Pain met Draco in the mist, slamming into him hard and making everything ache. His head swam with the feeling as darkness settled around him. The ground was lumpy and uncomfortable beneath him, the cold seeping into his bones making him shiver.
Edward groaned as light came streaming into the darkness. He lay in a small tent, the material shifting and moving slightly in the wind, rain soaking through and dripping onto his face. He lay still, forehead creasing as he tried to remember everything and anything that could explain where he was.
Slowly and reluctantly memories wormed their way out of the fog, flickering behind his eyes. They were a little blurred around the edges, and great gaps of blackness opened up in the middle of them, but he remembered. He swallowed past the dryness in his throat, trying desperately to speak, his voice hoarse.
'Ahhh Commander James.' The voice was high pitched, with a slight lisp, and Edward found himself wincing, as the sound run in his already aching head.
A small reedy man came into view; bright red hair hanging in limp strands around his face, a large grin plastered across his face, showing off his crooked teeth. His eyes were too big and his nose too small, and in his hands, he held a filthy rag covered with blood. He passed it from one hand to the other in what seemed like a nervous gesture, kneeling down by Edwards side.
'You're alive after all.' He grinned again, and Edward noticed the fresh stains of blood splattered across his yellowing shirt.
'Am I not supposed to be?' Edward asked, trying to sit up.
The man placed a hand on his chest, showing surprising strength as he pushed Edward back.
'I wouldn't move yet Commander, it's really going to hurt.' The man seemed to take great delight in this fact, his pale blue eyes seeming to shimmer with happiness. 'Quite the mystery you were.' He stated, wiping his hands on his rag absentmindedly as he stood. 'I thought they were having me on when they brought you in, not a wound in sight. Told them they could take your drunken arse to sleep with the pigs. But they assured me that you,' the man turned, glancing down at Edward in an accusing way, 'were dying. And yet, here you are.' He shook his head, grabbing a wooden cup, and dipping it into a large wooden barrel that sat in the corner of the tent.
Edward turned to look around the rest of the test, recoiling as he noticed the body lay on a mat adjacent to his. His head was back, eyes wide and more white than pupil, his mouth open as if in shock. Flies buzzed happily around a large open wound in his side, where his hand was still frozen, trying to hold everything in. Draco felt sick, trying to pull away from the memory, to take control and close his eyes, so he didn't have to look anymore. But Edward refused to turn away as if the sight would change to something better.
'That one was a screamer.' The man pointed out, making his way back towards Edward, the small wooden cup in his hands. 'Wouldn't even shut up long enough for me to tell him he was going to die. Here.' He knelt down and held the water out to Edward, which he took gratefully. It tasted like sickness, filth and rusty nails, but Edward thought it was the most glorious thing he'd ever tasted.
'Where am I?' Edward gasped, finishing the water and taking a huge gulp of oxygen, handing the cup back to the redhead.
'The King's encampment.' The voice came from behind him, and Edward turned. 'That's what the rich dicks are calling it. It's all just shit and mud if you ask me.' Just behind the dead man lay another, his face grey, sweat gleaming across his brow and upper lip, beading in tiny drops. His cracked lips shook as if he were trying to say more, but he didn't.
The red-haired man rose, making his way over to the man quickly. With a flourish, he pulled back the blanket that lay over him, and the smell of infection smacked Edward in the face. Half of the man's leg had gone, and the bandages were filthy, soaked in a mix of pus and blood. With a shake of his head, the red-haired man tutted and replaced the blanket.
'Not long now, Oren.' He muttered, tapping the dying man's shoulder.
'I know it, Vard, stop fussing.' He replied gruffly.
Oren's face had the look of a thousand battles, the weight of them sinking into the lines on his face. He was dying, of that Edward was sure. He'd seen the deaths of so many, known how it looked, how it smelt, and he recognised it now, hovering above Oren's bed. There were many different ways that men had reacted to the darkness of the unknown; some had stared into it with wide eyes, as if they had never seen anything so black, others would beg and plead for life, for home, for all those that had been left behind. It was rare though to find those that met death as if standing on another battlefield and facing yet another enemy. He knew only real soldiers, real warriors met death that way. Edward saw it in Oren and felt a deep respect for the man.
