Do you swear to always come to me when you feel your Dark Mark burning…
His voice revolved in my head, the same words going around and around on a sick rotation. I bent double and began to dry-heave, overwhelmed with an illness that seemed to originate from nowhere – probably because it came from a promise. The words we had spoken to each other by wandlight, when I was desperate and fancied him insane, strangled my thoughts and refused to allow me to fall completely unconscious.
Our Unbreakable Vow pulsed through the black and burning snake on my left forearm, accompanied by violent flashes of a man’s face. I didn’t invite the images – they came from beyond my sight and memory, unbidden. His eyes were as red and filmy as ever, and I noticed with panic and revulsion that they had thinned somewhat – they had become almost vertical. Like cat’s eyes. "Come," the snake hissed.
“I can’t,” I moaned, clutching my Mark with my right hand and wincing in pain. The cement was cold against my cheek and I pressed my arm to it as well, trying to alleviate the scorching sting. “I don’t have a wand.”
My pitiful whispers did nothing to placate the man’s persistence, and I went on smoldering like a torch without flames. Even in my head, I could not refer to the man as Lord Voldemort…it was too pretentious a title. I followed no lord and I served no man. Goosebumps erupted along my shoulders and neck as those gleaming red cat’s eyes flickered in place of where I should have seen only turrets of a faraway castle. Not lord and not man. Those eyes could belong to neither.
It was then, writhing on the floor in agony, that I saw that the Dark Mark was slowly fading. Where before it had been black as coal, squirming with the summons of my new master, it was now a dim outline of a skull and snake, which had become stationary. The pain lessened, numbing, and I sat up quickly to inspect my arm.
The branded snake wasn’t the only part of me that was disappearing.
I flexed my fingers, stricken with terror at the translucent hue to them, enabling me to see straight through my hand at the balcony rails beyond. The flesh of a ghost washed up my arms, and I watched it creep along my legs, moving without feeling until it reached my ribs. A sharp, sudden coldness tore through my chest, the rapid heartbeats falling quieter and quieter until they were silent – and then I vanished altogether.
I could still feel my weight, could still see the lighthouse balcony, as I began to pull away from it. I was moving – swiftly, backwards – over the sea, withdrawing against my will. My body turned over and over, skimming over the frothing waves that lurched at me but couldn’t quite touch me; I was hurtling through space, invisible and flying and going…no! I was going away from Malfoy Manor.
As the seconds passed, so did the speed at which I traveled. The sea was gone, replaced with fields. The fields were gone, replaced with a river. Cities, villages, forests. They flitted by so fast that I couldn’t be sure whether or not I was physically present. It felt a bit like Apparating – or how Apparating might feel if someone without a wand was extricated from the middle of nowhere and was being pulled toward someone who did have a wand. A powerful wand. My vision was all wrong, seeing the world through dark, bleary tunnels.
I jerked left and right in rough zigzag patterns, as if being guided by the blind, and caught a brief glimpse of a wooden sign sticking out of the dirt at the end of a lane, dividing a fork that went in two different directions. And then, several very long seconds after I had begun to disappear, I materialized on the chilly, hard soil with a heavy oomph.
I wasn’t the only one lying down. Less than three feet away from me, a familiar figure rolled on the grass, scrunching up his face in resentment as he cradled an injured wrist to his chest. “Regulus?” I whispered.
Understanding dawned over me and I flipped over to my other side, absorbing the scenery. Heart pounding, I gaped through a maze of tombstones that sprouted cockeyed out of the wet earth, their luminous alabaster shining with rain. Rain trickled down over my face as well, and I curled my fingers into the dirt, lying flat on the ground as though that might help me sink into it and remain unseen. But Regulus sighed a tiny groan from behind me, and I remembered that the Black family did not run from things that frightened them.
I stood to my feet, only slightly shaky, and observed the black-clad figures standing in a circle not far from me, every single one of them as motionless as statues. A small and naïve hope tugged at my qualms, believing they might actually be statues.
“Regulus,” a silky voice murmured. The man with waxy skin and red eyes stepped forward, barefoot. His feet were long and white as bone, and they made no sound as they brushed through the grass. He seemed to glide past me as he walked, stretching out his arms to indicate greeting. “Why the reluctance, Regulus?”
