She stared at the Nutcracker.
It really was a terribly ugly thing. Bushy hair, huge teeth—standing there all stoic. Old folklore held that a nutcracker represents power and strength, and serves like a trusty watchdog, guarding one’s family from evil spirits and danger. As fierce protector, the nutcracker bares its teeth to the evil spirits, and serves as the traditional messenger of good luck and goodwill.
Funny, Hermione thought. When she and Draco first met, she herself had bushy hair and huge teeth. And she probably had been a bit stoic, as well. Too stoic for an eleven-year-old girl. Draco, on the other hand, had been a horrible big-mouthed prat, and as a result, Hermione had certainly bared her teeth to him a number of times over the years. Oh, how far they’d come.
The winds whipped outside the spacious old cabin in the Scottish highlands. She’d first come to the cabin with Draco nearly ten years ago, on a cool, wet spring day. He had proposed to her outside by the horse stable while she sat atop a fence. She had been shivering, and wanted to go inside, stoke up a fire, but apparently Draco had planned to pop the question to her outside. He kept stalling for time, working up his courage. Never had she known Draco Malfoy to appear anything other than the picture of confidence. Not fully self-assured of her acceptance, his nerves had been shaken. She smiled at the thought.
Tonight, this Christmas Eve, it was toasty warm inside the cabin. Hermione sat on a green and black tartan sofa, in front of a roaring hearth, her long legs folded to the side. She hummed softly, knitting a baby hat shaped like a tea cozy. Next to her, to her right, was a bassinet. There, inside, snug and warm in a nest of the softest cashmere buntings, was Ara, their daughter. She was only three months old and she was her daddy’s heart. The babe was small and pale, with hazel eyes. Her lips were pink petals, the perfect little rosebud, and her hair was a riot of white-blonde curls. She was the first Malfoy girl child in a century. Everyone who laid eyes on her loved her at once.
Draco would be returning soon. It would not be soon enough for Hermione. She missed him so whenever they were apart for more than a day. He’d gone to Germany—something for his family business. For them, it had become a ritual during the Christmas season to spend the month at the cabin, celebrate the holiday, and then go back to London for extended family activities over the New Year. It was their tradition.
This Christmas, they had their itty-bitty Ara with them. Hermione’s heart was full. Draco would most likely return with a sack of gifts that rivaled Father Christmas’s! She knew he would bring another Nutcracker. He had gathered one each year from Steinbach’s, usually a limited edition. He would probably bring one for her, and for Ara as well.
Hermione again smiled to herself, thinking of how truly generous Draco was. Not only with gifts, but with his time, his love.
All those years ago, not too long after the war, he’d asked her to dinner, to apologize, he’d said, for being a colossal arse for seven and a half years. What made her accept was her pure curiosity. What made her stay was his pure honesty.
Even as she began to fall in love with him, she never thought she would marry him, but was ever so glad she did. He was attentive and chivalrous. He never held her back; on the contrary, he encouraged her to do, to dream, to fly. Literally, to fly. He’d taken her flying after they’d been dating exclusively for six months. Hermione grinned at the thought. She’d been absolutely terrified. But he insisted. And he told her she was bigger than a little old broom ride—she was stronger than that.
His cajoling worked. He had her in his lap sailing through the clouds in no time. It had been exhilarating—the rush, the delight, the excitement. It was marvelous. That night they’d made love for the first time, and the experience had surpassed that broom ride in terms of delightfulness. The memory of their first time together, of the way his hands had caressed her, the way he’d savored each kiss as if she were a fine meal to linger over—it was a remembrance she often recalled. Draco was a generous and honest lover, and because he was hers, she felt she was the luckiest witch in the world.
The fire popped and the mantle clock ticked. She began to feel restless, wanting him… more than just his presence; she wanted to wrap herself round him and ride out this brutal storm, making love on the hearth rug, in the ginger glow of the leaping flames.
Again the wind howled, and Hermione looked up from her handiwork. Had she heard something? A cry? Or was it just the wind? An odd sensation came over her. Worry. Trepidation. She set the knitting aside, and took up her wand. Her ears strained for some kind of noise beyond the crackle of the fire, or the swirling whoosh of the snowy currents. Nothing. She’d never liked being alone. Her quick and searching mind always found ways to make her worry, to make her wonder. But she wasn’t alone—Ara snoozed peacefully next to her in the Malfoy antique cradle. Hermione admired her daughter for the hundredth time that day. The sleeping cherub’s long, dark lashes lay sooty against her alabaster skin. Her small chest rose and fell in a soothing rhythm.
