Chapter 10: The Dark Lord’s Mark~~~
‘Was it wise to come here, Severus? You are not headmaster yet.’
Snape glared up at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore.
‘Would you like me to leave again?’ he snapped. ‘Believe me, I am taking no pleasure whatsoever in being here.’
‘Now, now, Severus. Have a seat,’ Dumbledore suggested, pointing towards his old chair.
Snape straightened up. He would not sit down at Dumbledore’s desk. Not today, not the day he was appointed Headmaster of Hogwarts. This would never be his chair. He would never have neither the right nor the desire to sit in it. And so he remained standing, his arms crossed in front of his chest.
‘Why did you come then, Severus?’ Dumbledore asked in the end, peering down at Snape over the top of his glasses.
‘I have been ordered to keep my ears open concerning Potter. It seems the Dark Lord has learned about the protection that has been cast upon Privet Drive.’
‘So he wants to know when Harry will leave his home, when he will be vulnerable,’ Dumbledore concluded. ‘Does Tom know the protection will cease once the boy turns seventeen?’
‘I do not know. The Dark Lord has not spoken to me directly today. He was… otherwise engaged.’
He broke off and frowned, lifting up the copy of the Daily Prophet he had brought with him.
‘He has freed his servants,’ he informed Dumbledore. ‘Lucius Malfoy, the Lestrange brothers, all the Death Eaters that were been imprisoned after the debacle at the Ministry. Yet there is not a word about it in the paper, and no one talked about it at the Three Broomsticks.’
‘You’ve been at the Three Broomsticks as well? Dear Severus, I know you are skilled at the arts of disguise, but venturing into one of the most frequented Wizarding pubs in Britain…’
‘There is no better place to obtain current information,’ Snape interrupted. ‘Also, listening to Hagrid and Filch lamenting how empty Hogwarts is during the summer holidays and then seeing Rosmerta serve them a bottle of Firewhisky with their lunch ensured me that my passage through the grounds and castle would be undisturbed.’
‘Clever. Very clever,’ Dumbledore commented. ‘You would have done well in Ravenclaw, dear Severus. But then again, you would have done well in Gryffindor as well. As for Hufflepuff…’
‘May we postpone this discussion and return to more urgent matters?’ Snape suggested, his patience running thin. ‘A dozen Death Eaters have escaped from Azkaban, and no one seems to know about it. If the Dark Lord has gained enough influence within the Ministry to hush up a mass break-out, it is safe to assume that he will very soon have enough control to observe any Apparition or Floo activity from Privet Drive.’
‘The Order will escort Harry to a safe house before the end of the month. You know that, Severus. This was decided months ago.’
‘The Death Eaters will be waiting for him,’ Snape pointed out. ‘Probably even the Dark Lord himself. Potter will be an easy target.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘Potter needs to be disguised. If we succeed in confusing the Dark Lord long enough, the boy might just make it out of harm’s way.’
‘I will leave this to you, Severus,’ he said gravely. ‘You are, as we have established, a clever man. And I trust you.’
Snape clenched his jaw. Dumbledore trusting him was one thing. In the eyes of the Order, however, he was a traitor. He would not be able to just march into Grimmauld Place and suggest a change of plans. He’d have to be cunning, very cunning. Almost as cunning as he would have to be to lure the Dark Lord onto following a false trace.
His mind was racing when he made his way down the stairs from the headmaster’s office to his old study in the dungeons where he was planning to fill his pockets with some well selected phials. There was a war ahead, a war in which he was standing with a foot set firmly in each camp. There would be curses fired at him from both sides, and Snape didn’t expect to make it out of it unscathed. He knew that there was more than just one witch or wizard who wished to see him dead. When given the chance, they would attempt to kill him. Sooner or later, one of them would most probably succeed. Snape didn’t mind dying, but he had a task to fulfil, a task that would enable Potter to save the Wizarding world.
Thoughtfully, Snape looked around his storage room. He had anticipated that he would not be able to brew potions on a regular basis once he had killed Dumbledore and had therefore experimented all year, figuring out how to make the life of potions last longer. Most were perishables. Some lost their strength when they were stored, others even turned foul and dangerous after only a few weeks. But as Snape now picked up one phial after the other, muttering spells that would reveal the potions’ qualities, he realised that he had been successful with most.
