Chapter 6: Sectumsempra
‘How could this have happened, Severus?’
There was not the faintest tone of accusation in Narcissa’s voice. Instead it was feeble, barely more than a whisper, the voice of a desperate woman who feared that the last thing she held dear, her beloved son, was slipping away from her.
‘Draco will be fine,’ Snape tried to calm her. ‘There will barely be any scarring. Madam Pomfrey was quick to apply dittany.’
‘It’s Professor Snape who saved your son, Madam Malfoy,’ the matron pointed out. ‘Had he not known the counter-curse…’
She fell quiet as Narcissa once more pressed her hand to her mouth as if to suppress a sob, and Snape turned towards the window, sneering. If any of the two women knew that he was not only acquainted with the counter-curse but had been the one to invent the actual curse that had almost cost Draco his life, they would be much less grateful.
‘Your son is in good hands, Narcissa,’ he said, his face still turned away. ‘Go home. Rest. Madam Pomfrey will contact you as soon as Draco wakes up.’
‘Of course, I will. Right away, Madam Malfoy,’ the matron promised, and in the end, Narcissa was persuaded to return to her manor. But it was not for her sake that Snape had sent her home. He was well aware that she would not find any rest but hover in front of the fireplace, waiting for the flames to turn green. But he did not want her at Hogwarts. If she stayed by her son’s side, she’d expect Snape to keep her company. She’d want him to be there, to reassure her that no more harm would come to her precious boy. But Snape did not think himself to be in a position where he could give comfort or make promises. After all, this incident was partly his fault. If he hadn’t invented that blasted curse…
Snape shuddered. He had been proud of this curse once, had thought it would give him power and that it would even bring him glory. Of course, it had done neither, and by the time he had understood what kind of evil he had created, he had sunken too deep into the darkness to care. It had not been until later, many years later, that he had worked out the counter-curse. He had wanted to create something pure and bright in order to redeem himself, but by this time, his soul had been beyond salvation.
‘I will send up an elf with another phial of Essence of Dittany,’ he promised the matron before he turned to head towards the door.
‘Do you want me to inform you when Mr Malfoy regains consciousness?’ Madam Pomfrey asked.
‘There will be no need for that,’ Snape replied. ‘I am confident that you will do everything that needs to be done.’
It was not that he didn’t care about Draco. He had known the boy since the day he had been born and had always hoped that he would listen more to his mother than his father when it came to political beliefs. He cared deeply for Draco, and it had been a hard blow when Snape had learnt that the Dark Lord had chosen the boy to pay for his father’s shortcomings. Of course, Snape would do anything in his power to keep Draco from harm. He would have done so even without the Unbreakable Vow. But tonight, he did not have the peace of mind to stay by the boy’s side. He needed to get away, far away, to a place that had never seen magic, neither dark nor white. A place where old sins did not matter and sorrows could be drowned in a glass of Scotch or two.
The pub was quiet, as it so often was in the middle of the week. Edmunds sat with the three fishermen at their usual table, discussing politics and playing cards. An elderly man sat by the window, slurping his soup, and Hope stood behind the bar, sorting out chipped glasses and giving Snape a puzzled look as he sat down opposite her.
‘It’s not Sunday yet, is it?’ she asked jokingly and reached for a beer glass, thinking her dark-clad patron would want a pint. But the look in his eyes and the growl in his voice made her pull back her hand.
‘Scotch,’ Snape ordered unceremoniously. He didn’t say please, and he didn’t say thank you, and it wasn’t until he had drained the glass that he glanced at Hope, who was looking quite concerned.
‘I’d offer you a refill,’ she said, ‘but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ Snape snapped, holding out his glass, regretting his harsh tone already when Hope picked up the bottle to pour him another drink.
‘I apologise,’ he said, his voice considerably softer. Of all the people in the world, Hope was the last one he had meant to snap at. In fact, he had hoped that his mood would lighten up in her presence.
‘No need to apologise,’ she replied. ‘I’ve heard worse in here.’
She filled up his glass once more, tilting her head as she did so, her green eyes fixed upon her former Head of House.
‘Drink it slowly,’ she advised. ‘It might do you good after all.’
‘Will you keep me company?’ Snape asked.
‘Soon,’ Hope promised. ‘I’ll just…’
She nodded towards her patrons. The fishermen were about to leave and so was the elderly man. There were empty glasses to be collected and friendly words to be spoken to ensure the men would return another night. Hope would have to wipe the tables and mop the floor, and Snape reminded himself that he was but another lonely soul frequenting this pub. Hope could not just drop everything for him. But still he followed her with his eyes, hoping she would look at him once or twice and that she would soon return to the bar. But instead, it was landlord Edmunds who settled beside him.