The old mantle clock chimed out eleven times… The first stroke startled Hermione so, she jerked. She chuckled at her own jumpiness, taking up her needles and yarn. Usually, she wasn’t one to be taken with fright, but her nerves were thin. And she was tense from waiting for Draco. She glanced to the mantle, and once again eyed the nutcracker. It was the traditional infantry soldier. A British redcoat with its saber held high in one hand, a small dirk in the other.
Hermione cocked her head. Was it her imagination, or had the saber been down at the nutcrackers side a moment ago? She shook her head, and rubbed her eyes. It was late, she was tired, and missing Draco. He should be home very soon now. Again, she set her knitting aside, curled up into a ball on the large sofa, and pulled the soft silk throw up to her chin. It wasn’t long before she fell asleep.
A loud bang propelled Hermione from slumber. She sat bolt upright, her heart thudding wildly against her ribs. Her eyes were wide and searching as her mind clamored for alertness. Again, a loud bang ripped through the silence of the room. The fire had died to ghostly embers, and it was nearly too dark to see. Hermione realized her wand was in her grip. Old instincts never die. She cast her Bluebell flame, and sent the azure light to an ancient oil lamp. The glow was magnified in the old hurricane glass, filling the room with an eerie radiance. She quickly glanced at Ara. Her little girl was fast asleep. The tightness in Hermione’s chest loosened a bit.
She shrieked. What is that?
Hermione stood and levitated the last of the logs to the hearth, then threw a spell at them. They burst into brilliant flames, a toasty fire roaring once more. She crept to the window nearest the door, her body tense, her ears straining. Tentatively, she peered out into the dark night, the snow had stopped, but the wind was still fierce, and every now and again it whipped up the powdery drifts into a whiteout. At once, something flew at the sash.
For a moment Hermione’s heart felt as if it had stopped, but it was only the shutter, come loose from its stay.
Oh, heavens! She felt foolish. She shook her head, smirking at her own silly fright. Grabbing Draco’s heavy woolen cloak from the hall tree, she shoved her feet into a pair of his big black boots. One last glance back at Ara, who snoozed on, and she opened the large pine plank door.
Immediately, the wind and cold hit her like a slap to the face. She struggled to get out; the wind was almost too strong. A raging gust caught the door, and slammed it fully open, back on its’ hinges. It was difficult, but she managed to heave the heavy slab closed once again, throwing her entire length against the wood. Every movement she exerted was with great effort, but felt odd, as if she moved in slow motion, nearly like a dream. Finally, she managed to fight her way into the night, the few feet to the window. The wind rushed all around lifting her hair straight up, whirling it round and round in wild chaos. Even Draco’s heavy cloak rose and thrashed against her body. It seemed as if someone where tugging on it. She pulled it tighter, and had to pocket her wand in order to refasten the shutter.
Struggling to turn the old iron shutter-stay with numbly cold fingers was no easy feat. It took her a good two minutes just to get it to budge. At last, she braced her body against the large, ruggedly hewn shutter, and twisted the wrought iron stay enough to hold it fast. Hermione was sweating beneath her cashmere jumper and the large black wool cloak. Now, with her task completed, she stood panting in the tumult. The swirling, frigid air refreshed her. She inhaled deeply, and could feel her nose hairs begin to freeze. In her moment of stillness, the cold took its vantage, and began creeping round her, seeping through her heavy coverings. It was deathly cold out tonight.
Turning completely away from the cabin, she glanced out across the meadow to the wood. So dark. She couldn’t even make out the trees, only a black abyss. She shivered, suddenly freezing. At once she felt apprehension, wanted nothing more but to return to the cozy stillness inside the Malfoy Cabin.
Once inside, she shorn the cloak and oversized boots to go directly to the fireside. To her right, the tiny girl lay still in her heirloom cradle, snoozing contently. All was quiet save for the occasional moan of the wind, or the intermittent pop of a cinder. The mantle clock read eleven fifty-two.
What could be keeping Draco?
Maybe a small cordial would warm her, help to calm her nerves. She went to the hulking cabinet in the dinning area and, from behind the diamond paned cabinet door, selected a delicate crystal brandy snifter. Below, she opened the cupboard to select a libation.
Cognac. Not just any Cognac. This was Cognac Dudognon Héritage Henri IV, which costs around $2,000,000—the most expensive alcohol in the world. Hermione smirked. She never considered herself to be impressed by wealth or prestige. Draco though, very much enjoyed using his father’s unlimited fortune to make statements, to collect unusual things that most everyone else in the world—Wizard or otherwise—could not. He was never malicious or haughty about his conquests, only matter of fact. He’d grown up since their school days. She smiled outright at the thought.
