She gave a small sigh of dissatisfaction as she finished making herself look presentable for the ordeal of the evening’s entertaining duties. Once upon an earlier time — she gave a dry laugh at the recollection of all her ‘onces’ — she would have relished a dinner party. The preparation would have been a flurry of silk and perfume as she tried on the latest dresses from her mother’s costumier, and allowed her hair to be dressed by her favourite house-elf, Lissy. She could remember her old room vividly, every square of carpet, every long stretch of flocked wallpaper, every velvet drape, and every piece of caramel-coloured walnut furniture. The smell of lavender drifted up from the herb garden below her window and out from the lining of her perfumed drawers. She wasn’t an ambitious or clever witch, but she had taken great pleasure in the pretty things in life, of which she herself was one.
Her parents had been proud of her in a detached, showy way. They were fond of her in the same way they were fond of their house and their inherited furnishings. She was an attractive ornament that provided another trapping of the wealth and status that they didn’t need to promote within the wizarding community. The Fitzwilliams were old blood; they could trace their ancestors far beyond the founding of Hogwarts, which, it was rumoured, they had helped to fund when it was first built. Vervain was the only daughter, and she had brought with her a bitter disappointment that her parents did their best to conceal. The longed-for boy never did arrive, choosing some other family to be born to, to provide an heir for, a name-carrier for some other, better-blessed, set of immortality seekers. She wore this wound well, choosing to only see the pride they displayed when she dressed well or conducted herself with flair at a dinner party. She saw within her parents what she wanted to see, and ignored their faults, which were myriad.
She failed to see the arranged marriage, even when it arrived at the dinner table one night with a place card that announced its name as being Kentigern Snape. She flirted with the hook-nosed young man, who had a strong bearing and glossy black hair that rivalled her own. Dancing was a pleasure as he proved light on his feet, and he refused to let her dance with anyone else. The brightness of his blue eyes was lit not by love, as she foolishly thought, but by the need to acquire her family’s wealth and status. To this end, she was romanced as she had never been romanced before, and the eighteen-year-old was carried away on a tidal wave of other’s ambition.
She was sweeter than honey, softer than a flurry of goose feathers, and this was her eventual undoing at the hands of the man she married on her nineteenth birthday in the company of wolves. The wolves were comprised of the two families that gathered to see the union secured beyond any shadow of doubt. The celebrations went on for three days. Kentigern was the driving force behind this revelry, and it wasn’t until the fourth night after their wedding that the young girl finally slept with her handsome husband.
She knew then that she had signed her name to a marriage that would be a living death.
He wasn’t home yet, and Vervain Snape knew she was ready for him, whatever mood he was in. The presence of guests would keep her safe from his heavy hands, and as long as she remained caring and attentive he would have no cause for complaint. She walked across to the clear window and looked out on the now dug-over herb garden. Who was she fooling? It didn’t matter what she did. The simplest word could trigger his violent temper, and the party would simply ensure that he bottled it up for later when the full force of his spiteful malice would be released. Her fingers touched the wooden panelling that Kentigern had installed through the house; it was dark and made her feel coffined in her own home. The pretty wallpaper had all been stripped away, along with everything else from her old life, to the point where the interior was unrecognisable. If she had had the courage she would have scratched her sharp nails against the perfect surface and revealed the pale heart beneath the polished veneer, but she would have paid for that. He would have scratched at her flesh and, unlike the dry wood, her flesh would bleed and bruise beneath him.
She could have cried, but she saved her tears for when he was away on business, something that happened with increasing frequency. If he saw puffiness around her eyes, or spoiled eye make-up, then he would know she had been allowing her emotions to get the better of her. Vervain would have received a lecture on being a stupid, melodramatic female with feathers for brains, and the lecture would inevitably have ended with some sort of physical exclamation mark that would leave her bruised for days. A raven was exploring the shrubbery that bordered the lake, another affectation of her tasteless husband, and it pecked at something on the grass. There was an unkindness of ravens living at Darkacre, and all of them had had their wings clipped so they could not fly away. Vervain knew only too well how they all felt. With a sad smile of comradeship, she left the raven to its business and gave her appearance one final check in the bejewelled cheval mirror that stood by the enormous wardrobe. With a satisfied grimace, she left the room and made her way down the corridor towards the main staircase.
Vervain glided through dark corridors, a small beacon flashing through an ocean of gloom. Her pale face was guttered by candlelight as she paused at the end of the corridor that would take her to the main landing above the entrance hall. From this angle she could see the slide of the stairs as they drifted elegantly down to the parquet flooring below. A small dividing wall of mahogany and glass, splintered by two large, clear doors, provided one last line of defence between the inner house and the enormous oak doors that led to the impressive drive. Vervain could still see servants dashing to and fro, mingling with the house-elves in a cacophony of solidarity against the master of the house. She had a few moments yet, a few moments to hurry away from the tension of the lower floor and pay a visit to the only person who saw her for who she was, not for what she could do for them.
