Harry, Ron and Hermione merely picked at what little food they had on their plates. Harry looked over to the Slytherin table, and noticed Jaspine's mood was about the same as theirs.
But no one else seemed to notice, because they were all discussing something else....
"Hey, I wonder where Snape is this morning?" Seamus Finnigan commented between bites of the cheddar cheese-stuffed omelet. Most of the others glanced at the professors table idly, and shrugged.
"Rather odd," George said. "But nothing of concern, I'm sure. Probably overslept or something. He's always been a night owl, especially of late, if half of what I hear is true. Or else he's mixing up some particularly nasty poison to feed us later to test our competence."
Harry, Ron and Hermione tried not to wince at the conversation about the possible whereabouts of the Potions master. They had a feeling that he was not going to come out of his "bat cave" at all today, after what had happened between him and Deveroux the night before. Neville, who was sitting across from Harry and the others, gave the three sympathetic looks.
Meanwhile, the others, mercifully, changed the topic of discussion to the attacks on Vicinato Zero, Zauberplatz, Hallebarde and El Mercadore.
"Me aunt works in Vicinato, but she wasn't there that day...."
"I'm scared, what will they hit next?"
"They still haven't heard anything from my cousin, and he comes through Hallebarde each day to and from work."
"I'm worried about my brother, too, he was supposed to be...."
"My sister's best friend...."
"My older brother...."
"The casualty list has gone down, but I've heard officials say they still expect it to be in the tens of thousands...."
"Terrible ... we were supposed to go to Italy this summer, but ...."
Suddenly, McGonagall tapped the side of her goblet with a fork for attention, and the sound carried above the normal student chatter and brought a hush to the room. The headmaster slowly arose from his seat at the center of the table and addressed the students, his voice grim, his expression somber.
"I have grave news for you all," Dumbledore said. "Last night...Professor Snape was ambushed while out on patrol."
Amazed gasps and exclamations filled the room. Snape? A teacher? Ambushed??? Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged stunned, horrified looks.
Dumbledore continued. "Unbeknownst to you all, except for the Prefects and Heads that is, I had established a patrol system in which at least one teacher would fly over the perimeters of the school grounds nightly after some ... disturbing incidents earlier this year. Professor Snape was out last night ..." and was it Harry's imagination, or did he just give Harry, Ron, Hermione, and then Jaspine accusing looks? "... and he never returned. We received reports of fighting in the sky over the Forbidden Forest late last night and rushed to assist, but it was over by the time we arrived. No trace of him could be found when we searched the area where he was last seen. Today we do not know if he is dead or alive. We have not heard from him since last night."
"Maybe he went to join You-Know-Who," Dean Thomas whispered darkly. Harry felt as if he were going to be sick at those words ... words he himself might have said in the very same tone of voice had it not been for the events of last night. He again looked at the others. Hermione had gone white and Ron looked as if he would have liked nothing more than to hide under the table. But Harry noticed something else as he cast another look at the Slytherin table. He spotted Draco Malfoy, and he was smiling triumphantly. Harry shuddered at the cold, malicious glee he could see in Malfoy’s eyes, even from across the room.
The other Gryffindors ... and students from the other tables ...continued to buzz with talk about where Snape may have gone.
"Yeah, he was in league with them once. He's probably returned to the fold," Lee Jordan said nastily.
"Wonder what took him so long," Parvati Patil said, her tone venomous.
"Probably had to gather information on what the school was doing ..." Lavender Brown chimed in.
"Guys, keep it down!" Dean Thomas hissed. "Remember, the Ministry ...."
"Quiet, you lot!!!" Hagrid unexpectedly roared. He pounded his fists on the table for attention. Harry noticed then that Hagrid had tears in his eyes. Deveroux's face was pale, masklike, and McGonagall looked puffy-eyed as if she might have been crying earlier. The other teachers were unusually subdued, quiet, and obviously still in shock.
"Professor Snape did not run off," Dumbledore sternly refuted. "He was attacked. Hagrid believes that he was fighting for his life ... and was either killed or captured. It was Hagrid who first heard the shouting over the Forbidden Forest, and recognized his voice," Dumbledore continued when the room stilled again. "Hagrid went to investigate, realizing Professor Snape was in trouble, but by the time he reached the scene, it was over. We do not know for sure who attacked him or why, but we fear the worst. It is very likely that we will never see Professor Snape again. He will be missed here.”
