Chapter 5 : Lyonesse
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Astoria watched him for three days.
It was the twenty-seventh of December, and she had missed Christmas and Boxing Day both, but she did not think to care. In her old life–was that a life?–the holidays were a happy time, tinged with lingering guilt and longing. It was much the same on this Yuletide: golden-white guilt and meltwater longing. But she was not happy–it had been such a long time since she even thought of the word–no, she was not happy, but she was in some other unnamable state. If she thought about it, she would understand that what she felt was fascination, beyond anything else she had experienced in her short life. Fascination, with which was mixed terror, fear, awe, and some curious tingling feeling that, in another world, she might have termed desire.
But she was not concerned with words. She was concerned with the man in the depths of the river, tainted not with the cerulean blue of the flame-seal at the window, but with dirty white. Though the snow had stopped falling on her tower on the first day, the snow continued with him well into the second.
It was on that second day that she saw his face.
His black cloak turned gray with dirt-flecked ice and meltwater, which washed the maroon from his hands. He was pure once more, though his skin held the same pallor as the bones Astoria once screamed at.
Pure. He continued following the frozen meltwater river down the hill and into the rolling valley. She watched his progress, gasped whenever he fell into a snowdrift, clutched that aching organ in her chest when the wind pushed him onto the river. Her body shook with fear when the ice cracked underneath him and his body fell under–but for naught had she trembled, for he fought the water like a knight might a dragon, and heaved himself to frozen snow.
He had discarded the black-grey-white cloak, thus exposing that visage to the elements, cruel and unyielding. Astoria gasped once more, a gasp that rent her body with its force, as if every organ had taken up the responsibility of committing this moment to memory–one could only see another’s face for the first time once, after all. It was a long face, angular and pointy-chinned; lines sharp enough to draw blood, she imagined. His eyes were deeply sunken in, a darker grey than the cloak now was, but all the more mesmerizing because of it. He was breathing heavily after his escapade in the river, and coughing up the icy water, all the while fumbling with the branch that he still had not relinquished. He was saying something–she couldn’t quite hear what, and cursed the mirror for its weakness–and then from the branch grew cobalt flames, which flickered and danced in the wind like fire of any other kind… even like the one barring her window.
Astoria, however, did not spare the window and its strange seal another thought, because the knight was at the riverbank and what would happen to him if she was not there, with her benevolent, curious eye to guide him, help him, warm him? Indeed, though his teeth–even, white–clattered with cold, the blue flames seemed to help, and yet they were so feeble… too much flickering, not enough burning. Astoria pursed her lips. No, no, the knight could never recover like this!
And yet, he did. It took some time, she wasn’t sure how much, before he began moving again, but she sighed when he stood once more; in motion, it would be harder to study his face. But as the day melted into night and he snaked his way through the valley and the river, and her eyes remained riveted on him, she realized that watching his movements was almost akin to hearing him speak. He moved haltingly, still feeling the effects of his dousing in the river water, and stopped frequently to inspect his powdery white surroundings, though inspect was not really the right word, as anyone else might note. No, no, there was something deeper than scientific interest in the way he peered at the desolate white wasteland. Fear? No, no. Wariness? Perhaps. Weariness? Likely.
Astoria watched him through the night, hardly breathing, and when the night burned in sunlight and far, far away, a rooster crowed its wicked cry, she found the knight coming out of the valley of snow and now straying away from the riverbank. She didn’t remember him coming out of the hills’ reach at any time in that night, but she was so riveted by his movement and the very fact that he could move at all that she probably had not noticed it in the first place; after all, what was the world but a cruel place that had tried to take the knight, with those unholy flowers beyond the tower window?
On the third morning, he disappeared.
Draco walked for three hours.
It was the twenty-fourth day of December, and he couldn’t care less. His spirit was so leeched by his encounter with Daphne that he could not bear to face the world without her, even if the world did not know of her and did not care. And so he followed the meltwater stream not far from the base of the Greengrass’s little knoll, rather than Apparate away with all speed. Speed was not the key, not here, not now. Now was the time for repetitive, numbing work. Traversing the path away from the skeleton manse was just that, and while there was no way he might enjoy the tedium, it was better than anything else.
Daphne probably took the chance and Apparated away, long ago. But then again, she might have been there, just out of reach, as he had examined her blood on the beam. Her blood. He felt sick just thinking about it. It had branded itself on his mind’s eye with greater clarity than he had seen in many months. Not since his Branding had one image stuck with him so greatly, and with such weighty consequences.