The black door was closed and she opened it as quietly as she could, pushing it through the dark night and allowing a crack of light to fall across the faded carpet. She stepped inside and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. There he was, untidily asleep, with one arm flung recklessly off the side of the bed. His eight-year-old dreams were often a cause of maternal concern. He would wake, crying and sweating, from yet another re-enactment of his father’s brutish behaviour. She used to bundle him into her arms and rock him back to sleep when he was younger, but her husband had soon put a stop to that. He wanted her in his bed, not playing milksop to the boy that he felt nothing but contempt for. The first time he had dragged her from the room, throwing the boy to the ground with disinterest; the next time he had been rather more forceful, and after that her son was left to cry himself back to sleep. Vervain had always said that the moment her husband hit her child, she would leave him and take Severus as far away as possible.
Kentigern had given Severus a bloody nose on the boy’s sixth birthday because he had spilled pumpkin juice on the Persian carpet.
Vervain found that, after that, she hated herself more and more each day.
There were no dreams troubling his sleep at the moment though. His head lolled back on the pillow, lips parted just a little, a curtain of black hair falling to one side. There was a fading bruise on his exposed skin, finger marks ringing his upper arm like a shackle. She went to touch it, but stopped herself at the last minute, her hand hovering over him, unsure of the love she felt. How could she love her child and yet allow him to be exposed to his father? She settled for pulling the covers back over him. He moved a little, jerking his arm back towards himself in an unconscious gesture of self-defence.
Her throat was hollow with sadness at the life she was giving her son, a half-life that would lead him to a damaged adulthood. How could she be so selfish? How could she be so ineffectual and weak? What sort of woman would allow this to continue? But without her husband and this house, what would she have? Where would she go? And Kentigern loved her, really. There were good times, when he could be charming and attentive. He couldn’t help the anger he felt, the rage that built up and overflowed onto his family with such terrible force. He was the product of his hard upbringing, and he did provide for them. He was a good husband. Vervain conveniently forgot that this was her family home, and that most of the money in Gringotts was her family’s money, which had been left when her parents mysteriously died while on a flying holiday in Germany.
She turned away from Severus, not seeing the glimmer of consciousness as his eyelids flicked open. She was almost at the door when she heard the rasp from his throat. She checked herself and turned back to see glittering eyes watching her. The smile Vervain managed was weak with regret, but Severus didn’t see the regret. All he saw was his beautiful, and, for now, unbruised, mother.
“I love you, Mum,” he said, through sleep-dried lips.
“I love you too, Severus,” she replied, blowing him a kiss with her smooth hands. Her love got caught in her throat and almost choked her as she closed the door on her greatest shame. One day, she promised herself, one day Kentigern will change and we will be a normal family. She descended the stairs, still repeating this perpetual lie in her head. As she reached the bottom, one of the servants stopped and gave a low bow to her.
“Good evening, Ma’am,” he said, straightening himself. “The master will be arriving shortly. May I get you a cocktail while you wait?”
Vervain nodded her elegant head; alcohol would fortify her throughout the evening to come. The guests would arrive soon, along with her husband, and she would be forced to smile pleasantly and ask about their families and jobs. Ordinarily she would have enjoyed this, but since her marriage she had come to be wary about what she said and how she said it. Kentigern watched her all the time, and one slip or misplaced word would cause her no end of grief. She moved to the drawing room, where she would receive her guests before taking them through to the dining room. Here again was the rich smell of polish and lily pollen, overlaid with the faint smell of Kentigern’s cigars. They came from a very expensive cigar importer in Diagon Alley, and Vervain found herself wrinkling her nose in disgust that he had been smoking in here.
She started as the front doors crashed open, and the booming voice of her husband could be heard shouting at the servants. She fixed her most charming smile to her face, trying to look poised and elegant as her husband roared through the house. He alternated his shouted orders with laughter as he joked with his companion, whoever that might be. She moved towards the soft light at the windows so that her tenseness would be diminished by the gentle glow. As the door burst open, and the boisterous figure of Kentigern Snape strode in, with his black hair flowing dramatically behind him, she realised his companion was female, and young, and very pretty. Her husband’s arm was draped across the girl’s bare shoulders and they were laughing at some private joke. Vervain looked away as she realised Kentigern had found a new way to torment her. She knew, with perception borne of long-suffering, that this was the start of a new phase in their relationship. Gone would be the faint hints of strange perfume and the lip-shaped stains on his clothes. He was now flaunting her own worst fears in her face.
A living death would have been a blessed relief from this heightened torture.