‘Fancy seeing you here in the middle of the week. Life being rough on you then?’ he inquired, pointing at the glass Snape was holding.
‘On me and everyone else,’ the dark wizard replied.
‘Oh, I don’t know about that. Spring’s well under way, flowers are blooming. And some people are blossoming as well.’
He turned his head to tentatively look over his shoulder, leading Snape’s gaze towards once more.
‘I haven’t seen her this balanced in years,’ Edmunds explained.
Then he turned to look at Snape again.
Snape raised an eyebrow.
‘I hardly think there is anything you need to thank me for.’
‘Codswallop!’ Edmunds interrupted him. ‘I have seen the way Hope looks at you. If I didn’t know her so well, I’d say she has a crush on you.’
Snape’s left eyebrow joined his right, and Edmunds grinned.
‘If I didn’t know her so well,’ he repeated. ‘Hope isn’t the kind of girl who develops a crush. But I can tell that she likes you. I know she counts the days until Sunday comes around and that she takes extra care with filling your lunch plate. And I know that talking to you is good for her. My bedroom is next to hers, you know. I haven’t heard her crying at night for weeks now.’
Snape swallowed. He knew that Hope was doing much better. She still lit her candle when she retired to her room at night and stood by the window, sometimes only for a couple of minutes and sometimes for several hours, but she would go to bed eventually, and when she did, she frequently extinguished the candle nowadays. She wouldn’t do that if she were still afraid of the shadows of the night, Snape was quite certain of that, and he had been very pleased with this development. He had, however, not spent a single thought on the fact that he might be the reason for Hope feeling safer nowadays. Edmunds pointing it out so bluntly now almost made him blush. Almost. He was, after all, Severus Snape.
‘Hope, love, do lock up,’ Edmunds now called towards his foster daughter. ‘I doubt we’ll be getting any more patrons tonight.’
‘I shall be going then,’ Snape said, but Edmunds shook his head.
‘You’re not moving a muscle,’ he commanded. ‘Talking to you is good for Hope. But judging by you showing up here in the middle of the week and downing a glass of Scotch without even wincing, I think it’s you who needs to talk tonight. She’ll listen, trust me. She’ll listen gladly.’
He went over to Hope to bid her good night and asked her to count up the till, and Snape stayed seated at the bar, feeling slightly uneasy. What if Hope really was infatuated with him? She was dear to him, very dear, but romantic feelings were far from his mind. How could he let her know without destroying the trust they had built over the last couple of months, the friendship that was blossoming between them? But to his utter relief, Hope had more practical things on her mind when she returned to the bar.
‘I haven’t eaten anything all day. I think I need a sandwich. Can I interest you in one as well?’
‘Are you afraid that I will drink myself into a stupor?’ Snape asked, lifting up his second glass of Scotch which he – so far – had not touched.
Hope smiled shyly.
‘I think I could handle you even if you were drunk,’ she pointed out. ‘I’ve worked here for quite some time, you know. Would roast beef be alright with you?’
‘I’ll be right back then.’
Once more, Snape followed her with his eyes as she headed towards the kitchen and found it hard to tear his eyes away from the door after it had fallen shut behind her. His head was buzzing with thoughts, thoughts about Draco and Narcissa, Dumbledore and the Dark Lord, Hope and Nadezhda, curses, charms, friendship, love, and many, many other things, and he found himself unable to focus on any of them. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, trying to concentrate and failing miserably, and by the time Hope returned, he had pushed his whisky as far away from him as possible.
‘You look horrible,’ Hope pointed out, once more looking at him with concern. ‘Are you alright?’
‘It has been a rough day,’ he simply replied, and Hope didn’t dig around for more. She never did, and neither did Snape. Ever since the fateful Sunday when Albus Dumbledore had appeared out of the mists, they were strictly keeping to the deal they had agreed on earlier that year: none of them asked any questions, and the world beyond the pub’s walls did not exist.
‘How about we have a seat over there?’ Hope suggested. ‘In your booth? Much more comfortable, don’t you think?’
Snape couldn’t help but agree, and Hope sent him ahead, giving him time to take off his coat and stretch out his legs before she joined him, carrying a tray with sandwiches and two cups of tea.
‘I figured you didn’t want your Scotch anymore.’
She sat down opposite him and produced a box of matches from her apron, lit the tea lights in the table and prompted Snape to eat. But when he brought the sandwich to his mouth, she gasped.
‘Is that blood on your hand?’ she asked.
