The sun beamed through the canopy above — a million points of light, filtered through layers of green, streaming down to the rich, red jungle soil — constantly shifting with the dripping leaves of the rain-drenched trees.
There was an air of anticipation in the village this morning that Draco could not quite make sense of. There was a lot of activity at the various huts, and a lot of movement between them, children carrying baskets, mostly. Everyone seemed busy, and no one appeared to have gone off swimming, gathering or fishing, or even sent the children off to play, which seemed to have been the norm on previous days. Instead, many of the villagers appeared to be cleaning and decorating their huts – hanging out elaborate, colorful woven banners, and straightening the small gardens that many kept between their huts and the main village pathway. He wanted to ask Titchi about it, but she had not been to visit him yet today. Neither had Nuncha, which was rather unusual, as the little girl seemed particularly curious about Draco, and she would come by and watch him even when he was sleeping.
By Draco’s calculations, he had now been among these very unusual people for twelve days. If he was correct, that made it a Tuesday. He felt compelled to try and keep track of the days. He had taken to scratching a notch for each day in the center pole of his hut, and he had asked Titchi to recount the days he had slept through after his arrival. He felt it would help him recover and maintain his judgment if he accounted at least for the passage of time.
He lay on the grass mats of his hut, not moving as a concession to the pain of his horrible sunburn. The first time he had been out in the sun for a short length of time, he had gotten a burn on his shoulders. Titchi had come to his hut with a potion, a thick, viscous, green, slimy concoction that she had rubbed into his shoulders, banishing the heat and pain immediately.
He was slowly becoming tan; his complexion was already a richer woody color, rather than the pale pink flesh that was his norm. Each time he burned he was healing a little darker, but he suspected he would always be fair, especially compared to the deep dark tones of his hosts.
This time, however, he was really burned. He had spent a good portion of the previous day swimming in the pools at the waterfalls because the cool water was soothing to the lingering soreness in his muscles. He was paying for it now, though, as he was burned from his head to his ankles. All along his back, the flesh was an angry red. His face, arms, shoulders, even his legs were burned. He lay on his belly trying not to move, his skin feeling tight and burning hot, a condition highly aggravated by the still healing scars of Voldemort’s lash. He hoped that Titchi would come looking for him and possibly think to bring more of that potion goop that would ease his pain.
Draco found himself thinking longingly of Madam Pomfrey, and the infirmary at Hogwarts. There, he would have complained loudly and the school Healer would have been able to cure all of his wounds in a matter of minutes… perhaps hours at worst. He also would have had Crabbe and Goyle to berate and belittle as they sucked up to him, seeking his favor and guidance. They really were quite idiotic, but they had been his idiots, there to do his bidding and provide a constant distraction.
Somehow, Draco didn’t feel like making a fuss. Yes, he was in pain, but it was nothing to the memory of one moment in the grip of the Dark Lord’s Cruciatus Curse, or the lingering memory of each lash of Voldemort’s whips, contained in the scars upon his back and sides. Draco knew that berating his sycophantic ‘friends’ just wouldn’t make that pain go away.
He lay there with his face turned toward the village; he was still trying to figure this place out. He felt completely the outsider in a place where nothing made sense to him. He had spent a considerable amount of time trying to tell the wizards from the Muggles here. He had been watching for days; whenever he was awake long enough. At first he’d thought that Titchi and the Healer were the only witches, but then he started to notice the wands; not like those he was used to, hewn from hardwoods into straight, sleek, polished perfection, but smaller, thicker, stubbier bits of wood, more like sections of branch cut directly from the tree with the bark still intact. And some villagers seemed to use stones instead of wands, like Titchi’s shard of polished amber.
He would see things; the spontaneous lighting of fires, the instantaneous ripening of fruit, the levitation of small objects, and other small acts of magic performed throughout the tribe. Then there were the familiars; animals that seemed inexplicably tied to individual tribe members. There was a squirrel monkey that was always near a young boy named Chunt’ea, a toucan that lived with an old man named Hautúmé, and then there was Kut’chem, Titchi’s scarlet macaw.
He wanted to ask about who was whom – were there Muggles and half-bloods? Who were the pure-bloods, the Squibs, the Muggle-borns? He was certain that Titchi must be a pure-blood… she had said she was the daughter of the Shaman, so it made sense that she must be from a pure family. He told himself that they must have known that he was a pure-blood also; he figured that it showed somehow, and after all, they were treating him so well. But then, it didn’t seem to matter to these people; at least, he couldn’t see any clear segregation, and all the members of the tribe seemed to laugh and talk and interact with one another with no discernable hierarchy or acts of deference. He found it very confusing… how was he to know who to befriend, who to ignore, and most importantly, who to avoid? He decided that Titchi would probably bring it up after he was fully healed from his wounds and his sunburn… when he was stronger.
Draco moved his arms to his sides and tried to push himself up. His flesh tightened, feeling as though it would tear if he tried to move, but he grimaced hard and forced himself up and onto a low stool, which was really nothing more than a section of log from a fallen tree. He sat very still, as each movement aggravated his sunburn. At least now someone would see that he was not sleeping, and, as had happened every other morning, his breakfast would be brought to him.
