Chapter 19 : A Chink in the Witch's Armor
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Its eyes were round and shining, bright with triumph, and it leapt off the small boat and onto a ragged shoreline. It was late evening – the perfect time of day – and the large animal sped along an overgrown path into a forest. Victory pumped through its bloodstream as four paws beat vigorously against the ground, faster and faster. A nearby stream – a vein of the Oaupe River, although many were not aware of this – twinkled brilliantly in the waning light with a rush of south-bound trout.
Her lips curled over long fangs, rearing her head back to soak up the scents of stagnant mire and lake water mixed inexplicably with salt. The smell of it coated the animal’s rust-red fur like a paste, bringing a flush of memories to the forefront of her mind. It was pleasant, enjoyable, to view the aftermath of curses. She reveled in watching the world burn from afar, a grin spreading at her mouth while the pair of sharp green eyes narrowed vindictively. The world tasted like power and vengeance and the thirst for more of it. Always more of it.
There was a weakness to the wolf in the way that she had a pattern, and a need to traipse from one cursed subject to another. The wolf wound her way clockwise around the country, visiting the ruins of her extreme magic and gloating over the individuals eternally trapped within it. People who had wronged the wolf, who had denied her food or gold or entrance to a cave she wanted to shelter in – they beat against the walls of their invisible prisons, even in death. Most of them were too proud to heed the rules of the curse in order to break it. You could not trick curses of this magnitude, and so they suffered alone and companionless because they simply refused to listen.
But, somehow, the girl from the letter had discovered a loophole.
Rather than doing the obvious and learning to love Malfoy – instead of kissing him and severing the spell like Circe’s terms had directed, the girl had found a way around the rules. It enraged the wolf. It was arrogance, deceitful and underhanded arrogance. Circe would circle back, undoubtedly, to inspect the blonde girl’s self-inflicted predicament, to smile up at her from where she would be draped weakly over the iron railing, dying of thirst. She would be surrounded by salt water, and could of course drink none of it. And if she did drink it – well – that would be all the better. Circe smiled to herself, imagining the distorted visions that would inevitably begin to drift through Narcissa’s mind as the salt dried her from within.
The old Macnair woman had sent an owl to inform her of the treacherous action, of the castle’s defeat. She provided a name – Narcissa Black. Circe, who was been lingering on a mountainside in search of a Muggle woman she had stricken with disease because the woman had not offered her a drink of water, was forced to turn around again.
She Apparated once in Kincraig and nicked a gold pocket watch from a short, portly man who was strolling alone down a lane and muttering to himself, trailing a soiled jacket over one shoulder. She admired the watch as he examined it whilst he walked; and admired it even more when it lay glittering in her own palm; when he cried out in rage, mustache quivering, she took his life as well. Circe left his body lying in a drainage ditch with his back to the sky, fingers threaded through long blades of grass in the dirty water beneath him while raindrops flecked his white shirt with dark spots.
Two of her pack’s number had been lost in the course of a week. One of them had been taken down by a man with a massive bow and arrows, the tips of the arrows impregnated with basilisk venom. Presently Circe ran faster through the dense wood, muzzle tilting down as her ears swiveled to absorb every flutter of a jobberknoll’s wings, each warble of icy rain dripping onto leaves like the pitter-patter of pebbles clinking against the walls of an old stone well. Whoever had killed her second in command was going to find himself neck-deep in misery…
The second casualty was her newest recruit, a girl of only eighteen. She had not reacted well to the change, and was slower than the others. She had been unwilling to obey Circe when Circe told her to follow, and was reluctant to cause harm, even as a wolf with brutish instincts. The potion was supposed to lengthen the amount of time the wolves were allowed to transform, extending not just during full moons but well into daylight hours afterward; it did not always work, however, and did not agree with the girl’s system. Circe could see that the girl was backpedaling against her leader’s commands, and could possibly sabotage the mission. There was no room for liabilities in this group, and the inconsequential little wolf had been disposed of in the blink of an eye.
If her sisters could only see her now… Circe leapt over a fallen tree trunk splotched with moss, the scent of wine ripe in her snout. Somewhere under the earth in an old wine cellar that once stocked rows and rows of garnet-red drink, the skeletal remains of an old alchemist lay propped against a rotting wall. His ghost sat opposite the bones, forever incarcerated. She only needed to be sure of his entrapment before turning and making her way back to the lighthouse. These needs, these exhausting patrols that kept her on her feet every hour of the day, traveling, traveling, traveling – needing to always be quite sure that they were still there – had begun to drain her.
