Chapter 1 - Queer as Scent by A.J. Hall
Nothing so queer as scent, ‘cept a woman
“Oh, god,” Narcissa moaned piteously, making a pathetic scrabbling gesture as she tried to rise off the bathroom floor. Her husband, his features contorted into an unfamiliar expression of concern, almost skidded on the tiles in his haste to soak a cloth in the silver bowl brought in by a house elf, from which the normally soothing scents of camomile flowers and wild thyme were rising. He mopped her forehead tenderly. She emitted a faint squeak of gratitude - which nonetheless sounded mean and begrudging even in her own ears - as she felt the fine damp linen drawn over her brow.
“Darling, are you sure - I mean, do you think you’re really going to be able to greet Him -appropriately - when He arrives?”
By way of answer, Narcissa turned one feeble quarter turn away, and retched emptily. When she had finished - or, more accurately, when she had achieved a plateau in her current state of gastric turmoil - she swallowed greedily from the glass of water her husband held out to her before speaking.
“Well - if you do want me to meet Him in my current state, I suggest you tell your house-elf to be on stand-by and to have to some industrial-strength boot-cleaner ready to pour over His feet when I have said hello. Since it will, I expect, be in my current inimitable style.”
Before the words were out of her mouth she was regretting them. Her husband’s brows were knitting furiously over stormy grey eyes.
Oops. When will you ever learn, you stupid bitch? He is not a topic for levity. Under any circumstances.
She took refuge in another fit of dry retching: not strictly necessary - yet - but at least the last few months’ practice made sure that the sound effects were entirely authentic. Her husband’s displeasure was instantly submerged in his up-rush of tender concern. She was - almost - able to feel guilty about that. Nonetheless, she gathered her wits and murmured,
“Darling, I do know how important this is for you - I can’t bear the thought of doing anything that might spoil your preparations in the smallest iota.”
Momentarily she thought his face looked wistful. His voice was barely more than a whisper. “I hoped - I thought I might convince you that it was important for us. Not just me.”
Her insides clenched, suddenly, in a way that for once had nothing to do with her poorly-endured pregnancy.
Never. Not if I have anything to do with it. And please - not for my child, neither.
Her mind flickered back, unbidden, to the shock she had felt on her wedding night.
Which was not, of course, about that. That was hardly news, after all. Though - admittedly - it was also my wedding night that opened my eyes to the - full range - of available possibilities in that direction.
Lucius, to his credit, had never asked - he had, she thought later, probably made discreet enquiries beforehand. Despite her wild-child reputation at Hogwarts the factual evidence available to his spies would have been remarkably scanty.
And, more importantly, would all have involved pure-bloods from our very best families. Bastards to a man.
No - the shock had been to see that the otherwise flawless ivory of his naked skin had been deliberately marred, obscenely defiled. And to realize, as she looked up into his eyes, that for him that was nothing; that he had forgotten, even, that it was there.
Anyone who insists that his followers deliberately imprint themselves with ugliness will never have my allegiance.
And how can you control the allegiance of your child, who is being bred to that ugliness?
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, won’t we? Maybe Muppet can be persuaded to reject it - on pure aesthetic grounds, if nothing else. If I have anything to do with it.
She coughed, apologetically.
“Darling, you know I don’t get politics. I’d just make a fool of myself - and you - if I tried to. And anyway, I don’t think He really likes women getting involved in Inner Circle stuff. Look at the things you’ve told me He’s let slip about dearest Bella -“
She took care to make inaudible her suddenly relieved breath as her husband’s face lightened.
“Oh, god yes - the last thing I’d want would be for Him to think of you in the same breath as - ah - Mrs Lestrange - and there’s a surname you couldn’t for sheer shame have given your sister if she’d been in a novel -“
Automatically, she smiled back and murmured, “Oh, I don’t know, there was always Harriot Freke, after all -” before gulping hard and skidding to an embarrassed stop. Luckily, he smiled back.
“Not in one I’ve read, I think.”
“I’m not surprised. Very girly-girl. Regency, you know. One of the girls I was with in Slytherin lent it to me, but I gave it back, otherwise I’d show you Harriot Freke - anyway, darling, what’s today all going to be about?”
Lucius paused momentarily before answering. The pause gave her time for the unease to knot inside her. His eyes slid unhappily sideways, away from her direct gaze, tightening the knot of fear inside her a little more.
“Well - you know the Seven Sisters?”
She nodded, brusquely. The stone circle was located in the remotest corner of the Manor grounds, the one which bordered upon the vast estates of their ignored, indifferent, aristocratic Muggle neighbour. As a matter of fact it encompassed more than seven stones, nor did their rough-hewn starkness suggest anything of the feminine, but it had been, she had been told, the focus of legend and blood-drenched ritual before ever the Malfoy family arrived in that remote, haunted part of Wiltshire.
Which means, of course, from the time before which the mind of man runneth naught to the contrary.
Her husband coughed. “Well, He did think that - all things considered - it would be an auspicious time and place to try some demon-summoning.”
“Demon-summoning?” Her howl of outrage was probably audible at the other end of the Manor. She modulated her voice, quickly, but the affront was still naked in it. “Darling! But we’ve only just got rid of the last lot. And they were from before we were married. Has He no consideration?”
Her husband’s face gave her an instant answer, without need for words. Stupid of me. The ultimate lord of evil, master of all he surveys, can have no need for human reactions like consideration. Look on my face, ye mighty, and despair.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “Stupid point. But I do wish He’d decided to do it in Shropshire, instead. I mean, I should imagine poor Cynthia would thank heaven fasting for a reasonably perceptive demon or two hanging about the place. In her particular circumstances, you know.”
Fortunately, she could see her husband’s lips quirking up. She seized the moment and ran with it.
“Especially if it were a decently hung demon, after all - honestly, darling, as a friend, you might suggest to Clement that those bias-cut tight breeches he goes in for do him no favours - “
“My love!” There was no hint of irony in Lucius’s voice. “Clement Goyle is unswervingly loyal to the Cause.”
“I’m sure he brings to it everything he’s got. His poor best, as dear Cynthia might put it. And anyway, swerving probably takes more brains than walking in a straight line in the first place.”
Her husband snorted in laughter. “Sweetheart! Oh, what am I going to do with you? I’ll have to hide you away somewhere this morning, and make your apologies. Anyway, you are going to be all right for this evening’s dinner. Are you?”
Dumbly, she nodded. She had not expected this grace, and was unprepared to be appropriately thankful for it. She did her best, however. “Yes, Lucius. I’ll be fine by then, I hope. Please excuse me to Him for the morning - explain I’m not feeling - exactly - “
Her hand swept explanatorily down her distorted form. Unexpectedly, her husband bent over her, and dropped a fleeting kiss across her lips.
“For me, love, you are - and always will be - entirely - “
Her heart turned over within her.
If only that could be a truth I could rest back against and be enveloped in forever. And I could - if it were not for Him. And him, also, of course. Bloody men. Always the obstacles.
Anguish rose up in her. She forced it ruthlessly back. Mindful of the proprieties, she smiled her well-taught Mona Lisa smile.
“Please give Him my apologies for not coming out to see Him. I hope to be on better form this evening.”
“So, where do you want me to conceal you? Are you planning to play away at that idiotic Muggle typewriter you think I don’t know you’ve bought - and what’s wrong with quills, I ask myself? Oh, bless you, love, you aren’t as sharp as you think you are. And I do love you for that.”
Her eyes were wide, her husband’s sudden perception having shocked her beyond words. He laughed down at her. “Come on.” His expression was suddenly boyish. “Levo!”
Her bulky awkwardness instantly nothing in the wake of the spell, he swept her up in his arms, dropping a warm soft kiss on her lips as he swirled, his heavy robes wrapping protectively around them both. “Where to? Your little study?”
Disconcerted, suddenly, she nodded wordlessly. He glanced briefly down at her and strode boldly down the hallway carrying her protectively against his chest. She thought that in his wake she could hear the high plaintive sounds of a house elf, trying to relieve him of the trouble of looking after her. Perhaps he could hear them too, but in any event he looked down at her, and grinned recklessly. Something within her rose up and wanted to laugh too, but somehow couldn’t quite get free of its chains in time. His face chilled again, briefly, at her lack of response but his boot kicked open the door of the study nevertheless.
“You can’t sit on that.”
His voice was harsh as he scanned the bare upright chair behind the desk and the stark outlines of the typewriter. Before she could say anything he raised his wand. In the instant, the chair Transfigured itself into something which form and function together might have begotten in an auspicious hour under a dancing star. Narcissa caught her breath. She knew that her husband would not understand - after all, before that remarkable French holiday of two years ago she would not have understood herself - but she felt she had to try to convey it, nonetheless.
