Summary: Regulus Black has second thoughts about being a Death Eater.
Notes: This story was written for the Gen(eral) Ficathon, under cedarlibrarian's request: Voldemort gives the order for Regulus Black's death. Condition: No one with the surname Lestrange, Malfoy, or Black can be the one to carry out the orders.
You must understand something before I begin: with the exception of one shining moment, I was a boy my entire life. I came onto the earth shrieking for my mother and left in the same way. From conception I was fed what another person judged appropriate, whether it was the food from my mother's umbilical cord or the books my father read to her bulbous stomach. After my name was put onto the family tapestry and I was educated in pride and Latin, I was put on a train to attend the finest school of magic in Britain, where I became the jewel of the Black family; I was Sorted right, attended the right lessons, and made the right friends. I was shaped by my elder Slytherin peers. They styled and sculpted me with their authoritative fingers till there was no finer example of pure-blood pottery in the wizarding world. My parents praised me. But I never experienced anything outside the boundaries of Hogwarts or Grimmauld Place until it was time to make the most important decision of my life.
Youth cannot be expected to make wise choices, I have concluded, as they have too little experience to base their reasons on. Mankind is only as instinctual as to latch onto whatever teat is placed in front of him---he doesn't care whether it is made of flesh or rubber, only that it provides nourishment. Six months after I took the Dark Mark, it occurred to me that I had been sucking the wrong teat.
The realization of my mistake dawned upon me over a long period of time; it rose like a deep orange sun worth notice but not truly felt until it was bright yellow and beating down on my burned shoulders.
As a child, I once heard the shrieks of a house-elf loosing its head---Nippy, its name might have been. It had gargled its own blood as the blunt ax came down repeatedly. The incident didn't affect me; on the contrary, Sirius and I had eagerly pressed our ears to the back door when our father took the creature by the scruff of the pillowcase and hauled it into the yard.
"Nippy'll never spill tea on Mother's lap again," Sirius had whispered.
"I hope Dad doesn't dirty his waist jacket," I replied. "I like that waist jacket."
But when I heard the shrieks of a human being's agony, I nearly lost my own head. It could be me, I thought frantically. I'm so happy it's not me.
I was standing outside the huddle of Death Eaters, my squadron. I couldn't see a thing they were doing; it was dark out and they were nearly standing on top of the Muggle they had captured. It was close to morning, and had smelled of clear air and dew until the stench of blood overwhelmed my lungs. Bellatrix stumbled out of the huddle to beckon me forward.
"It's your first Hunt," she said. "Enjoy! You've earned it, cousin."
"Who is she?"
"The Muggle? She's the farmer's daughter."
"The farmer you killed last month?"
"Yes," she said, wiping her cloak on the side of her face. "The one you should have been there for."
"Macnair didn't think I was ready. Thought I'd muck things up."
"Macnair wants as few of us as possible out hunting. He doesn't like sharing glory. If you ask me, that's more important to him than our Lord's cause itself."
"I don't know. He sounds like he knows what he's talking about."
"Sure, he sounds like it," she sneered. "Macnair's all bark and no brains. I don't know why our Lord didn't leave you in my charge. We're family after all."
"Maybe that's why," I said quietly. I remembered the suspicion in the Dark Lord's voice on my first night in the circle of Death Eaters. We had been masked then, unlike tonight, and since I had learned it was not uncommon for him to treat the newest member of the group as an outsider. You had to earn the Dark Lord's trust, even if you were extremely passionate about his teachings. "You said we were lucky to have even been put in the same squadron. You said the Dark Lord disapproved of excessive familiarity between his followers...."
"Yes, yes---you think you're so smart, little Regulus. He doesn't want us more loyal to one another than we are to him. A wise man. But you might have learned something useful from me. Now, come on. I'll show you how it's done." She made toward the others. The comfort of speaking with Bella faded fast when I noticed the Muggle was still screaming.
I hesitated. "Macnair thinks I should stand back and watch tonight."
"Well, he's not here, is he? Stop being childish and follow me."
As Bellatrix turned her head, the first trickle of morning light splashed across her face and I was alarmed to see a disfiguration on her cheek.
"What on earth is---?" I asked.
I reached out to see if it were a bruise, and then I realized it was blood. I pulled away. I didn't want it on my hands.
"Shut up," she was calling behind her. "Get out your wand before they finish without us."
I never thought blood was so fragrant. It was like putting a fork onto your tongue, or putting your hands next to your face after you've been carrying a candle holder. I was amazed that the heavy, iron scent could drift so weightlessly into my nostrils.