She’d taken precautions against a future of diminishing strength many years ago, searching out a werewolf to infect her so that she wouldn’t fade away as half-fairy witches often did. Despite a number of spells and potions that weren’t supposed to be mixed and despite her potent wolf blood diluting the fairy blood, these masochistic trips were going to kill her even if nothing else would.
This one will be my last until spring arrives, Circe told herself. It was dangerous for her to be exerting so much energy in the winter months; when she transformed back into a human, she would be frail once again. Was the depletion of her human energy worth the hours she spent as a wolf, strong and prevailing? The sacrifice was strenuous on her withering human form, and she would have to seek shelter somewhere with a substantial heat source… Gubraithian fire sounded as efficient as anything else.
The thick muscles in her body twisted as she galloped down a steep slope at an angle, rejoicing in her unparalleled abilities and knowing, without a doubt, that she was the most omnipotent in all the land. There is no emotion more powerful than spite, she thought with a smirk. And no fuel more everlasting.
I swallowed the last of the rancid tinned tomatoes, scraping the can clean with one finger. It smelled positively rotten, the substance slimy and squelching, and I forced my throat to resist the urge to gag. Rancid or not, I had no alternatives and I wasn’t about to turn up my nose at food.
I tossed the empty can at the wall and it clanged, rolling slowly under the spindly table. I craved a drink of water, but there wasn’t any to be found. I spent several minutes reading the room with my gaze, looking for what I already knew wasn’t there, before I fully realized the potential for the empty tomato can. Feeling stupid for not having thought of it before, I placed the tin on the outside balcony and allowed the unrelenting downpour to pelt it.
I watched the raindrops splatter against the metal rim, most of them missing its interior, and glared. There had to be something handy sitting around that I could use as a funnel…
Hunched over in the cold, clinging mist, I turned slightly and stared out over the ocean. I wondered which ocean I currently found myself in, and how far from land I must be. For several hours, I had tried to mentally pinpoint the culprit behind my unfortunate position, and came up with no conclusion. The only option that crossed my mind was perhaps Gaspard Pravus, which made sense. He had taken me twice before, and was a sadistic, sick individual. But what did he have to gain by shutting me up in a lighthouse? I did not understand his motivations and the questions continued to spin me into circles, and so I decided to simply stop thinking about it.
The why or who didn’t matter, not here. The only way forward was to channel my energy into figuring out a way to escape. This suited me, as I loved nothing more than a great and impossible challenge, and eagerly began to map out options in my mind, each one more absurd and unlikely than the last. Employing my mind gave me something to do, and I resumed pacing around the lighthouse balcony.
I would get out, of course. I laughed disdainfully, imagining Gaspard’s smug face and guessing that he had fancied this plan as solid and unyielding. Ever since I was born, my most powerful instinct has always been survival. I had yet to encounter a quandary that left me powerless to it, that stopped me from enduring and overcoming. Gaspard’s narrow mind was no match for my own.
A seagull skidded to an abrupt land on the railing, startling me with its wide, flapping wings. It hopped along its perch, turning a beady eye to look me over.
“Carry me out of here?” I mused.
I half-expected the bird to respond, as such a spectacle would not seem out of place considering the past four months, but it continued hopping along as usual, its feathers checkered with silver rain. “Shouldn’t you be somewhere warm?” I asked lightly.
The creature tipped off the thin railing, swooping low over the violent waters, and flew away. It was only after I found myself staring at the horizon and hoping it would return that it struck me how lonely I was. The faces of Andromeda, my father, Wren, and Lucius haunted the edges of my thoughts, flickering by one by one. The stars seemed to have aligned against me, ripping me away from everyone I had ever grown attached to.
I was forever alone, in one way or another. It was lucky that I had become so stoutly self-reliant in recent years, or else I might have begun to plague myself with pitying thoughts and bitter wishes that I had not been the one to be so unfairly uprooted over and over…
Without really taking stock of what I was doing, I lifted one leg over the railing. I rested my foot on the slender concrete ledge, momentarily blinded by the swiveling light overhead, and then trailed my other leg over the railing. Holding tightly to the iron bar behind me, I let myself tilt out over the ocean. Brackish spray burst through the air like otherworldly geysers, carrying steam into the clouds.
I could see the smooth polish of the black rocks piled against the lighthouse, dark and shining. Water had steadily elevated its way up the base, submerging the entire downstairs door. I could feel the weight of the water pressing against the lighthouse, crashing against it and growing taller and angrier until I would soon be swallowed, too.
