Lord Voldemort was observing his prey sitting by the fire, casually stroking Nagini's scaly skin, his red eyes glowing with venom.
said a chilling, penetrating voice.
A dark cloaked figure lay on the hard stone floor contorted with pain. He tried not to scream, not to beg.
"Enough for the moment. Now," Riddle said slowly "it is time I get some answers."
Severus Snape was unable to stand. Peter Pettigrew smirked down at him. It felt good to see the pain in someone else's eyes.
Bellatrix was shouting at the top of her voice, "Master, my Lord. It is all HIS fault, HE let them escape! I killed two of them, Master, please do not harm me. He deserves the punishment. He's betrayed you, my Lord!"
"Bella, get up! I will decide that," commanded Voldemort.
"As you wish, Master," she accepted, and proceeded to kiss his robes. There was no sign of sarcasm in her voice this time. She was not so arrogant in front of the Dark Lord.
"Get out of my sight, you useless creature," Voldemort ordered her.
"But, my Lord, I killed that Muggle and the French girl, have mercy!"
"You killed a Muggle? An untrained, defenceless Muggle? What skill is in that? Am I supposed to be impressed?" Voldemort mocked. "I"ll tell you what, Bella, bring me your nephew and I may spare you."
"But, I don’t know where he is, I swear!"
"That isn’t my problem, Lestrange, I believe it's your problem" remarked Lord Voldemort leering at her. "And, now, Professor," he said mockingly, pausing to watch if true fear showed in Severus' eyes, "once again, you have failed to bring me Potter!"
"He wasn’t there, Master, most out of character," Snape replied still riddled with pain.
"But this was your idea, Snape. Your idea and again, you come back empty handed."
"He is too well protected, my Lord."
"Yes, by YOU!" yelled Bellatrix.
"This isn't the playground, Bella" said Voldermort "I, and only I, impart justice here!" "You two together will go and fetch me Draco and Narcissa. If he can be of any use to me at all, he can prove himself by killing his mother, to show that he is brave and at my command. If he can't, Severus, you will have to do a repeat of your previous performance; you will kill her yourself. As for the Malfoy boy, if he fails again, I will take care of him," concluded the Dark Lord.
"So," protested Ron, "my little sister is now in on this too, against Dumbledore's wishes!"
"It was your own stupidity that allowed this to happen!" snapped Ginny.
"We mustn't make mistakes like this again," said Harry looking towards Ron and Hermione with real concern. "It's nothing against you, Ginny, but it could have been found by someone else, anyone else..."
They all nodded in agreement.
Ginny was mesmerised and horrified at the same time by the story she'd just heard and kept asking questions, trying to piece together all the information.
"So, Tom already knows the diary was destroyed and possibly the ring. I wonder..." Ginny thought aloud.
"You mean, he might have made some more?" asked Hermione dismayed.
"It is possible," admitted Harry, who had himself been wondering the same thing a little while back. "But then, he likes to use significant deaths to make the Horcruxes. He would very much like mine, since he didn't manage it the first time round."
"Yes," added Hermione as if struck with a sudden realisation, "that would explain why he won't allow his Death Eaters to kill you, why he has to do it personally..."
"So, I haven't thought about it like this," started Ron, "but maybe You-Know-Who doesn't know we are after the Horcurxes, yet. Maybe Snape only knows about Dumbledore trying to hunt them down."
"Ron, you’re a genius!" Hermione went and kissed him on the cheek.
"Thanks, Mione," said Ron taken aback. "But, why?"
"Don’t you see? That is, at least, one of the reasons why Dumbledore allowed himself to be killed!" Hermione begun to explain.
"You're barking! Sorry, Hermione," apologised Harry feeling a little guilty, he hadn't meant to insult her. "But, he didn't allow it, he was disarmed!"
"I'm not barking, Harry" responded Hermione annoyed. "Think about it this way. Let's assume that Voldemort knew Dumbledore had found out about the Horcruxes. He probably knew about his injured hand. If Dumbledore was dead and Voldermort didn't know about anyone else being on the hunt, he would relax on the assumption that his bits of soul were still well protected, after Dumbledore's death. That would give you an advantage, it could buy you some time."
"I see what you mean but I honestly don't think that he had planned to die," Harry replied feeling frankly fed up with that line of discussion.
"But you said he told Draco that he knew he had been trying to kill him all year, and presumably had done nothing to stop him," retorted Hermione.
