Severus knelt at the feet of the Dark Lord, awaiting his command.
They were alone in the garden, save for an albino peacock parading itself along a hedgerow. Severus focused on the neatly manicured lawn of Malfoy Manor and listened to the sound of late evening birdsong, allowing it to pervade his senses and block out his thoughts.
His disciplined mind had shut down the hatred he felt towards his Master, and he ignored the creeping nausea spreading through his gut. He wore a face of calm servitude. The only way to survive.
“Arise, my faithful servant,” the Dark Lord hissed softly. “You have done well.”
Severus let out a breath as he stood slowly, hoping this meant he could forgo the punishment for not providing the location of the Order of the Phoenix Headquarters.
“It’s a pity about the Tongue-Tying Curse, but I doubt the Order will use the old Headquarters again. Knowing that you can still gain access will deter them, I suspect.”
The Dark Lord’s reasoning was sound and Severus found himself breathing easier as a result.
“Who is your new contact?” the Dark Lord asked.
Severus knew this question was coming and what would follow. He brought forth an appropriate memory and opened his mind to the Dark Lord.
“The woman is known as Contessa Marchbanks, my Lord. A member of the Order of the Phoenix,” said Severus smoothly. “I have placed her under the Imperius Curse.”
The Dark Lord looked at Severus appraisingly, before focusing his stare on the Death Eater’s cold black eyes.
Severus called forth his memory of Contessa, her wand raised in defence, confusion spreading across her face. Her question: “Trust? What do you mean?” Then her expression softening as she stepped backwards, lowering her wand.
The Dark Lord seemed satisfied.
“Ah, yes,” he said, impressed, “A direct descendant of Griselda Marchbanks?”
“That is correct, my Lord.”
“That old witch was my Dark Arts examiner at Hogwarts,” the Dark Lord said repressively.
“As she was mine,” Severus replied.
“No doubt her great granddaughter has inherited her prodigious skill?”
“Indeed, my Lord, she was an exceptional student,” Severus said calmly.
“But of course, you would have taught her yourself at Hogwarts.”
There was a pause in the conversation as the Dark Lord assessed the implications. He beckoned Severus to fall into step at his side.
Severus remembered his first year as Potions Master at Hogwarts. He had spent most of the year in a haze of pain, grief and self-loathing. Memories were sparse.
His students had suffered his scathing outbursts and endured humiliating punishments. It was a pattern he had repeated throughout his career. Severus knew he had used it as a way to vent his anger and he made no apology for it. Some students had flourished under his tuition.
Marchbanks was one of them. He had inherited her from Horace Slughorn, in her final NEWT year. She was bright and intelligent, but had been distracted by the Slug Club. Marchbanks had achieved a mediocre ‘E’ in her Potions OWL and had been allowed onto NEWT level on Slughorn’s less discriminating criteria for entrance.
Severus mused that she had ‘exceeded expectations’ but that, in his opinion, those expectations had been set too low. She was capable of much more; as proven by her successes under his tutelage.
Of course, the girl did not understand or appreciate this and Severus doubted she ever would.
Severus watched the sun sinking low on the horizon, casting its warm red glow on the surroundings. The peacock glided from the hedge onto the lawn and strutted with a supreme arrogance, befitting of its owners. Although, perhaps, less so now.
The last time Severus had seen Narcissa she had looked pale and wan, with dark circles around her eyes. She had thanked him for keeping his vow to protect her son. The Malfoy family would continue to pay heavily for Lucius’s failure in the Department of Mysteries, that much was certain.
When the Dark Lord turned to face him, Severus recoiled slightly, admonishing himself for letting his mind wander in the presence of this dangerous and skilled Legilimens. It was most unusual for this to occur, and not at all like him. Severus would not allow himself to let it happen again, he would have to be more careful. Survival was crucial.
“I’m sure I’m right in recalling the Marchbanks woman was engaged to be married to another Order member,” the Dark Lord began. “I do not remember his name.”
“Nor do I, my Lord,” said Severus, keeping the curiosity out of his voice.
“Yes, well, Dumbledore will have ensured his Order contained well placed people who did not necessarily know of one another.” The Dark Lord’s forgiveness of Severus’s lack of knowledge was unusual in its generosity.
“He certainly didn’t keep all his eggs in one basket,” Severus replied, knowing the frustrating truth behind his words.
“Indeed,” the Dark Lord agreed.
They walked towards a large ornamental pond containing several elegant freshwater fish, with fancy fins and long tails. Looking down into the surface of the water, Severus could see the red glow of the Dark Lord’s eyes reflecting back at him.
“Ah, yes,” the Dark Lord remembered out loud. “It was Dolohov.”
“Dolohov, my Lord?” Snape enquired.
“Dolohov. He captured Marchbanks’ fiancé in the spring of last year and tortured him for information on the Order. He resisted well. Dolohov killed him in a fit of frustration.” The Dark Lord shook his head in displeasure. “A shame; he would have been a useful hostage. Much could have been learned, but still, no matter. We are in a much stronger position now.” The Dark Lord inclined his head towards Severus.
The veiled compliment bounced off Severus’s rigid composure. He would process this news later, when it was safe to do so.
“What news of the Order?” asked the Dark Lord.
Severus recalled the memory of Contessa placing the newspaper on the table, before meeting the Dark Lord’s eyes.
“They will meet the day after Dumbledore’s funeral to make plans for Potter when he comes of age,” Severus replied.
“The protective enchantments will lift when he turns seventeen?” the Dark Lord asked.
“Yes, my Lord,” Severus said smoothly. “He shall be leaving Privet Drive by the end of July.”
“So, we must turn our minds to the task of capturing Potter before the Order finds new protection for him.” The Dark Lord looked away into the distance. “There is much to do. Go now, Severus, you’ve provided useful information.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Severus nodded.
“Your lodgings are safe?” the Dark Lord asked as an afterthought. “It would not do to be captured by the Ministry at this stage.”
“They are, my Lord,” Severus replied. “It would be better if the details remained hidden from the others, however. My work will be more, ah, effective alone and uninterrupted.”
“Of course, Severus, you make a good point. Enjoy the Marchbanks woman; she will make for stimulating company, I am sure.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” he said as he bowed to his Master.
Severus Disapparated in a graceful swirl of black mist, evaporating into the crimson sunset.