Life continued without much change and the weeks blend into one another while I continued with my studies.
I never would have thought that any part of Surrey would ever endear itself to me, but even I had to admit, if reticently, that I had become quite fond of the hours I spent in contemplative silence or unhurried reading, both at the solace of my bedroom and at the local park. Even in the cold weather the current season brought, I enjoyed the solitude I could find under the shadow of the trees, not at all bothered by the low temperatures that could easily be fought with a heating charm.
My new books always accompanied me, their covers and pages hidden from view under glamours to avoid the curious eyes of the muggles around me. Among the other things I always carried with me were the notebooks in which I wrote my new found knowledge as well as whatever I could remembered from my previous life. They also contained, in detailed description, the events that had taken place back then as well as their ramifications, and the secrets I had uncovered either intentionally or by accident. I analysed it all from time to time in an attempt to elaborate the most plausible strategies for the upcoming years, but found myself sometimes at a loss about certain variables that didn't come together as smoothly as I would have wished.
But those insecurities didn't deter me, and I kept on reading every piece of information I could get my hands on.
If there was one thing I had learned in life it was the undeniable fact that one never knew enough. I could memorize every book in existence, conduct an innumerable amount of experiments to increase the knowledge I possessed and live a hundred lives, but it would never be enough. Nature and magic worked in such ways that there would always be exceptions to rules, exceptions that would need to be further investigated only to bring up more questions than answers.
This conviction of mine was only further supported by the regular reading sessions I was undergoing. Among the books I had bought that time in Diagon Alley were some about Runes and Symbology in wizarding societies, a subject I had chosen to disclose as much information as possible in regards to the rune in my forehead.
The fact that I had lived to the ripe age -at least by muggle standards- of sixty, yet had never seriously considered the importance of runes before this moment did nothing but proof the never ending process of learning.
And the subject was fascinating.
From what I had gathered thus far, each wizarding society had a different group of symbols all of their own, from the hieroglyphs in Egypt to the Nordic runes in Sweden. While they differed in their appearance and the complexity of their design depending on the culture they original from, the uses they could be given and the way in which their properties could be harvested, both individually taken and as a combination of runes, were essentially the same. From mere carvings to complex rituals, runes could be used to enhance an individual's senses, promote fertility in sterile couples, and the creation of wards or magical objects, just to name a few.
They were also one of the key components in the creation of 'living' wizarding portraits. It was all so very fascinating.
Strangely enough though, it seemed also that while each set of symbols could be successfully used by any witch or wizard, regardless of their race, country of origin or even magical affinity, the best results could only be obtained when using those symbols that were intrinsic of the magical community they were a part of.
In other words, the necessary steps would not only be easier and less magically draining to perform, but the results would be more potent when using the runes that were commonly used among one's peers.
The reasons for this particularities seemed to be linked in part with the magical symbols used by one's ancestors. As far as i was able to understand, is it some kind of magical memory so to say, an imprint left in an individual's DNA -maybe it was specific to one's core? Or perhaps it was related to their blood?- when generation after generation used the same runes to channel their magic. Magic seemed to accustom itself to respond in certain ways, to react in a specific manner when an individual's intentions were often enough linked to a determined symbol, and when that same meaning between desired result and symbol was passed from parent to child, it just seemed to reinforce Magic's memory of what had to happen.
All in all, runes were similar to a language that magic could learn and that could be inherited from one's ancestors. It was not such a farfetched notion, specially when taking into consideration the fact that runes were basically alphabets created ages ago.
Other variables seemed to be related to this particular matter, or at least that was one of the author's suppositions. For instance, magic imbued in a certain land after centuries of exposure could also influence the language in which a wizard's power could better manifest itself. This way, it seemed that person who is born and raised in Egypt could hypothetically perform more efficiently through hieroglyphs than Nordic runes. Of course, this last theory was only that, a theory, and its truthfulness had yet to be proved.
