Maeve shook the snow off her cloak, hanging it on the coat rack that had been nailed purposefully to the frame of Mrs Black’s portrait. The rack had been Molly’s idea, and afforded one more layer of protection against the painting’s violent outbursts. Remus followed suit, hanging his tatty, threadbare one over her pristine, bottle-green garment. Harry hung back a little. He was still sulking over the fact he had not been allowed to accompany Luna on her trip to the North Pole with her father. They had gone on the hunt for the real Santa Claus. Her father had been absolutely convinced that he would get the pictures to prove Santa didn’t do the whole present run by himself. Harry wasn’t really interested in Santa Claus, whom he considered to be a bit of a myth, but he was interested in Luna’s company. Granted, she might sometimes go off on a verbal tangent that left him grasping for some sort of meaning, but on the whole she eased his mind. He found she brought him a degree of peace that he couldn’t even find with Ron because she appeared to understand more about the nature of death than anyone he knew. Naturally, this had annoyed Ron, who didn’t like feeling he was second best in Harry’s affections.
Molly ushered them through to the drawing room, where Tonks immediately threw a tray full of Smoked Snapdragon scones over the assembled guests. There was confusion as Maeve leapt up to catch the Snapdragons before they attempted to escape through a half-open window. The room rapidly filled with people all eager to join in with the Christmas frivolities. Molly, Arthur and all of their children, with the exception of Percy, who hadn’t replied to the invitation, were dotted around the room. Remus and Tonks had taken the smaller sofa in the corner and were happily swigging the punch. Harry was whispering something to Hermione. Alastor Moody, Mundungus Fletcher and Kingsley Shacklebolt were watching warily from the doorway, while Maeve was sitting alone in the armchair by the fire, her face flushed from the heat. Albus Dumbledore was standing by the mantelpiece, surveying them all with pleasure.
“Well, my friends,” he began in a warm voice. “Here we all are, gathered together on this Christmas Eve. I need tell no one just how precarious our future is, but for now I wish you all the very best of health and I hope we can enjoy a very special day tomorrow. It will be a good while before we can all be together again like this, as I know some of you have to leave for special assignments in the New Year.” He gave a quick look at Tonks and Kingsley, who both shifted uncomfortably.
“You are all very important to me,” he continued, in a rare moment of poignant honesty. “I trust you all unreservedly, and you shall all be in my thoughts as the events that threaten to overwhelm our world unfold.”
Ron rolled his eyes at Harry, who grinned, before wincing as Hermione dug him heavily in the ribs, a deep frown on her features.
“Professor Dumbledore is being serious,” she hissed. “We have no idea what is being planned and how it will affect us.”
“Quite right, Miss Granger,” Dumbledore said with a smile. “Enjoy your evening, all of you. Alas, I must make my way to the Ministry for one final meeting before tomorrow’s celebrations. Rest assured, however, that I will return tomorrow morning to take part in the exchange of presents and, of course, I wouldn’t miss the excellent Christmas dinner that Molly will assuredly have made for us all.”
Mrs Weasley blushed under Dumbledore’s expectant gaze, folding her pleased arms across her ample bosom. He smiled at her as he silently Disapparated from the room.
“Well then,” she said in a high voice. “There are lots of nibbles in the kitchen and there’s plenty to drink for everyone.”
Mundungus made a sudden movement for the drinks cabinet in the corner, but Molly’s sudden cough drew him up sharply.
“But I would hope you would restrain yourselves,” she said pointedly at him as he looked shiftily around the room. “We do, after all, have to keep a certain degree of watchfulness.”
Mundungus slumped back against the wall, muttering something about stupid spoilsports under his breath. He cast a poisonous look at Mrs Weasley, who glared back at him. She couldn’t understand why Mundungus had even been invited; in her opinion, wizards of his moral ineptitude should be kept well away from secret headquarters, let alone invited to celebrations.