“Something like that chair,” she breathed, “Le Corbusier would have given both hands and any hope of fame to come to say he had designed.”
He furrowed his brow, briefly. “Who?”
Her voice was hesitant. “Le Corbusier? Well - he was this Muggle architect I heard about on holiday -“
Lucius looked thunderous. “And that’s all you think of it! Well, if that’s the case - “
He raised his wand, his face showing naked fury. Suddenly, she found herself cowering protectively over the chair - Total idiocy. It’s a piece of furniture. And a Transfigured one at that. All illusion. But a beautiful one, nonetheless. But are you prepared to die for a beautiful illusion?
“No, Lucius! Please.”
He lowered his wand. She sobbed openly, sprawled over the chair. He reached out his hand to pat her on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, my love. I’m sorry. Look, do you really like it? Really?”
Wordlessly, she nodded.
“Well - I’ll keep it then. I just - hoped it would be more than that, for you. But, at least if you like it- even if you think - anyway, if it’s ok -“
He looked around in a faintly embarrassed way. “And is everything else ok for you? The temperature?”
She forced her voice to squeak faintly: “It’s just a wee bit close, I think -“
He compressed his lips, looked at the sash window, raised his wand and muttered momentarily. The releasing charm sent the sash up quite six inches, and a rush of cool air rushed into the room.
Narcissa smiled up gratefully at her husband. “Thank you.”
Through the open window, the blissfully natural smell of rotting leaf mould drifted in from the grounds outside. Gradually, the frankincense-and-sandalwood odour, which the house-elf had evidently thought of as only proper for the impending visit of the Dark Lord, began to dissipate on the clean pure West country breeze from the small window.
Her husband wrinkled his brow.
“You’re quite sure you won’t be too cold?”
She glanced up. Lucius was looking down at her, with that faint air of flustered discombobulation that, even yet, even after fifteen months of marriage, still had the power to make her want to take him in her arms and cuddle him, to tell him no matter what had happened she’d be with him, be on his side, help him out no matter what he’d done so far - try to find some way out for them both -
All men are bastards. Don’t you forget it.
The faint weary sounds of her mother’s dying breath still had the power to catch at her heart.
You can play life cold as ice, oh, yes, now that you’re twenty. After all, from before you were nine you knew you had to take on your mother’s constant hankerings after self-destruction, and still be calm, and pretty, and a good little girl for the rest of the family, so they need never know. For mother always said, after each failed suicide attempt, that if you told on her they would take her away, and once taken from you she swore she would make sure she did it properly. And what little girl ould have handled the guilt of failing at that one, after all? Four times she played the same scene, wasn’t it? The roof - the knives - the potion - the sea - And all before you got away to Hogwarts at age eleven and with it peace of mind. At last. And serenity is everything. Emotions are - so inconvenient.
She looked up at him, coolly.
“I’ll be fine. Don’t be late, Lucius. He’ll never forgive it.”
He looked at his watch and went running out of the room like a schoolboy fearing that his tutor’s beating was waiting. She bit her lip, and then turned back to the solid, reliable precision of the household accounts. They were difficult, even - especially? - for one bred in her grandfather’s careful tutelage, but she mastered them within the hour. Those done, she looked up, briefly. As she had expected, but not dared to hope, the little owl was perched delicately on the edge of the outside window-ledge.
She took the message from its leg with an eagerness that almost disconcerted her.
Steady. That is only news. Not - oxygen, after all.
She scanned the message, and smiled, wryly, before turning it to dust at the end of her wand and pounding at it for some minutes, before picking up the blotter and breathing the dust out through the open window and on to the winds of heaven. Then, she looked to the door and renewed the wards before picking up a quill, reinforcing the encryption charms on it, and taking a new sheet of parchment from the drawer and beginning to write.
“Dispatches from the pregnancy advance guard? No good news, I’m afraid. You ask me about the rumoured sense of glowing serenity and transcendent well-being in the second trimester. Well, Camp Five Months hasn’t yielded that one yet, despite heavy prior advertisement - the greatest promoter of the same of course, being Madam-My-Deeply-Respected-Mother-In-Law. All I can say is, Lucius is remarkably short of siblings for someone who, if you believe her own words, apparently found the whole thing as life-enhancing as she cracks on it all was in her time. Fortunately, one thing to be said for Wiltshire February weather is that it has contrived to drive her into the arms of her family in Nice - I would say, lucky woman, were it not that we’d had to endure the whole boiling of them over Christmas - as least as difficult to talk to as any of my other in-laws, and far less decorative to look at - I would have said, frankly, looking at those flat fishy features day in, day out that there was Mer in Madam Malfoy’s ancestry, were it not, of course, that they’d have been far too careful to cross it with my Grandmamma’s strain if that were true: even if Lucius could have put up with the almost certainty of me dying in the process, he’s too intent on breeding an heir to the Manor to take the risk that I couldn’t carry Muppet to term, and of course, even if it’s only in those percentages, Veela and Mer is by no means a safe combination for the child. Which reminds me, I don’t think I ever apologized properly for forcing you to look up your ancestry when cousin Bertie seemed interested. But the eyes are such a giveaway, normally, and it is a lot more prevalent in Wales, even among Muggles - all those isolated fishing communities, I suppose: no wonder from time to time one of the offshore seals appears overwhelmingly attractive compared to the general local talent. But I’m so sorry I was right. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Well, maybe the second hardest. if I manage to contrive to get through today without chucking all over my dear husband’s guest of honour, make that third hardest. You tell me about the trials you’ve been having with your husband’s friends, and of course you can rest assured I know exactly what you’re talking about. Thank your stars you’ll never know what I have to put up with from my husband’s.
Anyway, I trust little Parsley is treating you as well as can be expected. Muppet has obviously inherited a talent for high-kicking from Grandmamma, which is indulged in at every hour of the day and - especially - night. By the way, you wicked woman, when you decided to dub my bump “Muppet” you might have told me it was a Muggle word. Lucius nearly had a fit when someone explained it to him, and of course by that stage it was all far too late and we were both using it and still haven’t managed to think of anything else, even though Lucius looks as though he’s going to spit every time he catches himself doing it. Goodness only knows why he hates Muggles so much - I mean, he hasn’t even met your sister. But then, by the end I gather his father was sending fifteen pages of parchment a day (all in green ink, no margins, of course) to the Ministry, demanding that they reclassify Muggles as Beasts, so I suppose it’s only to be expected. Not that to hear Madam tell it her late lamented deceased spouse was anything other than strictly rational and controlled at all times. From what I can pick up from the family portraits, members of this family aren’t so much a screw loose as missing a few pistons and half the gearbox.
Anyway - oh, I do wish you could be here with me. But - yes - I do know about that one. Not until one might walk dryshod from Heysham to Dun Lagohaire. Or at least until our respective spouses come marginally closer in their political views. Whichever shall first occur. As my uncle, the lawyer, himself admitted - yes, the construction does betray I’ve been reading your last gift, of course. I can’t say I’m enjoying Mansfield Park as much as I liked Pride and Prejudice - god, could you imagine that Darcy in black silk pyjamas? I can - but I’m enjoying Mansfield Park; nonetheless. Too much, from certain perspectives. God, that poor Mary Crawford. Apparently, I woke up last night yelling: “Go on, just do it! Shag Edmund, you stupid bint! He needs to know what’s what! Just do it!” Fortunately, the well known predilection of pregnant women for indulging in bizarre behaviour got me home. Just. But I hope that idiot manages to wake up and smell the coffee in the next two hundred pages or so, or I won’t be answerable for the consequences. You evil woman. Oh, and disguising it as an owl pellet was brilliant, but I had to snatch it out of the clutches of the house elf who seems to have been given strict instructions to avoid my being exposed to anything which might distress or repel me at the present time. Except, regrettably, my husband’s friends. But then, didn’t we agree we weren’t going to discuss politics? “
Narcissa bit her quill, and looked out through the window. She let her mind wander off into bitter might-have-beens. She could not have said whether it was minutes or hours later when her entire body contracted - so much so that for one horrific moment she feared her child was - unformed - unfinished - out of due season - about to throw itself precipitately onto a hostile world. She found herself grasping hard onto the edge of the desk to steady herself, biting down on her lip until the blood ran. She was half-relieved when the next shuddering impact resolved itself - unquestionably - into an external blow. She saw the three-hundred-year old oaks in the park outside bend under its force. After that there was a brooding silence, as though earth and sky were each asking: what next?
