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Chapter 4 : Panic
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I soon learned that the under-handed, brown-faced weasel was named Lewisberg. He and his scumbag accomplice Abrams were carrying out Gaspard’s orders to deliver me to some point up north – they were keeping the exact details quiet, but I suspected Doorturn. For the most part, they were both eager to say anything they pleased about the operation – it was terrifying. It meant that they were supremely confident that I would never be able to repeat their words to anyone else.
They agreed to sleep in shifts during the second night – Abrams was arranged to sleep first, and then Lewisberg got second. Lewisberg trained his wand on me, one of his eyes (which I discovered to be glass) sliding sideways as he stared.
“Don’ try nothin’,” he warned, “or I’ll do ‘Petrificus Totalus’ on you.”
I folded my hands primly in my lap, matching his gaze. “How could I try anything? I’m clearly outnumbered here.”
“That’s right.” He flashed a nasty grin. “You certainly are.”
The sky outside deepened to black, and Abrams soon began to snore. My stomach was too empty for me to sleep comfortably, and I didn’t trust Lewisberg not to try anything. We watched each other beadily in the dark, me folded into the corner as far as I could go.
City lights swished by as the carriage rolled smoothly over paths of bricks and Muggle road. Gradually, they snuffed out one by one like flames from candles, until we were left with nothing but black forest on all sides and the carriage rattled uncomfortably over snarled roots that reached out of the darkness, twisting across the overgrown road.
“So,” Lewisberg spoke after a long while. His glass eye gleamed reflectively; I could see the shadows of pine trees racing behind me in his eye, as well as my own ghost-like form. “Not gon’ sleep?”
“Not tired,” I replied. It was evident that we were waiting each other out. “You forget that I slept for so long after you kidnapped me.”
“So tell me about yourself, Cissus,” he demanded tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment before wiping his thumbs over his eyes. He opened his eyes and mouth wide and shook his head, presumably to waken himself more. I knew that he wanted a conversation so that he would be forced to remain awake.
“The air is quite dry in here,” I told him after a minute. “No moisture at all. It’s like ash.”
Lewisberg ran a tongue over his chapped lips. “I s’pose.”
“What I wouldn’t give for a drink,” I sighed desolately. “Or just something moist. Like a sweet. Aren’t you thirsty, too?”
He considered this. “Yeah, I s’pose I am.”
“Of course,” I continued, “you could always borrow one of Abrams’s treacle toffees. He’s got plenty of them right there in his pocket. Why should he have the last of the sweets? He’s been eating them left and right and I’ve only seen you eat three. It’s hardly fair.”
“You’re right,” he observed. “I only ‘ad two, as a matter o’ fact!”
I made tut-tut sounds with my tongue. “That’s awfully selfish of him, keeping them all to himself. But it does make sense that he gets his way and you’re just the one who follows orders.”
“What d’you mean?” Lewisberg retorted defensively, jerking his thumb at his chest. “I’m the one givin’ orders here, missy. I’m the one in charge.”
“Really?” I mused, my gaze drifting over Abrams and the slobber dripping down his double chin. “He seems to get his way a lot, for someone who’s not giving orders here. He even gets to sleep first. By the time you get to take a nap, it will be sunrise and the sun will be right in your eyes, burning. He gets to sleep now when it’s cool and quiet and dark, and you have to be awake. You’ll be cranky and tired when it’s your turn to sleep and it won’t be satisfying at all. Maybe it would help you to stay awake if your mouth wasn’t so uncomfortably dry.”
Lewisberg licked his lips again, frowning. “Just thinking about those toffees makes my parched mouth water,” I went on. “They would certainly be delicious, and Abrams isn’t awake to enjoy them. You deserve it, don’t you?” I leaned back, folding my hands together. “But what do I know, anyway?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then swiftly reached across and pulled a toffee from his friend’s robes. “There we are,” he said greedily to himself. Not bothering to offer me one, he plucked the toffee from its wrapper and popped it in his mouth, chewing slowly. I’d seen Abrams and his enormous jaws working on those things for twenty minutes at a time, and I knew Lewisberg wouldn’t be able to talk much for at least half an hour. His teeth might as well have been glued together.
I bit my cheek, allowing my gaze to flit beyond him and out his window. Every now and then, there would be a dip in the skyline of trees, and I would see a smattering of stars. “You feel that?” I asked in a low voice.
Lewisberg responded in a grunt that sounded like, “Feel what?”
I rested my elbow on the window’s edge. “The cool breeze. Doesn’t it feel nice?”
He blinked. “I shupposhe sho, yesh.”
“Mmhmm.” I smiled slightly, closing my eyes and tilting my face heavenward. “It’s such a peaceful time of night. Everything is calm and serene. There isn’t a care in the world, nothing to worry about. The air is so icy and refreshing after such a long, hot day. You can just feel the sweat cooling on your skin, the breeze restoring you. It feels wonderful on your eyes, yes? They’ve been wide open all day, staring at the brilliant, radiant sunlight. They sting from being open for so long – they sting so much that it burns. The cool wind on your eyelids is like ice water, soothing it.”