The silence was palpable in the Great Hall as the news sunk in. The stunned Hogwarts students stared at each other in shock. Even the usually unflappable Weasley twins were slack-jawed at the bombshell.
“Everyone should report to their morning classes,” Dumbledore continued. “Those who have Potions this morning are strongly encouraged to use this time to study. After lunch, everyone is to report to their respective common rooms to get further instruction about the new rules on curfew that will be put in place for everyone’s safety in light of these attacks. I will go to the Slytherin Common Room to relay the new rules myself, in Professor Snape’s unfortunate absence.”
Dumbledore cast another scathing look at Harry, Ron and Hermione, and sat down heavily.
Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged guilty looks as Snape's words came back to them from last night....
"You have killed me! Just as surely as if you had poured Blacklotus Nacre down my throat!"
Hermione's lower lip quivered, and Ron looked almost as ill as he had last night. Harry closed his eyes, hoping beyond hope that this entire series of events was all just one long nightmare, that he would wake up and find that none of this had happened. Heck, he'd even be grateful to find himself waking up at the Dursleys' house, in the broom closet, with Dudley sneering down on him!
No such luck. Harry opened his eyes as the shuffling chairs interrupted his thoughts. He watched numbly as the students slowly filed out of the Great Hall and to their respective morning classes. Neville gave the trio one more sympathetic glance and left for his class.
Suddenly Harry felt as if someone was gazing at him ... and he had a feeling he knew who. He looked at the professors table again. Dumbledore was watching them with a pointed expression on his face, and he raised a beckoning hand when he saw that Harry was looking his way. Harry got the message. Dumbledore wanted to speak to them before their classes. The other teachers by this point had left along with the students to begin their classes.
"Come on," Harry whispered to Ron and Hermione. They were the only ones remaining at the Gryffindor table. Harry also noticed that the only other student left in the room was Jaspine, and she was sitting alone at the Slytherin table and looking nauseated and remorseful.
Dumbledore came down the stairs on the right side of the dais and proceeded to the main doorway. Jaspine, Harry, Ron and Hermione followed him down the corridors and stairwells without a word.
They reached the Gargoyle statue, and Dumbledore murmured "Butterbeer Lollipop." The statue swung around and the five went up the moving stairs to the headmaster's office.
Dumbledore sank down into his chair behind his desk as if he had been suddenly drained by a Terminosa spell. The four students took seats in the chairs in front of the desk. No one spoke for several seconds as Dumbledore gave the students a withering stare.
"Professor Snape ... wasn't just ambushed while out on patrol, was he?" Harry finally said nervously. "He left last night, after what we did."
Dumbledore nodded slowly, his expression sad, his whole demeanor weighed down by grief and exhaustion. He stared past them to the door they had just come through. "Yes," he responded quietly. "He must have left after you four headed back to your common rooms, and I had gone out to talk to Professor Deveroux." The headmaster sighed and then turned to look at the students, his face filled with sorrow and regret. "Professor Snape took Miss Deveroux's rejection hard, and I suspect he felt he had nothing left to lose. From what Hagrid told me, and having known Severus since he first came to Hogwarts over twenty years ago, I surmise that he went out to challenge Voldemort by himself in mad rage and ... and despair. The nine we found that he killed over the dark forest were definitely part of Voldemort's gathering army. At least seven of them bore the Dark Mark."
"So why did you tell everyone it was an ambush?" Harry asked, irked at Dumbledore for withholding the whole truth from the students.
Dumbledore turned an angry glare toward the boy. "Because it would seem that I have no choice in the matter. My position here is becoming increasingly precarious, and it was all I could do to keep Voldemort's influence here to a minimum even before this latest disaster! The passage of the Peace Preservation Act after the riots in Godric's Hollow and Glaucestershire is only the tip of the iceberg. There have been other incidents here which you may or may not have heard about. Hagrid's former pet cerberus Fluffy was found dead ... killed by Fedhamohsi and the other unicorns who help patrol the borders of the forests now. We suspect that Fluffy had been mind-manipulated by one of Voldemort's servants and ordered to, at the very least, attack Professor Snape while he was out hunting alone, or worse, to attack any adventuresome students who might have happened to be wandering around the school grounds past curfew." Dumbledore cast a scathing look at the four students, and they shifted uncomfortably.
