Hermione jumped to her feet, heart in her mouth, staring at the lynx Patronus as it dissipated into wispy filaments of light and then disappeared, no additional information forthcoming.
"Sit down, Miss Granger," Professor Snape said flatly. She glared at him across the table and suspected he hadn't even looked up from his meal. "Sit down," he repeated and this time it was an order.
"Didn't you hear Kingsley's message?" she demanded. She was furious at his nonchalance. Up until now she had obeyed every directive he had given her since she had become his apprentice. What would happen if she disobeyed him in this instance? Was there something in that infernal contract that would force her to obey him? She certainly felt like testing that theory right now.
"I am not going to repeat myself," he said coldly, loaded a spoon with curry and rice and continued with his dinner. Sudden realization sent an icy shock flowing through her body. Now she sat down because of her shaking legs rather than due to his command.
"You know where they are, don't you? You knew this was going to happen."
"I suspected as much or something similar," he said. "I tried to prevent it, but apparently you were cunning enough to be able to circumvent the clause in the contract that should have ensured your silence. Somehow you told Potter about my meetings with Death Eaters, didn't you?"
Hermione's fury was snuffed out like a tiny candle flame in a gale. Was this her fault?
"Didn't you? Miss Granger?"
"Yes, sir," she finally answered. She looked down at her plate. Where she had been ravenous a moment ago, now her stomach soured and the thought of eating anything at all could not be entertained.
"You mentioned that the contract would not let me relate one word that I had overheard or about what I saw and that proved to be the case. So I didn't use words. Are you familiar with the Muggle game of Charades, Professor?"
"Ah. Clever girl."
Although she treasured praise from Professor Snape, this time it felt like an insult.
"Do you know where Ron and Harry are?" She asked him, unsure of what it would mean if he did.
"I know the person who wanted them. I suspect his plan has succeeded."
"What are we going to do?"
"Wait for information," he said. He unbuttoned his sleeve and pulled it back off his forearm. The evil Dark Mark branded there was black and roiling on his pale skin. He touched a finger to it and it writhed under the pressure.
Hermione was taken aback. She thought that all the Dark Marks had deactivated when Voldemort died. Why was this one working? Why was the one on Professor Snape's arm working and which Death Eater had he just communicated with? Her stomach began to churn as her confusion mounted. Was Harry right? Was Professor Snape reforming a cadre of Death Eaters outside of the country? It was so hard to reconcile the way he treated her and Winky with believing that he wanted to be the next Dark Lord. She so desperately wanted him to be a good man. But why? Why did she so need him to be good? Would this desire interfere with correctly interpreting the facts before her? Would it cause her to make a mistake?
"In the meantime, I . . ." he said, ". . . am going to finish my dinner. Perhaps by that time we will have a bit more information."
"From Kingsley?" she asked, hoping against hope.
"Not at all. Kingsley is not at the Ministry or he would have contacted me using the Floo Network. He must be out and about, probably looking for the two miscreants you call friends.
"Eat up, Miss Granger. We might have a long night ahead of us."
"I'm not hungry anymore," she said, nervously pushing the food around her plate.
"Suit yourself," he said and placidly continued eating.
In her dreams she had unquestioning faith in Severus Snape. There, he had always protected her, his presence a comfort and a security. But in real life, his behavior left her with questions; questions she couldn't find answers for. Why did she want the Severus Snape of her dreams to merge with the Professor Snape of her reality? Quietly the thought born in her heart stole into her mind and she was astounded. She had feelings for this man! Staring at him across the table, her heart thumping roughly at the adrenalin rush this thought had provoked, she wondered why he couldn't hear the pounding so prevalent in her own ears. This can't be!
Another pounding joined the one in her head, muffled, echoing through the greenhouse, reverberating right into the kitchen.
"Time to go," he said and stood immediately. He looked her over and then added, "Best get your cloak. It will be chilly tonight."
Finally! Hermione literally ran to her room and snagged her cloak from the wardrobe. Action would chase away these frightening musings. She followed closely behind as he left the kitchen and strode purposefully to the back of the greenhouse, the soft soil muffling their footfalls. The pounding resumed as they neared the back door and Professor Snape drew his wand. He flicked it once and the sconce on the back wall flared to life; flicking it again, she heard the lock click and the door banged open.
A cloaked figure quickly stepped inside and quietly closed the door behind him. The individual pulled back his hood and Hermione knew who it was even before the shock of blonde hair fell forward.
Hermione hesitated at the sight of the huge man and slowed her pace as Professor Snape continued forward to greet him. She watched as he shook hands with the Death Eater. This must be who he had contacted through his Dark Mark. Even knowing that he had put Rowle under the Imperious curse, her suspicions ignited. Why shake hands with someone you could control completely?