The first hour, he followed the stream south. It was a boring stretch of land, with only knolls freshly doused in snow to break up the otherwise monotonous path. To his eyes, whose color balance was thrown off by the horrid sights he’d witnessed, the snow was dirtier than usual. Grey. Acid-touched. Impure. It fit his emotional landscape quite well; he was almost pleased at the idea of nature sympathizing with him, the idea that some great cosmic power Out There had seen his story and mirrored it. You are not alone, the heavens seemed to say. You are desolate, but you are not alone.
The second hour, as the snow fell in greater and heavier clumps, he started to tire of his journey. The walking–endless walking, who knew how far he was now from the skeleton of the Greengrass manse–had served its purpose too well. His mind, and body, and maybe even his soul were numbed sufficiently by now, and he wished that he had the fortitude to give up, desires quenched, and go home the right way, the normal way. He had Christmas preparations to make–he hadn’t bought his mother a gift yet, nor had he sent his father one; hell, he wasn’t even sure what he was doing to spend the holiday. But all that could wait.
When he nearly lost hold of his senses, midway through the second hour, he slid onto the frozen meltwater.
The ice broke beneath him.
He was under.
It was the temperature of the water that shocked him into awareness. He had never felt so cold in his life; this was stronger than any magic, thicker than blood. He was nearly swept away by the current, a merciless vessel of pain and ice, before he remembered that his life was not over quite yet. Daphne was on the loose in a world she did not understand, and that did not understand her. And the other girl, the sister, she had to be found. And there were Christmas presents to be bought.
So when he emerged, and had succumbed to his instincts for magic, he resolved to walk only as far as he could without collapsing. Anxiety was eating at him, and then vomiting his insides out again. He had been out here, all alone, so vulnerable. And at such a time! The rumors, after all… the rumors of another Uprising. Whatever it was they whispered in the streets, he didn’t want to know.
The whispers, they spread like sickness in the closed cities… and would creep to the wilderness, to this, the heart of the pureblood society. He, with that name that still held sway in some lands, would end up here. The reason why the world was still in shambles had to be here, watching him, waiting for a chance. Draco was a traitor, after all. Turned in names, working for the public good.
Draco was a traitor, and He would do him in before he approached anyone else.
Draco staggered away from the river–clearly a ploy, a tool in their plot to kill him–and from the compacted ground near it. He had to get away, to civilization. At least that was safer than this. The Greengrass girls and the vigilantes and nature, all stalking him, all wanting something from him, all slowly surely sweetly killing him–
In the third hour, he disappeared.
In Prague, the Orloj in the Old Town Square struck twelve. Unsafe in their homes, cushioned by tradition and illusion, the Czech rejoiced in their dreams about the coming holiday. No nightmares awaited them in their oblivious slumber. They had nothing to fear.
The Astronomical Clock’s deep, mournful bell sounded deep within the venerable, crumbling walls, shaking the foundations of the buildings closest to it. These were the structures frequented by summertime tourists and patriotic natives, the ones with histories dating back for centuries. They were nothing compared to the steel structures in the New Town, but still their shadows stretched across the Vltava river, marking the ground where worlds had been created and destroyed.
The streets made up for their lack of human life with an overabundance of Yuletide enthusiasm. Chief among them was the great Christmas tree in the center of the Square, strung with white lights and drawing an ignorant eye to its considerable bulk. The rest of the city was still lit mechanically, which threw upon the empty streets a strange sort of glow: unsettled, unpleasant, like a camera flash going off too close to the subject. The bones of the city were visible under the harsh joyous light. The moon and stars were shielded over Prague on Christmas Day, and the river only reflected that which was already there.
Most dynamic in this part of town was the girl in the royal blue cloak. At least, it had been royal blue once, not that long ago. It was dirty now with weeks of neglect, and there was a hole sitting smugly on the hemline. Daphne felt the chill Eastern wind coming in through the tear and shivered. She didn’t like the cold. She didn’t like the holidays, either. The last holiday she could remember spending was in that other life. Her gift was a winter downpour, cleaned at last of acid. Nothing had felt worse.
