There are many places on the Hogwarts grounds where a secret conversation may be had; but for my Lord and I, the deepest and most secret was the Forbidden Forest.
"Yes, my Lord."
"It was on this night that my powers were lost."
"You will have them back again."
Here I could speak with my true voice; here my master need not suffer a disguise. Under the canopy of trees and secrets it was half-dark, crisp and eerie, beneath a sun that had not quite set and yet dared not show its face through the thick and dying trees.
"Until then I am forced to depend on a body that is not mine, and the strength of another." The wind shook a branch above us and sent the withered leaves scattering; they gave us wide berth as they fell, as if afraid to incite the wrath of my dark Lord. "You know how inadequate others can be."
"I know, my Lord."
Something faceless cried out from a shadowed bower and we both raised our eyes to it. The serpentine face of my master (which I had not seen since our meeting that summer) must have shocked the creature-- it fell silent and scurried off in a rustle of dead leaves.
I, too, feared my master, but I was secure in the knowledge of my own faithfulness. I dared to speak. "I will not fail you."
"To fail is death." The thin voice was calm and proud, never mind the strange form of its owner. "You know what is expected of you."
"And I will do it," I said, hoping not to betray my eagerness. "All is prepared. Everyone will be at the feast tonight-- unsuspecting-- the faculty will be occupied-- when the corridors are clear--"
"You will take the first step," said my Lord, "in my re-ascent to power."
I fell to my knees. "Yes," I breathed. "I swear to you, master, you will have what you need to regain full life. I swear myself to you-- my body, my soul, my mind--"
A snake slithered across my ankles, its wide, chilly coils like chains.
"That is all I ask of you." My Lord raised a high-pitched laugh that was dark and cold as the dusk that closed on us. "Your everything."
"It is yours," I said fervently. "It is yours--"
The ground behind me crackled and I leapt to my feet. The Dark Lord barked out an order.
The hunched little man scuttled from the shade of a tree and swooped my master into his arms. My Lord's serpent's-eyes fell on me; his cold and careless smile caressed me in a way that my father never had. "You will not fail me."
"Never," I said desperately, unwilling to lose sight of him. "Never--"
Wormtail swished his wand and the two faded from view, magically camouflaged for their long journey back to the Riddle House.
I gathered my wits and drank my disguise, twisting under the force of the potion that I had long since grown used to. Moments later, Professor Snape burst into view, mouth in a twisted sneer, eye slanted and suspicious. His demeanor changed when he caught sight of me.
"Yeah, me," I growled, hobbling toward him with this horrible false leg, this infirmity that I had taken on in the Dark Lord's name. "I wonder, Snape, what would bring our Potions master out into the Forbidden Forest on the evening of the Halloween Feast?"
Snape's ugly pallor grew more pronounced. "I heard voices," he said testily, "and assumed that it was students taking liberties with the rules of the grounds."
"Did you?" I closed in on him suspiciously until our noses nearly touched. "Did you really, Snape?"
He avoided my eyes. "Professor Dumbledore has asked that you check the Goblet of Fire for tampering and then bring it to the Great Hall before tonight's feast."
"'Course I will. Take every precaution, I will. Because I know ..." I let my mismatched eyes linger on Snape's face. "... I know that there are those who still serve their master."
Without waiting for Snape's reaction, I turned and limped out of the Forbidden Forest, grizzled head tucked low, every inch the wily and watchful Auror. I let my battered face twist into a smile. I hoped that my Lord and his pathetic minion had stayed to watch -- seen how skillfully I played my part -- how much I loathed the man who had betrayed the Dark Lord, betrayed us all. And although I knew that he would not see it, I knew that he would be proud when I slipped Potter's name into the Goblet just before I brought it to Dumbledore and declared it untainted.
I had failed him once, my master, and my reward was a decade of imprisonment. I would die before I failed him again.