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Harry woke up to soft, discordant mumbling. He pushed himself off the warm floor and looked over his shoulder at his company, in the process eliciting cricks from his stiff bones and uncovering the pain in areas with the flushest contact with the unyielding floor.
Harry owned the side wall facing Hermione's and Ron was sitting against his own wall, which faced the hallway to which their cavern was adjoined. He was counting the individual freckles that dusted his pale, grimly skin with rapt concentration. Hermione was huddled in her corner murmuring broken passages which Harry had determined to originate from a textbook for her favourite subject Study of Ancient Runes. No book, however, was in sight.
Harry stretched and yawned and relaxed and ran his tongue across his teeth, which had not seen a brush for the better part of two months. He slid to his own corner, crossed his arms and legs and as always used the soft glow of golden torchlight as a soporific to attempt to seduce his waking somnolence from leaving if it could shorten his day even for just an hour. He partly closed his eyes, keeping the light in view, and stared at his knees and dreamt of shooting straight up into sky on his Firebolt, the ascent so epic it whistled, he could almost feel the vibration of his broom deepening as always happened when it was upright, could almost feel the air growing colder and thinner. The ground beneath him was shrinking and twisting away fast, but the sky always darkened incommensurately slow.
The behaviours of the three friends were no stranger than their surroundings of iron bars and hard, most stone floor.
Voldemort had assembled a massive army and crushed the Hogwarts defensive. It was his headquarters now. Harry, Ron and Hermione were stowed in the lowest array of dungeons beneath the castle, caged away like animals from the rest of their fellow captives.
Harry had seen each one of his other friends dragged out of neighbouring cells and claimed by either a Death Eater, a social climber or adolescents could have graduated from Hogwarts a year or two ago. And so easily his friends were condemned to a life of slavery: Neville, Dean, Seamus, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Parvati Patil, her twin sister Padma, Fred, George and more. They were systematically ripped away from family and friend and the iron bars onto which they feebly clung.
Ron had turned bestial when the dark-cloaked guards accompanying a buyer had come to collect both Fred and George – a mercy Harry had thought would have pacified Ron somewhat. But his friend had lost half a tooth trying to bring down the gate to reach his brothers and gained a twitch after enduring two unbroken minutes of the Cruciatus Curse. During the torture the guard had cast another spell on Ron, on whose body gashes cut themselves apparent. The sight of his electrified blood, which for an instant was an unnatural, orange-glowing pool – had not left Harry six weeks later.
Ron had healed more with time than the lay ministrations of Hermione, who had managed to seal the wounds with an unbelievable piece of wandless magic. Harry knew she was fond of floating fire balls. Apparently so fond that she could call them to her palms and burned Ron's wounds closed. Ron, before she had done so, had pointed out that all they needed do was apply pressure on the gashes. Hermione had countered that they were too large to leave to pressure alone. Hence Ron had spent the following weeks attached to the slightly cold iron bars to alleviate the pain from his mild burns.
"Do you have any fanning charms somewhere in those hands of yours for my burns?" Ron had grumbled.
That his brothers did not share his floor or were not anywhere in the castle led Ron to countless hours sitting on the floor and counting his freckles for hours upon hours to the point that he developed pressure sores and had to sit on his hips. He had now returned to the habit and must have grown used to the sting on his buttocks – it was certainly nothing to his burns.
Their single and only source of relief was that Voldemort had not cared for a personal visit to their stony abode and taken away any one of them. Their suspicion of the absence of Voldemort's interest in them was dissipated by the endless stretch of hours and their renewed thankfulness whenever a student was bought and taken upstairs. At first Harry had thought Voldemort would have done so or even killed his friends in front of him to crush his spirit. But that now seemed a comical anxiety.
Harry did not know why they were the last to remain in the dungeons; everyone else had been taken. Perhaps no one wanted them – they were the worst disgraced after all, for if Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix had been the face of the crushed opposition, Harry, Ron and Hermione were undoubtedly the nose.
He dreaded with all his being the day those iron bars would creak open and make way for the person who was going to take either of them away from the other. He knew without qualification his fear was shared, it was just never spoken of aloud, it was too fearsome to contemplate. He was vulnerable by his emotional attachment to Ron and Hermione, the Weasleys and a good number more. It would have been more bearable had he had few and little to love.
The shock of defeat and knowing that they lay at the mercy of Voldemort took a while to come to terms with for those who fought against him. Most of those who had not been killed were held captive in the castle's sprawling dungeons which no one knew existed. And that Harry knew winter had only just crept in made the humidity in the dungeons all the more unhelpfully repulsive. He was now on a mouth-shredding, iron filings diet of irony that induced unexpectable moments of hilarity and pain and sorrow. The one place where they all thought they were safest was the same place in which his fellow schoolmates and teachers were toyed with and sold off like livestock.
