Chapter 1 : Prologue
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beautiful image by easterlies at the dark arts
The worst was this: my love was my decay.
-Sonnet 80, William Shakespeare
The scene is a wood on the edge of a mountain. A silver pool lies close to the edge. Nobody knows what lies beyond the ridge, or within the pool. There is nobody to wonder but Time itself.
In the beginning, Time laid out the centuries like a quilt, stretching out decades of human reason from the first glow of self-knowledge in a child’s eye to the destruction of humanity, all the ages and wars and triumphs and bloodshed of history laid out in an orderly fashion, neatly stitched and the corners lain down flat.
And this pleased Time, and it was enough for many years. Dynasties were founded and died out, women perished in childbirth, fathers went to war, lovers cried over chinks in walls. Then there were the times when the great castles and fortresses began to fall, when the old families started to die out and disperse their blood through the masses. Wealth came quickly, wealth was squandered. Men and women killed themselves for coin. They killed the animals. They killed the soil. They built stronger and fiercer weapons. Time smoothed over the centuries with an unwrinkled hand.
But then, in a few select places, the thread of the quilt began to unravel and twist. Time worked hard to fix it, but there was no stopping the stubborn perseverance of man. Time grew agitated, hateful at being deceived, and looked in the reflection of the silver pool to see its own reflection, a silver sickle clutched in a grizzled hand. In the shadowy depths of the pool lay a boy and a girl in the grass, hands nearly touching. The man was looking at the girl through the corners of his dark eyes: the girl’s red hair was shimmering in the sunlight.
But Time was unchangeable by love or art, and the dark head turned mechanically back to the quilt of the centuries, at the tiny wrinkles and upsets in the carefully sewn pattern. The humans had gone too far, pushed far too hard for progress. Time was alert and angry. The perpetrators would be punished accordingly.
Very well. It was done. Time looked down on the girl when all the trouble was coming to an end, in the autumn of 2024. The girl wasn’t looking well: her usual vibrant hair was dull and slack about her face. Her skin was too pale, her eyes hollow, a faint sheen of sweat about her face. She was paying a terrible price for her foolery. But Time will pause here.
The girl prefers to tell her own story.
Leicester University, 2024
I was cold, even now, as thick beads of sweat trickled down my spine like deathly fingers. My heartbeat was heavy and quick. The fever had spiked and then continued to rise, flushing my face and making my movements slow and lethargic, like a creature moving through water. I had caught a glimpse of myself in the glass windows in the hallway, reflective because of the dark night outside. I looked a fright. I looked like an elderly woman who has lived a dozen lifetimes and knows the end is close.
But I was only eighteen years old. My body was breaking down, my limbs weak and heavy, my mind foggy and desperate. I had made it this far out of sheer, transparent luck: a few Stunning spells and prime use of the Confundus charm had gotten me this far. Stealing Uncle Harry’s cloak of invisibility had not hurt either, and breaking into secure places was sort of becoming my specialty. Even now, in this deserted hallway, I had my wand tucked up in my sleeve, out of sight, in case a Muggle should show up around the corner. My neck felt empty and hollow from the empty space where the silver chain and pendant were meant to sit in the hollow of my chest.
The corridor was cold, cold and hostile. I crept along, feeling the comforting weight of my wand against my forearm, shuffling with a gentle touch on the wall. This place was modern and sterile, the doors marked with official plaques and labels of the doings and contents within their windowless prisons. A strong scent of disinfectant pervaded the air, though I fought to keep it from entering my mouth and reminding me of the contents of these rooms. Had I not seen worse? Was I not more than that squeamish girl who had been so reckless a mere few months ago?
The words were scrambling, even within my head. Everything was bright and vibrant one moment then dismal and gray the next. Concrete against my hands. Cold plastic beneath my feet. Materials concocted from the people of my own age. He shouldn’t be here, in this unfriendly, sterile place. He belonged with me, my hand tucked up into his arm, his careful, cautious smile reaching the dark, heavily lidded eyes. I felt the lack of him like a sting. I found myself reaching into empty air in the night.
My skin burned with fever and iced itself in sweat, and I braced a thin, white hand against the wall for support in case another fit should take me. I should be resting in bed to ride out this illness, fight the devil from my traitorous body. I should be keeping my mouth silent and still, lest anyone think to ask me why I was so thin, so pale, how my hair had grown three inches in a few short days through no enchantment or spell. If my parents weren’t so consumed with figuring out the break-ins to the Department of Mysteries, I would surely have been dealt with by now. Just thinking of the Department, the cold room, filled me with fear and longing, so poignant I felt my throat would constrict, my body tumble in on itself like a wooden house burning.
Here I was in another department, another institution into which I had stolen like a ghost.
The whinny of a horse, sunshine in a field of sheep. Two unexpected lovers, hands entwined, watching a cloud pass over the sun, shedding darkness on the soil beneath.
