Megan Erickson walked slowly through the long halls of Malfoy Manor, levitating her trunk with the wand in her right hand and gripping her daughter’s small hand with her left. Tall vaulted archways towered above them, and everywhere she looked Megan could recognize the polished dark wood, shining silver, and elaborately embroidered cloth of old magical antiques. The Malfoys were evidently very rich—they decorated their house in the same classical manner that the Ericksons did.
With little hesitation and the outward grace of well-bred affluence, Megan called ahead to her guide, “Your family keeps a very nice home, Mrs. Malfoy.”
Cecile Malfoy, Lucius’s mother, turned around. There was nothing but coldness in her eyes as she regarded Megan. “Yes, I suppose we do.” Without waiting for Megan and little Daisy to catch up, she continued down the hall, her heels clacking in brisk rhythm. “While you are a guest here, Mrs. Erickson, you’ll find nothing to be lacking. If you need any comfort—food, drink, amusement for the child, extra toiletries—you need only inform a passing house elf. They will see to it that your request is taken care of.”
“Thank you for your kindness,” Megan said, with every intention of feeling grateful. Why was it, then, that she felt like Cecile could not care less for her guests’ well-being? It seemed like this blonde woman was only moving through the motions of receiving guests politely—she had likely done it a million times over. If anything, though, for reasons Megan could not explain, Cecile seemed decidedly untrustworthy.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the other house guest Cecile Malfoy currently harbored was the most dangerous wizard in all of Europe.
They climbed a flight of stairs and passed several doors on the landing. One of them was halfway ajar, revealing a small but grandly furnished study. Inside, three dark-haired adults conversed. As they passed, the only woman in the room looked up through the doorway and Megan caught her eye.
“Well, what do we have here?” the woman cooed, rising from her seat and coming out to the landing. The two men with whom she had been talking followed her. Ahead, Megan saw Cecile pause and turn back around, her face stiff with barely-concealed unhappiness.
“I’m Megan Erickson, and this is my daughter Daisy,” Megan said politely.
“Bellatrix Lestrange,” was the reply. The men said nothing. Megan held onto Daisy’s hand tighter—this woman seemed even less trustworthy than Cecile Malfoy. As Bellatrix drew closer, Megan noticed with apprehension the wild look in her eyes. Wisps of her hair floated about her pale, gaunt face like a dark halo, and she regarded them with a hungry, fanatical glee that unnerved Megan.
“It’s nice to meet you, Bellatrix,” she said in a strained voice, and made to move on down the hall, but Bellatrix stepped in her way.
“Bella—” Cecile began.
Bellatrix grinned at Megan, baring her front teeth. “I hope you enjoy your stay here. Our Lord is very hospitable to his guests…if you’re the sort that he likes, of course.” She peered closely into Megan’s face until Megan could feel her breath on her cheek. “You are the sort he likes, aren’t you?”
There was a tense silence before Daisy said in a small voice, “Ouch! You’re crushing my hand, Mummy.”
Megan hurriedly eased her grip on her daughter, but Bellatrix had already turned her gaze to the small girl. “Well, aren’t you the sweetest thing,” she whispered, her gaze wide and predatory. She bent down until she was at eye level with Daisy. “How old are you, dear?”
“I’m five,” Daisy replied, but she shrank away from the other woman and into her mother’s side.
“Oh, don’t be afraid, dear.” Bellatrix was smiling again and Megan could feel every muscle in her wand arm tense. She didn’t like the baby voice with which Bellatrix spoke to Daisy—it sounded like a trick, a mockery, and a danger all at once. “I know you probably don’t like strangers, but I won’t be a stranger. We’ll be the best of friends,” she told the little girl sweetly.
“Bella,” Cecile interjected more firmly.
“Oh, relax, Tante Cecile. I’m just playing,” Bellatrix replied. Still crouching on the floor, she caught sight of the stuffed rabbit that hung by its white ear from Daisy’s free hand. “Let me see your rabbit, Daisy.”
