Erosion: being worn away, broken down, or gradually destroyed
The bed was lumpy. It was the first thing that Cormac noticed. At first he assumed he was lying on a forest floor, rocks and branches pushing against his back. But when he blinked open his eyes, he saw plaster walls instead of trees, a white-washed ceiling instead of the sky. There was an oil lamp on the table beside his bed that cast flickering shadows through the room. He was aware of thinking that someone needed to trim the wick as his eyelids slid down and he drifted back into blackness.
The next time he opened his eyes, the oil lamp was burning brightly. The room was bright enough that Cormac had to squint. He stared at the blank white wall for few minutes, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He could feel a headache throbbing in his temples. The light wasn't making it any better, but he knew that he had to figure out where he was. He didn't recognize the room and in these times that was not a good sign.
He turned his head very slowly, wincing as the movement put pressure on some kind of wound on his left ear. The pain made his hand instinctively move towards the injury and he gasped. The hurt in his ear was nothing compared to the eye-watering agony in his shoulder. It felt like the bones of his upper arm and shoulder were edged with glass, glass that was now grinding into his flesh.
Cormac squeezed his eyes shut and breathed through his nose until the pain subsided. When he finally felt ready, he re-opened his eyes. The room came into focus through a haze of tears. He could see the oil lamp on the table and a second lamp on a low stool on the far side of the room. They were the only sources of light in the room, but he could see a window in the wall at the foot of the bed. It was high, right up against the ceiling, and small. The glass was milky and there were closely-spaced bars covering it.
The window confirmed his worst suspicions. He was in a cell. It explained why there were no decorations on the stark white walls or rugs on the dark wood floor. It meant that the door just past the bedside table was locked. It meant that the injuries that were making themselves known were probably from an attack, not an accident. It meant that his wand, which wasn't on the bedside table, was not in the room - if it was in one piece at all.
But most importantly, it meant that all the running and hiding he had done, all of his work for the resistance, everything he had done to try to protect his family, it was all for nothing. Instead of rescuing Death Eater prisoners, he had become one.
"Don't you look handsome!" Mary McLaggen's voice rose above the hubbub of the Great Hall. Cormac crossed to the Gryffindor table and found his parents beaming up at him. His mother's hands immediately went to his collar, adjusting his lapels and drape of his fur edged hood. He caught his father's eyes over her graying curls.
"Stop fussing over him, Mary," Iain McLaggen said fondly, putting his hand on his wife's shoulder. "He's a grown man, he can take care of his own appearance."
"He's my baby," she scolded. "I will fuss over him until his hair is as gray as yours."
Cormac ducked his head, hoping no one could hear their ridiculous chatter. It was better than usual, but they were still embarrassing.
"I am so proud of you, son," his mother said, giving his robes one last pat. "Five NEWTS. That is just wonderful, especially with everything that has happened this year."
"Thanks, mum," Cormac helped her to sit on the old wooden bench and sat down beside her. "It's a pretty good showing, I suppose."
"Pretty good? I say it's excellent!" His mum's smile was so bright Cormac had to look away.
"I suppose," he said.
"It's very good, son," his dad said, sitting on his mum's other side. "You'll be able to take your pick of jobs now."
Cormac sighed. He knew what his dad said was true. He'd already had owls from the Department of Magical Games and Sport but he hadn't written back yet. What he'd wanted to do was play Quidditch, not do some Ministry job where he would only see Quaffles through Omnioculars. But with what had happened to him on the Gryffindor team this year, there was not much chance of that.
He had had to keep himself apart from the Quidditch team after the disastrous game where he'd hit Potter and they had lost so badly. There had been a lot of resentment over his playing style. Some people weren't able to take good advice when they heard it, and Potter had made it very clear that he didn't want Cormac around anymore.
"Where do you think you'll go, Cormac?" Iain McLaggen reached across his wife and tapped Cormac's knee, pulling him out of his thoughts.
