Small quantities of stone were crumbling away from her grip, and Mrs. Macnair heaved her left foot higher. She tested the sturdiness of it, making sure that it would not give way underneath her weight while she scaled the outside wall of Malfoy Manor. Her eyes were narrowed with disdain, and she was not in the mood for any more setbacks.
The news she had been summoned for was not pleasant.
The fool, she thought sourly. She knew that she should have killed the girl while she still had the chance. There were many nights that she stood pressed into the corners of Narcissa’s bedroom, watching and waiting. She could have murdered her then, and it would all have been finished with. There were many ways to destroy a body, which she knew quite well. Narcissa would not have been the first woman to die in Malfoy Manor during the curse’s reign, and it would only take a few swift moments to transfigure her cadaver into something else; inanimate objects were her specialty. Like yellow wooden chairs.
Mrs. Macnair smiled to herself.
There had been Lucius’s mother, of course, who had fallen prey to the piano’s poison. Why Tulia Malfoy risked playing such an instrument, Wilda had never been able to understand. Come to think of it, she’d never understood Tulia at all. She’d left behind a luxurious home, a husband who was Minister for Magic, and a young, albeit slightly disturbed, son with clear eyes. Tulia traded Pravus for Malfoy, staggered through forests and waded across rivers until she found the manor. Until she found Magnus. And there, of course, she raised her second son Lucius and whittled away the afternoons at her piano until it inevitably killed her.
It was a sinister amusement to Wilda that the painted woman who sat in her yellow wooden chair, confined to a portrait, was now a yellow wooden chair herself.
And then there was that other girl, the one swept under the rug, not even whispered of. She was meant to be the castle’s savior, and should have been, in every design. She was much more beautiful than Narcissa, more talented. She did not come from a wealthy family of any importance, but she could sing like a lark and her manners and way of speaking distinguished her as someone to admire. All of this was lost, of course, on Lucius. The only thing he could sense about the young woman was her uneasiness. She was nervous, skittish. Master Malfoy frightened her and she was terrified to be alone in the room with him. Even still, it was only a matter of time…
Yes. Wilda was certain that it would have happened eventually – the girl would have grown used to Lucius. He would have learned to accept her fearful behavior and they would have fallen into something like love. The spell would have broken. Wilda was right to have acted when she did. The intruder who knocked on the castle doors on an early morning in February, searching for her lost sister, did not live to see March.
“Narcissa Black is gone,” Gaspard had said. He had caught up to her in Knockturn Alley – ironically the place where they first crossed paths – with his face flushed and popping with livid veins. He clutched at a stitch in his sides, panting. Wilda scowled at him.
“She escaped through the portal?”
“No, no.” he waved his arm at the air, helpless and completely deranged. “I moved the mirror. It’s hidden, there’s no way she could have found it. I don’t know what happened to her.”
“Well what did you do, let her roam free? Don’t tell me that you left her to her own devices, not tied down or shackled in any way.”
Gaspard’s eyes snapped up to hers, confused. Startled. Realization dawned over both of them and Wilda furiously flicked her wand at him, splotching his forearm with a bloody rash. He released a strangled, horrified scream, groping at it with his fingers. She knew the affliction would itch. She knew that he would scratch it until he bled out in the gutters with a face as pale and empty as the moon, unless he could make it to St. Mungo’s first. She didn’t care. He was useless to her now.
“You horrible woman,” he accused, falling to his knees. His tongue was between his teeth, hot with blood from where he bit down on it to muffle the shrieks. “You monster! Put me right. I demand that you put me right, or upon my orders you shall rot in Azkaban and you’ll never see your grandson again.”
“I think not.” Her voice was an endless hiss, and she turned on her heel, marching through the darkness. We had a deal.
Yes, we did.
We must cast off those who encumber us, who get in our way.
Yes. We must.
And the girl? What shall we do about her?
We find her, of course. And we kill her. The corridors of Malfoy Manor will run red with the remains of Narcissa Black. She can be easily made into something else – a broom or a carpet. Or a pair of Master Malfoy’s gloves. A grin crossed her face. She will be dead and he will be asleep for all time, like the ghosts of Tulia and the beautiful intruder who sleep even now, slumbering behind Magnus’s locked bedroom door. It is a cursed sleep – no one can emerge from it. No one will interfere again.
It is a sacrifice we must make. For Charlie’s sake.
Yes... For Charlie’s sake…
Mrs. Macnair clamped her fingers around the last stone, trying not to think about how high off of the ground she was, and pulled herself through the window. She landed on the hard floor, coughing. The back of her head fizzled with white-hot pain, and she winced as she cradled one hand behind it. Her wand wouldn’t work properly in this house, but Malfoy Manor would heal the wound for her. It knew which side possessed her allegiance, and they were comrades together, working against all who tried to challenge Circe’s spell.
Dementor-skin curtains whipped about her face, and she swatted irritably at them. Echoes of footsteps worked their way through the walls, and she hastily sat up. Wilda shrank behind the curtains, curling one withered arm over the edge as the door opened.
