There is a point, just as you come out of the woods and catch sight of the scarred patch of earth that sits in the bowl of land before you, where you can almost see our hiding place. The earth is disturbed ever so slightly, a scar on a scar. It's even worse when the sun shines, as it's doing today. Not that people ever find their way onto the land by accident; the Fidelius Charm we have placed on the estate makes sure of that. Remus is the Secret Keeper and we know that we can trust him with our safety. The Ministry came sniffing around when we first escaped, poking their inadequate noses into the place, Hit Wizards shrugging at the emptiness of what used to be my family home. I looked for Katherine, but didn't see her; it was only later I found out what had happened to the woman who saved us.
You know me, but I suppose you don't really know me. I'm Maeve, Maeve Snape, formerly O'Malley. This was my family's land – is my family's land, because it now belongs to me. I swore I would never live in the house again, but the house is gone, and I'm trying my best to pretend that the cellars don't count. This is a temporary measure. We have to believe that or we may go quietly insane. Still, this isn't as bad as Azkaban. We are our own masters, and can sleep, wake, eat, and anything else that we have a mind to, when we want. The cellars that lie beneath the burnt land are not as cold as you would imagine, but they have a tendency to dampness. Katherine's wand has long since been destroyed, replaced by two that Remus managed to purloin for us. They work, but not as well as our own would.
I like to come and sit in the forest. This is the part of the estate that I always loved, mainly because it was the only place I could be alone. The ravens that used to live here are long gone; they keep watch over our marital home at Rathgael, not that we will be returning there in the foreseeable future. Remus is doing is best to gather evidence on our behalf, but we both know he could be fighting a losing battle. They will not take the evidence of a portrait, so it doesn't mater what Dumbledore says. Narcissa is the only one who could speak in our defence and carry a shred of credibility, and she is keeping her well-bred mouth firmly closed. I rather think she is afraid to jeopardise her position and her lifestyle, which is funded by the new Minister for Magic, Herbert Prymm, with whom she has a relationship of sorts. The previous Minister lost his job because of us, a fact I am rather proud of. My old friend Roderick Rampton believes that he can persuade the Irish Ministry to intervene. He seems to think that because I am an Irish citizen, and Severus is my husband, they will fight our forcible return to England. He has a point. The Irish and British Ministries have an uncomfortable alliance at the best of times. Perhaps Roderick's silver tongue will work wonders, but I'm not counting on it.
The wind is soft today, the first gentle voice of spring whispering through the trees. We have been here for over three months now, eking out our food from a land only just waking from its long winter's rest. But there is comfort in living alongside a land that we often forget about, something satisfying in procuring your own food. I should have known that Severus would prove to be an adept hunter, using his wand only when absolutely necessary. He has gone into the forest early to try and capture a few hares. We had pheasant yesterday, but the rich meat upset my stomach and I was sick as a dog last night.
Azkaban has aged him somewhat. I say that, but I expect it has aged me too; not that he would ever comment upon the extra lines around my eyes. His hair is slightly streaked with the first tiny rivers of grey now, far earlier than normal for a wizard. The most marked difference is his attitude to life. No, don't misunderstand me. Severus hasn't suddenly become a happy man, with a ready smile and a joyful appreciation of anything and everything. If anything, he has become more thoughtful, more contemplative. It's subtle, but it's there. It's almost as if Azkaban kept a little of the hardness that was his natural state, and has left him with a better understanding of who he is and of his place in the world. There is no bitterness now, no rancour; we are, bizarrely, given our situation, happier than we have ever been. But perhaps there are other reasons for that.
The escape from Azkaban proved to be easier than we could have ever hoped, but it would have been impossible without Katherine's help. Without her wand to make the Portkey, and without her information about the Minister's visit, we would be there still. I had to be quick, once I left my cell. It is difficult to ride the air and find something when you are not sure of its exact location. It was necessary for me to drift along the corridor and follow the route I could remember from when I had been brought here. It is hard to describe what I feel when I am on the air, or how I navigate, but I sense things. I know what is right and not right. I felt my way through the coldness of the prison, my very molecules shivering in the dampness. It was as if my very soul was naked to the pure malice that leeched from the prison walls. After ten minutes of this, I knew I needed to re-form and consult the map again. It would risk someone catching sight of me, but I had to trust to my senses not to let me down.
I chose the coldest, deepest stream of air and followed it for a little while, until it felt safe to materialise. It was dark here, and I didn't want to risk using Katherine's wand until I had to. I wandered down the corridor a little way, sidestepping pools of murky liquid that had formed out of the foulness dripping from the ceilings. The faint light at the end of this corridor allowed me to look at the map once again and try to get my bearings. Given the direction I had travelled, I was able to plot, roughly, where I was, and to my relief I discovered that Severus' cell was directly above me. If I could find a gap in the stonework, I would be there in seconds.
