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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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Chapter Twenty-seven

The Astronomy Tower

When Severus returned to the Headmaster’s office he found it was empty. Gryffindor’s sword lay across his desk, where he had left it, and there was no sign of Contessa having returned as requested.

Severus looked around the room at the Headteachers’ portraits, hoping one of them could offer an explanation, but they all peered back at him quizzically. He turned to Dumbledore’s portrait and met his piercing blue eyes with a sense of disquiet.

“Contessa was supposed to meet me here,” Severus muttered.

Phineas Nigellus Black offered his inference immediately. “I knew she couldn’t be trusted.”

“Oh, do be quiet, Phineas,” Magda McDougall cut in.

Phineas scoffed audibly.

Severus held up his hand intolerantly and the portraits fell silent.

“What happened?” Dumbledore asked.

“The Carrows found out she gave Neville the password to the office,” Severus replied.

Phineas apparently couldn’t contain his glee. “I told you so!”

Severus turned to face the former Slytherin Headmaster, feeling his patience wearing thin. “Contessa was tricked into supplying the password,” he said, the tone of his voice did not invite further criticism. “The Carrows now know she is my spy. They also believe her to be my paramour.”

“What?” spat Magda. “That’s ridiculous!”

Severus prickled with indignation. The former Headmistress’s implied opinion of his unsuitability reopened an old wound. If others believed it impossible for him to be Contessa’s lover, they must view him as undesirable and reprehensible; a man unworthy of affection. It was not the first time such a judgment had been cast.

However, he and Contessa would now need to keep up appearances in front of the Carrows, regardless of the charade’s plausibility. Inwardly, he hoped she would be an adequate actress for the role.

Severus knew he could find enough qualities in the woman to play his part in the pretence. Contessa was a talented witch, intelligent, spirited and lively. In some ways she reminded him of somebody else.

But Contessa was not Lily. Severus would not allow himself to feel attracted to another woman; that would be a betrayal. It was important, now more than ever, to remain focused on the job at hand. He must do everything in his power to protect Potter and bring down the Dark Lord. He owed it to himself, and to Lily.

Shutting down his bitterness and resentment towards Magda and her judgment of him, Severus reminded himself of the vow Contessa had taken. Although her loyalty had been acquired by coercion, he at least knew he could trust her. She had taken an oath guaranteeing it.

Severus turned to face Magda McDougall with a look of tested patience. “As ridiculous as it may seem, the masquerade is necessary to protect Contessa from the Carrows.”

Magda opened her mouth and promptly closed it again, appearing to have thought twice about her response. Her portrait sniffed slightly.

Severus continued, addressing all of the Headteacher portraits. “Alecto and Amycus have agreed to keep the knowledge of our relationship secret, so that Contessa may continue to spy on the teaching staff.”

That seemed to silence the remaining dissent, and Severus turned to face Dumbledore again. “Did she return here at all?”

“No,” Dumbledore replied with concern.

Severus looked around the office fretfully, trying to work out where Contessa could have gone, and why.

Clenching his hands at his sides, he felt the unfamiliar presence of metal against his little finger. Severus looked at the Tiger’s Eye ring on his hand. He had forgotten to take it off in his haste to respond to Contessa’s cry for help.

Reaching out, Severus grasped his hand and closed his eyes. The ring turned cold on his finger and his vision turned to one of darkness. He could feel the wind ripping around him, freezing his body.

Looking through Contessa’s eyes, he could make out the shadowy depths of the long drop from the ramparts of the Astronomy Tower.

Severus’s stomach swooped with fear. Opening his eyes, he walked briskly across the room and picked up his heavy travelling cloak. He flung the garment around his shoulders and ran out of the office and down the stairs.

As Severus climbed the spiral staircase to the top of the Astronomy Tower he felt an increasing sense of foreboding.

Upon entering the chambers at the top of the tower, he realised this was the first time he had been back to this part of the castle since the fateful battle at the end of June. Back then, Severus had pushed his way past the fighting and ascended the final flight of stairs, to find Dumbledore on the other side of the door, pleading for his help.

After that night everything changed. Severus lost the one person he had trusted, and the one person who believed in him.

