Chapter 56

VIGIL

When Snape sat them down in the empty Great Hall and informed them of Dumbledore's passing, Harry finally allowed himself to succumb to the wretchedness he'd felt since his memories had come flooding back. But every sob was tempered by thoughts of revenge.

Professor Daine buried her face in her arms, bawling. Sitting at the high table beside her, Harry dashed tears from under his glasses with one hand and stroked her back with the other. He wondered how he ever could have doubted her. Snape stationed himself across from them, his forehead propped in his hands, his eyes dry, his mouth grim, his thoughts kept to himself.

Just you wait, Harry told him silently as the minutes ticked by. Just you wait.

At last, Snape grimaced as if he could bear no more—whether of Ariel's crying or his own guilt, Harry couldn't tell. "Food?" he asked.

Harry frowned. He couldn't remember—literally couldn't remember—when he'd last eaten. If that's the memory Voldemort destroyed, then providence really is on my side. Whenever it had been, he felt too sick to his stomach to eat now. He shook his head.

"Oh, no," Ariel Daine wailed. "I couldn't eat either. Not a bite."

"Sleep, then. You must sleep."

"No, I couldn't. Not until—not until I see him." Ariel Daine raised her head from the table. "You agree, Harry? Not until we see him?" Blinking away her tears, she looked back at Snape. "He's laid out, isn't he? Somewhere? For viewing?"

Snape sighed. Then he nodded. Without words, he pushed back from the table. Before the murderer could come around to lay his hands on poor Professor Daine, Harry hooked his arm around her and pulled her to her feet.

But clearly she didn't recall Snape's part in the tragedy. She broke from Harry, ran to the villain, and crushed her whimpering face against his chest. He inhaled sharply, but swept an arm around her to hold her up.

Turning, he murmured, "Follow me."

Harry glared at his back, wishing his eyes could burn a hole in it. Just you wait.

After countless corridors, several staircases, and numerous turns, Snape stopped in front of a pair of massive, carved doors held shut by a heavy chain. One arm supporting Professor Daine, he extended his free hand to a brass knob set into a smaller panel. It turned easily, and the panel swung inward.

"This way," he said and helped Ariel Daine through.

When Harry followed Snape into the domed rotunda, his vision blurred a moment—an effect, no doubt, of his watery eyes—focusing again on a couple of dozen mourners showing reverence to the fallen sage. On one side, he saw Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, Professor Sprout and Madame Hooch standing solemnly with the head boy and head girl from each house. The attendants on the other side he didn't know. Their traveling cloaks identified them as visitors, but their hoods kept their faces hidden. Resident or guest, it didn't matter. Everyone in the room centered their attention on the cold, still body of Professor Albus Dumbledore.

Gazing at the beloved, gentle face, Harry bit his lip to keep from breaking down. He hadn't remembered the Headmaster looking quite this old and frail. The poison that killed him had added more wrinkles, but it hadn't marred the look of wisdom, generosity and kindness that identified Dumbledore more surely than any potion ever could.

I'll avenge you, Harry swore silently. I'll give your murderer what for.

But who would believe him? Not Ariel Daine, still leaning and weeping against Snape. If she insisted that the Potions master had rescued them from four intransigent Death Eaters in a Northumberland cottage, who would believe his story that the villain had traded Voldemort their lives for Dumbledore's? Surely, not Professor McGonagall who'd looked askance at Harry that pre-Christmas supper for his suspicions about Snape. Surely, not Hagrid who relied fondly on his reminiscences of mutual respect.

Slowly, Harry raised his eyes to the hooded visitors. Were these the Headmaster's oldest friends, witches and wizards of advanced years and broad experience who might give credence to his zealously defended memories and conduct whatever magical investigations might be available for post-mortem detection of Coritoxia Alternatus?

He took a hesitant step toward them. Then Headmistress McGonagall hissed, "Harry, come here."

At first, the twelve somber strangers gave him no notice. Then the second one from the left raised his index finger discreetly at his side. As Harry stared at it, hoping for a sign, the wizard shook it three times, then dropped his hand.

Harry blinked. Had he just been given a fatherly No, no, no?

Confused, he backed away. Then he hurried around the bier to Professor McGonagall and took up his position between her and Professor Daine. He hung his head gravely, pondering what he should—could—do next.

