The Sugar Quill
Author: Violet Azure (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Black Cloud in a Blue Sky  Chapter: Ch. 3: Thunder and Lightning
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Disclaimer: I do not own the creations of J

Disclaimer: I do not own the creations of J.K. Rowling, nor am I making any money off of her wonderful creations.  It’s her universe; I’m just visiting.  All original characters are of my own creation and may not be used without permission of the author.

 

A/N: Thank you to the ladies of the SQ Workshop for all of their advice and suggestions.  Thank you and many mugs of Butterbeer to all the wonderful people who have read and reviewed!

 

 

Chapter 3: Thunder and Lightning

 

The Dementors continued their search of the village until their shadows had crossed the threshold of every business and home.  The friendly chatter and gossip that usually erupted when people ran into each other had trickled to a few terse whispers.  Faces were pinched, brows furrowed, and children hid behind their mothers’ skirts—if mothers let their children out at all.  People sized one another up when they passed each other in town, trying to figure out if the other was harboring Sirius Black.  Mutterings filled the air about the dark days when Aurors could search your home and your neighbor might just be a Death Eater spy. 

 

Rosmerta had barely recovered from the previous night’s visit at the tavern when Barney Fletcher, the village’s third M.L.E., stopped by her house with two Dementors in tow.  Before the waves of dizziness and nausea overtook her, Rosmerta fled to her garden while they searched her house.  Although she performed a multitude of charms after they left, she could still feel their aura.  Even Queenie was unsettled; she took off for the garden and wouldn’t leave the tree she settled in, no matter how much Rosmerta tried coaxing her.  Hoping that Queenie wouldn’t catch a chill, Rosmerta cast a Warming Charm around the tree before leaving for work.  The atmosphere in the tavern wasn’t much better and Rosmerta returned home later that night as tightly wound as a clock spring.

 

After a fitful night of sleep, Rosmerta could still sense the Dementors in her home Monday morning.  She half expected one to jump out of her closet any minute or poke its head out from behind the shower curtain while she was brushing her teeth.  Deciding that her household chores could wait, she did her banking early in the day and spent the entire afternoon shopping in Diagon Alley before meeting Maddie for tea.

 

“Hello, love.  Did you buy the entire street?”  Maddie eyed Rosmerta as she settled herself and her many bags into a chair at Thyme and Honey. 

 

“No, just a few odds and ends.  Trying to start my Christmas shopping a bit early for a change,” Rosmerta said airily, kicking the bag from Achilles Heels under the table.  “Have you seen the new Firebolt?  That’s a broomstick.  Wish I could afford one,” she lied.

 

“How was your weekend?”  There was no curiosity to Maddie’s voice, just a grim sense of wanting to confirm bad news.

 

“Oh, as good as it could be, considering I had soul-sucking demons in my tavern and in my home.”  Rosmerta poured herself a cup of tea.  “They stopped by the Lair, I gather?”  Rosmerta added milk to her cup and waited for Maddie’s reply. 

 

Maddie closed her eyes, as if trying to shut out the memory.  “It was awful.  Four of my girls fainted, two of them got sick…I had to close down early Saturday night and shut down completely on Sunday because no one showed up.  I’m going to have a word with Robert the next time I see him.”  Maddie’s chest swelled impressively, her mouth twisting into a scowl.

 

“It’s not Robert’s fault, he was just doing his job.”

 

“Hrmph.  Seems like his job should be finding a little more evidence before searching people’s homes and businesses.”

 

“It was for our own safety.”  Rosmerta took a sip of her tea.  “What’s really bothering me is that the school didn’t notify the village that Black had broken in; we had to find out about it from Hagrid a few days after it happened.  Professor Dumbledore didn’t even tell Robert, at least not the details.  It’s a lucky thing nothing happened to anyone in the village.”

 

“That’s not like Dumbledore,” Maddie frowned.  “He always looks out for folks’ safety.”

 

“I don’t know.  The faculty can be rather secretive about what really goes on at the school.  If it weren’t for Hagrid, I don’t think I’d know anything about Hogwarts.  The school has a right to keep their affairs private, but this affects the entire village.  They can’t keep things like this hushed up, although having Dementors swarming all over the village is hardly subtle.”

 

“True.”  Maddie nodded and sipped her tea.  “You know, I’m thinking of hiring security trolls until this whole thing blows over; I used them from time to time during the dark days.  I just wish they wouldn’t leer at the girls so much though.  Thank you, dear,” she said as the waitress set down a plate of shortbread on the table.  Maddie offered the plate to Rosmerta, who shook her head.

 

“No sweets for me.  I nearly ate an entire carton of ice cream this weekend.  It was the only chocolate I could find.”

 

“Pure chocolate works much better.”

 

“I know.  I didn’t have any on hand, just baker’s chocolate.  Although how you’re expected to eat when you’re sick to your stomach is beyond me.”

 

“Well, look on the bright side; it’s not as if we have to eat carrot sticks and Brussels sprouts to feel better.  Then I’d really hate those Dementors.”  Maddie dunked her biscuit in her tea and took a bite.

 

Rosmerta finished her tea and poured herself another cup, trying not to eye the biscuits.  For the hundredth time, she wondered where she had gotten her figure from since her mother and grandmothers had been as flat and straight as reeds.  There’s probably some great-great-grandmother I don’t know about, she though grumpily, and I inherited her childbearing hips even though it doesn’t look like I’ll ever have children. 

 

Maddie swallowed and set down the other half of her biscuit.  “You know, I still feel like it’s my fault the girls got so sick.  I still can’t produce a Patronus and none of the girls can either.  Most of my girls aren’t too good with a wand, at least not with book spells—a few of them aren’t even allowed to have wands—so it’s up to me to look after them.”

 

“Why can’t they have wands?”

 

“Ohhhh!”  Maddie took a vicious bite of her biscuit and chewed menacingly.  “The bloody Ministry is why.  The ruddy Code of Wand Use prevents non-humans from carrying wands.  Several of the girls are of mixed blood and according to Ministry rules they’re classified as non-human.  It’s ridiculous.”

 

Rosmerta wanted to ask what type of non-human they were, but seeing how it wasn’t polite to pry she murmured an assent and drank more tea.  Maddie always did have a rather motley assortment of employees.  Rosmerta remembered that she had even employed a female werewolf years ago, although that hadn’t lasted long.

 

“I never understood that code, part humans…non-humans.  Seemed so arbitrary.”

 

“Don’t get me started,” Maddie muttered.  “It’s only a handful of them that aren’t allowed wands, but I still should have insisted that all the girls come to the tavern when lessons were held there.  Flitwick taught me Charms and he’s one of the best teachers in the Wizarding world.  Well, that does it—we’re all going to start having lessons.  If Flitwick isn’t available, I’m sure one of the villagers will volunteer.”  A steely look of determination crossed Maddie’s face.

