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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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Chapter Thirty-Eight

Signs and Portents

Contessa felt Severus’s cold hand in hers as she Apparated beside him.

Concerned about his absence, she had used her Tiger’s Eye ring to locate him. The Halloween feast was due to start and the entire school was assembled in the Great Hall, awaiting the arrival of the Headmaster and the commencement of the festivities.

The rings had shown her the headstone of the Potters’ grave at Godric’s Hollow and Contessa had Disapparated from the main gate outside Hogwarts, using Severus’s vision as a guide. She had not expected to arrive literally at his side, with their fingers entwined, and she noticed the ring on her little finger burning with unusual heat against her skin.

Turning to face him, Contessa felt Severus’s hand twitch in hers, and she realised he had concealed himself with a Disillusionment Charm. A moment later he materialised before her, tightly wrapped up in his long black cloak, regarding her with surprise and a trace of apprehension.

Mortified by her indecorous arrival at the graveyard, Contessa whispered, “Sorry.”

Severus’s face was typically pale, and his swollen red eyes regarded her defensively.

He released her hand and the ring on Contessa’s finger cooled quickly in response. Slightly unnerved, she made a mental note to avoid using the rings for a purpose for which they had not been intended.

Disturbing Severus in his private moment of grief had been the last thing that Contessa had wanted to do, and now, standing next to him by the headstone, she was overcome with sadness.

It seemed that, in addition to the mask he wore as a Death Eater, Severus also wore an incorporeal mask of his own making. It was so rare to see him without it that Contessa did not want to let the moment pass by unacknowledged.

The reason for her visit was in direct conflict with her instincts, and she felt dismally resigned to the inevitability of what needed to be done for the greater good. It was painful for her to contemplate breaking this singular moment of vulnerability with the realities of Severus’s position and responsibilities.

Severus watched her with wide eyes, seemingly unable to speak. Contessa returned his gaze awkwardly, wishing she had a choice in what she had to say. But the mission had to come first.

“I waited as long as I could, Severus, but you are urgently needed at Hogwarts. The Halloween feast awaits your presence; we can’t start without you.”

Severus’s head hung low, his long black hair hanging in curtains, hiding his emotions. Contessa’s heart ached as she waited for his reply.

When he looked back at her, she saw clouds clearing from his vision as his world came back into focus. Severus closed his eyes briefly and nodded.

She reached out, taking his hand once again in hers, and the rings tingled as they connected. Contessa felt a wave of grief and remorse hit her unexpectedly, and she shivered, partially aware that the feelings didn’t belong to her.

Closing her eyes, she concentrated on their intended destination and then space and time compressed as Severus and Contessa Disapparated from the graveyard together.

A lungful of biting fresh Highland air made them gasp as they arrived outside the main gates of Hogwarts. The rings suddenly felt very heavy, dragging their clasped hands towards the ground. As they let go of each other, the two silver bands touched again and Contessa was flooded with Severus’s emotions once more. Judging by the look on his face, it seemed he was experiencing her anxiety in return. Severus set off towards the school at a brisk walking pace.

Contessa groaned quietly. Having just resolved not to expose the Tiger’s Eye rings to any more unnecessary magic, she had subsequently used them for side-along Apparition. The fading heaviness of the ring on her finger admonished her.

As she glanced back towards the castle, she noticed Severus had opened the gate and was striding swiftly across the grounds to the main entrance. Contessa passed through the gate, locked it behind her, and ran to catch up with the Headmaster.

Severus cast a sidelong glance as she reached out for his arm.

“I’m sorry I had to disturb you,” she offered tentatively, slightly out of breath.

He didn’t reply.

They walked through the antechamber together and Contessa cast her eyes over Severus in the candle-lit entrance hall. She frowned, noticing the muddy patches on his cloak and the stains on the knees of his trousers. Then she realised what they signified. Contessa shut her eyes, quelling her unease.

When she opened them again, Severus was watching her, calm and expressionless, his windswept hair hanging in black fronds against his face.

“You might want to clean your robes before you go in – you’re looking rather dishevelled,” Contessa said as she removed her cloak, revealing a long black dress with lacy cobwebs adorning the neckline and the cuffs of her sleeves. She glanced down at herself apologetically. “We’ve all made a bit of an effort, you see.”

Severus nodded curtly.

“I’ll enter through the back room of the Great Hall, so that we aren’t seen together. You need only cast a Lumos Charm and the house-elves will take care of the rest.” With that, Contessa hurried away, hoping Severus could compose himself quickly and that his late arrival would not appear untoward.

Contessa took her seat in the Great Hall amidst low level muttering from the students sitting at their House tables. The resident ghosts of Hogwarts glided overhead as the staff sat quietly at the top table, the Headmaster’s chair appearing ominously empty in the half-lit hall.

