An owl hooted in the distance as Severus walked briskly up the wide driveway towards Malfoy Manor.
He was accompanied by Yaxley, whose late arrival had been an unwanted surprise. Severus had intended to arrive last, to give the impression of importance and avoid any unnecessary conversation with fellow Death Eaters.
So far Severus had managed to avoid speaking too much with Yaxley. The biting chill of the night air pressed against his face as he controlled the anxiety rising in his stomach. It was imperative he gave a convincing performance tonight, and he didn’t need Yaxley’s distraction whilst he prepared himself.
They entered together through the grandiose front door into the opulent hallway. Pausing for a moment outside the drawing room, Severus methodically shut down his fear and disquiet. He had to be cool, calm and emotionless when he walked through the door to the meeting. Detachment was vital for success.
Severus reached out for the bronze door handle and stepped confidently into the room.
The drawing room’s usual furniture had been replaced by a long ornate table. Its polished surface flickered in the half-light of the fire. Death Eaters were sitting around the length of the table, with two seats vacant; one in the middle and one at the Dark Lord’s right hand.
Everyone in the room turned to see the new arrivals. Severus could make out the silhouette of the Dark Lord against the firelight, beckoning them forward. Above the fireplace, Severus could see a large gilded mirror on the mantelpiece and his eyes were drawn to the reflection of a body, suspended upside down above the table.
He noticed Draco Malfoy seated immediately below the figure, glancing up at it fearfully.
Before Severus had chance to identify the person hanging above Draco, the Dark Lord spoke.
“Yaxley. Snape. You are very nearly late.”
Severus approached the head of the table, not daring to look upwards again.
“Severus, here,” said the Dark Lord as he pointed to the empty seat at his right.
The significance of this was not lost on Severus, as he took his seat at the Dark Lord’s right side, maintaining his smooth mask-like composure.
“Yaxley – beside Dolohov,” the Dark Lord hissed.
As Severus surveyed the scene, it seemed all eyes were upon him.
“So?” the Dark Lord asked him, without preamble.
“My Lord,” Severus replied steadily, “the Order of the Phoenix intends to move Harry Potter from his current place of safety on Saturday next at nightfall.” The confidence in his voice was genuine, despite the flutter of uneasiness he felt inside.
“Saturday…at nightfall.” The Dark Lord’s eyes locked onto Severus’s.
Severus forced himself to remain calm, knowing the truth of his words would not betray him.
The Dark Lord considered him for a few seconds and then his lipless mouth curled into a snake-like smile.
“Good. Very good. And this information comes –”
“From the source we discussed,” Severus interjected, determined to keep Contessa’s identity hidden from the other Death Eaters. He allowed the memory of Contessa telling him the date to float to the front of his mind, should the Dark Lord deem it necessary to look.
“My Lord,” Yaxley interrupted from the middle of the table, and all eyes in the room turned to face him.
“My Lord, I have heard differently.” Yaxley hesitated. “Dawlish, the Auror, let slip that Potter will not be moved until the thirtieth, the night before the boy turns seventeen.”
Severus silently thanked Contessa, and smiled back at Yaxley knowingly. “My source told me that there are plans to lay a false trail; this must be it. No doubt a Confundus Charm has been placed upon Dawlish. It is not the first time, he is known to be susceptible.”
“I assure you, my Lord, Dawlish seemed quite certain,” said Yaxley, clearly manoeuvring to appear knowledgeable and useful.
Severus could not allow Yaxley to convince the Dark Lord; there was too much at stake.
“If he has been Confunded, naturally he is certain,” Snape interposed. “I assure you, Yaxley, the Auror Office will play no further part in the protection of Harry Potter. The Order believes that we have infiltrated the Ministry.”
“The Order’s got one thing right, then, eh?” Selwyn said with a wheezy giggle.
“My Lord,” Yaxley continued, undeterred, “Dawlish believes an entire party of Aurors will be used to transfer the boy –”
At that, the Dark Lord seemed to decide upon the credentials of the information and raised his hand at Yaxley. The Death Eater ceased his exposition and turned to watch Severus resentfully.
The Dark Lord locked eyes with Severus once again. “Where are they going to hide the boy next?”
Severus replied immediately. “At the home of one of the Order. The place, according to the source, has been given every protection that the Order and the Ministry could provide. I think that there is little chance of taking him once he is there, my Lord, unless, of course, the Ministry has fallen before next Saturday, which might give us the opportunity to discover and undo enough of the enchantments to break through the rest.”
