I remained alone. Glancing around for a place to sit, I eventually settled on a small rock near the fire. So this was the Dark Lord's punishment. Degrading Lucius to a mere messenger, as if to show him he was no longer fit for anything else. Leaving me in a remote place without any means of getting information on the progress of the battle, as if hoping it would make me go sick with worry. Even torture would not have been as effective, and I was certain the Dark Lord knew it. Still, I wondered why he had chosen only the two of us. Surely Bella was just as responsible, if not more, for Harry Potter's last two escapes as Lucius and I? Not to mention that she, like us, had lost her wand? And yet, as I had watched her leave the clearing, she was ostentatiously fingering a new one. Where had she obtained it? As far as I knew, one wandmaker had gone missing after his escape from our cellar, the other had died by the Dark Lord's hand. Had she stolen it from someone? Had the Dark Lord given it to her? Either way, it seemed she had been, once again, forgiven. Was it possible that the Dark Lord had sensed that while Lucius and I were no longer loyal to his cause, Bella would still willingly lay down her life for him? It was the only possible explanation I could come up with, and I dreaded to even think of our post-war prospects if my presumption turned out to be right.
On the bright side, the Dark Lord's punishment had ensured that for the time being Lucius and I were relatively safe. After all, was that not what we had both vowed to achieve? To survive? What use was forgiveness to Bella if she was sent to battle where any moment could prove fatal to her? Then again, the same could be said for Draco. Despite Severus's assurances of his safety it was pure torture sitting here so passively while he was out there somewhere, probably scared senseless. I had an irresistible urge to disregard the Dark Lord's orders and simply run to the castle to find him, but I was not stupid enough to think that I would get away with it. Knowing the Dark Lord, he would probably punish us both once he found out. Not that it really mattered, as Draco had probably already unleashed the Dark Lord's anger anyway, by not arriving when he should have. But why? What could have kept him at Hogwarts? Did he perhaps know something that we did not? Did he-
But no, I would not give the Dark Lord the pleasure of wasting my whole time here worrying, as he was counting on me to do. There was something I had that the Dark Lord could not possibly have counted on, and that was my love for Severus. And so, though it made me feel more than a little guilty, I spent the next hour or so reliving my most beautiful moments with him in my mind, breaking off only once to hear the Dark Lord's magnified voice announce the time limit in which the occupants of the castle were to hand over Harry Potter, which must have signalized the start of the battle. But not even that could move me anymore. Once I had convinced myself that there was nothing I could do to help Draco from my prison here, I escaped entirely into my dream world, and only came out again when, just before midnight, I heard somebody Apparate beside me. Having found the somebody to be Lucius, I immediately jumped up from my rock and rushed towards him.
"Lucius!" I cried, throwing my arms around his neck. "Thank Merlin you're all right! Do you have any news from Hogwarts? Have you seen our son?"
Lucius, however, shook his head, looking grim. "No. I begged the Dark Lord to let me go and find him, but he only laughed at me. He is not pleased that Draco did not come and join him when he should have. He even suggested that he might have stayed at Hogwarts to befriend Potter!"
I stared at him in disbelief. "He really said that? I ... I expected him to be angry with Draco, yes, but to accuse him of something so ... so ... absurd! I hope you told him that he was mistaken, that our son would never ... would never..." I trailed off, too frustrated to finish the sentence.
"Of course I told him that," said Lucius despondently. "But he merely waved me off, like an annoying insect."
"And you ... you stayed with the Dark Lord the whole time?" I pressed on, as soon as I had recovered my voice again. "What else did he say?"
"Surprisingly little, actually. Most of the time he appeared to be contemplating something. He kept looking at his wand, as if something about it bothered him. Finally he seemed to have reached a certain decision, for he sent me to fetch Severus."
I tensed upon hearing the name of my beloved, feeling as if somebody had Petrified me. "Severus?" I choked out. "Why?"