She swallowed, took two deep breaths and reached out for the little silver bell that rested on the desk. Her long fingers paused irresolutely over it for a second. Malfoys never gossip with the servants had been yet another of those bewildering Rules which had blizzarded down upon her since her marriage. Her own grandmother - chatelaine of a House wealthier, if significantly less old, than the Malfoys - had never dreamt of such a prohibition. Her domestic staff formed the apex of an intelligence network so formidable that it was said that If a cat has kittens at breakfast time in Chester, Mrs Device will know how many and what sex by elevenses in the Ribble Valley.
Narcissa gulped. Seriously lethal Dark Magic has just been unleashed within the Manor grounds. And there’s no reason to hope there won’t be more where that was coming from. Ignorance at this moment is likely to be fatal.
She made an executive decision. I need information and I need it now. And we’ll discuss the sodding Rules if we’re both still alive to do it later, ok?
Narcissa rang the bell. Mrs P. was with her so instantly that for a moment she wondered if the Manor’s housekeeper could have been lurking outside the study door, waiting to see what she would do next. She took a deep breath and made her voice steady.
“Mrs P.? I presume you - ah - noticed something a few moments ago?”
The housekeeper looked wary, but for the first time there seemed to be a note of genuine respect in her address. Narcissa chose her next words with care.
“You’ve been with the Family for - seven years, is it, now?”
“Yes, ma’am. Eight years it will be come Lammastide.”
Narcissa looked coolly at the housekeeper, and wondered whether she was being sent up. Momentarily, she regretted not asking Lily what a comment she had made about Mrs P a few letters back (“Positively Danversesque, she sounds like”) had actually meant; Mrs P. stared imperturbably back at her.
“Ah,” she said thoughtfully. “Seven and a half years, then. And your mother before you for - ah-?”
“Thirty-five years, ma’am. And her mother -“
She cut her short with a brief, elegant, arresting gesture. “So,” she said, “would you have any idea about what might be behind - what just happened? From your knowledge of the - Manor?”
And its masters hung unspoken between them. Mrs P. bobbed her head, paused, and then said abruptly, “It wouldn’t be my place to say so, but I felt in my bones there would be trouble when I heard that His Lordship would be here on the same day that those Muggles were - er - well - having one of those Meeting things on Lord Fontwell’s estate. “
“Meetings?” For one appalled moment that terrifying vision of black steeple-crowned hats and burning-visaged bigotry, which had for centuries underpinned the consciousness of all pure-blood witches and wizards, rose up before her eyes. It was clear from her expression that Mrs P. understood what she must be thinking, because the housekeeper shook her head, hurriedly.
“No - not that sort. I meant, one of those meetings Muggles have with the dogs and the horses and the funny red outfits -“
She grasped the idea of fox hunt surprisingly quickly from Mrs P.’s explanation. After all, one of those yellowing clippings from the pile of scrapbooks she had unearthed after her mother’s death had been eloquent on the subject of this particular Muggle perversion. DeVries Caught Out With The Berkeley Hunt had been some sub-editor at the Prophet’s gleeful take on that one. And the accompanying photograph had shown her charming, amused, laid-back father caught mud-stained and in flagrante covert-side with the Master’s daughter, still sneering eloquently into the eye of the camera notwithstanding his decidedly unorthodox garb and the squirming embarrassment of his companion.
She gulped, involuntarily. Clearing out her mother’s rooms after the funeral had been redolent with similar moments. What sort of idiot makes up scrapbooks of her own humiliation? And broods over them for the next decade, to boot?
She cleared her throat.
“Surely, I would have thought, whatever the meeting was about, the Muggles wouldn’t be able to come onto Malfoy land, whatever.”
Mrs P. looked severe. “I thought - if you’ll pardon me, ma’am - that your respected husband’s father might have done as well to mention that to Master Lucius, ma’am. Not, of course, that it would have been my place to comment.”
She made her expression thoughtful. “No, of course not.” She paused. This is getting idiotic.
“But, on the other hand, as I’m actually asking-?”
The housekeeper pursed her lips.
“The old Master - he had his little ways.”
Come on, woman. That has to be the understatement of the century. According to my grandfather’s spies - and we can assume that his pre-marital vetting was at least as thorough as my husband’s was - practically Lucius’s father’s last act before his fatal seizure was running naked round the dining room table shouting, “I’m a lobster! I’m a lobster!” It’s a good job the Malfoys are aristocratic - the merely filthy rich could never have got away with dubbing that one “eccentricity”.
She consciously inflected her voice with a good helping of Get to the point, woman. “And? How is that relevant?”
Mrs P. bobbed her head again. “Well, ma’am - he was always very fascinated by this hunting business. If he got word that the Muggles were meeting on Lord Fontwell’s estate, he’d have his sofa carried up to the Temple of the Winds, so he could sit there and get a good view, and do some Amplificare charms too, so he wouldn’t miss any of it. He loved watching it. And they said - sometimes - he used to get so interested he’d put a few gaps in the barriers so the Muggles could come onto the Manor land up there. With - um - their horses and dogs and such. If the fox looked to be running that way. And then he’d - ah - watch. And wait.”
“Yes, ma’am. For the Manor’s defences to start operating. Or - er - maybe sometimes he’d help them along a bit. But not too much, ma’am - he used to say he liked to see a clean and sporting run. If they all managed to get off Manor land unscathed, I’ve known him send a case of port to that Fox-Master as a token of his respect. The best port, ma’am. And I believe it added to the fun for the Muggles, too, ma’am. After all, if they still kept coming back after half a dozen of them were killed up there in as many years, stands to reason they were getting as much fun out of it as the old Master was. And no-one’s going to tell me any different.”
She folded her arms and looked robustly down at her mistress.
For once, Narcissa’s nausea was nothing to do with her unborn child.
“Dear god,” she breathed. “You mean you think Muggle fox-hunts can get through the barriers? Up near the Seven Sisters? And that they might have done it today?”
Mrs P. froze, momentarily, and her head nodded. It could surely only have been ingrained caution which made her mouth, woodenly and insincerely, “Oh, no - ma’am. Surely not!”
Narcissa nodded grimly. “Right. Mrs P, get someone up there immediately. We can’t afford to speculate what’s been happening, we need facts. Someone expendable, who knows how to keep hidden. He or she reports back only to me. Got that? Then I want a full scale champagne reception laying on now - yes, I know it’s only 11.30 in the morning, but this is a crisis. The best vintages we’ve got. Chilled to perfection. No stinting on the quantities. Cellars can be replaced, after all. And I don’t know what someone put in that potion that you lot had out for Cook’s eightieth birthday - yes, I do know about that one - but I suggest you try seeing how it goes in champagne cocktails. I leave the canapés to you and Cook. I take it you did check with the staff at the Crabbes and the Goyleses what His Lordship has enjoyed before? Serve all of those. Plus anything else - however extravagant - which springs to mind. And send someone to me to help me dress: these robes simply won’t do.”
Mrs P. drew a deep breath.
Her eye flicked down into the black and white tiled hall from the landing. In all the milling throng there was only one figure that mattered. It was, as she had expected, the pale blaze of her husband’s hair as he hovered in frantic, deferential attendance on Him which had guided her glance in the right direction. She suppressed a shudder. Her husband’s body looked shrunken on his tall frame, his movements were tentative and self-deprecating. Fear pressed down on the hall like a leaden blanket. Its acrid reek came plainly up at her. She gulped, and self-consciously stiffened her backbone, remembering Grandmamma’s advice before village concerts and family dramatic performances.
Provided only that you believe you are incomparable, you can carry any audience on earth wherever you choose to take them.
She raised her head. Unnoticed by the horde below, Mrs P., poised in a doorway with the house-elves (the Malfoy’s own and the four Narcissa’s frantic fireplace appeal to her grandmother had mustered in her hour of need) massed behind her, trays at the ready, looked up towards the landing, caught her eye, and gave her the tiniest of nods.
At the last moment before she stepped out of the shadows a reckless surge of exhilaration caught her and buoyed her up.
After all, He may be half a snake, and three-quarters a monster, but - fortune be praised - at least both snake and monster are wholly male.
She caught up the raw silk of the violet robes, chosen to match her eyes, in one hand and swept elegantly down the shallow curve of the staircase into the hall. A deep silence fell as she made her entrance. She flicked one perfect eyebrow in the direction of her husband. Lucius, moving with a cat-like grace through the throng, took the hint in time to be waiting at the stair foot. She dropped her voice a deliberate half-octave.
“Darling!” It was not loud, but it thrilled through the silence that had suddenly fallen on the room. “Do me the honour of presenting me?”
He raised her fingers to his lips, and brushed gently over them. “It will be - my pleasure.”
