AN UNBREAKABLE PROMISE
‘Well – I jus’ heard Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much fer
granted an’ maybe he – Snape – didn’ wan’ ter do it any more –‘
Both men were
so intent on their conversation that neither realised they had been
overheard. The encroaching twilight and
the gloom of the Forbidden
Forest concealed Hagrid’s
presence from Snape and Dumbledore, and they did not see him. He took a quiet step back, and then waited
for a chance to retreat undetected. It
was not possible to hear what they were saying, but Hagrid guessed from their
location out of the castle, the whispered exchanges and the way they looked,
that this was secret Order business.
Snape said, “It’s
an insane idea, and I was insane ever to listen to you. I’ve followed your lead for almost seventeen
years; obedient to your wishes, regardless of what they meant for me, but this
is the end. You cannot seriously ask me
“It may not
come to it, as you well know, Severus. But I very much doubt there is a way to escape
the consequences of your Vow with Mrs Malfoy, should you fail to fulfil it—“
never have made it, I realise that now, but at the time, I did not see how else
I might convince that crazy sister of hers of my loyalty. I knew what
the Vow would mean for me; I should have seen a way of avoiding it—“
facing each other, a scant few yards from the edge of the forest. Hagrid noticed a curious tension in both
Severus. It was right to make the Vow.
Nothing less would have convinced Bellatrix. Mad she may be, but she would have gone
straight to her master with the full tale, had you refused or even
delayed. Your present standing with
Voldemort would not long have survived her uttering any suspicions to him. It was the right thing – the only thing – to
do, and now you must do as I ask,
also,” said Dumbledore. He spoke quietly
but with irrevocable finality.
hissed through clenched teeth.
“Yes. What we have planned, what we have worked
for all these years – you must not jeopardise it now. Not when—“
cannot. Do not ask it of me—“
“Severus—“ This time, the old man raised his voice - just enough to
display a certain force. “I do not make
anyone take an Unbreakable Vow. But you made
me a promise. There can be no turning back from this, the very
hardest part of the road we have travelled all these years. When you told me of the Vow, and then I told
you of my plan in case the need should arise, you agreed to it. This might be the only way. There must be no shirking of this test – the
hardest you will ever face. It is hard
for me, too, but I am ready.”
aghast at Dumbledore’s last words. Then
he shrugged and said with bitterness, “Why me, then? I’m not the only Order member! Ah, but wait – I’m the only one who is so
tainted with suspicion that everyone will believe the worst of me. Isn’t that the truth? Always me – I’m always
the outcast, and always alone. I’ve
never been accepted, never, not even after everything I’ve already done. That’s why you asked me, isn’t it? You’d never ask this of those you care about,
the ones you’ve always favoured, Lupin, for instance.” He spat the last words out almost petulantly.
never do what I mean for you to do afterwards. And besides, he has not made the Unbreakable
Vow - unless you fulfil it, it will claim your life! There is no other.” At last
Dumbledore sounded angry.
is. Always, always you ask so much of
me, and I do it, for no reward. I’ve
never had anything I wanted!”
“I gave you
the Defence job…I gave you that post against all my better judgement. I believe the post is cursed, and yet you
still want it. You refused to heed any
of my warnings. So I appointed you. If the signs are right, you will either be
gone from Hogwarts—“ Dumbledore’s voice now clearly
showed his annoyance. “--Or
dead, by the end of this year.”
“Well, if I should
do as you ask, the curse will be self-fulfilling, in my case too – because it
is certain I shall not be able to remain at Hogwarts, afterwards.” He was silent again for a few moments. Then he spoke with sudden acid. “Do you enjoy your little game of chess,
Albus? Moving all of us around the
board, this way and that?”
shuddered slightly. “Is that how you see
me, then, Severus? For it is not
true. It is not true and never has been.