Daisy shook her head.
“Let me see it,” Bellatrix commanded. “If we’re going to be friends, we can share each other’s toys, right?”
Daisy began to shake her head more fervently. With a sob, she tried to duck behind Megan’s skirt and escape, but Bellatrix reached out and made a playful grab for the stuffed rabbit. A horrendous smash sounded behind them suddenly as Megan’s wand arm twitched in anger and brought her levitated trunk crashing to the marble tiles on the ground.
Seconds ticked by in frozen silence. Trembling in indignation, Megan looked from the old Malfoy woman to the other men but saw no sign of compassion or understanding on any of their faces. Finally, Bellatrix rose and began to walk back through the doorway from which she came.
“Make sure you’re extra careful with that rabbit, Daisy,” she called behind her. “You wouldn’t want something bad to happen to him.”
When the door to the study had clicked closed, Megan levitated her trunk again and she, Daisy, and Cecile continued on without a word.
Erickson paced across his large room in Malfoy Manor, back and forth and back and forth again until he had worn a groove into the thick oriental carpets that blanketed the ground. His mind worked feverishly without having much of a problem to contemplate. His pacing was half to ease his agitated nerves, and half to simply have something to do to stave off the fear that chilled his lungs every time he took a breath.
“Would you please stop that, Matt?” his wife Megan snapped. “It’s making me so nervous.”
She was perched tensely on the upholstered armchair in the corner of the room, next to the white wooden desk that nobody had used since Erickson and his family was given these rooms. Megan had taken up permanent residence in that armchair during the day, wringing her hands and glancing out of the window over the long expanse of lawn that surrounded Malfoy Manor.
“Why don’t you lie down and rest for a bit,” Erickson suggested distractedly, still pacing. “You look tired, and it would help your nerves.”
“I’m not tired!” Megan cried. Then she realized that screeching made her sound even more unhinged than she felt, and probably proved her husband’s point further. “I can’t lie down, in any case,” she said in a softer voice. “I know you have to go downstairs soon. I won’t be able to fall asleep.”
Erickson knew that Megan now neglected the bed because during the first few nights while they had lain together and tried unsuccessfully to go to sleep, she had felt so unsafe and vulnerable. They had both tossed and turned in fits, so that even if one of them managed to drift off into exhausted sleep, the other’s nervous movement would soon wake them again. After a few torturous nights, they made a silent agreement to switch off keeping watch every few hours so that the other would feel safe to sleep.
“Megan,” Erickson said, stopping to face her. He raised his eyebrows at her pointedly. “I’ve told you before, there’s nothing to worry about. You’re perfectly safe.”
Erickson and Megan tried to keep up the semblance that everything was okay for the sake of their five-year-old daughter Daisy, but it seemed that no matter how hard they tried Daisy was picking up on their unrest. Her little figure, sleeping on the small cot in the corner of the room, was now frequently wracked with silent screams and nightmare struggles. For the past few nights, Megan had walked over to her in the darkness, scooped her up, and brought her back to the large bed. She sat and rubbed her daughter’s small back until Daisy could fall asleep again, but it nearly killed Erickson to watch Megan’s silent weeping.
“It’s almost eight,” Erickson added, sitting down on the bed abruptly. He ran his hands through his hair and over his tired eyes. “Our Lord’s simulacra will be here to summon me to the meeting.”
A shiver involuntarily traveled through Megan’s entire body. “Don’t talk about that…thing,” she whispered, her eyes terrified and full of hatred. She glanced at her daughter, who was playing with a few toys on the ground at her feet. “You know Daisy doesn’t like it.”
“Then take her into the bathroom,” Erickson mouthed to her over Daisy’s head. “It’s coming.” He stood up again, ready to receive the summons.