"Furthermore, about a dozen Junior and Apprentice Aurors have been found dead or have been declared missing in the past month alone. We found three of these missing Aurors last night among the dead, and all of them bore the Dark Mark, the sign of Voldemort's control. And to make matters worse, the Ministry of Magic itself is slowly falling increasingly under Voldemort's control. Lucius Malfoy, more and more, is running things, making the decisions. Cornelius Fudge has been reduced to a mere shadow.
"If word reached the Ministry about what really happened last night ... Lucius would almost certainly make a power grab and take over the school, or else put someone he controls in charge here. Hogwarts would then fall under Voldemort's control, and we cannot afford that. Hogwarts is the strongest, safest refuge for our side, and must not fall into Voldemort's hands. But we also cannot rebel against the Ministry because we are not ready for open war. So in order to keep the Ministry's inquiries into this matter to a minimum, I shall keep them in the dark about this matter as much as possible for as long as possible.
"Furthermore, your father's job and your family's safety would be jeopardized, Ron, if word got out that his own son was involved in an attack on a teacher. He has been working through the Ministry, trying to drum up support to raise an international army of wizards to hunt down and destroy Voldemort before he grows too powerful to stop. And he has been passing information to us from inside the Ministry, news we otherwise would not be receiving from the papers. We are trying through every means possible to hold Voldemort at bay in the meantime, without resorting to hostilities. The attack on Professor Snape, however, is going to make things ... difficult. This could be just the excuse Lucius is looking for to have me replaced with someone he controls."
"Therefore," Dumbledore continued, "as much as the four of you deserve expulsion, even a criminal trial, my first and foremost duty is to the protection of the school ... and to fighting Voldemort with every means at my disposal. Those things would be compromised if I threw you out of Hogwarts. Also, in a way, I share some of the blame for what happened last night. After thinking it over, and after overhearing some of the remarks from the students at breakfast this morning -- I'm talking about the rumors that Professor Snape had rejoined Voldemort -- I was forced to realize that while you four were the only ones who took direct action, you weren't alone in your views on his loyalties.
"I have been keeping a lot back from you four and the prefects, because I did not want the entire student body to panic over what has been happening lately. I realize now that I should have shared more information with you and some of the other older students. My silence on the matter of Professor Snape's recent activities, as well as your enmity and recklessness, has contributed to this disaster.
"Therefore, I will not expel you or discipline you further. But I must demand your silence and cooperation with me in the future with regards to what happened last night, and what has been said here today. You are not to discuss this matter with anyone other than myself unless you have my express permission. I can only remind you of what your unfortunate and unwise course of action has led to. Judging by your expressions now and during breakfast, I think that will be punishment enough for you.
"Now go. It is past time for your classes."
Without another word, the students got up and shuffled miserably out of the office. Dumbledore sat for several minutes before taking a piece of parchment paper and his quill, preparing the letter he would have to send to the Ministry concerning this mess. He put the feathered tip to his lips for a second, and then he began to write the sort of letter that every leader hopes he will never have to write....
The Honorable Minister Cornelius Fudge
Ministry of Magic
From Albus Dumbledore
Headmaster, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
I have very sad news for you. Our Potions master, Severus Snape, was attacked in an ambush last night as he patrolled the school grounds on broom. He has now been missing for nearly nine hours, and has yet to contact us. We fear the worst for him. The only clue we found as to who attacked him were nine dead wizards ... seven of them bearing the snake-and-skull mark which was once the symbol of You-Know-Who. The other two were burned beyond recognition, and we have been unable to determine whether or not they also bore the Mark. I sent an earlier letter regarding the disposal of the bodies, but have taken photographic evidence of the Marks, and have recorded the identities of those I recognized. Ask the judicial department for their records; you should find them enlightening. If you wish to view the photos yourself, I have several copies that I have kept ..."
