This chapter is for Janechel, who is pretty much the most amazing person ever. I value your support more than I could ever say. :)
I tucked my knees to my chest, the stone window ledge like ice on my skin. It was cool and tranquil outside, black with silvery swirls of starlight. I leaned heavily against the invisible barrier that prevented me from toppling out the open window and shooting like an arrow through a bow into nonbeing. Sitting up there, daring the night to come and take me and suck me right through the curse’s claws, my body was pinned between life and death by a substance I could not even see.
Two weeks had slowly unraveled, and I had not yet found a way out of the castle. There was no door that would permit me to pass, no owl that would fly near when I stood there and beckoned. I watched flocks of birds traveling past, making their way south as the air grew colder; I called to them, a note crumpled in one hand that I intended to attach to one of their legs like a carrier pigeon. No matter how loudly I yelled, or how roughly I beat against the curse that bound me to the castle, none of them so much as craned their necks to catch my eye. They continued their way along the skies, disappearing into the sunset and materializing once more in the sunrise as though unable to hear my screams.
Vivid nightmares plagued my sleep, imagining Andromeda and my father locked up somewhere. I still wondered if Gaspard Pravus took them, too, and placed them in the hands of scoundrels like the ones who were supposed to deliver me north. Were my sister and father trapped under floorboards in Doorturn? Were they lost in the wilderness, calling my name? Our neighbors would have looted the house by now, unless it had been burned to the ground as was common practice when citizens owed the Ministry taxes.
I exhaled a sharp gust of air, watching the fingerprint of it expand on something clear and shining, reflecting my own face back to me for a fleeting moment before it vanished. Something about my appearance was off – I couldn’t quite place it. My eyes had seemed a bright green, and narrowed like a cat’s. I breathed on the barricade again, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
I leaned forward, rubbing at the goosebumps that had cropped up on my arms, and slid my legs over the edge into the room, dropping to the floor with a light thud.
Standing still and listening, I heard nothing stirring elsewhere in the castle. The only noise was the low humming of that defected clock, which ticked endlessly without rest. I skimmed my finger along a candlestick, smiling in amazement as a pitch of flame instantly sprouted from it, and picked it up to carry with me. It was something of a triumph, to finally have some of Malfoy Manor’s magic bending to my will.
The hall was mostly dark, aside from a glimmer of light from one candle in a cobwebbed chandelier, dancing along the wall beside it like a moth. My shadows were long, wrapping from floor to ceiling. They reminded me of puppets I had once seen on a mantelpiece in my aunt’s house, fashioned from ebony spindles that we children were forbidden to touch.
I passed Lucius’s private study, wondering if he was still awake in there or perhaps in his bedroom, wherever that may be. A strange sensation crept up my throat, unfurling in my mind like smog. Upon discovering his blindness, a sort of ease had settled over me. His blindness triggered my pity, and also my relief because he could not be knowledgeable of how I had stared at him in disgust, and it allowed me to survive being in the same room with him. Knowing that he was even more imprisoned in this castle than I was, somehow, supplied a vindictive satisfaction that made the beast almost bearable.
I recalled his parting words earlier in the evening. He always left at the rosy part of day, where the glittering reds and blooming pinks of the sunset bled through the stained glass windows, staining everything with that perpetual shade of autumn. Lucius Malfoy preferred to play his piano at night when all was peaceful and the birds quiet, and departed just as the sun was going down. I could envision the scene up in his tower – the sun falling in curving rays of garnet across the squares of glass ceiling and the piano, lighting it all up like a torch. It was something Lucius himself must be unaware of, but he played the keys as though he could see it and feel it in his atmosphere all the same. Mrs. Macnair sat opposing him at her small table, scrawling out the sheet music for him.
Just as the last of the sun had disappeared around the side of the house, leaving a soft, dull glow in its wake, Lucius turned to me, resting one gloved hand on the doorknob of my bedroom. He was tall and slender, bending slightly under the stress of what he was about to say.
“What do I look like?” he had asked me again. “No one will ever give me an honest account.”
The words burned on my tongue: You are a reanimated corpse, the foundation of legends, the thing we fear in storybooks. The memory of you stings like a snake cut in half. But pity bubbled to the surface again, remarkably, and I said, “You look like a man who uses more than vision to see.”