Alastor and Kingsley hurried off towards the kitchen in search of food, with Fred and George in hot pursuit. Charlie Weasley seemed to have something important to discuss with his father, so he ignored Bill’s attempts to draw him into a separate conversation. Slowly, the assembled company dispersed into smaller groups. Maeve continued to sit alone as everyone else found someone to talk to and something to talk about. She had never been good in groups; she enjoyed the company and the warmth that such a large group provided, but she had never been able to mingle easily. These were people she knew and loved, yet she found herself sitting alone with a fixed expression on her face and a plan forming in her mind.
The end of term feast had been fun; she had thoroughly enjoyed dancing until her feet ached. Remus had proved to be a much better dancing partner than Severus. He had an instinctive feel for the rhythm of the music, which meant she had found the whole experience exhilarating as she was whisked around the Great Hall to the heady beat of the band. She had loved watching her students letting their hair down to enjoy themselves. Harry and Luna in particular had been a surprise – she could feel the ease that they shared and she found herself thankful that there was someone who could make Harry comfortable. She wasn’t sure how long this closeness would last when the sharp edge of his grief had dulled, but, for now, the friendship was helpful. What had come later, however, had made her curious and troubled. She had felt that Remus had something to tell her throughout the evening, but it wasn’t until the band had packed up and gone home that he broached the subject. They were sitting alone on the wooden stage, watching the students drag their feet reluctantly to their beds, when he had finally told her what was on his mind. Why would Severus spend Christmas Day at St Mungo’s? He certainly wasn’t doing charity work, of that she was very sure. The only explanation could be that he was visiting someone, and yet she had the distinct impression that both his parents were dead. She knew he had no other family. Of course, the more she thought about it, the more aware she was that he hadn’t actually told her his parents were dead. This thought became an itch that she couldn’t scratch; it irritated her to the point of distraction.
As she sat there by the fire in the drawing room, watching everyone else enjoy themselves, a large part of her was elsewhere. In her mind, she was sitting in a damp dungeon office, watching a lesser fire that spat sparks onto the hearth and sputtered green against the chimney back. Closing her eyes, she could see his sallow face watching those same flames flare and die in the gloom of an unlit room, his hard, black eyes dulled by time and events.
And as she watched, she formed a plan, one that would require some degree of subterfuge and, if not an outright lie, at the very least a degree of skirting around the truth. She would have to be up very early. She mustn’t encounter any of the household, or questions would be asked and answers would have to be given. Lying would be a last resort, one she didn’t want to have to fall back on.
They all drifted to bed around eleven. Only Charlie and Kingsley remained up, drinking Firewhisky and swapping tales of dragons late into the night. Darkness swathed the house in an impenetrable cloak that clung to the building well into the morning, which, as far as Maeve was concerned, was all to the good. She woke at five, at least an hour before she anticipated Molly would be up, and quickly dressed. She took care to be very light on her feet as she moved around her room, aware that there were several extremely creaky floorboards that would betray her movements given half the chance. At five-fifteen she slipped silently from her room and made her way down the stairs, her breathing so slight that she felt like a phantom. As she reached the front door she slowly extricated her cloak from beneath Remus’ and slipped it around her cold shoulders, all the while praying that she would not disturb the vile creature that slumbered beneath the coat rack. The house was still silent around her. As she slowly unbolted the front door, she was beginning to believe she had got away with it, but a low creak at the head of the stairs made her stop. A cold feeling seeped into her stomach as she rapidly planned a lie. She glanced up the stairs expecting to see Remus, or even worse, Dumbledore, but instead she saw the sleepy figure of Harry rubbing his eyes.
“What are you doing?” he mouthed at her, seeming to understand the subterfuge.
“Nothing,” she said hurriedly. “Go back to bed. I’ll be back for dinner, so don’t worry, and don’t tell anyone you saw me leave.”
Something in her urgent expression woke Harry up, making him hurry down the remaining few stairs.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Nowhere, Harry. Go back to bed.”