I listened to the hiss of his words, still rolling through the darkness long after they were spoken. Above us, the moon broke through a wall of silvery clouds and bathed Voldemort’s hair in soft light. His hairline had receded since I’d last seen him, or so it seemed, and a thin ribbon of black hair fell across his protruding forehead. Bellatrix stepped beyond the circle, following him on an invisible tether.
Her eyes were large, her hair snarled and unkempt, and she clutched her hands together over her heart as she walked with strange, jagged movements. My sister paid me no attention, waiting in tangible anticipation to hear what the tall master cloaked in black would say next.
But it was Regulus who spoke. “I was at school,” he replied darkly. There was accusation in his tone. “How am I going to explain…vanishing…” He shook his head, glowering, and brushed away the soggy clovers and leaves from his robes. “They’ll be looking for me soon. I don’t know how I’ll manage to get back inside the gates…”
“Is this meeting inconvenient for you?” Voldemort inquired softly. Bellatrix’s lips curled back over her teeth, eyes glinting threateningly. Several hooded people in the circle snickered, glad that they weren’t in Regulus’s shoes and reveling in someone else getting chastised. Voldemort lifted his jaw, tilting it to the side as he surveyed the young boy. “Where has that fire gone, Regulus? Your pure blood pride? Do you not still desire the things you alleged to desire when you joined me?”
“Yes,” he said determinedly. There was something in the shape and stubbornness of his angular features and how they weren’t all the way developed yet – the Adam’s apple that was too big for his scrawny neck, the long eyelashes that reminded me of his brother, and the Slytherin crest on his robes – that made my heart sink. He’s just a child, I thought despairingly. Leave him alone. “I haven’t changed my mind,” he declared firmly. “I am here for a reason.”
“Good.” Voldemort turned on his heel and marched past Bellatrix, who loosened her stiff shoulders and stopped penetrating Regulus with icy glares. She would have hated to be tarred with the same brush as anyone who disagreed with Voldemort; that much was obvious.
I could sense myself being watched, and lifted my face from my cousin’s to gaze around the Little Hangleton graveyard. Everywhere I looked, eyes and mouths were shrouded beneath hoods like dementors; all of them, that is, except for Lucius.
A range of emotions seized in my lungs when I saw him standing there, silent and serious as he watched me from the distant end of the group: pain, anxiety, heartbreak, wonder, trepidation, joy. His sleeves were rolled all the way up to his elbows, and I noticed with intense alarm that a black tattoo was now inked there, contrasting remarkably with his pale flesh.
I watched his eyes – his lovely blue eyes – wander down my own arm, widening in horror as he stared at my Mark. Dread emanated from his rigid frame, confirming what he must have known and expected, and he stared and stared until his unfocused eyes glazed over.
I swallowed, looking away from him. Regulus tromped over to the circle, finding a spot between two faceless followers, and waited for the man of the hour to speak again.
“Now that more of you have joined my ranks,” Lord Voldemort began, strolling leisurely around the interior of the circle and enjoying the tense atmosphere, “I believe it is time to test your loyalty. But before this can be done, I must see how I can best use you. It would be imprudent to use a man with charms skills for an act that relates to potions, and therefore you must understand my need to discover your strengths and weaknesses.” He took a breath, his irises like needles resting upon a willowy individual.
“After I assess you, the weaknesses will be weeded out. You will belong to your strengths, no matter what those may be. You will play to them and only to them, and this is how you will be of greatest use to your master.”
“M’Lord?” a quivering voice piped up. Voldemort twitched in irritation, his chalky lips thinning. “How…how are you going to do that?” The person speaking lowered their hood, revealing himself to be a middle-aged man with a mop of curly brown hair. “Assess us, I mean.”
In the split-second between the trembling man’s question and Voldemort’s response, my eyes snapped involuntarily to Lucius’s, and found that he was still staring at me. He did not look afraid, however. On the contrary, he looked calculating. I wondered if he was seeing and hearing things in this conversation that I could not. His eyes slid back to Voldemort’s, watching him raptly, and I felt a false stab of security. He’s going to keep me safe.
“I am the most accomplished Legilimens there has ever been,” Voldemort informed us matter-of-factly. “I am going to look inside your minds. For your own sakes, you should hope that I find something satisfactory hiding there. From what I’ve witnessed of this lot so far, some of you don’t carry your wands with you at all times and others of you cannot perform the simplest of spells.” His last few words carried a sneer to them, and he inclined his head almost imperceptibly toward a person on his right, who shuffled their feet nervously.
