Chapter 19: The Viper's Nest
Harry couldn't resist scanning the obituaries at breakfast the next morning and was relieved to discover that no mysterious deaths had been reported. That probably meant that Snape had been out spying for Dumbledore the previous evening. Harry glanced up at the man who was seated at his usual place at the staff table. Snape looked preoccupied and a bit paler than usual, but otherwise normal.
Harry folded up the paper and handed it across the table to Seamus, from whom he'd borrowed it. "Here you go. Thanks."
"Keep it," Seamus said. "I don't need it. I don't even know why I'm still bothering to take it. The Quibbler has better reporting these days."
"The Quibbler isn't exactly reliable," Hermione pointed out.
"That's my point - neither is the Prophet. They used to do a decent job, but that was before the DPS came along. They're censoring everything now."
"How do you know that?" Ginny asked.
"Martin Wallace in Ravenclaw, his dad works for the Daily Prophet. He told me that Day has a couple of staff working full time at the paper now. They have to approve everything that gets printed and a lot winds up in the rubbish bins."
"But why would they do that?" Neville asked.
Dean shrugged. "Maybe they reckon there'd be panic if people knew just how bad things were."
There was a pained silence while the students contemplated this news. Finally, Hermione spoke up.
"Come on, we don't want to be late for Charms."
Harry gathered his things and left the Great Hall along with the rest of his classmates, wondering how badly the war was going that the DPS had to censor the news of it. He turned to Ron and Hermione who were walking beside him. "I think I'm going to start taking The Quibbler."
The Halloween feast was always eagerly anticipated at Hogwarts and with good reason. The tables were laden with golden platters which were filled with all variety of delicious foods. Snape, however, had little appetite, though he refused to concede that it was due to any anxiety over his upcoming mission that evening. He simply had far too much on his mind to think about eating.
It had only been four days since Dumbledore had charged him with infiltrating the Dark Lord's headquarters to discover out how Bellatrix was getting her information, but Snape saw no advantage in postponing the task now that it couldn't be avoided and had contacted Lucius immediately to make the arrangements. Snape's plan was straightforward: he had to get close enough to Bellatrix to use Legilimency on her. To that end, he had arranged to meet Lucius in the Forbidden Forest and switch places with him. Dumbledore would accompany him to the forest and wait with Lucius until he returned.
Theoretically, Dumbledore's presence would dissuade Lucius from betraying him since, if he failed to return, Lucius would have to answer to Hogwarts' Headmaster. Unfortunately, this was no guarantee of the Death Eater's trustworthiness; Lucius undoubtedly feared the Dark Lord more than Dumbledore. Nor could Snape take comfort in the fact that he had so far detected no deceit in Lucius's mind. There were methods of concealing or modifying someone's memories and the Dark Lord knew them all.
Snape had done what he could to mitigate the risk. He had spent the last three nights among the Death Eaters, doing his best to uncover any hint of a trap being laid. He'd found none, but of course that was no guarantee either. He might still be walking into an ambush. But even if he weren't, even if Lucius's offer of help had been entirely sincere, there was still considerable risk in what he proposed to do which was why he had chosen tonight to make his move. The Dark Lord was planning to meet with the leader of his werewolf allies this evening at another location which would, with luck, give Snape time to accomplish his task while the master was away.
That was Snape's dearest hope. He was confident that the Death Eaters would pose no serious danger to him. Fooling Bellatrix wouldn't be a problem. He knew Lucius well enough to mimic his old friend's mannerisms exactly. Even Narcissa probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But Narcissa wasn't an accomplished Legilimens, nor was Bellatrix. The Dark Lord was. He would not be fooled by Polyjuice or Occlumency regardless of how skillfully Snape acted his part. If he looked into Snape's eyes he would recognize the mind behind them. That was what Snape dreaded. He didn't fear death, but the agony he'd suffered at the Dark Lord's hands was another matter. He was still haunted by nightmares of the torture he'd endured and the thought of facing that again was not something he cared to contemplate.
While there was always an element of risk in spying on an enemy, it was one thing to hover around the edges of the Dark Lord's organization, darting in and out of the shadows to listen in on the unguarded or play cat and mouse with jittery Death Eaters. It was quite another to walk into the viper's nest and Snape knew that if he came face to face with the snake there was a very good chance that he wouldn't walk out again.
"Chicken, Severus?" McGonagall said pleasantly.
"Of course not," Snape snarled, glaring at the woman sitting next to him.
McGonagall blinked at him, obviously taken aback, but she recovered her composure at once and her smile was only slightly strained as she set down the dish of roast chicken she was holding and turned back to talk to Flitwick.