"You'll come home first, if only for a little while?" his mother asked. "I need to have some time to spoil my boy before you go off and start your new life."
"Of course, Ma."
"That's wonderful, dearie," she said. She reached up to wrap her arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. He leaned in to her embrace, trying to mirror her smile.
He was having a hard time sharing her happiness. Headmaster Dumbledore's funeral had been two days ago and the school had been a dismal place ever since. The younger students had gone home, leaving the seventh years to their packing and preparations. Cormac had waited impatiently for his turn to escape. He wanted to get away from this place he had thought was safe once, even if it meant going out into a world that was looking more dangerous by the day.
An hour ago, Cormac had knelt at the front of the Great Hall so that Professor Flitwick could charm a scarlet-lined hood to drape over his head. He had thought that the leaving ceremony would break the miserable mood that hung over the school like spring fog. But instead, every moment seemed to scream ‘'You're not safe here! We killed him here!' and Cormac found himself watching the clock, wishing it would go faster. Even now, the fifteen minutes until the carriages would arrive felt like too long to wait.
"Well, son, as soon as we get home, we'll owl your Uncle Tiberius. With his connections, you'll be in at the Ministry before you can say alohomora."
"Sounds good, dad."
"Or you could live with us for a while," his dad suggested quietly. "Stay in Elmeric's Corner and take some advanced training by correspondence."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," his mum said, squeezing his shoulders. "Stay close to home. I'll feed you up. And you can visit your Aunt Susan in Glasgow. She hasn't seen you in years."
"I don't know about that, Mary. I don't think this is the time to be crossing into the Muggle world." Iain McLaggen's voice was just above a whisper.
"Nonsense! If I want to visit my sister, I'm going to visit my sister. No one has any right to stop me!"
Cormac grinned for the first time all day. His mum was kind of brilliant sometimes.
"Oh, you Gryffindor types. All fight and no sense," sighed his father.
"Just because you Ravenclaws would rather think and plan and think and plan until we're old and grey…"
"Mary-love, we are old and grey." Cormac's dad laughed. Then his face settled into a more serious expression, "but Cormac isn't, and he has to consider his future. It's not the best time to be reminding people that you come from Muggles."
Cormac couldn't help looking around to see if anyone had heard his father's words. His mother didn't have the same good sense.
"I'm not ashamed of my background," she said, "and I'm not going to let them scare me into abandoning my family."
"Hush, Ma," Cormac said. "I don't think I'm going to have time visit Aunt Celia. I have an offer to start a job at the Ministry as soon as I want. I think I'll take it." Why not? he thought. It wasn't like his Quidditch dreams were going to come true.
"Will you be in Edinburgh, son?"
"No, dad. At the London Ministry." At least the Ministry job would get him to London, where he could make contacts and improve his future. Even better, it would take him away from Scotland and his Muggle relatives.
"I'll owl your Uncle Tiberius, then. I'm sure he'll put you up while you find a flat."
"Thanks, dad." Cormac shrugged free of his mother's arm and stood. "Look, I've got to get my trunks. The carriages will be arriving soon."
The light was dim the next time Cormac opened his eyes. The lamp by his bed had been turned down, and the other lamp was gone. He stretched his legs experimentally and found he could move without much discomfort. The sling binding his left arm was strapped tight against his side, but the pain in his shoulder was much more dull. With a little effort, and a fair bit of swearing, he managed to scoot himself up the bed until he was leaning against the headboard.
He rested against the wall for long moments, panting from the effort it had taken to sit up. Looking to his left, he spotted a metal cup beside the lamp. The sight of it made him realize that his mouth felt like sandpaper. Thirst hit him like a cramp in his throat, and he forced himself to turn in the bed until he could reach the cup.
The water was incredible. Cormac tried not to drink too fast, afraid his stomach would react badly, but the water was sweet and tasted of herbs. Maybe he should have cared that he was being given drugged water while lying in a prison cell, but he was so thirsty. He emptied the cup far too quickly and sat for a few minutes wishing he'd learned more about wandless magic so he could conjure up more liquid.