“I have nothing to hide,” Bellatrix told him in a high pitch, lowering her hood once more. She bit down on one of her long fingernails and took a tentative sweep forward. “Anything I have to offer, my Lord, is yours to keep.”
“That is very generous of you, Bellatrix,” Voldemort replied in a sleek purr that seemed to reverberate no matter what his environment might be. My sister’s face glistened from the rainfall, her hair alight with drops of it like dew in a spiderweb. “However, I shall only be requiring whatever skills you may possess. If, indeed, you possess anything more complex than overwhelming servitude and a penchant for flattery.”
Bellatrix’s mouth dropped open, her eyebrows knitting together, and then she wiped her expression like a person who had just been Obliviated. “I have many skills, I have –” She cleared her throat, lips trembling with emotion. “I have much to offer, my Lord. I will do anything, I –”
“Bella.” Voldemort towered over her, tracing one white finger along the seam of her shoulder. My eyes darted around the circle, wondering which one might be Rodolphus. This small gesture on Voldemort’s part seemed to both charm and console my sister, and she instantly quieted; I watched as a smug little smile danced at her mouth, eyes flitting contemptuously over everyone else present. She had taken his attentions as a victory, and something to envy. I edged away from where she stood, finding it all quite disturbing.
Lucius noticed this, too. I wanted to trap his gaze again, and question him with an arch of the eyebrow, a silent ‘why’ – however, he did not glance my way again. He was standing terribly still, watching Voldemort’s face with an impassive expression. I supposed that he’d endured several years of the same strange stares, and could now look anyone and anything in the eyes without betraying sentiment.
I stared hard at him, stepping cautiously around two people so as to be directly across from him. Finally, with the tapping of my foot on the ground and my hands clenched into fists at my sides, he could no longer ignore the loud body language I displayed. Lucius’s blue eyes locked on mine, cold and beautiful, and I mouthed the words, “What are you doing here?”
Very slowly, Lucius raised one finger to his lips. He then jerked his head ever so slightly – once to the left, once to the right. He didn’t have to speak for me to hear him say inside my head, “Shhh. Listen.”
I glared at the masked people, stooping in the frigid moonlight with raindrops clanging off their shoulders and leather boots. Bellatrix’s hood was still loose at her throat, and I observed with growing distaste the dark locks of hair plastered to her ivory skin, and the bruise-like discoloration under her heavily lidded eyes. I crossed over to the woman and whispered in her ear, “You’re a right mess, you know that? Mother would be rolling in her grave.”
She swatted me away, waiting for her master to speak or perhaps pet her shoulder condescendingly again. I wrinkled up my nose and tried again. “Have you gone mad? You’re married.”
At this, Bellatrix spun around and snapped her jaws together with a grinding pop. Vivid black eyes narrowing dangerously, she spat, “Get. Away.”
I made sure to stomp on her heel good and hard before training my attention back on Regulus. He had lowered his hood over his face, but I could still tell it was him; he was the shortest person in the gathering, all save for a squat little witch on Lucius’s left side.
“You.” Voldemort curled his finger at Regulus. The boy was abruptly yanked head-first in my direction, choking as he was dragged by unseen strings. When Voldemort released him in a crumpled heap at his feet, shaking and coughing, I spotted ten finger-sized maroon welts wrapping around Regulus’s neck.
As if it had caught the scent of danger on the winds, a creature somewhere between goblin and dwarf emerged from its hiding place behind a gravestone, its long, scaly fingers softly scraping the ancient surface. Evil, scarlet eyes with reflective layers poked out next, and then two short legs that were the color and texture of gnarled tree limbs. Its propensity for bloodshed in isolated areas at night had undoubtedly tempted the red cap, but I watched it mentally sweep the graveyard and count our numbers; he wouldn’t dare try to take all of us on at once. He would wait until we began to disperse, and then attack any stragglers left behind.
Deafness pressed in around my ears as Voldemort extended his hands to my cousin’s ashen, petrified face and peered into his eyes. I imagined those bleeding red eyes with blurry, almost-vertical pupils latching onto my own, and shuddered. I tried to incite Lucius’s attention again, so that I could signal that we needed to get out of there.
