She couldn’t see the flames, of course, but she could feel her skin being incinerated to ash with it, her insides melting in the extreme heat. Compared to this sweltering inferno, she’d rather be electrocuted again. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit down on her tongue to keep from screaming. Blood filled her mouth, but she kept her jaw clamped tight. Every strangled scream that escaped her charred lips was agony for Sirius, and she knew he felt horrible enough already. She couldn’t see him, but she felt his eyes on her; his misery was almost as bad as hers.
Bellatrix wasn’t laughing anymore. Nora’s resistance was starting to become a thorn in her side, and Lucius couldn’t figure out why Sirius hadn’t just sold Dumbledore out yet. They were beginning to reevaluate the relationship between Sirius and Nora, and Nora had noticed the confusion in their eyes when they marched her upstairs and she was wearing Remus’s jacket. She hoped they would fall under the impression that Nora and Remus were an item, so that Sirius would be returned to the cellar and wouldn’t have to see this. Remus and Nora shared the mutual mindset that there were more important things than the affection between friends. The world needed Dumbledore more than ever, and Nora’s value amounted to a speck of dust in comparison. Remus would be able to sit and watch Nora’s torture and keep a steady expression intact, while Sirius seemed ready to crack at any moment.
But then again, if they thought Remus liked Nora instead of Sirius liking Nora, it would be Sirius back in the chair of honor again – as they knew that he was the one with the knowledge of Dumbledore’s location. Nora was only being tormented as a way to get to him, and Nora would be the one shoved back into the cellar. She could never allow that to happen, to let them hurt Sirius again. Panicking at the thought of it, Nora’s eyes flew open and she locked them on Sirius. Her eyes were watering, bloodshot from the heat no one else but herself could feel. The world was a furnace and Nora was the coals.
“Whatever happens,” she said through gritted teeth as the imperceptible flames licked at her blistered, simmering flesh, “it’s not your fault. None of it. Sirius Black, you are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
She succeeded in obtaining the desired effect – Bellatrix was smiling triumphantly. Sirius, however, looked even more tormented than before. Nora wished they wouldn’t make him watch. Bellatrix abruptly started electrocuting her again, and Nora had no choice but to thrash with that method of affliction and Sirius could see quite clearly what kind of pain was scorching through Nora’s body.
Nora shook like she was in a seizure, trying with all her might to still her movements, but to no avail. “Anything you’d like to tell us?” Dolohov sang. Nora tried to flash her eyes at Sirius, wanted to communicate as best she could that he needed to keep his mouth shut and not break character, but she couldn’t concentrate on his form. Her eyes wanted to roll into the back of her head.
“My turn,” Lucius drawled, and walked over to replace Bellatrix. His sister-in-law looked slightly crestfallen, and he said, “Perhaps I will have better luck.”
Nora glared at him as the jolts of shock in her nervous system subsided. Who could be more twisted than Bellatrix Lestrange? Somehow he just didn’t seem quite on the same level of lunacy as Bellatrix. These thoughts quickly diminished, however, when he drew out a knife instead of a wand. Blood was evidence of anguish – substantial evidence – that Sirius was not going to be able to ignore. Nora only hoped the wounds inflicted wouldn’t be fatal.
As Lucius steadily approached, his head held high and his eyes glittering with revenge, Sirius jerked out of Jugson’s grasp. “Enough!” he cried. “I’ll talk.”
“If you talk, I will never forgive you!” Nora shouted.
He hung his head, defeated. “I’m sorry, Nora. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Don’t you dare –”
“Yes! Talk!” Bellatrix chirped, bouncing happily over to him like a bloodthirsty ballerina. “That’s a good Sirius, tell us what you know.”
Sirius studied her, his grey eyes sharp. “I will tell you one thing today. You will return Nora and myself to the cellar and I will tell you something else tomorrow.”
Bellatrix hissed. “You think you can negotiate terms with us, Black?” Her pitch was shrill. “We are the ones giving orders here; we’re the ones who’ve got a knife to your little friend’s throat –”
“I’m highly aware of that,” Sirius interrupted. “But I think there’s room for compromise. That’s my offer – take it or leave it.”
“Sirius!” Nora bellowed. “Shut up!”
Lucius pressed the blade close to her skin. “Be quiet,” he ordered her. To Sirius he said, “I will accept those terms. But let it be known that if you do not give us more promised information tomorrow, the girl dies.”
“I’m not accepting those terms!” Bellatrix hollered at him. “He needs to tell us everything at once! I’m not waiting until tomorrow –”
Lucius shot her a warning glower. “Tell us where Albus Dumbledore is located,” he replied in a deadpan voice.
Sirius thought for a moment. “Not in England. I will give you a region tomorrow. Today all I will say is that he is not in the country, and he is not alone.”
“Who is he with?” Bellatrix pried. “Tell me exactly where he is!”
Sirius said nothing, his face stony. “Very well,” Lucius murmured, and the ropes around Nora’s wrists and ankles came loose. He grabbed her by the elbow and threw her out of the chair. Nora, having lost much of her muscle control, fell to the floor and could not make herself stand upright. Sirius ripped away from Jugson and kneeled next to her.
