Chapter Notes: I am rewriting a bunch of stuff with which I'm not satisfied. So please bear with me! Enjoy, and remember none of the Wizarding World belongs to me.
Alecto’s smile meant nothing good. He should have been prepared, but he couldn’t have expected this. The students were in chains, their wrists suspended over their heads. Severus took a deep breath. Hogwarts was unrecognizable...
“Headmaster?” Alecto purred. He’d missed what she said.
“Yes? It’s disgusting – what of it? You have some discovery to share?”
“We haven’t got them talking yet but—”
“Yet? And just how much time do you think you have? Amycus, I suppose you have nothing further to add either?”
Amycus kept his head hanging low over his rounded shoulders. He scraped at a bit of debris on the dungeon floor and didn’t answer. It obviously hadn’t been his idea to show off their catch to the headmaster, not before he’d had more time with them.
Alecto was confused. “Sever – um – Headmaster, you yourself said it would take years to complete our work here.”
“Years to educate the populace. To stamp out the notions of the old world. But, Professor Carrow, it should not take years to break four adolescent and completely inept students!”
He whipped out his wand and severed the chains. The metal screamed and snapped, rattling noisily to the floor where the chains writhed hotly. The students collapsed to the ground but quickly scrambled to their feet. They hated to show weakness almost more than they hated him. Scabs and red skin glowed at their wrists. According to the Carrows they had been caught out of bounds late in the night; how soon had the Carrows strung them up? How long had they been dangling with their feet barely touching the ground?
Severus let his most hostile stare rest on each of them. He pointed at the one nearest the door.
“You, in front,” He said quietly. “Form a line.”
The Ravenclaw girl was having trouble. Two of her Gryffindor friends got behind and in front her to give support, but it was obvious her leg was injured.
“Can you walk?” he snapped.
Keeping her eyes forward the girl barely nodded.
“Headmaster – this is unnecessary. Let me have them for the day and I can find out everything.”
“Enough, Alecto. I’m used to doing everything myself after all.”
She was silenced and watched sullenly as he followed the pathetic line of students from the dungeons. The injured girl slowed them down, but it gave Severus time to think. He’d got them out of their chains, free from the Carrows, but with no idea what to do next. He had no choice; he couldn’t have left them there like that. Besides, Severus had a growing suspicion Amycus targeted the female students.
One Ravenclaw and three Gryffindors; two boys and two girls. Probably made an excellent cover, sneaking away in couples. A believable lie for being out after curfew. He knew the Gryffindor boys, McCleary and Philips, fourth and second years. The Ravenclaw girl’s name slipped his mind but the Gryffindor girl looked familiar, although there was something off about her. A memory was niggling at him.
They gained the gargoyle staircase and ascended, painfully, to the headmaster’s office. The portraits twittered and whispered. Albus’s portrait closed his book, stood slowly, and left the frame. The students watched him go with wide eyes. They would interpret that as they would and spread the word that even Dumbledore’s portrait was disgusted with the puppet headmaster.
“Now. This wasn’t a simple matter of being out after curfew, I understand.”
“You were found with various compromising items?”
No response. Severus blew out a breath,
“Very well, correct me if I’m wrong. Professor Carrow mentioned you were found in the grounds by the Whomping Willow?”
Had they discovered the tunnel to the shack? It would be useful as a means of escape and for supplies…
“And you possessed contraband including extendable ears and several issues of that rag called the ‘Quibbler’.”
Still nothing. The Ravenclaw shifted slightly, trying to relieve her leg. They didn’t seem to be listening and looked right through him. Something else was bothering them. They had been searched – and bore visible signs of the beating Amycus would have given them – what secret could they still be protecting?
If they aren’t looking at me what are they looking at?
The Gryffindor girl. Rather they were trying very hard not to look at her. Children were so very obvious. Severus suppressed a smirk and opened a drawer to withdraw a vial. The clear liquid shimmered and the students collectively stifled their gasps. He wouldn’t waste Veritaserum on them but let them worry while he watched the girl. She was familiar, yet at the same time not. Hadn’t she had an older sister at Hogwarts? Severus could picture them together, dark hair, neat features, but this girl didn’t have her sister’s aggressive jaw and sullen eyes…
He knew her. As comprehension came, Severus turned and looked at them squarely for a moment. Partly in disbelief, partly in interest. He wanted a good look at this — he might never see it again. The students looked blankly back at him; who knew what they thought was going on. Severus savored the sight of them for a minute and smiled. They looked at him in confusion turning to horror.
“We’re done here,” Severus told them gently.
