Something in the Night
The Manor is cold and quiet. It is not a loveless place, yet nevertheless it is filled with secrets and shadows that lengthen with the setting sun. It is home, however, and in youth, this is all that is understood. What may outwardly seem a prejudice can be, to a child, the comfort of a familiar smell or the embrace of an old, once discarded toy. It is only upon the bridge between childhood and adulthood that what was right becomes wrong, and what was wrong becomes habit.
Lucius slips quietly from his bed, so late that even the house-elves sleep. His father's snores echo from the chamber at the end of the corridor. He has no reason for his wakefulness, just as no one who wanders in the dead of night has a deep purpose for doing so, yet does so all the same.
The enchanted torchlight from the old-fashioned brackets fixed to the wall guides his way down the silent, spiral stairs. He is still young enough that he dares not venture beyond what is lit, for fear of whatever might lurk within the unknown; and so he travels the path set before him.
Tonight, the torches lead him to the library, and this is new; last month, it had been the kitchens, and the month before that, a circle returning to his own bedroom. He pauses before the great, looming entryway, but a wind-like draft moans softly behind him, frightening him for a skittish moment so that he quickly steps inside.
A fire roars to life in its expansive hearth, as merry as any he has ever known. Lucius has been taught to read, and has learned with the proficiency demanded of him, but he has never felt the urgency to make this place his regular haunt. Not even during winter afternoons, when his mother forbids him from venturing out onto the grounds. But now, it is a mystery that needs solving because there are no other adventures to be found tonight.
Lucius patrols between each ceiling-high shelf, inspecting every book he can reach as if to choose one is to decide its fate. Short books, thick books, wide books, old books, new books; they pass beneath his fingertips and leave a residue of dust.
His first pick cannot be removed from the shelf. It seems only stuck at first, and he pulls at it impatiently; but he jumps back in shock the next time he tries to touch it, for his hand passes through it as if through a ghost. (A moment later he scowls, displeased by the humanity of surprise.)
His second pick, much smaller than the first, looks harmless enough. Quiet enough. But this one, too, proves its fault, for as soon as he opens it, it lets forth a scream that curdles his blood and resonates inside his bones, even after he has slammed it shut. Lucius holds his breath, waiting for his father's startled roar or his mother's quiet shriek, the pop of Apparition, but nothing comes. Luck is in his favor tonight. Luck wishes him to continue.
There is a tingle in his skin as his grey eyes spy a collection of parchment wedged between two books. A few old sheets, an uneven sideways pile—this is what Lucius likes best: catching something that is not meant to be there. The most valuable knowledge is always obtained from the forbidden.
He is careful as he grasps its nearest corner, slowly extricating it from its surroundings with a patience that he will, in a few years, outgrow. He brushes off the dust, keeping it away from his clothes, and sneezes. And then he looks.
He sees only runes at first, penned out across the parchment in a bold, black ink that has not faded. Disappointment rises. As a rule, Lucius pays much time and little attention to the study of ancient runes, finding them dull.
But then the disappointment, the sheer ending of something that has only begun, falls away. In fainter ink, there are scrawls of notes between the lines, the runes, inside the margins. The handwriting appears almost familiar, perhaps the fixture in a letter he once read, although his grandfather is the only person who ever writes him letters.
Lucius puts the top parchment behind the last, flipping through the pages. There are runes, and then there are runes, and then there are runes, and then—a translation; it reads as much at the top of the final page. The next line, centered: The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, original.
Lucius knows this story. He knows of the guiltless wizard and the cruel, evil Muggles who seek his death. He knows of the pot that protects this wizard by consuming his foes until those that remain are pathetic, helpless animals. He knows the sharp tone in his father's rich voice as the conclusion is reached: Show no kindness to Muggles, for they seek to destroy what they cannot understand.
"Do you understand, Lucius?" he is always asked.
And Lucius always does. How can there be any differing response when this tale tells of the true nature of the non-magic?
Lucius is prepared to discard what he has found tonight, deeming the stack useless with its lack of mystery. But the tingling in his skin remains, and strengthens. He is not an exceedingly curious child—the word does not seem to fit—yet he pauses. He will glance at the parchment pieces, just in case there is something not to be missed.
And so, he reads.
"Do you understand, Lucius?" his father asks.
Lucius hesitates, but cold eyes flash and cut the words that bubble up in his throat.
A quiet knock echoes through the empty entryway as rain and tree branches lash against the windows. The wind, much more than a mere draft tonight, howls through the very walls. Lucius huddles down with a pillow cast over his head to muffle the sounds and his fear.
Lightning cuts the sky.
There is another knock to wake his father.
Abraxas growls down the corridor, the boom of his footsteps louder than thunder.
"Why has no one answered the door?" he demands, leaning over the rail. There is no sleep in his voice, only annoyance.
In response, a pair of house-elves race onto the floor below, stumbling over their own feet in haste. They grasp the doorknob and turn it, but it is wrenched away by the storm; the door slams open against the wall.
Someone is speaking, but the voice is soft and strained. Lucius hears a please, a begging.
"What is it, elf?" his father shouts.
"A woman is wanting shelter, Sir," says one of the house-elves timidly.
"Can she not create shelter for herself? Has she forgotten her magic?"
"She is not being a witch, Sir."
Lucius hears the silence.
"Not a witch?" Abraxas repeats softly, furiously. "Then tell me, how has she found this place?"
There is a pause. "She is fainting, Sir."
"Then shut the door. We will have no more trouble from her tonight."
The house-elves obey, but the closed door still does not keep out the whine of the wind.
The second time the knock comes, Abraxas does not wake. Lucius shakes in his bed, too hot beneath the blankets that are pulled up around his chin, but he does not dare to lower or remove them.
The knocks are far softer than before, though somehow, they echo in his ears. He waits for the sound of his father's footsteps once more, or for the patter of the house-elves' bare feet against marble.
Please, he hears, and it haunts him.
In the story, it is the wizard who is cruel, who is evil, and whose intents are corrupt. It is the wizard who does more harm than good. The story teaches that kindness, even to Muggles, is what is right.
The story tells him that his father is wrong.
Lucius trembles for a moment, and then he tiptoes into the hall. What will happen if the woman knocks upon the Manor door forever? Will he feel her knocking against his ribcage, against the corners of his mind until he is driven mad? His foot reaches the top of the stairs.
"Where are you going?"
He freezes. Abraxas does not touch him, but the gruffness of his father's voice holds Lucius's shoulders fast.
"Water," he whispers, thinking quickly. "I was thirsty."
Abraxas stares for a long time until he finally speaks. "Go back to your bed, Lucius. An elf will bring you something to drink."
There is no chance to sneak downstairs under the watch of his father's calculating eye. Abraxas does not sleep that night, and neither does Lucius.
The boy will hear knocks and moans and wind until the dawn is framed by the heavy curtains about his window. In the morning, he will be forbidden to go downstairs for an hour.
"Business," Abraxas will say briskly. "Do you understand, Lucius?"
Lucius will understand perfectly. He will feel a sick feeling rise up in his stomach, and his head will swim. His throat will seem dry.
And then he will grow up, and he will forget.
Once the bridge has been crossed, it is impossible to return.