After what seemed an eternity of standing, Ariel Daine's knees buckled. She wobbled against Harry. When he reached out to steady her, she toppled the other way. Snape grabbed her before she could fall. Immediately, McGonagall was in front of her, pinching her cheeks and peering under her droopy eyelids.

"Poor thing. All spent. She needs sleep."

"No," Professor Daine answered faintly. "I need . . . licorice wands."

"Licorice wands." McGonagall clicked her tongue, obviously not as convinced of the candy's restorative power as her young colleague. "As you say. Let's get you down to your rooms."

"No. Not my rooms. Albus's. I gave him the rest of my stash—" Daine sobbed once "—for Christmas."

McGonagall and Snape exchanged a glance that Harry couldn't read.

"Yes, of course," the Potions master conceded. "You must lie down. It might as well be there."

"Harry, too," Daine murmured. "He's had a rough time. He needs a licorice wand, too."

Snape blew out his breath but made no objections when Harry followed him, McGonagall and Daine to one of the raised ovals of etched marble that patterned the rotunda's walls. When they stopped in front of it, the scratches that resembled a griffin seemed to come to life. Professor McGonagall stood on tiptoes to whisper the password into the animal's ear. The stone door scraped open. Harry followed the three professors inside. As his eyes became accustomed to the dim light, he realized he was in a chamber he'd never seen before: the Headmaster's bedroom.

The red oak paneling the walls and embossed copper crowning the ceiling spoke of centuries of tradition, but the homey patchwork quilt scrunched up on the bed and the well-thumbed book lying open, spine up, on the night table were pure Dumbledore. The fire that an elderly elf clad in a green-and-red loden suit was just lighting on the brick hearth added to the impression that the room's occupant was not dead and gone, only temporarily away. A glimpse of the dearly departed through the still open portal, however, reminded Harry anew that he would never share a hot frothy butterbeer with the Headmaster again. The sight prompted fresh tears to his eyes.

Professor Daine's reaction to the room was altogether different. Just entering the Headmaster's comfy-looking quarters seemed to have restored her composure. She declined Snape's offer of the room's lone rocking chair. He inspected her sidelong, then released her elbow. For a moment, he stood awkwardly beside her. Then he folded his arms inside his robes and paced over to examine a miniature portrait of a youthful red-haired witch.

McGonagall strode purposefully to a scarred oak bureau. "Licorice wands. I saw the canister here somewhere."

When Harry glanced again at Ariel Daine, he saw her gazing impatiently at the portal. When the marble oval finally grated across it, she seemed to relax. When a painting on their side—Hogwarts Castle at sunrise—slid shut, she broke into a grin, and he frowned with bewilderment.

She gave him a thumbs up, then tilted her head jauntily toward Snape. "Well, did I look convincing?"

Slowly, Snape turned to stare at her. His forehead creased, as if he were still trying to make out the words she'd just said. "Convincing? What—what are you talking about?"

"You know." Professor Daine struck a pose of melodramatic alarm. "'You're horrid, despicable, treacherous and no sort of gentleman!'"

McGonagall stopped her rummaging of the bureau's top drawer. She jerked around to gape at her fellow professor. Even the old elf paused, kindling still in hand, and cocked an oversized ear toward the no-longer-mourning young woman.

Ariel Daine's hazel eyes danced as she looked from Snape to McGonagall. Dramatically, she stabbed her finger in the air. "'Never!'" Slowly, her attitude of indomitable righteous indignation faded into a sheepish smile. "That might have been a bit much. I tend to get carried away by amateur theatrics."

She remembers. And she's letting Snape know she remembers. Harry froze, uncertain whether Professor Daine was just foolhardy or in complete forfeit of her senses. If Snape knew they could expose him, there was no telling what he would do.

Oblivious to the risk now filling Harry with silent dread, Professor Daine sauntered up to Snape. Playfully, she walked her fingers up the front of his black robes. "But my act was school girl stuff compared to yours. You were fantastic. If I didn't know you so well, I'd have sworn you were a turncoat. For the life of me, I can't imagine how you pulled it off."

Snape looked as disorientated as Harry felt. "Pulled off . . . what?"

Dane gave him a mischievous smirk. "Don't tease me, honey. I'm dying to know. How in the name of all that's magical did you pull off faking Albus's death?"


Please (did I say pleeeeaasssse?) comment.