Lewisberg made a few sounds of contentment, still chewing on his cement-like toffee, and I knew he was closing his eyes and leaning in to feel the breeze, too.
“I just love the whistle of the wind through the trees,” I told him dreamily. “How the grasshoppers seem to sing to you. And the carriage is moving steadily like the waves of an ocean. You can feel its rhythm calming you, steadying you. It feels like you’re in a ship, rocking back and forth.” I lowered my voice to a feather-light drone. “Back and forth, and back and forth. Back and forth, you swing. It is almost as if you are in a hammock, trundling side to side on a cool, peaceful evening.”
I opened my eyes, edging closer to him. His eyes were still closed, and he squinted somewhat, deeply absorbed in the image I was painting. “You feel safe and protected. Heavy. You feel so very heavy. There are three strings that have you tied down to Earth. Very slowly, like moving through water, you raise one arm and sever a string. And then, you rise a little higher in the sky. You can feel the promise of weightlessness inside your body, how it lifts you. You raise your arm once more and cut the second string. It makes you feel even more buoyant than before.”
“Mmmgh,” Lewisberg murmured, his head lolling sideways on his neck. The crease between his eyes was gone.
“And then the third string snaps of its own accord, and you are sent soaring into the soft clouds. You can feel the mist caressing your face. You feel secure. You feel as though you are dreaming deeply, skimming into space. Your fingers relax, and then your feet, and your hands. Very soon, it is as though your whole body has been disconnected from the world. You are like a rock embedded in the river, and everything flows around you. It moves around you, but you are still there, safe. You are dreaming now.
“In this dream, you can do anything. You are cool and comfortable and as light as a snowflake as you swing deep inside your hammock high in the sky, floating along for eternity. You rock gently and serenely, back and forth…” I moved closer to him, monitoring him carefully. “Baaack and forth. Baaack and forth. Baaack…..” I paused for a moment, and my words came out in a whisper, “and forth. Back and forth.”
He was out like a light. Just like Mother, who could be lulled to sleep during her fits of pain while she was ill, he couldn’t help but succumb to the rhythm of a catatonic voice.
Silently, I reached out and tugged on the black bag. My wand tumbled over the canvas and into my outstretched palm, and I smiled triumphantly. Pointing it at Lewisberg, I growled, “Stupefy.” A crack of red lightning spurted from the tip of my wand, hitting him right between the eyes.
“Hey!” Abrams cried, wrestling to his senses. He sat up, reaching for his wand, and I shouted, “Stupefy!” He immediately fell into an insensible slump, useless.
The carriage began moving much faster, speeding along so quickly that the body of the carriage rolled precariously on its side before dropping with a violent thud. One of the wheels split, and we fell at an awkward angle. Abrams and Lewisberg both were skidding toward me. “Ergh!” I yelled, fighting their deadweight bodies off of me. “Slow down!” I hollered at the thestrals. “Slow down!” I poked my head out the window, glaring at the winged black creatures. “Stop!”
In response, they kicked off the grounder harder, the muscles under their bony ribs circling like clockwork. I could feel the wheels of the carriage lifting off the ground, moving upward. And then, in a burst of intuition, I realized that these were no ordinary thestrals. They were Gaspard’s thestrals. And they knew that the balance of power had been tipped into the wrong hands.
They would take me straight back to him.
I only had seconds before we would be too high for me to act. I grabbed the black sack, threw the drawstring around my neck, and hooked my right leg over the window’s edge. I bent double to fit my head through the frame, and then carefully worked my left leg over, too. We were rising rapidly, gaining height; and before I could lose my nerve, I launched myself out of the carriage and plunged down, down, down through the trees.
I waved my wand, casting Cushioning Charms, but it was so dark that I couldn’t tell where the cushions were landing. Branches slashed at my arms, my hair catching in thorns and leaves, and my legs kicked the air as I fell. Reaching out, pawing at the leaves in hopes of grasping them, my face tilted back for just a fleeting moment and I could see the smoke-gray carriage trickling across the sky like a bat out of hell.
And then, without warning, I smacked into the ground.
Or rather, into a pumpkin. It wasn’t nearly as nice as a cushion would have been, and my brown robes were now covered in gooey pumpkin bits, but it was better than a broken spine.
I sat up, brushing some of the seeds off of myself, and ascertained my surroundings. Pumpkins. I had plummeted into an enormous pumpkin patch in the middle of a forbidding-looking forest. But the most alarming part of the whole scene was the size of the pumpkins themselves. They were enormous, beastly things, throwing shadows twenty feet long. The one I slid into had smashed to pieces, but all of the others stood so high that they could have been tiny houses. I patted the ground for my wand, as it had slipped from my clutch in midair, and slowly became aware of the twin lumps pinned underneath my left shoe.
