The hillside was steep and icy, and I had to wrap my wrists around protruding tree branches so that I wouldn’t lose my footing. It was sunset and I had been walking all day, probably with frostbite, and my feet were beginning to swell inside my shoes. They were red and puffy, and even when I stomped on one with the other, I felt no spark of sensation whatsoever.
The trees thinned, forging a path that snaked into a wintry little graveyard. The tombstones were aligned like stadium seats, pressed into a hill so precipitous that not a single one of them would have hidden any part of another if viewed from the village below. I stumbled clumsily between them, relying on century-old slabs of stone to prevent me from tumbling down the slope and into a white church.
The most I could see of the church was a needle-like spire that pierced through the top of a low-lying fog. This rolling fog canvassed the valley in a shroud of misty white and the reflected sunset colors of scarlet and shimmering gold, and it swallowed up all of the houses and shops further down. From this angle, I might have been standing on a mountainside in midair, gazing through an endless sea of clouds.
I looked on at a bit of graveyard that curved gently into a plateau of sorts, allowing several monstrously-sized graves a portion of flat land all to themselves. Since the sheer drop where I stood was making me so dizzy when I could barely walk as it was, I fixed myself on heading over to the flatter area. From there, the journey down would be much more gradual of an incline and therefore easier to descend. I clutched the wing of a granite angel for support, rising on wobbly legs to my feet once more after I had been resting for a few seconds. The pain stung as my tendons stretched, screaming out in remonstrance.
My head snapped sideways, and I shot down to the ground behind the angel statue. A queue of stragglers had begun to make their way up the hill toward me, all four of them dressed in identical black cloaks with their heads bent against the cutting wind.
“I didn’t say anything,” came another voice.
“That’s not what I meant.” The tallest of the four shook his sleeve, dispelling a wooden stick roughly the length of his forearm. He pointed it above them at a large, sophisticatedly-designed manor house. It looked to have been abandoned for a decade at least, and ivy was greedily clawing its way up the surface in snarls like twine. In another twenty years, it would certainly be indistinguishable from the woods, at least in summertime when the vines bloomed with green leaves. “When you go inside, you must stay quiet. Do not speak unless spoken to first, and keep your wits about you.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the man’s wand, slicing casually through his shadow cast by the sun’s position, its elongated form preceding him up the hill. If he had been the only person in the graveyard, I might have tried to attack him from behind and steal his wand.
The last person in their group was working his way up the hill slowly, purposefully separating himself from the others. His limbs were long and gangling, but he wasn’t very tall. Judging by the stature, hunched shoulders, and clomping boots, I approximated that he couldn’t have been older than sixteen. My mind raced quickly, plotting ways to overpower him for the wand that he must surely carry, and was about to dart out from behind my hiding place when his hood fell back, exposing his face.
My heart stuttered. What was he doing out here? He was supposed to be at Hogwarts…
I marched behind them after they passed, keeping my eye trained protectively on the smallest one’s back. We climbed the hillside and paused for a moment outside the empty manor. The two at the front glanced at each other for the space of a heartbeat, and then the shorter one twisted the doorknob and pushed it open.
They hesitated, lingering on the porch. Not one of them seemed willing to enter first, although they peered eagerly through the dark, tunnel-like corridor inside. The smallest of the lot was still staring at the ground, and he shoved between their shoulders, heading into the manor without a second’s worth of trepidation. The others followed his lead, and one by one we filed into the corridor. If any of them noticed a fifth member tagging after them, no one made any sign of acknowledgment.
The corridor opened up into an oval-shaped sitting room, the walls washed in liquid Galleons from the yellow light of an enormous fire, and a high-backed velvet chair sat facing its mantel on clawed feet. A tall, thin man was seated in it, and a young woman was kneeling on the floor beside him, pressing her lips to his knees as though in prayer. I had assumed the manor empty, and could barely decipher the scene playing before my eyes.
“Bellatrix,” I breathed.
The woman’s eyes flashed open and she turned her head, searching for me. Her face split into a smile so full of delight that it was fairly frightening. Bellatrix’s hair was loose from its usual coil, frizzing around her sharp cheekbones and enhancing the manic aura she exuded. She sprang to her feet, tilting her head to the side to fully absorb the sight of her youngest sister standing before her. She rushed forward with outspread arms, and I resisted all urges to shrink away from this alien creature – this strange tenderness coming from someone who was usually so reserved. I was stiff and unresponsive as she enveloped me in the most unnatural embrace I had ever received.
My mouth popped open, and a treasure trove of questions and bitter thoughts began to spill out at random. “You haven’t responded to any of my letters.”