“Of course you’re going somewhere!” he said, looking at her as if she were mad. “Otherwise why would you be wearing a cloak and sneaking out of the door?”
“I have to see someone,” she said, trying to remain noncommittal.
She heaved an exasperated sigh and glared at him.
“I’m visiting someone at the hospital, old family friend. Now, I really must go or I won’t be back in time for dinner.” She leant forward and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, which disarmed him long enough for her to close the door softly in his face. She hurried away into the dark square and the gloomy morning beyond it.
It was a lonely business, walking in the early morning with nothing but the crunch of the snow beneath her feet for company. Even the birds weren’t yet up and dawn was still a distant promise. As she left Grimmauld Place, she was comforted by the fact it was so dark nothing would be able to see to follow her. It was fortunate that she had an innate sense of direction, which kept her feet plodding relentlessly through the hard snow towards St Mungo’s.
Only once did she have cause for concern; something heavy bumped against her legs and gave a low whine. Maeve stepped back, catching her breath as a pair of glittering, green eyes gazed up at her. She then jumped back in fear as the eyes leapt up at her, and it was only when the cat had landed on her shoulders, purring heavily in her ear, that she laughed at herself as she stroked its soft coat. A bushy tail twirled around her neck as she lifted the soft body from her cloak and plonked it back down on the ground with a stern ‘shoo’. The green eyes gave her a baleful look before disappearing into the darkness, leaving her alone once more.
It was another hour before she reached the street she was looking for; a street lined with many different shops and businesses. Usually their bright lights and promises of riches brought the Muggles in their droves, but at this time in the morning their windows were dark. The Christmas lights were switched off and only the Muggle street lamps gave light to the quiet road. Their orange glow cast sinister shadows as she hurried down the right hand side, searching eagerly for Purge and Dowse, a department store that was permanently closing down. Just as she reached the window, she heard a faint rumble. Flashing amber lights made her look round in alarm; coming down the centre of the road was a large truck being driven by a grinning man, while another less cheerful man followed in close pursuit, lifting the occasional black bin and tipping the contents into the cavernous rear of the truck. It was too late to slip into the doorway and vanish from view, so she pretended to look at something in the window. Unfortunately, as the shop-window was empty of any interesting merchandise, she found herself staring at a shop dummy, which raised a questioning eyebrow at her. She ignored the dummy and the men, hoping that they would pass her by without comment, but she hadn’t reckoned on the infallible cheeriness of the London bin men.
“Mornin’, Darlin’,” the one in the cab of the truck said with an eager leer. He had short, greying hair and a cigarette dangled from his mouth. It bobbed up and down as he spoke, threatening to launch itself at her at any moment. When she didn’t answer, he took this as a personal challenge and turned up his charm.
“Not talkin’ to me eh? Pretty lady like you shouldn’t be traipsing round at this time in the mornin’. Bit early for the sales, ain’t you?”
Perhaps it was his mention of the sales, or perhaps it was just a hasty realisation that everything else was silent in a calm that only occurred in such totality on this one morning of the year, but it occurred her that today was Christmas Day. There would be no council workers on the roads, and certainly no men clearing the streets of litter. Fear registered in her eyes as she turned back to the window and addressed the dummy quickly.
“Here to see Snape,” she said in a small voice, hoping against hope that her hunch was correct. The dummy gave a small nod, causing its wig to slide to the floor. She hastily stepped through the glass. A quick backward glance at the street cleaners revealed two black-cloaked figures standing in the street with leering grins on their faces. As she vanished into nowhere she just caught a sight of their bewildered faces, which quickly turned to angry ones as they realised their prey had disappeared. She allowed herself a small smile; obviously those two had never been to St Mungo’s before.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the brightness as she stepped from early morning London gloom into the white, healing atmosphere of a hospital. She had only ever been to St Mungo’s once before, when she had been bitten by a Tri-Hooded Mortsnake during an illicit early morning collection of herbs in the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts. Madam Pomfrey had thrown her hands up in the air in alarm and immediately sent her to St Mungo’s via Portbulance, an interesting experience that involved touching a flashing blue Portkey. Apparently it got you there more quickly, but Maeve couldn’t say she noticed any improvement on the normal Portkey. It had been a busy place on that occasion, but now it was quiet. A snoozing welcomewitch in a starched white apron was curled across the desk, and a few other staff in lime green uniforms where draped along the rows of seats that filled the entrance. She approached the desk slowly. When there was no sign of life she coughed politely, expecting the welcomewitch to dart up and immediately point her in the right direction. When nothing happened she frowned for a moment, and wondered why no one was awake. She turned despondently away from the desk to find a handsome young Healer bearing down on her from the long corridor directly facing the front desk.