It took Harry a few seconds to realize the torchlight had flickered when a guard walked across the gate, stooped and pushed through a small gap at the base of the barrier three dirty bowls and three gold-wrapped slabs. The guard straightened, without the usual groan, and stalked out of sight with a slight loftiness to which his three charges were not used.
Breakfast was served.
Their meals were an alternation of murky oats and lumpy maize porridge, both complimented by a slab of hazelnut chocolate (when breakfast came on the first day of their capture, having worked off their righteous indignation and their whirring minds had relented on concocting impossible plots in which they were broken out of the dungeons, and they had unwrapped their slabs to find it was chocolate they had started off slowly but ended up heaving on the floor with tears running down their flushed faces, amused in and by their new abyss; it was quite priceless). They needed to keep their sugar up, of course. It was rather considerate. They crawled toward the bowls, grabbed them and the chocolates and returned to their spots. Ron always began with the chocolate.
He had correctly guessed the oats but the porridge was foreign on his tongue and had to consult his friends, for his eyesight lacked unfunnily without glasses, which lay broken in his pocket. Try though Hermione had, her wandless effort had been futile. Nonetheless the broken spectacles were something of a source of morose pride for Harry to still possess: apart from the clothes on their back they owned nothing. He was, in effect, in some strange way, less poor than his friends.
Before the oats and porridge they had been served a grey, runny mass, an excuse for gruel which turned out their stomachs. The regurgitated meal had nowhere else to go and the floor was already running with their excreta which had filled up and spilled over the pit in the corner between Harry's wall and the iron bars. The guard never cleaned the entire pit but left just enough urine and faeces to which they would add and fill up the pit in a matter of days. The dungeon floor was slightly uneven and their excretions ran across the cavern. Today it was clean only because the guard had "fucked the tightest pussy ever! On my mum's, I swear! Pretty, fresh and hairless. Found meself a new fetish, mate," which explained the spring in his step. The three Gryffindors ate ravenously in silence.
The guard came back a few minutes later to take the dishes away, but he did not close the gate this time. Instead someone else walked in.
Severus Snape had never seemed to be a man of much patience. More improbable still was that he harboured any vestiges of useless hope, be it that for a free world or the escape of one Albus Dumbledore.
A few seconds ago a pair of guards had charged into his office and declared the headmaster missing.
"He just wasn't there!" one of the guards had pant, panic wild in his eyes.
Snape for an instant seemed to be gripped by panic as well felt. He flew out of the office without a thought to spare to his brewing potion and descended to the dungeons. Being the right hand of Lord Voldemort came with a stable of commitments. It was simply a matter of making the choice with the marginally smaller consequence. He had decided that Dumbledore's alleged escape was more pressing than brewing a potion that could verify magical ancestry.
Snape's footsteps resounded fleetingly on the stone floor as he glided down the passage. The cage holding Dumbledore and some of his closest staff was distinctly distant from those of the students. He stopped sharply at the iron bars. Minerva McGonagall was perched rigidly on the floor like a propped-up doll with her hands cradled sombrely in her lap. Yet, despite her grime stains and the tattered condition of her robe, there was a proud tightness to her drawn face that would give one pause before they thought they were looking at a prisoner.
McGonagall's eyes flickered upon Snape's appearance and she stared at her former colleague with restrained repulsion.
"Minerva," said Snape, his eyes glittering darkly down at her.
"Severus," McGonagall said in her cool, clipped tone, her gaze just as sharp ever but ever so weary.
Snape glanced at either side of the passage. "Would you care to explain what happened?"
McGonagall's lips compressed into thin white strips of flesh before she spoke. "Dumbledore's familiar somehow managed to swoop into this chamber, and as soon as it landed on him he was gone."
Professor Sprout, Flitwick, Trelawney and Sinistra nodded mutely. One corner of Snape's mouth curled at Professor Trelawney; indeed her solemn demeanour and gesture of agreement afforded the Divinations teacher a modicum of sanity, something which had distinctly lacked in her suggestions in staff meetings. Inviting a capricious, full-fledged Centaur as a guest teacher for her classes had been one of the lesser stretches of her uneven imagination. This had been despite the fact that her opinions in matters discussed at such meetings had seldom been prompted – for good reason: not to endure misty proclamations of the influences of celestial bodies on the pragmatic undertakings of the faculty.
Snape asked McGonagall in a much lower voice, "Do you think he has gone to gather forces elsewhere?"