"This is Dumbledore we are talking about though," contributed Ron, "he knew Malfoy couldn't do the job."
"Hermione, why are you so determined to prove Snape's innocence?” asked Harry once again.
"Because it makes sense, Harry. I know you are hurt but sometimes feelings won't allow us to see the bigger picture."
"And you can see the “bigger picture” I take it?" asked Harry at the end of his tether.
"Come on, guys, no more arguments please," interceded Ginny. "We must stick together, it's the only way!"
"Anyway," decided Harry, "this idea of yours Hermione, has just made up my mind. We mustn't tell anyone, and I mean anyone about the Horcruxes. If there is any truth in this theory, that Dumbledore died to buy me time, then as far as I'm concerned, the topic is closed. After all, there have been traitors in the Order before!"
"Yeah, Harry, but it wouldn't be my mum or Lupin, or…" said Ron a little defensively.
"Surely not, but they could tell someone else, the circle could just get bigger and bigger. It's far too risky. We keep it to ourselves!" Harry concluded assuming the leader's role.
There was another problem, though, he, stupid Harry had let the world at large know that he was with Dumbledore at the Astronomy Tower which, in a way, proved that he had been on an errand with him immediately before. He had acted impulsively in his eagerness to show Snape's true colours. If Hermione was right, Dumbledore would have died for nothing and that would have been his fault, his bloody fault!
The days had passed. The funerals had come and gone. A feeling of semi-normality had been reinstated. Still, the scars were profound and difficult to heal.
Hermione had gone back home to her father, who surely needed her now, although she was still very much in touch and very much obsessed with making some progress. Harry and Ron needed her too. It just was not possible to be in two places at once, especially after all the time-turners got destroyed at the Ministry during their fifth year at Hogwarts.
Professor McGonagall was still in a critical condition. Physically, there had been some improvement but her mind, well, her mind wasn't really all there. She had difficulty remembering even who people were. There had been thoughts of taking her to St Mungo's but the majority had opposed the idea, as the hospital appeared now to have been taken over completely by the Ministry, and not many trusted the likes of Dolores Umbridge. Poppy Pomfrey, the School Nurse, was tending to her, mainly aided by Molly Weasley. It was now more and more doubtful that the school would open at the beginning of term.
Bill, not wanting to allow himself time to think, to dwell on what couldn't be changed, had resumed his work at Gringotts and was staying at the twins' flat in London. He found that Molly's constant tears were making him feel worse.
Petunia had gone back to her Muggle home long ago. Harry hadn't gone with her. He didn't trust her now and he had made his suspicions open and clear. Perhaps he was being unfair, maybe he was behaving recklessly regarding the protection but he had made his stance clear and had remained firm. In any case, he would be of age in a mere few days. That was both an exciting and a daunting prospect. This time, he would be completely on his own; he would really have to stand on his own two feet.
Harry could hear voices arguing downstairs, voices coming from the kitchen. He could have done with the extendable ears that the twins had so successfully marketed. He could hear his own name. They were talking about him! Whatever it was that they were discussing, Molly Weasley was dead against the motion. He had always been impatient and he thought that, whatever they were saying about him, they could tell him to his face. He made a signal to Ron and both descended downstairs but didn't storm in straight away. They listened a bit more.
"He'll be of age then, Molly" argued Remus Lupin." You can't give him any protection now. The time is up. He'll have to face his Destiny one way or another, he may as well join!"
"If he really is the Chosen One
, he needs to be a member. Kid or no kid, he has done things no-one else has, like surviving encounters with You-Know-Who on so many occasions," contributed Mr. Weasley.
"Arthur, please, you sound just like Sirius. Also, if we let him in, Ron, Hermione and all the other children, Longbottom etc, will claim they have the same right," protested Mrs. Weasley.
"Molly, they have all fought Death Eaters and they've done it bravely. We could do with more members," reasoned Alastor Moody.
"Harry, Ron?" exclaimed several members of the Order, realising that they have overheard them talking about them. Molly blushed.
"I would appreciate if you didn't talk about me behind my back," started Harry suppressing a smile, as in truth, he was more amused than angry.
"It's nothing like that," defended Mrs. Weasley, "we all have your best interest at heart".