In any case, I was more inclined to believe the community-magic hypotheses myself. According to a decades long study that had been performed back in the nineteenth century, the most effective runes for an individual to use were those that other members of the same society used. It had to do with the fact that, since magic was kind of sentient in a sense, it was bound to interact with its surroundings and the magic of the people that surrounded a witch or wizard. At the base of this theory lay the belief that every individual was connected to others in what seemed to be a rather complex structure that, while invisible to the naked eye, still affected the user's magic. It seemed that, while a person communicated with their peers through spoken and written words, their magic learned to do the same in a language all of its own.
Still, no matter the beauty and the almost logic behind those theories, I had to admit that I felt kind of skeptic in regards of their accuracy.
Also, certain number of matters seemed to remain without answers, for nowhere did it even pose the questions that I myself was troubled with while reading the books. For instance, what happened to those whose family magic was accustomed to react to a certain set of symbols, like the once from the Chinese I Ching, but were born and raised in another completely different country with a different set of runes, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs? With which of those alphabets would they obtain better results, the one linked to their blood or the one they were influenced by when growing up? Or perhaps they would be capable of using both sets of runes to its maximum potential?
From the looks of it, there was no clear answer to this problem. It seemed to be the classical nature versus nurture dilemma and unfortunately I was not equipped, either in terms of knowledge or sources, to give an answer myself.
What was clear at this point was that the set I would obtain the best results with was the one derived from the Elder Futhark, an original Swedish alphabet from the second century that later have origin to the Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc.
For my eternal sorrow though, I had not thought to buy a basic guide on their meaning and uses, but I made a mental note to acquire one as soon as possible. Just the thought of all the possibilities… Well, it was certainly an appealing subject.
At this point in time, I had already decided that my next visit to Walburga should be at the end of February. To be honest with myself, I was rather excited at the prospect of seeing her again, a possibility which I would never have predicted before meeting her in the flesh.
I had visited Walburga five times since that first day back in June, and I could safely admit that the company of that woman was more than welcome. To say that I had been desperate of having once again an adult conversation would be no understatement. Seven years had passed since I had been reborn, and the only other person I had allowed myself to confess my supposed adult status to had been Walburga.
Part of me was just tremendously relieved to finally be able to act my own age, to converse with someone that would treat me like the person I was and not the child I seemed to be. I just wished, no, needed to stop pretending I was a seven year old instead of a fully grown wizard that had lived long enough to sire three children that had grown to adulthood. I had to tread carefully, of course, least I blew up my rather precarious cover as the Dark Lord, but being capable of debating a larger variety of subjects such as magical theory or politics with another adult, even while staying in character was still more rewarding than I could have possibly believed.
I felt almost ashamed of admitting it, but behaving and talking like a child for so many years had taken its toll on me, to the point where I had trouble using a more sophisticated vocabulary like the one I had adopted through the years. Pretending to be less intelligent than I was seemed to have actually made me duller, and it was embarrassing when I had to stop myself before speaking just because I could not remember the specific words I wanted to use.
For this reason, the occasional conversation with Walburga was a gift I intended to take advantage of. And for all of her faults, Walburga was still an incredibly well educated woman with a sharp intellect that never ceased to bring a smile to my lips.
The truth was that against all odds, I liked her. I took great enjoyment in having tea with this regal and sophisticated looking woman that hid a good deal of cunning behind her composed facade, and that from one moment to another would suddenly show a glint of the Black madness I had seen in so many members of her family. Even Sirius had inherited this trait, even if not completely, and the times when Walburga smiled shrewdly I could actually see where my godfather had taken his gesture from.
We talked a lot about a variety of themes, hopping from one subject to another with easiness and enjoying the moments of silence that went by without a trace of awkwardness. We also planned a lot, expecting with a high level of anticipation the moment when we would enact the first steps of our plan. I could see, though, that Walburga was more than excited by the prospect of having her son again by her side, but that to this expectation was added a not a small amount of fear.
