Hermione looked Sebastian in the eye, trying to bite down her fear, and silently willing the gelding to go easy on her.
"Are you going to stand there all day or are you going to mount up?" Draco grinned as he rode up on an enormous black stallion.
Hermione forced out a smile and gingerly ran her fingers over the gelding's velvet soft muzzle, then moved slowly to the left side of the horse. She lifted her leg and jammed her toe in the stirrup, then, grabbing a handful of mane, made a few hops and pulled herself into the saddle. She fumbled around with her other foot, trying to find her stirrup, and once she did, she gathered her reins. She silently thanked the forgiving Sebastian for being so patient.
Draco, on the other hand, raised his eyebrows at her. "Ready now?" Without waiting for her answer, he urged the black stallion down the trail a long, slow trot to warm him up.
Hermione nudged Sebastian with her heels, and the horse propelled himself forward, following Draco. She made a few lame attempts at posting before settling into a nice up and down rhythm. Hermione was glad that she remembered how to ride a horse from her boarding school days, but she knew her riding muscles were weak, and hoped Draco didn't want to do anything strenuous.
After a while, they slowed to a placid walk and Draco steered his horse so it was abreast with Sebastian.
"I think Sebastian missed you," Draco said, noting how the gelding's ears were pricked forward and how there was a spring in his step.
Hermione smiled. "He is going very well today," she commented without thinking. She immediately was startled by the natural warmth in her voice, and by the fact that she was genuinely happy to be on the horse.
"My riding isn't up to par though," she quickly stammered.
Draco shrugged. "You haven't ridden for a long time, so why should it be?"
Hermione shrugged, and rubbed her hand under the gelding's mane, feeling his warm neck and soft coat.
"Ready to canter?" Draco asked.
"Well, I…" Hermione was cut off when Draco urged his stallion into a smooth, ground covering canter.
"Here goes nothing, boy," she whispered to Sebastian before pressing her legs into his sides. Sebastian seemed to sense her unease and smoothly transitioned into the new gait. Hermione bounced hard a few times, but quickly remembered something about the three beats that a horse had in the canter. "One… two… three…" she counted softly under her breath. She quickly fell into rhythm with the horse's movement, and a smile of sheer joy broke on her face.
After a few minutes, Hermione gathered her courage and urged Sebastian a little faster, catching up to Draco. Draco cast her a bright smile, then turned his attention back to his horse. Hermione couldn't help but smile back.
Why did Draco look so good on a horse's back? He seemed… well, human. He was kind, sweet, and even… gentle. She found herself admiring the easiness of his seat, how carefully he held the reins in his hands so that he didn't jerk his horse's mouth, the way his horse responded to his smallest cue.
Hermione shook her head in disgust. Why was she thinking such things? She was here to get her father back, not to ride horses and live in luxury! She was horrified that, even for a moment, she had thought of Draco before her father. Draco was only being kind to her because he thought she was his cousin.
Tears suddenly pricked her eyes. She tried to bite them back, but one slipped down her cheek before she could stop it. She brushed it quickly away, but not before Draco could see. He immediately sat back in his saddle and brought his horse to a walk. Sebastian, not wanting to leave his friend, followed suit.
"What's wrong?" Draco asked immediately, his voice full of concern.
"Nothing," Hermione lied, "Just the wind making my eyes water."
Draco didn't look convinced. "Well, in any case, we should probably head back. Some of Mother's friends are coming for lunch, and we are expected to be present." Draco gave her a meaningful look, "And, on time."
"Would I ever show up late?" Hermione asked sarcastically. She had gathered that the previous summer's lateness had become a family joke.
"Right, Em," Draco rolled his eyes. He turned the black stallion off on a side trail.
Hermione followed suit, pretending like she knew where on earth they were. The Malfoy woods really were spectacular, not at all how she had pictured them, black and devoid of life.
The stable suddenly came into sight, and Hermione's heart leapt. She hadn't realized how out of shape she was. When she slid off Sebastian, her legs quavered beneath her. She went to the horse's head and petted his soft nose.
"I can't believe you forgot treats for him," Draco scolded playfully, slipping a nugget into her hand. She smiled as the horse delicately lipped it off her hand.
"What a good boy," she murmured as she scratched his forehead. A house-elf appeared at Draco's side.
"Master? Shall I take the horse?" the creature asked quietly.
