Second Interlude - Stormy Weather
It didn’t take long to reach the International Floo point, and Eleanor understood from Henrì’s refusal to discuss the topic that whatever had been happening had stopped now and that he didn’t want to tell her until they were back in the Chalet. So, while they were in the line marked ‘Northern French Floo Connections’, watching the man at the desk arguing with a very short, very angry woman who had apparently ended up in the wrong person’s living room, Eleanor chattered to Henrì about school and the play and her friends.
“When is this performance?” he asked, only the faintest trace of his accent audible; Eleanor supposed it was because he and Estelle had spent so long speaking English around her, both their accents were quite faint now.
“Around the end of November,” she said, smiling. “Will you come?”
“Certainly! It will be a pleasure,” he grinned. “The ‘ouse ‘as been so quiet without you this year, mon petit roitelet. Though I ‘ear from your mother your year at ‘ogwarts ‘as not been uneventful.” His face darkened. “I would ‘ave liked to meet those little…” he trailed off, glancing around him. “We were furious when we ‘eard, but your mother told us you were alright...” He gave her a faintly absent pat on the head. “You seem to ‘ave some good friends at that school.”
“I do,” she smiled, glad that she wouldn’t have to go into any more detail on her ordeal.
“It is just as well,” he added in a conspiratorial undertone. “Antoine volunteered to eat them for you.”
Trying to hide her snort of laughter as they approached the harassed looking attendant, Eleanor gave her housekeeper a radiant smile.
“I might have let him.”
She was barely out of the fireplace when Estelle caught her in a flying hug, which she happily returned. The older witch’s white hair was caught in a long plait today, and her simple work dress smelled promisingly of fresh bread and cocoa.
“I’ve missed you tatie Estelle,” she grinned pulling away.
“And I you, ma perle, though I ‘ave to admit it was a good deal more peaceful around ‘ere this year.”
“I shall have to make up for it this summer then,” she said, innocently, and behind her Henrì gave a snort of laughter.
“I told you we would ‘ave our ‘ands full soon enough, Stella.”
“You mind your manners, Henrì, our little princess is back in residence,” she smiled fondly at Estelle. “You put that tongue away little madame. That’s better. Now let me look at you…” She surveyed her charge critically for a minute and gave her a satisfied nod. “Even more beautiful than when you left!” she declared, and Eleanor rolled her eyes. “Henrì, get that trunk to Eleanor’s room – I’ll make something to eat, oui?”
Her housekeepers bustling off happily in opposite directions, Eleanor laughed to herself and looked around; the Chalet seemed much as it always had: airy and comfortable and cosy. She breathed in and tasted the sweet mountain air, so different from the slightly damp mugginess to which she had become accustomed in Scotland.
Tugging off her travelling cloak, she hung it on the hook by the front door and followed the sound of Estelle’s humming into the spacious kitchen.
She sat at one end of the large, scrubbed wooden table and happily accepted her brioche and hot chocolate, relishing the remembered delight of scooping the top broth-like layer of the hot chocolate from the top of the mug with a spoon.
Estelle shook her head at her charge, before settling beside her with a large coffee; Henrì began to clean his pipe out on the stove.
“So,” prompted Eleanor.
“So?” repeated Estelle, raising an eyebrow.
“So, what’s going on? Henrì said there’d been trouble.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to get settled in first, ma petit chou?” he asked, from the vicinity of the stove.
“I am settled,” said Eleanor, smiling. “I have the two of you, my hot chocolate and brioche, what more could I need?” She half turned to her housekeeper. “And I’m not a cabbage.”
“You never did like that nickname.”
“I never liked cabbage all that much. Stop changing the subject, tatie Estelle.”
“I am sorry, little one. You are more like your mother every day,” she said affectionately. “She never liked to be kept waiting either. There ‘ave been some men…”
“They were asking questions,” said Henrì. “We think that Monsieur Buchardt suspects… something. We are not sure if he suspects Violetta is ‘aving an affair out ‘ere, or if he has guessed who you might be, but he suspects something.”
