It moved from left to right, and up and down, and I wondered if I might be hallucinating. But the light, surely, was vanishing from one spot and then reappearing there – and then, suddenly, there were a dozen of them. They all blazed to life simultaneously, dotting through the trees and growing larger and larger as I raced down a steep, stone-covered hill.
The trees thinned significantly, and they seemed to decrease in age as well. I knocked short, skinny cedars out of my way as I tumbled downhill, my concentration never leaving the patches of light for fear that they would extinguish if I broke eye contact.
And there it was.
A massive black castle loomed against a backdrop of stars and moonlight, and a sequence of windows that circled diagonally across the highest towers winked down at me. It promised of food, and shelter, and perhaps an owl that I could use to send a letter to Andromeda. Rejoicing on the inside, I walked briskly along a sloping groove in the earth. I could see a wide, empty bowl extending far into the shadowy darkness. Tiny grass seedlings popped up through the soil, converting what must have once been an impressive lake into a field.
The distance from forest to castle was much longer than I approximated. The long shadows and the height of the building tricked my eyes into thinking it was exceptionally closer. I could feel the footsteps of wolves at my back as I curved around the dried-up lake toward the castle. Another howl broke through the air, almost as if to caution me. Almost as if to say, “Get away from here. This place does not belong to you.” But I ignored them, my feet padding silently over the ground, thinking single-mindedly of something to eat and an owl to contact my family with.
Fog curled away from the damp grass, winding around my ankles like serpents of smoke. Two crows were perched on a nearby juniper bush – overgrown – that was planted beside a crumbling stone wall. The wall must have stretched all around the entire property at one time, judging by the trails of broken rocks, but it had fallen away over the years. It looks abandoned, I thought warily. But then why are there lights on? Perhaps someone was trespassing…hopefully they wouldn’t mind another fellow trespasser for company.
I passed by the crows, but neither of them took flight. Instead, they merely twisted their heads to stare at me with sharp, glassy black eyes. The wolves howled again, seemingly surrounding the place with their echoes of warning, and in response a series of crows shot into the sky, having been gathered on an ugly gargoyle that hovered just over the front door.
The castle could have been handsome, I supposed. Even the gargoyles, upon a second glance, were not exceptionally horrid. There was simply something claustrophobic in the air that hung all around the castle, like a leaden spiderweb, that veiled it in…what exactly was it? It reminded me of the deep timbre of the wolves’ howls, hovering just on the edge of a message. Whatever the message may have been, real or imagined, I did not have the patience or inclination to discover. This castle was my first step toward getting home.
My fingertips grazed a brass knocker in the shape of a grizzly bear’s head, its mouth yawning wide open in a fierce growl. Its rounded handle was strung with thin, sheer strands that indicated a billywig nest. My eyes traveled upward, reading the letters on a plaque that was hung directly over the bear knocker. Malfoy Manor. I squinted my eyes, trying to remember where I had heard that name before. Malfoy. It was so very familiar, like something I had once read about in a book.
I raised my fist and knocked. Once. Twice. Three times.
A square patch of soft yellow light in the grass behind me wavered slightly, rippling like water. And then it disappeared, leaving behind even more blackness than before. Startled, I turned over my shoulder to see six other patches of yellow light scattered beyond the juniper bush, beyond the crumbling wall and into the hollowed out portion of land, all vanish. Someone inside the castle had heard my knocks; and in response, they had put out all the lights.
My teeth snapped together. I brought my fist to the door and beat on it again. “Hello?” I called, concentrating hard. My ear was pressed to the solid wood, but I couldn’t hear any movement from within. “Are you going to answer?” I shouted, my lips an inch from the door. I shifted my weight, gripping the black sack tightly in one hand. “This is the only place around for miles. I’m not going away.”
I pressed my hands to the door, groping for a handle. Absence of a door handle generally meant that the dwelling was occupied by magical people, not Muggles, as they used wands to open them. Only the oldest, most respected wizarding families would own a door like this, which refused to open for those without wands. I recalled Aunt Walburga’s house; her door was much the same as this one. But I knew that there was a little trick to open it without a wand, so that it could still be operated by her two children who were not old enough to use magic outside of Hogwarts.
I examined the knocker closely, raising the metal circle and smiling triumphantly to myself. Sure enough, there was a deep slot behind it. All I had to do was lift the metal knocker straight out and then slide it back into the wood at a different angle. I did so, and the door clicked open for me with a heavy groan.