 

“Mind if I join you?”  Rosmerta asked, somewhat humbly.  It was rather humiliating to realize that the only other people in town who couldn’t produce a Patronus besides her were a bunch of showgirls.

 

“Oh, I meant you too when I said we’re all going to be practicing.”  Maddie gave her a stern look.  “You’ve got a good soul, love, and I won’t see it sucked out by demons.”

 

***

 

“Come off it, Miss Maddie!  It’s the crack of dawn.”  A pouty blonde paused on the stairs, let out a theatrical sigh and then continued stomping down the steps.  Rosmerta wondered what had happened to the rest of the girl’s robes; they only came to her knee.  Several other girls had apparently forgotten the bottom of their robes as well.  Rosmerta felt down right matronly in her robes, even though they were slit almost up to her knee.

 

The blonde made a big show of throwing herself into one of the wooden chairs and yawning dramatically.  Rosmerta wanted to tell the young lady that it was generally considered poor manners to give perfect strangers a direct view of your knickers.  The girl must have picked up on Rosmerta’s disapproving look because she straightened up and crossed her legs, although she still looked sulky.

 

“It’s half past nine, so stop your complaining, Natasha; you can take a nap when we’re done.  This is for your own good.”

 

“I’ve heard that before,” Natasha muttered under her breath.  A little louder she said, “I’m a veela; the Dementors don’t make us sick,” her eyes darted to a pale, slender girls with dark hair that fell to her waist.  She turned her eyes to the floor under Natasha’s disdainful look. 

 

Part veela,” someone muttered.  One of the oldest women there, a curvy brunette, hugged the pale girl round the shoulders and whispered in her ear while glaring at Natasha.

 

“Maybe not, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t still suck your soul out,” Maddie retorted. 

 

“Why aren’t Lillith and Delia here?” a chesty redhead demanded.  Rosmerta noted that most of the girls were similarly shaped, although Rosmerta had the feeling that this had been accomplished with the use of Engorgement Charms or some sort of Swelling Solution.

 

“Never you mind, Rose.  Now, Professor Flitwick has kindly agreed to give us a lesson and I want everyone to be on their best behavior, understood?”  Maddie put her hands on her hips and stared down every single one of the women assembled. 

 

“Yes, Miss Maddie,” a chorus of female voices sang, like naughty schoolgirls admonished by the headmistress.

 

“Good.  I’m glad we all understand each other.  Professor Flitwick should be here any minute, I’m going to get some tea for him.  I’ll be right back.  Remember what I said last night.”  Maddie raised her eyebrows at the group before sashaying off.

 

“So who are you?” a girl with smeared eye-make up and curly blonde hair asked Rosmerta.  “I didn’ know we were gettin’ any more new girls.  Ain’t you a bit old to be turnin’ tricks?”

 

“Lulu!”  The exotic looking brunette shot the blonde an outraged look.  “This is Madam Rosmerta, Miss Maddie’s friend.  She runs the Three Broomsticks.”  She glared at the blonde before turning toward Rosmerta.  “I am so sorry, Madam Rosmerta.  Lulu is new here and she doesn’t know who’s who.”

 

“That’s all right.”  Rosmerta inclined her head slightly, a queen pardoning her subject.  “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t remember your name, but you look so familiar,” she said to the brunette.

 

“I’m Isis.  I’ve seen you here a few times when you’ve come to visit Miss Maddie.  Would you like me to introduce you to some of the other girls?”

 

“That would be lovely.  Thank you, Isis.”

 

Isis pointed out the women around the tavern to Rosmerta.  Some responded with yawns and disinterested looks, others smiled and exchanged pleasantries.  The pale girl with the dark hair hovered near Isis.  She kept her gaze on the floor, but her eyes kept darting in Rosmerta’s direction, almost like she was taking sips of her surroundings.  

 

There was a knock on the door followed by a chipper, “Hello!”  The door opened and Professor Flitwick toddled into the club, waving.  Rosmerta wondered if someone had cast a permanent Cheering Charm on him.  Behind him was a tall, handsome man who looked a bit tired, but just as sharp and alert as Flitwick.  Rosmerta couldn’t remember seeing him before, even though he, like Isis, seemed vaguely familiar.  He must be another member of the staff, most likely the new Defense professor, but Rosmerta couldn’t believe how young he looked, despite the gray in his hair and the lines around his eyes.  He was just on the other side of scrawny, slender but strong like a willow branch.  He reminded Rosmerta of her favorite pair of brown leather boots—tough but supple, broken-in from years of use but radiating comfort and durability.

 

Several girls sat up, looking much more interested in the lesson.  They smoothed down their robes and fixed stray hairs.  Hissing whispers and stifled giggles broke out among some of the younger ones. 

 

“Sorry I’m late, Miss Maddie.”  There was a slight creak on the stairs and a deathly pale woman with long white blonde hair glided over to the group.

 

“’S’alright, Selena.  Miss Maddie’s still in the kitchen.”

 

Selena froze, her eyes on Professor Flitwick’s companion.  Her nostrils flared and she drew in a deep breath that seemed to rob the room of all its air.  Her eyes narrowed as she let out her breath in a cat-like hiss.  The brown haired man stiffened like a dog just catching a scent, although if he had been a dog a low growl would be reverberating  in his throat.  The sound of the kitchen door swinging open broke the terse silence.

 

“Good morning, Professor Flitwick,” Maddie said, as she carried a tea tray over to a table.  “Ladies, did you all say hello to Professor Flitwick?”

 

A very enthusiastic chorus of “Hello’s” and “Good morning’s” broke out, although they seemed to be directed at the young man rather than at the distinguished professor. 

 

“I see you’ve brought a guest, Professor.  Hello, I’m Madeline Harrison.”  She held out her hand for him to shake.

 

He hesitated briefly before taking her hand.  “Oh, I know who you are, Miss Maddie.”  He flashed her a quick grin that brought on a fresh wave of giggles.

 

“This is Professor Lupin.  He’s replaced Professor Lockhart as our Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.  Professor Lupin has been kind enough to help me out this morning,” Flitwick said.

 

“Gilderoy Lockhart?” one of the girls muttered amid much snickering.  “Wasn’t he the one who thought we should be paying him—”

 

“That’ll do, Jeannie,” Maddie said in high, falsely pleasant voice.

 

Rosmerta hadn’t been paying attention; she had been turning the name Lupin over and over in her mind until it connected with its match.  “Remus Lupin?”  Rosmerta asked.

 

“Yes, that’s me.”

