myself. Sure enough, there was a deep slot behind it. All I had to do was lift the metal knocker straight out and then slide it back into the wood at a different angle. I did so, and the door clicked open for me with a heavy groan.
Hesitantly, I prodded the door open wider on its ancient rusty hinges with the toe of my boot. The door wobbled uneasily, exposing more darkness that loomed for ages. The shadows swallowed everything, even oxygen, like jaws as they crept steadily along a cavernous corridor. Shadows seemed to undulate within other shadows, like the imprints of stirring ghosts.
I peered all around, still on the doorstep. I expected the air to taste musty, but it was quite the opposite; it tasted richer, thinner, and more open. I could feel an enormous space blossoming all around me, as though the interior of the castle opened up to the sky like the petals of a flower that twisted up through the night. Or even larger, somehow, than the sky itself. I had never felt anything more alarming, or consuming, or infinite. A shiver danced down my spine – a warning travelling downwind. The wolves remained on the crest of the hill, not stepping forward any further than where they currently stood, and their eyes glittered in the dark. I studied them as they slowly slunk back into the forest, their tails whispering against the grass.
I swallowed. My eyes darted around, sizing up the chances of danger. I did not foresee any reason why anyone living inside these walls would want to hurt me. If they were magical – and the knocker most certainly meant that they were – then they would have wands. My heart rose in my throat, warming me with the sensation of relief. I would be able to Apparate home.
And so, with much less trepidation than the occasion called for, I stepped easily over the threshold and into a long, tiled foyer.
The further I walked, the brighter it became. Stretching my head back, I made out several arched windows far above me – impossibly high up – that rather reminded me of the Owlery at Hogwarts. A faint bluish light streamed in, casting slices of moon upon the vast floor. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, tracing the fine lines of an enormous fireplace that was shaped like a person. I could see the sides and how they curved upward into stiff shoulders, and then the shoulders sloped into a neck with a head on top. The head was turned slightly, like a profile, and revealed a very long, pointed nose. I frowned, stepping closer. It wasn’t a nose at all. It was a beak that protruded from his face – like that of a crow.
I slowed my gait, moving more cautiously. Enormous theatre curtains, red and velvet, were pinned to the ceiling. They billowed down like a deflated parachute, some of the raggedy edges blocking windows and even drifting several feet off the floor at one place in the center of the room. Examining it closely, I could see something that looked like a mural hidden beneath the curtains, painted all over the domed ceiling. I wondered why anyone would go to such lengths to cover it up.
My eyes fell on a massive staircase – rounded – that began on two different sides of the room and snaked up the wall until they met in the middle, like mirrored reflections of each other. That second story where they met was lined with a balcony, and I guessed that there must be doors up there that led to the other floors and the towers I had seen outside; the towers that had been lit up with swatches of burning orange only minutes ago. I took to the right staircase and began to mount it, my hand trailing up the gleaming banister. It wasn’t dusty in the least… The castle held no flavor of neglect or decay; on the contrary, it seemed very much lived in. It felt as though the very walls themselves were alive and breathing, pulsing with a strange and greedy vigor.
I was almost to the top when I heard a soft creaking on the stairs below me, at the base. I stopped short, turning around so abruptly that my hair fanned out around my shoulders, and stared into the plunging darkness. The staircase was wrapped in shadow, fathomless. “It’s a girl,” someone whispered.
“Hello?” I called, my voice just a pitch higher than I intended.
More creaking resumed – this time at the top of the stairs. I snapped around, my lungs twisting painfully with fear. I thought of my mother’s crystal wedding band hidden in the seams of my robes, and the image of thieves taking it away from me flashed through my mind for a moment. I could not let them get their greasy hands on any precious Black family heirlooms.
“I can hear you,” I spoke, determined to keep any trembling out of my voice. I could picture Andromeda’s face in my mind, proud of me for maintaining composure. “I’m armed. If you try anything, I’ll kill you.” I fingered the broken wand in my pocket, hoping desperately that they would believe my bluff.
“Yes,” someone whispered, and there was a shuffling of footsteps on the staircase opposite the one I stood frozen on. “I’m well aware of that, you know.”
“Then what is the problem?” The other voice was insistent. “Haven’t we been waiting for long enough? Seven years, Horatio.”
“That is Mr. Horloge to you, sir.” The second voice sounded irritated.
“She is our guest. What kind of gentleman are you to be rude to a guest? I say we –”
“Show yourselves,” I demanded. “I can hear you talking. I know you’re there.”
Someone cleared their throat. “Pardon me, madam, for our horrible manners.” The voice was pleasant, hospitable, and rung out like bells in the otherwise silent room. "We are very pleased to make your acquaintance.” Far from feeling comforted, however, I backed against the wall, sidling further up the stairs to step into a shaft of blue light emanating from a nearby window. It felt safer somehow, being swathed in the delicate, protective ambiance.
“Show yourselves,” I said again.
A tall, slim figure stepped into the light, his palms raised in a gesture of innocence. He had rich chestnut brown hair and a long, charming face. His head was bent to the side, examining me curiously. “My name is Ramien Wax,” he said slowly, carefully. There was a slightly manic edge to his tone, as if he was putting a great deal of thought into the way he introduced himself and placed a heavy interest in its success. “You have no reason to fear us.”
“There are others.” I pointed into the shadowy darkness behind him. For all I knew, he was just a distraction. I would be talking to him and his accomplices could sneak up behind me, incapacitate me before I could blink.
“Horatio,” Ramien said softly, his eyes slipping to the floor as he awaited a response. “Come on, then.”
“This is ridiculous,” replied a pompous voice. “The girl is obviously unarmed. She cannot escape, anyway; why the theatrics?”
“It is crucial, my dear friend,” Ramien said, sounding slightly harassed, “that we treat this newcomer with nothing but kindness. For the last time, come out.”
I could hear grumbling, and then the heavy thud of footsteps. Horatio was as short as Ramien was tall, and as wide as Ramien was thin. He wore a ludicrous brown wig that was matted on top, from what I could only guess was his refusal to take it off while he slept. He had a long, bristly mustache that seemed perpetually lopsided, a ruddy complexion, and a gold pocket watch that hung from a chain in his waistcoat to his front pocket. “This is absolutely unallowable,” he was jabbering. “Positively forbidden. When the Master gets wind of this, it’ll be our heads!” He shook a stubby finger at Ramien, who looked bemused. “We’ll be in so much trouble. But I’ll tell him I had nothing to do with it, and you can back me up.”
“Do not listen to his nonsense,” Ramien told me genially. “He’s just wound up.”
“Who are you?” I questioned. “Why are you here?”
“Ah.” He smiled wistfully, averting his eyes toward the ceiling as he rolled back onto the balls of his feet. “Isn’t that the million-Galleon question? We are here, my dear, because –”
“No!” Horatio waddled closer, pinching Ramien's forearm. The top of his head barely met Ramien’s waist. “Absolutely not! We would get into such trouble. I can’t – no. I won’t allow it.”
The taller man brushed him off. “Horatio is only angry because he wasn’t even supposed to be here. It happened entirely by unfortunate happenstance. But here he is, you see. And now there’s no getting rid of him.”
“Getting rid of me?” Horatio sputtered. “Because if I couldn’t rid myself, I wouldn’t? You are touched in the head, I say.” He drew himself up to his full height (which wasn’t much), looking firm and profoundly ruffled. “Touched in the head.”
“Surely you would enjoy a tour?” Ramien purred, gesturing with his arm at a torch in a bracket on the wall. It immediately sprouted flame, washing us in light.
I stared at him and his empty hands. “How did you do that?” I demanded. In spite of myself, I found myself moving closer to him. “Is there a wand in your sleeve?”
“A wand?” he repeated with a smile. “My dear, I have not had any use for wands in seven years.”
“Almost eight,” Horatio added stiffly, refusing to look at him.
“You mean that you can do magic without a wand?” I wanted to know.
“No need,” Ramien responded. He waved a hand all around him. “Malfoy Manor…is magic. There is no reason to use a stick to channel it. Magic comes from the walls, the air, the ceiling. It comes out of you and me and I can twist it and bend it to do many things.” He snapped his finger and a second candle in a wall sconce flickered into being, illuminating a tapestry I had not previously noticed. It hung on the wall next to a black door, and I could see the outlines of bison as they ran in place. Elsewhere on the tapestry, warthogs and crocodiles were fighting each other on the banks of a swamp.
With my mind still on the wrestling animals, I allowed them to lead me through the black door and down a wide, splendid corridor. Gas lamps sitting on triangular glass tables hissed as we walked by them, popping on. The ceiling, just like the floor, was carved in ivory squares. The walls were a strange ocher, and lined with portrait after portrait. The gilded frames still gleamed, elegant, but the canvases inside had long since been ripped to shreds. I fingered a strip that hung from one of them as I walked by, wondering what the people in these portraits must have said to receive such a brutal punishment.
“This is the eastern wing,” Ramien informed me happily. “The kitchen is downstairs, as is the dining hall.” He pointed to an open door on his right. “That’s a spare room, there. Lovely bed posters. I do have a genuine appreciation for bed posters. I feel that they are a rather underrepresented piece of furniture.”
I followed his gaze through the doorway, and a flash of silver caught my attention. “A birdcage!” I cried, separating from them. I turned back, eyes bright with anticipation. “You have owls?”
He bit his lip. “Once upon a time, we did.”
My face fell. “You don’t have any now? None at all?”
Horatio answered this time, although his face was unreadable. “The owls don’t come here anymore.”
I sighed. “Have either of you got wands, then? If you don’t have owls, I’ll just have to Apparate.”
“Apparate?” Ramien inquired. “But why?”
I could have laughed at him. “Why? I need to get home, of course.”
Ramien and Horatio’s eyes flickered to each other, their expressions uneasy. I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and wondered if it had been the best idea to enter the castle. I could sense a heavy tension sprinkling the atmosphere, like the air before it rains, and began to devise a way to leave without drawing notice to myself.
“You can’t leave,” Ramien said quietly.
I felt my heart squeeze. “You can’t force me to stay here,” I answered tremulously. “I’m going to go now. You just –” I pointed at both of them, inching away toward the black door from which we came. “You just stay there. Stay right there and don’t move. Don’t you dare try to stop me.”
“You don’t understand,” Ramien went on, glancing at Horatio. Horatio’s mouth twitched, his small nose stuck up in the air in a superior sort of way. He nodded at Wax, as though confirming something between them. “You can’t leave. It’s physically impossible.”
I was still backtracking toward the door, not daring to turn around on them lest they try to curse me. Ramien took a step, attempting to bridge the gap. “Not another inch!” I exclaimed shrilly. “Stay where you are.”
“You can’t leave,” he continued calmly. “None of us can leave. This castle is under a spell. All who are inside it, and any who enter it, cannot leave. It’s been bewitched for nearly eight years, and we are all prisoners here.”
“What do you mean, you can’t leave?”I demanded, not trusting him. “You can’t Apparate out? You can make all the lights turn on without touching them, but you can’t Apparate?”
“We do…what the house permits us to do,” he mused. And as though to reinforce this statement, the black door behind us slammed shut.
“Petty magic, yes. Anything that could help us to escape? No. Powerful magic? No. Utterly hopeless.” He took a deep breath, and I noticed a few lines creasing his forehead, which told me that perhaps he was somewhat older than he seemed under the disguise of dim lighting. “But you will not believe me until you try it yourself. By all means…” He waved his arm soberly ahead of him, gesturing for me to lead the way back to the foyer.
I pointed the tip of my broken wand at him. “You first.”
Ramien politely obliged by skirting around me, his palms raised once more in surrender. “Horatio,” he called in a clear voice, narrowing his eyes at the stumpy man who stubbornly remained in the middle of the hall, several feet away. “You heard the girl.”
Horatio grumbled but did as instructed. We traipsed back to the double-staircases, Ramien attempting to make casual conversation. “What is your name, by the way?” he asked.
“Myrtle.” I kept my broken wand aimed at him, and he smiled faintly. “Face forward. Keep walking or I’ll hex you.” Horatio coughed, covering up a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snigger.
“Of course,” Ramien agreed lightly. “Whatever you wish, Miss Myrtle.”
We approached the staircase. “When Master hears about this, he’ll be in such an uproar that I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw you out a window,” Horatio huffed to his friend.
“If Master possessed the power to throw me out a window,” Wax said under his breath, “he would have thrown himself out a window a very long time ago.”
I wasted no time. While they were occupied with their chatter, slowly descending the staircase, I rushed quickly away from them and headed toward a black door on the opposite side. I could hear Ramien and Horatio bickering softly as I turned the knob with my hand. It made no noise at all, and I slipped easily inside. Perhaps another section of the castle would yield an owl or a wand, or a door that would lead me out of this place.
The other half of the castle was not polished and gleaming like its counterpart had been. I walked slowly upon a dirty red aisle runner that scanned the length of the cobwebby hall, Horatio and Ramien’s hushed voices fading into distant echoes. There was a massive grandfather clock pushed up against a grimy window, ticking curiously fast. I paused for a few moments, examining how the pendulum swung from side to side at every half-second, moving tirelessly. The needle-like hands on the shimmering silver face pointed to ten o’ clock; however, judging by the strange stillness in the air and the pressing black sky, I knew that it could have been no earlier than one in the morning.
I turned the knob on the first door I came across. It was a small, empty room with two sets of stairs sprouting out of the floor – one spiraling right, the other left, like the horns of a ram. The right stairway was packed with cardboard boxes, dusty and dented with corners of parchment sticking out through open flaps. I pulled at one of them, straining my eyes in the darkness, but could see nothing more than what looked like symbols sketched in several long rows.
I eyed the left stairway, wondering whether to continue up it or turn around and search out another room in the dilapidated corridor. But then I recalled the turrets with their lighted windows, disappearing one by one over the dewy grass outside, and purposefully began to climb.
It wound up and up in dizzying circles, and revealed another corridor much like the one below. This one harbored more doors – doors of all shapes and sizes. Some were so small that they looked to be for elves, and others were huge – gouged apart with an axe to admit something enormous through its passage.
Hesitant, I inched along with one hand still curled around my broken wand. There was simply so much to see. This corridor was used as a storage cupboard of sorts, with white linens thrown over bulky objects scattered throughout like a maze of hidden things. The coverings slipped off halfway in places, showing bits of furniture. As with every portrait I had seen thus far, the ones on the walls here were also shredded to pieces – all except for one – but it was empty aside from a yellow wooden chair with delicate flowers painted on its high back.
Brushing a strand of hair away from my eyes, I continued forward, curving around a vanity mirror that stretched from floor to ceiling, its glass cracked and chipped away in many places to give it the look of a mosaic. I reached out with one hand, just about to enter the door at the very end of the corridor, when something struck the air with a sudden force.
The swift, rolling succession of piano notes poured through the walls, under my feet, along the ceiling. It moved like water, tinkling in my ears and drowning out the rapid clicks of the grandfather clock’s pendulum. I wondered what sort of person would play an instrument at such an hour, so long after the sun went down. Without thinking, I turned on my heel and backtracked to a door I had passed earlier. My fingers sought a clear knob, ready to twist it, and before my flesh could touch the thing the door opened of its own accord.
I stepped back apprehensively, but was soon drawn in again by the smooth stream of piano notes wading down from above like snowflakes. There was something so dark about the song – yet so lonely and sweet, like the wolves and their low, thrumming cries – that compelled me to locate the source of it. And so I followed the tinkling of music, my feet travelling quickly in the dark as I crept silently along low-ceilinged corridors and ascended staircases. And at long last, I reached the very top.
Andromeda’s cautious face swam in my mind for a moment, warning me to stem my curiosity. But I had always been one to indulge my desire to know everything, and so I pushed the door open just an inch and peered through the shaft of yellow light.
Dozens of lit candles reflected in the ceiling. And the ceiling – a cone-shaped tower made entirely of large squares of glass fit into tarnished brass frames – glimmered brilliantly like a candle itself. In the very center of the small, circular room, directly below the tower’s highest point, was a wide, sweeping grand piano made of glass. It hovered several inches from the ground and intricate swirls and looping designs were etched into the surface. The light shone remarkably off of these indentations, bathing the room in a pearly incandescence. I watched the glass keys press down as pale fingers roamed along them, quick as hummingbirds, and a beautiful crescendo surged through the air.
The pianist’s back was to me, and I could see that he was dressed in an old-fashioned black cloak that was stiff around his hunched shoulders. His long hair was colorless, like sand bleached white by the sun, and tied back at the nape of his neck with silver thread. His head was cocked just the slightest bit, listening intently to his song, and I found myself forgetting completely that I had set out in search of a wand or an owl. Disconnected by the stupor of the melody, I pushed the door open wider yet and found that I was not the only guest in the pianist’s tower.
An elderly woman was seated at a narrow desk and chair against one round wall, leaning over a roll of parchment and writing furiously with a bent, much-abused quill. Three feet of parchment unfurled over the edge of the desk, rustling softly against her knees. The old woman wore robes with gray lace at the collar, which matched the streaks of gray in her otherwise white hair. Her hair was pulled up in a loose knot on top of her head, and although her face was soft and kind-looking, her expression was stern in contrast. Her lips pursed, lines crinkling all around her mouth, as she scribbled in fierce concentration. That is, until her quick eyes flitted to mine and she dropped her quill to the floor.
“Oh!” she gasped in shock. She glanced at the pianist, who ceased his playing at once. My left foot dragged backwards, and I was already turning – but so was he. The man revolved abruptly around, facing me, and I found myself too arrested by the sight of him to move. My hand flew to my throat, terrified, and I could feel my heartbeat thumping violently there underneath my skin.
The man’s face was waxy and bone-white, his irises a flat black. Even more strange than the color of his irises, though, was the size of them. They swallowed up most of his eyes until the only whites left were reduced to mere corners. They stared – perhaps at me, it was difficult to tell – blank and unblinking. When he finally did blink, it was as if he disappeared altogether. The only color at all on his face was from his startling eyes, so wide and frightening. They were like chunks of obsidian set deep into his skull, his pupils indistinguishable as they blended into midnight. When he blinked, his entire face was nothing but an expanse of pallid white – jarringly void of life.
And when his eyes did snap open once more, just after that fleeting second, I realized that he was not staring at me but at the swinging door behind me. It creaked, and diffused candlelight spilled onto the landing I had been standing on just moments before.
His thin lips parted as his black eyes continued to search. His teeth seemed just a fraction too long, just long enough to make my skin crawl; and they rested sharply against his ashen lower lip, the incisors protruding into his skin with two miniature dents.
It was the tiny twin pinpricks of blood that I spotted there, pooling under the serration of his teeth against his own skin, that finally kicked the ability to run back into my consciousness. And with a loud thundering of footsteps, I fled down the stairs and retraced my path through a series of corridors until I found the one with furniture covered in sheets and the single undestroyed portrait on the wall, still empty of an occupant. With my heart in my throat, pulsing as it kept time to the grandfather clock’s frantic ticks, a dangerously livid voice rose over the castle like a tempest. It crashed all around my footfalls, reverberating through the floorboards. I felt it in the doorknobs I turned, in the lights that flickered on one by one as I raced past them. It felt like the manor itself was vehemently outraged by my presence.
I ran past Horatio and Ramien, who were waiting in the foyer at the base of the grand staircase as though hoping I might pop up there, and the latter shouted out, “Miss Myrtle! The Master's tower is off-limits! There are very dangerous things up there.”
“Such trouble!” Horatio crowed. “She will be in such trouble!”
No, I won’t, I thought to myself, flying past the disfigured fireplace to the front door. I heaved on the door handle with all of my weight, my shoes scraping against the floor, gritting my teeth together as I pulled. “Who locked this?” I demanded shrilly, pointing at the door. I beat on it with my fist. “Unlock the door!”
“It only opens from the outside,” Ramien answered, and Horatio made ‘tsk tsk’ noises, pulling the pocket watch out of his waistcoat. He examined the front of it nervously without flipping it open, and then slipped it back inside his pocket.
“I do not know why you bother to explain,” he complained with a sniff. “Let her yell. Let her kick. None if it will do her any good. Personally, I think we ought to hurry off. If we are found down here, Master will think we let her in.”
“All the better!” Ramien replied heartily. “We should be rewarded for it. This is a great and wonderful miracle, dear Horatio. After all of those wasted hopes and bitter fantasies, the answer to it all wanders right into our midst, completely unexpected.”
“Mr. Horloge,” Horatio corrected irritably, “and although you are quite right, you know Master’s stubborn ways.”
“What are you suggesting?” interrupted a third voice. I whirled quickly around, flat against the front door. The man from the tower was at the top of the stairs. His hand slithered to the railing and he began to walk down towards us. In the dark, the white of his skin stood out like plaster. As he advanced into a beam of light sifting down through a high window, I caught a glimpse of his arm. The sleeve had fallen down as his hand grazed the banister rails, and I could see that the skin clinging to his bones was as thin and translucent as a jellyfish; an army of veins raced along just below the surface. Bones were visible underneath his transparent hand, and the blood rushed back and forth like minnows under the surface of a pond.
I recoiled in repulsion, fear whirling in my head as I wondered where I could run. The splintered end of my broken wand dug into my stiffened fingers, and I fervently prayed that it still held traces of magic, traces of anything at all that might defend me. My eyes darted to his ghastly hand again, but he had moved out of the patch of light and his sleeve was gradually slipping back down over the tips of his fingers. As if knowing what I was thinking, he said, “My gloves, Wax.”
Ramien bowed and scurried off up the stairs. When he reached the entrance to the east wing, I noticed the old woman from before, standing in the shadows next to the door of the west wing. Her face was unreadable in the dark, but her hands were balled tightly into fists at her sides.
“Who are you?” the man inquired. He had reached the floor, but he stepped no further. The train of his black cloak was still trailing up the last three stairs.
“She is Myrtle,” Horatio responded before I could even think about speaking. “And I had absolutely nothing to do with it, sir. I am just as astounded as you are.” He closed his mouth and then opened it again, gaping like a fish. “I am innocent in this matter, completely innocent.”
“She?” the man repeated, and his lips parted further. His mouth reminded me of an endless cave, with stalagmites shooting from overhead. Those impossibly black eyes lingered around the room.
“Yes,” Horatio confirmed, looking slightly relieved that he hadn’t been stabbed to death yet.
“Myrtle.” His voice was barely audible as he considered this. He cocked his head, teeth glinting. “What is your real name, Myrtle?”
I raised my eyebrows. “I just want to leave,” I finally managed to say. “I’m sorry for intruding; I cannot even tell you how sorry I am. My father is right outside – he’s looking for me. So are my three uncles.” I turned my ear toward the door. “That’s them now. They’re hunting wolves. It’s for…” I struggled for breath. “Sport. They hunt for sport and they’re searching for me.”
He remained silent.
“Once again, I apologize for my rudeness,” I went on, aware of a bleak stress permeating the air. “I’ll just…if you’ll just unlock the door, then, I’ll be right out of your hair.”
Ramien returned with a pair of black leather gloves. He pressed them into the pianist’s palm, and the man slid his fingers into the gloves at once. “I do not hear anyone outside,” he stated. “And if I were you, I would hope that they do not come looking for you here. Tell me again, please, what your name is?”
“Narcissa,” I obliged, my heart sinking. “My name is Narcissa Black. I just want to leave. I swear I’ll never bother you again. I’m not a thief – I’ve stolen nothing. I just…got lost.”
“You wandered into the castle on accident?” he mused quietly.
“Master,” Ramien cut in, bravely edging closer to the man. “Surely you can see the benefits of this fortunate coincidence.” He stole a peek in my direction, and with a lowered voice, continued, “I implore you to be on your best behavior. It is pertinent that you display your kindest, most inviting side.”
I watched the Master’s reaction to this, thinking to myself that a more uninviting creature could not possibly exist.
“You…” the man curled his lips over his long teeth, pressing them together. His upper lip was now stained with drops of blood. “You may stay. But only because you have no choice. My name is Lucius Malfoy, and this is my house.” He waited several long seconds, looking impatient. “I am waiting for you to thank me for my kindness,” he told me bluntly.
“Kindness?” I repeated. “I don’t want to stay here in your house. I want to go home.”
“This is your home now.”
“You can’t make me stay,” I said with more menace than I thought I was capable of.
“No, I cannot. But the house can, and it will. You are going nowhere and since there is nothing you can do about it, you might as well get used to it immediately. And then I shall be awaiting your respect and appreciation for my hospitality. You will thank me.”
“I certainly will not,” I shot back, trying to pry the door open again. It still refused to budge. I skirted over to a window. It appeared to be locked, but that would not stop me.
“How dare you speak to me in such a way?” Lucius admonished. “After all I am preparing to offer you! After you trespass here like a scoundrel!” Ramien narrowed his eyes at him, and Lucius took a steadying breath. “All right. If you will come with me, I can show you to your room. It is the largest of my guest rooms, and I think that you will be comfortably happy –”
I lifted a chair and smashed it through the window.
Lucius stopped talking. The shattered glass was still rattling on the floor like a rainstorm, and Horatio looked flabbergasted. I, however, did not particularly care. I lifted my knee onto the sill and lunged outward, knocking right into an invisible wall, and rolled backward until I hit the glass-laden floor with a heavy thud. Shards poked my legs, piercing the backs of my arms, and I sat up.
It was impossible. There was no…how could it have…? I stared in confusion at the tall juniper bushes outside, and the crows that faced away from me as though I was not ten feet away from them and they could not hear me. There was nothing to separate us but air. I should have plummeted into dirt.
I raised my hand and plunged it straight through, nearly cracking my knuckles on an unseen barrier. “Ouch!” I shouted, shaking out my fingers. With my other hand, I investigated the window. Despite the cool breeze I felt stirring my hair, it was sealed somehow. My fingers drifted over a cold, rock-like substance that I couldn’t see. A wall. It stung my fingers several seconds after skimming against it, like a burning aftertaste. I remembered Ramien’s words about a spell…
“How…?” I trailed off, turning back to stare at them each in turn, my eyes wide with worry.
Ramien shook his head mournfully. “How very bad for you…and how very promising for us,” he remarked in an undertone.
I went back to the window, and saw that the glass on the floor had fit itself back into a solid sheet once more – immaculate – as though it had never been broken at all. I rapped twice on it, and it rang crystal-clear throughout the foyer.
“If you are done,” Lucius growled through bared teeth, “perhaps you will allow me to show you to your room –”
“Absolutely not!” I cried, horrified. I rushed to another window, desperately trying to fling it open. The curtains closed forcibly around it with a life of their own, and I dashed away just moments before they could strangle me. “I’m not staying here,” I proclaimed, pointing at the still-ruffling curtains. “My family needs me. They're waiting for me. I won’t stay here.”
“Then with that attitude, you can sleep right here on the floor,” Lucius snapped.
“Master –” Ramien entreated.
“I don’t care,” Lucius muttered, turning around and sweeping up the stairs. The old woman at the top emerged from the shadows, holding out a hand to receive him. “It is not this one. It is not Narcissa Black.”
“It is imperative,” Ramien said, his voice desperate. “You’ve got to tip the odds in your favor, Master. It’s never going to happen if you keep up this negative attitude.”
“Don’t you remember the specific words?” Lucius shot back testily. “I’ve told you a thousand times, Wax. The spell doesn’t mention anything about me changing; otherwise, I might’ve tried to develop a conscience years ago. It just says –”
“I know, I know,” Ramien cut him off. “‘In all of your disdainful arrogance.’ Pray tell, what kind of person would want someone who is arrogant? I must say, sir, that I don’t find it a quality trait. And then there’s also the requirement that you have to reciprocate those feelings…”
“Are you saying that I’m incapable of that?” Lucius hissed. “Judging by Miu’s running out of every room I enter, I must be a nasty sight to behold. Just because people can’t feel for me doesn’t mean I can’t still feel for others. It’s not impossible.” He sighed. “They say I look like a corpse. But that doesn’t mean I really am one.”
“It’s true,” Ramien remarked. “You do look rather dead.”
“Mr. Wax!” Horatio cried hoarsely. “How could you say such a thing? Of course Master does not look dead. He looks – well, he looks quite fetching, I’d say. I’m sure that if the castle were open for business, beautiful women from all over would be flocking outside, fighting each other for his hand.”
“Don’t lie, Horloge,” Lucius rebuked, sounding bored. “I always know when people lie.”
“We’ll have to try a different approach,” Ramien confidently decided. “Trim up your hair a bit. Get Wren to make you some new clothes. The girl could tell us all about the latest fashions – I’m sure your robes are long out of style. We’ll dust you off and play up your finer aspects, and the spell will be broken in no time.”
“What did I tell you?” Lucius was exasperated now. “It’s not her. We’ll just have to wait.”
“We’ve been waiting for years,” Horatio muttered under his breath.
“I agree,” came a female voice. It was prim and severe, with an irritated edge to it. “With Master Malfoy. This girl is not the one. In my opinion, it would be best for all of us if we were to get rid of her…”
Ramien gasped. “Are you mad? Why must you judge so quickly? She’s only just arrived. No one even knows her yet.”
“I have a sense for this sort of thing,” the severe voice responded. “And so does the house. Haven’t you noticed the chairs sliding away from her, the portraits sucking back into the wall as far as they can go whenever she walks by? Everywhere she goes, the curtains get all stiff and the lights go awry. The house knows she’s not the right one. It doesn’t want her here.”
“You’re trusting the house’s judgment?” Ramien replied, sneering a little. “The house is cursed. It’s evil. It doesn’t want us to ever leave and it doesn’t want us to break the spell. In my opinion, the fact that it’s behaving so strangely is further proof that this go round, we’ve got it right. If you remember last time…”
The room went suddenly quiet.
“Well,” Ramien continued carefully, “it didn’t act this way. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. And obviously, that wasn’t the right one. So here we are, years later, with another shot at it. I beseech you, Master, not to be selfish.”
“Selfish?” the stern woman repeated, her tone rising angrily. “Selfish? The house will kill us! We must find a way to dispose of her before we find ourselves being strangled by our very own bedclothes. If you pull your head out of the clouds for two seconds, Mr. Wax, you will see how selfish you are being. You’re so eager to leave this castle that your judgment is clouding up. Our lives are in danger. If we just submit to what the house wants, we’ll be fine.”
“Of all the horrid things to say!” Ramien now sounded just as livid as the woman. “Don’t you recall what this house did? Don’t you remember what happened because no one was allowed to leave it? Two people, Wilda! Two. Yes, of course I am anxious to leave. The history of it is suffocating. And might I remind you that it is not the house itself that killed them. It is that fairy witch, and her curse. It seems that seven years is not a long enough punishment. Fairy or half-fairy lifespans are shorter than full-blooded witches and wizards, and for all we know, she’s dead by now. And because of a spell she’s probably forgotten all about, the grudge will hold forever and we’ll always be stuck here. So yes, excuse me for thinking positively and hoping that this new situation is the answer to our despair.”
“No more,” Lucius ordered. “That is enough arguing. Wax, your words are worth some weight. I’ll consider them –”
“Master Malfoy,” the woman said through gritted teeth.
“Enough,” Lucius told her. “Accompany me to the tower so that I can play this out.”
Several chairs grated against the floor, and I took the opportunity to slip away from where I had been crouched just outside Lucius Malfoy’s personal study, flying down the hall and into a circular powder-blue room. Golden letters were burned over the entrance, marking it as Narcissa’s Quarters.
I flung open a door to the wardrobe and fit myself inside it, shutting it after me. Ever since I was a small child, I’d always hidden in wardrobes when I was frightened or just wanted to be alone. In this case, it was a mix of the two.
The wardrobe itself was white and sturdy, plenty large enough for me to hide inside its bowels. Most of the furniture in the room was a matching white, with gold accents on bedposts, pillows, and the dressing table knobs. Everything else – the coverlet, the walls, the ceiling, the floor – was the color of blue sky. It was a pretty room. Andromeda would have loved it. But the only part of the place I found to my liking was the darkness when I was shut up in the wardrobe. It swaddled me in a false sense of refuge. Presently my heart beat fast, wondering if anyone had seen me running away from the study, knowing I had eavesdropped on what looked to be a private meeting of sorts.
The woman called Wilda was right about one thing, at least: the house certainly responded to my presence. Every time I pointed at a candle, imitating Ramien, it flickered to flame for a few seconds before snuffing out again. It didn’t allow me to use its magic like it did with everyone else. What did it all mean? I couldn’t make sense of it.
Wilda had mentioned disposing of me. Did she think that getting rid of me would keep her safe? How would they go about killing me, anyway? If they couldn’t use strong magic here, it would have to be some sort of Muggle murder, with a sword or something. Or maybe they would just throw me into the fireplace and wait for the house to do the honors. A sacrifice.
“Knock, knock,” someone gently called. I jumped a foot in the air, startled out of my wits. “I know you’re in there, Narcissa.”
I remained frozen, eyes large and trained on a thin crack in the wardrobe door. A shadow moved over it, standing just on the other side. I wondered how whoever it was knew I was in there. My curiosity got the better of me, and I blurted out, “How did you know I was in here?”
The person laughed. It was a friendly tone, female. “My dear, the wardrobe told me.”
Ever inquisitive, I poked the door open and swung my legs out. A hand the size of a watermelon greeted me, offering to help. I climbed out, ignoring the gesture, and stared in incredulous stupefaction at the enormous monster of a woman towering high over the wardrobe, even when hunched. If she were to straighten herself out, her head would probably scratch the lofty ceiling.
She was absolutely massive. And she was grinning broadly at me, her lips stretching out as lines crinkled around her eyes. Her hair was carrot-orange and springy, spiraling out in every direction like corkscrews in one of my father’s failed inventions. Freckles the size of raindrops splotched every bit of her skin, even her fingers and under her pale eyebrows.
“I’ve never met one of you before,” I said bluntly.
The giantess blinked her eyes, but smiled cheerily all the same. There were inch-wide gaps between her humongous teeth, and they all curved slightly outward. “Well, now you have.” She pointed at the wardrobe I had just stepped out of, and I found myself marveling at her fingers again. They were as thick as baby tree trunks. “See how it gave you away?”
Unfeasibly – but true enough – the wardrobe had rearranged its features. The gold paint that embellished the woodwork, thin as thread, twisted down into a pronounced grimace. The carved eaves were knotted like eyebrows, and some paneling on the bottom had shaped itself to look like a wide mouth frowning in disapproval. The furniture was actually glaring at me.
So now the wardrobe was against me, too. There went my only sanctuary.
“I’m surprised it didn’t swallow you,” the woman remarked with raised eyebrows, sounding genuinely amazed. I backed away from the piece of furniture, imagining a pink fur coat stretching out of it like a large tongue, licking me up as a bullfrog would and devouring me whole. Just as the thought flitted through my mind, the wardrobe rattled a bit. It was clearly discontent with me staring at it.
“Well, I don’t want me to be here, either,” I informed it hotly. “So if you don’t like it, then you can just sod off to another room.”
And with that, the wardrobe’s four clawed legs arched themselves, heaving the white frame off of the ground, and it waddled over to the door, turning sideways to fit itself out. I heard it clanking along the corridor, searching out somewhere else to go. My mouth dropped open. “It heard me! It actually understood what I said.”
“Of course it did,” the giant clucked. “What’d you expect? Wardrobes have such touchy personalities. Still, that was downright polite compared to some other characters in this castle. If you’d told a kitchen dresser to bugger off, it would have spit knives at you. My name is Wren, by the way.” She stuck out her hand again, swinging it fast like a giant pendulum, and I jumped away from it before I could stop myself.
“Sorry.” She looked embarrassed, her cheeks tingeing pink. “I forgot myself. Sometimes I move a bit fast and it makes people jumpy.” With all of her obvious power and extraordinary strength, she seemed to possess the ferocity of a butterfly.
I reached out and shook her hand. Her skin was rough and bumpy, and she could have easily crushed me in her grip. I could feel the grooves of her fingerprints, and found it oddly fascinating. I’d always imagined giants to be loud, savage things that didn’t know how to use proper utensils for eating. “You may call me Cissa.”
“Lovely to meet you, Cissa,” she beamed. Wren pointed at a metal tape measurer lying on the ground, and it began to float through the air, bouncing over to us like a stone skipping across a lake. “If you’ll just hold still for a few moments…”
The tape measurer stretched out, circling around my waist, measuring my legs and arms and the circumference of my neck. “What’s it doing?” I asked, trying to swat it away.
“You’re getting measured,” Wren told me, as though it should have been very obvious. “You can’t go round wearing a potato sack forever.”
I glanced down at my brown robes, flushing slightly. “I wore this…on purpose,” I insisted lamely. Wren arched her eyebrow but didn’t comment.
“Besides, the Master will want you looking your best at dinner this evening.”
“Dinner?” I wrinkled up my nose in disgust. “With him?”
“Yes.” Wren held a color wheel against my skin. “Hmm. Never would’ve pegged your season as spring. Looked more like winter, but here’s your proof.” The color wheel was pinching one of my ribs from the force of her gigantic hands, but I tried not to stagger back. She probably wasn’t aware that she was exerting any pressure at all. “Maybe a nice soft green?”
“I don’t like green,” I rejected at once. I was too used to green. It was all over my father’s house in Wasteir, because of Slytherin. I was immensely proud of my Slytherin roots, but I didn’t fancy wearing the color all the time. “Besides, I look better in blue. It brings out my eyes.”
“Green it is!” she said brightly. I was vain enough to frown about the choice.
“I’m still not eating with him,” I announced. “I’m too tired, anyway.” I wasn’t lying about that. I’d spent the whole of the previous night, as well as all morning and afternoon, searching out doors and windows in the castle and trying to escape through them. The results had been fruitless, and one set of curtains had pulled my hair, ripping out several stands. I’d stumbled back into a door, which flew open at once and knocked me into a little decorative table. A flower vase that had been sitting on the table then proceeded to hammer me on the head. I was not feeling very welcome, nor was I pleased about the circumstances.
“I need to get home,” I repeated for the fiftieth time that day. Just as with everyone else, my plea fell on deaf ears. “My father needs me. I have to find out what happened to him and my sister.”
“And dark green ribbons around the waist, I think,” Wren mused. She narrowed her eyes, studying my shoes. “Those are just awful. They’ll definitely have to go.”
“I don’t care about my shoes!” I exclaimed. “If you have any soul at all, you’ll try to get me out of here. There’s got to be a way to break the spell, or get around it.” I paused, examining how her face had abruptly gone blank. “How do you break the spell?” I questioned.
Wren collected her tape measurer, pretending that she hadn’t heard me.
“There’s got to be a way,” I went on. “There are almost always loopholes to enchantments. I’m sure that we could find one. Isn’t there a library in this castle?”
“Only the biggest library in Wauning,” she laughed. “It’s in the dungeon. Wall-to-wall books, or so they say. I can’t go down there.” She gestured to her head. “The ceiling’s too low for me.”
“Wauning?” The word felt foreign on my tongue. “I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“You and the rest of the world,” she added quietly, pushing back one of my sleeves. “Then it’s settled. A nice pale green dress with forest green ribbons and ivory robes.”
“What are you, a seamstress?” I asked sarcastically, folding my arms together. I was in an exceedingly cantankerous mood. I knew that if I stopped being irritated, the sadness would settle in with sharp pangs. And gloom was far worse a companion to have than anger.
“That’s right,” Wren confirmed.
“How do you break the spell?” I asked again, trying to catch her off her guard in hopes that she might answer me. Just like before, she seemed to have fallen mysteriously deaf. “Fine,” I growled. “Don’t tell me. I’ll just ask Mr. Malfoy.”
Wren chuckled darkly. “Go right ahead. But I warn you…you might not like what you hear.” And with that, she ducked her head and squeezed herself sideways through the door. I suddenly understood why so many doorways were gouged apart around the edges. “Your clothes will be finished in about three hours.”
“Take your time,” I shouted after she was already gone. “I’m not wearing them.”
True to her word, thunderous footsteps clamored back into the bedroom three hours later. I had been sitting in a bare corner on the floor, having pushed the dressing table up next to the bed. I didn’t trust any of the furniture and refused to touch it more than necessary. I resolved to recline against the wall until the spell broke, hoping the wallpaper wouldn’t bite me in the meantime.
“All finished,” the giantess chirped. “Here we are.” She shoved me behind a Victorian-style dressing screen and draped the clothes over the side. “Try it on, then.”
Muttering, I pulled the green garment over my head and then threw on the white robes over top. I stared at the dark green ribbon in my hands, not sure what to do with it. In the end, I tied it in my hair. I stepped out from behind the dressing screen, arms extended. “Ta-da.” I let my arms flop to my sides.
“What did you…?” Wren’s face split into an amused smile. “No, no, dear. That’s not what the ribbon’s for.” She loosened the white robes, which had been tightly fastened, so that the green dress was visible and the robes hung like scarves on either side. She yanked the ribbon out of my hair, ignoring my protests about how much it hurt, and looped it around my waist. “There.” She admired her handiwork. “Don’t you just look darling?”
“I look like celery,” I told her, picking at the ribbon. “And that’s not how robes are worn anymore. They’re supposed to cover up your other clothes, right up to the neck. That’s the fashion.”
“Not in this castle,” Wren murmured. “We’re a bit behind the times.” She cocked her head. “It doesn’t much matter what you’re dressed in, in my own opinion. But these are the Master’s preferences, so it’s best to just do as told.”
I was about to ask why everyone obeyed his orders even though he couldn’t very well chuck them out of the castle, and then remembered his translucent skin and the long, sharp teeth that drew blood from his lower lip.
“Is she ready?” someone spoke, and Horatio’s head popped into the room. He was fidgeting with his pocket watch. “It’s ten ‘til eight. The table is set, the candles are lit, and Master is waiting.”
“Dinner,” he and Wren both answered at the same time. Wren smoothed my hair away from my face.
“Oh, I’m not going,” I answered breezily.
Horatio gave a little spasm. “Not going?” he choked.
“But of course she is going,” Ramien’s voice cut in smoothly, and his long legs strode into the room. “Everything is ready.”
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind some sleep,” I said. “I’ll need a full night’s rest before my journey tomorrow.” When their faces remained expressionless, I added, “For when I go home. It’s quite a long walk.”
There was a pregnant pause, and then Ramien turned to Horatio and said, “Is it the lamb soup or the vegetable tonight?”
“Lamb, I believe.”
“Excellent. I personally suggested that dish to Cook, you know. It always makes the best first impression.”
I opened my mouth to refuse them again, but my head was already consumed with the thought of food. I could have been merely imagining it, but I suddenly thought that I could detect a waft of chocolate cake. My stomach rumbled audibly. I hadn’t eaten a thing since I left home. Suddenly, my limbs felt thin and weak, incapable of supporting me. Perhaps I would do well with a square meal before I set out on my trip home.
“I’ll eat,” I agreed. Their faces broke into smiles of relief. “Up here. In this room.”
“But you can’t!” Horatio was aghast. “It’s already been decided that you would dine with Master!”
“Him?” I winced. “That would destroy my appetite. I can’t eat while looking at that – that beast.”
A loud crashing noise erupted from the corridor, and I gave a start. Horatio, who was closest to the hall, poked his head around. When he turned back, his face was stark white. “That was Master,” he reported dazedly. The man looked like he might keel over in a faint. “He heard you. We’re going to die. We’re all going to die.”
Ramien fanned Horatio with his hand, and Horatio was swaying back and forth, perspiration dotting his clammy skin as his eyes fluttered. “This is not good,” Ramien muttered, exchanging a serious look with Wren. Wren was absolutely terrified. I peeked into the corridor and saw that a shelf had been smashed to bits. Chunks of rubble showered the floor, some of the pieces stirring pitifully as though trying to mend itself. Ramien motioned with his hand and the pieces flew into the air, regenerating into the shelf it had been only seconds before. The proof of damage was gone, but Ramien’s eyes were still heavy with worry.
“This is very bad,” he said for emphasis. “Very bad.”
I bit my lip, observing the fear in the three of them but not quite absorbing it myself. “Mrs. Macnair,” Wren suggested from nowhere, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. I could feel the floor groaning in reaction. Or perhaps I had heard it groan…
“What can she do?” Horatio snapped, his eyes focusing again.
“Who is Mrs. Macnair?” I wanted to know.
“A very fine lady,” Wren answered me. “She is the Master’s assistant, and in charge of how most things are run in Malfoy Manor.” She nodded vigorously. “Highly efficient, too.”
“Let’s not involve the higher-up’s,” Ramien said. “Myrtle, you’ve got to apologize to him personally.”
“Who is Myrtle?” Wren asked, just as I responded with, “Absolutely not.”
There were many sighs all around. “You don’t get a choice on this one,” Ramien told me, his tone colored with warning. He opened the door and Horatio and Wren jostled me from behind, pushing me out into the corridor. I eyed the nearby shelf warily, imagining that no one would probably be able to fix my skull in the same way if it shattered all over the floor.
“Go on,” Ramien urged. All three of them looked violently ill. They had barricaded the door to the room designated as mine. I had nowhere else to go. Frowning moodily, I stomped off downstairs. On the way, I pulled out the ribbon and left it on the floor, and then fastened the white robes in the modern style, to cover my sliver of exposed dress so that I would not look like some kind of common Muggle.
When I reached the dining hall, I found it empty. Elaborate silver dishes were filled with all sorts of mouth-watering things – hot rolls, steaming bowls of soup, roasted chicken, potatoes and boats with gravy, tossed salad…and there, right in the middle, was the largest blackberry tart I had ever laid eyes on. My stomach lurched, and I felt my feet shuffling forward. I pulled out a chair, preparing to eat, and it promptly tipped itself over. As I had been ready to sit on it, I plummeted to the ground.
I swore loudly, kicking the chair. It tilted back onto its two hind legs like a scorpion defending itself. I turned my attention to the food on the table. Reaching out for the blackberry tart, a bowl of tomato soup began to spray at me. I moved away before it could scorch my face, but several droplets splattered on my arm. I swore again, kicking everything in my immediate radius. The table picked itself up and moved away, the contents of the soup bowls sloshing madly.
“Fine!” I yelled. “I just won’t eat, then.” The table stopped moving, satisfied. I wanted to throw something at it, but figured that I would end up with more burn marks on my arms.
“They’ll let you eat after you’ve apologized to Master Malfoy,” someone said.
He reminded me of a wisp of smoke. He was tall – even taller than Ramien – and had an insubstantial way about him. His eyes were gray, his hair was gray, and he stepped swiftly and silently. He wore a black apron and a white hat. I took this man to be the one Ramien referenced as ‘Cook’.