In chess, there is a hierarchy of pieces – there are those whose loss is
a part of the player’s strategy. That is
not so in this struggle… All those in
the Order, and my other charges, the children at this school, are equally dear
to me. I would not lose one. Not even Draco Malfoy. And not you, either… Nor did I wish to lose
Emmeline Vance.” Dumbledore’s voice
dropped almost to a whisper. He sounded
“I was not guilty of that, despite what the
Dark Lord believes. He believes I passed
the information to Yaxley. Because when
Yaxley carried her in – he had stupefied her - before we got in to see the Dark
Lord, I put the swine under Imperius, and he boasted to all present that I had informed him of her
whereabouts. Albus… I saw I could not
save her, whatever I did, and all I would have ended up doing was giving away
my own true loyalty. She died proudly. I can still see the expression in her eyes
when she heard Yaxley say that I had
told him her whereabouts… She looked at me with such contempt, but said
nothing, nothing at all. That was the
worse part of it. She died believing I
betrayed her and the Order. I could not
do or say anything to show her otherwise.
I had to stand and sneer at her, like all the others.” In an eerie echo of the way he must have
looked then, his lip curled unconsciously in a hating sneer. It was an unpleasant sight, even to
“I know you could
not have prevented it. But I do not
easily bear losing a comrade, and I do not think I could bear to see another
child at Hogwarts lost, like poor young Diggory, or another life ruined, as so
many already have been in the service of Voldemort. This is not chess. This is not a game, and if I could find
another way, I would. I have considered
every possibility, but there is no other way than this! I must have you at
Voldemort’s side, his trusted second, when…You know what I have foreseen, one day. If you are there, it may prove the turning of the tide. And it
may be that you shall finally have
the revenge you have sought these sixteen years.”
winced. “Please do not speak of that.
Even you should not dare to
speak of it to me.”
“I do dare.
It is the sole reason you have continued to serve me, and we both know
it. That alone, not loyalty to me, or to
any cause. And I believe it is the
reason you will do as I ask, even in this extremity.”
voice rose louder, and at last Hagrid, still carefully concealed nearby, could
make out his words. “You take everything
for granted; you take far too much
for granted. You told me of your plan,
and assumed without question that I would simply do as you wished, as usual. It never once occurred to you, afterwards,
that maybe I might change my mind and not wish to do it anymore.” His voice was controlled, but did not
entirely mask his agitation. It showed
in his taut stance and the set of his shoulders. His head was slightly bowed, but he then
raised it slightly and his eyes glittered.
said Dumbledore firmly. “And that must
be an end to it – you agreed, and if it comes to it, then you must do as I asked. Now, as to this matter of the necklace and
the poisoned mead—“
“We both know
perfectly well who—“
do. However, we cannot make it
public. Severus, you must be seen to
investigate in your own house – you know
how to do it. There is no way of knowing
who is watching you, and you must also be seen to be negligent and careless in
the investigation, to favour your Slytherins, as usual, if all our other plans
are to work!”
their argument, neither man was aware of the large figure of Hagrid seizing his
opportunity and backing away silently, to vanish among the trees of the Forbidden Forest.
must never doubt your loyalty to him,” Dumbledore continued in a gentler tone. Snape visibly flinched at the name; he could
never get used to Dumbledore’s seemingly careless use of it.
emotion could be heard in Snape’s normally cold and detached voice, and there
was even a touch of pleading in the way he spoke. “You are asking me to do this; so that I can then
slink to the feet of the creature I have despised for almost seventeen years,
and remain there? Do you know what it is you are asking? Do you know all of it?”
“I trust you,
“So does he. That is not an answer to my question, either.” Now his voice took on a sneering tone. “Do you never wonder about my true
loyalties?” he continued smoothly.