After a few minutes, someone did in fact bring him something to eat. One of the many girls of the village came, giggling, bearing food on a broad leaf in a small woven platter.
The food was not at all bad, in Draco’s opinion; freshly roasted coffee, tropical fruits and a type of fried bread, sweetened with raw cane sugar, nuts and plantains. There were also fresh fish and sweet potatoes. It was not exactly the fare he was used to in England, but it was not limited to a few simple staples either.
In the short time he had been here, he had eaten several types of fish and meats, an enormous variety of fruits, nuts and berries, as well as greens, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes – and these people seemed to use several different types of spices, including different chilies and peppers. He had seen that they cultivated large gardens and groves of fruit trees and kept chickens. He also suspected that they kept other animals somewhere outside the direct confines of the village; goats, maybe sheep, perhaps even cattle.
These people truly didn’t conform to anything he knew. They simply weren’t civilized by any standard he had been taught… And yet, they seemed particularly civilized to him, as they were constantly friendly, quick to laugh, welcoming, affectionate and caring with one another. They had taken him and his mother in and asked almost no questions… so far. Draco couldn’t make it all fit together in his mind. Because he couldn’t seem to understand it, he decided to try to merely accept it.
The giggling girl retreated almost immediately, leaving the food at the top of the steps. Draco groaned at the prospect of having to move the few feet to retrieve his meal. He wasn’t sure he was quite that hungry.
Moments later Titchi arrived, gathering the platter as she came up the steps. She crossed to Draco, silently handing him the food, and circled around him to examine his sunburn. “So red, Dracho… Why do you stay in the sun so long when you know that it burns you?” she said, her tone not at all accusing.
“I… I forgot that the sun could burn me through the water,” he said through mouthfuls of sweet bread. “In England, where I am from, the sun is not so hot all the time.”
Titchi smiled at him, the way an adult smiles at a child who has just asserted something fantastical as fact. “Dracho, the sun is always hot, how can it be less hot in another place?”
Draco was getting used to these responses. He felt he could explain it given a little time, but she would just giggle at him through the explanation, so he didn’t care to bother. “It just is,” he insisted.
Kut’chem swooped in suddenly and landed on one of the cross braces of the open ceiling of the hut. Kut’chem was a rather large parrot, a scarlet macaw, brilliantly red plumed over most of his body with wings that transitioned to a bright yellow at the middle and deep blue-green to their tips. He squawked loudly and said, quite clearly, “Good morning, Dracho, good morning Titchi”, then squawked again.
“Good morning, Kut’chem,” Titchi replied, smiling brightly. The Malfoys owned a beautiful, majestic eagle owl back in England, but it never swept in and greeted them by name. Draco was still getting used to that. He nodded at the bird, but said nothing.
Kut’chem’s head bobbed up and down at the neck and he was making twittering, light squawks, to which Titchi seemed to be listening intently. Draco concentrated on eating a bit more of the fruit from his platter. Finally Titchi turned back to him. “Kut’chem says that Mistress Puntáne has finished preparing your treatment.”
“My treatment?” Draco looked up inquisitively.
“Yes… for your skin burn,” Titchi answered.
“Oh… My sunburn, you mean?” He smiled, causing his burned face to tighten painfully. It was occurring to him that he smiled at Titchi quite a lot, and he couldn’t explain why. He supposed it was because she was still the only person in the village that he could talk to. But, it was occurring to him that smiling actually felt good somehow, so he tried not to think about that too much either.
They talked a little about the village as Draco ate. He asked what it was that the whole village seemed to be preparing for.
“It is the night of monthly celebration that we prepare for,” Titchi explained as Draco finished his breakfast, wincing frequently with each painful movement. “Once each month, the shepherds return from the mountains with the animals that have been chosen to be shared among the people. Different boys will be chosen to go shepherding for the next month. Those who return will join the hunting and fishing parties. We will have a great feast, and there will be two bondings this night.” Titchi seemed to become more excited as she spoke. “My father returns this night to perform these bondings.” She hesitated then, looking concernedly at Draco. “And he will examine your mother as well.”
They had not talked very much about Narcissa over the past several days. She still lay in a coma in the Healer’s… Mistress Puntáne’s hut. Many things had been tried, but nothing had had an effect. She seemed to be sleeping. Mistress Puntáne had erased all outward signs of wounds, and Narcissa seemed comfortable… but she would not wake up. The villagers were all very concerned about her and the practice of leaving offerings of food and flowers – even small caged animals – at the Healer’s door had begun right after Draco woke up that first time.
Draco had visited her every day and spent hours telling his mother about this strange place they had come to, and about the things he saw. He also explained what had transpired at Hogwarts, lamenting that he had done all that Voldemort had asked of him, but somehow couldn’t actually kill Dumbledore. He apologized over and over for letting the family down and bringing them to this ruin. But, he also had begun expressing his hatred of the Dark Lord for his cruelty and torturous treatment. Draco was extremely conflicted and often wept openly at Narcissa’s bedside, wishing she would wake. He wanted desperately to talk to his mother. She was the only person who had always treated him with gentleness and kindness, and he wanted to tell her that she meant safety and comfort to him. He was determined, now, to recover his strength and thereafter, show no further vulnerability to anyone else — to hide these emotions, which he had been taught to regard as weakness.