 

Rosmerta took a long look at him.  Remus Lupin…that shy boy with the shaggy brown hair and slight frame who shadowed James Potter and his gang was now a professor.  It seemed like yesterday that he was a student, laughing with his friends, a Gryffindor scarf around his neck.  “You’re all grown up,” she blurted out, instantly feeling like someone’s daft maiden aunt. 

 

Professor Lupin smiled at her, slightly embarrassed.  “Hello, Madam Rosmerta.  I suppose it’s been a while since I’ve seen you, although you haven’t changed a bit.  You look the same as you did twenty years ago.”  A few of the girls shot glares at Rosmerta, which she ignored because she was too busy trying to come to grips with a grown-up member of James Potter’s gang.  So few of them had reached adulthood

 

“I’m sorry Re-Professor Lupin.  I still have this picture in my mind of you as that schoolboy who used to juggle Butterbeer bottles,” Rosmerta said, causing Lupin’s cheeks to turn a faint pink.  He flushed even harder when Professor Flitwick began chortling.

 

“I never knew you were so talented, Remus.  You’ll have to give us a demonstration at our next staff meeting.  All right,” Professor Flitwick clapped his hands and got down to business.  “Ladies, why don’t you divide into pairs?  I want you all to spend a few minutes thinking about a happy memory.  Tell your partner the story and try to get each other to think of as many details about that memory as possible.  Professor Lupin and I will help you with the incantation.  Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, I’ll create the illusion of there being a Dementor in the tavern to test your concentration.  We’ll try it as a group in five minutes.  Pair up!” 

 

Maddie poured tea for the professors and while they were occupied, the women chose partners.  Rosmerta wondered if she was supposed to pair up or join Maddie and the professors for tea.  She stood there, hoping Maddie would come over to her.  It was an unusual sensation to be hovering in this state of uncertainty; she had never been the type to be left out of anything.

 

“Got a partner?” came a voice to her left.  Rosmerta shook her head.  “Want to pair up then?”

 

Rosmerta took one last look over her shoulder at Maddie, still engaged in conversation with the professors.  “All right,” she acquiesced.

 

The girl who was her partner was painfully thin with deep brown eyes that seemed to belong on a face two sizes bigger than hers.  She appeared to have slept in her make-up, or perhaps it had been softly smeared on purpose to give her a look of careless chic.  There was a measure of confidence to her that was different from what the other girls projected.  It was less arrogant, less defensive but the edges were no less jagged and sharp.

 

“I’m Jasmine,” she said.  “Well, Jasmine’s my stage name.  My real name is Janice but that doesn’t sound too interesting.  So you’re Madam Rosmerta?”  Rosmerta nodded.  “I like your fish and chips.  Sometimes I order it on Fridays for dinner when I don’t like what Megan, the cook here, makes for dinner.”

 

“Thank you.  You’re the one who always asks for the fish without the bread crumbs and extra lemon?”  Jasmine smiled at her and nodded.  “Well, it’s always nice to match a face with a name.  So, am I correct in thinking that you’re one of the singers here?”

 

Jasmine beamed at her.  “Yeah.  I’ve been here almost three years and the headliner for over a year.  I just got an agent, the same one who represents Celestina Warbeck.  Pretty soon I’m going to be real famous.”  Her proud look dared Rosmerta to contradict her.

 

“I guess that must be your happy memory,” Rosmerta said, steering the conversation to its original purpose.  “What was it like being discovered?”

 

“It was so exciting!  I had just finished a set.  I could really feel the music that night, you know?  We were doing some of that Muggle jazz stuff that Miss Maddie likes.  Anyway, after my set I went up to the bar for a glass of pumpkin juice and then I slipped out the back.  All the smoke in here is terrible for my voice, you know?”  Rosmerta nodded to show that she was paying attention. 

 

“This guy had been staring at me while I was singing, real intent like, you know?  And he followed me outside when I went for my break.  Just as I was going to draw my wand on him, he hands me his card and tells me he’s with the Calliope Music Corporation and he loved me!  Well, he loved my singing.  We talked and he stayed for my second set and then he came back a few days later with some other guys and all these rolls of parchment for me to sign.  Miss Maddie gave me a hand.  She read them over to make sure he didn’t take me for a mug.  I don’t think I’ll even be in the village much longer, so I don’t know why I have to be here to learn this stupid charm.  I really should be resting my voice, you know.”  A slender hand fluttered to her throat.

 

Rosmerta murmured something and tried to think of a way to keep her talking.  It didn’t take much.  “How long have you been a singer?”

 

“I’ve been singing my whole life.  No training, self-taught.  Well, once I got here Miss Maddie helped me out a lot.  She’s got quite a voice.”  Jasmine looked down and examined her nails for a bit.  “She taught me piano too and all these modern Muggle songs.  She thought it was a good idea in case I got signed by a Muggle producer, you know?  Then I could audition with something besides a Weird Sisters song, you know?”  Rosmerta knew and she wished this girl wouldn’t ask her every other sentence if she did.

 

“What are your favorite songs?” Rosmerta asked.

 

“I dunno, I like Our Love is Like a Phoenix, You’re the One that I Haunt, When Auguries Cry… most of the stuff by the Syrens…some of Celestina Warbeck’s early stuff…And these Muggle songs-Black Magic, Witchcraft, Werewolves of London…”  Out of the corner of her eye, Rosmerta caught Professor Lupin’s head pivot in their direction.  Rosmerta flashed him a smile while Jasmine continued to prattle away.

 

“…I don’t sing the Black Magic one around magic folks in case they get the wrong idea that I’m sort of a Death Eater or something, you know?”  She gave a stuttering little laugh that sounded like a woodpecker with a case of the hiccups. 

 

Rosmerta mustered up a polite chuckle from the back of her throat.  Jasmine beamed, thoroughly enjoying her audience.  “So, perhaps we should narrow down your happy thoughts,” Rosmerta suggested, “focus on the night you were discovered.” 

 

“All right, erm, it was last Friday—not last night, the Friday before that.  I had leather trousers on and this black top that was sorta like a cape.  It was mostly a young crowd, so I was singing stuff by the Weird Sisters and Merlin Le Fey…” Jasmine trailed off and started examining her nails again. 

 

“You know, I wouldn’t even have this gig if it weren’t for Miss Maddie.  I guess she’s really the one who discovered me first.  I was singing on—in…Diagon Alley and she listened for a bit.”  The edge returned to her voice. 