The sight of the blood made me nervous.
I didn't understand why I was reacting this way. This girl on the ground, she was just a Muggle. Why, her kind had oppressed my kind for centuries. They had derided us. They had made up lies about us. They had tarnished us: told their children we had green skin, told them we had warts, told them we cackled and killed innocent people. She was no better than a house-elf, so why was I trembling?
"Feel it, Regulus," Bellatrix whispered.
She put her hand on mine and guided it between the Muggle's lungs to touch the pulsing heart. It was out in the open, visible through the cavity where her breastbone had been. I remember the pops of bone as they tore it away with their hands. I remember the ripping of muscle and the Muggle's piggy squealing. Funny spells---my squadron had to have done some funny spells on her, or else she would be stiff not from shock but from death, her heart would not flutter within my fingers.
I wanted to squeeze it, make it suffer, falter, and stop so the Muggle would close her eyes. There were still some Death Eaters who wanted to toy with her, though.
The sun was mostly up, the sky brilliantly yellow. It shined in the eyes of the next Death Eater who took my hand. His eyes were blue like the Muggle's.
"A swish and jab, like this," he instructed, and when we performed the gesture together a puncture wound popped into the Muggle's thigh. She jerked. I took in a shaking gulp of air, and made a scooping motion with my wand. As I lifted it back up, the Muggle's flesh split open in a long red line and blood seeped from it. It looked like a pocket in her skin, with all its contents escaping.
"Say it, boy," another Death Eater said behind me. His voiced trilled horridly on my skin. "Say it clearly, now."
I crouched next to the Muggle and placed my wand parallel to the split. "Secta sinusa," I said.
They had told me beforehand about the effects of this spell; however, I hadn't really understood what would happen. The Muggle looked to know what was going on. Her eyebrows came together in expressive abruptness. Her hand went down to feel the wound on her thigh, but Bellatrix stood on it. I heard a finger pop under Bellatrix's boot. The split on the Muggle's thigh peeled itself open---it looked like the seams of the pocket were coming undone---and when the skin had opened enough that it could be called a flap, it rolled up around my wand as the paper of a cigarette would around its herb.
More than ever, I wanted to back away from this eyesore. The Muggle's thigh now wielded a large square wound, which shined like a sheet of deep red candy. It was gooey. I could see strings of bloody slime like I'd never seen in any Quidditch accident at Hogwarts or any scraped knee in my tree-climbing with Sirius. Oh, to be safe in a tree! A green, fresh tree with secure branches!
We put an amulet under the flap of skin and closed it up. It was a tracking device. Then we overturned a vial of clear potion into her mouth, one that I recalled Macnair telling me would cause the Muggle to explode if she were hit with enough force or the right spell.
I don't think any of us knew what we were doing. We had not been trained well---not most of us, anyhow. We knew only what we learned through school and private study, and the only one who knew anything else---anything the Dark Lord or Merlin or Dumbledore might know---was Bellatrix, and she stood to the side, laughing as the Muggle stared blankly toward the fading stars.
I wished I had my white mask. If the Death Eaters saw me shaking, would they call me a coward or a traitor? This was my night, my first Hunt. If anyone were shaking it should have been the girl on the ground, and I should have been enjoying it, but no matter how I willed my stomach to cooperate it kept twisting itself in knots.
Suddenly one man spoke to me: "Have you never fantasized about these things? Not even as a child?"
No. I'd fantasized about pretty girls and becoming Minister of Magic.
"Do you not feel a great sense of accomplishment?" said another.
I felt a great sense of nausea.
"We'll cut up her genitals next," said another.
The knots in my stomach were coming upward. I could feel them traveling in my stomach, up past my ribs, into my chest, and then my throat, and as you might know knots are large, round things made of rope and should not go into throats. I was choking. Choking! My hands shook fiercely. I would vomit. I would ruin everything. I would be thrown out of my squadron, or worse.
"Bella---" I whispered.
"Finish what you're doing," she hissed.
The Muggle's blood was on my wand. Her skin: it was disfigured and I had done it. There was a lump, where the large amulet was inside her thigh. Her chest was still open for all to see, and I had looked in there and felt in there, too. If she drifted into eternal sleep right now the last thing she would remember would be my eyes. This couldn't be. I was a good boy, who only wanted to change the world for the better. Bellatrix was still talking to me, reminding me that we had a job to tend to, but my heart was pulsing and the fluids of my stomach were sloshing, making sure I wouldn't be able to go on with this.
