I didn't know why they were keeping me alive.
Now, I know exactly why they were keeping me alive. They were keeping me alive because they thought that if I am alive, then Ron - impetuous, daring, hotheaded Ron - would insist on coming to save me. Or at least be intolerably distracted from the cause, tormented every day by the thought of what they are doing to me.
I did know that he shouldn't bother. It seems impossible at first, but you get used to it. They were mostly bored of me, anyway. The worst thing is the time in between; the time with nothing but the slow, gnawing pains that their rough magical healing doesn't fix. The hunger, and the thirst, and the body struggling to repair itself from - things well beyond its nature. Coming up into the light is almost pleasant, despite what happens there.
So it was a strange mix of relief and trepidation that rose in me when I heard the door open. Very quietly, as if the new entrant didn't want to be heard. As if they did not understand that I was almost painfully attuned to every whisper of this place by now.
They'd carefully re-latched the door and made it halfway down the stairs before they whispered 'Lumos'. And I wondered, is their stealth for my benefit after all? Or is there someone outside that they do not want to catch them?
Flinching instinctively from the light, I gradually uncovered my eyes to watch the reflection against the wall, so that when I looked around I could bear it. The youngsters rarely bothered me by then - they had done with their gloating a long time back - so I was surprised to see his round, arrogant face peering out of the dim wandlight.
"Hermione?" he hissed. Then I noticed a strangely intimidated look in his eyes, which seemed inappropriate for the current situation. He had a wand, he had the keys, he had the power... supposedly. But this was my domain, as far as I had one, and he hadn't brought a single guard in with him. After everything that had happened I was as weak as a kitten and could barely shake off a beetle, but he didn't know that, or he didn't believe it, even if he knew.
"Draco," I whispered hoarsely in return. It was meant to be matter of fact, but I suspected it came across as more desperate than intended. It's hard not to sound desperate when nothing but the barest magic has been your sustenance for... months? Years?
I used to be good at this, I remembered, but they took away and mended or destroyed any means of counting I might devise, and made my life too chaotic to keep track of time any other way.
"You wanted to see me," he said, furtive, ready to bolt at any moment. "When... I think you said... everything inevitably went wrong?"
I froze, trying to work through the possibilities in my sluggish, pain-dulled mind. I didn't know how good an actor Draco is; he must surely have become reasonable at deception, over his time in the grand charade that was the life of the Death Eater, or he would never have survived this far.
It could be some new phase in their plan, some new way of drawing the others out of hiding and into their grasp. Then what would have made them change? Were they taking heavy losses somewhere? Or had the Malfoys come to the end of their patience with keeping a Mudblood in their house?
Or had Ron died?
At first, I'd made plans to take it. To snatch it, perhaps, after provoking him enough to have him taunt me with it. To lull him into a false sense of security and sneak it off a sideboard, or slip it out of a pocket or a hand. But even I'd had the opportunity... for one, it was a tool of, if not quite dark, still distinctly... sanguine... magic. It liked to pass by death and blood, or from the grave, direct and unambiguous. Merely holding it, while it might provide some temporary advantage, was unlikely to prevail against a whole house suddenly murderous.
Even if it worked against a defenceless, wandless master - even if I had the will to channel my hard-earned hatred into the curse of death, which I had heard quite enough of to replicate in the normal course of spells, but who could know with one of the Unforgivables? - I was not foolish enough to think any privacy sufficiently private, any corner of the premises lacking in wards and alarms, and there were many strong and inventive dark mages between me and the freedom I would need to plan a decent assault.
And even if the Elder Wand acknowledged me, every one of those mages was skilled primarily in causing the death of inconvenient little mudbloods.
But Draco was in a much better state than I was, and now my plan - my only plan, my last and desperate plan - was bearing fruit. If only I had anything to offer him.
"If I knew how to get in touch with them," I said, my dry throat reducing it to a painful whisper, "then I would have been made to tell one of you by now. I expect I am a useful safe-passage token, but nothing more."
I didn't want him to leave me behind, but with unrealistic expectations, he might abandon me in a fit of anger. If only my wits were still about me, I knew I could walk that narrow line, but probably through careful planning - or at least as an appreciated side-effect - I was not exactly in a state to deploy my usual faculties.
"As soon as I let you out of here - or maybe even when I revive you more than usual - you will need to follow me precisely," he hisses. "I will do what I can to restore your strength, but you will need to obey me absolutely. Do you understand?"
"Of course," I rasped. Why would I not? Just the mere chance of getting out - and even further, of having him on side, the insider knowledge he had and the power he commanded - was worth any order or petty test of loyalty he might intersperse useful instruction with.