Snape folded his arms across his chest and managed to refrain from sighing, though it took considerable effort. He scowled at the clock at the back of the Hall, willing its hands to move more quickly so that he could get on with the task before him. However the clock, unaware of his impatience, continued to tick off the seconds at the same ponderous pace.
Snape surveyed the Hall. All of the students were in high spirits, naturally. Even Potter was laughing with his friends as though he hadn't a care in the world. Snape watched the boy in bitter resentment. This was all Potter's fault and as usual the boy hadn't the slightest awareness of the consequences of his actions. It really was a miracle that he was still alive.
Snape felt a touch on his shoulder and glanced up to find Dumbledore standing next to him. "If you don't mind, Severus, I need a word?" He gestured towards the small side door near the staff table.
Relieved to finally be able to escape the interminable dinner, Snape quickly followed Dumbledore to the staff lounge off the Great Hall.
"Is everything prepared?" Dumbledore asked once they were alone.
"Of course," Snape answered with calm self-assurance. "All I need is a strand of Lucius's hair and the current password to the Dark Lord's headquarters, both of which Lucius will provide."
Dumbledore nodded as he donned his cloak. "Let us be on our way, then."
Snape threw his own cloak around his shoulders and followed Dumbledore through the entrance hall and out of the castle. The last faint sounds of merriment from the feast faded away as they struck off across the dark grounds towards the forest. The two men walked in comfortable silence and Snape was grateful that their long years of association made idle conversation unnecessary.
They reached the forest and followed a well-worn path through the woods until they came to a clearing. Dumbledore gave his wand a flick and a pedestal appeared before him with an engraved basin perched upon it: the Pensieve. The light from the basin bathed the clearing in a soft glow as they waited without breaking the silence between them. A few minutes later a soft pop announced the arrival of Lucius Malfoy.
"Good evening, Lucius," Dumbledore said.
"Dumbledore, this is an unexpected surprise," Malfoy said, casting a suspicious frown at Snape.
"There is no reason for concern. I am merely here to keep you company while Severus is away. It would be rather inhospitable to leave you standing out here alone in the forest for the next hour."
"Worried, Dumbledore?" Malfoy said with an amused smile. "Surely you don't imagine that I've been insincere in my offer of help?"
"That thought has crossed my mind, I must admit, though I am inclined to discount it," Dumbledore replied conversationally. "You were never stupid, Lucius, and you surely know that betraying Severus would cost you your own life."
While Malfoy and Dumbledore were talking, Snape transfigured his robes into an exact copy of Malfoy's elegant ones then stepped forward. "May I?" he said, plucking out one of Malfoy's hairs without waiting for a reply. Malfoy flinched and glared irritably at him, but Snape gave the man a pointed look. "We haven't all night, after all." Snape turned away to complete the Polyjuice potion as Dumbledore spoke again.
"What is the password that Severus will need?"
"Evermore," Malfoy answered at once.
Dumbledore held out his hand. "He will need your wand as well."
Malfoy hesitated then handed his cane to the old wizard. Dumbledore ran his hand up and down the cane, examining it closely while Snape addressed Malfoy once more.
"Where is Bellatrix?"
"When I left, she was holding court in the drawing room on the second floor."
"And the Dark Lord?"
"Gone to meet with Grayback." Malfoy grimaced in disapproval.
"Is there anything else I should know?"
Malfoy shook his head. "No. Just get in and out as quickly as you can."
"Trust me – I don't plan to linger," Snape replied.
Snape turned to Dumbledore who wordlessly passed him Malfoy's cane. Snape took it and held the other man's eyes. "You understand that I go to the Dark Lord's stronghold. There are myriad wards and enchantments that secure it and only those who bear the Dark Mark may enter. No one can follow me there."
"Then make certain we have no need to do so."
"I'll do my best."
Dumbledore nodded gravely. "Good luck, Severus."
Snape downed the Polyjuice potion in one gulp and felt the familiar sensation of transformation. The moment it was complete, he Disapparated.
Snape appeared in a secluded glen, nestled amidst rolling hills. Not that he could actually see his surroundings: it was a new moon and pitch dark. But Snape didn't bother to light his wand. He knew the way. Snape followed a low stone wall a dozen paces until he came to a stile which demarked what would appear to be nothing more than a grassy hillside to all but a chosen few. He opened the gate and felt the Dark Mark burn on his arm as he passed through it. At once a portion of the hill in front of him transformed into a high, arched entryway with a massive, ornate iron portcullis adorned with silver serpents entwined among the bars. The serpents' eyes were made of emeralds which glistened in the light of two braziers that sat upon pedestals to either side of the gate.