Snape would not have dared to ask this question if he had not absolute faith in his Occlumency skills to withstand Voldemort's probe.
McGonagall took a breath and released a deep sigh. "I'm tempted to believe so, yes, Severus. It is a possibility," she answered carefully and tiredly.
Snape nodded. He rolled his dark eyes around the dungeon before he took off in a flurry of black robes down the dingy corridor.
Draco Apparated in front of the gates of Hogwarts. He had nearly done the unthinkable at Manor Malfoy. His father had grown sick and there was no sign of recovery after weeks of plummeting health Draco suspected was brought on by the heavy demands of being the Dark Lord's second-in-command. Indeed he had been about to be promoted to Minister of Magic.
So his father had ordered his own son to kill him. A Malfoy succumbed to nothing, he had whispered proudly, not even illness. He lay in his death bed, looking deflated and desiccated, and lifted his chin, staring up at the piece of wood pointed at him. He did not spare a final glance at his wife sitting silently at the ornate couch a few metres away, staring into the breathtaking expense of the manor through the window.
Draco nodded at his father and willed away the tears that threatened to spill. He would not perpetrate the disgrace of crying in front of his father when he was moments from leaving this world. He would give his father his strength as a parting gift, the certainty that his only son was strong. He would look into those cold grey eyes that he had inherited and dutifully carry it out. A parting gift.
With a final, bracing swallow and another deep look into those proud silver pools, Draco uttered the last words he would ever say to his father.
Every stride of his through the oaken doors leading into the Entrance Hall was resolute and at full stretch. He passed through another pair of tall doors and crossed the length of the Great Hall. He tamed his surprise and schooled his features back in order when he discovered that there were, instead of four, only two tables pushed slightly closer to the centre of the Hall. On his right were his former Slytherin Housemates who were chatting amicably and enjoying their meal as though it were an ordinary day and there was not Draco's right another table upon which naked pairs and trios and some quartets of Gryffindors involved in some of the most perverted sexual acts Draco could imagine, while most of their equally naked fellow Gryffindors sat in the seats lining the table eating their breakfast – laughless, banterless and downcast.
Unable to turn away, Draco watched Dennis Creevey sodomize his older brother, who made sharp gasps which were muffled around Neville's penis and absorbed into the small, saliva-slicked tuft of hair at its base as Colin sucked it. 'How old are these kids?' Draco found himself asking in his shock. Beside them, Dean Thomas was thrusting steadily into Parvati Patil. Draco's stomach had suddenly turned cement. At least they're keeping warm, he thought with false bravado.
The Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff Houses had evidently been dissolved. Only one House sufficed to meet the whims of Voldemort. Draco strongly suspected the scarf-clad Pansy Parkinson, Vincent Crabbe, Gregory Goyle, Blaise Zabini – his circle of friends – Theodore Nott, other Slytherins and some students from other Houses had defected for their own safety shortly before the Dark Lord's takeover. They sat together, conversation strained in some spheres along the table. For some of them their newfound loyalty to the Dark Lord had guarded them against death or being sold off to sick men for reasons that Draco need not imagine. Soon, he knew, some of them would be inducted as Death Brothers, a high honour indeed.
Draco reached the High Table and bowed before Voldemort. "My Lord," he proclaimed as he tried to put what he had just witnessed out of mind.
Voldemort gave Draco a dazzling smile in reply. "Young Malfoy, how good of you to join us."
Only in his most unguarded moments would Draco ever admit the Dark Lord was striking. He had only recently enjoyed the company of his master which he had earned after receiving communications from him by a proxy who no longer existed, so he could not determine when the Dark Lord had gradually morphed from that pale, flat face with red gleaming eyes to this gorgeous, timeless, young man in front of him with deceivingly soft hazel eyes; fresh, pale skin; wavy, dark hair, hollow cheeks, and a handsome, cutting jawline.
"Of course, My Lord," Draco said, lengthening his smirk.
"How's your father?" enquired Voldemort, his voice mellowing lightly and with a slight frown creasing his forehead. But the hazel eyes remained ever beautiful and ever depthless.
Draco swallowed hard. "He's passed away, My Lord. He chose for me to take his life rather than his illness to take his last breath," he answered before his eyes strayed to glass the filled dark-red liquid underneath Voldemort's gaze. It was the finest red wine from one of his family's vineyards attached to the handful of villas they owned sprinkled across Europe. The Dark Lord had secured the loyalty of one of the oldest and most influential pureblood families that the magical world has ever known. And now he was the chief commander in a new chapter in Wizarding history. The Malfoys could not afford not to be part of it.