Hesitantly, I prodded the door open wider on its ancient rusty hinges with the toe of my boot. The door wobbled uneasily, exposing more darkness that loomed for ages. The shadows swallowed everything, even oxygen, like jaws as they crept steadily along a cavernous corridor. Shadows seemed to undulate within other shadows, like the imprints of stirring ghosts.
I peered all around, still on the doorstep. I expected the air to taste musty, but it was quite the opposite; it tasted richer, thinner, and more open. I could feel an enormous space blossoming all around me, as though the interior of the castle opened up to the sky like the petals of a flower that twisted up through the night. Or even larger, somehow, than the sky itself. I had never felt anything more alarming, or consuming, or infinite. A shiver danced down my spine – a warning travelling downwind. The wolves remained on the crest of the hill, not stepping forward any further than where they currently stood, and their eyes glittered in the dark. I studied them as they slowly slunk back into the forest, their tails whispering against the grass.
I swallowed. My eyes darted around, sizing up the chances of danger. I did not foresee any reason why anyone living inside these walls would want to hurt me. If they were magical – and the knocker most certainly meant that they were – then they would have wands. My heart rose in my throat, warming me with the sensation of relief. I would be able to Apparate home.
And so, with much less trepidation than the occasion called for, I stepped easily over the threshold and into a long, tiled foyer.
The further I walked, the brighter it became. Stretching my head back, I made out several arched windows far above me – impossibly high up – that rather reminded me of the Owlery at Hogwarts. A faint bluish light streamed in, casting slices of moon upon the vast floor. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, tracing the fine lines of an enormous fireplace that was shaped like a person. I could see the sides and how they curved upward into stiff shoulders, and then the shoulders sloped into a neck with a head on top. The head was turned slightly, like a profile, and revealed a very long, pointed nose. I frowned, stepping closer. It wasn’t a nose at all. It was a beak that protruded from his face – like that of a crow.
I slowed my gait, moving more cautiously. Enormous theatre curtains, red and velvet, were pinned to the ceiling. They billowed down like a deflated parachute, some of the raggedy edges blocking windows and even drifting several feet off the floor at one place in the center of the room. Examining it closely, I could see something that looked like a mural hidden beneath the curtains, painted all over the domed ceiling. I wondered why anyone would go to such lengths to cover it up.
My eyes fell on a massive staircase – rounded – that began on two different sides of the room and snaked up the wall until they met in the middle, like mirrored reflections of each other. That second story where they met was lined with a balcony, and I guessed that there must be doors up there that led to the other floors and the towers I had seen outside; the towers that had been lit up with swatches of burning orange only minutes ago. I took to the right staircase and began to mount it, my hand trailing up the gleaming banister. It wasn’t dusty in the least… The castle held no flavor of neglect or decay; on the contrary, it seemed very much lived in. It felt as though the very walls themselves were alive and breathing, pulsing with a strange and greedy vigor.
I was almost to the top when I heard a soft creaking on the stairs below me, at the base. I stopped short, turning around so abruptly that my hair fanned out around my shoulders, and stared into the plunging darkness. The staircase was wrapped in shadow, fathomless. “It’s a girl,” someone whispered.
“Hello?” I called, my voice just a pitch higher than I intended.
More creaking resumed – this time at the top of the stairs. I snapped around, my lungs twisting painfully with fear. I thought of my mother’s crystal wedding band hidden in the seams of my robes, and the image of thieves taking it away from me flashed through my mind for a moment. I could not let them get their greasy hands on any precious Black family heirlooms.
“I can hear you,” I spoke, determined to keep any trembling out of my voice. I could picture Andromeda’s face in my mind, proud of me for maintaining composure. “I’m armed. If you try anything, I’ll kill you.” I fingered the broken wand in my pocket, hoping desperately that they would believe my bluff.
“Yes,” someone whispered, and there was a shuffling of footsteps on the staircase opposite the one I stood frozen on. “I’m well aware of that, you know.”
“Then what is the problem?” The other voice was insistent. “Haven’t we been waiting for long enough? Seven years, Horatio.”
“That is Mr. Horloge to you, sir.” The second voice sounded irritated.