"Does he have Potter and Weasley?" she heard Professor Snape query.
The Death Eater's response relieved her - they had a lead on the status of her friends - and stoked her concerns at the same time: who had them, where were they being held and were they okay? She stepped forward and stood next to Professor Snape.
"And you know where they are right now?"
"You are not wanted there, Snape."
"On the contrary, Rowle," drawled Professor Snape. "I think he will be very interested in my proposition. And you will take us to him."
At this obvious command Rowle stiffened and his eyes glazed slightly. He nodded automatically, turned, opened the door and stepped into the alleyway. Professor Snape glanced down at her and held his hand out, indicating the exit.
"After you, Miss Granger," he said. His face was completely blank and she tried desperately to read it, searching his black eyes for some indication of his intent. He was asking her to follow a Death Eater to where at least one other Death Eater was holding Harry and Ron against their will. Whose side was he actually on? The answer wasn't found in his face. She had to decide now if he was trustworthy or if she should turn and run. Or try to. Yes, if she went with him, she might find her friends, but she wouldn't be able to help if she was a prisoner as well. Better to maintain her ability to do something, to alert Kingsley and the Aurors. She thought back to last night and how Professor Snape had handled the situation with Winky. He had treated the little elf with such understanding. Hermione believed that a good person could pretend to be evil, but could an evil person pretend to be good? She didn't think that was possible - they wouldn't know how. Her decision was made quickly. She headed out the door.
The alleyway was flooded with blue light from the nearly full moon above. As they approached Rowle, he held out an elbow for each. Hermione took one arm, Professor Snape the other. A moment later the breath was squeezed out of her as they Disapparated from the alley.
They Apparated to a small clearing surrounded by thick forest. The moonlight was bright in the center of the glade, casting shadows under the trees and making Hermione's nerves jitter; the flora could hide a multitude of enemies. She discreetly pulled her wand from her pocket, just in case.
Rowle headed for one edge of the forest and Professor Snape waited until she followed the Death Eater and then fell in behind her. The wall of trees seemed unrelenting but Rowle lead them to a trace of a trail and they threaded their way amongst the underbrush, ducking under lowered branches. It was a short walk. The forest opened up again to a small meadow and Hermione could see that they were heading to a modest cabin snugged up against the tree line opposite from where they had come out of the woods.
"Hold up," Professor Snape commanded and Rowle halted obediently. Professor Snape stepped forward and surveyed the meadow and cabin. "What will we find inside?" he asked.
"Five of us have been staying there. One will be guarding the door. The others will be with the prisoners - the last room at the end of the hall."
Professor Snape then turned and pointed his wand at her. Hermione's throat tightened in sudden panic, but he simply cast a Disillusionment spell. As the icy cold of the charm flowed through her and her body disappeared, she saw that he cast the same enchantment on himself. "Continue Rowle," he said and the Death Eater struck out toward the cabin.
Hermione felt uncomfortable, exposed, as they crossed the open area, even knowing she couldn't be seen. The illumination from the moon left their shadows in pools about their invisible feet and she found it very interesting that light would prove their position. She wondered if magically produced light could provide the same information and made a mental note to test that hypothesis at some future date.
With her stomach cramping every step closer to the cabin, she again questioned if she was doing the right thing. Almost like a mantra she kept repeating to herself that Professor Snape was trustworthy; that she had made the right decision; that her faith in him would be rewarded. Her grip kept tightening up on her wand until she finally decided to return it to her pocket in an attempt to relax.
Rowle stepped onto the fringing porch and pounded on the door. Warmth flowed over her body as Professor Snape cancelled his Disillusionment spell and by the time someone answered Rowle's knock, they were both visible again. She wasn't sure that was such a good idea.
"Password," a voice behind the door demanded and a small sconce to the side of the jamb lit up.
"Vengeance," Rowle growled. Hermione already didn't like the tone this encounter was taking.
She tentatively followed Professor Snape onto the porch.
When the guard saw who was behind Rowle, his wand snapped up and a jet of red light poured forth. But Professor Snape was ready and faster. His expanding Shield charm deflected the curse headed their way and threw the guard backwards. He pushed past Rowle and a few strides later loomed over the Death Eater laying flat on his back on the floor.
"Really, Rowland, how many times have you tried that on me with the exact same result?" He offered his hand to the man sprawled on the floor. With a scowl Rowland took it and Professor Snape pulled him upright.
"Damn it, Snape! You're a traitor and you are not welcome here."
"A traitor? Surely you've heard of the assistance I've been rendering to our brethren? What has your new 'Dark Lord' done for you? Besides, of course, kidnaping Harry Potter and potentially bringing the entire Ministry down on your necks?"
"Isn't that your job? Where are they, Snape? Hiding in the trees, waiting for your signal?"