"Never mind," Bellatrix snapped. "Get out of the way."
I couldn't see straight. I reached for her. "The knots---"
"The Prolonging Charm only lasts for so long, Black," someone growled. "Step aside before the Muggle dies!"
I did. I don't know what happened after that, aside from my stumbling off several yards to be sick. There was a tree with low branches, which I used to steady myself until the world was no longer spinning.
The forest was deep and dark. I looked into it, and looked over my shoulder at the squadron.
If not for this one act, I would not have accomplished one courageous thing in my lifetime; I climbed the tree, and made certain I was not in their line of sight. I would not return to my squadron. I would not return to the Dark Lord.
Now, I know this sounds rather sudden. A boy doesn't swallow his entire life's idealism after one lousy night. The truth is I hadn't. This act of treasonous tree-climbing was not the courageous one just yet. I was afraid of seeing the Muggle's mutilated form again, and if I had to run away from the Death Eaters and put myself into danger in order not to, well, then too bad for me. I couldn't swallow such nastiness. I was like my cousin Narcissa: the wholesome baby of my family, pampered, fawned over, more a prince than a soldier. I should have known better. Sirius should have been the one out here. He was stronger. Perhaps if he'd not run off and betrayed us, my mother wouldn't have wanted this so bad for me and I might have gone into some safer field after school. Spell engineering. Arithmancy. Bookkeeping.
I hoped to wait here until they set the Muggle free and then used the tracking device to hunt her down again, and when they ran off in search I would flee to someplace nice, with white linens and a bathtub and soap.
I didn't stop thinking about the Muggle. Not when my squadron called for me. Not when the sun climbed high and I began to sweat down the small of my back. Not when a trail of ants made its way up the sleeve of my robes and tickled sensitive Mark. I found I was too afraid to flee. It was all too horrendous! What if the Muggle was so angry with my abominable acts toward her that she found me in the forest and did away with me? This might sound silly to you. I had a wand after all, and I was bigger than she was. But at the time I was worried out of my wits. I remained in the tree all day.
I thought on about her. She would run, of course, confounded into the forest. If she managed to elude the Death Eaters, it would take a couple days to reach the nearest town. Even if she did, whoever found her nude, bloodied, and insane would ship her to a hospital, and the "doctors" would tinker with her until they poked too hard in one spot and, because of the Detonation Potion, the whole place would go up in smoke.
I thought of my mother, too. I always did in the worst circumstances.
The look she gave me when she saw the Mark had made me quiver with pride. How I had preened under it. How I wished Sirius could have been there to see how much better than him I was. How we had eaten and drunken to the latest hours of the night, and crafted music with our wands and danced in it, and talked about old times and the events that had led up to these moments. How my father had nodded proudly and my Aunt Nora had taken his elbow and conversed with him. Their boy was going to make his noble way into the world. What next, Regulus? What about a wife? What about your own young ones to follow in your footsteps? How they had pinched my cheeks! How they had cooed!
Why, why, why had that made me feel like man? If only I knew then that it would bring me not the joy and self-worth I'd expected, but regret, confusion, fear, and loneliness.
The dining room was decorated blue when my relatives Apparated to our home. I met them there, exchanging quiet greetings and slow nods, so as not to disturb the calm and happy air of that day. It was early August, and the candles emitted magical light instead of fire, and my mother was wearing her cream robes. I remember because my father had blindfolded her with a cloth similar in color. He led her into the dining room, past Bellatrix, Narcissa, Uncle Alphard, Aunt Nora, and me and sat her in her place at the table.
"I don't see why you would need to---" she was saying, but when my father removed the blindfold the sight of us startled her. She looked at Bellatrix first, happiness dawning in her eyes; my mother hadn't seen her since she'd joined the Dark Lord's ranks. None of us had. Then my mother looked at me. When she placed her hand to her cheek, I knew she had realized.
"Mother," I said softly. My hand rolled into a fist, the urge to draw up my shirt sleeve thrumming within me. However, my father had not given me the signal yet. This was not my day more than it was Mother's, I reminded myself. This was her day of rejoicing.
"My Regulus," she whispered. "Is there something you wish to present to me?"
My eyes darted to my father. He was smiling at the side of my mother's face as if he'd dug up the knowledge of what was to come years ago and the excitement of finally unveiling this treasure was all his. But Mother was looking directly at me---at my decorated arm, not my father's old bare one---and her eyes were rightfully my rewards. I spoke before my father could:
"I don't know what you're talking about. It's not your birthday just yet. Present you with what?"
