She sat alone, in the middle of the ballroom floor. The room was dusty from disuse, small clumps of grey gathering here and there, a faint path leading from the door to her spot, a living memory of where she had been. It would have been easy enough to clear it all away, to set the room to sparkling once again, but she didn’t have the heart to do it. After everything that had happened in the last few years, it seemed wrong to simply go back to normality, to slip back into her previous routines. It seemed wrong to clean the ballroom.
Clutching her shawl tightly around her shoulders, even though the air around her didn’t stir, she shivered. No, the room would be left untouched, dirty and dusty – as it should be. It would be a monument of sorts, a reminder of times past and memories drifting away, of friends imprisoned and family dead. She knew no one would come and visit it – indeed, she doubted anyone would even understand her logic and her reasons – but that didn’t matter. The room would stay dirty and dusty and she would remember them, the times and the people both.
After all, no one else would mourn as she did – no one else would dare admit that they did, even to themselves in the middle of the night. The world was far more pre-occupied mourning the Aurors who had fallen in their duty, the muggle-borns who had been murdered, those lying in St Mungo’s with no hope of ever leaving. The world would mourn them and the world would remember them, remember their deeds and their words and their actions, and so she would remember those the world would not, those who the world would rather pretend didn’t have friends who missed them and families who cried at night when they never came home.
Doesn’t everyone, in the end, deserve to be mourned?
Raising her head, she glanced around the room, shifting on the floor to see it all. Even in the dim lighting from the few candlesticks she had lit with the tip of her wand, she could see it perfectly: the curved edge where pillars met walls, the painted cherubs on the ceiling, the soft lines of the curtains which framed the windows. It looked dead, all of it; dead and silent, a useless addition to a house which was already too large for her taste, filled with too many rooms no one had any idea what to use them for.
Dead. The word stuck in her mind, like a limpet on a rock. Yes, the room was dead, just like so many people. Like Evan, like Regulus, like Wilkes and Septimus Avery and Marcus Bole and Orpheus Fawley. So many were gone, and so many more would never return. Bella and Rodolphus and Rabastan and Sirius, Barty Crouch Jr and Travers, Jugson and Antonin Dolohov and the Carrow siblings: all close but so far away, all of them due to be truly mad in less than a year, all of them promised to die in prison with no way out. Then there were those, like Andromeda, who she would never see again, could never see again, who were considered as good as dead.
She mourned for them all.
Carefully, slowly, she drew a line on the floor, her finger picking up the dust, leaving a strip of gleaming marble in its wake. Black and white, white and black, the threads ran through each other, over and under each other, until it was impossible to know where one ended and another began, until colours began to merge and bleed into each other, turning black and white into a muddle of different greys.
That, she supposed, is what the result of war is. No one is satisfied, no one is happy; the issues that caused it are never resolved, but instead everyone is human, everyone is just a person with thoughts and beliefs and emotions. At the end of war, both sides are hurt, both sides have their dead, both sides carry the same scars. Mothers are just mothers, friends are just friends and brothers are just brothers.
The playing field is levelled and all the scores set to zero.
Staring at the strip of marble, she could see her own face reflected in it: her blonde hair, mussed from sleep, and her blue eyes, rimmed with red from tears. She looked like a mess and she knew it, she simply couldn’t care.
In the middle of the night, she found herself wondering, unable to sleep even with the comfort of Lucius beside her and not screaming in the middle of the North Sea, was the price worth it? Was the prospect of revolution, of their natural rights restored, of their legacies and their values once more enshrined in law and upheld everywhere worth the deaths of so many?
Nothing had come of it – their deaths, all of them, had been in vain. Their aims had been refuted at every turn, their ideals ridiculed, their beliefs and society mocked and laughed at as the last remnants of a by-gone age. Political canvassing had failed, violent uprisings had failed and now… now the pureblood trees had been trimmed severely, entire houses ended in a single stroke of a wand or the bang of a gavel. That had never been the aim or the purpose, and yet it was the reality.
She pulled the sleeve of her robe over her hand and wiped away a larger patch of dust, meticulously cleaning an entire square tile of marble until it shined in the faint light. Sitting back, making sure she couldn’t see her face in it, she just looked at it. Like that, she could imagine the room as it had been in her youth, before the whispers of war reached her ears, before sides started to be taken and lines were drawn in blood.
Closing her eyes, she could see the polished marble floor, the great doors at one end wide open, the curtains pulled back to show off the views of the gardens and the distant hills, the sky low over the horizon. All the candles were lit, flames dancing merrily, and guests were streaming in through the doors, dressed in ermine and velvet and silk and satin and lace and feathers and jewels.
By the doors, Mr and Mrs Abraxas Malfoy, her arm looped through his, stood, greeting guests as they arrived with a shake of the hand and a kiss on each cheek. Inside, men and women, all of them with a claim to pure blood, mingled with one another, the low buzz of conversation sprinkled with the minuet the band in the balcony above were playing.
