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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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Chapter Sixty-Eight

Love and Loss

Outside the Shrieking Shack, Tess realised she could not Disapparate; Hogsmeade and its surrounding areas had been charmed to prevent escape.

She staggered through the gate and, guided by the distant lights of Hogwarts, attempted to fly. However, all she managed to do was trip and stumble in the dark woods. Her hope drained away; the combination of emotions required for the spell was beyond her reach now.

Hogsmeade village was deserted, not a single shopkeeper or homeowner remained. Tess looked down the hill towards the school and saw the distant flicker of wand-light as the population descended through the trees in the direction of Hogwarts. With no one to help her, no broomstick to fly and no means of transportation, Tess had no choice but to trek down the steep path alone.

The cold stone which had replaced her heart drummed nauseously, and her chest began to burn. The night air penetrated her clothing, making her shiver.

The pre-dawn sky was tinted indigo, and stars were blotting out one by one as the sun made its steady journey towards the horizon. Through the clouds scattered overhead, Tess could make out the morning star, Venus, shining like a talisman, leading her onward.

Sometime later, ahead in the distance, the sounds of battle raged once more when the crowd from Hogsmeade penetrated the perimeter wall. Spells flickered, red, green and blue, lighting up the grounds like a swarm of fireflies. Dark shapes in the castle grounds suggested the Dark Lord’s giants had added their strength to the fight, and Tess caught a horrific glimpse of an Acromantula scuttling out from the Forbidden Forest.

Despondency engulfed her as she realised she might be too late. Her desire to take out a Death Eater or two diminished, and the strength in her muscles began to fail. It was all so very hopeless.

Exhausted and overwrought, Tess eventually passed through the castle gates and climbed up the gravel path. By the time she had reached Hogwarts, the grounds were deserted; the battle had been taken inside and, when she stepped cautiously through the cloisters of the courtyard, a hush had fallen.

As she ascended the steps to the entrance hall, the sun rose on the horizon, casting a stream of pink light from the East, flooding through the stained-glass windows of the Great Hall.

An almighty cheer broke the silence, and screams and roars of hundreds of people rent the air. The exultant jubilation stopped Tess in her tracks. A knot, which she hadn’t noticed until now, loosened itself in her stomach, and she knew, unequivocally, that Voldemort was dead.

Soon after, a Death Eater limped out of the Great Hall unnoticed by the joyous masses. Tess waited for him in the shadows of the antechamber and saw the man was Robert Selwyn’s father. Perhaps she had arrived in time to do some good.

Before the Dark wizard knew whom or what had hit him, Tess’s Stunning Spell rammed him against the wall. His head cracked on sandstone, and he slumped onto the floor with a groan.

Tess dragged her tired and sore feet towards the unconscious man, surveying him with contempt. She kicked him hard in the stomach.

“That’s for Robert,” she whispered.

Tess felt a hand on her shoulder. She jumped, and turned to see Aurora Sinistra appraising her with concern.

“Did you find Severus?”

Tess nodded.

The expression of hope on Aurora’s face caused fresh tears to leak down Tess’s own.

“I was too late.” Tess almost choked on the words. Her vision blurred, and the lump in her throat swelled like a balloon.

The next thing she knew, Aurora’s arms were around her.

Tess crumpled as she fell into her embrace, sobbing and wailing as the pain of grief overwhelmed her.

“Come on, Tess, we need to get you out of these clothes,” Aurora was saying.

Tess seemed to be void of any feeling as she looked down at her heavily-bloodstained robes. Numbness had taken over in the hours since Severus’s death. She was in the Great Hall, surrounded by a mixture of the bereaved and the survivors, who were celebrating and commiserating.

She was aware she hadn’t spoken since being found in the entrance hall, even though Aurora hadn’t left her side. Tess’s reactions were slow, and she looked at Aurora, bemused.

“You’re frightening some of the younger students,” Aurora explained.

Tess looked down at her garments, soaked in Severus’s crimson life-force. Blood had dried on her hands, and now that she thought about it, she could feel the same sensation cracking around her face. She lifted her head to see the gazes of several students flicker away.

She felt nothing, only emptiness. If she were to put her feet on the floor, she felt certain that a chasm would open up and swallow the remnants of her soul, and part of her wanted to sink down into it to escape from the pain.

“Madam Marchbanks,” came a woman’s tentative voice from behind her.

Tess turned to see a sandy-haired, middle-aged woman with her arm around Robert Selwyn. The woman offered Tess her free hand.

Tess shook it automatically.

“I believe you apprehended my husband?” she asked. “Robert’s father?” she added.

