PROLOGUE - 1998
'Go and fetch Snape.'
'Snape, m-my Lord?'
'Snape. Now. I need him. There is a – service – I require from him. Go.'
Biting his lip to suppress a moan – his broken ribs still hadn't healed, and Bella had had a bit of fun with him before they left for Hogwarts – Lucius rose and dragged himself to the door. He had to open it with his left hand. Bella had stepped on his right wrist, and it felt like a mass of bone splinters. It probably was.
The night air felt cool and fresh on his face, but the sensation of relief was fleeting at best. He had no idea where Severus was, and he didn't have a wand to perform a Location Charm. If he didn't find Snape, Voldemort wasn't going to be pleased. Then, Voldemort would find him, and… Not that it mattered much. He was dead either way, whether they won the battle or the others did. They. Lucius chuckled to himself, then stopped abruptly because it made his ribs hurt even more.
He'd ceased considering himself a part of "they" some time ago. Too late, though, too late. He ought to have fled as soon as his foot touched the ground outside Azkaban. But Voldemort would have located him, without doubt; if the Dark Lord meant to find you, there was no such thing as sanctuary. Voldemort would have pursued and found him, punished him, and probably killed him. Or, if he'd been feeling particularly lenient, dragged him home, to imprison him in his own house. By choosing to go back there directly, after he'd been released from prison, Lucius had merely taken a shortcut.
In a fleeting vision Lucius saw the image of his life as it had been during the past three years. It looked like a maze. A labyrinth with only one entrance – by following Voldemort's call to the graveyard in Little Hangleton – he'd done so almost without hesitation because the Dark Mark suddenly flaring into pain had been such a shock, not a surprise, really, but he'd hoped against all hope that he'd been wrong… By obeying the Dark Lord's summons he'd stepped across the threshold; the door had sealed up seamlessly and irrevocably after he'd gone through, and could never again be found. And whichever path he chose, it led to the centre in which Death lurked. Before Azkaban, he had scarcely ever thought of Death. While he was in prison, he'd pictured Death looking like a Dementor, faceless, cold and reeking of dark decay. But that had become a distant memory; he couldn't imagine a Death now that didn't have a high, sibilant voice, red eyes and a snake he set at you when he'd decided that your time had come.
He sighed and winced at the stab of agony that pierced his whole body. After the agony of the mind and soul at Azkaban, he'd become accustomed to physical pain this last year. It had never been as bad as tonight though. Bella was an expert when it came to pain – Crucio was for torturing, but if the pain was to last and develop a life of its own, broken bones and crushed flesh and torn tendons were a lot more effective.
Lucius stumbled and almost fell. A wizard alone in the dark, without a wand to light his path. It was probably a metaphor for something, and if he didn't hurt so much, he might be able to find out. Swearing under his breath, he tried to pull himself upright. His ribs hurt less if he stood upright, but getting there needed all his willpower. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something stir in the shadows, guessing the movement rather than seeing it. Something blacker and more compact than the darkness; it didn't make a sound.
'Who's there?' Lucius called out softly, surprised at the hoarseness of his own voice. He must have screamed a lot. He didn't remember too well, not his own voice. Bella's shrieks of laughter had been all he heard.
He let out a sigh of relief. Not an enemy, then, or at least not an enemy from amongst Potter's followers. It might well be an enemy from Voldemort's ranks: there were many who'd hated him in secret and now saw no reason anymore to dissimulate their loathing. 'Yes,' he replied. 'Who are you?'
The dark shape emerged from the cover of a tree trunk. 'Are you wounded?'
Lucius snorted. 'In more than one sense, yes I am. Nothing lethal, though, for now.'
'I didn't think he'd take you to battle without a wand. Or has he given you a new one?'
'No, I'm still wandless. And I don't believe he intends me to fight. He just brought me along as his whipping boy, although right now, I'm being used as errand boy.'
'Errand boy? What does he want you to fetch?'