 

“Most people either told me to shut up and get a job or they just ignored me.  I couldn’t believe it when she stopped to listen to me and then started talking to me when I finished my song…asking me how long I’ve been singing and where I was living and stuff.  And she looked so elegant, like a real lady!  She was wearing that red velvet cloak of hers and that hat with the ostrich feathers.  She left after a few songs and I figured that was that, but she came back after it was getting dark and took me to tea and told me all about the Lair…she was so nice to me.  A part of me kept thinking that she was faking it, you know?  That she was just being nice to me because she was a Dark Witch and she was going to kill me and use my blood for Dark Magic, you know?”  Jasmine laughed that rattling laugh of hers and grew serious again. 

 

“But she’s a real nice lady, always making tea and biscuits and telling these great stories.  She can be real strict-has all these rules if you want to live here, and the pay’s pretty lousy, although the food’s good.  I’m going to miss her when I’m famous.  Maybe I’ll come back here for a special concert or something, you know?” 

 

Rosmerta sat quietly, taking in Jasmine’s story.  Maddie hardly ever talked about where her girls came from.  The way she described them always made it sound like they were one person with a lot of different personality quirks that had showed up on her doorstop one day.

 

“Ladies, may I have your attention?”  Flitwick stood on a table and swished his wand; it gave off a sound like a bell being rung.  The chatter died down and the girls turned toward Flitwick, although many of them were glancing at Lupin, who stood to the side of the table. 

 

“You should have picked your happy memory by now and focused on it.  Now we’re going to work on the second part of the spell.  This charm doesn’t require any special wand movements, just aim your wand in the direction of the Dementor and say the incantation.  Now the words are Expecto Patronum.”  He brandished his wand and a silver dragon filled the room.  The girls all gasped with amazement while Flitwick plowed on with his lesson. 

 

“Stress the third syllable in the first word and the middle syllable in the second one.  Ex-pec-TO Pa-TRO-num.  Now, it sounds easy, but precise pronunciation is very important; the first few times practicing this charm people tend to say Expecto Patronus instead of Patronum or they’ll say Expectro Patonum.  If you do that, the charm won’t work.  And as you’re trying to remember the right words, you might get frustrated and lose concentration of your happy memory.  So,” he looked around the room, “now that we have our happy memories, are we ready to give it a try?”  He beamed at the slightly confused faces of the women.  A few of them looked uncertainly at their wands.

 

“Yes, Professor Flitwick,” Maddie said like a mother trying to teach a four year-old manners. 

 

“Yes, Professor Flitwick,” the girls echoed obediently.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jasmine whispered.  “We didn’t talk about you.”

 

“That’s all right,” Rosmerta whispered back.

 

On the first try, no one was able to produce a silver cloud, let alone a Patronus.  Flitwick floated off the table and he and Lupin began walking around and working with the girls.  The girls, especially the younger ones, jostled one another to be the first to receive Lupin’s attention, although Serena and Lupin steered clear of each other. 

 

Rosmerta pretended to practice, but she watched Lupin.  Was he ill?  From what she could remember he hadn’t been a sickly lad, but then again she had only seen him maybe two dozen times when he was growing up.  He had always been slight, but that wouldn’t account for the premature gray in his hair and the dark half moons under his eyes.  It looked like something was troubling him deeply.  Oh!  She wanted to clap her hand against her head for being so stupid.  The poor dear had been friends with Black, hadn’t he?  What he must be going through!  Maybe that’s why he looked so drained.  Right now he was listening to one of the girls explain something to him.  Rosmerta watched the girl flirting outrageously, leaning over in a provocative manner, but Lupin maintained eye contact and nodded politely.

 

“Madam Rosmerta?”

 

Rosmerta turned her attention away from Lupin and glanced down at Professor Flitwick.

 

“Would you like to give it a try?”

 

No, Rosmerta did not want to give it a try.  What Rosmerta would like was a cup of tea, a plate of raspberry scones, and the morning paper.  She would like to stop these lessons that did nothing except remind her of what a failure she was.  She would like the Dementors to go back to Azkaban where they belonged and everything in the village to return to normal. 

 

She gave Professor Flitwick a sweet smile and attempted the charm, not surprisingly, without any success. 

 

“Hmmm,” Flitwick eyed her wand critically while he thought.  “Still having trouble I see.  It’s not your pronunciation, that’s flawless…I’m guessing that the problem is still in your concentration, yes?” 

 

Rosmerta tried to look like an attentive student.  “Yes, yes that’s it.  It’s worse now; the Dementors searched the entire village last week and after being around them, I just can’t focus on repelling them.  They just sort of pop into my head.”  Rosmerta fluttered her fingers around her temple and batted her eyes, feigning a look of desperation.

 

“I understand.  Why don’t you try the following exercise: sit in a quiet place and just repeat the words of the charm over and over again, like a chant.  While you’re saying the words, let your mind relax and turn to that happy memory or thought and just concentrate on it.  Really feel those emotions.  Before you know it, a Patronus will appear.”  Flitwick gave her an encouraging smile before toddling off to help another girl. 

 

After everyone had been given some one-on-one instruction, Flitwick had everyone practice as a group again.  As the whooshes of silver gas escaped from wands, Flitwick made the task a bit more difficult by first casting a Chilling Charm and then a Melancholy Curse.  The coldness and sadness made concentration more difficult, but Flitwick’s skill at Charms notwithstanding, he didn’t quite capture the smell of a Dementor.   

 

By the end of the lesson, eight of the twenty or so girls assembled had managed to produce a corporal Patronus, three of whom were able to maintain the spell in the face of Flitwicks’s Dementor simulation, and wisps of smoke had come out of everyone’s wand at some point.  Rosmerta was not one of the eight, but her partner Jasmine managed to produce a beautiful silver nightingale a few times.  

 

“That was a wonderful beginning, ladies!” Flitwick squeaked at the end of the lesson.  He led a round of enthusiastic applause that the girls only matched after Maddie had started narrowing her eyes at them.

 

“Will you be back, professor?” one of the girls asked Flitwick, although she was looking at Lupin. 

 

“No, I’m afraid my schedule is full until after the holidays, but I believe Miss Harrison has arranged for others to come by and work on the charm with you?” Flitwick glanced over at Maddie.

 

“Yes, Robert is giving us a lesson next week and Harold has agreed to come the week after that.  We’ll see how far we’ve gotten at that point to determine if we need any more lessons.”

 

“We have to do this next week too?” Natasha whined.  Maddie shot her a look that was more effective than any Silencing Charm.

 

Flitwick looked apologetic.  “Unfortunately, we don’t know how long the Dementors will be in the area.  You’re not in any imminent danger from them, but if they search the village again you might get sick.  It’s best if you know how to defend yourself.”  The pale brunette and a few others were nodding in agreement.

 

“I believe that if there are no further questions…?” Flitwick looked around the room and then over at Maddie.