She was not scared of being alone in the foreign city, for she was no stranger to it. She had spent most of her time in the Old Town Square, staring up at the Clock here, at Prague Castle not that far away, relishing in the Eastern European brand of magic. There was something inherently more morbid in the magic that ran through the Vltava, and she found that it suited her well. The history here, both magical and otherwise, was drenched in the occult. And the fantasy of it, of the Old Town specifically, was nothing like what she had seen in Cornwall. The castles there were quaint, picturesque, where one could imagine tea being served with cakes. The rooms of the Prague Castle seemed to come alive with intrigue, and in her head, Daphne saw the terror of her imagined court, and shivered more. It made sense for her to come here. It made sense that her mother was here.
To Daphne’s disappointment, the facility was in the New Town. Even the Czech Ministry knew it was too dangerous to allow its inhabitants into the Old Town. Intrigue sang in the water, after all. She crossed the Charles Bridge over the river and into the New Town, which was still a district of Historic Prague. As such, it was still embedded in a quietly crumbling neighborhood, with storied buildings and decaying facades. It was not long before she found the one she sought.
This one was a private building. The owner was a local psychiatrist and a wizard as well; he had converted the place some decades earlier, when the government realized how the city attracted the unbalanced and the dangerous. He said nothing when he saw the dark-haired girl, the hood of her cloak pushed defiantly off of her face. He never said anything. He was in his robes, and once she had come inside, he turned on his heel and went to his quarters. She knew the way.
There were not that many patients here, not anymore. Prague had fallen in recent years, reemerging from its dark history as a center of culture and tourism. She was one of the few chronics. As if this were prison.
Daphne removed her cloak before she went into the third room on the left of the second floor. She did not want to be seen in such a tatty thing. She would have to get something else soon enough, something better. Maybe the Malfoy boy would be kind enough to buy it for her, as a Christmas present. She smoothed her hair back, straightened her skirt, and pinched some color into her cheeks.
Ignoring her fluttering heart and dizzy head, she pushed the last door open.
Honoria Selwyn was sleeping. She did that a lot nowadays. There wasn’t much else to do. Talk to the Healers, if she felt like it. Eat something, if she could be forced into it. Sleep all other times. She was on good behavior now; once a week she was permitted a book. After some weeks, she learned not to write in them, and the scabs on her palms dried.
But Honoria Selwyn had always been a light sleeper, and awoke when she felt the dry chill from beyond her cell door. For a few moments she simply breathed it in, before choking on the foreign substances in the air. Its imperfection was the most natural, chaotic thing she had born witness to in what seemed like millennia.
Her gaze was dulled under confinement, but she recognized the figure at her doorstep. She hadn’t been to visit in some time, but she didn’t miss her.
“Happy Christmas, Mama.” Daphne sat down on the chair next to the bed. It was usually reserved for the Healers; as such, it was more comfortable than Honoria Selwyn deserved.
“Did you bring a present for your mama?” asked the older woman, holding her coughs hostage in her ribcage. She never looked straight at her child. Perhaps it was because her eyes were failing her, or maybe it was her focus. Or maybe she could not recognize this pillar of restrained madness as her own. “If it’s Christmas, I demand a present. I am your mama, aren’t I?”
Daphne didn’t answer. She didn’t feel the need to answer, hardly aware that it was indeed a question.
“Doesn’t your poor, lovely, suffering mama deserve a Christmas present? Or does she?” Honoria Selwyn seemed to tower over her visitor, though she was still reclining–nearly restrained–in bed. She reached a thin, long-nailed hand out to her night table, and turned on the little Muggle lamp sitting there. The incandescent light bulb threw twisting, sinister shadows across her face, and hid Daphne’s face. She was grateful for that. “Here I lie in filth and ignominy, lonely and victimized by these abhorrent foreigners, and there you are, with nice clothes and a healthy complexion, clearly better off than me. This is a season of giving and generosity, and you, you abomination, you did not think to bring your helpless mama a little bauble to put on her night table! The tiniest gesture! The slightest acknowledgement of all I have suffered, you did not think to bring.” Her lips, dry and chapped and pale with cold, curled into a feral snarl. “I do not want a child so insensitive, so ungrateful. You will leave my presence this instant and you will not return until you have my present in your hands.”
“But Mama, I have–I mean–I’ve nearly–”
But she would hear none of it. “I am not your mama, am I, you silly girl? You might have thought to ease my suffering and my sorrow with a little bauble, a little ornament, a little glass globe that I might look at and remember, ah yes, I’ve a daughter who still remembers me, but–but I’ve nothing. And thus, I am not your mama, and you will leave. Now.”