“No.” Dumbledore spoke
with great emphasis. “I trust you. I have trusted you since you came to me, and
offered your service to the Order of the Phoenix,
all those years ago. And I have trusted
you entirely and without reserve, since the night of October the thirty-first, almost
seventeen years ago – and you know why I do, too. If you should be where I wish you to be, and when I wish you to be, I believe you
will do what you know to be right, and at last your chains of guilt shall be
broken, together with those chains of obligation to me that you bear
voluntarily. I need to make no
Unbreakable Vow to promise you the atonement you have sought for so long will
There was a
“You shall be
free, Severus. And at last, you might be
flashed strangely in the gathering dusk.
Then he said despairingly: “Free?
I’ve never been free! Always, always either enslavement to him, or some other bond of
duty.” He gave a short and bitter laugh.
“And healed, you say? In the
circumstances, that is impossible. The
only one who could have worked any healing for me is long gone. Stolen from me, twice.”
“She was never
truly yours, Severus, despite your attempt to make it so.”
“You dare to
speak of it?” he snarled. “You once
promised me that you would never remind me.
Do you think I do not daily repent brewing that potion?” He broke off speaking and bowed his head,
once again. After a pause and a silence
that seemed uncomfortably long, he raised it again. “Or the prophecy…”
Severus. You never used the Amortentia potion, I know. And you know how worthless it would have been
in giving you what you truly wanted – which was for her to return your regard,
freely and without compulsion. As to the prophecy, we both know that as soon
as you realised its full import, you came to me…But she is dead. Her son, however--”
“Oh, why don’t
you tell that bloody boy all about it? I
imagine you are longing to!” Snape
started to turn away, as if to return to the castle, but Dumbledore reached out
a hand ready to detain him. On seeing
this move, Snape swung back to face Dumbledore, beginning rage contorting his
spoke slowly as if to reassure a recalcitrant child. “He will never hear any of it from me,
Severus. And you know it. I’ve never breathed a whisper about you and
his mother to anyone else, and never shall.
To my knowledge, no one else knows about any of it. What end would my telling that story possibly
serve? Let us leave that subject; it was
not to discuss the past that I asked you to meet with me. Once again, I repeat my request and ask
whether you will do this thing for me, should the need arise?”
Snape drew in
a deep breath and seemed to calm himself.
Then he spoke again: “Always
chained – life debts, Unbreakable Vows, and what is this now? An unbreakable promise?”
sighed. “Very well, then, you do not have
to do it. I give you a choice, as always. But if the time comes, when the time comes, remember what I have asked of you.”
what? Then I’ll be alone, isolated –
once again. Cut off from everything! Hated; worse than outcast.”
“No. You will not.
You must trust me – as I trust you, for I shall see that you are not entirely
alone. A sign shall be sent to you in
your hour of need. That is my promise to
stretched out his good hand, and gently grasped Snape’s shoulder. “Do your best, Severus. Please.”
He looked incredibly old and tired.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and then he withdrew his hand, turned
away and, as if to completely belie his momentary look of aged exhaustion, walked
away at a brisk pace towards the castle.
Any casual observer might have judged that he was merely taking a late
constitutional before retiring for the night.
Snape did not
make to follow him, but instead stood motionless, head bowed. He knew what was being asked of him, to do
the worst thing of all. And he was
terrified for the first time in all of this.
He could not do it; he would not do it…
If Snape had
been a praying man, he would have spent many of the ensuing nights on his knees,
asking that the cup be taken away from his lips.
But he was
not. He had not prayed since forced to by his dour Muggle father, in the chapel
during his Yorkshire childhood.
“Get down on your knees before the Lord
God and beseech him to take this evil away from you!”
And he had so
prayed, but his magical power had not gone and his father had still hated him,
and so he’d decided not to bother with prayer again.
Instead, he hoped, though he had turned away from
hope, long years earlier. Hope was a
fickle mistress and she’d never had much time for him. Nor had he for her, for that matter.
…at that precise moment, the door to
the ramparts burst open once more and there stood Snape, his wand clutched in
his hand as his black eyes swept the scene, from Dumbledore slumped against the
wall, to the four Death Eaters, including the enraged werewolf, and Malfoy.