 

“It doesn’t appear so.  Thank you very much, Professor Flitwick, Professor Lupin, for your time,” Maddie said in a firm, pleasant voice.  Her eyes traveled over the women expectantly and a scattering echo of mismatched thank you’s broke out.

 

“Our pleasure, Miss Harrison.”  Professor Flitwick bowed and he and Lupin took their leave. 

 

Most of the girls headed upstairs.  Rosmerta heard them giggling and gossiping about the young professor as they went. 

 

“I hope that Professor Lupin comes back,” Jeannie was saying.  “He’s much better looking than that other one.”

 

“The vampire one?”  Natasha sneered.  “I’ve seen him here once.  I think he’s afraid of soap, not garlic!”  Several of the young girls shrieked with laughter.

 

“He’s not a vampire,” Isis said calmly.  “And I thought you were all exhausted.  If you’re not going to get some sleep before tonight, then there are plenty of chores you can help with.”  The girls immediately began yawning and scrambling up the stairs.  Isis nodded at Maddie and directed the pale brunette shadowing her to pick up the tea tray and carry it into the kitchen.

 

“Oh lordy, that bunch will be the death of me,” Maddie groaned.  “Sometimes I think living in a hen house would be quieter.  My girls did well, don’t you think?  Flitwick seemed pleased.”

 

“Yes, very impressive.  Well, I hate to leave, but the lunch shift starts in half an hour.” Rosmerta said. 

 

“I’ll see you Monday, love,” Maddie said, waving her out the door.

 

Rosmerta flew at her usual breakneck speed across the village to the tavern.  She checked her watch as she screeched to a stop at the front door.  Eleven minutes, a new record!  After unlocking the door, she hurried to the kitchen to get the stew on and the desserts in the oven.  Although she had prepped most of the lunch dishes the night before, she was still running behind schedule.  She began emptying the bread pans and slicing the loaves, nearly nicking her finger in her haste.

 

And as if she didn’t have enough to do, an owl came tapping at the kitchen door.  Barely brushing the flour from her hands, she untied the string from the owl’s leg, thrust a sausage in its general direction and read the first of two pieces of parchment while stirring the stew. 

 

Dear Shop Owners,  

 

For your safety and the safety of your patrons, the Ministry of Magic requests that you post the enclosed notice on your premises.  On behalf of the Ministry, I thank you and the inhabitants of Hogsmeade for your patience and understanding during this difficult time.  Any questions should be directed to my secretary, Ophelia Branstone

 

Sincerely,

 

Amelia S. Bones

Asst. Head, Department of Magical Law Enforcement

 

As she read, her hand slacked on the soupspoon.  She paused to take in the letter before reading it again.  She unrolled the second piece of parchment, nearly ripping it.  Effective Immediately was written in huge letters across the top.  She read the first few lines and then set the notice down on the counter, a tight feeling in her chest.  Dementors, patrolling the streets every night after sundown?  How could the Ministry set those things loose in the village?  Oh sure, they were under Ministry control and all, but the Ministry seemed very far away in London.  Three village M.L.E.s were hardly any kind of protection against a group of Dementors.  And an animal-shaped silver cloud didn’t seem like much of a defense either, regardless of what Flitwick said.  What if they Kissed someone?  Not to mention all the business she was going to lose because no one would want to come to the tavern after dark. 

 

She rubbed her temples for a minute, trying to stave off the impending headache.  The townspeople were not going to react well to this news.  Was one wizard really as dangerous as a squad of demons who could steal your soul?  Black didn’t even have a wand, how much damage could he do?  Well, he could always stab or strangle someone and steal their wand.  She shuddered and immediately turned her head to the window, checking to see if someone was skulking around her back yard, but not really expecting to see anything except the last of the birds that hadn’t flown south.  A head appeared out of thin air and she yelped, scrambling back into the stove.  A sharp pain shot up her arm and she yanked her hand off the stovetop, swearing like a warlock.

 

“Russell Banges!  Are you trying to give me heart attack?” she cried, yanking open the door with her good hand, still muttering curses under her breath. 

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.  I stopped by to pick up lunch for me and Dave and the front door was still locked.  What happened to your hand?”  He took her wrist and examined her palm, which was starting to blister.  “Did I do that?” 

 

“That’s all right,” she tried to smile but all she managed was a grimace.  Tears were starting to well up in her eyes and it felt like her entire hand was still on fire.

 

“Oh no!  Hold on!  We have some burn potions at the store.  I’ll be right back.”  Russell ran outside and Disapparated.  He was back a minute later holding a jar. 

 

“Here,” Russell fumbled with the top of the jar and scooped out a glob of bright orange paste.  He took her hand and spread the paste over her burn.  The pain went away and her entire arm went numb.  “Better?” he asked, his voice full of concern.  He was still cradling her hand in his, his fingertips lingering against the back of her hand.  His breathing had taken on an odd, gasp-like quality, a sound that was a cross between being strangled and a case of the hiccups.   

 

Rosmerta couldn’t remember the last time someone was so close to her.  The novelty of having her hand held made her leave it in Russell’s grasp longer than necessary.

 

“Yes, fine, thank you.”  Rosmerta stood there silently with a forced smile until she gently pulled her hand away on the pretext of examining it.  A hissing noise caused her to whip around to see one of the pots overflowing.  She swore again, instantly berating herself mentally for sounding like a common trollop.  

 

“I got it.”  Russell pointed his wand at the stove and cleaned up the mess and turned down the heat.  “Where did you learn words like that?” he said laughing. “‘Dancing dragons’ is usually more your style.”  He looked delighted at her outburst, as if discovering they shared a common hobby or interest.  Of all the things to turn a man on, Rosmerta never would have thought bad words would be it.

 

“Must have picked it up from a few patrons.  Perhaps I should start a swear jar.”

 

“Oh no, then I won’t be able to tell any jokes!  Or if I do, I’ll go broke!”  He let out a braying laugh.

 

“That would be a tragedy.”  She kept her tone light but secretly the idea was starting to grow on her. 

 

“Well, now that I’ve completely turned your kitchen upside-down…”  There was a look on his face like he wanted to do something impulsive, like recite poetry.  Or else he wanted to make up for the burn on her hand by asking her out to dinner.

 

“Would you like to give me your lunch order?”  Most people just sent owls, but Russell always came in person.

 

“Uh, yeah, sure.  Two sandwiches—roast beef for Dave, ham for me— and crisps for both of us.  And what sort of desserts do you have?” 

 

“Apple tarts, pumpkin pasties, and chocolate cake.”

 

“I guess we’d better have a couple of slices of that cake, too.  You got the Ministry’s letter?”  He nodded at the letter on the counter.  “You know, I’m on the board of the shop owners guild.  You can bet I’ll be speaking to the mayor about this.”  He puffed up his chest impressively.

