“You are Connor Vanderbilt, of Azkaban?” says the Minister to my nephew.
“Yes, sir,” says Connor obediently.
“Have you ever heard of a false memory, Mr Vanderbilt?” says the Minister bluntly, and I am surprised at how quickly Shacklebolt is able to direct the questioning.
Connor nods. “Yes, sir. My father taught me how to implant one.”
“Your father did?” The Minister frowns.
“It was necessary when I served both the Order and the Dark Lord.” He says this without any emotion at all.
“Mrs Wood, have you any experience with false memories?” The Minister turns his attention to me.
“Of course not,” I say.
“Yet you were able to implant one in the mind of your nephew, so that he would believe he had committed the murders of his parents.”
“I did no such thing.” But I do not say I am incapable of doing so.
“Evidence, Mrs Wood,” says the Minister, exasperated. “We have your eyewitness account that clearly puts you at the fire that destroyed the Vanderbilt mansion!”
“Excuse me, Minister,” says a new voice, one I haven’t heard before.
A slim woman, her hair held back by her hat, stands up from the midst of the scarlet-clad Wizengamot members.
Connor hears her, sees her, and his head snaps up. “Jessie,” he says quietly.
Why is my family here? Do they enjoy watching this torment?
“Mrs Prewett,” the Minister says, his forehead creasing again. “Yes?”
“May I ask her a question?”
Shacklebolt pauses, deliberating. “Go ahead. Make it civil, Mrs Prewett.”
“All right,” says Jessica, staring me in the eye. “Why did you kill Mum and Dad? What did they ever do to you besides be family?”
The courtroom goes still, anticipating my reaction.
I do not know what makes me say it, but I reply, “Family is the most dangerous foe you have in wartime. If you have family, powerful family, you have a death sentence placed upon you automatically. Does it matter what side you are on? No. Look at your father-in-law, Jessica. He was a Prewett, he was murdered.”
“So you killed them to save your own skin?” says my niece bitingly.
“Just like your brother betrayed those boys to the Dark Lord—he was trying to protect himself and you. It is the way of the Vanderbilts, niece. We always come first, others second.”
“How d’you know about my friends?” she says in a near whisper. “What makes you think Con betrayed them? For all we know it could have been anyone.”
“The Dark Lord,” Connor says suddenly, startling everyone. “She said the Dark Lord. Death Eaters. For the greater good. Unflinching loyalty. He comes first. Secrecy. Dark Mark.” He holds out his left forearm; the skull-and-snake is still visible, several shades lighter than normal. “See hers. It hasn’t gone yet. Scars from the Dark Lord.”
It is all a load of rubbish, spoken by someone turned mad, but I do think the court eats it up.
“See hers,” says Connor again, pointing to me. “See hers. I saw it that night. Dark and burning. She touched mine. It hurt, I cried. She shushed me. She put her finger to hers. Pressed it. Pain, pain, I was on fire. Like the house I was on fire. I could hear him. He was happy. I’ve never heard him so happy. He told her to come back; she’d done what she was supposed to do. He would reward her if she came back quickly…would give her anything she desired. She wanted Percy. Burn the foreign witch. Burn the polluted blood. Burn her brother, on the orders of the Dark Lord. Burn the house. That was an accident. She wanted the house too. The fire got out of control, she couldn’t manage it. And the house went. In all her powers the house was lost.”
The Minister…Dear God, the Minister’s face…
And I know it is all over. Everything I worked for, everything I tried to hide, has come crashing round me. Can I save myself, as I have done in the past? Proclaim my innocence?
Minister Shacklebolt says coldly to me, “Hold out your left arm, Mrs Wood.”
“He’s mad,” I say quickly, too quickly. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying!”
“Oh, I can assure you he does,” says Logan McKinnon. “Always truthful, Con.”
“I never meant for all this to happen,” I announce wildly, looking round at the Wizengamot; quite a few are shaking their heads. Too many are muttering. “Please—”
“Hold it out,” snaps the Minister, rising from his high podium.
I do so. My arm is clear as porcelain, without a single blemish.
“Nothing there,” I say smoothly.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” says Logan, seizing my forearm. He touches the tip of his wand to a particular spot. Under his breath he murmurs, “I had to do the same thing to Connor. I know how this works, aunt. I swear to God you’ll pay for everything.”
He says this low enough so that only I can hear; I am very slightly trembling.
“Demorsmordre!” says Logan, loudly this time.
I let out a cry; it feels as if my skin is being peeled off my arm. The smell of cooked flesh is repugnant—my teeth chatter in an effort to hold back the pain. But still I look at my nephew; our gazes are locked, blue into blue.
“D’you not regret it?” I whisper. “I paid the price years ago.”
“My mum and dad never deserved to die,” he says through gritted teeth.
His black shirtsleeve slides up to his elbow while he applies a bit more pressure; he is left-handed, as we all are. It is another Vanderbilt trait…
What is that? I wonder, and I reach out to touch the strange blotch, which looks rather like a badly done tattoo. Finally I realise exactly what it is, and back away from my nephew with an intake of breath.
“You—you—you were one of them too!” I say. “But Logan…why?”
“I had no choice,” he says, focused on whatever torture he is performing. The throbbing is so awful I can barely breathe, but he takes little notice. “They had already murdered my friends, and my brother. I was the only one left…besides Ayden Bones, that is. We were both inducted, forced, into his service. It was either that or die. Although Ayden chose to run,” he adds bitterly, “and left me behind. But I saved my own skin, just like you—saved—yours. Arghhhh!”
His face contorts suddenly; I cry out again at the quick searing heat, and then there is nothing.
“There you go, Minister,” says Logan, thrusting my arm out.
The Minister does not respond. Neither do the Wizengamot.
They are staring, dumbstruck, at the skull-and-snake…
Logan’s spell has wiped away the magic I used to cover it, every last bit, leaving my exposed skin raw and vulnerable.
I know now I am done for.