I could completely understand the source of her reticence, for her troublesome relationship with Sirius was well known to me. Still, it said a lot that even though she had been driven by anger when Sirius left his family to stay with the Potters, the only thing Walburga did was burn his name from the family tree on the wall. She had the power and the right, as Head of Family, to prevent him from getting his inheritance by grounds of having turned away from his family. But she hadn't done such a thing even when she knew he had fought for the Light, years before Sirius had been incarcerated for betraying my parents.
The relationship between them both was complicated in ways I did not even dare to analyse, full of past mistakes, regrets and resentment, but even if she would not admit such a thing if her life depended on it, it was plain to see that Walburga did care about her son, deeply.
And that would be my gift to her. Once Sirius was finally out of Azkaban and had taken custody of me, I would do anything in my power to heal them both and return Walburga the son she so clearly missed.
How I would do it, I still was unsure of, but I wanted to help them restore their relationship in part because of selfish reasons since it benefited me, in part as a way to thank Walburga for her help and soothing my guilt for lying to her. But mostly because I just hated seeing the last members of a family in such a deep conflict, both believing the other would rather see them dead than happy.
Still, there was much to do before I could put my hands on that particular matter.
Walburga would need the Malfoys' help in her mission, for the political power she had left after past events and years of hiding in her own house was minimal. Sadly, she could not resort to them as soon as she would have prefered.
In the meanwhile we talked, mainly about politics and history yet barely touched subjects such as Voldemort's past or their common acquaintances, which I was immensely grateful for since I did not know every detail about him. I tried to inquire about her knowledge on runes once, but it was to no avail. Walburga hadn't taken Ancient Runes as an optative and hadn't got a clue on how they were used. The temptation on telling her about Dumbledore's ritual and convince her to help me was strong and almost unavoidable, but there was a limit to how much I was prepared to tell her. While she knew I was not as powerful as before because of my young body and underdeveloped core, it would be a grievous mistake to let her know that my magic had been actually bound. For her, it probably would be seen as a weakness and a reason to distrust my capability in archiving my plans, a sign of inaptitude for not being capable of protecting myself or heal the wrongs that had been done to me. And if I could not take care of myself, how would I possibly protect my followers? I would lose respect in her eyes, and that was worse enough without taking into account the possibility of her discovering, with that clever mind of hers, about the existence of horcruxes and the falsehood of my supposed possession.
But I enjoyed our time together immensely. Talking with her was sometimes like a battle of wills yet conversation seemed to flow easily, as if we had actually known each other for years. The woman was more clever than she let on, and every single opinion she had uttered had been thought through before being said out loud. Sometimes I could still see some sliver of insanity shining through her eyes and I had trouble keeping up with her sudden changes in demeanour or her unwarranted yet loud opinions on muggles and muggleborns, but even then she was a far cry from the yelling, crazy hag she had been in her portrait form.
If I thought it possible, I would actually wonder if it was her painted version the one that had gone mad instead of her living self because yes, she wasn't exactly the epitome of sanity at the current moment, but neither had she forsaken all rational thoughts but the ones concerning blood purity.
Still, there was an evident strange behaviour on her part, though, like a heavy swing in her moods and a stronger emotional reaction to subjects that a pure-blood like herself should have been capable of hiding behind a stoic mask. It didn't actually affect her intellect, thank Merlin, but it left me sometimes worried about her emotional stability, specially because I could see sometimes how her lack of control over her own emotions seemed to upset her. She didn't always notice those fluctuations herself and even then she did not always show any reaction, but the times she did were often enough for me feel concerned about her.
I did not have a clue of the cause of it.
Was it the solitary life she had led in the last few years, cut off from society and human contact? Was it perhaps the pain of being the last member of her family, having her oldest son as good as dead in a cell in Azkaban? Or maybe the lack of purpose in her life?
Whatever the cause, it worried me but I could only hope that having Sirius returned to her would help her in some way.
Then again, maybe she had always been that way. I could not be certain, since I had only met the woman before in her portrait and irrational self.
