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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 2]

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Chapter Eight

Close My Eyes

The Great Lake gleamed like a sapphire in the afternoon sunshine.

The atmosphere was subdued in the grounds of the castle as the guests filed solemnly into their seats. A chorus of beautiful birdsong surrounded the gathering, and the Hogwarts ghosts glimmered overhead.

Contessa was seated next to her great grandmother and Augusta Longbottom. The two old women were talking quietly, commenting upon the superb weather and glorious scenery which seemed to honour the fallen Headmaster on his burial day.

Down the aisle, Contessa watched the students arriving in dress robes and sitting down sombrely. She had not felt Severus reach out for her hand and was starting to feel a growing sense of restlessness in his absence.

“Eh, Tess?” Griselda nudged her gently.

“Sorry, Gran. I was miles away.”

“Over there.” Augusta Longbottom pointed towards her grandson, Neville, being helped into his seat by a young witch with long blonde hair and large eyes.

“Oh, yes,” said Contessa. “I see him. Was he badly injured?”

“Poppy says he’ll make a full recovery within a few days,” said Augusta, a large measure of pride in her voice. “He ran headfirst into the barrier cast by the Death Eaters…threw him up in the air, the force of it.” She winced as she shook her head. “Brave boy, my Neville,” she said as she watched her grandson approvingly.

“Just like his parents,” commented Griselda.

Contessa felt glad that Augusta had finally seen some worth in her grandson, after years of being down on the boy. She sensed a shift in Augusta’s perception at last.

Suddenly, Contessa felt a hand brush against hers, and the Tiger’s Eye ring cooled instantly in her hand; Severus had made it in time for the funeral.

She smiled inwardly as she raised her eyes away from Augusta and Griselda, and absorbed the scene around her, wanting Severus to see as much as possible.

Looking towards the marble table by the lake, she saw Cornelius Fudge and Rufus Scrimgeour being seated, whilst the Hogwarts staff arrived to take their seats on the front row.

A chorus of otherworldly music arose from deep inside the lake. Looking over and searching for the merpeople, Contessa’s eyes found Harry Potter, sitting with his arm around a pretty young witch with striking red hair.

Contessa tore her eyes away from them, with a marked sense of irritation that was not hers, to see Hagrid walking carefully down the centre aisle with a bundle of purple velvet and gold stars held gently in his arms.

Silent tears were running down Hagrid’s face as he placed Dumbledore’s body on the marble table. Fumbling around for a colossal handkerchief, Hagrid blew his nose loudly before proceeding back up the aisle.

Griselda shook her head and Augusta tutted conspicuously. Contessa was overcome with an urge to chuckle at their reaction. Outpourings of grief were not welcomed in the wizarding world, or indeed by the Muggle community. It seemed paradoxical that people’s behaviour was so distinctly incongruous to the occasion.

Looking towards the forest she saw the centaurs stood in the shade at the edge of the trees, their bows hanging at their sides. The merpeople finished their song and broke through the surface of the water to listen to an old wizard dressed in black, tufts of white hair poking out of his black pointed hat.

The eulogy to Dumbledore was lengthy but held great beauty in parts, celebrating a life lived to the full. Dumbledore would no doubt have been mildly embarrassed by all this attention and somewhat amused by the supposed grief of certain Ministry officials.

Severus’s hand shifted in hers but did not pull away, as the man dressed in black robes resumed his seat.

Bright white flames erupted suddenly, encasing Dumbledore’s body, and white smoke spiralled above the marble table. Contessa thought she could make out a magnificent phoenix flying gracefully into the cloudless sky.

Suddenly, Severus’s hand was gone and Contessa jumped a little in her seat as the fire vanished.

The gasps and screams of the crowd subsided as a white marble tomb was revealed. Severus’s presence returned, encircling her hand. She felt a reassuring calmness.

A tribute of arrows fired from the centaurs’ bows landed safely, far short of the funeral party. The centaurs retreated into the Forbidden Forest and the merpeople sank slowly into the water.

As the gathering began to break up, Contessa spotted Charity Burbage talking with Professor Sinistra as they left their seats. A sense of urgency washed over Contessa, compelling her to rise from her seat.

“Excuse me,” she said to Griselda and Augusta, who nodded at her departure.

As Contessa approached Professor Burbage she felt Severus’s hand tighten, and then he was gone.

Contessa arrived home in the early evening to find Severus sitting under the shade of the oak tree, his nose buried in a book.

He didn’t look up as she approached him.

Contessa cast a Summoning Charm. A bottle of elf-made wine and two glasses glided out of the open cottage door. With a flick of her wand, the wine poured itself into the glasses. Taking one for herself, she directed the other towards Severus. It hovered in the corner of his vision until he could no longer ignore it.

Snapping his book shut in an aggravated fashion, Severus scooped the glass into his hand and looked up at her intolerantly. Contessa was startled at the contrast with his manner from earlier in the day.

She met his gaze resolutely as she raised her glass.

“To Dumbledore.”

Severus capitulated to the request with a sigh, and rose to his feet with his glass in hand.

“Dumbledore,” he said, his voice muted.

