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Villain of the Piece

Part 3  Waiting Games

- Chapter  40 -

 Chapter 40:   Guinea Pigs

25th to 28th October 1981

As he feared he was summoned back a week later for the testing.

“I won’t know the people concerned” he whispered comfortingly.  “They won’t mean anything to me.  All that I’ll know is whether my brews have worked, and that is all I ever want to know.”

But in his heart of hearts he feared he might be confronted by a familiar face.  The wizarding world is small, and even if he didn’t know the people directly, some might be relatives of people from his schooldays.  James Potter, he thought delightedly in a moment of wild wickedness; what a stroke of luck that would be!  Please let James and Sirius be here; then my life will be complete!

Although he was summoned to Wiltshire, the Death Eaters didn’t stay there.  They assembled in Lucius’s main hall and set off again, proceeding in an orderly manner as if they were used to it.  Severus was not told the destination; he was escorted by side-along Apparition, and arrived clinging to the arm of Rabastan in the hallway of a large Edwardian house.  Lucius stood by the door to the drawing room.  He looked impatient and excited.

“Where are we?” Severus asked.

“No matter” Lucius whispered.  “Come through.  And concentrate!  No photographs today – no distractions, and no talking.  The Dark Lord is anxious.”

Voldemort did look anxious; excited but worried.  Obviously a lot was at stake.  “Put on your masks” he ordered.  “Take your seats.  Get ready to observe.  This will take some time … Venato?  Feodor?  We are ready – bring in numbers one and two.”

Glad of the safety of his mask, Severus closed his mind to the reality of what followed.  A succession of people were presented, and fed with potion.  And he knew none of them – witches, wizards, young, old, fat, thin – it made no difference.  All reacted as expected; all would eventually succumb.

“Very good” Voldemort announced and hour later.  “This is very much what I had in mind.  Have we any more participants?”

“Just two more” Venato replied.

“You must have emptied Diagon Alley!”

“We took a sample of people leaving Gringotts, Lord.”

The door opened and Feodor pushed two people into the room.  And using his wand like a cattle prod Venato propelled them forward.  The first was another unknown witch, small and frightened.  Following her was an old man, and as he raised his head a gasp escaped Severus’s lips.

“Silence!” Voldemort warned.

“Not this man” Severus murmured.  “Not this man, Lord.”

The wizard victim stared at him, comprehension growing on his face, and it suddenly occurred to Severus that, mask or no mask, his distinctive voice would betray him.

The old wizard looked at the potion bottles and then back to Severus hidden behind the mask.  His gaze bored through the eyeholes.  “Why?” he breathed.

He got no answer.  Finally he threw an arm of comfort around the shoulders of his fellow victim and said nothing more.

*

Dumbledore was waiting for Severus when he got back to Hogwarts.  Severus declined the inevitable drink.

“I’ll take a sleeping potion” he told the Headmaster.  “I’ll be alright for a while, then after this I’ll go straight into a deep sleep.”

“Then tell me you news” Dumbledore said.

Severus reported the events as they had unfolded.  Finally he got to the last two victims.

“It was a young slip of a witch” he said, “And Hilary Caldecott.”

“Goodness me!” Dumbledore exclaimed, leaping to his feet.  “Could you possibly be wrong?”

“No, Headmaster” Severus said gravely.  “I’ve known Hilary since my student days.  He even recognised me.”

Hastily Dumbledore summoned a house-elf.  “Go and see if Mr Caldecott is in his room” he instructed.  “If he is not, ask Professor McGonagall to come here.  Severus, please wait in the anteroom, but if you wish to listen to what I say to Minerva, I have no objection.”

Severus did listen, feeling he needed every drop of information.  Minerva arrived a few minutes later and so did the elf, reporting that he had alerted the other house-elves and so far they could find no trace of Mr Caldecott within the castle.

“Of course he’s here, somewhere” Minerva insisted crossly.  “Sunday night?  This late?  Hilary won’t be gadding about, stupid creatures!  Why do you need him, Albus?  Can I help?”