My wand. Broken, worthless, the dragon heartstring snapped cleanly in half. The tip glowed oddly, reminding me of a body whose nerves may still operate moments after death, twitching and convulsing. The pale light shone brightly over one of the pumpkins, illuminating it.
The enormous thing smelled strangely musty, like a mausoleum. I frowned, kneeling next to one of the pumpkins, and saw that it was a fuzzy blood-red hue.
I glanced over my shoulder, wondering where the road might be, but couldn’t make sense of the forest. It encompassed everything, shrouding the world in softly waving trees and the ominous cracking of twigs. I sucked in a breath, suddenly missing the false sense of safety of the carriage, and began weaving through the pumpkins in a random zigzagging pattern.
A loud cry escaped from a section of trees far in front of me; I panicked and stumbled, turning around to dash in the opposite direction. I got lost in the labyrinth of pumpkins that sprouted from the ground like sleeping giants, twisting and turning, as the cry grew louder and louder. It sounded like a dying thing, shrieking – but long after its cries faded, the sound still carried through the wind like lingering voices in a cave. I knew that cry, and I also knew that my main object now was to get as far away from it as possible.
I swallowed, heart beating fast, and hurried past the last row of misshapen pumpkins into the trees. I should have known soon after entering that these trees were too sparsely set apart to be the ones our carriage had passed, but soon I was so incredibly lost that there was no chance of ever locating the road again.
I stepped quickly, humming in a frenzied sort of way in hopes of calming my nerves, thinking all the while of Andromeda and my father. How could I be sure that Lewisberg and Abrams weren’t lying about my family being safe? How did I know that Andromeda hadn’t been taken away in a carriage just like the one I’d just fled from? There was no way of knowing anything. I would have to fight my way through the darkness until I found some sort of civilization again, and then I would…would what? I couldn’t Apparate. I was as useless as a Muggle right now, with no magic to guide me. I gripped my broken wand in hand, muttering bitterly and hating myself for not apparating inside the carriage when I had the chance.
“Please,” I begged. “Reparo. Reparo. Please.” The broken stick did not respond in any way, and its tiny light was dying.
“No,” I pleaded. “Not now. Not here. Please. Reparo!”
My pulse raced, and my eyes swerved all around in the darkness. Everything was as black as pitch and I couldn’t see so much as a tree right in front of my face. I wanted to sink down at the base of one of them and cry hysterically, feeling very much sorry for myself, but another wolf howled – closer this time – and I had no choice but to hurry blindly.
Other wolves issued cries of their own – hollow, lonely pangs that reverberated in the still night all around me – and I picked up my pace. The faster I walked, the more I stumbled. My shoes tangled in tree roots that reached wickedly high off the ground, curling over anything with substance. I exclaimed in terror and kicked at them, rushing through nothingness and feeling like I was travelling into never-ending abyss.
I gripped the canvas bag tightly to my side, absently wondering why it felt so much lighter than it should have, and picked my way through leaves. For all the use they were, I could have shut my eyes; however, I kept them pried wide open, as though they were helping me along somehow. My feet tested the ground, searching for changes in slope or rocks that threatened to send me face-first into a bushel of thorns. My hands were extended like wings, grazing the bark of trees and providing me with a sense of balance as well as numerous slices and scratches.
“Reparo,” I kept repeating as a mantra. “Reparo, Reparo, Reparo.” I tried to Apparate several times, hoping that I would move through time and space and not constantly find myself slamming into concrete air. I had heard so many stories of my parents conjuring magic with their bare hands in dire situations, without wands. Was this not a dire situation? Was my desperation not enough to spark the magic that could transport me home? What would I even find at home? It could be a pile of simmering rubble, for all I knew…
“Reparo,” I whispered softly, more to block out the sounds of the forest than anything else. The utter quietness left my stomach twisting uneasily into knots. To imagine all of the horrible things that could be awaiting me on all sides…I could be running straight into the hands of death. A dragon, maybe – or a giant – or another person. A Muggle with one of those frightening little metal objects…those things that can kill you in the blink of an eye and leave you bleeding with worse damage than any spell could cause.
I screamed in frustration, pausing to kick a few trees, and hopped about on one foot. The foot that I used for hopping purposes promptly caught on a tree root and I flipped over onto my back, flat on the rocky ground.
“Ohhhh,” I moaned pitifully. “Stupid trees.”
A wolf, as if on cue, cried out again and I scrambled to my feet. Brushing the dirt from my cheek, I glanced up and stiffened.
Where there had not been a light before, there certainly was now. It blazed through the darkness, twinkling invitingly at me, beckoning me. Another wolf howled, and then a range of other wolves echoed his example. They were growing louder with insistence, the howls throatier. Hypnotized by that dot of light emerging through a shaft of tree branches, high up somewhere but not high enough to be a star, I staggered forward.
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