'As Oren says, this is the King's Encampment, just outside Menar.' Edward jumped at the name, recognising the small village where he had found Mina in the market.
'Menar? Why?' He asked, forcing himself to rise, gritting his teeth as pain shot through his back. Vard shook his head.
'Lord Morax has been purging the village.' Edward sighed, pausing to allow the pain to ebb away before he tried moving again. He wasn't surprised that Tharin had been murdering more people, he only felt guilty that he wasn't able to do anything about it.
'They start officially at dawn.' Vard shook his head as if he found the idea incredibly detestable. 'The witch that cursed you is to die today apparently, to set an example.' Edward froze his head snapping up.
'The witch that cursed you, heard some of the men say that she is to hang at dawn, signalling the start of Lord Morax's stand against the darkness.' Vard chuckled slightly to himself.
With great effort Edward heaved himself onto his feet, glancing around for his belongings. 'Where are my things?' He ground out, limping towards Vard, his face set in determination, trying to ignore the pain lancing across his back.
'I don't think it's wise to be moving around as you are, Commander, there is no telling what damage the witch has done.' Edward ignored him, pushing past the small man's shoulder, and examining the table he'd been stood near. What looked like instruments of torture were strewn across the wood, soaked with blood, long forgotten rags lying pitifully between them like fallen soldiers. Beneath the table were a pile of belongings; swords, shields, armour and various other instruments of war all piled haphazardly. Edward dug through them, smiling slightly when he found his daggers. They were simple, the hilt simply a leather strap wrapped around wood, and the daggers themselves were iron-tipped with silver. But they were all he had left of his father, so he held onto them as if they were priceless.
Quickly he rose, tying the belt around his waist and heading for the front of the tent, only glancing back to check on Oren's progress. The man was still, his eyes staring past the things of the world into some distant realm, that Edward himself has seen twice, but no breath passed his lips. He had fought his final battle and death had won. Shaking his head, Edward stepped out of the tent, enjoying the coolness of the rain against his cheeks.
He quickly weaved his way through the encampment tents, ignoring the drunk soldiers as they stumbled into the mud, heaved up by the women they'd managed to find. Prostitutes waited in groups, their bony hands grasping at his shirt as he limped past. He ignored them as they gave him sultry smiles, and told him he could put his sword anywhere.
The sky lightened slightly as he made his way out of the encampment, and towards the village. Though the rain fell, the splashes and patter of raindrops reaching his ears, there was eerie sort of hush, that made him feel uneasy. No one wandered the winding streets between the small huts, he could hear no other voices, no other footsteps.
He rounded the corner of a hut, a pig snuffling in the earth at its feet, and paused. The whole of the village's occupants were stood around the village square, marked by a small well where all villagers got their water. He remembered when the well had been a blessing, people had danced around the bricks and sang songs. Now they stood, hunched and motionless, leaning their heads closer to one another as they whispered secrets and suspicions.
Edward gulped as he saw the gallows. He knew how easily they were put together, and taken apart. They would kill Mina's friend and dismantle it as if nothing had ever happened. He gripped the hilt of his knives as he strode forward, his boots sinking into the mud, and splashing water up the back of his legs.
Her body was starkly pale against the grey morning, every inch of it covered it wounds in various stages of healing. Her face was barely recognisable, swollen and bruised from repeated beatings. Anger rose as bile in his throat. He had killed men in various horrific ways, watched the blood drain them pale. But the cruelty was abhorrent, and it filled him with more loathing than he'd ever thought possible. Any attempt to save her would end in his death, of that he was certain, but he figured there were worse ways to go. With a sigh, he straightened his shoulders, moving to unsheath his knives as Aygust began making his speech, his voice carrying across the crowd and pushing Edward forward.