Lucius shrugged. "I cannot imagine. When I found him, I Apparated straight to you. I presumed the Dark Lord would want to see him alone."
"And ... what did the battlefield look like?" I inquired further, more because I felt it was expected of me than because I was really interested, for all I could think about was Severus and what the Dark Lord wanted with him. "Were there many dead?"
"There was so much chaos that I cannot say for certain," replied Lucius. "Spells flying in all directions, walls crumbling, people running... But now that I think about it, there may have been several bodies on the ground; whether dead or merely injured, I could not tell. I did not stop to check, naturally. I only wanted to get out of there before it was too late."
I nodded absently. "Of course. I would not have wished you to act otherwise." Unable to think of anything else to say, I settled for resting my head against Lucius's chest, while my thoughts immediately rushed back to Severus. Why had the Dark Lord called him back from battle? Did he, perhaps, have a special task for him? Or – my stomach tightened at the mere idea – had Severus also failed him in some way, and would therefore be punished? Was it some twisted fate that the Dark Lord had set out to hurt those I loved the most?
Absorbed in my gloomy thoughts, once again broken only by the Dark Lord's magnified voice bidding Harry Potter to come to the Forbidden Forest within an hour if he did not wish to see more of his friends die, I may not have even noticed the first fighters returning had it not been for Bella's arrogant voice piercing through the air like a whiplash, causing me to lift my head with a start. And indeed, there she was, strutting as though the world belonged to her, leading the Dark Lord's slightly mangled army back into the clearing. My feeling of trepidation increased. Where was Severus? Why was he no longer in the lead? What had the Dark Lord done to him? And where was Draco? If the Death Eaters had penetrated the castle, what reason could have possibly kept him from coming back with them? My mind buzzing with questions, my eyes darted from one arriving figure to another, my hope mounting with each new shape that appeared among the trees, then plummeting again when it resembled neither of the two familiar faces I was looking for. Finally a giant closed the train of arrivals, dragging what looked like a part of the castle wall behind him as a trophy, and it was then that I knew I had been hoping in vain. Neither Severus nor Draco was coming. But – my heart fluttered as the idea occurred to me – what if they were together? What if, after leaving the Shrieking Shack, Severus had found Draco and chosen to watch over him, just as I had asked him to do? Perhaps Draco, for reasons I could only guess at, was unable to leave the castle and Severus had no option but to stay, too?
Once it had been given to me, I held onto this hope even as the Dark Lord eventually arrived, with Nagini the snake floating behind him in a giant glittering cage. I do not think I would have been able to get through the ensuing wait otherwise. I would have rushed off without thinking, without caring what the Dark Lord would do to me after my return, screaming Severus's and Draco's names. As it was, however, I merely watched with mild interest as the Dark Lord sent Yaxley and Dolohov to the Forest as lookouts for Potter, as he ordered to have Hagrid, whom the spiders had brought as their prisoner, tied to a tree, as he braced himself to wait, utterly convinced that Potter would come of his own free will. Considering the state I was in, I was inclined to agree with him. If Potter cared enough about the people in the castle, then he would come. I, too, would give myself up willingly if I believed that it would help save Severus and Draco.
An hour passed, however, and Harry Potter was nowhere to be seen. Yaxley and Dolohov returned alone. The Dark Lord stared pensively into the fire. It seemed we had misjudged the boy, after all. Perhaps he was not as noble as the whole wizarding world believed him to be. Perhaps he was just a selfish brat, incapable of love, who had become a hero through a series of accidents. It would not be far from what Severus had once described him to be, when our conversation happened to sway that way. Tears sprang into my eyes at the memory. Desperation, contained somewhere deep inside me until then, suddenly washed over me like a tidal wave. I found I could no longer sustain the hope I had been nursing so carefully for the past hour or so. Who had I been fooling? It had been nothing more than wishful thinking, a wild guess. It was not good enough anymore. I would welcome anything other than the horrible uncertainty, the excruciating fact of not knowing. Various scenarios flashed before my eyes, each one worse than the last. Hysteria threatened to overcome me. I wanted to run, I wanted to do practically anything, as long as I did not have to stay in this hateful clearing, clueless, passive, useless, while my son and lover possibly needed help.