It was here, here was he. I traced the thin, uniform letters with my eyes and gripped my nails against my palms, leaving little half-moons against the pink skin.
Memories, sensations, his voice overwhelmed me, the doorknob slipped sweaty and cold in my hands, and my eyes shot into the back of my head, the Invisibility cloak tumbling to the rich carpet. The fever flooded through my body, my sweat soaks slowly through my clothes. Everything is bleak. My hands clutch at nothing, stiff as a skeleton, my mind is weak. The last thought in my head is not his dark head but another, a featureless canvas with thin, pale lips, blinking again and again against the inside of my head. The horrible lips spread apart: every nerve in my body pleads for release, for peace.
Hours later they found me, lying in a cold pile in front of the forensic research department. I was extremely sick, they said, with a disease no Healer at St. Mungo’s could identify, that no soul had suffered since the sixteenth century. My family feared I would die before the coming morning.
You think you are untouchable, Rose Weasley. In your rightful age you are the daughter of heroes, in your stolen age you are the lover of a prince. But you are not immune to Time. Nobody may play Time for a fool.
Middleham Castle, 1476
The man suffered in a different way.
He sat in a rich, fine room, furnished with the sturdy stones brought from neighboring quarries, dragged on the backs of common men. Rich rugs coated the floor in colors of reds and golds: a deer’s head stared dumbly from his solitary post, seeing everything, saying nothing. A crackling fire split open a great log, greedily consuming its contents. The fire, accompanied by an orchestra of candles, created the only warmth. The chill between the room’s two occupants was enough to freeze even the warmest of hearts.
The wife was bent over a shirt she was embroidering, that thankless occupation of the women of her time. Her fingers fumbled, cold in the winter air: her fingertips hard and clumsy, the needle slipping through them like they were panes of ice. She dared not let the man hear her sigh of defeat: he was eager to prey on her weakness. Instead, she set the shirt down quietly and looked up through her eyelashes to observe the man across the chamber.
He had never been a handsome creature, in the conventional sense. He was a little too slim, his face too fine and almost feminine, his pretty dark eyes compelling on a boy and frightening in a grown face. Dark hair curled about his ears, tickling the back of his neck where it was revealed by his doublet. A fine set of ermine was draped about his shoulders: this causal display of considerable wealth did not sit well with the wife, a rich heiress in her own right. Despite this appearance, he was shrewd, and careful with their expenses, with the responsibilities entrusted to him by the king.
“I have received a letter from my sister,” the wife said, breaking the cold silence. “She believes she is again expecting a child: they are hoping dearly for another boy. My poor sister is down on her knees in chapel every morning, praying fervently that it shall be so.” The husband turned a quizzical head in her direction, as if he had forgotten for a moment the existence of this woman, his wife for four years, who had borne him a sickly infant son; stared as if he had forgotten she had a sister who was married to his own brother, as if their great family and wonderful future were nothing more to him than a fleeting thought.
“You must send your sister, and my brother, my well wishes and prayers,” he said slowly, not meeting his wife’s eye. In moments like this, away from court and the world, he had nearly forgotten her, forgotten all of them. In his mind, he was lost with her.
How his wife loathed the very idea of it, the foolishness. It made her cool, aristocratic blood run passionately through her veins: it made her want to smack the stupid thing about her head until she cried mercy. But these were men’s thoughts: she was a great lady, one of the first in the land, she had no justification for thinking such things. A lady must be proper and quiet at all times. She reminded herself.
But today was not one of those times.
“I hope you remember this, husband: that you will never see that woman again. You are a sinner, and she is a sorceress, but at last she is lost to you forever, and I am glad of it.” She barely understood the cruel words as coming from her own mouth: She left the shirt and needle on the table for the maids to clear up along with her barely touched glass of wine and walked from her husband furiously. Habit prompted her to turn and drop a short curtsy before quitting the chamber, and she hated herself for it: for the obedience she owed him, for the power he would always hold over her. Love was a foreign thing, to be read about solely in romances and poems addressed to other women. But it seemed even love signaled possession: did not that horrid witch hold her husband’s heart in her own small, distant hand?
I hope she is lying in a common grave somewhere forsaken, the wife thought to herself as her maid hurried to help her up the stairs to her private bedchamber. I hope she loses all her hair, that she insisted on wearing so loosely and freely. I wish the white teeth would fall from her gums like dripping icicles, that darkness would forsake her fair skin, that her eyes would fade a milky dull. I wish her the absolute worst, for the worst she has brought to me.
In the chamber below, the husband was deaf to his wife’s ill-wishing. His thoughts were tangled and lonely, his forehead cradled in his hands. He missed her so endlessly. He had twenty and seven years, and time dictated he had only a few fast years left to live, and all the roads of those years led to hell.
Beneath the rich fur of ermine, beneath the satin doublet and the white shirt and the under-shirt, a small silver pendant hung, touching the skin of his bare chest, leaning against his beating heart.
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