“I’ve been busy.” She smiled secretively, motioning with her head at the man she had been crouching next to.
“We’ve needed you for months,” I prattled on. I could sense the fear and danger crawling from one person to the next in their frozen forms along the walls, but I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting the stark silence. “We had no money. We were fined by the Ministry and I was taken away after they stole all of our valuables. The Pravus family tried to –”
“None of that matters now.” She smoothed the hair out of my face. “You’re here, and that’s all that’s important. I knew you would come. I knew that you would hear about it, too, and now we can be a part of it together.”
“I’ve been locked inside a castle,” I whispered, my voice growing hoarser with alarm. “Did you hear what I said? I was kidnapped. I’ve been making fake Galleons in Doorturn for weeks. I’ve been stuck in a bloody mine, Bellatrix. My wand is broken and they took Mother’s from us, and that nasty Gaspard –”
“Cissa,” she crooned softly, cradling my face between her hands. “Let it go. All of that is in the past. This is your new life now, and I’ll guide you through everything. It’s good to have family together in this amazing experience.”
“Have you heard from Father?” I felt like I was slipping away beneath her fingertips, drowning. Bellatrix wasn’t listening to me. Her gaze fell upon the man in the velvet chair, and something like dreamy infatuation molded her features. I glanced at her husband Rodolphus, who was sitting on the floor in one corner with eyes glazed as though in a spell-induced stupor. The fire crackled and everyone was deathly quiet; and Bellatrix knotted up her hands in a ball under her chin, awaiting my reaction as though this was all a wonderful surprise planned in advance just for me. “What about Father?” I repeated helplessly. “Have you forgotten him? And Andromeda?”
Bellatrix reeled back as though I had struck her. “Do not speak her name. She is no sister of mine, nor yours. Not anymore. She married a Mudblood and now –”
No one stirred. Bellatrix whipped around to face the man in the chair, skirts swirling; and from the zeal and the yearning displaying itself prominently all over her body and through her mannerisms, for a moment it was easy to picture her as an obedient child seeking approval from her father. Words swam up my throat like rats in a sewer, but the expression on her face rendered me silent.
My sister was unrecognizable.
She hovered near the man who had instructed her to be silent, jealous of everyone he glanced at and following his gaze territorially – the shadow to his thoughts.
“You brought me three, Avery,” the man replied, stroking his wand between long, pale fingers. His voice was a hiss that carried long after he ceased to speak, thrumming softly like the sizzle and spit of embers that disconnected from their tongues of flame, reaching away from the fireplace…yearning like my sister…as if he himself was the heat source and the flames depended on him for warmth. “Well done. And who may they be?”
“My Lord,” interrupted a squat little witch with a sapphire brooch pinned to her robes, “I helped. We brought them both here together.”
The tall man from the graveyard group stepped forward from where he had been invisible – melted into the wallpaper. “We originally found three, my Lord. I found this one –” he gripped the shoulder of a hooded woman and knocked her into the center of the room –“walking aimlessly around in the mountains. Completely lost, with no idea who she was.”
The fire bathed her profile in a dull glow, and I inhaled a sharp breath. It was Margaret, the Muggle woman who had been dying of a tumor. Her stomach was flat and normal, and she had the flush of health in her skin tone. There were no remnants of the disease that had leeched life from her. I gaped in astonishment, wondering how it was possible that the crippled woman I had watched being carted off by the black carriage only that morning could have changed so much. In a span of only hours, how had this happened to her?
“You do not know your name?” the man in the chair inquired.
She jerked her head in tiny movements, from left to right. “No, sir.”
Several people clustered along the walls tittered at this, presumably because she called him ‘sir’, and the man responded with a mocking smile. “You will join me and my followers on our path to greatness?”
Margaret nodded submissively, and the tall man called Avery pulled on her arm, dragging her back against the wall. “Alecto Confunded an older man we found, but there was something wrong with him. He wasn’t in his proper mind to begin with, and became too loud – too much of a liability. We had to dispose of him.”
The man in the chair looked terse, fixing his eyes on the boy standing near me. The boy’s gaze was cemented to the carpet. “Who is the child?”
“That,” Bellatrix said proudly, “is my cousin, Regulus Black. How good of you to come,” she cooed. “I knew you would. I’m the one who suggested him.” She beamed around the room, expecting congratulations. Alecto and Avery glared at her, obviously incensed that she was trying to take credit for their recruits.
