And so time passed, and slowly things were beginning to improve. To my absolute delight, Lucius seemed to be thriving under my care. He resorted to his glass of Firewhisky less and less, and it was no longer a rare treat to see him smile. He had come to really enjoy spending time with me, and he could not get enough of it. Sometimes he brought me flowers, sometimes gifts. It was as if he had realized what our marriage had been, and was determined to make amends. Or perhaps he was merely grateful. There were times when he reminded me of a puppy that had been saved from starving on the streets, and was now showing gratitude in every possible manner. It was therefore more than understandable that every time I went to see Severus the guilt gnawing at my insides grew more and more intense. On the other hand, the mere idea of giving him up was like thinking of driving a stake through my heart. If Lucius was thriving under my care, then the same could be said of Severus's effect on me. It was as if I were a plant and he was water. It was as if I were a baby and he was milk. In short, I could not live without him.
As spring arrived we no longer limited our meetings to his house. It was too dangerous, he said. The closer the war drew, the less the Dark Lord trusted even his closest servants, and so it was quite possible that he had ordered to have the house watched. Therefore we considered it wisest to vary our meeting places as much as possible. We met in forests. We met in village inns. We met in the heart of Muggle London. Not that it mattered much to me. Even the Sahara Desert would have been fine, as long as Severus was there with me.
The necessity of alternating meeting places was not the only change that spring brought to my life, however. As if he had not humiliated Lucius and me enough already, the Dark Lord suddenly thought it a good idea to place Bella and Wormtail in our house – to help us keep an eye on the prisoners, he claimed, a twisted smile playing on his lipless mouth as he did so. At first I thought he had finally lost it. After all, there were no prisoners in our house. But eventually, with a rush of terror, it occurred to me that by prisoners the Dark Lord may have meant Lucius and me. It would have made sense. I noticed that Bella rarely let me out of her sight; she wanted to take part in everything that I did, making it almost impossible now for me to escape the house and see Severus. Thanks to her it sometimes happened that I never arrived at the appointed meeting place, where Severus was probably going sick with worry, lest something had happened to me. Fortunately for us, though, the approaching war also meant more Death Eater gatherings at our house, where Severus and I could secretly exchange a note with an alternative meeting date. We no longer dared to use owl post, for fear of Bellatrix or Wormtail asking to read the note before I could destroy it.
Despite still feeling like a prisoner myself, however, the next few weeks showed that the Dark Lord had meant his words literally, after all. Mr Ollivander came first, dragged into the house by Mulciber and Avery. Handing him over to us, exhausted and shabby looking, they ordered us to lock him in the cellar and threatened in the Dark Lord's name to give us hell if he escaped. A few weeks later Mr Ollivander was joined by Luna Lovegood, daughter of the crackpot, Xenophilius. I did not know what these two people had done to be treated this way. Perhaps nothing at all. The Dark Lord knew no bounds these days, he killed and tortured as he pleased. In a way our prisoners could be considered lucky to have escaped his fury. In comparison with his methods of torture our damp cellar was a luxury indeed. Even so, I secretly brought the poor souls leftovers from our dinner whenever I got the chance.
A few weeks went by in this fashion, with me feeding the prisoners in secret and Bella and Wormtail poisoning the atmosphere in our house. Sister though she was, it was Bella who was indisputably the greater evil of the two. Not only did she always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she even dared to abuse Lucius! In his own house, no less! It started with little biting insults, but soon she was openly reminding him of how he had messed up at the Ministry, how he had fallen out of the Dark Lord's favour, and so on, and so forth. Needless to say, Lucius took badly to such taunts, and it was only due to my endless patience that he eventually managed to dispel each one from his mind. However, when one day Bella dropped a nasty comment about how helpless Lucius must feel without his wand, even my patience ran dry. Without realizing what I was doing, I slapped her, just like that. It was as if my whole childhood, full of insults and bullying that I had endured quietly because our parents would never hear a word against their precious Bella, went into that slap. It must have surprised me even more than it had surprised her, but while she eventually ran out of the room, whimpering, I was left standing there with an odd sense of satisfaction. For once in my life, I was the strong one, not the ever obedient sheep. And it felt amazing. What was more, when I turned around, I saw Lucius gazing at me with admiration in his eyes. Perhaps I would actually thank Bella the next time I saw her.