“I am sure if there is anything to be done… My father can do it,” Titchi said warmly as she reached forward and rested her hand gently on Draco’s arm. The soft touch hurt his burned flesh, but there was comfort in it as well, and he didn’t flinch.
Draco looked up from his food at Titchi, his saddened, pale gray eyes meeting her concerned, endlessly deep, dark ones. He was trying hard to mask his emotions. He said a bit dryly, “Thank you… I’m sure he will help.”
A few minutes later, Titchi was leading him, painful step by painful step, toward the Healer’s hut. He started very slowly, grimacing at every move, but as villagers began to gather, he choked down his expressions of pain, and forced himself to quicken his pace, acting as though he felt nothing.
As they approached Mistress Puntáne’s hut, Draco smelled a lingering sweetness in the air and he saw what looked like a squared tub, large enough to be a deep bathtub, hewn from a single stone. It was set on four squared corner stones and a fire burned beneath. Something was bubbling inside it, like thick tar popping as air escaped its surface. The Healer was there on a stone step leading to the tub, casting what looked like deep orange and purple orchid pedals into the tub.
Mistress Puntáne, in stark contrast to Titchi, looked old and deeply weathered; her hair was bushy and white and braided down her back, nearly reaching the ground. She wore a colorful shawl that appeared to be woven of soft wool, and covered her down to her gnarled knees. On her feet she wore leather sandals, and around her neck a long necklace of stone beads, bits of carved wood and bone, the talons of various birds, and the paws of several animals. She leaned frequently on a staff that she carried, which was carved smoothly from a brilliant orange wood and ended in a dark, bulbous burl. Her face was round and broad and appeared as hard as the bark of an oak tree, but when she smiled, an infectious kindness crept across it that was wont to make you smile or even laugh in return.
When she saw them approaching, she started talking very fast and beckoning Draco forward. He could not understand her, but caught the mispronunciation of his name that he was rapidly becoming used to: “Dracho… Dracho.”
Titchi directed Draco to the stone stoop and he stepped up so that he could see into the tub. It was nearly three quarters full with boiling liquid mud from the rich red soil. All throughout there appeared to be various flower petals, swirls of some sort of clear plant oils, and green leaves. Draco would have snarled at the idea of climbing into this tub, except that the smell of it was wonderful – earthy and floral, with rich accents of vanilla and citrus.
Mistress Puntáne pointed the burl end of her staff at the fire and it flashed a brilliant blue before going completely out with an implosive pop. The bubbling mud became still at once and Draco could feel that all the heat was suddenly gone. “Get in,” Titchi said, as Draco stood staring at the now still surface.
He didn’t say anything, but leaned on the edge of the stone tub and carefully began to lift one leg toward the edge. “Take your clothes off first?” Titchi said suddenly.
Draco turned abruptly to face her, instantly regretting the sudden movement that burned through his skin. “What?” he exclaimed.
“Your shorts,” Titchi said, pointing to the tattered remains of Draco’s cut-off school trousers, which were the only clothes he had been wearing since waking up in his boxers. “Mistress Puntáne says you should not wear anything in the tub, so that the mud contacts all of your skin.”
If Draco’s face hadn’t been burned pink already, it would have been obvious how embarrassed he was. After all, nearly a quarter of the tribe was standing there watching him, and it seemed that they were mostly women and girls.
“What is the matter with you?” Titchi said matter-of-factly as she stepped closer. “Give me those, and get into the tub. It is time we found you something better to wear anyway.”
Draco swallowed hard and turned around so that his back was facing Titchi and the rest of the crowd watching him. It was clear to him that these people knew no sense of shame or embarrassment about their bodies, but seventeen years of English aristocratic propriety was difficult to overcome in twelve days. He dropped his pants and boxers, stepping out of them, and quickly, despite the pain, hopped into the cool, mud-filled tub.
As he sank into the tub to his neck and stretched out, the burning pain in his flesh dissipated almost immediately. “Oh, this is wonderful,” he breathed with a sigh of relief.
The Healer came up to the side of the tub and, chattering away, began to scoop up mud onto his face. Draco turned to Titchi.
“She wants you to cover your entire body. She says you must be completely coated,” Titchi explained. Draco nodded. Mistress Puntáne got down from the edge of the tub, picked up a stick and jabbed it upright into the ground. She drew a line straight away from the stick with the end of her staff and pointed at it, saying something in a very commanding tone of voice.
“She says when the stick’s shadow meets this line, you can get out and go to the river to bathe. Until then, you must stay in the tub, and cover yourself completely,” Titchi said with a slight giggle.
The Healer then turned and walked purposefully away toward the center of the village. The crowd turned away with her, as there seemed to be nothing left to see, and in minutes only Draco and Titchi were left.
If Draco looked uncomfortable, that was certainly not what he was feeling. The mud was thick and cool and felt wonderful against his skin. He took a deep breath and submerged himself, coating his face and hair and ears. He popped his head back up and opened his mouth to breath. The feel of it was enough that he didn’t care what he looked like. “How long do I have to stay here?” he asked, leaving his eyes closed tight and covered in mud.