“Back to the cellar,” Lucius ordered. “But wait…” He raised one indolent eyebrow, the corners of his mouth turning up in an evil leer. Swiftly he grazed the knife across Nora’s right leg. It wasn’t extraordinarily deep, but Nora couldn’t stop herself from crying out in pain, clutching Sirius’s shirt. Sirius cast a scathing glare at Malfoy and lifted Nora into his arms. He moved at a snail's pace down the basement steps, carefully cradling her to his chest so that the imbalance would not send them toppling down the dauntingly steep stairs. When they reached the cement floor, he slowly set her down.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered again. She looked away from him, tears of anger and humiliation welling in her eyes. The only thing worse than having Sirius Black watch her scream and cry and suffer was to know that it had all been endured for nothing.
“Give me that damn jar,” she demanded Tonks. “I need to be dead by morning so that they don’t find out anything else about Dumbledore.”
“What?” Remus exclaimed, aghast. He stared at Sirius. “You didn’t –”
“I don’t care!” Sirius roared. “I’d like to see you watch Tonks get a knife pulled on her and just sit there like a good boy.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Not much. I’m going to feed them tiny pieces day by day.”
“They’ll have the Veritaserum before long,” Nora said, “and they won’t need to compromise anymore. And then where will we be? Dead, with Dumbledore in jeopardy.”
“Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard in the world,” Sirius replied huskily. “I have no worries about his safety. Yours is my concern.”
“No, it’s not!” She faced him now. “It’s not, Sirius. We need to protect Dumbledore, no matter what.”
“You’re a hypocrite,” he answered angrily. “It could have been me in that chair. Bellatrix gave you a choice and you chose to suffer yourself rather than let it happen to me. You protected me even when you must know that I would do anything to avoid you being hurt. You must know…where my limits are, just as the Death Eaters do.” She stared at him. Sirius would endanger Dumbledore, their greatest hope, just to spare Nora? Was he really saying that? “And the Death Eaters understand that your physical pain is my suffering, and vice versa. If we’re going to die, anyway, I won’t have you spending it being tortured.”
Nora gave a hollow laugh. “Yes, because I’m sure that whatever Greyback’s got in store for me is going to be a right party.”
“I’m not going to let you kill yourself.”
“Yeah? You’d prefer I got torn apart by Greyback? I must say, Sirius, I thought you were rather fonder of me than that.”
Sirius scowled. “Your death fixes nothing. If you’re gone, there are still three of us – that we know of – who they can torture at their leisure.”
“Speaking of which, did you see the others?” Tonks interrupted. “Dedalus and them, I mean?”
Sirius shook his head and reached down to rip a length of fabric from his shirt. Before Nora could ask what he was doing, he set to delicately wrapping it around the slash on her leg. This softened Nora’s bitterness somewhat, and when he was finished he put his hand on her cheek. In a quiet voice, he said, “As long as we’re alive, we’re not dead. Don’t give up yet, because you never know what tomorrow may bring.”
“What, you think we’ve got a chance?” Tonks questioned.
Sirius rested against the wall opposite Nora, who was feeling slightly ashamed of herself. “I’ve been thinking of ways to get out of here, actually,” he replied.
Remus raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?”
Sirius’s face was lined with grim determination. Whatever happened, he would not let Nora die here. He owed it to her – because of how happy she’d made his life since she came to Grimmauld Place, how wonderful and devoted a friend she’d been, how much pain she had to endure at the hands of his own relatives. Nora, at least, must live.
“Yes,” he finally stated. “But the only way is if Nora somehow recovers enough to turn into an owl again. If she could turn into an owl, then the next time they open the door she could fly right over them. There’s a stairway just around the corner, which would deflect any spells thrown at her. I reckon the Death Eaters would be too confused to jinx her fast enough, not knowing yet that she’s an Animagus. They probably wouldn’t go looking for the bird they’d just seen until they searched the cellar and found her missing.”
“And how’s she going to get out?” Tonks asked. “What if none of the upstairs windows are open?”
Sirius was ready for this obstacle. “Into the fireplace and up a chimney.”
Remus still looked skeptical. “Even if Nora somehow escaped, there’s a Fidelius and we weren’t made Secret-Keepers. She could never find this place again.”
“Why would she want to?”
Remus leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. “Ah. You’re not planning a rescue mission.”
“I would never leave you all here,” Nora told them earnestly. “Never.”
“She could find Dumbledore,” Sirius said loudly, annoyed. “If she manages to heal, I will tell her where Dumbledore is located, and she can get his help. He’s the most brilliant wizard who ever existed – he’ll find a way to help us.”
This seemed to quell their doubts, until Nora said, “I don’t stand a chance of recovering. I can barely walk as it is – flying is out of the question. I would need at least a day to rest, and that won’t happen as long as Death Eaters are lighting me up like a bonfire.”
“My condition for divulging information is that no one is allowed to be hurt,” Sirius responded simply. “If they go back on their word, they know I won’t tell them more.”
“But that’s my point!” Nora yelled. “I don’t want you to give them information!”
Sirius rolled his eyes, exasperated. “Oh, come off it, Nora. Do you honestly think I’m going to tell them the truth?”
They all stared, dumbstruck.
He almost smiled. “You don’t give me much credit. Why in Merlin’s beard would I not lie through my teeth? They’ll know I was lying when they get the Veritaserum, but once they get that we’re all done for, anyway. With any luck, Nora will be out of here by then and Dumbledore will come save the day.”
“We can’t go any longer without something to eat, though,” Tonks complained. “We’ll starve to death before Dumbledore arrives and fixes everything.”
It was true; they were all famished. There was a shallow puddle of dirty water in one corner where rain trickled in through cracks in the cement block walls, but it was almost drained and none of them had eaten anything besides a slice of cake at Sirius’s birthday party. Sirius recalled with self-hatred that he had simply mashed his with a fork instead of eaten it, and his stomach grumbled audibly.