The incident certainly triggered a few significant changes. Besides arming me with newly gained confidence and strengthening Lucius's respect for me, it also brought peace to the house at last. Reacting like a model bully, Bella now seemed afraid of me. No longer stuck on my heels like an obtrusive dog, I realized she was evidently avoiding me, though she did her best not to make it appear so. And although she still insulted Lucius at times, I felt that it was more out of habit than because she really meant it. Not that I really cared what her motives were. I had put her in her place once, and I would do it again if I thought it necessary.
With the arrival of the Easter holidays, however, something happened that suddenly made my conflict with Bella seem small and insignificant – a group of Snatchers caught Harry Potter and his friends and brought them to our house. If the choice had been mine, I would have let them go at once, I had no reason to help the Dark Lord anymore, but I had to play my role. Lucius, on the other hand, was beside himself with excitement. He still craved the Dark Lord's forgiveness, poor soul, and saw Potter as a means of getting it. But as the boy's face was deformed beyond recognition, he kept asking Draco (whom, true to my resolution, I had invited to come home for Easter) again and again to identify him, but Draco would have nothing to do with the matter. Being as sick of the war as I was, he merely gave a few evasive answers, and then resumed his place by my side. But then Bella entered the room, and I had never seen her so afraid as when she discovered that the Snatchers were in possession of a sword that she had believed to be lying safely in her vault at Gringott's. Quicker than lightning, the Snatchers never knew what had hit them as she Stupefied all of them except for Fenrir Greyback, who remained kneeling at her feet while Draco was asked to take his comrades outside to be disposed of later. Still half mad with fear, Bella then tortured the Granger girl and even questioned a goblin the Snatchers had brought with Potter, until, at last, she seemed satisfied, and called the Dark Lord. Only vaguely do I remember the few minutes that followed. One moment Bella was standing there, touching the Dark Mark, the next Potter and his friends burst into the room, disarming Bella a knocking Lucius unconscious. Then, to my utter disbelief, Dobby the house elf appeared out of nowhere, unscrewing our crystal chandelier and sending us all running for cover. Worst of all, the little rotter dared to disarm me! An elf, disarming a witch, would you believe it! But before I had a chance to react, Potter had managed to steal Draco's and Bella's wands, and by then it was too late to do anything, for he grabbed his friends and together they Disapparated in a blur of hands and legs, gone as suddenly as they had come. And we were left standing there, bleeding and shaking, some with rage, some with fright, anxiously awaiting the Dark Lord's arrival. We were bound to be punished, there was no doubt about that. The Dark Lord would forgive no one who had dared to call him without having Harry Potter to hand over.
I was not worried about myself, naturally. I knew I was strong enough to take any punishment the Dark Lord devised for me. But imagining my son getting hurt, while I was merely standing there, watching helplessly, made me want to weep with frustration. If I could take Draco and run, I would not waste another minute, but I was not so naive as to believe that we would stand a chance against the Dark Lord.
And so we waited. I could feel the tension in the room building with each second that ticked by. Bella had started pacing, muttering quietly to herself as she did so. Greyback was lying on the floor where Potter had Stupefied him before he left, and nobody could be bothered attending to him. Draco was clutching my hand as if it were the last thing he could cling onto on a sinking ship. Lucius, whom I had eventually brought to, was as white as chalk. His worst nightmare had come true, he had failed the Dark Lord once again. There was no hope for forgiveness now, and every reason to expect the punishment he had so been dreading. Wormtail, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. I wondered what had happened to him down in the cellar, but I did not dare leave the room to check.
Another minute or two passed. Lucius had dropped down into an armchair by the fireplace, clutching at his heart, trembling all over. Bella did not cease her pacing. Draco was now sobbing quietly.
And then it happened. Without any sort of warning, the Dark Lord suddenly materialized in the middle of the room in a burst of barely controlled fury.
"I distinctly remember telling you to call me only in the unlikely case that you manage to capture Harry Potter!" he raged, his snake-like nostrils quivering. "So, where is he?" His eyes wandered to each of us in turn, as if he suspected one of us of hiding Potter behind their back.
"He ... he was here, my Lord," stuttered Bella, dropping to her knees, not daring to meet the Dark Lord's red gaze. "We had him locked up in the cellar, didn't we?" She glanced at us, as if waiting for confirmation. When none came, she reluctantly went on, though her voice was barely audible now. "But he ... he escaped. I ... I think it was the elf. He somehow managed to get into the cellar and let Pot-"
But she never finished her sentence. Like a flash the Dark Lord drew out his wand and hit her with a curse that sent her flying halfway across the room.
"An elf?" he sneered. "You let a creature with the intelligence of a worm outsmart you? And you dare call yourself wizards? Crucio!"
