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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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Chapter Twelve

Open Doors

“How can you see
Into my eyes
Like open doors
Leading you down
Into my core
Where I’ve become so numb”

‘Bring Me To Life’, Evanescence

Contessa awoke in the early hours of the morning to the sound of a wind chime, signalling Severus’s arrival back from the Death Eaters’ meeting.

She rolled out of bed groggily and dressed quickly, before padding downstairs into the dark living room. There was no sign of her house guest.

Dumbledore was leaning at the edge of his portrait, his eyes focused on the window.

“Where is he?” Contessa asked drowsily, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“Outside,” replied Dumbledore, straining to get a better view.

Contessa walked to the window and looked out into the darkness of the garden. It was a still, black night, and the sky was lit by a large waning gibbous moon.

She could make out Severus’s robed figure pacing anxiously around the garden. Contessa watched him for a while, wondering if she should go out to him. Eventually, Severus sat down on the wooden bench, holding his head in his hands.

It was hard to make out in the darkness, but he appeared to be rocking slightly, back and forth, pulling at his hair.

Something inside Contessa spurred her into action. She quickly lit an oil lamp, threw on a travelling cloak, and opened the front door.

Leaving the cottage, she made her way cautiously by the flickering light of the lamp, to the bench at the end of the garden.

When she reached Severus he was sitting immobile, still wearing his Death Eater robes. His mask lay in the grass by his feet. He was leaning forward with his hair pulled back from his face; the dark curtains held tightly in his fists. He did not acknowledge Contessa in any way.

She placed the oil lamp on the ground and sat down next to him silently.

Severus did not speak for a long time.

The chill of the night air surrounded them as they sat side by side, staring into the darkness. A barn owl screeched overhead and, somewhere in the distance, a nightingale sang.

When Severus spoke, his voice was starkly cold and repressive. “Charity Burbage is dead.”

The news hit Contessa in a sickening wave.

She sat, momentarily paralysed, as the information sank in and the repercussions played out in her mind.

Eventually, she asked, “What happened?”

Severus paused as if to prepare himself. “The Dark Lord murdered her as part of the evening’s entertainment,” he answered bitterly. “We were forced to watch…The snake…” His voice drifted away, unable to continue.

Contessa felt a swirl of nausea spread through her abdomen, silencing her thoughts and stopping her from responding. She knew she was experiencing a mere fraction of what Severus must be feeling.

Acting upon instinct, she reached out and placed her hand lightly upon Severus’s shoulder.

His reaction was instantaneous. Severus shrugged her hand away and stood up abruptly. Purposefully, he walked away and resumed his pacing around the garden.

Contessa’s hand dropped to the bench and felt the warmth of the wood upon which he had been sitting.

“It’s not your fault, Severus,” she called out to him gently.

Upon hearing her words, Severus stopped in his stride and gave her a sidelong glance. His face contorted with anger and he turned on his heel, stalking towards her with his Death Eater robes billowing out behind him.

Contessa felt frightened and intimidated as he bore down upon her, his arms either side of her, gripping the bench and preventing her escape.

His face was a matter of inches away from hers as he hissed, “It was my responsibility!”

Contessa sat back in the seat, lengthening the distance between them to get a better look at his face. His eyes seemed to cloud over and he ran out of steam.

With a forceful groan, he pushed himself upwards and turned away, moving out of her reach.

“It’s always my responsibility,” he murmured into the night.

Contessa allowed herself to breathe and took some time to understand the meaning in his words.

“You feel responsible for Charity’s death,” she said to his back.

Severus exhaled audibly.

Contessa paused, wondering if she should continue.

“And this feeling is not new,” she said tentatively. “It’s happened to you before.”

Severus swept towards her, horror consuming his features. His expression changed as he calculated something in his mind, and a look of indignation appeared on his face.

“No!” he growled aggressively, causing Contessa to jump in her seat.

Severus strode away from her, towards the cottage, forcing the front door open and slamming it behind him. Contessa could hear the muffled sounds of shouting from inside the house.

She followed the path back to the cottage, able to discern some of Severus’s angry ranting through the window. He was shouting at Dumbledore’s portrait.

“You told her!” he screamed accusingly. “You gave me your word!”

Contessa opened the front door warily and stepped inside the room. Fawkes was flying around the room, screeching at the top of his voice. Dumbledore’s portrait appeared thoroughly confused. Severus was striding around the confined space of the living room with his hands on his hips, rage burning on his face.

“Told me what?” she asked ingenuously, trying to make herself heard over the phoenix’s racket.

Severus ceased his pacing and looked directly at her, his dark eyes boring into hers. Contessa met his gaze without flinching, feeling at a complete loss to explain his behaviour.

In studying her, Severus seemed to find some sort of answer, and began to regain a measure of self-control. Then Severus turned back to Dumbledore’s portrait, looking for some kind of confirmation.

Contessa noticed something unspoken pass between the two men. Severus seemed to calm a little, and Dumbledore had a distinct look of vindication.

Contessa had no idea what had provoked Severus’s outburst, but it seemed to have been based on some sort of misunderstanding.

Fawkes landed on the back of the sofa and looked Severus up and down. The phoenix seemed to decide it was now safe, and flew onto Contessa’s shoulder, issuing a mellifluous trill into her ear.

Severus slumped onto the sofa.

Contessa waited for a moment, unsure if Severus needed space, but Dumbledore ushered her over to the armchair. She sat down quietly.

Fawkes flew onto Severus’s lap and warbled softly. Severus seemed to salvage some of his composure as he looked down at the scarlet and gold bird singing soothingly to him.

Slowly, Severus looked up at Contessa, his features diffident, and addressed Dumbledore quietly.

“The meeting went well; the Dark Lord is satisfied that Potter will be moved on Saturday next.”

Contessa was startled by the change in direction. It was almost as if the Severus she had seen moments before had been an illusion.

“Excellent work,” said Dumbledore in a cheerful tone.

Contessa was finding it hard to go with the flow of this new conversation and she looked at Dumbledore in surprise. He appeared not to notice.

“The next step is to Confund Mundungus Fletcher,” Dumbledore reminded Severus in a matter-of-fact manner, and Dumbledore turned to look at Contessa enquiringly.

Contessa swallowed back her instinct to intervene; both men seemed to want to sweep the previous events under the carpet. She rolled her eyes at Dumbledore and then turned to Severus.

Her voice was reassuringly tender as she said, “I’ve set up a meeting for you tomorrow.”

Severus nodded stiffly and placed his hand underneath the phoenix’s plumage. Fawkes hopped gently onto his fingers.

Severus stood slowly and carried the bird to its perch in the corner. He left for the guest room without another word.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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