Thanks as always to my beloved reviewers. I'm certain that I hang off your words more than you do mine.
PS JK Rowling owns these characters, I just Imperious them and force them to do amusing impressions of themselves.
It took several days to recover from the overdose of trauma I had received.
For long stretches at a time my muscles seemed too frail to support my limbs, my brain too weak to support my thoughts. Most of the hours between meals I spent lying on my bed, threading in and out of a dull, groggy semi-sentience, neither quite asleep or awake. Lucidity came only in the late evening, stealing over me with the inky shadows: it was during that brief hour before bed – sitting quietly on the deep stone window sill, staring out at the moonlit snow – that I could think properly. And there were really only two subjects which occupied my mind: Lucius, and how I was going to escape him.
There was no longer any point trying to convince myself to stay.
What good had it done me, seeking out the secrets of the house, and of its master? How far had I got, in my quest to discover my own identity? I had learned next to nothing about either of us. – In fact, instead of finding answers, I seemed to be wading further out into a murky, bottomless pool of questions. And all I had received for my efforts so far was a glimpse of a moving photo and a set of horribly broken fingers.
As for Lucius's new demeanour of polite formality... it was no real source of reassurance to me. Not so long ago I would have lapped up his courtesy – or lack of hostility – I would have so willingly interpreted it as a sign of him changing, warming to me. But now... the phrase "once bitten twice shy" didn't even come close to how I felt about the man. I simply couldn't shake the feeling that there was a hidden agenda behind the change, and that I'd be a fool to believe that it came from a place of benignity.
I wanted, I wished so badly to be wrong – to discover that he was changing after all, that perhaps he regretted hurting me so badly, and was trying in his own way to make up for it. But deep down, I knew better than to truly believe it. Just because he was no longer letting me see his hatred, didn't mean it did not still exist.
I was left with no choice. I would simply have to leave as soon as I had the use of my hands again. I had no real idea how long my injuries would take to heal, but it seemed likely that it would be some weeks. Until then I would have to do my best to keep out of trouble, and that basically meant continuing to play the good little automaton for Lucius...
Not that I had much choice in the matter.
I was now in such a pathetically helpless position that Lucius had become even more my ruler. He decided when I'd had enough to eat. He decided whether I was thirsty. He decided when I was to take my painkillers, or when it was time for me to go back to my room. I couldn't argue or disagree with him, let alone spar with him – reluctant as I was to accidentally rekindle his former style of treatment of me.
His casually-assumed control grated on me badly, and, even in my frail state, I sometimes nearly burst with rebellious anger. But I reined it in, determined not to let it get the better of me. Injured and weak as I was, the safest course to pursue was the smoothest one, the one where I bided my time and kept my mouth shut and my eyes open. I was far from happy about it, though.
And after a week my resolve cracked.
Lucius and I were sitting at the table, and as always I was fighting to suppress my resentment at his smooth, almost suave dominance over me. During the process of him spoon-feeding me my lunch, I had spilled some sauce down my chin, and before I could bring my sleeve up to wipe it away he had mopped me up with a napkin – like a baby. Exactly like a baby. This was an indignity too far for me, and a tide of angry, mortified blood rushed to my face and stayed there for the duration of the meal.
When it was over Lucius reached for a now-familiar slender glass vial of blue liquid, the top of which he was deftly unscrewing.
Determined to claw some small scrap of power back I coolly declared, "I don't want any pain-killer today."
His large hands briefly halted their activity at my words. Then, deliberately ignoring me, he proceeded to remove the top and measure out the usual dose onto the usual spoon.
He held it up, ready for me.
"I don't want it today, thank you," I repeated, trying to keep my tone of voice as calm and reasonable as possible. "I want to see if my hands are healing. I can't gauge that if I can't feel anything."
But he did not lower the spoon. In fact, he appeared to simply be waiting for me to change my mind. I twinged with annoyance.
"I said, I'd rather skip it this time, if it's all the same to you." I had meant to say the words politely, but they came out sounding sarcastic, and I darted an anxious look up at Lucius's face, still instinctively afraid of provoking his incendiary temper.
His gaze remained steady and unreadable.
A sudden spark of rebelliousness ignited in me, and I sprang up out of my chair, knocking Lucius's hand and causing the spoon to clatter to the floor.
I was fast, but he was faster. His hand shot out and closed around my wrist, jerking me back down towards him. Then leaning over me, he pressed me firmly back into my seat. He wasn't rough, but it was the first time he had used any kind of physical force against me since the encounter in his bedroom, and it made me fearful and flustered.
