The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Acknowledgements: many thanks to my betas, SlytherinKisses and Epoch Everlasting, for their invaluable work: any errors still left are my fault, not theirs. A particular mention ought to go to fellow Pit author Vanny Pegasus-Ketchum, for providing me with the starting idea and issuing the challenge.
The Wolf at the Door
You fell to earth without a lament
And realised in a single moment
That your life would end that day
And there would be no mending way.
FABRIZIO DE ANDRÈ, La guerra di Piero
Three more weeks until school, and the country was wilting away under an implacable sun. Even at night, the moist, still air did nothing to soothe the suffering. Only cold-blooded animals seemed at ease; the unceasing chirring of the crickets and the rhythmic croaks coming from the lily pond were punctuated by the screams of the peacocks.
Even with Cooling Charms and the open window, the room was stifling. Draco lay on the bed, too hot to sleep.
"Keow!" came the scream from the aviary.
"Shut up, featherbrain," he murmured, rolling onto a fresher side of the bed.
They've been going on for too long. There's a marten out there, Draco thought.
maybe a jarvey.
He had been wanting one for a pet since he had learned they could be tamed, but Mother had never allowed him – foul-mouthed jarveys were for gardeners and stable hands, not for her little boy.
He picked up his wand from the bedside table, put on jacket and sandals, and left through the back door.
A bright round moon, coated in ragged clouds, lightened the sky, and the delicate iron wrought aviary looked like it as if it was made of cobwebs. Inside, the peacocks jumped restlessly from perch to perch or paced the ground, only stopping to let out their plaintive wails.
No wind agitated the air; the only rustling sounds came from the aviary, the peacocks dragging their outlandish tails on the dusty earth.
Something moved with a soft rustle behind the trimmed boxes that bordered the walk. Draco closed, wand in hand, moving as quiet as he could on the crunchy gravel, ready to cast a Stunning Charm as soon as the jarvey was in sight. Slowly, Draco leaned over the hedges to the place from which the sound was coming…
There! Beneath the bushes, crouched in ambush, its fur reflecting the moonlight like a cascade of pins. But it was all wrong, hunchbacked, greyish, too large, too leggy...
Fangs and yellow eyes filled his sight, and there was time for nothing, not a spell, not a scream, not even for panic. The force of the impact knocked him down, his wand flew from his hand, and he found himself on the ground, face to face with the beast, with a scream stuck in his throat.
The wolf made a soft woof and licked his lips, almost playfully. Its breath smelled of rotten flesh and decay and its fur, caked with curdled blood, was sticking out in spikes. It had already killed that night, but that hadn't quelled its craving for blood.
Draco lay as still as a corpse, fearing that a move or a noise would trigger the attack. The wand was tantalisingly close, but the beast was close too. It grimaced, exposing an uneven hedge of long tawny fangs; a low rumble, like some Muggle engine, came from within the beast's chest.
For an endless moment they remained still, staring at each other. Then Draco lost his nerve and made a desperate lunge for the wand, kicking gravel. The wolf pounced.
The bite was almost gentle at first, like a squeeze on his wand arm through the thin cloth until the teeth punctured the skin, drawing blood. Then the beast shook its head, and its teeth dug deep furrows in the flesh. A blazing fire ran along the arm, and Draco, gritting his teeth, grabbed a tuft of fur with his left hand and pulled.
The wolf, still growling, lost its hold. Draco changed the grip on his wand, but before he could cast a wobbly spell with his less exercised hand the wolf had already turned tail, leaping across the trimmed hedge, and was gone. Draco lay across the path, staring at the perfect luminous circle in the sky and holding his injured arm, as the peacocks mourned the setting moon.
Breakfast was always a silent affair at the Manor; none in the family was an early bird, and Lucius especially only started to function after his second cuppa. The selection had somewhat narrowed following the loss of the house-elf, and the only sound was the occasional scraping of knives on the toasts.
Father's face was only half visible, hidden as it was by the Daily Prophet, perched against the china teapot as usual. His grey eyes moved from side to side, scanning the page; there were shadows below. He had become more and more withdrawn since the Triwizard Tournament, often leaving the house for days on end and locking himself up in his study when he was home. There were important matters that required his presence and attention; everything would be back to normal soon, he said.
As of now, they were still waiting for 'soon' to come.
"You look pale, Draco. Did you sleep well?"
"Yes." Draco purposely looked at the far wall, frowning; he knew if he had looked his mother's face, the lie would become transparent. He put down his teacup, making an effort not to wince. He had spent more than half the night tending to his wound, to little avail. His whole arm was hot and pounding, the hand limp and insensitive like a glove attached to his wrist, and he had to keep an eye on it to be sure it handled objects properly.
"Are you feeling all right?" Narcissa asked, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder. Draco shifted, and the sudden motion sent waves of shock through his injured limb.
"Don't touch me!" he yelled. Then, in a lower tone, "I'm not a baby anymore."
