Dusk fell like a blindfold that night. Slowly, stiflingly, it slipped across the sky and extinguished the damp grey gleam of the day as it went. Astoria walked quickly as if racing the night to the horizon, stumbling in the snow now and again with her haste.
The blood was the first thing she would remember. It would take her some time to recall the snow and the trees and the house in the distance, although she’d lived there all her life. Her eyes had turned to tunnels. Black at the edges, the same sort of black as the blood. Her mind was gripped with a still fog that trapped that blood and hid all else away. The blood; it was all she could think about.
Her name had escaped her. The house on the hill seemed more and more familiar as she stumbled towards it. There was grass somewhere beneath the snow, she knew, and she knew that grass was a good thing, a good word, and tried to think of that instead of the blood. But her mind was still full of a deep, rich black that peppered the snow beneath her feet, untouched by the freezing rain and fog. The fog that never burned away, both within her mind and without. Three months of it. It only parted for the sleet and thunder. And there were hands in that fog, hands that could touch her right to the bones.
She started to run. The fog meant that they were not far away. She couldn’t produce a Patronus even if her life depended on it.
A wand, at least – her fingers scrabbled in her pocket and withdrew a slender wooden stick she did not recognise. Not that she remembered what a Patronus was. A light, at least; she could do that. Her voice, hoarse from the effort of the run, soaked the silence. Lumos. A dim glow spread through the fog. She would be brave. The house was not far now.
Something stopped her feet. A distended lump rose from the snow before her and she stumbled again, falling with hands outstretched, hitting the ground with shooting pains in both wrists. The light went out.
The winter air is thin. The cold makes it sharp and searing, and it so often feels like a knife to the lungs. As Astoria fell, she drew breath quickly, and the air seemed to slit her throat as it rushed into her and then escaped in a tumult of sobbing; there was something under the snow.
Kneeling, she brushed it aside with numb hands. Fabric. Frozen. Robes, hair, a wand. A body. Female. No blood this time. The killing curse, she realised, remembering it clearly now. Now she thought about it, death seemed to linger about this place. There would be more beneath the snow. She knew she had a matter of minutes.
Astoria fought back tears and balanced the unfamiliar wand beneath her fingers. It would not light, dead as the body.
She couldn’t cry any longer. Time had run out. Carefully, she placed the useless wand on the dead witch’s chest and folded the frozen hands over it. Then she stood, shivering, and whispered:
‘Maybe they’ll know you by the robes.’
She set off again for home, remembering, for the first time, what it had been like to see someone die.
a/n: this story is inspired by the film Inception, which is the property of Warner Bros. Studios.