Daphne was still as stone. She did not move for a few moments, and watched her mother’s eyes dart around her cell. These outbursts were not unexpected, but each time they occurred, each time spittle flew from her mouth and her eyes glowed suddenly with furor, Daphne fell silent and imagined herself under a wailing Cornwall sky. Her sins were not washed away by the angry drops of rain. They collected on her surface as if she were a windowpane, and fell one after another until she could not see clearly through her own eyes. So she closed them in this instant and turned off the lamp.
Honoria Selwyn seemed satisfied and went back to sleep.
Daphne was still even in the dynamic movement of her leaving the room. And when the words “I found her” slipped through her lips, it seemed that she had not spoken at all.
Just as she eased the door shut, Honoria Selwyn woke. After an instant, she kicked off the covers and crossed the distance from her bed to the threshold.
Some minutes later, the Healer on duty on Christmas Day hurried to the wards to smother some madwoman’s screaming. She was thrust back in her bed shortly after, and was forced into sleep with her daughter’s words ringing in her ears.
In an instant, it was almost as if he never existed. But Astoria knew better.
She knew he had been there, as well as she knew that she was doomed to die in the tower. Three days of watching him, of wandering along through snow and ice and frozen rivers later, and now he was gone. Gone. This didn’t seem right. It couldn’t be right. It was just about as right as the flowers growing and dying underneath her careless, frenzied eyes. Just as unnatural. What was wrong with the blossoms, breaking so completely, she couldn’t have said–an adverse effect of the blood and chills that ran through the spine of the Selwyn palace, perhaps, or maybe it was just the echoes of her own screams coming back to haunt her. But the boy, the knight, with the branch of blue fire and the submerged body and… and…
He existed. The frantic pace of her heart was proof of that. The fever growing in her eyes, that was proof. It was an alien sensation, to be so invested and so sure of something as unattainable as the knight on the riverbank, and it drained her to no end. She paced her tower bedroom, fell into fitful sleep, stared out the window. All of the time, hungrily she devoured any idea, any notion, any sign of the knight who simply had to be.
A world beyond the tower was dangerous. She was not ready for that; she would die if she left the tower. Six months (though she did not know it) had past since her interment. Much had changed. Even the course of nature, with its furious snowstorms and inimical plant life, had shifted since that time. To leave was to die.
Three more paces. Her heart was foreign to her now, her mind rendered useless; it had flown into the poppy fields and buried itself down there. Her instincts for all of the moments that made up her solitary, terrifying interment had involved her escape. There was her mother, cackling in the corner and scribbling in the ledger and brushing a fair little child’s hair before the mirror, and there were the bonds that kept her, Astoria, with the ghost of those gold-coated days. And there, beyond the window, encrusted as it was in blue fire, was the world.
There was a sweet, bitter, rancorous desire bubbling at the tip of her tongue, at her nerve endings, her quick-moving blood. It was hardly an articulated feeling, resting deep within her person, but it was enough.
Behind her, Honoria Selwyn’s mirror cracked from side to side.
It was quick, as if singed by lightning, and similarly graceful. The sound it made vibrated in the still, musty air, and struck a chord in Astoria’s restless soul. Though cracked, it did not break. When she spared a glance at what her handiwork had wrought, she saw nothing. No knight, no mother, no child. A monster was there, true, but she did not see it, or chose not to see it, or something of that nature. The creature in the cracked mirror meant nothing.
The curse is come upon me.
Author's Note I saved my remarks for the end because, let's face it, I've left this hanging long enough. What can I say? I'm at a difficult point in my life, and that does take precedence. You have no idea how sorry I am.
No, this is not the last chapter. As this is already significantly longer than usual, the next chapter, Camelot, WILL be the last chapter. I intend to have it up before 2010.
I'd also like to add, belatedly I suppose, that I am very, very honored that Snow Red was recognized in the first Story Seekers podcast on the forums, back in late August/early September. It points out less popular but still great stories, and I'm truly grateful to LovlyRita and Springtime for featuring this - still can't believe it. Easily the highlight of my fanfic career.
I'm also grateful to you guys, if you made it all the way down here. To everyone who has been waiting (Susan, I'm looking at you) - I hope this was worth it.
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