“He’s not here,” I said, waving my arm around all the empty chairs.
“No, he’s not,” Cook agreed, his expression calm. “He was too upset to eat. He is in his tower.” He studied me, the solemn gaze unflinching. “You will go directly up there right now and tell him that you are sorry for your quick judgment and cruel words. You will apologize and you will mean it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I was honestly intimidated, and scared to contradict him. “All right,” I ended up saying in spite of myself.
He nodded. “Good. Hell awaits you here if he doesn’t forgive you.”
I waited until the following morning to make my apology, much to the staff’s dismay. I knew that Mr. Malfoy must have expected me to follow after him immediately, so that I could grovel at his feet as Horatio and Ramien and Wren seemed so inclined to do. However, I had no such fear of him – only a hesitance to look at him again.
Wren stirred me at eight o’clock, just as the dim sun was beginning to make its way through the high windows of the room designated as my own. I was still lying on the floor, unwilling to touch the furniture. The feeling seemed to be mutual, as the furniture had scooted itself up against the walls opposite me, shuddering when I moved as though afraid I might get too close to it.
“Hurry up, I think he’s in his study,” Wren urged. “Come on!”
I shoved one of the pumpkin pasties she offered me into my mouth before the plate could bite my hand, and grudgingly stood to my feet. “Fine,” I growled. “I’m going.”
“Try to be sincere,” she said, her large eyes even wider with worry. She fussed with my hair and robes and I swatted her away, still frowning.
“I don’t even want to apologize,” I told her as she scooted me out the door. “Why should I be sorry? I spoke the truth. It doesn’t matter that he’s upset with me, anyway, since I will soon be leaving. I’m going to find a way out of the castle, or find a way to break this spell. It’s ridiculous that none of you have even tried to break it –”
Someone snorted from behind me, and I turned to see Horatio. Ramien accompanied him, along with a girl I had not seen before. She had short, jet-black hair and cautious almond-shaped eyes, and she carried a bottle of wood polish and an old rag in one hand.
The four of them trickled after me as I dragged my feet down the corridor to the study I had eavesdropped outside of only the day before. Chewing on the inside of my cheek, I raised one fist and knocked.
The door opened a fraction of an inch, and a severe female voice said, “What is your business?”
“I have come to apologize to Mr. Malfoy,” I responded.
There was a pause. “That is unnecessary. Master Malfoy is not affected enough by the inferiority and ignorance of your comments to be offended. Go away.”
I turned to the others, lifting up my shoulders as if to say now what?
“Open up the door, if you please,” Ramien spoke, his complexion pale. “If Miss Cissa and Master are to live in such close quarters, then they should have a more pleasant understanding of each other.”
“I advise Miss Cissa to stay far away,” the woman snapped. I tried to peer through the crack in the door, wishing to know what she looked like, but she pulled it further shut until I could see nothing. “No one wants her here and no one needs her here, least of all Master Malfoy.”
“Wilda.” Ramien’s voice was waspish. “We all know that’s not true. It is not your place to speak for Master, and you must let Miss Cissa in.”
Several seconds passed. “As you wish…” the voice replied lightly. There was a sinister edge to it that made several hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. She closed the door and I could hear a fumbling of chains. “It’s unlocked,” she said, drifting away.
Horatio stumbled back, as did Wren and the black-haired girl, and Ramien nodded at me. “Go on.”
The woman was already gone when I entered. The study was a vast, triangular room with three fireplaces – one on each side. Instead of what I expected, however – a desk and hundreds of shelves filled with books – there was a small collection of claw-footed furniture in the center of the room, sitting atop a bearskin rug, and the walls were empty except for a tall mirror resting in one corner.
A door I had not previously noticed because the wallpaper covered it opened up, and the elderly woman I had seen in the tower sauntered through. Her eyebrows raised in surprise as she saw me, but her features were soft and kind. “May I help you, dear?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Mr. Malfoy,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. “I was told that he was in here. Wilda didn’t want me coming in…I…” I trailed off, not knowing what to say.
“Oh, what does Wilda know,” the woman laughed, waving with one hand. “Don’t listen to her, she’s set in the old ways and doesn’t like change. Of course you are most welcome to visit Mr. Malfoy any time you please.” She smiled at me. “I’m Mrs. Macnair, by the way.”
I returned the smile. “Do you know where he is?”
“In his tower, of course. Why don’t you just Apparate there?”
My eyes widened. “I can Apparate?”
“Anywhere inside the castle.”
Enthusiastic, I turned on the spot, thinking Wasteir, Wasteir, Wasteir. I knew she had said it was only permitted inside the castle, but of course I needed to try it. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t move an inch. All right, I thought grimly. The glass tower. Once again, I felt myself slamming against solid air. “It won’t let me,” I said angrily. “Why won’t it let me?”
“Ah.” She tapped her chin. “I worried about that. No matter. You walked all the way to this castle. You can walk up a few flights of stairs.”
Several minutes later, and considerably more nervous than I intended to be, I rapped on the door to Lucius Malfoy’s tower.
He was looking away from me as I entered and seated myself, choosing instead to stare at a spot on the wall several feet to my right. I was relieved that he didn’t make eye contact, as I shuddered at the thought of those wide black irises locked anywhere near me. I folded my hands in my lap, fidgeting uselessly, and finally opened my mouth. Words, however, refused to come out.
“I hope that you have found your stay…pleasant…so far,” he said at last.
I made to retort and assure him that it most certainly was not pleasant, but thought better of it. I had only hours left in the castle, surely, before I found a way out of it. In the meantime, it might work in my favor to be friendly – this way, the house would at least allow me to eat. “It’s lovely,” I answered, my voice dry. I motioned toward his piano. “You play often?” My fingers itched to press down on the clear keys, for me to hear those notes like pealing bells.
“I must play to compose. I’m not the best pianist, but I do have a talent for writing music.” He paused, his mouth dropping open slightly to reveal the sharp, curving teeth. “And I should tell you that you must never, ever touch this piano.”
I raised my eyebrows. “And why not?”
“The keys are laced with poison.” He trailed his long fingers over them delicately. His gloves were off, lying next to him on the bench, and I quickly focused on the piano itself so that I wouldn’t have to watch the blood rushing back and forth in his bright veins. “One slip of the finger – one wrong note – and it puts you into a very long sleep that nothing can awaken you from.”
I sat forward, interested. “How do you know this?”
“My mother was an extremely practiced pianist,” he told me. “But she had a bit of arthritis in her left hand. One day, she was playing as usual, and I copied it all down so that I might play it later. And then my father came into the room, startling us. She missed a key and instantly fell asleep. Never woke up from it.”
“So what happened to her? Why do you still play this piano, with such a risk?”
He pivoted his body toward the wall opposite me, his pale hair draping over one shoulder and hiding his face. “What brings you up here, Narcissa?”
“The others wanted me to apologize.”
The ghost of a smile crept across his face, I could tell by the way his cheek lifted. “Ah. They would.” He cocked his head. “And is that what you’re doing? Apologizing?”
“I’m sorry that you heard what I said last night,” I decided on saying. “You can’t really help…” I gestured weakly with my arm. “…what you look like.” It was an awful choice of words, but I couldn’t help my bluntness. It was a trait I picked up from Bellatrix and I’d never been able to shake it.
The seconds ticked by, growing louder and louder. I tapped my foot on the floor in time to the swift rhythm of the grandfather clock downstairs, its pendulum still swinging away a mile a minute. “Am I that hideous?”
I was struck by the question, as it was seasoned with more curiosity than bitterness. “You’re…” I stopped, unable to speak the truth. I was still rather frightened of him, even with his back turned to me.
He simply nodded, hunching over his piano once more. He stretched out his hands to play, hovering just above the glass keys, and then suddenly cranked his neck to look at me. “And you?” he inquired softly. “What do you look like?”
I followed his gaze, realizing that he was not looking at me at all, but at a space of wall slightly to my left. The glassy black eyes stared, unblinking, as he waited in frozen patience for me to speak.
“You’re blind,” I whispered.
“You didn’t know?” His lips were chapped and rubbed red with the blood from his protruding incisors digging into them. I watched his focus lingering on the patch of wall, morbidly fascinated. “It’s an unfortunate side-effect from the curse on this castle. I wasn’t born blind.”
“Oh.” I grappled for something to say.
“What do you look like?” he encouraged, and I was grateful that he couldn’t see how I had unconsciously shrunken away from his smallest of movements.
I considered lying a little, stretching the truth about my appearance to make me sound better. In the end, I told him exactly what I looked like: blonde hair, blue eyes, with a heart-shaped face and narrow chin, and eyebrows just a tint too dark. I was neither short nor tall, neither large nor skinny. I looked exactly like my mother – vague – and that was all there was to say.
He leaned forward, fingers reaching. “May I?”
I withdrew instantly, and he did the same, perhaps sensing my repugnance. “No, of course not,” Lucius muttered to himself. “Of course not.”
I envisioned Andromeda and her reproachful look, and felt instantly ashamed. “Would you play a song?”
Lucius steadily obliged, and I spent the next several minutes wondering how something so wretched could produce such beautiful sounds.
Ramien and Wren, as I halfway expected, had been eavesdropping outside the door. Horatio cowered at the foot of the spiraling stairway, unwilling to step any further lest he be caught by Lucius, and pretended to have been merely walking by. “Nosy and insubordinate,” he chastised the others as we slipped between the furniture cloaked in white sheets.
“What’s all of this, anyway?” I asked, ignoring his raving. I lifted up a flap of sheet and examined the swell of arched wooden headboard.
“Don’t touch it!” Horatio stopped his blubbering and pinched my elbow.
“This all belonged to Master,” Wren said in a low voice, ducking her head so that it ran sideways against the ceiling. “The original Master.” She gave me a purposeful glance. “Magnus Malfoy.”
“Magnus,” I repeated. “Magnus, Magnus, Magnus. I know I’ve heard of him. Why are all of his things sitting in the hallway, covered up?”
“The younger Master Malfoy was in the process of renovating seven years ago. He was moving several rooms around, cleaning the furniture and putting it all back. Everything from Magnus’s bedroom – for Master’s father had been deceased for several years by that point – was sitting here for the time being. And then when the spell was cast, we found that the door to Magnus’s bedroom had locked itself. There was no putting anything back.”
“Couldn’t get in,” Ramien murmured woefully. “Locked, positively locked. It was a dark and grievous time.”
“Odd,” I marveled. “So the house can just do anything it pleases, like it has a mind of its own? And why would anyone want to put this house under a spell?”
Ramien and Horatio exchanged loaded expressions. “Oh, come on,” I pleaded. “Just tell me.”
“There was a fairy,” Wren supplied. “Usually, fairies are not also witches. But this one just happened to have come from Oaupe, and was a highly skilled sorceress. Master offended her –” Wren’s eyes shifted to Ramien for a half-second, and he frowned sternly. “Anyhow,” she went on briskly, “she cursed everyone in the castle and now we can’t escape it. And the castle is bewitched to keep her spell alive, to think in place of her and maintain the sense of punishment she would want to convey at all times. This house is Circe, incarnate.”
“Circe!” I gasped. But then I grinned at her, laughing. “You can’t really believe that, can you? Circe is a myth. Her existence has been documented so varyingly, so sketchily drawn out over the past however many years, that she can’t possibly be real. Every portrait ever drawn of her is different! Old and haggard in one, young and pretty in another. It’s ridiculous.”
“But it’s true!” Wren looked affronted. “And as you can imagine, Circe is not someone you want to cross. Very sensitive, that one. One minute we were just walking about, doing our business. Miu was cleaning, Mrs. Macnair overseeing Cook’s menu for a very late dinner – just how he prefers. I was tending to Char-”
“And I,” Horatio interrupted, his face drawn with exaggerated sorrow, “had been detained for the night because of the horrible snowstorm. I was completely innocent in the matter; I was a victim.”
“Maybe if you’d accomplished what you had been hired to do,” Ramien mused, “you could have left earlier in the day before the snow got so bad.”
“Not my fault!” Horatio stopped short, his face reddening while his chest puffed out with indignation. “I do not know what is wrong with that clock, Mr. Wax, but I tried absolutely everything I’d ever learned in my trade, and it still would not work right.” He roughly pulled out his pocket watch, observed the gold casing of it for a moment, and then slipped it back into his waistcoat pocket.
“That grandfather clock that ticks too quickly, you mean?” I questioned.
“Yes.” Ramien smiled. “Horatio here –”
“– was hired to fix it. He was a handyman.”
“Flew from my own country, way up north,” Horatio ranted, stomping along. “Heard that it was of the upmost importance. I told Master Malfoy that it was a lost cause, to just get rid of the thing. There was nothing to be done about it! I checked it over and over myself, tried every trick of the wand. And what did he say to me? He told me that he wouldn’t accept that answer, that I must fix it or else. So I sat around and spat incantations until I was blue in the face, and by then, the snowfall was much too thick for me to fly home. I knew I should have gotten my Apparition license! I just knew it. And then Master told me that this house was not connected to the Floo Network –”
“Which is true,” Wren interceded as we snaked down the last stairway to the same corridor my room was located in. “It’s not.”
“Madness! Every bit of twenty fireplaces, and not a one of them connected to Floo! I’m not much of a broomstick man, myself, but we were out of the powder at home and I had little other choice. All the way from Kincraig, I tell you…”
We all stood still as the noise of apparition reverberated throughout the dead-silent corridor, and I saw the figure of a man right under my doorway, staggering to regain his balance. “He apparated by himself!” Horatio whispered, horrified. “He’s supposed to always be accompanied!”
Lucius held out a hand, quieting him instantly. “I was wondering,” he said, eyes concentrating on empty space next to my ear, “if I might entreat you, once more, to join me downstairs for dinner.”
And with all of the heavy, threatening gazes piercing my skull, there was nothing to reply with except for, “That sounds delightful.”
This chapter is for Janechel, who is pretty much the most amazing person ever. I value your support more than I could ever say. :)
I tucked my knees to my chest, the stone window ledge like ice on my skin. It was cool and tranquil outside, black with silvery swirls of starlight. I leaned heavily against the invisible barrier that prevented me from toppling out the open window and shooting like an arrow through a bow into nonbeing. Sitting up there, daring the night to come and take me and suck me right through the curse’s claws, my body was pinned between life and death by a substance I could not even see.
Two weeks had slowly unraveled, and I had not yet found a way out of the castle. There was no door that would permit me to pass, no owl that would fly near when I stood there and beckoned. I watched flocks of birds traveling past, making their way south as the air grew colder; I called to them, a note crumpled in one hand that I intended to attach to one of their legs like a carrier pigeon. No matter how loudly I yelled, or how roughly I beat against the curse that bound me to the castle, none of them so much as craned their necks to catch my eye. They continued their way along the skies, disappearing into the sunset and materializing once more in the sunrise as though unable to hear my screams.
Vivid nightmares plagued my sleep, imagining Andromeda and my father locked up somewhere. I still wondered if Gaspard Pravus took them, too, and placed them in the hands of scoundrels like the ones who were supposed to deliver me north. Were my sister and father trapped under floorboards in Doorturn? Were they lost in the wilderness, calling my name? Our neighbors would have looted the house by now, unless it had been burned to the ground as was common practice when citizens owed the Ministry taxes.
I exhaled a sharp gust of air, watching the fingerprint of it expand on something clear and shining, reflecting my own face back to me for a fleeting moment before it vanished. Something about my appearance was off – I couldn’t quite place it. My eyes had seemed a bright green, and narrowed like a cat’s. I breathed on the barricade again, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
I leaned forward, rubbing at the goosebumps that had cropped up on my arms, and slid my legs over the edge into the room, dropping to the floor with a light thud.
Standing still and listening, I heard nothing stirring elsewhere in the castle. The only noise was the low humming of that defected clock, which ticked endlessly without rest. I skimmed my finger along a candlestick, smiling in amazement as a pitch of flame instantly sprouted from it, and picked it up to carry with me. It was something of a triumph, to finally have some of Malfoy Manor’s magic bending to my will.
The hall was mostly dark, aside from a glimmer of light from one candle in a cobwebbed chandelier, dancing along the wall beside it like a moth. My shadows were long, wrapping from floor to ceiling. They reminded me of puppets I had once seen on a mantelpiece in my aunt’s house, fashioned from ebony spindles that we children were forbidden to touch.
I passed Lucius’s private study, wondering if he was still awake in there or perhaps in his bedroom, wherever that may be. A strange sensation crept up my throat, unfurling in my mind like smog. Upon discovering his blindness, a sort of ease had settled over me. His blindness triggered my pity, and also my relief because he could not be knowledgeable of how I had stared at him in disgust, and it allowed me to survive being in the same room with him. Knowing that he was even more imprisoned in this castle than I was, somehow, supplied a vindictive satisfaction that made the beast almost bearable.
I recalled his parting words earlier in the evening. He always left at the rosy part of day, where the glittering reds and blooming pinks of the sunset bled through the stained glass windows, staining everything with that perpetual shade of autumn. Lucius Malfoy preferred to play his piano at night when all was peaceful and the birds quiet, and departed just as the sun was going down. I could envision the scene up in his tower – the sun falling in curving rays of garnet across the squares of glass ceiling and the piano, lighting it all up like a torch. It was something Lucius himself must be unaware of, but he played the keys as though he could see it and feel it in his atmosphere all the same. Mrs. Macnair sat opposing him at her small table, scrawling out the sheet music for him.
Just as the last of the sun had disappeared around the side of the house, leaving a soft, dull glow in its wake, Lucius turned to me, resting one gloved hand on the doorknob of my bedroom. He was tall and slender, bending slightly under the stress of what he was about to say.
“What do I look like?” he had asked me again. “No one will ever give me an honest account.”
The words burned on my tongue: You are a reanimated corpse, the foundation of legends, the thing we fear in storybooks. The memory of you stings like a snake cut in half. But pity bubbled to the surface again, remarkably, and I said, “You look like a man who uses more than vision to see.”
I slipped through a door, gazing overhead at the crisscrossing rafters and the way the illumination of my candle seemed to deepen the ceiling, making it higher and jagged. The walls here were the color of purple mountain, and I ran my hand along the worn brick. A broad window with two pillars on each side – both of them grooved and polished like Grecian architecture – took up the whole of the western wall. A length of black fabric fixed to the top billowed out, undulating despite the absence of wind. The frayed, serrated edges licked the air like a forked tongue, and before I could remind myself that it was impossible, I thought I saw one end of it flit beyond the window outside, beyond the invisible blockade.
“It’s dementor’s skin,” Wren had whispered to me when I first saw it.
Presently I reached out, my pale fingertips stretching to touch the curtain somehow made from a dementor, and suddenly a cry ripped through the stagnant air. My hand froze in place and another unnatural whip of the curtain revealed what was happening outside the castle.
Peering over the window’s edge, I was abruptly aware of the staggering height, feeling all at once very high up and narrow, with the nausea of vertigo overtaking my senses. A group of wolves were breaking through the trees, distancing themselves from one another in a perfect V formation.
One of them lifted its jaw into the air, throat rumbling as it released an echoing howl. He saw me – I was certain of it – and his bright eye gleamed as it swiveled to stare into my own, from the vast distance of what felt like many days, and thicker than the crust of the earth. But he penetrated it instantly, which had been impossible for every bird that ever flickered past, and saw me. He knew what lurked behind the window, could see the curse as though it was flesh.
My palms began to sweat, feeling all at once visible, feeling the surge of assurance that I was indeed real and had not fallen away from the world into a sort of demented purgatory. A myriad of hopes climbed up into my conscience like vines, wondering if wolves were not the only creatures that could see me standing there.
They each met my gaze, one by one, as they sauntered across the field and descended into the hollow bowl that must have once been filled with water. The last one switched his silver tail, throwing his head back in a thestral-like fashion to embrace eye contact for one full second before slinking into the high reeds that twisted up out of the dried lake. And then he was gone.
The misery and despair that enveloped me after that was unfounded. I knew I could not expect any of them to help me. They were animals, probably attracted by a light burning in one of the towers, and came scavenging in search of food. Nothing was going to wander out here to rescue me from Malfoy Manor.
“They always see me, too.”
I gasped, the coldness of surprise tingling up my spine, and looked all around with wide eyes. “Who’s there?” I asked. The small flame of my candle showed me nothing, mostly bouncing off of large lavender bricks and blinding myself.
“Right here,” the voice happily responded.
“Where?” I whirled around, whisking the candle high and low like lightning. I didn’t see anyone.
My mouth dropped open. Finally I could see him, although he was so dim that I could barely distinguish his figure from the wall. He was strangely blurred at the edges, and when he glided forward, it was quick. Unnaturally quick – like apparition rather than walking. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, with a round face and robes that were much too long for him, dragging out behind his small stature across the flagstone floor. But, more alarming than anything else, was the fact that the boy was dead.
“I’m Charlie,” he informed me.
“Charlie,” I repeated. My pulse was still hot and quick, unaccustomed to such a sight. I had seen ghosts many times at Hogwarts, of course, but never anywhere else. It was a surreal idea – ghosts anywhere outside of Hogwarts.
“You’re Narcissa,” he went on. “My grandmother told me.”
“There are more of you?”
“Of me?” He looked confused. “Ghosts, you mean? Yes, there are more. But my grandmother isn’t a ghost. She’s alive, just like you.”
I found my eyes roving over the boy for signs of damage, like the almost-severed head of Nearly-Headless Nick, and the damning evidence that spilled all over the Bloody Baron. I didn’t find anything prominent, so it must have been a natural death. Curiosity gnawed at me, and I said, “How did you die?”
“Measles,” someone else answered.
The boy gave a frightened squeak and plunged straight through the floor. “Lucius!” I said, startled. “How did you get down here by yourself?”
“I can do a lot of things by myself,” he told me defensively. I got the keen distinction that he resented Charlie’s running away from him. “I was awake and I heard voices, so I came to see what was going on.” He waited a while for me to say something, and when I did not, he added, “Charlie is supposed to be seventeen.”
“Oh?” I managed to say.
“Yes.” Lucius stepped forward, crossing over to the rippling black curtain, the tendrils of which reached out eagerly, trying to touch him. I felt an urge to pull Lucius away. “He fell ill about eight years ago. We didn’t know it at the time…we thought it was only a common cold. And then the castle was cursed, and we realized too late that he actually had the measles.” He hesitated.
“And?” I prompted.
“And the curse has no compassion, even for sick children.” He tilted his head, giving the impression of perhaps gazing out the window, and I wondered what sort of image he was seeing. A little boy with a fever and furious rash, his cough ringing against floors and walls and ceilings in the castle. A giantess and an old woman, a handyman and a servant, all kneeling at his side. And a translucent-skinned pianist, standing very much in the dark. “We are imprisoned here, in life and in death.”
My eyebrows shot up. “He was forced to turn into a ghost after he died?”
Lucius’s expression was unreadable. “Circe allowed for no loopholes. We will all be in this castle for eternity.”
Somewhere beyond, a wolf howled once more. We listened to it until long after it faded, silent, and Lucius said, “Those are hers, too.”
I snapped my head up to examine him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that the wolves belong to her, according to legend. They belong to Circe.”
“I never paid any mind to Circe stories,” I admitted.
“You should have.” He sounded grave. “The myths are all that govern our lives here now. Some believe that, since she is a half-fairy, her lifespan is short and therefore she might be dead by now. Some think that she reincarnates like a phoenix after death, and keeps the memories of her previous lives with her. Nearly all scholars agree that she has, in one way or another, been alive for five thousand years at least.”
I struggled to bite back a laugh. “Are you so certain that she exists?”
“I saw her with my own eyes,” he said crossly. “I watched her grow from old to young. She told me herself that her name was Circe. And the spell – can you think of anyone else qualified to create such an airtight spell that is as strong as ever almost eight years after its execution?”
I could not.
“The wolves,” he went on, “belonged to her in ancient times. They were her closest companions, and they ran together around the world like a pride of lions.” I pictured a faceless woman in my mind, could see her feet and the padded paws of wolves thumping over bare earth as they raced through trees and across moors, the leaves swirling in a haze around them as they moved like fire over water. Going, going, gone; leaving spectacular magic and beauty and terrible disaster lingering in every city they vacated.
“Gradually she eclipsed them, keeping pace even when her wolves needed rest. Finally, they were left abandoned in a forest – left behind – as Circe went and on and never looked back. Or so the legends say. Some of the wolves, I’ve heard, resent their master and want revenge on her. Some of them still obey her, driven by the strength of memory and the devotion that is still alive even though they have not crossed paths with their commander in over a thousand years.”
“A thousand years?” I marveled. “Wolves? They can’t live that long, it’s impossible.”
Lucius shrugged. “That’s the legend.”
I remembered the way the wolves had run parallel to me in the forest, darting in between enormous red pumpkins. I remembered how they circled all around in a horseshoe shape as I picked my way to the castle, viewing it as a blessing, thinking I would soon be reunited with my family. They had watched me as I crossed the threshold, crying in that lonely way, knowing in their sharp minds that I would never come back out. Were they herding me into the castle on purpose? Were they trying to warn me not to enter it? I would never know, as they might as well have been separated a thousand years from me, where I stood locked in Malfoy Manor.
“Every curse has a loophole,” I said at once. I took a step closer to Lucius, ignoring every particle of my body that shrieked in protest, that instinctually told me to flee from him. “There must be something, surely, that can be done to break the spell. Did she give you any way out? Is there anything at all that can be tried?”
His eyes were as black as the dementor curtains. “No.”
“If you are going to be here permanently,” Ramien told me, and I could no longer fight against the truth of what he said, “then you might as well be comfortable. The house is quite evil, of course, but it’s also alive with black magic. Sometimes, when all the stars align, black magic can produce something that is good.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “Sounds suspicious.” I pondered it, and came to the conclusion that black magic was not something I feared, anyway. The Black family had embraced all types of magic, both light and dark, many generations ago. We understood the benefits of both. The curse over Malfoy Manor was inconvenient to me, yes, but I could still revel in the intensity of it, and admire with twisted wonder at the power it held over everyone inside it.
“Is there anything at all that you want?” Ramien persisted, and Lucius turned his head to the side from his chair in the corner, listening intently. “The house could produce it for you. Robes of any color, music –”
“Music?” We all stopped short as a light and airy melody, thin as a butterfly’s wing, floated down from an undetected source like snowflakes. The drawing room was instantly filled with the symphony of harps and violins. “Incredible,” I remarked.
Ramien smiled wryly, plowing on. “See? It could give you anything. Anything but freedom. The options are endless. Would you like books? Furniture? A painting or some pretty jewelry, perhaps?”
“None of that interests me,” I scoffed, waving my hand in dismissal. “The only thing I want is to see my family, and that will never happen.”
“New robes?” Ramien pressed. “Are you sure you couldn’t be satisfied with some new robes?”
“That’s what she has me for,” Wren shot back, looking venomous. “I’m the seamstress and I’ll be making all the clothes, thank you very much.”
“Wait,” Lucius interrupted, holding up one gloved finger. He pressed his lips together in thought, and I could almost taste the salt, and smell the tarnished scent of blood welling up in my own mouth when his lips parted again and I saw the usual tint of red ringing around his chalky lips. “Just be silent for a moment.”
We all quieted ourselves, watching him curiously. His shoulders were exceedingly stiff, his dark gaze focused on the floor while his brow knit together. It might have been the way firelight cut against his cheekbones, or the determined expression on his face, but I thought he looked considerably less revolting.
“Come with me,” he said slowly.
Wren stood to her feet, the floor groaning under the shift of weight, and Lucius curtly shook his head. “Not you. I was speaking to Narcissa.”
I eyed him warily as he held out his arm, presumably so that I could put my hand on it and guide him. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll find out. Now do what I say and step into the corridor. We are going to be turning right.”
“Please,” I commented under my breath.
“I said ‘please’,” I told him more loudly. “When you’re going to boss someone around, it’s more socially acceptable if you say please.”
Lucius scowled. “Please.”
“Much better.” I led him out into the corridor, arching myself so that I could keep a wide berth between us while still maintaining a hold on his thin arm, contemplating all the while whether or not to push him down a flight of stairs. At the very least, it would have been amusing to run him into a wall.
“Take the stairs at the very end of the corridor,” he ordered pleasantly. “Please.”
We passed the gilded portrait with a yellow chair sitting in it, still unoccupied, and came to the end. “Up,” he said, even though it was quite obvious that we were supposed to walk up. What else could anyone do with stairs? Rolling my eyes, we stomped our way to the top and I awaited more directions.
“It’s the fourth door on the left.” His voice was much softer now, almost nervous. It was only when I paused outside the fourth door, reading the engraved letters that said Lucius’s Quarters, that I realized that this room was directly above my bedroom.
What Lucius had wanted from the house’s magic, it seemed, was a fabrication of everything he couldn’t have. Trees wove all the way to the ceiling, their brilliant green leaves brushing against the branches of other trees. Their huge roots broke out of the flinty marble floor itself, the strength and thickness of them spreading cracks as thin as needles and as thick as my wrist all over the floor and up the walls.
Lucius broke away from me, clasping his hands behind his back. I wasn’t paying attention to him – I was peering through the trees and trying to discern where his bed or wardrobe or dressing table might be. “Over there,” he replied knowingly, inclining his head. “On the ground.”
I searched where he indicated, my eyes falling upon a tiny stone-rimmed pond. It was very shallow, and would have been able to hold nothing larger than East-Irish kelpies, and the water was crystal clear. In fact, once I sat before it and examined its three-inch depths, it looked more like –
“A mirror,” he said. “One of the famed Mirrors of Erised.”
“Merlin,” I whispered, gaping at him. “It can’t be! There are only three of them in the world that we know of.”
He nodded somberly. “This one takes the form of a small pond. It will show you whatever your heart desires the most, and in turn, your heart’s desire will see you as well. It’s a two-way mirror.”
I touched the surface, which had been a solid sheet until that moment, and tiny ripples of water peeled away from my finger. Runes that I had not noticed until then were etched into the stones that surrounded the pool. I was about to take a closer look at them, as it struck me that they did not look to be runes at all, but rather words written backwards; but I was thrown off my concentration when Lucius dropped to the ground next to me, hovering with his face close to mine.
He looked almost desperate, and his voice was inexplicably anxious. “What do you see?”
The glimmering colors of my reflection twisted into a whirlpool, glowing as bright as a Patronus. I watched as the glass smoothed out once again, sucking my own image into oblivion as it was replaced by another scene entirely.
There were trees, just like in Lucius’s bedroom, but I knew that these were natural and located in a woodsy area outside. Hazy sunlight filtered through the gloom, and the tips of branches swayed back and forth against each other, waving like a drowned man’s arms underwater. Collected at the very bottom of this forest was a sizeable group of people seated in ivory high-backed chairs. An emerald-green length of silk split down the center between two herds of chairs. And at the very end of it, Andromeda stood upright in a lacy white wedding dress, a clump of narcissus and belladonna woven together as a bouquet in her hands.
A man I did not recognize was facing her, smiling respectably and wearing black satin robes. Andromeda was not smiling at all; her eyes were strained and her mouth was set in a firm line that wavered – almost as though the delicate act of pressing her lips together was the only way to prevent something right on the tip of her tongue from flying away; from betraying her completely in front of the other villagers as well as my father.
Bellatrix, I noted, was nowhere in sight.
“What is she doing?” I murmured, completely aghast. Lucius was silent, waiting in trepidation for me to explain. My fingertips curled over the stones around the mirror, my nose almost grazing the malleable surface. The whole panorama on display before me was oddly distorted, with streaks of white and gray passing over everything like paint blurring a canvas. Ethereal beads of mist formed on my cheeks and temples, clinging to the mirror in droplets. The mirror, it appeared, had taken the form of a waterfall on the other side.
Griselda Marchbanks was presiding over the ceremony, wearing staunch amber robes that gripped her wrists and throat. She cast her eyes over the pair, speaking so quietly that I could hear only a whispering sound, like the rustle of a breeze through tall grass. But I could hear the man’s voice after that, loud and uninviting, and then Andromeda trilled in a pinched response, “I do.”
“This mirror is a fluke,” I growled without looking away. “This cannot really be happening.”
“The mirror is always truthful,” Lucius said lightly. “What is it you see that disturbs you so much?”
My father turned his head, as though he had heard Lucius and me speaking, and I watched as his eyes traveled up the current of white and blue, peering through the droplets. His eyes widened, revelation striking him, and he immediately sprang out of his chair and came hobbling over to where I stood with my face suspended over the water – so close to where my father existed, and yet so horridly far. I could see Andromeda’s eyes darting around as well, trying to figure out what Father was doing.
“He can see me!” I exclaimed to Lucius. I turned to glance at him, growing excited. “My father can see me!”
But when I turned back, I saw only the perplexed expression on my own face, and the rippling trees in Lucius’s muggy bedroom. I stared hard at the mirror. “Where did it go?” I tapped the lacquer with one fingernail. It felt slick and wet, like ice; trails of condensation dotted my skin. “It stopped working.”
“Did you break eye contact?”
“Well –” I frowned, confused. “Yes. You never told me that I couldn’t. It was only for a second –”
“Doesn’t matter. You cannot break eye contact or else the connection dies. Everything has disappeared on the other side, and his world cannot see you just as you cannot see his world.”
“All right,” I said impatiently. “How do I make it start again? I’m concentrating on it now and nothing’s happening.”
“The mirror,” he said in a thoughtful voice, “believes that it has already shown you what you wanted to see. It will not go back to the same place again.”
I withdrew from the pond’s edge, sulking resentfully. “Two weeks,” I spat. “I’ve been missing for two weeks – I could be dead for all they know – and my sister wasted no time at all in getting married!” I glared at the mirror, ignoring my stormy face and the way my eyebrows knotted together in anger. “Who was that man, anyway? I’ve never seen him before in my life. Two weeks! Two weeks, I tell you!”
“You saw your sister’s wedding?” Lucius inquired curiously.
“Yes.” Suddenly, I didn’t care that the mirror had stopped working. I didn’t care that I didn’t get the chance to speak to my father. My mind was reeling from the fact that they had so quickly moved on with their lives, and so bluntly did not care what had become of me. A wedding! I couldn’t believe it.
“You don’t sound very thrilled.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I stood to my feet, staring bitterly at the fissures splintering out of the marble floor, gouged apart from the force of snarling roots. “As far as I’m concerned, Andromeda is dead.”
My suspicions began to rise soon after overhearing a conversation between Lucius, Horatio, and Ramien (as eavesdropping was one of the only activities in the castle I could amuse myself with):
“It’s good to see that you’re softening up, at least.”
“I won’t deny feeling a bit of relief myself,” Horatio spoke up. I smirked in the darkened corridor, envisioning the man sticking his nose pompously up in the air as though doing everyone a great favor by sharing his opinion. “You seem to have realized that this is your only chance.”
“Well, it isn’t just that,” Lucius responded defensively. “I mean…well…you know…”
“What are you trying to say?” Ramien asked slyly.
“Oh, shut up,” Lucius said after a while.
“She hasn’t been in a very good mood lately,” Ramien said.
“I’d expect not. It took two weeks for her family to resume to normal – and she was alarmed by the speed at which her sister decided to marry. There is not much waiting for her in Wasteir.”
“Luckily for you.”
I raised my eyebrows, tilting my weight against the doorframe so that I could hear them better. Miu Mori, the Japanese maid, passed me in the corridor, silently going about her usual cleaning and pretending that she didn’t notice me hovering outside of Lucius’s study. I waited to hear Lucius’s response to Ramien’s statement, but he did not give one. They were all quiet for a spell, and I decided to hurry off before one of them came out.
When Lucius began approaching me with questions soon after that, I knew that something was brewing in the back of his mind. “What are your hobbies?” he would ask.
I found myself, shockingly enough, drawing a blank. In my Hogwarts days, I tried an array of things for entertainment. I read books, but not such a variety of them that I could be considered brilliant. I sang in the choir, but wasn’t dedicated enough to really discipline myself and become a great singer. So many things I dabbled in – Gobstones, Quidditch, Runes, Arithmancy. I practiced them all halfway and then gave them up, dissatisfied, whenever it suited me. I didn’t linger in anything long enough to become accomplished. My skill, I found, did not lie in hobbies.
After my mother died, I devoted all of my time to figuring out ways to peddle cheap items to Wasteir for unfair prices. I was good at it, too. I would stay up late into the night, scribbling in my diary with ink-stained hands, brainstorming about what I could obtain in bulk for rock-bottom prices, things that I could turn around and resell at a higher price. Profit was my obsession. I was elated with any small success, always proud of myself when I managed to persuade the middle-aged men with their wandering eyes, with my words like purrs.
I would swirl my skirts and smile up at them through dreamy lidded eyes, and they would purchase my stock without even realizing what they were doing. I had the beady gazes of the village’s women trained on my back, the wives of these men piercing me with their hateful stares. I found it difficult to care when I counted my Sickles at the end of the workday, imagining how content I would feel once I paid off our taxes at last and bought more of the essentials that we always seemed to desperately lack.
Those sleazy men were my biggest customers, and for a very long while, my only pastime was scheming how to peel more money away from them. Greed was my plaything, my delight. I gained more and more confidence in myself and began to cater only to these men, telling them stories in a sing-song voice and portraying myself as a pitiable damsel in distress. Eventually the women banded against me, shutting their husbands inside their houses and leaving me and my inflated minced pie stand deserted in the street. Other market-goers would pass from the booth on my left to the booth on my right without so much as shifting their eyes toward me.
Yet, I did not give up. I greeted it as a challenge, and enthusiastically set to devising ways to overpower those who did not like me, and to crumble their resistance easily between my hands. I wanted to sprinkle my influence over them all and revel in knowing that I had tricked those who had hated me the most into believing in my sincerity, into filling my pockets with Galleons and Sickles for items that they didn’t really need and could have definitely found somewhere else for a lower price. The only thing that amused me was the idea of a challenge, and of trumping that challenge.
“I don’t know,” I had told Lucius unsteadily. “I suppose that my hobby is thinking.”
Lucius looked as if he didn’t know how to take that, and busied himself by pretending to be fascinated with the tablecloth that he couldn’t see. Finally, he said, “Then what can satisfy you here? If it is not a library full of books, or musical instruments or drawing or flying, then what can I do to make you happy?”
I eyed him. “There is nothing you can do to make me happy.”
He considered that, and bestowed me with a hollow smile. “If you say so.”
But Lucius did not give up. I soon began to expect him every morning, awaiting me outside my bedroom door, so that we could walk together down to the dining room. It was always a silent walk, but an expected one, and there came a morning that I opened up the door, saw him standing there as usual, and did not flinch. And every single night, without fail, he always asked me the same question before he advanced to his tower.
“What do I look like?” he would question.
Always skirting around the subject, I made a game of it. I might ask him a riddle in response, or tell him that I was so tired that I could not possibly answer, or announce that I had already answered him the previous night, and he must have forgotten it. I could not be blamed for his poor memory, after all.
One night in early November, however, I hesitated after he asked me. He’d caught me off guard, as he didn’t wait until we were standing at my bedroom door to propose the question. Lucius surprised me by asking while we were passing through a corridor – just about to enter the adjoining corridor that contained dementor’s skin used as window curtains.
I paused, studying his dark outline. His wonderment that I did not directly change the subject was obvious, and he waited wordlessly as the shadows all around him pressed the air. My gaze flitted over the shadows, watching them move of their own accord even though both of us stood still. It was a strange place, Malfoy Manor – a place where shadows without people to guide them can pass along the walls before you, twisting with their silhouetted faces to watch you as steadily as you watch them. They take flight up the walls, through the rafters and onto walls of the rooms above, flapping with bat wings.
Their bodies were skinny, like spider legs, and if you stayed in one room alone for too long, they would whisper to you, persuade you. They would cock their pointed faces, speaking with their thoughts. “Come,” they would hiss, pointing to the rafters. They would move their fingers as if maneuvering marionettes, and I could see the strings of my own shadow being tugged forward. My shadow would pull toward them, and I would stumble behind, and together we would move up, up, up the wall. If you didn’t remember yourself quickly enough, you would soon be rocking back and forth on the balls of your feet on the slender wooden beams, staring down through black space at the empty floor twenty feet below and completely at a loss as to how you got there. “Jump,” they would whisper with voices as frail as smoke.
Ramien said that they were demons, evil that was born from the curse. Evil breeds evil, he had told me. Circe didn’t create them, but her curse did. It was because of these creatures, who hid between the walls during the day until they caught the spark of opportunity, the lone person wandering a corridor, that I was warned by Lucius to always keep company with me. And because of this, I found myself frequently strolling the halls with Lucius himself, and the shadowy creatures stayed far away from him. Even the demons were frightened of Master Malfoy.
I faced Lucius, mulling over the question he so often repeated. “Do you really want to know?”
Lucius moved his head, looking at me without seeing me, and the way that his lips slightly parted told me that he wasn’t sure himself if he really did want to know. His sudden apprehension kindled the words spreading in my mind, right there at the ready to stab him to pieces. The power I held, the power to harm him, provoked me. I did not wish to hurt him, of course, but I enjoyed knowing that if I wanted to, I could. The power was mine.
“You…” I cleared my throat, suddenly nervous. Lucius looked nervous as well, but he did not interrupt. “Your hair is so blond that it’s nearly white.”
He nodded. “That’s a relief. It was always that color.”
“Your eyes,” I said. “What black eyes you have.” Just looking at them made me feel cold. The early winter from beyond the manor began to drift through the gaps in the mortar like a fine layer of snow. I shivered slightly, and the wide black eyes were fixed unblinkingly upon my face. I wondered for the space of a heartbeat what he pictured when he thought of me.
“Black?” he repeated. “That is strange. Blind eyes usually have that white film over them.”
“And your teeth,” I continued, unwilling to discuss his eyes. “What long teeth you have.”
“I knew that.” He sounded dejected, and rubbed his mouth with the back of one hand. “It’s rather uncomfortable. I’m still not used to it.”
If my teeth could draw blood from my own lips just by the softest touch, I doubt I could ever grow accustomed to it, either. “Your skin,” I told him next, “is the thinnest I’ve ever seen. It’s like a deep-sea creature.” Lucius winced at that comparison, lowering his eyes to glare at the floor. “On your arms and hands, it’s the thinnest. I can see the veins there, like blue lines on a map. I can see your pulse, your blood.”
“I guessed as much.” His tone was defeated and quiet. “It feels like tissue paper.” He rubbed two gloved fingers together. “I wear these as protection, because the smallest prick causes my skin to bleed. I am sorry that you’ve ever had the misfortune to look at it.”
And because he was so sorrowful, I felt pushed to look more closely, to examine him as I had scarcely allowed myself to examine him before. I suffocated the impulse to glimpse only fleetingly, and studied Mr. Malfoy – really studied him – for the very first time.
It was like a needle digging into my flesh. The nausea and anxiety peaked before it actually happened, and once the initial sting was over, I felt strangely calm. I discovered my own threshold and realized that it wasn’t quite as bad as I anticipated, now that the needle was already in there, penetrating.
“The shape of your face is, I presume, the same as it was before the curse,” I remarked. “You have very fine, elegant features. Your nose, your chin, your forehead and jaw…everything about it is normal.” More than normal, however; it was somehow, despite his other characteristics, pleasing to the eyes. I plowed on, astonished by this, and added, “Your build is nice. You are arranged rather regally, with your air and clothing and posture, which indicates that you are well-bred.”
His lips, I saw, were not quite as thin as I had supposed. The whiteness of them, and the way they seemed to blend in with the rest of his chalky complexion, could be deceiving to another person’s swift glance. In the darkness, with his black robes and ghostly, luminous skin, he was less something to fear and more something to admire. The plane of his forehead, the well-carved cheekbones and hair smoothed away from his face, gave the distinction of someone who had once been beautiful; someone who did not realize what he looked like now, and still harbored all of the pride and dignity that he used to have reason to possess.
His eyes flickered to mine, impossibly. He couldn’t have known he was looking directly at me, but I absorbed it with an overwhelming impact. My lungs hitched for a moment, unsure of how to feel. Wintry breath rippled across my skin, splashing my senses with raw, excruciating gales. It could not be possible that I was discerning the person who had once been beautiful; that I could see what existed a lifetime ago in the man that now stood before me.
As though it were a trick of the light, I could see the phantom of what had been, blossoming on his skin once more. Pale eyes, the whites gleaming naturally. Skin with the luster of diamonds, but with warmth and hue that coursed along his arms and up his neck. A flush of something much more alive, and a smile playing on his dragon-heartstring lips. From this strange angle, I could imagine it all perfectly, right down to the unnerving glint in his eye that he might have reflected if he were to lock eyes with a person, really seeing them. If he were really in this room with me and not buried behind the murky veils of his blindness.
A rumbling sound, like pebbles crunching under the wheels of a carriage, carried through the air and Lucius’s profile snapped up, instantly alert.
“What was that?” he asked sharply, and I exhaled a gust of air I had been suppressing.
I edged over to a triangular window, feeling Lucius hovering just over my shoulder, and I gazed down over the stark exterior of the castle.
“I can feel something.” He pressed his fingertips to the stone, closing his eyes. I closed my eyes, too, taking in the faint vibrations under my feet, in the walls. It seemed like it was coming from far away, like a traveling echo; similar to the thuds of a hammer against rock in the depths of a mine. Bits of graphite would ricochet off, pinging against the other rocks, pooling together in shallow basins of dirty water. I imagined it all like it had been planted there by the castle itself, and when I finally opened my eyes again, I could clearly see what I had not seen before – what I had not been privy to see because of the castle’s warps and illusions.
Something was sliding down the length of the castle, not quite fifteen feet away from where we stood rooted to the ground. Its form rotated like a whirlwind, and I could make out no more than fingers splayed far apart, grappling at the air, reaching for substance. A thin stick appeared in the person’s hand, as though dropped into their palm from heaven. And just as the person was about to smack into the frozen, compacted soil below, they turned on the spot for one last time and vanished with a crack that sliced through the night.
A cloaked figure stooped through the cold sheet of rain, raising a hand against the downpour that overflowed from the gutters of a shop and over the eaves. It was the only shop on the crooked avenue still lit from within, and a sinister tinkle of bells echoed to the corners of the main room when the door was pushed open. The figure slid past a weary sign that read Borgin & Burkes.
“Back already?” a man called out. He was bent over his till, relocating the coins he had earned during the day into a bare flour sack.