 

“I think this is out of Chester’s hands.”

 

“Speaking of hands, let’s have a look at yours.”  He reached for her hand again, even though she protested that she was capable of examining it herself.

 

“Looks fine.”  He turned on the sink and gently washed the paste off.  Rosmerta twitched, feeling that it would be rude to pull her hand away, but she was growing increasingly uncomfortable with Russell’s attentiveness.  He would never try anything inappropriate, but he was so naked in his desires that she felt horrible for constantly refusing him. 

 

“Doesn’t look like there’ll be a scar,” he was saying as he patted her hand dry with a clean dishcloth.  “Good thing.  Wouldn’t want anything to happen to such pretty hands.”  That strangled quality had come back to his voice.

 

“Oh!  I hear knocking.  Excuse me, please.”  She pulled away from him and hurried across the tavern to let in the first of the patrons and get them drinks and menus before returning to the kitchen where Russell was still waiting.  She assembled the lunch as quickly as she could and said good-bye to Russell while assuring him that her hand was fine and he didn’t need to come by later to check on her.  It was only after the lunch shift that she remembered to post the letter from the Ministry.  It didn’t really matter.  Hardly anyone showed up for dinner that night.

 

***

 

November crawled to an end and the early December sky was slate gray.  The air smelled like clothes drying on a line.  I wonder if it’s going to snow? Rosmerta thought as she went back inside after putting food in her fairyhouse in her garden.  The time before the first snowfall was always so depressing.  The trees clawed at the sky with their bony fingers and the entire world looked washed out, leeched of color. 

 

She finished getting ready, gathered her pouch and gave Queenie one last pat on the head.  She had wormed out of the past few Saturday morning Patronus lessons at the Lair, explaining that her workload during the lunch shift had doubled to make up for the lack of business during the dinner shift. 

 

She mounted her broom and set off.  This was the only regular flying she was able to do lately.  Thanks to the Dementor patrols, she had taken to Apparating home every night, which gave her a headache.  Yet another reason for her to hate them. 

 

Dervish and Banges came into view and Rosmerta pulled her broom up. She needed more Floo powder for the tavern.  It was a new courtesy she had implemented to help draw customers, free Floo powder for the journey home.  The hearth in the Three Broomsticks wasn’t normally used for Flooing, although she was connected with the outgoing Floo network.  It had helped a little, but she was going to have to start thinking of new ways to lure customers.

 

“Good morning, Russell,” she called, walking through the door.

 

“Well, my day just got better!  How are you doing, beautiful?” 

 

Rosmerta laughed.  “I’m fine, thank you.  Just here for some Floo powder.”  She walked to the shelf it was always kept on, took a bag, and filled it with a generous scoop of the glittery powder.  “Think it’s going to snow?”

 

“Looks that way.”  He weighed the bag on the scale next to the counter.  “How’s business been?”

 

“Horrible.  I’ve been closing up by nine nearly every night.  I miss my regulars,” she added in her flirtiest voice, batting her eyelashes just a little bit.  “The tavern’s duller than a flobberworm without them.”

 

She was surprised to find that it was true; she rather did miss seeing Russell.  Rosmerta had become so accustomed to seeing those familiar faces in her tavern that without them she was…lonely.  Lately her only customers after hours were warlocks and ogres, with the rare villager or Hagrid showing up for a quick pint.  She never would have thought that she’d miss Archie gulping from his tankard, telling rude jokes and testing out some of his new merchandise on his friends.  Or Herb Porter and the rest of the village elders smoking and playing cards, pausing every now and again to debate goblin rights or whether the 1945 Magpies could have beaten the 1888 Cannonballs.  Sure, some of the regular blokes could be a bit obnoxious at times, and yes, she could recite most of their stories by heart, but she’d always had someone to talk to, someone she could tease and laugh with.  With the tavern nearly empty lately, Rosmerta found that she missed the attention normally lavished upon her, like she was a sister surrounded by all her favorite brothers.  She also knew that her regulars kept an eye on her, like any good brother looking out for his little sister, and without them around Rosmerta was struck by how vulnerable she felt being outnumbered by strangers.  Somehow, when the warlocks teased her it just didn’t seem all that funny. 

 

“Well,” Russell cleared his throat.  “We can’t allow a pretty lady like you to be by herself night after night.  Perhaps I’ll stop by tonight.”

 

“That’d be lovely, Russell.  And bring Archie,” she added, just in case he got the wrong impression.  “It’s been weeks since I’ve heard a good hag joke.”  She giggled and hoped Russell would interpret her mixed signals as just her usual featherheaded antics.

 

“I was just talking to Archie the other day, saying how he hoped the next Hogsmeade weekend wasn’t going to be cancelled.  Everyone’s been saying how business has been really slow these past few weeks.  Gordon and Carmella are the only ones turning a tidy profit.  They say they can’t keep the chocolate on the shelves.  Ruby was in here the other day—Martha Puddifoot too—and they were saying that customers haven’t been coming around much, sales’re down.  Maybe with Christmas things’ll improve.  Of course, Dave and I do all right for our selves.  People are always going to be needing the basics.  Even if times are a little lean right now, from all these years at the store I’ve saved up more than enough and I own my own house…”  He looked hopefully at her, although she could already see him mentally preparing himself for the inevitable let down. 

 

“That’s lovely, Russell.  Very sensible.  How much do I owe?”

 

“Ah…one Galleon, seven Sickles.”

 

Rosmerta passed him two gold coins, took her change and her bag, bid Russell a good day and flew off.  Maybe she should have stayed and chatted, but then what?  Would he have taken it as a sign that she was interested?  They had briefly dated years ago when she first came to the village, although to be fair, she hadn’t been aware that they were going out on actual dates.  She thought he was just trying to be friendly to the new girl in town until an awkward kiss goodnight alerted her to the fact that his intentions were more than neighborly. 

 

It might be nice to have some company, though; now that she had her nights to herself, Rosmerta wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself.  It was too late to visit friends but too early to go to sleep.  She had never quite mastered the art of knitting or embroidery and most of the programs on the WWN were kettle bubblers- shows with ridiculous plots where people were always brewing up love potions or poisons when they weren’t spying on their lovers and enemies with Polyjuice Potion and Invisibility Cloaks.  For someone who had been working steadily almost her entire adult life, this sudden idleness was unsettling.  It was as if she was in a perpetual state of trying to remember something that she had forgotten to do.

 

Not ready to face the prospect of another dull evening or a date with Russell, Rosmerta decided to catch up on some reading.  She looped around the block and headed back to the town library.  Unlike most libraries Rosmerta had been in, the Hogsmeade library was a sunny and cheerful place.  The gargoyles actually smiled and Rosemary Porter kept the place spotless and dust free.