Again, she wondered where he could be.
Hermione scowled as she reached for the bottle. She took it to the hearth, and the firelight glinted off this stunning work of art. The bottle was dipped in 24k gold and sterling platinum, adorned with 6,500 brilliant cut diamonds. She poured the amber-gold liquid into the crystal and tempered it in her hands. She sipped. It was rich and luxurious and warmed all the way down.
It was then that she heard it. The knock.
Soft at first, it became more persistent when she didn’t answer. The Cognac was still in her grip and she clutched the glass so that her knuckles shown white.
Good god, who could that be? Her mind raced. Surely, Draco wouldn’t knock upon his own door? And who on Earth would be out in this weather?
Maybe, she hoped, it had only been her imagination.
Three quick raps against the heavy oak slab dispelled any optimism. It wasn’t like her to be jumpy, or an easily frightened sort of girl. She didn’t have a wild imagination. Hermione had always been one to lean more toward logic and reasoning, so the utter irrational terror that rose from her belly to her chest, and crawled across her throat, nearly choking her, was a sensation she was not altogether used to. Her eyes fell on the Nutcracker. His ridiculously ugly features seemed to bring her back to herself. Gathering her wits, she set the glass on the mantle. Extracting her wand from her sleeve, she strode defiantly to the door.
No more knocks.
Still she waited, each slow shallow breath, a contrast to her galloping heart.
And there it was. Three quick, quiet knocks.
“Who’s there?” she croaked out, the harshness in her voice taking her by surprise. “Is someone out there?”
She heard a muffled voice through the door—a man. Thinking it may be Draco, with an armload of toys for their daughter, she threw it wide.
It wasn’t Draco. Instead, it was an elderly wizard. She knew based on his dress —once fine robes with thick fur lining and a heavily embellished cloak—and on something more intuitive, a certain sense of the mystical. And he was old. Ancient. The wrinkly face resembled leather with deep groves and lines. He didn’t smile. Hermione gripped her concealed wand, a protection charm on the tip of her tongue.
“Good evening, Madame. I beg you’re pardon at this late hour.” The old wizard bowed low, tipping his head to look at his feet. This took her aback. Would an enemy put himself in such a vulnerable position as this?
While she contemplated, the stranger stood upright. “I’ve come round to find my kin, but it seems I’ve lost my way. Might I trouble you to warm myself for a bit, while I gather my bearings?”
Hermione hesitated. “I… er… “
“Oh, my dear, are you all alone? I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’ll soon be on my way. Or I could take shelter in your stable over yonder, if you prefer.” He smiled kindly. Somehow, though, he didn’t look quite so kind.
“I suppose it would be alright. My husband is just gathering supplies, and will be returning any minute.” Her intuition told her there was malevolence in this stranger, this primeval sorcerer.
“Then I may come in?” he asked once more.
Odd, she thought. Didn’t she just say as much? “Yes, do come in.”
At once, he scuttled across the threshold. “Much obliged, my dear, much obliged.”
As he passed her, she felt a chill. She supposed it was the icy air that swirled round him, clung to his coverings, but still, it seemed more than that. This person was somehow not as substantial, as present, as seemed proper. The thought was fleeting, and before Hermione could fully recognize the notion, it had slipped her mind.
Tension shot through her. She closed the door, feeling with every bit of her innards that she was closing herself and Ara in with doom.
“May I offer you tea?” Hermione asked the stranger. Her every nerve was on alert, thronging uncomfortably with anticipation.
“I’d much prefer what you’re having.” The old one nodded toward her gleaming tumbler of priceless cognac on the mantle, next to the Nutcracker. “You have expensive tastes, my dear.” He looked pointedly to where the liquor bottle sat.
She followed his gaze to the ostentatious bottle on the side table. “Well, indeed, my husband does.”
Draco. The sudden thought of him punctuated his absence almost painfully. She fetched another glass, and served up a portion to the mysterious warlock.
“I didn’t catch you name?” she commented, as she took her seat next to the fireside. The logs were nearly embers once again.
“I didn’t give it, but it’s Prospero.”
She nodded. “I’m Hermione.”
“A pleasure, Hermione.” The old traveler gave a pinched smile, somehow making him look even more foreboding. “It’s not often I come across others who hold magic.”
She stared. “How... did you know?” Her voice quickly gained composure.