Voldemort raised an eyebrow and seemed impressed for a moment. But after his eyes glazed over briefly there grew a knowing, touched expression on his face. "Draco, you mustn't feel compelled to pretend. You're not ready and I understand. Your father was a fine man, Draco, and he achieved a stupendous amount in you. I couldn't have asked for a better soldier." He bestowed upon Draco a small, proud smile.
Draco, too, had a slightly away look in his eyes for a spell; he could barely see anything in front of him but the pulsing white and purple spots which had suddenly populated his vision. The Dark Lord knew. He always knew. Draco forced a nod. "Thank you, My Lord."
"I reckon I shouldn't keep you from your errand. I trust you're here to pick up something? Or rather, a few things?"
"Yes, My Lord. I believe they were reserved for me. I can't say I won't enjoy this little arrangement."
Voldemort chuckled lightly and wore a sympathetic, pitying expression. But he obligingly wagged a long finger and chided, "Now, now, Draco, don't get overexcited. Of course I do expect that I will be granted access to one of those things from time to time, correct?"
Draco was not fooled. It was neither a question nor a request but simply a kind reminder.
"Of course, My Lord," he said with a carefully bemused smile and making sure to affect a tone of affront. He bowed before he turned on his heel and headed for the bowels of the castle. He strode past the dank, empty cells accompanied by a haggard, spent-looking guard before arriving at an occupied one. Its guard nodded at the two of them and opened the gate for Draco. The guard collected the empty bowls and slunk out of sight while his colleague kept watch of the proceedings in the cell.
Draco could not help but avoid the grime-smeared faces of his former schoolmates. He drew his wand and anticipated the sudden, instinctive jerk in Potter's body, feeling unholy and poisoned by the sudden pouring of admiration. Potter had always bested him in their encounters and had always been someone Draco infuriatingly had never felt to fully master. He hated not getting his way. The Weasley was a simpleton plebeian not worth his consideration and the Mudblood by definition was not worth his consideration.
Draco's nostrils flared upon sighting the toilet. He looked away and Transfigured a very spartan metal chair. He was rather pleased with it; Transfiguration was the one subject for which he averaged less than ninety percent, only because Professor McGonagall had been distracted rewarding the Mudblood House points for apparent precociousness and calling Weasley and Potter into order and not seen his more than competent work.
After dusting imaginary dirt off his pristine and plainly expensive robes, Draco perched himself on the chair, crossed his arms and legs and began speaking at once, still avoiding their persons.
"You will become my slaves and accompany me to my home."
The announcement was flat, bored, unpitying and uncondescending. It was stated as though it were after the fact. It was to inform, not negotiate. Of course Draco had revealed that it was largely his mother's doing that he was here claiming his new slaves. He was ambivalent about keeping slaves at all, let alone his mother's choice of these specific set of slaves.
It must be beyond mortifying to be owned by one's former school nemesis, Draco thought. The three Gryffindors seemed neither shocked nor righteously indignant at his statements – nor did he expected them to be. This dour place, seeing their bodily products in plain sight and feeling their warm odour wafting off them must have absented their pride a while ago. It was no surprise the trio had barely reacted to his words at all. However, if he was surprised at their quiet acceptance of their new fate, he did not show it but went on speaking.
"I needn't point out that this is the best you could have hoped for. Am I correct?"
Did he actually expect an answer? Did his new charges feel obliged to respond? But of course he was right. The Gryffindor trio only had each other now, and the possibility of being separated must be intolerable. Rather they faced the ignominy of being enslaved him together than owned by some aspirant bourgeoisie who thought their small fortunes could buy them a good place in the Dark Lord's consideration, or worse: a Death Eater.
Harry, Ron and Hermione looked down at the floor. They could not bring themselves to concede. Harry could not even bare to look at his old schoolmate in the eye in all his scarf- and polo-neck-clad repulsiveness. It was humiliating. He should have seen this day coming. The Dark forces had won and undoubtedly so had the House of Malfoy. But Harry should have got used to this idea a long time ago. What was more humiliating than being stripped naked and Cruciated in front of hundreds of laughing and jeering faces in the Great Hall?
Malfoy appeared to take the silence as assent. But then suddenly a dark emotion reared him slightly in his chair and he narrowed his eyes on the raven-haired boy.
"I warned you, Potter, didn't I?" Malfoy hissed.
Harry looked up, surprised, and blinked at the stately prince in front of him.
"Remember? First year, on the train? I warned you this would happen, but then you..." Malfoy took a deep, slow breath. Harry imagined Malfoy was remonstrating himself severely for betraying emotion. He stood up from his chair. "Shall we?" he said as he gestured at the gate, his voice freshly detached.