A sudden gust of wind carried the sounds of fighting towards them. Then, a short silence; both men raised their heads to listen to the dull rumbling that followed; probably a turret or a section of the castle's wall had come down.
'Me?' Snape said after a while.
'He requires a service, or so he said.'
'That's what he's been doing since he branded me. Nothing more specific?'
'Not to me, no. He merely sent me to find you. He's in the Shrieking Shack.'
Snape nodded. 'I'll go then.' An alarm spell rising up into the night sky briefly made the two wizards visible to each other, their faces tinged with red, and Snape touched Lucius's shoulder. 'Draco?'
A shudder ran through Lucius. 'May be dead for all I know. I tried to persuade… him to stop the battle, but… He won't be manipulated, not anymore. Not by me.'
'I must go,' Snape said.
Lucius nodded. 'It seems you have no other choice. I wish-' He fell silent abruptly.
'Don't we all,' Snape said dryly. 'But this is no time for wishes.'
'Do you think we're going to come out of this alive?'
Snape shrugged. 'Somehow…' He exhaled and passed a hand over his eyes. 'It doesn't seem overly important just now. I just want it all to end, no matter how.' His voice, gritty and harsh, betrayed his exhaustion.
The dried blood at the corner of Lucius's mouth flaked off as he smiled. 'Will you tell me whose side you are on?'
'Are you saying you haven't figured it out? I really must be going now, Lucius.' He turned and walked away briskly, towards the noise and dust of the battle.
'I have,' Lucius muttered into the night. 'And that's why I'm pretty sure that you're walking towards your death, you imbecile. But' – he drew a deep breath with difficulty – 'I don't particularly want you to die.'
Trying to ignore the throbbing in his injured body, he followed Snape back to the Shrieking Shack.
'Blast those kids,' Lucius muttered. He'd almost run into Potter and his two friends – how they'd come to be there, he had no idea. Fortunately they'd made quite a racket as they clambered up through the trap door, and so he'd been able to slip back into his corner before any of them glimpsed him.
He watched the trio, silently willing them to leave before it was too late. The wounds in Severus's throat were gushing blood at an alarming rate. If the three lingered for much longer…
Then, finally, they were gone, and Lucius entered the room. He knelt down next to Snape's body and picked up the wand that had slipped from his lifeless hands. The rush of magic washing over him was exhilarating, but there was no time to be lost savouring the sensation. 'Sutureo!' he pronounced, touching the bite wounds in turn. They closed, and Lucius smiled to himself. He'd half expected them to resist a simple healing spell, but then Voldemort had always been far too full of himself to bother with details. Such as, for example, the small but important fact that it took Nagini two days to produce an amount of venom sufficient to poison a wound beyond healing. His Lordship had made her execute the leader of the Hogsmeade squadron a few hours ago. The snake had evidently poured her whole supply of venom into him; there'd been nothing left for Severus.
He reached for the unconscious wizard's wrist, automatically using his right hand. The resulting jolt of pain nearly made him vomit. Wrist and hand had swollen to twice their size and were an ugly dark blue streaked with red. 'Bitch,' he muttered under his breath and pointed Snape's wand at the injured limb. It was a little awkward, because he wasn't used to doing spells holding the wand in his left hand, but flesh, bone and tendon knitted obediently back together, and the swelling was significantly reduced. Lucius breathed a sigh of relief and aimed at his ribs, now using his right hand, to set the broken bones. The rest would have to wait until later; for now he could cope.