Eleanor considered this.
“They’ll be back?”
“Most probably,” said Estelle.
“What are we going to do?”
“We are going to do nothing,” said Estelle. “If they are still watching the valley, as we think they might be, any changes would be too suspicious.”
“But if they see me,” said Eleanor, frowning. “I look so much like her.”
“Mais oui, we must continue to conceal you… your mother ‘as made it plain that she wishes you to continue to ‘ave your freedom, as do we. She suggests that we use a Glamour – just for the duration of the summer.”
“That’s a form of illusion…”
“Oui. To everyone that matters – to us, Violetta, Antoine and your friends – you will appear to be yourself, but to anyone else you will look like a fine, young French girl.” Henrì smiled. “We wanted to make it believable, so we ‘ave decided that you should look like Estelle when she was a girl.”
Estelle grinned at her.
“You are lucky, I was quite the catch was it not?”
Henrì nodded emphatically as Eleanor laughed.
“We will say you are our niece, and that you go to school in England; you will be my sister’s daughter, and alas, your parents died in a tragic accident when you were very young. However, it was your dear father’s wish that you study at ‘ogwarts as ‘e ‘ad.”
“So you see, little one? Nothing to worry about.”
“I suppose you best Glamour me up – you never know when people might drop in…”
“Mais oui,” said Estelle, and pulled out her wand. “ ‘old still, Eleanor.”
The Glamour felt strange as it formed around her: it was warm, and not wholly unpleasant, and some of her features tingled oddly as they changed.
“It will take a few minutes to fade – we will all be able to see you Glamoured until then…”
“Merde,” Henrì swore under his breath. “Stella, she could ‘ave been our daughter.”
“She always ‘as been,” said Estelle, softly.
Eleanor suspected that she wasn’t supposed to hear it, so she got up and peered into the mirror on the inglenook.
It was very strange indeed to be looking at yourself and seeing someone else entirely. She’d kept her stormy blue eyes, she noted with satisfaction, but her hair was much longer, and had shifted from her accustomed pale caramel to deeper maple tones. She was taller, she noted, and slimmer, as Estelle was; her skin was more tanned, as though she’d spent the year roaming the mountains instead of locked in dusty classrooms with her treasured books.
“Estelle, you have made me very beautiful.”
“You already were, little treasure.”
“Now,” said Estelle, putting her wand away and rubbing her hands together in a business-like manner. “Henrì, I shall need some vegetables from the garden, if you please.”
Her husband executed a faux-military salute and marched down the corridor whistling an infantry tune.
“And you, my little one, should take the opportunity to unpack. I shall ‘ave you busy in my kitchen again tomorrow,” she gave her a warm smile. “Oh, it is good to ‘ave you back, Eleanor!”
Her room was much as she remembered it, albeit a little tidier than normal. Deciding to unpack the lazy way she spent an enjoyable half hour making her possessions whiz about the room to their proper places, before taking out the things that really mattered to her and finding homes for them.
The necklace was the first thing to come off, and it was deposited safely in a wooden box by her bedside where it couldn’t get lost or damaged. Next was the book of sonnets, which she placed beside her bed, stroking the cover fondly. She found an old jam jar under her bed, and placed it on the edge of her ample window seat; carefully unwrapping the tea-rose, she put it in the make-shift vase, so that she could look at it when she read. The pile of addresses went into a small box on her writing desk, and she filled the top drawer of the desk with the remains of the sweets from Honeydukes.
Grudgingly, she took off the bracelet that Remus had given her. She knew that if Dumbledore and Alice’s Aunty Enid knew about older wizarding marriage traditions then Estelle and Henrì certainly would, and she’d rather not discuss the matter. She traced the pattern of roses with her finger.
Perhaps Remus hadn’t thought about the connotations of the gift until after he’d given it…
Anyway, it wouldn’t do for it to be damaged, she thought, and that’s far more likely here, what with picking beans and mending fences and baking pastries…
Carefully, she placed it under her pillow where it would be safe.