He took a languid sip of the cognac. “I suppose the same way in which you knew I was a— Wizard.”
Hermione said nothing to this, but in her mind she felt sure he was about to say, warlock, instead of wizard. Odd, but she didn’t think much more of it. She’d need all of her faculties to ascertain the grim situation she and Ara were no doubt in. “I guess it was your dress, really,” she explained. “Muggles don’t wear wizard clothes.”
The silence swelled as they sipped and watched the glow dance among the embers. Hermione hated the silence. “You don’t see many magical folk do you?”
“No, not really. Not unless they invite me.”
Once more, the silence swelled until it was tangible and palpable. Hermione found it nearly unbearable until finally, the warlock spoke again.
“Come to think of it, I knew a Wizard once, many years ago, who, like your husband, enjoyed expensive things. He was a prideful arrogant man. Pavo was his name. Hmmm…. Quite pretentious. Many of the family members were named after constellations.” The warlock giggled with horrid mirth. “Well, this certain wizard was a wizard by blood, as in his mother and father before him were of magical blood. They were a very rich and powerful family, you see, and power brings corruption. It came to be that Pavo had a son, Abraxis, and this boy was born a Squib.
Hermione gasped. He’s talking about the Malfoys. But as far as she knew, Abraxis Malfoy was not a Squib.
The old warlock went on. “Now, the arrogant Pavo couldn’t bear to have a non-magical child. He was raised on the rhetoric of his great-grandfather, Brutus, who proposed that nothing is a surer sign of weak magic than a weakness for non-magical company. So Pavo ordered his first son be put to death. At this, his wife, Vulpecula, devised a plan; she sought out old, old magic and struck a deal to save the life of Abraxis.
Hermione felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Pavo’s son, Abraxis, a Squib?! If Lucius’ father was born a squib… Oh, god, what have they done?! She feared the price would be high, and that Draco was in grave danger.
The elder warlock went on, “So Vulpecula, the wife of Pavo, bought her baby son’s life and magic with not only silver and gold, but with blood.”
“Blood?” Hermione choked.
“Mm hm, yes. It all comes down to blood, does it not?”
Hermione’s brain swirled. She had to get a message to Draco, at once. If Draco walked in unaware of what lay in wait, he’d be ambushed. Her Patronus!
She stood. “I need to get more wood for our fire, dear sir, from the stable. More cognac?” She trotted lightly to the brilliant diamond bottle, and topped his glass. “It’s a lovely bottle, isn’t it?”
The old warlocks eyes bulged at the jewels. “Ah, yes. Yes.”
“I’ll only be a minute.” She went to Ara, and kissing the sleeping child’s cheek, whispered a protection charm. Quickly, she donned the heavy cloak and too-big boots to trudge to the old horse stables.
Oh, Draco! Where are you?! she thought miserably as she trudged through the thigh-high snow. The storm was nearly blinding. She made her way to the old stable on memory alone. Once inside, the odd stillness dazed her for a moment. She raised her wand and closed her eyes tight. She thought of Draco, holding Ara for the first time, bringing the tiny swaddled babe to her bedside. His smile was brilliant, tears shining in his clear grey eyes. She cast her corporeal otter Patronus and a message to come to her at once— danger was a foot.
Oddly, the dipping, diving otter only sailed to a nearby corral and stopped. Frustrated and confused, Hermione sent another, but again her otter wafted to the same horse corral and dissipated without a sound.
Taking a few steps toward the area, she saw something near the enclosure. A traveling bag and two empty boxes. Her mind grappled for understanding, for some logical explanation other than the one that was boring its way out of her subconscious. Fear pooled like a weight in her stomach. Suddenly, she didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to go to those boxes and find that they were Nutcracker boxes—one for her and one for Ara. And she didn’t want to run into the stable and see the huddled mass upon the hay that had once been her husband.
Draco’s once handsome face was blue, his mouth agape in a ghastly silent shriek, his eyes bulged out with terror.
The scream ripped from her throat as she flung herself down upon him. He was stiff, cold.
Probably dead for hours.
The sickening notion insinuated itself into her analytical brain before she could stop it. Recoiling from the corpse that was once her warm, breathing husband, muffled sobs halted behind her thickening tongue. Her mind slid and her stomach rolled. Before another second passed, she was on her hands and knees, retching in the hay strewn stable.