That thought did not lessen my concerns though, and I promised myself to breach the subject in our late February talk. Subtlety, of course, for the last thing I wished for was to offend such a proud woman as her.
When the day finally arrived I apparated to an alley near Grimmauld Place and hid myself under the usual glamours, adopting my Margo Adams persona once again. It would do me no good if someone from the wizarding world were to recognize me after all. Just thinking of the backlash of people finding out Harry Potter was alone in London and visiting a notorious Dark witch… Well, I could do without that problem in my life.
Without further ado, I approached the gates of Grimmauld Place and rang the flower-shaped bell, waiting to be let inside. It didn't take long for the gates to open and for Walburga to appear at the doorway, looking at me with a slight smile that spoke volumes of her desire to see me. If nothing else, at least my feelings were reciprocated, I idly thought.
"Good morning, Marvolo", she greeted me. She certainly looked rather composed today, both emotionally and in appearance. Not a hair was out of place and her traditional robe, made in shades of grey and beige, suited her well. It looked she had started to take more care of herself.
"Good morning to you too, Walburga dear. How have things been going for you?", I asked in return, slightly amused by our budding relationship.
"Oh, I have been rather busy since our last meeting", she smiled while letting me through the doorway. "But let me lead you to the sitting room. We will be more comfortable talking in there."
As we walked together through the manor, I could appreciate what had had the woman so occupied in the past few weeks. If I had not known the layout of the house as well as I did, I could have easily believed that I had entered the wrong home.
The drapes that hung on the windows were different and while still on the dark side of the spectrum, they were brighter than I had ever seen them before. They were even slightly open, letting the morning light through. Similar things could be said about the walls, where the new ivory coloured paint tricked the eye into thinking that the place was more spacious than before. Still, the same portraits of late Black family members were positioned on the walls, their inhabitants sleeping much like the one's in the Headmaster's office back Hogwarts.
Fortunately, there was a lack of house-elf heads on the walls didn't go unnoticed either.
All in all, it was a welcome change that spoke volumes of Walburga's change in mentality. Even the air smelled fresher, a loud cry from the staleness that had dominated the rooms before.
"I have to say, Walburga, that if this is the result of you being busy, I will find ways of having you occupied more often", I said approvingly.
Walburga let a soft chuckle escape from her lips while still trying to hide a smile. "What can I say, my Lord? Idle hands are the devil's workshop."
I stopped right where I was.
"What did you just say, Walburga?", I asked with coldness in my voice.
Walburga turned around and watched the incredulous expression on my face with increasing confusion.
"I.. I… Is it because I called you 'My Lord'? I promise, my Lo.. Marvolo, I promise it won't happen again! It is just hard to break old habits and…"
"Stop right there, Walburga. That is not what I meant, though I think I have repeatedly made myself clear in that regard. But I digress. I was talking about the expression you just used, the one with the 'devil', if you remind?"
"That idle hands are the devil's workshop? Isn't that what they said? I just thought..."
"Yes, Walburga, that's what they say. That's what muggles say", I stated, my expression unreadable because I was not sure about what my emotions should be. The Devil was a muggle construct, a figure religious non-magicals had created in contraposition to their God. There was no such thing in wizarding culture. A blood supremacist like Walburga would never utter a muggle saying. Where had she even heard that expression? Or in the worst case scenario, was she not even Walburga? Was it someone else impersonating her? I readied my magic just in case, regretting the fact that I didn't have a wand on me to better defend myself.
Walburga's eyes widened, her mouth taking a round form showing clearly the moment she realised the implications of her words. She must have also felt how my magic was suddenly in turmoil, the air cracking around us, for she glanced at my right hand as if expecting to see a wand ready to attack.