She rubbed her wrist, absently; she felt naked without it.
Looking around her room with the warm feeling of familiarity creeping over her, she caught her reflection in the mirror. The glamour hadn’t quite worn off, though she looked much more herself: her hair seemed to be caught between light brown and blonde, and some of the accustomed fullness had returned to her cheeks. Just for a moment, she had the strange impression that she wasn’t looking at herself…
That’s funny, she thought, with the way the light is falling on me, and the remnants of the glamour… I look a bit like Remus…
Struck by the sudden and delightful shock that this could be what a child of theirs might look like, Eleanor stood and watched, mesmerised, as this tantalising image slowly melted into her own face, until she was once again looking solely at herself.
Life at the Chalet had never been dull, but it seemed to Eleanor, after the bustle and general insanity of Hogwarts, that the summer days were stretching on forever. It wasn’t as though she wasn’t enjoying being at home, what with the freedom of the secluded valley and Estelle’s cooking and the sound of Henrì chattering away to the hens as he worked in the garden. She just missed her friends.
It was the little things that bothered her, like: every day she’d wake, confused, to a room-mate-less room and have to shake herself before getting on with her day. She’d be happily shelling peas on the veranda with Henrì, both of them arguing with the wireless, and she’d glance at the door to the kitchen, expecting to see Remus, or Frank, or Claire. She’d be down in the village and one of the local boys would wolf whistle, and she’d turn to scold him but stop, nonplussed, as it wasn’t Sirius. Nor was it James and Peter who Estelle caught scrumping in the orchard and dragged back down the valley by the scruff of their shirts. The lack of chaos was beginning to bother her.
Still, at least she had the letters.
True to her word, Alice had written the day she’d got back to Mytholmroyd, telling Eleanor that her mum had baked her a cake and that Uncle Algie had fallen in the pond. It had been such a vivid description that Eleanor had shown it to Estelle, who had laughed so hard that great silver tears of mirth had rolled down her shrivelled apple cheeks.
Lily had written soon after, with the news that she and her family were going to Italy for a week and a promise to send a postcard from Rome. She’d also mentioned that her parents were fine with her coming out to the Chalet in August, and Eleanor had practically danced with joy.
She’d had confirmation letters from Peter and Sirius, who had apparently bought his own flat with some money he’d inherited from a similarly disowned uncle; Eleanor imagined that it already looked much like his bed in the dormitories: chaotic. Claire had sent her a postcard from the Lake District where she was holidaying with her father and aunts, and Frank had written asking whether she’d started on her Transfiguration homework yet, since there was a passage he couldn’t locate and wondered if she could remember it. She could, and had spent a fruitful half hour hunting for it on the shade of the veranda, Henrì and the chickens shaking their heads at her and tutting.
Remus had written nearly a week into the holiday, thanking her once more for the quills and dodging very carefully around the subject of old marriage traditions. He had ended the letter with his good wishes and how much he missed her; he too had permission to visit the Chalet, and it was a good job, since Eleanor found she missed him even more than she had before his letter had arrived.
Estelle, as promised, was keeping her busy in the kitchen and house, though just as much of her time was spent helping Henrì in the garden and small farm adjacent to the Chalet, and so with answering the constant stream of letters and postcards and the occasional foray into her summer homework it was nearly July before Eleanor noticed that there had been no word from Severus.
She’d written to him about a fortnight before, asking if he could come out to see her, but she’d had no reply. She wrote again.
Now, every owl brought an increase in the unease that had stolen upon her when she’d first come to the realisation that her friend’s precise handwriting was missing.
After a full week of waiting for a response she decided that something must be wrong. Finally, she sent a message that simply read ‘Be ready’.
It had been a long, hot, puthery day, and she, Estelle and Henrì had spent the majority of it in the gardens, so her housekeepers took to their beds earlier than usual. She could hear them moving around sleepily in the room at the other end of the dark landing as she lay awake, fully clothed, in her bed. The bracelet Remus had given her was back around her wrist, for luck.