“A Black,” the man repeated, impressed. “Your blood is pure, young one. There is much I can do with you.” Bellatrix seemed to take this as a personal compliment to herself, and slid to the man’s side, falling to the floor and draping her forehead against his armrest. She looked positively delirious with happiness.
“Regulus,” I whispered, trying to catch his eye. “What are you doing here?”
He said nothing.
“How do you account for our third guest?” the man hissed. Now that he was looking at me, with the firelight swathing his waxy white skin, I could see that there was something about his appearance that unsettled me. The whites of his eyes were tinted wine-red, as though bleeding. He had dark hair that was pushed back, and through the distortions of his features I thought I could see the phantom of someone who had once been handsome. It hit me with a burning pain to see such similarities between him and Lucius.
All eyes swiveled to mine, their unspoken questions buzzing loudly in the still silence. Bellatrix leapt to my side once more, her movements quick and jagged. “This is my sister, Narcissa.”
“Ahh. Another Black. And what brings you to me, Narcissa?”
I stared around me, nervous and sweating. The fire was hot on my skin, making it blush. I was beginning to acquire feeling in my hands and feet again. “I saw Regulus and followed him,” I explained timidly. “I am looking for Circe.”
“Circe?” The man had no eyebrows, but the facial muscles there lifted and creased, reminding me of flaying candle wax.
I braved a step forward, biting the inside of my cheek. “She is an all-powerful witch. I am searching for her because I need her to break a powerful spell she cast over a castle called Malfoy Manor in Wauning eight years ago. There is a man there who is trapped inside, along with several other people. They will never be free unless I can find Circe and convince her to perform the counter-curse.”
Bellatrix stopped breathing – I knew this because before, her chest heaved heavily, her breathing ragged as she inhaled the scent of the man’s black sleeve settling on the armrest. The man cocked his head, all life extinguishing from his eyes, and something deadly unfurled through the atmosphere when he opened his mouth.
“I am the only all-powerful magical being in existence,” he said. “I am Lord Voldemort, and no one is more powerful than me.”
I couldn’t help myself. “But the spell is so strong. It cannot be undone by anyone other than her. She made a man blind, changed his appearance. I’ve never heard of any ordinary witch with abilities to do such horrible things.”
Lord Voldemort considered this, revolving his wand thoughtfully between his fingers and never moving his eyes from mine. “You say there is a dwelling – Malfoy Manor – with a spell upon it,” he mused. “A spell that traps people inside?”
“And it turned a man blind?”
“Yes. His name is Lucius.”
Bellatrix awaited his next words with bated breath, and he bestowed her with a pondering gaze. “You have been good to me, Bellatrix. I wonder if your flesh and blood would be as equally faithful.”
“Of course,” Bellatrix answered him, supremely confident. “No one is as loyal as I am to you, my Lord, but she will serve you as I do. She will do whatever you wish. It is our greatest desire.”
I stared at her, panic-stricken. I was about to argue her statement when Lord Voldemort said, “Very well. I will lift the curse from your blind friend, Narcissa. I will lift the curse that plagues the castle. But in return, what will you give to me?”
My mind was an endless blanket of white. Was he saying he was strong enough to break the spell? I would not need Circe? “Anything,” I replied immediately. I stepped even closer, mirroring Bellatrix’s behavior. “Whatever you want… My Lord.”
His lips parted into a smile that looked more like a grimace. “I want devotion.”
“Yes,” I said desperately. “Of course. Anything.”
“And numbers,” he continued lazily. “More numbers. I want the promise of your service, and the service of your firstborn child as well.”
“I don’t have any children.”
He gazed evenly at me, fingers pressed together in a steeple. “If and when you do, he or she will be bound to my needs. If you swear your agreement to this, I will break this spell of yours. It will be simple for me. A spell of the nature you describe can only be broken if the chains are replaced with something stronger. In this case, I can solve your problem for you…but you must promise yourself and your firstborn to me. And if you can convince anyone else to join my ranks, you will be rewarded accordingly.”
I had no children, and no intentions of ever having any. I didn’t know this man or what he wanted, or what he needed followers for; but whatever his desires were, I was sure that Lucius’s freedom was worth the price. “I agree,” I said swiftly. “If you do what you say you will, then you have my word.”
He chuckled darkly, and several other people behind me echoed his laughter. “I will require more than your word, Narcissa.”
Bellatrix grinned broadly. “I will do it,” she said.
“No.” Lord Voldemort gestured to Regulus. “He will.”
Lord Voldemort stood up to face Margaret, Regulus, and me. “Kneel.”