“I simply want to know that he is safe” Dumbledore explained.  “What was he doing yesterday?”

“Yesterday?  He went to London” Minerva continued evenly.  “By bus, after breakfast.  He said he was going to the bank and then to Madam Malkin’s.”

“And did he go?”

“To London?  Oh yes.  Well, I presume so.  We exchanged a few words while he waited for the bus, then I Apparated to Hogsmeade.”

“You saw him get on the bus?”

“Yes.”  She began to look troubled.  “Are you saying he’s not come back?”

“I fear so” Dumbledore sighed.  “Minerva, tomorrow morning, if Hilary cannot be found, ask Irma if she can do some extra hours.”

“Of course, Albus.”

“Thank you.  That will be all.  Goodnight Minerva.”

“Err, Albus” Minerva added, “May I raise something?  As we are on the subject of staff cover – the situation with Severus … I’m getting concerned–”

“Not now, Minerva.”

“But these absences … they are far more frequent than you led me to expect–”

“Not NOW, Minerva!”

“Professor Dumbledore!” she replied warningly, “I will not be shouted at.  What do you think you are about?”

“I’m sorry” Dumbledore said softly, “But I cannot discuss this now.  We are meeting at?”

“Two-thirty–”

“–Two-thirty.  I will discuss it then.”

“Fully, I hope” Minerva insisted.

“Yes, indeed.  As fully as I am able” the Headmaster agreed, “But I did explain to you that on some aspects of this you will have to take me on trust.”

“Yes, but–”

“Tomorrow, Minerva” Dumbledore said softly.  “I must insist.”

“As you wish.”

She left the office quietly but did not say goodnight.

“She’s not happy with me” Severus said warily, as he re-entered the room.

“I may have to tell her some of the truth” Dumbledore replied.  “I would prefer not to.  I also have to think what to say about Caldecott.  He disappeared in London, so the Law Enforcement Squads can pursue the trail there, far from Hogwarts.  I don’t want them asking questions, here, particularly as both you and Caldecott were missing from here today.”

Severus nodded, appreciating how difficult it was for Dumbledore at times.

“Is there any chance that Hilary is alive?” Dumbledore asked suddenly, sounding as if he was clutching at straws.

“No, Headmaster” Severus said.  “None of the victims will survive.  Most were dead when I left – all of the monarda subjects, and most of the others.  The few hardy ones who could last out were, even so, close to death.  Hilary was not one of those.  But, hardy or not, there is no ultimate escape from that poison.  Its progression is rather like hemlock.  Talking of which–”  He hesitated, unsure of how to proceed.

“Go on” Dumbledore said.  “Anything I need to know, I must know.  Carry on.”

“I spoke to Lucius about the number of bodies” Severus explained.  “It concerned me what would happen to them.  They are evidence.  And as you know it is not practical to vanish them magically.”

“And you didn’t want them lying about for anyone to find” the Headmaster said; a trace of distaste in his voice.

“Well, no.  Naturally not” Severus agreed, sounding almost embarrassed.  “You appreciate my position.”

“I do.  What did Lucius say?”

“That the Dark Lord intends to use them.  He is creating an army of Inferi.  He also has a pair of Dementors.”

“A pair?”

“I believe so, yes.  Just two of them.”

“And how does he intend to use this army of the dead?”

“Lucius doesn’t know.”

“Really?” Dumbledore asked pointedly, “Or is he pretending?”

“I think he really doesn’t know” Severus said wearily.  “He said the Dark Lord jokes about them, referring to them as ‘My Cambrian Fusiliers’ and ‘The Scourge of the Welsh’ but he doesn’t know what that really means.  It is very probable that the Dark Lord will only tell us, or some of us, when he is ready to mobilise them.  Sorry that’s a bit vague, Headmaster.  Does knowing that help at all?”

“Yes” Dumbledore said, thinking it over and nodding his head.  “Yes; it shows me that they have certain information.  But it won’t do them any good.  Hmm…  We may be able to round up this army, whilst they waste their efforts like sea breaking on hard rock.  I am hopeful.  Thank you, Severus.”

