The Sugar Quill
Author: Sweeney Agonistes (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Spoils of War  Chapter: Default
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The Spoils of War

A/N: A small epilogue of sorts to Partisan Warfare – one of those stories that yelled until I set it down. They’re quite insistent that way. Thanks go out to Zsenya, who has distinguished herself in many fields, but especially the one of Adverb Wrangling. (Maybe she’s a gunslinger herself…one never knows.) It’s JKR’s and Stephen King’s – I get the pleasure of getting the story out of my head.

 

 

 

The gunslinger got to his feet, his glass upraised in his hand. …At last he raised his head again. “Will you drink to the earth, and to the days which have passed upon it?” he asked. His voice was hoarse, trembling with emotion. “Will you drink to the fullness which was, and to friends who have passed on? Will you drink to good company, well met? Will these things set us on, Old Mother?”

 

-Stephen King, The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands  

 

The small silver instruments on the table puffed and whirred cheerfully; in the otherwise absolute silence of Albus’s office, they made me nervous. It was all I could do to keep from pacing up and down in front of the desk until either Severus or Albus – preferably both – returned.

 

Normally, when Severus returned from a summons, he came straight to the office. I had taken to waiting with Albus on those nights, working on various school affairs until Severus came back, often pale and shaking, but unyielding enough to give Albus a full report on his evening.

 

This evening, though, it had been different. Albus and I had been working as usual when one of the portraits snorted awake and said, “Albus, dear, he’s coming.”

 

Albus had put down his quill, and I began to put away the papers I’d been working on. I had just taken my place in one of the wing chairs in front of the desk when Severus burst in and said, “Professor, we’ve got to get to the Lethifold’s Lair. Now.” Without question, Albus had stood up and, looking back at me, said, “I’ll be back later tonight, Minerva. Don’t wait up.” They had left together, Severus flashing one darkly unreadable look in my direction.

 

I knew there had been something strange going on recently – Sherrinford Shiftlet had been up to the school twice, and he was in the company of an unfamiliar, rather ragged-looking man. Shiftlet had never come up to the school in all the years he’d been working for Albus. I felt certain that the reason behind Shiftlet’s recent appearances had something to do with that man, and that man had something to do with Albus.

 

Theron had told me while we were courting that Shiftlet was working for his father, which was entirely at odds with everything I’d ever heard about the man. Regardless of his allegiances, whatever they were, he was definitely the foremost Dark Arts supplier and expert of modern times, and not a man to be trifled with. I knew that Severus had often taken messages from Albus to the Lethifold’s Lair. He had always returned from his sojourns in Knockturn Alley unscathed, and he always checked in with me afterwards, as he’d done on every reconnaissance trip outside Hogwarts since Christmas of last year. I knew that he regarded Shiftlet as trustworthy, but I still wasn’t quite sure. I’d never met the man in person, though, and I was not afraid to admit that I did not want to. Albus had never spoken of him in my presence, and I preferred it that way.

 

The portrait of Simon Farragut snorted awake and said, “Severus is coming.”

 

I nodded to Simon and said, “Thank you.” He grunted and fell back asleep. I stood, resting an arm on the chair. Just Severus – no Albus.

 

He came in quietly and shut the door, facing me with as bleak a look as I’d ever seen on him. He was still wearing his Death Eater robes, and he carried his mask under one arm. Softly, he said, “Sherrinford Shiftlet is dead.”

 

“Where’s Albus?”

 

“Still at the Lethifold’s Lair.” He let himself drop into one of the chairs, tossing his mask down beside him. I took the other chair. Severus continued, “I told him briefly about the things that went on tonight and he left me outside, telling me that if he wasn’t out in three minutes, I should come inside and check on him. I looked in, and I saw him just – standing there. Shiftlet was dead, and Albus…I didn’t think it would be a good idea to disturb him, and so I just went back outside. He Apparated out a few minutes later, told me to go back and see you, and he’d come back later. He’s not here yet?”

 

“No.” I was worried. “Severus, what’s been going on?”

 

“Albus had an old friend – Ted Brautigan. He was…special. Special in some way that I can’t fathom. Not one of us, and yet not a Muggle, either.” He laughed bitterly, and I resisted the urge to reach out and take his hand. “No, most definitely not a Muggle. After what I saw him do tonight…” His voice trailed off. I waited. After pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a long sigh, he continued, “Brautigan needed protection in this world, and Albus sent him to Sherrinford Shiftlet. But Shiftlet couldn’t protect him – though he tried – and because of those skills Brautigan had, Voldemort wanted him – but not for himself. For someone else.