The Stunning Spell hit Philips first. He could have Stunned them all at once, but they were expecting a little cruelty – they had to realize soon that the cost of fighting was too high. Philips crumpled, and the next boy’s eyes widened as the wand turned to him. Severus proceeded calmly. The injured Ravenclaw girl fell, leaving the Gryffindor girl the last standing. She looked at him stoically even as the spell hit her. She didn’t falter until her eyes rolled back and she lost consciousness.
A Slytherin dressed up in a Gryffindor uniform. It was better than spotting a unicorn and even rarer, if not entirely unknown. No wonder they had been nervous. Her punishment would have been so much more severe, had the Carrows realized. Severus looked down at her, waiting to recall her name. A little Memory Charm and the students would only remember being force-marched to his office and being Stunned. Severus walked down the line again, this time pausing to wipe the memory of each student. His own memory managed to produce the name finally. Greengrass. A Slytherin and a pureblood nonetheless. Astoria Greengrass.
Theophany hurried through the workshop to the small greenhouse beyond. It was really no bigger than a luxurious closet, she was saving for something larger, but the green warm smell was comforting, and she sat on a pruning stool to think. The fronds of the Flitter Fern trembled a little, and some of the smaller glass cages made little plinking sounds as the dangerous sprouts within tapped against the glass. These were the remains of her poison garden, a project she’d started as a child. Why Dad hadn’t put a stop to it she had no idea. As a teenager she had become aware such a thing would raise eyebrows and started keeping her ferocious specimens in pots and indoors out of sight.
The truth was Theophany was at a loss what to do next. In her hand she held a rolled parchment, everything she had discovered on the Mlakar family previous to writing them off. It had made sense to discount them as candidates. The sons, Josef and Dragoslav, had died in the 40’s, their parents died of old age, what minor influence they’d had long forgotten, and no heir had remained. There had been no record of a daughter.
What made this more likely than all the others was Elaine's revelation that something had been built there. The eldest brother, Dragoslav, and his friends had created something and it had destroyed his family. But it could be another dead end. Should she look further or inform Severus now? She couldn’t bear another disappointment, and it would be better if she didn’t have to see the bitterness grow in his eyes every time they came up empty-handed. Theophany put a finger into a cage and let a tiny green tendril wind around her knuckle. She was going about this wrong. It wasn’t her decision. She unrolled the parchment. To the old information concerning the Mlakars she added a brief note about their daughter. On the reverse side she scribbled,
I will be taking the night train from platform 7 ½ to Kočevje via Austria. The information contained here will explain why. If I don’t see you on the platform, I will assume you trust me to continue alone. I will write with anything further I discover.
Theophany threw down her quill. She’d almost signed, ‘yours’ before her name. Stupid. Even though she felt she was his, it wouldn’t please him one bit.
Theophany put away her research with a sense of finality and locked up. Remembering to take a few essentials with her, she decided to first drag one of the owls out of the warm loft to deliver the letter and then ask Ike to pack a few sandwiches.
One way Floo trips weren’t a problem with the Fidelius Charm, it was coming back that would be the problem if you weren’t in on the secret. Preferring to obfuscate her trail whenever possible, Theophany took the Floo to the Leaky Cauldron first. It was, even in these times, busy. No one would mark one extra witch with a small bag. She took the Muggle bus to King’s Cross and passed through the barrier onto platform 7 ½ without any trouble.
Throughout the bus ride she wondered if Kočevje would be near the mountains – her geography was a little vague – or if the forest Elaine Boergenpoeffer remembered was still there. In the queue for a ticket she wondered if she could get a hot tea on the train. While she waited for customs to search her baggage, she calculated the miles between here and Austria. Theophany wondered anything and everything she could as long as it wasn’t if he would be waiting on the platform.
He wasn’t. The area was empty of Severus Snape. She didn't allow herself to feel disappointed. There were only a few others passengers waiting. Theophany reached into her robes pocket for her watch and remembered it was still at home, broken. The station clock said 7:30. She’d be in Kočevje by midnight. Witching hour, she smiled to herself. In her bag was food and she’d slid in some of the books Dad had got her for Christmas. Von Brauser’s book on lethal antidotes might be too attention-catching, so she settled for the book of poetry instead. In her bag was also a notepad, which made her feel like she was playing at detective, but she felt it would be best to have something to write on should she find something in Slovenia.
The announcer’s voice rang out, the clock chimed, they’d be boarding soon. Theophany shifted her weight on the bench, dog-eared a particularly good bit, and heard a crack. She considered playing cool and unimpressed for about an eighth of a second but threw reserve to the winds and looked up with a smile. She opened that inner door between her thoughts and her face and released all the sincerity and relief she felt.