“Yes,” the newcomer replied, sounding irritated. “Despite your ridiculous prices, I feel that I have no choice.”
The man cackled, unashamed of himself. “Have a look around, then. I’m just about to close up.” He paused, narrowing his eyes suspiciously and debating whether or not he dared to ask. On one hand, business was drooping and he’d like this person’s gold. On the other hand, he was morbidly curious. “Why do you need something from here, anyway?” he finally blurted.
The answering tone was clipped. “There is a girl.” The shop customer veered around a shelf spilling with cursed candles – whoever lit them would immediately become engulfed in a mass of fire. “She is becoming quite a nuisance and I need to get rid of her. It is of the utmost importance that I prevent her from breaking a curse.”
The shopkeeper thought to himself that this person was perhaps a little bit touched in the head, but said nothing. After all, he was severely lacking in Galleons lately. He might be going home tonight with a heavier money sack thanks to this nutter. “If you have any questions, just ask.”
The figure said nothing, examining several artifacts with increasing impatience and moving faster between the rows of merchandise. The candlelight flickered softly, blowing sideways in response to the strong storm pelting Diagon Alley, casting long shadows over the dirty tiled floor.
“What is this?” The person had come to a standstill, and was poring over a rickety table in one dusty corner.
“Oh, that?” the man behind the counter asked mildly, rubbing the back of his neck in an absent sort of way. “That’s a rather sensitive item, if I do say so myself. Does just what that little flier says, but you’ve got to be extra careful. Dangerous sort of magic, that one. Just my specialty, but I admit that it’s not something to be trifled with.”
“But it will succeed in getting rid of her?”
The man stared at the cloaked figure. “Undoubtedly.”
The responding voice was filled with glee. Three pairs of eyes glittered in the dark room, the third one the most triumphant of all. “Then I’ll take it.”
I awoke the next morning with no memory of how or when I fell asleep the night before. A soft humming in my ears had disturbed me, and turning my head, the tip of my nose and chin were submerged in a shaft of warm, golden light. It was a stark contrast to the frosty temperature of my bedroom; with a sleepy mind, I swung my feet over the edge and darted across the room. I stopped short just before I passed my dressing table, wondering where the sudden jumpiness had come from.
I paused at a small mirror embedded in the wall that the house had acquired overnight, measuring my snarled hair and the circles under my eyes, and smiled because it didn’t matter.
My hand turned the knob, and stepping into the corridor, the humming grew into a much louder, sweeter pattern. I could feel the essence of something exciting flooding through the walls and ceiling and floor, and the castle’s inhabitants seemed to be straining to hear it. The shelf Lucius had broken during my first week in Malfoy Manor had shifted itself, and several chairs were cocked at just the right angle to signify that they were indeed listening.
I walked briskly to the end of the hall, marveling at the way everything in the castle orbited around its master, both rewarding him and punishing him at once. I passed Miu, who was staring at the ceiling as though transfixed. Ramien was looking after her from an obscure alcove between a cabinet and a vertical succession of tiny round windows, his eyes clouded. I passed him and he acknowledged me a few moments too late with a wink.
Wren was curled against the wall in the corridor above that one, stationary. “What’s going on in there?” I asked, pointing at Lucius’s bedroom door.
“He decided it was time for you to wake up.”
Shaking my head slightly, I pushed through the door – and was nearly blown back into the corridor again by the surge of sound. Flute, violin, drums, and of course, piano. Lucius provided the piano and the house had done the rest. His glass instrument looked strangely right at home under the swaying branches, its transparent top swimming with the ripples of yellow and red and burning orange. It was autumn in Lucius’s bedroom, the seasons passing through like a freight train. I watched one ruby leaf swirl through the air three times before splashing lightly onto the pond mirror. It tipped into the glass, disappearing.
Questions pooled on my tongue, wondering why he had moved his piano down from the isolated tower, and if he’d learned the dark figure’s identity yet. These questions dissolved as soon as he swerved his head to face me.
Lucius’s eyes slid open, black to the edges. His pale hair fanned out on his dark clothing like flayed strips of aspen, and he acknowledged my presence – not with posture, not with words, but by flecking the melody with tones richer than before. I could see the facets of his song rising up, up, up – so intricate and precise, like they were visible in hues of every color.
Even in stillness, Lucius could be perpetual movement, like an underwater creature. He seemed always to be moving even when he was not, breathing in more ways than one. It was not any abnormality of his physical appearance that caught me, however; there was a brightness exuding from him, an emotion that overwhelmed when displayed on his face. It danced across his lips with a smile, and Lucius himself seemed like a crescendo.
He gestured to the vacant expanse of bench beside him. “Would you like to…?”
I promptly seated myself, mesmerized by the fluidity of his fingers over the keys, and watching them dance beneath his touch. A thin mist clung to the air, drizzling through the treetops in a quiet rain. It smelled tauntingly natural, ripe with earth and worms and the smolder of rotting leaves.
“Why did you bring this down from the tower?”
A grin etched into his papery skin. “Because you can’t hear me as well when I’m up there.” I arched an eyebrow, and as though in response, he added, “I was going to set it up outside your bedroom door, but Wax advised against it. He said it was too…”
Lucius’s hands moved deftly along the keys, sending up a quick flutter of notes that spoke for him. My mind grasped at them, eager to define.
Hope. Determination against the odds. The steep, strangling number of impossibilities. Even still, there was hope that remained even if the house of cards began to fall, collapsing in on him like sand. It was a war between maybe and never, and I found myself wondering, astonishingly enough, which side would win.
The castle’s invisible instruments coursed along with his piano, the tree branches curling toward us like greedy hands wanting more. How long had it been since Lucius last played in this way? I remembered Miu and Ramien downstairs, still as statues as they absorbed the music. It shattered the gloom, flying over the shadow-people and the empty portraits and the scattered, jaded staff; tables, fireplaces, braided rugs – the very atmosphere itself – was gazing at Lucius’s piano at this moment. I felt a shiver bursting through my blood, pleased in the belief that I might be the reason why.
It was an alarming admission, considering the fact that I might be allowing myself to feel charmed by Mr. Malfoy. There was a danger in it, because once I gave way to that sort of thought, it would have free reign to blossom and cause panic. It would destroy all of my prior notions of what was charming and what was an abomination.
All the same, there was a peculiar pleasure that came with entertaining these treacherous thoughts, with dwelling on the sparks that shouldn’t even be permitted to exist. I was Narcissa Black, and no one else’s ideals would define how I viewed others. The imaginary disapproval of anyone would not have an effect on me. Malfoy Manor, after all, was beyond the judgment of others. We were all under our own law here, and the law of the castle. It was a completely different world.
I hazarded a glance at Lucius, hoping slimly that I might wince and recoil as I once had. There was a savage satisfaction when I did not respond in any negative way. “You’re looking at me,” Lucius mused, focusing on the piano.
I blushed. “You don’t know that.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I do.” He was silent for a few moments, and the castle took the opportunity to show off with its unseen musical performance, inviting a penny whistle and mandolin to take precedence. “I often imagine the Lady of Fairnon when I think of you.” He averted his face, and I wondered if he was blushing himself. “Did you ever read that story?”
“Yes. My sisters and I used to play it when we were children.”
“Did you play the Lady or the grandmother?”
“Neither,” I admitted with a laugh. “I was always the snake.”
He seemed very amused by this. “Of course you were.”
The Lady of Fairnon was a tale about a young woman who found a phoenix-feather quill on the forest floor when she was traveling. A snake told her that if she wrote down the name of a person who was deceased, they would come back to life. In that person’s place, however, someone else must die. “The choice of whoever dies in their place is entirely random,” the snake warned. “But if you wish to see the dead again, you may think it worth the sacrifice.”
The Lady’s two companions argued with her, but the Lady was already entranced. She had grown up all her life hearing about the accomplishments and adventures of her grandfather, who died long before she was born. The Lady wished to hear more stories from him, so she took the quill and wrote Timothy upon her own hand.
No sooner had the man materialized than the Lady herself vanished, presumably taking his place in the afterlife. The Lady’s companions were horrified and ran away, and Timothy was very confused. “How did I get here?” he asked no one in particular.
The snake slithered out from a hole in a tree and said to him, “You have been brought back to life by a magical quill. If you write down the name of a person – anyone you want, so long as they are already dead – they will come back to you.”
Timothy excitedly scrawled the name of his wife on a bit of scraped bark on the tree. Within seconds, he was gone and replaced by the Lady’s grandmother. The snake explained the quill’s enchantments to her, but this woman was not interested. “I have no wish to be reunited with anyone in this life,” she replied. “I was perfectly content with the one I just left.”
Dissatisfied, the snake said, “There is no one else you wish to see alive?”
The woman did, indeed, have someone in mind that she wanted to see alive again. Resolved on retreating back into the grave herself, she wrote Snake in the dirt.
The snake, who was actually Death in disguise, was of course already there in the world meant for the fully living. The woman’s request birthed a paradox, and the enchantments broke – regurgitating all former captives of the spell. The Lady of Fairnon popped back into the forest, surrounded by a troupe of other people who had also been fooled. One of them, a young man who had been the first to suffer the quill’s tricks, secured the Lady’s hand in marriage and they lived happily ever after.
I remembered an illustration of the Lady of Fairnon, and knew that being likened to her was doing me far too much credit.
“You are offended?” Lucius ventured.
“No,” I assured him. “Not at all. I take it very much as a compliment that you see me that way.”
I bit my lip, watching him play, and my reverie of snakes and ladies was soon interrupted by a knock at the door. Lucius called for them to enter, and I tried to conceal my disappointment. I much preferred the calm solitude with Lucius, without others there to interfere.
It was Mrs. Macnair. “Good morning,” she greeted us cheerily. “I heard your music from the other side of the castle, and wondered if you wanted me to copy it down, as you usually like.”
“Oh,” Lucius said. “No, thank you. This isn’t a song for the collection.”
“Really? But it sounds so lovely. Are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes.” He hesitated and chanced a look at me, envisioning someone with a tumbling mass of golden hair, perfect pink lips, and sparkling, witty eyes. The Lady of Fairnon. “This one is reserved for Narcissa, so I don’t want anyone else to ever play it, if someday people come across my other songs.” Mrs. Macnair did not speak, her mouth dropping open slightly. Lucius was obviously embarrassed due to our silence, and went on much more quietly, “I wrote it for her.”
I colored deeply, thankful that he couldn’t witness it. Mrs. Macnair was staring at me. “Very well then,” she replied at last, politely bowing herself out.
I sat there for an awkward five minutes, unsure of what to say. “I know that it’s impossible to even consider for a second…” Lucius said in a tentative voice, his fingers hovering over the piano keys. Suddenly, I found them repulsive again. I looked away so that I would not have to see the blood tracing in his veins. “For you, it must feel like an insult.”
I opened my mouth but found I had nothing sensible to say.
My unremitting stillness was mortifying for Lucius, and he had no choice but to continue with, “I assure you, it was only a gesture of friendship. I have written songs with Horatio in mind, as well as Ramien and Charlie and Wilda. Especially of Charlie and Wilda. I do not actively entertain any unfeasible expectations…I am perfectly aware of the limitations here.”
I toyed with a loose thread on my sleeve. “It’s not…completely…well…”
The door flew open, and Mrs. Macnair’s face appeared once more. Her eyes were wide and distraught. “Master Malfoy!” she declared. “A horrible devastation! A most terrible accident! I do not know how it happened.”
Lucius clutched the bench. “What is it?”
“Your music,” she moaned, covering her eyes with trembling hands. Her white hair was plastered with soot, and she smelled like singed fabric. “It’s just…it’s gone. It’s all gone. There was nothing I could do to put it out.”
Lucius stood to his feet, fierce and intimidating. “What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
We both drew parallels to the burning odor at the same time, and Lucius sank back to his bench as though on the verge of fainting. His face was more pallid than usual, as colorless as death. “I’ll go look,” I told him, touching his shoulder.
“Nothing you can do,” Mrs. Macnair cried, hiccupping and hysterical from fear of reprimand. “I tried, sir. I did everything in my power, but the house’s will is the house’s will. It would not be put out for anything – was completely impermeable to water. Scorched. Gone. Seven years of your compositions, all up in flame.”
I raced past her, heading to the abandoned western half of the castle. The smell of fire preceded me, growing stronger with each step I took. Ramien and Wren were already in the small room, the door thrown open wide. They were fanning smoke and trying to shout over the ticking of the grandfather clock, which had seemed to increase in volume until it was drowning out every other sound in the castle.
Stacks and stacks of parchment, categorized neatly in an array of cardboard boxes, were now aglow with flame. Cinders floated through the air, and miniscule scraps of what had once been Lucius’s hard work – his only pleasure during an eight year exile – fluttered onto our shoulders and the tops of our heads in a choking ash. I could feel my hair curling with the heat, sticking furiously to my neck.
“No,” I whispered, frantic. No one could hear me. Wren was flapping a blanket at the debris, trying to kill the fire, and Ramien was attempting to douse it with a pitcher of water. Every time he went to fling the pitcher’s contents at the blaze, the water would spill through midair for a brief second before retracting back inside the ceramic pot like a turtle hiding in its shell. We were forbidden to put the fire out, and watched helplessly as it devoured the boxes of sheet music. It seemed intent on destroying only the music, and nothing else, as the fire spread no further than the boxes.
“Who’s going to tell him?” Horatio inquired from behind us, his pitch high and squirrelly. “I’m not. I’m certainly not telling him.”
“He already knows,” I deadpanned.
“He’s going to be very upset,” Horatio warned, fumbling with his pocket watch again. “Very angry, indeed.”
My memory flickered to the sadness in Lucius’s expression, and his fear – and I wasn’t so sure that Horatio wasn’t underestimating his master. While Mr. Malfoy did possess a temper, it was not equal to his melancholy.
“We can replace them,” I resolved. “We can write them over again, at least the songs he remembers. He must have his favorites memorized by now, right?”
Wren and Ramien exchanged nervous looks. “You might propose that,” Ramien answered meaningfully. “He might not be hostile if you were the one to suggest it.”
We didn’t have any other options. I left Ramien and Wren to uselessly fan the ruins of a composer’s greatest work, and found Lucius’s bedroom again.
In the dim, artificial sunlight that canvassed the room, the piano looked as green as bottle glass. Leaves of ocher and garnet spun away from the trees, coming to a rest on the lid. Lucius himself was leaning peacefully against his beloved instrument, eyes closed.
It would be the most natural thing in the world to assume him dead, what with his complexion. I looked at his hands, however, and noticed that one of them was pressing weight onto four keys. An amber leaf spilled onto his hunched shoulders, and I could taste all of the mixtures of autumn – pumpkin and cinnamon, firewood, musty coverlets brought down from the attic, spiced candles, nutmeg, freshly uprooted onion grass… But there was no suffocation in the room, no scent of death to tamper with the otherwise relaxing atmosphere. It was airy and light; Malfoy Manor’s only reprieve.
I examined Lucius’s motionless fingers on the glass keys, limp and lifeless. His blood still rushed through them as usual, coming and going like fisherman’s ships. He was not dead, of course. He had finally played the wrong note on this poisoned piano, just like his mother. The ghost of his last executed notes hung high above us, flitting from tree to tree as if trying to escape.
He would suffer the fate of endless sleep.
I paced the corridor, briefly glancing in through the doorway of Lucius’s bedroom whenever I passed. Ramien, Horatio, Wren, Mrs. Macnair, Miu, Cook, and even Charlie were all standing in a circle around their immobile master, gaping in pure disbelief.
“After two decades of playing this instrument, it just now happens,” Cook said to them in an accusing tone, his sharp eyes darting to mine. His mouth was twisted into a disgusted grimace, and I could sense his genuine respect for Lucius. Unlike Horatio and Miu, who were only curious and shocked, Cook held a true regard for the pianist. He blamed me completely.
“I wasn’t even in the room,” I shot at him before he could say any more. He broke our gaze, his gray eyebrows still pulled together with grief and anger.
“What do we do?” Wren moaned again. It seemed to be the only words she was capable of uttering. The giantess alternated between biting her already-stubby nails and twisting the hem of her apron into a tail.
“Nothing,” Ramien replied tonelessly. “You know what happened to Tulia. There is nothing we can do.”
“Wait,” Mrs. Macnair said suddenly, holding out one palm as she mulled something over in her mind. “I’m remembering something. I don’t know how much merit is in it, but I’ve heard tales of a great sorcerer…of a man who is even more powerful than Circe. I daresay he would be able to break the piano’s spell.”
“And the spell over the castle, as well?” Miu asked eagerly. I gawked at her. It was the first time I had ever heard the woman speak.
“The only problem with that,” Ramien said in a terse voice, his eyes never lifting from where Lucius still sat curved over the glass piano, “is that there is no way to contact anyone from the outside world. There is no hope at all.”
They all fell silent, and I resumed my pacing. There was a nagging feeling stirring in the pit of my stomach. I was feverishly churning through my thoughts, trying to pinpoint exactly what it was that I felt. A determination arose from nowhere – a ravenous, potent determination that multiplied by the second. I thought of Lucius glancing sideways at me on his piano bench, seeing nothing, and smiling only because of my words, affectionate only because of my personality. Lucius did not require eyes to love, condemn, or approve of a person.
A hush swept over the castle, and my own disquiet grew more and more consuming. There was a gentleness to Lucius that he had just been beginning to reveal – an easiness of temper that even some of his closest companions for these last several years were yet unaware of. I suspected that I would be restless until the man awakened, always wondering what was hiding underneath that waxy, frightening exterior. I wanted to sit next to him again and hear his quiet voice as he spoke to me and only to me, and then I would be able to formulate a lucid decision about how I felt about the strange sensations wrapping around my heart like twine. If Lucius did not require eyes to approve, then neither would I.
And if he did not awaken?
No, that would not do. I was too impatient to consider it. I studied the walls, concentrating hard. There had to be something I could do. There is always a loophole to every iron-clad rule, if you just examine it closely enough. I stood in a beam of light protruding from a window, allowing my eyes to rove over deep puddles of water collecting in the landscape below. Rain and sleet continued to pour from the heavens, unrelenting. Just as I observed this to myself, a howl of wind pierced the air, spraying droplets across the glass and abstractedly reminding me of a waterfall.
“There is a way to summon him,” someone was saying. I barely maintained a grip on the conversation, as I was lost in a fog thousands of miles away from them. “Powers like you cannot even comprehend.”
The winds whistled and the walls rattled, causing a portrait hanging several yards away
to shake violently. There was something about the word whistle that struck me. I drew it to the center of my muddled thoughts, ignoring the speedy, frenzied pulsing of the clock. It became louder, more insistent, as though intentionally trying to dilute my ability to plan. I pictured air gushing through a tube, just a fleeting image –
My feet were moving before I could even appreciate the revelation. Of course! How could no one have ever thought of it before? My face split into a smile, and I picked over the new invasion of possibilities. If witches and wizards congregated together, traveled to the castle and dismantled it without entering… If they tore it down from the outside, then we would finally be freed. I could go home…
I descended the stairs and headed to my bedroom, searching desperately for a scrap of parchment and a quill. As soon as the wish entered my head, the wallpaper to my left began to peel away from its roots, like a snake shedding its skin, and a fresh, white sheet of parchment fluttered to my feet. A brass quill born from a chandelier’s candle-holder above me fell through the air and rolled across the floor, already loaded with ink.
I doubled over the parchment, tongue between my teeth as I wrote:
Please pass the message to Cygnus Black of Wasteir that his daughter, Narcissa, is trapped in the forest of Wauning, inside a castle that has a curse preventing anyone who enters from ever leaving. Please gather as many people as possible and come to Malfoy Manor, but do NOT enter it! You must destroy the castle from the outside.
Now the only thing left to do was to figure out a way to get the message into the pipes. I scoured the room for a corked bottle to put it in, wondering where the pipework would carry it, and if anyone would ever find it. It was a long-shot, but there was nowhere else I could store my faith.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a pearly glimmer. Hoping that the castle had produced a bottle for my use, I turned my head and saw someone identical to myself turning as well.
The mirror that had appeared just that morning was malignant, having expanded to be quite as tall as I was, and twice as wide. Whereas earlier it had been a bit murky in color, a bit rounded – rather like seeing myself in the back of a spoon – it was now crystal-clear. I couldn’t even make out opaque streaks of reflected light; the surface was as smooth and insubstantial as air. And when I shifted my position just the slightest bit, my own mirror image vanished completely.
I caught the sweet fragrance of roses before I laid eyes on them, flowing steadily inward on the current of a warm summer breeze. The freezing sleet beating against the windowpanes in my room shrank to muffled echoes, my ears closing around them with deafness. November ceased to exist and the only thing I could focus on were the tremors of an August wind tumbling over everlasting moors.
Rose petals sank across the lush grass, and I leaned close to see them, to drink in their perfume like wine and marvel at how real it all seemed. I could see every thin vein webbing beneath their skins of velvet; I could smell and taste all of the rich flavors of wildflowers with their blooms like pink polyps, of thickets dense with springy moss and dogwood.
Sunlight seared my skin, glowing right through the mirror and basking my arms and face in a blush of heat. I watched in amazement as a brown spike broke through the earth, slithering upwards. Branches climbed the blue sky, fighting each other as they twisted, and the buds of leaves blossomed all along them. Round, ripe apples sprouted from the newly-grown tree, bobbing so close to where I stood that I could almost feel the weight of them as they pulled the branches down.
I stepped closer. Every single apple in the tree was a pretty, pale green – except for one that hung the nearest to me. It was just a fraction of a centimeter away from spilling through the glass, blood-red and swaying harmoniously.
I eyed the peculiar red apple, reaching out to pluck the fruit as though it were not all a mirage. My fingers pierced the mirror, sending small waves shivering down the glass from my touch. It was as cool and acquiescent as liquid, and it seemed to suck my wrist inside it, closing around me more tightly as my arm plunged into the scenery. The substance grew sticky, suctioning to my skin like the mouth of a predator. I could see the apple dangling there, delicious and saccharine, and my fingertips moved through another dimension, inches from skimming it.
My arm extended further and further, the apple somehow eluding me; and then, quite unexpectedly, I felt a rough hand seizing my own, and it pulled me right through the mirror.
I screamed, thrashing against the fingers clasped firmly over my own. My legs kicked the air, and I was falling through a gush of fluid, drowning in a waterbed of tangled colors that wavered in the darkness. I could not see the hand that tugged on mine, guiding me through the water. I felt disconnected from the universe, swimming through molten glass that pressed on my lungs with hungry, monstrous vigor. Just as suddenly as I had been heaved into the mirror, however, I was out of it again.
Miraculously, I was dry. I stared in disbelief at the last residues of liquid glass dotting my skin like perspiration. I shook my arm and they popped off, falling to the floor with the ringing noise of clattering jewels. I appeared to be standing in a dungeon. Raising my gaze, I discovered with a skip of the heartbeat that the grip crushing my fingers belonged to a terrifyingly familiar man.
“Well,” Gaspard Pravus mused, looking down at me through clear eyes that were narrowed to slits in victory. He reveled in my shock, quietly exuberant. “I have had men searching up and down the country for you for the past three months, and here you are. You stepped right into the palm of my hand.”
I whirled around, absorbing the familiar floor-length mirror that was attached to a stone wall. Beyond it, I could see my bedroom in Malfoy Manor, silent and unchanged. I could feel the sting of sleet once more, the cold draft slipping between cracks in the walls. Straining my ears, I thought I could hear Ramien and Wren speaking to each other.
“Take that away,” Gaspard replied in a loud voice, snapping his fingers behind him. Two elves dressed in tattered linens bumbled past, lifting the mirror away from the wall. “There will be no more need for it.” They held it unsteadily between them, their feet zigzagging across the concrete floor in efforts to keep the hefty object aloft.
The area where the mirror had been situated was now entirely black, like scorch marks. I could see small indentations in the shadowed stone where it had melted, dried up, and melted again. It had burned away a layer of stone, distorting it. I pictured the clear-eyed man watching me through that mirror, a smile curling his mouth as I reached for an apple that wasn’t there.
I was too horrified to speak.
Gaspard did not seem to mind this, as he evidently wanted to dominate the conversation. “You Stunned two of my workmen,” he said lightly, dangerously. He began to circle the damp dungeon, hands laced behind his back as he lingered over his triumph. “And all this time, you were there. What are the odds?”
My fist tightened over the strip of parchment, the message I had intended to release into the pipework. My only salvation. Gaspard smirked and ripped it away from me, reading it before I got the chance to try to swipe it back from him.
“Malfoy Manor,” he repeated to himself, his tone peppered with scorn. “Looks like I saved you, didn’t I?”
“I would rather be back where I was,” I responded.
“Really?” He cocked his head, analyzing me shrewdly. “Even with someone like Mr. Lucius Malfoy there?” I raised my eyebrows in surprise, and he added with a smile, “Oh yes, Narcissa Black. I am quite aware of the inhabitants of Malfoy Manor, as well as the restrictions set upon them. I have happily ignored Lucius’s predicament for the past…oh, how many? Seven years? Nine? One can never tell. I confess I am not much bothered by it. I daresay that you will thank me now, for rescuing you from the claws of a person like Malfoy.”
I matched his gaze, not even trying to conceal my hatred. “Lucius is twice the man you could ever hope to be, you miserable bastard.”
He made a hissing noise. An alarmingly ugly look flashed across his face, and he sneered, “We’ll see how quickly your attitude changes.” He flicked his wand and a door leading upstairs swung open. “Walk.”
I glared at him for a few moments, deciding whether or not it would be worth it to try and defy him. It was only the presence of his wand, and the prominent lack of my own, that set my feet in motion up the narrow stairs.
“Where am I?” I asked as we traipsed down a bright corridor. Gaspard ignored me.
The dungeon, it seemed, was separated from the main building by a long corridor that reminded me of the bridges at Hogwarts. Two long windows ran the length of both sides, inviting a flood of light to pour through. To my left, there were red valleys sprinkled with snow. To my right, I could see gray ocean waves lapping over a slender strip of shore. “Where are we?” I demanded to know again. The landscape was foreign to me – we must have been hundreds of miles from Wasteir. I remembered passing hills on the Hogwarts Express, but those had been painted the soft pastels of yellow, blue, and green. They weren’t anything like this terrain – stained brick red as though the grass had been sunburned.
“This is where you will be working,” Gaspard said. “It is precisely what you owe, and what your father owes. Cygnus may have found himself a new situation, as his daughter had the wits to marry someone who could afford to clear his debts and move them both away; but I feel that is nothing short of cheating the system. Cygnus did not earn that money. You can either stay here and work off the debt yourself, and go home after two months or so; or you can walk home now and I will see to it that your father is sent to Azkaban for a period of two to three months. The choice is yours.”
Gaspard did not wait for my reply. The door at the end of the long corridor was creaking open, and he pushed me into it before shutting it once more, from the other side, and locking me in. I beat on the door. “What are you doing?” I yelled. I could hear the key turning, followed by the thudding retreat of Gaspard’s footsteps. “Where the bloody hell am I?”
“Doorturn, Miss,” a voice squeaked from behind me.
A row of elves. Seven of them, lining one wall with timid expressions on their snouted faces. One of them was cowering in the corner, a wooden bucket over his head as he trembled and shook. The elf who had spoken to me stepped forward, and I saw that he had strung together potpourri as a crown, and wore it on his bald head. Tufts of orange hair sprang out of his floppy ears.
The room around us was wide and open, with rosewood rafters crisscrossing amongst the low ceiling. Seven hammocks fashioned from fisherman’s rope were suspended from the ceiling, topped with potato-sack pillows and ragged quilts. Most of the right-hand wall consisted of a granite counter, on which four complex-looking machines that reminded me of something my father might have built were spread. There was a miniature kitchen, and an even tinier toilet sealed for privacy with a banged-up bit of sheet metal operating as a door. Everything was sized according to the elves – impossibly small and simplistic. I felt like Wren, with my head perilously close to brushing against the ceiling.
“What are you all doing here?” I wondered aloud.
“We works here,” another elf piped up, looking very proud of himself. “Very important, secret work.” He pointed at a delicate-looking hammock that could have fit a toddler in it. “You can have Totty’s bed, if you like! Totty will sleep on the floor, he does not mind.”
I grasped the wall, my sensations clammy as I felt a strong influx of vertigo threatening to spiral me to my knees. “I don’t suppose that any of you have got wands,” I muttered. Totty leaned across to see my face, offering me a childlike smile.
“What would we be needing wands for? We are having everything we needs right here. You will enjoy it very much.”
I felt a very different pair of eyes settling on me, and I looked up to see a woman painted in a frame, her face pale and elegant. The woman’s lips pursed, eyes brimming with pity. Her expression was enough to make something in my stomach drop painfully fast, and with that sinking feeling, I glanced once again at the seven elves. They were all climbing into their hammocks, even though it was only sunset, chattering happily. Totty patted the firm stone next to a fireplace, as if to try and cushion it, before he curled up like a kitten and closed his bulbous eyes.
When I turned back to the woman in the portrait, I found that she had walked sideways out of her frame and disappeared, leaving only a yellow wooden chair behind.
“Miss!” Something wet was trickling down my cheek. “Miss!”
I frowned, rolling over and burying my face in the cold, hard floor.
“Water isn’t enough, Lilda,” a voice squeaked. “Here, take this.”
There was a whoosh of air, followed by the stinging impact of metal against my forearm. “Aaghh!” I screamed, bolting upright. A spatula flew down to smack me again, and I caught it easily. “What the hell was that for?”
The spatula-wielding elf smiled down at me, and five other elves were examining me curiously. Off in one corner, the seventh elf was hiding behind a hammock, his pig-like snout sniveling in fear. “Lilda had to wake up Miss,” the elf who had attacked me explained jovially. “It’s time for work!”
I squinted with bleary eyes beyond her, through a window surmounting a door that led outside. The sky was dyed a deep violet, with a smattering of stars still visible over the horizon. “Are you mad? It’s not even sunrise!”
“We be having to finish at the mines before the sun is too high,” Totty intervened. “It is getting very hot then.”
“Mines?” I repeated, glancing warily at each of them. Their eyes grew large with eager longing, their feet hopping up and down as though my delaying them from work was causing them immense pain. “What would we be doing in a mine? And it’s November. It won’t be hot at any time of the day.”
“It is for elves. Up, up, up,” a third elf demanded, and they all struggled to lift me to my feet against my will. “You agreed to Sir’s orders, Miss, did you not?”
I gave the elf who’d asked me that question a scathing look. “Yes. It was the lesser of two evils.” I did not add that if I found the chance to escape, I certainly would. Despite my family’s betrayal, the thought of my father rotting away in Azkaban was like a blade to the flesh; I could never allow it to happen. I would go along with Gaspard’s corrupt ultimatum until my first opportunity to escape arose. And then, of course, I would hasten to warn my father. I would take him to Diagon Alley, and personally state our case against Gaspard Pravus to the Wizengamot.
“Hurry!” Totty cried. “We are losing nightlight!”
As it turned out, a glinting golden substance lay embedded in rock deep underneath those rolling red hills. “Not gold,” Sozy whispered in my ear as she passed me a shining pickaxe. “It’s gormite. But no one can ever tell the difference.”
The mines were cool and damp, the air as heavy as if I were swallowing clouds, and the rocks were slippery beneath my shoes. We had spent a solid ten minutes walking down a set of steps hacked into the ground, tunneling our way further and further into the earth. We wore hats with lamps built into them, and they illuminated the wet, jade-green stone. I could see claw marks in the ceiling, from where it had been picked clean for gormite, and spindly props that held up the roof.
“Those don’t look safe,” I remarked, pointing at them. I could have sworn that one of the props wobbled as we made our way past it, causing several pieces of rubble to clink down the steps before us, echoing as they ricocheted off of walls. The elves didn’t seem to hear me, as they were humming to themselves rather cheerily, swinging their pickaxes.
I trailed after the herd of elves, the skin beneath my axe handle beginning to sweat. I had to double over as I walked, as the roof was so low, and my hair swung back and forth in front of my face, obstructing my vision. I stumbled into the elf who was often frightened – Eubert – and he made a noise like a mouse being stepped on and flung himself to the front of the line.
“That can be your station,” said the Head Elf, the one who wore a crown made from potpourri. He curled two fingers toward a black tunnel veering around one corner. It was farther down from the other tunnels, at the very bottom.
“That’s deeper than yours!” I argued. I could hear the other elves cracking axes against rock in their respective tunnels, the unstable boulders above our heads reverberating with each blow. In two seconds it would collapse in on us, burying me before I could open up my mouth to shout. I had never been so insulted with such a ridiculous task in my entire life.
“Newest workers start from the bottom,” Head Elf stated matter-of-factly. He pushed me across the way into Eubert’s station. For such a tiny, terrified elf, he was incredibly strong; he swung the axe with the force of an avalanche, causing shiny gold nuggets to pop out of the wall and into a wooden grate shaped like a honeycomb. The grate was set firmly over a long metal trough, into which the gormite fell. All excess rock was kept above the grate, probably by some kind of magic.
“See Bertie’s trench?” Head Elf asked me in an authoritative, patronizing voice. He lifted up the grate, showing me Eubert’s progress. About four tiny slivers of something yellow and shimmering lay in the bottom of the metal tin. “See how he aims? Try to copy exactly like Bertie, Miss. Aim just a hair above your target and whack with all your might!”
“What is this for?” I wanted to know.
“Not yet,” he chirped excitedly. “That part is for afternoon! Mustn’t spoils the surprising!”
Grumbling irately, I ducked down into the tunnel he had indicated, my headlamp foraging a despairingly dim path. It all felt like I’d fallen to the bottom of a well, and then the well flipped onto its side. “It’s just temporary,” I muttered to myself. “If I live to see the sun again, I’ll get out of here and find my father. I’ll hide him and then…” I hesitated. And then what? Lucius’s face swam to the forefront of my mind. I was tempted to forget about Malfoy Manor forever, but something stronger in me rejected that idea. I would sever the castle’s curse, in one way or another. If I couldn’t find any existing loopholes to the spell, then I would just have to create them.
The green wall was bulky and sharp, with splinters sticking out of tiny canyons like crystals. I located a patch of gold – or rather, gormite – and swung my axe with all I was worth. It wasn’t as heavy as I had anticipated, and thudded against the rock with a sound like thunder splitting the air. Two golden pebbles rolled through the grate, dropping into my trough.
I smirked to myself, gratified. I wasn’t half bad at this.
The elves sang loudly, their voices muffled and convoluted in my ears. The oxygen was too thin, the mugginess condensed around my lungs like tightly-packaged sardines. I hammered into the rock again, and dust floated away like dandelion fluff. I could feel the grit settling over my arms and face, and when I licked my lips, found that it tasted sweet – like powdered rhubarb.
I worked for what felt like ages before resolving that I deserved a nice break after all of my effort. I desperately craved the open air, wishing to be above ground again. The mines were black and suffocating, the rumbling of axes and loose chunks of rock slicing through the silence making me uneasy. Every now and then, when I dwelled on how deep under the surface I must be standing, panic shot through my blood and I began to wheeze and choke on the gormite dust.
“What is you doing?” a wounded voice cried. Head Elf tottered down my tunnel, illuminating the dirty fog with his bobbing headlamp.
I was sweaty and sticky – and itchy, too. The crystals were like fiberglass, and they pricked my skin. I had dust coating my mouth, inside my nose, underneath my fingernails. My eyes burned from the billowing clouds hanging all around, but when I tried to wipe my face with the back of my hands, I only rubbed more grime onto it. “I’m resting for a minute,” I retorted. I had been ‘resting’ for about twenty minutes, actually, but I felt it well-deserved. My ankles were sore, my fingertips swollen, and I was beginning to develop blisters on my palms.
“Resting?” he repeated, as though he’d never heard the word before. “During work?”
“Yes,” I replied bitterly. “It’s what people usually do when they’re tired, you know.” I gestured to my trough, growing haughty now. “I’ve done more than my fair share for today, as you can see.”
Head Elf examined my trough, shaking his head in disappointment. “Dreadful! I’ve never seen such slow productivity! Eubert’s trough is two-quarters full already!”
“What?” I glanced at my small rubble of gormite nuggets. It didn’t even cover the bottom. “How is that possible?”
Head Elf scowled at me, his snout raised in the air as if greatly offended. “Because he did not take breaks.”
I wanted to say that Head Elf’s own trough must not be that full, since he was going around chastising other people after all their hard work and not mining the rocks himself; I settled for slamming my axe directly into the nucleus of the precious mineral, sending up a tornado of dust right in his direction. I smiled to myself as he coughed and gagged.
“That’s –” he sputtered, “more like it.” He coughed again, beating on his chest with one hand. “Keep going until –” (more hacking) “you is hearing the whistling.”
I thought about my father while I swung my axe, trying to ignore the throbbing in my shoulder blade from the constant exertion. Sweat and dust collected in my blisters, stinging them, and I wished for a thick pair of gloves like Lucius’s.
I swung harder, cracking open the mine until it bled gormite for me. I hacked into it with all of my concentration and muscle, pretending it was Gaspard’s face. What right did he have, anyway, to punish me in place of my father? I remembered what he had said in September, when I approached him in hopes that he would take pity on my family and liquidize the fines and overdue taxes that we were ordered to pay.
“I do not care how poor you are, Miss Cissa. If your family does not provide the amount owed in three days, my people will come to your house and take something worth selling to pay his debts. If I were you, I would hope he finds a way to raise some money.”
I spent a few angry moments thinking that if Andromeda had been the one to make the plea on Father’s behalf, she would have been the one kidnapped. Would I have been the bride in the forest, standing opposite a strange man under an arch of flowers? I mentally stabbed the picturesque scene, hating Andromeda for marrying so soon after I was taken away. Neither she nor Father had bothered to look for me, that much was obvious.
I would flee as soon as I got the chance, probably while the elves slept so that they could not notify their master soon enough. I would send a letter to my father and tell him that he must go to Aunt Walburga’s in London, and hide there. After that, I would make my way back to Malfoy Manor and strip it of its enchantments from the outside.
A shrill whistle roared in my eardrums, and I let my pickaxe fall to the ground. “Miss!” Totty called, poking his head into my tunnel and blinding me with the bright light of his headlamp. “Time for the machines, Miss!”
“More work?” I lifted up the inside collar of my robes to wipe the dust from my eyes, nose, and mouth. “What about lunch?”
“One meal a day,” he chirped. “Not ‘til four.” Totty snapped his fingers, and my trough rattled. Peering closely, I saw that all of the gormite inside had disappeared.
“Where’d it go?” I cried. “I spent all day working on that, I hope you know!”
“Hurry up, Miss,” Head Elf commanded from his perch at the tunnel above us. “Mustn’t be idle.”
I followed the stream of elves up the steps, hitting my head against the ceiling twice before reaching the mouth of the mines. Inhaling great gasps of oxygen, I rested against the rough red grass for a moment. A small smile spread across my face, and I closed my eyes, feeling the open air sweep over my skin. The November winds were as refreshing as a tall glass of ice water.
“Miss!” Totty tugged on my wrist. “There is more work to be done!”
I opened one eye first, and then the other, hoping that the elf before me would fade into the breeze like a hallucination. I would be back in Wasteir, peddling overpriced food to the villagers on the winding cobbled lane. I would be weaving in-between other witches and wizards in Hogsmeade, my wand safely tucked into one pocket and my hands busy with History of Magic books. I was seated at an ornate dining table, watching Lucius stare at a goblet of wine that he could not see, silent as he listened to me speak about something trivial.
“Miss,” Totty pleaded, tugging on me again. I stood up with a groan and dragged myself after them into the building.
I soon learned all about the important and secret work that Totty had glowingly hinted at the day before. When I entered the room, I found four elves (one per machine) busy poring over a trough ten times the size of the one I worked with in the mines, and it lined a wall above the low granite counter. They each selected either one large nugget or a few very small ones, and let them drop into a tube that rose out of each of the four machines. At the bottom of the tube, the gormite fell into a small circular tray where they were melted, as a miniature oven made up the base of the machine. The elves reached for levers on the right end of the machines, pushing them over to the left. A circular shape was on the end of these levers, and when they pressed them against their counterparts, it formed a perfect coin with grooves and markings on both sides.
Two elves assisted the process by refueling the ovens with coal and cleaning deposits of leftover gormite from the edges of the trays. The seventh elf pounded bits of gormite with a hammer, breaking them down into smaller pieces. They all moved speedily in perfect synchronization, their nimble fingers like lightning as they reached into the trough, calculated the exact amount of gormite needed for a single Galleon, and waited approximately three seconds for the substance to melt before stamping them into the precise size, shape, and color to match a real Galleon.
“The goblins at Gringotts will know the difference,” I said to them.
“They are well enchanted, Miss,” Head Elf told me airily. “Sir is knowing what he does quite well, thank you very much. This money has been circulating for ten months. No one has noticed a thing.”
I was still doubtful, recalling the clever glint in a goblin’s eye as he inspected scales of gems and gold, Sickles and treasure. Everything that passed through the doors of Gringotts was manually flipped between two long fingers, held close to their faces as their lips curled back with instinctual suspicion.
“Indistinguishable,” Lilda said happily. She turned back to glance at me for a quick second. “Don’t just stand there, Miss! Come on, then!”
I meandered over to the machine next to her, unsure of what to do. “What do you need me for?”
Head Elf clucked his tongue, knocking me away from the machine with his bony elbow. “You is not doing the presses on your first day, Miss. You’ll botch up all the Galleons! You can move the Galleons to the cooling rack with this pair of tongs.” He shoved a silver instrument into my hands and inclined his head toward a black tray at the end of the counter – large and rectangular, like a cookie sheet. I touched the rim of it and found it cold to the touch, like the handle of an outdoor water pump in winter.
I did just as Head Elf instructed, darting between the elves and retracting pressed Galleons as soon as they were produced. No matter how quickly I stepped, I wasn’t as fast as them. Head Elf was giving me a headache, muttering constantly about how slow and thick-headed I was.
The melting gormite smelled much sweeter when compacted – like baked fruit. Soon the room was shimmering in a yellowish haze, the elves nodding their heads dreamily with the scent of it as though drunk. The windows were covered in a film from the dust and smoke, like gormite algae.
Finally, at half past three, the very last nugget was lifted from the trough. Lilda squinted at it, rolling it between her palms. “Too small,” she announced. “Not enough for another whole one. We’ll just have to leave it in the leftover pile until tomorrow.”
Two other elves exchanged nervous glances. “Sir will not be happy,” said one.
“Sir will not like it. He will be very angry,” said the other.
The elves, not the least bit exhausted, proceeded to cook supper with the same speed they used when working. I slumped against the wall underneath the only portrait in the room – still devoid of an occupant since the woman had left it yesterday – and pretended to be invisible. My feet ached and the last thing I wanted to do was bend over a tiny, elf-sized fireplace, stirring soup in a cauldron like some kind of peasant.
I had looked forward to food much like the meals prepared by Hogwarts elves. These elves, I found, did not have the same resources as the ones from Hogwarts. Living in Doorturn, they also did not share the same customs. Instead of pumpkin juice, we drank onion juice. Instead of meat and potatoes, we ate beets and a kind of thick oatmeal with globs of celery inside it. Usually, I would have sooner spat on such flavors; however, after a long day of physical labor and a layer of dust like varnish on my throat, I welcomed it greedily. I even downed a tankard of onion juice before my tongue absorbed its revolting taste. It certainly explained that rotting odor I’d detected coming out of Head Elf’s mouth.
No sooner did my plate disappear, having been whisked into the sink by magic, than the door opened and in walked Gaspard. He headed rapidly over to the counter and picked up a sack filled with Galleons created that day. Next to me, Sozy shrunk down with her head below her shoulders, trembling.
Gaspard was frowning.
“This feels lighter than yesterday’s,” he said very quietly.
No one answered him. “Why is it lighter than it was yesterday?”
“Sir,” Head Elf responded bravely, his voice wavering. “Sir, we has been training Miss, Sir. Still plenty of Galleons – more than last Tuesday. But we is being slow today, Sir, because Miss was learning how.” I fought the urge to pull the hair right out of Head Elf’s ears, as I had learned rather quickly (in my opinion) and required minimal training.
“There are eight of you today,” Gaspard said through gritted teeth. “Yesterday there was seven. Therefore, there should be more Galleons in this bag than in yesterday’s bag. Do you understand the logic, Grook?”
Head Elf nodded somberly, his ears flapping.
“Narcissa.” My name crept out as a slow hiss, dissipating into the tension long after it was spoken. “Come here.”
I gulped down the last of my onion juice for the sole reason that it would make my breath reek, and crossed the room. “Is something not to your satisfaction, Mr. Pravus?” I asked innocently.
He tipped one finger under my chin and raised my face heavenward, stretching my neck until it hurt. His eyes locked fiercely on mine, and I could see every prematurely gray hair on his black head, every line crisscrossing over his incensed face. “Miss Black,” he whispered, “I warn you. If you do not become an asset to this team, I will find a place for you on one of my others. None of them, I promise you, have conditions quite as pleasant as this one here.”
I stared at him, our faces close and my breathing shallow. “Why do you hate me so much?”
He backed away, clutching one of my shoulders much more forcefully than necessary. Gaspard’s face was flushing red, and I watched one of his hands convulse, the tremors racing up his arm and into his head, which began to jerk. I had never seen anyone so angry in my life, and with so little reason for it. Wrenching myself out of his grip, I fell against the wall, my head banging into the empty portrait. “You’re insane,” I said, backing as far away from him as possible.
“You will not leave here,” he told me, his words growing louder and more disjointed. “Please do not make me send you away…you have to live here. Do you understand?” He dug into one of his pockets and retrieved something, holding out his hand to me. Fingers unfurling, I saw that a small pearl lay in the center of his palm. “I brought this for you.”
I glanced from the pearl to him, trying to edge past. The elves were all hiding underneath the scrubbed wooden table, not even daring to whisper. “Take it,” Gaspard urged, a smile warping his livid face. I continued to stare at him, wondering what was wrong with this man. "Take it," he repeated much more darkly.
I obeyed, grabbing the pearl swiftly enough that my skin would not touch his. He nodded. “Good.” Relief washed over his face. “Good, good, good.” I watched him in stupefied puzzlement, the pearl burning between my fingers. “You will be very happy here,” he promised me softly. And then his face hardened again, stone-like, and he turned his face to address the elves. “Don’t let her run away.” And with that, Gaspard seized his bag of counterfeit Galleons and left me standing there in a dazed manner, like the aftershock following an earthquake.