Tess cleared her throat, uncertain she could even speak. Up until now, she’d had no words.

“Yes,” Tess managed.

The woman smiled. “I’m Anna Selwyn. Thank you for all you’ve done for Robert.”

Tess nodded once and moved to stand on her feet for the first time in hours. She staggered when her knees gave out. Instantaneously, Aurora was at her side, supporting her, and together they left the Great Hall for the sanctuary of the dungeons. Anna and Robert looked on in concern.

“How long have you known?” Tess asked as Aurora helped her into her quarters.

“That you loved Severus?” Aurora clarified. “Since the night he came looking for you on the Astronomy Tower.”

“How? I didn’t even know it myself back then...” There were so many things she hadn’t known until it was too late. “How did you know where to look?” Tess asked.

“Minerva asked me to keep an eye on you. She had... concerns... about your affiliations. Once she even suspected you were under the Imperius Curse.”

Tess exhaled mirthlessly at the irony.

“But I noticed something in Severus’s eyes that night, and the look on your face when he arrived on the Tower. It was plain to see. I knew then that you weren’t a danger to the Order, and I hoped that love might save Severus from a dark and miserable fate. I’ve watched his suffering for years. Little did I know he had once loved Lily Potter.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t turn me in.”

“Well, I suppose I’m an old romantic at heart, Tess. That, and I trusted Dumbledore. I had to believe he had good reason for bringing you to Hogwarts.” Aurora paused. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Aurora kissed Tess on the forehead. “Get changed and get some sleep. I’ll bring you some breakfast in a few hours’ time.”

Tess nodded, and Aurora left.

But Tess didn’t move, or bother to take off her clothes. She stood, contemplating Aurora’s reason for trusting her – Aurora had trusted Dumbledore’s judgement.

Had Dumbledore known Tess would fall in love with Severus?

Surely not. That would make no sense at all.

In fact, Dumbledore probably chose Tess because she had loathed Severus so, and thought the distraction of love would be an unlikely complication.

Tess’s curiosity piqued and she glanced at the Floo, thinking she might visit the Headmaster’s portrait after she’d had some sleep.

That was it.

The Headmaster’s portrait!

How had she not realised it sooner?

She threw Floo Powder into the fireplace and stepped upon it, knowing she would see Severus again, if only as a picture hanging on a wall.

Still wearing her blood-stained robes, Tess arrived in the Headmaster’s office and scanned the walls for the new portrait.

Slowly the headteachers awoke from their early-morning slumbers and watched Tess sympathetically. There was no sign of Minerva McGonagall having taken up residence, and no portrait of Severus to greet her.

“Where is he?” Tess’s voice sounded harsh in her ears. “Where’s Severus?”

Dumbledore strode wearily into his frame, having apparently been elsewhere. Tess met the wizard’s piercing blue eyes with a cold stare.

“Why is he not here?” she demanded.

Dumbledore, beneath his long white beard and half-moon spectacles, appeared somewhat embarrassed. “I’m afraid, Tess, that Severus’s removal from the Headmastership was tantamount to abandonment, and, ah, tradition states that ignoble departures do not earn one a portrait in this office. It was the same for Dolores Umbridge.”

“But that’s outrageous! Severus did everything possible to protect the students of Hogwarts and bring down the Dark Lord – he laid down his life for them!” Tess hissed with exasperation.

Dumbledore nodded understandingly, and lifted his upturned palms in apology.

Tess’s anger soon waned. Her last hope had dissolved. She would never see Severus again. She had truly lost him.

Forcefully, she wiped tears from her cheeks and dried her hands on her robes. It was only then that she noticed the disappearance of the bloodstain around the pocket in which she had stowed Severus’s Tiger’s Eye ring.

Tess studied the circular pattern of clean material around the pocket, and turned the ring over on her fingertips. The silver band gleamed, pristine.

She shuffled over to Magda McDougall’s portrait. The former Headmistress leaned forward to look at the ring in the palm of Tess’s hand.

“This ring has an affinity for blood – how is that possible?” Tess asked.

Magda pushed cascading brown ringlets away from her face and scratched her head. “Who knows what that ring has become whilst Severus has worn it. You’ve exposed it to so much magic, and the bond between you became so close, I doubt even the Ministry could categorise it.”

Tess stared at the silver ring she had taken from Severus’s body. Proportioned for his little finger, it was wider than the band she still wore. “It’s all I have of him now,” she murmured.

Without thinking, she placed the ring on her middle finger – the only one which would fit – and the metal cooled instantly against her skin.

The last thing Tess remembered was a flash of brilliant white light, and the sensation of her knees giving way as she fell to the floor.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 4]

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