“Until the shadow reaches the line,” Titchi repeated.
“No, in minutes,” he said. “Can you tell me how long in minutes?”
“I do not know ‘minutes’,” Titchi said, sounding suddenly serious. “I only know to watch the shadow.”
Draco felt a momentary swell of irritation, but reminded himself that he was in a strange place, and that he really didn’t want to be mad at Titchi. “Well then, I suppose I shall have to teach you… once I’m out of here, that is.” He smiled, again feeling the odd sensation that he felt whenever he caught himself doing so. He was glad that the thick mud was masking the expression.
“I would like to learn, Dracho,” Titchi said. “You will teach me about minutes?” She paused. “You will teach me about where you come from?”
Draco turned his head and opened his eyes to see her. She had stepped close to the side of the tub and her face was no more that a couple of feet from his. She was looking at him intently, her face gentle and serene – her dark eyes wide and curious.
“Sure,” he said finally. “I’ll tell you all about where I come from.”
Their eyes locked and he felt himself curiously drawn toward her. She was so unlike the girls at Hogwarts… and Draco realized with absolute clarity that he found her incredibly beautiful.
“I would like that,” she whispered. After a long pause, she shook her head, as though ridding herself of a feeling, or being drawn back to attention from a daydream. “I have to go help Nuncha,” she said suddenly. “I will come back to get you when it is time to get out.” She started backing away. “We are preparing chocolate for tonight. Nuncha loves chocolate.” She turned and bounded away toward the central huts.
Chocolate? Draco thought. “Where on Earth am I?” he said to himself, with curious exasperation.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
“You cannot go back to England… at least not for a while.” The words slithered from the Dark Lord’s thin, pale lips.
Severus Snape looked up slowly through the bedraggled strands of greasy hair that cascaded over his face in disarray. “No, Lord, I cannot,” he said slowly, the hoarse words raking his parched throat. He was sat at the end of a long, elaborate dining table in a straight-backed chair, flanked by two burly Death Eaters he did not recognize.
The table was laden with a feast – cooked fowl, meats and minced pies, roast vegetables, fruits, breads, and tureens of savory sauces. The smells were torture to Snape, who had just spent the last twelve days in a dark cell of Voldemort’s dungeon. In that time he had been given only two meals, each consisting of mealy bread and a large tankard of stale water. He had had nothing to eat in the last four days and no plate was set before him now.
The Dark Lord sat at the opposite end of the table, eating gluttonously – sucking at cherry tomatoes and tearing roast fowl directly from its greasy bones with his slender, pale fingers.
“Severus, I have forgiven you your treachery.” The words were twisted, delivered through mouthfuls of food, making the Dark Lord look like a foul, feeding animal as he ate without aid of utensils. “I understand that you were attempting to protect your position by entering into the Unbreakable Vow, but I would rather you had come to me with Narcissa’s pleadings. I have – and would have – dealt with her as she deserved.”
Snape assumed that meant that Narcissa and, probably, Draco, were now dead. He showed no hint of regret at the statement but continued to stare at the Dark Lord.
“Your actions have cost me my greatest insights into the workings of Hogwarts… though, now that Dumbledore is gone, I suppose it no longer matters.”
“Yes, Master,” Snape uttered with resignation.
“It is very fortunate that you have, for so long, been of such value to me, Severus. My ire is usually fatal, and you’ve vexed me terribly.” Voldemort looked up from his meal, his red eyes burning into Snape’s. “You have been one of my most able servants. Time after time you have thought out your actions in such a way that they protected my interests and preserved your position in my service.” Voldemort took up his food again and continued eating in his unpleasant manner. “I should not have been surprised that you would finally get caught in your own carefully woven web of deceptions. Many of my Death Eaters have doubted you since before my return.” A hollow crack echoed through the broad dining room as the Dark Lord wrenched a game hen thigh from its carcass, and tore the flesh away with his sharply pointed teeth, his thin lips smacking sickeningly.
“I have served you, Lord, to the utmost of my ability.” Snape spoke into his lap, his voice weak. “It is my desire to continue to serve you.”
Voldemort took up a cloth napkin from the table, next to his unused silver, and carelessly wiped his greasy fingers and chin. He pushed back his chair and stood, tossing his napkin down and grabbing his crystal goblet of wine. “That is very good, Severus… very good… because I have an assignment for you.”
Voldemort stepped to the side of the table and began walking in Snape’s direction. As he moved, he raised his goblet and drained the wine, carelessly allowing it to drip down his chin and onto his chest. He drew his robe sleeve across his face casually and let escape a satisfied belch.
Snape looked up at his approaching master, his eyes darkening with sinister pleasure. “Will you finally allow me, Master, to dispose of the Potter whelp?” His voice was dry and rasping.
“Ah… dear Severus… your hatred of the father extends so easily to the son.” Voldemort snatched up a crystal decanter of water as he continued to move slowly toward Snape. “No, Severus… without Dumbledore, the boy is inconsequential; he has not learned nearly enough to defeat me, and he is better used now to fill the wizards of England with false hope of salvation.” He set his crystal goblet on the table before Snape. “I have another task in mind for you.”