 

Aimlessly, Rosmerta strolled along the stacks, occasionally pulling a book off the shelves and flipping through it.  The ones written by Helen de Venus gave off a faint odor of musk or cloying flowers, depending on the title.  Rosmerta picked one up and immediately went into a sneezing fit.  Shoving it back on the shelf, she hurried away from the fumes.  Finally she selected a biography of Elizabeth I, the only witch to rule England, and two Kate Kross mysteries.  Rosmerta took her books up to Rosemary’s desk.  

 

“Well, haven’t seen you in here in a while, Rosmerta.  Oh, this is a good one,” Rosemary pointed at one of the Kate Kross books.  “Have you read V is for Vampire?  It just came out.  Did you know my Pepper was the one who discovered Sue Patterson?”  Rosemary tapped on one of books Rosmerta had brought up, M is for Mummy.  “She was one of the first authors Pepper signed to Obscurus.”

 

“No, I didn’t know that.  And I expect you’ll be seeing me a bit more frequently; now that no one wants to be at the tavern past sunset, I have a lot more time to read at night.”

 

Rosemary nodded, a grim look on her face.  “Seems like most folks around here have a lot more time on their hands lately.  A part of me half expects to read about the latest deaths and disappearances every morning in the Prophet.”  She handed Rosmerta the books.  “Any more news on Black?”

 

“Not since Halloween.”

 

“Think he’s still in the area?” Rosemary had lowered her voice to a whisper.  She glanced around as if she expected to catch Black lurking among the stacks.

 

“I don’t know.  The Dementors have searched the village rather thoroughly,” Rosmerta’s voice was tight and strained.  “If he’s still in the area, I would think they would have caught him by now, wouldn’t you?”

  

“You would think so, but if he managed to escape from Azkaban and break into Hogwarts there’s no telling what he’s capable of.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to rob Gringotts next.”  Rosemary pursed her lips and raised her penciled eyebrows.  “You know, Irma said he was frightfully clever when he was a lad.”

 

“Irma?”

 

“Irma Pince, the Hogwarts librarian.  She’s my cousin.  Says Black was really bright, though all he seemed to use his smarts for was causing trouble.  Looking back on it now, she says the staff should have noticed all his high jinks were really a cry for help.  Of course, she and Argus Flitch are of the same mind that those sorts of cries for help can be solved with a good whipping.”  Rosemary’s face tightened to show that she and her cousin were not of the same mind.

 

“Oh, I had Black and Potter and the rest of their little gang in the tavern plenty of times.  Sure they played a prank or two, but it was always in good fun.  They never caused any more trouble than the Weasley twins or that Tonks girl and her friends.  He always seemed like a mostly cheerful lad to me.”  Rosmerta smiled at Rosemary, but she frowned inwardly.  Were all of Black’s pranks harmless?  There had been a time or two when they had gotten a bit out of hand with some of the Slytherin students, but then again Potter and Black had been Quidditch players and tensions usually ran high whenever there were impending matches.  And there had been an episode when Black was older, sixteen or so, when he had snuck out of school and come by the tavern alone.  They had talked, and Rosmerta had been struck by the profound melancholia that clung to the boy like a second skin.  Even twenty years later she still remembered it.  But then again, what teenage boy didn’t wallow in self-indulgent moodiness at some point?

 

“Oh, don’t get Irma started on the Weasley twins.  She’s trying to get Professor Dumbledore to approve a life-long ban on the library for those two.  I just hope there’s no…struggle when they catch Black like there was with the Muggles.”  Rosemary pressed her lips together and furrowed her brow with worry.

 

“Mmmmm,” Rosmerta replied noncommittally.  No matter what Black had done, she found herself troubled by the idea of him being cornered by the village M.L.E.’s or—she shuddered—by a horde of Dementors. 

 

“Oh, I do have a bit of good news though—Ginger is expecting!”

 

“Is she?  That’s wonderful.  When is she due?”

 

“Early summer.”  Rosemary smiled the proud, slightly gloating smile of grandparents.  “It’s too early to tell yet if it’s a little witch or wizard, but we’re going to have a party for her when she gets closer to her due date, sometime in the spring.  She pretty much has everything she needs from when the twins were born, but it’s important to celebrate life’s little blessings and what greater joy is there than children?”

 

“Can’t think of one,” Rosmerta said lightly.  Rosmerta clasped the books to her chest and gave Rosemary a small nod.  “Well, I have to get to work.  Say hello to Herb for me and send Ginger my congratulations.”

 

She flew slowly down High Street to the tavern, thinking about Rosemary’s news.  What would it be like to be Ginger?  Everything Ginger had in her life—a nice, slightly dull husband, her job teaching at the village school, and two, now three, children—it was enough for her parents.  And it was a full and happy life, the sort of life thousands of people had, but Rosmerta knew that if she had the same life, her mother would dismiss it as common, wasted.  She hadn’t spoken to her mother in ages and Rosmerta knew there was little more she could do to disappoint her, so why did she care so much about what her mother thought?  If Rosmerta wanted Ginger’s life, what was stopping her?  It would be so easy; she already had the unexciting job.  By this time next year she could be married to Russell and possibly have her own little bundle of joy on its way.  Rosmerta tried to envision herself and Russell having children but as soon as she pictured them being intimate together, Russell was gasping out, “Did you hear the one about the pixie and the doxie?” at a crucial moment.  She sighed; no matter how evolved Rosmerta considered herself over her mother’s narrow-mindedness, there was that lingering base snobbery underneath all her enlightenment.

 

A sudden flurry of snowflakes brought Rosmerta out of her ruminations.  The sky had turned a dull silver and a flurry of white fell from above.  An uncanny quiet settled over the village, as if the snow was muffling all sound.  She pulled her broom to a stop, letting it hover in the air, wondering if time had stopped and she was the only person in the world. 

 

Rosmerta closed her eyes and tilted her head back, remembering the feeling of being a new bride caught in a hail of flowers after the ceremony was over.  She and her mother had barely argued over the wedding arrangements, that’s how excited Marie was that her only daughter was getting married.  Except for the flowers, they had quibbled about those.  Marie had insisted on using only magical flowers but Rosmerta had stubbornly held out for roses, white roses.  She had wanted them everywhere—in her bouquet, in her hair, on the tables at the reception.  Nothing in the world approximated the smell of love quite like roses and like all young girls intoxicated by love, she wanted the entire world to feel what she was feeling. 

 

She inhaled deeply, trying to conjure up the memory of that girl and the happiness she felt on that day.  But the air smelled sharp and metallic and the petals that fell against her cheeks melted, cold and wet like tears. 

