“Miss!” Something wet was trickling down my cheek. “Miss!”
I frowned, rolling over and burying my face in the cold, hard floor.
“Water isn’t enough, Lilda,” a voice squeaked. “Here, take this.”
There was a whoosh of air, followed by the stinging impact of metal against my forearm. “Aaghh!” I screamed, bolting upright. A spatula flew down to smack me again, and I caught it easily. “What the hell was that for?”
The spatula-wielding elf smiled down at me, and five other elves were examining me curiously. Off in one corner, the seventh elf was hiding behind a hammock, his pig-like snout sniveling in fear. “Lilda had to wake up Miss,” the elf who had attacked me explained jovially. “It’s time for work!”
I squinted with bleary eyes beyond her, through a window surmounting a door that led outside. The sky was dyed a deep violet, with a smattering of stars still visible over the horizon. “Are you mad? It’s not even sunrise!”
“We be having to finish at the mines before the sun is too high,” Totty intervened. “It is getting very hot then.”
“Mines?” I repeated, glancing warily at each of them. Their eyes grew large with eager longing, their feet hopping up and down as though my delaying them from work was causing them immense pain. “What would we be doing in a mine? And it’s November. It won’t be hot at any time of the day.”
“It is for elves. Up, up, up,” a third elf demanded, and they all struggled to lift me to my feet against my will. “You agreed to Sir’s orders, Miss, did you not?”
I gave the elf who’d asked me that question a scathing look. “Yes. It was the lesser of two evils.” I did not add that if I found the chance to escape, I certainly would. Despite my family’s betrayal, the thought of my father rotting away in Azkaban was like a blade to the flesh; I could never allow it to happen. I would go along with Gaspard’s corrupt ultimatum until my first opportunity to escape arose. And then, of course, I would hasten to warn my father. I would take him to Diagon Alley, and personally state our case against Gaspard Pravus to the Wizengamot.
“Hurry!” Totty cried. “We are losing nightlight!”
As it turned out, a glinting golden substance lay embedded in rock deep underneath those rolling red hills. “Not gold,” Sozy whispered in my ear as she passed me a shining pickaxe. “It’s gormite. But no one can ever tell the difference.”
The mines were cool and damp, the air as heavy as if I were swallowing clouds, and the rocks were slippery beneath my shoes. We had spent a solid ten minutes walking down a set of steps hacked into the ground, tunneling our way further and further into the earth. We wore hats with lamps built into them, and they illuminated the wet, jade-green stone. I could see claw marks in the ceiling, from where it had been picked clean for gormite, and spindly props that held up the roof.
“Those don’t look safe,” I remarked, pointing at them. I could have sworn that one of the props wobbled as we made our way past it, causing several pieces of rubble to clink down the steps before us, echoing as they ricocheted off of walls. The elves didn’t seem to hear me, as they were humming to themselves rather cheerily, swinging their pickaxes.
I trailed after the herd of elves, the skin beneath my axe handle beginning to sweat. I had to double over as I walked, as the roof was so low, and my hair swung back and forth in front of my face, obstructing my vision. I stumbled into the elf who was often frightened – Eubert – and he made a noise like a mouse being stepped on and flung himself to the front of the line.
“That can be your station,” said the Head Elf, the one who wore a crown made from potpourri. He curled two fingers toward a black tunnel veering around one corner. It was farther down from the other tunnels, at the very bottom.
“That’s deeper than yours!” I argued. I could hear the other elves cracking axes against rock in their respective tunnels, the unstable boulders above our heads reverberating with each blow. In two seconds it would collapse in on us, burying me before I could open up my mouth to shout. I had never been so insulted with such a ridiculous task in my entire life.
“Newest workers start from the bottom,” Head Elf stated matter-of-factly. He pushed me across the way into Eubert’s station. For such a tiny, terrified elf, he was incredibly strong; he swung the axe with the force of an avalanche, causing shiny gold nuggets to pop out of the wall and into a wooden grate shaped like a honeycomb. The grate was set firmly over a long metal trough, into which the gormite fell. All excess rock was kept above the grate, probably by some kind of magic.
