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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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Chapter Forty-Two

White Christmas

Christmas Day at the Marchbanks’ family home was an elaborate affair. Despite Griselda Marchbanks being over a century old, she was still a thoughtful and attentive host, who knew how to throw a good party. The guest list was extensive; the branches of the Marchbanks family spread over many generations and it was customary for relatives to put in an appearance at some point on the twenty-fifth of December.

The festivities were a black-tie event and Contessa had spent the afternoon in a mulberry-coloured ball gown. Her feet were becoming steadily compressed by the high-heeled sandals which peeped out from underneath her dress.

By the time three o’clock arrived she was standing barefoot and alone by the window of the library, fiddling absent-mindedly with her Tiger’s Eye ring. The drizzly rain came down in waves against the glass as the daylight faded on what had been a dark and dismal Christmas Day.

She wondered if Hogwarts was covered in a blanket of snow, and imagined the flickering lights of the castle lighting up the grounds against the glorious winter sunset. Her mind wandered to Robert Selwyn, alone in Gryffindor Tower. She hoped Severus had kept his promise to look after the boy.

Almost a week had passed since she had left the school, and Contessa was surprised how quickly she had grown tired of the company of her relatives. There seemed little point in returning to Squirrel’s Leap. Her house would be cold and undecorated, and there was nothing enticing about spending the remainder of the day alone. Yet it seemed the arms of her extended family were not fulfilling her needs today. She wished she were somewhere else.

After a lengthy internal debate, she slipped on her sandals and returned to the guest room where she retrieved her long, heavy travelling cloak.

Folding the dark woollen material over her arm, Contessa descended the staircase and located her great grandmother in the drawing room. Griselda accepted her apologies with a knowing smile, and Contessa slipped out of the back door, unnoticed by the merry throng.

Stepping outside, the cold air whipped around her bare arms as she threw the cloak around her shoulders. She Transfigured her sandals into a sturdy pair of walking boots which looked rather peculiar under the full skirt of her gown.

Contessa closed her eyes and concentrated on her intended destination. A moment later she inhaled the freezing air of the Scottish Highlands. Hogwarts was silhouetted against the setting sun, eerily similar to how she had pictured it in her mind’s eye. Snow dusted the picturesque landscape with a fine layer of white, glowing against the pinkish-purple skyline. The white Christmas warmed Contessa from within as she made her way to the castle gates.

Within a couple of minutes Argus Filch arrived at the main gate, carrying an oil-lamp. The caretaker ushered her through the grounds and led her into the castle’s entrance.

The relative warmth of the indoor air welcomed her, and Contessa quickly Transfigured her boots back into sandals. Her toes pinched and prickled in discomfort and she shifted her feet until they settled. When she looked up again, Filch was several paces in front, on his way to the Great Hall. Contessa lifted up her gown and cloak and trotted after him, trying not to stumble on the flags of the stone floor.

The caretaker opened the double doors to the hall and stood aside for Contessa to enter.

The House tables remained in place, and at the top of the hall, on the dais where the teachers were usually seated, was a long table. It became immediately apparent to Contessa that she had arrived in the middle of Christmas dinner.

Severus was seated at one end of the table, hosting the meal for twelve other Hogwarts inhabitants. The Carrows flanked him on each side, and ten students of varying ages sat along the length of the table. Contessa noticed Robert Selwyn seated facing the door at the opposite end of the table. The boy was heartily tucking in to a plate stacked high with roast potatoes and turkey. In between mouthfuls, he acknowledged her with a warm smile.

Contessa remained still as Filch closed the doors, leaving her standing alone at the back of the hall, suddenly realising how inappropriate her impromptu appearance at Hogwarts might seem.

The low booming sound of the double doors shutting caused Severus to look in Contessa’s direction. From a distance, she couldn’t determine the subtleties of his facial expression and her insides numbed with anticipation. He lifted his napkin from his lap and dabbed the corners of his mouth before dropping the cloth on the table.

The Headmaster rose from his seat and walked down the steps and across the length of the Great Hall. Contessa responded by walking towards him, up the central aisle, to meet him halfway. A wave of light-headedness took her by surprise, and she realised she had forgotten to breathe.

Contessa forced her lungs into action as she approached Severus. His long, pale features were framed by curtains of black hair which swept away from his face as he marched towards her.

She was astounded to see him smiling broadly.

Contessa’s eyes flicked to the table of guests behind him, and she felt a warm tightness in her chest as she comprehended their ignorance; with his back to the table and his hair screening his face, Severus’s smile was meant only for her.