Mrs. Macnair strode briskly down the dark corridor, her head high and stoic. “Goodnight,” Horatio called.” Mrs. Macnair nodded at him, smiling faintly.
“Goodnight,” Wren said to her as she passed, and Mrs. Macnair could not get rid of her fast enough. “Tell the little one I said hello.”
It was a long path to the fourth tower, and the woman’s legs were older and more easily tired than they used to be. She didn’t care for the sensation of Apparition – it gave her migraines – but decided that it would at least spare the strained muscles in her calves. With a loud pop, she appeared atop a stairway on the fourth-highest level of the castle.
Mrs. Macnair paused for a brief moment to collect herself before entering, rearranging her face into a cheerful expression. It felt wrong on her numb features, but she did not want to worry the poor boy. Charlie was more perceptive than other children his age – perhaps because he’d been that age for eight years straight. Presently as she opened the door, she found him hovering near the ceiling, spinning around in circles.
“What are you still doing awake?” she murmured. Charlie glanced down, his silvery face brightening almost to white with happiness.
“Gran!” He plunged straight down, sucking right through his bed, past the floor, and into the room below. Mrs. Macnair smiled with real feeling now, and waited for him to fly back up. Charlie did, zooming through one of the dusty pillows on his bed with as much zeal as a tightly-wound jack-in-the-box springing open.
“It’s nighttime,” she reminded him, her voice constricted with warning. Her eyes, however, were soft, and Charlie beamed happily at her.
“Will you tell me a story?”
“It’s late, my dear. You need your rest.”
Charlie gazed in adoration at his grandmother, never fully realizing that she was asking for an impossibility. He was not alive anymore. She had tucked him into bed every single night since he was three years old, and that didn’t stop her from continuing to do so even after he died. Charlie spent each night suspended a few inches over his bed, lying flat-out (which was admittedly rather uncomfortable) and pretending that he was warm and breathing, and dreaming as everyone else in the castle did. Every now and then, he would sneak into other bedrooms and watch people as they dreamt, wondering how it felt to not be awake. He couldn’t remember what it was like to sleep and be completely at peace.
“Where did that girl go?” Charlie asked as Mrs. Macnair shooed him under the covers. She dropped the quilt, and it fell right through his legs. He knew that she liked to pretend that it warmed him, and comforted him. He didn’t quite understand it, but he loved his grandmother and wanted only to please her.
“What girl?” Mrs. Macnair answered through tight lips.
“Narcissa.” Charlie put his face in his hands, his eyes drooping thoughtfully. “I like her.”
Mrs. Macnair chuckled. “You barely ever talked to her.”
“I’m a little shy,” the boy admitted, and he peeked up at his grandmother with an embarrassed grin.
The old woman gave him a tremulous smile, quickly looking away so that he would not catch the gleam of moisture welling up in her eyes. She so wanted to brush the fringe away from his face, just once… She reached forward, and Charlie watched with patient wonder as she swiped her fingers across his forehead, intending to smooth his hair and press her cheek against his, inhaling the long-gone scent of his bath soap. Her fingers, of course, cut right through his vapory form, emerging cold and stinging.
“Where did she go?” Charlie wanted to know. “If she’s left the castle, then does that mean that the spell is broken? Will everybody leave?”
Mrs. Macnair’s heart skipped a beat. The boy did not realize it, but he was only still existing in this life because of the spell. It bound his soul to Earth, to the walls inside Malfoy Manor. As long as the curse lasted, Charlie would safely be with her forever, even after Mrs. Macnair died and became a ghost as well. Together, they would all be ghosts someday.
If the curse broke, what would become of Charlie?
“No,” she whispered, patting his pillow soothingly and motioning for him to lay his head down on it. He positioned himself awkwardly, struggling to please her by appearing to lie on the bed like a normal, sleeping child. “Don’t worry, my love. No one is ever going to break the spell.” She leaned forward, wanting to kiss his forehead, and stopped herself. “No one is ever going to break the spell,” she repeated, her voice feather-light and barely audible.
Charlie smiled up at her, not comprehending, and pretended (with great effort) to snuggle into the covers. An echo of a smile flashed across Mrs. Macnair’s face, the delight both powerful and fleeting. “Goodnight, love.”
“Goodnight, Gran.” Charlie stared at the ceiling, and then quickly squeezed his eyes shut.
Mrs. Macnair Apparated several floors below, in the corridor overlooking Lucius’s bedroom. She could see his frozen profile, still curved over his glass piano. Because it was glass and his bench was, too, it gave the impression of a man sitting in thin air, leaning over to study something on the ground. She sighed to herself, sorry for having done what she did to him. She had watched in grim satisfaction as the flames devouring his music grew higher and hotter, and Narcissa fled to see the damage just as Mrs. Macnair had predicted she would.
Lucius had not seen the old woman coming, of course, when she carefully stepped over to him and manipulated his fingers so that they mashed the keys, triggering a lifetime of sleep. But it had to be done. For the sake of Charlie, it had to be done.
Oh, Charlie, she thought. My dear, sweet little boy. Her mouth trembled, and she lifted a shaking hand to cover it. It felt for a second as though her heart would burst right through her ribcage, and overwhelm her with the infinite hollow of grief. The only thing that prevented this was the sudden and approaching tread of footsteps. Mrs. Macnair rubbed the tears from her eyes, trying to smile again – but the effect was crooked and rather frenzied.
It was Ramien, making his way over to check on Lucius. Mrs. Macnair hurried speedily by, the pangs of guilt still clanging in her chest. “Have a good night, Wilda,” Ramien said. She waited until he was safely inside Lucius’s bedroom before allowing herself to sob into her hands.
In December, I dreamed of Lucius for the first time.
We were walking along a ribbon of frozen creek, not speaking. I didn’t even see him, really – I felt his presence at my side and innately knew that it was Lucius Malfoy. Later on when I strained my memory, I thought I could recall a flash of his black cloak, and perhaps a lock of white hair – but then, I could have simply imagined it. I didn’t need proof, however. In my dream, I knew without question that it was him.
There was no sound at all. No crunching of snow-compacted grass beneath our shoes, no twittering of birds or whistle of the breaker, calling for a halt in the day’s mining production. The whole world was silent as we wound a path through the snow-covered red hills, aiming for a destination but not quite getting there.
I dwelled on this memory as I coughed on gormite dust down in the mines, buried deep below the surface of the earth. In those hours, when the dangers of rock collapsing in on me at any moment were the most prevalent thoughts in my mind, it was something of an oasis. I reflected curiously on it, trying to remember things that did not happen – words that weren’t spoken and a glance from his eyes that he didn’t give. I transformed the dream into something else, something that was almost real from where I had frequently turned it over and over in my head, kneading it and distorting it like clay.
Counterfeit galleons were molded and cooled, stacked up high to resemble a Gringotts’ collection. I moved numbly through the days, pounding rock with my hammer, green dust and black dust sticking to me like a sweat and coating my fingernails and every crease in my skin. I sorted Galleons to present to Gaspard, who grew increasingly more paranoid about whether I might leave. By the time I found out that this mining camp was one of many, Lucius’s eyes took on a permanently blue color in my thoughts.
Gaspard Pravus invested in many illicit activities, spreading them out and keeping them secret. He was extremely obsessed with making more money, never content with his ever-growing fortune that we created just for him. There was a mine in Wales that gave him Sickles, and one in Scotland that produced fake Knuts indistinguishable from real ones. He hoarded all of this to himself, counting coins late into the night until he was muttering nonsense, repeatedly counting and assuring himself of numbers.
By the time I discovered that mining was not his only secret endeavor – he also hired a band of hunters who obtained and illegally traded unicorn hair and other precious rarities for him – Lucius’s skin became fair and smooth, untarnished by the gruesome web of veins visible just underneath; and his lips were not stained with the residue of blood. He was evolving in my sleep, his physical form becoming more compatible with how I imagined he should look.
Gaspard’s regime provided little room for anything besides mindless working and daydreaming as I drifted from yesterday into tomorrow. I felt like pages were falling away from a calendar, each day exactly the same. I would not have felt the passing of time were it not for the sun glittering off of the snow-capped red hills, like sprinklings of sugar, and I had no time to enjoy the scenery. The most I saw each day were stars when I traipsed down into the mines and a glowing sky hidden behind pearly white clouds at noon when I emerged. The mechanical monotony made me forget about my father, about Andromeda. My thoughts never extended to Wren and nothing else existed aside for my dreams, the elves, and gormite. Always gormite. Endless gormite.
I might have forgotten completely about my plans to escape, were it not for Margaret.
I was not the first person Gaspard Pravus had manipulated into working for him, and I certainly would not be the last. There were many others before me – some of them worked off their sentences and he let them leave in peace. Some of them he kept forever, clutched in his talons until he possessed them completely and their brains were washed with white, Obliviated of everything except for what he wanted them to remember. And several of them, I came to witness, didn’t live to see the end of their punishment.
“Margaret,” Gaspard hissed, his voice shaking. “You cannot leave.”
But Margaret was going to leave, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Margaret was dying.
His two hired criminals, Lewisberg and Abrams, had happened across a heavily pregnant woman stooped against the cold on the side of the road. Knowing that Pravus was always on the lookout for stragglers to pull into his work camps, they took her and delivered her to Doorturn.
“I have saved you,” Gaspard told her, a manic gleam lighting up his eyes. Greed convulsed in his fingers, and he touched his pockets as if expecting to find more money in there, as though Margaret’s mere appearance guaranteed him more gold. “You owe me. You will pay off your debt to me by staying here until the child comes. After that, you are free to go.”
Margaret had tried to tell him, had pleaded hoarsely with steepled fingers at her lips. I quickly realized it already, having watched her form as she slept. The curvature of her belly was irregular, deformed. I watched her down in the mines, saw the way that whatever it was in her stomach sapped at her strength. I found myself doing the work of two people, trying desperately to fill her trough for her. The other elves caught on and we all rotated around the mines, flooding from one tunnel to the next and trying to find gormite where gormite no longer existed. The mines were swiftly emptying of the mineral. Soon, it would be time to dig new ones until the hills bled gormite for Gaspard’s insatiable greed. Until there was none at all to present to him in a flour sack.
The depleting gormite did not go unnoticed. “It’s Margaret,” he accused, pointing at her. She was lying on her side on the floor, eyes closed as she wrapped both skeletal arms around her ballooned stomach. “She is the weak link.”
“She is needing to go to a hospital, sir,” Sozy announced bravely, her ankles quaking as she did so. “A Muggle hospital.”
Gaspard, of course, would never allow this. Once he took hold of a person, he viewed them as his property, belonging to him forever. He reached out and slipped a small gemstone – a sapphire – into Margaret’s hand. Too weak to hold it, the stone dropped to the floor where she stared at it for a few seconds. Her eyes closed once more, and she gave a tiny moan of pain.
“You have to stay with me,” he entreated. “See what I have given you? You cannot ever leave. None of you can. It wouldn’t be fair.” A smile cracked his features. “You will be very happy here, you and your child both. I think any little girl or boy would consider themselves lucky to be surrounded by such trees and hills and beauty. And what’s more, you both will be serving your Ministry, as everyone dutifully should.”
“It’s not…” Margaret winced, and I could see her lungs struggling to inflate with air again. “I’m not…”
She didn’t understand any of it. Margaret was a Muggle, and was only coerced into trying to do what Gaspard wanted her to do because her brain seemed to be rotting away. We watched helplessly as she deteriorated day by day, wasting into a shriveled-up thing with a monster growing out of her abdomen. It bred hungrily, and she shrank in response, and there was nothing we could do to help except lay her down on a towel in the mines and work her share for her.
“She’s dying,” I said to Lilda. Lilda pursed her lips with worry, glancing back at the listless figure stretched out over rocks. Her legs were so very thin, like a calf’s, that they looked barely able to support the parasitic mass in her stomach. It threw shadows on the slick jade walls, making the thing inside of her look even more livid and unnatural.
Margaret was whispering to herself, suffering through another hallucination. Her brown hair was thin like the rest of her, braided into a plait as scraggly as a rat’s tail. Her face was nothing but a hollow, waxy bag of bones.
“What is wrong with her?” Lilda asked throatily, shaking her head in wonder.
“Tumor,” Eubert croaked. We turned to face him, and his headlamp swung back to the wall. He continued to spike his hammer into the rock, searching fruitlessly for more gormite. We had mined it all to extinction, trying to feed Gaspard’s demand for more and more fake Galleons. “She is dying of tumor.”
“It’s a tumor,” I repeated to Gaspard later that day when he came, as always, to pick up the sack of money. He tried to skirt around me, but I threw a hand onto the door to stop him. “She’s going to die.” My voice was harsh and embittered, and there was no way in hell that I was going to let him leave without a fight.
“What is a tumor?” He dropped the sack of money, face instantly covering with red blotches. It took nothing at all for Gaspard to snap. His lucid sense was fragile, like a chair on two legs, and all he needed to blow up in anger was for you to blink during eye contact.
“I don’t know,” I shot back. “A Muggle disease. She’s a Muggle. She doesn’t belong here.”
“Yes, she does. She came to me. She’s mine.”
“You take her to hospital!” Totty demanded shrilly, pointing a menacing finger at his master. “You take her to hospital right now, Mister Pravus, or me is not doing any more work!”
Eubert crawled into the ashes of the fireplace, attempting to hide, but the others did not back down. Even Head Elf stood boldly in the center of the room, knotting his hands into fists and trying to make himself look taller by stretching his neck out. “Me is not doing any more work, either,” he echoed.
Gaspard looked half-demented from this reaction in his lowly group of Galleon-miners. His eyes flitted over Margaret curled on the floor, who wasn’t stirring except to breathe a handful of times a minute. She looked like a corpse already.
“I will remove her to the mountains,” he said. “There are Muggles there; they will take care of her.”
True to his word, Gaspard sent for a black carriage to come and take her away. A goblin and a wiry old man stepped down from their horses and lifted her inside it. The contraption reminded me of a birdcage, with the way it was domed. But the carvings and the burned and blackened color, and the general scent of death, told me that Margaret would not live to see the mountains. And the goblin and man did not expect her to.
“What’s in the mountains?” I inquired, hovering next to the ear of an elf named Urchin.
“A very big camp,” she said. “They build furniture for Sir. Mostly goblins and wizards, but they has Muggles, too.”
The carriage clambered away, and the elves turned around to head back into the house. It was sunset, after all, and time for sleep so that we could wake up the next morning for a fresh day of scant mining. I couldn’t rip my eyes away from the black coach, however, each clang of its wheels rotating over pebbles like a roar in my ears. It drowned out the biting cold gales, the chattering of the elves, the rest of the world. It swallowed everything up in fuzzy silence, just like my dream. There was something familiar about it all.
I realized it was the path.
The carriage moved off towards death, taking the same route Lucius and I had sauntered along in my dream. Without thinking, I set forth after it, blind to everything else.
I was not sure what I expected to find. The prospect of following after Margaret, a woman I barely knew, did not occur to me. It felt rather like I was being pulled toward something different, something the carriage would leave behind in its wake. It was a peculiar concept, but onward I walked, and much more quickly than necessary.
My feet broke into a run. The pull was growing stronger, and bright spots were popping in my eyes like bursts of magic. I wondered if I was hallucinating like Margaret, or dreaming again. My shoes made no sound as they beat against the crisp snow, and I felt the gravity reining me in, a magnetic shift sucking me along the path.
The creek snaked through the hills, my dream springing to life. I watched the world paint itself with the colors of my dream – icy blue and fog so white – and trees lifted themselves out of the ground. Their roots tore away from the crumbling soil, and they stomped across the valley with thundering vibrations, bringing themselves to a halt on either side of me. They took root there, framing a perfect narrow path as all snow covering the strip of ground between them melted. The tips of their branches arched, overlapping each other in a united canopy, and everything was exactly as I had seen it through closed eyes.
The carriage was gone, rumbling off into no-man’s land. I could hear again, although only slightly – there was a tumbling sound of creek water as it sloshed across rocks. Grass twisted out of the plain dirt trail, ripening with pea-green hues right before my eyes. Birds called to one another, swooping from trees on the left to trees on the right; and still the trees were steadily rising higher, growing like daggers to match the vision in my dream.
My pace slowed to a walk, and I could do nothing but marvel at the claustrophobic height of the enclosing wood, and the dabbles of color so unnatural at this time of year – rich brown, red, lavender. They flicked across tree bark and the underbellies of leaves with easy strokes of canary yellow and apple green. Nothing was the color it should have been, and yet it was all entirely believable.
At the very end of the path, the trees forged a barrier. There was nothing except for a shallow puddle on the ground.
The puddle reached, lapping water over the sides. It grew and grew until the earth was leaking with water, until I had to step back several yards so that I would not be drenched with it. The water droplets multiplied like blood vessels of liquid that popped and regenerated, filling the pool. It was similar to Margaret’s infection, burgeoning from its host – in this case, the puddle sucked water from snow and moisture in the air, sizzling as it made contact with its source and drew it to the ground until it was as large as a pond. Its waters relaxed, calm now that it was finished growing, and suddenly I found myself gazing into a startlingly familiar spring.
Stones crisscrossed the border, engraved with runes or words – none of it mattered. I peered into the depths of the spring, smooth and shining like a Pensieve. My reflection descended closer and closer over the water until it swirled into a whirlpool, the ocean of colors around me disappearing with it.
It was winter in Lucius’s bedroom.
There was a woman walking from portrait to portrait, hands clasped behind her back. Her gait was uneasy and impatient, and I studied the murky shadows of brown and gold that followed her, as though she brought the colors of her original portrait into each one that she crossed. There was something strikingly proverbial about the stiffness in her shoulders, the glow of her porcelain skin. Without warning, she twisted her face and stared directly into my eyes.
It was a hawk’s gaze. She moved, skirts rustling, out of her frame and was gone.
A delicate layer of snow dusted across the piano, and across Lucius’s arched back. His head rested against the keys, stationary. White hair trailed down his back, shimmering with ice crystals. It was still, peaceful, and his face was tinged blue from cold. I leaned closer to the spring’s surface, examining the beat of Lucius’s heart through the blood that raced in his veins. He was still alive.
A white moth churned through the air like a drifting leaf, coming to an idle rest on his shoulder. It was a remarkable contrast, the white of his skin and hair, and the snow, against his black cloak. I remembered the quick flash of black cloak walking next to me in my dream – the flash that may or may not have even happened, with as many times as I had contorted the dream as I reflected on it. Lucius’s lips blushed purple, and I traced a lock of hair that hung around his face, stiff and frozen. Asleep in the middle of a snowstorm, right there in his own bedroom.
He was so quiet, so oblivious of his own situation. So at peace. The last thing he consciously witnessed was the terror of his life’s work going up in flames. When he eventually woke, if he ever did, he would still be trapped in that train of thought. He would plunge right back into a nightmare of fire and devastation, wondering what he would do now that everything he’d accomplished in the past eight years was gone.
I could not allow him to wake up to that. When he opened his eyes again, I was determined that he would see me – really see me. I would take his hand and lead him out of the castle, leaving it behind us forever. Perhaps we would even burn it down. Presently, gusts of snow brushed along Lucius’s cheekbones, stripping them of their bluish hue, landing softly in his eyelashes and over his lips like fallen stars. I found that I had stopped breathing.
Something inside me broke when I saw Lucius’s immobile profile, suspended in a moment of everlasting time over his glass piano. A tie that bound me to my father, to my sisters and the Ministry and the mines, was severed, and it floated away. I felt weightless, free. I was free.
I looked up and the trees were gone. I could see nothing around me except for the rounded house, the bleak mouth of the mines, and thickly falling snow. My fingers were laced through frozen blades of grass, and I realized that I had been staring at a blank expanse of melting snow. It was slush, caught between the heat of the sun and the frigid temperature, malleably changing forms.
Pelts of sleet dropped out of the sky in fireworks, working against my back since I was still on my hands and knees. Lucius Malfoy washed over the hills, drumming the air with his heartbeats and running underneath my fingertips in fluid motion. He blossomed in my heart like a cavalry, riding on the winds in his sleep to come and save me.
I would not die here like Margaret, and Lucius would not emaciate in the stark loneliness of his bedroom. The hills extended for miles and miles, and beyond them, something would free me. Something would break the curse, and I had to find it. A smile crept over my face.
I am coming for you, Lucius. I am going to set you free.
Small quantities of stone were crumbling away from her grip, and Mrs. Macnair heaved her left foot higher. She tested the sturdiness of it, making sure that it would not give way underneath her weight while she scaled the outside wall of Malfoy Manor. Her eyes were narrowed with disdain, and she was not in the mood for any more setbacks.
The news she had been summoned for was not pleasant.
The fool, she thought sourly. She knew that she should have killed the girl while she still had the chance. There were many nights that she stood pressed into the corners of Narcissa’s bedroom, watching and waiting. She could have murdered her then, and it would all have been finished with. There were many ways to destroy a body, which she knew quite well. Narcissa would not have been the first woman to die in Malfoy Manor during the curse’s reign, and it would only take a few swift moments to transfigure her cadaver into something else; inanimate objects were her specialty. Like yellow wooden chairs.
Mrs. Macnair smiled to herself.
There had been Lucius’s mother, of course, who had fallen prey to the piano’s poison. Why Tulia Malfoy risked playing such an instrument, Wilda had never been able to understand. Come to think of it, she’d never understood Tulia at all. She’d left behind a luxurious home, a husband who was Minister for Magic, and a young, albeit slightly disturbed, son with clear eyes. Tulia traded Pravus for Malfoy, staggered through forests and waded across rivers until she found the manor. Until she found Magnus. And there, of course, she raised her second son Lucius and whittled away the afternoons at her piano until it inevitably killed her.
It was a sinister amusement to Wilda that the painted woman who sat in her yellow wooden chair, confined to a portrait, was now a yellow wooden chair herself.
And then there was that other girl, the one swept under the rug, not even whispered of. She was meant to be the castle’s savior, and should have been, in every design. She was much more beautiful than Narcissa, more talented. She did not come from a wealthy family of any importance, but she could sing like a lark and her manners and way of speaking distinguished her as someone to admire. All of this was lost, of course, on Lucius. The only thing he could sense about the young woman was her uneasiness. She was nervous, skittish. Master Malfoy frightened her and she was terrified to be alone in the room with him. Even still, it was only a matter of time…
Yes. Wilda was certain that it would have happened eventually – the girl would have grown used to Lucius. He would have learned to accept her fearful behavior and they would have fallen into something like love. The spell would have broken. Wilda was right to have acted when she did. The intruder who knocked on the castle doors on an early morning in February, searching for her lost sister, did not live to see March.
“Narcissa Black is gone,” Gaspard had said. He had caught up to her in Knockturn Alley – ironically the place where they first crossed paths – with his face flushed and popping with livid veins. He clutched at a stitch in his sides, panting. Wilda scowled at him.
“She escaped through the portal?”
“No, no.” he waved his arm at the air, helpless and completely deranged. “I moved the mirror. It’s hidden, there’s no way she could have found it. I don’t know what happened to her.”
“Well what did you do, let her roam free? Don’t tell me that you left her to her own devices, not tied down or shackled in any way.”
Gaspard’s eyes snapped up to hers, confused. Startled. Realization dawned over both of them and Wilda furiously flicked her wand at him, splotching his forearm with a bloody rash. He released a strangled, horrified scream, groping at it with his fingers. She knew the affliction would itch. She knew that he would scratch it until he bled out in the gutters with a face as pale and empty as the moon, unless he could make it to St. Mungo’s first. She didn’t care. He was useless to her now.
“You horrible woman,” he accused, falling to his knees. His tongue was between his teeth, hot with blood from where he bit down on it to muffle the shrieks. “You monster! Put me right. I demand that you put me right, or upon my orders you shall rot in Azkaban and you’ll never see your grandson again.”
“I think not.” Her voice was an endless hiss, and she turned on her heel, marching through the darkness. We had a deal.
Yes, we did.
We must cast off those who encumber us, who get in our way.
Yes. We must.
And the girl? What shall we do about her?
We find her, of course. And we kill her. The corridors of Malfoy Manor will run red with the remains of Narcissa Black. She can be easily made into something else – a broom or a carpet. Or a pair of Master Malfoy’s gloves. A grin crossed her face. She will be dead and he will be asleep for all time, like the ghosts of Tulia and the beautiful intruder who sleep even now, slumbering behind Magnus’s locked bedroom door. It is a cursed sleep – no one can emerge from it. No one will interfere again.
It is a sacrifice we must make. For Charlie’s sake.
Yes... For Charlie’s sake…
Mrs. Macnair clamped her fingers around the last stone, trying not to think about how high off of the ground she was, and pulled herself through the window. She landed on the hard floor, coughing. The back of her head fizzled with white-hot pain, and she winced as she cradled one hand behind it. Her wand wouldn’t work properly in this house, but Malfoy Manor would heal the wound for her. It knew which side possessed her allegiance, and they were comrades together, working against all who tried to challenge Circe’s spell.
Dementor-skin curtains whipped about her face, and she swatted irritably at them. Echoes of footsteps worked their way through the walls, and she hastily sat up. Wilda shrank behind the curtains, curling one withered arm over the edge as the door opened.
“There’s something peculiar about it that bothers me,” Ramien spoke through the gloom.
“It was only a matter of time,” Horatio responded. Wilda rolled her eyes. Horatio was a blithering idiot and she couldn’t stand to hear him talk. “An incident waiting to happen, if you ask me.”
“Doesn’t something about it strike you as odd?” Ramien pressed. They crossed to the door on the opposite end of the corridor, and the taller of the two fellows tugged it open. Wilda’s breath hitched, panic coursing through her veins. She was paralyzed with fear, afraid that one of them might spot her behind the curtains and figure out that this particular window opened to the outside world. She didn’t want to have to kill them, too. It was too much of a hassle, and she’d be left with very few companions when they were all ghosts together someday. “And did you notice that she was the only one left behind? She had perfect opportunity.”
Wilda’s eyes widened. Mr. Wax knew that she had slammed Lucius’s fingers onto the piano keys while everyone else was distracted with the fire. He had found her out.
“Yes,” Horatio answered thoughtfully as Ramien slipped through the door ahead of him. “I’ve suspected Miu of eating the last of the blueberry tart after everyone else goes to bed, but this settles it once and for all. I say that we hide it in that other pantry from now on – the one above the stove.”
The door closed, shrouding Wilda in black silence once more. She let out a shaky exhale. All was not lost. She waited several seconds to move, and then stole through the door they had come through.
A painted woman watched from the gilded portrait above, anger searing through her blue eyes.
Wind and rain snarled against my sopping wet hood, and I weaved my fingers around the fabric at my neck, trying to keep it from lashing at my face. All exposed skin had long lost any feeling, anesthetized by the December snow.
I tried to remember everything I’d ever heard about the legendary sorceress. She had wolves, and was ancient and powerful, but beyond that I knew little else. How would I manage to find her? And more importantly, how could I convince her to relinquish her hold over Malfoy Manor?
She was half-fairy, half-witch. I knew that certain groups of fairies had weaknesses. There was a gathering near Wasteir who couldn’t come outside when it rained – as though water would physically hurt them. I had heard of some fairies over in Mortimer who couldn’t be outside during sunset or sunrise, because the position of the sun did something to their magical abilities. It was a point of weakness they could not avoid, and they hid themselves so that they would not be vulnerable to it. I wondered what Circe’s weakness might be.
Snow gushed around me in cyclones, brushing with their fingers of death across my legs and face, chafing my fingers until they were raw, swollen, and cracking open. There was snow wandering down my robes, blurring my vision, lining the insides of my shoes. My feet felt like two stumps dragging through swamp water, dead weights that took much effort to move. Through it all, I somehow migrated over the red hills to the comfort of a dense and towering tree line.
Woods. I smiled with powerful relief. Trees would offer protection from the weather, if nothing else. I welcomed them with outstretched arms, winding my way between timber of every color. Soft, downy flakes sifted from above, slipping through the claws of tree branches to splatter on the hood of my cloak. The wind was dead inside the forest, and I leaned heavily against the pretty green boughs of a spruce.
“Ahh.” I yanked off one of my boots and upended it, shaking out the compressed snow. I watched the water drip through halfway closed eyelids, and in my exhausted state it glistened much more luminously than seemed normal, trailing across my open palm in diamonds. “I could use one of your instant fire-starters now,” I lamented aloud, thinking of Father. He had purchased a small, silver object that created fire of any color and shape when you pushed a button, and he was going to duplicate it and sell it to Muggles. The Fire-Starter was one of many trinkets my crafty father took from unsuspecting people oblivious of their value with the intention of reselling it for more money. Like everything else, it was confiscated by the Ministry.
“Look at the mess you’ve gotten me in.” My voice was much bitterer now; I could feel my expression warping into an ugly sneer.
I stuffed the soles of my boots with rotting brown leaves I dug up from beneath mounds of snow, hoping they’d provide decent insulation. After a wild-eyed glance around the austere woods, feeling smaller and more lost than ever, I put one foot forth and then the other. And I was walking.
I was walking, enduring. I was going somewhere, and it didn’t matter if I ended up a thousand kilometers from where I was supposed to be. Somehow, it would all circle back. I would locate Circe and convince her to show Lucius mercy. He’d been punished for eight years – his unbearably lonely exile was too much torture for her to continue any longer. Everyone, deep down, has compassion in them. You just have to find the right trigger.
My stomach rumbled loudly. I found myself wishing that I had taken a few beets before I left, and perhaps a fake Galleon or two. After seeing Lucius in the enchanted spring, I had immediately begun my journey without looking back. There was no pause for the elves, who expected me to join them at any moment, doing my part to help them give Pravus more gold he didn’t deserve.
If it came to it, I could steal. There was bound to be a farm or two nearby, with chickens in its stock. My footsteps could be silent if I wanted them to be, and I was already imagining myself tiptoeing across a strange kitchen, dropping bread and jars of preserved fruit into my pockets. The greediness stirred my energy, spurring me to walk faster. It would be selfish of them not to share it, of course. They would understand. I needed it more than them, and didn’t I deserve it, after all I’d been through? Of course I did. It would be a very small loss to them, barely noticeable.
I rubbed my hands together, smirking. I would locate some food, and perhaps find somewhere to sleep for a few hours so that I would have plenty of strength for tomorrow. The idea of Gaspard sending anyone after me – or coming after me himself – never entered my head. I was single-minded, with my eye trained on Circe and a solution to the curse.
And if I didn’t find Circe?
I mulled over this question, frowning. The distraction sped up my pace, allowing my legs to mindlessly move while my brain was flipping through the days, grafting lists of options. I was a woman of lists and organization, of planning and knowing precisely what steps to take next. The fact that I had so abruptly stood up that morning and decided I was going to abandon the elves was so out of character for me that I should have been astonished. I did not have time to go back and think about it, however. What was done was done. I could only go forward from here.
If I didn’t find Circe, I would go back to the castle and try to strip the enchantments myself. I could see the faces of Ramien, Wren, and Mrs. Macnair peering down at me through impenetrable windows, shouting words of encouragement that I wouldn’t be able to hear.
And if you can’t strip the castle of its enchantments?
There was a flash of black cloak, the endless silence of Lucius and I walking side-by-side in my dreams. I saw pale fingers darting across piano keys, quick as light. There was a pause, and Lucius’s eyes sought to capture mine. There was such a life to them, such a hope, that I wondered if I was uncovering a memory. It was too powerful to not be real. Had I merely imagined the flat black eyes, the translucent skin and map of arteries? As I saw him now, he was not the beast he had seemed. I wondered if I had been staring at a mirage all along, when all the while the real Lucius Malfoy lay visible for me to view if I overcame enough prejudices to see it. For me to see, truly see, like I was the blind one.
Untainted and only for me.
And if you can’t strip the castle of its enchantments? the nagging thought persisted.
My mouth firmed into a thin line, resolute. If I cannot strip the enchantments, then I will go inside the castle. Back into the curse’s clutch. I refused to believe that I would not somehow achieve a victory. There is always a loophole. Somehow, I will set him free.
The cold was overtaking my senses, blurring fifteen minutes ago into last year and jumbling my thoughts into one illogical mass. I was slowly forgetting my mother’s warning expression, my trolley of broken, high-priced goods that I pushed into Wasteir, fancying myself cunning when I was simply devious. A crook. Malfoy Manor had crawled into my mind like a disease and I embraced it. Lucius was all that remained when all other images and priorities froze solid in the depths of my memory.
I was dizzy and barely moving, but it felt like I was running. Running, running, making progress. My feet aren’t walking, they’re flying.
Lucius walked beside me, reaching out with one gloved hand to capture my sleeve. Slow down.
I glanced up at him. How did you get here?
He smiled, his blue eyes shining with amusement. I’ve been here all along. I frowned, confused. I didn’t know whether or not he was telling the truth; I couldn’t recall him being there before…but then I remembered walking through the snow underneath a path of trees with him; the memory was as clear as day. He must have been right. Where else would I be, Narcissa?
I turned to respond to the reverberating echoes of his voice and found that he was missing. I stopped for a moment, looking all around. “Lucius?” The snow swirled and amazingly enough, I was no longer immune to the cold of it. The temperature stung my flesh like blades all over again, slicing deeper and deeper until my insides were chilled to ice. “Lucius?”
Keep going. The echo was soft and whispering now, distant.
My path widened, and I stumbled over to the right-hand edge so that overhanging branches, heavily laden with snow and ice, would shelter me from most of the profusely falling snow. The trees, however, seemed to be moving away from me. They stretched backwards over each other like acrobats, arcing their trunks. They almost seemed to be reaching away from their roots, all of them bending and twisting with hands of branches that pointed – clearly pointed – to my left.
I came to a fork in the road.
A painted sign poked out of the snow, the letters peeling and barely readable. It said that a town called Exider lay to my right, and the village of Little Hangleton was on the left. I wiped a thin layer of dewy frost from its surface, squinting. It looked like someone had carved a triangle around the letter ‘l’ in ‘Hangleton’ – and maybe drew something else inside of the triangle, but I couldn’t be sure. I leaned away, surveying the two lanes.
The one leading to Exider was much more open and airy, which would expose me to the weather. The road to Little Hangleton sloped down into a deep, rocky valley, with tightly-knit trees entwining overhead. It promised protection. I blinked drowsily, forgetting for a second where I was and how I had gotten there. I couldn’t feel my limbs and through the middle of a storm brewing somewhere far away, Andromeda was shouting at me. She tugged roughly on my hands and hair and tried to drag me down the lane to the right. I raised a defensive arm, brushing her off.
Go away. You don't care about me anymore. You've forgotten me.
As I deliriously began my descent into Little Hangleton, the forest behind me emitted a collective sigh, relaxing into their normal states. Blackbirds that had been roosting in the treetops took flight, shaken by the rush of unnatural movement. They swooped low in a succession of frightened loops before springing into the sky toward Exider.
The hillside was steep and icy, and I had to wrap my wrists around protruding tree branches so that I wouldn’t lose my footing. It was sunset and I had been walking all day, probably with frostbite, and my feet were beginning to swell inside my shoes. They were red and puffy, and even when I stomped on one with the other, I felt no spark of sensation whatsoever.
The trees thinned, forging a path that snaked into a wintry little graveyard. The tombstones were aligned like stadium seats, pressed into a hill so precipitous that not a single one of them would have hidden any part of another if viewed from the village below. I stumbled clumsily between them, relying on century-old slabs of stone to prevent me from tumbling down the slope and into a white church.
The most I could see of the church was a needle-like spire that pierced through the top of a low-lying fog. This rolling fog canvassed the valley in a shroud of misty white and the reflected sunset colors of scarlet and shimmering gold, and it swallowed up all of the houses and shops further down. From this angle, I might have been standing on a mountainside in midair, gazing through an endless sea of clouds.
I looked on at a bit of graveyard that curved gently into a plateau of sorts, allowing several monstrously-sized graves a portion of flat land all to themselves. Since the sheer drop where I stood was making me so dizzy when I could barely walk as it was, I fixed myself on heading over to the flatter area. From there, the journey down would be much more gradual of an incline and therefore easier to descend. I clutched the wing of a granite angel for support, rising on wobbly legs to my feet once more after I had been resting for a few seconds. The pain stung as my tendons stretched, screaming out in remonstrance.
My head snapped sideways, and I shot down to the ground behind the angel statue. A queue of stragglers had begun to make their way up the hill toward me, all four of them dressed in identical black cloaks with their heads bent against the cutting wind.
“I didn’t say anything,” came another voice.
“That’s not what I meant.” The tallest of the four shook his sleeve, dispelling a wooden stick roughly the length of his forearm. He pointed it above them at a large, sophisticatedly-designed manor house. It looked to have been abandoned for a decade at least, and ivy was greedily clawing its way up the surface in snarls like twine. In another twenty years, it would certainly be indistinguishable from the woods, at least in summertime when the vines bloomed with green leaves. “When you go inside, you must stay quiet. Do not speak unless spoken to first, and keep your wits about you.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the man’s wand, slicing casually through his shadow cast by the sun’s position, its elongated form preceding him up the hill. If he had been the only person in the graveyard, I might have tried to attack him from behind and steal his wand.
The last person in their group was working his way up the hill slowly, purposefully separating himself from the others. His limbs were long and gangling, but he wasn’t very tall. Judging by the stature, hunched shoulders, and clomping boots, I approximated that he couldn’t have been older than sixteen. My mind raced quickly, plotting ways to overpower him for the wand that he must surely carry, and was about to dart out from behind my hiding place when his hood fell back, exposing his face.
My heart stuttered. What was he doing out here? He was supposed to be at Hogwarts…
I marched behind them after they passed, keeping my eye trained protectively on the smallest one’s back. We climbed the hillside and paused for a moment outside the empty manor. The two at the front glanced at each other for the space of a heartbeat, and then the shorter one twisted the doorknob and pushed it open.
They hesitated, lingering on the porch. Not one of them seemed willing to enter first, although they peered eagerly through the dark, tunnel-like corridor inside. The smallest of the lot was still staring at the ground, and he shoved between their shoulders, heading into the manor without a second’s worth of trepidation. The others followed his lead, and one by one we filed into the corridor. If any of them noticed a fifth member tagging after them, no one made any sign of acknowledgment.
The corridor opened up into an oval-shaped sitting room, the walls washed in liquid Galleons from the yellow light of an enormous fire, and a high-backed velvet chair sat facing its mantel on clawed feet. A tall, thin man was seated in it, and a young woman was kneeling on the floor beside him, pressing her lips to his knees as though in prayer. I had assumed the manor empty, and could barely decipher the scene playing before my eyes.
“Bellatrix,” I breathed.
The woman’s eyes flashed open and she turned her head, searching for me. Her face split into a smile so full of delight that it was fairly frightening. Bellatrix’s hair was loose from its usual coil, frizzing around her sharp cheekbones and enhancing the manic aura she exuded. She sprang to her feet, tilting her head to the side to fully absorb the sight of her youngest sister standing before her. She rushed forward with outspread arms, and I resisted all urges to shrink away from this alien creature – this strange tenderness coming from someone who was usually so reserved. I was stiff and unresponsive as she enveloped me in the most unnatural embrace I had ever received.
My mouth popped open, and a treasure trove of questions and bitter thoughts began to spill out at random. “You haven’t responded to any of my letters.”
“I’ve been busy.” She smiled secretively, motioning with her head at the man she had been crouching next to.
“We’ve needed you for months,” I prattled on. I could sense the fear and danger crawling from one person to the next in their frozen forms along the walls, but I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting the stark silence. “We had no money. We were fined by the Ministry and I was taken away after they stole all of our valuables. The Pravus family tried to –”
“None of that matters now.” She smoothed the hair out of my face. “You’re here, and that’s all that’s important. I knew you would come. I knew that you would hear about it, too, and now we can be a part of it together.”
“I’ve been locked inside a castle,” I whispered, my voice growing hoarser with alarm. “Did you hear what I said? I was kidnapped. I’ve been making fake Galleons in Doorturn for weeks. I’ve been stuck in a bloody mine, Bellatrix. My wand is broken and they took Mother’s from us, and that nasty Gaspard –”
“Cissa,” she crooned softly, cradling my face between her hands. “Let it go. All of that is in the past. This is your new life now, and I’ll guide you through everything. It’s good to have family together in this amazing experience.”
“Have you heard from Father?” I felt like I was slipping away beneath her fingertips, drowning. Bellatrix wasn’t listening to me. Her gaze fell upon the man in the velvet chair, and something like dreamy infatuation molded her features. I glanced at her husband Rodolphus, who was sitting on the floor in one corner with eyes glazed as though in a spell-induced stupor. The fire crackled and everyone was deathly quiet; and Bellatrix knotted up her hands in a ball under her chin, awaiting my reaction as though this was all a wonderful surprise planned in advance just for me. “What about Father?” I repeated helplessly. “Have you forgotten him? And Andromeda?”
Bellatrix reeled back as though I had struck her. “Do not speak her name. She is no sister of mine, nor yours. Not anymore. She married a Mudblood and now –”
No one stirred. Bellatrix whipped around to face the man in the chair, skirts swirling; and from the zeal and the yearning displaying itself prominently all over her body and through her mannerisms, for a moment it was easy to picture her as an obedient child seeking approval from her father. Words swam up my throat like rats in a sewer, but the expression on her face rendered me silent.
My sister was unrecognizable.
She hovered near the man who had instructed her to be silent, jealous of everyone he glanced at and following his gaze territorially – the shadow to his thoughts.
“You brought me three, Avery,” the man replied, stroking his wand between long, pale fingers. His voice was a hiss that carried long after he ceased to speak, thrumming softly like the sizzle and spit of embers that disconnected from their tongues of flame, reaching away from the fireplace…yearning like my sister…as if he himself was the heat source and the flames depended on him for warmth. “Well done. And who may they be?”
“My Lord,” interrupted a squat little witch with a sapphire brooch pinned to her robes, “I helped. We brought them both here together.”
The tall man from the graveyard group stepped forward from where he had been invisible – melted into the wallpaper. “We originally found three, my Lord. I found this one –” he gripped the shoulder of a hooded woman and knocked her into the center of the room –“walking aimlessly around in the mountains. Completely lost, with no idea who she was.”
The fire bathed her profile in a dull glow, and I inhaled a sharp breath. It was Margaret, the Muggle woman who had been dying of a tumor. Her stomach was flat and normal, and she had the flush of health in her skin tone. There were no remnants of the disease that had leeched life from her. I gaped in astonishment, wondering how it was possible that the crippled woman I had watched being carted off by the black carriage only that morning could have changed so much. In a span of only hours, how had this happened to her?
“You do not know your name?” the man in the chair inquired.
She jerked her head in tiny movements, from left to right. “No, sir.”
Several people clustered along the walls tittered at this, presumably because she called him ‘sir’, and the man responded with a mocking smile. “You will join me and my followers on our path to greatness?”
Margaret nodded submissively, and the tall man called Avery pulled on her arm, dragging her back against the wall. “Alecto Confunded an older man we found, but there was something wrong with him. He wasn’t in his proper mind to begin with, and became too loud – too much of a liability. We had to dispose of him.”
The man in the chair looked terse, fixing his eyes on the boy standing near me. The boy’s gaze was cemented to the carpet. “Who is the child?”
“That,” Bellatrix said proudly, “is my cousin, Regulus Black. How good of you to come,” she cooed. “I knew you would. I’m the one who suggested him.” She beamed around the room, expecting congratulations. Alecto and Avery glared at her, obviously incensed that she was trying to take credit for their recruits.
“A Black,” the man repeated, impressed. “Your blood is pure, young one. There is much I can do with you.” Bellatrix seemed to take this as a personal compliment to herself, and slid to the man’s side, falling to the floor and draping her forehead against his armrest. She looked positively delirious with happiness.
“Regulus,” I whispered, trying to catch his eye. “What are you doing here?”
He said nothing.
“How do you account for our third guest?” the man hissed. Now that he was looking at me, with the firelight swathing his waxy white skin, I could see that there was something about his appearance that unsettled me. The whites of his eyes were tinted wine-red, as though bleeding. He had dark hair that was pushed back, and through the distortions of his features I thought I could see the phantom of someone who had once been handsome. It hit me with a burning pain to see such similarities between him and Lucius.
All eyes swiveled to mine, their unspoken questions buzzing loudly in the still silence. Bellatrix leapt to my side once more, her movements quick and jagged. “This is my sister, Narcissa.”
“Ahh. Another Black. And what brings you to me, Narcissa?”
I stared around me, nervous and sweating. The fire was hot on my skin, making it blush. I was beginning to acquire feeling in my hands and feet again. “I saw Regulus and followed him,” I explained timidly. “I am looking for Circe.”
“Circe?” The man had no eyebrows, but the facial muscles there lifted and creased, reminding me of flaying candle wax.
I braved a step forward, biting the inside of my cheek. “She is an all-powerful witch. I am searching for her because I need her to break a powerful spell she cast over a castle called Malfoy Manor in Wauning eight years ago. There is a man there who is trapped inside, along with several other people. They will never be free unless I can find Circe and convince her to perform the counter-curse.”
Bellatrix stopped breathing – I knew this because before, her chest heaved heavily, her breathing ragged as she inhaled the scent of the man’s black sleeve settling on the armrest. The man cocked his head, all life extinguishing from his eyes, and something deadly unfurled through the atmosphere when he opened his mouth.
“I am the only all-powerful magical being in existence,” he said. “I am Lord Voldemort, and no one is more powerful than me.”
I couldn’t help myself. “But the spell is so strong. It cannot be undone by anyone other than her. She made a man blind, changed his appearance. I’ve never heard of any ordinary witch with abilities to do such horrible things.”
Lord Voldemort considered this, revolving his wand thoughtfully between his fingers and never moving his eyes from mine. “You say there is a dwelling – Malfoy Manor – with a spell upon it,” he mused. “A spell that traps people inside?”
“And it turned a man blind?”
“Yes. His name is Lucius.”
Bellatrix awaited his next words with bated breath, and he bestowed her with a pondering gaze. “You have been good to me, Bellatrix. I wonder if your flesh and blood would be as equally faithful.”
“Of course,” Bellatrix answered him, supremely confident. “No one is as loyal as I am to you, my Lord, but she will serve you as I do. She will do whatever you wish. It is our greatest desire.”