Dumbledore knew he had to be careful here ... that dratted law! He continued writing:
"We now have the regretful duty of finding another Potions teacher, and quickly. Also, I wish to petition the Ministry for a trained dragon to patrol the schoolgrounds in order to prevent such ambushes in the future."
Dumbledore closed his eyes and sighed. He had hoped to wait until summer to bring this up, but the present circumstances called for swifter action. They could not afford to lose any more teachers to attacks of this nature, and while the unicorns were vigilant, they could not be everywhere at once. Plus, unicorns could not fly.
Also, while most Death Eaters would not hesitate to gang-attack a lone wizard, even a powerful wizard like Snape, they would certainly think twice before going up against a full-fledged, fire-breathing dragon.
"I await your reply,
Dumbledore looked at his unlit fireplace in surprise. The voice, faint and echoey, was Sirius Black's.
"Professor? Are you there?" the voice repeated.
"Yes, yes," Dumbledore said testily. "I'm here." He quickly ignited his fireplace with his wand, and the head and shoulders of Sirius Black immediately appeared. "What is it, Sirius? And where are you?"
"I'm at Mundy's," Sirius replied. "It was getting too hot at the Deveroux Shack, so I moved here permanently, more or less. I heard a disturbing rumor that Death Eaters attacked near Hogwarts last night. Is it true?"
"News travels like the wind, doesn't it?" Dumbledore remarked. Then he nodded grimly. "Yes, it's true." He quickly told Sirius the same version of the story he had told the student body earlier.
"He was ambushed?"
"That's correct. By a gang of Death Eaters out looking for a little entertainment. They got more than they bargained for, though. We found nine of them dead in the forest. He..." the headmaster paused, sighed, continued sadly, "he fought well before the end."
"With all due respect, Albus, that's a load of hippogriff dung, if I may be so blunt."
Dumbledore looked away, wrung his hands in exasperation. "Oh, very well! Yes, there is more! Yes, there are details I left out! But you must trust me when I tell you that I have my reasons! For now all I can tell you is that Severus is gone, and we haven't seen or heard from him since last night. And before you suggest it, no he did not go back over to Voldemort."
"I wasn't going to ask, Albus. I know he would not go back to Voldemort willingly. He told me that he would give anything to see the Dark Lord destroyed, even his life. And you know how he is when he means business. Nobody holds a grudge like Severus."
"Oh?" Dumbledore inquired, peering keenly at the flickering outline of his friend. Sirius had told him a few months ago that Wormtail was dead, but both he and Severus had rather suspiciously claimed ignorance on the matter of how Pettigrew had died and who had killed him.
Sirius quickly changed the subject.
"Even Aurellia can't find him?"
"No." Dumbledore looked away.
"That strikes me as highly unusual...?" Black prodded.
Dumbledore closed his eyes and silently debated whether or not to tell the rash wizard the whole truth. Either Sirius would be throwing bolts or patting Harry on the back if he knew, and Dumbledore was not sure which reaction would be worse for the boy right now. But Black had a right to know since he was responsible for his godson. Besides, if Harry ever let the truth slip out, Sirius would be outraged at having been kept in the dark.
"Very well, Sirius," Dumbledore finally said. "Since you insist." The headmaster proceeded to tell Black everything he remembered from the previous night.
When Dumbledore had finished, Black let out a long, weary sigh.
"I never would have believed that Harry could do a thing like this, if I weren't hearing it straight from your lips," Black said. "I knew he and Snape hated each other--who hasn't that greasy haired git managed to splinch off at one time or another? But for Harry to pull something like this ... I am stupefied! I just can't believe it."
"Believe it," Dumbledore stated grimly. "Thanks to your godson and my lack of foresight, we have just lost one of our most valuable allies. I sincerely wish I had left him tied up in the lab..."
"I would be lying if I said the jerk hasn't been begging for something like this for years. I know it'll be a bright, sunny day in Azkaban before I ever forgive him for what he tried to do to me. But even I wouldn't wish on him what Voldemort will do to him," Sirius muttered as he shook his head. "No one should have to suffer like that. Not even him." He then looked up rather suddenly, and a strange determined light shone in his eyes.