"Evermore," Snape said and the portcullis rose. Snape strode through it and into the depths of the hillside. He walked down a passageway lined with sconces in the shape of snakes which led into an atrium – a large, round, high-ceilinged room with a marble floor and more snakes adorning the walls. The atrium's most obvious feature was a wide staircase of black marble leading down into the labyrinth of the Dark Lord's most secret and secure hideout. Two enormous statues of rearing serpents stood on either side of the staircase, towering over and seeming to scrutinize all those who approached, but Snape paid no attention to them or any of the rest of the decor. Such trappings were carefully designed to intimidate and Snape had ceased to be impressed long ago.
Snape hurried downstairs. Just off the first floor landing was the large drawing room. Its double doors stood wide open and Snape could see a number of people inside, most mingling around several long tables laden with food and drink. The Death Eaters, too, were celebrating Halloween, though without the frivolity at Hogwarts. Snape bypassed this and descended to the second floor. Here, a long gallery of mirrors was broken periodically by dark mahogany doors. Snape glanced at himself in the mirrors as he made his way down the hall; he cut a perfect figure as Lucius. Snape stopped halfway down the hall, assumed Lucius's customary expression of haughty boredom and opened the door to the smaller drawing room which was reserved for the Dark Lord's inner circle.
A far more sumptuous spread had been laid here than the one in the room above. Crabbe and Goyle were hovering next to the food and barely glanced up from their full plates as he entered. Rodolphus was seated in a wing chair, brooding over his snifter of brandy while his brother, Rabastan, lounged on the sofa, savoring his. Bellatrix was standing before the fireplace where a roaring fire crackled. Pettigrew was just finishing filling her glass and Snape was sure it wasn't the first round of the evening. He smiled.
"Lucius, you decided to join us after all, I see," Rodolphus said gruffly. He was slightly red in the face.
"It's better than mingling with the plebeians upstairs," Snape said, snapping his fingers at Pettigrew who quickly filled another glass with brandy and brought it to him. Snape took the glass without bothering to look at the little man. He swirled the dark liquid around in the bowl of the glass and took a sip.
"Just let us do try to be pleasant this evening," Rabastan drawled, taking a swallow of his own brandy. "No bickering."
"Why should we bicker?" Bellatrix said with a smile. "The war is going well. We have the Mudbloods and Muggle-lovers on the run. Total victory will be ours as soon as we get our hands on Potter."
"Which I presume we're supposed to count on you to do?" Snape purred, crossing the room to join Bellatrix by the fire.
"Why, yes, as a matter of fact." Bellatrix flashed a nasty smile. "It will only be a matter of time before Potter makes a fatal mistake. I'll be there when he does."
Snape eyed the woman shrewdly. "We all have our informants, Bella. What makes you so sure that yours will deliver Potter?"
"Mine has the ability to watch Potter day and night," Bellatrix boasted.
"Surely an exaggeration," Snape scoffed, taking another sip of his drink while continuing to watch the Death Eater closely. "Unless you wish us to believe that you've recruited one of the brat's little friends?"
Bellatrix laughed. "A Mudblood and blood-traitors? I wouldn't stoop to associating with such filth. You know that, Lucius, and as I've told you before, your transparent attempts to goad me into revealing my spy won't work."
Snape inclined his head in acknowledgement. "No, of course not. Still, there is the question of how he can spy on Potter at Hogwarts."
"I'm not divulging that secret, either. It's enough that he can. Not that I don't trust you, Lucius." Bellatrix smiled insincerely. "But our enemies have spies as well."
Snape returned the woman's smile. "My point exactly. My concern is for our own security. Are you certain of this informant of yours? After all, he has led you on a wild-goose chase at least once."
Bella's smile vanished. "So you have said! You have no proof, though, do you? My spy is absolutely loyal to me! Even if it was Snape at Dorset, that changes nothing. And you're hardly one to find fault, Lucius. Snape made a fool of you. He deceived you for years when it was obvious to me that he was a traitor."
"You might want to be careful whom you're calling a fool," Snape replied smoothly. "Our Lord was deceived as well."
"Yes, I was."
Snape froze and so did Bellatrix. They both turned towards the door as Rodolphus and Rabastan leapt to their feet. Standing in the doorway was the Dark Lord.
"My lord, forgive me," Snape dropped to his knees and lowered his eyes in contrition as Voldemort approached.
"You're right, Lucius;" the Dark Lord said in his cold, unnaturally high voice. "Quite right. Severus did deceive me – as he deceived us all." Snape's eyes flickered upward in time to catch the sharp look Voldemort gave Bellatrix. She paled and fell to her knees as well.
"Of course, my lord," she said meekly. "I spoke in anger. Lucius was questioning the source of the information I have been providing to you."
"Yes, so I heard."
Voldemort looked back at Snape who glared at Bellatrix in order to avoid the Dark Lord's eyes. "I am only concerned that we are not betrayed."