Snape focused on the empty goblet before him, Voldemort’s greasy fingerprints marring the perfection of its finely cut body, and his lip prints dripping residue of his meal into the puddle of dark wine still left within it. Voldemort filled the goblet with water.
“You must be thirsty, Severus,” the Dark Lord said, his voice sadistically calm. “Drink.”
Snape jerked his weak arm up onto the table and reached out for the goblet. His fingers closed firmly around the stem of the glass. He slid the goblet toward himself on the table and quickly raised it to his lips, draining it completely, and setting it roughly back down on the table.
The Dark Lord chuckled darkly. He drew his wand from within the sleeve of his robe and with a flick of his wrist, a full place setting appeared before Snape. With a broad, slow wave, all the dishes and platters of food slid down the length of the table to fill the end around Snape’s plate. “Eat, Severus… satiate your hunger, and slake your thirst.” The open bottle of wine jumped up from the table and filled the fresh goblet before Snape. “When you are done, you will be shown to your quarters, where you may bathe and refresh yourself. When you’re quite yourself again, I will give you your instructions. I am going to honor you with an opportunity to lead directly. No more slinking in the background, undercover.”
“Yes, Lord,” Snape rasped out, the words laced with hunger.
Without a word, Voldemort stepped around Snape’s chair and, with the two Death Eaters in tow, left the chamber through a large wooden double door.
As the door closed with a precise thud, Snape tore the whole leg and thigh from the nearest game hen and brought it directly to his mouth, sinking his teeth into the roast flesh desperately.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
The night was cool and damp from the light fog that rolled off the lake and enveloped Hogwarts Castle. Even high on the Astronomy Tower, a swirling mist hung in the air, illuminated eerily by the sickly, cold green glow of the Dark Mark, afloat in the sky above.
“I’ve got a job to do,” Draco said, uncomfortably aware of the imminence of the task imparted to him by the Dark Lord.
“Well, then, you must get on and do it, my dear boy,” said Dumbledore softly.
Sounds of the fight below drifted up the stone staircase; reminding Draco that he didn’t have a great deal of time. He stared at Dumbledore, disarmed and unsteady before him. Somehow, even in the face of defeat, this man was exasperatingly calm.
Dumbledore smiled. “Draco, Draco, you are not a killer.”
“How do you know?” Draco retorted. The words sounded a bit childish to him even as he said them. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.” His voice became harder, more forceful. “You don’t know what I’ve done!”
“Oh yes, I do,” said Dumbledore mildly. “You almost killed Katie Bell and Ronald Weasley. You have been trying, with increasing desperation, to kill me all year. Forgive me, Draco, but they have been feeble attempts… So feeble, to be honest, that I wondered whether your heart has been really in it.”
A sharp movement against the wall, near the staircase door, caught Draco’s attention and he turned quickly to see Harry Potter sweeping away his Invisibility Cloak, and stepping forward.
“Draco… Stop this at once,” Harry ordered, continuing to move closer.
Even as Harry spoke, he smiled that careless, aggravatingly kind smile of his. The one that made Draco find him so irritating.
“Potter.” Draco spat the name. “Right place at the right time as usual, I see.”
“Malfoy,” Harry said with urgent surety, “you’re making a huge mistake.”
“Am I?” Draco responded automatically. “And you, the famous Harry Potter, are going to steer me right?”
“I can only make you this offer, Draco…” Harry was stepping forward, raising his hand, but not clutching his wand; instead offering it in friendship. “Join us… Help us defeat Voldemort and his dark forces, before it’s too late.”
Draco’s mouth went dry. He stared into Harry’s determined eyes. How could Harry Potter, of all people – whom he had chided, teased and insulted for as long as they had known one another – offer him a chance at redemption?
Draco didn’t know what to do.
Wisps of swirling fog surrounded him, suddenly engulfing him in cool dampness, and in the distance he heard his name being called. “Draco… Draco… Dracho…”
Draco woke with a start, his eyes snapping open against the stiffening mask of mud covering his face.
“Dracho… Dracho, you’ve been sleeping.” The voice was Titchi’s and its lyrical tones were laced with concern.
“Yes… yes, I fell asleep… I was… dreaming,” Draco stammered.
“It is time to get out now, Dracho.” She smiled.
“Oh… yeah,” Draco said, as he moved tentatively; pushing himself up against the weight of the smooth, cool mud. He shook the remnants of the dream from his mind, coming fully awake.
Titchi led him down from the tub and they made their way to the waterfalls. The thick mud clung to Draco’s torso and legs, encasing him in several centimeters of thick, pasty coating. The weight made his movements sluggish, but there was no pain at all in his skin, or muscles. Only his scars itched, a persistent tingle that he suspected would never leave him. The mud oozed off of him as he moved, leaving a trail in his wake. In any other circumstances, he would have been severely embarrassed, but no one gave them a second look as they walked past the central stone fire pit and down the path to the water.
Once they arrived, Draco wasted no time, diving into the clear water and leaving a plume of red mud. Other swimmers dotted around the rocks watched him with curiosity, the cloud of mud drifting with the river as he rubbed his body clean beneath the surface.