I slipped through a door, gazing overhead at the crisscrossing rafters and the way the illumination of my candle seemed to deepen the ceiling, making it higher and jagged. The walls here were the color of purple mountain, and I ran my hand along the worn brick. A broad window with two pillars on each side – both of them grooved and polished like Grecian architecture – took up the whole of the western wall. A length of black fabric fixed to the top billowed out, undulating despite the absence of wind. The frayed, serrated edges licked the air like a forked tongue, and before I could remind myself that it was impossible, I thought I saw one end of it flit beyond the window outside, beyond the invisible blockade.
“It’s dementor’s skin,” Wren had whispered to me when I first saw it.
Presently I reached out, my pale fingertips stretching to touch the curtain somehow made from a dementor, and suddenly a cry ripped through the stagnant air. My hand froze in place and another unnatural whip of the curtain revealed what was happening outside the castle.
Peering over the window’s edge, I was abruptly aware of the staggering height, feeling all at once very high up and narrow, with the nausea of vertigo overtaking my senses. A group of wolves were breaking through the trees, distancing themselves from one another in a perfect V formation.
One of them lifted its jaw into the air, throat rumbling as it released an echoing howl. He saw me – I was certain of it – and his bright eye gleamed as it swiveled to stare into my own, from the vast distance of what felt like many days, and thicker than the crust of the earth. But he penetrated it instantly, which had been impossible for every bird that ever flickered past, and saw me. He knew what lurked behind the window, could see the curse as though it was flesh.
My palms began to sweat, feeling all at once visible, feeling the surge of assurance that I was indeed real and had not fallen away from the world into a sort of demented purgatory. A myriad of hopes climbed up into my conscience like vines, wondering if wolves were not the only creatures that could see me standing there.
They each met my gaze, one by one, as they sauntered across the field and descended into the hollow bowl that must have once been filled with water. The last one switched his silver tail, throwing his head back in a thestral-like fashion to embrace eye contact for one full second before slinking into the high reeds that twisted up out of the dried lake. And then he was gone.
The misery and despair that enveloped me after that was unfounded. I knew I could not expect any of them to help me. They were animals, probably attracted by a light burning in one of the towers, and came scavenging in search of food. Nothing was going to wander out here to rescue me from Malfoy Manor.
“They always see me, too.”
I gasped, the coldness of surprise tingling up my spine, and looked all around with wide eyes. “Who’s there?” I asked. The small flame of my candle showed me nothing, mostly bouncing off of large lavender bricks and blinding myself.
“Right here,” the voice happily responded.
“Where?” I whirled around, whisking the candle high and low like lightning. I didn’t see anyone.
My mouth dropped open. Finally I could see him, although he was so dim that I could barely distinguish his figure from the wall. He was strangely blurred at the edges, and when he glided forward, it was quick. Unnaturally quick – like apparition rather than walking. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, with a round face and robes that were much too long for him, dragging out behind his small stature across the flagstone floor. But, more alarming than anything else, was the fact that the boy was dead.
“I’m Charlie,” he informed me.
“Charlie,” I repeated. My pulse was still hot and quick, unaccustomed to such a sight. I had seen ghosts many times at Hogwarts, of course, but never anywhere else. It was a surreal idea – ghosts anywhere outside of Hogwarts.
“You’re Narcissa,” he went on. “My grandmother told me.”
“There are more of you?”
“Of me?” He looked confused. “Ghosts, you mean? Yes, there are more. But my grandmother isn’t a ghost. She’s alive, just like you.”
I found my eyes roving over the boy for signs of damage, like the almost-severed head of Nearly-Headless Nick, and the damning evidence that spilled all over the Bloody Baron. I didn’t find anything prominent, so it must have been a natural death. Curiosity gnawed at me, and I said, “How did you die?”
“Measles,” someone else answered.
The boy gave a frightened squeak and plunged straight through the floor. “Lucius!” I said, startled. “How did you get down here by yourself?”
“I can do a lot of things by myself,” he told me defensively. I got the keen distinction that he resented Charlie’s running away from him. “I was awake and I heard voices, so I came to see what was going on.” He waited a while for me to say something, and when I did not, he added, “Charlie is supposed to be seventeen.”
“Oh?” I managed to say.