The enchanted ceiling provided the only illumination, bathing the room in the light of a full moon and thousands of glimmering stars. Contessa caught sight of a shooting star arching across the artificial sky, passing the Pegasus constellation before slipping below the horizon. Surreptitiously, she crossed her fingers under the table.

“What’s the holdup?” Filius Flitwick asked her from the seat on her left.

“I don’t know,” she whispered quietly.

Then, with a bang, the double doors at the opposite end of the Great Hall flew open and Severus strode in, imposing and bat-like as ever. His cloak billowed impressively behind him as he swept down the central aisle, past the House tables filled with expectant students.

Halfway to the podium at the front of the hall, Severus raised his wand nonchalantly and, with a dramatic swoosh of circling air, the hall filled with carved pumpkin lanterns hovering mid-air.

Tablecloths of sticky cobwebs spread across the tables as the smaller of the candle-lit lanterns landed softly down upon them, leaving the larger pumpkins floating silently overhead, flickering as they bobbed and turned under the night sky.

The pumpkins were then joined by real-life bats, diving and swarming through the air, dive-bombing within inches of the students’ heads with unerring precision.

Plates and goblets appeared on the tables then finally a troop of enchanted skeletons appeared at the edges of the hall, arriving from the kitchens carrying mountainous plates of food and jugs of pumpkin juice and Butterbeer.

Severus reached the lectern and turned to face the students. Nodding to the nearest of the skeletons, Severus wordlessly signalled the opening of the Halloween feast.

Contessa watched Severus covertly, as he walked around to take his seat at the head of the top table. His face was impassive and he did not make eye contact. Contessa was overwhelmed with pity, knowing how draining it would be for Severus to wear his mask for this one evening.

Once the skeletons had served the feast and everyone had eaten their fill, a party-like atmosphere sprang up and Contessa was heartened to see people enjoying themselves. Severus was deep in conversation with Amycus Carrow when the next stage of Contessa’s plans for the evening came to fruition.

At both ends of the House tables, two barrels of water appeared, each containing a dozen or so red and green apples.

Filius nudged her and she turned to see a look of bemusement on the smaller wizard’s face.

“What are the barrels for?” he asked her curiously.

“It’s an old Muggle game,” Contessa replied, “called bobbing for apples.”

“Bobbing for apples?” Filius repeated uncertainly.

“Yes. The game is to catch an apple in your mouth without the use of your hands.”

A few children who were familiar with the game had now approached the barrels and were sticking their fingers into the water experimentally.

“Come on, Filius,” Contessa cajoled the Head of Ravenclaw. “Let’s give it a go!”

The small wizard looked at her hesitantly for a moment then hopped off his chair to follow her to a barrel beside the Ravenclaw table.

Anthony Goldstein was leaning over the surface of bobbing apples, making his first attempt. He had so far managed to hold a red apple up against the edge of the barrel and was endeavouring to secure it with his teeth.

The apple rotated in the water, and the crevice that usually held the stalk opened up into a mouth-like shape. The apple firmly nipped Goldstein on the chin.

The Ravenclaw shot up from the surface of the water, rubbing his chin in surprise. His friend, Michael Corner, laughed heartily at him.

“What the bloody hell…?” Goldstein exclaimed.

“The apple is bewitched, mate,” Corner replied. “It bit you back!”

Contessa and Filius joined them by the barrel. “I think this is a wizard version of bobbing for apples,” she said slyly.

“Not much fun if the apples bite back.” Goldstein looked doubtful as he offered his assessment.

“Oh, I don’t think they all bite,” Contessa said, poking a passing apple with her index finger. “You’ve just been unlucky.”

Corner stepped forward, inclining his head into the barrel. “I’m going to try for a green one – see if they don’t bite.”

He chased an apple around the edge of the barrel and sighed with frustration.

“I reckon you’ve got a better chance going for one in the middle,” Filius pondered.

Goldstein looked at the tiny Charms Professor dubiously. “Perhaps you could show us, Sir,” he said with a hint of mischief.

Contessa smiled encouragingly at the Professor and retrieved her wand, Summoning a stool to lift Filius up to the edge of the barrel. He raised his eyebrows at her, realising he had been skilfully manoeuvred into playing the game. With a sigh and a resigned shake of his head, he stepped up and leaned over the edge of the barrel, holding his beard against his robes and targeting a green apple alone in the middle of the water.

The apple promptly nipped him on the nose.

Surrounding Ravenclaws tried unsuccessfully to suppress their laughter.

“So much for the theory about the colour of the apples, then,” Goldstein said, covering a smirk.

Contessa watched Filius make a second attempt, rubbing her thumb absently against the Tiger’s Eye ring on her little finger. One of the bewitched apples attempted to bite the Professor on the cheek but became tangled up in his long beard and tugged him towards the side of the barrel.