He hooked his arm in hers, and the crowd parted before them as they passed through. The tall cold figure at the far end of the room had been making a performance of looking in a bored way at some family portraits on the wall, but he swung round in time to eye them frigidly over the last twenty paces of their approach. When they were within six feet Narcissa twitched her arm with infinite grace away from her husband’s support, and sank down in the deepest and most formal curtsey she had ever brought off, thanking all the fates that she had insisted that the violet robes be cut with a shockingly un-witch-like décollété, and that one of the few facts her mother-in-law had not misrepresented had been the enhancement that pregnancy had brought to her hitherto modest assets in that department.
She sensed a lordly acknowledgement breathing on the air above her head. Without raising her eyes from the boots in front of her - and certainly without allowing Him to get His say in first - she dropped her voice still further, and breathed huskily:
“My Lord! My profoundest apologies for being too - unwell - to greet you on your arrival. May the hospitality of the Manor be yours, at my offering, to the last drop.”
The voice above her head hissed.
“How could one be churlish enough to repudiate so warm a welcome?”
She kept her head bowed in becoming submission, but one joint on the little finger of her left hand flickered momentarily. Her preternaturally strained ears caught the sounds of Mrs P. and her minions begin to move among the guests. The hissing voice breathed again above her.
“From this moment alone, count this day worthwhile.”
The shadow of a servitor, bringing a champagne flute to his hand, fell over her, but she held her gaze unmoving on the black-and-white tiling and on the tip of his lordly boot.
And then the cool hissing voice suddenly changed its tone; became lighter, amused. “I pledge good fortune to the Manor and its Lord - and Lady. May this be only the first of many happy gatherings of all of us here.”
There was a murmur of voices as the others in the entrance hall took up the toast. Still with her eyes cast down, she somehow extricated herself backwards, escape her only thought. Eventually - she never knew how - she found herself in the little sitting room off the hall, shaking violently and burying her head in the midnight blue of the dusty sofa cushions. She only came to herself when she felt a firm cool hand on her arm.
Her husband was standing over the couch, looking down at her with an expression that turned her insides to jelly. That fierce triumphant possessiveness blazed down on her, too bright for her endurance. She was suddenly deprived of speech as she looked up at him.
“You were magnificent. Oh my love - my love - “
His hands were hard on her shoulder blades, roughly thrusting the un-witch like décollété of her robes yet further down her arms, his tongue a flickering pulse in the cave of her throat, his long legs twining against hers -
Her own passion built uncontrollably at his touch, seeming to draw strength from the heart-stopping fear she had earlier driven ruthlessly back into the dark recesses of her body. She clawed at his own robes, hissed in impatience at the defiance of fastenings, felt fine-woven cloth rip under her urgent grip, bit down hard on his ear-lobe, gasped frantic pleas to him which he caught and rendered back tenfold -
Time slowed in the ante-chamber.
She was lying sweat-soaked and half-naked in his arms on the sofa when it finally occurred to her to murmur,
“Mm, my love?”
“Darling - our guests. Him. What are they going to think?”
The rumble of amusement reverberated through her shoulder. “That I’m married to the sexiest witch in the country and - appreciate the fact, of course. What else?”
Giddy with relief, she caught his hilarity. They giggled, breathlessly, agonizingly, healingly for some moments. Eventually, she felt able to say;
“Love -? What did happen, up there? Near the Seven Sisters, this morning?”
He pulled a little away, momentarily. She glimpsed the red marks of her teeth on his bare ivory shoulder before he shrugged his robes back on. His face became set in cold lines.
“I thought we were doomed. All - three of us. I’ve never seen Him so angry. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, my love - How was it you worked out what was going on, so fast?”
She made an airy, dismissing gesture with one hand. “There’s Seer at the roots of the deVries family tree, didn’t they tell you? But Lucius, what happened?”
“Well, we were just getting to the culmination of the ritual -“
She nodded, hurriedly. He evidently recognised her reluctance to hear the details, and, for once did not appear to be minded to insist on telling her.
“Well - at the absolute climactic moment there was the most unholy screeching sound, and something shot out of the centre of the Circle and straight for the Dark Lord - in fact, it leapt straight for him and we couldn’t quite see where it had gone, but it looked to have vanished inside his robes - “
Her eyes were wide. “And that was a demon?”
He shook his head, reluctantly. “No. It was a fox. Unfortunately. Though naturally what we all thought, at first, was that it was a demon - the ritual, you see, was intended to let the Dark Lord suck out the demon’s energies - to fuse its powers with his own - “
Her mind shied firmly away from the implications of that one, though in some remote corner of her mind she could hear her grandfather’s voice commenting robustly:
“There isn’t one of these Dark magicians I’ve ever heard of who I’d trust to wire up a Muggle lighting circuit. It never occurs to any of them to think about fitting surge suppressors or to question whether the basic equipment’s rated to stand the increased power load. Oh, no, once they get the urge, off they go and simply stand in a pentacle, just bursting to try something Dark and untested to up their natural talents - “
Narcissa concentrated firmly on the key issue.
“All of you thought it was a demon?”. She tried to make her voice studiedly neutral. He got her meaning, though, and nodded significantly.
“Yes. I’m afraid He must have done. For a second or two, at least. And then we were suddenly surrounded by all these dogs, and about three Muggles on horses in the most extraordinary clothes came crashing in on us apparently from all directions -“
Her hand went to her lips. “Oh, god. And -?”
Lucius’s lips tightened. “Well, He dealt with them, naturally, but I could see He was barely holding himself together. Of course, He’d been pouring everything of himself into the ritual - being interrupted like that in the middle could even have killed Him, you know- “
Narcissa tried hard to keep her sudden feeling of disappointment out of her expression.
“And He ordered us all to Apparate back here. And if you hadn’t been so clever, my love, I’m not sure what might have happened.”
She struggled up into a sitting position, pushing her tangled hair back from her face as she did so. Lucius, lying back on the sofa surveying her from under hooded, half-closed eyes, ran his tongue unconsciously around his red mouth, and stretched out a lazy hand to cup one breast. She shook it off, making an impish little face at him to take the sting from the gesture while she did so.
“Darling! I need to think. And I can’t think if you’re doing that.”
“Especially not this. Or - ah - indeed er - oh - “
There was an appreciative pause, finally broken by her husband looking innocently up at her from the carpet, onto which he had slithered to his knees over the last few moments.
“You meant, the other, perhaps, my love?”
“Lucius! Do try and be serious. Look, you Apparated right back here. Who did you detail to deal with the - the - “
Annoyingly, her voice went back on her. She choked on the word “bodies”. Her husband’s tone was dismissive.
“The Muggle rubbish? No-one yet. It’s cold weather, I can send someone up when we’re at supper and have them make it all straight up there and get rid of the muck.”
Her heart gave a great bound. She could feel her eyes had widened impossibly, and this time she made no effort to soften the gesture as she shook her husband’s negligently trailing fingers off her body and sat bolt upright.
“My god! You actually left the corpses there to be found by the rest of the hunt?”
He looked puzzled.
“The rest of the what?”
She took a deep breath and began dressing herself again with determination. “As it seems you don’t know, I’d better tell you. That was a Muggle fox hunt you got mixed up in. And unless things have changed a great deal in the last 15 years or so, I can tell you that there are probably half the Muggle landowners in this county and the next milling around up there on our land, trying to work out what just killed three - hunters, and their horses and goodness only knows how many dogs -“
Her husband looked uneasy: he was fiddling with his hair as he always did when he was worried, and trying not to show it.
“I don’t think there’s above a couple of dead dogs. They weren’t what the Dark Lord was concentrating on.”
Narcissa drew in a deep breath and got unsteadily to her feet. “Right. Well, Lucius, I’ve never thought I’d find myself completely in agreement with your late father, but I’ve got to say I don’t think using Avada Kedavra counts as a clean and sporting run, either.”
She cut him short, ruthlessly. “Lucius, go back to Himself. Tell Him - tell Him I’ve been overcome by the favour of His generosity, and have had to go and lie down for a bit to get over it. Explain that I need to make proper arrangements for the wives who are Flooing in for the dinner. In fact, tell Him anything you bloody well please so long as it buys me till seven this evening. And then make sure He goes back to the reception and you keep Him there. Or take Him off to look at the grimoires in the library. Anything. I need the hall, and the smaller front reception room, completely out of His line of sight. Got that?”
He looked at her in a faintly bewildered way. “Darling, aren’t you over-reacting? Your condition - these are only Muggles, after all.”
She bit so hard down on her lower lip she could taste the metallic tang of blood in her mouth.
Easy. You need to keep control here.
She forced her damaged lips into a smile.
“Trust me about this one. My father made a - special study - of the Muggle aristocracy.”
She saw his lips begin to move into a smirk - yes, truly his investigations into my family were - in depth - and spoke, decisively, before he could form words.
“You cannot wipe out the whole of the local Hunt here without the Ministry noticing. Unless He actually wants to launch His war for pure-breeding right here and now-“
Her husband looked startled and - unusually for him - guilty. She shook her head impatiently.