"What are you doing down here?"
I hurriedly stuffed the map in my pockets – in Katherine's pockets – and tried a winning smile. "I was" -- my eyes drifted past him and I could see the sign on the wall, a rather fancy sign, for Azkaban. In green letters it said "Governors' Office" and was pointing behind me -- "coming back from running an errand for the Governor." My eyes immediately flicked back to him. "I wouldn't disturb them, if I were you. They're just discussing prison reform, and you know what a Dragon's Wart of a problem that is."
"Erm... yeah… but how did you get past me? I was up at the head of the corridor and didn't see you with them when they came down." He looked a little flustered, but not half as flustered as I felt.
As my neck grew hot, I heard a door grind open from the end of the corridor behind me. I turned urgent eyes to the man who had discovered me and put an edge of urgency into my voice that I did not have to try too hard to conjure up.
"Quick… you really do not want to get under the Governor's feet. He'll have anyone that upsets this visit. I have to go, excuse me." I side-stepped him and hurried out onto the main corridor. "What are you waiting for?" I hissed, eager to keep up my pretence. "I should be gone by now. Come and let me out." I had to go out at his bidding, or he would be instantly suspicious and might mention something to the Governor, not that he looked the sort to challenge authority, but you can't be too careful.
It appeared that Katherine had a face that was to be believed, because the guard moved more quickly than I did. He rushed up the corridor and slipped his key into an ancient gate that slid open smoothly. "Go on then," he said, nodding up the corridor. "They're meant to be leaving at eight and it's ten to now, so they'll be in a rush."
"I know," I replied, making my voice light. "Be glad when it's all over." And with a roll of my eyes I was off. As soon as I turned the corner and was visible to no one, I once again floated into the air, feeling the thrill of my body dissolve into the atmosphere. I had no time, no time at all, and I drifted upwards, searching for that elusive crack that would give me access to my husband.
I felt him; felt the change in the air as I moved upwards. I can't explain it fully, not without diminishing the power of the sensation, but as I left the current and became a body once more, I saw his figure opposite me, appraising me.
The word, when it came, was a hushed prayer, and I felt the full force of the love that I always knew he felt for me.
I nodded, too flooded with the power that was contained in his eyes to speak. As I changed from Katherine back to myself, I felt quick, hot tears erupt onto my cheeks. Within seconds I was enfolded by arms that were so familiar, and yet, they had become so distant. My fingers clutched at the rough, dirty fabric of his robes, not wanting to release them for fear of losing him again. Ever the more practical one, he pushed me away gently and looked at me with such tenderness that I felt my heart collapse into itself.
"We have no time for this now," he insisted. "Do you have her wand?"
He didn't speak Katherine's name and I knew him well enough to realise he was suffering some form of loss, but I pulled the wand from my pocket and handed it to him. "The Minister leaves at eight," he said, and I noticed that his voice had become rougher, harder, during his time here, like the very walls that confined us.
"It is almost eight," I said urgently. "What are we using for a Portkey?"
"This." He reached into his pocket, pulling out a small, round object that I recognised as a peach pit.
"Your rations are more generous here than on my corridor."
He looked at me with sadness, nodding mutely. "They were indeed." He placed the pit on the table and hesitated. "We must not give them time to recognise the magic," he explained, and I nodded my agreement. If they traced the spell, someone would be here in minutes. We only had minutes.
I watched his lips, lips that had touched mine many times, count the seconds silently. Time doubled itself, or so it seemed, and I felt my hand reach for his arm, unable to resist touching what I had been kept apart from for so long.
I watched the familiar glow, as the peach pit rose with the spell, before falling back to the table.
"It's time," he said, removing my hand from the sleeve of his robe and curling strong fingers around it. "Let's go."
With our fingers conjoined, he reached for the pit and I prepared myself for the pull of the spell to take us.
"What is it?" I hissed, looking to him for an explanation, feeling that the worst was about to happen and the escape would fail.
"It will be all right," he said, his voice still hard. "We were a little early." Again he reached for it, and again nothing happened.
"Severus?" Panic fired my stomach into performing leaps of anxiety.
"I said, it will be all right." There was no fear in his voice. He took his attention off the Portkey long enough to look at me, and in those few seconds between his glance and the cell door opening with a roar or alarm, I knew it would be.
The light is starting to fade. I have no idea how long I have been here, but it must be approaching six. Severus has not returned yet, but he will, bearing food and a slow smile for me. I would have thought the lack of mental activity would have driven him to distraction, but he seems to be calmer, less driven. Remus has brought books and candles, and everything else we have requested of him. He's such a good man, a staunch ally.