“I need a drink,” Nora told Tonks quietly. “Help me over there?”
Tonks wound an arm around Nora’s waist and heaved her to her feet. Nora would have sat next to the puddle at all times, just for the convenience, but the floor in that area was damp and cold. “You know the drill,” Tonks told Remus and Sirius shortly, and both men obediently turned around and faced the wall. It was somewhat degrading for Nora to crawl across the floor and lap up water like a dog, and she and Tonks both dictated that the men had to look away while they got their drinks.
The water tasted disgusting, like licking old mud, but it moistened Nora’s parched lips and she was thankful they had any kind of fluid source at all. Tonks took a turn at the puddle, running the brown liquid over her own dry lips with a finger, and then sighed as she dragged Nora back to her usual position. “You know what sounds good?” she asked miserably to no one in particular. “Roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy.”
“Don’t,” Sirius groaned. “Don’t start that.”
Tonks’s eyes were large and morose. “I didn’t eat anything at the party because my dress was too tight to begin with. In fact, I haven’t eaten anything at all since a muffin yesterday morning.”
Sirius glared at her. “Don’t you dare bring up muffins.”
“It was the best muffin I’ve ever had,” she declared dreamily. “Massive – with chunks of walnut. It was so warm and moist, too, and I ate it with this tall glass of milk…took me at least ten minutes…”
“Tonks,” Nora cut in warningly. The last thing she wanted was more bickering between Sirius and Tonks – it exhausted her – and she was taking Sirius’s side on this one. Her stomach rumbled and she clutched it, closing her eyes and trying to tell herself that she wasn’t hungry. I’m full, she thought forcibly. I’ve just had an enormous dinner and I’m so stuffed I can’t move. I ought to sleep off the big meal with a long, lazy nap… But then she started thinking about this imaginary enormous lunch. “Bacon sandwiches,” she murmured.
“Not you, too,” Sirius moaned helplessly. He looked about ready to clap his hands over his ears like a five-year-old.
“Bacon sandwiches do sound wonderful,” Remus couldn’t help saying.
“You remember that carbonara pasta Molly made at Christmas?” Tonks went on, almost drooling. “I think I would swap my Cleansweep for a plate of that carbonara.”
“I would give up being an Animagus for a lemon meringue pie.”
Sirius cocked an eyebrow at Nora. “You don’t even like lemon meringue pie.”
“I know. But everything sounds good when you’re hungry. I can just imagine tomorrow night – I’ll be fantasizing about tree bark.”
“Tree bark’s not all bad,” Remus told them placidly, and they laughed. “But sugary desserts aren’t exactly at the forefront of my mind, so I don’t think I’d sacrifice much for meringue. Heavy foods, I would trade my left hand for. Turkey, for instance. Ham. A whole roast chicken.”
“Stop it,” Sirius begged, squeezing his eyes shut. “I can’t stand it.”
“Imagine sneaking into the kitchens at Hogwarts right about now,” Tonks lamented, her eyes greedy. “Everything you’ve ever wanted… Trays of chocolate éclairs and cheesecake with strawberry sauce; steak and kidney pudding and pitchers of ice-cold pumpkin juice. I remember seeing a whole hamper of Licorice Wands once. I think they were peppermint-flavored…”
Sirius took off his shoe and chucked it at her.
It missed its mark, however, and hit the wall with a ‘thud’. Tonks lifted her nose up in the air, crossing her arms. “No need to be so violent,” she huffed. “It’s not my fault that –”
“Shhh!” Nora hissed. She turned and pressed her ear to the stone wall. “What was that?”
Tonks stopped talking and swiveled to press her ear against the wall as well. “What are we supposed to be listening to?” she whispered. Nora picked up Sirius’s black shoe and tossed it to him. It felt heavier than it should have to her weak muscles.
“Throw it again,” she demanded.
His eyes widened. “You actually want me to hit Tonks? My, I never thought this happy day would ever come.”
“No,” she said. “At the wall.”
He hurled the shoe at the wall again and both Nora and Tonks leaned in close to listen. This time, there was a very perceptible thump several seconds later, on the other side of the thick wall. Tonks and Nora exchanged marveling looks.
“What?” Sirius wanted to know. Just then, there was second thump on the other side of the wall. Tonks backed away and threw Sirius’s shoe so hard that a chunk of old stone came loose.
“Oi!” Sirius cried. “What’re you doing? Trying to ruin my shoes, then?”
A thump from the other side sounded once more, blowing dust through the cracks from the force of it. From very far away – or so it seemed – someone called, “Hello?”
“It’s them!” Tonks cried. “Diggle and the others are behind this wall!”
“Tonks?” the faraway voice shouted, although it sounded quite feeble on Nora’s end.
Nora and Tonks looked at each other again, very excited now. “Bill!” Nora yelled. Remus and Sirius clambered over to listen, and Nora began unfastening her own shoes. “Tonks,” she replied, “we’ve finally been repaid for suffering through heels at parties. These things are stakes under the right circumstances.”
“Oh!” Tonks exclaimed, catching on. She tore off her high heels as well, and each person grabbed a shoe. Everyone began hacking at the wall where Tonks had managed to knock a chunk away with Sirius’s shoe. The stone was old, and they found a weak spot in the mortar between two blocks of stone. Nora wasn’t at her strongest, and didn’t apply much damage, but Remus and Sirius were furiously pounding away and Tonks was hitting her shoe against it so hard that splinters of mortar were chipping off left and right and covering Nora’s hair with pebbly grey soot. Next thing she knew, the heel itself had broken off and nearly got Nora in the eye.