"I'm sure," Voldemort said scornfully. "Jealousy does not become you, Lucius."
Snape lowered his eyes once more. "No, my lord."
"Get up, both of you," Voldemort snapped, turning away from his two chastised servants.
Snape rose along with Bellatrix as the Dark Lord addressed everyone.
"Bella has served me well and I reward those who serve me well. I intend to give you all the opportunity to earn such a reward, but you in particular, Lucius."
Snape bowed slightly as Voldemort looked his way once more. "I am honored to do your bidding, my lord."
"I want you to find Severus."
Snape's heart jumped but he remained outwardly calm as the others exchanged quick glances.
Voldemort's red eyes had narrowed to slits and although he continued to address his Death Eaters, his thoughts were clearly on the hated enemy as he began to prowl around the room. "He has made fools of my followers and hampered my plans. My Death Eaters bristle with suspicion of one another. Even you, my most loyal servants, fear one another. Enough! He has eluded us for far too long!"
Voldemort paused and stabbed a finger at Snape. "He was your friend, Lucius. If anyone can deduce his strategy and where he might strike next, you can. Find him and you will be greatly rewarded indeed."
"He will be killed, my lord," Snape promised emphatically, still not meeting the dark wizard's eyes. "I swear it."
"No, no, Lucius. I don't want him dead." Voldemort said as he began to pace once more. He had the air of a caged tiger waiting for the chance to lunge at the prey just beyond his reach. "Death would be too merciful and the dead are soon forgotten. I will make of Severus a living reminder of the consequences of treachery. I will torture him until his mind breaks, but I will do it slowly. I will give him respite – oh yes – so that he will know his fate and have more than enough time to suffer the anticipation of it. And once he is mad, I will put him in a cage on display for all of my loyal followers to jeer and spit upon and torment for their amusement – and as a reminder of what befalls traitors."
The other Death Eaters all nodded and murmured approvingly.
"It shall be as you desire, my lord," Snape replied, maintaining his composure out of habit rather than any conscious design. He had known he was taking a risk by coming here and had prepared himself accordingly to face torture and death. But the fate the Dark Lord had just promised horrified him and it was only his long years of practice at masking his feelings that saved him from betraying himself now.
Voldemort sat down on the sofa and reclined regally. "That, however, is a worry for another time. At present we may celebrate out successes against those weak fools who think they can oppose me."
The other Death Eaters gathered around their master, but Snape stayed by the fireplace and glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was very late. If he didn't take his leave shortly, the Polyjuice would wear off and the Dark Lord would have his vengeance far sooner than he could have imagined. But one did not walk out on the Dark Lord for any reason and Snape knew his identity would certainly be discovered if he tried to do so.
Snape bit his lip, acutely aware of every second passing. It would only be a matter of minutes before the game was up. For a moment, he seriously entertained the thought of turning his wand on himself. He would be dead instantly, painlessly and would rob the Dark Lord of the satisfaction of tormenting him. But Snape dismissed the notion at once. He still had a mission to complete and revealing Bellatrix's spy would be a far greater blow to the Dark Lord's cause than denying him petty vengeance. Snape had seen all he needed in Bellatrix's mind as she'd argued with to him and he knew his Patronus would find its way to Hogwarts even from deep within this hillside. The problem was that the moment he executed the spell it would give him away. Unfortunately, he had no other choice.
Snape looked at the clock once more. It had to be nearly time for the Polyjuice to wear off. He took a swallow of his brandy then set down the glass and reached into his pocket. He felt oddly removed from his own desperate plight and surprisingly calm as his fingers closed around his wand and he formulated in his mind the words his Patronus would carry.
"Wormtail," Voldemort called, interrupting Snape's thoughts. "Is there a reason why I am the only one here without refreshment?"
"No, my lord!" Pettigrew said. Eagar to please, the little man quickly poured a snifter of brandy and hurried forward with it. Snape reacted automatically. He gave his wand a flick and Pettigrew stumbled, sloshing the brandy all over his master's robes.
"Imbecile!" the Dark Lord roared furiously, jumping to his feet.
"Forgive me, my lord!" Wormtail squeaked as he frantically tried to wipe up the mess with his own robes.
"Get out of my sight!" Voldemort snarled, slapping him away as Bellatrix and the others all huddled around to see which could be more helpful.
"My lord –" Pettigrew begged, cringing on the floor.
Snape stepped forward and seized the little man. "Heed your master!" he said as he dragged Pettigrew to his feet and out into the hallway. He shoved the man away and Pettegrew flinched, obviously expecting to be cursed. But Snape had no time.