So, we escaped. Severus Charmed the Portkey to take us to South Wales, from where we Disapparated to Holyhead. From there, Severus had begun to formulate a plan that involved stealing money and hiring a boat, which, for Severus, was a little convoluted. I hushed his ramblings, a thought already forming. I had never tried it before, didn't even know if it was possible, but there might be one way for us to cross the Irish Sea unnoticed. Severus was deeply sceptical, not trusting things he didn't understand, until I pointed out that he didn't understand love and yet he still felt its effects.
He grudgingly succumbed to being wrapped into my arms, his face just inches from my own. I brushed his lips before concentrating all my energy on what needed to be done. It was hard, possibly the hardest thing I have ever had to do physically. Taking to the air alone is something of an effort, but taking another person, buoying their molecules with your own, was utterly exhausting. We had to drop down on to the Isle of Man for an hour, a detour we could well have done without, but I couldn't have managed the trip without a break to regroup my strength. We made it eventually. We had to make it.
I brought us down on the coast just south of Dun Laoghaire, and Severus refused to ever travel that way again, even if his life depended on it. I raised my eyebrow at the irony of what he had just said, but accepted that he would prefer to walk. I suggested we just Apparate to Abbeylara, but it seemed that Severus had recovered his senses after the ridiculous suggestion of stealing a boat. He told me I must be mad to even think of Apparating blindly anywhere now, not with the Ministry after our blood. Abbeylara would be the first place they would look, after our other home at Rathgael.
So, from this location, we would have a good trek down to Wicklow, our final destination. We slept that night in a barn on the outskirts of a small village. Dogs barked and owls swept low, but no Muggles disturbed us. We kept ourselves warm, body heat effective beneath the straw. Dawn brought with it rain and a sharp wind blowing from sea, but we set off on foot, keeping away from the main roads and navigating by sheer willpower. Severus had initially shown a touching faith in the accuracy of the signposts, but after coming across one that indicated the place we had just come from was, in fact, ten miles further down the road, he gave up reading them. I read them, though. Their familiar names washed over me, along with the cooling rain. As we passed into Wicklow, the rain softened into a fine drizzle and walking became easier. Time passed quickly, despite our slow progress, and we slept another night in a barn. Had we not been using such a roundabout route, we would have been there by now, but back lanes had added hours onto the journey.
The following morning was dry, and we were able to enjoy the budding Irish countryside. We would arrive at Abbeylara in an hour or so, and we knew we must do so carefully. Our caution was well-founded. When we crept in, under cover of the forest that bounded the estate, we discovered the Hit Wizards fretting over the place where the house had once stood, before it had burned to the ground. They soon left, however, and we were able to gain access to the cellars and our new home.
So that's it, really. The story told in full. Except for Katherine. Remus brought us the story of what happened to her, and it didn't surprise me. She was discovered, and by all accounts gave a stunning performance of the overpowered gaoler. They generously gave her a whole week off to recover, but once she'd got off the island; she didn't go back and resigned her position, claiming stress as the reason for her departure. She's working with released prisoners now, helping them adjust to their new lives. Azkaban sets free people so damaged by their stay there that she has her work cut out for her. Remus has joined her; his long years as a werewolf giving him an excellent insight into what it is to be alienated from society. I admire their selflessness. Severus doesn't speak of her much. I think she saw him at his most vulnerable, and I'm not sure he can forgive himself – or her – for that. Remus also says she is seeing someone, a fellow gaoler who was sacked shortly after she left for fiddling the rota system. I never met him during my time there. Luke Pepper, his name is. I wish them luck.
And that just leaves us, and our future. Whatever it is, it will be together. He's here now, with a brace of hares for me to skin and cook. I think he may have to skin them for me. I'm not sure my poor stomach is up to it. Magic has its uses, but we go without, when we can. These wands are sometimes unpredictable, and one set fire to a chair in the cellar. The last thing we need is an underground fire driving us out of the one home we have left.
He's bending his head to kiss me now, and his hand drops subconsciously to my stomach. There is only a slight swell beneath my robes, so slight as to almost not be there. But we know it is there. We know that the child conceived in a barn on the outskirts of Dun Laoghaire is growing and will be with us by the end of the summer. I hope that we will be free of this existence by then; the idea of bringing a child up in these dank cellars fills me with horror. Perhaps I will have to appeal to my father for his help if all else fails. This is not how I would have wished to start a family, but life is not all we would wish it to be. I don't know what sort of father Severus will be, nor do I know what sort of mother I will make. This child will be born with the heavy weight of our own problems around its neck, but it will be loved. I haven't told Remus yet, and I wonder what his reaction will be. I think he would make a fine godfather for the baby.
Let's hope the gods are smiling on us now. We need all the help we can get.