At long last, they hollowed out a sizeable gap about the diameter of a galleon going straight through the wall. They took turns peering through it, but all they could see was blackness. “Maybe the wall’s thicker than we thought and there are more stones back there?” Tonks guessed.
“No,” Sirius breathed. “Can’t you feel it? Cool air is flowing through the hole – we’ve gotten through.”
“Sirius!” the voice of Bill Weasley called out. Nora could hear it echoing in whatever place Bill was being held.
Before Sirius, Nora, or Tonks could respond, Remus leaned against the chink in the wall and hollered, “Prongs!”
Nora and Tonks cheered. “Are all of you in there?” Bill asked. “I’ve got Dearborn and Diggle with me.”
Nora and Tonks cheered again. “Yes, we’re all here,” Remus replied. “Are you in the chamber under their drawing room?”
“You could say that,” Bill commented, his voice sarcastic. “More like a pond, really.”
“What do you mean?” Nora asked.
“We’ve got water up past our bloody ankles!” Bill raved. “Our feet are completely numb. It’s like they’ve thrown us down a well.”
“Anything in there you can use?” Sirius inquired. “Or is it just water?”
“We’ve got a small window in here” – Nora and the others all held their breaths – “but it’s a good ten feet out of our reach. We’ve even tried climbing on top of each other to get it, but it’s just no use. We can’t reach it, and besides the water there is nothing else in here.”
“Well, at least you’ve got plenty to drink,” Tonks threw back sourly. “We’ve got a blooming puddle.”
They heard Diggle laugh. “We can’t drink it, you dingbats!” Cargan joined him in laughing.
“Why not?” Tonks edged.
“Not hard to figure out,” Bill chortled darkly. “Got to take a piss somewhere, haven’t we?” Nora and Tonks wrinkled up their noses. “It’s gone all quiet over there, so you’re probably making disgusted faces at each other. But yeah, we’re really thirsty. We used it as a drinking source until one of us just couldn’t hold it anymore, and now…well…you get the idea.”
“I drank a lot of wine at the party!” Cargan piped up defensively. “My bladder was going to explode, what would you have had me do?”
Tonks bit back a laugh. “You’re standing in your own piss, then?”
“Not exactly how I wanted to be spending my Tuesday night,” Bill answered, his voice worn.
Nora felt incredibly sorry for them – Bill, Dedalus, and Cargan had definitely received the worse end of the stick. “Got much light in there?” Remus wanted to know. Sirius picked the high-heeled shoe back up and recommenced digging away at the wall again.
“What’re you doing?” Bill called, his voice muffled now with the noise.
“We’ve got to widen this,” Sirius told the others desperately. “If we can make it large enough for an owl to get through, then Nora can get through the window over there and escape.”
“The window’s shut, mate,” Bill shouted over the hammering noise. Sirius stopped. “Dedalus had some coins in his pocket and we’ve been chucking them, trying to shatter the glass. Nothing’s worked. But besides, it’s so small that I doubt any of us could fit through it, anyway.”
“The jar,” Tonks said at once. “I’ll bet that would break it.”
“Yeah, but then all the green goop would fall out and they’d be standing in it,” Nora argued. “We don’t know what that stuff is, and it could be really lethal knowing the blokes that live here.”
“What green goop?” Bill asked curiously. There were some stifled noises on his end, and then Bill sighed. “Cargan wants to talk to Nora. He requests that Remus, Sirius, and Tonks place their hands over their ears and walk as far away as possible.”
Nora raised an eyebrow at the others. They all leaned in together and waited a few seconds, huddling over the glowing green jar. “Alright!” Nora shouted. “They can’t hear. What is it, Cargan?”
“I wanted to make sure you were alright,” he replied, sounding grave and, even more uncharacteristically – genuine. “Are you okay? Are any of them bothering you? Besides the Death Eaters, I mean.”
“…No. Why would anyone be?”
“Well, you’re in there with Sirius Black, aren’t you?”
Sirius made a resentful noise, and Tonks elbowed him.
“I’m perfectly fine, Cargan.” She wasn’t going to start detailing her afternoon in the Chair of Horror upstairs, and tried to muster up a strong, hearty voice. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I’m going to get you out of here,” Cargan promised. “If it’s the last thing I do. I’ve been sitting here thinking, reflecting on my life, and I think this little stint is a personal awakening. I’ve blossomed into a new man, so to speak.” Sirius had to shove his fist in his mouth to keep from laughing, and Tonks snorted. Thankfully, Cargan didn’t seem to hear her. “When we get out, whether it be two hours or twenty years from now, I’m taking you home with me.”
“Twenty years?” Nora mused. “Never heard of a person who could last twenty years without food or clean water.”
“They’re bound to send us meals of some sort,” Cargan rebuffed. “They want to keep us alive, don’t they? Why else would all of us still be fine?”
Nora didn’t answer right away. How could she tell him that it certainly wasn’t Cargan the Death Eaters cared about keeping alive? They were all pigs lined up for slaughter, anyway. “Nora,” Cargan continued. “I’ve come to my senses, Nora. I think I’m in love with you.”
Nora closed her eyes in embarrassment, and Tonks sniggered. Even Remus was grinning. “Cargan, I really don’t think –”
“Hear me out,” he pleaded. “I know it’s a bit soon, but doesn’t this make you realize how short life can be? We could be middle-aged right now and not even know it. I don’t want to die alone. Nora Prewett, will you marry me?”