"Sirius ...." Dumbledore said in a stern voice, "What are you thinking? I hope you aren't planning something rash."
"No, no," Sirius replied hastily. "I was just thinking, it's going to be tough getting word to Figg and Remus and the others, without the Ministry getting wind of it."
"Do me a favor. If you can tell them, by all means do so as quickly as possible. But don't put yourself or anyone else in harm's way. Tell them the 'ambush' version of events which I told you earlier. I'd rather that as few people as possible know about all the details."
"Of course. All right, Albus. I'll be in touch. And thank you for telling me the truth. Harry and I are going to have a nice little chat about this as soon as I can manage it." With that, Sirius winked out of sight.
Dumbledore closed his eyes and sighed sadly as his own words echoed back to him in the silence of Sirius’ absence.
“Otherwise, the coming storm will break upon us from within as well as from without." How prophetic those words turned out to be.
Whether by owl or by fireplace, Harry Potter was about to get the lecture of his life, Dumbledore reflected. But alas, it would be too little and too late to undo the damage.
"So, what did Dumbledore say?"
Mundungus Fletcher came into the living room. Sirius had just stepped out of the fireplace.
"The rumors are true. There was definitely a fight outside Hogwarts last night, Mundy," Sirius replied. "Snape was ambushed. He hasn't been seen or heard from since last night. Dumbledore is pretty sure he's either dead or captured. He would have found a way to contact us by now if he could."
"Shall I owl the others?"
Sirius shook his head. "No. Not now, at least. It'll attract too much attention. In the meantime, I have to leave immediately. There's something I need to do."
The younger wizard started across Fletcher’s shabby room to get his broom, but Fletcher put a restraining hand on Sirius’ shoulder.
“Are you mad? You can’t go anywhere, not without being detected!”
“No one know’s I’m back from the Ukraine, Mundy,” Sirius said firmly. “Excepting you and Dumbledore. Remus doesn’t even know….”
“That’s where you are wrong,” Fletcher said, and he lowered his voice. “I meant to tell you earlier, but you were so nackered after your trip, I didn’t see you trying to go anywhere. But the day after you got back, I saw folks putting up ‘Wanted’ pictures with your mug on them all over the place.”
Sirius stared open-mouthed at Fletcher, who nodded grimly.
“But … but how is that possible?” Sirius asked in horror. “I just got back two nights ago!”
“I don’t know,” Fletcher responded. “Maybe it was that Skeeter pest, perhaps it was a bloke from the Ukraine who gave someone here a tip, it doesn’t matter. All I know is if you go flying off on that broom, the dementors and Aurors not working with Albus will be after you before you can say Azkaban!”
Sirius swore under his breath. “Unbelievable! How did anyone get word …?” he sighed. “All right, I’ll go on foot….”
“Or, by paw, if you prefer,” Sirius clarified. “I can cover more ground as a dog anyway, and I have a smaller chance of being recognized, by either the Ministry or its dementors.”
"Where are you heading to, Sirius? A meeting with one of Snape's contacts? If that's where you're going, do be careful. I don't trust a single one of them."
"I'm heading to Little Hangleton. It will take a couple of days," Sirius replied. "If you don't hear from me inside of a week, then give the others my warmest regards and don't send anyone looking for me."
"Little Hangleton? But isn't that where...?"
"Mundy, if Dumbledore asks for me, tell him I'm meeting with one of Snape's contacts. Don't tell him where I've gone. He'll get all upset over nothing. You know how he can be."
"Yes, and I know how you can be too! Listen to me Sirius! Don't do anything stupid, you rash, young rascal," Fletcher said as he clasped his gnarled hand on Black's shoulder. "Come back alive. I mean it."
"Don't worry," Sirius replied, and he put a hand on Fletcher's shoulder. "I'll be back."
Dumbledore was leaving the Slytherin common room after talking with them about the new restrictions put in place. A strict 10 p.m. curfew, when all students had to be in their towers or face suspension. No students outside the castle after 6 p.m. unless under the supervision of a professor.