He considered using a bag, but quickly decided against it. He wouldn’t be able to carry a bag around for the rest of his life. He would bring only the most important potions, and they would have to fit in his pockets: Essence of Dittany, Blood-Replenishing Potion, a couple of well-selected antidotes, Polyjuice Potion,…
Snape’s eyes widened as his hand closed around that particular brew. But of course! If there were several Potters leaving Privet Drive at the same time, the Dark Lord wouldn’t know which one to go after. And if all effort were put into keeping the real Potter as inconspicuous as possible, the boy might just get a head start that could save his life. Yes! That was it!
Almost triumphantly, Snape held the Polyjuice Potion aloft as he stepped out of the storage room and into his study. Certainly, the Order would see the brilliancy of his plan. Now there only remained the question of how he could convey it to someone. His first thought was to use Hagrid, to whisper the idea into the gamekeeper’s ear while he slept. But the blundering oaf might forget half of it on his way to Grimmauld Place. Also the other members might grow suspicious when such a brilliant idea came from Hagrid of all people. No, he needed to approach someone else, Snape concluded, someone who wasn’t necessarily known for their brains but for their slyness. Someone who was often on their own, hanging about dark alleys and shady pubs. Mad-Eye would be a suitable candidate, Snape pondered. He was also mad enough to come up with an idea like this, and the other Order members trusted him. But how he would be able to get close enough to Moody, Snape couldn’t figure out, and as his eyes were drawn to the painting that resided on top of the mantle in his study, he no longer cared about any member of the Order of the Phoenix. For within the wooden frame, a little flame had sprung to life, and behind it, Snape could see nothing but shadows.
Snape was quite out of breath. He had – as usual – Apparated to the edge of the forest and then hastened towards the Muggle village. But despite him being in good shape, the run had been a struggle. There was a cold wind blowing from the lake, carrying heavy rain that had turned into a hail storm by the time Snape reached the first of the houses. The street lights were out, and he could see candles flickering in some of the windows that he passed. Most probably – hopefully – the storm had damaged a power line somewhere which in its turn had led to a blackout. May that be the reason, Snape prayed. A force of nature, not dark magic. May it be so!
He felt panic rise in his chest as he tried the door of the pub and found it locked. It never occurred to him that Edmunds might have closed his establishment when the power failed, and when he unlocked the door and pushed it open, he was prepared to step into a pool of blood, to see both Hope and the landlord sprawled on the floor, their bodies broken and mangled. But the pub looked just like it always did when it was closed. The chairs had been put up and there was a broom leaning against the wall. The only thing that was a bit off were two empty wine glasses still standing on the counter. Snape remembered vaguely that Hope had placed them there the night before, saying that she would take care of them in the morning. Why were they still there? What had kept her from carrying them to the sink?
Out of sheer habit, Snape drew is wand but lowered it again almost immediately, shaking his head at himself. He was quite certain that he would not need his wand, that nothing he’d encounter in the house would justify the use of magic. For surely, if any dark witch or wizard had entered, if the Dark Lord had hunted down the one that had slipped through his fingers, he would sense it, Snape told himself. He would know. He just would.
He crept up the stairs as silently as possible yet still thought that every single one of his footsteps echoed through the silent house like thunder. Surely, the sound would awaken even the dead. But as he reached the door to the sitting room which was bathing in the faint light of a handful of candles, landlord Edmunds looked quite startled as he shot out from his chair. Obviously, he had not heard Snape coming up the stairs.
‘Thank goodness you’re back!’
‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
‘Hope,’ Edmunds replied, letting himself fall back into his armchair. ‘She’s not having a good day today, not at all.’
He rubbed his neck, looking both tired and worried, and Snape decided to just let the landlord talk.
‘I haven’t seen her like this in years. It’s almost like... like when she first came here. I wanted to drive her to the hospital, but she refused, and I know better than to force her. She’s been hiding in her room all day.’