He tortured us all in turn, maliciously alternating the curses and continuing to insult us in between. I closed my eyes when he reached Draco, I just could not find it in me to watch. But his screams echoed in my ears all the same, and at that moment I found myself wishing that Harry Potter really was the Chosen One, and that he would find a way of getting the world rid of this monster that was finding pleasure in hurting my family so.
When, at last, he had finished with us, he asked for Wormtail, and that was when we finally found him, lying in the open door of the cellar, strangled by his own silver hand. I was convinced the Dark Lord would blame us for the loss of his servant and give vent to his fury in the form of further torture, but I was relieved to have been mistaken. Muttering something about having more pressing matters to take care of than a bunch of incompetent morons, the Dark Lord finally left in a cloud of threats, most of which provided detailed information about what would be done to us if we ever summoned him again without reason.
With the Dark Lord gone, the room suddenly seemed strangely quiet. There were no more curses, no more screams. Only Bella was still muttering to herself, crouched on the floor and rocking to and fro. I did not quite understand what she was saying, but I distinctly caught the words "disappointed the Dark Lord" and "no longer his favourite". Poor Bella, her obsession with the Dark Lord was truly pitiful. He could not have found a better lapdog if he tried. If he now asked her to lick his shoes, I was certain she would fall over backwards to do so, and even enjoy the task. It sometimes made me wonder what her husband, Rodolphus, thought of it. But, knowing him to be equally devoted to the Dark Lord, it would not surprise me to find him encouraging her in her overzealousness.
Finally tearing my gaze from the muttering bundle on the floor, I turned to check on Lucius, who had fallen back into his armchair again, and looked as though he was not about to get up in a hurry. There were bruises all over his face and blood was trickling down his chin from a cut lip. However, I suspected his exhaustion to be more of a mental nature. He had been on the receiving end of the Dark Lord's wrath yet again, and it would take days to determine how much it had affected him. Perhaps I could finally convince him to keep out of the war as much as possible, since even he now had to see that there was nothing he could do to regain the Dark Lord's favour, short of bringing him Harry Potter on a silver platter.
But that would have to wait. It was Draco's welfare that was at the forefront of my mind now, and so I quickly transferred my attention to him, a lonesome figure standing just a short distance away. To my surprise and relief, I found him to be the least scarred by the Dark Lord's retribution. Perhaps the Dark Lord had chosen not to waste as much energy on him as on the rest of us, knowing him to have almost no say in the house, and therefore being the least responsible for Potter's escape. Or perhaps he was merely stronger than we had all thought him to be, and as such withstood the Dark Lord's curses better than any of us. Either way, after we had both eased off some of the tension by means of a long and comforting hug, it was he who helped me mend the shattered chandelier and set it back in its place (having lost his wand, I consented to lend him mine, while I settled for using the little wandless magic that I had learned during the years spent in the Dark Lord's services), revive the unconscious Snatchers in our courtyard and, together with a shaky Greyback, send them on their way, as well as bury Wormtail under a rhododendron bush in the garden. Cruel as it may sound, I doubted any of us would ever miss the man.
After Draco had gone back to school, life resumed its normal course again, bringing with it a few important changes. A welcome improvement was certainly the departure of Bella, who was no longer needed to help us guard prisoners, as after the fiasco with Potter's escape it seemed highly unlikely for the Dark Lord to ever entrust us the task of keeping any in the house again. Having watched her for the last few days of her stay, I was convinced she was as happy to go as I was to see her leave; she could barely look me in the eyes. I supposed she was afraid that I would now remind her of her failure (not to mention the loss of her wand), just as she had reminded Lucius of his. It only went to show how little she knew me.
One of the advantages of having Bella gone meant I could once again enjoy the luxury of seeing Severus without her following my every move. I could see Severus was much happier for it, as he no longer had to pace a circle at meeting places I would never come to. Instead he could use the energy to take me to bed and cover my body with soft little kisses, which was a much more preferable alternative for both of us, I was sure.
The other advantage was that I could finally carry on working on Lucius's mental state without anybody continually undermining my efforts. The incident with the Dark Lord had shaken him badly. More than ever was he convinced that he would be among the first to be sacrificed in the upcoming war, now that the Dark Lord had been assured of his incompetence. On the other hand, this conviction seemed to have finally made him give up the idea of impressing the Dark Lord, just as I had hoped it would. All he wished for now was to survive the war, despite being convinced of the opposite. Fortunately, this defeatist attitude no longer frightened me. I only had to work harder on keeping Lucius's mind distracted at all times, so that he would have no opportunity to contemplate his fate and become depressed. Which, with the ever growing need for my company he was developing, was not nearly as difficult as it used to be.