After going over a few points again, which got them no further forward, Severus finally set off for bed and for a small measure of Dreamless Sleep.  He could not afford to oversleep, but he feared his dreams or another sleepless night.

 

The staff were noticeably subdued as the news of the disappearance of the Librarian spread.  It was as if they could no longer close their minds to the dark turmoil in the world outside.  Severus received no word about the potion trials other than the fact that Voldemort was pleased and that Severus’s advice about the different versions had been sound.  Meanwhile the press was full of reports of Saturday’s disappearances, although no bodies were found.  And there were also reports about fog, unseasonably early, affecting South Wales.

“It’s not fog, it’s mist!” Wilbert said, pointing to his copy of the Evening Prophet at the start of dinner.  “I wish they’d get these details right.  Weird, though.  It’s very local and it won’t go away.”  (Dumbledore pricked up his ears, looking grave.)  Never mind; only a week to the Hallowe’en Feast” Wilbert continued breezily.  “You won’t be skipping that will you, Aurora.”

“Of course not” Aurora retorted, a frown creasing her forehead.  “Why should I not be at the Feast?”

“Well you miss half the meals.”

“No.  Only breakfast.  Lunch is my breakfast.”

“You work such difficult hours, m’dear.”

“I can’t teach my practicals while the sun is up” she smirked.  “The price of being an astronomy teacher is being a creature of the night.”

“A creature of the night!” Wilbert exclaimed.  “What a romantic metaphor.”

“Some of the world’s most ruthless hunters are creatures of the night” Aurora warned him.  “That’s when they consume their prey.”

She bit into a sliver of watermelon, making its deep-pink juice spurt like blood.  Severus chuckled, grateful for the diversion their banter provided.  He wondered whether she actually liked Wilbert, whether the ‘feisty madam act’ was just that – just an act.

“Nice girl, that” Wilbert murmured when Aurora had skipped coffee again and left the dinner table early.  “Sharp tongue, but witty.”

“Yes indeed” Severus agreed.  “And almost perfect English, too.  Where does she come from?”

“I can’t quite remember” Wilbert replied.  “She did tell us, didn’t she.  Can’t you recall?”

No, Severus couldn’t remember either; not at that moment.  He had so much more on his mind.

As he lay in bed that night he tried again to recollect what Aurora had said of herself when the three of them had first sat down to lunch together, because letting his mind dwell on chit-chat was more soothing than letting it rake over Death Eater matters.  Aurora had mentioned a little town near the Franco-Spanish border that he had never heard of, and a Navarrese wizarding school that had no prominence.  She wore a ring on her wedding finger; an opal surrounded by diamonds and set in goblin-wrought silver.  Was it an engagement ring, or was it just to ward off unwelcome wizards?  She certainly attracted admirers.  He skin was flawless and pale olive in colour, her hair raven black but with strands of gold like sunlight through a veil.  Her dark eyes also had flecks of gold.  She was slim and yet curved sufficiently in all the right places.  She was young – about two years younger than Severus; an ideal age difference.  She was definitely the most entrancing member of the staff, and Severus had not expected to find anyone so alluring amongst his colleagues.

Oh, Aurora, he sighed; how delicious you are.  How different to the others – officious McGonagall, genial Flitwick, wise and ancient Vector!

And what of Wilbert Slinkhard, the man whom Dumbledore preferred to me, to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts?  He’s the laziest person I’ve ever met!  And he thinks the mist is mist – it doesn’t cross his mind that it might pinpoint a brace of Dementors.  So why was he chosen in preference to me?  Yet the old man didn’t make Slinkhard Head of a House.  That’s worth remembering – Dumbledore trusts me enough for that.  And perhaps one day Slinkhard will leave and I can negotiate a change of subject.  Damn this!  I’ll never get to sleep.  It will have to be the potion again…

 

The reports of the mist continued and Dumbledore was often absent from the school.  No word came from the Dark Side.  Severus felt as if he was living in a vacuum.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning a fire broke out at a distillery near Invergarry.  It was headline news in the Evening Prophet.  Severus wondered about it as he read the paper during dinner.  He noticed the Headmaster was absent from dinner and wondered, too, if the old man was with Ministry staff at the site of the fire.