“See Bertie’s trench?” Head Elf asked me in an authoritative, patronizing voice. He lifted up the grate, showing me Eubert’s progress. About four tiny slivers of something yellow and shimmering lay in the bottom of the metal tin. “See how he aims? Try to copy exactly like Bertie, Miss. Aim just a hair above your target and whack with all your might!”
“What is this for?” I wanted to know.
“Not yet,” he chirped excitedly. “That part is for afternoon! Mustn’t spoils the surprising!”
Grumbling irately, I ducked down into the tunnel he had indicated, my headlamp foraging a despairingly dim path. It all felt like I’d fallen to the bottom of a well, and then the well flipped onto its side. “It’s just temporary,” I muttered to myself. “If I live to see the sun again, I’ll get out of here and find my father. I’ll hide him and then…” I hesitated. And then what? Lucius’s face swam to the forefront of my mind. I was tempted to forget about Malfoy Manor forever, but something stronger in me rejected that idea. I would sever the castle’s curse, in one way or another. If I couldn’t find any existing loopholes to the spell, then I would just have to create them.
The green wall was bulky and sharp, with splinters sticking out of tiny canyons like crystals. I located a patch of gold – or rather, gormite – and swung my axe with all I was worth. It wasn’t as heavy as I had anticipated, and thudded against the rock with a sound like thunder splitting the air. Two golden pebbles rolled through the grate, dropping into my trough.
I smirked to myself, gratified. I wasn’t half bad at this.
The elves sang loudly, their voices muffled and convoluted in my ears. The oxygen was too thin, the mugginess condensed around my lungs like tightly-packaged sardines. I hammered into the rock again, and dust floated away like dandelion fluff. I could feel the grit settling over my arms and face, and when I licked my lips, found that it tasted sweet – like powdered rhubarb.
I worked for what felt like ages before resolving that I deserved a nice break after all of my effort. I desperately craved the open air, wishing to be above ground again. The mines were black and suffocating, the rumbling of axes and loose chunks of rock slicing through the silence making me uneasy. Every now and then, when I dwelled on how deep under the surface I must be standing, panic shot through my blood and I began to wheeze and choke on the gormite dust.
“What is you doing?” a wounded voice cried. Head Elf tottered down my tunnel, illuminating the dirty fog with his bobbing headlamp.
I was sweaty and sticky – and itchy, too. The crystals were like fiberglass, and they pricked my skin. I had dust coating my mouth, inside my nose, underneath my fingernails. My eyes burned from the billowing clouds hanging all around, but when I tried to wipe my face with the back of my hands, I only rubbed more grime onto it. “I’m resting for a minute,” I retorted. I had been ‘resting’ for about twenty minutes, actually, but I felt it well-deserved. My ankles were sore, my fingertips swollen, and I was beginning to develop blisters on my palms.
“Resting?” he repeated, as though he’d never heard the word before. “During work?”
“Yes,” I replied bitterly. “It’s what people usually do when they’re tired, you know.” I gestured to my trough, growing haughty now. “I’ve done more than my fair share for today, as you can see.”
Head Elf examined my trough, shaking his head in disappointment. “Dreadful! I’ve never seen such slow productivity! Eubert’s trough is two-quarters full already!”
“What?” I glanced at my small rubble of gormite nuggets. It didn’t even cover the bottom. “How is that possible?”
Head Elf scowled at me, his snout raised in the air as if greatly offended. “Because he did not take breaks.”
I wanted to say that Head Elf’s own trough must not be that full, since he was going around chastising other people after all their hard work and not mining the rocks himself; I settled for slamming my axe directly into the nucleus of the precious mineral, sending up a tornado of dust right in his direction. I smiled to myself as he coughed and gagged.
“That’s –” he sputtered, “more like it.” He coughed again, beating on his chest with one hand. “Keep going until –” (more hacking) “you is hearing the whistling.”