Severus had since avoided returning to the Astronomy Tower. He needed no reminder of the events which had taken place there; he had relived the scene many times in his frequent nightmares.

Reaching the top of the stairway, Severus felt sick with anxiety and trepidation. He wished Contessa had not chosen here, of all places, to run to.

His hand rested on the door handle for a moment as he willed himself to open it, forcing him to confront the demons of the past. He was not accustomed to meeting these things head-on, preferring to block such unwanted memories.

Gritting his teeth and stamping down hard on his emotions, Severus flung the door open and stepped into the cold night air. As he passed through the doorway his memory replayed the single flash of green light, and Dumbledore’s limp, rag-doll body being thrown over the edge of the tower.

Ground to the spot, Severus found he was unable to move, frozen in time.

As his vision refocused, he saw Contessa standing next to the ramparts at the opposite end. She looked back at him fearfully, her eyes drawn to the light at the doorway. Severus bolstered himself and closed the door, plunging them into the darkness of the wind-swept tower.

Severus and Contessa spent a long moment looking at each other from across the ramparts. She seemed to be shaken and unsure, shivering violently in the biting wind. Severus wondered what her reasons were for coming up here, so obviously unprepared for the conditions. Her eyes were wide and she had the appearance of a startled deer.

Realising he was going to have to cross the tower, Severus bit down and clenched his jaw, then started to walk towards her trembling form.

Contessa began to back away. Severus increased his pace, feeling a wave of concern; she was moving dangerously close to the edge of the wall.

When Severus reached her, he removed his cloak and wrapped it forcefully around Contessa, simultaneously pulling her away from the ramparts and the long drop below.

“Come inside,” he instructed her calmly.

Contessa shook her head, shivering as she grabbed the cloak and pulled it tightly around her body.

The length of the material drowned her petite frame, causing her to appear much younger and very afraid.

“What’s the matter?” Severus asked.

Contessa looked at him briefly and then turned to face the night sky.

“What happened?” Severus persisted. “Did they hurt you?”

She shook her head quickly. “No,” she said miserably.

Silence followed. Contessa’s eyes traced the constellations partially visible in the cloudy skies.

Gathering herself up, Contessa turned to face him. “Alecto performed Legilimency on me,” she said shakily. “I had to show her that memory you gave me at Squirrel’s Leap…I had to relive all the detail so she could grasp it.”

Severus nodded, pleased that Contessa had been quick-witted and skilful enough for Alecto to fully comprehend the memory.

He waited for Contessa to continue, and her eyes searched his for a moment. She flinched and looked away. “The memory has spooked me a bit.”

Severus felt a hard pit forming in his chest as he contemplated the implications. It seemed Contessa found him every bit as repugnant as Magda had suggested. He watched Contessa’s face closely for confirmation and saw embarrassment playing out on her features.

It was a stinging rebuff, and one he had experienced before. Severus tightened up his internal defences in response. They would have to play along together, no matter how they felt about it.

“The Carrows fell for the fallacious relationship and believe we are lovers,” Severus said, his voice was uncharacteristically hoarse.

Contessa’s brow furrowed and tears formed fleetingly in her eyes. “Did I do the right thing, showing her that memory?”

“I believe so,” Severus replied. “Now, at the very least, they should leave you alone.”

Severus wondered if Contessa’s angst had been about her decision to show the Carrows the false memory.

“What happened to the sword of Gryffindor?” Contessa asked.

“It is safe inside my office. However, we shall need that replica sooner than planned.”

Contessa seemed to regain some of her composure. “I’m sure Gran can get the copy of the sword delivered earlier than scheduled.”

“I shall ask Dumbledore to converse with Griselda to arrange it,” Severus said. “I don’t want to give Dumbledore’s Army any further cause to break in to my office.”

Severus watched her for a moment, noticing her lack of eye contact and uneasy demeanour. Evidently she felt uncomfortable with the new situation they found themselves in.

He held his arm out, silently inviting her to leave the tower for the warmth of the castle inside.

Hesitantly, Contessa stepped in front of him and set off towards the door, trying not to trip up over his long black cloak.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 3]

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