In December, I dreamed of Lucius for the first time.
We were walking along a ribbon of frozen creek, not speaking. I didn’t even see him, really – I felt his presence at my side and innately knew that it was Lucius Malfoy. Later on when I strained my memory, I thought I could recall a flash of his black cloak, and perhaps a lock of white hair – but then, I could have simply imagined it. I didn’t need proof, however. In my dream, I knew without question that it was him.
There was no sound at all. No crunching of snow-compacted grass beneath our shoes, no twittering of birds or whistle of the breaker, calling for a halt in the day’s mining production. The whole world was silent as we wound a path through the snow-covered red hills, aiming for a destination but not quite getting there.
I dwelled on this memory as I coughed on gormite dust down in the mines, buried deep below the surface of the earth. In those hours, when the dangers of rock collapsing in on me at any moment were the most prevalent thoughts in my mind, it was something of an oasis. I reflected curiously on it, trying to remember things that did not happen – words that weren’t spoken and a glance from his eyes that he didn’t give. I transformed the dream into something else, something that was almost real from where I had frequently turned it over and over in my head, kneading it and distorting it like clay.
Counterfeit galleons were molded and cooled, stacked up high to resemble a Gringotts’ collection. I moved numbly through the days, pounding rock with my hammer, green dust and black dust sticking to me like a sweat and coating my fingernails and every crease in my skin. I sorted Galleons to present to Gaspard, who grew increasingly more paranoid about whether I might leave. By the time I found out that this mining camp was one of many, Lucius’s eyes took on a permanently blue color in my thoughts.
Gaspard Pravus invested in many illicit activities, spreading them out and keeping them secret. He was extremely obsessed with making more money, never content with his ever-growing fortune that we created just for him. There was a mine in Wales that gave him Sickles, and one in Scotland that produced fake Knuts indistinguishable from real ones. He hoarded all of this to himself, counting coins late into the night until he was muttering nonsense, repeatedly counting and assuring himself of numbers.
By the time I discovered that mining was not his only secret endeavor – he also hired a band of hunters who obtained and illegally traded unicorn hair and other precious rarities for him – Lucius’s skin became fair and smooth, untarnished by the gruesome web of veins visible just underneath; and his lips were not stained with the residue of blood. He was evolving in my sleep, his physical form becoming more compatible with how I imagined he should look.
Gaspard’s regime provided little room for anything besides mindless working and daydreaming as I drifted from yesterday into tomorrow. I felt like pages were falling away from a calendar, each day exactly the same. I would not have felt the passing of time were it not for the sun glittering off of the snow-capped red hills, like sprinklings of sugar, and I had no time to enjoy the scenery. The most I saw each day were stars when I traipsed down into the mines and a glowing sky hidden behind pearly white clouds at noon when I emerged. The mechanical monotony made me forget about my father, about Andromeda. My thoughts never extended to Wren and nothing else existed aside for my dreams, the elves, and gormite. Always gormite. Endless gormite.
I might have forgotten completely about my plans to escape, were it not for Margaret.
I was not the first person Gaspard Pravus had manipulated into working for him, and I certainly would not be the last. There were many others before me – some of them worked off their sentences and he let them leave in peace. Some of them he kept forever, clutched in his talons until he possessed them completely and their brains were washed with white, Obliviated of everything except for what he wanted them to remember. And several of them, I came to witness, didn’t live to see the end of their punishment.
“Margaret,” Gaspard hissed, his voice shaking. “You cannot leave.”
But Margaret was going to leave, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Margaret was dying.
His two hired criminals, Lewisberg and Abrams, had happened across a heavily pregnant woman stooped against the cold on the side of the road. Knowing that Pravus was always on the lookout for stragglers to pull into his work camps, they took her and delivered her to Doorturn.
“I have saved you,” Gaspard told her, a manic gleam lighting up his eyes. Greed convulsed in his fingers, and he touched his pockets as if expecting to find more money in there, as though Margaret’s mere appearance guaranteed him more gold. “You owe me. You will pay off your debt to me by staying here until the child comes. After that, you are free to go.”
Margaret had tried to tell him, had pleaded hoarsely with steepled fingers at her lips. I quickly realized it already, having watched her form as she slept. The curvature of her belly was irregular, deformed. I watched her down in the mines, saw the way that whatever it was in her stomach sapped at her strength. I found myself doing the work of two people, trying desperately to fill her trough for her. The other elves caught on and we all rotated around the mines, flooding from one tunnel to the next and trying to find gormite where gormite no longer existed. The mines were swiftly emptying of the mineral. Soon, it would be time to dig new ones until the hills bled gormite for Gaspard’s insatiable greed. Until there was none at all to present to him in a flour sack.
The depleting gormite did not go unnoticed. “It’s Margaret,” he accused, pointing at her. She was lying on her side on the floor, eyes closed as she wrapped both skeletal arms around her ballooned stomach. “She is the weak link.”
“She is needing to go to a hospital, sir,” Sozy announced bravely, her ankles quaking as she did so. “A Muggle hospital.”