I would have pursued these thoughts further, perhaps even acted upon them, but at that moment something happened that made my attention, as well as everybody else's, instantly turn elsewhere. Seemingly materializing out of nowhere, Harry Potter was striding purposefully towards us, his lips pressed tightly together, his eyes fixed upon the Dark Lord. So he had decided to come, after all. He did value the lives of his friends more than his own. He had come to die, so that they could live. The Dark Lord's plan had worked out.
Following his every move as if in a trance, I could not help but admire him as he came to a halt in front of the Dark Lord, fearless, calmly awaiting death.
And death did come. Ignoring Hagrid's shouts of protest, paying no attention even to Bella, who had jumped to her feet, looking avid, the Dark Lord looked at Potter and smiled, a cruel smile that made my blood chill.
"Harry Potter," he said, so quietly I had to strain my ears to hear him. "The Boy Who Lived."
A flick of the wand, a flash of green light, and Harry Potter fell to the ground in a heap. A moment later, amidst a number of terrified gasps, the Dark Lord did the same. Bella, already on her feet, was the first to rush to his aid, followed by several others. The rest of us remained frozen in our spots, too shocked to move. What had happened? Was history repeating itself? Had the Dark Lord's spell backfired on him once again? It certainly appeared so. The Dark Lord was lying on the ground, unmoving, while Bella hovered by his side, anxious to help him and yet afraid to touch him. I had never seen her so frustrated as when she whispered his name, over and over again, as if she hoped it would bring him back.
Several minutes passed in this fashion. I was at a loss at what to think, what to do. If Harry Potter and the Dark Lord had indeed killed each other, I was free to run and look for Draco and Severus, as my heart was telling me to do. However, my mind reasoned that if the Dark Lord came to and did not see me around, I would hardly live to enjoy their company, even if I was lucky enough to find them. And so, along with everyone else, I waited. I supposed, when it came down to it, I was really a coward. I preferred to leave my loved ones unaided rather than stand up to the Dark Lord. Perhaps he would not even bother to kill me. Perhaps he would just punish me, as he always did. But there was the 'what if' that frightened me. The 'what if' that meant death. And I was afraid of dying, just like Lucius was, just like Karkaroff had been, just like a lot of the others were. In this respect Harry Potter was better than any of us. A short while ago I had called him selfish, incapable of love, but now I realized it was really myself I had been describing. Harry Potter had died for his loved ones. I could not.
The increasing urgency in Bella's voice broke the train of my thoughts, and I quickly glanced her way to see what had caused it. I could see no difference at first. Everything was as it had been; the Dark Lord's body on the ground where it had fallen, the smaller form of Harry Potter not far away. But when I looked closer I noticed that the Dark Lord was stirring, causing the people who had gathered around him to scatter in fright at what they guessed would follow. Finally only Bella remained behind, her eyes shining as if the love of her life had risen from the dead, but then even she was waved off as the Dark Lord rose heavily to his feet.
"The boy," he barked, nodding his head in the direction of the dark bundle that was Harry Potter. "Is he dead?"
Nobody answered. Nobody dared to breathe, even. Fear and uncertainty hung in the air, thick as fog. Somehow we felt that not everything had gone as the Dark Lord had planned. He seemed angry and yet, at the same time, I could swear I could detect a trace of fear in his voice. It was not a good idea to attract his attention when he was in this state, we all knew that well enough. Consequently I almost fainted from shock when his gaze suddenly landed on me.
"You," he snapped, aiming his wand at me as if to emphasize his words. A jet of sparks shot out of it, burning my skin and making me cry out in pain. "Examine him. Tell me whether he is dead."