"Stay out of the way!" he snapped then turned on his heel and stalked away, pulling up the hood of his cloak as he went. He had just reached the stairs when he felt the transformation begin as the Polyjuice started to wear off. He pulled his hood further forward to obscure his features and hurried up the stairs. He passed the gathering on the first floor and continued up to the atrium with its looming serpent statues. His heart was pounding, but not from the exertion. He forced himself not to run as he made his way down the long hallway, listening intently for any sound of pursuit. He reached the portcullis and waited as it rose with agonizing slowness. Then he was through it and into the concealing darkness of the night. He hurried through the gate in the low wall and felt the Dark Mark on his arm burn once more as he passed the last of the Dark Lord's wards. In the next instant, he Disapparated.
"Where have you been?" Lucius demanded angrily as Snape appeared in the Forbidden Forest. "What took you so long?"
Snape threw back his hood and favored Lucius with an angry glare as he shoved the man's cane into his hands. "The Dark Lord returned from his meeting early and stopped by for a little chat."
Lucius blanched, but Snape stepped past him and drew his wand. With a flick of his wrist he transfigured his robes back to their usual form.
"What do you mean, 'a chat'?" Malfoy asked anxiously. "What did he say?"
Snape didn't answer. Instead he placed his wand against his temple and drew out a long, silvery thread. He dropped the strand of memory into the waiting Pensieve and looked back at Malfoy. "This should tell you everything you need to know."
Snape turned to Dumbledore who was watching him in silence and nodded. Then he left the clearing without another word or a backward glance, trusting that Dumbledore would handle matters. Snape moved confidently through the familiar forest, glad of the sheltering darkness around him. He walked at a brisk pace which helped to dispel the physical effects of the fright he'd suffered; nevertheless, halfway back to the castle Dumbledore overtook him, falling into step at his side. Snape didn't speak or look at the other man as they continued across the grounds. At last Dumbledore spoke gently.
"It won't come to that."
"You don't know that," Snape said accusingly, surprised at the bitterness in his own voice.
"True. But I will do everything in my power to prevent it. I would hope you might find that at least somewhat reassuring."
Snape looked sideways at the old man and even in the darkness he could make out the twinkle in the blue eyes. "Somewhat," Snape conceded, feeling the strain from the night's events begin to recede in Dumbledore's company. "What happened with Lucius?"
"I think he was rather grateful that you were the one to receive those orders from Voldemort this evening instead of him. Frankly, I doubt he would have handled the situation half as well."
"If he fails to fulfill them for long, it will not go well for him. He will realize that sooner rather than later, I imagine, and conclude that our alliance was a mistake."
"I think not. I believe it rather more likely he will accept that he now has no choice but to join us or suffer unbearable consequences – a fact I have helpfully pointed out to him. After all, he has a wife and son to consider as well as his own life. Before tonight, he might have confessed to flirting with betraying his master and survived the punishment. Now, he has not only aided and abetted the enemy, he has cost Voldemort his most valuable spy."
Dumbledore looked at Snape. "You did discover how Bella is getting her information?"
Snape's expression hardened and his mouth twisted into a bitter sneer. "Oh yes. I know who our spy is."
The Halloween feast had been the best ever. Harry and his friends all agreed on this point. Harry had even managed to put aside his worries about Voldemort and now sat on the sofa holding Ginny's hand, thoroughly content.
"I still think passing is our best strategy against Slytherin," Gloria Bonhomme told Ron. They'd been discussing the rapidly approaching match against Slytherin for the last hour. "They're faster than we are, so they're bound to block us. But if we keep passing they won't know which of us to go after."
"They may be faster, but we're better flyers," Ron said. "If you pass the Quaffle, they'll intercept it. You're better off holding onto the ball and dodging. Right, Harry?"
"Right," Harry agreed. Though he could see the benefit in both strategies, Harry was willing to defer to Ron who had spent much more time than he had done working out the Quidditch plays this term.
The portrait hole opened and McGonagall came in, followed by Dumbledore and Snape. The room fell silent as the students stared in disbelief. It wasn't unusual for McGonagall to pay a visit to her house. Even Dumbledore might make an appearance on a rare occasion. But for Snape to set foot in Gryffindor's common room was nothing short of an outrageous affront.
The teachers headed straight for Harry and his friends.
"I need the four of you to turn out your pockets, please," McGonagall said, addressing Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione.
Harry exchanged confused looks with the others, but they all complied.
"That's everything you have with you at the moment?" Dumbledore asked.
"Yes, sir." Harry nodded along with his friends.
"Where are the mirrors you have been using to communicate with one another?"
Harry stared at Dumbledore in astonishment. "Upstairs in our dormitories."
"Go and bring them to me at once and do not say a word until you have returned," Dumbledore said.
