The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods,
away from home, to a dark, tangled, thorny place
lit by the eyes of owls.
–Carol Ann Duffy
Once upon a time…
It began with a rumour.
And then, not surprisingly, human nature being the fickle creature that it is, the rumour gained currency and eventually became two, and then those gave birth to more, ranging from the ridiculous to the wildly fantastic. Some folk dismissed the most outlandish of the stories as nonsense, pure and simple. Others were just as eager to embrace the wildest and strangest of the rumours as fact; they were titillated by the more sensational aspects of the stories and delighted to find anything that might further discredit any member of such an old, powerful, pure-blooded family. It didn’t matter, particularly, that the one in question was the son and heir. It was all grist for a voracious gossip mill.
After the war, the young man had vanished. The reason for his disappearance was a source of endless speculation. Some believed that he now suffered some sort of debilitating physical malady. Others were certain that he’d had a curse-generated mental breakdown, damaging his mind beyond repair.
Regardless of where he was– whether cloistered in his ancestral home or gone from the country altogether– and whether a terrible illness now ravaged his body or afflicted his mind, one thing seemed certain: the young scion of a very ancient family had turned his back on the world.
The walk home from her job as a research assistant in the Ministry’s historical archives was a pleasant one, especially on an early autumn evening like this one, and ordinarily, Hermione Granger would have enjoyed the trees’ blazing display of colour. None of this registered, however; instead, she walked along almost unseeing, her brow furrowed in thought. There was a problem that needed solving, and it had occupied her thoughts more and more often of late.
The problem was Draco Malfoy. Or rather, his mysterious disappearance. She found herself thinking about it far too often– mulling it over, trying to understand it in the face of precious little information– and the lack of answers that made any sense frustrated her. Worse still, the attitudes of everyone around her, both at work and outside the Ministry, only served to deepen her curiosity and a growing sense of anger and disgust with the cavalier and rather base behaviour most people displayed if the subject came up. She’d never liked Malfoy– had never had the slightest reason to, given the shoddy treatment she’d suffered at his hands during their years at school together. And yet, towards the close of the war, when he’d held back from identifying a bruised and severely beaten Harry and had seemed genuinely torn and shaken when pressed to identify her to his aunt Bellatrix, there had been something… fear, certainly, a deep-rooted horror of what was happening all around him and what he was being asked to do, but also… regret. She was as sure of that as of anything in her life. There had been genuine regret in his eyes in that moment when Bellatrix Lestrange had insisted on his answer, Hermione lying captive on the floor before him. Sorry, his frightened eyes had seemed to say.
Casting her thoughts back even further, she remembered what she’d observed of him in their sixth year, well before the war had begun in earnest. Even then, he’d seemed to grow ever more distant and withdrawn, wan and sunken-eyed, perpetually exhausted, preoccupied. The thing that had held him in its terrible sway had only come out much later, and it was a grim revelation indeed.
Residing, ghost-like, on the fringes of her thoughts, these memories had been perversely kept alive by the continuing, often mean-spirited gossip that cropped up from time to time, tongues wagging spitefully and with obvious relish.
Was there even a shred of truth to the rumours? Hermione couldn’t help wondering. Then, too, the prospect of a desperately ill Malfoy pricked at her conscience, in the face of the often smug, insensitive pronouncements of those who entertained themselves by speculating about him. Surely, something could be done to help Malfoy, if indeed he were in the dreadful state the rumours suggested. Nobody, not even he, should be abandoned so callously. She resolved to uncover the truth of his situation and help him if she could.
Thus, the determined young woman undertook to journey back to a place that had once been the scene of horrific personal suffering for her. She arrived on the outskirts of a dense wood bordering the grounds of the grand manor house, just as twilight’s rosy fingers released the clouds and dusk gathered them beneath its darkening mantle. Pulling her scarlet travelling cloak more tightly around her, she began walking, hoping the path would not lead her astray.
A chill breeze ruffled her hair, and Hermione shivered slightly, tugging at the hood of her cloak. She glanced at her watch. Nearly half five. It would be dark before long. Not well planned, she chided herself. Impulsive and poorly thought out, that’s what her decision to leave on the spur of the moment had been. Not only that, but she’d got the coordinates a bit skewed and had not arrived just outside the Manor itself, as she’d expected. She hadn’t counted on having to navigate this thickly wooded stretch. Despite herself, a tiny thrill of fear raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck.
‘Don’t be a ninny,’ she scolded herself. ‘Nothing’s going to happen. You’ll be there before you know it.’
