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Chapter 3 : Shalott
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Author's Note So much for "few and far between." I hope to finish this story very, very soon, before my month-long absence. Hence why (hopefully!) you can expect the last two chapters to come soon.
Hope you enjoy!
Their names were Brian and Tabitha Jenkins, and they had been married for over thirty years, though they could not recall exactly how many years it had been. Though they made a great show of abhorring each other, in actuality the old couple was entirely content with their lives. Having precious few others for company in the great, wild expanse of Welsh countryside, they had no choice but to appreciate each other, especially when faced with the unspeakable horrors that came from Astolat.
For horrors they had to be. Tabitha remembered with great clarity those nights when she had arisen to find the lady, the first lady, wandering in the fields and singing to herself. Such strange, strange songs they were, too. It was she who had wanted to leave in those days, and it was Brian who tried to stand his ground and sweat it out. They’ll come for her, he assured his trembling wife. The woman’s gone mad. And it was true. Within six months, the lady, the first lady, was gone. Gone. The palace to the west would crumble into ash and no one would know the difference.
That was ten years ago. And when the screaming started again, and then the singing, it was Brian’s turn to shake in his boots. He was so sure she was gone, would always be gone. Locked up, in those rooms with padded walls. No one to hear her pathetic, bone chilling little screams. But Tabitha thought otherwise. When she was out at the well, or scraping vines from the sides of the cottage, or collecting eggs from the irascible chickens, she heard the songs, too. Yes, she told her husband, they are the same songs. (She had never forgotten those lyrics, of course, which were branded in her memory like mercury: shifting and nearly unrecognizable, but always there.) But, she hastened to add, it can’t possibly be the same lady. Listen to her. So he did, and the next evening he agreed. The same lyrics drenched in toxic treacle, burnt sugar, light and airy and disturbing. The voice of ten years ago was too twisted to be saccharine.
Upon reaching this conclusion, they agreed that, if the singing and the screaming didn’t stop in six months, they would leave. Never did it occur to them to report their neighbor to the authorities in town. There was some innate, unspoken knowledge in the pit of both of their stomachs that Astolat was to be left alone at all costs.
Astolat was left alone. And soon the screaming stopped, so Brian and Tabitha, with a heavy weight on their hearts, went on with their lives. But in their subconscious, the sweet melody with warped words played on.
Astoria Greengrass didn’t know she still remembered those songs of her mother’s. Daphne did, she knew, because during their summer under the wailing sky, she would sing them in her sleep. But Daphne was long gone, probably dead. But her mother… Honoria Selwyn was here, was there.
The girl grew lightheaded with sleepiness but would never, ever lie down and put her head on those pillows that had once cushioned her mother’s downy hair. They still smelled like her, like tears and poppies. And she was there, in the mirror, or at least Astoria believed she was; for her snicker was embedded in the walls and her smile in the frosty windows and her chilled embrace in the iron doors. It stood to reason that she would be in the mirror. But no, the mirror only reflected Astoria herself, a small and beautiful girl whose eyes were gilt with panic and whose skin was sallow with insomnia.
Astoria in her right mind would have brushed off these signs as terror, madness inherent in her mother’s bedchambers, but she couldn’t now, for there was incontrovertible evidence of her mother’s presence in the tower room. She dismissed it at first, as one might dismiss an unsatisfactory dessert or an uninteresting suitor, but when she picked it up and held it in her hands, she knew, and dry-retched before opening the ledger that could not be made into a Portkey.
24 Aug. The elder is coughing, disturbing the peace. She will not stop, though she knows that she is hurting her mother.
27 Aug. She has dragon pox. He tells me that it is dangerous for the younger to be with her. It is worse for them to be apart.
29 Aug. He’s been to Cornwall twice in the past week. Will find out why shortly.
7 Sept. The younger cries, wonders why Daddy is gone. She is too young. Perhaps she’ll understand that it is for the best.
19 Sept. I am a Greengrass no longer. Already I feel better.
Never did Honoria write more than three sentences, which made her daughter feel better, for she had no desire to delve deeper into her mother’s addled mind. And yet, perhaps passed on from that same mother who had so scarred her, Astoria felt some macabre force guiding her hand as she flipped through the pages of her mother’s diary.
The worst part of being kept in this tower room, worse even than the mirror that ought to reflect Honoria Selwyn’s brilliant smirk, even more terrifying than the bit of her soul kept in the plain little book, was the isolation. If she were confined to the palace as a whole and not just the tower room, then Astoria would have felt much better. Then she might distract herself from the horrors of her bedchamber, and allow her rational sense to peek out from under the bloody sheets blocking it in her own troubled mind. But no. There was precious little to do up there, other than to read and reread and re-retch at the diary. If, at the absolute least, she could look out the window properly!
