Albus’ suggestion of a sabbatical didn’t come as a complete surprise. I knew that, at some point, I would be called to serve the Order exclusively again. Come to think of it, I really didn’t object. Working for either Ministry was becoming monotonous and stifling, and lecturing at Oxford had become the same, far too routine. The only thing that altered that routine was the occasional request to write for trade magazines, both Wizard and Muggle. I relished the times when Albus called me and was ready to make this change. The trip to Rome was successful, and my supervisor wasn’t surprised that I asked for a break. He actually wondered what took so long. Carmen wished me luck and hoped I’d have a relaxing holiday. “Holiday”, the general definition of sabbatical, but holiday is not what I was up to. This was a clandestine and necessary change in occupation. I was, finally, getting back to what I was originally trained for.
Since my arrival in Cumberland, I could feel the pressure release from the juggling act that had dominated past ten years. I had more freedom and was doing personal things that had been put off, simple things like reading, cooking and jogging, things that I enjoyed. My power was building, and I was once again testing and using skills that had lain dormant for far too long. I was revitalized, and if there weren’t so much violence and fear generated from the upcoming events, I would almost say, I was happy.
Bocelli sang out his haunting, operatic Romanzi as onions, peppers, and garlic were sliced and dice to perfection, sautéed in olive oil, and set aside while the meat browned. This was a simple “edible potion” that gave me so much pleasure to prepare.
A flip of my wrist levitated the braised veal strips toward the steaming vegetable mixture, blending the two together gently with a light marinara sauce. A shift of my hand lifted the pot of egg noodles toward the colander in the sink, tipping it and draining the water out. Pinky had set the table for two and placed a basket of warm rolls in the centre, a bottle of MASI, Modello Delle Venezie open and breathing on the edge. Serving the meal in shallow bowls, I joined my dinner companion.
“Mmmm, this looks lovely, my dear,” Albus began, reaching for a roll and smothering it with butter.
“Thank you. I’m glad you could join me,” I replied with an upward twitch of my lips.
I nodded slightly. “How’s it going at the school?” I asked casually, pouring the red wine into pewter goblets.
Albus inhaled deeply, his lips drawn into a thin line. “Not good, I’m afraid. I believe my time is coming to an end.” I was taken aback, but he raised his hand to continue. “…for now. Professor Umbridge’s power with the Ministry has exceeded even what I expected. She has all but taken over already. I have made preparations and should warn you that you may have a houseguest in the near future. This will give us an opportunity to do some investigating that has been neglected. I understand you had a meeting today?”
I snorted slightly. This was Albus’ version of small talk: down to business, but I supposed it was my fault. I did ask about school.
“Yes,” I said, dipping my roll into the pasta sauce. “Severus was called to the Malfoy’s this afternoon. I shadowed him. It was a larger gathering than usual but, strangely, nothing was really discussed. It was as if Malfoy was taking stock of who would answer his call. I could feel that something was brewing, though. There was almost an excitement emanating from Malfoy, as if he knew something that the others didn’t but wasn’t going to tell.”
Albus rolled the pasta around his fork, spearing some veal in the process. “Who was there?” he asked as he placed the portion in his mouth.
“Severus, of course, Malfoy and his wife, the Lestrange woman,” I chuckled slightly, “She lives up to her name, strange indeed. What a nutter! Then, there was Crabbe, Goyle, McNair, Avery, Molotov and Rookwood. There was another man that I’d seen before but who was not addressed by name. A tall, blonde man. Big, muscular, rough. He looked a bit out of place. Everyone had an air of being very high-ended or well-placed. He didn’t.”
Albus nodded as I scooped more dinner onto my fork. “The Carrows were not included? Somehow, I’m not surprised. Mr. Malfoy doesn’t like them much. Still, this is the most dangerous group to be involved with,” he said. “Ruthless. Cunning. Without conscience. You have developed a strong shield. That’s good. You’ll need it.”
Moving through dinner, I changed the subject. “I’ve done something that I hope you approve of.” Albus raised his head from his plate. “Remus still needs his potion, as does Severus. I’ve transformed part of the cellar into a small lab, basic but necessary. I procured most of the tools and ingredients before I came here so, at the moment, there’s no need to go to Diagon Alley.”
Albus nodded, wiping the last bit of roll around the bottom of his plate, sopping up the last of the sauce. “I’ve been thinking. You’ve been here for a little over a month with only me on occasion, and Pinky of course, as company. I know you get out but you have very little companionship. I trust Remus as much as I trust Severus. Should you wish to invite him here for, say…dinner, I would not object. I do not wish to isolate you completely. I remember your early years in Italy.” My lips curved upward into a small smile. “This place must remain unplottable, however. He must arrive only in your company, by your invitation. That way he does not need to know the location. Apparating out is not an issue.”