Drinking the water might have filled one need, but it also sparked another. His bladder made itself known aggressively. He felt a moment of panic - was he going to have to pee in a corner? - and then he noticed a covered pail near the foot of the bed. The relief he felt didn't last long. The end of the bed could have been miles away, the way he felt.
Cormac leaned forward and pushed back the grey wool blankets. His shoulder ached and his breath caught as his ribcage pinched. He tried to move his legs, but realized that it would be easier if he picked up his thighs and shifted them by hand. After what felt like an hour, but was probably about ten minutes, he was seated at the side on the bed and pulling the bucket towards him. But down there on the floor, it was still too far away.
Cursing his captors, his weakness, and his own body, he took a deep breath and pushed. The floor rose up and hit him in the knees hard enough to make his eyes water. He tried to stop his body, but found his free hand slapping on the floor just in time to keep him from landing face first. Panting, he rose up onto his knees and pushed down the loose cotton trousers he wore.
After a very satisfying pee, he sealed the bucket lid back down and pushed it away. Before he could even start to haul himself back into the bed, a wave of dizziness had him back on his hand and knees. He barely had time to pull the blanket down over himself before he lost consciousness.
The broom on the workbench was glowing purple. Not a good sign, Cormac thought. It had definitely been enhanced, but he couldn't pin-point the spell. Which meant hours of painstaking work, teasing away the layers of charms on the bristles and wood until he found the illicit charm. It looked like he'd be ordering in lunch and dinner today.
It was quiet down in the testing workshop. When he had first started at this job, he had hated being stuck down in a nowhere lab doing completely unimportant work. The Department of Magical Games and Sport had hired him to check brooms and other Quidditch equipment for tampering. His top-level NEWTs in Charms and Transfiguration got him the job, but his stubborn determination quickly made him one of the best testers in the department. His co-workers had even started to listen to his ideas about testing procedures.
But two weeks ago, the Minister of Magic had been killed and everything had been turned upside down. The Ministry had changed so fast that he hadn't known what to do. For the first time in his life, he hadn't been sure of where he stood. His Uncle Tiberius had left London right after Minister Scrimgeour's death and had suggested Cormac do the same. But Cormac wasn't the type to run away.
He had stayed in London, stayed in his job, and stayed quiet. Every morning he walked past Undesirable posters and patrols of enforcement wizards. He would nod hello to the security people and try hard not to look at the new statue in the main lobby. He would take the lift down to his workshop and lock himself in. And he would work. Cormac worked harder than he ever had before, put in longer hours, and told himself that he would find a way to make it alright in the end.
A chiming sound caused Cormac to look up from the broom. The entry door had a faint golden aura, indicating that someone had knocked. He frowned. No one came down to his workshop. His supervisor sent memos and his coworkers might seek him out at lunch, but no one just dropped by. Releasing the enchantments on the broom, he let it drop back into its crate. He locked the crate securely before making his way to the door.
He pulled the door open and stopped in surprise.
His mother smiled up at him. "Cormac. I brought you lunch."
She held up a picnic basket. Cormac blinked.
"Are you going to invite me in? Or shall we eat in the corridor?"
"Oh, yeah," Cormac stepped back and waved his mum into the room. "Sorry, Ma. Just wasn't expecting to see you here."
It was more than that. The last time he'd talked to his parents in the floo, his dad had said they were thinking of going on a long visit to Muggle Glasgow. He didn't say it out loud, but Cormac knew that his dad was worried about his Muggle-born wife's safety.
"I know, love." His mum set the basket on his desk and waved her wand. Plates, bottles, and food began to arrange themselves on the desk. "I had to come in to town, so I thought I'd drop by and feed you. Good thing, too. You're looking peaky."
Cormac tried to smile, but it wasn't easy. He knew he looked like shite - he wasn't sleeping much, or paying attention to what he ate - but his mum also looked like she hadn't been sleeping or eating much. It had only been seven weeks since he left home, but she looked years older.
