My Life As A House-Elf
Chapter One – The Curse

* * * *

The lanes of Knockturn Alley were crowded that afternoon.

Wizards and witches of all shapes and sizes crowded the lanes, glaring from behind shadowy cowls, or looking disdainfully at the filthy, cobbled streets, ignoring those around them. For some enchanted reason, the streets of Knockturn Alley always seemed to be in perpetual twilight, even with the bright sun shining overhead. They were also unnaturally and sullenly silent.

A crooked old witch peddled bottles of foul-smelling Essence of Abhorrence nearby, calling out in her dry, wheezing tone, while a shady dark wizard in a corner offered dragons' gallstones in exchange for a few Galleons. Shops with shadowy windows and gruesome displays stood in rows, seemingly carved out of the black brick that made up their structure.

Hermione stalked through the dark, dank, filthy lanes if Knockturn Alley, drawing her cloak up to cover her face. Beneath it, her face was twisted up in disgust. Knockturn Alley wasn't any place for a well-to-do Gryffindor, or Head Girl, no less. She reminded herself why she was there.

"Just one more stop," Hermione muttered to herself, glancing at a sheet of paper she held in hand. "One more stop and I'm out of here."

"Hebridean Black scales, - the note read, written in Hermione's graceful, flowing script. "Glumbumble treacle, Fwooper quills, Erumpent fluid."

The last item on the list was clearly illegal in the hands of a student, considering it was highly explosive and monitored closely by the Ministry of Magic.

But Hermione wasn't deterred. These potion ingredients were for her research, which she had been carefully doing in her basement late at night. The last few ingredients weren't for sale in Diagon Alley, for obvious reasons. And Hermione knew just the place where black market trade took place in broad daylight.

Not that she enjoyed being in Knockturn Alley.

As she rounded into a corner, a loud tumult of noise made her pause instinctively. A large crowd of people were gathered around a platform, watching something. There was a lot of jostling and shouting and yelling. Out of curiosity, Hermione edged closer to look.

Hermione had seen many strange and horrible things in her four years at Hogwarts, but what she was seeing before her was the worst.

House-elves in cages, tied with ropes, shacked to posts, collared like beasts of burden. Hermione stopped walking abruptly, staring in open-mouthed rage.

It was an auction. The auctioneer, an unpleasant looking man with greasy hair and an equally greasy moustache, called out the price for each House-elf in a hoarse voice, pointing to the cages with his cane and banging the bars violently. The House-elf in each cage cringed in fright, whimpering.

Hermione was stunned into outraged silence. How dare they? She thought heatedly. As President of S.P.E.W, Hermione knew she had to do something drastic to free all those poor elves. Her mind bubbled with all sorts of poisonous thoughts. Most of them involved explosive hexes, flaming knives, pointy things, and dragons.

Before she could raise her wand and direct a few choice hexes and curses towards the auctioneer, a cold, drawling voice nearby interrupted her.

"Fancy seeing you here, Granger."

Hermione turned to come face to face with Draco Malfoy, someone she really didn't want to meet at a time like this, or any time for that matter. "What are you doing in a place like this?" he said, his voice laced with disdain.

She scowled. "None of your business, Malfoy."

"Come to buy some House-elves for yourself, eh, Granger? A little team of servants would come in handy carrying all those heavy books for you."

Hermione nearly choked in disbelief and rage. "Buy House-elves? Buy House-elves?! Excuse me, but I'm not a heartless, merciless snob from a rich family that enjoys torturing poor elves for no apparent reason, Malfoy. Unlike certain individuals I can mention."

"Oooh, touchy today, aren't we?"

Before she could even raise her wand to perform one of her more devastating jinxes, the jewelled top of a walking cane came into her line of sight and gently pushed Draco aside. Hermione noticed for an instant that the top of the cane was carved with the letter 'M', intertwined with the figure of a serpent.

The person holding the cane was Lucius Malfoy. Hermione lowered her wand, and felt the sudden, urgent inclination to leave the scene immediately.