Although she was a little tired, she felt none of the happy exhaustion that usually came from a day spent toiling in the fields or orchard. She was too on edge tonight; too excited about what she planned to do, too afraid for her friend.
Patiently, she waited for all the sounds of wakefulness to cease, then counted the minutes until she heard Henrì’s telltale snores drift through the house. Silently, she rose and picked up her bag and cloak, left in readiness beside her bedroom door, and opened her door with practiced ease. She slipped down the stairs, careful to avoid the one that creaked, three from the bottom, and collected her boots from the kitchen. She lifted the heavy iron latch on the door and replaced it without any sound, silently thanking her habit of sneaking about after dark for her ability to leave undetected. It wouldn’t do to get caught… Estelle and Henrì would only try to stop her, try to do this a more official way…
But this was something that needed to be done quietly, and in their way… the Marauder way.
Besides, Eleanor thought, Severus will prefer this to be as uncomplicated as possible, and if it’s just me, alone, he still has a choice. Adult interference will only force a decision, and that wouldn’t be right…
Intent on her mission, she slipped silently away from the slumbering house and into the orchard, leaning briefly against a tree to lace up her boots. Moving quickly, she made her way down the track that led to the village. The sound of Apparation would be a surprise to the villagers too, but they’d simply assume that some drunk had chosen to take the quick way home; any closer to the Chalet and the house would be awake in an instant, ready to defend…
The village tavern appeared to be hosting some kind of small riot with a lot of singing… probably singing. It sounded a lot more like somebody tunefully murdering a yak, but Eleanor imagined that music was the intended if not actual outcome. She bided her time until the occupants gave a particularly loud cheer at the end of a verse about the ravishing of young women (or yaks, she couldn’t be entirely sure) and spun on the spot.
Eleanor shook her head to clear it. Apparation wasn’t really that much fun. It was certainly quick, and a lot less likely to draw attention than using the local Floo network, but it did come with unpleasant sensation of being turned inside out, something which Eleanor intended to avoid if at all possible.
Thankful that the European Union of Wizards had ruled to keep all transport points open through the night, Eleanor joined the short queue of weary travellers under the magical banner that read ‘Angleterre’.
Greeting the tired looking attendant, she handed over her wand as identification and waited, patiently, trying to look as though she did this all the time.
“Bit late for a youngster like you to be travelling,” said the guard in French. “But you are of age, so on you go.”
“Cousinly distress call, she explained, as he examined the contents of her bag. “Our parents are all holidaying together, so I’m the point of contact.”
“Ah, the responsible one, eh?” he laughed, on her nod. “I always left that up to my brother… any idea what you’re travelling into?”
Eleanor shook her head.
“Knowing my cousins it could be anything from a bar fight to a big spider,” she lied.
“Let’s hope for the spider then,” he said, and ushered her through.
Eleanor stepped through the Emerald flames into the London Floo Exchange, and made her way to the surface up a great staircase, still teeming with people despite the hour. Drawing away to one side, she glance along the street; in the distance a great bell was tolling the hour, informing the British public that it was midnight now and they probably should all be in bed. Sidling into a quiet and altogether frightening looking blind alley, she Disapparated.
With the one exception of the time when Bertram Mulciber and Evan Rosier had decided to ‘teach him a lesson’ for ruining their fun, he was sure that he’d never hurt more in his life.
He knew that his friends had no way of knowing that the owls they sent made his father angry, and really, he had no way of telling them, not having an owl of his own, or money to use a Post Owl…
And in fact, despite the fear and impending dread that each flap of wings brought with it, he found himself longing to hear another, to know that he was not forgotten. He’d managed to intercept a couple of the letters, when his father had been out drinking, or at work, and to his astonishment he now had one letter from each of his friends – two, even, from Alice Roberts, who seemed to be as loquacious a correspondent as she was a gossip. There were even letters from Potter and Black…
He’d hidden them under the loose floorboard in his room, and read them through every night, just to check that he hadn’t lost his mind and simply imagined them.