"What's going on, Ma?"
She stopped ladling out beef and lager stew and met his gaze.
"Can't hide anything from you, can I, love?" she said fondly, putting down the ladle and reaching for his hands. "I always wondered if you should have been in Ravenclaw like your dad."
She squeezed his hands. "No, pet, not now. Why don't you sit down and tell me how you're liking this job? I want to hear all about it."
Cormac let her lead him to the desk and serve lunch. They talked about his father's new wireless set and the state of his mum's garden. He told her about his job and how, much to his surprise, he liked it.
"So you're happy here?" his mum asked.
"I suppose," he said, eventually. "I like staying at Uncle Tiberius' place. And I like this job, working with the brooms. Actually, I've been thinking that I might look for an apprenticeship with a broom designer. I have some ideas for better, tamper-proof charms that would also improve stability. My supervisor says they have promise."
"That's wonderful, Cormac." His mum reached across the table and squeezed his hand. "I'm really pleased for you."
She smiled, but her eyes were sad. Cormac couldn't continue pretending this was a normal lunch with his mum.
"Ma, why are you here?" he asked.
She looked down at the desk for a few moments, and then she met his eyes.
"I've been summoned by the Ministry," she said quietly. "Something about registering."
Cormac nodded. He'd overheard conversations in the canteen about a Registration Commission.
"The Ministry said that it was just a formality, but your father and I have been hearing rumours."
"Rumours?" Cormac tried to recall the whispers he had heard. It couldn't be good. These days, things that were discussed in hushed tones were usually unpleasant.
"Well, the only people who are being registered are Muggle-borns."
He suddenly remembered what he had heard. That the commission wasn't about registration at all, but about blood purity. That people who had been summoned by the Registration Commission went down to the courts and never came back. That they were sent back to the Muggle world, or worse. And that anyone who tried to interfere disappeared too. He set down at his plate, suddenly dizzy.
"Where's Da?" he asked, his voice rough.
"At home." She tried to smile. "He hates London. You know that."
"He should be here," Cormac felt his face flushing as his anger rose. "You need someone to stand with you."
"I told him not to come, Cormac. It's better that I do this alone."
"But what if they send you back to the Muggle world?" Or worse, he thought.
His mother stared down at the table and took a deep breath. "Whatever happens, you'll manage, love."
"But it's wrong, Ma," he said, clutching her hands tightly.
"Of course it is, dear. But it's the Ministry. There's nothing I can do about it." She pulled her hands from his and stood. "I came here to see you for two reasons, Cormac. The most important reason was to have lunch with my son." She came around the desk and stroked his hair. "But I need to ask you to do something for me."
"Anything, Ma, you know that."
"Keep an eye on your father for me? I need to know that he will be safe. I need to know that you will be safe. You two will need to be there for each other."
Cormac tried to swallow his fear. He wanted to tell her that she was being ridiculous, that she would be back in Elmeric's Corner for dinner. But he knew that she probably wouldn't be.
"Of course, Ma," he said, closing his eyes tightly when she leaned down and kissed the top of his head.
"That's my bonny boy."
Cormac huffed a laugh. It was a family joke - when he was little, he had hated it when his gran called him bonny, because only girls were bonny. But now it made him smile through his pain.
His mother sniffed, and then stepped away from him. "Well, let me clear up these things. I have to be downstairs in twenty minutes."
Twenty minutes? Cormac stood abruptly.
"Don't bother with the dishes, Ma. I'll take care of it," he took her hands. "Just sit with me for a while. Please."
His mother smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. She let him lead her to a bench, and they sat in silence. After a few minutes, she tugged her hands loose and wrapped her arms around him. Cormac leaned his head on her shoulder and breathed deeply, trying not to cry. His mum rocked him gently, like she had done when he was a child and had woken from a nightmare. It felt like he was suspended in time, until his mum kissed his hair and leaned back.