"Don't snap at your mother, Draco." Lucius lowered the Daily Prophet just so he could look at him. "It would look as you had a rough night, indeed." He cocked his head quizzically. "You look ill."
Draco went for the calmest tone he could muster. "It was just too hot to sleep, all right? I don't see what all the fuss is about."
His parents exchanged an anxious look, then seemingly decided it was one of those rebellious phases, and returned to their breakfast. Draco watched them eat, a painful knot swelling in his throat. He felt hot and cold at the same time. Right now he would have wanted to hug Mother, to tell her he was sorry, but that would lead to enquiring and he was not ready to tell, he would never be.
She wouldn't kiss away his boo this time, that was for sure. He remembered her having gone into a towering rage, even worse than Father's, once it had been revealed that Lupin was a werewolf. She was not the type of witch to raise her voice or write Howlers, but she had given Professor Snape quite a piece of her mind for turning a blind eye and allowing a dangerous monster near her son for such a long time. How would she react if she found out that said son grew fur under the full moon, Draco did not want to think about.
"Son, we're not so old that we can't try for a better one," was the phrase that would immediately put a lid on his most energetic temper tantrums when he was a child. After a while it had ceased being effective, though, and Draco had not heard it in a long time; and yet it had kept echoing in the back of his mind, like an ominous earworm, for the whole morning. To think that his parents would disown him was unconceivable… although Mother's own sister had been rejected from her family for much less, and her name was never spoken, as if it was a dirty word.
"I have some business at Gringott's," Lucius announced, getting up from his chair. "I'll be back by lunchtime."
That usually announced the end of the breakfast, so before he could be asked to clear the table, Draco excused himself under the pretence of wanting to firecall a friend and went to his rooms. Once there, he set to change the bandages he had clumsily applied that night for fresh ones. The bite was a horrible sight; the skin looked like it had been carved away in places, leaving the flesh exposed, and the frayed edges of the deep furrows were discoloured and swollen. The ointment he was using was not strong enough by a long way – it was the one he used for razor cuts – but it was all he had for now. Each time he dabbed the wounds, the shock ran through his arm as if he had touched a Muggle wire, and he had to pause and take a breath; but by the time he heard the front door closing, his arm was wrapped in clean white gauze from wrist to elbow, and the pain had dulled to a constant throbbing.
He went downstairs and prowled down the room at the end of the corridor. The lock was charmed to resist Alohomora, but Draco had had a copy of the keys for years.
He closed the door behind, and forgetting for once the stash of liquors in the cabinet he went directly for the bookshelf. He remembered the book well, a thick tome bound in blue leather with silver bosses. He had browsed it only once, when as a child he had snuck into Father's study and rummaged through his papers. He had not even been reprimanded for his escapade; surely Father had figured out that nightmares the book would give him were punishment enough. With a heavy sigh, he crouched in a corner and opened Truths and Myths about the Dark Creatures: an Illustrated Guide.
"Wolves are no more in England, having been exterminated by Muggle hunters. Thus if one attacks, especially at the full moon, it will certainly be a cursed beast..."
There goes my last hope, he thought darkly.
Differences between a common wolf and a werewolf, however, had certainly been exaggerated. In no way the beast he had encountered possessed "human eyes, a short snout, gibbous withers and the ability to walk on its hind legs". Nonetheless, he kept reading.
"The attacks vary in ferociousness from beast to beast and from time to time: bites may be ravaging, with great amount of flesh ripped out, or shallow punctures that barely bleed. The outcome, however, never changes: come their first full moon, the bitten persons will fall under the curse and run around in wolf-form, searching for prey, and spreading the disease further."
Suddenly Draco raised his head; he had thought he has heard Mother calling. He stood still, with a keen ear, but heard nothing more and delved again into the book, turning page after page with an increasing repulsion.
"Maximum care needs to be taken in preventing attacks, for no cure for the condition exists."
"The curse… spreads through the bloodstream all but instantaneously… one young wizard, who had received but a scratch in the ankle, bravely cut his own leg and sealed the wound with fire... to no avail... he was finally put down..."
"No," he murmured. Cold sweat was freezing on the nape of his neck and he felt like he needed to throw up. Frantically, he flipped the pages until he reached a minuscule section titled,"Managing the Condition."
The flanking illustrations depicted a thin black wolf with bloodshot eyes restrained onto a wooden table while two mediwitches and a huge Auror stood by, wands at the ready. The straps had dug into the flesh at its neck and paws, and foamy spit was trickling onto the gag bit stuck in its mouth. Below that picture, the same scene as it appeared hours (days?) later; the restraints had been unfastened and a little old wizard was sitting on the table. There were red marks on the his wrists and ankles where the straps had chafed the skin, and he was smiling feebly for the benefit of the engraver, but his eyes told a different story.
Draco slammed the book shut, gave a quivering sigh and leaned back against the wall, his eyes closed.