My mother was eager. "You've all got me down here, and now you're staring like a bunch of nitwits. Bellatrix, I've not seen you for too long, and you haven't even greeted me. Kiss me hello and tell me what's going on." Bellatrix stayed next to Narcissa and regarded my mother as though she were a human coat rack. "Your own Aunt, and you're keeping secrets from me! What about you, Alphard---we're the closest of any flesh and blood. Tell me why you're not speaking. Brother, tell me what this is about." But Uncle Alphard didn't reply.
"You've always told me to be patient," I said.
"With my wand, I'll show you how patient I can be!"
"You know, Regulus," my father said politely, "your mother was once the docile sort---"
"Can't imagine what happened to the poor girl," Uncle Alphard added.
"She had her hands folded in her lap when I asked her to marry me." My father's gaze fell onto her hands now. They were squeezing the arms of her chair, looking as if they were going to split open the wood.
We tried not to look her in the eye and reveal the surprise too soon, and that was what made a smile crack across my mother's face. She shook her head tensely.
"Stop toying with me," she said, and lifted her arms. "Come show your mother what she wants to see."
I did. I would never forget how my chest swelled with delight as her wrinkled fingers folded up the left arm of my robes.
Later, we were all around the dining room table for supper. "How painful was it receiving the Mark?" she asked me.
"I could stand it. Do you remember the time Bellatrix threw her tea at me? It was about as painful as that."
"He's a liar, Aunt Pricilla," Bellatrix said. "I boiled that water especially to punish Regulus, and it was far hotter than any Mark. I should know."
"I don't remember that happening," Narcissa said quietly.
"Well, you were too young," said my Aunt Nora. "And so was he. Seven years old, and attacked by his much older and smarter cousin!"
"Perhaps not smarter," I said.
"But, Bellatrix, you should have hexed him if you wanted to hurt him," Narcissa said.
"I was still attending school," Bellatrix drawled. "You would have me break the law and perform magic during the holidays?"
"Yes," my father pointed out, "if it meant you wouldn't stoop as low as to be so---so Muggle in your childhood entertainment. Throwing hot tea? Really."
"And I still have the scar," I said accusingly. "Even you couldn't charm it off, Dad. It was pure cruelty."
"It was fun, though," Bellatrix said. "We shall have to get together for tea again, Regulus. I'll open up that scar if you like."
"Please don't talk about vile things at supper," Narcissa said.
"Is it too much for you, Miss Goldie Locks?" Bellatrix mocked.
"Goldie Locks?" my father said. "Isn't that a Muggle story? Stooping low again, young lady. More stooping!"
"We're off subject!" my mother called down the table. "We were talking about my Regulus."
I learned the Muggle girl had escaped. The tracking device had malfunctioned somehow. My squadron never saw her again. I spared a sigh of relief for her.
There was no sigh of relief for me. After the Hunt, they quickly found me in the tree, knocked me unconscious, and hauled me away. I don't suppose they went directly to 12 Grimmauld Place, but that was where I woke up magically bound to a chair. We were in the cellar that my mother let Bellatrix use for her various activities. I didn't know what those activities were, though the large stained hook on the wall gave me a hint.
"He's not a Muggle to be played with," I heard from the corner. It was Bellatrix. "He's a pureblood wizard, and as one he is entitled to a merciful execution."
"By betraying the Dark Lord, he has lowered himself to a despicable level," said another---Macnair. I would know my master's voice after six months under his command. "I think we should show him what our Lord thinks of traitors."
"Regulus Black has not betrayed a soul. He has thought of it, but he has not gone through with any act against our noble cause."
Bless her, I thought. Bless Bella; she would stick up for me no matter what.
"He ran away from the Hunt," Macnair snarled. "If not to run away from the cause altogether, then what was he doing in that tree? Bird watching?"
"He was ill---"
"Which goes to show he won't last much longer as a Death Eater! You know from experience that was not the most violent of our acts. When he sees what else goes on---what else it takes to accomplish our means, what will he do then? He'll run right away again, perhaps into the arms of the enemy!"
"Perhaps it's not just the boy who's at fault here. He might have been unprepared last night because of his training."
"Is that a shot at me? You know the Dark Lord placed Black in my charge because I'm the best for any of his jobs."
"And what's your position in our Lord's ranks? I don't recall."