"Time for me to go, love."
Cormac made himself stand up and walk her to the door. He leaned down and wrapped his arms around his mother. How had he never realized how small she was? How fragile she was? She had always been his fierce, impossible Ma. When had she become this tiny woman?
"I love you, Cormac." She reached up and cupped his face in her hands. He bowed his head, blinking away tears.
"I love you, Ma," he choked on the words.
She stood on tip-toe and kissed his forehead. Cormac forced himself to smile through his tears. She patted his cheek.
"You take care of yourself."
He nodded, unable to speak, and leaned down to kiss her cheek.
"I am so proud to be your mother," she said. Then she turned and walked away.
The weather was absolutely brutal outside the cabin. The winter winds rattled the shutters and snow forced its way in through the cracks in the walls. The single room was dark, barely lit by the flames in the fireplace. Cormac pushed the door closed behind him and made his way to the fire, hoping to warm his shaking hands.
"What is the date?"
Cormac jumped and turned, pulling his wand as he did so. A figure in a dark cloak stepped from the shadows, wand drawn. Its face was hidden by a deep hood, but the voice was female. If he was lucky, this was his contact. If he wasn't… he kept his wand level.
"I said, what is the date?"
Cormac shook himself. Right, the date.
"October," he replied, "October thirty-first, nineteen-eighty-one."
The woman lowered her wand and stepped closer to the fire. She pushed back her hood, revealing a pale face with a raw-looking wound disfiguring the left side.
"They didn't follow you?"
"I apparated four times to get here. Even if they traced me from the explosion in Diagon Alley, they'll have a hard time finding my trail through the busiest public apparition points in Liverpool, Cardiff, and Glasgow. And I flew through the forest to get here from Stokesley."
"You flew through the forest?" she asked, looking at him skeptically. "On what? Brooms don't take well to shrinking spells."
"Mine does," Cormac said proudly. "My own design, my own charms. Want to see?"
The woman shook her head. "No time. Explain why you asked for this meeting."
"My mother was taken to a Death Eater camp six months ago. I think I have a lead on the camp, not far from here. On the moors."
The woman stood in silence for a moment. Cormac swayed and reached out to the wall so he wouldn't embarrass himself by falling at her feet. A hand on his shoulder pushed him down into a chair that hadn't been there moments before.
"Sit down, boy. I'll let the others know where we are and then we'll take a look at those cuts and bruises."
Cormac leaned forward, elbows on knees. He heard the woman summoning her patronus and wondered briefly what it looked like. His own had turned out to be a bird that his father had identified as a red kite. His father had never produced a patronus, unable to come up with the emotion necessary for the spell, but Cormac liked to think that it also would have been a hawk.
His father. He should send a message to Elmeric's Corner, let Da know what he'd discovered. Except that Iain McLaggen would insist on coming to the moors, on storming the camp, and he'd get himself killed. It wouldn't be the first time his father had done something stupid and suicidal. Something had broken inside Da the day that the Death Eaters took his wife away, and Cormac couldn't figure out how to fix it.
Three months ago, Cormac brought his father to London, hoping to distract him from his obsessive hunt. Instead, he had watched in horror as Da stood in the middle of Diagon Alley and threw curses at known Death Eaters. When Cormac had intervened, the wizards had left him with a broken arm for his troubles. His father had been bedridden for weeks after the attack, so Cormac had left his job to take them both back to Scotland. Once Da was well enough to get by on his own, Cormac had taken up the hunt for his mother. It was that or watch his father get killed, he figured. Which was how he found himself in an abandoned cabin on the Yorkshire Moors allowing a complete stranger to heal his wounds.
"I'm Albina, by the way," the witch said as she slid her wand back into its sheath.
"Cormac," he replied. No one used last names any more, he'd noticed. Just like no one wore jewelry or colourful clothing. People healed wounds as quickly as possible to avoid scarring. Everyone was trying to avoid being identifiable.
"I could…" he gestured at her cheek.