“Sorry!” he exclaimed as he drew level with her. “Poor Philomena drew the short straw and had to work over Christmas Eve. As you can imagine, not only is she exhausted, but she’s a bit fed up.”
Maeve glanced back at the violet-haired witch, who was now snoring gently. She could imagine it was hard working the late shift on Christmas Eve with all the high jinks that young wizards got up to. No doubt there would have been many Firewhisky related accidents and one or two present wrapping problems.
“You are a bit early for visiting though.” He glanced at the large clock above the desk and noted it was a little before seven. “It doesn’t officially start until nine o’clock. Why don’t you go for a drink in the visitor’s tearoom? Fifth floor and straight along the corridor to the end… follow your nose!” he said as he started of along another corridor, giving her a cheery wave as he went.
She looked around for a lift, but only found a sign saying ‘Stairs’ that pointed down the corridor from which the young Healer had come. She set off in search of them, and pushing open a set of double doors, she found a rickety staircase that wound upwards at an alarmingly sharp incline. As she put her foot on the first step, it quivered and one of the portraits opened a sleepy eye.
“Gracious me, young lady, what time do you call this?” The aging wizard fixed her with a beady eye; the other was covered by a bright green eye-patch. “Bit early for visiting aren’t we?”
“Tearoom,” she said quickly as she sprinted up the stairs, each portrait waking as she passed and grumbling vociferously at her. She finally reached the top with the ringing of curses still in her ears. Maeve had to hold tight to the banister to catch her breath before opening another set of double doors and entering a long corridor, which seemed to stretch out for miles. There were no signs of life up here, and she walked down the lonely corridor feeling as if she had entered a deserted building. It was only when the first wafts of the scent of freshly roasted coffee began to hit her nose did she believe she was in the right place. The corridor ended at two doors, which had been propped open. The room she found herself in was a pretty one, crammed with tables, chairs and an assortment of large potted plants. White curtains hung at the windows, fluttering inwards as a light breeze came in through the open glass. Each table had a small vase, containing mistletoe and moonwort tied with a red ribbon, in the middle. Along one side of the room ran a counter, behind which stood a jolly-looking witch wearing a voluminous white robe and a cap that had the initials W.H.V.S. embroidered on it in red and gold thread.
“Hello, dearie,” she boomed, as Maeve walked towards the counter. “Looking for a bit of light refreshment, are we?”
“Yes,” Maeve said gratefully. “Could I have a coffee please?”
“Course you can, my love. Now why don’t you take a seat and I’ll fetch it over for you. Would you like a slice of saffron toast? My own special recipe… put some colour in those pale cheeks of yours.”
She accepted the offer gratefully and chose a table in the corner of the room. Here she was partially hidden from the door by a tall, climbing ivy that was happily twisting itself around a pillar. She felt safer being concealed from general view. As soon as she sat down, several other people entered, deliberating over who was having tea and who was having coffee. Although no one here would probably know her, she still felt it was better not to take a chance being seen. The cheery woman bustled over with a small tray containing a pot of steaming coffee and a plate piled high with golden slices of toast covered in rich butter. Maeve suddenly realised she was very hungry indeed and tucked in enthusiastically, butter dripping from her fingers as she ate.