I wondered how far I might be able to swim until the current dragged me under.
A seagull – I thought to myself that it might have been the same one as before – fluttered onto the railing again. I let out a low whistle and it cocked its small head, studying me intently. I bristled, strengthening my grip on the railing, and it hopped along the tips of my fingers with pointed talons. I let go of one hand and waved it away, shouting. Hair blew into my mouth from a heavy strike of wind, obscuring my eyes. I crooked my elbow around the railing so that I wouldn’t fall into the ocean, smearing my hair out of my face once again, and looked up just in time to see the bird taking flight.
It soared and soared and blended perfectly into the stormy horizon, sinking into the outline of what looked to be a series of giant birds sitting atop jagged boulders. They were jet-black like crows, situated in the distance with their beaks pointed in the air and their wings encircling each other. A small, bright spot appeared at the tip of one of their beaks, glimmering faintly. There was something about the way that it seemed to reflect light that sent my memory diving backward. It was all extraordinarily familiar, something I had already seen…but as though I had seen it through very different eyes.
I shook my head, frowning in confusion, and carefully slipped back over the railing onto the balcony. My legs shook uncertainly, feet numbly trying to regain balance. Several strands of hair blew back into my eyes and I let out an irritated snarl. Stomping back inside the lighthouse, I picked up the serrated, mutilated lid of the tomato tin – which I had only succeeded in opening by hitting it against the floor fifty times – and tore it through my hair. Long, white-blonde chunks fell through the air, curling around my feet and sticking to the clammy stone crevices, and I continued to saw roughly until most of the knots had been cut out and the tips of my hair brushed an inch from my shoulders.
“So pretty,” Mother sighed, skimming the walnut hairbrush through my long waves. “So lucky…” Her voice was tinted with resentment now, and she pulled harder on the brush, tugging painfully on my roots.
The corners of my lips twitched up in a smile, as though I had won some sort of small victory. Having long hair was distracting, always getting in my way. I was vain, but even more than that I was practical, and I picked up several handfuls of blonde mess and returned to the balcony, letting them drop from my fingers. I watched as they spread over the water, coated in sickly green froth and floating reeds, moving with the waves in every direction.
Running my fingers through my cropped hair, I felt strangely calmer. It was the same sensation I got whenever I collected enough coins to purchase a new pair of boots for my sister or after I cleaned the cottage from top to bottom. It was a feeling of accomplishment.
I turned back to the massive silhouettes against the sky, growing darker and grainier as the sun slipped behind its pillars of cloud and fog into the night; that curious dot of light was still present.
I stepped backward, the heel of my shoe soaking through with cold water, and I lifted it hastily and turned about. Where before the ground had been stained a muddy grey from rain and mold and everlasting moisture, a deep and perfectly round spring had formed. I dropped to my knees, lips parting in wonderment, and let my hands rest on the outer edges. Flowers bloomed beneath my touch, spreading from fingertip to fingertip in a web and stretching outward…forming a border of bluebells around the spring.
I swallowed thickly, mouth dry as a bone. It must have been only a mirage caused by incredible thirst – a trick of the brain. Even still, I ran my fingers over the soft sprouts of flowers. I touched them and they reacted like octopus tentacles, tickling the air. They were the brightest blue I had ever seen, ethereal and springy and alive. They grew not from dirt but from the other side of the mirror, projections of their parallel selves. I ran a finger over the silky petals of one and imagined its counterpart shivering in response, somewhere in a place yet unseen.
Peering closely, I found that I could not see the bottom of the pond. It extended for leagues, its depth and coldness apparent without the need to touch it. A Pensieve of the present instead of the past, I watched as color permeated the fluid in rich tones like the Northern Lights, swirling together until they coaxed up a reflection of someone other than myself. I hovered over the fluid, the breath in my lungs forgotten, and realized with a sharp twist that there could only be flowers surrounding this pond if it was springtime in Lucius’s bedroom.
My eyes closed.
Birds trilled from the fringe of a different world, and I could picture them as they fanned their wings, flying in circles around the mossy green bedroom. My heartbeat picked up faster and faster, sensing through my skin that I was being watched, that eyes were roving over my face. My blindness was a gift to him – a way for him, if he could somehow, however impossible it might be, see me, to finally have the first glimpse. It was a vulnerable feeling, a surrender of sorts. I tilted my face, lips smiling unknowingly, and forced myself to remain still and patient.