"No, you can't," she said sadly, "no one can. It's a curse wound, a partially blocked Unforgivable. I can't even hide it properly - the concealment spell reacts to the curse."
"I'm sorry." Cormac didn't know what else to say. He knew the wound meant she could never go out in public, never risk being seen by a snatcher.
"I'm alive. That's good enough for me. I don't mind staying out of view, although I do miss sitting down for a pint of Rosmerta's lager and the Prophet crossword." She laughed. "It is strange, the simple parts of life that we take for granted."
Cormac nodded. He missed so many things about his life, things he'd never realized were important to him. Flying on a sunny day with no destination in mind, sitting in the pub with a pint and the Quidditch results, chatting with coworkers over a cup of tea on slow days at the Ministry. Eating beef and lager stew with his parents in their cozy home in Elmeric's Corner. Some days, as he chased and was chased, he was certain he'd never do any of these things again. Other days, believing that he would was all that kept him moving forward.
The bed felt less lumpy. Cormac blinked his eyes open and stared up at the ceiling, which had moved further away. He realized that he was lying on the floor where he'd passed out, but that someone had put a pillow under his head and tucked the blankets around him. Odd behaviour for someone who was holding him prisoner. But it was weirdly comforting to know that someone cared enough to take care of him, even if it was some Death Eater.
He thought about the search for his mother that had landed him in this prison. All those months with no word, he had almost given up so many times, had wanted to put his head down and let it all pass over him. But then he'd imagine his mother in a Death Eater camp and know that he couldn't stop searching. Now, in this cell, he wondered if his mother's guards treated her well. If they made sure that she was warm and had a pillow for her head. If she had found a way to survive the months of captivity without giving up hope.
The water cup was still sitting on the bedside table, but it was the plate beside it that caught Cormac's attention. Sitting up as quickly as he could manage, he scooted himself over to the food. It turned out to be scrambled eggs and oatmeal. It was the same kind of food his mum would feed him when he was sick, bland and mushy. If they'd been serving it at the Ministry canteen Cormac would have turned it away, but he was starving, so he gulped it down.
Once the food was gone, he sniffed at the water cup. He could smell the herbs that had knocked him out last time. Determined not to spend another night on the floor, he pulled himself up on the bed before reaching for the cup. His last thought as the drugs pulled him into darkness was ‘I wonder if Ma is in this prison, too.'
Aunt Susan closed the door gently and made her way down the hall to where Cormac was waiting.
"He's asleep. We should go down to the sitting room, though." Her voice was hushed, and he couldn't help notice that she kept glancing over her shoulder at the bedroom door.
Once they were downstairs, his aunt relaxed somewhat. She bustled about, making tea, setting out cookies, and the routine seemed to calm her. As Cormac watched her, he felt an aching pain in his chest. Aunt Susan wore Muggle clothes, and she had dyed her hair an improbable red colour, but as she fussed in the kitchen Cormac caught glimpses of his mother.
It had been seven months since Ma had fed him lunch at the Ministry. Seven months of searching, wishing, and trying to ignore the awful possibilities. Cormac had found his outlet in helping the resistance as best he could. But his father hadn't been able to control his fears, and when Iain McLaggen had collapsed in the street three weeks ago, Cormac had realized that it was time for drastic measures.
"Alright, my lad," aunt Susan began as she settled into the chair opposite his. "You know I'm always here for you and Iain, but whatever is going on here is beyond my ken. I need you to explain."
Cormac took a sip of scalding hot tea and tried to order his thoughts. Before he could reply, though, his aunt spoke again.
"Start with the hard part. Where is Mary? The truth, Cormac."
Cormac felt tears fill his eyes. "I don't know, auntie, I just don't know. I've been looking for her for months and I just..."
His aunt put down her tea and moved to wrap her arms around him. Hating himself for the display of weakness, Cormac closed his eyes and clung to her. For a brief moment, he rested his cheek against her curly hair and let himself pretend that it was his mother, not her sister, who rocked him and murmured nonsense. Then he straightened and pulled himself free.