'Very well,' he said to himself. He picked up Snape's limp arm and felt for a pulse. It was weak, but definitely there. 'Now let's see,' he said, patting down the other wizard's body, 'whether you've had the foresight… Ah. There they are.' He opened Snape's waistcoat – the man was nothing but skin and bones, he noticed fleetingly – and retrieved two bottles from an inner pocket. 'You could've labelled them, you moron,' he addressed Snape. 'Because' – he uncorked first one and then the other – 'I'm not sure if I can distinguish them by their smell. But I'm sure the antivenin wouldn't do you any good, seeing as there is no poison in your bloodstream. Now let me think…'
Lucius sat down on the dirty floor, holding the bottles close to his face. 'The blood replenishing potion must contain hibiscus and nettle, and therefore…' He smelled both bottles. 'There we are. A faint note of hibiscus, and a hint of redcurrant distillate. That has to be it.' He rose to his knees and cautiously lifted Snape's upper body, careful to support the head with his bicep so it didn't loll back. 'And now be a good boy, Severus, and swallow.'
The drops he let fall between the other wizard's parted lips were a faint pink. He counted ten of them, then carefully put the stopper back into the small bottle and waited. Nothing happened.
Lucius sighed. 'If you don't swallow soon, you stubborn idiot, it'll be too late. All right,' he said when Snape still hadn't swallowed five seconds later. 'All right, on your head be it. And if you drown in a glass of water that isn't even real, you'll have to blame yourself for it. Because' – he conjured a small beaker containing water – 'I can't very well pour the whole bottle of potion down your throat, unless I want your blood vessels to explode with the pressure. And I believe I've already made it sufficiently clear that I don't want you to die, you double-crossing traitor. I'll need every character witness I can get hold of.'
The sip of water he managed to transfer into Snape's mouth had the expected effect: part of it was swallowed, but some of it went down the wrong pipe and triggered a coughing fit.
'You ought to have waited,' Snape panted when he'd recovered his breath. 'It takes more time if you just let osmosis do the job, but it works. Through the mucous membranes,' he added, seeing Malfoy's frown.
'I would express my thanks for the improvised lesson in mediwizardry,' Lucius said snidely, 'but I think I'm going to leave that for later. Right now, I have to go and find my son. Can you walk on your own?' He reluctantly pressed the wand back into Snape's waiting hand.
'I think I can. How long have I been out? What happened…'
'He gave them one hour.' Lucius helped Snape sit up and slid back down to sit opposite him on the floor. 'Fifteen minutes have passed so far. He's playing with his prey, Severus, and that's never a good sign.'
'Did Potter take the memories?'
'He did, although he would probably have scooped them up with his bare hands, if that Granger girl hadn't conjured a flask. What did you give him?'
'Oh, this and that,' Snape replied with a thin smile. 'When Vol – when he set the snake at me, I was sure I had a decent chance to survive. Although I hadn't factored in Potter's appearance, or that it would take him quite that long to be gone. When they'd left, I was in no condition to reach the potions. If it hadn't been for you…'
'Behold Lucius Malfoy, the fearless knight in shining armour. So what the fuck did you give him, Severus?'
'Look at it this way: If Potter's killed and His Lordship wins, I'll just have to run as far and as fast as I can. As will you. If, on the other hand, Potter wins, then, my dear friend, I'll need him as a witness, unless I want to spend the rest of my life in Azkaban, which is not what I intend to do. So I gave him what he needs to know, for both his and my sake. Looked at from a slightly skewed angle, it's almost a win-win situation.'
Lucius shrugged. 'It may be for you. I wish I could say the same for myself.'
'What? Lucius, you've been without a wand and under house arrest for almost a whole year. If that isn't enough of a ladder for you to climb out of the deepest of shit-holes, I'd be very surprised indeed. If Potter wins, that is.'
'You're convinced that he will, aren't you?'
'Let's say I have reason to believe he will.'
'I suppose it's something to do with that prophecy our Master wanted so badly… Anyway, considering that it's you saying this, it practically counts as unbridled optimism.' Lucius scrambled to his feet. 'Now I really have to leave. Good luck, Severus.'
Snape looked up at the other wizard, winced and gingerly touched his throat. The bites had healed well; there was an angry red welt on either side of his Adam's apple, but the skin had sealed up completely. 'Same to you, Lucius. You'll need it.'