“Yes.” Lucius stepped forward, crossing over to the rippling black curtain, the tendrils of which reached out eagerly, trying to touch him. I felt an urge to pull Lucius away. “He fell ill about eight years ago. We didn’t know it at the time…we thought it was only a common cold. And then the castle was cursed, and we realized too late that he actually had the measles.” He hesitated.
“And?” I prompted.
“And the curse has no compassion, even for sick children.” He tilted his head, giving the impression of perhaps gazing out the window, and I wondered what sort of image he was seeing. A little boy with a fever and furious rash, his cough ringing against floors and walls and ceilings in the castle. A giantess and an old woman, a handyman and a servant, all kneeling at his side. And a translucent-skinned pianist, standing very much in the dark. “We are imprisoned here, in life and in death.”
My eyebrows shot up. “He was forced to turn into a ghost after he died?”
Lucius’s expression was unreadable. “Circe allowed for no loopholes. We will all be in this castle for eternity.”
Somewhere beyond, a wolf howled once more. We listened to it until long after it faded, silent, and Lucius said, “Those are hers, too.”
I snapped my head up to examine him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that the wolves belong to her, according to legend. They belong to Circe.”
“I never paid any mind to Circe stories,” I admitted.
“You should have.” He sounded grave. “The myths are all that govern our lives here now. Some believe that, since she is a half-fairy, her lifespan is short and therefore she might be dead by now. Some think that she reincarnates like a phoenix after death, and keeps the memories of her previous lives with her. Nearly all scholars agree that she has, in one way or another, been alive for five thousand years at least.”
I struggled to bite back a laugh. “Are you so certain that she exists?”
“I saw her with my own eyes,” he said crossly. “I watched her grow from old to young. She told me herself that her name was Circe. And the spell – can you think of anyone else qualified to create such an airtight spell that is as strong as ever almost eight years after its execution?”
I could not.
“The wolves,” he went on, “belonged to her in ancient times. They were her closest companions, and they ran together around the world like a pride of lions.” I pictured a faceless woman in my mind, could see her feet and the padded paws of wolves thumping over bare earth as they raced through trees and across moors, the leaves swirling in a haze around them as they moved like fire over water. Going, going, gone; leaving spectacular magic and beauty and terrible disaster lingering in every city they vacated.
“Gradually she eclipsed them, keeping pace even when her wolves needed rest. Finally, they were left abandoned in a forest – left behind – as Circe went and on and never looked back. Or so the legends say. Some of the wolves, I’ve heard, resent their master and want revenge on her. Some of them still obey her, driven by the strength of memory and the devotion that is still alive even though they have not crossed paths with their commander in over a thousand years.”
“A thousand years?” I marveled. “Wolves? They can’t live that long, it’s impossible.”
Lucius shrugged. “That’s the legend.”
I remembered the way the wolves had run parallel to me in the forest, darting in between enormous red pumpkins. I remembered how they circled all around in a horseshoe shape as I picked my way to the castle, viewing it as a blessing, thinking I would soon be reunited with my family. They had watched me as I crossed the threshold, crying in that lonely way, knowing in their sharp minds that I would never come back out. Were they herding me into the castle on purpose? Were they trying to warn me not to enter it? I would never know, as they might as well have been separated a thousand years from me, where I stood locked in Malfoy Manor.
“Every curse has a loophole,” I said at once. I took a step closer to Lucius, ignoring every particle of my body that shrieked in protest, that instinctually told me to flee from him. “There must be something, surely, that can be done to break the spell. Did she give you any way out? Is there anything at all that can be tried?”
His eyes were as black as the dementor curtains. “No.”
“If you are going to be here permanently,” Ramien told me, and I could no longer fight against the truth of what he said, “then you might as well be comfortable. The house is quite evil, of course, but it’s also alive with black magic. Sometimes, when all the stars align, black magic can produce something that is good.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “Sounds suspicious.” I pondered it, and came to the conclusion that black magic was not something I feared, anyway. The Black family had embraced all types of magic, both light and dark, many generations ago. We understood the benefits of both. The curse over Malfoy Manor was inconvenient to me, yes, but I could still revel in the intensity of it, and admire with twisted wonder at the power it held over everyone inside it.