Thoroughly bewildered, Harry went up to boys' dormitory with Ron as Ginny and Hermione headed up to their rooms. A minute later they had returned with their mirrors.
Dumbledore looked at Snape who nodded silently.
"A moment, Miss Granger," Dumbledore interrupted as he collected their mirrors and slipped them into a black pouch. He closed the pouch tightly and put it in his pocket.
"Sir, those aren't against the rules," Hermione said.
"We will discuss the rules later, Miss Granger," McGonagall replied.
"Harry, please come with me," Dumbledore said, turning back towards the portrait hole. Harry gave his friends a last perplexed look then went after Dumbledore. Snape was right behind him, glaring at Harry in stony silence which discouraged Harry from asking any of the dozen or so questions racing through his mind. Dumbledore said nothing either and the three of them walked silently through the halls until they arrived at Headmaster's office. It wasn't until Dumbledore was seated behind his desk and had laid the black bag, still tightly closed, before him, that he finally broke the silence.
"May I ask how you came by these?"
"Sirius gave them to me – it actually – two Christmases ago. We each had a mirror so that we could talk to one another… only we never used them. Then at the beginning of this last summer I found mine in my trunk. I left it on the bureau in my bedroom and forgot about it until Ron knocked it off and broke it when we were getting ready to come to school. That's when we realized that each of the fragments could communicate with each other, too."
"On how many occasions have you and your friends used these?"
"I don't know; two or three times. Not often."
"And when not using them, where have you kept these?"
"In our bedside drawers; at least Ron and I have. I don't know about Ginny and Hermione. Professor, Hermione's right; there aren't any rules against those."
"No Harry, there aren't."
"Then what's the matter?"
"You said Sirius had one of these mirrors. Do you know where it is?"
Harry shook his head. "No."
"And it never occurred to you that that might be a problem?" Snape asked, speaking for the first time. "It never once crossed your mind that anything you and your friends discussed in the presence of one of these mirrors would be transmitted to all, including the one you can't account for?"
Harry felt the tiny hairs stand up on the back of his neck. "I thought it must have been lost with Sirius."
Harry swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "Who has it?"
"There is a simple spell that will answer that question," Dumbledore said. "It shows the barer of any such mirror the images of those who possess its brothers. At the moment, I am in possession of these four, so the spell should reveal the current owner of Sirius's."
Dumbledore pulled one of the mirrors from the bag and touched it with his wand.
The glass immediately clouded then a face appeared. It was elongated with bulging eyes and large ears and Harry recognized it at once.
"Kreacher?" he said, staring at the tiny image of the house elf's face in disbelief.
Dumbledore placed the mirror back in the bag and closed it tightly once more. "Kreacher always did have a penchant for collecting souvenirs. Obviously, Sirius must have left his mirror behind when he went to the Department of Mysteries and Kreacher took it. Such mirrors are quite rare and these have likely been in the Black family for generations. Possessing one of them would certainly have appealed to Kreacher's sense of nostalgia.
"Where is he now?"
"That is an excellent question, Harry. You see, when Sirius died, he was no longer Kreacher's master and so his orders to the house-elf became void. Kreacher realized this and took the opportunity to flee the house that night before a new master could order him to stay. We know he went to Malfoy Manor, but when word came that Lucius had been arrested and that Aurors were on their way to search the house, he fled once more. We do not know where he went after that. Most likely he wandered aimlessly, living out of rubbish bins. We didn't pursue him since we believed he posed no threat, and indeed he didn't for a full year. But in July that appears to have changed.
"Tell me, Harry, where were you when Fred and George told you about the Sniffer Charm they had created?"
"We were in my bedroom at headquarters."
"And your mirror was lying atop the bureau at that time?"
Harry couldn't answer. He simply nodded, miserably.
"That explains that particular breach of security then. Kreacher seems to have been prodded into action by that particular discussion of yours. Perhaps he was impressed by the charm or perhaps he could no longer bear to see you and your friends at his old home. But for whatever reason, he was apparently determined to act. It was still too dangerous to approach Narcissa. Due to Lucius's escape from Azkaban the summer before, the Aurors had been watching her closely. So, Kreacher turned to the only other living member of the Black family whom he didn't consider a blood-traitor."
"Bellatrix Lestrange," Harry guessed as the mysteries of the previous months began to make sense.
"Precisely. She was in Azkaban at the time, but house-elves possess quite powerful magic that wizards, alas, too often disregard. The wards at the prison, though formidable, were not designed to protect against such magic and I'm afraid Kreacher had shockingly little trouble in freeing Bella. He has been serving her ever since and has been using Sirius's mirror to spy on you, Harry, at every opportunity."