"It doesn't matter! He put me in charge of this child, so he trusts---"
"He trusts you," Bellatrix said in a baby voice. "Does that make you feel loved? Does it make you feel special?"
"Our Lord trusts very few people, and you are not included in that number. This is coming from his third in command." I didn't hear Macnair reply. "Aww, does that hurt little Walden's feelings?"
There was a long pause. I could sense the way Macnair's eyes drilled into her. Then he said quietly, "There's something going on in your head, Lestrange. You're trying to change the subject."
"Yes, you're trying to distract me with this argument. You're having second thoughts about your loyalties, like your cousin here. You want to set him free."
Yes, she wants to set me free, I thought. I was trembling again, but I did not have the urge to vomit. I had faith in Bellatrix. She would not let anything happen. I held on to my chair strongly. It trembled with me. All that nonsense before about a merciful execution---bah! There would be no execution at all if my beautiful, cunning cousin had a say in it.
"How dare you even suggest that?" she asked. Though I couldn't see her face, her tone suggested a look of outrage. "You have never heard the smallest hint that I might betray our Lord. I was there when he gathered his first followers. I was there during the first Hunt. I watched the first Dark Mark shoot into the sky from the tip of our Lord's wand. He taught me his ways personally. He instructed me with his own voice and hands, and spent his valuable time describing to me his plans for our cause from detail to detail. Do you not trust my master's judgment?"
"I do," Macnair stuttered, "trust it. But---"
"Then lock Black into his chambers and guard the door. I'll send for our Lord, and he shall decide Black's fate."
I took back my blessings for her.
Outside my bedroom door, Macnair assured me I would die within the hour. I believed him, as one is inclined to give in to the worst of thoughts in dire moments. He sounded happy as he called it out. "Soon, Black! You'll be getting it!" Maybe he would be the one to kill me. I heard he was into that sort of thing.
Strips of light shined through the bars on my window. By the time night came, Macnair's shouts dwindled into nothing, and we were both silent. I sat on my bed and wondered where my parents had gone, if they even knew I was here. Would they be angry at Bellatrix for helping with my execution? To think about my death in plain words did not frighten me. I found myself blank. I picked the dirt from under my nails. I decided my walls needed a new coat of paint. It was refreshing knowing I had no choice in what was about to happen; all the responsibility lifted off my shoulders. I felt free.
Bellatrix burst in late that night. I jumped to my feet, startled, and remembered as I reached into my robes that I did not have a wand. Behind her, I saw Macnair supine on the ground.
In spite of my hopes, Bellatrix was not happy to see me; and when she was not happy a storm cloud was over everyone's head. This cloud rained on me in the form of spittle. My face was bludgeoned with it as she shouted. Her words didn't mean anything to me except that she was furious and this unexpected visit might not go in my favor. I made to wipe the spittle off my face, and that was when she struck me and my head conked the corner of my wardrobe.
She wiped her mouth and said, "Get up."
The floor was moving under me, but I managed to stay on my feet. I though she would hit me again. She only pointed her wand at my face, and said, "I told Macnair the Dark Lord's instructions: Make sure Black doesn't escape. Then I Stupefied him."
"Where are my parents?"
"My master will be here shortly to oversee your execution. You can leave through the window." She waved her wand and the bars on the window fell to the ground with a great clank.
The night air called me. I was itching to hop right into it and fall two stories. Bellatrix would be cross with me, though, if she risked her life only to have me jump to certain death a minute later. I turned back to her.
"Where are my parents?" I asked.
Her upper lip curled. "If your mother weren't alive, Regulus, I would kill you right here. First I would slit open your eyes and roll back your fingernails, so you would suffer for these despicable thoughts you've harbored against my master.
"But I haven't---"
"Both your mother's sons---traitors! I can't imagine the extent of Aunt Pricilla's misery. But it would be no better for her if she had one son rotting in Azkaban and the other a bloody corpse."
"Where is my mother?" I demanded loudly.
"She and your father are waiting to greet the Dark Lord when he arrives."
"You told her what I did?"
"How could I not? Family duty."
"Please, let me see them."
"It's time for you to leave."
"Bellatrix, I want to see my parents!"
She whipped her wand and I found myself wrenched toward the window. My feet scuffed across the ground as I resisted.
"Please!" I shouted. "Let me see my mother!"
"Get out! You're lucky to be given this chance."
The fall wasn't what I had expected. I landed in a bush, one without thorns, thank Merlin, and was hit in the head by my wand a second later. I looked up at the lit window, but Bellatrix wasn't there.