He looked completely different, in spite of his long cloak and formal teaching robes. His dark eyes glittered like opals and his wide smile creased the corners of his eyes. Contessa followed the line of his hooked nose to his thin lips, encasing yellowing and fascinatingly crooked teeth. A flutter of nerves sent a sinking stone to the bottom of her stomach and her cheeks flushed as awareness dawned. There was no way she could deny it – she had returned to Hogwarts to see Severus, not Robert Selwyn.

Severus had never appeared so animated and welcoming as he came to a halt a few feet away from her, but Contessa was painfully aware of the number of eyes peering at her from the dais. Her resulting smile was low-key and belied her true feelings. It was probably just as well under the circumstances – admitting her attraction was permanently off the menu. Notwithstanding, she hoped Severus would read the genuine greeting in her eyes.

Severus extended his arm towards her and Contessa nodded briefly before stepping closer and curling her hand around his elbow. Their eyes met for one warm, friendly moment, and Contessa watched as Severus adjusted his facial expression to one of cold formality. He then turned on his heel and escorted her to the dinner table.

As they walked, she noticed Severus was wearing his Tiger’s Eye ring on his little finger. Contessa’s eyebrows pinched together as she processed the revelation, and when Severus deposited her at the end of the table next to Robert Selwyn, she hesitated as she let go of his arm. For a split second, the pair of rings inadvertently touched with an instantaneous tingle on their respective fingers.

Severus snatched his hand away and removed his wand from his robes. As he turned to Summon Contessa a chair, she felt a tingling sensation creeping up her arm, across her shoulders, and finally disappearing down her spine. With a shiver, she wondered if Severus had experienced the same phenomenon.

She never found out, as Severus gestured for her to take a seat at the end of the table and departed abruptly for the opposite end. Contessa removed her travelling cloak and folded it onto the back of her chair. As she sat down, a plate setting appeared before her.

The young Gryffindor welcomed Contessa with a smile as he munched his food. She nodded to the Slytherin boy across from him, who appeared to be the same age as Robert, and wished them a merry Christmas.

“This is a surprise, Miss,” Robert said in a stilted voice which clearly didn’t wish to communicate too much affection in front of other students. “Why’d you come back here for Christmas?”

Realising she didn’t have a particularly good answer for the boy’s question, she looked towards the impressive banquet.

“That’d be for the excellent food,” she lied, inwardly regretting having already eaten one Christmas dinner. She wasn’t sure the dress she was wearing could take the strain of another course of roast turkey.

Severus resumed his seat at the head of the table and watched her through the tunnel of students with a slight smirk.

Three thick slices of turkey breast appeared on her plate.

Contessa stifled a groan, wishing she had thought things through before turning up at Hogwarts unannounced. Looking at the white meat, she realised she was going to need cranberry sauce, and lots of it, if she was going to survive this ordeal. Her eyes roved the table for the accompaniment, but before she found it she noticed a large plate of Brussels sprouts. Her insides flipped and she suspected she might turn green if she ate any more.

She reached out for the gravy, and a moment later the Brussels sprout platter was hovering mid-air in front of her. Contessa searched the table for the person responsible, only to find Severus watching her with great interest. She had a fleeting suspicion that he had read her mind. Shaking the thought away, she noticed the Tiger’s Eye ring was still tingling on her little finger. Was Severus experiencing the same?

Their eyes met and he gave a small nod, before turning to continue his conversation with the Carrows. Contessa swallowed a hard lump in her throat.

Feeling self-conscious, she reluctantly accepted a small serving of sprouts, aware of the hairs on her arms standing on end in the cool air of the hall. The temperature was several degrees below that of the house from which she had recently departed, and her shoulders felt uncomfortably cold.

A glass goblet of mulled wine appeared on the table before her and Contessa gratefully took a sip, appreciating the warming effect it had on her body and mind.

And it matches your dress too, she heard herself think. What? Why would I think that?

She raised her head to see Severus studying her intently, his lips curled in amusement. Now Contessa truly was suspicious. What was he doing?

How did you…?

Severus set down his knife and fork on the edges of his plate, as if pausing for a breather, and rested his chin on his hand. His little finger tapped his jaw-line gently. The silver ring caught Contessa’s eye, glinting against the golden-brown stone. Her gaze shifted to Severus’s eyes and back again to his ring. He responded with another smirk and picked up his knife and fork, resuming his meal as if nothing had happened.