Voldemort let go of Regulus’s temples, throwing him rather harshly back onto the ground. “Thank you, Regulus,” he added as an afterthought, already closing in on the next person. “You are my most mediocre gift yet, and incapable of carrying out tasks of any importance, but I shall have much to do with you inside the walls of Hogwarts.”
“Sir?” Regulus asked, his voice surely much more confident than he truly felt. “You want me to do things at Hogwarts?”
Voldemort considered him, and the way that Regulus blinked rapidly made me guess that the former must have been diving into his mind and memories again. “Yes. I shall require your influence over fellow students. Influence is…everything.” He did not elaborate further, puzzling me in the wake of this statement. What exactly was this man planning on doing? Why did he need so many followers at his disposal?
The person he spoke to removed his hood, which I noticed was shabbier than the others, with obvious stitching and a deep green hue that told me he’d recycled Slytherin bed hangings for this purpose. His hair was nearly shoulder-length, parted neatly down the middle and even blacker than Voldemort’s. His skin, like Lucius’s and Voldemort’s and my own, was almost a sickly shade of white, and his nose was abnormally long and hooked. “Severus.”
“Snape,” one of Severus’s fellows amended briskly. “Severus Snape. I brought him, Lord. He’s in my year, we share a dormitory – he overheard us talking and we couldn’t get rid of him…”
Severus twisted his neck to douse the other boy with a haughty look, and then he turned back to Voldemort. His eyes were intelligent and glittering with bold curiosity. “Is it true that you’re a Parselmouth?” he questioned freely, not the least bit intimidated. “They say that you can give power to those who agree to follow you. They say you will teach us magic we can’t learn at Hogwarts.”
“You have heard correctly,” Voldemort responded. “I am the Dark Lord. I can speak to snakes. I can speak to the dead. I can call giants across mountains to come to my side and join me in my quest for greatness. Is this what you are looking for as well, Severus Snape? For greatness?”
Severus didn’t miss a beat. He leaned forward eagerly, greedily. He was wholly riveted. “Yes.”
Voldemort’s mouth curved maliciously, as if publicly making fun of the boy was a secret between himself and everyone else present – a private joke, and everyone except for Severus was aware of it. “Why?” Voldemort wondered, not bothering to mask a derisive smile.
Passion welled in Severus’s eyes, boiling within his very blood. “There are boys at my school – obnoxious show-offs. They are cruel and stupid and I’m tired of them calling me names; they get away with anything and they take pleasure in provoking me. One of them is Head Boy and he’s not even that good at his subjects…he sweet-talks Muggle-born girls into doing his homework for him.”
A dark shadow passed over Snape’s face, but quickly cleared. He squared his shoulders, still maintaining engrossed eye contact with the tall wizard dressed all in black. “Yes. They ridicule me and try to discredit my intellect and talents. I am their superior in every way, and yet –”
“And yet they have the audacity to taunt you,” Voldemort declared, talking over him. “They embarrass you; make you feel substandard and insignificant.”
Epiphany and awe flooded Snape’s face, and he grappled for words. “Yes, exactly. Yes.”
Voldemort nodded in a patronizing way. “In time, if you listen to me and do what I say, you will make every single one of them sorry. They will suffer for their misdeeds against you.”
Severus’s mouth dropped open to respond, but Voldemort was already on the warpath for someone else’s brain and hidden skills. He paused before Lucius and, without warning, thrust his wand in the direction of Lucius’s heart.
Lucius gasped. I could not see Voldemort’s face as he swam through memories – some of them visual, some of them mere sounds or scents – but he seemed to take much longer on him than he did on Regulus.
As soon as Voldemort was finished, he dropped his hand and pivoted his body to face me, looking directly into my eyes. My cheeks began to burn, wondering what he had seen or heard about me in Lucius’s thoughts; but Lucius himself appeared unfazed and unashamed.
He was unnaturally fast, and seemed to appear rather than walk. Before I could protest, he aimed his wand right between my eyes and pierced my thoughts with his probing, demanding force. A sinister voice that didn’t belong to me crawled around inside my head. Legilimens.
Images flew out of a plethora of drawers, some of them locked, some of them still fresh in my mind. Everything private and secret and sacred was revealed to him, available for his scrutiny. My mother lying in bed with every curtain drawn, the room stagnant and reeking of inevitable death. The wasted woman opened her palm for me to place my hand in, but she could feel no pressure or warmth from it. I watched her breathe in – the lungs inflated halfway, rattling and hollow. She never exhaled.