“I’m so very pleased you came.”
Severus glowered at her. Under the bright lights of the station he looked positively medieval even by wizarding standards. Theophany was now certain that he only bothered with the same set of robes every day. But she also knew without a doubt his spare robes were an exact copy of the same set.
“As if I would even consider allowing you to leave alone.” Severus glowered.
“Oh, oh, allow me, is it?”
She laughed. How appalled Jacka and everybody would be by his attitude. Severus had no idea she was in charge, even considered important. Theophany-formerly-of-the-Dagda, Theophany the Potions Mistress and Secret Keeper. Right now she was just Theophany the Annoyance.
Severus sat on the far end of the bench and rested an elbow on one knee, cradling his forehead in his hand. He looked tired as always. Theophany returned to her book as soon as they boarded. Even though the compartment was empty, she resumed reading. Now that she had got this close to him, she was afraid to push any further friendliness.
Let him stay silent if he wishes.
It was a little hard. She would happily spend hours not talking, just being company for him, but it would only be happily if he knew, and he couldn’t know how she felt. Even if he could read the thoughts in her eyes like it was said of You-Know-Who himself, Severus couldn’t read love there. He wouldn’t be looking for it. That is, if her understanding of Legilimency was accurate.
The train began to make the sounds for departure, the ticketmaster passed through, but they were further delayed by some official-looking wizards checking identification. The Ministry’s new official look being small minded and mean and conceivably part troll. The wizard who took Theophany’s papers looked like he could crack walnuts with his fingers.
“Seyz ‘ere – seyz ‘ere it seyz you’re a ‘purveyor o’ potions’.”
Theophany wanted to congratulate him on his reading capabilities but only nodded obediently. Severus shifted slightly. Was he able to catch her thoughts without eye contact?
“Got da roight papers for potions, do yer?”
She handed over her license. There was much nodding and sucking of teeth as it was examined. The wizard looked under his overgrown eyebrows at her and slowly turned the paper card between his fingers. His expression was entirely blank, but his eyes were busy over her. Finally he sniffed and held her license out to her like it was a great favour. Theophany thanked him meekly and returned it to her bag. After they left, the train shuddered and began to move. Severus spoke at last.
“You should disguise yourself.”
Was that a kind of compliment? Theophany decided to treat it as a reprimand just to be safe.
“Disguises can slip – even Polyjuice can be detected if they think to look for it. I think it best not to raise suspicions unnecessarily. Besides, with a mouth breather like that it wouldn’t matter if I was hideous. Anything vaguely female wouldn’t be safe with that.”
“I didn’t think you capable of holding your temper.”
“I only bother getting angry with people who matter,” Theophany replied sweetly with a backhanded compliment of her own.
She picked up her poems again and settled in with her feet tucked up on the seat beside her. In a while she’d go looking for the tea cart if it didn’t come by, then read some more, have dinner, and maybe doze a little. If she couldn’t sleep, she could always annoy Severus a little. That could always be counted on.
But after she’d finished her tea, Severus broke the silence. His face was still turned towards the window when he asked abruptly, “What put you onto Mlakar? I thought we had discarded him.”
Theophany put down her book. “It’s kind of you to say ‘we’. I had discarded him as there was nothing left of the family estate, they had never been wealthy or influential, and no heirs survived – or so I thought. I went to Elaine hoping she could give me some information on the area. I didn’t expect her to be a relation.”
“I should have guessed,” he muttered. “The fact that young Dragoslav Mlakar had no great fortune or influence to inherit made him a perfect candidate for a promised seat at the table.”
“But he didn’t get that seat – they all died. Except for the daughter, but she she was living in France by then.”
“A lot of people died,” he answered cryptically.
“So you believe that Dragoslav got caught up in the Dark Arts, and the old Mlakar estate was perfect for something, so he was promised, what, part of world domination in return for chasing off his tenants for what – building a top secret clubhouse? A super evil, super dark clubhouse?”
Severus smiled mirthlessly.
“Exactly that. You think it’s near Kočevje?”
“Define near.” Theophany grinned. “You might want to catch a little sleep while you can.” He grimaced and shifted irritably. “Then eat something. Keep up your strength. Here, I have sandwiches. Egg or cheese and pickle?”
Severus eyed the brown parcel. Theophany twiddled it at him.
“Go on. I won’t tell a soul you don’t subsist purely on darkness and the tears of students.”