‘And if he turns you away?’ a small, insistent voice in her head challenged.
Well, then, she would just leave. Apparate home. No harm done. And at least she’d have tried. Nodding her head with renewed determination, Hermione continued on.
The path had gradually narrowed as she walked, and suddenly, she noticed that it had nearly vanished altogether. The vegetation was lush and high, becoming nearly impenetrable in spots. Tall trees seemed to be closing in all around her: copper beeches, their thick, pale trunks scored with circular lines like the markings of finger joints, a rich crown of fire-bright leaves overhead; silver birches, tall and slender, their russet leaves fluttering gently; rowans and hornbeams and yews, the massive girths of their trunks bespeaking their great ages and their dense canopy blotting out the sky. Hermione took out her wand with a whispered “Lumos!”
Fallen leaves, brown and desiccated, crunched underfoot, and the way became even more tangled and difficult, branches stretching out before her as if to deliberately impede her movements. Now, as shadows deepened, the wood came alive with a chorus of sounds. A high-pitched scream, snuffling and low grunts, growling noises in the underbrush, eerie whines and moans, soft chittering noises, rustlings– what were they? Hermione thought for a moment. Hedgehogs, possibly, or badgers… an owl’s screech, squirrels in the branches overhead, a rabbit scrambling desperately into its burrow, a startled deer calling an alarm, voles scurrying…
A sudden bark rang out sharply. It had come from somewhere to the right and not very far off. Slowly, she turned her head, training her eyes on a small clearing bathed in the light of the newly risen moon. There, in its centre, stood a fox… or an animal that looked very like a fox, and yet… just a little bit larger and more solidly muscled, the legs slightly longer, but with the characteristically long, luxuriant tail of the fox and the large, sharply pointed ears. Its coat was a brilliant flame-red, its cheeks, throat and belly creamy white, and its slender legs black stocking-clad. It seemed to be gazing directly at her, bright eyes shining with native intelligence.
For several seconds– an interval of time that felt far longer, somehow– they looked at each other. Mesmerised by the arresting luminosity of the large, round eyes shining in the wand’s light, Hermione couldn’t look away. And then the animal cocked its head, listening intently for something Hermione could not hear. A moment later, it sprang into the air, landing a few feet away to pounce on a small rodent. The finely shaped head came up, the newly won prize dangling from its jaws, and it looked for a final moment at Hermione, seeming to study her intently. Then it turned and trotted away, vanishing into the shadows beyond the clearing.
Still shaken by the encounter and yet awed by the beauty of such a creature, Hermione walked on. There was an opening in the trees just ahead, she observed. Malfoy Manor couldn’t be too much further. She picked up her pace and hurried on. The first stars were winking down from the deepening blue of the evening sky, and she was anxious to be where there was light and safety and the inviting warmth of a good hearth fire. A part of her hoped she had indeed come on a fool’s errand, that none of the rumours would turn out to be true, and that Malfoy would send her packing. And as the sprawling, 14th-century manor house loomed on the distant horizon, there was a part of her, too, that insisted on reminding her of certain painful memories– memories she’d thought were successfully put behind her as she’d moved on after the war’s end. As she drew ever nearer the house, Hermione felt a sense of foreboding that she couldn’t shake, partly a product of those terrible memories, but not only that. There was something about the house itself– perhaps the rows of darkened windows like blank, lifeless eyes, only a scant handful illuminated by faint, flickering candlelight– that seemed to speak of sadness and loss.
Taking a deep breath, she strode resolutely up to the massive wooden door, raising and releasing the iron knocker once, twice. Within a few minutes, latches were undone, the bolt withdrawn, and the ponderous, old door swung slowly open. A diminutive house-elf, wizened and bent over with age, bowed deferentially to her and beckoned her in without a word. As she stepped into the cavernous entry hall, there was a voice from halfway up the carved oak staircase.
“Granger.” His tone was detached, controlled, albeit faintly amused. And not at all surprised, Hermione realised with a start. “Fancy you turning up here. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
The owner of the voice made his way down the remainder of the stairs and approached Hermione. His gaze moved languidly from her face down the length of her body and back up again, with an intensity that made her feel curiously exposed, naked. It was disconcerting, and she could feel her face growing warm.