 

“Voldemort sent a group of us to Knockturn Alley to capture Brautigan, and Shiftlet did a marvelous job of being cantankerous, but it got him the Cruciatus Curse, and he dropped his wand. Brautigan picked it up and traced some sort of symbol in the air, and he said something that I didn’t hear, and just like that, everyone except me, Lucius, and Shiftlet dropped. They just – died.” He punctuated the word with a sweep of his hand. “It was…incredible. Brautigan told Lucius to get out, and he did, and then I left, too, with every intention of getting Albus to help them after I’d reported back to Voldemort – Shiftlet was in bad shape after the Curse. But when Albus and I got there, Brautigan was gone, and Shiftlet…he was dead. I don’t think it was from the curse, either.” Severus slumped in his chair, and his hand fell to his lap. “He was the best spy we had, too. Damn.”

 

I watched Severus, concerned. Ever since last Christmas, when I’d patched him back together, he had been coming to me more often with concerns, and he was a great deal more open with me that he had been previously. I could tell that he was honestly upset over the fate of Sherrinford Shiftlet, and not just because Shiftlet had been a good spy. Severus had honestly liked the man.

I said quietly, “I’m sorry, Severus.”

 

He nodded brusquely, and we sat there in a not quite uncomfortable silence until the door creaked open. We both turned around, and we saw Albus closing the door. The portraits were still asleep; Albus had asked them not to inform the occupants of his office that he was approaching. He sat behind his desk and stared at us both – his eyes were tired, and hurt, and full of grief.

 

Albus said, “You have nothing further to report, Severus?”

 

Severus said, “When I left Voldemort, he was punishing Malfoy for letting Brautigan kill so many of the group. He told me to go, and I went.”

 

The tired blue eyes turned towards me. “Has Severus told you the story, Minerva?”

 

“He has.”

 

“Then there’s no point in me going over it again. Severus, we’ll talk more tomorrow.”

Without question, Severus stood up, bowed to both of us, and exited the office. Albus looked to me and sighed deeply. “Minerva, I’ve made a mistake.”

 

I waited.

 

“Sherrinford owed me a debt; I had him pay it by taking care of Ted. I thought it might help Sherrinford – I never meant for it to kill him. And it did. He killed himself because Ted left him.” He looked old – so old. “I did what I thought was right, and it ended up going horribly wrong. It’s all on my shoulders – a man killed himself tonight because of something I set in motion.”

 

I said nothing.

 

“Was he better off owing me his debt? He was trapped in his position, and I thought it might free him – I never knew that Voldemort would come after Ted. I always thought it would be Flagg…but I thought Ted was safe here. And I thought that Sherrinford needed someone, and Ted needed a place to go that was out of the way…it was only logical.” He was speaking more to his desktop than to me. “I thought I was right. I wasn’t. And I’m afraid, after what Severus told me walking out to the Apparition point tonight, that Voldemort can use the things he learned from Flagg to make things worse here.” A chill ran through me. “I’m supposed to be the one who knows what to do. I failed, Minerva – I can’t afford that. We lost an ally – two allies – and the other side has gained power. I…” He stopped talking, and put his head in his hands.

 

I did not like to think of Albus as susceptible to mistakes. This was the first time I’d seen him this upset since the night of the Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament, and the guilt he’d suffered then over his failure to figure out that Moody was an impostor was nothing compared to what I was seeing before me. All my life, I had seen Albus as a steady, powerful staff to lean on, even when Theron died. But this…this was an entirely different man.

 

Sherrinford Shiftlet, whoever the man had truly been, must have been a true enigma – he had the reputation of a criminal mastermind, but he had inspired this guilt in Albus through absolute loyalty to our side – and amidst his veiled partisan loyalties, he had been so isolated for so many years. Despite everything I’d heard about the man – the rumors that he’d killed multiple children with a single curse, the rumors that he’d go to any lengths necessary to procure the ghastly artifacts he sold – I found myself respecting him.

 

And at the same time, my heart broke for Albus.

 

I circled his desk and rested a hand on his shoulder. He looked at me and stood up from his chair. I embraced him and, after a moment, felt him return it with a sort of grateful desperation.

 

Every leader was susceptible to moments of weakness at great cost. I was thankful that only two people were witness to the aftermath – but at the same time, I wished it hadn’t been me who had had to take the brunt of it.

 

This was war, though – and sacrifices had to be made by everyone, whether it was a sacrifice like that of Sherrinford Shiftlet, or a sacrifice of one’s false sense of security.

 

On the whole, I thought my sacrifice was a bit easier to deal with. I turned my attentions to Albus, and tried to think no more of it. Shiftlet was dead, but we were very much alive, and there was no help for it: we had to carry on.

 

//
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