Gaspard, of course, would never allow this. Once he took hold of a person, he viewed them as his property, belonging to him forever. He reached out and slipped a small gemstone – a sapphire – into Margaret’s hand. Too weak to hold it, the stone dropped to the floor where she stared at it for a few seconds. Her eyes closed once more, and she gave a tiny moan of pain.
“You have to stay with me,” he entreated. “See what I have given you? You cannot ever leave. None of you can. It wouldn’t be fair.” A smile cracked his features. “You will be very happy here, you and your child both. I think any little girl or boy would consider themselves lucky to be surrounded by such trees and hills and beauty. And what’s more, you both will be serving your Ministry, as everyone dutifully should.”
“It’s not…” Margaret winced, and I could see her lungs struggling to inflate with air again. “I’m not…”
She didn’t understand any of it. Margaret was a Muggle, and was only coerced into trying to do what Gaspard wanted her to do because her brain seemed to be rotting away. We watched helplessly as she deteriorated day by day, wasting into a shriveled-up thing with a monster growing out of her abdomen. It bred hungrily, and she shrank in response, and there was nothing we could do to help except lay her down on a towel in the mines and work her share for her.
“She’s dying,” I said to Lilda. Lilda pursed her lips with worry, glancing back at the listless figure stretched out over rocks. Her legs were so very thin, like a calf’s, that they looked barely able to support the parasitic mass in her stomach. It threw shadows on the slick jade walls, making the thing inside of her look even more livid and unnatural.
Margaret was whispering to herself, suffering through another hallucination. Her brown hair was thin like the rest of her, braided into a plait as scraggly as a rat’s tail. Her face was nothing but a hollow, waxy bag of bones.
“What is wrong with her?” Lilda asked throatily, shaking her head in wonder.
“Tumor,” Eubert croaked. We turned to face him, and his headlamp swung back to the wall. He continued to spike his hammer into the rock, searching fruitlessly for more gormite. We had mined it all to extinction, trying to feed Gaspard’s demand for more and more fake Galleons. “She is dying of tumor.”
“It’s a tumor,” I repeated to Gaspard later that day when he came, as always, to pick up the sack of money. He tried to skirt around me, but I threw a hand onto the door to stop him. “She’s going to die.” My voice was harsh and embittered, and there was no way in hell that I was going to let him leave without a fight.
“What is a tumor?” He dropped the sack of money, face instantly covering with red blotches. It took nothing at all for Gaspard to snap. His lucid sense was fragile, like a chair on two legs, and all he needed to blow up in anger was for you to blink during eye contact.
“I don’t know,” I shot back. “A Muggle disease. She’s a Muggle. She doesn’t belong here.”
“Yes, she does. She came to me. She’s mine.”
“You take her to hospital!” Totty demanded shrilly, pointing a menacing finger at his master. “You take her to hospital right now, Mister Pravus, or me is not doing any more work!”
Eubert crawled into the ashes of the fireplace, attempting to hide, but the others did not back down. Even Head Elf stood boldly in the center of the room, knotting his hands into fists and trying to make himself look taller by stretching his neck out. “Me is not doing any more work, either,” he echoed.
Gaspard looked half-demented from this reaction in his lowly group of Galleon-miners. His eyes flitted over Margaret curled on the floor, who wasn’t stirring except to breathe a handful of times a minute. She looked like a corpse already.
“I will remove her to the mountains,” he said. “There are Muggles there; they will take care of her.”
True to his word, Gaspard sent for a black carriage to come and take her away. A goblin and a wiry old man stepped down from their horses and lifted her inside it. The contraption reminded me of a birdcage, with the way it was domed. But the carvings and the burned and blackened color, and the general scent of death, told me that Margaret would not live to see the mountains. And the goblin and man did not expect her to.
“What’s in the mountains?” I inquired, hovering next to the ear of an elf named Urchin.
“A very big camp,” she said. “They build furniture for Sir. Mostly goblins and wizards, but they has Muggles, too.”
The carriage clambered away, and the elves turned around to head back into the house. It was sunset, after all, and time for sleep so that we could wake up the next morning for a fresh day of scant mining. I couldn’t rip my eyes away from the black coach, however, each clang of its wheels rotating over pebbles like a roar in my ears. It drowned out the biting cold gales, the chattering of the elves, the rest of the world. It swallowed everything up in fuzzy silence, just like my dream. There was something familiar about it all.
I realized it was the path.
The carriage moved off towards death, taking the same route Lucius and I had sauntered along in my dream. Without thinking, I set forth after it, blind to everything else.
I was not sure what I expected to find. The prospect of following after Margaret, a woman I barely knew, did not occur to me. It felt rather like I was being pulled toward something different, something the carriage would leave behind in its wake. It was a peculiar concept, but onward I walked, and much more quickly than necessary.
My feet broke into a run. The pull was growing stronger, and bright spots were popping in my eyes like bursts of magic. I wondered if I was hallucinating like Margaret, or dreaming again. My shoes made no sound as they beat against the crisp snow, and I felt the gravity reining me in, a magnetic shift sucking me along the path.