This was too much for Sirius, who burst out laughing. Nora smacked him on the arm, and could faintly detect suppressed laughter from Bill as well. “What was that?” Cargan asked, his pitch rising. “Are they listening over there?” Sirius chuckled some more, and darted to Remus’s other side so that Nora couldn’t reach him.
“No,” Nora lied reassuringly. “I’ve got a bit of a cough. It’s cold in the cellar and I think I’m coming down with something.”
“If I could fit my jacket through there, I would give it to you,” Cargan declared. “When I get us out of here, Nora, I will take you to St. Mungo’s to get well. And then if you’ll have me, I want to get married.”
“I think you’re just feeling scared because of our situation,” Nora told him. “Fear is prompting you to behave even more irrationally than usual.”
“But I love you,” he repeated, sounding hopeful.
Nora sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose and keeping her eyes closed to avoid the amused expressions of Tonks, Remus, and Sirius. “Cargan,” she began. “What is my favorite color?”
He thought for a moment. “Black and yellow.”
“You’re saying that because I was a Hufflepuff. My favorite color’s purple. What is my middle name?”
There was silence, and then, “You have a middle name?”
“It’s Rose. What would I be doing right now if I wasn’t stuck in this hellhole?”
“That one’s easy. You would be cooking something delicious and thinking about me.”
She had to admire his spunk. “I’m a horrible cook, and every Tuesday night I play chess.”
“And lose,” Sirius added under his breath.
“Those are trivial things,” Cargan insisted. “I know your soul, and that’s enough. I don’t have to know what you do on Tuesday nights to realize we’re made for each other.”
“What are the color of my eyes?” she plowed on.
“Cargan,” Nora said, repressing a laugh, “I think you need to do some more reflecting.”
“Just consider my offer,” he beseeched, and then was cut off by the sound of a heavy, creaking door opening. There was movement – Cargan scrambling away from the hole – and voices. Remus, Sirius, Nora, and Tonks waited with bated breath, trying to listen. The voices were coming from high up, and the powerful echoes reverberating throughout the chamber made it impossible to distinguish the words. A minute or so later, the heavy door swung shut again and Bill returned to the hole.
“That was Dolohov,” he informed them. “Wanting to know how many of us were still alive. Maybe they thought the water here was deeper.”
“Where’s the door?” Nora inquired, frowning. “How’d you get down there?”
“There are iron bars going down the wall from a hatch in the ceiling,” he replied. “I truly think this was once used as a well, and the mansion was built around it. They had us climb down the bars. Now, though, the hatch is locked with magic and none of us have got wands. Dolohov’s got them – I saw all of them sticking out of his pocket.”
Nora’s face darkened. She had been hunting for this man, daydreaming about finding him and killing him. And now she was at his mercy, sitting uselessly in a cellar while he was upstairs walking around. He was just upstairs from her. The thought taunted her; it was overwhelming injustice.
There was a scuffing of boots overhead. “Be quiet,” Nora hissed through the hole, and the door of the cellar opened just moments after Remus grabbed the green jar and stowed it inside his jacket. Warm yellow light waded in, painful to their eyes since they’d been so accustomed to the darkness.
“Are you alive?” a ringing, disinterested voice asked.
“Physically or emotionally?” Sirius responded.
Remus shook his head at his friend. “Yes. We are.”
“Good,” Dolohov replied. “I’ve just been told that we’ve got roughly six hours before the Veritaserum is finished brewing and ready for consumption. Might want to get your goodbyes out of the way.” He laughed coldly and began to close the door again. “Enjoy your six hours.”
Tonks turned to face Remus once they were enveloped in phosphorescent green light once more. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Sirius’s eyes were mocking. “You think?”
“Nora?” Bill called. “I didn’t quite catch what he said. Was that Dolohov?”
She pressed her eye to the hole, but of course could see nothing. The air blowing through it was cool and moist, like a cave tunnel. “We’ve got six hours until they give us Veritaserum,” she said dejectedly. “And then, of course, they’re going to get rid of us.”
“Get rid of us?” Cargan interceded, sounding eager. “Really? Excellent. I could use a square meal and a hot bath.” Dedalus muttered something unintelligible, and Cargan yelled, “What? But why?”
Bill groaned into the hole. “You know, six hours might not be soon enough to die.”
“You’ve got to kill me,” Sirius said suddenly. “I’m the only one who knows about Dumbledore, thank Merlin, so I’m the only one who can really tell them anything. You’ve got to kill me so that they don’t find out.”
Nora’s eyes bulged. “No way! Are you insane?”
“Absolutely not,” Tonks seconded. Even Remus, who was purely practical, did not look too keen on the idea of finding a way to murder his best friend.
“Dumbledore will be in danger!” Sirius cried.
Nora narrowed her eyes. “What about that speech you gave us about Dumbledore being the most brilliant wizard on Earth and that you’re not worried about him? Come to think of it, he doesn’t need our protection. We’re a bunch of misfit witches and wizards and I reckon he’s clever enough to think ahead. For all we know, he gave you a false trail just in case something like this were to happen. Because really, why would Dumbledore even need anyone to know where he was?”
Sirius shook his head. “Don’t backpedal now, Nora. Just a few hours ago you were livid with me because you thought I was going to hand tidbits of information on Dumbledore to the Death Eaters.”
“None of you lot are killing yourselves,” Bill shouted through the hole. “We just need to brainstorm.”