 

***

 

After the dinner patrons cleared out, Rosmerta found herself alone by seven o’clock.  Not even the warlocks or Russell had come out tonight.  By quarter past eight, she had cleaned up everything, balanced the ledger, written out her grocery orders and had even made all of the desserts for the following day’s menu.  She was just considering whether she ought to close up early and get a start on her library books when there was the sound of knocking. 

 

She opened the door.  “Welcome to the—” she screamed and slammed the door as hard as she could.  She scrambled backwards, banging her legs against tables and chairs, slipping slightly on the freshly washed floor.  Her heart began racing and climbing up her throat until it was in her mouth.  Fumbling for her wand, she pulled it out of her pocket and pointed it at the door.  But what good was a wand against Death?  That’s what was on her threshold.  The tall, hooded specter of Death was hovering there, waiting for her. 

 

If I refuse to let him in, he can’t take my soul.  Wait—I think that’s only for vampires.  I am not going to go with him!  I am not going to die!

 

“Rosmerta!” came a muffled voice on the other side of the door.  “Madam Rosmerta, are you all right?”

 

Death sounded an awful lot like Robert Scorpios.  And if Death were coming for her, then it probably wouldn’t care one way or the other if it had startled her first.

 

“Robert?” 

 

“Yes, it’s us.  Will you let us in please?  The Azkaban guards wish to conduct a search of the premises for Sirius Black.”

 

“You’ve already searched my tavern!  There’s no one here except me thanks to those horrid things!  I don’t want them in here again!  Make them go away!”

 

“I can’t, Rosmerta.  They’re doing another sweep through the village.  If we have to, we’ll come back with a written order.”

 

Rosmerta glared at the door for a minute.  It appeared that she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.   

 

“Fine,” she called.  “But keep those things away from me!  Alohomora!  From her position in the middle of the tavern, Rosmerta pointed her wand at the door and it swung open.  A grim faced Robert Scorpios walked in followed by four of the Dementors.  Harold Eastwood brought up the rear.  The men had their wands ready and were steadily eating piece after piece of chocolate from the pouches slung around their waists.

 

“You may proceed,” Robert told the guards.  The guards inclined their hooded heads ever so slightly and began their search.  Two of the Dementors glided toward her while the other two began checking behind the bar. 

 

Rosmerta shuddered and scrambled away from the table as quickly as she could.  She stood next to the fire, but for some reason it didn’t feel warm at all.  In fact, it felt cold.  She was freezing.  Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself and bowed her head as if an invisible wind had started blowing in the tavern.  Everything was growing quiet, like it was the dead of night.  She didn’t see one of the Dementors draw in its breath, sucking all the warmth and light out of the tavern. 

 

The box fell silent when she entered, ten minutes after the match started.  Her heart was pounding as a sea of black and red parted to allow her, clad in deep green robes trimmed in gold, to pass.  She smiled and greeted Ares’s colleagues as she glided over to her usual seat at the front of the box.  Ares had a very tight smile on his face as he strode over to her.

 

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re wearing?” her husband hissed through clenched teeth, while trying to maintain a smile.  His hand clamped around her wrist, tighter than necessary, but he had stopped handling her gently months ago…

 

He spotted the ring Darren had given her…she felt it scrape over her knuckle as he pulled it off and threw it over the side of the box… 

 

“Take those robes off,” he snapped, pushing her across the threshold of their manor after the match.

 

“Oh, but I think they look good on me.  Green is such a lovely color.  So much prettier than that dreary black, don’t you agree?”

 

Ares grabbed her round the shoulder, slamming her into the wall.  Her head connected with a painful thud.  He was always so quiet when he was angry, she would almost prefer that he yelled.  He didn’t say a word as he moved his hands to her throat.  She clawed at his arms, but he just slammed her head against the wall again and again until she dropped her hands with no other choice than to look him in the eye. 

 

“Are you proud of the fact that you’re acting like a common whore?” he asked in a low voice, speaking every word carefully and precisely.  As he spoke, he applied a warning squeeze that grew in pressure with each word.

 

“You mean like the women you see?”  She tried not to gasp but he was squeezing her even harder and she was starting to choke.  He let her struggle for breath for a moment, sending her a message that he wasn’t joking around, and then he slowly relaxed his grip, shifting his hands so that they were on her shoulders.  She gasped for air as quietly as she could.  The rational part of her mind told her not to irritate him further, but she hadn’t listened to that part of her brain for months.  “At least with my lovers, I don’t have to pretend to enjoy their company—or their affections.”

 

“Listen to me, you little bitch, and listen well: you do not speak to me like that, understand?”  She couldn’t answer because he was again applying pressure to her throat.  “I’m getting very tired of your insolence.”  She glared at him, silent, her fingers inching toward wand.  She pulled it out of her pocket but he snatched her hand and twisted her fingers so viciously that she was afraid he was going to break them.  She cried out as her wand clattered to the floor, the only sound in the room.

 

“Don’t you even think of raising your wand to me.”  He shook her for emphasis, so that his words were punctuated by the sound of her head hitting the wall.  “What (thump) do I have to do (thump) to you (thump) to make you un(thump)der(thump)stand(thump)?”  He let go, but stood over her barely an inch away.  He was only a few inches taller than her in her heels, but right now he seemed huge.  It was all she could do to remain standing, she was having some trouble focusing her eyes. “I asked you a question, Elizabeth.  You had better answer me.”

 

“Go to hell, Ares,” she said, trying to affect a bored tone, but her whole body had turned to ice.  A rough grip or a little shove she was used to, but if she didn’t get out of the way right now she was quite sure he was going to kill her.  She moved to brush past him but quick as a cobra, his hand flew at her.  His entire palm connected with the side of her face with such force that she stumbled in her heels and fell.

 

He loomed over her as she lay sprawled on the floor.  The metallic tang of blood filled her mouth.  Her lip was bleeding but she wasn’t sure if it was because of the slap or because she was biting down so hard on it.  She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of crying.  She kept her head bowed, not daring to make eye contact.  Her head felt like it was going to explode and the marble floor was so cold.  All she wanted to do was lie down and press her forehead and cheek against its coolness.  Maybe if she closed her eyes, everything would be quiet and still and peaceful again. 

 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, Elizabeth.”  His voice was sharp and low; he sounded as if he was weighing what he’d like to do to her against the consequences of actually doing it.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

 

The room was spinning and it felt like her skull was cracking.  Her throat was closing up and she gasped for breath.  The wooden floor of the tavern rose up faster and faster to meet her.  How can the ground be falling up? she wondered at the back of her mind, not really comprehending that thought.  It didn’t matter because everything went black and she collapsed unconscious to the floor.

 

//
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