"The protection is gone, Molly, I relinquished that by staying here. Can't you see? I don't know why, well, I know why really, “ Harry pronounced this last phrase very quietly. “He chose me when I was one, but now I must pursue what and whom I need to pursue".
He is a natural leader
, thought Lupin. He had somehow acquired the ability to command, to be listened to, he might not be a military strategist but he definitely had a sense of purpose.
"I'm in favour of you joining, Harry," he finally said aloud decisively.
"So am I," Mr. Weasley joined him.
"And me," added Mad-Eye. "But it's not going to be a bed of roses, kid. It's going to be bloody tough!"
"I expect so, Alastor," was Harry's reply. He felt somewhat victorious.
"So, this is all settled then," closed up Tonks. "We'll have to clear it at our next meeting but I think this is now a mere technicality. Harry, if we ask you to join, what will be your answer?"
"What do you all think? But I'm not joining without Ron and Hermione," he said very determined.
"Very loyal of you, Harry, but," interrupted Arthur.
"You can't repay me like this, Harry," protested Molly with a murderous glare. "I have looked after you, and you are paying me back by endangering my child!"
"All your other sons are already members, Mum," said Ron speaking for the first time since the start of this debate.
"He has a point, Molly," conceded the others.
"Ok, let's negotiate," said Moody with a sense of opportunity. Let's say we let you and your friends join, would you tell us what you were doing with Dumbledore...?"
"I'm sorry. That isn't negotiable. I don't want to join, if that is the price!" and with these last words, Harry stormed up stairs and made a motion for Ron to follow him.
Draco Malfoy's memory charm on Father McKenna seemed to have worked even better than expected. He seemed to be under the distinct impression that Tim
had been sent to him by a colleague from a Parish in Kent as a trainee, an assistant or something of that kind. In addition to having erased from the priest's memory what he had revealed to him about himself and the magical world, Draco's attempt at planting the assistant notion in his head had also been successful.
Draco would have normally found his present status quo intolerable, however he was left on his own for lengthy periods during the day with plenty of theological books to occupy his mind. There was, of course, a method in the madness. He was desperate enough to try anything and he had the feeling that what he called Muggle magic
, whatever it had been that Snape had hinted at, was his only hope of fooling the Dark Lord. The main problem was that most of those books were rather cryptic and one was pushed to distinguish fact from metaphor. In addition, when magic was described, there was absolutely no mention as to the means used in order to achieve it. God was supposed to be behind it, but how? The one curious thing was Jesus' idea of “offering your enemy the other cheek” like loving your enemy. This sounded most absurd, yet again, Lily Potter's love for her son was reputed as having been the reason for Voldermort's demise and Harry's survival. Some very odd pattern appeared to be emerging.
He was trying not to open his heart to the Priest in the fashion he had done the night they had met. It had been a cathartic experience but he didn't have the heart to have to modify the guy's memory on a daily basis. He concluded that it was far simpler to pretend to be a Muggle and let matters be.
Again, he thought about his mother, about his father, about Pansy Parkinson...Also, what was his aunt Bella doing? Was she still the Dark Lord's most faithful or would she be prepared to help him out? He didn't dare guess.
In the evenings, he and Father McKenna would sit at the table, sometimes until late, over a pot of coffee or the odd can of beer. Draco would eagerly ask questions relating to the Bible or to other more uncommon works, possessions, exorcisms and the like. Father Sean thought this a bit strange but put it down to the youngster having watched too many Hollywood movies. They were getting on well but Draco knew it was only a matter of time. The forty days were very nearly up!
One morning, the Muggle postman arrived with a letter for him, addressed to his false name. This was certainly peculiar as he hoped nobody knew of his whereabouts, also in the Muggle post! But, of course, he remembered, he had a week or so before, replied to Snape's owl and had told him the name he was using. He guessed that his former teacher was using the Muggle post for safety reasons.
He opened the envelope with utter trepidation. It was unsigned, but he knew it to be from Severus Snape. The news wasn't good. He was asked not to leave his present address under any circumstances, not to try to play the hero come what may, to keep his head low and wait for further instructions. He was also told not to trust Bellatrix and was reminded that the Dark Lord could find his Death Eaters relatively easily because of the Dark Mark on their arms. He must stay attached to the Church for the time being and was reassured that the writer was making every effort to sort out something more long-term.
"A letter from a friend," he said casually, putting it away into the bottom of his pocket.
As soon as the Priest left, the communication was quickly set on fire.