I thought if I walked to the nearest Muggle town it would be less easy for someone to track me once I Apparated. Someone would track me, yes, but right now I was concerned with something else and needed time. The Muggle. She wouldn't stop pestering me. I had to know why my squadron had not been able to Hunt her. I wanted her to be all right. I searched the site where we'd tortured her, but found nothing but footprints and bloodstains; however, a kilometer or so into the forest, I stumbled into a pile of bloody flesh on the ground. I didn't need to scrape it off my boot to know it was the Muggle's nor to guess that the reason my squadron hadn't found her was because she'd torn off the part of her thigh where the tracking device had been.
I didn't go through the entire forest to find her, as it could take weeks, but went straight to the other side of it, closer to where I knew a town was located. There didn't seem to be any more signs: the edge of the forest was clear of everything but trees; a large field was yellow and green, with nothing resembling a human body; in the distance a long bridge connected the field to the far-off town; and what looked to be a valley ran under the bridge. It was a surreal sight, unlike that of the clearing and farmhouse, where I'd just been.
There was no use searching, I thought. She'd probably bled to death.
Maybe if I'd left then it would have turned out different. I could have run off to someplace exotic, got married, and forgotten about the Dark Lord and my life-ending decisions. But the hiss of running water beckoned me---the rustle of trees, and the whistle of wind. I looked over my shoulder, but the forest was still.
I bet I was imagining things. It was my life flashing before my eyes. Or impending danger was rattling me, trying to make me run. Instead of running, I ambled to the edge of the valley. A river flowed below, and trees lined it. Wind slithered loudly down there, like a mother snake watching over her territory.
I stood above the sight until the sky turned pink. Now that the Muggle matter was settled, I was thinking about my mother. How disappointed she must have been.
I wondered whether she was still prouder of me than she was of my brother. I had spent a year with the Mark on my arm, but my loyalty to the cause had been limited. I had romanticized myself a hero of the family for so long that I never stopped to think about what I would have to do to truly prove myself as that. Sirius had been a blood-traitor, but he'd been a brave blood-traitor. And I wasn't even able to fulfill one night's worth of the ideals that I had thought were nobler than his.
My poor mother.
I was so distraught that it did not scare me to hear Macnair's voice from behind.
I was happy in a way. The killing curse would be less painful than any other death. I was ready for it, more than I had been last night, even. It was inevitable. If I made it past this day, I would die the next. If not then, death would catch up with me in a freak accident or a disease. Best get it over with.
"Turn around, Black. Make it easy on yourself."
I turned around and was struck by an alarming sight.
Over Macnair's shoulder, the Muggle was at the edge of the forest---and she was running straight for the town across the bridge. I could see her stumbling and swerving in the field, which was her only obstacle, and could imagine the look of confusion still on her face. Whenever she tripped, she climbed back up and pushed forward again.
I was fueled with a passionate will to live. I had to stall. If Macnair saw her he would kill her.
"How did you find me?" I asked.
He looked proud of himself. "It was obvious where you would run off to when you had no place to go. I spent all night listening to your whining." He screwed up his face and took on a high pitched voice. "The Muggle...the Muggle...it's my fault she's hurt. I helped them hurt her...I have to save her."
My head was shaking practically of its own accord. I didn't know it was possible to feel this many emotions in such a small stretch of time. I was so embarrassed the thought struck me that I could take three steps back and fall into the valley to escape Macnair. But I wouldn't. The Muggle wasn't even halfway across the field yet. She was close enough to us that I could faintly hear her feet pounding on the ground, so I continued to distract Macnair.
"How did you know where I would go to look for the Muggle? You weren't on the Hunt."
He laughed low. "Bellatrix. When my Lord asked me to come after you and see to your death, she wouldn't dare not tell me where to go in his presence."
"That was very clever of you," I said.
"I might not have needed to be clever if it weren't for your idiot cousin. I know she Stupefied me and freed you. If only my Lord would believe me."
"But he doesn't, does he? He would believe Bellatrix's word over yours any day."
This angered him. "Why is that?"
"She's his third in command. I thought you knew that."
"Of course I know that!"
"And you're just---just my minder, Walden."
"Walden," he said roughly. "It was once Master. You've not only lost your sense of self, you've lost your sense of respect."
"No, you're not. You're a sneaky pest like your cousin. You're trying to hold off your death," he laughed. The ground crunched as he stepped forward, his wand level with my face. I stepped backward at the same time, and was startled as the ground almost crumbled beneath my feet. I looked over my shoulder at the river.