I stared at her, panic-stricken. I was about to argue her statement when Lord Voldemort said, “Very well. I will lift the curse from your blind friend, Narcissa. I will lift the curse that plagues the castle. But in return, what will you give to me?”
My mind was an endless blanket of white. Was he saying he was strong enough to break the spell? I would not need Circe? “Anything,” I replied immediately. I stepped even closer, mirroring Bellatrix’s behavior. “Whatever you want… My Lord.”
His lips parted into a smile that looked more like a grimace. “I want devotion.”
“Yes,” I said desperately. “Of course. Anything.”
“And numbers,” he continued lazily. “More numbers. I want the promise of your service, and the service of your firstborn child as well.”
“I don’t have any children.”
He gazed evenly at me, fingers pressed together in a steeple. “If and when you do, he or she will be bound to my needs. If you swear your agreement to this, I will break this spell of yours. It will be simple for me. A spell of the nature you describe can only be broken if the chains are replaced with something stronger. In this case, I can solve your problem for you…but you must promise yourself and your firstborn to me. And if you can convince anyone else to join my ranks, you will be rewarded accordingly.”
I had no children, and no intentions of ever having any. I didn’t know this man or what he wanted, or what he needed followers for; but whatever his desires were, I was sure that Lucius’s freedom was worth the price. “I agree,” I said swiftly. “If you do what you say you will, then you have my word.”
He chuckled darkly, and several other people behind me echoed his laughter. “I will require more than your word, Narcissa.”
Bellatrix grinned broadly. “I will do it,” she said.
“No.” Lord Voldemort gestured to Regulus. “He will.”
Lord Voldemort stood up to face Margaret, Regulus, and me. “Kneel.”
One by one, we pushed up our sleeves and he pressed the tip of his wand into the flesh of our left arms. “Viscus Spondeo,” he hissed, and dark ink began to bubble up inside my skin, swimming into the image of a skull and a snake. “Morsmordre.” The tip of his wand dug painfully into my arm, and the snake began to weave between the eyes and mouth of the tattooed skull, slithering in motion. It felt like a white-hot poker, the moving serpent blazing a trail of fire in its wake. It smoldered relentlessly, stinging.
“Now,” Lord Voldemort ordered softly, and Bellatrix yanked me into a standing position. “Your wand, Regulus. Your first task as Death Eater will be acting as our Bonder.”
My cousin unsteadily withdrew a wand from inside his black cloak, his grey eyes darting to Lord Voldemort’s as though expecting the latter to grab it from him.
Lord Voldemort slid his long fingers into my hand without warning, chilling me to my very marrow with its rubbery, temperature-less texture. His pallid hand was grasping my own and I could not force myself to meet his blood-red eyes. Sickness and disgust welled up like bile in my stomach, and my mouth dropped open in spite of myself. I wanted to flee or panic or take back my promise. The hot snake was wriggling uncomfortably around my veins, sensing its master sitting so close to it; and like Bellatrix and the flames in the fireplace, it wanted to be nearer to him.
The fog consuming Little Hangleton suddenly took on an eerie new meaning. I could see now that it was placed there on purpose, to shield the manor from wandering eyes in the village. Lord Voldemort was hidden up here in the cobwebbed clouds, and people from all over the country were beginning their ignorant journeys forth, summoning themselves to him with blind eyes and dreams of glory. People like Regulus, who was too young to know any differently…and people like me, who depended on a hope that the prize was worth the murky sacrifice I did not quite understand.
Bellatrix placed her fingers on Regulus’s, forcefully bringing his wand to rest on our interlinked hands. “Do you swear, Narcissa Black, to eternally serve me and do everything that I tell you to do, in exchange for your friend’s freedom and restoration of sight and body?”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
A golden string of fire poured out of Regulus’s wand and looped around our joined wrists. I watched, fascinated, as it continued to spin in continuous circles like a halo.
“Do you swear to always come to me when you feel your Dark Mark burning, and to obey all of my commands without question?”
“You will make a very loyal servant,” Lord Voldemort whispered with breath that smelled of decay. There was an ominous glint in his eyes – so dauntingly red that it could have been internal bleeding – and I registered at that moment that I never should have agreed.
“Very loyal servant,” Bellatrix assured him, her voice barely audible in my clanging ears.
A second stream of fire shot out of Regulus’s wand, attaching itself to the other loop to create one living, fiery organism. My cousin’s otherwise wan features were ignited in a powerful red radiance, and he looked half-demented. His jaw was high and proud, aristocratic like his father. I stared in frightened disbelief at the savage gleam in his eyes, storming with the uncontrollable greed for power and recognition beyond anything else in the world. It sent shivers ghosting up my spine like icy breath.
“And do you promise the allegiance of your firstborn child, in exchange for all that I am doing for you?” Lord Voldemort’s echoes vibrated in the dark, stagnant air, shaking the walls.
I paused. “Yes.” A flame of red burst from our hands, providing a ripple effect that tinged our complexions garnet. Regulus’s blurred face seemed to vanish under the blinding light of it, and I felt a small part of myself shrivel up and disappear, as well.
Across the forests and red hills glittering with gormite, and beyond towns and cities and villages filled with peacefully sleeping people, there was a black castle settled in a glen with its towers and turrets like spikes drilling into the frosty night air. A sleeping man was seated at a glass piano inside this castle, oblivious of the world around him and the passage of time. Downy snowflakes fluttered in downward spirals from the ceiling onto every substantial surface. They painted his bedroom in soft, serene white, tinted slightly blue by the rising moon outside. An owl flew to the window and perched on its sill, watching cautiously as if it knew what was about to happen.
My heart skipped a beat in its cycle and through a flash of bright, livid crimson, and through the expressions on faces surrounding me that were lit with envy, curiosity, and leers – across the miles and miles between us and a pack of wolves who stopped to listen – a gas lamp in Malfoy Manor blew out. It dropped to the floorboards without a sound, rolling and rolling until it thudded against the shoe of an old woman. The last of its flame stared upward through the cooling glass, weak and defeated.
Lucius Malfoy opened his eyes.
A/N: Thank you to all who have read and reviewed and favorited; I greatly appreciate each and every one of them. If you're curious, "Viscus Spondeo" is Latin for “flesh promise”.
Food for thought: can you guess which fairytale was used in this chapter? It’s a bit more obscure. :)
A/N: If you didn’t guess correctly, the fairy tale included in Chapter Sixteen was Rumpelstiltskin. ;) Many thanks to my dear friend Janechel for her help with this chapter. So, one million years later, here’s your update. Bonus: the pimp cane from the movies gets an explanation if you pay close enough attention.
It was extraordinary, and frightening, and he wondered if he had slipped halfway into a dream. The blend of musical notes floated away behind him on thin, fragile strings, echoes of the song he had just been playing. They washed away in a tide, churning out of his mind, and he found himself staring at the curve of his knuckles and thinking that it was the most surreal thing he’d ever laid eyes on.
Lucius Malfoy lifted his head, its weight seemingly disproportionate and hefty. His temples ached, almost as though he had slept for too many hours, and he closed his eyes again. Everything was much too bright – tiny spots shivered before his dilated pupils, dancing in bulbs of green and blue and electric yellow. His brain tried to decipher the colors he had long ago lost the ability to detect, the nerves and senses confused as they attempted to make sense of such vivid pain.
But this was not a dream. Dreams gave him colors that reality could not, but they were never this vibrant, moving even after his eyelids closed, flooding through his skin with warmth.
He cocked his head, searching for the sound before he even realized its absence. There was nothing at all – only silence. He could not perceive the light footfalls of Miu, which he had been so accustomed to recognizing; or the easy gait of Ramien, or the heavy pounding of Wren heading from one room to another. The suffocating quiet disturbed him for a long, puzzling moment, and then the missing sound clicked into place as easily as a key turning a lock.
The grandfather clock was no longer ticking.
Its pendulum had kept time to the castle’s pace for eight years, swinging violently for all to hear from every floor, every room. It was inescapable, and yet the incessant swish, swish, swish was unnervingly dead now. Lucius wondered if perhaps he had fallen deaf – maybe Circe had flown through the night on black wings while he was asleep, restoring his sight and smiting his hearing. It would be a tradeoff he would embrace, despite the loss of music…
Lucius pressed his fingers down on the glass keys and was met with firm resistance. They did not bend to his will, flickering like splashes of water. He slowly opened his eyes once again, and realized that the substance under his hands was cold and gray. Hard. With blurry vision, Lucius widened his eyes as far as they would go and leaned close to his instrument; he was unable to discern anything clear and glass. There was no reflection of himself in the keys – only a wide expanse of smooth rock.
His piano had turned to stone.
Panic gripped at his chest, and he jumped to his feet. He could not remember… Certainly, he must be dreaming. He could not remember falling asleep. The last thing he was conscious of was sitting at the piano bench with Narcissa Black, wondering what it would be like if he could feel her face under his roving hands instead of cool, unfeeling glass.
Lucius held his arms out, unsteady, and surveyed the room. Everything whirled around him in quick flashes, his overwhelmed brain still trying to tie it all together – the proverbial and the unaccounted for. Every flash of understanding was a gift to him: the twist of the trees, the beautiful square windows, the slight arch in the ceiling that he had forgotten was there. It was so achingly the same, just as it was when he had last touched it with his beloved sight – and yet, the room and its furnishings were warped, misshapen. He had been certain that the bed frame was much larger, that the walls were taller and had once extended into infinite space… He could see the ceiling again and it was too close to be possible.
There was much that he could not make sense of. Why was there snow on the floor? He recalled the crunch of leaves under his boots, the smell of autumn rain. He felt like he was missing a very vital piece of an exceedingly peculiar puzzle… In the space of one blink, fifty pages in the book of his life had flipped, leaving a strange void that seared the air like a black hole. He looked harder for the thing that he knew, somehow, was out of place.
He grappled at his memory. There had been something alarming – or there should have been. His heartbeat lulled, not quite matching the moments flitting only minutes before, when he had clearly felt terrible panic. Why had there been reason to panic? Lucius staggered back to his bench, feeling his way with his hands even though his eyes could now make out the shapes almost clearly. He shut them again, wrapping himself in the safe and known, and imagined once again the swirl of velvet leaves dropping from the heavens of his bedroom like a soft rain.
From memory, he felt them splatter in his outstretched palms. He smelled the dull rubber of his boots, the sweet scent of Narcissa like a pine forest…and something else lingering on her fingertips – the stain of blackberries she had eaten earlier. He knew she was looking at him; he could feel her breath along his neck and he wished he knew, for the thousandth time, what she was seeing. Fire scorched his throat, suddenly hungry to lay his sight on her with leisure and luxury. Fire.
Fire. He remembered it with a knife to the lungs, and Mrs. Macnair’s high, tormented voice. “Scorched. Gone. Seven years of your compositions, all up in flame.”
Lucius flew to the door without realizing he had moved, throwing it wide open. The stifling silence was penetrated by voices filtering through the floor above, bleeding through the floor like ink through parchment. There was no stench of acrid smoke, no flavor of ash or peeling, blackened paper on his tongue. The air was stagnant and bland, no hint of burning anywhere that he could distinguish.
His spirits rose. “Narcissa?” he called. The voices upstairs ceased immediately. Surely I did not dream her up, he told himself. His breathing began to serrate as he worried over this. Even if the glass piano and autumn leaves and my compositions burning are not real, she must be. She must be…she must be…
He had played it over and over in his mind while he stretched out in bed each night, resting easy in the peace of knowing that night was an endless veil of black for everyone, not just him. He liked to imagine Narcissa standing at his doorway, one hand on the knob. It was creaking open, washing several steps of his bedroom floor in a delicate glow. He did not focus on her face, as he couldn’t accurately paint it with his imagination; he looked only at her blue shoes as they travelled together down the corridor. The peak of his fantasy was always the moment when the curse over the castle broke. The declaration of love.
“Do you want to leave with me?” she asked.
He never lifted his gaze from those powder-blue shoes, with the pattern of gold webbing running along their surface; he went to great lengths to fabricate less intimate parts of Narcissa so that he would not have to dwell on the fact that he would never know what her face looked like.
“I want to if you want me to,” he responded.
And then, together, they walked outside into the rosy sunrise. He could feel the blushing pinks and pale yellows on the horizon even if he knew they weren’t real, and it soaked through his smile in a lovely shade of the G minor scale played in descending order. Narcissa folded away into his arms, allowing him to wrap them around her. Lovely Narcissa – his lovely Narcissa – who in his daydreams was the one to shatter the curse, fit perfectly like the puzzle piece he never knew was missing. And together, beyond the horrors of Malfoy Manor, they were the perfect rendition of an E flat major scale.
“Lucius.” An old woman glided down the corridor, gnarled hands reaching out for him. Lucius’s mouth split into a wide smile.
“Wilda!” Tears formed in the corners of his eyes and he quickly brushed them away. He would not allow anything to taint his vision now – and not ever again. “I can see, Wilda.” She did not smile in response, and he racked his memory. Perhaps he had forgotten what smiles were like.
Mrs. Macnair slid her steely talons around his shoulders, gazing squarely into his eyes. She stared at him for a moment, expression fierce. “What have you done?”
Lucius’s lips parted, perplexed. “What do you mean? I haven’t done anything.”
She let go, and her body seemed to collapse in on itself without ever altering in posture. She was soon swallowed up by figures so aged, so much taller or shorter or wider than he remembered them, and they were one large, wriggling mass of arms and joy. “You can see!” Ramien cried.
From the group’s exterior, Mrs. Macnair raised a trembling arm, the tip of her wand poking through her sleeve. She pointed it first at Wren, and then at Ramien. Hot tears swam down the hard lines of her face, and she murmured incantations as she traced the wand to Miu, Cook, and Horatio. Tiny spurts of lukewarm air burst through her wand, stirring between the elated figures. All at once, the faces of each person she cast spells on grew wildly confused, and then blank, before they were restored to their original enthusiasm.
She fixed finally on Lucius, wavering, and slowly lowered her wand without performing the spell on him. He can’t feel pain if he doesn’t know what he misses. The haggard old witch walked down the corridor and turned right toward Magnus Malfoy’s bedroom, unnoticed by the rest.
“You can see!” Miu echoed. Cook embraced him, but Lucius did not feel it. He searched and searched but his eyes did not flit over a single unfamiliar face. There was no young woman with blonde hair and bright eyes as Wren had described her, no sweep of powder-blue shoes in the sea of his old companions.
The Narcissa from his daydream fell out of his cold arms, sinking into a flowery hillside. Blue forget-me-nots pushed through the earth in her wake, and he stood there all alone in his newfound, lonely freedom. Of course he was alone. He had made her up, everything from the way she twisted hair around her index finger to the embellishments on her shoes. He knew that she could not exist, and yet he could not stop himself from seeking confirmation.
“Where is she?” he whispered thickly.
Wren, who was the closest, stooped down to his level. She rested a huge hand on the top of his head, smiling with impossibly broad teeth. “Who?”
His heart sank. “Narcissa.”
The responding expression of bewilderment was enough to tell him that Narcissa had, indeed, been only a figment of his dreams. Such a powerful dream, he thought. A small hole burned through his chest, and he was at once bitter and mournful that his subconscious had provided such a woman for him when he could never attain her because she didn’t exist. He drove his fist through the wall, feeling it crack pleasantly under his knuckles. Miu hurried behind Ramien, but she was the only one, somehow, who had seemed to notice his rupture of fury.
Lucius’s gaze unfocused as the hands patted him on the back and the grins spread from one person to the next like an infection. He wanted them to drop their grasps, to leave him alone. More than anything, however, he wanted to never be alone again.
A strong breeze swooped through a window and rolled across the shabby rug, catching everyone off-guard. Horatio gave a great whoop, and Ramien’s features lit up like candelight, and they turned to each other for a brief second to exchange incredulous glances. They rushed over to the window, exclaiming with loud wonder to one another; Lucius loitered on the fringe with the hole in the wall and the hole in his heart, solitary with his scattered thoughts. He flexed his fingers, ignoring the way Wren was looking at him.
The words spilled out of him before he could stop it. “You’ve never heard of a Narcissa?”
Wren smiled – sad and pitying. “I’ve never met anyone by that name,” she said gently. “Did you have a dream, Master Malfoy?”
Lucius gritted his teeth and ripped himself away from the wall, walking smartly down the corridor just to be away from them. Wren’s expression stung him with her evident ignorance, her blissful ignorance. He wanted to rip the mask from her face, to make her see the woman who wasn’t there. He wanted to thrust Narcissa in front of them so that he could prove she had never left. And if she was there – in the flesh – then he could finally, finally look at her. At last, here was the thing he had wanted to see more than anything else in the world, and she had vanished in a wisp of smoke.
“Never met anyone by that name,” he repeated angrily, stomping quickly down the stairs. He halfway listened to the crowd of voices tearing down the corridor above him, realizing the significance behind a gust of wind that could penetrate the window. They emerged at the base of the stairs, smiling hugely with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes. They raced greedily down the hall, not pausing by his side, and continued onward. He knew that they would not stop running until they were long past the forest beyond, spread out in all directions.
With stiff shoulders, Lucius slid along the wall. He dragged his fingers along the shedding wallpaper, walking and walking. He walked until his legs were sore, the pads of his feet swollen. He moved aimlessly around the castle because he had nowhere to go and no one to run with.
Depression settled in his stomach like dangerous toxins, and he climbed tower after tower, descending stairway after stairway. Everyone was gone, even Charlie, and the only creatures that stayed behind were the demons that clung to the walls like shadows, lurking behind Lucius and widening his heartache with their teeth and claws. They had ways of getting into your head, those creatures, and Master Malfoy was particularly susceptible to them now that he was unaccompanied.
He still had not looked at himself in a mirror. He supposed that he did not want his reflection to become his only companion, now that it had returned to him after eight years and everyone else had left. “Wilda!” Lucius called hoarsely. Golden light glinted through the arched windows, gradual enough that it did not hurt his eyes. He stopped at one of them and simply stared, feeling lonelier than he ever had in his life as he watched the sun spread beautifully over the mountains, shining its radiance over the wide field below. He wondered if he was looking out of the wrong window, with a different perspective on the landscape, because he did not see a vast, shimmering lake.
Lucius moved to another window, concerned. No lake appeared, and he continued from window to window, hurrying faster as a nervous crease developed in his forehead. He raced the rising sun around the castle, catching each window just as the rays hit it, smothering it with glorious gold and scarlet and the deepest pinks. No matter which angle he stood at when he stared down at the grounds, the lake refused to appear. It was only when he had circled back around to the floor below the one that contained his bedroom that he glanced out of the window again and saw the deep gouge in the brown, barren plain.
Snow occupied most of it, glittering like dried sea salt in the rising light. Where there had once been an endless portrait of water, grass grew as tall as shrubbery; it was beaten down from weather, lying flat. The little details that no one had ever thought to mention – the receding lake, the tint of gray in the roots of Wren’s hair, the new layer of paint on the door beside him – it filled his veins with slow-moving despair. Slowly but surely, it was working its way to his heart.
He already knew she was there. She had been following him in silence as he picked his paths around the castle, her eyes watching his with a mixture of pride and regret. He wondered how she was able to travel through portraits where the canvas had been slashed and torn out. Everywhere she went, Tulia Malfoy brought the muddy brown color of her own canvas with her, temporarily restoring each portrait she possessed back to normal. Hers was the only portrait in Malfoy Manor he had not destroyed, and only because she had asked him not to. She’d pleaded with her son. Not me.
“She’s real, Lucius.”
He snapped his head up, piercing her with a stare that could rival only her own. “Who?”
She smiled knowingly. “Narcissa Black.”
Lucius froze, the blood draining from his face. “Where is she?”
She opened up her mouth to reply, but he was already turning swiftly on his heel, pushing open the newly-painted door. He knew it – he could feel it. This had been her bedroom. He had paced from one end of the room to the other in the bedroom above, listening intently as cherry blossoms from his personal forest hit the floor. He marched over them, thinking of the sleeping girl below.
He’d wondered if he could ever become twisted enough in her eyes to be someone to consider; he’d wondered if it could be possible for him to cultivate her mind into believing he was beautiful or worthy. Could a person ever become so lost with reality that she mistook him for a love interest? She would never love him on her own initiative, and the spell could not be tricked. The only way to overcome the spell was for someone to love him in all of his disdainful arrogance, which had proven to be impossible.
But now she was gone, and the spell was broken, and none of it made sense. Did it mean that wherever she was at the moment, she was in love with him? Had Circe removed the spell herself, or perhaps died?
Lucius slid his wand out from inside the hollow walking cane where it had been concealed for eight years. During that period, the wand had been useless but the cane was very much not. He slipped it into his pocket and pulled eagerly on the wardrobe doors. It was empty inside. He dropped to the floor and peered under the bed. Nothing.
He let out a roar of rage, nearly splitting the wardrobe doors from their hinges when he blasted them apart with his wand. He had not lost the potency of his spells, the magic inside him rushing into the wand as if it were a part of him – an extension of his own muscle. He gripped the elm and dragon heartstring wand tightly in one sweaty hand, livid. He would reduce his mother’s portrait to slits of fabric on the corridor floor for lying to him.
There was no trace of a blonde woman anywhere. Upon closer inspection, there wasn’t a trace of anyone having occupied that room anywhere. A thick layer of dust coated the bed and wardrobe and dressing table – the only three pieces of furniture present. There was no indication of human presence – no hairbrush, no clothes, no perfume on the satin pillows. Only dust.
He was about to turn around and storm from the room when he glanced at the dusty coverlet. There was something about the thickness of it that did not sit right with him. It was unsettlingly gritty, like sand, and the odor was slightly sour. Anyone else probably would not have noticed – anyone who was not accustomed to seeing with their sense of smell and the touch of fingertips.
With his newly sensitive eyes, Lucius followed the blanket of dust up the coverlet to the pillows. His attention came to rest on the gleaming headboard of the four-poster, with the intricately carved wood that his father had picked out himself – his real father, Magnus, not the depraved Uncle Abraxas with the iron fist and sharp tongue who had somehow slithered his way into Tulia’s marriage. By the time he was twelve, he was already supposed to call that man his father…
The wood was still polished and untouched by sandy grit. Shining, spotless, smooth.
The crease in his forehead softened, the fire in his ribcage dwindling in ferocity. He ran one gloved finger over the strip of headboard, and it came up unspoiled. Lucius allowed his gaze to wander over the rest of the room; a sense of strong unease crept over him with a wave of gooseflesh, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The dust had been placed there on purpose, in uneven amounts, and the person who had done it had not been thorough.
Where are you, Narcissa?
Sunlight poured through the room he had dreamed belonged to her, casting a narrow beam of light across one wall. Lucius stood alone in the center of the grimy room, watching with sad eyes as the beam grew and stretched. The curtains rippled, glowing from the other side, and when they parted a bit more it widened the shaft of light on the wall. Something he had not previously noticed was made luminous, dancing along one wall that was painted precisely the same powder-blue color as the shoes Narcissa might have worn.
A small strip of parchment was sticking halfway out of the wall, flapping brazenly like a train ticket in the morning breeze. It was a curious sight, almost as though a gap had opened up in the wall and something had been tossed through it – and, inexplicably, the hole had tried to close before the paper could fall completely through, sealing itself around it. He touched the edges with his fingers, feeling where paper blended seamlessly into the wall.
Lucius tilted his head, his heart swelling as he peered closer to the fading words.
Please pass the message to Cygnus Black of Wasteir that his daughter, Narcissa, is trapped in the forest of Wauning…
The muscles in my left arm remained stanchly tensed, clenching and unclenching in frequent spasms. I could still feel the snake’s persistent slither and sting, and absently wanted to rub it with my right hand in the faint hope that it would dull the ache. I was afraid of accidentally touching it in any way, and summoning the man with bleeding eyes to my side.
“Stay with us,” Bellatrix had ordered me, pupils dilated and desperate. She had gestured around the grand manor, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet as if fixed to a spring. “We have everything for you right here, Cissy.”
I cast one disdainful look at the assembly of men and women arranged stiffly against the wall, looking everywhere but at the tall man in the chair. “You have nothing for me here.”
“You belong here.” Her grasp was firm and cold and slightly shaking, like a disease had taken hold of her.
Our eyes met, and our expressions were so reversed in emotion that it only increased my feeling of apprehension; I wanted to leave the house immediately. I wanted to have never been there at all. “Speak for yourself, Bellatrix.”
I had walked swiftly down the tunnel-like corridor, chills swimming up my spine from an increasing fear that someone would follow me, try to stop me. I was met with no opposition, however, and slipped out unnoticed. Even if the man had kept his word about saving Lucius, I saw no reason why I would ever have to cross paths with him again. The more I dwelled on the matter, the more likely it seemed that my sister had gotten involved in a cult of sorts, and that this strange man was simply delusional. How could he be more powerful than Circe? Our bond meant nothing.
The snake on my left arm twisted through the eye of a tattooed skull, and I could feel it hiss with displeasure.
I staggered around in the quiet hours of the dark morning, guided not by a moon that didn’t appear or by stars that refused to shine through the snowy fog, but by the desire to stumble upon a village with signs of magic lingering over its buildings. I crossed paths with the occasional cottage standing strong against the harsh weather; their yellow lighted windows provided a small sense of comfort as I looked on at them, wrapping my arms around myself. The light poured through gaps in the curtains, making snow-covered sills glimmer like crushed diamonds. Fires burned merrily in their grates, the smoke curling through the air with mingling scents of wood and spices. I wondered briefly if it was Christmas yet.
The cold, black, snow-swirling haze soon turned to thick sleet that seeped through my clothing and shoes, matting my hair against my neck with ice crystals. My lips were numb, probably as blue as Wolfsbane, and my ribs were pinched, lungs tight from breathing in the painfully frigid air. I was directionless as I walked, warmed only by the burning snake on my arm.
By sunrise, rain had begun to drip down from the low-hanging sky. I should have asked Bellatrix to accompany me back to Malfoy Manor with side-along Apparition; it was too late to go back now. If I’d had the choice to do it all over again, I most likely still would not have asked her. Presently, I wanted to put as much distance between my sister and myself as possible. I didn’t want this new person who inhabited my sister’s body to speak to Lucius, or get anywhere near him. I didn’t want him to be spoiled by association, even if he was realistically still asleep at his piano.
Doorturn was not impossibly far from Little Hangleton, but the former was a far cry from Wauning. Perhaps if I found myself wandering through sunburned hills again, I would happen along Totty or Urchin or another elf and somehow convince them to Apparate with me. Sleet mixed occasionally with the rain, stripping diagonally across the sky and lashing against my face like a double-edged blade until I was too numb to feel it smarting anymore. I focused determinedly on the hot, savory breakfast awaiting me at Malfoy Manor.
The landscape proved unforgiving, lending me few trees to shelter under. I was already thoroughly soaked, and beginning to think that going back to Gaspard and the elves wouldn’t be such a bad fate after all if it meant I would have food and somewhere to sleep. I trudged through slushy pockets of snow, supplying my famine with visions of soup and roasted chicken.
The morning sun rose silently over wintry moors, staining the soft green with lavenders and yellows and glinting like frost-covered bruises. It reminded me of the snapshots of seasons that Andromeda used to paint on her square bits of canvas. She would keep the winter scenes for herself – her very favorite – and present Bellatrix with volcanoes and hot springs, the oil colors as vibrant as real fire. She gave me a portrait of a centaur once, and I had sold it three days later for eleven Sickles.
“I did what I had to do,” I had insisted as she stared in angry disbelief at me. “Stop looking at me like that. You do what you have to do for your family. That’s life. You enjoy having a roof over your head, don’t you?”
“There are limits, Cissa. Sometimes I think you don’t understand anything about family.” Andromeda had seized my candle and stomped down the stairs with it, leaving me sitting in the darkness of my bedroom with my notebook of figures and the day’s profits still lying open on my desk. She never painted anything for me again after that. It was just as well. I had sold one of the paintings she made for my father, too – it reaped a whole Galleon that paid for six consecutive meals.
Struggling against the heavy rain and lashing wind that colored the sun with clouds, I would have given anything to have that centaur painting back. I wondered where my sister was now, with the husband under their arch of white petals. His face was blurry in my mind, turned away from me as he gazed at his new bride.
My limbs were weak and useless, and by the time I collapsed against the side of an old stone well in the middle of a field, I doubted whether or not I could ever summon the strength to get back up again. I hung freely over the well’s edge, staring through closed eyes at a pool of dirty water far below. Rain beat persistently against the back of my head, draining my energy as it sapped my senses of the ability to feel. I attributed the numbness in my fingers to why I did not previously notice a stick rolling under my left palm.
The stick blazed to life as my skin absorbed the touch of it, and my eyes flew open at once. I caught it in my rattling hands, bringing it close to my face. A cool gust of air escaped my lips and I stared at the object for an immeasurable length of time, spellbound. It was inches shorter than mine, and much thinner, but at that moment it was the loveliest thing I had ever seen and I cared not who it belonged to.
Perhaps it was due to the paranoia of once again having a wand in my possession, but I felt a telltale tingle that brushed from shoulder blade to shoulder blade – a warning that there were eyes on me. My neck cracked as I spun around, piercing the landscape with wild, roving eyes. The poplars and firs that dotted the banks of a winding stream were sagging under the weight of crystallized snow, the drizzling rain coating everything with a deadly layer of ice. All was silent save for the occasional branches groaning as they splintered, their icicles ringing like bells as they shattered over sheets of icy snow.
“Hello?” I called, eyebrows furrowing uncertainly.
No one responded. The trees were still, not a creature in sight to stir them, and I thought again of the blackbirds diving through the sky toward Exider. “Is anyone there?”
My fingers shook, and I realized that it was the wand that was trembling, not my hands. I turned back to the wand, puzzling over the way it jerked like something alive, like a bit of someone’s soul was concealed inside it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized what it must be as the stick of wood began to glow. But the moment for making decisions was fleeting, and my hands were stiff, and the wand rolled only to the ends of my fingertips before it flashed a blinding electric blue and disappeared, taking me with it.
I spun and spun, eyes clenched shut as my empty stomach squeezed into a knot. It felt like I was being flung through space and time over treetops, and through my eyelashes I thought I saw flashes of color as though I was gliding over ponds and mountains. Within seconds that stretched into a lifetime, my head knocked sharply against something solid. My arms and legs were splayed on the ground, the substance of it cold and hard. Very slowly, I opened one eye first and then the other.
The back of my head stung, with bright circles etching before my dizzy eyes like the aftermath of a spinning phoenix. I rolled onto my side, one arm resting against the flagstone floor. The surface was dry, very unlike the damp air. I was in a very small, circular room with glass walls; the ceiling was a dark chestnut with crisscrossing rafters, and I could hear rain rippling across the metal roof like the feet of dancing hinkypunks.
The rain upon the field had been quiet, steady; here, it had blossomed into a powerful storm. There was no sun – only wind and endless torrents of rain – and as I rose on unsteady legs to stand upright, I saw the iron bars of a balcony beyond the glass walls. A strip of blinding bluish light roamed along the balcony’s bars for a short moment before disappearing. Ten seconds later, it was back again. I watched the light appear and disappear, seemingly on rotation.
I slid open a glass door and stepped out onto the balcony, my nose stinging with salty spray. A flood of water gushed toward the base of a tall tower that sprouted upward – a tower in the middle of nowhere, with me at the very top of it – and I gripped the chilly railing, peering at the source of light above.
Settled on the roof of the circular room I found myself appearing in, a giant ball of Gubraithian fire licked with tongues of flame at a dimly blackened shell of glass surrounding it. There was no dome over the lamp, only the vivid white-blue light rising into a storm like a beacon.
Exactly like a beacon.
I was in a lighthouse. I gazed from the Gubraithian fire to the lighthouse’s exterior shooting down into the dark water. Cerulean light rotated around the spot where I leaned over the railing, revealing striations like the ridges of a seashell in the paint. The paint itself was rough and pavement-like, and a deep, serpent-green color.
A sailboat flicked through the black waves, its bell clanging eerily. A fisherman held up a small lamp, bobbing along as if in search of something that had fallen into the sea. My hair whipped all around my face, entangled from wind and salt, and I still gripped the Portkey wand. The tip of it glowed feebly. “Lumos,” I murmured.
The light flickered and died.
“No,” I whispered hoarsely, tapping the wand on the railing. “Impervius.” Water continued to splash against the railing, unfazed by the spell, and I tried again. “Incendio.” A jet of lightning lit up the sky, ripping the sea apart with loud thunder. The sailboat had disappeared through a thick mist. “Hey!” I called as loud as I could. My voice was drowned out by the roaring storm, with no hope of a response.
“Incendio,” I begged. The wand produced no spurt of fire – made no sign at all that it was anything more than a common twig. I attempted to Apparate and twirled so violently that I almost fell over. I was still standing there in the rain, gaping with incredulity at a harmless wooden stick. I had not Apparated, I had not moved, and I had not created magic with the wand.
It made no sense.
With one hand still on the railing, I circled the balcony. There was nothing but raging black ocean on all sides, as far as the eye could see. “Damn it,” I muttered, beginning to panic. I flew back into the lighthouse. The circular room was mostly empty – a few dusty candles sat atop a three-legged table next to a can of tinned tomatoes with spider webs trailing from its peeling label to the ceiling. I raced to a hatch in the floor and pried it open, sending more dust billowing into the air. Choking and waving it away, I descended a spiraling set of stairs.
There were no windows on the endless walls. I climbed down, down, down, heart beating fast and my palms clammy with sweat. This could not be happening. For someone to place a Portkey on that crumbling stone well, as if they knew a person would kneel next to it, as if they had predicted that I would pick it up… The shape, the size – it was too misleading. Of course I would pick up a wand. And now…now where was I?
An ancient door opened up to the sea. The lighthouse was propped against rocks as black and glossy as obsidian. Their edges looked sharp, feral. I slid my hand out over the lighthouse’s surface, lifting one foot onto a rock. Biting my lip, I extended another foot onto the rock. Foamy seawater lurched over my head, drenching me with frozen liquid. Tall, willowy reeds floated over white-capped waves. I picked one up, examining it.
It felt familiar.
I sank onto the rocks, wrapping my arms around my knees and clutching the broken reeds in my fists. The endless waters continued to bellow and moan as they moved with itself and against itself – one massive, belligerent organism. The beacon of light high in the tower above me sliced through the waves – bluish-white and shining, calling for someone who wasn’t there to come and save me.
The echoes of a crying wolf reverberated in the distance, washing away in the tide before they ever reached my ears.
From where Lucius stood in Malfoy Manor’s doorway, he could plainly see that within a span of four or five hours, the grassy bowl had once again filled with water. He had witnessed the levels rising hungrily before his eyes, swelling in size not just from the downpour, but from all moisture in the ground.
The earth around the manor cracked apart, white-hot and bone-dry. Veins of underground water and the roots for every kind of vegetation were sucked for sustenance, feeding the parasitic lake. The lake drew its water mercilessly, grinding like machinery as it churned. Rain seared the shores, melting surrounding ground to widen itself, the raindrops pinging along to make it look like thousands upon thousands of rocks were skipping over the surface. It was impossible.
And yet, it was happening.
Lucius leaned against the doorway, mesmerized. A pack of wolves bristled at the sight of him, acknowledging his presence with their bright eyes but making no move in his direction. They dipped down from the forest, switching their tails as the pads of their large feet trotted quickly. An auburn wolf led them with precise steps, glancing back every now and again to ensure that his fellows followed after him. They left no footprints in the snow.
The pale man squinted through the storm, stepping forward with one arm pressed over his forehead to scatter the raindrops. A wave of liberation engulfed him as he moved across the castle’s threshold. The air was clearer beyond the castle – healthier, despite the obscuring shower of water.
A small light appeared like a star in the distance. It flickered, dying, only to come back again within moments. It was situated far, far away – over the very center of the lake, it seemed. He blinked, thinking it perhaps an illusion.
The ball of light cut through miles of smoke-gray clouds, washing Lucius’s chest with weak radiance for a fraction of a second before the clouds moved back together, congealing protectively. Lucius walked to the edge of the lake, rapt, and gazed over its boiling waves. The wolves quivered as the starlight waned, and a small black one on the fringe of the group took pause. The clouds hissed like snakes as they entwined around each other, darkening with rain saturation until they were as black as steam from a train. The auburn wolf threw its head back and released a dangerous growl, staring at the smaller one who had drawn its paw back in hesitation.
Lucius gazed at the place where the eye of the light had been, feeling a peculiar sense of curiosity tugging at his arms. He watched the small pack of wolves slink through the mud and snow down to the edges of the arctic water. One by one, they slipped into the iron-gray lake, paddling fathomlessly through a fog that rolled over the lapping waves. Fifteen minutes later, a limp black creature washed up on the shore of the lake, unmoving.
Tendrils of water gushed through its fur, softly stroking it. The animal’s hip bones heaved, its concave stomach muscles struggling for breath, and a wave reached through the air and took the wolf in its embrace, pulling it under the lake for consumption.
Its eyes were round and shining, bright with triumph, and it leapt off the small boat and onto a ragged shoreline. It was late evening – the perfect time of day – and the large animal sped along an overgrown path into a forest. Victory pumped through its bloodstream as four paws beat vigorously against the ground, faster and faster. A nearby stream – a vein of the Oaupe River, although many were not aware of this – twinkled brilliantly in the waning light with a rush of south-bound trout.
Her lips curled over long fangs, rearing her head back to soak up the scents of stagnant mire and lake water mixed inexplicably with salt. The smell of it coated the animal’s rust-red fur like a paste, bringing a flush of memories to the forefront of her mind. It was pleasant, enjoyable, to view the aftermath of curses. She reveled in watching the world burn from afar, a grin spreading at her mouth while the pair of sharp green eyes narrowed vindictively. The world tasted like power and vengeance and the thirst for more of it. Always more of it.
There was a weakness to the wolf in the way that she had a pattern, and a need to traipse from one cursed subject to another. The wolf wound her way clockwise around the country, visiting the ruins of her extreme magic and gloating over the individuals eternally trapped within it. People who had wronged the wolf, who had denied her food or gold or entrance to a cave she wanted to shelter in – they beat against the walls of their invisible prisons, even in death. Most of them were too proud to heed the rules of the curse in order to break it. You could not trick curses of this magnitude, and so they suffered alone and companionless because they simply refused to listen.
But, somehow, the girl from the letter had discovered a loophole.
Rather than doing the obvious and learning to love Malfoy – instead of kissing him and severing the spell like Circe’s terms had directed, the girl had found a way around the rules. It enraged the wolf. It was arrogance, deceitful and underhanded arrogance. Circe would circle back, undoubtedly, to inspect the blonde girl’s self-inflicted predicament, to smile up at her from where she would be draped weakly over the iron railing, dying of thirst. She would be surrounded by salt water, and could of course drink none of it. And if she did drink it – well – that would be all the better. Circe smiled to herself, imagining the distorted visions that would inevitably begin to drift through Narcissa’s mind as the salt dried her from within.
The old Macnair woman had sent an owl to inform her of the treacherous action, of the castle’s defeat. She provided a name – Narcissa Black. Circe, who was been lingering on a mountainside in search of a Muggle woman she had stricken with disease because the woman had not offered her a drink of water, was forced to turn around again.
She Apparated once in Kincraig and nicked a gold pocket watch from a short, portly man who was strolling alone down a lane and muttering to himself, trailing a soiled jacket over one shoulder. She admired the watch as he examined it whilst he walked; and admired it even more when it lay glittering in her own palm; when he cried out in rage, mustache quivering, she took his life as well. Circe left his body lying in a drainage ditch with his back to the sky, fingers threaded through long blades of grass in the dirty water beneath him while raindrops flecked his white shirt with dark spots.
Two of her pack’s number had been lost in the course of a week. One of them had been taken down by a man with a massive bow and arrows, the tips of the arrows impregnated with basilisk venom. Presently Circe ran faster through the dense wood, muzzle tilting down as her ears swiveled to absorb every flutter of a jobberknoll’s wings, each warble of icy rain dripping onto leaves like the pitter-patter of pebbles clinking against the walls of an old stone well. Whoever had killed her second in command was going to find himself neck-deep in misery…
The second casualty was her newest recruit, a girl of only eighteen. She had not reacted well to the change, and was slower than the others. She had been unwilling to obey Circe when Circe told her to follow, and was reluctant to cause harm, even as a wolf with brutish instincts. The potion was supposed to lengthen the amount of time the wolves were allowed to transform, extending not just during full moons but well into daylight hours afterward; it did not always work, however, and did not agree with the girl’s system. Circe could see that the girl was backpedaling against her leader’s commands, and could possibly sabotage the mission. There was no room for liabilities in this group, and the inconsequential little wolf had been disposed of in the blink of an eye.
If her sisters could only see her now… Circe leapt over a fallen tree trunk splotched with moss, the scent of wine ripe in her snout. Somewhere under the earth in an old wine cellar that once stocked rows and rows of garnet-red drink, the skeletal remains of an old alchemist lay propped against a rotting wall. His ghost sat opposite the bones, forever incarcerated. She only needed to be sure of his entrapment before turning and making her way back to the lighthouse. These needs, these exhausting patrols that kept her on her feet every hour of the day, traveling, traveling, traveling – needing to always be quite sure that they were still there – had begun to drain her.
She’d taken precautions against a future of diminishing strength many years ago, searching out a werewolf to infect her so that she wouldn’t fade away as half-fairy witches often did. Despite a number of spells and potions that weren’t supposed to be mixed and despite her potent wolf blood diluting the fairy blood, these masochistic trips were going to kill her even if nothing else would.
This one will be my last until spring arrives, Circe told herself. It was dangerous for her to be exerting so much energy in the winter months; when she transformed back into a human, she would be frail once again. Was the depletion of her human energy worth the hours she spent as a wolf, strong and prevailing? The sacrifice was strenuous on her withering human form, and she would have to seek shelter somewhere with a substantial heat source… Gubraithian fire sounded as efficient as anything else.
The thick muscles in her body twisted as she galloped down a steep slope at an angle, rejoicing in her unparalleled abilities and knowing, without a doubt, that she was the most omnipotent in all the land. There is no emotion more powerful than spite, she thought with a smirk. And no fuel more everlasting.
I swallowed the last of the rancid tinned tomatoes, scraping the can clean with one finger. It smelled positively rotten, the substance slimy and squelching, and I forced my throat to resist the urge to gag. Rancid or not, I had no alternatives and I wasn’t about to turn up my nose at food.
I tossed the empty can at the wall and it clanged, rolling slowly under the spindly table. I craved a drink of water, but there wasn’t any to be found. I spent several minutes reading the room with my gaze, looking for what I already knew wasn’t there, before I fully realized the potential for the empty tomato can. Feeling stupid for not having thought of it before, I placed the tin on the outside balcony and allowed the unrelenting downpour to pelt it.
I watched the raindrops splatter against the metal rim, most of them missing its interior, and glared. There had to be something handy sitting around that I could use as a funnel…
Hunched over in the cold, clinging mist, I turned slightly and stared out over the ocean. I wondered which ocean I currently found myself in, and how far from land I must be. For several hours, I had tried to mentally pinpoint the culprit behind my unfortunate position, and came up with no conclusion. The only option that crossed my mind was perhaps Gaspard Pravus, which made sense. He had taken me twice before, and was a sadistic, sick individual. But what did he have to gain by shutting me up in a lighthouse? I did not understand his motivations and the questions continued to spin me into circles, and so I decided to simply stop thinking about it.
The why or who didn’t matter, not here. The only way forward was to channel my energy into figuring out a way to escape. This suited me, as I loved nothing more than a great and impossible challenge, and eagerly began to map out options in my mind, each one more absurd and unlikely than the last. Employing my mind gave me something to do, and I resumed pacing around the lighthouse balcony.
I would get out, of course. I laughed disdainfully, imagining Gaspard’s smug face and guessing that he had fancied this plan as solid and unyielding. Ever since I was born, my most powerful instinct has always been survival. I had yet to encounter a quandary that left me powerless to it, that stopped me from enduring and overcoming. Gaspard’s narrow mind was no match for my own.
A seagull skidded to an abrupt land on the railing, startling me with its wide, flapping wings. It hopped along its perch, turning a beady eye to look me over.
“Carry me out of here?” I mused.
I half-expected the bird to respond, as such a spectacle would not seem out of place considering the past four months, but it continued hopping along as usual, its feathers checkered with silver rain. “Shouldn’t you be somewhere warm?” I asked lightly.
The creature tipped off the thin railing, swooping low over the violent waters, and flew away. It was only after I found myself staring at the horizon and hoping it would return that it struck me how lonely I was. The faces of Andromeda, my father, Wren, and Lucius haunted the edges of my thoughts, flickering by one by one. The stars seemed to have aligned against me, ripping me away from everyone I had ever grown attached to.
I was forever alone, in one way or another. It was lucky that I had become so stoutly self-reliant in recent years, or else I might have begun to plague myself with pitying thoughts and bitter wishes that I had not been the one to be so unfairly uprooted over and over…
Without really taking stock of what I was doing, I lifted one leg over the railing. I rested my foot on the slender concrete ledge, momentarily blinded by the swiveling light overhead, and then trailed my other leg over the railing. Holding tightly to the iron bar behind me, I let myself tilt out over the ocean. Brackish spray burst through the air like otherworldly geysers, carrying steam into the clouds.
I could see the smooth polish of the black rocks piled against the lighthouse, dark and shining. Water had steadily elevated its way up the base, submerging the entire downstairs door. I could feel the weight of the water pressing against the lighthouse, crashing against it and growing taller and angrier until I would soon be swallowed, too.
I wondered how far I might be able to swim until the current dragged me under.
A seagull – I thought to myself that it might have been the same one as before – fluttered onto the railing again. I let out a low whistle and it cocked its small head, studying me intently. I bristled, strengthening my grip on the railing, and it hopped along the tips of my fingers with pointed talons. I let go of one hand and waved it away, shouting. Hair blew into my mouth from a heavy strike of wind, obscuring my eyes. I crooked my elbow around the railing so that I wouldn’t fall into the ocean, smearing my hair out of my face once again, and looked up just in time to see the bird taking flight.
It soared and soared and blended perfectly into the stormy horizon, sinking into the outline of what looked to be a series of giant birds sitting atop jagged boulders. They were jet-black like crows, situated in the distance with their beaks pointed in the air and their wings encircling each other. A small, bright spot appeared at the tip of one of their beaks, glimmering faintly. There was something about the way that it seemed to reflect light that sent my memory diving backward. It was all extraordinarily familiar, something I had already seen…but as though I had seen it through very different eyes.