I thought about my father while I swung my axe, trying to ignore the throbbing in my shoulder blade from the constant exertion. Sweat and dust collected in my blisters, stinging them, and I wished for a thick pair of gloves like Lucius’s.
I swung harder, cracking open the mine until it bled gormite for me. I hacked into it with all of my concentration and muscle, pretending it was Gaspard’s face. What right did he have, anyway, to punish me in place of my father? I remembered what he had said in September, when I approached him in hopes that he would take pity on my family and liquidize the fines and overdue taxes that we were ordered to pay.
“I do not care how poor you are, Miss Cissa. If your family does not provide the amount owed in three days, my people will come to your house and take something worth selling to pay his debts. If I were you, I would hope he finds a way to raise some money.”
I spent a few angry moments thinking that if Andromeda had been the one to make the plea on Father’s behalf, she would have been the one kidnapped. Would I have been the bride in the forest, standing opposite a strange man under an arch of flowers? I mentally stabbed the picturesque scene, hating Andromeda for marrying so soon after I was taken away. Neither she nor Father had bothered to look for me, that much was obvious.
I would flee as soon as I got the chance, probably while the elves slept so that they could not notify their master soon enough. I would send a letter to my father and tell him that he must go to Aunt Walburga’s in London, and hide there. After that, I would make my way back to Malfoy Manor and strip it of its enchantments from the outside.
A shrill whistle roared in my eardrums, and I let my pickaxe fall to the ground. “Miss!” Totty called, poking his head into my tunnel and blinding me with the bright light of his headlamp. “Time for the machines, Miss!”
“More work?” I lifted up the inside collar of my robes to wipe the dust from my eyes, nose, and mouth. “What about lunch?”
“One meal a day,” he chirped. “Not ‘til four.” Totty snapped his fingers, and my trough rattled. Peering closely, I saw that all of the gormite inside had disappeared.
“Where’d it go?” I cried. “I spent all day working on that, I hope you know!”
“Hurry up, Miss,” Head Elf commanded from his perch at the tunnel above us. “Mustn’t be idle.”
I followed the stream of elves up the steps, hitting my head against the ceiling twice before reaching the mouth of the mines. Inhaling great gasps of oxygen, I rested against the rough red grass for a moment. A small smile spread across my face, and I closed my eyes, feeling the open air sweep over my skin. The November winds were as refreshing as a tall glass of ice water.
“Miss!” Totty tugged on my wrist. “There is more work to be done!”
I opened one eye first, and then the other, hoping that the elf before me would fade into the breeze like a hallucination. I would be back in Wasteir, peddling overpriced food to the villagers on the winding cobbled lane. I would be weaving in-between other witches and wizards in Hogsmeade, my wand safely tucked into one pocket and my hands busy with History of Magic books. I was seated at an ornate dining table, watching Lucius stare at a goblet of wine that he could not see, silent as he listened to me speak about something trivial.
“Miss,” Totty pleaded, tugging on me again. I stood up with a groan and dragged myself after them into the building.
I soon learned all about the important and secret work that Totty had glowingly hinted at the day before. When I entered the room, I found four elves (one per machine) busy poring over a trough ten times the size of the one I worked with in the mines, and it lined a wall above the low granite counter. They each selected either one large nugget or a few very small ones, and let them drop into a tube that rose out of each of the four machines. At the bottom of the tube, the gormite fell into a small circular tray where they were melted, as a miniature oven made up the base of the machine. The elves reached for levers on the right end of the machines, pushing them over to the left. A circular shape was on the end of these levers, and when they pressed them against their counterparts, it formed a perfect coin with grooves and markings on both sides.
Two elves assisted the process by refueling the ovens with coal and cleaning deposits of leftover gormite from the edges of the trays. The seventh elf pounded bits of gormite with a hammer, breaking them down into smaller pieces. They all moved speedily in perfect synchronization, their nimble fingers like lightning as they reached into the trough, calculated the exact amount of gormite needed for a single Galleon, and waited approximately three seconds for the substance to melt before stamping them into the precise size, shape, and color to match a real Galleon.