Still, as the days passed, even I was beginning to grow slightly restless. The Dark Lord had very nearly finished his war preparations, and yet he never seemed to mention a particular date on which all his plans would be put into action. I did not understand what he was waiting for. How long would we go on like this? I had my ways of keeping Lucius's thoughts from straying to the war, that was true, but I was not naive enough to think that they would work indefinitely. If the uncertainty of what was going to happen was taking its toll on me, I did not even want to imagine what it was doing to Lucius. Much as I tried, I could not possibly keep control over his mind every second of the day, and it was only too clear to me where his thoughts wandered when left unguarded. I supposed it was only a matter of time before the strain caused him to break and do something rash.
As it happened, however, the opportunity for things to go that far never came. It was a warm spring evening in the middle of May and Lucius and I were just taking a walk in the garden when we suddenly felt our Dark Marks burn. Knowing the Dark Lord's instructions, it could only mean one thing – somebody had captured Harry Potter. Still, there was nothing Lucius and I could do until the Dark Lord himself summoned us; we did not know where to Apparate.
The minutes during which we waited for the call seemed endless. Even I was unable to keep my calm any longer. Somehow I felt certain that what the Dark Lord had been waiting for was exactly this. If the war did not break out after he had disposed of Potter, then I could not imagine when else it would. Unwittingly, I found myself wondering what the post-war world would be like. What fate would the Dark Lord design for our family if we survived? Would he be so intoxicated by his triumph that he would forgive Lucius all his failures and let him work at the Ministry again? And what about Severus? Would he be allowed to remain the Headmaster of Hogwarts?
I did not get any further in my musings, for at that point they were abruptly terminated by Lucius, who had squeezed my hand so hard I had to grit my teeth in order not to cry out in pain.
"This is it," he said quietly. "The end. We are all going to die now."
I shuddered at the ominousness of the words, though I hardly found them unexpected. Just a few hours before Lucius, together with Bella, had only narrowly escaped being murdered by the Dark Lord in his fury at Potter stealing something he had been keeping in Bella's vault at Gringott's, and it was only thanks to my unending care that he was now able to function at all. Having seen his fellow Death Eaters fall one by one as the Dark Lord gave vent to his anger, I considered it something of a miracle. Even so, I simply could not allow him to talk this way, as much as it pleased me that he had reached the same conclusion about the outbreak of the war as I had. Wrestling myself from his grip, I turned to face him so that our noses were only inches apart.
"We are not going to die," I said firmly, putting as much conviction into my voice as I possibly could. "If we stay out of the fight just as we had agreed to, nothing can happen to us. We are going to start a new life after the war, and we are going to be happy. You are going to get a job at the Ministry again, and every day I'll be waiting for you with open arms as you come back from work. That's how it is going to be."
Lucius sighed, and to my surprise I noticed that there were tears in his eyes. "I wish you were right," he whispered. "You make it sound so convincing one would almost believe it..."
And then, all of a sudden, he kissed me, a passionate kiss filled with desperation, as if he believed it to be the last one we would ever share. And I allowed myself to be absorbed into the kiss; it was not like kissing Severus, that was true, but I would never have believed Lucius to be capable of such intensity; it was as if he had let all his inhibitions go and for the first time I was feeling only the real him, clean and pure.
When, after what could have been a second, a minute or an hour, he finally let me go he was no longer the only one who had tears in his eyes. I was so moved by what had happened that I simply could not help myself.
"Lucius," I murmured in a strangled voice, as I stretched out my hand to caress his cheek. He took the hand and kissed it, and for a while we just stood there, he still clutching my hand, me weeping silently, for whom or what, I did not quite know. That was how the Dark Lord's call eventually found us, and so with one last mutual reassuring look and a nod we Disapparated, still holding hands.
We found ourselves in a clearing, with a fire burning in the middle. It did not take me long to spot the Dark Lord; he was standing right next to the fire, the flames casting eerie shadows on his pale, snake-like face. Glancing around, I noticed other Death Eaters Apparating all around us with faint pops. Further away, near the edge of the clearing, I saw a group of giants, shoving themselves for the best place to sit on an enormous flat rock, and next to them, half hidden in shadow, about twenty spiders, the biggest I had ever seen. But I could tell that was not all. I had just begun to scan the rapidly growing crowd for any sign of Draco when a sudden chill went through my entire body, which I suspected had nothing to do with the warm May breeze. As a stealthy feeling of desperation slowly settled in the pit of my stomach, I no longer doubted it – there had to be Dementors somewhere close by, though I could not see them. I shuddered, not even daring to imagine what other creatures may be lurking in the trees beyond the clearing.