"Ma was taken to prison in August," he said badly. "Not for a crime or any legal reason, but because there's a war happening in our world and she's on the wrong side of things."
Aunt Susan stared at him for a long moment, shock, fear, and anger chasing across her face.
"My baby sister has been in jail for seven months and you're only telling me now?" Her anger was making her hands shake, so Cormac clasped them in his. "Iain has been making excuses as to why she hasn't written for months now. You've both been lying to me!"
She pulled her hands free and walked out of the room. After a few minutes, Cormac followed her into the kitchen and found her sitting with a tumbler and a bottle of whiskey. He found another tumbler in the cupboards and poured himself a healthy tot.
"I probably shouldn't let you do that," Susan said with a wobbly smile, "being under age and all. But frankly, I don't care about rules today."
They drank in silence. Susan refilled her glass and put the whiskey back in the cabinet. "Alright," she said. "I think I'm ready for the rest."
They stayed in the half-lit kitchen as Cormac explained the war, the registration committee, and his mother's disappearance. Susan sat quietly though his description of the search for his mother, although she suppressed sobs when he told her about what they had found in the Death Eater camp on the moors. He wasn't surprised. The horrors he had seen there still haunted his dreams all these weeks later.
Finally, he told her about his father's decline, how Iain had fought too hard, until he'd had to hide. And how, after that, all the fight had gone out of him, until he could barely take care of himself. Cormac knew that an outspoken critic of the Death Eaters and their Ministry pawns wouldn't be safe in a wizarding hospital. He didn't have the money for a care-giver, and all his time was taken up in the hunt for his mother. He had discussed the situation with other members of the resistance, and their suggestion had been to take Iain to the Muggle world for help.
"So why is it that Iain acts as if he hardly knows me?" Susan asked. "Is it the grief?"
"Actually, auntie, it's more than that. I couldn't make him come here with me." Iain McLaggen had refused to leave out of fear that his wife would come home to an empty house. "I had to cast a spell on his mind to get him to come along."
He had struggled with the idea of wiping his father's mind right up to the day that Iain had left the kettle on the hob until it boiled dry and began to smoke. Cormac had come in to find out what was burning and found his father crumpled on the floor. At that point, Cormac had sent a letter to his aunt. He had also started to research variants of obliviate that could be used to clear the mind for long periods. There was no telling how long the war would go on for, and he couldn't risk his father regaining his memory in a Muggle hospital.
After days of searching, he heard through his resistance contacts that there was a spell for extracting the memories of a specific person from a mind. Apparently Hermione Granger, the irritating know-it-all that he'd fancied back at Hogwarts when life was simple and he had time for crushes on girls, had designed a way of removing herself from her parents' minds. Other Muggle-born members of the resistance had used it to protect their families, either by making their relatives forget about them or making themselves forget their families. Cormac learned the spell and used it to take away all of his father's memories of his wife.
With all knowledge of Mary gone from his mind, Cormac's father became completely helpless. The man that lay tucked in Aunt Susan's guest bed was little more than a shell. Every time he looked at Cormac, confusion would cloud his features, as though he were trying to identify someone in a years-old photograph. Iain had had the same reaction to his sister-in-law, and to every other element of his life that had once involved his wife. Cormac had worried that he had somehow botched the spell and damaged his father's brain, but the others had assured him that this was normal. All that could be done was to move his father to a place where there were no memories that would remind Iain of the gap where Mary had been.
"You used magic to force him here?" The look of horror on his aunt's face shocked him.
"No! No, auntie, I used magic to make him forget Ma for a little while. It's temporary, I promise. It's just, he was going crazy with her missing and I was afraid for him. This way he doesn't hurt anymore. But he's a little forgetful about things related to Ma."
His aunt gave him a piercing look that reminded him of his mother. He tried not to hunch down in his chair like a child being scolded.