“The goblins at Gringotts will know the difference,” I said to them.
“They are well enchanted, Miss,” Head Elf told me airily. “Sir is knowing what he does quite well, thank you very much. This money has been circulating for ten months. No one has noticed a thing.”
I was still doubtful, recalling the clever glint in a goblin’s eye as he inspected scales of gems and gold, Sickles and treasure. Everything that passed through the doors of Gringotts was manually flipped between two long fingers, held close to their faces as their lips curled back with instinctual suspicion.
“Indistinguishable,” Lilda said happily. She turned back to glance at me for a quick second. “Don’t just stand there, Miss! Come on, then!”
I meandered over to the machine next to her, unsure of what to do. “What do you need me for?”
Head Elf clucked his tongue, knocking me away from the machine with his bony elbow. “You is not doing the presses on your first day, Miss. You’ll botch up all the Galleons! You can move the Galleons to the cooling rack with this pair of tongs.” He shoved a silver instrument into my hands and inclined his head toward a black tray at the end of the counter – large and rectangular, like a cookie sheet. I touched the rim of it and found it cold to the touch, like the handle of an outdoor water pump in winter.
I did just as Head Elf instructed, darting between the elves and retracting pressed Galleons as soon as they were produced. No matter how quickly I stepped, I wasn’t as fast as them. Head Elf was giving me a headache, muttering constantly about how slow and thick-headed I was.
The melting gormite smelled much sweeter when compacted – like baked fruit. Soon the room was shimmering in a yellowish haze, the elves nodding their heads dreamily with the scent of it as though drunk. The windows were covered in a film from the dust and smoke, like gormite algae.
Finally, at half past three, the very last nugget was lifted from the trough. Lilda squinted at it, rolling it between her palms. “Too small,” she announced. “Not enough for another whole one. We’ll just have to leave it in the leftover pile until tomorrow.”
Two other elves exchanged nervous glances. “Sir will not be happy,” said one.
“Sir will not like it. He will be very angry,” said the other.
The elves, not the least bit exhausted, proceeded to cook supper with the same speed they used when working. I slumped against the wall underneath the only portrait in the room – still devoid of an occupant since the woman had left it yesterday – and pretended to be invisible. My feet ached and the last thing I wanted to do was bend over a tiny, elf-sized fireplace, stirring soup in a cauldron like some kind of peasant.
I had looked forward to food much like the meals prepared by Hogwarts elves. These elves, I found, did not have the same resources as the ones from Hogwarts. Living in Doorturn, they also did not share the same customs. Instead of pumpkin juice, we drank onion juice. Instead of meat and potatoes, we ate beets and a kind of thick oatmeal with globs of celery inside it. Usually, I would have sooner spat on such flavors; however, after a long day of physical labor and a layer of dust like varnish on my throat, I welcomed it greedily. I even downed a tankard of onion juice before my tongue absorbed its revolting taste. It certainly explained that rotting odor I’d detected coming out of Head Elf’s mouth.
No sooner did my plate disappear, having been whisked into the sink by magic, than the door opened and in walked Gaspard. He headed rapidly over to the counter and picked up a sack filled with Galleons created that day. Next to me, Sozy shrunk down with her head below her shoulders, trembling.
Gaspard was frowning.
“This feels lighter than yesterday’s,” he said very quietly.
No one answered him. “Why is it lighter than it was yesterday?”
“Sir,” Head Elf responded bravely, his voice wavering. “Sir, we has been training Miss, Sir. Still plenty of Galleons – more than last Tuesday. But we is being slow today, Sir, because Miss was learning how.” I fought the urge to pull the hair right out of Head Elf’s ears, as I had learned rather quickly (in my opinion) and required minimal training.
“There are eight of you today,” Gaspard said through gritted teeth. “Yesterday there was seven. Therefore, there should be more Galleons in this bag than in yesterday’s bag. Do you understand the logic, Grook?”