He knew this
was the moment Dumbledore had foretold.
The vow, the boy - Malfoy, the promise… This was the time, this was the
In the single moment
after his arrival at the top of the Tower, he understood the exact import of
the scene before him. Firstly, that
Draco could not and never would kill Dumbledore, and his life would be therefore
be forfeit, unless Snape acted. He also knew that the Unbreakable Vow he had
made with Narcissa would claim his own life, if he did not now carry out the
task, to which the Dark Lord had appointed Draco.
He knew very
well who else would be present, too, concealed under that Invisibility Cloak. It had been a very particular detail of Dumbledore’s
design that Potter witnessed it.
Harry must believe that you are all
Voldemort’s creature. He must never
suspect for a moment that you are otherwise.
But he also saw
the most significant thing of all, which was that Dumbledore was already dying,
and indeed far beyond any aid. He saw
clearly, that he would be dead in minutes, and if he were to just die, there
and then, they’d all suffer the wrath of the Dark Lord, because Voldemort did
not want Dumbledore to just die. He wanted him killed and killed at Hogwarts, too, in order to serve as a symbol
of his power and the reach of his force, his inexorable rise, and soon to be decisive
there was nothing else for it – it all came down to what he decided.
There is always a choice. Always.
Very well. This is my choice: I refuse. I shall not do this. Let me be killed, instead.
“Severus…” He heard Dumbledore’s voice, speaking softly.
And he saw and
felt the private imperative in that appeal, which no one else would be able to hear
– to his fellow Death Eaters it would sound like a sad and beaten old man
pleading for his life. Except that it
was not pleading. His heart was beating so
hard, surely the others could hear it?
Not even the certain
knowledge that what he was about to do was merely advancing the inevitable by
about three minutes at most, could keep his suddenly welling anger at bay. In that watershed moment, he actually did hate
Dumbledore. He also hated Draco Malfoy together
with his stupid and greedy mother and father, who had led them all to this
horror, but above all, he hated himself.
Most of all he
The only man who
had ever totally trusted him, the man who had given him a second chance, when
others would have seen him in Azkaban for life, the man who had been the father
Tobias Snape had never been, and he was supposed to kill him?
contorted into a sneer and a rising tide of self-loathing twisted his features
into a mask of revulsion, which seemed to fit his face all too well. He should be the one killed! He was the one
who needed to be put out of his misery.
How he despised himself! That it should
come to this!
There was iron
deep inside him, which had been tempered in so many harsh trials, and he
reached for it to sustain him now.
Then I grant your wish. I hope it is worth it.
He raised his
wand and pointed it directly at Dumbledore.
He reached for all his hate – that deep well of so many hates, which had
been much of his life’s story - to power the death curse. At that moment, he was the very personification
of hate - hate made flesh. I hate
you, old man, but never as much as I hate myself. His eyes narrowed and he gritted his teeth –
at that moment, he looked almost animal.
Of the madness
that followed, when he and his fellow Death Eaters fled the castle, pursued by
that foolish boy, Potter (who was supposed to stay alive after this, in order to
be Dumbledore’s sword and arm for that undetermined future day - not to get
killed), he remembered little, except his final hellish confrontation with the
boy, whom he suspected was, one way or another, destined to be his own nemesis,
and not merely Voldemort’s.
His hate for
Potter was not feigned, nor was it something created for this night. That had never been an act - not with the boy
wearing the face of his worst enemy – James Potter - that man and boy he had
spent nearly a lifetime loathing; the boy who had so taunted him, and the man
who had robbed him of the prize that should rightly have been his. James Potter,
who had once deigned to save his life, with such careless and negligent arrogance. Yet withal,
despite hatred so poisonous it threatened to consume him, he still had to
ensure that this maddening young fool, Potter’s son, did not get himself in the
way of a Death Eater curse. And not allow anyone to realise that he
was still protecting the little
The boy might
have been the son of his bitterest enemy, but he’d had two parents, after all.