“Wait,” Megan stopped him. She drew her wand and walked over to her husband. With a few muttered charms, the wrinkles in his rumpled robes dropped away; the strands of hair that he had displaced in agitation smoothed themselves back down onto his scalp; and even a little color returned to his pale cheeks. When she pulled him into her arms and squeezed him tightly, she could feel tears stinging her eyes. “We may look like the walking dead here, Matt,” she whispered in his ear fiercely, “but beyond these doors I’ll never let you conduct yourself with any less than the dignity that befits your position. We’ll show that monster—we are not his servants.”
“You can’t talk like that, Meg,” Erickson replied firmly. “Not here. He’s watching us.”
He began to pull away, but the reminder was too much and Megan refused to let go. She held him tighter in anger, frustration, and fear. “Please, don’t leave us,” she breathed, burying her face in his robes. “Daisy’s scared. I’m scared. You can’t leave us.”
“The simulacrum is coming, Meg.” Erickson forced himself to swallow the lump that was growing in his throat and stepped back from his wife’s embrace. “You’d better take Daisy out of here.”
With one last desperate look, Megan turned back to her daughter, who was still playing on the carpet. Only when she and Daisy were safe in the bathroom, with the shower on full blast to cover up any sound the simulacrum might make, did Erickson allow his fists to clench and his teeth to gnash in anger. He and his family were in grave danger, and he was reminded of the fact every moment of every day, whether it was when his wife whimpered softly with tears, or when his young daughter trembled at the sight of a shadow crossing the room. Yet no matter how he looked at it, there was simply no escape.
The simulacrum drifted through the wall in front of him like a ghost. Erickson jumped even though he was expecting its arrival—there was always something unsettling about the way the ball of colored light sparks could sneak up on him. Megan hated it so much precisely because it could intrude on their privacy at any time, and she was powerless to stop it.
“My Lord requires you,” it hissed in an unmistakable echo of the Dark Lord’s own voice.
With a last long look behind him at the bathroom door, Erickson got up to join the meeting.
“These are the men who brought me the editor-in-chief of the Daily Prophet,” Voldemort announced to the meeting, indicating with a flick of his hand the four Death Eaters that flanked his chair, two to a side. “Because of them, we now have Western Europe’s largest wizard newspaper under our control.” His red eyes scanned up and down the meeting room table. “This should serve as an example to everyone for the kind of success that I expect from all of you.”
The men on the dais puffed up with pride from Voldemort’s praise. Bellatrix glanced up sidelong at the Dark Lord, a small smirk creeping onto her lips. “You…you haven’t sent her back yet, have you, my Lord? The editor?”
“No, my dear,” Voldemort said, already aware of what was running through her mind, “but I cannot allow you to play with her. She must resume her post undamaged tomorrow morning.” There was a hint of cold amusement on his face.
“Please?” Bellatrix begged, a childish pout in her voice.
Voldemort spared her one last glance. “That’s enough, Bella,” he said. “We have a lot to discuss today.” He turned back to address the rest of the Death Eaters before him.
“In one week, an issue of the Daily Prophet which I have personally prepared with the editor-in-chief will be printed, and it will cause a panic,” the Dark Lord said gleefully. “Meanwhile, using the list that Lucius obtained for us from the Minister’s office, I have identified the Muggle governments which have allied themselves with the Ministry against us. Your assignment is to terminate these Muggle leaders so that when the ruckus from the Prophet has died down, Scrimgeour will not find a single remaining ally among the Muggles.”
“Deal with Muggles?” the man named Selwynn protested quietly. “But they are nothing—of no use and of no threat besides!”
Voldemort’s burning gaze was instantly upon him. “You forget who is master and who is servant among us, Selwynn,” he hissed. “Have you not thought of the consequences of the Muggle world mobilized against our cause? For that is doubtless what Scrimgeour intends to do with them: to throw them in our path and impede us while he braces himself for our attack.”
“They are like ants, my Lord,” Selwynn grumbled, not completely subdued.