Rowland was right. That should have been Professor Snape's job, but he had not answered Kingsley's Patronus message; he had not contacted anyone else besides Rowle, as far as she could tell. Why hadn't she remembered that tidbit before stepping into the alleyway with him? She felt like kicking herself. Deep breath. Remember how he treated Winky.
Rowland rounded on Thorfinn Rowle. "And what the hell did you bring him here for? Are you out of your mind? Crabbe will be furious!"
Crabbe? Vincent Crabbe, Sr? Oh, no.
"Speaking of Crabbe, I want to see him - now. I have a proposition to make." Professor Snape said flatly. He grabbed her arm, pulled her in front of him and shoved her forward toward the hall. She would have stumbled and fell except that he maintained his grip. Once she regained her balance, she glared up at him. He ignored her and nodded at Rowle.
"You can't go back there, Snape. Get out of . . ."
Hermione heard the sizzle of a curse being cast and then a thump. Apparently Rowland was on the floor again. Professor Snape gauged his step, letting Rowle catch up and pass them, entering the hallway in the lead.
An agonizing scream echoed down the hall. Hermione knew it was Harry and she attempted to pull away from Professor Snape, wanting to reach her friend, but his grip on her arm was made of iron. She angrily glowered up at him but what she saw left her cold and bereft. His black eyes were a fright - icy, dead, emotionless. He pursed his lips and shoved her into the room at the end of the hall, just behind Rowle.
It was a horrific scene. Ron and Harry were tied up on the floor, hands behind their backs. Crabbe was standing over Harry and, from the scream Hermione had heard, she knew Harry had been subjected to the Cruciatus Curse. But magic wasn't the only method Crabbe had used to torture her friends. Both of their faces were bloodied and it was apparent fists and feet had been used to put them in that condition. Two other men stood beyond Crabbe, undoubtedly assisting in this gruesome task. Ron was unconscious, one of his legs twisted back at an unnatural angle. It was all she could do to not retch at the sight.
"Snape!" Crabbe shouted and raised his wand. Professor Snape cast a Shield charm, but it was not needed. The Death Eater's attention had been averted. His eyes were fixed upon her.
"Calm yourself, Crabbe. I'm here to negotiate," Professor Snape said quietly and he finally let go of her arm. She tried to rub the feeling back into it.
"Representing the Ministry now, are we?" Crabbe snarled. "Your Aurors ready to storm the place?"
Hermione knew there would be no Aurors to save them. If Professor Snape was on her side, they had a chance. If not, all was lost.
"Nonsense. As I have unceasingly tried to reassure any Death Eater who would listen, I had an opportunity to align myself with the other side and I took it. I took it in order to protect those of our brethren left after our Lord's defeat and I took it to give us time."
"Time for what?"
"Time to regroup, to rally the rest of our brethren so that we could complete our Lord's mission," Professor Snape said flatly. "And time to revenge his death." He looked down at her friends, his eyes glinting with malevolence. "I want Harry Potter," he murmured, seemingly entranced by the effect of the violence visited upon the two young men.
"I have a death of my own to avenge, Snape. These three are responsible for the death of my son. They killed him. On the night the Dark Lord fell, they murdered my boy."
"Then we can both get what we want, Crabbe. Harry Potter had nothing to do with Vincent's death," Professor Snape said softly. "This Mudblood confessed to me, thinking me to be on her side; thinking me to be her friend. She's the one that conjured the Fiendfyre that incinerated your son alive."
That is a lie! she wanted to shout, but he must have hexed her speechless; no words would come. Hermione's hand dove for her pocket, desperate for her wand. And it wasn't there. Professor Snape laughed.
"You didn't really think I'd let you enter this room with a wand, did you, Mudblood?"
His hand snaked out and grabbed her hair, since working at the apothecary - done up in a bun at the back of her head, and roughly jerked upward. Gasping, and trying to alleviate the pain, her hands flew up to his, latched on and pulled downward attempting to assuage the tension. She was almost on tiptoe.
"I propose a trade: Harry Potter for your son's murderer," Professor Snape said nastily and pointed his wand at Harry, nearly unconscious on the floor. Crabbe looked at the bloodied figure, nearly at his feet. "This one?" he snarled, now stabbing his wand toward Ron. "You can do whatever you like with that blood traitor." As Crabbe's attention diverted toward Ron, Hermione saw the tip of Professor Snape's wand casually flick back toward her. A flash of blue light shimmered over her cloak and it twisted and quivered about her. What the hell was . . . ? He tugged on her hair again and she gasped, her attention back on Crabbe.
"Fair enough," Crabbe finally agreed.
"She's all yours, then," Professor Snape growled and thrust her toward the Death Eater, toward her enemy, toward her death.
She had made a terrible mistake.