His mother, though thankfully not receiving any of his father’s anger, was very carefully Staying Out Of It, and he didn’t blame her. He knew that she took the brunt of it the rest of the year, and that she only stayed so that he had somewhere to go back to. They’d never been particularly close, as mothers and sons went, but there had always been a kind of tacit respect between them, quiet as they were, and he was glad of it.
Not that it was a safe somewhere, or even a pleasant one… and since Lily and her family had moved further south he didn’t really see anyone other than his parents and the slightly mad and toothless old wizard who lived at the end of the road. But it was somewhere.
These last beatings though had had nothing to do with Severus being a wizard and everything to do with his father being suddenly unemployed… and quite a bit to do with the fact that Severus had had enough of his father calling his plain and unassuming mother a ‘tart’.
So now he had bruises on his bruises, and was fairly sure that he was going to lose one of his front teeth, and had long since used up the last of the Dittany that Eleanor had liberated from Slughorn in January…
He’d spoken to his mother that morning while his father signed on at the job centre, and she had been exhausted and pale, suggesting that the ‘re-education’ as his father called it, was no longer limited to him. She’d looked like a woman ready to give up as she made her way to the Ministry to work…
And that had been when Eleanor’s owl had arrived.
He still had the note in his pocket.
He took it out and read it again in the moonlight.
It wasn’t much of a letter, but to Severus it had been a lifeline… he’d stared at it in the dingy kitchen for at least half an hour as something painful and liberating happened in his head. Then he’d very carefully folded the scrap of parchment, slipped it in his pocket and walked upstairs to his room to pack. By the time his father had returned and demanded entertainment in the form of beating up his son for the tenth time that week he was ready to go. It didn’t matter that his room looked Spartan and empty, since his father never bothered to enter it, preferring to spend most of his time ignoring his existence, and if his mother had noticed, she hadn’t let on. He’d write to her the muggle way, once all this was done with; she’d understand.
So he waited, shifting painfully on the bed that would, with any luck, soon no longer be his and straining his ears for any out of place sound.
At around about one in the morning, when he’d been dozing fitfully, someone outside his window swore softly. Slowly, and wincing with every movement, he made his way to the window, suddenly afraid that his father would hear his heartbeat, which was thundering in his ears like timpani drums.
There, at the end of his neglected garden, someone was picking their way through an overgrown bramble patch. He stared down at her, not quite believing the evidence of his own vision.
Eleanor cleared the bushes and brushed herself off, pausing to take in her surroundings. She’d arrived on the other side of village and walked the last mile, hoping to conceal her covert activity as fully as possible. She’d noted, with some sadness, that the prim back gardens and pretty cottages that she’d Apparated next to had given way to scrubby, neglected lawns and run-down terraces. She’d been to industrial towns before, with Estelle, and had loved the terraces, which had always been full of friendly, talkative women with flowery aprons; these matriarchs had kept baskets full of flowers on their windowsills and scrubbed and cleaned their front steps until they’d gleamed in the sunshine. Spinners’ End was nothing like her memories…
These terraces were dark and forlorn, as if the buildings had given up hope long before their occupants… the paths leading up to the scuffed front doors were dirty and full of weeds, as though the people here had forgotten the meaning of self respect. It made her sad to think of anyone growing up in a place so without hope, and so she told herself that the families inside these dark houses more than made up for their surroundings. Somewhere, she was sure, someone would be sitting in their living room laughing, or rocking a baby to sleep, or smiling at the memory of something…
She’d found Severus’s house easily enough, and had immediately decided to go in through the back garden. She was reasonably sure she’d not been seen hiding in the shadows of the street, although a toothless old man at the end of the road had glanced in her direction when he’d put his cat out. He’d been wearing a maroon smoking jacket and a fez, and it had made her smile insanely to know that at least someone in this dingy street had some personality.