It was Draco Malfoy, of that there was no doubt. The voice, the sardonic facial expression… they were all his and so familiar to her. And yet, what a change time had wrought in him. His body had matured from a schoolboy’s into that of a grown man. Still lean and rangy, it had become harder, more muscular. He seemed taller and moved with a fluid grace, a sort of coiled energy. His skin was perhaps even paler than she’d remembered, and his hair… he wore it differently now, brushed back off his face and falling softly about his forehead in short, rakish layers. But it was the colour that caught Hermione’s attention most: a much darker blond now, a tawny red-gold, like honey or amber. It rather suited him, but the transformation was startling.
“Your hair,” she murmured, suddenly at a loss for words and feeling a bit stupid for it. “It’s…”
“Yes,” he cut in bluntly. “Your powers of perception are truly staggering. Exactly why are you here, Granger?” As he spoke, he continued to stare at her, eyes glittering, the tip of his tongue dancing lightly over his lips.
“I… well…” Hermione faltered. Why was he looking at her that way? She found herself strangely confused and distracted. And irritated, too, suddenly. How dare he speak to her so rudely when the only reason she was there at all was his welfare! Her chin came up defiantly. “I’ll tell you why. There’s been talk. About you. Rather a lot over the past five years, and I wanted to find out for myself if any of it were true. People have been saying–”
He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “I don’t give a damn what people have been saying. They can talk all they like.” He paused, his mouth tightening. “Shit for brains, the lot of them!” He gave a short, harsh laugh. “Go on, then, tell me. You will anyway. What have they been saying?”
“It’s just that nobody’s seen you for years. Some people think you’ve got a fatal disease. Something horribly disfiguring. That’s the most popular one. Oh!” She clapped a hand over her mouth, flushing slightly. “I didn’t mean–”
Draco’s smile was grim. “S’okay. Reckon people really get a bang out of that one. What else?”
“Well,” she went on, “others say you’ve gone completely round the bend. That you were cursed years ago and went mad.”
There was a long moment of complete silence. Then he began to laugh. The sound of it was strange to her, almost jarring. She realised that she’d never heard that sort of unrestrained, genuine laughter from Malfoy before.
“Merlin,” he gasped finally. “That’s bloody marvellous!” Sighing, he motioned to her to follow him and then turned and walked into the adjacent drawing room.
“Sit,” he muttered, indicating a comfortable-looking sofa facing the hearth. The fire had died back and now burned low, its flames producing occasional hisses and cracklings as they lapped at logs now fragmented and charred white.
He settled himself in an adjacent armchair, long legs stretched out in front of him, and laced his fingers together, his expression thoughtful as he gazed into the dying fire. Then he turned his gaze on Hermione, eyes gleaming in the flickering light and the planes of his face thrown partially into shadow.
Funny. There was something… she couldn’t place it. Something about his eyes…
“My family has always been the subject of gossip,” he remarked flatly. “That’s nothing new. The fact that I’ve been… away… well, yeah, I expect that’s added fuel to the fire, but so what?” He studied her intently for a moment. “You didn’t actually believe all that rubbish…”
Hermione shifted uncomfortably in her seat and looked down at her hands, folded in her lap.
“You did, didn’t you!” He shook his head, incredulous. “Then… you came here tonight because you… you were…” The conclusion he had suddenly arrived at seemed almost more than he could credit, considering this was Hermione Granger, and his voice trailed off into a surprised silence.
He was staring at her again, in that way of his that made her feel like a specimen, his gaze pinning her to the sofa. Only this time, there was something else in his eyes as well, something she couldn’t quite define. Confused, she struggled to collect her thoughts.
Clearly, the more dire presumptions were completely untrue. Anybody looking at Malfoy could see that he was hardly wasting away, nor was he insane. Suddenly, she felt rather foolish. She’d allowed an over-active imagination to cloud her judgement, well meant or no. Clearly, he didn’t need her or anybody else riding to his rescue.
“Curious, that’s all!” Hermione declared, flushing slightly. “I told you before. I wanted to know if any of it was really true. And I still do.” She frowned, narrowing her eyes. “Where have you been the past five years, anyway?”
Draco didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he stood, moving to the fire to prod the crumbling logs with an iron poker and add a fresh one. Brushing his hands off, he turned, regarding her with an expression that had abruptly turned distant, remote. His eyes never left her face.
“Not that it’s any of your business, of course, but I have been travelling. There are matters that often take me out of the country. I’ve chosen not to publicise my movements. In the circumstances, I expect that a certain amount of speculative talk is inevitable.”
His smile– more a grimace than a smile– was now hard as stone.
“I am relieved,” he continued coldly, “that it was merely curiosity and not worry that brought you here tonight. I trust I’ve answered your questions?”