After the onslaught of her second Christmas dinner, Contessa Floo’d to the Headmaster’s office to find Severus perched on the edge of his desk. His cloak was folded on the back of his chair, and his arms were crossed casually, awaiting her arrival.

“What’s going on?” she asked without preamble.

“And a merry Christmas to you too,” Severus replied sarcastically.

Contessa opened her mouth to speak, before thinking twice and closing it again. It appeared Severus held the upper hand.

Just how things are meant to be, Contessa, she heard herself think. She shook her head with an irritated twitch. Pardon? I call myself Tess… Who is that?

She looked again at Severus and his smirk turned into a grin. With an exaggerated movement, he removed the Tiger’s Eye ring from his little finger and turned it over with his fingertips.

“It would appear our rings have learned a few new tricks,” he said lazily.

Contessa approached him as he offered the ring out to her, placing it in the palm of her hand. “What have you done to them?”

“I’ve done nothing,” Severus replied defensively. “Something changed when you used the rings at Godric’s Hollow. Since then, when the connection is triggered whilst we are wearing the rings, I’ve been able to hear your thoughts.”

Contessa gaped. “My thoughts? How?”

“I’m not certain. I only grasped the full significance of it today, when I heard your thoughts in my head, spoken in my voice as if they were my own. It happened once before. That’s how I knew which apple to choose at Halloween; I briefly heard your thoughts. It seems the rings touching today made the effect permanent.”

“No way,” Contessa marvelled. She slipped her ring off her finger and placed them side by side in her palm. “I don’t understand how that’s possible.” She walked over to Magda McDougall’s portrait. “Has this happened before?”

The former Headmistress regarded her with a furrowed brow. Her brown ringlets tumbled across her shoulder as she leant forward and studied the rings in Contessa’s outstretched hand. “It’s unheard of, Tess, and not what they were designed for. They were merely meant to link the senses of sight and sound.” Magda cast Severus a suspicious look. “What have you been doing to them?”

Severus balked slightly but recovered quickly. “The rings have linked our emotions right from the start,” he said coolly. “I noticed it the first time we wore them.”

“Then the Colligomens Charm must have been performed incorrectly,” the portrait surmised.

“No,” Contessa replied. “I’m fairly sure it wasn’t.”

“Well, you must have been messing around with them. Have you cast any other charms on the rings?”

“I cast a Disillusionment Charm on my ring at Halloween,” Severus confessed.

“And I used it to guide my Apparition to Godric’s Hollow,” Contessa added sheepishly. She bit her lip before she spoke again. “The rings accidentally linked again when we Apparated back to Hogwarts.”

Magda shook her head in despair. “It’s little wonder their magical properties have been distorted. However, none of that explains the transference of emotions the first time they were used. What happened before you linked the rings?”

Severus’s breath was audible as he remembered the sequence of events. He turned to face Contessa. “You cast an Engorgement Charm on my ring so it would fit my finger.”

“Yes, I did. But, I had to – ”

“No, you didn’t,” Magda admonished her. “Did Hector not tell you to rub the inside of the band three times to expand and contract the metal?”

“No,” Contessa breathed.

“There you have it,” Magda said with mingled triumph and regret. “Goodness knows what you’ve done to those rings with all that exposure to unnecessary magic. It’s a small miracle they’re still working.”

Contessa handed Severus’s ring back to him with a sigh. He removed the silver chain from underneath his collar and threaded it through the ring, before closing the clasp around his neck. He tucked the jewellery out of sight as he watched Contessa place her ring back on her finger.

“We’ll have to be more careful from now on,” she said heavily.

Severus nodded.

They walked away from the portrait and towards the stairs to the minstrel’s gallery.

“Hang on a minute,” Contessa said as Severus placed his foot on the bottom stair. “Why were you wearing your ring today? You told me you don’t normally wear jewellery and didn’t want the ring to be noticed.”

Severus, for once, appeared on the back-foot. His eyes narrowed to slits. “I wasn’t expecting you to reappear at Hogwarts until the New Year. It therefore seemed safe to do so.”

Contessa noticed he had evaded her question. Perhaps if Severus’s ring were still on his finger she might be able hear his thoughts. She wondered dimly if Severus’s skill in Occlumency would prevent her from hearing his private thoughts, should he choose to block her. “That doesn’t explain why you were wearing it,” she said slyly.

“Nor have you explained your unexpected presence at Hogwarts today,” he replied sleekly.

A sudden wave of relief crashed over Contessa; she was eternally grateful that Severus was no longer wearing his ring.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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