Tonks picked up her shoe and began ramming it against the wall again. Remus looked mostly resigned. “Don’t just sit there!” Tonks exclaimed shrilly at him over her shoulder. “Get up and help me!” To Nora she said, “Get out of the way, Prewett. I’m busting through this thing.”
“Wait – stop!” Bill ordered. “There’s – there’s something out there.” He dropped his voice. “Outside the window. I can see it.”
“I can see it too,” Dedalus commented.
“See what?” It was Cargan this time. “I don’t see anything.”
From very far away, someone bellowed, “Defodio!”
There was a loud noise like the roaring of a waterfall, and Tonks stumbled back over Nora. The stone walls and floor shook like the foundation was giving way. Sirius helped Nora to her feet and she hobbled across the cellar with him. Her legs felt like she’d been lying in a hospital bed for ages – weak and spindly.
Loud voices decorated the chamber that Nora couldn’t discern due to what sounded like falling rocks, and then a familiar, commanding tone said, “Step back from the wall.” Tonks was the only one still on that end of the cellar, and she made a mad dash toward Remus, Sirius, and Nora, mutilated shoe in hand.
The wall blasted apart, shrouding the cellar in dust and debris. Tonks doubled over, coughing, and Sirius held Nora slightly tighter to him. When the dust cleared, Severus Snape was standing there, one boot in the cellar and the other in the chamber under the drawing room, and his black eyes were fierce and snapping. He mentally swept the room until he found Nora, and not looking away from her, revealed a pack of wands from inside his robes. He shoved them into Tonks’s hand.
“Our wands!” she cried with glee. “How did you get these?” She began to distribute them while Bill, Dedalus, and Cargan poked their heads into the cellar.
“They’re going to have heard that upstairs,” Remus said.
“Which is why time is of the element and we must not waste it,” Severus replied sleekly. “For obvious reasons, I would prefer if I were not seen here at this moment. I’m supposed to be showing up with Veritaserum in a matter of hours.” Mellow moonlight streamed in through the secret chamber, shimmering on the rippling water. It reminded Nora of a silver lake…and a young, terrified Severus…
Everyone else had their wands again, except for Nora. Hers was still at Andromeda’s house, so she was going to have to closely tail another person for safety and protection. She felt sorry for whoever that might be; her frail muscles made her dreadfully slow.
The only sound now was light splashing of water beneath their feet. “You need to hurry,” Severus told Nora, not caring about the others. He conjured a very tall ladder. “Climb it. Get out of here.”
Cargan pushed through them and grasped the ladder in his hands, climbing vigorously. Nora watched him ascend, going higher and higher up the tall, claustrophobically narrow chamber. Dedalus hurried after Cargan, with Bill on his heels. Tonks went next, followed by Remus. Glancing below, he hollered, “Nora! Padfoot! Let’s go!”
“You first,” Nora urged Sirius. He looked ready to argue, but she eyed him sternly and he indulged her. When he was halfway up and Remus had already disappeared through the window, Nora put one hand on the ladder, ready to follow.
“Wait,” Severus spoke. She frowned at him, puzzled. The Death Eaters would come investigating – she was surprised they weren’t already there. “Just…just a moment.”
She tilted her head to see him better. His skin was tinged blue in the moonlight, strands of black hair whipping around his face in the chilly draft. “Yes, Severus?”
Severus seized Nora’s hands and pulled her closer to him. He looked so hesitant and fearful, and she wondered for a fraction of a second what he was doing when it became glaringly clear. Severus slid his hands through Nora’s hair and pressed his lips to hers.
Her brain buzzed.
Severus’s lips were cool like marble, and they crushed hers with an almost painful intensity. He was much taller than her, but he was as rigid as a board and not bending forward, and the ends of his hair brushed Nora’s face. She had no idea whether she was kissing him back or not – she was not aware of her own movements. Nora, really, knew absolutely nothing during those seconds. It was as though she had blacked out.
Severus released her, both of them stiff, and he backed away slightly. “I had to do that, at least once,” he whispered. Before Nora had time to reclaim her senses, Severus vanished with a crack. Above her, standing at what used to be the window before it had been gouged apart, Sirius Black was watching. His face was pale and ghostly, stricken with horror. Nora touched her fingers to her lips – they tingled with such a foreign taste and she could not get used to it. Did she like it? Did she hate it? Did it matter? Why was she still standing there with dirty water swirling around her legs?
The hatch above her creaked open. Sirius shot a spell at it, throwing a cluster of choking vines through the crack in the door. It bought Nora just enough time to scrabble her way up the ladder with jelly arms and legs, holding on tight and worrying that her grip would falter. Sirius pulled her through the engorged opening just as Dolohov’s furious face poked through the hatch. “I knew it! They’re escaping!” he bellowed.
The moon was encased in clouds, and its pearly essence shone down over a wide green lawn that preceeded a vast, tangled black forest. Ahead of them, Sirius and Nora’s friends were running and disapparating. Sirius touched Nora’s arm and he tried to turn on the spot, but found the air solid and unmovable. A Death Eater had just put up an Anti-Disapparition Jinx, and Sirius and Nora were two seconds too late. Diggle, Tonks, and Bill were already gone, having expected the others to follow soon behind.
“No!” Nora yelled in frustration.
“Through the forest!” Sirius shouted. Nora was slowing him down considerably, but he refused to leave her behind. It was all so sickeningly familiar, escaping through a hole in a cellar and running for her life, barefoot, into the woods.