An involuntary tremor ran through me, and at this, Lucius released me and drew himself back. His face and voice remained entirely devoid of expression as he spoke. "I must insist on you taking your medication, Alice," he said, calmly selecting another spoon and remeasuring a dose of liquid from the vial into it. "You are far from well, and I do not wish for your condition to deteriorate."
"Medication?" I frowned. "I thought it was just pain-killer."
He tilted his head back slightly, eyes still fixed levelly on mine. "It has anaesthetizing properties, yes," he replied smoothly. "But the potion also contains powerful curative, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory agents."
I was somewhat puzzled at his choice of the word "potion" instead of "medicine." It sounded... strange. But then, what wasn't strange about the man? What wasn't strange about the whole situation?
"All the same, I think I'd prefer not to –"
"I'm afraid your preferences do not enter into the equation, my dear," he quietly overrode me.
I swallowed nervously. There was no obvious threat in his voice or manner, yet I had the distinct impression that, one way or another, he would overcome any objection I made.
Do I really want to disturb our current truce? I asked myself. Is it wise to test the durability of that stony, blank mask? No. No, I knew there was little point going into battle with him. Not over this. Not yet, anyway. Far better to make the most of this cold, polite stranger... because of one thing I was perfectly certain: his mask wouldn't last forever. And I wanted to be properly mended by the time it came off.
Dropping my eyes – although this time more to hide my anger than embarrassment – I let him administer the tincture, wincing a little at its tartness as I obediently swallowed the dose. "Ugh. How much longer am I going to have to keep taking that stuff?"
"For as long as you require it," he replied.
"And approximately how long might that be?"
"There is nothing approximate about it, my dear. For precisely as long as I say so."
I actually found myself smiling somewhat bitterly at this. The man might have assumed an armour of bland composure, but his arrogance was so innate and irrepressible it shone through as dazzlingly as ever.
That evening as I sat in my usual place upon window ledge, I stared down at the wads of bandages, trying to imagine what my fingers looked like, if they were healing straight, or if I was going to end up with ugly crooked digits for the rest of my life.
I tried wriggling them, and was startled to actually feel the creak of my knuckles trying to move against their splints. Yes, I could definitely feel my hands, although there wasn't any pain. If only I could see them, I thought with a sigh. Almost immediately, a small knot of fiery determination kindled within me. ...Why not? Why shouldn't I look?
I turned to the soft light of the moon, and inspected the bundle at the end of my right arm. There was no pin securing the end of the bandage – it looked like it was simply tucked under itself at the wrist. I brought it up to my mouth and tugged it free with my teeth. The bandage immediately loosened, and it did not take me long to completely unwind it. As the last loop came free the material snaked to the floor in a small white heap.
I gazed down at my hand. My fingers were each set against a narrow splint, taped at the knuckles, keeping them rigid.
…But ...but there was nothing wrong with them. There was no bruising, no crookedness, nothing. The nails were perfect, not even cracked, all intact.
I felt numb. I couldn't quite grasp what it meant. Using my teeth again, I ripped the tape away from my fingers, releasing the splints. Slowly I curled my hand into a fist, then opened it out again. My fingers were stiff, but bore no sign of injury. I turned my hand over, then over again, trying to find something – anything – a scar, or a faint bruise, or –?
But there was nothing.
I began to tremble as a mix of adrenaline, confusion and anger flooded through me. Quickly, urgently, I used my newly-freed right hand to unbind my left one, yielding exactly the same result. Another set of perfectly normal, uninjured fingers. "How is this possible?" I whispered. My thoughts were spinning so fast I felt physically nauseous.
Time – time – there had to be a discrepancy of time. I must have been comatose for a long while, perhaps even weeks. But if that were true, then what about my still-bruised face? My still-healing bottom lip?
Everything was slipping and warping again, reality was dancing away from me like a sly sprite, leading me in dizzying circles, playing with my mind...
Why had Lucius kept me in bandages when my hands were healed? Why had he made me believe I was still helpless? ... The question answered itself. With a perfect, devastating clarity I saw that he had swathed me in bandages as he might have fettered me in chains. To keep me helpless, docile, dependent.
I was shaking badly now, seething and breathless with mortified rage. That utter bastard! Making me eat from his hand like some – some helpless idiot! Making me think he might possibly be changing, that he actually regretted wounding me so badly – when all along he was simply manipulating me, keeping me subdued and submissive, to serve his own twisted purpose, whatever the hell it might be...