“Lucius, we don’t have time for games. I know war must be what He has in mind - why else prepare so carefully, and in secret? But equally, He can’t be ready yet, or He wouldn’t be still trying to suck the powers out of demons-“
Her husband nodded, fascinated. She continued breathlessly on.
“Anyway, He mustn’t be put in a position where He feels He has to fire the first shot, come what may - for all our sakes -“
She swept one long-fingered hand down the front of her robes, for emphasis. He husband looked at her in a mesmerised way.
“So - whatever you do - keep Him out of my way. I’ll tackle the Muggle end of it.”
She struggled to her feet. Before she was half way up he had scrambled upright from his position on the carpet to help her. He dropped a kiss on her brow.
“My love! Who would have thought to look for such a strategist in your lovely body?”
She acknowledged the caress, barely. He had not left the room two seconds before she was frantically ringing the little silver bell she had concealed in one pocket, in order to bring Mrs P. to her side.
Mrs P’s expression was grim even by her standards.
“I sent my nephew up there,” she began abruptly. Narcissa kept her face impassive, though a recollection of her mother-in-law’s fishy features contorted into an expression of gleeful confidentiality and hissing conspiratorially, “‘e is nevair ‘er nephew. And zat Mrs is just for show. E is ‘er son. And ‘oo is his father, eh?” did cross her mind.
“He’s waiting outside to report, ma’am.”
At Narcissa’s nod, a lanky disgruntled-looking adolescent shuffled in, and in an adenoidal singsong, punctuated plentifully with “like, you knows” and “if you gets me meaning, likes” confirmed Narcissa’s suspicion that half the County and its horses was, indeed, milling around on Malfoy land, trying to work out just what had happened.
“And,” Mrs P. added grimly from the location by the window at which she had stationed herself during the recital, “that fox-Master’s riding up the drive on his horse now to ask for an explanation.”
Narcissa set her face in lines of grim determination.
“Right. Get a team of helpers up to the Seven Sisters to help the Muggles remove the bodies. Absolutely no use of magic, no attempts to explain anything. Tell the Muggles we’re cordoning the whole area off while we investigate what happened and make sure everything’s safe. So for their own safety we’re asking them to leave the area at once. And make it known that anyone who is anything less than completely helpful and polite to the Muggles will be answering personally to me.”
She paused, briefly, for breath.
“Mrs P., get a decanter of brandy into the smaller front reception room straight away. The best brandy. And get someone to take the fox-Master’s horse and make it comfortable in the stable block. Ask if it needs feeding, and if it does, give it plenty of whatever it is that horses eat. And send someone to me to help me dress: these robes simply won’t do.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Rufus Biggleswade, joint-Master of the Uppercross and Cerne Vale Hunt, would not have been able to say what he had been expecting when he was ushered into a small reception room at the front of the Manor. Various tales had always circulated in the County, he knew, concerning the famously reclusive and rumouredly eccentric owners of the Manor but he had little doubt that the tales were what his father and grandfather (who had both been Powers on the North-west Frontier in their day) would have robustly dismissed as “bazaar talk”. He, personally, was sure that a straight man-to-man talk with this Lucius Malfoy would soon clear up satisfactorily the mysterious deaths of two Hunt servants, old Rolo Maunsell from Up Cerne (Rolo always had been a thruster, he’d had to speak quite sharply to him last time out about his nearly overrunning hounds and now look where it had got him) three horses (better not send those bodies down to the kennels until he’d found out just what they died of) and two hounds (Charmer and Sweetling, too - pack members that his great-niece had walked since puppy-hood, too - breaking that news would hurt).
He looked round the room, appreciating the dark oil paintings on the walls (amazing technique, these Old Masters. That unmistakable way they could make you feel as though the eyes in the portraits were actually following you about the room) and the arrangement of hot-house flowers in an eighteenth century Chinese porcelain vase. He sniffed deeply at the ethers breathing up from the fine old brandy a respectful servant had handed to him on his arrival.
Rufus shook his head, decisively. People like us. Whatever the gossip-mongers insist on claiming.
There was a painted seventeenth-century family group over the mantelpiece, which he had got up to look at more closely when he heard a slight “click” as the door of the room was gently opened and as gently closed. He turned.
He had not been prepared for the fragile, shy, huge-eyed apparition in a high-necked grey frock who confronted him tremulously from the doorway. Before he could speak she had crossed the carpet and slid a tiny hand confidingly into his. As he felt the rose-petal delicacy of her skin against his, he was abruptly conscious of the callouses that sixty-odd years of holding reins (and controlling some pretty strong-willed beasts, too, over those years, by God) had left on his hands.
“Good morning, she breathed huskily, “I’m Narcissa Malfoy. You cannot imagine how sorry I am that the first time we should meet should be on such a sad occasion.”
He patted her hand somewhat awkwardly. Dammit, where was that man? He’d no business sending his wife out on an occasion like this, especially when (he cast a covert glance downwards) it was quite clearly not at all an opportune time. He coughed, abruptly.
“Now don’t you worry about that, m’dear. But - I’d been hoping to speak to your husband.”
She looked at him, water standing in those amazing eyes. “I know. We’ve been frantically trying to get in touch with him ever since it - happened. But we haven’t managed it so far. He does get so involved, when he goes off on a business trip. You know, his wife is the last to find out where he is or when he’s coming back - “
She reached down into a pocket in the side seam of her dress, and pulled out a fine linen handkerchief. While she still was dabbing it to her eyes, she gestured to him with her free hand.
“Please - do sit back down. And do have some more of the brandy. I hope you like it? My husband’s mother’s family recommended it very strongly. They’re from Provence, you know, so I expect they know about cognac. “
He was pleased with himself for not allowing his reflexive snort of satisfied understanding to pass his nostrils. Half-frog, was he? That explained why this Lucius Malfoy evidently regarded absence of body as preferable to presence of mind in a crisis. The French were all the same. Look at that catastrophe over the Maginot Line. And consider De Gaulle - for all his sterling war-time qualities - for that matter.
“I understand. He let a little gruffness creep into his tone. “Nevertheless, serious business, this one, m’dear. Need to know how it all happened. “
She looked fleetingly up at him - he was struck momentarily by just how much like his great niece Fiona she looked - and nodded tremulously.
“Of course. But first, could you please tell me about the - Hunt? What happened? From your point of view? “
He considered, momentarily.
“Well, the hounds threw off on the Fontwell estate. They took a line almost immediately - there was a fox lying up in some gorse bushes - turned out to be a fine vixen - not often you get such outstanding sport from a vixen at this time of year, you know - “
His hostess’s voice was soft and hesitant. “Why not? “
Rufus looked at her, was conscious of having committed a solecism, and gulped. “Tradition, m’dear. “
She nodded, understandingly. “I see. Well, even before speaking to Lucius, I think I might be able to - well - this is confidential isn’t it? “
Almost against his will he found himself nodding.
She sighed with gratitude. “Well, then. You have to understand that my husband’s late father - he loved watching the Hunt, you know, he would be so distressed on this day - “
Rufus felt faintly alarmed. Ten years ago, the retiring Master had confided to him, tapping his nose confidentially over some truly splendid crusted old tawny,
“Do anything rather than take the Hunt onto the Malfoy estate. Tell the Hunt servants to cast the pack off against rabbits, whatever. Draw blank. Close the day. However strong the scent is, and however brilliantly they’re running. Oh, I know we’ve had some legendary 12 mile points that ended in a kill up by the Seven Sisters, or whatever. And I know those runs are the ones that they always talk about at 2.00am in the bar at the Hunt Ball, as well. I know this Hunt doesn’t think the young entry’s been blooded before it’s been present at a kill on that estate. But trust me. Malfoy ground isn’t sport. Malfoy ground is sheer murder. And believe me - I never told you that. “
He coughed in a temporizing way.
“I don’t see - “
She shook her head. “Nor did we. Her voice was quick and high. “It wasn’t until my father-in-law died that - he was a man of very strong principles, you know. “
He nodded. There seemed little else to do.
“Well, there were some hints - in papers he left, you know - not, of course, that he would ever have said anything - we were left to understand that perhaps - as his contribution - he gave permission - we’re so remote - we think he’d allowed experimental things to be happening - on our land - up near where you were - for Defence, of course - all very secret, I suppose - “
Oh. I see. Golly. That really would explain a lot. And with Porton Down just up the road, too.
He looked hesitant.
“So you think - perhaps - ? “
She nodded her head, rapidly. “I’ll get on to - to the Ministry at once. I expect they may know what it - ah - oh dear. How awful. “
She looked tearfully up at him.
“Oh, Sir Rufus, I am so sorry! “
Her voice trembled away into nothing. He patted her hand again.