Harry, Ron and Hermione looked up again at Malfoy. This was actually happening – they were going home with Draco Malfoy as their new master. A boy their own age owning them. It only took the ponytail tied by a black silk ribbon to remind Harry how close Malfoy approximated Lucius. The both of them, he thought, were vain and prissy. He, Ron and Hermione exchanged brief glances before they stood up wearily. The action flooded feeling into places they had forgotten they had: bones cracked and muscles whined and twitched. Harry snarled when a spasm pulled the instep of his right foot, and the small of his back screamed upon the return of weight it was now forced to bear without warning. For so long they had not stood on their feet.
They followed Malfoy outside the cell. The guard grunted at Malfoy and sneered at the sight of the other three. He slammed the gate shut, pulled out his wand and ordered the three slaves to hold out their wrists. Harry, Ron and Hermione, all of whom were overwhelmed with the exhilaration of stepping onto what felt like new ground even though it was mere centimetres away from the cell, felt a thin, cold, invisible binding force tie their wrists and ankles when the guard pointed his wand at them consecutively. He then motioned for them to move and escorted Malfoy to the end of the passage.
Harry's pulse quickened at the prospect of seeing and feeling atmosphere again on his parched skin. It had been two months since he had been outside and now he could not wait to finally enjoy that simple pleasure again. Never again will he take for granted that small, seemingly inconsequential liberty.
The haggard-looking guard at the end of the passage reached with a large, woody hand in his cloak and pulled out three wands. He gave the three Gryffindors leering once-overs as he handed the wands to Malfoy, his face indulgent. Malfoy tapped each wand with his wand as he muttered a spell, and the three wands disappeared out of sight. The guard seem to share the trio's astonishment but Malfoy explained nothing, dismissed his incredulity and strode around him. He did not look back to check if the three teenagers would follow him. Harry, Ron and Hermione, having not understood what had just happened, proceeded behind him.
When Harry noticed Hermione fold her arms he realized the floor was growing appreciably colder as they left the dungeons, which were warm and slightly moist.
There was an eerie absence of clamour as they approached the Great Hall, and Harry felt a distant sense of alarm. What happened to those happy, cheerful, care-free laughs and chatter? He never thought he would ever miss the sound of giggling Hufflepuffs. He caught Ron and Hermione craning their necks to snatch a glimpse of the inside of the Great Hall. Knowing that it would be futile if he tried to do so left him with a searing pang in his chest. In their first excursion outside the dark cells, everything Harry saw and felt was unsurprisingly vague, noisy and unclear. He now did not react with overt wide-eyed incredulity at whatever that warranted it when it came his way – the innocence borne of that capacity left the same day the cheer left Hogwarts. Those reactions were too expensive to conjure. But the scene they had just witnessed, in a place where all positivity and happiness was most concentrated in all the world, painted for Harry the most vivid picture of a world in shadow.
The doors of the Entrance Hall slowly opened. In looming daylight the three prisoners appeared shrunk and dull. Stepping outside into the cool, wintry breeze, a part of Harry feared his brain would not be able to process fast enough to experience it fully. After weeks of sitting in a dark, dank cell, the tired and frosted surroundings were bursting with pure colour in his eyes. His vision also seemed to ripen in defiance of its lacking state and unworn spectacles. The pictures of the washed-out Scottish highlands rolling underneath Hogwarts, the grave, sparsely flush trees and the grey, monolithic castle walls plied themselves on his eyeballs. And the new, delightfully crisp, clean smells stuffed themselves up his nostrils – so different to the heavy, stuffy ones of body heat, sweat and the trapped warmth of the underground he used to breathe. He opened his hands to feel the cool air run between his fingers. And his brain was active and working, not sitting stagnantly inside his cranium atrophying with every recount of freckles and recital of textbook passages and replay of a fading film of flying.
Harry turned to Ron and Hermione, wondering how they were taking all this in. After what felt like an age, he saw something different in their faces: the hesitation to smile.
"Don't worry about your wands," Malfoy drawled as soon as they were outside out of the castle and heading for the gate, "they're hidden away safely at the manor; I could not help contemplate the possibility of the three of you subduing me and reclaiming them, an incredibly impossible scenario though it may be."
Harry's eyes fell upon Hagrid's cottage, above whose chimney no smoke bellowed to stave off the chill: his giant friend was not there. Was he hiding, or was he already slain? Harry added these questions into the mental reservoir of considerations isolated from his active attention, to where all those other many depressing thoughts tended to be drained by the sheer forces of time and lethargy.
Harry wondered where the rain was; it should be pouring.