"And what if I jump?" I asked. "If I fall to my death, the Dark Lord will have no proof that I'm dead."
Macnair snorted, and grabbed the fronts of my robes. His breath touched my face. "I will bring your head back to my Lord before you can jump, and it will bring me a higher ranking. And you, Black, will go down into history as a good-for-nothing coward." His lips twisted in realization. "Why, not only have you failed your family and as a Death Eater, but also in your final little conquest: Your Muggle's not even here."
"No, she's not. It's too bad."
I did something very stupid then. I let my eyes flicker to the Muggle's running form. Macnair noticed, and looked over his shoulder.
"Well," he whispered. "Not everyday you see a nude Muggle stumbling through a field. I take it that's the twit you were sniveling about all night?"
"Don't kill her. She's come all this way."
He looked surprised. "Kill her? You've been studying with me for months, boy. Surely you see a larger opportunity than just that?"
I admit I didn't know what he was talking about until he looked toward the town. The Muggle still had the Detonation Potion in her veins, whether the tracking device was there or not. Now, Macnair was lifting his wand and making jubilant swirls in the air as if reciting which spells he should use to complete the villainous act.
I had to think. There was no time. I had my wand, but reach for it and I'd be dead in an instant. I could fall backward into the river and forget all of this. I could punch Macnair in the nose, but he was a big fellow. I could summon those gory images I saw the other night and vomit onto his shoes, but that probably wouldn't help anything.
Or I could continue to stall.
"Do you---?" I started. Do you play Quidditch? Do you know any good books? Do you have any pets? "Do you want me to help?"
He looked at me coldly.
"Help you," I said. "Two spells at once would make for a larger explosion."
"What are you on about?"
"I want to prove my loyalty."
"You think that will get you out of this? Just fling a spell, kill a few dozen Muggles, and you're home free?"
My desperation blossomed into hope when his face took on a contemplative expression. He will say yes, I thought. He had to say yes. He breathed in slowly, weighing my offer in his head. I think he was trying to work out how killing that many Muggles in one day could gain him favor with the Dark Lord, but I would never find out whether it would.
"Half the town gone with one spell," I sang. "What do you say, Walden?"
"Fine," he said.
"You'll let me go when we're finished?"
He was a liar. I could see it clearly in his eyes.
"All right," I said.
We began to walk toward her. She was tripping so much in the excitement of nearing the town that she couldn't keep her balance. We caught up to her and watched as she snagged her foot on a rock and tumbled hard. We stopped abruptly. She didn't explode. We looked on. There were brown stains down her legs and the flap of muscle on her bare chest was partly open. I was shocked the Prolonging Spell had lasted so many hours. Would Muggle "doctors" even know how to heal her once the spell wore off?
"Nothing to do but wait for her to get closer to the town," Macnair said.
She was still far from her target. If we waited, we'd be here for a half-hour more. I was antsy, and found that this feeling ignited an idea that sent shivers down my spine. It was a positively suicidal idea but made me feel heroic, as if the past couple days had been worthwhile. As a child, I'd thought about dying tragically in wars and having maidens weep over my body, and now with this exhilaration running through me I could hardly believe I was on the verge of making those dreams come true.
I turned to Macnair and said, "Of course, we could levitate her to the town and speed things up."
"One of us could levitate her there, and the other could explode her right over the town. The whole place would go up in flames. The Dark Lord would be proud."
"Yes." He straightened his stance as if he'd just come up with the plan. "You levitate her. I'll do the rest."
I nodded. This was it. I couldn't help but worry what would happen if this didn't work out the way I wanted it to. I would die either way, certainly, but I would much rather die on my own terms, with my glory and bravery fresh in my head. A source of stubborn, violent spirit filled my body and guided my hand up; my wand pointed at the back of the Muggle's head. She was hardly twenty paces away.
"Wingardium Leviosa," I said.
She went into the air, and began to flail and scream.
Too late to turn back, I told myself.
"Accio Girl!" I said.
"No, you fool!" Macnair shouted, but it was no use. The Muggle's frail body was zooming toward mine.
The result was immediate. The impact sparked the Detonation Potion, and fire shot out of the Muggle's body in widespread streams. She clung to me. I clung to her. Truthfully, I hadn't expected it to be so painful, but my wand was no where to be found now; I couldn't speed along our deaths.
I couldn't see the town like this, but I was positive that from this distance nothing but the field was on fire. My plan had worked.