“There’s something peculiar about it that bothers me,” Ramien spoke through the gloom.
“It was only a matter of time,” Horatio responded. Wilda rolled her eyes. Horatio was a blithering idiot and she couldn’t stand to hear him talk. “An incident waiting to happen, if you ask me.”
“Doesn’t something about it strike you as odd?” Ramien pressed. They crossed to the door on the opposite end of the corridor, and the taller of the two fellows tugged it open. Wilda’s breath hitched, panic coursing through her veins. She was paralyzed with fear, afraid that one of them might spot her behind the curtains and figure out that this particular window opened to the outside world. She didn’t want to have to kill them, too. It was too much of a hassle, and she’d be left with very few companions when they were all ghosts together someday. “And did you notice that she was the only one left behind? She had perfect opportunity.”
Wilda’s eyes widened. Mr. Wax knew that she had slammed Lucius’s fingers onto the piano keys while everyone else was distracted with the fire. He had found her out.
“Yes,” Horatio answered thoughtfully as Ramien slipped through the door ahead of him. “I’ve suspected Miu of eating the last of the blueberry tart after everyone else goes to bed, but this settles it once and for all. I say that we hide it in that other pantry from now on – the one above the stove.”
The door closed, shrouding Wilda in black silence once more. She let out a shaky exhale. All was not lost. She waited several seconds to move, and then stole through the door they had come through.
A painted woman watched from the gilded portrait above, anger searing through her blue eyes.
Wind and rain snarled against my sopping wet hood, and I weaved my fingers around the fabric at my neck, trying to keep it from lashing at my face. All exposed skin had long lost any feeling, anesthetized by the December snow.
I tried to remember everything I’d ever heard about the legendary sorceress. She had wolves, and was ancient and powerful, but beyond that I knew little else. How would I manage to find her? And more importantly, how could I convince her to relinquish her hold over Malfoy Manor?
She was half-fairy, half-witch. I knew that certain groups of fairies had weaknesses. There was a gathering near Wasteir who couldn’t come outside when it rained – as though water would physically hurt them. I had heard of some fairies over in Mortimer who couldn’t be outside during sunset or sunrise, because the position of the sun did something to their magical abilities. It was a point of weakness they could not avoid, and they hid themselves so that they would not be vulnerable to it. I wondered what Circe’s weakness might be.
Snow gushed around me in cyclones, brushing with their fingers of death across my legs and face, chafing my fingers until they were raw, swollen, and cracking open. There was snow wandering down my robes, blurring my vision, lining the insides of my shoes. My feet felt like two stumps dragging through swamp water, dead weights that took much effort to move. Through it all, I somehow migrated over the red hills to the comfort of a dense and towering tree line.
Woods. I smiled with powerful relief. Trees would offer protection from the weather, if nothing else. I welcomed them with outstretched arms, winding my way between timber of every color. Soft, downy flakes sifted from above, slipping through the claws of tree branches to splatter on the hood of my cloak. The wind was dead inside the forest, and I leaned heavily against the pretty green boughs of a spruce.
“Ahh.” I yanked off one of my boots and upended it, shaking out the compressed snow. I watched the water drip through halfway closed eyelids, and in my exhausted state it glistened much more luminously than seemed normal, trailing across my open palm in diamonds. “I could use one of your instant fire-starters now,” I lamented aloud, thinking of Father. He had purchased a small, silver object that created fire of any color and shape when you pushed a button, and he was going to duplicate it and sell it to Muggles. The Fire-Starter was one of many trinkets my crafty father took from unsuspecting people oblivious of their value with the intention of reselling it for more money. Like everything else, it was confiscated by the Ministry.
“Look at the mess you’ve gotten me in.” My voice was much bitterer now; I could feel my expression warping into an ugly sneer.
I stuffed the soles of my boots with rotting brown leaves I dug up from beneath mounds of snow, hoping they’d provide decent insulation. After a wild-eyed glance around the austere woods, feeling smaller and more lost than ever, I put one foot forth and then the other. And I was walking.
I was walking, enduring. I was going somewhere, and it didn’t matter if I ended up a thousand kilometers from where I was supposed to be. Somehow, it would all circle back. I would locate Circe and convince her to show Lucius mercy. He’d been punished for eight years – his unbearably lonely exile was too much torture for her to continue any longer. Everyone, deep down, has compassion in them. You just have to find the right trigger.
My stomach rumbled loudly. I found myself wishing that I had taken a few beets before I left, and perhaps a fake Galleon or two. After seeing Lucius in the enchanted spring, I had immediately begun my journey without looking back. There was no pause for the elves, who expected me to join them at any moment, doing my part to help them give Pravus more gold he didn’t deserve.
If it came to it, I could steal. There was bound to be a farm or two nearby, with chickens in its stock. My footsteps could be silent if I wanted them to be, and I was already imagining myself tiptoeing across a strange kitchen, dropping bread and jars of preserved fruit into my pockets. The greediness stirred my energy, spurring me to walk faster. It would be selfish of them not to share it, of course. They would understand. I needed it more than them, and didn’t I deserve it, after all I’d been through? Of course I did. It would be a very small loss to them, barely noticeable.