I shook my head, frowning in confusion, and carefully slipped back over the railing onto the balcony. My legs shook uncertainly, feet numbly trying to regain balance. Several strands of hair blew back into my eyes and I let out an irritated snarl. Stomping back inside the lighthouse, I picked up the serrated, mutilated lid of the tomato tin – which I had only succeeded in opening by hitting it against the floor fifty times – and tore it through my hair. Long, white-blonde chunks fell through the air, curling around my feet and sticking to the clammy stone crevices, and I continued to saw roughly until most of the knots had been cut out and the tips of my hair brushed an inch from my shoulders.
“So pretty,” Mother sighed, skimming the walnut hairbrush through my long waves. “So lucky…” Her voice was tinted with resentment now, and she pulled harder on the brush, tugging painfully on my roots.
The corners of my lips twitched up in a smile, as though I had won some sort of small victory. Having long hair was distracting, always getting in my way. I was vain, but even more than that I was practical, and I picked up several handfuls of blonde mess and returned to the balcony, letting them drop from my fingers. I watched as they spread over the water, coated in sickly green froth and floating reeds, moving with the waves in every direction.
Running my fingers through my cropped hair, I felt strangely calmer. It was the same sensation I got whenever I collected enough coins to purchase a new pair of boots for my sister or after I cleaned the cottage from top to bottom. It was a feeling of accomplishment.
I turned back to the massive silhouettes against the sky, growing darker and grainier as the sun slipped behind its pillars of cloud and fog into the night; that curious dot of light was still present.
I stepped backward, the heel of my shoe soaking through with cold water, and I lifted it hastily and turned about. Where before the ground had been stained a muddy grey from rain and mold and everlasting moisture, a deep and perfectly round spring had formed. I dropped to my knees, lips parting in wonderment, and let my hands rest on the outer edges. Flowers bloomed beneath my touch, spreading from fingertip to fingertip in a web and stretching outward…forming a border of bluebells around the spring.
I swallowed thickly, mouth dry as a bone. It must have been only a mirage caused by incredible thirst – a trick of the brain. Even still, I ran my fingers over the soft sprouts of flowers. I touched them and they reacted like octopus tentacles, tickling the air. They were the brightest blue I had ever seen, ethereal and springy and alive. They grew not from dirt but from the other side of the mirror, projections of their parallel selves. I ran a finger over the silky petals of one and imagined its counterpart shivering in response, somewhere in a place yet unseen.
Peering closely, I found that I could not see the bottom of the pond. It extended for leagues, its depth and coldness apparent without the need to touch it. A Pensieve of the present instead of the past, I watched as color permeated the fluid in rich tones like the Northern Lights, swirling together until they coaxed up a reflection of someone other than myself. I hovered over the fluid, the breath in my lungs forgotten, and realized with a sharp twist that there could only be flowers surrounding this pond if it was springtime in Lucius’s bedroom.
My eyes closed.
Birds trilled from the fringe of a different world, and I could picture them as they fanned their wings, flying in circles around the mossy green bedroom. My heartbeat picked up faster and faster, sensing through my skin that I was being watched, that eyes were roving over my face. My blindness was a gift to him – a way for him, if he could somehow, however impossible it might be, see me, to finally have the first glimpse. It was a vulnerable feeling, a surrender of sorts. I tilted my face, lips smiling unknowingly, and forced myself to remain still and patient.
My heart leapt through my chest and I smiled wider, forgetting the crashing black ocean and the lonely lighthouse – forgetting the rain that seeped through my clothing and into my skin, dampening my insides as well. Through closed eyes, the leaves in Lucius’s trees scraped together, swaying delicately. It smelled clean, like summer rain over a garden, and I soaked up the image I knew he was finally seeing – a young woman bathed in beads of water like mercury, her face smudged with dirt and her hair straggly and uneven. It was gratifying in a way – freeing – to feel his gaze lingering over my many flaws and just letting it happen. I would not try to conceal anything from a man who had been blind for eight years.
My skin so aflame with apprehension that I could barely stand it, knowing that he was analyzing me and I could not read his expression as he did so; I was giving him permission to acclimate the voice he knew to the flesh he did not without struggling to hinder his disappointment or shock. It was the most I could give to him, since I had viewed his own face time after time while he was the one in the dark. Sitting there I like I was, bent over a small pond, I found that physical darkness was every bit as frightening as I ever cared to predict, and equally liberating.
“Narcissa,” he repeated quietly, and this time I was afraid to look.
But I could not resist the summons of his voice, and I opened my eyes at last.
Our gaze met with mutual amazement. His irises had shrunk back to normal size, a vivid light blue that pierced mine with incomprehensible intensity, and he was both unrecognizable and the exact same person who had invaded many of my conscious thoughts and dreams alike. His skin was as ghostly pale as ever, his hair the same shade of almost-white, and his expression hardened defensively while I perused his appearance.
The planes and angles of his face were his forever and always, unchanged by anyone’s spells. But I could not see the arteries swimming with blood, shooting back and forth from his heart to the rest of his organs. The underlying network of veins had faded away, the skin not as thin as it once was… A strand of hair fell across his forehead and his trepidation softened, the crease between his eyebrows smoothing out. Lucius was seeing my thoughts in my face.
His lips… I began to smile without realizing it, and absently touched my own mouth. I bit my bottom lip, and a smile flickered over his face as well, lighting up his eyes. Both of us were remembering those lips spread like tissue paper over sharp teeth that cut into his skin. His lips were pink now, full with the bloom of life and youth – and although his teeth still retained a razor-sharp look to them, they were no longer abnormally-shaped. His features had lost both fragility and malice, but I had never found love in the flat black eyes and I would not find love in these lovely new ones, blue as the flowers under my hands.
I recalled his gloved fingers trailing along the glass piano keys, and the hesitation and discomfort in his demeanor when he confessed to having written a song for me. I had found love there, long after it happened. During my absence from Malfoy Manor, my mind had spun illusions around the memory of Lucius Malfoy, warping him until he resembled something...different. Something human, something I could love.
We simply stared, neither of us speaking. The sphere of chilly light overhead swept across Lucius’s face, illuminating the pair of striking eyes I could not stop looking at, staring incredulously as though I had never seen anyone or anything before. I felt something inside me lift higher, out of my body, and he smiled at me with kindness and astonishment and a million other feelings, flitting by with a second of life to each of them.
Whatever Lord Voldemort’s spell might have done to Lucius to free him, it had retained the magic inside Lucius’s bedroom. I could see clusters of gnarled trees behind his shoulders, flushed with deep, lively greens and the colorful blurs of tropical birds. Lucius slackened his grip on the rim of the pond, and I thought to myself that he must have always looked this way, and the castle had merely distorted my perceptions. I recalled the internal rise of nausea and revulsion whenever he entered the room, turning away from him as though he were a disease I might catch. I marveled at the impossibility of such sentiments.
Lucius’s piercing blue eyes glistened, welling up with the emotion of time or stress or something else, perhaps; he lifted one hand and closed his eyes briefly as he wiped them, and I opened my mouth too late. My hand was reaching, as though it might plunge straight through the mirror and catch his arm – but it was too late. He had broken eye contact.
The bluebells wilted, shrinking back into the rough pavement until it wasn’t difficult to believe they had never existed. The water shriveled up, becoming smaller and smaller until it was gone and a circular patch of perfectly dry concrete lay in its wake. Spots of rain perforated the dry surface, mocking and cruel.
“It will show you whatever your heart desires the most, and in turn, your heart’s desire will see you as well. It’s a two-way mirror.”
I turned back to the inky black outline in the sky, lightning flashing against it like the sterling blade of a sword in torchlight, twisted at just the right angle to blind you. In the several seconds that followed, my retinas carried the image of turrets across my brain, branded in white pictures. Turrets and towers, bleeding through the clouds and rain and lightning to capture my attention.
The broken reeds I had taken between my hands reeled in my memory with the flashes of white, and then I realized.
A/N: Sorry it took me so long to update! Original fiction has been eating up most of my attention lately. I would just like to say thank you to all of you lovely people who voted for this story in the Dobbys. You are amazing.
Lucius held five fingertips to the barrier, marveling at the solidity of it. For something he couldn’t even see, it felt inflexibly strong and smooth. Impenetrable. He could feel the rise of his fingerprints against the glass, and the barrier seemed to breathe. He sensed the wall draw a deep gust of air inside it and then let out a slow, ragged exhale, pushing Lucius back ever so slightly.
He moved away, slanting his head to examine the landscape with caution. The wolves had been able to swim past this point, he had seen them doing it. Lucius was standing at the very edge of the lake, white-blond hair streaking his haggard face, trying to figure out a way past the invisible barrier that seemed to surround the entire lake. In the distance, a tiny white-blue dot appeared and disappeared. There and gone, there and gone, on a rotation of sorts.
Narcissa lit up his mind, not at all like he’d imagined. She was not a princess from a fairy tale. He had tried to prepare himself for this, hoping fruitlessly for the chance to see for himself if the mental image matched up to reality; but she wasn’t the swooning, delicate creature he had envisioned. There was no long hair, no pink cheeks and red grin. She was dirty and ill-groomed, with lips chapped and a complexion pale and rubbed raw like that of old bones found half-buried in the sand. And she was absolutely perfect.
He’d gotten a healthy glimpse of her surroundings, and observed enough to realize that she was that light in the distance. Lucius’s heart beat fast as he recalled the emotion welling up inside him when he gazed into the mirror on his bedroom floor. Finally, at long last, he would see what everyone else had already seen. The jealousy because Ramien and Horatio and Cook were already familiar with her features was nothing, not anymore. Not when he could now cross to the other side, privy to the world of the seeing and living. And with an expectant heart, he laid eyes on Narcissa, his Narcissa, and the feeling of her looking at him while he was looking at her was the most terrifying moment in his entire life.
But it was worth it. Oh, it was so worth it. And he wanted more of it, to see more. He wanted to ask her, tentatively, if he could please just sit next to her for a short while before she began her journey home. And if he was lucky, he might be able to touch her hand...if she would let him…
But of course she wouldn’t. It was out of the question. She would want to swiftly return home to her father and the mess she had left behind.
Lucius’s shame for himself did not prompt him to turn away from the barrier, however. He continued to pace around it, thinking quickly. It was evident from Narcissa’s state that she was trapped inside a tower of sorts, most likely at the very top of it. A wry grimace crossed his face; it was painfully recognizable work.
His memory reeled to a snowy night eight years ago, and the horror that dawned over him when he realized he was a prisoner in his own home. The thought of Circe being near, still inflicting psychological torture on people whenever it suited her, made his skin break out in a cold sweat.
“Narcissa?” he asked hesitantly. He cleared his throat, staring past the mist to the pinprick of winking light.
“Hey there!” a voice responded. Lucius gave a start, turning around in one sharp movement. Two tall men were walking down the slope from the forest, closing the gap between them. The one who had called out to Lucius was smiling politely, waving in a friendly sort of way. The other had a black goatee, and the tops of his boots and collar of his coat were trimmed with thick brown fur. He wore a surly expression and lingered on the fringe of the forest, his eyes clearly emitting distrust.
Lucius did not speak. He watched the friendlier of the pair stride forward, glancing furtively at his wary companion every few seconds. Just like that other man, Lucius was not inclined to trust.
“Couldn’t help but overhear you, and we thought we would come on over and introduce ourselves,” the man stated.
Lucius’s eyes narrowed slightly. Not moving an inch, he replied with slight accusation in his voice, “I spoke only a minute ago, right before you did. You had to have already been behind me.”
The other man was intimidating in his length, and his black eyes glittered with something that was supposed to resemble kindness. He spread his hands out in a gesture of cordiality. “That’s true, friend. However, I –”
“What are you doing here?” Lucius’s voice was blunt, closing them off. He withdrew a pair of black leather gloves from one pocket and slipped them on, not deflecting his eyes from the man. There was something territorial in the way he eyed them, warning them without needing to speak that they were trespassing. That they were not welcome.
“Well, now.” The man’s pretense dropped. He craned his neck around to appraise his companion, who looked like he very much did not want to be there. “Igor? Thoughts?”
“Let us leave,” Igor answered stonily. His tones were rough and thick – Bulgarian. “I do not like the look of this one.”
Lucius took a step forward. “It’s not often that I get visitors. You must have some sort of purpose here.”
The fellow studied him with calculating intensity, pursing his lips. “You’re right. We do.” Igor’s mouth opened wide, dumbstruck. “We’re looking for a witch by the name of Circe.”
Lucius stared at him, every bit as surprised as Igor.
“We don’t know much about her besides the fact that she could possibly be a threat to a certain organization…I won’t go into the murky details. We have been charged with finding this person, if she does indeed exist, and bringing her back to a friend of ours. We’re not sure if she’s real, we just –”
“She is,” Lucius told him brusquely. “She is very real.”
The man raised his eyebrows and extended a hand. “My name is Rookwood.” Before he could clear his head, Lucius found himself shaking it, the cogs in his mind faintly cockeyed as they worked to decipher the meaning of these circumstances.
“My name is Lucius Malfoy.”
Rookwood and Igor exchanged loaded expressions. Igor finally conceded to joining his friend, and Lucius saw that up close, the skin on his face was swarthy and sagging, etched with tiny crisscrossing lines. Everything else about him, besides this, remained youthful. “If what they say is true, and you’ve personally met Circe, then perhaps you could be of some assistance to us,” Rookwood purred. “Consider this an opportunity, Malfoy. Come along with us.”
“I have absolutely no intentions of going anywhere,” Lucius told him blithely, turning back to the invisible wall. “I have imperative business here.”
Igor was impatient. “Doing what?”
Lucius’s eyes snapped, but he did not switch his attentions. “As it so happens, Circe has been here very recently.” He tapped the solid air, and the pair of newcomers froze at the sound of three melodic pangs. “She has locked someone very dear to me inside of this…whatever it is she’s built around my lake…and I have to get her out.”
Rookwood swallowed, peering beyond them to the shining beacon of light trapped in a cyclone of lilac clouds. “You say that a spell has put her in there?”
Lucius’s gaze trailed across the water, eyes sad. With his hands still pressed against the imperceptible barricade, he answered very softly, “Yes.”
Igor’s mouth twitched, and Rookwood’s countenance shifted from one of doubt to slyness. “I know someone who can help you with that.”
Two deep lines were embedded in my forehead, the imprints of rails I had sunk against two hours ago. Here I still sat, waiting for the drizzling mist to pick up the tempo. I glared at the empty tomato can clanging against the glass door, moving with a life of its own from the wind.
“Rain,” I growled demandingly at the sky. I was incredibly parched. The clinging moisture in the air was enough to keep me unendingly freezing, but not enough to quench my thirst.
Sighing, I rolled my legs out from underneath me, numb from being pinned there for so long, and pulled up on the railing so that I could see properly over it. The black crow statues in the distance were no longer burning with tiny lights, and I wondered if I had imagined the spheres suspended in thin air, protruding from the crows’ heads in the form of eyes and beaks. I trickled one finger along the railing, resting my chin on its cool surface. Something about the marble design of it reminded me of my grandfather’s chess pieces. I mimed curling my fingers around a bishop, watching it hop towards the queen across the board.
The pieces toppled off the railing into the iron sea below, sloshing through sharp waves into rocks surrounding the lighthouse, crumbling into pieces. The water had risen hungrily higher and higher against the lighthouse, covering the entire door at the bottom; when the clouds broke and sunlight hit the water at just the right angle, I could still the glinting rocks below. Even in the darkness, I thought I could see the chess pieces churning amongst them.
“Damn,” I murmured. “That was my last set.” Swerving back around and staring groggily at the tiny circular room at the summit of the lighthouse, I wondered what I was going to do next. All of this piddling around and doing nothing was grueling.
I refused to move away from the bit of pavement where the mirror had appeared, unwilling to miss the appearance of Lucius if he was able to somehow see into the mirror again. I recalled what he had told me, that it would not show you the same thing twice. From what I’d learned within the past few months, however, nothing was impossible. Nothing at all.
“I’m here,” I called lowly, tilting my left cheekbone against the railing and absently still trailing one hand along it. “I’m still here.” My voice was stronger this time. “Good-for-nothing Portkeys. Good-for-nothing Bellatrix. Went months without hearing from her, months without any money. If I ever see her again, I’ll strangle her…”
I slid my arms far out over the railing, letting my hands dangle freely. I could feel blood pooling in my fingertips, making them heavier. Filthy hair blew every which way across my face, the strands flayed like dragon scales.
From somewhere far away, the bell of a fisherman’s ship clanged and clanged, and I realized I had been on the verge of falling asleep. My eyelashes fluttered, opening, and I stared blearily upon the waters at a bobbing grey shape stretched into a long, slender oval.
Clang, clang, clang.
The boat sliced through the water, coating under its shining skin, and bumped noiselessly against one of the glossy black boulders hiding below. Something that looked like an enormous four-limbed creature was dumped over the side of the boat, a coil of rope tied to one of its hind legs. When the creature hit the bottom of the sea, the rope attached to the boat itself gave a powerful tug, sloshing the ship back and forth for a few terse moments.
I straightened up, watching closely. Lucius.
But it was not Lucius. A great red wolf leapt through low-hanging boughs of silvery vapor, emerging from a door in the steering cabin of the fishing boat. It surveyed the flooded rocks and rising water levels, its ears switched away from its face as though listening to a faraway conversation. Four tremendous paws worked circles around the ship’s floorboards, looking for a way into the lighthouse. It simply stood there for an immeasurable period of time, watching or listening to something – I couldn’t tell. I blinked again, idly pondering my state of lucidity. Perhaps I was only dreaming.
It certainly was a peculiar dream.
I slumped against the balcony railing, the edges of my shorn hair tickling my neck. The wolf considered the lighthouse impatiently, and gradually its large, intelligent eyes travelled upward…
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, standing on end. The animal took a step backwards, lowering itself just a fraction, like a jaguar about to pounce on its prey. I saturated the sight of its bristling brick-red fur, sunburned like the hills in Doorturn, and the quietly whipping tail; I felt disconnected from the scenery playing out, apart from it. I might not have been there at all. I was merely a bystander, watching it all happening to someone else.
The wolf cocked its head, narrow muzzle wrinkling as it curled away to reveal long teeth. A smile, asking for invitation. Let me in, it seemed to say.
I shook my head, pointing to the swamped door. “It’s blocked.”
The wolf twisted its neck, glancing beyond us to black skyline still distorted into the shapes of crows. Snow was falling gently now, mixing with the pepper-grey rain. They were like feathers, soft and floating... I clamped my hands to my throbbing temples, trying to counter-pressure the headache slowly seeping in. Molten blackbird feathers drifted through the sky all around me like peeling paint, littering the balcony. I touched one of them and it disintegrated into cinders. How odd, I thought.
Chills rippled along the wolf’s thick fur, and it implored me with its gaze once more. “What startling green eyes you have,” I murmured. “I’ve never seen green eyes on a wolf before.”
Let me in, the echo repeated.
“I told you, it’s blocked.” I sounded irritated now. I wondered if I was speaking out loud. It was difficult to hear myself over the softly-falling feathers; I could feel them curl against the whistling wind as they descended. I heard them as I saw them, falling everywhere. They slipped into the thrashing ocean and I shook my head, momentarily confusing the blurred specks for lacy white snowflakes. I closed my eyes for a split second and reopened them, dazed with a pounding vertigo.
No feathers. No cinders. Only snow, melting on the pavement as soon as they landed. I was seeing things again. This was definitely not a positive sign…
The wolf edged closer to the rim of the boat, eyeing me intently. It’s not flooded; you’re only imagining it is. All you have to do is unlock the door. Come down and unlock the door.
I studied the animal. If my surroundings weren’t lying to me, then opening the door at the base of the lighthouse would lure torrents of water inside – water that was presently leaning against the door with a suffocating weight. If the stairway flooded I would truly never be able to escape, even if exterior water levels decreased in a few days’ time. I leaned over the railing as far as I could hang, biting down on my lip as my eyes roved over the icy depths. The sea was a wash of colors – muddy green, navy, and maroon wine. And something like black, but not quite soulless enough to be all the way there.
There’s a rope at the very top of the lighthouse, looped around the glass of fire. Lower it down for me.
Draining the weak vestiges of my energy, I grasped the railing with stiff, waterlogged hands. A sting of arctic air blew into my face, serving to clear my mind somewhat. I arched a condescending eyebrow at the waiting beast. “No,” I said, my tone emotionless and unsympathetic.
The pair of emerald eyes darkened, and its jagged teeth grew longer, sharper, as its lips spread back even farther away from the broad black gums. Not a smile, not anymore. It released a dangerous growl, those inky pupils dilating with anger as they seemed to swallow me up. The disdain in my demeanor seemed to give me life; it enabled my ears to drown out the hollow clangs of the bell, still ringing through the night whenever the boat rocked from side to side in the tossing water. None of it was real.
“What sharp teeth you have,” I replied scathingly, imagining my words plummeting one by one into rain droplets of their own, dripping like condensation down the surface of a glass of water; down through the filmy smog and through leagues of air and absence until they reached the brutish creature that surely did not exist. I was alone in my tower, of this I was certain. Lonely, thirsty, and hallucinating. I snapped my own teeth together, flashing a malevolent grin. “It’s too bad you’ll never reach me.”
This struck a nerve in the wolf’s disposition. It rolled its shoulders, releasing something warm and thick into the air – power like breath. The revolving cerulean light above me glinted more brightly, the Gubraithian fire absorbing the strength of whatever it was the wolf had just lost through its skin. And then, without warning, the wolf wasn’t a wolf at all. It sprang through space, fur recoiling backwards into bare flesh, ripping and contorting until it resembled something human.
Until it was human. An ancient, grandmotherly-looking woman who had been cowering in wolf’s skin.
Her white hair was thin and mangy, plastered to the sides of her withering face and trailing down her back like rat’s tails. She stared up at me, her eyes just as green and piercing as they had been in animal form, and seemingly larger when gaping through emaciated features. Her skeletal fingers bunched together, shaking slightly.
Words were not needed to express what she was clearly telling me. I shuddered, a thrill of fear coursing through blood run cold.
Oh, yes I will.
She shrank back into a wolf, so rapidly I almost missed it, and hastened to the edge of the ship and used her teeth to saw the rope that tethered the boat in place. The bells did not ring anymore, and the temporary spike in temperature waned until it was cold again – even colder than before. I gazed out at the sea, remembering suddenly that it wasn’t the sea at all. I had forgotten, and probably would forget again, that the salt had been sprinkled in my mind, not in the water. Broken reeds disguised as seaweed gushed forth between frothy waves, rumbling in whispers that reminded me of piano chords. But it was all a mirage, intended to crack the membranes of my psyche.
The rise of black statues in the distance were not crows or blackbirds at all; they were the turrets and towers of Malfoy Manor. I reached out a hand and curled my fingers around their form, so close to me that I was surprised when I did not catch them in my hands for substance.
I had disappeared on an empty plain, draped over an old stone well. I had reappeared in a lighthouse that had sprouted out of the barren lake overlooking Malfoy Manor. Where there had once been long grass and the flickering yellow squares of illuminated windows above, there was now endless water that circled back around me, circling and circling in a fishbowl of dim clouds that never lifted.
There was something about the image of a fishbowl that caught my brief attention. Walls of glass, but no ceiling…the only way out being up. I lowered my eyelids and sank to my knees, numb to the scraping of my palms on cement. My mother rested beside me, disapproving of what I had done to my hair. Andromeda sat somewhere away from us, her eyes gliding away from me when I glanced at her, as though trying to pretend that the isolation didn’t bother her. And Bellatrix was there, too – but there was something unsettling in the way she looked at me. Her expression was too gleeful, too greedy, as though she was seeing something valuable in me that I wasn’t yet aware of.
Her face flashed red, as though electrified by a rebounding spell. I could see all of them in a circle, bearing down on me until my muscles were so tense with crawling anticipation that they hurt. The biggest mistake I had ever made in my life…
The snake in my arm moved with fire, blazing furiously as it wound its way through an eye of the tattooed skull. A missing link in a chain – a link no one had even known was missing until this very moment – clicked into place, long-awaited and immediately belonging. Expected, even. Steam rose from my branded flesh, and I let my head fall back weakly, resting against the frigid metal rails as I fought against the pull to let go, to allow unconsciousness to envelop me in a cloak of blackest black with me falling through it for miles and miles. The last part of myself to slip away felt the snake slither and hiss, awakening to greet an old friend.
Do you swear to always come to me when you feel your Dark Mark burning…
His voice revolved in my head, the same words going around and around on a sick rotation. I bent double and began to dry-heave, overwhelmed with an illness that seemed to originate from nowhere – probably because it came from a promise. The words we had spoken to each other by wandlight, when I was desperate and fancied him insane, strangled my thoughts and refused to allow me to fall completely unconscious.
Our Unbreakable Vow pulsed through the black and burning snake on my left forearm, accompanied by violent flashes of a man’s face. I didn’t invite the images – they came from beyond my sight and memory, unbidden. His eyes were as red and filmy as ever, and I noticed with panic and revulsion that they had thinned somewhat – they had become almost vertical. Like cat’s eyes. "Come," the snake hissed.
“I can’t,” I moaned, clutching my Mark with my right hand and wincing in pain. The cement was cold against my cheek and I pressed my arm to it as well, trying to alleviate the scorching sting. “I don’t have a wand.”
My pitiful whispers did nothing to placate the man’s persistence, and I went on smoldering like a torch without flames. Even in my head, I could not refer to the man as Lord Voldemort…it was too pretentious a title. I followed no lord and I served no man. Goosebumps erupted along my shoulders and neck as those gleaming red cat’s eyes flickered in place of where I should have seen only turrets of a faraway castle. Not lord and not man. Those eyes could belong to neither.
It was then, writhing on the floor in agony, that I saw that the Dark Mark was slowly fading. Where before it had been black as coal, squirming with the summons of my new master, it was now a dim outline of a skull and snake, which had become stationary. The pain lessened, numbing, and I sat up quickly to inspect my arm.
The branded snake wasn’t the only part of me that was disappearing.
I flexed my fingers, stricken with terror at the translucent hue to them, enabling me to see straight through my hand at the balcony rails beyond. The flesh of a ghost washed up my arms, and I watched it creep along my legs, moving without feeling until it reached my ribs. A sharp, sudden coldness tore through my chest, the rapid heartbeats falling quieter and quieter until they were silent – and then I vanished altogether.
I could still feel my weight, could still see the lighthouse balcony, as I began to pull away from it. I was moving – swiftly, backwards – over the sea, withdrawing against my will. My body turned over and over, skimming over the frothing waves that lurched at me but couldn’t quite touch me; I was hurtling through space, invisible and flying and going…no! I was going away from Malfoy Manor.
As the seconds passed, so did the speed at which I traveled. The sea was gone, replaced with fields. The fields were gone, replaced with a river. Cities, villages, forests. They flitted by so fast that I couldn’t be sure whether or not I was physically present. It felt a bit like Apparating – or how Apparating might feel if someone without a wand was extricated from the middle of nowhere and was being pulled toward someone who did have a wand. A powerful wand. My vision was all wrong, seeing the world through dark, bleary tunnels.
I jerked left and right in rough zigzag patterns, as if being guided by the blind, and caught a brief glimpse of a wooden sign sticking out of the dirt at the end of a lane, dividing a fork that went in two different directions. And then, several very long seconds after I had begun to disappear, I materialized on the chilly, hard soil with a heavy oomph.
I wasn’t the only one lying down. Less than three feet away from me, a familiar figure rolled on the grass, scrunching up his face in resentment as he cradled an injured wrist to his chest. “Regulus?” I whispered.
Understanding dawned over me and I flipped over to my other side, absorbing the scenery. Heart pounding, I gaped through a maze of tombstones that sprouted cockeyed out of the wet earth, their luminous alabaster shining with rain. Rain trickled down over my face as well, and I curled my fingers into the dirt, lying flat on the ground as though that might help me sink into it and remain unseen. But Regulus sighed a tiny groan from behind me, and I remembered that the Black family did not run from things that frightened them.
I stood to my feet, only slightly shaky, and observed the black-clad figures standing in a circle not far from me, every single one of them as motionless as statues. A small and naïve hope tugged at my qualms, believing they might actually be statues.
“Regulus,” a silky voice murmured. The man with waxy skin and red eyes stepped forward, barefoot. His feet were long and white as bone, and they made no sound as they brushed through the grass. He seemed to glide past me as he walked, stretching out his arms to indicate greeting. “Why the reluctance, Regulus?”
I listened to the hiss of his words, still rolling through the darkness long after they were spoken. Above us, the moon broke through a wall of silvery clouds and bathed Voldemort’s hair in soft light. His hairline had receded since I’d last seen him, or so it seemed, and a thin ribbon of black hair fell across his protruding forehead. Bellatrix stepped beyond the circle, following him on an invisible tether.
Her eyes were large, her hair snarled and unkempt, and she clutched her hands together over her heart as she walked with strange, jagged movements. My sister paid me no attention, waiting in tangible anticipation to hear what the tall master cloaked in black would say next.
But it was Regulus who spoke. “I was at school,” he replied darkly. There was accusation in his tone. “How am I going to explain…vanishing…” He shook his head, glowering, and brushed away the soggy clovers and leaves from his robes. “They’ll be looking for me soon. I don’t know how I’ll manage to get back inside the gates…”
“Is this meeting inconvenient for you?” Voldemort inquired softly. Bellatrix’s lips curled back over her teeth, eyes glinting threateningly. Several hooded people in the circle snickered, glad that they weren’t in Regulus’s shoes and reveling in someone else getting chastised. Voldemort lifted his jaw, tilting it to the side as he surveyed the young boy. “Where has that fire gone, Regulus? Your pure blood pride? Do you not still desire the things you alleged to desire when you joined me?”
“Yes,” he said determinedly. There was something in the shape and stubbornness of his angular features and how they weren’t all the way developed yet – the Adam’s apple that was too big for his scrawny neck, the long eyelashes that reminded me of his brother, and the Slytherin crest on his robes – that made my heart sink. He’s just a child, I thought despairingly. Leave him alone. “I haven’t changed my mind,” he declared firmly. “I am here for a reason.”
“Good.” Voldemort turned on his heel and marched past Bellatrix, who loosened her stiff shoulders and stopped penetrating Regulus with icy glares. She would have hated to be tarred with the same brush as anyone who disagreed with Voldemort; that much was obvious.
I could sense myself being watched, and lifted my face from my cousin’s to gaze around the Little Hangleton graveyard. Everywhere I looked, eyes and mouths were shrouded beneath hoods like dementors; all of them, that is, except for Lucius.
A range of emotions seized in my lungs when I saw him standing there, silent and serious as he watched me from the distant end of the group: pain, anxiety, heartbreak, wonder, trepidation, joy. His sleeves were rolled all the way up to his elbows, and I noticed with intense alarm that a black tattoo was now inked there, contrasting remarkably with his pale flesh.
I watched his eyes – his lovely blue eyes – wander down my own arm, widening in horror as he stared at my Mark. Dread emanated from his rigid frame, confirming what he must have known and expected, and he stared and stared until his unfocused eyes glazed over.
I swallowed, looking away from him. Regulus tromped over to the circle, finding a spot between two faceless followers, and waited for the man of the hour to speak again.
“Now that more of you have joined my ranks,” Lord Voldemort began, strolling leisurely around the interior of the circle and enjoying the tense atmosphere, “I believe it is time to test your loyalty. But before this can be done, I must see how I can best use you. It would be imprudent to use a man with charms skills for an act that relates to potions, and therefore you must understand my need to discover your strengths and weaknesses.” He took a breath, his irises like needles resting upon a willowy individual.
“After I assess you, the weaknesses will be weeded out. You will belong to your strengths, no matter what those may be. You will play to them and only to them, and this is how you will be of greatest use to your master.”
“M’Lord?” a quivering voice piped up. Voldemort twitched in irritation, his chalky lips thinning. “How…how are you going to do that?” The person speaking lowered their hood, revealing himself to be a middle-aged man with a mop of curly brown hair. “Assess us, I mean.”
In the split-second between the trembling man’s question and Voldemort’s response, my eyes snapped involuntarily to Lucius’s, and found that he was still staring at me. He did not look afraid, however. On the contrary, he looked calculating. I wondered if he was seeing and hearing things in this conversation that I could not. His eyes slid back to Voldemort’s, watching him raptly, and I felt a false stab of security. He’s going to keep me safe.
“I am the most accomplished Legilimens there has ever been,” Voldemort informed us matter-of-factly. “I am going to look inside your minds. For your own sakes, you should hope that I find something satisfactory hiding there. From what I’ve witnessed of this lot so far, some of you don’t carry your wands with you at all times and others of you cannot perform the simplest of spells.” His last few words carried a sneer to them, and he inclined his head almost imperceptibly toward a person on his right, who shuffled their feet nervously.
“I have nothing to hide,” Bellatrix told him in a high pitch, lowering her hood once more. She bit down on one of her long fingernails and took a tentative sweep forward. “Anything I have to offer, my Lord, is yours to keep.”
“That is very generous of you, Bellatrix,” Voldemort replied in a sleek purr that seemed to reverberate no matter what his environment might be. My sister’s face glistened from the rainfall, her hair alight with drops of it like dew in a spiderweb. “However, I shall only be requiring whatever skills you may possess. If, indeed, you possess anything more complex than overwhelming servitude and a penchant for flattery.”
Bellatrix’s mouth dropped open, her eyebrows knitting together, and then she wiped her expression like a person who had just been Obliviated. “I have many skills, I have –” She cleared her throat, lips trembling with emotion. “I have much to offer, my Lord. I will do anything, I –”
“Bella.” Voldemort towered over her, tracing one white finger along the seam of her shoulder. My eyes darted around the circle, wondering which one might be Rodolphus. This small gesture on Voldemort’s part seemed to both charm and console my sister, and she instantly quieted; I watched as a smug little smile danced at her mouth, eyes flitting contemptuously over everyone else present. She had taken his attentions as a victory, and something to envy. I edged away from where she stood, finding it all quite disturbing.
Lucius noticed this, too. I wanted to trap his gaze again, and question him with an arch of the eyebrow, a silent ‘why’ – however, he did not glance my way again. He was standing terribly still, watching Voldemort’s face with an impassive expression. I supposed that he’d endured several years of the same strange stares, and could now look anyone and anything in the eyes without betraying sentiment.
I stared hard at him, stepping cautiously around two people so as to be directly across from him. Finally, with the tapping of my foot on the ground and my hands clenched into fists at my sides, he could no longer ignore the loud body language I displayed. Lucius’s blue eyes locked on mine, cold and beautiful, and I mouthed the words, “What are you doing here?”
Very slowly, Lucius raised one finger to his lips. He then jerked his head ever so slightly – once to the left, once to the right. He didn’t have to speak for me to hear him say inside my head, “Shhh. Listen.”
I glared at the masked people, stooping in the frigid moonlight with raindrops clanging off their shoulders and leather boots. Bellatrix’s hood was still loose at her throat, and I observed with growing distaste the dark locks of hair plastered to her ivory skin, and the bruise-like discoloration under her heavily lidded eyes. I crossed over to the woman and whispered in her ear, “You’re a right mess, you know that? Mother would be rolling in her grave.”
She swatted me away, waiting for her master to speak or perhaps pet her shoulder condescendingly again. I wrinkled up my nose and tried again. “Have you gone mad? You’re married.”
At this, Bellatrix spun around and snapped her jaws together with a grinding pop. Vivid black eyes narrowing dangerously, she spat, “Get. Away.”
I made sure to stomp on her heel good and hard before training my attention back on Regulus. He had lowered his hood over his face, but I could still tell it was him; he was the shortest person in the gathering, all save for a squat little witch on Lucius’s left side.
“You.” Voldemort curled his finger at Regulus. The boy was abruptly yanked head-first in my direction, choking as he was dragged by unseen strings. When Voldemort released him in a crumpled heap at his feet, shaking and coughing, I spotted ten finger-sized maroon welts wrapping around Regulus’s neck.
As if it had caught the scent of danger on the winds, a creature somewhere between goblin and dwarf emerged from its hiding place behind a gravestone, its long, scaly fingers softly scraping the ancient surface. Evil, scarlet eyes with reflective layers poked out next, and then two short legs that were the color and texture of gnarled tree limbs. Its propensity for bloodshed in isolated areas at night had undoubtedly tempted the red cap, but I watched it mentally sweep the graveyard and count our numbers; he wouldn’t dare try to take all of us on at once. He would wait until we began to disperse, and then attack any stragglers left behind.
Deafness pressed in around my ears as Voldemort extended his hands to my cousin’s ashen, petrified face and peered into his eyes. I imagined those bleeding red eyes with blurry, almost-vertical pupils latching onto my own, and shuddered. I tried to incite Lucius’s attention again, so that I could signal that we needed to get out of there.
Voldemort let go of Regulus’s temples, throwing him rather harshly back onto the ground. “Thank you, Regulus,” he added as an afterthought, already closing in on the next person. “You are my most mediocre gift yet, and incapable of carrying out tasks of any importance, but I shall have much to do with you inside the walls of Hogwarts.”
“Sir?” Regulus asked, his voice surely much more confident than he truly felt. “You want me to do things at Hogwarts?”
Voldemort considered him, and the way that Regulus blinked rapidly made me guess that the former must have been diving into his mind and memories again. “Yes. I shall require your influence over fellow students. Influence is…everything.” He did not elaborate further, puzzling me in the wake of this statement. What exactly was this man planning on doing? Why did he need so many followers at his disposal?
The person he spoke to removed his hood, which I noticed was shabbier than the others, with obvious stitching and a deep green hue that told me he’d recycled Slytherin bed hangings for this purpose. His hair was nearly shoulder-length, parted neatly down the middle and even blacker than Voldemort’s. His skin, like Lucius’s and Voldemort’s and my own, was almost a sickly shade of white, and his nose was abnormally long and hooked. “Severus.”
“Snape,” one of Severus’s fellows amended briskly. “Severus Snape. I brought him, Lord. He’s in my year, we share a dormitory – he overheard us talking and we couldn’t get rid of him…”
Severus twisted his neck to douse the other boy with a haughty look, and then he turned back to Voldemort. His eyes were intelligent and glittering with bold curiosity. “Is it true that you’re a Parselmouth?” he questioned freely, not the least bit intimidated. “They say that you can give power to those who agree to follow you. They say you will teach us magic we can’t learn at Hogwarts.”
“You have heard correctly,” Voldemort responded. “I am the Dark Lord. I can speak to snakes. I can speak to the dead. I can call giants across mountains to come to my side and join me in my quest for greatness. Is this what you are looking for as well, Severus Snape? For greatness?”
Severus didn’t miss a beat. He leaned forward eagerly, greedily. He was wholly riveted. “Yes.”
Voldemort’s mouth curved maliciously, as if publicly making fun of the boy was a secret between himself and everyone else present – a private joke, and everyone except for Severus was aware of it. “Why?” Voldemort wondered, not bothering to mask a derisive smile.
Passion welled in Severus’s eyes, boiling within his very blood. “There are boys at my school – obnoxious show-offs. They are cruel and stupid and I’m tired of them calling me names; they get away with anything and they take pleasure in provoking me. One of them is Head Boy and he’s not even that good at his subjects…he sweet-talks Muggle-born girls into doing his homework for him.”
“Muggle-borns,” Voldemort repeated quietly. “Mudbloods.”
A dark shadow passed over Snape’s face, but quickly cleared. He squared his shoulders, still maintaining engrossed eye contact with the tall wizard dressed all in black. “Yes. They ridicule me and try to discredit my intellect and talents. I am their superior in every way, and yet –”
“And yet they have the audacity to taunt you,” Voldemort declared, talking over him. “They embarrass you; make you feel substandard and insignificant.”
Epiphany and awe flooded Snape’s face, and he grappled for words. “Yes, exactly. Yes.”
Voldemort nodded in a patronizing way. “In time, if you listen to me and do what I say, you will make every single one of them sorry. They will suffer for their misdeeds against you.”
Severus’s mouth dropped open to respond, but Voldemort was already on the warpath for someone else’s brain and hidden skills. He paused before Lucius and, without warning, thrust his wand in the direction of Lucius’s heart.
Lucius gasped. I could not see Voldemort’s face as he swam through memories – some of them visual, some of them mere sounds or scents – but he seemed to take much longer on him than he did on Regulus.
As soon as Voldemort was finished, he dropped his hand and pivoted his body to face me, looking directly into my eyes. My cheeks began to burn, wondering what he had seen or heard about me in Lucius’s thoughts; but Lucius himself appeared unfazed and unashamed.
He was unnaturally fast, and seemed to appear rather than walk. Before I could protest, he aimed his wand right between my eyes and pierced my thoughts with his probing, demanding force. A sinister voice that didn’t belong to me crawled around inside my head. Legilimens.
Images flew out of a plethora of drawers, some of them locked, some of them still fresh in my mind. Everything private and secret and sacred was revealed to him, available for his scrutiny. My mother lying in bed with every curtain drawn, the room stagnant and reeking of inevitable death. The wasted woman opened her palm for me to place my hand in, but she could feel no pressure or warmth from it. I watched her breathe in – the lungs inflated halfway, rattling and hollow. She never exhaled.
I saw my father, lost and child-like with Andromeda at his right elbow. They stood at the edge of Mother’s grave, watching an ornate silver casket descend lower and lower into the ground. With every inch it sank below the earth, I could feel it swallowing up empty space around my heart. It grew heavy and suffocating.
Bellatrix’s wedding. Coy smiles at male passersby in the village, trying to lure them with faulty cauldrons they didn’t need, insinuating promises with a flutter of eyelashes. Voldemort saw the enormous outline of Malfoy Manor and my powder-blue bedroom; there was Wren and Mrs. Macnair and Horatio, with Wilda’s bitter voice weaving throughout like musical notes on a staff.
Lucius painted the edges of everything, in places he didn’t belong and amongst people he’d never met. Bellatrix and I as children, sifting through Mother’s jewelry box and giggling, with a reproachful Andromeda acting as lookout. Helping my father cover up patches of rust on an invention he was going to attempt to sell to Muggles against Wizard Law; Lucius stood on a bridge between my childhood and adolescence, turning the pages with Voldemort.
And finally, there he was in the enchanted mirror, rippling in liquid glass. Voldemort ripped the memory wide open, and it was so real and present that I reached out with my hands and tried to touch it…my hand fell through air and rain, missing Lucius’s pale hair. His eyes reflected warning.
This is mine. You cannot look at it.
The response was quick, cutting. You are mine. And so is this.
Lucius’s lips parted in the mirror, gazing at me as the flowers on the border of the mirror blossomed with delphinium-blue petals. My heart surged, gripped with a need to fall into the mirror, to go to him…
The man with blood-red eyes was lying on the ground.
I staggered to my senses, short of breath as the mirror with Lucius’s face faded into a moonlit graveyard filled with cloaked strangers. Bellatrix hovered over Voldemort’s body, crippled with fear. “My Lord!” she cried. “What is wrong – what has happened?” She swiveled her head to face me, accusation ripe on her lips.
Voldemort recovered himself, however; he clutched at his ribcage, glowering and murderous, and swiftly rolled to his side and stood up. Something inside my head seemed to have weakened him. I didn’t quite understand it. Lucius remained immobile and silent, reaping the scenery without a word.
“We’re finished for tonight,” Voldemort announced, haggard but firm. Bellatrix was still glaring daggers at me as she tried to help him walk, but he pushed her away in frustration. “Everyone leave. Now.”
I followed him with my eyes as he traipsed up the hill to the abandoned old house overlooking the graveyard. It was rotted out and isolated, much like Lord Voldemort himself, it seemed, and I thought scathingly that it suited him. Looking around, I noticed that everyone else had left except for Lucius, Bellatrix, and a hooded man I could only assume to be Rodolphus. Bellatrix stood off to the side of the old manor house, watching Voldemort’s retreat with obvious longing. Behind her, Rodolphus was hushed and soulless as he waited.
The red cap chose that precise moment to dart out from behind a tombstone, its long claws poised to kill as it ran at me sideways – one foot and one hand on the ground, and the other foot and hand in the air like a ghastly sort of demon.
Without giving it a second’s thought, I seized Lucius’s wand and shouted, “Expecto Patronum!”
Nothing happened. “Expecto Patronum!” I yelled again.
Lucius grabbed his wand back, pointing with desperation at the approaching creature. “Expecto Patronum!” His eyes widened when nothing happened – not a spark, not the vaguest glimmer of pearly Patronus. With options running low, he tried again. “Avada Kedavra!” This time, there was a blinding jet of emerald light. It raced through the misty air, breathing in ravenous gusts as it closed the distance, and I could feel the life extinguishing from the red cap as it was struck in its stomach.
We shifted away from the corpse, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of his wand. “Lucius,” I whispered. “I can’t…I can’t make a Patronus anymore?” I could feel the luminescent peacock trapped inside Lucius’s wand, struggling to come to my aid when called.
He didn’t have to respond. Maybe he didn’t know which words to speak, or maybe he was thinking about his own inability to produce protective magic. It felt like something had been stolen from me.
Lucius looped his arm around my waist and pressed his lips to my hair. Long after Voldemort was gone, reclusive in his empty house, we turned around and trudged into the forest together, leaving defeat and hopelessness to smother the atmosphere behind us in the graveyard.
A/N: According to Rowling, the only Death Eater with the ability to produce a Patronus was Severus Snape. This is why Narcissa and Lucius are no longer able to cast them.
The sky fell into the sea.
We watched it happen while sailing on the boat that brought us there, the iridescent purples of sunrise blending seamlessly with its reflection on the water. Whales of waves, greedy and gushing with froth on their lips, stained the surface of Malfoy Manor with ruthless fixation. They scaled the walls and tore it down, bit by bit, until the many onyx towers and turrets had crumbled away into the deep cracks in the surrounding earth. Splintered, gone.
The ghost of Tulia Malfoy sprinkled the clouds with dust from her piano, her fingers quite as ivory as the keys. Sheets of dust from an instrument of stone billowed, cape-like, through one of the shining windows and stretched over the swollen shore into her son’s eardrums. Her music tinkled the air with the pastel blues and lemon yellows of sunshine, of wind chimes, and Lucius lifted his head to gaze at the notes only he could visually see as they floated over water.