Harry closed his eyes, mortified. He remembered the whispers he'd heard at night during summer that he'd assumed to be Phineas and the high-pitched laughter he'd thought was only in his dreams. He realized now that it had been Kreacher, muttering to himself at night when he thought Harry asleep. He had eavesdropped on every word that Harry and his friends had said to one another. Just thinking of the invasion of his privacy made Harry livid. Worse, he couldn't remember everything they'd discussed over summer. Had they talked about the prophecy or his plans to defeat Voldemort? No, Harry was certain they hadn't and felt a wave of relief for that good fortune. Still, he was angry with himself. How could he have been so stupid as to have simply assumed that Sirius's mirror was lost without even trying to find it?
"You should have given some thought to where Sirius's mirror was, Harry," Dumbledore said, echoing Harry's own thoughts. "Nevertheless, it isn't your fault that it fell into Kreacher's hands."
Harry shook his head. "The attack in London was Kreacher's doing, too. I don't know how much time we spent talking about what we were going to do that day. He must have heard every word."
"It is also how Bellatrix Lestrange managed to track you to Dorset," Snape added smoothly.
For an instant, Harry's mind went completely blank, every thought wiped away by shock. In the next moment, horror rushed in to fill the void. Harry stared, speechless, at Snape who sneered back at him in contempt.
"Did you really think I wouldn't find out? Did you think none of the Dark Lord's servants would mention having nearly captured the famous Harry Potter? Or did you, as usual, simply fail to think at all?"
Snape stepped forward and Harry could almost feel the man trembling with suppressed rage as he continued his snide taunts. "Tell me, Potter, was it a lark? Were you bored? Did you think it would be fun to play cat and mouse with Death Eaters or were you simply desperate to prove how brave you are yet again?
"Have you any idea of the trouble you've caused?" Snape snarled, his voice rising in anger. "Do you know how many lives you've put at risk with your recklessness or the ruin that your arrogant stupidity could have wrecked?"
"That will do, Severus. I would like to speak with Harry alone now."
Snape glared at Harry a moment longer then gave Dumbledore a curt nod and stalked out of the room.
Harry watched him go then turned to Dumbledore. There was none of the usual warmth in the man's eyes.
"Sir, Snape's wrong. I wasn't just –"
"Professor Snape has had a rather trying evening." Dumbledore spoke in a quiet, controlled voice, his piercing blue eyes never leaving Harry's. "I presume you have some idea of how we learnt of the mirror's whereabouts."
"I know he's been spying on the Death Eaters."
"Indeed he has. He took a considerable risk tonight and was very nearly caught in the act by Voldemort himself. I'm certain I don't need to tell you what would have occurred in that event. All because you chose to disobey me and to withhold information vital to the war effort. So yes, Harry. Professor Snape is very angry with you, understandably so. But as furious as he may be, he is not nearly as angry with you as I am."
Harry swallowed hard. Dumbledore's calm, even tone was much worse than Snape shouting at him.
"You gave me your promise, Harry," Dumbledore continued in the same frighteningly controlled voice. "And you broke it. Why?"
"I didn't break my promise, sir. I only promised that I wouldn't go back into the Chamber of Secrets. I never –"
Dumbledore jumped to his feet with remarkable agility and his eyes blazed with anger. "You knew perfectly well what I meant! Didn't I tell you explicitly not to go looking for Tom Riddle's research?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said, fighting the urge to turn and run.
"And you disobeyed me!"
"Yes, sir." Harry's voice was no more than a whisper. He wasn't at all used to Dumbledore shouting at him. He had only seen the old wizard genuinely angry once before. That had been scary enough, but to have that anger directed at him was truly frightening.
Dumbledore turned away from Harry and paced across the room to gaze into the fire. Harry stood still, not daring to move or speak. He hardly dared breathe. But when Dumbledore spoke again, there was no anger in his voice, only weary sadness.
"Harry, do you know how many good people I have sent to their deaths – or worse – since Voldemort first came to power?" Dumbledore turned to look at Harry and the grief in his eyes was far worse than the anger had been. It cut into Harry like a knife.
"I could tell you every name," Dumbledore continued. "The last words we spoke to one another, the day and hour that I consigned each to their fate. It is not something you ever forget and it is not something I ever wish to do needlessly. I want your word, Harry – your solemn word – that you will not put me in a position to do so again."
"Sir, I swear I never meant to endanger anyone –"
"Of course, you didn't. But you must understand, Harry, that your actions affect others. When you act in secret on your own agenda, you risk not only your own life and the lives of your friends; you endanger everyone and everything we are fighting for.
"You're the captain of Gryffindor's Quidditch team. What would happen if your teammates chose to ignore the rules and your game plans and to simply do as they pleased?"
"We'd be trounced."