Severus’s gambit seemed to have worked; the Dark Lord’s attention was switched to Yaxley again, distracting him from the fact that Severus had not been able to supply the location of the safe house.
“Well, Yaxley. Will the Ministry have fallen by next Saturday?” the Dark Lord asked pointedly.
Severus felt a flurry of nerves as he listened to Yaxley inform the room that he had placed the Imperius Curse upon Pius Thicknesse. Thankfully, by the sounds of it, the Ministry would remain safe for the time being. The knot in Severus’s stomach loosened.
A sudden wail of misery sounded from below the table and the Dark Lord sent Wormtail to quieten the prisoner.
Severus caught Draco’s eye for a second, and the boy gulped and lowered his head. Life was obviously getting more difficult for the Malfoy family. As the discussions continued, Draco seemed twitchy and unsettled as he glanced up at the inverted figure hanging above him.
Severus did not look up, for fear of what he might see.
After the Dark Lord procured Lucius’s wand, Nagini slithered under the table, beneath Severus’s feet. The sensation sent a cold chill up his spine, and he watched the great snake coil itself around the Dark Lord’s shoulders.
Bellatrix rose to her feet to defend the Malfoy family’s reputation, but the mention of her niece’s marriage to Lupin sent her heavily-lidded face reeling. The fact that Severus had supplied this information to the Dark Lord gave him a sense of grim satisfaction. It amused him to hear Bellatrix jeered at by the table and taken down a notch or two. He’d never liked the woman. Severus sat quietly, relishing the ugly red flush on her face.
His enjoyment, however, was short-lived. After the Dark Lord commanded the room into silence, he manipulated Bellatrix into agreeing to kill her niece, Nymphadora Tonks. Severus was hit by a sobering wave of nausea as he became increasingly aware of the dangerous game he was playing.
The Dark Lord raised Lucius’s wand, pointing it upwards at the slowly revolving body. Severus heard the groan of a female and sensed her struggling above the table. His insides turned to an icy numbness in anticipation.
“Do you recognise our guest, Severus?” the Dark Lord asked him.
Now that he had permission, Severus looked up at the figure dangling upside down. The woman rotated slowly to face him and Severus felt a wave of horror engulf him as he recognised her terrified face.
“Severus! Help me!” Charity Burbage exclaimed the moment she saw him.
Severus met her eyes unflinchingly, willing himself not to alter his outward composure. He struggled to keep a lid on his emotions as his former colleague looked down at him imploringly.
As her body turned away from him, Severus felt safe enough to speak.
“Ah, yes,” he said in a neutral voice, remaining impassive.
“And you, Draco?” asked the Dark Lord.
Severus was grateful for the moment’s distraction whilst the Dark Lord explained the identity of the captive to the rest of the room. “Yes…Professor Burbage taught the children of witches and wizards all about Muggles…how they are not so different from us,” he said contemptuously.
Charity revolved to face Severus once more, and one of the Death Eaters spat on the floor. She found Severus’s eyes again.
“Severus…please…please…” she begged him.
Severus felt anger and guilt accost him as he heard Charity utter what had been Dumbledore’s final words. Severus forced himself to stay calm and not show the myriad of emotions threatening to take over. He was in no position to help.
His eyes followed hers as she rotated away.
“Silence,” said the Dark Lord. With a flick of his wand, Charity was gagged.
Severus watched the unfolding scene in abject horror, impotent to intervene, fervently wishing that the woman would receive a swift and painless end.
The Dark Lord reeled off his twisted version of Charity’s last article in the Daily Prophet with pure contempt. The tone of his voice held the room in rapt attention.
Severus’s wand hand twitched uselessly at his side, as Charity Burbage turned to face him one more time. Tears streamed from her eyes and into her hair as she pleaded silently for his help.
Severus felt a lump the size of a bezoar in his throat. Outwardly he maintained his emotionless and impassive composure, despite his instinct to look away from the fate which was about to unfurl before his eyes.
He hoped it would be quick, for Charity’s sake, as well as his.
The green light from the Dark Lord’s wand lit up the entire room. Severus felt his throat tighten and his stomach lurch.
Charity’s body fell with a thud onto the polished surface of the table, her arms and legs askew.
Death Eaters around the table leapt out of the way. Draco fell out of his chair, hitting the floor hard.
Severus sat rigidly, as the Dark Lord summoned Nagini to dinner.