He stopped mid-sentence and buried his face in his hands, stifling a sob as he did so, and Snape was torn between wanting to hear more and rushing into Hope’s room in order to… Well, to do what, exactly? He didn’t even understand what was going on.
‘She was fine this morning when I left,’ Edmunds continued after a while. ‘Good Lord, she has been doing well for so long! But today she… Have you two argued?’
Snape stood as if dumbstruck, unable to understand what Edmunds was getting at. Why would the landlord think that he and Hope have argued?
‘I’m sorry,’ Edmunds said, apologetically raising his hands. ‘It’s just… She was fine when I left, and when I came home… I caught a glimpse of you heading towards the forest, found a broken plate on the kitchen floor and her apron carelessly thrown onto the counter. I knew something was wrong, felt it in my guts. I found her in her room, standing by the window, staring out at... at nothing at all.’
He broke off, and his eye searched Snape’s face.
‘She hasn’t told you, has she? About... about how she was when... back then, when she first came here, about her time at the hospital?’
Snape shook his head. Hope had never said a word, and he had never asked. Dumbledore had said that she had been in bad shape after she had lost her little boy, and Snape had simply assumed that Dumbledore had wanted to make sure that someone else looked after her while she had been too sad and too tired to do so herself. But now it seemed as if there was more.
‘She was very withdrawn,’ Edmunds went on. ‘She didn’t talk to anyone, barely made eye contact, flinched at the tiniest sound. Elisabeth said she didn’t sleep at all when she first came to the hospital and refused to take any medicine that would help her. When she came here... She would stand by the window night after night, looking out, keeping watch.’
‘Keeping watch for what?’ Snape wondered.
‘I don’t know,’ Edmunds said and sighed. ‘I never understood, and she never talked to me about it. Elisabeth would sit with her for hours, and every now and then she managed to persuade her to go to sleep. It got better with time. Sure, Hope had a relapse every now and then, especially after Elisabeth’s death, but never like this, never that bad. She isn’t approachable at. I don’t understand!’
He wrung his hands and looked imploringly at Snape.
‘She won’t talk to me, and I fear I wouldn’t be able to understand even if she did. But you, you understand, just like Elisabeth did. I know you do. Please, I’m begging you! Talk to her. Listen to her.’
He nodded into the direction of Hope’s room, and Snape swallowed. He had gone to Hope before. She had opened up to him then and he had listened, but tonight he didn’t feel confident that she’d talk to him at all. In fact, he feared that her current state had something to do with his sudden disappearance earlier that day.
‘Please,’ Edmunds pleaded once more. ‘I’m scared for her.’
So am I, Snape thought, and as he walked towards Hope’s door a few moments later, his heart was racing faster than it had been when he had walked towards Malfoy Manor earlier in the day. Once more, he had no idea what he was about to encounter. Once more, he had no idea what was expected of him.
He decided against knocking and simply pushed open the door. He was met by semidarkness and cold air, the sound of rain and hail smattering onto the windowsill and the wind tearing at the curtains. Hope was standing by the open window with her left hand holding on to the wooden frame. Her knuckles were pure white.
Snape carefully closed the door behind him and quietly spoke Hope’s name, but she didn’t seem to hear him. She did not even react to his presence as he crossed the room and positioned himself beside her. Instead she kept staring out of the window, out into the stormy night.
‘What is it you see?’ Snape asked, following her gaze but seeing nothing else than the waves of the lake smashing against the shore and the branches of the trees whipping back and forth in the wind. But Hope appeared to see more, for her eyes seemed to be following something, and her quick breathing suggested that she was terrified by what she saw.
‘You will catch a cold if you keep standing here,’ Snape pointed out, acutely aware that the cold wind and the rain were minor problems that evening, but he didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t see what Hope saw, couldn’t understand what scared her.
‘Come now,’ he urged her. ‘Let us close the window, shall we?’
He reached out for her left hand in order to pull it away from the window frame, but the moment he touched her, Hope shrunk away, hugging her hand to her chest. She was backing away until she walked into the wall, her face white and her eyes filled with terror.
‘Easy now,’ Snape tried to calm her. ‘It’s I, Severus.’