"Precisely! Just as in Quidditch, those of us opposed to Voldemort must act in concert or we will lose this war."
"Then why are you keeping secrets from me?"
"Harry, surely you can appreciate that I can't reveal everything I know to you."
"I don't want to know everything. I just want to know why Voldemort is immortal. I know you haven't told me everything you know about that!"
"And don't tell me I don't need to know! I'm the one who has to fight him. I have to know what I'm up against. I have to understand." Harry looked beseechingly at the old wizard. "Professor, I'd rather suffer torture and death myself then be responsible for sending Professor Snape to suffer it. But I can't do this on faith alone. I can't!"
Dumbledore bowed his head and for a moment he seemed overcome with sorrow. Then he collected himself and looked up. Regret and weary resignation mingled in the blue eyes and Harry was struck by how old the man suddenly seemed.
"You are right, Harry. You see, I still forget that you are not a child whom I can protect, but a young man who must find your own way. Still, I cannot answer your questions now."
"Unsurprisingly, I cannot tell you that, either. And I don't blame you for being frustrated and angry with me for that. But just as you must do what you believe is right, so must I. I promise that I will tell you everything I know about Voldemort's immortality in time, but not now. I need you to have patience just a little while longer, just until you have completed your training and are ready to face him. I am asking you, Harry, to trust me in this."
Harry sighed. "I trust you, sir and I'll try to be patient, but I can't promise how long I'll manage it."
Dumbledore smiled. "That at least is an honest answer and I think it will suffice for now."
"You aren't angry?"
"No, Harry. I will never be angry with you for telling me the truth. Just keep in mind what you risk when you lie."
Harry hardly needed Dumbledore's prodding. He thought of nothing else on his way back to Gryffindor Tower than all the trouble he had caused. Dumbledore's words played over and over in his mind, but as painful as that conversation had been, Harry knew it could have been much worse.
It was sheer luck that they hadn't discussed anything vital around those mirrors. They easily could have given everything away. But it was Snape who preyed on Harry's mind most. Harry could vividly recall what Voldemort had done to the man the last time they'd met. The thought that he might have been responsible for Snape suffering such torture again was horrible and Harry couldn't help imagining what the conversation with Dumbledore would have been like if Snape had been captured.
Harry remembered the horrible guilt he'd felt after Sirius's death and knew that he would have been felt far worse with Snape. At least he could comfort himself with the fact that Voldemort had tricked him into going to the Department of Mysteries. He had no such excuse for going to Dorset.
Ginny, Ron and Hermione were waiting in the empty Common Room when Harry arrived. All three looked grim.
"Did McGonagall tell you?" Harry asked.
"Oh yeah, she told us all right," Ron said. "She must have spent ten minutes shouting at us. Said we were lucky to be alive and even luckier not to be expelled. And that if it were up to her, she'd toss us all out on our ears."
"I should have thought about that other mirror," Hermione said. "I can't believe it never occurred to me to wonder where it was."
"It didn't occur to any of us, Hermione," Ron said.
"I wonder how they found out, though;" Ginny said, thoughtfully. "About the mirrors and that we'd been to Dorset."
"It was Snape," Harry said, flopping down on the sofa. "He's been spying on the Death Eaters at least since summer. I used to hear him sneaking out of the house at night all the time when we were at headquarters."
"How's he spying on them?" Ron asked. "They'd kill him on sight."
Harry frowned in thought. "He had a big cauldron of Polyjuice in his office at headquarters. I reckon he's using that to disguise himself."
"That's mad!" Hermione said. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? How easy it would be for him to get caught? And after what Voldemort did to him…"
Harry looked away.
"What did Dumbledore say?" Ginny asked.
"That if I don't stop sneaking off and start following orders we're going to lose the war."
"He put a bit more feeling into it, but that was the gist of it, yeah."
"Was he very angry?" Hermione asked.
"I lied to him, disobeyed his orders and could have got us all killed in the bargain. What do you think?" Harry sighed and stood up. "Come on, let's turn in. We've got Quidditch practice in the morning – and I have detention with Snape." Harry's stomach clenched at that thought.
"Actually, you don't," Ron said, cheering up. "Snape sent this."
Ron handed Harry a slip of parchment.
I no longer require your presence for detention on Saturdays.
"It's about time, too," Ron said. "We have our match in three weeks. In fact I bet McGonagall made him let you off."
"It's also possible that Harry actually managed to complete his work decently," Hermione pointed out.
"Or maybe Snape just got bored of spending his Saturdays with you," Ginny said, winking at Harry.
Harry forced a smile. Relieved as he was to be let off detention, he also felt somewhat sick. He knew exactly why Snape didn't want to see him and it had nothing to do with Quidditch or homework or boredom.