There, over there, by the corner, they all stood: the young and the naïve, the hopeless dreamers and the warriors and revolutionaries with tongues of silver. As she approached them, the first to spot her and saunter over was Evan, her cousin Rosier, tall and fair with a quick compliment springing to his lips as ever. He would laugh when she blushed, delighted with himself, and lead her over to the rest of them, tucking her arm easily into the crook of his arm.
Evan… oh, Evan… boys like him weren’t made to be men so young. He should have still been dashing about, light and carefree, flirting with pretty women and buttering up their fathers. He should have been floo-calling her at ridiculous times of the evening, making Lucius grumble and moan about the cost of such calls, simply because he could, and visiting every other weekend as a means of escaping from under his mother’s watchful eye. He should have been playing with baby Draco, creating bubbles of green and silver and purple with his wand, laughing as Draco popped each one only to coo and giggle at the sparkles and glitter they produced. He should have been sitting there with her, humming some annoying melody he’d heard on the radio two days ago, ready with a smile and a quick word if she needed it.
He shouldn’t have been dead.
Now, though, she could see the others: Septimus Avery, with his curly brown hair, in the middle of telling some lurid tale (she never had understood where he heard these things), coughing to stop himself from laughing at his own joke as beautiful, brash Orpheus Fawley bent double with laughter and Marcus Bole, the friendliest of the lot, contented himself to smile, giving a good-natured roll of his eyes, even as he glanced around the room for the lady in the tale.
War had changed them all. Septimus had stopped telling bawdy tales, becoming quiet and reticent, speaking only when necessary; Marcus, by all accounts, became zealously loyal, vicious and ferociously brutal in his approach. Orpheus had stunned them all, though – he had broken Septimus out of his silence, curbed Marcus’ ardour – when he downed a vial full of belladonna one evening, leaving no note, no explanation, just the memories of the pale, absent figure he’d become near the end.
Was that what glory was? Making shadows out of men? Reducing boys to ashen-faced skeletons long before their time? Curbing the laughter of the innocent and happy to make way for words of death and hatred and superiority? Was it only to destroy people, destroy lives and hopes and dreams?
If it was, then she didn’t want any of it, wished they had never thought of it or lusted after it the way they had.
Tucked right away in the corner, Wilkes, younger than the rest of them, only allowed to hang around with them because he was Marcus’ cousin and his mother insisted on it, scowled at the ground, his hands shoved into pockets, shoulders hunched. Even when she smiled sympathetically at him, he never looked her straight in the eye, choosing a spot over her shoulder to look at instead.
He had been the butt of their jokes for years; the littlest and weakest, the baby of the group. They had never been serious, never meant to hurt him, never really realised the extent to which he craved to be accepted as one of them, as equal. Until he followed them all, dutifully, into the Death Eaters, volunteering for every mission they did, desperate to gain recognition. His path was ended when he took on Rufus Scrimgeour in a duel, one he was never going to walk away from.
Perhaps, she thought, if they’d realised earlier, if they’d been nicer or better to him, he wouldn’t have done it, wouldn’t have been so hungry for praise and smiles and claps on the back. Maybe he’d still be here, skulking in the corners of the room, following Marcus and Septimus and Orpheus and Evan like a puppy.
Better to be a puppy than to be dead.
As she glanced about the room, noting the garlands of flowers and ivy twining about the pillars, jumping from one to the next, her eyes alighted on a group of men, all clustered around the distinguished, dark-haired Antonin Dolohov. She knew all of them by sight, if not all personally: Travers, Selwyn, Jugson, Alecto and Amycus Carrow. They all listened intently, leaning in as though if they didn’t concentrate hard enough, if they weren’t close enough, they would miss a word or a phrase or a sentence. As though every word he spoke was a precious gem.
They were all gone now. Locked away in Azkaban, half of them crazed before they even got there – Antonin, their beloved leader, wearing a twisted mockery of the smile he gave his companions then. Now, they were screaming for their mothers, for their fathers, for some kind of salvation as they confronted their worst nightmares, their deepest fears and the moments they had tried in vain to forget day after day after day.
Although she could not and would not forgive their actions, she still mourned for them. She still missed their company, missed seeing them around, hearing Antonin ramble on about politics or economics, of which he considered himself quite the expert, and watching as they all nodded eagerly, murmuring agreements. Sycophantic to the end, they had followed him – some more reluctantly than others (Travers had always lingered on the edges, hesitating before every move, pausing before every laugh) – into the service of the Dark Lord and then the embrace of the Dementors.
Did they, she wondered, ever think about how they would affect those they left behind?
If they had, she doubted they had been too concerned, too enflamed by talk of revolution, of natural rights restored, of power and riches and influence beyond imagination to consider that they might fail.
So she mourned for their lack of foresight, their stubbornness and the lives they might have lived.
She could see herself turning, her dress swishing around her ankles with the soft sigh of satin, to see Bellatrix and Andromeda, arm-in-arm as always, heads bowed conspiratorially (gossiping away about anyone and everyone, no doubt), making their way towards her. They had taken pains to emphasise their differences, highlighting that Bella was darker, Andromeda slimmer, but they still looked almost like twins, their steps perfectly in time with each other.