After a few minutes, Draco was mud-free and felt wonderfully refreshed. He swam back toward the shore and stood in the waist-high water, his skin bronzed and shimmering in the sun. He looked down at his arms, appreciating his new skin color.
Never in his life had he been allowed out in the sun enough to get a decent tan, and now he was the deep, rich color of the skin of an almond. He couldn’t help but admire himself as he looked at his reflection in the water’s surface. His bright hair, slick and wet, now framed and contrasted his face. He moved to the edge of the water, near the protection of the shaded stones, where he could see his reflection better.
Draco examined his face. The yellow “X” still crossed his nose but it seemed somewhat lessened against his new complexion. He rubbed his pointed chin, realizing suddenly that he had not shaved at all since he had come to this place, and while there were barely enough whiskers to constitute more than a nuisance, he was far from his usual groomed and carefully presented self. He slapped at the surface of the water, suddenly angry at his own reflection. The momentary emotion passed just as suddenly as it had overtaken him. What can it possibly matter? he thought. What use is vanity in this place?
Confused, unaddressed thoughts resonated in Draco’s head as he stood there, the surface slowly settling. He was suddenly aware of Titchi’s reflection in the water. He looked up to see her standing on the boulder. The boulder, he recalled, where they had first met. She was holding something, a length of tanned leather as smooth and soft as fabric. She smiled at him. “Dracho… you have troubled thoughts?” she asked, her voice lowering with concern.
“Oh… no… not really,” he replied haltingly. “What have you got there?” he asked, changing the subject.
“This is for you, Dracho,” Titchi said proudly. “It is for you to wear. I made it for you.” She stretched out her arms toward him, offering the supple leather.
Draco realized the leather, along with a second strip, was a sort of loincloth, typical of the men of the tribe. He took it from her and was amazed at how soft it was in his hands. He was aware that he was naked in the water, but as that was how the tribe members usually swam, he swallowed down his residual embarrassment and climbed up onto the rocks to put on the simple, spare garment.
Once Titchi was satisfied that it was a good fit, they walked back toward the huts together.
Draco felt quite himself again… physically, at least. He was amazed at how invigorating the skin treatment was. He was aware of the constant pinprick pain in the scars all across his back, but that was a minor nuisance, one he hoped he would learn to ignore.
The residual pain in his limbs was finally and completely gone and he felt full of energy. Rather than wanting to go back to his hut and lie down – as he had done on each previous day he’d been awake – he wanted to do something more – anything but sleep. “I feel great,” he said out loud to Titchi.
“That is wonderful, Dracho,” she replied, smiling at him. “And you look like you are becoming one of us… well, except for your hair.” She reached out and brushed a strand away from his face. “Nuncha will be so happy to see its color is not changed, she loves your hair.”
Draco couldn’t help smiling back at her, though it registered once more in his head how strange it was for him to genuinely smile at anyone. With Titchi, he had no history, no reputation to protect, no family legacy to uphold. For the first time in his life, he was happy to be free of it.
“So, what do we do today?” he asked. “I absolutely do not want to sleep the day away.”
“I am so glad to see you feeling better, Dracho,” Titchi said genuinely. “But we must prepare for tonight’s celebration. Chunt’ea has been asked to go with some boys to catch more fish for this evening. I will ask if you can go fishing with them.”
Draco felt a momentary twinge of disappointment at the suggestion, but smiled and tried not to let it show.
Once back at the village, Titchi went off to find Chunt’ea, and Nuncha dragged Draco into a large hut to see all the cooking and preparation that was going on. Nuncha led him to a large clay pot that was stirring itself with a long, flat wooden spoon. It smelled deliciously of dark chocolate. The many women in the hut didn’t seem to be concerned by his presence; some looked up at him, and smiled, but mostly they kept at their various tasks. Nuncha picked up what looked like a length of grass reed about eight or ten inches long. She dipped it into the pot and pulled it out, the end coated in thick, glossy chocolate. She popped it into her mouth and sucked away the chocolate, smiling. Then she dipped it again and pushed it toward Draco. He opened his mouth automatically and instantly was rewarded with the sweet, delicate flavor of rich bittersweet chocolate. His eyes widened in wonder at the delicious taste and he smiled widely at Nuncha, which was obviously the reward she wanted.
A woman approached them. She was a handsome woman, perhaps in her mid thirties or early forties. She mussed Nuncha’s hair affectionately and spoke kind but gently scolding words at the little girl. Draco imagined that she said something like “Don’t eat it all before the feast.” Nuncha smiled at the woman, and he wondered if this was Nuncha’s mother – Titchi’s mother, too. Draco smiled politely at the woman, unaware of how he should act. He started to bow, from ingrained habit, but she regarded him neutrally, without any indication of feeling. She took the stick away from Nuncha and dipped it into the pot, tasting the delightful contents herself. She moved quickly to a nearby table and returned with a clay vessel and a mound of raw crystallized sugar. She dumped the sugar into the pot and poured what appeared to be milk from the vessel into the chocolate as well. She smiled again at Nuncha and said something more that Draco could not understand, before stepping away to rejoin the other women in a central circle. They were obviously preparing several different things at a low circular table, and Draco, now aware of the constant chatter, imagined they were also gossiping wildly, sharing stories of family.