Where before there had been only a barren bowl of grass, there was a pond; and now instead of a pond, the sea rumbled forth on swift legs to greet us. It pushed with its teeth at the confining ridges of the pond, softly stroking Malfoy Manor, reshaping it, until the castle melted away its abstract malformations and stood there in the form of a white-washed house with a tin roof. It faced the sea with four lonely windows, each of them choked with ivy.
“We’ll build it back up,” Lucius murmured, the promise more to the memory of his mother than anything else. “Marble and iron. We’ll make it grand again.”
I slipped my small hand in his and we pattered along the walkway, Lucius looking down through my eyes, seeing straight through to the scattered sand on the other side and envisioning rows of tall shrubbery that should go there, the wrought-iron gates and the ominous don’t come here stamped across everything Malfoy.
“It already is,” I said.
Lucius smiled, almost glowing. He gently tilted my chin upward with one hand, his clear blue eyes smiling too, and leaned down to sweetly kiss me. Just as his lips grazed contact with mine, his nose lightly touching my skin, all of the warmth of my pulse quickly reversed; it rushed backwards in my veins away from my now-cold lips and we pulled apart, eyes flying open, as all of our blood and fire began to boil in our left arms. I could feel his heartbeat in his fingertips, rapid now with fear instead of anticipation, and both of us stared down at the thrumming tattoos that would disease our flesh even in death.
A summons from our master.
There was a girl before me. Her name was Rosalind and it was this person I found myself thinking of while I was seated at the great oak table, staring at the only pair of eyes in the world that matched mine. I couldn’t explain why the image of Rosalind chose to distract me, specifically, but I imagined her raising her fist to knock at Malfoy Manor after traipsing, lost, through the wilderness. The castle would have been a monstrosity still, just the way it was when I had first seen it. All black shadows and sharp corners, the picture of prison, inviting to no one but the desperate. She had come to Malfoy Manor quite recently after the spell was cast over it, but had died there before she got the chance to fall in love with Lucius and break the spell.
It was meant to be her, of course, who stole Lucius's heart and broke the spell. It made sense. I’d stumbled across a picture Wren had taken of her, resting on a bed yellowed with age and dust in Tulia Malfoy’s once-locked bedroom. And right there, propped up in a window seat just across from the framed photograph, Tulia herself sat with her knees tucked to her chest, staring longingly at the mirror mounted above her dresser and dreaming of younger days.
“She left.” Tulia inclined her translucent head at the picture. “That’s the difference, isn’t it? She woke up in the place where she belonged. I wasn’t even given a choice.”
Not knowing what else to do, I seated myself on the bed and crossed my ankles, swallowing. The photograph wasn’t so very old; the person inside it trying to flit away from me but not succeeding because she had no parallel portraits to run to. She turned, brown eyes petrified, and stared. Relief visibly engulfed her when she saw that I was not someone she had evidently been dreading seeing, and she sat down on a bed in the powder-blue bedroom I had once engaged, mirroring me.
I closed my eyes and resisted the urge to drum my fingers on the thick table, not desiring to draw excess attention to myself. They were not my eyes to close or my fingers to drum, after all, and soon enough every person who occupied the elaborate dining room would know that their friend had been borrowed for the evening. A figure seated just under the cuckoo clock spoke, her words swimming in my ears with blood that pooled there, hot, twisting with fear under the threat of death. I couldn’t make out what she was saying to the array of guests, laughter from someone’s joke ebbing on her tongue, as her voice was so muffled and distorted, buried under many years’ worth of memories that made me think of other things, happier things, that she had once said.
How I had ended up here, and what I would do after I left, inched apart from each other like peeling paint, falling so far away from the present that I felt the layers of myself exhausting with frost, waiting for it all to be over, waiting to breathe.
The voice continued to drone on, laughing as an intermission to every statement another person made, and I waited for the steady beats of the clock to accumulate. A quarter hour was all that remained. I bit my lip so hard that I tasted the blood on my teeth, wondering if anyone saw the woman with soft brown hair closing her eyes at the end of the table – not speaking, not listening, and existing as the arms and legs of a bigger mind, a powerful operation. I no longer belonged to myself.
I hated that she was so pretty.
Rosalind was the sort of girl I would have spent all of my time trying to vilify if I met her in a locale such as Hogwarts. I would have watched her with narrowed eyes in the courtyards, whispering to anyone who would listen that she was hiding something darker up her sleeve, that she wore the simper of a seductress and couldn’t be trusted – knowing all the while, of course, that my rumors were borne from envy. She was the sort of girl who was constantly flanked with friends because she possessed a natural sweetness of temper, natural blush in her cheekbones, and hair that didn’t have to be long or vividly-colored to enhance her appearance.
A twinge of jealousy gnawed at me, even though I looked on at the image of a woman long since deceased, because my beauty had always depended entirely on my hair. It was the single cure for my plainness, the only part of me my sisters had ever wanted. I took better care of it than I did my mother while she lay dying, seated in a high-backed chair in front of her vanity mirror and brushing it very carefully – fifty strokes. And now, my hair was barely long enough to pass my chin.
“Feels nice to get out of that chair,” Tulia Malfoy sighed. “I’ve been in it for an eternity.”
I frowned, setting the picture down. “Why didn’t you just get up?”
The responding laugh was cynical. “My dear, I couldn’t. I was the chair myself, you see, only transfigured. And now I have to sit on top of it in my painting – isn’t that ironic?” The laugh trailed to a bitter echo. “Oh, if I ever cross paths with her… I won’t be the only one haunting the hallways of this manor, I assure you. She’ll meet her end soon enough.” She noticed me still looking at the photograph of Rosalind and offered a faint smile. “That girl wasn’t the one, you know.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “How can you be sure?”
There was a long silence, and Lucius’s footsteps slowed just outside the doorway. He paused to listen, and Tulia smiled wryly, sinking back with her shoulders falling right through the wall. “Because she should have been.” Her eyes wandered over the ceiling, counting each wooden slat on its lattice pattern, expression despondent. “My Lucius has always poured his heart into the very worst things for him, the most self-destructive. He got that from me, you know.” She sighed. “And just like me, he never sees it until it’s too late.”
No more than an hour ago, I was standing behind Lucius’s arm, which was extended to bar my path. The landscape was unnervingly familiar; I recognized the enormous, fuzzy crimson pumpkins that I’d landed on after dropping out of Gaspard’s carriage, rising like boulders out of the hardened soil. I remembered stumbling through these pumpkins and the surrounding dense trees, my eyes zeroed in on a tiny pinprick of light that led me to Malfoy Manor’s glass tower. “She’s just now obtained another wand,” Lucius said shortly, eyeing Rosier. “I gave her my mother’s, but it doesn’t work properly for her yet – not nearly well enough to Apparate with.”
“Side-along Apparition, then,” Rosier replied, waving his hand at me. “Come on.”
Still, Lucius kept me back with his arm, hesitant. I could see the cogs spinning in his head, trying to figure out a way to keep me away from Lord Voldemort’s plans. “I am better at curses and jinxes than Narcissa, as I'm older and have had more practice. I should go instead.”
Rosier grinned, displaying two silver-capped teeth. “That’s not the orders, Malfoy, you know that. Don’t worry, you’ll be gettin’ plenty of action of your own once this one leaves.” He nodded at me, and I stared from one man to the other.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Where are you going, Lucius?”
He looked uncomfortable. Bending close to my ear for the illusion of privacy even though Rosier could still hear us, he mumbled, “I’m being sent to an undisclosed location. I don’t know what I’ll be doing.” In a louder voice, he addressed Rosier: “I can do both in one night, I promise you. There's no reason why I can't finish both tasks, and no one has to know that Narcissa was never involved.”
Rosier’s features cooled, and he stepped forward to manually pry Lucius’s arm away from me. I was callously robbed away and Lucius’s jaw tightened, gazing off into a forest blackened with night. “Drink all of this, every last drop,” Rosier told me, forcing a corked bottle into my hands. “No Apparition, eh?” He glanced from me to Lucius, shaking his head in irritation. “Fine, then. Better hope your new wand works better with spells, as you'll be needin' 'em..”
He clinked the tip of his own wand against one of the impeding pumpkins on our route. At first, nothing happened; but very slowly, and then suddenly quite quickly, the pumpkin shook and shivered, blooming thirty times in size until it might have been a little round garden shed. He smirked at his creation and slashed his wand again, gouging out two eyes for windows and a crooked mouth for a door. One more nonverbal incantation later, the jack-o-lantern was ablaze with light from the inside, its carved mouth grinning horribly at us.
The door swung open, exposing a bench gouged into the pumpkin's carved intestines, its armrests shaped like serpents. “Read this, your instructions are on it,” Rosier commanded, thrusting a wad of parchment at me. Lucius reached out, anxious and alarmed, but not before Rosier shut the door behind me. The colossal jack-o-lantern began to roll away of its own volition, rattling me around inside of it as it bounced from hilltop to hilltop. I was queasy and bruised, bumping against the floor, walls, and ceiling; it took every ounce of effort I could summon to wedge myself more firmly in place using one outstretched hand and both feet planted on the walls of the pumpkin.
The blazing light had no direct source; it was a miniscule ball of flame, no bigger than a Galleon, and it floated along like a swallowed firefly as the jack-o-lantern zipped along at head-spinning speeds, demolishing every tree in its path. I unfolded the crumpled paper and smoothed it out, and then began to read.
“Amelia!” someone cooed, snapping me out of my self-inflicted fog, hands flapping as they raced over to me. I knew this person as the matriarch of the family, but she looked all wrong up close: her skin was wrinkled and coarse, etched with tiny crisscrossing lines; her hair was peppered with gray so light that it could have been blue and she smelled vaguely of sour milk, especially around her thick neck. I withdrew from her, momentarily forgetting that to Amelia Bones, this sort of gesture would be most welcome. Grimacing, I allowed her to envelop my stiff shoulders in a hug. “It’s been ages since you’ve been down! So glad to see you. How’s Edgar doing?”
“Good,” I muttered, examining my fingers. Nearby, I felt Travers watching from under his disguise as a man named Broderick Bode. I could feel his resentment and frustration penetrating the many chairs occupied with chattering, delighted bodies, trying to tell me with his glare how disappointing he found my lackadaisical acting.
The woman – presumably Marlene’s mother – gave a half-smile and waded past me, distractedly searching for more people to embrace. I felt a pair of eyes looking at me, and with a countenance as innocent as I could muster, I raised my gaze. I already knew who it was.
Those eyes, identical to mine but not to Amelia’s, searched me curiously. I wouldn’t have been surprised, given her shrewdness, if Andromeda recognized me even through the brown hair and chalky complexion, my borrowed eyebrows so thinly plucked that they grew too sparsely apart. Amelia must have filled them in with a cosmetics pencil, which probably contributed to the regular question: You look off-color, Amelia. Are you ill?
I swallowed, flicking my attention from the clock on the wall, each tick loud enough to drown out the rest of the room, to the pocket in my cloak. I could plainly remember a line of script:
The Polyjuice Potion will wane at the stroke of midnight. You must kill everyone in the house before this happens.
My quarter hour was swiftly draining…it had dwindled down to seven remaining minutes. Travers stiffened in the corner, tapping his shoe impatiently. He was supposed to have walked in fifteen minutes behind me, but he didn’t trust me to show up and arrived early; now, he didn’t trust me to fulfill our obligations. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pinch the sleeve of his left forearm, dark eyes tunneling holes through my skull. He was reminding me of my Unbreakable Vow, and the threat of imminent death if I failed to come through on Lord Voldemort’s orders.
Andromeda was still staring at me. I matched her scrutiny, feigning indifference, and her lips tightened, whitening. Both of us knew, at that exact moment, that she was very much aware of my true identity. Without severing eye contact, she grasped her husband’s wrist – I hadn’t even noticed him, but he was stationed on her left – and her mouth was rapidly yawning open in confused surprise, eyes clouding over. Heart beating fast, I switched focus to the clock again, ticking away faster and faster, revolving in rhythm with my burning Mark. My skin smoldered, waiting for me to make good on my promise. Hurry, hurry, hurry, it seemed to scream.
Travers’s head snapped up, teeth clenching tightly together. His façade was shredding away, revealing greasy black locks underneath Broderick Bode’s prim hairstyle and the shadows like raccoon eyes, the contrast of colors highlighting every angle on his wan face. My hair was shrinking, lightening in hue. I gripped the edges of my chair in a panic. Lungs knotting up to choke my raspy breathing, I beseeched Travers with my expression and he nodded.
Andromeda looked like she wasn’t sure whether to hug me or scream. Ashen and disoriented, one of her hands knocked a wineglass, breaking the stem neatly in two. Her husband turned to her, his voice sweet and low. “Are you all right?”
Her lips opened, then closed, gaping as she struggled to work out what to do. One of her hands travelled to her stomach. Acid washed against the lining of my throat, stomach churning when I caught sight of the rounded, distorted abdomen. She clutched at it protectively, dragging up her gaze to pierce me through and through.
“Andromeda?” another voice chimed. It was Marlene McKinnon, passing out mugs of tea. “Would you like one? It’s not caffeinated.”
I couldn’t breathe. The clock’s thunderous tickings pricked at the walls, which seemed to be dimming and closing in on me, the air around my vision yellowing with indistinct striations. My Dark Mark was scorching, becoming almost impossible not to touch in the vain hopes that it might soothe it. Travers glowered impatiently at me. Andromeda half-sat, half-stood, her mind at odds with itself, while Marlene shifted the tray of mugs from one arm to the other, reaching out to rub my sister consolingly on the shoulder. Andromeda’s face glistened with sweat, her delicate features taking on a winded look. Her husband fondly petted her braided black hair. “Is something wrong?” Marlene inquired. A few strands of fair hair swept across her forehead, mingling with her long, spiky black eyelashes.
There was a long pause. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
Travers, no longer content with waiting, leapt from his corner with his greasy hair swinging in full view. He raised one arm aloft, face alight with vicious triumph, and the words barely escaped his mouth before a spiraling jet of green light blasted from the tip of his wand, streaking across the room to hit the woman who smelled like sour milk squarely in her broad chest. Her chair fell backwards against the wall and she didn’t stir.
Andromeda shouted something, trying to yank her paralyzed husband out of his seat. He could only gawk, eyes wide and terrified, at the disastrous spectacle. “Help me!” Travers hollered, pointing his wand my way. Andromeda’s face crumpled upon hearing proof that I was the enemy, shoulders breaking into dry heaves as she let out a distressed sob.
“Cissa,” she moaned. “Cissa, why…”
There wasn't enough time to talk to her, to reason with her. The clock was ticking and I was ticking with it. “Stupefy!” I shrieked. A bolt of red light connected my pallid wrist to my sister’s breastbone, the shock and the heat of the spell seeming to electrocute her. Her eyes rolled back into her head; she collapsed in a lifeless heap, sprawling into her husband’s waiting arms. “Get her out!” I yelled at him, hands flailing. He heaved her up the stairs, her head lolling from one shoulder to the other. “No, not upstairs! Get her out of the house!” He stopped, torn between obeying me and pulling his wife out of the line of fire. Nearby, Marlene’s husband Wilson plunged his hands inside his robes, face contorting furiously.
His eyes glazed over and he turned sloppily around, loping without use or aim. Travers struck him between the shoulder blades with a curse and Wilson was promptly blasted across the room, brickwork from the fireplace exploding the southern wall in a blanket of ash and debris. It littered the rims of my eyes with burning pink, lining my mouth with soot that made me cough.
“Hey!” a portly, older man roared, tipping over one of the vacant chairs to clear his way. “What are you doing? This is my daughter’s house, we’ve done nothing to –”
I had no time to think before I reacted. The words were on my lips seemingly before they entered my head, and then were horribly cast through the air. “Avada Kedavra!”
I could sense my own hesitation, my intense bewilderment at what I had just done, and I saw the horror flash across Marlene’s father’s face as well. He staggered back, bones losing the ability to hold him upright, as he smashed with an excruciating loudness against the bare white wall. I couldn't focus on anything except for the way his chest seemed to sink in, deflated, never to rise with breath again. I'd once caught Bellatrix muttering the Killing Curse when we were children, playing with Father's wand in the back garden and trying to get it to work. Before this moment, the two powerful words never entered my head, never formed in my mouth. I couldn't believe that the wand had actually done what I told it to, that I was strong and capable enough to perform such a spell.
Behind me, Marlene McKinnon’s eldest daughter was draped over the dining room table, the ends of one of her braids floating in the punch bowl. She stared upward without seeing, the lamplight bright in her eyes and her pupils constricted to tiny silver dots. Dinnerware and glass was strewn everywhere, hurls of light from hexes flung from wand to wand; and then abruptly, there was no one left to conquer.
Everyone was dead. I frantically wiped the hair out of my face, sifting numbly with shaking hands through the damage, searching for a head of curly black hair I hoped to Merlin and back that I would not find.
Travers scowled at me. “I had to kill six! You took too long with the old man – I had to watch your back and mine. Next time, I’m refusing to allow you to come along with me. You have to be quicker than that.” He shook his head angrily, stomping out the door. I wiped my nose on the back of my sleeve, my breathing so shallow that it ripped up my sides with stitches, and resumed looking. There were bodies everywhere – I found myself counting the same ones multiple times, my brain refusing to store them to memory the first time around, to grasp the magnitude of what I had just helped occur.
“No,” I whimpered, bordering on something endlessly black and catatonic. “No, no, no, no, no…” I sat down in the wreckage, frightened tears spilling down my cheeks, and blinked at the dead family surrounding me. Sons, uncles, sisters, all of them gone, all of them killed by Travers. I rubbed my palms over my temples, rocking back and forth. No, he wasn't responsible for all of them. The old man was dead, eyes closed, but I would forever remember them open, reflecting that emerald gleam and the dawning terror. I’d split his body from his soul, and that would never leave me.
The singed Dark Mark on my arm faded to a dull ache, and Lucius appeared in the doorway. He scanned the room with his sharp eyes that absorbed everything, flooding with relief when he saw me sitting there, the survivor of a war waged against the defenseless, the surprised hosts of a dinner party attacked within their own home, by people they’d thought were friends. “Their friends,” I repeated aloud, whispering hysterically. Flashes of the dead appeared at the forefront of my mind, burning themselves in my brain as the imprints of a wall-to-wall bloodbath.
“You have to leave now." His tone was empty, dead. “Their real friends will be here soon.” He took me up in his arms and held my head against his chest, stroking my shorn hair to quiet my sobs. Without warning, he grasped me firmly around the waist and we were sucked out of the McKinnons’ house into a welcome, timeless oblivion. I closed my eyes for the space of our travel and didn’t open them again until I felt my feet being swept up off the ground.
It was not the reunion with Lucius I would have chosen. He and I sat next to each other on the sofa, swathed in sweat and darkness, for hours until unconsciousness opened the doors to its sanctuary. I did not ask him what Lord Voldemort had ordered him to do. Lucius did not ask me who I had killed, or if I’d killed anyone at all. We stared at the ceiling that seemed to open to the heavens, cool and remote and dizzying, silently waiting together all through the night for soothing words that couldn't come; staring and shrinking into ourselves and never once speaking aloud.
A/N: So I suck forever, pretty much, for taking so long to update – as evidenced by the fact that very few of you were able to recognize mentions of Rosalind. I am now kicking myself because if I’d updated on a regular basis, I think you might have been able to tell who she was based on past hints. But for those of you still confused, you might consider rereading the beginning of Chapter Fifteen. The only thing I can promise is that updates will be much quicker from now on! I’m focusing on fanfiction rather than original fiction for a while. I also want to extend thanks to Lia, Amanda, and Jane, for their enthusiasm. All right, enough rambling. ^ ^ Hope you enjoy!
This is not what I wanted. I would rather be blind than subject her to any more of this.
He pressed his hands to his face, his fingertips like cold marble. Sinking against the wall, the events of yesterday began to trample through his mind and he thought, once again, of the woman sitting in a sea of blood and bodies. Haughty she may be, but murderer she most certainly was not. And now her conscience was soiled, her illusions of a quiet ending, a quiet life shattered. It was with shaking hands and the desire to free herself from those haunting, lifeless faces that she’d wrapped her arms around him. And it was while she was vulnerable that he’d allowed her to do so.
Lucius watched Narcissa untangle herself from the nest of sheets, the jagged edges of her hair swinging over her face to conceal her eyes. From this corner angle with a wide-open window to the right, the stains of sunrise – the rubies and gold smearing her cheekbones – made her look like she was burning. Quite soon, she would notice his presence. Quite soon, he would be able to breathe again. He hated not knowing what her reaction might be when she remembered.
Despite what had happened between them the previous night, he couldn’t help but fear that today, seeing him in the morning light, she would decide she wanted nothing more to do with him. Feeling slightly guilty for viewing her in her current state of undress, Lucius turned to face the wall. Blood rushed to the surface of his face as he thought quickly about how he might be able to leave the room without her noticing. She wouldn’t want to see him there, of course. He would be like the bad aftertaste following a night of heavy drinking, the persistent migraine to serve as a reminder.
She sounded confused. He didn’t meet her eyes, instead choosing to gaze at the floor out of respect – or perhaps shame.
“Are you all right?”
He finally looked up, still blushing and ridden with guilt. As if he’d taken advantage of her; as if she’d already asked him to leave and he’d already taken too long to obey, hoping she would change her mind before he stepped out the door. She didn’t seem the least bit disturbed that he remained in the bedroom, nor did she give any indication that he was unwanted. She must not have been too bothered by what had occurred after he carried her into bed at three in the morning. Lucius had expected disgust, even revulsion that he had somehow tricked her. He had not anticipated the arched eyebrow as she sat up, casting her weight onto one arm as she said with accusation in her voice, “Are you trying to leave?”
He blinked, staring. She slid back under the covers, expecting him to immediately heed her unspoken warning, declaring without saying so that it wasn’t quite morning yet and he wasn’t permitted to go anywhere. With a very small, stupefied smile on his face, Lucius made his way over to the side of his bed. Perhaps it would take another sunrise for Narcissa to remember that she didn’t want him, that no one wanted him.
She smiled slyly, her pupils so constricted in the light that they looked wholly blue. Her lips parted and she might have said something – he couldn’t hear her over the sound of his frantic heartbeat. Her arm unrolled at the elbow and her hand landed on his pillow, the fingers curling to bring him closer. Beckoning.
Perhaps she would never quite awaken from the spell.
I could hardly believe my situation. On the one hand, Circe appeared to be gone. Lucius’s sight was restored, we were relinquished from Malfoy Manor’s clutches, and the house had even rebuilt itself into the shape of a normal home. No more unfeeling, deep arches in the ceiling and distant lights in towers spread far apart. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, we’d exchanged our unwilling servitude to Circe to a man I was beginning to call “the Dark Lord” even inside my head.
I was wandering on a late evening walk, trying to clear my mind of images in the Daily Prophet condemning the grisly murders of the McKinnons’; I couldn’t stop thinking of the smoky green skull and snake bobbing over the monochrome house, the Dark Mark that Lucius himself had cast. I was torn between horror of what I’d done, Lucius subsequently sealing the seams I’d left in my wake with a wave of his wand, and the awe that he seemed so gifted with darkness, that he was so well-suited for that particular of branch of magic and never even realized it. He still didn’t quite realize it.
The spells I struggled to perform, forming words into jets of light, were perfectly easy to him. I often sat on a tree stump in the back garden and looked on, head tilted to the side, as he practiced. It was on the Dark Lord’s orders, of course, that he be required to perfect these sorts of spells he’d never even heard of during his incarceration. It was second-nature to Lucius.
The greens and reds and blues would ignite the planes of his face, illuminating his hair with vivid heliotrope. His eyes sparked, too, mirroring the magic within. I could only sit with my hands folded in my lap, impressed with how inarguably good at it he was. It was slightly terrifying, but I couldn’t deny that it strengthened my attraction to him tenfold. I imagined all of the ways he now knew how to protect me. There were things we’d thrust ourselves into that we could not even dream to run from now, to hide from; but still, if push came to shove, he knew the magic that could blast a shield out of the ground between us and the rest of the world. I knew that Lucius was learning these spells with this thought in mind.
“The Ministry of Magic,” I’d said not too long ago, steel on my tongue as another issue of the Evening Prophet found its way onto our dinner table, the Dark Mark once again curling in and out of the McKinnons’ broken windows on its front page. “They’re going to find out.”
“They won’t,” he’d responded, sipping his goblet with a faraway look in his eyes. Dead eyes. He’d already gone to great lengths to protect the house from intruders, the paranoia at what we had done making everyone else, Death Eaters and those who opposed them, a tremendous enemy. Not so much as a butterfly could get through the boundaries and charms Lucius had placed around the property, obscuring it from view and traveling feet.
Days passed, and then weeks, and then a sort of disquiet settled over me in the form of ease. We had both expected Aurors to come tearing through the place at any moment, ripping us out of bed in the middle of the night amid my screaming and Lucius’s shouting. I’d endured nightmares of wandlight peeking its way around the corners of the house, shining against the windows. They would yank out drawers and cabinets, taking our wands from us as they shackled our wrists together.
These nightmares were frequently interrupted with a spitting hiss from the fireplace or the groans of floorboards in the living room as Lucius moved aimlessly around, waiting for the same thing. We were both on the brink of insomnia, always waiting; either for the Dark Lord to make us do more horrible things, or waiting to be punished for it. Caught between the push and pull, with nothing to cling to but each other.
But the Ministry never came. They failed to connect the dots, which amazed me. What sort of incompetent fools were running the government? I was certain that if I’d been an Auror, I would have seen the signs, would have been able to piece the true story together amongst the wreckage that lay around Marlene McKinnon’s graveyard of a house. It was nothing short of incredible that we’d gotten away with it; and what was more, that Andromeda had obviously said nothing to anyone.
I’d kept my nose to the newspapers and an ear to Bellatrix’s beloved circle of witches and wizards, scared that Travers might come back for my sister. He either didn’t remember her being at Marlene’s, however, or he decided he didn’t care that she escaped. Last I knew, she and her husband moved to a new place out in the country. It was probably very well-protected from people like me, or how she imagined I would be. Little did she know that it wasn’t me she should have been worried about, with my ineptitude when it came to powerful spells and lack of confidence when carrying out orders. It was people like Lucius she should fear – who could flick a switch and turn off his emotions, enabling him to do whatever he needed to do without batting an eye.
When it came to me, I was the only thing, the only person he didn’t close off his emotions to. He could be volatile in this way. He would come home from a meeting with the Dark Lord and his band of followers, refusing to state what they’d discussed or if he’d gone anywhere with them. “I’m not a child,” I would respond, slamming things just as hard as he did – harder, even, and louder. I rose as tall as I possibly could, shoulders squared. “You will tell me where you have been, Lucius Malfoy, or you will go straight back out there.” I pointed to the front door, my tendons on edge, blood boiling. “You will not keep secrets from me.”
“It’s nothing you want to know. Your nightmares are awful enough as it is.” He waved one arm wildly, sloshing his drink. “I have nightmares about your nightmares. I hear you screaming in my sleep, Cissa. Please don’t put me in a position where the only things I can say to satisfy you will hurt you in the end.”
So I gave up trying to shake answers out of him.
I filled the gaps in my knowledge with articles from the Prophet, trying to make sense out of whispers Lucius uttered in his sleep, his hand unconsciously reaching out and clutching my wrist. He broke out in cold sweats, tossing back and forth, murmuring frenetically. Rather than console him, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, I bent with my lips at his ear and urged him on, asking for names. Asking what he had done, and what he was sorry about doing. I knew his grief and guilt would slip away as soon as he woke up, and that he would be able to turn against it just in time to hold out a hand, asking me to please stop.
Dreams provided our punishments, never the escape we wanted them to be. As a last resort, we started brewing potions to give us dreamless sleep. They always left us with a fuzzy feeling in the morning, and I got the impression that they fiddled with our memories, but we had little other choice. I willingly drank it every night before bed. I never wanted to see Marlene’s father’s face ever again.
But it was on my walk, trying to clear my head of all of it, that Lucius appeared from behind. He did not have the look he acquired when he wanted nothing more than to avoid negative discussions, retreating into himself. On the contrary, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen him more exposed. He was pale and his eyes were soft, absorbing me. I lifted right up into him, the tips of one hand tracing the length of his throat, but he held me at bay. “One moment,” he said. He reached into the pocket of his cloak and pulled out a small ornate box. It cracked open, a thin circle encrusted with gems glinting from a bed of satin.
Right there, fitted on top with tiny metal prongs wrapping around it like a spider’s legs, was the pearl Gaspard had given me in Doorturn. A myriad of thoughts flew out from behind locked doors – the elves, still down in those mines; and Margaret, and Gaspard’s livid face when he placed the pearl in my palm, his sanity splintering under delusions. Was he still alive? Was it possible that he would ever find me? Was he even looking?
I felt like I’d been slapped.
“Narcissa?” Lucius snapped the box shut instantly, eyes wide and terrified. “What did I do wrong?” He opened the box again, quickly turning it toward himself, examining its contents. His mouth fell open, eyes wandering off to the side as he soaked up the stinging rejection. He swallowed, the hand with the box in it falling limp to his side.
“No,” I told him lightly, placing my hand over the box. “That’s not why I…panicked. It isn’t the ring, Lucius, it’s the pearl.”
He looked confused. “The pearl? Yes, I found it in your bureau. I thought it might have been your mother’s?”
My silence answered his question. Breathing shallowly, he threw the jewelry box behind him, out into a lake of weeds and cattails that bordered the far recesses of the garden. “Right. Well, you don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to.”
I stared at the place where the ring had disappeared to, hazy in the darkness. I folded my arms across my chest, eyes misting over with hot tears. Lucius was looking at the ground, jaw taut. I lifted his chin with my hand, forcing him to look at me. I gently took his face in my hands, bringing his forehead down to rest on mine. “I want to wear your ring, Lucius, so long as it isn’t that one.” I trailed my thumb over his lips and he closed his eyes. I could feel him inhaling and exhaling against my skin, the way he gave in entirely to me. I loved nothing more than seeing the stony, self-assured Lucius who spoke in clipped tones to the Death Eaters, melt under my touch. It was a satisfying thing, to know that I had the power to take his mind off of the horrible things ravaging his heart.
“Are you sure you want to wear someone like me on your finger?” he asked weakly. “I know that you deserve much better…”
I froze for a moment, and then abruptly threw my head back, laughing. Lucius probably thought I was hysterical. “Oh, thank you,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I really needed that laugh.”
He frowned, puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Good.” I kissed him for a few fleeting seconds before pulling away to smile at him. He reflected my smile, incredulous but pleased. “Good. I hope you never do understand. Go on thinking that I’m above you, and I’ll go on knowing how lucky I am, and we’ll never have a problem loving each other.”
He still didn’t know what I was going on about; or maybe he did, but wanted me to think he didn’t, just to flatter me more. Lucius led me back to the house and to our bedroom, where he shed all of his previous hesitancy, insecurities, and fear. I can remember falling back against the pillows with astonishment coloring my palette, knocked completely off-guard. It was my turn to blush as he crept toward me, expression intense. His lips smiled, his eyes were narrowed; very suddenly, he lurched forward and slid his arms under my waist, effectively flipping us around so that he was on his back and I was directly above him. It was exhilarating and unsettling all at once, and it marked the date in our relationship when he decided to go for exactly what he wanted without holding back.
The following morning was memorable, too. I was laughing about something – something I’d heard on the wireless, maybe? If it wasn’t that, then perhaps I was just making conversation with myself, rambling to the trees beyond my window. But it didn’t matter because soon I wasn’t laughing anymore.
It was all a blur of heartbeats and shrill voices; I realized Lucius wasn’t in the bedroom. I padded out into the kitchen, tentative, and my grin immediately vanished. The threat of Aurors had all but left my mind, as we’d successfully eluded being traced to any of the crimes we committed. I’d gotten desensitized, complacent. We’d gotten away with it and we would be all right, just as long as neither of us ever did anything that risky ever again. Someone else, however, had decided to break their silence.
It was Bellatrix in my kitchen, speaking to Lucius instead of to me, conversing in low tones. Andromeda had finally told the Ministry about what I had done.
He has lost everything, and there is nothing left to hold him back from what he wants, from what he’s wanted for years and years. He’s lost all three of his daughters in three different ways; he’s lost his house, his pride, his resolution to keep waking up every morning, over and over, just to greet the same colorless day. Most of all, he’s lost his love.
What is it, to love?
Druella. Where are you? Why did you leave me? Didn’t you know how lost I would be without you?
He acquires the stones first, not bothering to stagger his orders and ward off prying eyes. His stones arrive by the barrelful within three days, delivered to an empty moor in Wasteir that is his now, intimate, out of the way. No one will bother crazy old Cygnus Black here.
He lays the stones with cement, paving between every crack to ensure its stability and endurance. The picture of what he is about to create has lived for so long in his mind that it springs to life with ease; the blueprints are already there in his fingers, working their way down into the earth with a trowel and spade. So he lays the stones, and he lets them dry, and this will be his platform.
Cygnus does not expect for anyone to find him, to hassle him or confiscate the monstrosity of a sin he is attempting to build. Maybe this is because he’s already forgotten about other breathing, thinking things; he himself is hardly breathing at all, so it is only too effortless to imagine that he is a part of the unthinking, unfeeling stones that sing with rain, soothing away all the dirt; part of the archway that will soon curve across the platform, sealing his fate. A gateway to the love he has so missed.
To no one’s surprise, nobody comes to stop him.
He’s been wearing the same ragged robes for three weeks. Instead of returning to Andromeda’s warm, dry house in the evenings, he curls up at the base of a willow at the edge of his endless moor and sleeps there every night. Sometimes Andromeda calls out to him in his nightmares, her face pinched and haggard with distress, pleading with him to come home.
But it’s not my home, he moans in his sleep, rolling fitfully onto his other side. I’m going home, I’m going home. I’m almost there.
He is half-insane and he smells like a cow field. He can’t remember how long it has been since he wasn’t a soiled mess. I’ll have to take care of that, he thinks in a daydream that punctuates his sanity, dream after dream colliding in a string of non-reality. Druella will disapprove if she sees how filthy I’ve gotten. He smiles to himself, almost anticipating that withering look she might give him, the stoic disdain she always reserved for her doting husband. She had an angel’s face carved from granite, a tongue that could slice him every which way. He misses her so much that he misses that, too, and he isn’t sure how to function without her.
What is it to be real? To be happy?
He lifts the black cadaver up to eye-level with his hands, appraising its worth with a hardboiled gaze. He is an inventor, Cygnus, and he knows quality when he sees it. Although it is not quite as uniform as he would have wished, its hem riddled with tiny holes, he knows how difficult it must be to extract the molting skin of a dementor. The potential is already there – it’s in his fingers, not in the cadaver. He will make excellent use of it. This is the closest he will ever get to perfection.
He cuts away at the skin with a knife, sometimes tearing it with just his hands, all the while wondering how many souls this dementor might have swallowed. He has studied them obsessively for months, his mind blurring between the muddled lines of here and what lies beyond; he’s figured it out. He’s cracked the biggest mystery this world has to offer.
He is going to get his wife, and he will bring her back. If they get lost along the way, then at least they will be together.
He fastens the dementor skin to the arch with magic, and then anoints it with the Draught of Living Death. During the week it takes for the potion to cure, Cygnus trims his hair. He shaves his overgrown beard, washes his spectacles. He purchases robes the color of a summer sky from Gladrags and leaves his own dirty clothing in a gutter outside the shop. By the time he is ready for Druella, the potion is ready, too. He pens three letters to his daughters, concluding each with the promise to see them soon, and with an extraordinary surprise in tow.
It requires a grand scale of faith to tinker with death. He has spent so long craving it, wanting to know more and more about it. Curiosity is the strongest component of his profession; and what if he is successful in building the greatest invention of all? What if he could resurrect loved ones from the grave?
When he climbs onto the dais, the black veil flickering in a wind that exhales from the other side, it is enough to quiet any remaining qualms. He hears them breathing. He believes Druella is watching, waiting – that she is breathing, too, in unison with his pulsing heart. Their daughter Narcissa would not like such an abomination. As much as she loves her mother, Cissa has always feared the dead. She would be terrified that the dead would be able to use this gateway to pass through. Just Druella will use it, he reasons with himself. I only want her. The rest can stay.
That’s not how it works, someone breathes from beyond the veil. It rattles and shakes like a clattering of bones. Cold swoops into his abdomen, hooking him around the stomach. It is time to test his invention.
He has created a passageway, a portal. Through his moth-eaten expanse of thoughts and plans, he knows and does not know, understands and underestimates. He looks on at the undulating fabric with wide, wide eyes, as though he is a blind man grappling for light. His mouth his open, his lips dry and cracked. He is already gone.
And he steps through the veil.
“No one knows. All’s they found was a dais with a curtain on it…it seems like he was building it for something. He must have had a psychotic break, because he was in the middle of bloody nowhere.”
“Do you think he was kidnapped by the Ministry, then? He might’ve been in debt again…”
“Possibly. The only good that could come out of this is that Andromeda will be distracted for a while, looking for her father. Maybe we can make it look like she had something to do with his disappearance, to discredit her. The Ministry’s called for a hearing, you know.”
“Shh.” Bellatrix’s voice dropped to a whisper. I could feel her leaning around the doorway, panning the hall with her shadowed eyes. “Don’t let Cissy hear you. She doesn’t like to hear about Andromeda or her father. Gets her into a right state.”
Her father. As if Bellatrix wasn’t Cygnus’s daughter, too. Her emotional disconnection was an insult to every evening she’d ever spent as a child curled up in our father’s lap, listening to him read from an anthology of our ancestors’ histories.
“How could you talk like that?” I demanded without thinking, stepping towards them with my arms crossed tightly over my chest. Lucius backed away, instantly regretful. “Andromeda must hate us now, and that doesn’t even bother you?”
“Why should it?” Bellatrix shot back, looking down at me like I was something that had just crawled out of a dustbin. “Think of how we’re going to be rewarded for our sacrifices, Cissy! The Dark Lord is more powerful than the Ministry. He’s going to protect us.”
Lucius fixed her with an ugly look. “Is that really what you think?”
Her eyes snapped sharply up to his. “Isn’t that what you think? Or isn’t it?” She swerved to glare at me. “What about you? Is it just him, or are both of you deceitful little cowards?”
“Stop it.” I rubbed my forehead with the heel of my hand. “I’m not in the mood for your self-righteous speeches today.” I turned around and headed into the bedroom, wishing my sister would just go home. Where did she even live, anyway?
“Narcissa.” Lucius had followed me. He closed the door behind him and leaned heavily against it, sighing. His gaze strayed over the walls, fixating on a loose thread blowing around the curtains. His exhaustion was tangible. “We’ve got to get out.”
My eyes widened. “We can’t get out. We’ve got…” I held up my left arm, peeling back the sleeve to reveal my Dark Mark “…these.”
The muscles in his jaw twitched. “Not out of that. We won’t be out of that until –” his voice dropped so that no one could eavesdrop “– until he’s dead.” I didn’t have to ask who he meant by ‘he’. “Andromeda’s going to be a mess right about now. Her father’s missing; one of her sisters is a murderer and she probably has suspicions about the other, and on top of that, she’s pregnant. She’s feeling vulnerable. She could do anything. She could have us all killed.”
“You don’t know her,” I replied lightly, running my hand over a satin pillowcase. I stood staring at the corner of two joining walls, watching the way shadows from tree branches outside rippled along the speckled white paint. It was bright out – beautiful. Despite the many spells and charms Lucius cast around our house, I was still too scared to venture further than the doorstep. “She’s not doing this because she’s feeling vulnerable. She’s doing this because she wants to see me in Azkaban. Her friends are dead; she wants justice.”
It was quiet for a while. “Maybe I should go see her,” I suggested, not even really meaning it.
I’m sure he could hear my teeth grinding. “You can’t tell me not to.” I turned around, piercing him with a scowl, daring him to try to boss me. “No one tells me what to do.”
“I’m not going to argue with you.” His blue eyes were soft. He reached across the dusty space, silently asking for my hand. I ignored it. He sighed again, irritated now. “Come on, Narcissa. You know you can’t see her. She’s probably been sleeping worse than you have, you can’t just barge –”
“Are you pretending to care about how she feels?” I gave a snort. “After being a statue at all the meetings? Just sitting there listening, not showing any emotion at all. Sometimes I think he’s gotten to you and it scares the hell out of me.”
He gestured limply, frustrated. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?” He tried to hug me but I held my arms out to block him. “What do you want me to say to you? Just tell me and I’ll say it.”
“Don’t interrupt me, Lucius. I wasn’t finished talking. No one here in this entire stupid house knows Andromeda, not even Bellatrix. But I know her.” I thumped one fist against my chest. “She’s angry, but she’ll forgive me. We’re sisters. Sisters forgive each other. We’re family.”
“No.” He shook his head. “She has a new family now. She wasn’t happy with her own so she went and made a new one.” He moved closer, deftly lowering the arm I held out against him in defense. “And you’re my family. I’m asking you to leave with me.”
“Where are we supposed to go?”
“North, but just for a little while. Just until all of this dies down.”
Dies down. The murders of Marlene and her entire family. Something like that would never die down. I could feel the wizarding world screaming for my blood. My skeleton would have to rot in Azkaban for centuries before anyone would consider absolving me, or Travers for that matter. Lucius sounded so matter-of-fact about it, like all of our problems could be solved by simply running away.
“I’ve arranged everything – all you’ve got to do is agree to it. Goyle’s offered us a piece of his property in the mountains. We won’t have to hide anymore, don’t you see? No one there will recognize us. We can be anyone we want to be.”
Anyone? But who am I? Who is he, really? “But –”
“The Dark Lord wants us to relocate near Hogwarts, anyway; he says he wants to start recruiting more students.” My heart sank. For a moment, I thought he was going to suggest outrunning the Dark Lord himself. Impossible that feat might be, I would have admired Lucius for trying, for being brave. It was tempting to dream about…dying together might be better than spending our lives doing the gruesome servant work of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. “We’ll keep busy doing what he wants us to do, keeping our heads down, and after everything’s over we can come back home.”
I frowned. “You can’t possibly know that.”
“I know that I love you.” He watched me intently, his left hand roaming to the doorknob to keep it closed. Someone was trying to turn it from the other side – probably Rosier or Dolohov, or one of the Carrows. This house didn’t belong to us anymore. Everything the Death Eaters owned was community property – from their belongings to their bodies to their memories. Nothing was sacred. I wanted to get away from all of them. “Everyone falls,” he finished quietly. “Everyone.”
I didn’t have to ask, and he didn’t have to explain. He was banking on Voldemort drawing enough enemies in his quest for power to eventually be killed, thus severing our Vows. Everything I owned felt so broken – everything except for Lucius. He was still mine. The Dark Lord might try, but he would not claim him, could not take him from me. And Azkaban could not take me from him, either.
His eyes were sad. He extended his hand again, and this time I rushed into him. I buried my face in his collarbone, so thankful, despite it all, that I’d found Malfoy Manor. I could have kept walking through the forest and found something else that night after escaping Gaspard’s henchmen, but I hadn’t. I’d saved Lucius and he’d saved me; I thought it would only have to happen once, this saving each other routine, but apparently I was wrong. It would be an ongoing struggle. Right now he was still trying to fix our unsalvageable present, all of our threads unwinding with the future growing progressively more dim.
Who did Bellatrix have to fall into for comfort? Certainly not Rodolphus. Bellatrix and the Carrows and Dolohov and Rosier – they didn’t want to fall into anyone for support. Voldemort’s black cloak encircled them all, suffocating them. It choked their senses until they began to think it was their idea all along.
“When do we leave?”
He grasped my hands inside of his and kissed each one, leaning forward to press his forehead against mine. “Thank you.”
I kissed his cheek, not yet ready to give him what he wanted: It’s all right, Lucius. I don’t mind. My father and my sister must despise me, have probably disowned me by now. My other sister has completely lost her mind. Take me away from it, I don’t care about them anymore. But I couldn’t give him that, because I didn’t feel it yet. I was still waiting to wake up.
“We just have to wait for a little while, and then we’ll have a real life together. A proper wedding, another house, a wand –”
“I like your mother’s wand just fine.” I could feel Tulia Malfoy make a ‘hmph’ sound up in the attic, her displeasure floating down the brick chimney, and I almost smiled. The doorknob twisted, and without Lucius there to hinder it, someone flung the door open.
“This is our bedroom!” Lucius snapped, revolving around angrily. “Get out!”
“Sorry, Malfoy.” It was Jugson, twiddling nervously with the doorknob. “But it’s important.”
“The Ministry?” I gasped. Lucius involuntarily held me tighter.
“No. It’s some witch. Circe, I think she’s called? We’ve got her. Avery thought you might be interested in knowing and sent me along to fetch you.”
Lucius had gone quite pale. “Circe?”
“Yep.” Jugson grinned at the evident importance of this news. “There’s a meeting tonight, anyway, so you can torture her then if you like.”
“There’s always a meeting,” I growled under my breath. “Some of us have lives, you know.” I felt the cool press of fingers around my wrist, warning me to be quiet.
“Sorry, Jugson, but we can’t go tonight,” Lucius responded sleekly. “We fancy a bit of time to ourselves before we have to leave. I’m sure you’ve heard that we’re relocating to northern Scotland?”
“What does that have anything to do with your attendance at meetings?” another voice cut in. A chill froze the very marrow in my bones; this time, I’m sure I didn’t imagine Lucius’s grip tightening around my waist. He swallowed thickly as a tall, white-faced man entered our bedroom. It was so alien to see him standing there, the most powerful wizard I’d ever met, next to the wardrobe. His hairline had receded even more since the last time I’d seen him; it made his forehead look huge. The color of his skin was sickly and wan, perpetually clammy with sweat that oozed all remaining pigment from his flesh.
“My Lord, it is an honor to have you here in my house –”
“If you feel so honored in my presence, Lucius, then why miss an opportunity to coordinate with your fellow friends and myself this evening? Am I incorrect in overhearing that you were about to decline such an elite invitation?”