No eye roll, no impatient sigh. He didn’t exactly smile either, but maybe that was too much to hope for. Severus chose a sandwich at random and accepted her offer to fetch more tea. He accepted the chipped white mug Theophany brought back politely enough. He didn’t deserve commendation for behaving like a decent person, but Theophany felt a trifle smug at being tolerated by Severus when he disliked people as a rule.
Kočevje was mountains and woods together. The plateau, or Rog, above the city was heavily forested and the landscape irregular and sloping. In summer the foliage had to be so thick as to conceal anything more than a few meters away. The rock here was soft, and below them were countless underground streams and caverns. The wizarding train didn’t so much as tilt, its tracks somehow avoiding the steepest slopes and spanning gorges unbridged by Muggles. Below them the river Rinža was a black ice snake, and at the edge lights of Kocevje could be seen.
“After we disembark?” Severus asked.
“We leave at once. The place we’re looking for is remote – somewhere in the elevation above the city.”
The tea trolley witch stopped by, asking for empty mugs. The silver urns on her trolley caroled the variety of soups they carried in bell-like voices. Severus shuddered a little and refused anything they offered. He had only eaten part of the sandwich. At least he was trying. Theophany turned her attention back to the mountains.
Please let this be the place.
They disembarked with only a handful of others, but the platform was busy. Even in winter this was a destination for the holidays. Theophany moved patiently with the holiday ski crowd, trying to look in no greater hurry than anyone else. Severus took the small bag and followed. The wind was strong outside the station. Probably bringing more clouds heavy with snow. Theophany stopped to consult her map under a street lamp. The square in front of the church was well lit – even the clock face in the bell tower was luminous.
“Do you trust me enough for side-along Apparition?” Theophany asked Severus. “I haven’t been there before, but I’ve studied the map. Or we could rent a few broomsticks, but at this hour–”
“Absolutely not,” Severus snapped.
Was this Death Eater afraid of flying?
“Okay then.” Theophany put her hand out.
She’d led him by the hand before, in Durham, but she had barely noticed then how hers fit into his, just filling his palm and wrapping cross the fine bones on the back. Theophany averted her face when he took her hand, looking up at the clock; it was about to strike midnight, the creak of its gears audible.
The river was named Rinža, Theophany had told him. Severus only nodded to show he’d heard. At an altitude of nine hundred ten meters what had been strong wind in the city below was ten times more powerful here. The trees provided no cover. It ripped at their robes. Beside him Theophany was shivering suddenly, her eyes peeled wide against the wind. Severus realized she was still holding his hand and pulled, but Theophany held onto him and leaned closer.
“We’re facing west!” she shouted over the wind. “I don’t know – there’s another valley about five kilometers on, that’s Primozi; it could be here or on the Rog beyond Primozi.”
“So we move forward,” Severus called back. He dropped her hand and strode into the wind.
Theophany followed, struggling with keeping her hood over her face. She still seemed to be shaking. Severus kept up his pace and felt her falling behind. No matter, he wanted to spot it before she did.
“Will it be hidden from us? Enchanted?” she called.
Upwind of her Severus found it difficult to hear.
“Only from Muggles. It’s higher there ...we might see….”
The rest of his words were carried away by the wind. Theophany struggled after him as they climbed. Though they were bare, the trees obscured their view. Severus snorted in frustration and picked up his pace before leaping into the air. Ascending quickly over the treetops, he was blown sideways in a violent gust. It was difficult to fight against it, much less see clearly. Still, he managed a circuit of the area before descending. Caught between his flight and the wind, branches swayed and snapped as he swept past, landing at a steady walk.
Theophany was standing tensely below, waiting.
“Anything?” she asked.
“Elaine was just a child, she could only give me general ideas. I compared it with the records of the Mlakar land-holdings. Primozi is west of us, and we want the far side. It’s a higher altitude and a little more remote, but I can Apparate there.”
Severus saved his breath and nodded. Before Theophany offered it, he wordlessly took her hand. His wasn’t much warmer than hers.
The next plateau was not as steeply sloped as the mountains they had crossed but still heavily forested. For the next hour they Apparated and reconnoitered and Apparated again. Theophany appeared more and more distracted with each Disapparition. She kept looking over her shoulder or pausing, holding her breath.
“Do you hear that?”
Severus paused. The wind was singing in his ears, but he heard nothing else. Theophany was turning her head about, as if trying to catch something in particular. He shook his head.
“Oh.” Theophany caught her breath and her eyes widened. “It’s like a...whine. Or hum?”
“I’m not imagining it.”
Severus nodded. “I know.”