“Don’t worry your pretty head about it, my dear. It’s all quite obvious to me. You tell your husband to tell the Ministry and get them to do the - um - decontamination, and I’ll square the Chief Constable for you. He looked protectively down at her. “Don’t worry, he half-whispered. “This is all going to be all right. Trust me. “
Narcissa looked gratefully up at him. “Truly? she whispered tearfully. He nodded. Suddenly, apparently impulsively, she got to her feet, put her arms round his shoulders and kissed his cheek.
“Really, Sir Rufus you are - such a dear. Trust me, I’ll never forget your kindness. “
He was, unexpectedly, overcome by confusion. He had little remembrance of how he’d - awkwardly, he suspected - backed his way out of her presence. Everything seemed a blur till he was once again jogging his way down the Manor main drive on The Quaker, who - he had expected no less - clearly had been admirably fed and watered in the Malfoy stables. He squared his shoulders, thought of National Security, and prepared to lie for Queen and Country.
Narcissa stretched out in the little parlour, overcome by exhaustion. Her need was for nothing so much as a stiff drink. Which was, of course, impossible. At the present time. She looked severely down at her abdomen. “Trust me on this one, Muppet,” she said aloud, “When I don’t have to worry about your welfare, I’ve got only two ambitions. The first is, I’m going to go to New York. And when I get there, I’m going shopping. What for, you might well ask. Anything they didn’t nail down first, ok? Understood? Following which, I’m travelling on to Reims. Which I’m planning to drink. Dry. Got that, Muppet? “
Her child’s relative quiescence she decided to take as consent.
“I’m glad we understand each other,” she murmured, patting the bulge gently.
Mrs P. poked her head round the door, “Ma’am?”
She nodded wearily.
“I’ve put a trayful of herbal tea in your study, Ma’am. And I’ve made up the day-bed. I thought you might want to spend the rest of the day there, ma’am. Before the dinner. “
She nodded. And found herself stumbling along the corridor to the study almost without realizing she had done so.
She had been sitting unintelligently in front of the typewriter for some minutes before it occurred to her to turn her head round to the still-open window.
Perched on the sill was the one member of the Hunt everyone - it seemed - had by now forgotten.
Open-mouthed, she watched while the red-brown creature - her awkward bulginess betraying precisely why Sir Rufus had had his doubts about the sport she might afford him and his hounds at that particular time of the year - hopped through the window and into the study. Once there, she sat down on the day-bed regarding Narcissa with intelligent wariness. Narcissa spun slowly round on her chair, and looked back in turn at her unexpected visitor. It occurred to her that the vixen must have only managed to evade the Hunt by clinging by tooth and claw onto the Dark Lord’s underwear when he Disapparated back to the Manor. Narcissa’s lips quirked up unstoppably.
“I must say, I admire your style, girl,” she said solemnly to the fox.
The little beast jerked her head up at the sound of Narcissa’s voice, but seemed too exhausted to bolt in fear. The fox’s sides were heaving and her fur and brush were matted with drying mud. As Narcissa addressed her she got a strong impression that the vixen was almost done in: she had come this far on nothing but her wits and her four paws, but she was obviously running out of options. She would not despair; that, at least, was foreign to her nature, but she might at the end be over-whelmed by the magnitude of the forces opposing her. But, Narcissa realised, the vixen would never surrender: she would fight on to the last with everything she had.
Suddenly the aftershocks of the day’s stresses and fears all hit her at once. Unexpectedly, it took her as a wave of sheer, blinding, white-hot, rebellious fury. Her eyes, she knew, were snapping sparks of defiance - she was still unclear against what, or whom. In the little study, her slender white hands clenched into fists of rage.
Narcissa looked across at the fox and set her beautiful jaw in a determined line.
We’re more alike than you might think, girl. And if you can come this far, little one, I’m sure as hell going to take you all the rest of the way. Need allies, do you? You just got them.
One of the house-elves had left a jug of water and a glass on the desk for her when she might return to the study. She part filled the glass and then tipped it onto its side on the carpet. The vixen lapped gratefully. Narcissa filled it again, and then a third time.
“Look, she said aloud, “You need to keep your head down. Get in here. “
She opened up the padded top of the ottoman. After a moment’s hesitation, the fox hopped gracefully inside. Narcissa stretched out her hand to the desk, and rang the little silver bell decisively.
Mrs P. was as prompt as ever in her response. Narcissa looked up at her and said languidly:
“I trust the preparations for the dinner this evening are well in hand, notwithstanding all the - excitements?”
Mrs P. bobbed her head swiftly. “Yes, ma’am”. Her nostrils had flared somewhat on her coming into the room, and her head turned questioningly round. Narcissa’s eyes followed her movements apprehensively. At that moment the ottoman - mercifully out of Mrs P.’s line of sight, though fully within Narcissa’s - gave an unmistakable shake. Beyond her first quick glance Narcissa kept her eyes deliberately averted from it. Her voice was calm, patrician, uninvolved.
“And the party you detailed to help with the bodies? Is that all going well?”
“So far as I know, ma’am.”
The fox was evidently succumbing to a fit of claustrophobia. The ottoman began to emit a brisk tattoo of bangs, scrabblings, and gave at least one visible leap into the air. Mrs P.’s eyes opened wider. Narcissa got up from her seat before the typewriter.
“Still very warm for the time of year, isn’t it?” she said, without emphasis, and flung the window up to the full extent of the sash. As she turned away from it she sank gracefully, and with as much assumed casualness as she could muster, onto the ottoman, and spread the skirts of her full grey dress to cover it as far as possible.
It was a bad move. The fox, evidently sensing the extra weight on the lid of the ottoman, went frantic, adding sharp whimpers to her previous repertoire.
Mrs P. looked at her mistress, a frank question in her eyes.
“Ma’am? It does seem to me that it’s possible that that piece of furniture you’re sitting on might be - ah - somewhat possessed. If you’ll excuse my mentioning it. Ma’am.”
Narcissa got to her feet. She looked nonchalantly down at the ottoman. It barked.
“Oh, you needn’t worry yourself about that, Mrs P. “
She patted Muppet possessively. “I thought - it’s never too soon to learn to face your deepest fears and stare them down. I’ve put - there’s a Boggart in there. For practice, you know. “
“Ah.” Mrs P. nodded sagely. Narcissa noticed, however, with some trepidation that her housekeeper’s country-bred nostrils were still spread wide. Mrs P., however, treated the ottoman to a glare of icy disdain, and then fixed her eyes on Narcissa’s face.
“And will this - Boggart - require feeding?” She paused, momentarily. “Ma’am? “
Narcissa controlled her expression with an effort. “Mrs P.! You know Boggarts don’t eat.” She looked at the house-keeper. The house-keeper looked at her. Steadily. She dropped her eyes, and murmured: “Though - now you come to mention food - I do find myself with a tremendous fancy for steak at this precise minute. “
She could sense that Mrs P. was summoning up a life-time’s worth of sardonic and still finding that it fell short of the mark.
“And - ma’am - how would ma’am like her steak done? “
Narcissa looked up at her housekeeper, and beneath Mrs P.’s frigid, starched propriety she sensed for the first time a sense of companionship - almost, given their relative stations in life, a glimmering of warm interest. Perhaps - conceivably - even a proffering of friendship. And I have no friends here, her inner voice wailed. She gulped, and took a huge leap into the unknown.
“Tartare, Mrs P.. If you would be so good. “
Mrs P. bobbed her head. “Certainly, ma’am. Right away. “
Narcissa sank back in exhaustion onto the daybed as the housekeeper left. From inside the ottoman she could still hear random bangs and thumpings. She ignored them resolutely.
Mrs P. rounded a corner of the passage in her return journey from the Manor kitchens and suppressed a gasp of pure horror. A bare ten yards ahead, her employer and - what did I ever do to deserve this? Well, apart from that, of course - his guest of honour were advancing along the passage towards her. She swept down into a low curtsey, precariously balancing the silver platter she was carrying in front of her as she did so.
“Mrs P.!” The Lord of the Manor’s voice reverberated above her head. “What is that you’re carrying?”
Cursing herself inwardly for not having had the presence of mind to put a cover over the platter to conceal its incriminating contents before leaving the kitchens, Mrs P. kept her eyes firmly down-cast.
“Sir - the mistress - she took a fancy for steak tartare, sir.”
“Steak tartare! At this time? Have neither of you got any sense, woman?”
“Sir,” Mrs P. muttered woodenly, keeping her gaze rigidly on the carpet.
A cool, amused, hissing voice intervened above her head.
“You should be happy, Lucius. It surely augurs well that your heir is already expressing a preference for raw flesh at so early a stage.”