I rubbed my hands together, smirking. I would locate some food, and perhaps find somewhere to sleep for a few hours so that I would have plenty of strength for tomorrow. The idea of Gaspard sending anyone after me – or coming after me himself – never entered my head. I was single-minded, with my eye trained on Circe and a solution to the curse.
And if I didn’t find Circe?
I mulled over this question, frowning. The distraction sped up my pace, allowing my legs to mindlessly move while my brain was flipping through the days, grafting lists of options. I was a woman of lists and organization, of planning and knowing precisely what steps to take next. The fact that I had so abruptly stood up that morning and decided I was going to abandon the elves was so out of character for me that I should have been astonished. I did not have time to go back and think about it, however. What was done was done. I could only go forward from here.
If I didn’t find Circe, I would go back to the castle and try to strip the enchantments myself. I could see the faces of Ramien, Wren, and Mrs. Macnair peering down at me through impenetrable windows, shouting words of encouragement that I wouldn’t be able to hear.
And if you can’t strip the castle of its enchantments?
There was a flash of black cloak, the endless silence of Lucius and I walking side-by-side in my dreams. I saw pale fingers darting across piano keys, quick as light. There was a pause, and Lucius’s eyes sought to capture mine. There was such a life to them, such a hope, that I wondered if I was uncovering a memory. It was too powerful to not be real. Had I merely imagined the flat black eyes, the translucent skin and map of arteries? As I saw him now, he was not the beast he had seemed. I wondered if I had been staring at a mirage all along, when all the while the real Lucius Malfoy lay visible for me to view if I overcame enough prejudices to see it. For me to see, truly see, like I was the blind one.
Untainted and only for me.
And if you can’t strip the castle of its enchantments? the nagging thought persisted.
My mouth firmed into a thin line, resolute. If I cannot strip the enchantments, then I will go inside the castle. Back into the curse’s clutch. I refused to believe that I would not somehow achieve a victory. There is always a loophole. Somehow, I will set him free.
The cold was overtaking my senses, blurring fifteen minutes ago into last year and jumbling my thoughts into one illogical mass. I was slowly forgetting my mother’s warning expression, my trolley of broken, high-priced goods that I pushed into Wasteir, fancying myself cunning when I was simply devious. A crook. Malfoy Manor had crawled into my mind like a disease and I embraced it. Lucius was all that remained when all other images and priorities froze solid in the depths of my memory.
I was dizzy and barely moving, but it felt like I was running. Running, running, making progress. My feet aren’t walking, they’re flying.
Lucius walked beside me, reaching out with one gloved hand to capture my sleeve. Slow down.
I glanced up at him. How did you get here?
He smiled, his blue eyes shining with amusement. I’ve been here all along. I frowned, confused. I didn’t know whether or not he was telling the truth; I couldn’t recall him being there before…but then I remembered walking through the snow underneath a path of trees with him; the memory was as clear as day. He must have been right. Where else would I be, Narcissa?
I turned to respond to the reverberating echoes of his voice and found that he was missing. I stopped for a moment, looking all around. “Lucius?” The snow swirled and amazingly enough, I was no longer immune to the cold of it. The temperature stung my flesh like blades all over again, slicing deeper and deeper until my insides were chilled to ice. “Lucius?”
Keep going. The echo was soft and whispering now, distant.
My path widened, and I stumbled over to the right-hand edge so that overhanging branches, heavily laden with snow and ice, would shelter me from most of the profusely falling snow. The trees, however, seemed to be moving away from me. They stretched backwards over each other like acrobats, arcing their trunks. They almost seemed to be reaching away from their roots, all of them bending and twisting with hands of branches that pointed – clearly pointed – to my left.
I came to a fork in the road.
A painted sign poked out of the snow, the letters peeling and barely readable. It said that a town called Exider lay to my right, and the village of Little Hangleton was on the left. I wiped a thin layer of dewy frost from its surface, squinting. It looked like someone had carved a triangle around the letter ‘l’ in ‘Hangleton’ – and maybe drew something else inside of the triangle, but I couldn’t be sure. I leaned away, surveying the two lanes.
The one leading to Exider was much more open and airy, which would expose me to the weather. The road to Little Hangleton sloped down into a deep, rocky valley, with tightly-knit trees entwining overhead. It promised protection. I blinked drowsily, forgetting for a second where I was and how I had gotten there. I couldn’t feel my limbs and through the middle of a storm brewing somewhere far away, Andromeda was shouting at me. She tugged roughly on my hands and hair and tried to drag me down the lane to the right. I raised a defensive arm, brushing her off.
Go away. You don't care about me anymore. You've forgotten me.
As I deliriously began my descent into Little Hangleton, the forest behind me emitted a collective sigh, relaxing into their normal states. Blackbirds that had been roosting in the treetops took flight, shaken by the rush of unnatural movement. They swooped low in a succession of frightened loops before springing into the sky toward Exider.