Her sisters… how she missed them. Before, it had just been the three of them, a trio together, and they had dealt with everything thrown their way. Bella had always been fearless, before the light in her eyes turned to madness, sashaying through society with a smirk on her lips and the sheer single-mindedness all their family seemed to possess. Andy was the more sociable of the three, perfectly happy to talk to anyone at all about any subject – she was knowledgeable of them all. She knew the right responses, the right questions, the right places to make jokes, to giggle and flutter her eyelashes, to dip her head and move along in favour of different conversation.
Then, everything changed. Andy ran away with a mudblood – giving everything up for love, for a man, with no word to anyone, no explanation left behind in a white envelope, no goodbyes to the sisters she had considered dear – and Bella became a Death Eater, signing away her life for the promise of a better future, spouting curses and obscenities and pureblood propaganda at every opportunity as she delved deeper and deeper, losing sight of the light.
She had always known she lost both her sisters a long time ago, but it still hurt, even now, to see how far they’d fallen, to discover there was no way back. They were both gone, permanently, and it was the realisation of the permanence which brought the tears.
Through the ballroom, weaving in and out of the tall, imposing figures, two small, black-haired figures dashed, dressed in almost identical robes. The taller one grinned as he left his brother behind, skirting around Bella and Andy, quickly hiding behind Evan, a plea to ‘hide me from mother’ blurted out of his mouth, jerking his head away before his hair could be ruffled. His brother followed, more slowly, shooting an angelic smile up at Bella, who bent down and picked him up, listening to him babbling on about his new toy broomstick, sweet and untainted and the most precious of you all (even he agreed).
They had been two young princes, exploring the world with a wide-eyed wonder and the confident knowledge that they were born to be kings, to be more than just men. Both had vanished, in their own times; Sirius first, going to Gryffindor and declaring he no longer wanted to be a prince, no longer wanted castles and fine robes and jewels, but that he would join the battle for glory on the other side, facing the world he’d grown up in. Until then, she’d hoped he might return, and now she didn’t know what to believe, whether he had sold his friends to the devil or not, but either way, he had got lost and stayed lost.
Regulus had gone later, disappearing into the shadows as swiftly as a butterfly, the darkness staining his wings black as he was pushed into a world he knew nothing about; told what to believe and what to think, his childhood was ripped away from him. He was barely a boy but was supposed to be a man already. He had gone slowly, slipping through the world’s embrace bit by bit until he was really gone. Traitor, they called him; how could he, they said.
She cried for both of them when she heard about little Regulus.
Faces jumped out at her as her memory started to spin. Uncle Orion – dead of grief, unable to cope with losing both his sons so young; Aunt Walburga who even now refused to accept that Regulus was dead and Sirius was lost. Her own father, drinking himself numb after Andromeda’s betrayal, and her mother’s desperate prayers at night to the stars, to the heavens, that somehow things would change and return to what they were before.
At times she thought about joining her mother by the French windows, wishing the same wish in silence (there was no need for words), but she had never had the courage for it.
The candles, though, were not lit and the curtains were still closed. A single blink as she opened her eyes sent the tears spilling down her cheeks. Normally, she would have been aghast at her behaviour, but she was too empty to feel embarrassed. In better days, someone else might have commented on her lack of composure, but there was no one left to do it save Lucius and he knew nothing of her night-time walks.
Besides, she doubted he would understand her need to be alone, to sit and think and remember all those faces she would never see again, all those voices which no longer sang. He wouldn’t understand what she was grieving for. When his father had died of Dragon Pox, his son and wife by his side, Lucius had cried for the death of his father, nothing more and nothing less.
She cried, alone in a dusty room, for something much bigger than that.
She cried for all those who had lost their lives to a cause which consumed them. She cried for the hopelessness of the situation, the ending of an age and the murder of so many futures. She cried for the loss of innocence, the loss of naivety, the loss of laughter and youth and hope.
In public, in the safety of the house, she could mourn her sisters, her cousins and her friends; she could grieve for the loss of family and companionship, for each individual at a time.
Only here, though, could she mourn them as a whole, united future, bright and glorious and full of promises and laughter and life. Only here could she grieve for the horrors the war had brought, for the lives it had destroyed. Only here could she mourn that she no longer understood the world, no longer understood why people died, why it was worth it, why glory was considered so beautiful and peace so cowardly.
One by one, the candles on the walls of the room began to flicker and fade, dying out with a thin wisp of smoke.
She felt empty, so empty without them. They should have been here, all of them, not screaming at empty air, not gazing at the world with sightless eyes, not sitting in empty houses waiting for them to come home when they never would.
The room was empty, dusty and dirty, and she would mourn them, even if the world around her forgot.
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Where my friends will sing no more.
A/N: the story title and chapter title and the lyrics at the bottom of the text (in italics) are from the song ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ from the novel, musical and now film Les Misérables. All rights and credits belong to Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer, for both English and French translations and music. The original ideas, thoughts and novel are propery of the fabulous Victor Hugo. I merely used his genius as inspiration.
Write a Review Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: Where My Friends Will Sing No More