"Well, well. What have we here," Lucius murmured in a soft, sinister tone. Hermione felt her blood run cold. All the rage that had been coursing through her minutes ago died away into a cold, cautious wariness that bordered on the edge of fear. She desperately wanted to get away, but her feet remained anchored to the cobbles.

"A young little Mudblood who has lost her way," Lucius commented. "This is that Granger girl, isn't she, Draco?"

Draco nodded, suddenly silent. His head was slightly bowed, eyes cast down respectfully at the cobblestones.

"I wonder what a Muggle-born witch like you would want in a place like this?" Lucius looked scornfully down at Hermione, staring at her as if he were studying an unpleasant looking insect, before turning his gaze upon his son. "Draco, please show Miss Granger the way out of Knockturn Alley. This is no place for those of her kind."

Draco, silent and scowling, reached to take Hermione's arm. She jerked away.

"I can find my own way out, thank you," she said quietly, her tone laced with much resentment.

"Very well, then. I'd suggest you demonstrate that."

Hermione left the scene, her mind simmering with disgust. Horrible folks, she thought poisonously. The Malfoys are all the same: horrid, dreadful, and unspeakably arrogant. They're probably there to buy more House-elves to enslave! She shuddered in disgust.

She took a left turn, avoiding the malicious stares of a few suspicious warlocks, and stood right in front of the Borgins and Burkes. Hermione sighed and took a look at her list. This was it. Eyes still on the list, she stepped forward …

… and bumped into a rather sinister looking wizard.

His surprised, furious roar drowned out the distinct sound of something fragile shattering. "Watch where you're going, idiot," he sneered. "Young witches nowadays … don't know how to respect their elders. Come here, girl!"

Hermione picked herself up from the cobblestones, dusting herself off and stammering apologies. She was clearly shocked, wondering how fast the wizard suddenly appeared.

He looked old. White beard and thick greyish eyebrows, with long ancient hair that looked like it needed brushing. His thick woollen cloak was tattered in places, faded and coloured a dull olive green. He muttered curses as he tried to stand up.

"I am so sorry, sir," Hermione stammered, helping him up. It was then she noticed that, in the fall, she had landed on her wand and it had broken. "I didn't see you, I –"

"Didn't see me? Why, are you blind?" he cried, outraged. Then he looked down and became suddenly silent. Hermione, too, looked down and saw what caused the sudden silence, the blood draining from her face, realizing her wand wasn't the only thing that had broken in the fall.

The elderly wizard had been carrying a load of potion bottles of coloured blown glass, which Hermione knew must have been elaborately designed and exceedingly expensive, even though they lay shattered upon the pavement in dozens of multi-coloured pieces.

They stood for a few speechless moments.

"Why you little WORM!" the wizard snarled. "You interfering little imp! You are just like my House-elf, always breaking everything she lay her hands on!"

"I am so sorry sir, I'll help you buy more –"

"They were the last of their kind, you snivelling brat! I can't buy anymore! They are extremely rare potions bottles blown by blind goblin craftsmen!" He started growling, his face purple with rage. "Oh, you are going to be very, very sorry, girl, that you ever meddled with Barquel the Sorcerer. Nindius Satacforia!"

He had pulled out his wand before Hermione could even react, pointing it towards her as he muttered words of enchantment. Hermione suddenly felt herself shrinking.

She glanced down at her hands. Her usual, milky white skin was melting into dull, brownish green, and her long, tapered fingers became thinner and shorter, and bonier. To her horror, she felt her ears grow past their usual length, stretching further as she shrank smaller and smaller, till she stood no more than three feet tall.

She looked up. Barquel the Sorcerer was gone, leaving behind the shattered pieces of his expensive potion bottles on the pavement.

Hermione stepped over to the shards of broken glass. She felt surprised at how light she felt. She tentatively peered at her reflection in the broken pieces of glass, and abruptly drew back, wishing she hadn't. The sight that greeted her filled her with horror and alarm.

She was a House-elf.

Barquel the Sorcerer had turned Hermione into a House-elf, alone in Knockturn Alley, armed with nothing but her broken wand …

* * * *