Honestly? At that moment, the sheer thought of freedom - or at least of a change in circumstances, wherever it took me and however much I would still be under his command - was enough for anything. If I'd had... if I'd had a wand, or a gun, and the opportunity, and the orders, at that point - in that moment - I would have calmly shot Ron Weasely in the face and not regretted it for a moment.
Maybe he could see this in my eyes, or maybe he was just desperate enough to do it anyway. In any case, he raised his wand; studied me intently for a moment; shook it to release the Lumos it was holding; then intoned, with great concentration: "Recro."
I was incredibly impressed, later just as much as at the time. Magic to affect the body in a positive manner, instantly and without reagents and alchemical processes, is incredibly complicated. I still felt worse than I had ever expected it was possible to feel before this episode of my life, but it no longer took all my effort as I struggled to my feet, and even running didn't seem entirely out of the question.
He shook light offhandedly back out of his wand, scarcely mumbling "Lumos" as he did it, then inclined his head to the side, listening very carefully.
"Right," he said at length. "Now, I am going to knock you out, and carry you into the garden. That's plausible and it will be easier to start from there. Once you come around, we will be heading between the black and purple rhodedendrons into the koi pond, where I fed one of the fish a portkey earlier. At its destination there should be a spare wand and some potions. You will take the cerulean, orange and opaque teal ones and we will move again. Then there should be a moment for further directions."
I nodded, once.
I came around in a hallway, feeling distinctly the wrong way up and disconcertingly suspended in mid-air. Taking a moment to get my bearings, I could smell the heavy perfume of Bellatrix Lestrange uncomfortably close.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're awake, you should hear this," purred Lestrange. "Aren't you so lucky to have such a considerate boyfriend? I'm sure his parents will be overjoyed to hear about your beautiful union."
"Says the woman who sleeps with animals," spat Draco.
"But noble animals, dear," countered Lestrange. "Not animals like this, that have thoughts above their station..."
"And yet at first you wanted to join in," he taunted. "Do make your mind up."
"Maybe we should ask the girl herself!" replied Lestrange brightly. "Mudblood! Don't pretend you're still sleeping. Your young gentleman caller here couldn't cast a good Stupefy if his life depended on it."
I twitched again and 'accidentally' rolled right over, letting my eyes fall open but empty - looking, I hoped, every inch the confused and pain-crazed shell they might be persuaded to expect me to be.
"See, she's going to be no fun at all," crowed Lestrange proudly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Draco twitch his wand, almost imperceptibly, and mutter something quietly under his breath. The magic holding me released its grip for a short moment, a fall of maybe a few inches before his wand caught the enchantment up again, which I attempted to disguise by turning and looking at Lestrange. She was studying me with her customary fascination for all things twisted and broken, wholly oblivious to Draco's action.
"Unless..." she said, thoughtfully. "Yes. Yes, I see. Do carry on."
And as suddenly as she had imposed herself, she left, and we continued out into the afternoon light. Draco was the picture of casual, everyday power, as if it was utterly normal for him to be porting a girl around like this, and we met with no more resistance; the only sign that the plan had come so close to failure was the slight tremor in his hands, which I would have missed entirely except for its transmission to the levitating spell that surrounded me.
After some minutes over patio and immaculate lawn paths, we turned off into a secluded grove. He set me down on the soft, mossy ground, with a single word, "Stay." I watched him carefully as he set about casting what looked like barrier wards across the boundaries, and for a moment I wondered if his words to me were false and those to Bellatrix true, whether he had toyed with my hopes to make it sweeter when he dashed them - or even to make me biddable enough to be enthusiastic...
But when he was satisfied with the wards, he had one last look around which was so anxious, almost terrified, his calm demeanour lost for a moment, that I was once again sure that he was in some kind of trouble.
Then he took my hand and said, "Run!"
We burst out of the clearing between the black and deep purple rhododendrons and sprinted straight into the pond, and I could feel the barrier wards following us - shielding us for a precious moment from alarms and defences, maybe even from anti-porting wards and enchantments. He fished desperately for the portkey, and then I saw a flash of orange to one side and stuck out my hand instinctively.
My fingers brushed against its scales -
he turned and drew it in -
Teal. Cerulean. Orange. I hoped there was no significance to their order as I could remember no better, and he was engaged in preparations of his own.
I felt myself widen, my hair coarsen, and only just managed to slip out of my rags before they cut into my newly expanded flesh.
Draco threw a robe backhanded in my general direction, distracted by his own transformation - also larger and stockier than his usual slight form.
He picked up the wand and looked at me, and past the watery and inoffensive brown eyes he was wearing I could still see his incisive blue orbs weighing up the possibilities.
Then he tossed me the wand; dropped a pinch of Floo Powder into the fireplace; and we jumped forwards into the unknown.