As the room gradually filled with other visitors the noise level rose and Maeve was glad of the anonymity the ivy afforded her. She had picked up a copy of the early edition of the Daily Prophet and was reading it avidly when a sharp voice cut through her thoughts.
“Tea, no sugar.”
“Certainly sir, would you like milk?”
“And how are we this morning? Can I tempt you with some of my saffr… ”
“Well then, are we visiting relatives today?”
“And what business is that of yours?”
She peered over the top of her newspaper gingerly, a flutter of satisfaction in her stomach as she saw Severus’ black-cloaked figure staring coldly at the woman behind the counter. The waitress was doing her best to remain polite despite his obvious curtness. Severus flung a few coins at her, leaving the counter with a cup and saucer in his hands. He moved quickly between the now full tables and settled himself at the back of the room somewhere. She couldn’t see him now from her position and realised she would have to shift slightly to keep an eye on him. This was by far the best outcome because now, instead of having to make up lies to the welcomewitch, she could just follow him to his destination. The clock slowly ticked round to nine, and as it struck the hour she watched Severus rise from his seat. Unfortunately, so did the rest of the visitors. She had to push her way rudely through several stragglers in order to catch a glimpse of his dark robe disappearing down the corridor. Slipping her hood over her head, Maeve followed at a safe distance as he made his way to the stairs. She wedged herself between two tall wizards, who were having a conversation about the merits of Leech Lotion for curing Itchwart, and only just caught sight of him leave the stairs at the fourth floor. Pushing her way past the wizard to her left, who grumbled something about manners and her appalling lack of them, she stepped into yet another corridor, watching as Severus turned sharply to the right. She crept round the corner and saw him approach a door; he rapped smartly on the glass and a young Healer opened it quickly.
“Can I help you, sir?” she asked politely.
“Vervain Snape,” he snapped.
“Yes, of course. Are you a relative?” The petite girl was clearly intimidated by the taller, black-clad wizard and hurriedly let him in.
“Her son,” she heard Severus reply as the door was closed. Maeve could hear the dull click of a lock turning.
The sign on the wall announced that these were the ‘Closed Wards’ and Maeve knew immediately that whatever it was that was wrong with Severus’ mother was incurable. She was filled with sadness that this was where he had been spending his Christmases. No wonder he hated all the fun and frolics, with his mother locked up in St Mungo’s. She could only vaguely remember Vervain Snape, a timid witch who had once been something of a society beauty until she had married Kentigern Snape. After the marriage she had suffered at the hands of her husband, who was tyrannical in his attitude both towards his wife and, later, his only son. Knowing what she did of their history, she knew exactly why Severus was so hard. It would have been impossible not to be with such a harsh and driven father. Kentigern made her own stand-in parent look like beneficence itself. She hovered by the sign for a few minutes, before another Healer headed for the doors and stopped to ask her if she was lost.
“No, not at all,” she said, thinking quickly. “I am here to visit my aunt, but I always need a moment to prepare myself.”
The Healer nodded his sympathetic understanding.
“Are you ready to go through?” he asked. “I’m heading in that direction myself and can let you in.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes I am, that would be so kind of you.” Her face betrayed none of her deceit as she smiled gratefully.
Maeve followed him to the door and watched with relief as he withdrew his wand from his robes and called ‘Alohomora’.
“What is your aunt’s name?” he asked, motioning her through the door first.
“Vervain Snape,” she lied, casting glances around the ward for a sight of Severus.
“Ahh,” he said slowly. “Well, she is feeling a bit better today. She always seems to know it’s Christmas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before though.”
“No, it’s been a few years since I came. I’ve been in America, and it’s been difficult to get back.”
Once again he nodded. He had no reason to disbelieve her.
“Well, go to the end of this ward, turn right and keep going. She’s by the window at the end.” He smiled and she returned the gesture, unable to believe it had been this easy.