I saw my father, lost and child-like with Andromeda at his right elbow. They stood at the edge of Mother’s grave, watching an ornate silver casket descend lower and lower into the ground. With every inch it sank below the earth, I could feel it swallowing up empty space around my heart. It grew heavy and suffocating.
Bellatrix’s wedding. Coy smiles at male passersby in the village, trying to lure them with faulty cauldrons they didn’t need, insinuating promises with a flutter of eyelashes. Voldemort saw the enormous outline of Malfoy Manor and my powder-blue bedroom; there was Wren and Mrs. Macnair and Horatio, with Wilda’s bitter voice weaving throughout like musical notes on a staff.
Lucius painted the edges of everything, in places he didn’t belong and amongst people he’d never met. Bellatrix and I as children, sifting through Mother’s jewelry box and giggling, with a reproachful Andromeda acting as lookout. Helping my father cover up patches of rust on an invention he was going to attempt to sell to Muggles against Wizard Law; Lucius stood on a bridge between my childhood and adolescence, turning the pages with Voldemort.
And finally, there he was in the enchanted mirror, rippling in liquid glass. Voldemort ripped the memory wide open, and it was so real and present that I reached out with my hands and tried to touch it…my hand fell through air and rain, missing Lucius’s pale hair. His eyes reflected warning.
This is mine. You cannot look at it.
The response was quick, cutting. You are mine. And so is this.
Lucius’s lips parted in the mirror, gazing at me as the flowers on the border of the mirror blossomed with delphinium-blue petals. My heart surged, gripped with a need to fall into the mirror, to go to him…
The man with blood-red eyes was lying on the ground.
I staggered to my senses, short of breath as the mirror with Lucius’s face faded into a moonlit graveyard filled with cloaked strangers. Bellatrix hovered over Voldemort’s body, crippled with fear. “My Lord!” she cried. “What is wrong – what has happened?” She swiveled her head to face me, accusation ripe on her lips.
Voldemort recovered himself, however; he clutched at his ribcage, glowering and murderous, and swiftly rolled to his side and stood up. Something inside my head seemed to have weakened him. I didn’t quite understand it. Lucius remained immobile and silent, reaping the scenery without a word.
“We’re finished for tonight,” Voldemort announced, haggard but firm. Bellatrix was still glaring daggers at me as she tried to help him walk, but he pushed her away in frustration. “Everyone leave. Now.”
I followed him with my eyes as he traipsed up the hill to the abandoned old house overlooking the graveyard. It was rotted out and isolated, much like Lord Voldemort himself, it seemed, and I thought scathingly that it suited him. Looking around, I noticed that everyone else had left except for Lucius, Bellatrix, and a hooded man I could only assume to be Rodolphus. Bellatrix stood off to the side of the old manor house, watching Voldemort’s retreat with obvious longing. Behind her, Rodolphus was hushed and soulless as he waited.
The red cap chose that precise moment to dart out from behind a tombstone, its long claws poised to kill as it ran at me sideways – one foot and one hand on the ground, and the other foot and hand in the air like a ghastly sort of demon.
Without giving it a second’s thought, I seized Lucius’s wand and shouted, “Expecto Patronum!”
Nothing happened. “Expecto Patronum!” I yelled again.
Lucius grabbed his wand back, pointing with desperation at the approaching creature. “Expecto Patronum!” His eyes widened when nothing happened – not a spark, not the vaguest glimmer of pearly Patronus. With options running low, he tried again. “Avada Kedavra!” This time, there was a blinding jet of emerald light. It raced through the misty air, breathing in ravenous gusts as it closed the distance, and I could feel the life extinguishing from the red cap as it was struck in its stomach.
We shifted away from the corpse, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of his wand. “Lucius,” I whispered. “I can’t…I can’t make a Patronus anymore?” I could feel the luminescent peacock trapped inside Lucius’s wand, struggling to come to my aid when called.
He didn’t have to respond. Maybe he didn’t know which words to speak, or maybe he was thinking about his own inability to produce protective magic. It felt like something had been stolen from me.
Lucius looped his arm around my waist and pressed his lips to my hair. Long after Voldemort was gone, reclusive in his empty house, we turned around and trudged into the forest together, leaving defeat and hopelessness to smother the atmosphere behind us in the graveyard.