Head Elf nodded somberly, his ears flapping.
“Narcissa.” My name crept out as a slow hiss, dissipating into the tension long after it was spoken. “Come here.”
I gulped down the last of my onion juice for the sole reason that it would make my breath reek, and crossed the room. “Is something not to your satisfaction, Mr. Pravus?” I asked innocently.
He tipped one finger under my chin and raised my face heavenward, stretching my neck until it hurt. His eyes locked fiercely on mine, and I could see every prematurely gray hair on his black head, every line crisscrossing over his incensed face. “Miss Black,” he whispered, “I warn you. If you do not become an asset to this team, I will find a place for you on one of my others. None of them, I promise you, have conditions quite as pleasant as this one here.”
I stared at him, our faces close and my breathing shallow. “Why do you hate me so much?”
He backed away, clutching one of my shoulders much more forcefully than necessary. Gaspard’s face was flushing red, and I watched one of his hands convulse, the tremors racing up his arm and into his head, which began to jerk. I had never seen anyone so angry in my life, and with so little reason for it. Wrenching myself out of his grip, I fell against the wall, my head banging into the empty portrait. “You’re insane,” I said, backing as far away from him as possible.
“You will not leave here,” he told me, his words growing louder and more disjointed. “Please do not make me send you away…you have to live here. Do you understand?” He dug into one of his pockets and retrieved something, holding out his hand to me. Fingers unfurling, I saw that a small pearl lay in the center of his palm. “I brought this for you.”
I glanced from the pearl to him, trying to edge past. The elves were all hiding underneath the scrubbed wooden table, not even daring to whisper. “Take it,” Gaspard urged, a smile warping his livid face. I continued to stare at him, wondering what was wrong with this man. "Take it," he repeated much more darkly.
I obeyed, grabbing the pearl swiftly enough that my skin would not touch his. He nodded. “Good.” Relief washed over his face. “Good, good, good.” I watched him in stupefied puzzlement, the pearl burning between my fingers. “You will be very happy here,” he promised me softly. And then his face hardened again, stone-like, and he turned his face to address the elves. “Don’t let her run away.” And with that, Gaspard seized his bag of counterfeit Galleons and left me standing there in a dazed manner, like the aftershock following an earthquake.
Mrs. Macnair strode briskly down the dark corridor, her head high and stoic. “Goodnight,” Horatio called.” Mrs. Macnair nodded at him, smiling faintly.
“Goodnight,” Wren said to her as she passed, and Mrs. Macnair could not get rid of her fast enough. “Tell the little one I said hello.”
It was a long path to the fourth tower, and the woman’s legs were older and more easily tired than they used to be. She didn’t care for the sensation of Apparition – it gave her migraines – but decided that it would at least spare the strained muscles in her calves. With a loud pop, she appeared atop a stairway on the fourth-highest level of the castle.
Mrs. Macnair paused for a brief moment to collect herself before entering, rearranging her face into a cheerful expression. It felt wrong on her numb features, but she did not want to worry the poor boy. Charlie was more perceptive than other children his age – perhaps because he’d been that age for eight years straight. Presently as she opened the door, she found him hovering near the ceiling, spinning around in circles.
“What are you still doing awake?” she murmured. Charlie glanced down, his silvery face brightening almost to white with happiness.
“Gran!” He plunged straight down, sucking right through his bed, past the floor, and into the room below. Mrs. Macnair smiled with real feeling now, and waited for him to fly back up. Charlie did, zooming through one of the dusty pillows on his bed with as much zeal as a tightly-wound jack-in-the-box springing open.
“It’s nighttime,” she reminded him, her voice constricted with warning. Her eyes, however, were soft, and Charlie beamed happily at her.
“Will you tell me a story?”
“It’s late, my dear. You need your rest.”