She moved silently through the ward, trying to close her eyes to the suffering that lay in the beds on either side of her. Occasionally a patient would call out to her, but she looked straight ahead and kept walking. She had never been able to cope well with sickness and here it pressed at her from every side. She turned right, immediately feeling the benefits of the high windows. Light penetrated here, more so than anywhere else, and the patients seemed calmer. There were few visitors on this ward: only one man had a young woman at his bedside, and he was wildly singing an out-of-tune Christmas carol to her. Maeve rather thought the tears in the woman’s eyes were caused by the fact he didn’t recognise her as his wife than for the out-of-tune song.
She stopped a short distance from the end of the ward. A curtain was pulled around the bed, but she could just see the bottom of Severus’ robes peeping around it. She moved closer and could hear a low humming sound from the bed. Severus had his back to her and didn’t hear her footsteps, which gave her the chance to take in the fact that Vervain Snape was a very sick woman indeed. Her once pale skin was now a deathly white, stretched over her face like delicate tissue paper. Her hair hung about her face in long, dirty grey wisps, and the hands that clutched at the bedclothes were like fleshless claws. Her thin, bloodless lips were slightly pursed as she emitted the tuneless hum, and Maeve could feel the palpable sadness that poured from the bed. Vervain’s eyes drifted without purpose around her small space, but when she saw Maeve they stopped, and for a moment Maeve thought they focused. She was almost sure she detected the faintest hint of smile play on the older witch’s mouth. Severus leant forward quickly; he had also detected a shift in the woman’s face. He touched her hand carefully, as if he didn’t want the fragile bones to snap beneath his own, stronger ones.
“Mother?” he said. The word was a low, plaintive question. She had never heard him use that tone of voice before; there was a note of tenderness to it that ordinarily he would have kept well disguised. Vervain moved her mouth, but no sound came out of it. A flare of life lit her eyes and Severus turned his head, understanding swiftly that she was looking at something solid. Maeve froze under his stare as his eyes widened in dismay. She couldn’t keep the pity from her face, and this enraged him.
“What are you doing here!” he hissed with undisguised hatred in his eyes. “You have no right!”
“I had to know,” she said quietly. “Remus told me what you had said about having to come here, and I had to know why. You wouldn’t tell me.”
“And why do you think that was?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why you don’t trust me.” She stood her ground as he rose suddenly and stepped towards her.
“Go back to your party with all your friends,” he said slowly. “You don’t need a dose of reality today. You need to hide yourself away from the consequences of darkness until the time is right for you to face it yourself.”
“What happened to your mother?” she asked, choosing to ignore his dismissal.
“It doesn’t matter to you,” he replied, keeping his eyes locked on hers.
“It does,” she argued. “Of course it does.”
He watched her for a few moments before relenting. He had been on the point of telling her about this at Hogwarts, but Professor Dumbledore had come between them so he had given up on the idea. If he looked at it rationally, she had merely given him another opportunity to tell her by coming here unannounced. He waved at the other chair in the cubicle and she sat down by the bed, feeling the older woman’s eyes on her. He sat back down and pulled the defence of his robes around him before speaking.
“My father beat her in a drunken rage.” There was no trace of bitterness in his voice now; the tale was being told as if it had happened to someone else. “He was endlessly frustrated by his inability to progress within the hierarchy of the darker wizarding community. He had the money but, unfortunately, not the blood.” His mouth twisted into a smile. “The money came from my mother’s side of the family, although there was never a vast amount of it. You didn’t saw my father as he really was, filled with the bitterness of unfulfilled ambition and the disappointment of a son who wasn’t exactly… ” he paused as if trying to find the right word, “ …charismatic.”
“You were incredibly intelligent at school,” she began, but he stopped her with a smirk.
“Oh, Maeve, such naiveté. Intelligence didn’t count for anything with my father. He wanted me to be popular, influential and, above all, dark. He supported Voldemort and feted people like the Malfoys, who used him – not that he didn’t deserve that. He was a puppet of higher powers, with pretensions to becoming equal to those who pulled his strings. He didn’t have the ability, the intelligence, or the magnetism to become one of the Dark Lord’s true confidants, but he did have a house and sufficient connections to be of some use… and, of course, he had me to train, in the hope that one day I could be one of Voldemort’s trusted servants.”