The creek snaked through the hills, my dream springing to life. I watched the world paint itself with the colors of my dream – icy blue and fog so white – and trees lifted themselves out of the ground. Their roots tore away from the crumbling soil, and they stomped across the valley with thundering vibrations, bringing themselves to a halt on either side of me. They took root there, framing a perfect narrow path as all snow covering the strip of ground between them melted. The tips of their branches arched, overlapping each other in a united canopy, and everything was exactly as I had seen it through closed eyes.
The carriage was gone, rumbling off into no-man’s land. I could hear again, although only slightly – there was a tumbling sound of creek water as it sloshed across rocks. Grass twisted out of the plain dirt trail, ripening with pea-green hues right before my eyes. Birds called to one another, swooping from trees on the left to trees on the right; and still the trees were steadily rising higher, growing like daggers to match the vision in my dream.
My pace slowed to a walk, and I could do nothing but marvel at the claustrophobic height of the enclosing wood, and the dabbles of color so unnatural at this time of year – rich brown, red, lavender. They flicked across tree bark and the underbellies of leaves with easy strokes of canary yellow and apple green. Nothing was the color it should have been, and yet it was all entirely believable.
At the very end of the path, the trees forged a barrier. There was nothing except for a shallow puddle on the ground.
The puddle reached, lapping water over the sides. It grew and grew until the earth was leaking with water, until I had to step back several yards so that I would not be drenched with it. The water droplets multiplied like blood vessels of liquid that popped and regenerated, filling the pool. It was similar to Margaret’s infection, burgeoning from its host – in this case, the puddle sucked water from snow and moisture in the air, sizzling as it made contact with its source and drew it to the ground until it was as large as a pond. Its waters relaxed, calm now that it was finished growing, and suddenly I found myself gazing into a startlingly familiar spring.
Stones crisscrossed the border, engraved with runes or words – none of it mattered. I peered into the depths of the spring, smooth and shining like a Pensieve. My reflection descended closer and closer over the water until it swirled into a whirlpool, the ocean of colors around me disappearing with it.
It was winter in Lucius’s bedroom.
There was a woman walking from portrait to portrait, hands clasped behind her back. Her gait was uneasy and impatient, and I studied the murky shadows of brown and gold that followed her, as though she brought the colors of her original portrait into each one that she crossed. There was something strikingly proverbial about the stiffness in her shoulders, the glow of her porcelain skin. Without warning, she twisted her face and stared directly into my eyes.
It was a hawk’s gaze. She moved, skirts rustling, out of her frame and was gone.
A delicate layer of snow dusted across the piano, and across Lucius’s arched back. His head rested against the keys, stationary. White hair trailed down his back, shimmering with ice crystals. It was still, peaceful, and his face was tinged blue from cold. I leaned closer to the spring’s surface, examining the beat of Lucius’s heart through the blood that raced in his veins. He was still alive.
A white moth churned through the air like a drifting leaf, coming to an idle rest on his shoulder. It was a remarkable contrast, the white of his skin and hair, and the snow, against his black cloak. I remembered the quick flash of black cloak walking next to me in my dream – the flash that may or may not have even happened, with as many times as I had contorted the dream as I reflected on it. Lucius’s lips blushed purple, and I traced a lock of hair that hung around his face, stiff and frozen. Asleep in the middle of a snowstorm, right there in his own bedroom.
He was so quiet, so oblivious of his own situation. So at peace. The last thing he consciously witnessed was the terror of his life’s work going up in flames. When he eventually woke, if he ever did, he would still be trapped in that train of thought. He would plunge right back into a nightmare of fire and devastation, wondering what he would do now that everything he’d accomplished in the past eight years was gone.
I could not allow him to wake up to that. When he opened his eyes again, I was determined that he would see me – really see me. I would take his hand and lead him out of the castle, leaving it behind us forever. Perhaps we would even burn it down. Presently, gusts of snow brushed along Lucius’s cheekbones, stripping them of their bluish hue, landing softly in his eyelashes and over his lips like fallen stars. I found that I had stopped breathing.
Something inside me broke when I saw Lucius’s immobile profile, suspended in a moment of everlasting time over his glass piano. A tie that bound me to my father, to my sisters and the Ministry and the mines, was severed, and it floated away. I felt weightless, free. I was free.
I looked up and the trees were gone. I could see nothing around me except for the rounded house, the bleak mouth of the mines, and thickly falling snow. My fingers were laced through frozen blades of grass, and I realized that I had been staring at a blank expanse of melting snow. It was slush, caught between the heat of the sun and the frigid temperature, malleably changing forms.
Pelts of sleet dropped out of the sky in fireworks, working against my back since I was still on my hands and knees. Lucius Malfoy washed over the hills, drumming the air with his heartbeats and running underneath my fingertips in fluid motion. He blossomed in my heart like a cavalry, riding on the winds in his sleep to come and save me.
I would not die here like Margaret, and Lucius would not emaciate in the stark loneliness of his bedroom. The hills extended for miles and miles, and beyond them, something would free me. Something would break the curse, and I had to find it. A smile crept over my face.
I am coming for you, Lucius. I am going to set you free.