"My… my Lord! Marvolo, I can explain!", she pleaded me with her eyes. "I am not consorting with mudbloods, I swear, it's just that…"
"Save your breath, woman, and call your house-elf." If she was not Walburga the elf would not respond her command but, even then, I would not believe otherwise unless Kreacher had explicitly stated that it was his mistress in front of me. After all, he was the only one that could identify Walburga without a shadow of doubt, and I firmly believed that Kreacher would not lie to me. The real Walburga had told him to do whatever I wished, back then on my first visit here. And even if he had been later on ordered to do the opposite, I was sure that I would be able to detect it based on his behaviour around Walburga. Kreacher was not known for being able to fake respect towards someone he did not think deserving after all, and no-one deserved it in the way his mistress did.
With a pop, the creature appeared between Walburga and me and immediately read the tension in the air, positioning himself in front of his mistress, facing me warily.
Kreacher's protective stance told me everything I needed to know, but for the sake of abandoning all doubts I still asked.
"Kreacher," I started before any other order could be given to him, straight to the point, "is this woman your mistress, Walburga, or someone else impersonating her?"
The house-elf looked over his bony shoulder with a mix of wariness and confusion, but firmly answered my question.
"She is noble mistress Walburga."
"Are you sure?", I asked again, glancing at the way the woman throwing nervous glances back and forth between me and her servant.
The house-elf's head bobbed up and down with conviction, but the creature still eyed me unsure of what the reason for my questions was. "Kreacher is sure. Kreacher always knows mistress. He is sure."
I eyed the creature for some seconds, but gave in after some small consideration.
"Very well, Kreacher", I said with a firm nod. You may leave."
And after glancing back at Walburga for confirmation, the elf left the hall with another barely heard pop.
My shoulders relaxed and I felt some tension leave my muscles. Walburga on the other hand seemed to be frozen on her spot, still looking at me with round eyes and shocked demeanour.
"You will have to forgive my rudeness, Walburga," I started to say, "but I had to be sure it was you and not an imposter. You will agree with me that hearing you say such a muggle expression from a pureblood is unexpected. At least when not dealing with a Weasley", I bitterly added. But my words didn't seem to have any visible effects on Walburga, her body remaining as tense and her eyes as wide as they were before.
I took a cautious step in her direction, just as Walburga murmured something so softly that I was unable to understand what she said. When I asked her to repeat her words, just a single name came out of her lips.
I remained still where I was, not approaching her in fear of spooking the witch.
"I… It was Sirius who told me about that muggle saying. It was shortly before he left to live with the Potters, when he abandoned his true family", she released a soft yet slightly hysterical laugh, her hand darting to cover her mouth as soon as it left her lips. "I just… I… I was going through his things last week and I… I couldn't help myself from reminiscing the last few months he spent here!", she exclaimed, trying and failing to keep what little was left of her composure.
At this point Walburga was downright crying, her face covered in tears, shoulders shaking with barely restrained sobs, and her legs having failed her, leaving the distraught witch laying on the floor.
"I haven't been in the same room as my son since he was fifteen!", she told me between sobs. "He… he wouldn't answer any of my letters, he didn't even attend his brother's funeral! My sweet Regulus, my baby boy… He was too young to die!"
Walburga was completely hysterical by now. The absolute heartbreak that only a mother could feel was plainly exposed for the whole world to see, and I was deeply disturbed by the sight in front of me. I couldn't help but be reminded of all the other mothers I had failed during my life, and as always I wanted to fall on my knees and beg forgiveness for my inability to save their son's lives.
The feeling never ceased to crush me, leaving me breathless and filled with regret. I rationally knew that most things were out of my control, that even those decision that relied solely on me could have consequences no one would expect, but that knowledge did nothing when exposed to the pain of a grieving mother. I could still see the crying faces of those I had failed so many of them, from Cedric's mother to the mother of my children. Ginny's tortured cries, her never-ending suffering still haunted me at nights, mixed with my own powerless despair at the loss of two of my beautiful children.
There was not a thing I could do to bring back the dead though, nor was there a spell in existence capable of making this kind of pain disappear, but the least I could try was to stay by her side and pray for my presence to sooth Walburga, no matter how little the comfort I could give her.