Ah, but he still
could not resist stopping to taunt him, which was a mistake and he knew
it. He should have just run and
gone. But when the boy tried to use that
spell, his spell, his own weapon, his Sectumsempra, his special hex-for-enemies – the one he’d devised
against all his tormentors, but Potter and Black most of all – something finally
snapped inside him.
The last of his sanity, perhaps.
He was no longer
Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher of Hogwarts, Head
of Slytherin House, grown man, Order member, even feared Death Eater and
favourite of the Dark Lord. In a hideous
slippage of time, he was back in his schooldays, he was Sniv- no, he was the Half-Blood
Prince – the name he’d taken for himself, his own mother’s affectionate
styling and the shield and talisman he had always used to blot out that hated
and vicious punning nickname, with which they’d
branded him. The Half-Blood Prince, the
name he would always silently breathe to himself whenever he hurt, when they
name-called him, the sad title that gave him the strength to endure the rest –
a title that always seemed to carry with it the promise of some future
Now, he was a boy of seventeen, who
vowed his revenge for the vicious practical joke that almost killed him…
Now a humiliated boy of sixteen,
enduring snickering laughter as he was exposed by his tormentors…
He was an eleven-year-old boy who could
not fly a broomstick in a school for Witchcraft and Wizardry, and who howled in
terror when he fell off. Now he could
hear the laughter of his classmates, especially the father of this brat in
front of him, who called him – Snivellus - for the first time, to the raucous
laughter of his friends.
I am the Half-Blood Prince…I am…I am…
He could have
killed Harry Potter as he lay there – it would have been so easy.
“You dare use
my own spells against me, Potter? It was I who invented them – I, the
Half-Blood Prince! And you’d turn my inventions on me, like your filthy father,
would you? I don’t think so…no!”
Then the brat
twisted the knife, with the same easy expertise as his bloody father.
then,” panted Potter in a voice of sneering contempt. “Kill me like you killed him, you coward-“
rage, shame and fury all swept up, like a floodtide, and the enormity of the night’s horror and the guilt he felt – despite it having
been planned - hit him in a wave.
“DON’T CALL ME
A COWARD!” he actually screamed, the
sound torn out of his guts, as if he were under Cruciatus. Everything that had happened rolled over him,
the killing; the dreadful bind to which his life had brought him. And it was all the fault of this young fool in front of him.
little swine? No longer! He just wanted
to destroy him, he wanted to see the son of the person he had hated most in his
life of many hates, ripped apart, cringing before him and howling for
mercy. He was not Harry Potter anymore. He was James Potter, he was Sirius Black…
He was every hate and resentment Snape had ever
harboured made incarnate. He’d kill him,
but he’d hurt him first. He’d make him scream!
He slashed at the air and white fire erupted from his wand-
No, Severus! No!
Dumbledore’s voice spoke clearly inside his head, as if he had been
The air was
suddenly filled with the beating of powerful wings and he looked up in some
terror. When he realised what was about
to attack him, he finally turned and ran for his life.
Like a bloody coward…
in the room given to him in the old Riddle House (tomorrow he’d be found better
quarters, but he would stay here just for the night. The Dark Lord had forbidden him to return to
his home, though those were safety instructions he had actually needed from no
one), he sat stiff and motionless on the old iron bedstead. He would not sleep that night. He was alone in this derelict house, finally
in a solitude for which he was profoundly thankful.
While he gave
his dark master a terse account of what had taken place this night, he was somehow
able to maintain the mask of calm he would now perpetually need in order to be the
triumphant bearer of such a wanted gift to his Lord. Now, alone at last, he was able to set down
the Occlumency shield in his mind, and at leisure to recall the events of the
past few hours.
He could not
bear to relive the killing – not that.