It had been a horrible day – a morning of cheeky third-years and an afternoon of unedifying seventh-years, so he decided to call at Dumbledore’s office just to see if the old man was back and if there was any news.  He felt awkward about calling without being summoned, and without having news to bring, but he felt he needed some action.  Or at lest information.

The Headmaster was still away, but Minerva’s voice called ‘come in’.

“Oh.  Severus” she remarked in surprise, looking annoyed to see him as he stood hesitating on the threshold.  “Well come in, if you’re coming.”

“I was expecting to find the Headmaster here” he said rather untruthfully. He stepped into the room, looking a little lost.

“No doubt” she said crisply.

“Err, what are you doing, Minerva?” he asked, gliding up to the desk.  She had a pile of papers on it.  They looked like letters.

“Party invitations.”

“Party invitations?  Why–”

“Because it’s more private than my office.  Or so I’d assumed” she added archly.  “Dumbledore said I could sit here after dinner to write them in peace.”

“He’s planning a party at a time like this?”

“No.  I’m doing the planning.  He wants us to keep life as normal as possible.  Now, what do you want?  As you can see” she added sweetly, “The Headmaster is not here.”

“The Headmaster is here” Dumbledore’s voice announced, and brushing soot from his robes Dumbledore suddenly appeared in the doorway from the anteroom.

Minerva looked annoyed.  “Shall I finish these another time?” she asked, gathering up her letters.

“If you wouldn’t mind” the Headmaster said kindly.  “I need my office back.  Please stay, Severus.”

Dumbledore waited for Minerva to leave before ushering in a visitor who had been standing quietly out of sight in the anteroom.  It was James Potter.

“Hello, Severus” he said.  “Albus said we should meet.  He says you’re worrying about me.”

They did not shake hands, but finally Dumbledore got them seated around his desk.  Severus looked warily from face to face, wondering what Dumbledore had said about him.  Did James know he was a Death Eater?  Did he know he was a secret agent?  And a member of the Order of the Phoenix?  Did that put him at risk of gossip leaking back to Voldemort via associates of James?  Why had Dumbledore sprung this meeting on him?

“As the Headmaster knows, I am concerned that you are taking adequate precautions for your family’s safety” he explained coldly.  “That is all.  We have had this conversation in the past.  You know my view.”

“ ‘Trust no one’ was the gist of what you said” James replied.  “Well, if you don’t want to live the life of a hermit you have to trust someone sometime.”

“But trust should never be blinkered.”

“Are you saying I’m wrong to place my trust in Albus?” James countered.

“Of course not!” Severus replied scornfully.  “Why else would I be working here?”

James ignored that and went on to say “Albus has given me certain advice about security measures.  Extra measures.  I’ve taken that advice.  Yes I have, Albus” he confirmed, turning to the Headmaster.

“It’s all in place now?” Dumbledore asked, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

“Yes.”

“You made a good choice of…?  You know I would have been prepared to do it.”

“Yes – thanks – I know that.  We did have a bit of a debate, but finally it’s all done.”

Severus looked from face to face, wondering what they were talking about.  He didn’t want to pry – he didn’t want to know.  But he was concerned that any decision James might have made would be unsound.

“You still don’t look happy, Severus” James sneered, “But then sullen was always your normal expression.”

“If you’ve come here to insult me, I think I’ll leave now” Severus began.

“No.  Sorry” James said quickly.  “I didn’t mean that.  But you must admit you’re having a pop at me all the time these days.  Rubbishing my best friends–”

“Best friends?” Severus asked sarcastically.  “If Black is your best, I most certainly do question your judgement.  As for Lupin – we all know what he is!  Doesn’t have a human mind, half the time.  And who else is there?  Peter Pettigrew!  A wizard so inept he hardly knows which way round to hold his wand–”

“–Now now, Severus” Dumbledore said warningly, “I didn’t bring you two together for verbal fisticuffs–”

“–The only time you’ve ever demonstrated good judgement” Severus continued, warming to the fight, “Is in your choice of a wife–”

“–Lily?” James said, amazed.  “What’s Lily to you–?”