Mrs P. could hear a familiar note in her master’s voice: the sound of someone who dearly wishes to say something completely different but is constrained by Higher Authority from freely expressing himself.
“Why, yes My Lord. I suppose it does.” His tone changed. “Well, carry on, woman.”
“Sir!” Mrs P. scrambled somehow to her feet and scurried off down the corridor towards the study.
Narcissa got quietly out of bed and put her ear closely to the wood of the connecting door between her room and that of her husband. Even through the inches-thick oak the reassuring sounds of hearty snores were making themselves heard. Nonetheless, she picked her wand off the bedside table, aimed it at the door, and murmured “Obdormisci!”
She glided over to the wardrobe, and considered. Minutes later, clad in dark, all-concealing black robes, her soft boots held in her hand, she was tiptoeing down the back stairs towards the kitchen.
Mrs P. was sitting at the kitchen table, stiffly upright and awake and dressed, like Narcissa, for the outdoors.
“Have you got -“
Mrs P. gestured, a trifle grimly at the wooden box at her feet. “Yes, ma’am. And if you’ll excuse my saying so, ma’am, it was no picnic getting her into it. By the end, I was using my wand, and she was using her claws, and it was still a pretty close contest. Ma’am.”
With a faint pang of guilt Narcissa noticed that there were a number of deep scratches on her housekeeper’s hands, vanishing up her wrists and into her sleeves.
“Oh, dear,” she murmured hesitantly. “I suppose - the poor little thing must be very frightened. After all, she’s been having an awful day.”
The expression on Mrs P.’s face expressed, more eloquently than words Well, she’s not the only one round here. Narcissa suppressed a sharp retort.
At least neither of you has just had to spend the whole of a seven-course banquet trying to be witty and charming to a homicidal megalomaniac who you have serious doubts is still the same species as you are. And who has no small talk whatsoever.
“Well,” she said decisively, “Let’s get on with it. The sooner she’s well away from here with nothing to connect her with the Manor or us at all, the happier we’ll all be.”
Mrs P.’s tone was heartfelt.
“Yes, ma’am,” she breathed.
Narcissa unlocked the back door, Mrs P. picked up the box, and they stole out into the frosty night.
The roaring monster bore down upon them; the speed of its passing raising a wind which sucked at their robes, threatening to drag them inexorably into its slip-stream. The noise and turmoil were indescribable. Narcissa could see Mrs P.’s face barely a foot away as they crouched down on the embankment and clung to each other for protection: the house-keeper’s lips were moving but the noise drowned out any hope of hearing what she was saying.
And then the train was past them, arrowing away across the dark and sleeping county.
Narcissa made a conscious effort to sound calm and unflappable.
“It’s a lot bigger and faster than the Hogwarts Express, isn’t it?”
Mrs P. looked mulish. “If you’ll excuse my mentioning it, ma’am, I don’t see what that -“
She jerked her thumb in the direction the train had taken.
“Has got to do with her.”
She indicated the box at her feet. Narcissa assumed a relaxed, explanatorial manner.
“We’re going to send her to - to a friend of mine. In Wales. And we’re using Muggle post, so no-one will suspect where she’s come from.”
“Muggle post?” Mrs P.’s voice was deeply sceptical. Narcissa nodded, eagerly.
“Yes. My grandfather told me about it. He used to study quite a lot of Muggle inventions; he said Muggles were a lot more ingenious than you gave them credit for, and it was surprising how often you could get a germ of an idea to solve occult engineering problems from their gadgets. Our Auto-hexing spell-cannon, for instance, made the firm an absolute mint during the Grindlewald campaigns, and he told me the design was almost 90% copied from some Muggle engineer called Heath-Robinson -“
Mrs P.’s face was suffused with deep scepticism, and Narcissa decided it was better to cut her losses and get straight to the point.
“Anyway, that train was going to Wales. And trains are what Muggles use for post, instead of owls.”
“What, ma’am? Surely that can’t be right, if you’ll excuse my saying so? I mean - something that size, turning up at the breakfast table - that’s never going to work.”
Narcissa shook her head. “No. I haven’t quite worked out how they do it, but at the stations, apparently, the post on the train gets divided up, and people called postmen carry it round to the actual houses.”
Mrs P. clearly had concluded that she had exhausted her allowance of argument, because she subsided, though Narcissa could hear her muttering, sotto voce:
“Well, I bet that comes expensive to feed. Owls are bad enough, but men? Can’t just give them what you’ve found in the mouse-traps before you turn them round and send them back, can you?”
“Anyway,” Narcissa said briskly, “next time a train comes along, what we have to do is stop it, and I’ll Apparate on board, find where all the other parcels are, and slip her in among them. The Muggles will never notice the difference.”
“Yes ma’am.” Mrs P. paused, meaningfully. “And what will happen to you if another train comes along and hits the first one while you’re still aboard? I don’t fancy explaining that one to the Master if you excuse my saying so.”
Narcissa thought. “Well, I shouldn’t imagine it’d take me all that long - but just in case, Mrs P., as soon as we’ve stopped the first train, you are to go to the back of it, and if you see another one coming, stop that one too.”
Mrs P. appeared visibly to be losing the will to live. “Yes, ma’am,” she muttered dispiritedly.
“And cheer up, woman. There’s bound to be another one along in a few minutes, and then we can be getting back to the Manor.”
An hour and a half later things were getting chilly on the embankment. Mrs P. was pointedly not saying anything, and Narcissa had sat down on the frozen ground and was trying to pretend to be anywhere but there. The first faint rumbles of sound passed almost unnoticed, and the train was almost upon them before they both scrambled to their feet.
“Now!” Narcissa yelled, whipping out her wand. “Termino!”
Without any preliminary slowing at all the train came to a complete standstill. Narcissa could see Muggles sticking their heads out of the windows all along.
‘Right,” she gasped to Mrs P. “Get to the back. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
She tucked the crate under one arm and Apparated aboard.
Narcissa moved frantically down the length of the train, which was full to overflowing with Muggles, either asleep, drunk or in bad tempers. It was longer than she had hoped before she found herself in a bare, metal, cage shaped carriage, with a heap of sacks in it. She opened one at random with her wand and, much to her relief, found it full of parcels. She looked at the crate she was carrying, and frowned. Her crate - well, it was properly addressed, so far as she could tell, with the extra bits that she rarely bothered to put in when using one of her own owls. But these Muggle parcels -
She ran her fingers over the small squares of brightly coloured paper, each bearing a picture of a woman’s head, and puzzled out some of the black inscriptions stamped over them - place-names, they appeared to be, and cryptic letters and numbers.
She looked down at the crate, thought for a moment, looked at a parcel she had pulled at random out of the sack, which was a roughly equivalent size and shape, drew her wand, and muttered. Within a split second the wrapping covering the fox crate was a precise duplicate of the parcel she had extracted. She smiled, and patted the parcel.
“Good luck, girl. And give my love to Lily. “
Narcissa thrust both packages back into the sack and resealed it. Then she DisApparated. Seconds later, the Paddington-Cardiff express was back on its interrupted journey.
James Potter looked at his wife, crinkling his forehead above his glasses in that endearing way which, she thought, gave him an expression reminiscent of a not over-bright Bassett hound hard at work puzzling out the True Meaning of Life.
“But why would anyone send you a fox in a box?” he asked reasonably. “By Muggle post, too?”
Lily tossed her red-gold hair back from her face. “That’s the bit I really don’t understand. I mean, we’ve both got friends who are more than capable of doing deeply bizarre things for no better reason than that it seemed like a good idea at the time - yours especially - “
“Darling! I don’t think that’s quite fair-“
She interrupted him ruthlessly. “It’s not? Remind me, whose best man thought it would be the stag-party jape of the century to Transfigure the groom into a parcel of thermal underwear and despatch him owl-post to Argentina?”
Her husband had gone somewhat pink.
“Well, possibly Sirius did go a bit too far there -“
“A bit too far-? Listen, Mr Sirius-My-Sense-Of-Humour-Is-So-Cool-That-Even-Penguins-Need-Woolly-Gloves-To-Handle-It-Black didn’t have to deal with the consequences. Specifically, he didn’t have the job of explaining to the deeply un-amused chief bridesmaid that she was going to have to do some major covering up for the bride, if there was going to be a wedding at all that day, given someone was going to have to whisk herself half the globe away pronto to retrieve her husband-to-be. Who appeared somehow to have fetched up in Buenos Aires. Wandless. Penniless. Nude.” She exhaled. “No wonder Petunia’s never spoken to us since.”
Her husband looked aggrieved. “It is over a year ago, you know. You don’t have to still keep going on about it -“
She looked at him, and her lips curved into a smile. “Darling, I fully intend to base my entire speech at our Golden Wedding anniversary party around the incident. If Sirius doesn’t manage to pull off anything even worse in the intervening forty-nine years, of course. Which he’s entirely capable of.”