Charlie gazed in adoration at his grandmother, never fully realizing that she was asking for an impossibility. He was not alive anymore. She had tucked him into bed every single night since he was three years old, and that didn’t stop her from continuing to do so even after he died. Charlie spent each night suspended a few inches over his bed, lying flat-out (which was admittedly rather uncomfortable) and pretending that he was warm and breathing, and dreaming as everyone else in the castle did. Every now and then, he would sneak into other bedrooms and watch people as they dreamt, wondering how it felt to not be awake. He couldn’t remember what it was like to sleep and be completely at peace.
“Where did that girl go?” Charlie asked as Mrs. Macnair shooed him under the covers. She dropped the quilt, and it fell right through his legs. He knew that she liked to pretend that it warmed him, and comforted him. He didn’t quite understand it, but he loved his grandmother and wanted only to please her.
“What girl?” Mrs. Macnair answered through tight lips.
“Narcissa.” Charlie put his face in his hands, his eyes drooping thoughtfully. “I like her.”
Mrs. Macnair chuckled. “You barely ever talked to her.”
“I’m a little shy,” the boy admitted, and he peeked up at his grandmother with an embarrassed grin.
The old woman gave him a tremulous smile, quickly looking away so that he would not catch the gleam of moisture welling up in her eyes. She so wanted to brush the fringe away from his face, just once… She reached forward, and Charlie watched with patient wonder as she swiped her fingers across his forehead, intending to smooth his hair and press her cheek against his, inhaling the long-gone scent of his bath soap. Her fingers, of course, cut right through his vapory form, emerging cold and stinging.
“Where did she go?” Charlie wanted to know. “If she’s left the castle, then does that mean that the spell is broken? Will everybody leave?”
Mrs. Macnair’s heart skipped a beat. The boy did not realize it, but he was only still existing in this life because of the spell. It bound his soul to Earth, to the walls inside Malfoy Manor. As long as the curse lasted, Charlie would safely be with her forever, even after Mrs. Macnair died and became a ghost as well. Together, they would all be ghosts someday.
If the curse broke, what would become of Charlie?
“No,” she whispered, patting his pillow soothingly and motioning for him to lay his head down on it. He positioned himself awkwardly, struggling to please her by appearing to lie on the bed like a normal, sleeping child. “Don’t worry, my love. No one is ever going to break the spell.” She leaned forward, wanting to kiss his forehead, and stopped herself. “No one is ever going to break the spell,” she repeated, her voice feather-light and barely audible.
Charlie smiled up at her, not comprehending, and pretended (with great effort) to snuggle into the covers. An echo of a smile flashed across Mrs. Macnair’s face, the delight both powerful and fleeting. “Goodnight, love.”
“Goodnight, Gran.” Charlie stared at the ceiling, and then quickly squeezed his eyes shut.
Mrs. Macnair Apparated several floors below, in the corridor overlooking Lucius’s bedroom. She could see his frozen profile, still curved over his glass piano. Because it was glass and his bench was, too, it gave the impression of a man sitting in thin air, leaning over to study something on the ground. She sighed to herself, sorry for having done what she did to him. She had watched in grim satisfaction as the flames devouring his music grew higher and hotter, and Narcissa fled to see the damage just as Mrs. Macnair had predicted she would.
Lucius had not seen the old woman coming, of course, when she carefully stepped over to him and manipulated his fingers so that they mashed the keys, triggering a lifetime of sleep. But it had to be done. For the sake of Charlie, it had to be done.
Oh, Charlie, she thought. My dear, sweet little boy. Her mouth trembled, and she lifted a shaking hand to cover it. It felt for a second as though her heart would burst right through her ribcage, and overwhelm her with the infinite hollow of grief. The only thing that prevented this was the sudden and approaching tread of footsteps. Mrs. Macnair rubbed the tears from her eyes, trying to smile again – but the effect was crooked and rather frenzied.
It was Ramien, making his way over to check on Lucius. Mrs. Macnair hurried speedily by, the pangs of guilt still clanging in her chest. “Have a good night, Wilda,” Ramien said. She waited until he was safely inside Lucius’s bedroom before allowing herself to sob into her hands.