Slowly, Snape put down his sandwich and examined the back of his left hand in the faint candle light. There were indeed a couple of crimson stains, clashing violently against his pale skin.
‘Not yours, I hope.’
Snape shook his head.
‘No. Draco’s, Draco Malfoy’s,’ he said slowly, wondering if he had made a mistake by mentioning the boy’s name before the last syllable had left his lips. But Hope didn’t flinch, and so he carried on.
‘One of his peers cast a dark curse on him.’
‘Is he alright?’ Hope demanded to know.
‘He will be,’ Snape replied, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his hand with a paper napkin in order to get the blood off.
‘He was lucky,’ he continued. ‘If I had arrived only minutes later, he would have bled to death. Now there might not even be any scarring.’
‘What will happen to the other student?’ Hope inquired.
‘He will serve detention with me every Saturday until the end of term.’
‘Make sure he never uses a dark curse again. Do whatever it takes, I’m begging you.’
Surprised at the pleading tone in her voice, Snape looked up, finding Hope with her fingers tightly wrapped around her tea cup. She had lowered her head, and her hair was obscuring her face.
‘Dark curses rip one’s soul apart, and the scars never heal,’ he heard her whisper. ‘You know that. And I know it too.’
Snape frowned. As far as he knew, the woman in front of him had never cast a dark spell. He had told her not to, and she had done everything in her power to obey him. But when Hope finally looked up at him, he could see in her eyes that she knew what she was talking about. She knew the same pain and guilt Snape himself met in the mirror every time he looked into it. She had not only seen the Dark but created it herself.
‘I assume you have talked to Dumbledore since he… since he visited,’ Hope wondered, and Snape nodded silently.
‘Has he told you how Elisabeth Edmunds died?’
To this question, Snape shook his head, and Hope took a deep breath.
‘According to the police, Elisabeth was on her way home from the hospital one night when she was attacked by two men. Men from the village. She knew them, so that’s probably why she didn’t run. They pulled a knife and demanded her purse. If she wasn’t quick enough or if they were disappointed with their bounty, no one knows, but one of them rammed the knife into her stomach. Then they turned on each other, they argued, one slit the other’s throat and ran off. The police never found him, and Elisabeth bled to death right there on the pavement.’
‘I am sorry,’ Snape offered his condolences, not knowing what else to say. But to his surprise, Hope wasn’t done with her story.
‘According to the police,’ she repeated. ‘The Muggle police. You see, they didn’t get everything right. Elisabeth was not alone that night, her attackers did not turn on each other, and the one who survived was found, curled up at the nearest street corner, babbling about the horrible things he had seen.’
Hope paused, picking up her cup to drink, but her hands were shaking, and the tea spilled onto the table. Snape dried it up with his napkin and braced himself for a tale he was not sure he wanted to hear.
‘I picked up Elisabeth at the hospital that night,’ Hope continued, drying her hands at her apron. ‘I did that quite often. It was back then when I couldn’t sleep, so I went to pick her up after her nightshift quite frequently. I liked walking with her. She was kind to me. And the two men… We did know them. One of them lived down the street and often came to the pub. His name was Robert, I think. They walked with us for a bit, chatted, wondered if the pub was still open and if they could get a drink. Then all of a sudden, Robert pulled a knife and asked for money. They hadn’t planned to this, I’m quite sure, because his companion asked him what the hell he was doing. But he was persistent, and Elisabeth handed over her purse, her watch, even her wedding ring. Why he stabbed her, I don’t know. He probably didn’t either. I remember he looked shocked, terrified. His companion started to panic, called him a murderer, said they’d go to jail… And then they figured they needed to get rid of me, the only witness.’
Once again, Hope paused. Her hands now lay on the table, quite still, and her eyes were fixed on the tips of her fingers.
‘I don’t know how I did it,’ she went on, her voice quiet but steady. ‘I didn’t know I could do it. But when Robert came closer, when he drew his knife… All I did was raise my hands. A red line appeared on his neck. He fell to his knees, wheezing and spluttering… I killed him. I killed him with magic, without even a wand.’
‘This isn’t unheard of,’ Snape pointed out, trying to keep a professional tone in his voice. ‘Most witches and wizards are able to perform wandless magic when they are in danger. It is a natural reaction, an instinct. We have the means to save our lives, and we use it if the need arises.’
‘Of all the spells I could have used… Of all the spells I knew, I chose a dark one. I did not save one single life. I took one.’
She spoke so quietly that Snape could barely make out her words, and when she gazed up at him, he didn’t need to see tears in her eyes to imagine how many nights she had spent crying. For Elisabeth, for Robert, for her very soul. And he understood now why she had been pleading for him to make sure that Draco’s attacker would never use a dark spell again. She knew how it felt to kill. She knew how it felt to have one’s soul ripped apart.