“It’s just that Narcissa and I – we’ve –”
“Your only purpose in life is to do what I have asked of you, which so far is very little because you have not proven yourself to be worthy of higher orders,” Lord Voldemort spoke in a whisper that seemed to shake the house. “Are you valuable or are you not? I can easily dispose of you if you’re beginning to question your loyalties.” Lucius was going to reply, but Voldemort continued, “I do not understand this ungratefulness. Have I not given you both exactly what you wanted? You are both free. Lucius, you are able to see again because of me. Your quality of life would be hopeless without all I have done for you, and yet you dare to spit in my face?”
I felt my heartbeat stutter.
“This is my repayment for capturing the witch who tormented both of you? Here I have offered her to you on a silver platter, and you reject it?” He withdrew his wand arm, positioning it behind him as though he’d just been struck in the face.
“No, My Lord –”
Voldemort slashed his wand in the air, furious. Lucius jerked violently and released a yell of pain, twisting to one side, before collapsing to his knees. I screamed, hands flying to my mouth in horror. I was going to bend down next to him, but he jerked his head again in silent command, ordering me to stay away. He stared downward, humiliated. The tips of his long blond hair touched the floorboards. Voldemort brandished his wand once again and Lucius cried out – a long, horrible sound.
“You will go tonight, Lucius. You will never say ‘no’ to me again.”
“Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”
Lucius stared in open-mouthed shock, gray stubble popping against his even grayer skin.
“The balance of power restoring itself,” The Dark Lord went on, his words a faint drawl crawling around somewhere in the back of Lucius’s head. He could feel Voldemort’s slither, a snake pushing holes through his memories. Unconsciously he tilted his head to the side and shook it, as if waiting for a snake to wiggle out of his ear. Surely these were not his eyes seeing, his ears hearing. Surely this was not Lucius himself standing there, a willing participant to the most revolting show he’d ever seen.
One of his biggest faults was his ability to hold a grudge. Once wronged, Lucius never forgave. After Circe blinded him and made him repulsive to his staff, a creature in tissue-paper-thin skin, he yearned for nothing but her death. He imagined all the ways he could do it himself, even without his sight for guidance. He would wrap his fingers around his cane and tell himself it was her neck, and revel in the snap. The castle’s magic would always put the cane right again, fixing it instantly. But the echoing snaps still remained, and he thought they helped dull the ache of bitterness.
As the ancient witch writhed in a cold fire suspended in midair, cobalt flames reaching through her nose and open mouth to lick at the hollow interior of her skull, he did not feel any of the happy retribution he thought her death would bring. My own horrified eyes, as I was seated opposite him, served to make everything even worse in reflection. Out of everyone in the room, the two of us ought to have gleaned the most satisfaction from such a scene, but it appeared that we were the only ones not joining in the communal delight.
“Do you hear that?” Voldemort went on, his voice a black fog that never truly dissipated. It was unnaturally loud, clear as ringing bells. A sinister smile warped his wan face and he solicited Bellatrix for a physical cue that she understood. She was only too willing to supply him with agreement, giddy as a child.
“It sounds beautiful, too,” she exclaimed, eyes shining with joy.
Circe continued to scream – a never-ending quake that reminded me of the candles adorning the table the Dark Lord’s servants occupied. The scream flickered and faltered at times and grew unexpectedly, the pitch of hell. Voldemort was killing her so easily, so effortlessly that it struck me as impossible. While it would have been justice if inflicted by myself or Lucius, in Voldemort’s hands it was an act of evil.
He was killing her with fire like snow, so cold that it froze my eyelashes together. The fire strengthened with each breath she exhaled, sapping her strength and burning brighter. Circe’s body was trying to regenerate, a natural defense mechanism. She flashed a searing, horrible white over and over as she crippled, like a phoenix bursting to arise. She burned to a spark, until the flames had consumed everything except for her ribs. Her scream was still present, hanging in the room all around us while only a radiant ribcage glowed. I could see the nicks in her bones, little notches of a tally.
And then she was only ash on the carpet.
“And that,” said Voldemort, “is what will happen to you if you don’t join my ranks.” He inclined his gleaming forehead towards a man standing in the corner, next to an alcove window now fringed with icicles.
The man had been one of Circe’s wolves, the last of them captured alive. He fidgeted nervously, hairy face unused to so many eyes trained on it all at once. His speech was a testimony to his life of seclusion, riddled with mispronunciations and despicable grammar. Voldemort winced every time the man made a mistake.
“What do you want…what would you do with me?” he stammered, toying with the pocket of his ripped jeans.
Voldemort gazed evenly at him, one long finger tapping his cheekbone. “Your hand is dangerously close to where your wand is concealed in your pocket, Greyback. Are you actually thinking of fighting against me?”
Several Death Eaters laughed, Bellatrix’s cackle the loudest and most ridiculous. My eyes flashed in embarrassment, wishing I could kick her under the table but knowing I could end up kicking any one of a dozen other people instead. Voldemort raised a hand to quiet everyone, enjoying the way they fell silent under his skin, and turned his attentions back to the hairy-faced man by the window. His knuckles were abnormally hairy, too, and his eyebrows so tangled that they needed to be combed.
He swallowed. “Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
“Sir,” Voldemort repeated, spitting. “Sir is for Mudblood men. You will address me as your lord.” He raised a challenging eyebrow. “Am I your lord, Greyback?”
“Ye – yes.” His eyes flitted nervously around the room, trying to find purchase in a pair of empathetic ones. Lucius stared coolly back at him, unwilling to be the first one to show weakness. I looked at the ground, pretending to be suddenly absorbed in its patterns.
“Ye-yes?” Voldemort mocked, the underdone of a laugh ghosting across his tongue. It gave his fellows permission to chuckle darkly to themselves, as though the man’s apparent terror was a highly amusing event. “You stammer. I have no room in my ranks for imbeciles.”
“I’m not, m’lord,” Greyback insisted, the skin under coarse patches of fur blushing furiously. “I could be of much use, if you let me. I knows all sorts o’ things…I knows alls the people in Diagon Alley who is only pretending to obey the law, sir – I mean, sir, I mean Lord –” He faltered, eyes brightening with pink-tinged tears that betrayed his frustration. “Your Lordship. I knows the men who aims to fight against you, too, and I knows where all their little children sleeps.”
“You know nothing that I haven’t already known for a month,” Voldemort replied in a bored tone. “Do not claim to be informative. You are, at best, a nail on the finger of the limb that conquers. The head is for me to maneuver but I shall be needing more fingers, more nails. Your role shall be small but your aims always high.”
Greyback, unsure whether or not to take Voldemort’s ensuing pause as a finished statement in need of answering, said, “Yes, of course. Am I – am I gonna get one of those skull tattoos now?” His eyes cut to Lucius’s exposed arm, which beheld a snake winding through the eyes of a skull. The skull’s jaw was loose on its hinges, mimicking a scream.
But Voldemort was not finished speaking. “I expect that between now and our next meeting, which will take place in two weeks at an undisclosed setting” – he paused to nod at a hooded figure seated at the end of the table, who appeared to have come of his own inclination rather than by invitation – “you will have not only handed over the wand of a member of the Order of the Phoenix, but will have acquired a dictionary and learned the difference between ‘know’ and ‘knows’. I’m sure Alecto has one she can share, as she recently needed grammatical lessons, as well.”
Bellatrix snickered amidst Alecto Carrow’s livid mortification, but was cut off by Greyback replying, “Member of the Order, sir? I mean, Lord.” He swallowed, realizing that he was standing on tiptoe for some odd reason, and sank back down to the floorboards. He couldn’t stop glancing frequently at the messy pile of ashes on an antique rug, the remainder of a witch who had been supposedly invincible until she met her match in Tom Riddle.
“Yes.” Voldemort’s mouth quivered in a condescending little smile, a long strand of black hair falling over his expansive forehead. Bellatrix stared at it, open-mouthed. I could see the individual cracks on her colorless lips. Her gums, in contradiction, were quite red. “A wand. Shouldn’t be a difficult task to complete, Greyback, given your brutal physique. I’d imagine that in your…enhanced form, it should be quite easy.”
During the silence that overcame the room after this remark, Greyback mentally went over the lunar calendar in his head and brightened considerably. It seemed that when confronted with such a task in his human form, he was not so confident. When reminded that a full moon was only days away and he could leave his problems for a much hairier and more menacing version of himself, all distress smoothed itself out.
“Easy, indeed,” he began to say, grinning now, but Voldemort turned his face curtly away from him to signal that their conversation was over.
“What news from Hogsmeade, Goyle?”
“Little,” replied a surly, badly-shaven bloke. “Found a ‘traveling magician’, he calls himself. Winthropp Mulciber. Fake name, if you ask me. But he puts on shows for Muggles and makes magic look like sleight of hand.”
Goyle shrugged, somehow not bothered by Voldemort’s leering presence. He was unaware of the tension scattered throughout the room, building up like a smog that was now choking the ceiling. “Gotten into trouble with the Ministry for it, with the Statute and all, and they won’t let him alone. Word has it that he’s been looking for a new job.” He cleared his throat, hoping to bring weight and importance to his speech. “Something far outside the law. I reckon he’s heard about our lot and is waiting to hear from us personally, if you get my meaning.”
“Who would be so thick as not to get your meaning?” Yaxley scolded.
Voldemort rolled his eyes. “I’m surrounded by fools. Crouch has already told me about Mulciber, who was inducted three days ago. The only reason why he’s not here is because he’s performing Imperius curses on the unfortunate staff of Level Nine.”
“Level Nine?” Yaxley repeated before he could stop himself, eyebrows shooting up. “At the Ministry, you mean? That’s – blimey – that’s the Department of Mysteries!” When no one else shared in his surprise, he added for emphasis, “But the staff there’s all Unspeakables, innit?”
“Alecto, you must tutor this one, as well. I am honestly disturbed by the height of your ignorance, Yaxley. Just when I think that you can embarrass me no further, you prove just how little you have listened at our gatherings.” Voldemort glanced lazily at Lucius. “How do you think Yaxley should be punished for this, Malfoy?”
I went immediately rigid.
Lucius, however, didn’t skip a beat. “His evident languor in light of whom he sits in front of is cause for concern. I propose that he is barred from the next meeting, so that he may feel the full scale of being misinformed. There is nothing more slighting to a show-off than to be purposefully excluded.”
“Yes, I agree.” Voldemort’s eyes gleamed, redder than ever and twice as malevolent. He laced his fingers together and brought them to a gesture of finality under his chin. Bellatrix unconsciously mirrored him, bowing her head as if in prayer. A lock of her hair was melting in a pool of candle wax and she didn’t even notice; Amycus, who was sat on her other side, did. He opted not to say anything. “Valuable insight, Lucius.”
I could barely restrain my hiss, and only did for fear of being burned alive like Circe. I didn’t appreciate how Voldemort was picking and choosing his closest cabinet of advisors, and the reasons behind them. My sister was Bella instead of ‘Lestrange’ because she groveled. Lucius was no longer ‘Malfoy’ because he could turn his heart to stone instantaneously upon entering the same room as Voldemort. Despite their spar earlier in the day, Voldemort had chosen to forget it and was now gazing at Lucius with a measure of…what was it? Faith? I got the feeling that he was plunging into Lucius’s thoughts again with Legilimency.
Lucius’s left hand jerked, proving my suspicions correct. I wondered how many times Voldemort would dig around inside of us until our brains were scrambled from the abuse.
“What is that you were thinking about?” Voldemort inquired in a curious sort of way, studying him closer. Lucius closed his eyes, looking to be almost in pain, and Voldemort smiled. “Regulus,” he said softly, blood-red eyes flickering to the south end of the table. My cousin gave an involuntary shiver. “What do you have in your pocket?”
Regulus frowned. Whatever he had thought Voldemort was about to say to him, he had been wrong about it. He reached one hand into the pocket of his robes and withdrew a round, golden object I placed at once. I looked up at Lucius, knowing he would recognize it, too, but he made no sign of acknowledgment.
“Pocket watch,” the boy supplied. He began to slide it across the table rather than physically get up and hand it to his master, but Voldemort tapped his wand and the object soared through the air and into his waiting palm. “We were passing it around before you got here, my Lord. We found it on the witch’s person.”
“Circe, I presume?” Voldemort gave another irritated spasm, the kind he got whenever someone was being overly thick. “There are numerous witches here, Black. Let us be precise.”
Regulus sat back in his chair, frowning. Just like that, he’d been demoted from ‘Regulus’ to ‘Black’ and everyone in the room could feel the insult.
“It’s of no use to me,” Voldemort decided, flinging the watch back down the table. It skidded like a stone over water and landed in front of Severus Snape. “Doesn’t even tell the time.”
Voldemort switched his concentration to my sister, enquiring after her latest efforts to seduce a man named Langley (who was, by the gist of their conversation, useless himself but potentially rich for spying purposes). Severus had waited until Voldemort was distracted to click open the watch, which had now garnered Lucius’s proper interest once more.
The young man’s lips moved almost too infinitesimally to notice, glinting black gaze and pale fingers roving over its surface. I knew that instead of numerals, Severus was seeing twelve hands with little planets ticking around the edge. He pocketed it, bringing his bony elbows back up to rest flatly upon the table again while watching Voldemort's and Bellatrix's discussion with keen fascination. On his left, someone lowered their hood just a fraction and I gasped out loud.
Lucius glared warningly at me, but I ignored him, leaning closer. “Margaret?” I whispered.
Despite the many eyes now staring at me, Voldemort’s attention was still locked on Bellatrix and I felt safe in saying, “Margaret, what are you doing here?”
“Margaret?” She pursed her lips, quizzical. “My name is Genevieve, dear. Genevieve Parkinson.”
“What?” I stared at her, blatantly confused. Of course she was Margaret. I never forgot a face, did I? I’d seen her in the mines in Doorturn, her stomach swollen with some sort of tumor. I’d seen her being branded with the Dark Mark after showing up in Little Hangleton. For some reason, I had completely forgotten about her existence since then. Had I subconsciously expected her to die, maybe? To not survive without someone like Lucius standing at her side and keeping her world upright?
When no one was gawking at us anymore, our companions disinterested, she winked slyly at me and looked away towards the window. I had no idea what to make of it. Why had she created a new identity?
I tried to focus on Lucius, yearning for a nod or smile or softening of his features, but found nothing but cold hardness. He was a statue, sitting proudly in his chair like it was a throne, and I remembered the similarities I’d once seen between him and the Dark Lord. I wished I knew when he was pretending and which of us he was pretending to. Was he pretending here with Voldemort or at home with me?
I bit my lip, moving down the row to find another person I hoped I could count on to indicate some shred of humanity, to assure me that I wasn’t sitting in a soulless room. Voldemort abruptly rose from his seat, exiting without explanation. Dolohov and Rosier flanked him. Bellatrix sulked in her seat, resentful. When Alecto turned to smile spitefully at her, she snapped her teeth together.
I took advantage of Voldemort’s absence by slipping into a chair next to Regulus. “Well,” I offered, trying for a wobbly smile, “at least I get to see you every now and then, eh?”
Regulus was tense, exuding an almost derisive demeanor. His eyes were slits as they wandered up and down the table, picking Death Eaters to the foreground to mentally mock them. I could feel it resting just on the edge of his skin, ready to jump off. “Is that why you’re here? To see me?” He laughed without humor. “You should have saved your concern for someone else. It’s wasted on me.”
I lowered my voice, wary of this new, sour side of my cousin. While he could never be called a ‘happy’ child, he was useful for a laugh or two on occasion. He’d always been my favorite over Sirius, who could usually see right through me. “Why are you here?”
He drummed his fingers on the table, not willing to meet my gaze. His voice was so quiet that I could barely discern it when he said, “We’re all here for different reasons.” He stopped, as Severus was watching him intently. When Severus fished out Circe’s pocket watch again, Regulus finished, “And I know an opportunity when I see one.”
I sensed a double-entendre in his words but couldn’t grasp what he was trying to say. I thought it over as the voices around me grew louder even though I was drowning them out, Lucius’s stare burning holes through my profile.
And then it clicked.
I recalled the boy in the graveyard, staggering to his feet amongst the tombstones with an expression of utter determination. The way he alternated between wanting to be lost, ignored among the Dark Lord’s followers and his fearless attitude. He was not here to follow. He was here to infiltrate. Maybe he wasn’t an extension of another group – operating for those who opposed Voldemort. He was here on his own conscience, which was even more dangerous. He was representing himself.
“You idiot,” I said through bared teeth.
He lifted his jaw imperiously, angling it away from me. He sat there, regal and clenched, his presence not borne from a command thrust upon him by the superiors of an organized force, but because of his own strong, scrupulous sense of morality I had severely underestimated because of his surname.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He turned back to me, dark eyes snapping. “Shut up, Narcissa. This is none of your business. You don’t know anything.” He yanked his hands through his hair. "You don't know a thing about anything, really."
He shook his head. "You're all just noise. You don't make any sense."
I was about to demand to know what he meant by that comment when Voldemort reentered the room at that moment, putting Regulus at perceptible unease. Regulus folded his arms stubbornly and fell back into his chair as far as he could go, black fringe hanging in front of his eyes to screen their hostility. He looked so young, so boyish, that I thought of his mother and felt sorry for her. Did Walburga know what her son was getting up to these days?
But Voldemort did not intend to stay long. He aimed his wand behind his back as he walked, casually murdering the hooded figure in the very back. It was the one he'd nodded to earlier in the meeting when he refused to release the specific location of our next meeting. The person’s hood wrenched back, exposing a red-haired woman whose skin was still green from the rebounding Avada Kedavra. Those surrounding her had fallen out of their chairs, scrabbling to get away from the emerald light.
“Ah. I see that the Mudblood-loving Order has been paying us another visit.” Voldemort twirled his wand and deftly replaced it to his pocket, nonplussed. “They do like to drop in unannounced, don’t they?” He gestured to a boy around Regulus’s age, named Scabior. “Take her to the usual place. I need more Inferi.”
Despite the purr in his voice, and despite the dead woman destined to become an Inferius and the pile of ashes on the carpet that had been Lucius’s long-time tormentor; despite Horatio’s beloved pocket watch now sitting in Snape’s possession and my wonderful, horrible Lucius – who at this moment looked every bit the stately Master Malfoy, I had eyes for no one but the angry young man by my side who went unnoticed by everyone else. I leaned in close, letting my contempt bleed into his thoughts.
“You better not mess things up for me.”
Author’s note: Recognize that watch? If you open up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (in my edition, it’s at the bottom of page 12) to Chapter One, you’ll find who it presently belongs to.
I've probably lost all credibility when I apologize for being a rubbish updater, but I've finally finished Purgatory! There are two more chapters to go after this, which will be posted next week and the week after. If anyone's still around, thank you for reading! And thank you for nominating this for 2012 Dobbys. :)
Sometimes I lie in bed in the morning, long after Lucius has padded out to a table that is perpetually filled by people I don’t want in my house, and I pretend to be asleep for at least twenty minutes. It is during this blissful time that I sit and count all the ways I hate the Dark Lord – the Dark Lord, never Voldemort. Even in my head, his title reverberates. I am not myself anymore; I do not belong to myself and cannot pretend to. I can’t even belong to Lucius.
The Dark Lord’s voice drifted out of the open kitchen door and around the side of the house through my bedroom window. I clamped a pillow over my head but couldn’t shut him out.
“There is some progress on that account,” replied Severus Snape. I wouldn’t mistake that improperly gleeful voice anywhere. I shuddered, doubling up my pillows to fold over my ears. What was up with the total disregard for common courtesy with these people, anyway? I should be entitled to moan to myself about my problems without having some jabbering idiots constantly interrupting.
“There is a person in the Order I suspect will be very easy to sway,” Severus went on silkily. “He was in my year, and I observed during our time together at Hogwarts that his friends were not as fond of him as he was of them. There is a rift, however small, and I’ve begun to sow seeds of doubt there. It shouldn’t be long before he’s willing to hand over information on those who have treated him like an afterthought.”
“What is this man’s name?”
“Pettigrew.” He paused for effect and added, “His social circle includes James Potter, Sirius Black, and a werewolf by the name of Remus Lupin. You’ll find these names to be of particular interest to you, I believe.”
There was a mixture of noises after this, with mutterings to convey their disgust for the wolf and murmurings of appreciation where Potter and my cousin Sirius were concerned. I rolled my eyes. In what way was Sirius Black valuable to anyone? The boy couldn’t even drink soup without slurping. Maybe Bellatrix wanted vengeance on him for making the Blacks look bad. Did she notice that the other Black boy was gone? Did any of them take stock of the empty chair that Regulus once sat at?
I doubted they noticed anything that wasn’t right in front of them.
Regulus had disappeared, presumably killed by the Order, and Sirius was fighting alongside the revolutionaries who compared themselves to phoenixes – which never failed to incite sniggers and snorts from the Death Eaters. They thought that ‘the Order of the Phoenix’ was a ludicrous, flamboyant title. All feathers, no force, as Severus once said. Personally, it was my belief that they were wasting their time and resources on people like Sirius, Lupin, and that Potter boy who always had the messy hair. How many secrets could those idiots possibly know, anyway? Pettigrew was a misuse of our energy.
I wouldn’t say anything, of course. I wouldn’t dare disagree out loud. Even in my own head, I’d become something of a doormat. I let everything pass right over me because it was dangerous to bring attention to myself, and spent most of my waking time stewing in resentment over the current state of my life.
My wedding to Lucius, to start with, had been a hushed, uncomfortable affair with none of the intimacy I would have wanted. I had intended to elope in France and escape the gloominess of England for a brief spell before we moved to Scotland. Instead, I found myself locked into a ceremony in Bellatrix and Rodolphus’s house, surrounded by people I hadn’t invited. When Lucius kissed me, I didn’t reciprocate it. I didn’t want to feel anything when the Dark Lord was in the room, as I didn’t want him to somehow take those emotions from me. I got the strange sensation that he robbed people of their sentiments, and so I took great care to hide mine.
Adding to the list of things I was bitter about, my husband and I weren’t permitted to move to Scotland. We were only told that it was the Dark Lord’s preference that we remained ‘stationed’ in Wiltshire. We have since built tall hedges and an iron fence around Malfoy Manor, as if that could keep the evil out. But the evil always finds ways of trickling in…I catch Lucius turning out his pockets whenever he comes home, and inside them he has concealed Dark objects. He brings them here and hides them, thinking that if he keeps them locked up under the drawing room floor, it will tilt the power in our favor. I don’t want to be protected by Cursed candles. I want my freedom back.
I don’t know how many years it’s been since I lost that. By the time I started to count, I realized I couldn’t remember when it began. The years congealed together, the newlyweds who should have been over the moon fading away into two ships passing in the night. I loved him but I wouldn’t tell him, and he told me he loved me so often that I was starting to question the sincerity of it.
And now, with another summer soon approaching, Lucius had gotten worse than I’d ever anticipated. He was beginning to suffer under the delusion that if he hoarded these items in our home, they would somehow protect us. He makes me sleep with amulets under my pillow. There’s a skull that rests on the bed post that has been bewitched to recognize intruders, and it keeps me awake for hours at night with its glowing yellow eyes. Those two yellow blurs for eyes seep into my nightmares with the candles and amulets and all the other diseased, illegal artifacts Lucius has begun to collect, and they are doing the opposite of what he intended.
They terrify me. Lucius terrifies me. I love him, I do, but my resentment is a powerful, powerful thing and it threatens to surmount that love. I know that in order to survive, I’ll have to smother these waspish thoughts with a pillow. I will have to pull a sheet over my face, over my mouth, and breathe deeply until I am out of my own body and can bear the day-to-day shouting, plotting, murdering. I wouldn’t have cared if all of this occurred next door. I don’t care about the people dying, the people they plan to kill. I only care that headquarters is right under my roof and it’s draining all of the precious time I still have left with my husband before they turn him back into the monster he was when I first met him.
I hate the Dark Lord. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him. He makes Gaspard Pravus look like a saint. Gaspard will be dead soon, from what I hear. I wish I could be happy about it but I’m upset that I can’t kill him myself. What right do the Carrows have to take Gaspard’s life? It isn’t fair. I deserve to feel his soul slip out of his bones. That right belongs to Lucius and me, not to a couple of hunchbacked nimrods who had never even heard of Pravus two months ago.
The Dark Lord told me, after a sensitive search of my mind, that I had a talent with persuading people. He saw the memories of me speaking to Gaspard’s henchmen; how I softened Lucius and convinced people to buy my cheap trinkets in the Wasteir village square for inflated prices. He decided that I could be of the most use to him as a recruiter, so he has dispatched me to bribe and lure followers into his ranks. Despite my gift for it, I receive no fulfillment from this. I’m not getting anything out of it, after all, and I highly detest being treated like a puppet.
So this is my life now, it seems. I say little, and think even less (except for these prized minutes in the morning when no one can see the expression on my face). I have learned how to keep my mouth shut when it counts. I am never told what Lucius does for the Dark Lord, nor do I ask anymore. All I know is that whatever he gets up to with his Death Eater mates has had a strong effect on his demeanor – his patience is easily worn and he snaps at others. He never snaps at me. I think he knows that he would mysteriously die in his sleep if he treated me like he treats his inferiors in ranks below him.
There are premature lines in his forehead. He’s always pale and sickly-looking, his hair sometimes falling out for me to wipe off the pillow every morning when I turn over to find him already gone. I punish myself by imagining what our lives would be like if we’d never stumbled into the Dark Lord’s web. If Lucius had never played the wrong note on his piano and fallen into a deep sleep, and if I had never been pulled through a mirror into Gaspard’s clutches.
Horatio and Ramien and Wren would all still be here, and the house would still be as grand and ominous as it ever was. Lucius and I would have every single day to ourselves. There would never be enough hours in the day. We would never rise early enough to kiss each other good morning, would hate falling asleep at night except for the fact that we did so together. These days, I was lucky to get an owl from him before I fell asleep, telling me not to wait up.
The Dark Lord is a thief.
I hate my sister, too. She doesn’t even care that he robbed her life from her. It revolts me; it’s such a waste. I hate that little cockroach Rabastan for mentioning to Lucius that he ought to get some elves to look after me during the day – like elves would fill the void Lucius left behind. I told Lucius that I didn’t want elves. I said that I wanted him. He stared coldly at me and said, “You know that you ask for too much.” So he got me elves to make himself feel better about having a lonely wife, and he got me twin albino peacocks to serve as a consolation prize.
Now I never have a free moment.
“What would you like for breakfast, ma’am?” an elf squeaked. I scowled at the door, which I hadn’t noticed was open. The voices in the kitchen were much louder now, but they lacked the usual sobriety and were more raucous, less stressed. The Dark Lord must have left.
“Get out,” I spat. The elf stared dumbly at me, tray in its grotesque fingers rattling, and I hurled a pillow at it. “I said to get out!”
The elf fled, trembling, and Lucius appeared in the doorway. He frowned at me, but he also looked relieved. “Narcissa,” he chided gently. “Don’t upset the help. I would hate for them to burn my breakfast and have to wait an extra twenty minutes for another.”
I stared at the ceiling, eyes glazed. I think I’ve been lying like this for days. My dressing gown feels like I put it on a week ago, the way that it sticks to my legs and outlines my shape like a snow angel. I absently twirled a lock of hair in one finger, my body sprawled all over the bed and sinking into the mattress several inches. “I hate you,” I replied to the ceiling.
The door closed with a click, muffling the voices that never, ever went away. I felt Lucius’s weight press onto the end of the bed, just on the corner’s edge so that he wouldn’t have to be too close to me. I knew he wasn’t worried about physical proximity, but emotional. I couldn’t blame him, really; every time I got the opportunity, I yelled at him for leaving me alone all the time even though I knew he had no choice, even though I wanted to be alone. I couldn’t stop making him say he was sorry. I didn’t know how to. “My darling, you’re doing it again.”
I didn’t try to hide my venom. “Darling, I don’t care. I just don’t care.”
He stood up, annoyed. “Fine. Sit in here and feel sorry for yourself if it suits you.”
I wanted to roll over so that he wouldn’t have the privilege of seeing my face, but didn’t have the motivation to. I also didn’t want to see his eyes. I knew about the horrors he kept safe from me, the horrors I didn’t want to know he committed so he kept them bottled up in his own heart. I would have liked to watch him perform curses on his marks. I loved to watch his wandwork, and was more than a little put out that they had banded together and decided I could never tag along.
They were quite rude, my lot. Pushy, bossy, busybodies.
“Nothing suits me,” I drawled to the ceiling again. The albino peacocks floated over the garden hedge, cooing at each other. I could see them out the corners of my eyes. “I want to die.”
“Feeling melodramatic, are we? I’ll be glad when that thing’s out of you. You haven’t been yourself.”
I closed my eyes and felt the brush of Lucius’s lips on my forehead. “How can I be?” I answered, hoping that I hadn’t only imagined Lucius’s kiss. No matter how many times I said I didn’t want it, I did. I looked forward to it and hated it when he kept his affection from me just because I told him to. Sometimes I just wanted to hurt him, to tear him up with psychological scars. “I don’t belong to myself.”
“You belong to me.”
I almost smiled. “You’re a liar.”
He didn’t have anything to say to that, and stood up. He strode over to the door, opening it wide enough to let in the odious smells of a luncheon. I wrinkled up my nose against the assaulting beef. “Shut the door. I want to die in peace.”
“You can die when you’re old, Cissa. For now, you need to eat something.”
I finally found the motivation to roll over, grumbling to myself. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
The door closed on his last words: “I love you.” I didn’t say it back. If I refused to give him sentiment, then the Dark Lord wouldn’t be able to just take it away from him again. He couldn’t take what I wouldn’t give.
A tiny foot kicked my ribs. “You can’t tell me what to do, either,” I told the foot. It kicked harder, reminding me that I was wrong.
As I rode towards the stone fence, muscular horse galloping away underneath me, I considered it. I considered it every single time I rode this way, traveling on a solo assignment that was safe enough to bring along my son. The remnants of the Dark Lord’s last words to me before he left to go abroad pulsed in my temples, made my blood run cold and fast.
“He looks just like Lucius,” Bellatrix remarked with a frown, examining the boy as if he were something nasty, like a slug.
The Dark Lord nodded in stiff agreement. “And someday soon he will be just as useful.” He turned to affix me with a smirk, his hairline so receded that I was too short to see any of the black thatch on his crown. “Another loyal dog in my kennel.”
How could I have forgotten my promise? Upon being branded with his mark, I’d devoted my firstborn to the Dark Lord’s purposes, free for him to shape. I’d somehow forgotten this on one of the rare nights when Lucius and I scrapped together some semblance of privacy, doing our best to forget everything but each other. I hadn’t even remembered it when I shared the news of my pregnancy with Lucius (and by extension, a group of ill-groomed men eating all the food in my kitchen).
It didn’t strike me until May, a month before I delivered our baby, when he placed his hand on my ballooned stomach. He directed an ear to it, listening, and smiled sadly. “I don’t ever want to give you up.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” I’d told him. “Why on earth would we have to give the baby up?”
Lucius had looked up at me then, pity coloring his eyes, and said, “I had to give you up.”
And then I remembered how I didn’t belong to myself or to Lucius anymore, how I belonged to Him. And so did the unfortunate child I was going to bring into the world, right on the brink of a war I tried very hard to pretend wasn’t happening.
But all of that was neither here nor there. Another May had passed since then and it was nearly Draco’s first birthday. With every assignment that put me on horseback, prowling around the woods for signs of a powerful, highly-reputed Order member named Benjy Fenwick, I considered jumping the stone fence and leaving everything behind. The thought of handing Draco over to the Dark Lord, another sword in his arsenal, made my stomach churn. Two years ago I would not have cared. Two years ago I didn’t truly know what love was.
This was my favorite kind of day, to be honest. I loved the buttery sunshine soaking through my skin, and the smell of Draco’s shampoo since I carried him in a woven sling cradled to my chest. My hands were free but I had him with me – the center of my universe – and the only thing that prevented me from running away forever was the knowledge that Lucius would be immediately punished for it; and later, at an unknown but inevitable date, I would be punished as well.
All I wanted was for the three of us to be a real family together, without a cluster of hooded witches and wizards breathing down our necks day and night. Lately there had been word about a prophecy, though no one but the Dark Lord’s must trusted knew about it (I only knew because Lucius let it slip one day), involving the son of James and Lily Potter. Just a little boy. He was Draco’s age, would have been in Draco’s year if his future wasn’t ready to be wiped out. His days were numbered and his parents didn’t even know it yet.
I bent forward, breathing in the floral scent of Draco’s bath soap. Good luck, little Harry Potter.
“All right,” I said out loud a moment later, whistling under my breath. “Let’s go.” Draco was fast asleep, lavender eyelids fluttering. “Dreaming about Daddy?” I sighed, urging the horse to canter off toward the tree line. I would have to do a final scour of the forest before heading back, just to clear it. My orders were to find Benjy Fenwick and kill him on sight. “Me, too, my sweet little dragon. Me, too.”
I tucked one cheek to Draco’s as we entered the forest, protecting him from rogue tree branches that aimed to scratch his delicate skin. The horse’s pace slowed to a trot, hoof beats masked by thick foliage. At a bend in the path, a man in his early thirties was leaning against a tree trunk. He tossed a crimson apple back and forth from one hand to the other, eyes dancing as my horse stopped right in front of him.
“Narcissa,” he greeted, trying to downplay his grin, and tipped his hat.
“Fenwick,” I replied, returning his smile with thinned lips and a curt nod.
His eyes widened, blinking. “Fenwick? Oh, am I Fenwick now? That’s interesting.” He began to walk, taking a bite out of his apple, and I noticed that there were fewer arrows in his quiver than usual. His arrows weren’t the ordinary stock; Benjy was used to operating on a vigilante mindset. The Order still wasn’t wholly convinced he was tame enough to send him out on missions, given his habit of using wands confiscated from his targets to make into special arrows that shot spells right into people’s hearts. I was wary of his supply of weapons, knowing very well how quick he could draw one into his bow and shoot it.
He raised one sunburned hand to rub at his messy brown curls, smiling mischievously at me. “Honey, you can call me whatever you want and I’ll answer to it.”
“Shut up.” I hopped down from my horse, accidentally jarring Draco from his sleep. Benjy swooped in to examine him, patting his head affectionately.
“Oh, yes. Looks just like old Lucy.”
My thin smile got even thinner, and I turned away to shield Draco from his fingers, browned from the sun and sprinkled with juice from his apple. “Don’t call Lucius ‘Lucy’. He would behead you with a broomstick if he knew you’d said that.”
“If he knew you were talking to me and never beheaded me yourself, I’m sure his concern wouldn’t be anywhere near nicknames,” Benjy replied, waggling his eyebrows.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have time for this, Benjy.”
“So I’m Benjy again? What’d I say? I’ll have to make a mental note to do it again. Stay in your good graces.” He flashed another grin, doing a little dance to close the distance between us.
I held out a hand to keep him at bay. “How is she?”
“Aw, Narcissa. You’re beginning to make me think that you’re not here just to see my gorgeous smile.” He smiled wider, showing off his bright white teeth that I was confident he had gotten Charmed. “Business straight off in the conversation? You offend me.”
“Benjy.” I sighed, frustrated. Normally I enjoyed his playful banter, and even let him hug me once or twice just so that I could pick his pockets, but today I wasn’t in the mood to stay long. “Tell me how she is or I’ll do what I was supposed to have done six months ago and curse you right between the eyes.”
He backed away, hands up in surrender. “Fine, fine. You can talk about my smile another time.” He took a breath, and this time his grin was genuine. “She’s great, Narcissa. Really. You should see her.”
I felt my mouth twinge. “Gotten her hands on her mum’s wand yet?”
“Are you kidding?” He tilted his head back and laughed. “I was over there just the other day and she was shooting blue sparks at the cat just to see him run. She’s learned how to make her beans disappear, too, and she can’t stop showing off for the guests. Andromeda’s worried about this school year. If it’s anything like the last, they reckon they’ll have to keep her at home even though Ted wants her to have a Muggle education before going off to Hogwarts.”
“She turned her teacher’s pencil into a snake,” I said, nodding. “I remember you telling me that.”
He laughed. “Amazing, that one. She’s been wearing her hair red lately…I think it’s got something to do with those Weasleys. She won’t shut up about one of them…name’s Charlie, I think.” He frowned, trying to remember something, and said, “Did you bring a picture?”
“Oh! Yes.” I dug around in my pocket, withdrawing a creased but still-lovely photograph of Draco propped on top of a piano I bought for Lucius last year, with Lucius and I seated on the bench in front of him. Lucius wouldn’t play the thing during the day when we played host to the Dark Lord’s minions, but I caught him playing at least two nights each week when he thought I was asleep and couldn’t hear.
“There you are.” I pressed it into his palm, wincing at the state of his hand. “If I didn’t know any better, I would think you were wearing leather gloves.”
“If I didn’t know any better, I would think that you only say things like that because you like to deny your irresistible attraction to me.”
“Make sure Andromeda gets that,” I said in a deadpan voice, climbing back onto my horse. “Don’t hide it under your pillow so you can stare at me in the middle of your lonely nights.”
He winked. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Any picture with Lucy in it is safe from my ogling eyes. Judging by your hairstyles, I can hardly tell the two of you apart. I don’t want to accidentally dream about him.” He shuddered.
“I want a picture, too,” I told him, wiggling a bit to make myself comfortable on the horse’s back. “Andromeda and Nymphadora. Make it plain in the least-rudest way you know how that I would prefer Ted wasn’t in it.”
He frowned. “Ted’s a nice man, you know. He takes care of your sister. He’s a brilliant father, too.”
I jerked my head just a fraction, getting rid of an invisible mosquito. “I don’t care what he is. I don’t want him dirtying my photo albums.”
“Like you’ll put that in an album, anyway,” he scoffed. “I give you two weeks before you become paranoid about someone finding it and rip it up. Had to replace the one of Nymphadora as a newborn…what? Three times?” He shook his head, eyes kind, and smiled gently. “You’re a proud woman, Mrs. Malfoy. But don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with –”
There was a noiseless blast that rent his face apart; Benjy Fenwick’s body exploded into the air in a rainfall that spread twenty feet, his voice snatched away mid-sentence. I screamed and screamed, my brain struggling to comprehend the shock of seeing someone explode right in front of my eyes. I screamed so loud that I couldn’t hear Draco screaming, too. His tiny wails shook against my chest, little shoulders heaving. I felt a warmth on my forehead and cheeks and peered fearfully out of the corner of my eyes at a trickle of blood that didn’t belong to me.
“There,” said a harsh voice. I turned, sobbing and convulsing, to see Lucius standing behind me with his wand outstretched. He was wearing soft-soled boots that disguised his footsteps, and while I couldn’t read the expression in his eyes, there was no mistaking the sneering curve of his lips. “It’s done.”
I glanced back at Benjy – or rather, the place where Benjy had been – and heard a thin cry escape my throat. I looked from the shattered man to Lucius and back again, disbelieving. His blood was spattered all over the tree, the horse, my waist. I ripped the air with more screams when I saw the streak of red on Draco’s forehead, not realizing that it was only a shred of peel from Benjy’s apple.
I stared at my husband, trying to penetrate his hard gaze. I thought I could imagine the stream of thoughts running through his mind, and felt the brunt of his accusation. Why were you speaking with him as though you knew him well? Why didn’t you kill him on sight like you were ordered to? How long has this acquaintance been going on and to what extent?
I was shaking down to my very blood, more terrified of him than I had ever been. But there was nothing but love in his eyes when he softly said, “Now you won’t have to do it yourself.”
He led me home, horse following the tip of his wand on an invisible hook. He didn’t speak and I was frozen, not even responding to Draco’s cries. All I could think about was Benjy’s infectious grin and the apple he had been tossing, bits of it still threaded in my infant son’s hair. And I thought about the fact that Lucius hadn’t used a simpler, cleaner spell like the Killing Curse. It would have been more humane. He had not killed Benjy, he had destroyed him. Obliterated him. That action spoke volumes in the thick silence.
When we reached the house, I was thankful to find it empty except for the herd of elves who were eternally underfoot, especially a pesky one named Dobby I especially didn’t like because of his penchant for eavesdropping on conversations.
Lucius wrapped a black wool cloak around my shoulders, trying to ease my shock. “You will take credit for Fenwick’s death,” he instructed in a low murmur. “You never spoke to him, you gave him no warning.”
I glared at him, tears welling up in my eyes as he roughly straightened my cloak. His face was close to mine but his thoughts and intentions so distant. “You could have used Avada Kedavra.” I tried to keep my voice even but choked on the last word.
Lucius closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. When he opened them again, he pressed a light kiss to my cheek. “You could have, too.”
He pulled away and took Draco with him, humming his way to the sink to rinse the fruit from our son’s hair. I sat there in a slump, feeling his cloak gradually fall away to the floor. I didn’t feel cold, anyway. My blood was too frozen for my skin to know the difference. I thought of the photograph of Lucius, Draco, and I that would never reach my sister. What would she think when she heard the news?
It had taken so much just to get her to agree to this exchange that I was certain she wouldn’t dole out the energy to do it again. It had taken lies on my part. It had taken her trust, even though she didn’t trust me at all. It had taken a lot of sneaking around, a lot of gambling, and one selfless third party to function as the go-between – the man who trusted too easily. He never even brought out his wand during our meetings.
Lucius sang quietly to Draco, carrying him high on his shoulders into the next room. I was still sitting at the kitchen table when the piano notes drifted through the doorway, sad and somber at first but then quicker, with more heart.
It was the song he wrote for me.
I felt fresh tears slip down my cheeks, mouth turning up into a smile I couldn’t completely feel yet. Draco babbled along with the melody, mimicking his father. My gaze ran over my Dark Mark and it hit me with a jolt that I’d grown used to it, that I couldn’t feel its never-ending tingle.
“This is how I made your mother fall in love with me,” Lucius confided, low enough to make it sound like a secret but loud enough so that he knew I would overhear.
And in the hollow kitchen, stripped of hooded figures and maps and a man with gleaming red eyes, I felt my muscles relax. I leaned forward and lowered my forehead onto the cool wooden table, closing my sore eyes. My stringy white hair was still plastered to my neck, glued there from alternating hot and cold sweats. The heavy diamond on my finger had spun around to the opposite side, trailing up and down the table’s surface in tap, tap, taps that matched the music.
I listened to Lucius's beautiful music and remembered what it was like to fall in love. It was a place I could revisit whenever he played that song, and he knew what its effect always was. He knew that it made me love him again. No matter how loudly we had been arguing or how distant and cold he was or how many times I tore him apart with pretending not to love him, all it took was Lucius at the piano bench to make it all melt away.
I smiled slightly. Everything was going to be all right.
“And that’s it?”
Narcissa smoothed back Draco’s blond hair, laughing at his incredulity. “And that’s it.”
“That’s really how you met Dad?” When his mother nodded, he squinted at her in suspicion. “My nanny said you met him in school. She said that Dad threatened to jump off the Hogwarts Express if you wouldn’t let him sit in your compartment.”
“Mrs. Macnair beat me to this story, did she?” Narcissa scooted closer to him, tucking the folds of his quilt more tightly around his body. He squirmed, wriggling out of the blanket. “I tell you what. Which story sounds more interesting to you? Mummy and Daddy meeting at Hogwarts or Mummy and Daddy meeting in a great big, scary house?”
He wriggled back under his covers, shuddering slightly. “That’s this house. You said it was Malfoy Manor."
“Yes, I did.” Narcissa nodded wisely, blowing out one of three candles sitting on his bedside table. “Before you were born, we had giants and ghosts roaming the corridors.”
"Ghosts and giants?" Draco looked terrified. "In the house I have to live in? Just wait until my daddy hears about this."
"Daddy banished them already, sweetheart. Your daddy is strong and brave. He can do anything."
“And Mrs. Macnair was evil,” he cut in. "Was Mrs. Macnair really so horrid?"
“Yes, but let’s not repeat that.” His mother glanced at the adjoining room where Draco’s nanny lived, lowering her voice. “She’s a bit senile, so she wouldn’t remember any of it.” She kissed Draco on the forehead and stood up, stretching. “My, it’s been two hours! You sure know how to prolong your bedtime.”
“Wait!” Draco scrambled upright, desperate to stall a little longer. “I want to hear more! You stopped right at the good part.”
“Good part?” She searched her mind, trying to figure out why Draco had found Narcissa sitting by herself at a kitchen table at all interesting.
“A man exploded!”
“Ahh, I see.” She shook her head, ruffling his hair. “No more exploding men for tonight.”
“What about wolves?”
“No wolves.” She blew out the last of his candles, making her way over to the door. “Good night, little dragon.”
“Night, Mum.” He settled back into bed, staring at the black ceiling. “Wait! Wait! Mum!”
Narcissa, who had been about to close the door behind her, stopped. “Yes?”
“But what about the man with red eyes?” His voice was high, panicked. “He said he was going to take me when I was older. You promised you would give me to him.”
“It’s just a story,” she assured him. “No one is taking you. Good night, Draco.”
“Night, Mum,” he mumbled again, and she shut the door.
Lucius was waiting for her, leaning against the hallway wall and smirking. “Eavesdropping?” his wife questioned, tired but amused to see him standing there.
“Exaggerated our history a bit,” he replied, stepping forward. “You made me blind?”
“As good as,” she remarked. “It took you two years to notice my existence before you suddenly ‘discovered’ me.”
He shrugged. “It took you two years to agree to date me, so I suppose we’re even.” He lifted up her left arm and pressed his lips to the pure white flesh, untainted by the Dark Mark from her story. “My burden, not yours,” he said quietly. “I can’t imagine you belonging to him, to any other man.”
“I tweaked a few parts of the story,” she told him, twirling a lock of his hair around her finger. “I didn’t know how to explain to him that I had let you go through that alone.”
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” He rested his foot against the baseboard, and the two of them took a silent moment to recall the piles and piles of Dark objects hidden far below their feet under the drawing room floor. Buried secrets. “I was surprised that you told him about the Unbreakable Vow you made, although the actual circumstances were different…seeing as how the Healers had told you that you couldn’t bear children.”
Narcissa swallowed and opened the door just a crack. She could trace Draco’s peaceful profile in the moonlight, and was oddly comforted by the way he could fall asleep in an instant. He would not stay awake for hours mulling over the wolves and the man with red eyes. “But our happily ever after is a reality now, a luxury I didn’t think we would ever be able to call our own. The Unbreakable Vow I made that night broke when the Dark Lord was vanquished by Harry Potter.”
Lucius wrapped an arm around her. “Thank God he is gone.”