It was not to be, and Astoria busied herself for some hours in finding a way out. It was the Selwyn palace, after all, and her mother had made extensive renovations in her time here. Surely she might have suffered delusions and installed secret exits? It was a comforting notion that she found time-consuming, and increasingly frustrating. The tower bedroom was secluded, a disintegrating gilt prison that had no purpose other than to restrain the occupant. But Astoria was not mad! No, no, she was anything but. A little touched in the head, granted, but how could she be anything less, having been conceived by a madwoman, suckled by a madwoman, raised by that very same madwoman? But she was not mad! Not that, never that.
As the hours turned into days, Astoria forgot all that had transpired outside the tower room, even outside the palace. Her childhood at that crumbling manor whose name she could not remember, her schooling at that grand castle, her flight for her life with the man who could easily take it away–it all faded away, rendered useless in her search for escape. Even a week after her interment in the tower, when the Dark Lord fell at a boy’s feet, she did not know it, and she continued busying herself in scratching at the unrelenting walls in desperation. Though her fingers became bloody with clawing at the unshakable tower, she continued. Behind the bedpost, beside the window, even the stone floor, which broke her fragile nails and scratched her throat, she searched and searched and did not stop.
Finally, she chanced to investigate the expanse of wall behind the cobwebby mirror. It was stone here, too, as was the whole chamber, but as she ran her bloody fingers, there was a different quality in the stone. It was smoother, newer, not yet bruised by broken glass and grating screams from madwomen. Astoria remembered how just days ago–yesterday? The day before? Time came to a standstill in this place–she was sure Honoria would have arranged for an exit. Yes, yes, this had to be it! Her heartbeat quickened in an almost positive way, as opposed to the frequent palpitations she had experienced ever since her interment.
With a great oomph of effort and a surprise gasp of pain, Astoria shoved the block of stone to the side. It gave easily, compared to what she expected, but she was not aware that for the first time, there was adrenaline running through her veins instead of terror, and that lent her strength she would never have applied to such a task. It was dark in the cavity, and damp as well, so she almost hesitated in entering. But anything had to be better than seeing her mother’s almost-spirit smirking at her in the mirror, and the bedstead, and the very walls, so she ventured in, hardly mindful of the mouse dropping and rat skeletons lying in wait. Astoria assumed it was some sort of tunnel network, winding down unrecorded corridors until it emerged into a hall of some sort, from which escape would be quick, and she trekked deeper inside. She struggled to call up images from her life beyond the tower, but somehow it was blocked still, though she felt in her bones that she was so close to… what was that thing called? Freedom, perhaps.
But, despite careful prodding and wilder clawing, the cavity was no tunnel. There was no connection to the rest of the palace, no way to freedom. Upon realizing that there really was nothing left for her, Astoria considered running out, covering the cavity, and smashing the mirror on the fake wall in revenge; perhaps spiting her distant mad mother would open up some other venue of escape.
In the end, Astoria could not do it. She left the cavity open, yawning into the tower bedchamber, a reminder of all that was waiting outside for her, if only she could escape. In the days to come, she would throw spell after hex after jinx after pillowcase at the wall, hoping that it might widen. When that did not work, she attacked it herself, tears staining grime and dust streaking forearms. Still it did not budge, and Astoria was left to her own devices, for the time being.
She spent much of the early days of her interment in a dazed state between sleep and consciousness– sleep, as she refused to surrender and needed to so very badly, and conscious, as she waited hopelessly for someone, anyone, to notice and save her. When she tired of that, she was drawn all the time to the ledger, which was never beyond her arm’s reach. There was something oddly transfixing about her mother’s terse, shameless sentences, and though she fought it with all her might and threw it sometimes into the cavity and at the mirror, which would not break no matter what she tried, she could not draw her eyes away from it for long.
Somehow, Astoria stumbled through the remainder of spring, the entirety of summer, and autumn. She tried to keep track of time by looking through the window and observing the fields of flowers and barley that she believed were outside, but the seal of blue fire was too strong; if she went to close to it, she knew that it would kill her. It took some days, or weeks, or months, for her to realize that, if she maneuvered the old mirror in a certain position, it could pierce through the fire and reflect the world beyond the tower.