I deeply regretted having reminded Walburga of her plight and dearly wished I had let my suspicions slide, but then again there was too much at stake and I had to make sure it was not a trap of some kind.
Cautiously, like one would do with a wounded beast, I approached the figure on the floor until I laid besides her. I put my hand on her back, slowly moving it up and down in what I hoped was a reassuring gesture. But Walburga seemed to take little comfort in my attempts and only ended up weeping harder than before.
I wasn't deterred though, and remained at her side for long minutes that seemed like hours, whispering soothing nothings to her.
Time passed and my legs started to hurt from my position on the floor, but I was determined to keep on giving this woman as much solace as possible without hurting her pride. Or without damaging my cover as her Lord.
Walburga seemed to calm down at some point, even if her tears kept on endlessly falling down her cheeks. She lifted her head while her hands still partially covered her face, then took a deep breath and with a shaky yet determined voice asked me, "My Lord, I beg you… Please, my Lord. I did not ask you back then, I thought you would tell me when… when you thought it appropriate, but then you… Then the thing at the Potter's happened and I… My Lord, I need to know… What happened to my son? Why did my Regulus have to… to die?" Walburga's voice hitched at the last word and a new round of tears followed soon after.
I did not know what answer to give her. She could not know the truth, for it would link Regulus' death to Voldemort and probably turn Walburga against the Dark Lord. Having one son that had actively fought against him and another that died trying to destroy Voldemort… It would probably be too much for Walburga and I might loose her support entirely. The possibility of telling her that I had no knowledge of what had happened to Regulus was still there, and it would be congruent with past events: Voldemort did not know what had happened to his follower, after all. But I wanted to give this woman some sort of closure. She was already suffering enough.
I had to come up with a new lie to add to the long list I already had, and I made a mental note to write down every single one of them in my notebooks as soon as I got home. I had to keep track of them in order to not contradict myself in the future.
My thoughts were completely focused on coming up with a story to tell her, one that would not turn her against the Dark and that seemed unrelated enough with the war that her heart would not seek revenge. She had enough negative emotions in her, and I did not want to be the one to add another reason to her mental downfall.
For that very reason, I tried to keep the story simple, using all the information Kreacher had given me about his former master back in the years following the Second Wizarding War.
"Regulus was friends with another of my Death Eaters, Augustus Rookwood. Did he ever talk to you about it?" I asked, for the sake of involving her in my storytelling. She nodded slowly, and I continued with my tale. "Rookwood was an Unspeakable and worked for me as a spy in the Department of Mysteries. He and Regulus bonded over their shared love for knowledge, and as far as I knew they were often to be found in Rookwood's basement, experimenting with one thing or another, trying to prove their theories and creating new artefacts. One of those experiments went wrong."
I took a deep breath, my hand still on Walburga's back moving soothingly. The witch just stared at me with those pained eyes of her, hanging on my every word. I could see she was starting to realise where my story was going, and before she could open her mouth to ask her next question I already guessed what it would be.
"It was not Rookwood's fault, Walburga. Believe me, I watched his memories of the events, and there was not a thing he could have done to prevent Regulus' demise. Your son just… he mixed the wrong ingredients with the wrong spell, and before he realised a small explosion occurred. No body was left."
Tears appeared again with renewed force on Walburga's face as I finished my tale, but even I was able to tell that there was some relief mixed in with her sadness. I felt my resolve strengthen in that moment: I could not give her Regulus back, but I sure as Hell was going to reunite her with her eldest son.
Only her weeping could be heard in the silence that reigned in the hall, and I dutifully stayed by her side until no tears were left and her eyes closed in sleep.
I had some troubles writing the first part of this chapter, the one that deals with runes. If there are things you didn't understand write me right away and I'll be happy to explain!
And thanks a lot to those among you that have pointed out typos and the likes in previous chapters. I will correct them as soon as possible!
Also, I am still in need of a Beta (for obvious reasons), so if one of you is interested please let me know ;)