A chortle formed in Contessa’s throat and she attempted to stifle it, closing her eyes and biting down on the inside of her mouth. As she did so, the metal of the ring cooled against her skin and she glimpsed a vision of herself and Filius Flitwick from an angle behind them.

Realising she had inadvertently triggered the rings, Contessa immediately snapped her eyes open and unclasped her hand, turning to see Severus watching her from the top table.

She shot him an apologetic glance and turned back to see Filius stepping down from his stool, an apple in his mouth, triumphant with the cheers of his House.

Sybill Trelawney wandered over to congratulate the Head of Ravenclaw. “Well done, Filius. According to Muggle superstition, you will be the first to marry.”

Filius’s eyes bulged and he almost choked on the apple. He waved her off and hurried back towards the teachers' table. Contessa chuckled at the Divination Professor, surprised to learn that Muggles had their own false notions based on the apple dooking game.

“Are you going to have a go, my dear?” Sybill asked Contessa.

“Absolutely.” Contessa smiled.

She approached the barrel of water and dipped her head confidently, knowing the secret of which apples were bewitched. With one swift, practised movement she captured a shiny green apple between her teeth and bowed to the applause of the two Ravenclaw boys. As Contessa stood up straight and took the apple from her mouth, she noticed Severus walking over to their barrel. Goldstein and Corner ceased clapping and walked away.

“Good evening, Headmaster,” Contessa said formally.

“Madam Marchbanks.” Severus nodded.

Sybill Trelawney nudged Contessa’s arm and passed her a small silver knife.

“You should peel the apple, Tess. It’s another Muggle tradition.”

Contessa accepted the knife and began to carefully peel the apple.

Severus arched one eyebrow and then, to Contessa’s astonishment, leaned over the barrel and deftly caught a red apple between his teeth.

“That was almost effortless, Headmaster. How did you know which apple to choose?” Contessa said, after she had recovered from the shock.

Severus’s brow furrowed and he tilted his head. “I chose an apple which still had its stalk,” he said, as if the reason should have been obvious to her.

“But, how – "

Severus coolly ignored Contessa’s question, choosing instead to remove a small potions knife from inside his robes. He proceeded to peel his red apple, dropping small slivers of the fruit’s skin onto the Ravenclaw House table.

Contessa’s knife reached the end of its task and she looked down at the fruit, amazed to see she had peeled the apple in one long, curling slice. The green apple peel hung from her fingers in a spiral.

Sybill Trelawney smiled knowingly.

“What?” Contessa asked her.

“It’s a good omen.”

“What is?”

“Well, the Muggles believe the length of the apple peel determines life expectancy,” Sybill said airily.

Contessa’s mouth gaped as she looked at the Divination Professor. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not. But it is only a Muggle prophecy; I don’t set much store by them.”

Contessa bit down on her tongue, trying hard not to laugh. She looked away, turning to see Severus’s reaction, but he was staring at his pile of short apple peelings with an ironic smirk.

Sybill appeared not to notice and continued, “Now, you should throw the apple peel over your shoulder.”

Severus’s gaze met Contessa’s briefly and they shared a moment of amusement, before he scooped up his peel and lobbed it over his left shoulder.

Contessa mirrored his movement. “Now what?” she asked.

Sybill glided over, adjusting a flowing purple shawl which had fallen from her shoulder, and peered seriously through her glasses at the apple peel on the floor. “The shavings should form the shape of the first letter of your true love.”

Contessa gulped as she felt her heart leap to her throat. Suddenly, the game no longer seemed funny.

The three of them stared at the patterns of apple shavings on the floor.

Sybill pointed to a lop-sided crescent moon formation, in the top left hand corner of Severus’s arrangement of peel.

“That looks like an ‘L’ to me,” she said wistfully.

Severus did not look up. “Is that so?” he said. His voice was taut and constricted and Contessa noticed him twitch as he covered a tiny crack in his composure.

Leaning forwards, Contessa scrutinised the suggested shape. Her insides burned.

Firenze trotted over to the small gathering and surveyed the floor inquisitively. “I’d say it’s more like a ‘C’,” he pondered. The centaur’s tail swooshed majestically as he turned and sauntered towards the Slytherin table.

A heady nausea wrapped itself around Contessa as she tore her eyes away from the stone floor.

“Yours looks like an ‘S’,” said Sybill thoughtfully, examining Contessa’s peel.

Before Contessa could reply, Luna Lovegood appeared beside the barrel, raised her wand and said, “Immobulus!

A red apple froze in place, allowing Luna to secure the apple quickly between her teeth. She took a bite of the fruit and paused, standing next to Sybill Trelawney and studying the pattern of peel at their feet.

“Indeed, it does look like an ‘S’. But then there’s only a few letters that a coiled strip of peel could make,” Luna said contemplatively.

With that, the blonde witch turned on her heel and skipped enigmatically from the hall.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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