She looked at the fox, who had curled serenely up under the kitchen table and gone to sleep as soon as she had eaten the mince Lily had fetched from the fridge once it occurred to her that the small frightened animal they had released from the parcel might well be hungry.
She sighed in a puzzled way. “Except not - and I’m with you on this one - not using Muggle post. No-one we know - well, no-one who’d be writing to us, anyway - would.”
James looked at the fox again. “I suppose - I suppose we are sure it really is a fox?” His expression was thoughtful. “I mean - Sirius did mention in one of his letters that that French witch he’s been seeing such a lot of was really keen on learning the Animagus spells -“
“Well,” Lily observed trenchantly, “If that really is her, Mr Siriusly-Irresponsible is going to have kittens when he finds out.”
James glanced down at the sleeping animal.
“Practically literally, in fact,” he said solemnly.
“Honestly, darling, that summons up trains of thought I really don’t want to explore. At all. Ever. Well, if she is an Animaga, there’s one sure way to find out.”
Lily reached decisively for her wand.
Half an hour later the Potters were still as baffled as ever and their guest was just as much fox-shaped as before. James picked up the discarded brown paper wrappings and scanned them intently for a clue.
“So far as I can tell from this post-mark thingy,” he reported, “it seems to have come from the Isle of Man. And that’s pretty bizarre to begin with. So far as I know, they don’t even have foxes on the Isle of Man.”
“I’m not surprised, if whenever they find one they mail it randomly off to the other end of the country. And where did you pick up that little nugget?”
He shrugged. “Just heard it somewhere, I suppose.”
“Remind me not to play you at Trivial Pursuit.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Triv-?”
Lily suppressed an irritated snort. Even after over a year of married life, and having known her husband since they were both eleven, his total ignorance of - and lack of any real interest in - the entire world she had come from, its points of reference, cultural tags and casual assumptions was still prone first to catch her out, and then to infuriate her.
“They never warn you how much of yourself you end up having to surrender once the handsome prince has swept you off your feet and you settle down to put into practice this ‘Living happily ever after’ lark” she had written in a letter yesterday. A letter - she looked at her watch - that the owl should be just about delivering now.
She shook her head.
“Well, I expect we never will know who sent her,” she said. She moved decisively towards the back door.
“Where are you going?”
Lily’s expression was puzzled. “To let her out into the garden, of course. I mean, she can’t stay under the kitchen table forever. She is a wild animal, you know.”
“You’re telling me,” her husband agreed, looking rather pointedly down at a deep scratch which ran the length of his arm.
Lily shot her husband a faintly guilty look. She had unashamedly delegated to James the job of opening the mysterious brown paper parcel with the air holes once it had become apparent that whatever was inside it had woken up and was resenting its incarceration very actively.
“Well, then. Stands to reason she’d be better off outside.”
Without answering, he moved smoothly to block her exit. She raised protesting eyebrows. “James!”
He leaned back on the wood of the door, and folded his arms. “If you have to do it, you’re not doing it now. Not until after dark. And not without using my invisibility cloak, either. And no-one’s coming in while she’s here, got that?”
For once, he was looking utterly and completely un-amused. “What you and your anonymous irresponsible friend both seem to have overlooked is that this is a sheep farming area. In the middle of lambing. If it got round that we’d deliberately released a fox into the area, we wouldn’t have to worry about the threat from You-Know-Who. The neighbours would just quietly lynch us anyway.”
Lily’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh. I hadn’t thought -“
“No. You hadn’t. Actually, the best thing would be if you let me kill her quickly and humanely now - oh, don’t look at me like that, you know I’m not really going to do it. But it would be the right thing to do, you know.”
Lily, while he was speaking, had moved to stand protectively in front of the table.
“I don’t care,” she said defiantly, “You aren’t going to touch her.”
He sighed in a resigned way. “OK. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. She might look sweet and harmless, but what you’ve actually got here, love, is a ruthless, cunning predator.”
Underneath the table the vixen opened her mouth - displaying an array of pointed white teeth in black gums - and yawned. Lily cast a quick glance down.
“Yes. So perhaps, if that’s the case, I should be backing her from sheer house solidarity, no?”
Her husband, she noted, evidently declined to take that particular point. She smiled sweetly. “So, then, love, I take it we have some hours to kill before we get to let her out into the wild?”
Lily’s raised eyebrows were an unmistakable invitation. Her husband looked at her. “Indeed. Ah - certainly. In fact-“
He extended a hand to her, leading the way up to the bedroom.
The fox composed herself back down to sleep in the now-deserted kitchen.
The vixen was hungry. The small animals off whom she was accustomed to feed in the height of summer had grown scarce with the drawing in of the days. And with the cold season had grown, too, their cold wariness. The hot days were productive of well-fed carelessness from which she could profit amply, but in the winter the small mammals looked over their shoulders at all times, and were off at the first whiff of a predator.
She had snapped hungrily at a rat, earlier that day; a fat, slow rat who had nevertheless evaded her eager jaws. Rats could put up a bit of a fight, true, but they were good eating in the lean times. She was annoyed with herself for having missed the killing stroke. They were cleverer than one might assume, of course, rats. Nevertheless - she shook her head disgustedly - she should have had that one. She was losing her touch.
The slow ache of hunger brought her at length to the back door of the fox-woman.
A long time ago, the fox-woman had pulled her out of fear, and distress, and confusion. She had known then that - notwithstanding the alien smell - the fox-woman was one of hers. Her fur - however little there seemed of it - was, after all, the right shade, and her gentle responses and reactions had reminded her of when she had, herself, been no more than a cub. She had accepted the fox-woman as the senior vixen of the district.
It was true, of course, that over two summers during which she had seen two litters of her own cubs grow and go out in the world - cuffed out, admittedly, when some of the slower ones had shown signs of lingering - that the fox-woman had only managed to produce one solitary cub - and that cub, although it had gurgled engagingly at the vixen’s second litter, when presented for its attention - was still showing no signs of getting on to go out and start its own earth.
It was distressing, but the vixen had made up her mind. The fox-woman was inexplicably attached to her slow cub. It was undoubtedly the fox-woman’s right to decide. It was her cub.
The open door was the first signal of wrongness. Always before she had had to scratch for her invitation. She sidled inside with her hackles already beginning to rise. Nevertheless, she pressed onwards.
The living room was a desperate blight in her nostrils. There were two inert lumps of dead flesh here - she sniffed hard - very recently dead, indeed. The frozen waxen features of one part of that carrion bore a passing resemblance to the fox-woman. She ignored the meat, and focussed her senses harder. The living smells in the room - the ones that mattered - were sharp with violence.
The cub, she recognised instantly. He had a warm, sleepy smell, with a musky edge of resentment: he had been wakened early, and someone was going to pay.
And then her keen sense of smell fully decoded the other scent in the room, and her fur went right up. She had smelt that one before, though the dry viperous element in the scent was stronger now, and the anger she had sensed before was overlaid by - triumph?
And that Other one had the cub. He was holding it, looking at it, opening his mouth.
The vixen was a predator herself and she knew he was going for the death-stroke before he raised his hand. And it was the fox-woman’s favoured cub.
Faster than thought, the vixen leapt forwards. Her teeth met in the complex of tendon, bone and muscle where the thumb joins the rest of the hand.
The cry rang out above her head, and she clung grimly to the Other one’s hand. He dropped the cub - it lay sprawled, bawling resentfully, on the floor - and succeeded in shaking her free. She sailed through the air and landed bruisingly in a corner of the room. Notwithstanding her giddiness, she pulled herself to her feet, flattened herself to the floor, and crawled under a low piece of furniture. It was the best she could do for now: the Other was still between her and the back door.
She could hear him turn, pick something up from the floor. Meaningless sounds echoed high above her head.
“There will be time to deal with you. Whoever you are. And you will not enjoy my revenge. But first -“
The source of sound changed direction: he had moved away from her, then. Cautiously she emerged from under the sofa. He had his back to her: he was stooping towards the cub -
And from the bodies he had left discarded behind him a shining silver mist was beginning to rise.
Unaware, the Other muttered again. A green fog started to emerge from the end of the stick he was holding. Behind him, the mist thickened, and intensified, rolling forwards faster -
The vixen saw her way clear to the back door and took it as though Herne and all his hunters were on her brush. She had no idea what might happen when the green fog and the shining mist met, but she had every intention of being in the next county when it did.
The air gathered itself together into a sudden moment of absolute stillness behind her. Then the world tore itself abruptly apart in a maelstrom of sound and fire. The vixen pelted onwards, towards the safety of the dark hills ahead.