“And you lived up to that particular ambition,” she said caustically.
“I did, for a time.” He stared at her with shadows in his eyes. “But you put paid to even that, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t ask you to do what you did,” she said indignantly.
“You didn’t need to.”
The humming began again and they turned to his mother. There was now a very definite smile on her face, her eyes once again began to roam the room. Maeve sighed deeply and felt old wounds slowly opening, pouring out their latent hurt.
“But you did it anyway. Let’s not go over that again.” She turned her attention back to him. “How damaged is your mother?”
“She can’t move, nor can she speak. She seems incapable of rational thought, although we can’t know that for sure because she cannot communicate. The Healers can do nothing. She has been like this for ten years.”
“And your father?”
There was a brittle laugh from Severus.
“He killed himself two months after he did this. A coward to the end, he couldn’t face the consequences of his own evil.”
Maeve couldn’t understand how he could keep all of this pain and humiliation locked down inside of himself. She had always known that there was a reason for his hard attitude and unflinching joylessness, although she could never have guessed at the depth of his suffering. She instinctively reached out her hand to touch his face, but she stopped herself before he realised what she had been about to do. He wouldn’t accept the gesture, so there was no point making it.
He halted, as if the effort of talking so much was draining him both physically and mentally. There was more, but he wasn’t ready to tell her everything. He didn’t think she needed to know that his father had encouraged his relationship with Maeve, unable to believe his anti-social and unappealing son had managed to land such a catch. Not only had he repeatedly gone on at length about her family’s wealth, he had also told his son over and over that she belonged to one of the most powerful pure-blood families there was in the British Isles. Kentigern Snape had begun to plan weddings in his mind’s eye; he saw a long line of powerful descendants carrying the Snape name to greater, darker glory. Of course, none of this had come to pass, and he had blamed Severus entirely when Maeve was suddenly removed from the school. The beatings that summer had been the worst they had ever been, and he still bore some of the scars.
“There is nothing I can say,” she said softly, “that will make any of that any better, but I wish you had told me sooner. I wish I could have understood sooner.”
He shook his head.
“No, I didn’t want you to understand. I didn’t want to see the ghost of pity that is now hovering behind your eyes. I don’t like pity; there is no room for it in my world. It is a thoroughly weak emotion that renders you vulnerable.”
“That’s your father talking,” she said, shaking her head at him. “You have let your father use your mouth for far too long, Severus, and now you don’t know how to speak for yourself.”
“I wish you were right,” he said. “But the truth is I am more like my father than I care to admit. I just manage to control it better. I want the same things he did. I want power and respect, I want recognition for the things I have achieved and, although I am not overly proud of this, I see nothing inherently wrong in wanting those things. I see that my father married the wrong woman and she suffered for that. She needn’t have; he should have married someone stronger who would have stood up to him and helped him achieve his aims.” His face became cold. She could feel him withdrawing from her. “He was right about you. You would have made an excellent partner for me, but I made one stupid mistake. I actually loved you. It was my undoing.”
She bit her bottom lip in agitation. She wanted to believe he did not entirely mean all of these things, but she knew he did. His ambition probably outstripped that of his father, and given the right circumstances he could have been a truly great wizard. It was still possible that he would be great, but his attitude to some people was a hindrance to his true potential. She was aware for the first time of just how great a part she had played in his life, despite spending so little time in it. She had always known she had been the reason he had turned away from the dark side, but she had never fully understood how great he could have been had he kept going on the course his father had set for him.
“Better to be an average person than a great monster,” she said under her breath as she rose from her seat.
“Is it?” he asked with a questioning look on his face. “Sometimes I am not so sure.”