Through the blaze, however, I could see Macnair's mouth wide open in pain. His entire face was charred, and he was clawing at his eye as if it had burst in his head. He stumbled away, and was not caught in the fire like the Muggle and I.
I couldn't breathe. My vision was entirely gone. I could still hear the roar of the fire enveloping me. My skin was so sensitive I couldn't feel anything. I didn't know whether the Muggle was clinging to me still.
As I mentioned, my vision was gone, so it confused me to see people standing only a few feet away. I recognized them: Bellatrix, Dad, Sirius, Nippy. I called out to them, but they didn't notice. Then, in the foreground I saw my mother's hand stroking gently over my Dark Mark. I felt it, too. Her touch was so strong that I could feel it through the fire. She reached out to me with her old, leathery fingers. She felt my chin and my cheek and told me how proud she was.
I took her hands in mine. I had to tell her how sorry I was for running away, but all too soon we were swept into the sky and set back down on the glossy floor of the Great Hall at Hogwarts. There were numerous shoes hopping around us, and straight backs and flowery dresses. The Honorary Leaving Ball. Mother and I were dancing. She was admiring my Head Boy badge; I saw it sparkle in her eyes.
"Mother," I whispered. "I'm sorry..."
She looked up at me. Her eyes were swollen and lined with pink. "What have you done, my Regulus?"
"I'm sorry for leaving you."
"Don't let that blood-traitor manipulate your mind! You haven't done anything wrong," she said, and took me into her arms.
I looked around. I was startled. We were in our drawing room now. I looked over my shoulder to see my father silhouetted before the fireplace. His head was in his hands and his wand was on the floor next to the family tapestry, which had been torn right off the wall. Sirius' name had been burned off.
"Did my brother just leave?" I asked.
When I turned back to my mother, her teary eyes were gone and she looked pleased. The morning light fell over her smoother face and made me want to stand close to her. She was very beautiful.
With her much larger hand around mine, she ushered me up the staircase and into one of the extra rooms. I saw a portrait of a frightening man, and I loved my mother all the more for being so safe to hold onto. She introduced him as Phineas Nigellus, and with my chin up high I introduced myself as Regulus Black.
"Looks too small to be a Black," Phineas declared.
"He's just a child," my mother said. "Wait until he grows up, and you'll be cowering in front of my little boy."
Phineas looked doubtful. "We shall see. Be sure to feed him plenty of hippogriff. That's what my father fed me."
While my indignation at being at being talked about in such a way overrode my disgust at the thought of being fed a nasty horse-bird, I couldn't help but point my finger at him and say, "My father is the head of the Black family and he feeds me whatever I wish!"
My mother laughed. Her hair swung around her face in black and gray curls. Her face was alight with happiness as she hoisted me onto her hip and told me what a clever boy I was. I was going to respond, but suddenly I felt the need to put my head onto her shoulder. Her laughter turned into singing, quiet singing that filled the room far more than the laughter had. She smelled safe and felt safe, and she was warm against me.
She carried me into my bedroom, where the walls were pale and the furniture was much larger than I remembered it ever being. She laid me into a pile of soft blankets and pillows. Bars surrounded me. It was my cradle. A stuffed goblin was next to me. It felt soft, but it looked scary. There was nothing to suck on, so I put my thumb into my mouth.
My mother was above me, smiling, with a book in her hand.
"Merlin the Great Defeats the Muggle King," she recited, but I didn't want to hear a silly bedtime story. I wanted her to hold me. I put my arms into the air. She paid me no mind. Mummy, pay attention, I tried to say. No use.
I kept reaching for her.
"He was a tall, heroic man," she was saying, "who was filled with magic from head to toe."
Please, hold me, I tried. Something bad will happen if you don't.
"When courteous Merlin invited the Muggle king to his tower for tea, he did not suspect the Muggle king would have a sword hidden in his robes," she said.
I began to whimper and feel very warm. Is my face red, Mum? Why aren't you checking my temperature? She continued to read, but I didn't hear the words anymore. I was on fire. My cradle was on fire. I shrieked and held my hands up, but she wouldn't hold me. She kept smiling and turning the pages. I called her name. She didn't understand. She didn't hear.
The book caught fire. My mother caught fire.
"No!" I shrieked. "Not my mother!"
But no one was there anymore. I was turning black as ash. My bones and flesh were going to waste. The world was turning to tar and encompassing my useless body. No matter how loudly I called her name, Mother did not reappear through the fire. I saw no more images of her and didn't feel her any longer. It was especially disappointing, now when I needed her most.