The headmaster was heading to the owlery, another scroll in hand. This one was intended for his friend Doc Hyran and served as both a condolence for the death of his son (while taking care not to give away any incriminating details) and asking his assistance in pulling some strings with Fudge and the Ministry to get the requested dragons. He ran into McGonagall on the way.
"Albus," she whispered. "We need to talk."
Dumbledore sighed. He had a feeling he knew what this talk was going to be about. "Walk with me, then, to the owlery. I owled the Minister earlier about securing some dragons, and I’m also going to ask Doc to throw his weight in to assist us. We can’t be too careful after what happened last night."
"Yes, that's what we need to talk about," McGonagall said, keeping her voice low. "This talk about an ambush ... I don't buy it, Albus. Early this morning, Hagrid showed me the scene where those Death Eaters were found ... it is at least three miles from the school grounds! Severus would have never strayed that far out! He had a keen sense of direction, and he knew better! Besides, Aurellia seems to have a knack for knowing when he's in trouble. Understandable, given one of the reasons why I am certain you hired her. Why didn't she go to help him or at least raise an alarm?"
"You figured that out too," Dumbledore said, trying desperately to think up a way to get out of this mess. First Sirius, and now Minerva. He should have realized that his sharp-minded friends would have spotted the holes in his tale sooner or later.
"And speaking of Aurellia," McGonagall continued, as she cast looks over her shoulder to make sure they weren't being overheard, "she hasn't been herself today ... but she's not exactly grieving, either. She's bitter, angry ... distant. This type of reaction to his disappearance strikes me as very unusual." She fixed Dumbledore with a narrow-eyed look. "So what really happened last night? Why was Severus out there looking for trouble?"
Dumbledore returned the Transfiguration teacher's gaze with a sad look of his own. There was no fooling McGonagall. She'd scored a bull’s-eye. "Let's just say that Aurellia accidentally found out some things about him, and under the worst possible circumstances."
McGonagall looked puzzled. "But she already knew that he's a dhampire. That is practically common knowledge among the faculty. And that didn't seem to faze her."
"No, Minerva," Dumbledore said gently. "It was something much worse than that. A thousand times worse."
They were now outside the castle. The brisk March wind made the capes and robes of the two older mages flutter and their cheeks turn slightly pink.
"So, what did she find out about him?' McGonagall said after a brief pause. "Something he did when he was running with You-Know-Who?"
Dumbledore sighed again and, as briefly as possible, narrated Snape's involvement with the destruction of the elf villages ... Deveroux's elf village in particular. He also told about Deveroux's younger brother, Kiro.
McGonagall closed her eyes in horror. "I ... I don't know who I pity more ... Aurellia or Severus," she said after Dumbledore finished. "But how on earth did she find out? It's not as though Severus kept records of anything besides his students' grades and his potion formulas, and I know he wouldn't have voluntarily told her such a story. Not as secretive as he was."
"Minerva, you don't want to know. Don't ask."
McGonagall shook her head stubbornly. "You can't put me off so easily ... I need to know. There's something more going on here, I can tell."
"Have you been taking lessons from Aurellia in single-minded, stubborn persistence?"
McGonagall flushed, but she pressed on. "And I suspect I know what. All of the students are shaken by the news ... Severus wasn't very popular to say the least, but at the same time, he was a powerful wizard, and very adept at his craft. The news of someone like him being attacked so close to the school ... it has everyone scared.
"But I find it very peculiar that the three amongst my house who hated him the most-- Potter, Weasley, and Granger--are taking the news the hardest. Even harder than the Slytherins. Hermione cried nonstop during the time I was in the common room relaying the new rules. I finally sent her with Ron to the hospital wing. He looked positively ill, anyway. And Harry ... he was in another world entirely. I kept scolding him for not paying attention, but it was as if his mind had Apparated to the opposite side of the planet. I finally gave up and left him to his thoughts.
"And then there's Draco Malfoy. I watched him during breakfast and in the halls. He used to worship Severus. But something changed about three months ago, and today he treated the news of Severus's disappearance as if he had been told he had won a Firebolt and free candies at Honeydukes for life. Harry, Ron and Hermione were mixed up in this somehow, weren't they? And Malfoy knows something Severus’ disappearance. That boy is not exactly Mister Subtlety."