"Yes, Dolly," Draco said in an almost affectionate voice, "Do you want to get on to cool him out?"
The elf nodded her head vigorously, and Draco boosted the elf onto Sebastian's high back. The elf, obviously good with horses, began to walk Sebastian in a large circle.
Hermione noticed that another elf was doing the same with Draco's horse.
"Watch that Bolero doesn't toss his head, Denny," Draco called to the house elf on Draco's stallion.
"Let's go, Em," he said to Hermione.
Hermione shook herself out of a daze she had suddenly and unexpectedly fallen into. Had Draco Malfoy just been kind to house elves? It was hardly comprehendible; the event had taken place right before her eyes. She rushed to catch up with Draco, who had already started for the house.
Draco had quickly changed from his riding clothes to a polo shirt and khaki pants, and was now seated at the dining room table with his cousin and parents. The house elves were scurrying around, laying out a lunch of chicken and rice. Over the years, he had learned to read his parents like a book, and it was apparent that they had something to tell him. They waited until lunch was served and everyone was eating before his father cleared his throat.
"Draco, some business has come up that I need to attend to in London. Your mother and I will be gone for a month and a half. I need you to stay here and make sure that… everything runs smoothly." Lucius sent him a pointed look and Draco knew what he meant by it. He was to keep his cousin out of trouble and make sure that nothing… unfavorable happened to the prisoner. His father then turned to his cousin, "Emiliana, my dear, you are welcome to stay her as long as you like. We won't breathe a word to your father of your stay here, and Draco will be here if you need him."
"When do you leave, Father?" Draco asked.
"This afternoon. Soon, I know," he said, seeing Draco's surprised look, "but it's urgent business."
"I understand, father," Draco replied.
Soon after the announcement, lunch was finished and as Draco rose from the table, his father gestured to him.
"Draco, please follow me to my office," Lucius' tone was hushed.
Draco followed him out of the dining room and into the office. Predictably, his father crossed to the painting of Grindlewold. He took the keys out of the pocket and placed them in Draco's hands. "Guard these, keep them safe. Check on the prisoner often, we'll need him alive if we want to be able to use him later. He is being fed once a day by the house elves, but they are not checking his health."
Draco nodded, and slipped the keys into his pocket. Their weight was heavy and cold against his leg, and he didn't like the feeling at all.
"Hey, Em!" Draco bounded into the library, where Hermione curled up in a cushy armchair, pouring over a rare ancient tome. "I didn't think you liked reading this much! Come on, now, I think the horses would appreciate a ride."
Hermione nodded eagerly and set the book down. In the few days since Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy had left the Manor, Hermione had grown to be at ease with riding horse, and to her much greater surprise, at ease with Draco. But despite that, the fact that she had not looked extensively for her father lingered in the back of her mind.
Better to wait a few days and make sure I have Draco's trust, she conceded.
"Whoa, Sebastian!" Hermione's face burned from the wind as she slowed the tall horse from his break-neck gallop. She had beaten Draco's horse, Bolero, by a good five horse lengths in their race across the meadow.
"You owe me ten galleons!" she cried gleefully.
"That I do," Draco nodded regretfully, "I was hoping you weren't in form to beat me yet, but I suppose I misjudged your riding skill once again, dear Em."
"Oh, my riding is in much worse form than you might have imagined," she replied, "but Sebastian is wonderful."
As they rode into the stable, Draco stifled a yawn. "I think I'm going to shower and take a nap before lunch. I was up too late last night working on some translations for Father."
Hermione nodded and smiled inwardly. Draco's naps tended to be long. It would be the prefect opportunity to do a bit of searching for her father.
Hermione stood before Lucius's office. With a glance over her shoulder, she slowly turned the knob and pushed the door inward. The large brass hinges gave way easily. Hermione stepped into the office, and immediately, her heart began to pound. She crossed the room quietly to Lucius's desk, and began rifling through the drawers. She found nothing of what seemed to be great significance- just a lot of paperwork, a few small dark arts artifacts, and a large brass key.
With a sigh, Hermione stood up from the desk. If she were a Death Eater, where would she hide her prisoner? She looked around the room. Probably in a dungeon or secret passage or something. Those were always found behind paintings and the like in the old muggle movies. Would it be the same in the Malfoy Manor? She carefully began to look behind the paintings. Most were heavy and hard to pull away from the wall. But when she came to a large portrait of the dark wizard Grindlewold, everything changed.