“She is our guest. What kind of gentleman are you to be rude to a guest? I say we –”
“Show yourselves,” I demanded. “I can hear you talking. I know you’re there.”
Someone cleared their throat. “Pardon me, madam, for our horrible manners.” The voice was pleasant, hospitable, and rung out like bells in the otherwise silent room. "We are very pleased to make your acquaintance.” Far from feeling comforted, however, I backed against the wall, sidling further up the stairs to step into a shaft of blue light emanating from a nearby window. It felt safer somehow, being swathed in the delicate, protective ambiance.
“Show yourselves,” I said again.
A tall, slim figure stepped into the light, his palms raised in a gesture of innocence. He had rich chestnut brown hair and a long, charming face. His head was bent to the side, examining me curiously. “My name is Ramien Wax,” he said slowly, carefully. There was a slightly manic edge to his tone, as if he was putting a great deal of thought into the way he introduced himself and placed a heavy interest in its success. “You have no reason to fear us.”
“There are others.” I pointed into the shadowy darkness behind him. For all I knew, he was just a distraction. I would be talking to him and his accomplices could sneak up behind me, incapacitate me before I could blink.
“Horatio,” Ramien said softly, his eyes slipping to the floor as he awaited a response. “Come on, then.”
“This is ridiculous,” replied a pompous voice. “The girl is obviously unarmed. She cannot escape, anyway; why the theatrics?”
“It is crucial, my dear friend,” Ramien said, sounding slightly harassed, “that we treat this newcomer with nothing but kindness. For the last time, come out.”
I could hear grumbling, and then the heavy thud of footsteps. Horatio was as short as Ramien was tall, and as wide as Ramien was thin. He wore a ludicrous brown wig that was matted on top, from what I could only guess was his refusal to take it off while he slept. He had a long, bristly mustache that seemed perpetually lopsided, a ruddy complexion, and a gold pocket watch that hung from a chain in his waistcoat to his front pocket. “This is absolutely unallowable,” he was jabbering. “Positively forbidden. When the Master gets wind of this, it’ll be our heads!” He shook a stubby finger at Ramien, who looked bemused. “We’ll be in so much trouble. But I’ll tell him I had nothing to do with it, and you can back me up.”
“Do not listen to his nonsense,” Ramien told me genially. “He’s just wound up.”
“Who are you?” I questioned. “Why are you here?”
“Ah.” He smiled wistfully, averting his eyes toward the ceiling as he rolled back onto the balls of his feet. “Isn’t that the million-Galleon question? We are here, my dear, because –”
“No!” Horatio waddled closer, pinching Ramien's forearm. The top of his head barely met Ramien’s waist. “Absolutely not! We would get into such trouble. I can’t – no. I won’t allow it.”
The taller man brushed him off. “Horatio is only angry because he wasn’t even supposed to be here. It happened entirely by unfortunate happenstance. But here he is, you see. And now there’s no getting rid of him.”
“Getting rid of me?” Horatio sputtered. “Because if I couldn’t rid myself, I wouldn’t? You are touched in the head, I say.” He drew himself up to his full height (which wasn’t much), looking firm and profoundly ruffled. “Touched in the head.”
“Surely you would enjoy a tour?” Ramien purred, gesturing with his arm at a torch in a bracket on the wall. It immediately sprouted flame, washing us in light.
I stared at him and his empty hands. “How did you do that?” I demanded. In spite of myself, I found myself moving closer to him. “Is there a wand in your sleeve?”
“A wand?” he repeated with a smile. “My dear, I have not had any use for wands in seven years.”
“Almost eight,” Horatio added stiffly, refusing to look at him.
“You mean that you can do magic without a wand?” I wanted to know.
“No need,” Ramien responded. He waved a hand all around him. “Malfoy Manor…is magic. There is no reason to use a stick to channel it. Magic comes from the walls, the air, the ceiling. It comes out of you and me and I can twist it and bend it to do many things.” He snapped his finger and a second candle in a wall sconce flickered into being, illuminating a tapestry I had not previously noticed. It hung on the wall next to a black door, and I could see the outlines of bison as they ran in place. Elsewhere on the tapestry, warthogs and crocodiles were fighting each other on the banks of a swamp.