My heart leapt through my chest and I smiled wider, forgetting the crashing black ocean and the lonely lighthouse – forgetting the rain that seeped through my clothing and into my skin, dampening my insides as well. Through closed eyes, the leaves in Lucius’s trees scraped together, swaying delicately. It smelled clean, like summer rain over a garden, and I soaked up the image I knew he was finally seeing – a young woman bathed in beads of water like mercury, her face smudged with dirt and her hair straggly and uneven. It was gratifying in a way – freeing – to feel his gaze lingering over my many flaws and just letting it happen. I would not try to conceal anything from a man who had been blind for eight years.
My skin so aflame with apprehension that I could barely stand it, knowing that he was analyzing me and I could not read his expression as he did so; I was giving him permission to acclimate the voice he knew to the flesh he did not without struggling to hinder his disappointment or shock. It was the most I could give to him, since I had viewed his own face time after time while he was the one in the dark. Sitting there I like I was, bent over a small pond, I found that physical darkness was every bit as frightening as I ever cared to predict, and equally liberating.
“Narcissa,” he repeated quietly, and this time I was afraid to look.
But I could not resist the summons of his voice, and I opened my eyes at last.
Our gaze met with mutual amazement. His irises had shrunk back to normal size, a vivid light blue that pierced mine with incomprehensible intensity, and he was both unrecognizable and the exact same person who had invaded many of my conscious thoughts and dreams alike. His skin was as ghostly pale as ever, his hair the same shade of almost-white, and his expression hardened defensively while I perused his appearance.
The planes and angles of his face were his forever and always, unchanged by anyone’s spells. But I could not see the arteries swimming with blood, shooting back and forth from his heart to the rest of his organs. The underlying network of veins had faded away, the skin not as thin as it once was… A strand of hair fell across his forehead and his trepidation softened, the crease between his eyebrows smoothing out. Lucius was seeing my thoughts in my face.
His lips… I began to smile without realizing it, and absently touched my own mouth. I bit my bottom lip, and a smile flickered over his face as well, lighting up his eyes. Both of us were remembering those lips spread like tissue paper over sharp teeth that cut into his skin. His lips were pink now, full with the bloom of life and youth – and although his teeth still retained a razor-sharp look to them, they were no longer abnormally-shaped. His features had lost both fragility and malice, but I had never found love in the flat black eyes and I would not find love in these lovely new ones, blue as the flowers under my hands.
I recalled his gloved fingers trailing along the glass piano keys, and the hesitation and discomfort in his demeanor when he confessed to having written a song for me. I had found love there, long after it happened. During my absence from Malfoy Manor, my mind had spun illusions around the memory of Lucius Malfoy, warping him until he resembled something...different. Something human, something I could love.
We simply stared, neither of us speaking. The sphere of chilly light overhead swept across Lucius’s face, illuminating the pair of striking eyes I could not stop looking at, staring incredulously as though I had never seen anyone or anything before. I felt something inside me lift higher, out of my body, and he smiled at me with kindness and astonishment and a million other feelings, flitting by with a second of life to each of them.
Whatever Lord Voldemort’s spell might have done to Lucius to free him, it had retained the magic inside Lucius’s bedroom. I could see clusters of gnarled trees behind his shoulders, flushed with deep, lively greens and the colorful blurs of tropical birds. Lucius slackened his grip on the rim of the pond, and I thought to myself that he must have always looked this way, and the castle had merely distorted my perceptions. I recalled the internal rise of nausea and revulsion whenever he entered the room, turning away from him as though he were a disease I might catch. I marveled at the impossibility of such sentiments.
Lucius’s piercing blue eyes glistened, welling up with the emotion of time or stress or something else, perhaps; he lifted one hand and closed his eyes briefly as he wiped them, and I opened my mouth too late. My hand was reaching, as though it might plunge straight through the mirror and catch his arm – but it was too late. He had broken eye contact.
The bluebells wilted, shrinking back into the rough pavement until it wasn’t difficult to believe they had never existed. The water shriveled up, becoming smaller and smaller until it was gone and a circular patch of perfectly dry concrete lay in its wake. Spots of rain perforated the dry surface, mocking and cruel.
“It will show you whatever your heart desires the most, and in turn, your heart’s desire will see you as well. It’s a two-way mirror.”
I turned back to the inky black outline in the sky, lightning flashing against it like the sterling blade of a sword in torchlight, twisted at just the right angle to blind you. In the several seconds that followed, my retinas carried the image of turrets across my brain, branded in white pictures. Turrets and towers, bleeding through the clouds and rain and lightning to capture my attention.
The broken reeds I had taken between my hands reeled in my memory with the flashes of white, and then I realized.
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