One by one, we pushed up our sleeves and he pressed the tip of his wand into the flesh of our left arms. “Viscus Spondeo,” he hissed, and dark ink began to bubble up inside my skin, swimming into the image of a skull and a snake. “Morsmordre.” The tip of his wand dug painfully into my arm, and the snake began to weave between the eyes and mouth of the tattooed skull, slithering in motion. It felt like a white-hot poker, the moving serpent blazing a trail of fire in its wake. It smoldered relentlessly, stinging.
“Now,” Lord Voldemort ordered softly, and Bellatrix yanked me into a standing position. “Your wand, Regulus. Your first task as Death Eater will be acting as our Bonder.”
My cousin unsteadily withdrew a wand from inside his black cloak, his grey eyes darting to Lord Voldemort’s as though expecting the latter to grab it from him.
Lord Voldemort slid his long fingers into my hand without warning, chilling me to my very marrow with its rubbery, temperature-less texture. His pallid hand was grasping my own and I could not force myself to meet his blood-red eyes. Sickness and disgust welled up like bile in my stomach, and my mouth dropped open in spite of myself. I wanted to flee or panic or take back my promise. The hot snake was wriggling uncomfortably around my veins, sensing its master sitting so close to it; and like Bellatrix and the flames in the fireplace, it wanted to be nearer to him.
The fog consuming Little Hangleton suddenly took on an eerie new meaning. I could see now that it was placed there on purpose, to shield the manor from wandering eyes in the village. Lord Voldemort was hidden up here in the cobwebbed clouds, and people from all over the country were beginning their ignorant journeys forth, summoning themselves to him with blind eyes and dreams of glory. People like Regulus, who was too young to know any differently…and people like me, who depended on a hope that the prize was worth the murky sacrifice I did not quite understand.
Bellatrix placed her fingers on Regulus’s, forcefully bringing his wand to rest on our interlinked hands. “Do you swear, Narcissa Black, to eternally serve me and do everything that I tell you to do, in exchange for your friend’s freedom and restoration of sight and body?”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
A golden string of fire poured out of Regulus’s wand and looped around our joined wrists. I watched, fascinated, as it continued to spin in continuous circles like a halo.
“Do you swear to always come to me when you feel your Dark Mark burning, and to obey all of my commands without question?”
“You will make a very loyal servant,” Lord Voldemort whispered with breath that smelled of decay. There was an ominous glint in his eyes – so dauntingly red that it could have been internal bleeding – and I registered at that moment that I never should have agreed.
“Very loyal servant,” Bellatrix assured him, her voice barely audible in my clanging ears.
A second stream of fire shot out of Regulus’s wand, attaching itself to the other loop to create one living, fiery organism. My cousin’s otherwise wan features were ignited in a powerful red radiance, and he looked half-demented. His jaw was high and proud, aristocratic like his father. I stared in frightened disbelief at the savage gleam in his eyes, storming with the uncontrollable greed for power and recognition beyond anything else in the world. It sent shivers ghosting up my spine like icy breath.
“And do you promise the allegiance of your firstborn child, in exchange for all that I am doing for you?” Lord Voldemort’s echoes vibrated in the dark, stagnant air, shaking the walls.
I paused. “Yes.” A flame of red burst from our hands, providing a ripple effect that tinged our complexions garnet. Regulus’s blurred face seemed to vanish under the blinding light of it, and I felt a small part of myself shrivel up and disappear, as well.
Across the forests and red hills glittering with gormite, and beyond towns and cities and villages filled with peacefully sleeping people, there was a black castle settled in a glen with its towers and turrets like spikes drilling into the frosty night air. A sleeping man was seated at a glass piano inside this castle, oblivious of the world around him and the passage of time. Downy snowflakes fluttered in downward spirals from the ceiling onto every substantial surface. They painted his bedroom in soft, serene white, tinted slightly blue by the rising moon outside. An owl flew to the window and perched on its sill, watching cautiously as if it knew what was about to happen.
My heart skipped a beat in its cycle and through a flash of bright, livid crimson, and through the expressions on faces surrounding me that were lit with envy, curiosity, and leers – across the miles and miles between us and a pack of wolves who stopped to listen – a gas lamp in Malfoy Manor blew out. It dropped to the floorboards without a sound, rolling and rolling until it thudded against the shoe of an old woman. The last of its flame stared upward through the cooling glass, weak and defeated.
Lucius Malfoy opened his eyes.
A/N: Thank you to all who have read and reviewed and favorited; I greatly appreciate each and every one of them. If you're curious, "Viscus Spondeo" is Latin for “flesh promise”.
Food for thought: can you guess which fairytale was used in this chapter? It’s a bit more obscure. :)