I was so angry that it took me a while to realize that my hands were tingling and hot, like when I had breached the shield of Lucius's bedroom door. Instinctively I raised them to press against the cool glass of the window – and I was suddenly hit by a blast of cold air, making me keel backwards in shock, sending me tumbling to the floor.
Hardly daring to believe it, I clambered slowly to my feet, straining my eyes, just staring and staring at the window – or what used to be the window. For it had vanished. Simply vanished. A portal to a shimmering outside world of snow and shadow and moonlight had suddenly, inexplicably, opened up before me.
By now I was far too used to impossibilities to question one more.
Lucius knew I was going to try to escape all along, I thought, and by god he was right.
I was going. Right now.
Slowly, carefully, I leaned out over the window sill, clinging so tightly to the stone ledge that the skin of my hands grazed painfully on its rough-hewn surface.
My stomach swooped unpleasantly as I surveyed the ground, glistening palely – thirty, perhaps forty feet – below. My heart had started thudding heavily against my ribs and, despite the bitterly cold night temperature, I felt myself breaking into a clammy sweat.
A fall from this height would very likely break every bone in my body. I would probably die.
Maybe I need to die. Maybe I'll wake up, if I die.
The thought struck me with such force that I gasped aloud. Strange and morbid though it seemed, the idea that I was trapped within a dream somehow made more sense than any other explanation I had yet arrived at to rationalize this bizarre, surreal, frightening world I found myself in. Maybe that's why the window disappeared, I thought. To lead me to my death... and on to real life...
And the dizzy fear drained out of me, replaced by a kind of calm, focused tranquility.
What are you waiting for, Alice? Either you escape and live to fight another day, or you die and wake up.
"Come on then," I whispered to myself. "Let's do this." I wriggled forwards on my stomach and then patted my hands out and downwards. My fingertips brushed against smooth, cool flags of fluttering ivy, and I remembered noticing how thickly the creeping braids covered the house, when first I viewed it all those weeks ago.
Would a vine take my weight? I combed my hands through the leaves until my fingers found a woody stem. It was knotty and hard, nearly as thick as my arm. Grasping it in both hands I tried yanking it away from the wall, but I could not make it budge, even slightly – the plant was so ancient it had simply knitted into the masonry. I was sure it could hold me.
I pulled myself back into my room and for some moments I stood still, thinking. My woollen robe could be a problem. It was heavy and long, and the loose weave could snag on protruding branches or weathered stonework. Still, I didn't fancy climbing down stark naked.
My bathrobe. I darted through to the bathroom and unhooked the slip of fabric still hanging on its place on the towel-stand. Quickly shedding my heavy robe, I changed into the silk one, and tied the sash in a tight double knot. I gathered the woollen garment up and took it back with me to the missing window, piling it onto the sill in a bulky bundle. I nudged it forwards, until it was right on the edge.
If you do this, that's it. There's no going back.
I took a deep breath and slid it over the edge. It made a faint flapping sound as it fell, settling in a heap at the foot of the house, looking like a black hole in the snow. As an afterthought I threw down the two lengths of bandage after it.
I climbed up onto the ledge and swivelled so I was on my knees, facing back into the room. Well, here goes, I thought. Good luck, Alice. If you die, it was nice knowing you. Well, not exactly "nice"... and not exactly "knowing" either, but...
I lowered myself down so I was clutching the inner-side of the sill, my legs sticking half-out of the window. God, I'm doing this all wrong, I thought wildly as I began to wriggle backwards. I should be using some kind of rope made out of sheets tied together. I should have constructed some kind of a safety harness –
I stifled a frightened yelp as my hips slid off the edge of the sill and my legs folded down to meet the wall. For a moment my bare feet slid through the mesh of slippy leaves, unable to connect with anything more solid... but then my toes bumped against one of its thick aerial roots and I clamped as much of each leg around it as I could. I jammed my foot behind the stem, just above a knot, giving me a kind-of step on which to put my weight – if I dared.
At first I did not dare.
But my arms were hurting badly now, and I didn't think I could manage to pull myself back into the window even if I wanted to. It was down or nothing.