“Thank you,” I eyed the old man thoughtfully. I wasn’t sure if I would carry through on the invitation, but appreciated the gesture. This had always been Severus’ and my secret place. To bring another man in, even a friend, didn’t feel right.
Albus stretched slightly to look over my shoulder at the plate on the counter. His eyes lit up as he spied the dessert. “Is that hot lemon pudding?” he asked hopefully.
As suspected, Harry’s little troupe of fighters was discovered shortly before Easter, and Albus, covering for them, was forced to flee Hogwarts or be taken into custody for instigating a revolt against the Ministry of Magic. He arrived late one night and sealed himself in the study until the next morning. When he reappeared, he offered his apologies, and instructed me to Apparate to Little Hangleton. I was to investigate a family who once to live in the area – the Gaunts. “Research only,” he insisted. “Use your empathic powers. Legilimency, if necessary. Find out where they lived, if anyone remembers them. These people would be very old, if there are any left.” He would handle the rest and left as abruptly as he arrived. I headed to the haunting little town that hosted the most evil wizard to walk the earth.
Stark glided on the spring breeze as I hiked my way through the little village toward the wooded boundary. My excuse for snooping around was that I was researching old families in small towns in Northern England for a university paper. My first stop had been the county records office to identify the location of the Gaunt property. I learned that it had been abandoned decades earlier, and the townspeople stayed very much away. The aged town clerk had been just a young girl when the Gaunts lived there but remembered the warnings from her parents to keep a far distance from “that” family. “They were a strange lot,” she had said. “People were afraid of them.” With a low whisper, the old woman glanced furtively around as if afraid of being overheard, and confided that the patriarch was an odd, foul-tempered, cruel man who lived with his two children in a small hut outside of town, well hidden from the main road by tall, dark trees and nettles. A riding path passed close to the old house, and she had ventured there once on a dare. She had been badly frightened by the son who had hissed at her and she had never returned. The family rarely left the property, but the son was known to harass the townsfolk and had had several run-ins with the law. She shook her head and tsked, advising that if I wanted to learn more, I would do well to visit the constable’s office and ask to research the old files.
The constables’ office was a small one level building neat the village centre. I handed the officer in charge an official looking letter that explained what I was looking for and a young clerk escorted me to the back room to search through the archives. The officers who worked there were too young to have had any dealings with the Gaunts, but the constable made a list of several retired officers whose names appeared on quite a long list of reports. I pocketed the list and planned to investigate further, but I had one stop to make first.
Trodding the gravel road toward the overgrown, abandoned structure, I felt an overwhelming rush of despair and loneliness. It was not a ward, but rather a feeling of utter hopelessness that seemed to penetrate every portion of the woods surrounding the deserted building. Indeed, it was off the road, about a mile, and it would have been very easy to miss for it was so overgrown with vines and ivy that it blended well with its environment. A request to Mother Earth had the branches and nettles part, exposing a half open door partially off its hinges. The windows no longer held glass and a roof was, to some extent, caved in. There was an overpowering smell of decay like something had crawled into a hole and died. Stark swooped down beside me and coasted through the open front door. His caw indicated that it was safe to enter. Pushing the door open further, I stepped in.
I get the feeling that we shouldn’t be here, he sent as he eased to perch on my shoulder.
So do I, I returned. Just a quick look around, though. Did you notice the carving on the front door?
No, Stark replied.
It was a serpent, I observed. I think Albus is withholding information as to why he wants me to investigate these people.
It wouldn’t be the first time he hasn’t told you the whole story, the raven retorted.
True, but I don’t think anyone involved with him knows the whole story, I answered as I wandered the decrepit structure.
Maybe, but there are times when I don’t trust him. He may be aiming for the greater good, but I think he’s looking for something else, too. Stark ruffled his feathers.
I got the same feeling. There’s definitely something he’s not telling, but I don’t think it’s my place to ask.
Why not? You’re the one taking risks, walking blindly into situations for him. I think you deserve to know the truth.
I think I know more than most, and I don’t think he’ll ever tell. I think he’d rather take it to the grave.
Looking around the ramshackle structure, it was obvious that no one had lived here for a very long time and that no one had been in since the original occupants had vacated the premises. There were two archways opposite the front entrance; shabby pieces of material covered the openings that appeared to lead to bedrooms. The same material was suspended, in shreds, over the window openings. Rusty pots were stacked on a shelf above a grimy, black stove to the left of the doorway, and the few dishes that were there rested on the dusty shelf to the right of the sink. There were some dishes and a fry pan in the filthy-encrusted basin, and an old, dust-covered mug on the floor by a tattered armchair near the fireplace. I had a feeling that whoever had lived here either didn’t care how they lived or had suddenly left, maybe by force.
Are you ready? Stark asked, prodding me into motion.
I suppose. I’m committing the place to memory. You never know what small detail may be important in the future.
Write a Review Life in the Shadows: 43 - Serving The Order