He paused in his process when he saw her. She was frozen in place among the spectators, her eyes wide in terror, hair wet and plastered across her face. His heart ached as his eyes took her in, it had been so long since he had seen her, and she was still as beautiful and breathtaking as the first time he laid eyes on her.
He panicked slightly as Mina's face contorted into a look of pure determination, and she began to push her way through the spectators. He cast a glance between the woman on the podium and Mina, his heart racing in his chest, as he felt the familiar pump of adrenaline through his veins. He had to choose, between the woman who had saved his life, and the woman that he loved. With a saddened heart, he knew he'd already made his choice.
He grabbed hold of her, yanking her away from the podium with all his strength, ignoring the pain and her protests, thinking only of getting her to safety. His hands shook with how good it felt to have her in his arms again, and with how much he wished their circumstances were different.
'Let go of me.' People were beginning to notice, so he took a deep breath and pulled her back some more, lifting her feet off of the ground and backing away from the curious faces. They stood right at the back, a safe distance from the podium, Mina's friend just a bruised shimmering outline in the haze of raindrops. The rope was around her neck, and she stood proud and naked, her chin turned up in defiance.
'Mina.' he said, breath choking in the back of his throat when she looked up at him, tears shimmering, unshed in her eyes. He didn't want her to see, couldn't let her live with that. So he held her gaze as the lever was pulled and the trapdoor opened. Let her beat his chest and cry as her friend died and she could do nothing about it. The witch that had saved him flickered through his mind, and he felt the familiar stab of guilt in his chest. He knew he couldn't have saved both of them, it would have been impossible, but a small part of him felt like he should of. Tears fill his eyes as he buried his head in Mina's hair and held onto her, promising himself that he would never let her go.
Draco pulled back slightly as he realised his head was buried in Hermione's bushy hair, her forehead pressed against his chest. He gulped his heart racing at how close they were, and the feel of the Sensieve's magic dancing across his skin. She gripped his shirt in her fist and Draco wondered if she could hear his elevated heartbeat, his breath stuttering in his lungs.
'Er, Granger?' He muttered, swallowing his nerves and trying to pull away, removing his hands from around her waist.
'Can you just...just not be a dick for a second?' Hermione muttered, gripping his shirt tighter and burying her forehead in his chest. The sheer leg shaking, the gut-knotting feeling of it made him blink stupidly for a couple of seconds. They'd been fighting, she'd slapped him, he'd been a tosser, she'd been a know-it-all, and now she was holding onto him. He grit his teeth and swallowed heavily, stepping into her space, and wrapping his arms around her, holding her close as she shook with the hurt. Hesitantly he rested his chin on the top her head, breathing in the heady scent of strawberry.
'What if...what if Harry..' Hermione was sobbing again, and Draco grit his teeth, as once again the boy wonder managed to weasel his scarred forehead into all their interactions. He pulled away, needing to create some distance, to remind himself that she had slapped him only minutes before.
But he stopped because she was looking up at him with such sadness, with such worry, and his heart ached. He recognised the feeling as one he had felt before when he was experiencing Edwards memory. All he'd wanted was to make things better, make Mina happy, and now Draco realised, that was exactly what he wanted for Hermione. Even if it meant saying something good about Potty, even if it meant hoping that the stupid Got-to-be-a-hero made it through the third task unscathed.
A new tear fell from her eyes, sliding slowly down her cheek. With stuttering uncertainty he lifted his hand, his thumb brushing across her cheek to wipe it away. He was shocked by the softness of her skin, by her acceptance of the gesture.
'Potty isn't in the habit of dying, is he?' Her mouth opened slightly, her full lips red and glistening, brown eyes shimmering with questions and sadness. Then she was hugging him, throwing her arms around him like he had seen her do so many times with Potty and Weasel.
He tried to calm his heart and breathing, both working overtime as he stared in shock at the door. Just before she'd hugged him, before she'd thrown herself into his arms, he'd been about to do something stupid, something that would have destroyed the balance between them, beyond repair. He Draco Malfoy had been about to kiss Hermione Granger.