Glancing at Lucius for support, I reluctantly obeyed, the look in the Dark Lord's eyes spelling only too well what would happen to me if I did not. I do not remember how I made my legs move, paralyzed with fear as I was, nor how I managed to reach Potter's body without my knees giving way under me, but all of a sudden I was there, touching his face, feeling for his heartbeat. And it was then that I almost yanked my hand back in shock, as if I had been burned. Naturally I had expected to feel nothing, believing the boy to be dead just like everybody else, but it could not be, for his heart was beating frantically, as fast as a bird's.
I did not even have to think about what I did then. If ever I was to find out what had happened to Draco and Severus, I could not have been given a better chance, and so I lowered my head so that my lips were almost touching Potter's ear and asked, in a voice that was barely more than a breath, "Is Draco alive? Is he in the castle?"
"Yes," came the immediate answer, making my heart almost burst with joy. I wished I could have asked about Severus, too, but I knew I could not risk Potter guessing the truth about us. If he was with Draco, my one question would have to do.
I stood up, and strangely it took me only a moment to decide what to say, despite the possible consequences. Witnessing the boy survive his own death, yet again, made me see clearly who was the stronger one. Despite his power, despite his army, the Dark Lord was finished. What was he compared to this brave boy, prepared to sacrifice his life for his friends? What was power and terror compared to the purity of love? I would be happy to see the Dark Lord fall, I knew that now, though the feeling had been growing inside me for much longer, certainly since Potter had been brought to our house a few weeks previously, though I supposed I should have seen it much sooner than that. After all, it was as clear as daylight who was, and always had been, responsible for our hardships. If it had not been for the Dark Lord, Lucius would not have been reduced to a nervous wreck. If it had not been for the Dark Lord, I would never have had to live in constant terror of losing Draco. If it had not been for the Dark Lord, I could have been lying in Severus's arms now, instead of having to worry about his whereabouts.
How convenient, then, that I was given a chance to put a stop to all this now. I would have to be crazy not to seize it. If the Dark Lord found out, death would most certainly follow, but I found I was no longer afraid. If dying meant a chance of securing a Dark Lord free world for my loved ones, I would gladly take the risk. And so, as my eyes swept over the expectant faces around me, including the Dark Lord's, I drew myself up to my full height, and, in a voice that was loud and clear, announced that Harry Potter was dead.
There was a moment of silence, before the crowd of watchers erupted in loud cheers. Gone was the fear that had gripped them until then, lifted as if by magic. Now there was only triumph and jubilation, and even the Dark Lord looked unusually exultant as he cast Crucio on Potter's body to show us all who had come out victorious in the end. I watched in terror as he did so, certain that the boy would cry out and compromise us both, but he remained silent as he was thrown into the air, again and again, his body as limp as if he were really dead.
After the Dark Lord had finished showing off, he ordered Hagrid to take Potter in his arms so as to make a greater impression on the Hogwarts population, which, though further evidence of the Dark Lord's cruelty, could not have suited me better. Looking rather like a rag doll as he was gently picked up, there was little chance of his heartbeat or breathing being felt through the half-giant's moleskin overcoat, as would surely have been the case had one of the Death Eaters been asked to carry him.
We must have looked quite a sight as we slowly set off towards the castle; a bizarre funeral procession, with Hagrid in the lead and two giants closing up the rear. Through the Forest we trudged, on and on, until we finally reached the edge and the Dark Lord, who had meanwhile rid Nagini of her enchanted cage and was now wearing her around the shoulders like a giant boa, ordered us to stop. Amplifying his voice again, he gravely informed the castle defenders of Potter's death, and asked them to submit if they hoped to be spared. Drunk with triumph, it was obvious he expected them to obey readily; a different possibility did not even enter his mind.
But he was mistaken. As we completed our journey to the castle doors and Hagrid set Potter's body down at the Dark Lord's feet, where the Dark Lord claimed it belonged, a boy rushed out of the castle, immediately recognized by Bella as Neville Longbottom. It was no wonder; after all, it was she who had tortured his parents into madness.