Nuncha looked conspiratorially at the back of the woman Draco now suspected to be her mother, before dipping the stick again and sucking away more chocolate with a deep grin and a satisfied sigh. She immersed it once more and gave it to Draco, who savored the delicious flavor, now subtly more balanced for the added ingredients. He rewarded Nuncha with another delighted smile.
“You like chocolate, Dracho?” Titchi’s voice came from behind him. He turned, still withdrawing the sample stick from between his lips. He smiled. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do… and this is very good.” Titchi seemed to blush a little as she smiled, and Draco noticed the boy standing behind her.
Chunt’ea was one of the first members of the tribe that Draco had noticed and asked about. After all, with his squirrel monkey always on his shoulder, or trailing nearby, he did sort of stand out. Chunt’ea was thirteen years old, or thirteen flood rains, as Titchi had said; Draco had assumed that was what marked years here. Chunt’ea was a full head shorter than Draco and was thin and wiry, not at all unlike his monkey companion, Draco thought with a smile.
“The boys have agreed to take you with them, and teach you to fish,” Titchi explained. Draco looked to where she indicated and realized that another half dozen boys were there, waiting.
Draco felt a bit of prideful resentment rise at the idea that he would have to be taught to fish by a bunch of thirteen-year-olds, but he swallowed the notion down and smiled politely. I have to quit reacting automatically, he thought to himself; he had no status or station to protect here, so his reflexive thoughts of superiority were a hindrance, not a help.
Titchi brought Draco out to the group of boys and then un-slung her amber shard wand and performed the Understanding enchantment on both Draco and Chunt’ea. Suddenly, Draco had another person he could talk to, but he felt an odd sort of disappointment rather than joy, at the notion that he would no longer have the excuse to spend all his time with Titchi.
The boys led him along the river at a jog. They were amazingly light on their feet and quiet as they moved excitedly toward their destination. Draco had been given a long, thin spear with a many-needled head, and a woven basket, which was slung over his shoulder, bouncing against him with each step. By the time they stopped, Draco was quite out of breath, a fact that the boys seemed to feel was very amusing, but their laughter and chiding seemed to be all good-natured, so Draco let it pass, and in fact laughed a bit himself, accepting the teasing, where before, he never would have let it go without a sharp retort.
Chunt’ea patiently explained to Draco how to use the spear and how to aim through the water’s surface. After several tries, Draco managed to spear his first fish and really began to catch on. He could see that he was still missing more than hitting, but it was slow, lazy work, mostly waiting for the fish to come by, so he was able to make up for the newness of his skill and fill his basket while the boys enjoyed talking and teasing one another, telling jokes more than watching the river for fish.
Asking through Chunt’ea, the boys seemed to be very curious about where Draco had come from, so he tried to describe England to them, telling them that it was a huge island country full of many people, that it was cooler so the people had to wear much more clothing, like the robes he had arrived in. He tried to describe the difference in the plants and the landscape, the kind of dwellings, and the habits of the people, but while the boys seemed very impressed, he was not at all sure how much they really understood.
The afternoon passed and Draco began to feel quite relaxed with these younger boys. At Hogwarts, he’d have found it quite irritating to spend an afternoon with a bunch of third-years, but while these boys had the excitement and joviality that befitted their youth; it was tempered with a sense of responsibility to their tribe that, in an odd way, Draco felt he understood. They had a tremendous amount of fun, but each eventually managed to take the time to fill their fish-basket. Draco was quite happy to have been able to fill his as well by the time one of the boys suggested they should head back.
Chunt’ea whistled for his monkey companion, who appeared a moment later, laden with several small fruit pods he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying, and quickly descended to take his place on the boy’s shoulder.
As they returned to the village at a jog, it occurred to Draco that they had used no magic to help with the fishing. He wondered about it; it would have taken them no time at all to sweep the river with a magical net and catch more fish than the boys had all caught together. If Draco had had his wand, he felt he could easily have accomplished it. But then… they would not have been able to enjoy the time together, away from other ears of the village, joking and laughing, and talking about various girls, as it seemed they had spent a lot of time doing. He wondered if there was some sort of restriction on underage wizards here, as there was in England. He was just beginning to dwell on this when he realized that they had arrived.
They jogged right up to the large hut where all the cooking had been going on and several girls came out to retrieve the boys’ baskets. They chattered excitedly at the overflowing baskets and quickly took them away into the hut, leaving the smiling boys filled with a sense of accomplishment. Nuncha had rushed out to take Draco’s basket; it was quite a feat for the small girl to carry the large basket, but she chattered animatedly just like the older girls and smiled proudly at Draco. Before she turned away, she said something to Chunt’ea, who nodded.
Chunt’ea led Draco back to the now familiar hut that he had been using. “Titchi and Nuncha have made you more things for tonight,” Chunt’ea explained as they stepped up into the hut together. “Nuncha asked me to show you how each garment fits,” he continued.