As time went by, more and more Death Eaters continued to pop into sight, but to my mounting dread Draco was not among them. It was true that without my wand, which I had lent him to use at school, I would be of little help to him, but I knew I would feel much calmer if I could stay by his side. Taking another look around, I spotted Severus not too far away, and so after only a momentary hesitation I left Lucius's side to join him.
"Have you, by any chance, seen Draco?" I inquired anxiously, not even bothering to address him. "He should've come by now. It's starting to worry me. There has been no trouble at the school, I hope?"
"If you do not count Minerva forcing me out through the window, then no," replied Severus with a wry smile.
I gasped, all my worries about Draco momentarily forgotten. "She didn't!"
"Indeed she did. It would seem that with Potter's arrival my popularity at the school has deteriorated rather rapidly."
I frowned. "Potter is at Hogwarts, then?"
"He is suspected to be. It was Alecto who had called the Dark Lord."
I took in my surroundings again. "If that is the case, then we must currently be in the middle of-"
"The Forbidden Forest, yes," Severus supplied for me.
"So the Dark Lord is planning to attack Hogwarts?"
"I cannot be certain, of course, but I believe that that is indeed his intention."
"But if Draco is still there-" I began, my mind filling with panic. How could Severus be so unconcerned?
"-then it is the safest place for him to be, surely," he finished calmly. "The students and teachers will not harm him while he is there, as they probably would do if he came attacking from the outside. Really, Narcissa, there is no need to worry."
I had to admit Severus's words made sense, but just to make absolutely certain I said, "But you will keep an eye on him for me if you see him, won't you? Just in case..."
Severus gave me an amused smile, then nodded. "Of course."
I sighed with relief. "Thank you. And," I looked him straight in the eye now, "take care."
For a brief moment his gaze softened as he said, "You too, Narcissa," but then the look was gone, so I merely brushed my fingers against his in parting, before quickly returning to claim my place by Lucius's side.
"What was that all about?" he inquired as I snaked my fingers in between his, inclining his head in Severus's direction.
"Nothing," I said glibly. "I just went to ask him if he hadn't seen Draco, seeing as he had just come from the school."
Lucius nodded in understanding. "I see. And had he?"
I sighed. "No. But I asked him to watch over him if he happened to spot him later on."
Lucius nodded again. "A prudent decision. Severus is a skilled fighter."
I was about to agree, but at that moment the Dark Lord asked for silence, and I knew better than to disobey. Instead I focused my attention solely on him, anticipating the revelation of his plan and yet, at the same time, dreading it.
"I presume it is clear why we have gathered here today," the Dark Lord began, his gaze gliding over the clearing as if feasting on our numbers. "You have felt your Dark Marks burn, and as you well know there is only one possible explanation for this occurrence – Harry Potter has been found. And so he has. Harry Potter is now at Hogwarts. I wish you to bring him to me. You may kill as you please, you may destroy the castle if necessary, but the boy must come to no harm. If he does," there was an ominous pause, "I shall make certain that you spend the rest of your days begging me to end your miserable existence. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"
His eyes swept over the clearing again, and there was an uncertain murmur of agreement. The Dark Lord smiled, an unpleasant smile that made me shudder. "Good. In that case, I wish you all now to go to the edge of the Forbidden Forest – for that is indeed where we are currently positioned, in case you have been wondering – and wait until you hear my voice again. Then you shall attack. Severus will lead the way. Lucius, for he has no wand, will accompany me. Narcissa, likewise unarmed, will stay here and alert me in the unlikely case of an intrusion." He paused, as if ascertain he had not forgotten anybody, then continued. "You are to fight until midnight. If Harry Potter is not captured by then, you shall return here. Understood?"
He waited for another murmur and a few muttered "Yes, my Lord," to follow, before he barked, "Then go!", and proceeded to watch with satisfaction as the clearing slowly emptied out, with Severus as the guide. Finally the Dark Lord, Lucius and I were the only ones left, not counting a lone giant, who was trying to uproot a tree to use as a club. Ignoring him, the Dark Lord turned to my husband.
"Come, Lucius," he ordered. "We shall Apparate to the Shrieking Shack. You will act as my messenger when the time comes." And with that, he vanished in a cloud of smoke. Lucius cast me one last anxious look, before reluctantly letting go of my hand and following suit.