"As to your observations about Malfoy, I can only guess at what that means," Dumbledore said. "But I suspect you are right in that he knows a great deal more than he's telling. As for the other three, you are correct in assuming that they are involved in this."
They had reached the owlery, and Dumbledore peeked inside, to make certain no one else was there. But other than the dozens of owls, some snoozing, others stretching their wings in the fractured rays of sunlight coming through the wooden beams of the roof, the two wizards were alone.
"They were, in fact, the primary cause of all this," Dumbledore said "Along with another student, a Slytherin sixth-year, Jaspine Greggs."
"A Slytherin? They were working with a Slytherin student? This I must hear!"
So Dumbledore, after selecting a large tawny owl and fastening his note to the bird's leg, began to reluctantly relate the events of that night ... from the first fly message he had received from Aurellia, to his conversation with the elf that evening in Deveroux's chambers. The headmaster also told McGonagall what he had told the students earlier that morning, and why he hadn't taken disciplinary action against them.
McGonagall was horrified by the tale. "This ... explains much," she said after a few moments. "I'm afraid I am forced to agree with you about expelling them. With everything else going on at the Ministry that is the last thing we need. A trial."
"I suspect those four will be imprisoned by their consciences for quite some time," Dumbledore said. "I don't think there's much more that we could do to them than what they will do to themselves."
They both left the owlery, deep in thought ... so deep that neither professor saw the owl flying towards them from the left. Dumbledore finally noticed the screech owl and looked up, just as it passed overhead and dropped a letter into his hands.
Dumbledore curiously looked at the envelope ... it couldn't be a reply from the Ministry, for he had only just sent the owl that morning. But a closer inspection showed that it was not from the Ministry of Magic ... the front merely was addressed, in hastily written cursive, "A. Dumbledore," and the embossed wax seal wasn't the official Ministry crest. It was that of Durmstrang Institute.
"Hmm..." Dumbledore murmured as he opened the envelope and pulled out the parchment. Was this finally the news he'd been expecting from Adolpho Adlar? It was about time he replied!
"Professor Dumbledore," he read, as McGonagall looked over his shoulder.
"I am beseeching you for aid. Pleading ... Durmstrang has fallen to You-Know-Who. The Institute and its vicinity ... half of Bulgaria ... have pledged their allegiance to Him within this past week. The new Headmaster, Adolpho Adlar, has openly pledged his loyalty to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The remaining strongholds are expected to capitulate in a matter of days due to the manipulation and pressures He is putting on them. Those who have not sworn loyalty to Him and taken the Mark are fleeing for their lives ... or have already been killed.
"You know my past, Albus. I have made many mistakes, but I have forsaken that life. They know this and are looking for me. If they find me, I will very shortly be a dead wizard. So I beg you to grant me camin. Please reply immediately. My life may be measured in hours!
"Karkaroff!" spat McGonagall. "The nerve of that beast, to ask us ... after all he has done!"
"Minerva," Dumbledore said in a placating tone. "I think we should at least hear him out.” He paused and then added thoughtfully, “This should come as no surprise. We've both heard rumors of this unrest in Bulgaria for some time, although I admit I am deeply troubled about this information on Adlar."
Dumbledore uttered an incantation and then, using his wand as a crude writing utensil, scribbled on the back of Karkaroff's note: "Come quickly. Send me another owl when you get near Hogwarts, and I'll meet you at night outside the castle with Hagrid. We will show you the way in. I cannot promise refuge, but I will hear your case."
He called to the owl who had delivered the message, who had been sitting quietly on a beam in the ceiling of the owlery. The owl flew down on silent wings, and Dumbledore attached the note to the screech owl's leg.
"Albus, with all due respect, I think you are making a mistake," McGonagall warned quietly as they watched the owl fly out of sight.
"If he truly is in need, and if something were to happen to him because I did not give him a chance, I wouldn't want that on my conscience," Dumbledore replied quietly. "I've enough on my conscience already."
But he, too, was suspicious. Karkaroff's timing was very convenient. A little too convenient for his taste. But he said nothing of his concerns to McGonagall as they headed back into the castle.
End of Chapter 40