“Is there anything at all that you want?” Ramien persisted, and Lucius turned his head to the side from his chair in the corner, listening intently. “The house could produce it for you. Robes of any color, music –”
“Music?” We all stopped short as a light and airy melody, thin as a butterfly’s wing, floated down from an undetected source like snowflakes. The drawing room was instantly filled with the symphony of harps and violins. “Incredible,” I remarked.
Ramien smiled wryly, plowing on. “See? It could give you anything. Anything but freedom. The options are endless. Would you like books? Furniture? A painting or some pretty jewelry, perhaps?”
“None of that interests me,” I scoffed, waving my hand in dismissal. “The only thing I want is to see my family, and that will never happen.”
“New robes?” Ramien pressed. “Are you sure you couldn’t be satisfied with some new robes?”
“That’s what she has me for,” Wren shot back, looking venomous. “I’m the seamstress and I’ll be making all the clothes, thank you very much.”
“Wait,” Lucius interrupted, holding up one gloved finger. He pressed his lips together in thought, and I could almost taste the salt, and smell the tarnished scent of blood welling up in my own mouth when his lips parted again and I saw the usual tint of red ringing around his chalky lips. “Just be silent for a moment.”
We all quieted ourselves, watching him curiously. His shoulders were exceedingly stiff, his dark gaze focused on the floor while his brow knit together. It might have been the way firelight cut against his cheekbones, or the determined expression on his face, but I thought he looked considerably less revolting.
“Come with me,” he said slowly.
Wren stood to her feet, the floor groaning under the shift of weight, and Lucius curtly shook his head. “Not you. I was speaking to Narcissa.”
I eyed him warily as he held out his arm, presumably so that I could put my hand on it and guide him. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll find out. Now do what I say and step into the corridor. We are going to be turning right.”
“Please,” I commented under my breath.
“I said ‘please’,” I told him more loudly. “When you’re going to boss someone around, it’s more socially acceptable if you say please.”
Lucius scowled. “Please.”
“Much better.” I led him out into the corridor, arching myself so that I could keep a wide berth between us while still maintaining a hold on his thin arm, contemplating all the while whether or not to push him down a flight of stairs. At the very least, it would have been amusing to run him into a wall.
“Take the stairs at the very end of the corridor,” he ordered pleasantly. “Please.”
We passed the gilded portrait with a yellow chair sitting in it, still unoccupied, and came to the end. “Up,” he said, even though it was quite obvious that we were supposed to walk up. What else could anyone do with stairs? Rolling my eyes, we stomped our way to the top and I awaited more directions.
“It’s the fourth door on the left.” His voice was much softer now, almost nervous. It was only when I paused outside the fourth door, reading the engraved letters that said Lucius’s Quarters, that I realized that this room was directly above my bedroom.
What Lucius had wanted from the house’s magic, it seemed, was a fabrication of everything he couldn’t have. Trees wove all the way to the ceiling, their brilliant green leaves brushing against the branches of other trees. Their huge roots broke out of the flinty marble floor itself, the strength and thickness of them spreading cracks as thin as needles and as thick as my wrist all over the floor and up the walls.
Lucius broke away from me, clasping his hands behind his back. I wasn’t paying attention to him – I was peering through the trees and trying to discern where his bed or wardrobe or dressing table might be. “Over there,” he replied knowingly, inclining his head. “On the ground.”
I searched where he indicated, my eyes falling upon a tiny stone-rimmed pond. It was very shallow, and would have been able to hold nothing larger than East-Irish kelpies, and the water was crystal clear. In fact, once I sat before it and examined its three-inch depths, it looked more like –
“A mirror,” he said. “One of the famed Mirrors of Erised.”
“Merlin,” I whispered, gaping at him. “It can’t be! There are only three of them in the world that we know of.”
He nodded somberly. “This one takes the form of a small pond. It will show you whatever your heart desires the most, and in turn, your heart’s desire will see you as well. It’s a two-way mirror.”
I touched the surface, which had been a solid sheet until that moment, and tiny ripples of water peeled away from my finger. Runes that I had not noticed until then were etched into the stones that surrounded the pool. I was about to take a closer look at them, as it struck me that they did not look to be runes at all, but rather words written backwards; but I was thrown off my concentration when Lucius dropped to the ground next to me, hovering with his face close to mine.
He looked almost desperate, and his voice was inexplicably anxious. “What do you see?”
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