At first nobody, not even I, could see what threat he could possibly pose. The Dark Lord disarmed him easily, then rammed the Sorting Hat, which had, in the meantime, miraculously fallen from one of the castle windows, onto his head and set it on fire. I was certain that was the poor boy's end. Whatever had made him give up his life so foolishly, I could not even begin to imagine.
If Longbottom's pointless sacrifice seemed surprising, however, then what came next was even more so. Without any warning whatsoever, a great herd of centaurs came charging at us from the Forbidden Forest, followed by a giant, a Hippogriff and, unless my eyes were deceiving me, some Thestrals. Arrows fell upon us like rain, and amidst the ensuing chaos the boy Longbottom shook off his hat and out of its depths pulled a gleaming silver sword, very much like the one Bella had made such a fuss about several weeks before. Waiting for nothing, he rushed straight at the Dark Lord, who, being too busy fighting off all the attacking creatures, realized only too late what was about to happen. With one swish of the blade, Longbottom beheaded the great snake Nagini, and then watched with satisfaction as her body slowly slid off the Dark Lord's shoulders and landed in the dust at his feet. Devastated by the loss of his pet, the Dark Lord let out a scream of anguish and fury and, momentarily forgetting about everything else, focused his attention solely on the boy, murder in his eyes.
I did not care to see the rest. If I wanted to get into the castle to find Draco and Severus, it was either now or never. Personally I preferred now.
Grabbing Lucius's hand, I thrust my way through the crowd, elbowing anybody unfortunate enough to cross my path. The time to be considerate was long gone.
Helped by the attacking creatures, which were pushing both Death Eaters and Hogwarts defenders back into the castle, we eventually found ourselves inside. With absolutely no clue as to where to start looking, I haphazardly ventured into the Great Hall, which was closest to hand.
I immediately wished I had not done so. Absolutely unprepared for the sight that met my eyes, I jumped back in fright, almost knocking Lucius over as I did so.
"What is it?" he asked, startled. "Is Draco there?"
"I ... I don't know," I stammered. "But ... look."
He did look, and what he saw were rows and rows of bodies stacked on the floor in the middle of the room, staring at the ceiling with lifeless eyes. I recognized some of them. There was the werewolf, Lupin. There was my niece, Nymphadora. There was one of the Weasley kids, easily distinguishable by his ginger hair. All dead, all victims of the Dark Lord's obsession to vanquish Harry Potter.
Standing there in the door, paralyzed with shock at the number of lives lost in such a short period of time, we were almost overrun by the crowd of fighters that had meanwhile been forced entirely into the school, and was now pressing upon us from behind. Having no choice but to enter the room that now seemed more like a death chamber than the dining hall it used to be, we reluctantly took a couple of steps forward, and that was when I saw him – huddled in the furthest corner, barely visible behind the High Table, sat my son Draco.
I hardly dared to believe it at first. Was it even possible that after the nightmare of the past few hours we would be reunited at last? It took a moment before it all sunk in, that he was really there, alive and well, and that nothing could take me away from him anymore, but as it did so my eyes inadvertently filled with tears, whether of relief or joy I could not quite tell. Brushing them aside, I started off across the Hall as if the Dark Lord himself were at my heels, no longer aware of the bodies on the ground as I wended my way among them, for all I could think about was to be with my son again. And so I ran, all the while shouting his name, with Lucius right there at my side doing the same, until I finally reached his provisional sanctuary, where I threw myself on my knees and hugged him, bedewing his hair with fresh tears.
"Draco, oh Draco," I sobbed. "Thank Merlin you're all right! We've been so worried!"
"Yes, indeed," Lucius joined in, kneeling beside me. I noticed that his voice, too, was breaking with emotion, despite his attempts to hide it. "What happened? Why didn't you come to the Forest when the Dark Lord called?"