With my mind still on the wrestling animals, I allowed them to lead me through the black door and down a wide, splendid corridor. Gas lamps sitting on triangular glass tables hissed as we walked by them, popping on. The ceiling, just like the floor, was carved in ivory squares. The walls were a strange ocher, and lined with portrait after portrait. The gilded frames still gleamed, elegant, but the canvases inside had long since been ripped to shreds. I fingered a strip that hung from one of them as I walked by, wondering what the people in these portraits must have said to receive such a brutal punishment.
“This is the eastern wing,” Ramien informed me happily. “The kitchen is downstairs, as is the dining hall.” He pointed to an open door on his right. “That’s a spare room, there. Lovely bed posters. I do have a genuine appreciation for bed posters. I feel that they are a rather underrepresented piece of furniture.”
I followed his gaze through the doorway, and a flash of silver caught my attention. “A birdcage!” I cried, separating from them. I turned back, eyes bright with anticipation. “You have owls?”
He bit his lip. “Once upon a time, we did.”
My face fell. “You don’t have any now? None at all?”
Horatio answered this time, although his face was unreadable. “The owls don’t come here anymore.”
I sighed. “Have either of you got wands, then? If you don’t have owls, I’ll just have to Apparate.”
“Apparate?” Ramien inquired. “But why?”
I could have laughed at him. “Why? I need to get home, of course.”
Ramien and Horatio’s eyes flickered to each other, their expressions uneasy. I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and wondered if it had been the best idea to enter the castle. I could sense a heavy tension sprinkling the atmosphere, like the air before it rains, and began to devise a way to leave without drawing notice to myself.
“You can’t leave,” Ramien said quietly.
I felt my heart squeeze. “You can’t force me to stay here,” I answered tremulously. “I’m going to go now. You just –” I pointed at both of them, inching away toward the black door from which we came. “You just stay there. Stay right there and don’t move. Don’t you dare try to stop me.”
“You don’t understand,” Ramien went on, glancing at Horatio. Horatio’s mouth twitched, his small nose stuck up in the air in a superior sort of way. He nodded at Wax, as though confirming something between them. “You can’t leave. It’s physically impossible.”
I was still backtracking toward the door, not daring to turn around on them lest they try to curse me. Ramien took a step, attempting to bridge the gap. “Not another inch!” I exclaimed shrilly. “Stay where you are.”
“You can’t leave,” he continued calmly. “None of us can leave. This castle is under a spell. All who are inside it, and any who enter it, cannot leave. It’s been bewitched for nearly eight years, and we are all prisoners here.”
“What do you mean, you can’t leave?”I demanded, not trusting him. “You can’t Apparate out? You can make all the lights turn on without touching them, but you can’t Apparate?”
“We do…what the house permits us to do,” he mused. And as though to reinforce this statement, the black door behind us slammed shut.
“Petty magic, yes. Anything that could help us to escape? No. Powerful magic? No. Utterly hopeless.” He took a deep breath, and I noticed a few lines creasing his forehead, which told me that perhaps he was somewhat older than he seemed under the disguise of dim lighting. “But you will not believe me until you try it yourself. By all means…” He waved his arm soberly ahead of him, gesturing for me to lead the way back to the foyer.
I pointed the tip of my broken wand at him. “You first.”
Ramien politely obliged by skirting around me, his palms raised once more in surrender. “Horatio,” he called in a clear voice, narrowing his eyes at the stumpy man who stubbornly remained in the middle of the hall, several feet away. “You heard the girl.”
Horatio grumbled but did as instructed. We traipsed back to the double-staircases, Ramien attempting to make casual conversation. “What is your name, by the way?” he asked.
“Myrtle.” I kept my broken wand aimed at him, and he smiled faintly. “Face forward. Keep walking or I’ll hex you.” Horatio coughed, covering up a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snigger.
“Of course,” Ramien agreed lightly. “Whatever you wish, Miss Myrtle.”
We approached the staircase. “When Master hears about this, he’ll be in such an uproar that I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw you out a window,” Horatio huffed to his friend.
“If Master possessed the power to throw me out a window,” Wax said under his breath, “he would have thrown himself out a window a very long time ago.”
I wasted no time. While they were occupied with their chatter, slowly descending the staircase, I rushed quickly away from them and headed toward a black door on the opposite side. I could hear Ramien and Horatio bickering softly as I turned the knob with my hand. It made no noise at all, and I slipped easily inside. Perhaps another section of the castle would yield an owl or a wand, or a door that would lead me out of this place.