“Stupefy!” a high, female voice cried. Sirius ducked to miss the jet of red light and it hit Cargan Dearborn between the shoulder blades. Before he crumpled to the ground, Remus aimed his wand at him.
Cargan was conscious again, stumbling along stupidly and trying to regain his balance. Nora glanced over her shoulder and a jet of green light from the end of Lucius Malfoy’s wand was shooting toward her, closing the distance. She reflexively dodged it and, once again, Cargan got the blast of the spell. He dropped to his knees and his face keeled over onto the grass like a broken marionette. It took her a moment to realize that Rennervate would not bring Cargan to his feet.
“Cargan!” she cried, stopping for a moment as though entranced with what had just occurred.
Sirius grabbed her wrist and tugged her along after him. “He’s dead!” he shouted. “We have to keep going!”
The use of Avada Kedavra – which had been directed at Nora herself – seemed to electrify her. Nora located her dormant willpower and allowed it to flow through her limbs, urging her legs to take longer leaps. As though flying straight out of a memory, three owls circled above them, swooping low and hooting softly. Nora knew she would not be able to transform and fly away with them – even on a good day, wings required all of her energy and she needed to be in excellent condition to use them well. Even if she’d had the chance, though, she would not have abandoned Sirius.
Death Eaters were emerging in droves, illuminating the stark grounds with lightning-like curses. Fenrir Greyback chased single-mindedly after Nora, who was still running parallel with Sirius. “Don’t try to get away from me now, my little spitfire,” he yelled, laughing coarsely. “I’ve got you, I do.”
“Let’s see how your little spitfire likes a taste of her own personality!” Bellatrix Lestrange cackled. “Incendio!”
A great wall of fire shot out of the ground between Sirius and Nora, separating them. The fire hungrily devoured the field of grass, swallowing Cargan Dearborn’s body and reaching with fingers of flame to grab at Remus’s heels. This spell backfired on Bellatrix in a way, because she could no longer see the escapees through the blaze. Greyback would not fall back, keeping his eyes on Nora’s swinging blonde hair and licking his cracked lips.
The clouds broke and pure moonlight cast its radiance throughout the tense atmosphere. Nora’s heart pounded but she wasn’t sure why – her subconscious was already three steps ahead of her…
Remus stopped short, gazing up at the full moon with a peculiar expression. “Well, shit.”
He did not sound particularly alarmed, more like one who has gone to the library and was told that his book was slightly overdue. Nora got the feeling that Remus was not a stranger to turning into a werewolf at inopportune moments.
Fenrir seemed paralyzed by the moon as well, but unlike Remus his lips were curling into a broad grin. He winked at Nora. “All the better to eat you, my dear.”
Sirius was nowhere to be seen, having been cut away from them with a towering barricade of orange fire; and it was just Nora racing away from the two men, whose bodies were beginning to distort, the air around them shivering. When Remus was a werewolf, he was every bit as dangerous as Greyback. She felt light as a feather with the blood pumping heatedly through her veins, her stomach empty and her brainwaves knotted up in terror. Her only option was to run as fast as she could until she felt the weight of Dolohov’s Anti-Disapparition Jinx lift, and hopefully Sirius would be waiting there for her.
It was with mixed emotions that Nora broke through the field’s edge and began weaving amongst dense trees. The haven of moonlight was gone, and soon there would be Death Eaters loose in these woods. She could not see much, but that also meant no one else could see her, and she was grateful that her eyes were so well-adjusted to darkness after her time in the cellar. The tree roots and thorns that Nora could brush out of her way would be invisible to pursuing Death Eaters – if they were human, that is.
Heart pounding, Nora tried to dart as unpredictably through the trees as possible. She wondered for a moment if it wouldn’t just be smarter to shimmy up a tree and hide out until morning when surely the Death Eaters would have given up looking. But then…there was always Homenum Revelio…and could werewolves climb trees?
She knew she couldn’t risk slowing down, anyway. Nora was operating on momentum, not strength, and if she were to completely halt, her body would realize how tired it was and inevitably give out. She couldn’t afford to lose pace now, so she decided it was best not to press her limits and to keep making sure each foot hit level ground. At this rate, her legs were almost running ahead of the rest of her body, and one false step could cause her to fall and she’d never be able to build up this kind of momentum again. Tripping could mean death.
And how was Sirius?
He could be anywhere; he could be home already. He had a wand and could disapparate as soon as he passed through the boundaries of the Anti-Disapparition Jinx. Would he wait for her? What if Nora ended up stuck in these woods alone for days? She would either have to wait until she healed enough to fly as an owl or figure out Muggle transportation. Nora hoped Sirius would not abandon her in this bleak forest…she hoped he was still alive.
Don’t you dare think like that, she ordered herself. Sirius can’t be dead. If he was, I would feel it.
She was alerted to a rustling of leaves off to her right, and Nora caught a glimpse of undulating branches over her shoulder, as though someone was barreling right through them. Within moments, the great shining eyes of a werewolf met her gaze as it raced alongside her, veering closer. She inclined her torso forward and charged ahead, not listening to her body’s entreaties to stop and rest. Her pursuer picked up the tempo as well; following her every twist and turn with exact precision, his steps perfectly mimicking her trail like a child walking through his mother’s footsteps in the snow.
Nora swallowed a shriek and swerved left, quickening her stride into a wind-splitting sprint. Nearby twigs snapped and cracked, and Nora’s heart skipped two beats as a second werewolf appeared on her left side, almost identical to the tall, scruffy monster on her right. Both of them were after her, trying to close in on their prey while also recognizing the competition and growling throatily at each other. Saliva ran down their bared teeth, glinting like pearls on their hairy jowls. Goosebumps shot down Nora’s spine like lightning, arching her back involuntarily.