Breaking free of my embrace, Draco raised his eyes to meet ours, his face a picture of misery. "It was because of Crabbe and Goyle," he said dolefully. "They decided to hang back. They wanted to catch Potter and bring him to the Dark Lord. I thought they were crazy, but they made me help them." He sighed. "We found him. He wanted to go to the Room of Requirement. We followed him inside and we chased him. But he got away and Crabbe ... Crabbe... There was a horrible fire and ... he got trapped in it. We ... we couldn't save him." He gave a great sob and buried his head in my shoulder.
Gently stroking his hair, I mulled over what he had told me. A great sense of foreboding began to form in my mind. Yes, Draco had explained his actions, but not once had he mentioned Severus. And since Severus was not here with him now, it could only mean... No, no, no. It could not be. I refused to believe it. Perhaps the Dark Lord had merely sent him on an errand. Perhaps ... anything, anything but what my intuition was telling me.
So why the growing weight in my stomach? Why the sudden chill that was making my whole body tremble? No, no, no. Surely he just got delayed. He would come, he would be here any moment now... Like a person possessed I scanned the battling wizards still pouring into the Great Hall, searching for the familiar features, again and again; surely he was there somewhere, I just could not see him. But I saw only Bella, fighting three children at once before Molly Weasley took over and killed her before my very eyes. Strangely enough, I did not seem to care at all. It might have happened in another dimension, which I was watching as if through a haze. The Dark Lord's army crumbling, Death Eaters being brought down one by one ... I saw it and yet I did not, for what was the point of it all when Severus was not among the fighters? What did anything matter, really? Was that truly Harry Potter emerging out of the mist, challenging the Dark Lord? Or was it merely a product of my clouded senses? I no longer knew, nor cared.
Only half-consciously did I watch as Potter (who must have been real, after all, as the rest of the Great Hall saw him, too) and the Dark Lord began moving in a circle, trying to distract each other with talk. I heard the words, but it seemed as if they held no meaning. How could they when the only thing that mattered was Severus? Severus, who might only be waiting until all this was over to show himself. Severus, who would sweep me into his arms and tell me I should never have worried, for he knew how to take care of himself. Severus-
"Severus Snape wasn't yours."
The words pierced through the haziness of my mind like an explosion. What was that? Who said that? Had I gone as far as having hallucinations now?
Taking a disoriented look around, I soon found that that was not the case. Perhaps it would have been better for me if it had been. But as it was, it was Potter who had spoken, and so I mustered what little concentration I could given my condition, and raptly listened for more.
And more did come. To say that I was shocked would have been a severe understatement. It was as if Severus's innermost secrets were suddenly brought to light, secrets I would never have even dreamed of inquiring about. What was more, they were revealed by the most unlikely person I could possibly think of, a person I believed Severus to despise with his entire being. How was it that he knew more about my lover than I had ever hoped to do? How?
With growing astonishment I listened as he uncovered the identity of Severus's old love, the mysterious girl whose name I had had no desire of knowing. Never, as long as I lived, would I have guessed her to be Potter's own mother. It almost seemed too absurd to be true.
However, there was more still to follow. I had always considered Severus a staunch supporter of the Dark Lord. There had been doubts, of course, but after the Dark Lord had returned to power that had been the case with almost all Death Eaters, with the exception of Barty Crouch junior, perhaps. The important thing was that in the long run Severus had been convincing enough to regain the Dark Lord's trust, and even secure himself the place of one of his most useful and trusted servants. Now it turned out he had been leading us all on, if Potter's words were anything to go by. All those years he had been Dumbledore's spy, feeding the Dark Lord false or incomplete information without the Dark Lord, who had always considered himself the most skilled Legilimens around, ever suspecting. Had the circumstances been less serious, it would almost make one laugh. But then the Dark Lord spoke, and any potential amusement I might have felt instantly died inside me as he uttered the fatal words; words that would continue to haunt me for the rest of my days.
"I killed Severus Snape three hours ago."