His garden was much like the next, from what she could see in the darkness… she looked up at the house. None of the lights were on, but the curtains of the right hand window weren’t closed, and she could just about make out a shape in the darkness. The shape moved, raising a wand; just for a moment, light spilled out of the tip of it, and she could see the outline of his face. She grimaced: he didn’t look good, even from there.
Severus watched the figure beneath him raise a hand in greeting and start towards the house. He frowned.
How the hell was he going to get out of the house? Going downstairs would mean passing his parents’ door and that was not a course of action he’d particularly recommend…
Something tapped lightly on the bedroom window, and he jumped. Somehow, Eleanor had managed to climb what appeared to him to be a sheer wall with barely a sound. He let her in, gaping at her. She had a long scratch on her cheek.
“What?” she whispered. “I spend most of my summers up trees…”
She looked him up and down.
Her heart broke for him.
He gave a half shrug.
“I’ve had worse,” he rasped, though in this case he was reasonably sure that this wasn’t true.
He stiffened – to his very great surprise, he found Eleanor suddenly pressed up against him in an incredibly gentle hug.
“I should have come sooner…”
“You had no way of knowing,” he whispered.
“You’ll come with me?”
“Yes,” he said, and allowed himself to slump against her as she gave him the lightest of squeezes. “Anywhere.”
They stood together quietly for a few minutes, and Severus was profoundly grateful that his friend was ignoring the tears that were soaking into her shoulder.
Eventually, she pulled away from him and picked up his travelling cloak, sweeping it around him and fastening it at his neck.
A tiny sound made them turn and look at the door to his room; they jumped.
How long his mother had been standing there, Eleanor had no idea, and the older witch’s face gave nothing away.
Silently, she beckoned to her son, and handed him a package of some kind. Clearly, Mrs Snape knew precisely what was going on, and if she didn’t necessarily approve, she certainly accepted it. She held him to her briefly, before he turned away, no longer able to keep the emotion from his face.
Eleanor, feeling very much the intruder, had been determinedly looking the other way, out of the window, and so when she felt Mrs Snape tap her arm she started.
The older witch pressed her hand briefly and nodded, wordlessly conveying her gratitude, and retreated back into the house, letting the door close silently behind her.
Eleanor looked back up at Severus, who scrubbed at his face with his sleeve.
“How are we going to do this?” he asked, in a hoarse whisper.
Eleanor peered out into the dark garden.
“Carefully,” she said. “Can you get the trunk out of the window?”
“I- I think so,” he said, and hefted it up to the opening.
Eleanor sent a quick muffling charm at the door, though she suspected she was merely reinforcing Mrs Snape’s own charms, before aiming her wand at the trunk.
“Wingardium leviosa,” she hissed, and lowered it gently to the ground.
“You next… can you climb down?”
Severus glanced down at the wall below him.
She levitated him out of the window and set him down on the grass outside as gently as she could; if the situation had been different, she would have laughed at his expression: part fear, part indignation, and part simple amusement. Eleanor lowered herself from the windowsill and let herself drop to the ground, which wasn’t far.
He was staring at her.
“Do you do this often?”
“Oh, shut up…” she glanced at the package in his hands. “Do you want to put that in your trunk?”
“I don’t think it will fit…” he said, staring down at it.
“I have a bag…”
He nodded and handed the bundle over; the paper in which it was wrapped crackled slightly in the darkness.
Severus stared silently up at the dark house for a few moments before following his friend into the bushes.
Their journey had been relatively uneventful, particularly given the state that Severus was in, until they reached the Calais Floo Terminal. The wizard on the other side of the fireplace had been fast asleep, and after debating for a few minutes whether to wake him, they’d simply grabbed a handful of powder each and made the jump. The attendant who had seen to Eleanor earlier in the night was not, however, asleep, and he swore when he saw them.
“Merde! Not a big spider then?”
“Not as such – he was mugged.”
“Merde!” he said again. “You alright?”
Severus frowned at him.
“Sorry monsieur, he doesn’t speak much French,” she turned to Severus. “He asked if you were ok.”
The attendant laughed; plainly, he understood English.