She gave him a small, sad smile and looked at Vervain, whose eyes stopped moving. Severus’ mother gazed up from her bed, and slowly pale tears appeared in the corners of those limpid brown eyes. Maeve reached down and touched her cold hand.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Snape,” she said, not knowing what she was apologising for, but feeling somehow she had failed the woman’s son.
Vervain slowly and painfully moved her head from side to side. Severus was on his feet instantly and calling for a Healer. The two women, however, were oblivious to this. Their eyes meeting somewhere beyond the ward.
Light shifted and the space around them stirred; drifts of snow flurried down from an unseen sky. The Vervain that faced her was not the wizened creature that lay upon the bed, but the tall and willowy person she once was. She reached out her hand, taking Maeve’s hands in her own. Cold death touched warm life, and a sweet, sad song filled the air.
“It’s time for me to let him go,” Vervain said, her lips unmoving. “I have held on to him for far too long. My husband killed me with his brutish hands, and yet I held on because I had to see; I had to make sure Severus would not descend into the depths of the darkness my husband knew. I know now that he will not, because you have prevented him from doing so. He needs to leave the past in the past and use his ambition for the force of good. You need to help him focus on this.”
The snow began to fall more thickly and Maeve felt Vervain slipping further away from her; death was in the ward, but it was not unwelcome. She could see the other woman smiling radiantly at something in the middle distance.
“I have to go. It has been too long and the veil is waiting. Help him… help him to see the purity of the light rather than the empty seduction of the dark. I should have taken him away from that man, but I was weak. I have been stronger in death than I was in life, for all the good that has done him. I protected him from the physical blows but not the mental ones… put that right for me, daughter. Promise me.”
Maeve found she was shaking with sadness as hot tears coursed down her cheeks. Vervain had called her daughter; if things had been different, she could well have been her daughter-in-law. The woman let go of her hands. For one extraordinary moment she thought she could see figures behind that of Vervain Snape, hands reaching out from somewhere beyond her line of vision. The snow was a wall of white now and she could feel the ground shifting beneath her feet. Her knees buckled and she was falling, falling endlessly it seemed until, with a sudden lurch, she stopped and found her cheek pressed to the cold linoleum of the floor of the Closed Ward.
“How could you be so stupid?”
She could see and hear Remus, but she wasn’t really listening. Sitting alone with him in the drawing room of Grimmauld Place, she felt as if she were still elsewhere. She could hear the cry of anguish repeating itself as Severus was told his mother had died. For all his hardness, he had still felt her death keenly. A Healer, who had been alarmed at her coldness and shallow breath, had taken her from the ward. It hadn’t taken long for them to find out her identity and send a message to Professor Dumbledore, who had arrived swiftly to take her home. And now here she was, swaddled in a huge blanket, being plied with Firewhisky to warm her, and bombarded with affection and admonition in equal measure from a very worried Remus.
“I’m sorry,” he said, instantly contrite. “We had no idea where you were, no idea if you were safe. After what happened at Hogwarts, we couldn’t quite believe you had gone off on your own like that.”
“How did you know?” she asked vacantly.
“Well, the fact that you weren’t here did rather give the game away, and then Harry mentioned he might have seen you leave in the early hours.” He was still frowning at her, but there was concern tempering the frown.
“Where is Severus?” she said, looking around as if expecting to find him there, lurking in the gloom of the room.
Remus sighed with exasperation.
“How much longer will this go on?” he asked.
“This slavish devotion to a man who does not deserve it. Why can’t you let him go?” Remus tried hard to keep the disapproval from his voice, but she heard it nonetheless.
“I can’t let it go, Remus. I made a promise to his mother.” She smiled at him, her face flushed.
“His mother is dead,” Remus said, suddenly concerned for her sanity.
“I know, I spoke with her before she went.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Of course it’s possible, Remus, of course it is.” She leant back and pulled the blanket up to her chin. “I think I want to sleep now.”
Remus carried her up to her room and laid her down gently on her bed. He watched her sleep for a few moments, with an anxious look on his face, before leaving the room, weighed down with a feeling of impending doom.