She nodded slowly, held in the thrall of lucent, grey eyes that continued to pinion her, take her apart.
“Good. Then you can be on your way. I’ll see you out.”
Hermione blinked for a moment, then realised he was actually waiting for her to get up and leave. She’d been dismissed.
Gathering up her cloak, she rose from her seat.
One hand firmly on her elbow, Draco ushered her towards the door in the narrow, arched vestibule. Sliding back the heavy iron bolt, he pulled the door open on the chill October night air.
“Thank you for your interest. Please do not trouble yourself further on my account. Goodnight.”
And with that, the door swung shut in Hermione’s face.
None of it made any sense.
Hermione frowned, bringing a mug of tea to her lips. Steam wafted up, curling about her nose and mouth, and she inhaled its fragrance appreciatively before returning to the puzzle she was trying to sort out.
First off, she reflected, there was the business about his travels abroad. It was true, the family business was known to have had many international connections. The idea that Lucius Malfoy might have put his son in charge of that end of the business was entirely plausible, particularly as the senior Malfoys began to spend increasing amounts of time in their summer home in the south of France after the war ended. However, nobody travelled so much that he virtually disappeared for five years straight, the rest of the world seeing neither hide nor hair of him the entire time. It just wasn’t possible.
Second, she thought, mentally ticking off the things that had troubled her, there was the change in his appearance, specifically the colour of his hair. Though Malfoy had always been known as a bit of a peacock regarding his appearance while they were at school, he’d never struck her as the sort who would change himself radically. First off, he was too conceited to even consider that he should alter anything about himself. Then, too, it was well known that he’d always been rather proud of the fine, white-blond hair he’d inherited from his father. It was a badge of identification as a Malfoy. Everyone knew who he was instantly, and that recognition afforded him a certain automatic respect and deference from others that he’d always enjoyed and expected as his due. That being the case, why on earth would he voluntarily change his hair colour? Was he trying to disguise himself for some reason? Had he got himself into some sort of trouble either during or after the war? Even now, he might be running from an enemy looking to exact revenge for something Malfoy might have done. For all she knew, he might be a marked man. Had he gone to ground in that draughty old castle?
Hermione put down her empty mug at last and wandered over to the window seat. The view from the bay window– a small courtyard, sheltered on three sides by blocks of low-rise flats– was a bit bleak at this time of the year. The trees had shed most of their leaves. They now littered the ground, most of them brown and shrivelled. The few that remained on the branches fluttered forlornly in the chill breezes that periodically kicked up small eddies of fallen ones. They rose in whirlpools of brown, red and gold, only to settle once again on the grass or pavement.
She looked up at the sky, a solid, iron-grey mass of clouds, and sighed. Malfoy Manor must be especially dreary and depressing in weather like this, with its vast stretches of lawn surrounded by dense forest. What must it be like in the dead of winter? Stark and austere, she imagined, surely a gloomy, unwelcoming place.
She’d certainly felt unwelcome that night. He’d been quite noticeably eager to be rid of her, in fact, after she’d explained the reason for her visit– or more accurately, the reason she’d chosen to give him. The whole truth would have been too embarrassing to admit after she’d seen for herself that there really had been no foundation to any of the rumours. He’d rather abruptly rushed her out of the house almost before she’d had a chance to catch her breath. And before that? He’d been cagey, evasive, never really giving her a straight answer about anything.
She pursed her lips in sudden frustration. How had she allowed herself to be so easily manipulated? She wasn’t the passive, gullible sort ordinarily. She considered for a moment, and then she remembered. It hadn’t been charm and sweet talk that had got her to ignore all her instincts, the very instincts that would normally have prodded her to ask more questions, remain sceptical until she’d had answers she could believe. It had been the almost greedy way he’d looked at her, his eyes taking her in as if to devour her whole, the state of disequilibrium into which these attentions had thrown her, the surrender he’d silently demanded and received.
A leaf detached itself from a branch hanging close to the window and Hermione watched as it drifted lazily, riding small currents of air until it dropped down to join its fellows in a still-colourful mound on the grass. Splashes of water spattered the windowpane, heralding the storm that would continue throughout the afternoon.
Hermione continued to watch the rain for a few moments, but her thoughts remained at the Manor and the dark wood surrounding it. Every instinct she possessed was telling her that something was wrong with Draco Malfoy. That much was clear.
She would go back. There were questions that needed answering. And this time, she wouldn’t be so easily dissuaded.