“At least he has his sense of humour.”
“Yes… Er, the man at the other terminus was asleep…”
“Oh was he now? I’ll be waking him up sharpish. Wands please.”
Eleanor handed over her wand and nudged Severus to do the same.
“Well, I hope the rest of your summer is more enjoyable,” he said, handing them back.
“Merci, Monsieur,” said Eleanor as they turned away.
“Are you ok to Apparate again?” she asked. Under his bruises, Severus was much paler than usual and there was nothing like the experience of turning inside out to sap your energy.
“Should be… how much of a walk is it when we get there?”
“Half an hour, maybe more if we go slow.”
“Where do you live, Wren? Half way up a mountain?”
There was a great crack as Eleanor turned on the spot, one hand firmly on Severus’s arm.
“Urgh,” he said, and slumped to his knees.
“Fuck,” said Eleanor.
The earlier mugginess hadn’t diminished while she’d been away, and they’d Apparated right into the middle of an almighty thunderstorm.
At least we won’t have to worry about anyone hearing us, she thought, as she set a waterproof charm on her bag and Severus’s trunk. They’d been there less than a minute and they were already soaked to the skin.
“Here,” she shouted, over the weather, and hauled him to his feet. She grabbed the trunk in her free hand and started to help him up the trail.
They struggled up the track, fighting to keep their footing along a surface that was fast becoming slick with mud; either side of them a building torrent splashed down the sides of a path, taking with it soil and grit and pebbles. Above them, lightening forked across the pitch black sky, and the answering boom of thunder sounded to Severus like a series of almighty explosions; for a moment he was afraid that the whole mountain would come apart beneath them.
He tried to shake some of the water out of his eyes and looked over at Eleanor: apart from being thoroughly drenched, she didn’t seem to be even slightly worried about the storm, and he stopped himself from asking whether the world was, in fact, ending.
After what seemed like a lifetime, Eleanor guided him off the track and along a thankfully flatter trail leading into what was probably a lush and verdant valley when it wasn’t being lashed into meteorological submission.
A dark building in the distance appeared to be their destination, and given Eleanor’s reaction he established that the inviting yellow light spilling out into the storm meant that someone unexpected was waiting for them.
Eleanor stopped as she saw someone on the path ahead; it was Henrì, wrapped in a thick cloak and holding up a lantern, which hissed with every splash of rain that hit it. His shout was lost in the wind, but he hurried forward to support Severus and together they walked the last few hundred feet to the Chalet.
The lack of noise was the first thing that struck Severus about the chalet, as an older witch shut the door behind him; the wizard, whom he assumed was Eleanor’s housekeeper, led him to a chair into which he sank, gratefully. The older couple were arguing with Eleanor now, though the sound seemed to be coming from very far away…
“Do you have any idea how worried we were, cherie?”
“When the storm came, and we went to check your shutters, and you and your things were gone?”
It was strange, he thought, that sound could echo so much in such a cosy space…
“But Severus neede-”
“What we imagined had happened to you out there – Circe knows where – in this storm?”
“I had to-”
“But you’re safe now,” said the older witch, pulling her startled charge into a hug. “And your friend…”
Severus had meant to apologise to Eleanor for getting her into trouble, but all he succeeded in doing was falling out of the sturdy kitchen chair. He landed on the floor with a thump.
Strong arms hefted him back into the seat, and Eleanor’s worried face came into view.
“ ‘M sry,” he managed.
Somewhere above him, someone was giving orders… he saw the older witch hurry off to the stairs while the wizard tried to struggle out of his wet-weather gear, with limited success.
He could feel hands on his shoulders… they were quite small and gentle… he glanced up the arm that they were attached to and saw Eleanor trying to undo the clasp on his cloak. She was sticking her tongue out very slightly in concentration, and for some reason Severus found this really funny.
“Just so you know,” Eleanor said, finally undoing the clasp and pulling the dripping cloak away. “Laughing like a crazy person is not doing you any favours…”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the wizard pulling his trunk up the stairs; he tried to protest.