As they both took a sip, Contessa allowed the warmth of the wine to spread through her body and she felt herself slowly relax.

Severus sat back down under the tree, put down his glass and picked up his book. Acting on impulse, Contessa gathered up her dress robes and joined him in the cool shade.

Severus threw her a sidelong glance of annoyance, designed to provoke her departure. She bristled slightly, but ignored his gesture and continued to sip her wine, settling back against the tree trunk. She didn’t want to be alone after the funeral.

Severus placed his book back down on the ground in an exaggerated movement, resigned to the conversation that was about to follow.

“You spoke to Charity?” he asked acerbically.

“I did,” Contessa replied calmly. “I’m not sure she really heard me, but I tried.”

“You should have tried harder then,” Severus said.

Contessa gasped in indignation. “We aren’t in the classroom now,” she said huffily.

Severus seemed to bite back a retort.

Eventually, after a long silence he replied in a veiled low voice, “Her life is in danger.”

“I know,” Contessa cut him off crossly. “I can work that one out for myself.”

“You must make sure the Order of the Phoenix protects her.”

Contessa looked back at Severus seriously and saw a flicker of regret across his face.

“What is it?” She asked him. “What did He Who Must Not Be Named want with you?”

Severus paused momentarily before saying, with a trace of apprehension, “The Dark Lord wanted to know where Professor Burbage lives.”

Contessa’s intake of breath was distinctly audible. When she recovered herself, she looked back at the man sat beside her, unable to hold back the next question.

“What did you tell him?”

Severus looked away towards the cottage with an air of acquiescence.

“I told him she lived in a Muggle town in Yorkshire, but I didn’t know which one.”

Contessa attempted to hide the revulsion she felt; Severus had disclosed information that could put Professor Burbage’s life in danger. However, watching his grim features closely, she sensed his discomfort. Contessa started to understand the inevitable consequences of Severus’s role as spy. With a pang of sorrow, she wondered how many other times he had been in such a position.

“He Who Must Not Be Named could’ve obtained that information from the Ministry of Magic with very little difficulty,” she said reassuringly.

Severus nodded stiffly, took a large sip from his wine glass and resumed reading his book.

They sat in silence for a long while. Contessa felt content enough to sit, recalling the memories of the day and processing the emotions the funeral had roused in her. Butterflies fluttered past in the warm evening sunshine, and a curious blackbird approached them several times, lured in by their stillness.

“Did something happen during the funeral?” Contessa asked suddenly, “I felt your absence,” she explained.

Severus looked up at her, annoyance back on his face. A memory registered in his eyes and he snapped his book shut, sweeping up off the ground in one swift movement.

Contessa looked up at him in confusion. Severus jerked his head towards the cottage impatiently, and she got up off the ground and followed him in through the front door.

The curtains were drawn once again. Severus gestured her over to the corner where the phoenix’s makeshift perch stood.

Realising that she had not seen Fawkes at all since she had arrived home, Contessa approached slowly, her eyes adapting gradually to the gloom.

In the basin below the perch there was a pile of ashes. Underneath the ashes, a baby phoenix poked out its head and squawked quietly.

“Ooh,” said Contessa, a feeling of trepidation creeping through her.

Dumbledore spoke softly to her from his frame. “It wasn’t before time. Hanging on for the funeral, I suspect.”

Contessa was struck by a sense of wonder. “A baby phoenix!” she said in awe, lifting the baby bird’s golden beak with her index finger. Fawkes looked back at her affectionately, rubbing his head on her knuckle. Contessa smiled, before laying his head gently down in the nest of ashes.

Feeling struck by the enormity of the event, she looked at Dumbledore and said nervously, “I have no idea what to do…”

Dumbledore was about to reply when Severus cut in. “You don’t know what to do?” he asked with pointed sarcasm. “I wonder what the Ravenclaw Revolutionary was actually doing in her Care of Magical Creatures lessons?”

Contessa turned on her heel to face Severus, a surge of old aggression and contempt building inside her. Her hands went instantly to her hips and she shot him a look of daggers across the room.

“Probably plotting a rebellion against the new Potions Master,” she said nastily.

Severus’s eyebrows travelled further up his forehead as he opened his mouth to speak. Dumbledore, however, interrupted.

“Moths,” said the Headmaster stoically.

Contessa turned to face the portrait.

“Moths?” Contessa asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep the animosity towards Severus out of her voice.

“Baby phoenixes eat moths,” Severus gloated from behind her.

Contessa prickled with indignation but didn’t turn around, effectively cutting him off from the conversation.

Dumbledore continued to speak, apparently unaware of the conflict in the room. “You must catch them before dusk falls. Fawkes will be self sufficient within a week.”

Despite her hostility towards Severus, Contessa felt a bubbling surge of excitement and responsibility. She smiled at Dumbledore and turned towards Severus, who appeared surprised to see her looking happily at him.

Contessa knew he was on the back foot and she approached him with mock playfulness. “Come Severus, let’s see what we can rustle up for dinner!”

Taken aback by her change of composure, Severus looked towards Dumbledore’s portrait with an expression of perplexity, as Contessa skipped past him and left for the garden in a flurry.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 2]

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