‘Hope, please,’ he started carefully. ‘You cannot blame yourself for this. You mustn’t. You were scared. You feared for your life. There was no time to think…’
‘I’ve been trying to convince myself of my innocence for thirteen years,’ Hope interrupted him, sadly shaking her head. ‘I haven’t succeeded yet. And no matter what you say now, the facts remain. I killed a man using a dark spell. All I can do is try to make amends and console the man who lost his wife that night, the wife I did not save.’
‘So that is what you meant when you said that you needed to do something good in this world?’ he asked.
Hope nodded, and Snape sighed. He knew that there was nothing he could say to convince Hope that she didn’t owe Edmunds anything, that she didn’t owe herself anything. She would not listen. She would not allow herself to.
‘How did you get away with this? Weren’t the Aurors alerted by your use of magic?’ he asked instead, partly because he was genuinely curious and partly because he desperately wanted to steer their conversation away from guilt and self-blame.
‘I ran,’ Hope told him. ‘At least I think I did. I could just as well have Disapparated. Nothing about that night would surprise me. I was far gone by the time the Aurors arrived. They found two corpses, one of them carrying evidence that magic had been used. But they had no means of tracing it. At one point they even considered that Elisabeth somehow managed to cast a spell. Quite ridiculous, really. She was Squib, after all. But then they found Robert’s companion, and he told them that there had been another woman, one that cut his friend’s throat without even being close to him.’
‘How can you know about this?’ Snape asked, bewildered.
Of course, Snape thought. If he were honest with himself, he’d admit that he was not even surprised.
‘He came back here that Sunday evening,’ Hope explained. ‘You had been gone for hours, but I had not yet left my room. I had lost track of time, and when there a knock on my door, I thought… I kind of hoped that you had come back. Had I known that it was Dumbledore knocking, I might not have opened up. But I did, and once the door was open, I couldn’t just slam it in his face.’
Wouldn’t have done any harm, Snape thought to himself. Maybe it would have taught the old meddler to keep his nose out of other people’s business. But Dumbledore’s behaviour was not important for the time being, and so Snape held his peace.
‘The Aurors who found Robert and Elisabeth had no leads to go on, and arranging the crime scene so the Muggle police would draw the right conclusions was their first priority. They made sure that there were two sets of fingerprints on the knife and threw it in a nearby litterbin. Then they took care of Robert’s friend, erased his memory and sent him somewhere else to live. It wasn’t until the next day that they handed in their report, and luckily, the only one who read it was a friend of Dumbledore’s, the same Auror that had brought me to the hospital some years earlier. He knew me, he knew Elisabeth, and he knew Dumbledore’s plan. He contacted him, and together they decided to hush everything up. So this unexplained piece of magic was never investigated. Once more, Dumbledore enabled me to stay hidden.’
She picked up her cup with a now steady hand and brought it to her lips but then quickly put it down again, wrinkling her nose.
‘The tea turned cold the night Dumbledore visited as well,’ she mused. ‘He stayed for hours, telling me about all the things I couldn’t remember and those I had chosen to forget. He told me about Elisabeth and the way he kept an eye on me for all these years. He’s a clever man, Dumbledore. You know the painting up in my room, the one with the candle?’
‘It has a twin, in Dumbledore’s office. Whenever I light my candle, he can see it. Can you imagine how many nights he stayed up, watching over me?’
‘Albus Dumbledore is no saint,’ Snape pointed out, unable to restrain himself. ‘He does not do anything from the goodness of his heart. He always has an ulterior motive.’
‘Let him have as many as he wants,’ Hope replied calmly. ‘I don’t care. I really don’t. I am just immensely grateful that he gave me this opportunity. I need to be here. Here, in this pub, under Edmunds’ roof. For his sake and my own.’
Slowly, Snape nodded. He understood. He truly did. For he, too, was living his life only to redeem his sins. Nothing else mattered. Nothing at all. Or at least, nothing else had mattered for many years. He had done what he had sworn to do. He had stayed alive in order to protect Lily’s son. But now there was someone else to protect: the dark-haired woman who was sitting opposite him, the woman with those cold green eyes. Dumbledore had done a fine job so far, but the old man knew that his time had come and that he would not be able to safeguard his former student for much longer. Thus, he had given the task to Snape, who had gladly accepted it, not because he had to or felt obligated but because he wanted to. Hope deserved having someone watching over her. But Snape knew that with Dumbledore’s death, his life would change too. How he would manage to look after Hope then, he had no idea.