“–And if your thoughtless arrogance has led her into danger, I’ll–”

“–You’ll what?” James demanded, really angry now.  He stood, pulling his wand.

Severus did likewise.  Then suddenly both wands dropped to the floor and James and Severus were wincing and rubbing their wrists.

“When you’ve quite finished!” Dumbledore thundered, “I’ll thank you to remember whose office this is.  I think you’ve made your point, Severus.  Unless there is anything else to report, you may go.”

“That’s fine by me, Headmaster” Severus hissed.  He bent to pick up his wand and marched off.  “I don’t want to know any more of the details” he growled.  “What I don’t know, I can’t blab about – just in case I find myself at the wrong end of a Dark Wizard’s wand.”

He slammed the door; it echoed down the stairwell as he rode the descending spiral stairs.

Still seething he walked around the castle for the better part of two hours, eventually making his way towards Dumbledore’s roof garden, wondering whether the Headmaster had changed the password.

“Fizzing Whizzbee” he said scornfully.

The wall rolled back revealing the dark staircase, and it closed behind him, walling him in.

There was still some warmth in the garden.  A ledge ran around the parapet, five feet below the top, and along this he walked, looking over the wall like a soldier on patrol.  A light burned in a room at the base of Gryffindor Tower.  Minerva’s bedroom, he said to himself; but she’s not there.  There she goes – as poisonous, and cold, and graceful as ever.

He could see Minerva walking slowly along a corridor in the direction of the North Tower.  Will she look up and see me, he wondered?  Will she be able to see me?  Yes, she might – she might spot that someone is up here because of the sky.

He turned and looked north.  The sky in that direction was horribly bright, glowing a livid apricot from the distillery fire.  Twenty-five miles, he wondered?  Or maybe even thirty?  And yet it’s as bright as day.

He circled restlessly for a while and then finally headed for the bench.  His main emotion was anger – anger at Dumbledore for his obsession with the unquestioned goodness of wizards such as Potter and Black.  But he also felt a vague dissatisfaction that was nothing to do with old enemies.

Why do I feel like this, he mused?  It’s exciting, being spy for either side.  And yet, of late, I feel … lost.  Like I don’t know who I am.  I was going to be so smart, playing both sides.  Why am I at risk of losing my grip on it all?  I’m an intelligent man; I have a good memory; I’m careful; and I think logically.  Why do I care how I feel?  Why do I feel anything?  I mustn’t let feelings get in the way – I always swore I wouldn’t!  Feelings cloud issues, painting them with colours they don’t need.  Well … if I think I am losing my grip on things I’ll just have to take a Wit-Sharpener!  Can’t afford any slip-ups.  And I can’t afford to let the Dark Lord tune in to my emotions.  I’d be meat on a plate to him then.  Get a grip, Severus!

Faint noises from the Astronomy Tower floated down to him.  Aurora’s class was packing up.  Who would it be?  First-years probably.

“House points!” Severus hissed grimly, and he smiled.

By the time he got into position below the Astronomy Tower, a double row of first-years were emerging from the stairway.  Williamson the Head Boy walked ahead of a line of Gryffindors and Aurora at the head of the Hufflepuffs.

“Professor” Aurora said softly, inclining her head in a tiny bow.  Turning sharp left she led her charges down a steep short-cut staircase.

Williamson acknowledged him too, and Severus watched him go, snaking away through the castle with his black-cloaked followers.  At the rear of the Gryffindor line two boys were whispering excitedly.

“Qui-et” Severus called.  “Five points from Gryffindor, Dawlish.  You were warned to be quiet.”

Dawlish turned and glared but dare say nothing in retaliation.  Severus glared back at him, willing him to speak, but the boys continued in silence out of sight.