Nora belted out a scream before she could stop herself, and, if possible, propelled her legs to travel even faster. The gust of her own wind-power was cooling on her sweaty body, her outstretched fingers slithering through soft, feather-like ferns and her whipping hair catching every loose twig and thorn. Her legs throbbed with the exertion, and there was a stitch in her side that Nora tried unsuccessfully to ignore. Running required deep, heavy breathing; and heavy breathing drew sharp spasms of pain from the cramping in her ribcage. She could not outrun these creatures; there was absolutely nothing she could do at this point.
On a whim, Nora dashed toward the left werewolf. He made eager noises and rushed in sideways to meet her, and the werewolf on the right sensed his impending loss and it made him angry. He darted at Nora and just as both werewolves were close enough for her to smell their rotting breath, Nora stopped in her tracks and rapidly fishtailed around. It was the stupidest, most reckless thing she’d ever done considering the fact that she knew her legs wouldn’t be capable of obtaining that speed again, but it was her only chance. The werewolves collided with each other and immediately began to brawl. Nora felt sorry for Remus and hoped he would win, but she wasn’t going to feel bad for setting him up for a fight. After all, it wasn’t really Remus over there rolling through the brush with Greyback. It was two animals battling over territory and prey.
Nora had sacrificed the momentum, and now could only move at a brisk jog. The stitch in her side grew more pronounced, her legs pulsing with a pain similar to being burned. She was thinking all the while that she had no idea where Sirius was, that she couldn’t do magic, and Cargan was dead.
Oh my God, Cargan Dearborn is dead.
It could have been Nora – it should have been – but somehow it wasn’t. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Death chose its victims at random and would take who it could get.
Finally, the overpowering pain and weakness won over and Nora staggered to a standstill, clutching the bark of a giant tree. It felt as though letting go of this tree would be like letting go of gravity, and she would fly off into space.
One of the werewolves had broken from the fight and followed her – she could hear him sniffing the air and making slow, uncertain steps, his muted footfalls vibrating through the soil. He released a few feral grunts and was beginning to turn around and head elsewhere when Nora’s grip on the bark slipped and she stumbled. Panicking, Nora slid down the rough texture, grasping waxy leaves in her scratched palms and willing herself to vanish. Feverishly trying to control her rabid breathing, she closed her eyes and forced her chest to expand in a deep breath. A hand grasped her shoulder before she could fully exhale.
Lungs twisting into ice, Nora’s mouth popped open to scream and her killer clamped his other hand over it to stifle a shriek that wouldn’t come. Her voice seemed to be lost somewhere inside of her, wrapping around her organs and squeezing them, vice-like, into dust. Horrified, she opened her eyes to stare at her murderer – her last sight on Earth, her last memory before death.
She opened her eyes to the face of Sirius Black.
“Shh,” he whispered. They waited for the werewolf to retreat. The moment he did so, Sirius was about to say something else but was interrupted by the other werewolf lunging out of the forest, ferocious growls ripping through his jagged teeth.
Sirius didn’t hesitate. “Stupefy!”
The Stunned beast fell to the ground, tremors making his body quake for a moment before he was utterly motionless. Sirius turned back to Nora, whose eyes were wide. “Are you alright?” he asked gently.
She tried to remember how to nod, and her head gave a little jerk. Nora stared wordlessly at him – the usually grey eyes so dark now, like glittering onyx against his pale skin; Sirius’s hair hung to his shoulders like a curtain of chocolate silk and his eyebrows knit together in increasing worry as she remained speechless. Nora might have had difficulty distinguishing his features in the diffused light if she hadn’t been so accustomed to them, and she found herself committing to memory every trace of his shape – the way his cheekbones cut across his face, the contours of his jaw, the outline of his lips, their natural curve etched into a perpetual smile.
Sirius waited for Nora to answer him, the taste of his impatient desperation in the air. It seemed as though only one of Nora’s senses could fully function at a time, and presently she was so full of wonder and fear and confusion and overwhelming joy that she could only simply gaze at him, thinking to herself how his eyes in this forest reminded her of glassy volcanic rock – the purest black obsidian – and how absurdly beautiful he was.
Still unable to form words, Nora threw herself at him and released a strangled gasp of relief. She felt him stiffen for a moment in surprise at the reception, and then he encircled his arms soothingly around her. “You have nothing to be afraid of,” he murmured softly into Nora’s hair. She was thoroughly overwhelmed with gratitude that Sirius had stayed behind for her. “I’ve got you.”
“How did you find me?”
He paused, his gaze holding steady like black fire. “A dog can smell things a person cannot. I followed your scent.” She cocked her head, ready to ask, and he said, “Honeysuckle is the closest I can get to describing it – but yours is much sweeter, in my opinion.”
Her eyes darted around. “Is Remus going to be okay?”
Sirius sighed, following her gaze through the ominous wood, neither one of them able to make anything out. The hairs on the back of Nora’s neck no longer stood on end. Sirius was an immense comfort to her – his very presence calmed her like a draught. “He should be,” Sirius replied. “This forest seems big enough that he won’t cross paths with any humans, and in the morning he’ll be able to apparate back.”
“I want to go home,” Nora said.
Sirius grasped her hand, their palms moist from the heat of running and the fright of almost being killed, and they exploded through nothingness with a crack.
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