What he saw, played in his mind again and again, was instead the
confrontation with Potter, then that screaming loss of control, and the
murderous impulse he’d felt to kill the brat, there and then.
He had never
been so alone in his life. There was now
no one who could understand, to whom he could speak, and for once, in this life
of so many terrible secrets, it was an unbearable lack.
That was the
worst thing of all. He could take other
accusations, but not that – never that, and he did not know what it would take
to make that word stop echoing in his head in that hated voice.
He knew what
he had done this night had been, in some way, the bravest act of his entire
life, and he could never tell anyone. In
all probability, the truth behind tonight’s terrible events would never be
There were no
curtains at the window. The early dawn
light illuminated him through the window, throwing into sharp relief the harsh
lines on his face, which were deeper than before - etched by the night’s work. A scratch on his cheek from the claw of the
Hippogriff was still oozing slow blood. The window was open, and a slight
breeze had begun to cool him. And he
heard the sound of powerful wings for the second time that night.
At first he
cringed away, thinking that monstrous thing had somehow followed him, at
Potter’s behest perhaps, to finish the job, but as his eyes focused, he
realised his visitor was a very different creature.
Fawkes the Phoenix flew towards the
window, and perched almost delicately on the outer window sill. He held something in his beak and whatever it
was, gleamed in the moonlight. The
magical bird inclined his head slightly, and made it clear, by that simple
gesture, that he wished Snape to approach.
First, though, Fawkes gently dropped what he was holding onto the
sill. It was a plain and unengraved
the fabled Phoenix
with some trepidation, and then slowly outstretched his hand and gently stroked
the magnificent feathers. He felt a soft
wetness on his hand, and as the magical Phoenix
tears soaked into his skin, his utter despair began to abate, and he found new
strength that squared his shoulders, and made him hold his head up higher.
I am the Half-… No, I am Severus Snape
- nothing more, but certainly nothing less. He no longer needed
the false comfort of the other name, it was a childish styling. And perhaps, at last, it was time to put away
raised his head, opened his beak, and began to sing.
never heard Phoenix
song before, and stood transfixed by the haunting sadness and beauty of the
lament. It seemed to wordlessly utter
all his own tormented feelings of grief, shame, guilt and horror, and
miraculously, to place them into a design of meaning and destiny. There was absolution in that pattern,
He had no way
of knowing how long he stood listening to the Phoenix singing its master’s Keen,
but he believed that this gift had come directly from Dumbledore, and that
changed everything. It meant he was no
longer alone. Not really.
You must trust me – as I trust you, for
I shall see that you are not entirely alone.
A sign shall be sent to you in your hour of need. That is my promise to you. Now
he understood that Dumbledore would never break a promise and that he should
trust to all the other things the old man had told him.
Then the bird ceased
singing, and with a flap of his wings, he flew away. Snape looked down at the sill where the
locket still lay. He had forgotten it as
he listened to the song.
He picked it
up, and opened it, wondering if there would be a message, perhaps a note or
some instructions as to what he must now do, or some other token. There was none. There were only two miniature pictures
therein, and though they were not magical portraits, which would move or talk
to him, he was heartened by the sight of their painted faces. Both were familiar to him.
One was Albus
Dumbledore – the miniature picture-Albus bore his old trademark twinkling smile.
The other was of a beautiful woman.
She’d been dead these sixteen years, but for him, there would never be
any forgetting that fiery red hair and those emerald green eyes. She, too, was smiling.
He thought he
knew what this gift betokened. It meant
that he might be forgiven, one day. He
could perhaps be free, after all. Even
healing might be a possibility. Dumbledore had said it might be so. He silently thanked Albus, wherever he had
gone, for the gift of the Phoenix
and of the locket.
to no one, and to everyone, and above all, to himself, that he would be there
when he was needed, and on that day, he would do what he needed to do.
This was a
promise he would not break – an unbreakable promise. Freely given.