Theophany looked gratefully at him and unrolled the map. Her fingers were shaking. Severus conjured a handful of flame and handed it to her, taking the map. At a glance he could see they had worked their way west and were far closer to Strahavolje now. Theophany cupped the flames in her hands.
“Th-thanks...it’s not so much the cold though it’s just – I’m filled with adrenaline but I don’t know why. Just jumpy I suppose.”
“Did you hear it again?”
“More like I hear something all the time. It’s something in the wind, and it makes electricity down my spine to my toes.”
She twitched and lifted her head, eyes unfocused. Severus rolled up the map.
“Then let’s follow that.”
Theophany stared at him. Blue light made her eyes look huge, and slightly unbalanced.
“Are you sure? How is that a good idea?”
She clapped her hands over the flame, snuffing it out, then took Severus’s hand in hers, now warmed through. For a moment she hesitated, choosing her direction, then they turned on the spot.
They Apparated further along the plateau. The wind was stronger. Theophany glanced at Severus, shook her head, and they Apparated again. Severus thought they had moved further west but also south a little. He didn’t much care, but followed silently. Theophany wasn’t looking at the map. She kept ahold of Severus’s hand as they stopped no longer than a moment between Apparating and Disapparating.
“Does the wind seem louder to you?” she shouted.
Severus tried to answer, but the wind forced his words back. He clutched her hand tighter and they Disapparated.
Something kicked Severus in the gut. He stumbled forward, releasing Theophany. He couldn’t raise his head, couldn’t breathe, suffocating under some great weight. Severus sucked in a breath and it barely filled his lungs, the air didn’t stir.
“Do you...feel that?” he heard Theophany whisper.
It was a valley but very small. It was almost a hole between two rises of land. The wind was silent. The valley was dead. Their breath seemed to sit on the air, like it was too heavy to dissipate. Though their altitude was lower, the air felt thin, strained. At the same time, moving was oppressive and Severus's feet moved heavily.
“Severus…what is this?”
He put out a hand and was a little surprise the air didn’t resist his motion, it was so compressed around them.
“This is the place, Severus.”
Severus didn’t answer.
“But – don’t you feel that? It’s like Elaine said, this is an evil place.”
“...I feel it.” Severus’s head was bowed under the weight. “It’s not here – but we’re very close.”
“How are your ears?” Severus asked.
“I think you were reacting to the protective charms – that’s why everything feels...pulled tight. There’s a strain from so much restriction. Do you hear anything now?”
A place so charmed you could hear it. He had never witnessed anything like this, or even read of it.
Theophany shifted her weight uneasily.
“So we’ll have to follow our gut feeling,” Severus said grimly.
He started up the slope, out of the valley, feeling his heart sink. He knew without a doubt he did not want to go that way. Tiny hooks pulled at his skin. Turn around, stop, just lie down and fight to breathe the scant air. It must be the right direction.
Behind him he heard Theophany follow. The climb was steep enough she had to catch hold of the sapling trees to pull herself up. After a minute Severus was forced to follow her example. His legs trembled with exhaustion, and whatever was deterring their progress forward made it difficult to breathe. It was like swimming through tar, and he was at the end of his strength. A leaden weight was dragging him back, back to the valley, back to the warmth and safety of the train.
Severus reached the summit. He barely needed to look. It was there. A glance upwards was enough and he dropped his head. Theophany was still behind him, hidden by the slope. Severus raised a hand.
“Absolutely not,” Theophany panted.
Severus looked over his shoulder at her. Keeping her head down, she caught hold of a low branch and pulled herself up. He lowered his hand to gesture her back.
“You mustn’t…” Severus started.
Theophany caught ahold of his arm and used it to draw herself over the top of the slope. As she reached the top, the silence deepened further until even the thinned air bowed and broke under its weight. Not a movement, not a sound. No whisper of wind. Theophany’s legs folded and she fell heavily but didn't let go of his hand. Severus said nothing. He watched her look at the tower.
The ground sloped beneath them into a plain. On the far side rose another plateau, its sheer face broken by rippling stone waterfalls that had been eroded into the limestone over centuries. Rippled edges of caverns hollowed by floods and sinkholes opened their dark mouths into uncertain depths. The black tower rose at the cliff’s edge above them. It dwarfed the walls that surrounded it. The tower was smooth; not a window, not a ledge, broke its sheer sides. There were no doors. A gate in the lower wall bore a heavy lock, a needless deterrent. It was impossible to read at this distance but they both knew what was inscribed above those gates.
Ad Maius Bonum. ‘For the Greater Good’.