For this, she was immensely grateful, and upon this discovery, tried to keep away from the yawning cave and mesmerizing diary by staring into the warped surface of the mirror. There was not much to see, but sometimes she saw farmers and travelers pass by the palace, though she never saw their shudder. Always she stared, transfixed by the reverse world of the mirror, which might have been an improvement, had it not been for the fact that Astoria had a short-lived attention span and could only stare out for so long.
3 Nov. They anger me with their crying. They do not stop, but they will. Perhaps then I might rest.
5 Nov. The servants are gone. Then perhaps the screaming will stop.
6 Nov. It has not.
How funny it is, Astoria thought, that after ten years, still the screaming goes on.
An innumerable distance away, on a severe December’s night in London, a young man locked up his shop, his eyes never truly aware of what work his wand wrought. Draco Malfoy was more concerned with the dangers lurking around every corner, in every alleyway, behind every building façade. Though he hadn’t had any cases since that of the missing Greengrass sister, horrible rumors winged their way through the city, though there was no evidence to support, refute, or qualify any of them. Nonetheless, he was tenser than usual tonight; once he was sure the office was as safe as possible, he buried his head deeper into his fur-lined winter cloak and fought to get to the end of the Alley and safety. As the countdown to Yuletide shrank, the district experienced more and more half-cheerful holiday shopping. Perhaps they realized that it would not do to live in constant fear when there was no threat to be specifically pinpointed.
That mindset, as Draco knew, was complete poppycock. Too much had happened in his lifetime alone that merited complete relaxation, even in the face of an abstract enemy. His holiday plans were mercurial–one minute, he would be downing shots with Pansy, the next he would be lunching with his parents, the next working. For now, he was content with stopping in at the Leaky Cauldron for what solace he could buy.
Inside the pub, there was an acrid smell of burning bread mixed with those same poppies he had been inhaling for weeks. Also mixed in was the altogether discomforting stench of sweat and spirits. The Leaky Cauldron was still the most reputable establishment this side of the Thames, but it had fed its share of seedy patrons. Draco, as he elbowed his way to the bar, felt distinctly alienated from his fellow wizards, for they Charmed their barstools to edge away from his.
At last, a nondescript little blonde girl strode forward with her wand tucked behind her ear and a pad of lined paper in hand. “Can I help you?” she asked.
Draco, in all of his wisdom, knew precisely who the barmaid was, but refrained from insinuating any sort of familiarity. “Yeah. Get me soup and a drink. Doesn’t matter what.”
The girl stood a second longer than necessary before leaving and hollering at the magical appliances. Draco didn’t watch her go about her business, and stared at the counter, tracing the whorls of the well-worn wood with his finger.
What seemed like moments later, the barmaid returned, and Draco looked up. However, the only thing she held was her pad of paper, not Draco’s meal.
“Something the matter?”
“Yeah, actually.” She put down her lone possession and took up his hand instead. For whatever reason, he did not snatch it back immediately. “You know Daphne Greengrass is staying here, right?”
He nodded. His hand started to twitch in hers, but she held on all the tighter. Her other patrons began to stare.
“She told me to send you to her room after you’d eaten,” the barmaid explained, pausing as she glared down the potbellied wizard sitting on Draco’s left. “Said something about her father and something that sounded like shallots. Except she was… er, how do I put this politely? Well, she was…”
The barmaid cringed, but nodded as well. “So I wasn’t sure if she really wanted me to do that, so I just sent a message up to her room to make sure. There was no answer, so I went up to check myself… but… Draco, her room’s all ransacked. I looked. The sheets are torn, the mirror’s broken, the vanity’s destroyed, and I can’t find Daphne anywhere. I was thinking, since you know her better–”
Draco withdrew his hand at last and pushed himself off of the stool. The scent of food now seemed more appealing to his air-starved nostrils, and he regretted taking off so soon. But his responsibility, it seemed, rested with his client.
“Of course, of course. Figures she leaves at dinner.” He met the barmaid’s eyes for the first and final time, and saw the cool head reigning in the not undue terror. “Thanks for the tip, Hannah.”
Hannah Abbot, for that was her name, gave her old classmate and current patron a thin-lipped grimace. “Room twelve.”
Draco clenched his fist, unsurprised to find that there was a substantial weight enclosed inside. The teeth of the key bit into his hand, and he wondered if the jagged edges might draw blood. As Hannah went on with her duties and he shoved his way to the stairwell, he peeked at his hand, and there it was.
How ironic it was, then, that in the dim light, his pure blood looked like mud.
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