There, laid out across the sleeping mats, was a vest made of the same thin and supple leather of his loincloth, and with it were elaborately beaded leggings and forearm bands, which Chunt’ea quickly explained.
“These are celebration garments; you only wear them for nights like tonight, and then you will keep them safe.”
He showed Draco how to lace them up the back of his calf, and under his forearm. The last item was a simple necklace, which consisted of a leather cord and a half dozen simple, bleached white bone beads. Draco tied it around his neck as Chunt’ea explained that this necklace was his display of accomplishment and skill. As he was a newcomer to the tribe, it was only these few bare beads, but tonight, if the women were satisfied with his afternoon catch, he would be awarded a stone bead in the shape of a fish to add to his necklace, and each month he would be awarded new additions to recognize accomplishment.
When Draco was fully dressed in his new attire, Chunt’ea stepped back and nodded approvingly. Even his squirrel monkey seemed to be nodding with appreciation.
“I must go now and get ready myself,” Chunt’ea said as he moved around the room. He had drawn a short, stubby wand from a leather scabbard at his waist and was lighting the few lamps in the hut, which were made from some sort of gourd. “There is time now for you to go visit your mother if you like, and I will come get you when it is time for the celebrations to begin.”
Draco nodded. “Thank you,” he responded… “And thank you for the fishing.”
Chunt’ea seemed very pleased; he smiled and nodded before quickly leaving the hut.
Draco made his way along the now familiar footpath toward the Healer’s hut to visit his mother. His mind was awhirl with the events of the day. So much for a restriction on underage magic, he thought as he pictured Chunt’ea lighting the lamps in his hut. He looked down at himself as he moved, and marveled at his bronzed skin and colorful, beaded leggings. For a moment he imagined himself standing in the Great Hall dressed as he was, with the many Hogwarts students laughing at him in this colorful attire, but he quickly banished the thought… he was, after all, not at Hogwarts, and this costume was perfectly appropriate to this place and these people, and he was building a new sense of pride in his acceptance here.
He reached the Healer’s hut, climbed the wooden stairs and knocked at the doorframe, from which a heavy leather sheet hung. In a moment Mistress Puntáne was there, pulling back the leather drape and beckoning him into the cool hut awash in the pleasant fumes of brewing potions.
Draco nodded to Mistress Puntáne, and spoke. “Thank you for the treatment this morning,” he said, motioning to his chest with both hands, pulling open his vest to display his new complexion.
The Healer seemed to understand what he meant and she nodded, smiling. She spoke in acknowledgement, but Draco could not yet understand. She quickly directed him to the back of the hut, where his mother lay behind a gauze curtain.
Narcissa was still, her breathing regular and her face calm as she lay there, but her eyes seemed blank when you pulled back her lids, as Draco had done on several occasions. Draco took a seat on a familiar stool at his mother’s side and took her hand in his.
“I’m alive, Mother… I’m right here,” he began in hushed tones as he squeezed her unresponsive hand in his. He began telling her about the day, describing his thoughts at each event, and how he was perceiving things differently now, in this strange place, among these people who were so different from them and yet so overwhelmingly friendly, kind, and accepting. He described his new clothes and his new skin tone, the feel of the mud bath, and the fun he had had fishing. Finally he tried to describe the taste of the chocolate, which he knew she would love.
“You need to wake up, Mother,” he pleaded softly. “You have to experience this place for yourself. I feel so alert and alive here,” he confided. “It’s almost as though I’ve been resurrected after being killed by the Dark Lord.” He paused for a long moment and then recalled the dream he had had, the one in which Harry Potter had offered him a chance to join in opposing Voldemort. It came back to him vividly as he described it to his mother.
“I wish that you would wake up and help me understand all of this.” For a fleeting instant, Draco thought his mother’s fingers had moved against his own - the slightest twitch, barely noticeable… so slight that Draco was not even sure if he had imagined it. He held his breath in hope that it would occur again, but nothing happened.
After a long, still silence, Draco got up from the stool and smiled resignedly down at his mother. “I’ll be back again soon, Mother,” he said, though there was little hope in his voice. He turned and pushed away the gauze curtain, stepping away from his mother.
The hut was now empty, Mistress Puntáne having slipped away at some point without disturbing him. He crossed the wooden floor and stepped out onto the small porch beyond the leather drape. The sun was setting fast, casting a reddish-gold glow over the village as he sat on the steps of the Healer’s hut. The warmth of the air enveloped and comforted him.
He noticed suddenly that there were numerous torches approaching the village from a short way up the main pathway toward the nearby hills and not very distant mountains. He thought he could hear the clopping of hooves, and the sounds of animals, mixed with calls from distinctly human voices. Before he could think much about it, he heard something hit the roof of the hut behind him and he turned to see Chunt’ea’s monkey clamoring down the side of the hut toward him. It came right up to him and tugged at his arm as a small child would. At that moment, he heard Chunt’ea calling to him, and spotted him running up the path toward the hut. “Dracho… Dracho… come quickly. The men and animals are arriving. The celebrations are beginning!”
Chunt’ea was very excited, and Draco couldn’t help feeling the enthusiasm as well. The monkey hopped up on Draco’s shoulder as he came off the step to join the younger boy.