“Shh,” Eleanor said, undoing her own cloak and hanging them both over the chairs nearest to the stove.
He looked blearily up at her and she shook her head.
“Come on, upstairs.”
“Bbt,” he said, and she ignored him, putting his arm about her shoulder and dragging him to his feet.
“Estelle’s making up a bed for you – stairs now, that’s right – and Henrì’s running a bath, he’ll help you.”
“ ‘M nt grby,” he mumbled.
“Perhaps not, but a bath will help… you’re freezing – and it won’t do the rest any harm…”
They reached the door to a room that Severus assumed contained a bath, since there was a considerable amount of steam issuing from within. The wizard, presumably Henrì, helped him out of his clothes and into the bath. Part of Severus wanted to argue, but another part told him to be quiet, since the hot water felt amazing. He was vaguely aware that Eleanor had been bundled off by Estelle – she’d apparently been waiting by the door with some kind of tincture that Henrì poured into the bath – presumably to get into some drier clothes.
The water, when he looked down at it, was a strange lavender colour now, and it tingled pleasantly whenever he moved…
Strange, he thought, my bruises don’t hurt as much…
By the time Eleanor was dry and trying to convince Estelle that really, she was fine, Severus felt well enough to dress himself and stumble down to the kitchen, if only to figure out what the hell they’d put in the bath, and whether he could have the recipe.
“Ah, Severus, is it?” asked Estelle. “You are feeling better?”
“Much, thank you…” he looked at Eleanor. “I didn’t want to get you into trouble, I’m sorry…”
“I’m not, not really.”
“Generally if Eleanor does something foolish it is for a good reason,” said Henrì, who was filling his pipe with an air of deep concentration.
“It wasn’t that foolish,” said Estelle. “You drink cocoa, Severus?”
“Er, yes… thank you…” he said, uncertainly, as the older witch passed him a steaming tankard of it.
“You will write to your mother tomorrow?” she asked Eleanor.
“Bon. I think it’s time we all went to bed…”
“Forgive me,” said Severus. “I don’t want to be any trouble – I’ll go out tomorrow, Eleanor said something about a village – and see if there’s anywhere to stay.”
There was a brief silence in the kitchen, the only sounds being the howl of the wind outside and the tiny scraping noises made by Henrì and his pipe.
“You will stay ‘ere,” said the older wizard, gently. “Eleanor would not ‘ave brought you ‘ere unless you needed ‘er to. There is a spare room since our nephew left, and none of us want you to be wandering a strange country alone.”
“I – I don’t want to impose,” said Severus, struggling to keep the lump from his throat. Could these people really want him here?
“Nonsense,” said Estelle. “It ‘as always struck me as lonely for Eleanor all the way out ‘ere, and four mouths are just as easy to feed as three.”
“I can always use another pair of ‘ands around the farm,” added Henrì.
Eleanor sat down beside him.
“You have a home here, if you want it,” she said, softly, and laid her hand on his.
He nodded, suddenly afraid that his voice might reveal the emotional wreck her was fast becoming on the inside.
“Well then,” said Estelle. “Now that is settled, I would say it is time we were all in bed.” She looked at the clock. “It ‘as been a while since I ‘ave seen three in the morning, I ‘ave to say… cherie, will you show Severus to ‘is room, s’il te plait?”
“Well, this is you,” said Eleanor, waving at the comfortable looking room. “I’m just over there,” she continued, and pointed at the door at the end of the hall. “If you need anything.”
She handed him the candle.
“Eleanor, wait – I – thank you.”
“No, really, I don’t know what I’d have done if –”
But Eleanor shrugged.
“We’re friends, that’s what we do. You look out for me, I look out for you. Sleep well,” she said, giving him a brief kiss on the cheek.
He let the door close behind him and looked around his new room, from the shuttered windows keeping out the storm, to the half-filled bookcases that seemed to invite him to add his own tomes, and to the large, comfortable looking bed.
Here, he rather thought he would sleep well.