The moments had ground down, bit by bit, until they seemed to stop altogether. She found herself clinging to Draco’s traveling clock, burying her face in his soft scarf, touching his cold, cold cheek with her fingers. Her teeth were clenched, silent sobs racked her shoulders. Of all her whole life’s suffering’s, she had never known true despair, until now. And then she knew why the warlock had come. Pavo’s squib-child, Abraxis, had had his magic restored for the price of blood. Not Lucius’, nor Draco’s—they were born males. All at once, Hermione put it together. The price was a female child’s blood.
All along he’s been here for Ara!
She knew it. Just as she knew the warlock had killed Draco hours ago, had watched her as she affixed the shutter, and the evil avenger wasn’t lost on a sojourn for his kin. He’d told her that story purposely. Hermione knew now, the old warlock had come to the Malfoy Cabin for a purpose. He was here for a reason, and the reason was Ara, first Malfoy girl-child to be born in over a century.
She sprang to her feet and raced back to the cabin as fast as the storm would allow. This time, with the wind at her back, it seemed to push her, help her. She flew through the door to see the ugly, old wizard hovering over Ara’s cradle.
“Get away!” she screamed and threw a spell dead center. It reverberated off the old Wizard as sunlight shining on water.
He laughed, low and raspy. “You’re not as smart as they say, Mudblood.”
Hermione made to step forward, but the warlock held up his hand and she was frozen. She tried to speak, but only heard the pleas in her own head. Please. Please, I beg you. Not my daughter. Anything, else; take my magic. Take me!
The warlock cackled. “As if a Mudblood’s sacrifice would mean anything to me.”
Hermione watched helplessly as his old, gnarled hands reached for her beautiful Ara. She wanted to die. To join Draco, cold and lifeless. No more thought. No more feeling. Silent tears coursed down her face. She couldn’t bear the sight before her.
The baby woke and began to cry. The warlock opened his mouth; it seemed to unhinge. He lowered his hideous face to the pristine baby he clutched greedily in his claw-like grasp. It seemed that he was going to swallow her whole.
At once something flew from the mantle. Red and silver, flashed like lightening toward the gruesome spectacle. Hermione screamed in her mind, and realized it was the Nutcracker come to life. The warlock dropped Ara to shield his face from the onslaught of the wielding sword.
Hermione watched with suspended belief as two more Nutcrackers caught the falling baby, ushered her safely out of the way, and drew back to the warlock.
The empty boxes. The Nutcrackers that Draco had brought back with him.
As Ara wailed, the miniature army of three made short work of the old warlock, stabbing and slashing at him, evoking billows of putrid green steam from the wounds they inflicted. The final blow came from the British soldier. The bearded hero sank its saber straight between the warlock’s eyes. His monstrous face split in two, and a hideous spray of black blood spewed out from the gash. Hermione’s screams of terror echoed in her mind over and over. The dying warlock sank down in upon himself, as if dissolving. In minutes, all that was left was a stinking pile of moldering robes. He was gone. His magical binds on Hermione were gone, as well.
She clawed her way to Ara, cradling her close, soothing her child. Her living, lovely child.
“Hermione,” a voice called from far away. “Hermione, don’t cry. Wake up, darling. It’s Christmas morn.”
Hermione opened her eyes. She held a sofa pillow to her chest, soaked with her tears. She looked up to see Draco sitting on the edge of the sofa, his soft eyes filled with mild concern.
“You were dreaming,” he said simply.
“Oh, Draco,” she gushed. “You’re alive!” She flung herself on him.
“Of course I am, Sweetness. I got in very late, and my girls were fast asleep. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“You’re alright?” she questioned, taking his face in both hands. “Ara?! Where is she? Is she alright?” She was frantic, until she eyed her daughter in the cradle.
“Of course. The question is, are you alright?” His mild concern turned more worrisome. “I’ve been up since returning, keeping the fire going, watching that bloody storm blow out. Nasty bugger of a storm it was. We’re all just fine.”
She settled against him, the reality of her terrible nightmare slowing dissolving.
“See,” Draco whispered, getting up from the sofa. Hermione watched contentedly as he slowly lifted Ara out of the antique cradle.
Hermione gazed at the two of them, her heart flooding with love. Their hair was equally pale blond, their skin the same shinning alabaster. Hermione’s eyes fill with tears.
“I brought two Nutcrackers’ back with me, one for you and one for Ara.” Draco said. “I put them on the mantle.”
Hermione watched him walk toward the mantle as he spoke.
“It’s odd, though,” he mused. “I thought that Nutcracker solider held a large saber…”
Dim terror brushed at her contentment. She almost didn’t want to look—didn’t have to. She knew it would be gone. The Nutcracker had saved her family, had driven its sword into Evil, driving it away once and for all.