Oh-so-slowly, I began to worm my body backwards, putting more weight on my legs and relieving it from my arms, until there was nothing for me to do but reach down and grab the thick stem with my hands. With a small gulp of determination, I released my hands and whipped them down to catch the knotty ivy stem. Before I knew it I was hanging off a sheer wall, forty feet above the ground, with nothing more than a climbing plant to prevent me from pitching over to my probable death. It was a terrifying moment of heady precariousness, in which I would discover if the ivy would hold me, or if I would indeed plummet to the snowy ground...
It did hold me.
I clung to it like a spider monkey, my spine curled and my arms wedged and crossed under the braid. I was gasping and a little giddy, and I waited a few moments to regain my breath and focus.
Cautiously I swept my right leg out to the side, using my toes to feel for more ivy trunks. There was another braid only a couple of feet away – and with a little more feeling around, I realized that not only were there many more of them, but that they intertwined and zigzagged to form an intricate latticework – a natural climbing frame for me. Thank god, I thought. I'm not going to have to shimmy. And I took my first shaky step downwards.
To start with it was very slow going, for it took me some time to build up confidence. Apparently I didn't have a wonderful liking for heights. But after a while I developed a pattern of movement – right leg drop, left arm down, left leg drop, right arm down, – and even developed a stilted rhythm.
My first mistake came when I was forced to navigate around a window, and realized I had successfully scaled down to the first floor. For one stupid moment I allowed myself a feeling of triumph – and immediately the root I was balancing on snapped, the unexpected jarring making me lose my handholds. SHIT! I almost screamed as I dropped a full couple of feet, madly scrabbling at the ivy – and in that infinitely-suspended split-second I recalled that people were supposed to see their whole lives flash before their eyes, but the only image flashing through mine was a pair of iridescent eyes in an aquiline face, framed by a cascade of pale-blond hair...
My hands closed around a stem and I clutched at it desperately, my legs flailing wildly for a moment, before finally gaining a foothold. I wove my arms tightly into the ivy, hugging it, panting and sickened at my near disaster. For pity's sake, Alice, CONCENTRATE!
It took some time to recover the confidence to get going again. I edged down in painfully-slow increments, making certain that three of my limbs were properly secured at all times before I dared moved the fourth.
As I neared the last ten feet I finally began to relax. I glanced down and thought, I'm really going to make it – and almost at the same moment there was a horrible, stabbing, tearing sensation - something was puncturing the soft skin of my palms, the underside of my feet, scratching and ripping at every exposed part of me. I had hit rose-thorns. Like the ivy, the plants must have been ancient, for the thorns were hard and sharp as small daggers – they sank into me like razor-sharp fangs.
I didn't cry out, I simply let go. I believe I would have done so had I still been forty feet up.
The fall backwards was strangely peaceful. It could only have lasted a second, but it was a second completely devoid of terror or panic. Snow cushioned my landing.
I lay there, a little winded, staring up at the glittering dark firmament arcing infinitely overhead. Marvelling, revelling in the sheer wonderfulness of space all around me. I gulped in a huge breath of cold night air, sucking greedily in the bracing freshness. The freedom...
You're not free yet, Alice, my sensible voice warned me.
I rolled over and crawled to where my woollen robe had settled and hastily pulled it on. Exertion and adrenaline had kept me warm so far, but I knew it wouldn't last much longer. My skin was stinging all over, but particularly my feet, and even in the muted light of the moon I could see my blood spotting the snow. "Bandages," I muttered under my breath. I found them nearby and quickly bound up the punctures, glad for their rudimentary protection but wishing fervently I had my shoes.
Then I clambered to my feet and took stock of my surroundings. The most direct route to the copse was the wide snow-covered stretch of the gravel approach. But it felt too exposed. I knew for a fact that hisbedroom looked out directly upon it, and it seemed much too risky to attempt it. Instead I clung close to the wall and crept around to the east side of the house, then followed a zigzagging path of shadows through knee-deep snow, into the border of conifers.
For a moment I turned back to gaze up at the house. My universe, until now.
It looked as it was: an impenetrable, gloomy mass, shrouded in silence. Holding mysteries I would never now resolve, secrets I would never now reveal.
And him. He, who had so humbled and hurt me. He, whose mockery and derision had been so long my daily bread. He, whose strange, cruel beauty had fascinated and frightened me, whose liquid-silk voice had poured like sweet poison in my ears and seeped into my very bloodstream. He, who held the key to my past, but had buried it in a bed of unfathomable hatred...
Squaring my shoulders, I turned my back on everything I knew.
Then I plunged into the inky shadows of the trees.
END OF PART ONE