He slowly closed the window, never letting Hope out of his sight, and she stared back at him, trembling. It almost seemed as if she were now afraid of him.
‘Easy now,’ Snape repeated, keeping his voice low. ‘It’s alright. There is nothing to be afraid of.’
Hope winced as he reached out for her, raising her right arm above her head as if she were to shield herself against a blow. Snape heard her whimper, and for a moment, he considered leaving. His presence was obviously doing more harm than good. But what would happen with Hope if he left?
Slowly, he walked towards her, talking reassuringly as he did so, repeating that it was only him and that there was nothing to fear. Hope didn’t withdraw as he carefully pulled her arm away from her face, and as he laid his free hand onto her shoulder, she slumped against him, seemingly unable to keep standing any longer.
‘It’s alright. It’s alright,’ he whispered as he wrapped his arms around her. She was shaking like a leaf, and Snape could feel her heart hammering against his chest. She wasn’t crying, but every now and then, a heart-breaking whimper escaped her lips that made Snape hold her even tighter. She felt tiny in his arms, helpless like a baby bird, and he felt equally helpless, not knowing what to say or do.
‘I think you should sit down,’ he suggested in the end, and as Hope didn’t protest, he guided her towards the bed, kneeling down in front of her. He didn’t want to let go of her, fearing that she would collapse, so he slowly let his hands glide down her arms. As he took hold of her hands, Hope once more winced, and Snape noticed that her left hand was hot and swollen.
‘Did you hurt your hand?’ he asked softly, thinking that she might have cut herself on the broken plate down in the kitchen. But as he took her hand in his, pushing back her sleeve to get a better look, Snape’s eyes widened in terror.
‘Sweet Merlin!’ he exclaimed. ‘What did you do to yourself?’
Even in the dim light that was coming from the candle on the nightstand, Snape could see the thin, red line that was running the whole way around Hope’s wrist. It was bleeding slightly, and spreading from it was an ugly, bluish discolouration.
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Hope said quietly, rubbing her eyes with her right hand while her left lay limp in her lap. ‘He did.’
‘He? Who are you talking about? Who did…’
Snape’s mouth fell open, and in front of his inner eye, he saw a delicate silver bracelet wrapped around Nadezhda McKibben’s left wrist, a silver snake sinking its fangs into the girl’s flesh, poisoning her and marking her forever as the Dark Lord’s property.
‘I thought it would heal,’ he brought forth, once more taking her hand into his, holding it as gingerly as if it were made out of glass.
‘It did,’ Hope confirmed, her voice feeble but steady. ‘For years it was nothing but an ugly scar, a reminder of a night I so desperately needed to forget. Then one summer night, it started to bleed. I was terrified, and Edmunds wanted to drive me to the emergency room, thinking I had hurt myself. But I didn’t let him. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I knew there was no point.’
‘When was that?’ Snape enquired, trying to keep his voice calm so it would not betray the terror that was raging inside him.
‘Two years ago,’ Hope answered quietly.
Snape swallowed drily. He knew exactly on what summer night Hope’s scar had started to bleed. It had been the same night that a searing pain in his left forearm had brought him to his knees. It had been the night of the third task of the Triwizard Tournament, the night when the Dark Lord had returned and summoned his followers.
‘Is it… always the same?’ he asked, gently running his fingers over the swelling, carefully avoiding the wound itself.
Hope shook her head.
‘Most of the time it simply looks like a stubborn cut that refuses to heal properly. There’s scabbing, sometimes even new tissue. But every now and then, it bursts open, bleeding for a while before it starts festering. Like today.’
‘So that is how you knew,’ Snape concluded, his eyes still on the wound. ‘This is why you knew that I was being summoned this morning. You felt it, too.’
Hope inhaled sharply.
‘Promise me that he can’t find me. Promise me that he doesn’t know where I am.’
There was a note of desperation in her voice, a note of fear and terror, and as Snape looked up at Hope, he saw the same dread reflect in her eyes.
‘I can’t promise you that,’ he answered honestly, ignoring the tears that fell from Hope’s green eyes and dripped onto their joined hands. ‘But I will do my very best to keep you safe.’