“When the war is over, then, I will give Bella leave to seal you in a room completely filled with ants,” Voldemort told Selwynn coldly while Bellatrix cackled. “Perhaps then you will realize that even small, stupid creatures can cause trouble in numbers. But for now, you are not to question my orders.” The errant Death Eater fell immediately silent and complained no more.
“Terminate the Muggles and Imperius their successors,” the Dark Lord continued as if there had been no interruption. “It will make our job of conquering and taming the Muggle populations after the war much simpler if we can take control of their government heads now. You will receive your assigned targets within the next few days, and I expect the job to be completed at once.”
“Yes, my Lord,” the Death Eaters murmured all at once. While some looked disgusted at the prospect of coming in close contact with Muggles—even important ones—most were itching to begin.
Then there was a knock on the door, and the simulacrum slithered through the crack in between the double doors to drift over to the Dark Lord’s chair on the dais.
“Matthias Erickson, my Lord,” it pronounced.
“Enter,” Voldemort ordered. He waved his wand wordlessly and the doors flew open to reveal a pale and drawn man standing outside. Without bothering to introduce Erickson—he was sure that they were all familiar with him after several days’ residence at the Manor—he said, “Your targets are protected by magic alarms of this man’s creation. He will tell you how to trip the emergency deactivation option built into the on-site product, in case our friends at the Ministry fail to do so manually with the tracer.” He beckoned to Erickson to speak.
“Well,” Erickson began slowly, “the first thing you must do is find an anchoring stone. Most likely they will be scattered around the perimeter of the building, and in the corners of the rooms inside. Then, all that is needed…”
He trailed off as he caught the heat of Bellatrix Lestrange’s curious gaze on his face. “All that is needed…” Erickson tried again to speak, but hesitated. The wild-eyed woman was watching him as if he was her next meal. Nervously he looked around the room for her husband, but Rodolphus Lestrange was not present. He dared not meet the Dark Lord’s eyes, nor beseech him for assistance.
Drawing a shaky breath, Erickson wrenched his eyes from hers and continued. “All that is needed is this incantation.” He raised his wand, slashing it through the air, and said, “Deactivio!” A thin wisp of smoke rose from the end of his wand. “The smoke is normal. It is the indication that the spell has been successful.”
“Practice,” the Dark Lord commanded. Almost at once a dozen wands whipped out and calls of “Deactivio!” filled the room.
Bellatrix rose from her seat at the table and circled towards Erickson with slow, deliberate steps, a wolfish grin on her face as she leaned over his shoulder from behind. “How’s your little girl?” she whispered in his ear, her lips dangerously close to his skin. Her breath raised goose bumps along his neck and every muscle in his body clenched together stiffly. “How is Poppet? Is she feeling well? How is her little bunny, hmmm?”
A flash of scarlet anger burned across his vision, and Erickson wondered if he and his family’s lives were worth turning around and throttling this woman to death on the spot.
Erickson turned, his fists rolled, but as abruptly as she had come Bellatrix was gone. “Poppet must be lonely, staying in that room day and night with nobody to play with,” she cooed as she glided away. “If she ever wants Tante Bella to come by to have a little fun, all she need do is call.” A twisted smile curled her lips and her dark eyes, alight with a crazed spark, raked his thin form. “And the same goes for you too, love.”
“Bella, behave yourself,” Voldemort warned.
But Erickson had already fled out the door of the meeting room, furious tears spilling onto his cheeks.
“Once you can perform the spell successfully, you all are dismissed,” Voldemort told everyone else, his voice void of compassion. “Watch for your assignments. We will meet again in full at the end of the week.”
A/N: Ah, that Bellatrix. We can't help but love to hate her. I hope you enjoyed this, and I really appreciate any feedback, so if you read this please leave me a little review.
Next chapter...Harry's plan is put into action and the battle begins. I'm excited! =]
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