"I had to, auntie. It's the only way he'll be safe in a Muggle hospital. And as soon as I find Ma, I'm going come get him and undo the spell." Although he didn't know how yet. If he couldn't figure it out, Granger would help - assuming she wasn't too busy playing side-kick to the Boy Who Lived. But Cormac figured that since so many people had used the spell, she'd have to share the counter-charm at some point. "And then we'll leave the wizarding world and live as Muggles until this war is over."
"How long will that be?"
Cormac wasn't sure if she meant 'how long until you find your mother?' or 'how long until the war is over?' but it didn't matter. The answer was the same either way.
"I don't know, auntie. I just don't know."
When Cormac drifted out of sleep, the room was in near darkness. He also felt chilled, and found himself fighting off shivers. He blinked a few times to see if his eyes would adjust to the darkness, with no success.
The feeling of cold was more easily fixed. He reached his right arm down to where the blanket covered his legs and scrabbled to pull it over his bare chest.
"Ah, ah, ah…" the voice came from the darkness beside his bed. Cormac's entire body jolted with shock at the sound.
"I'm not done yet." The woman continued in a whisper. At least Cormac assumed it was a woman; the voice was low and rough, but didn't sound male. "I've almost finished cleaning that shoulder. Then I'll wrap you up tight, alright?"
He nodded, and then felt foolish when he realized it was too dark for his captor to see him.
"ye… ye…" he choked on the word. He wondered how many days it had been since he'd last spoken.
"Don't talk. Your throat is probably still irritated. I've got more calendula water for you once I'm done here."
The woman laid her hand on Cormac's chest, making him shiver again. Her fingers were cool as they swabbed at his shoulder and fitted a pad against the joint. With efficient movements, she slid his arm back into the sling and tightened the straps. Cormac tried to make out details of her features, but what little light was in the room came from somewhere behind her and cast her face into patches of shadows.
"All done." She patted his uninjured shoulder. "Let's get you some water."
Cormac shook his head and coughed as he tried to speak.
"Water first. Then start with a whisper."
She tipped his head up with one hand, bringing the cup to his lips. After a few sips, Cormac closed his lips, causing water to splash across his cheeks and dribble down his neck, soaking his pillow. The woman tsked quietly and set aside the cup. She used the sleeve of her robe to dry his face and neck, and then slid the pillow from beneath his head, only to flip it around and put it back in such a way that he was no longer lying on a damp spot.
"Alright, then. What did you want to say?"
She was very kind, Cormac thought. Hardly what he would have expected from a Death Eater camp guard.
"Puh… Puh…" He tried. "Eee…"
"You need to pee?" Cormac raised his hand to signal that she was right.
"Alright, then," she said, shifting on the stool. He heard a scraping sound and realized that she had pulled the chamber pot over. "Let's sit you up."
Cormac struggled into a sitting position, already woozy from the drugged water. She helped him to swing his legs over the side of the bed, positioning his feet on either side of the pot. He pushed himself towards the edge, bracing himself for the impact with the floor, when she stopped him with a hand on his thigh.
"Don't. I can't lift you off the floor if you fall."
She helped him slide forward until only his butt was on the mattress. Then she reached down and unlaced his trousers. Cormac felt a brief moment of embarrassment when she had him shift so she could pull his trousers down. Then she picked up the chamber pot and held it between his legs.
He looked down at her, noticing that she had angled her head so that she was politely staring at the wall. As he fumbled with his penis and began to pee, he was aware that he should feel ashamed of his current position, but all he could feel was relief and gratitude for her help.
When he finished, she tidied away the pot and wiped his hands with a damp cloth. Cormac settled back on the bed and accepted the rest of the drugged water, grateful for the sleep it would bring. It was only as he slipped into complete darkness that he realized that there had been something familiar in about his captor's silhouette.
Late April 1997
Dear Aunt Susan,
I hope you are well. I'm sorry I haven't written since before Easter, but we haven't had a quiet moment for weeks. I hope you weren't too worried.
I knew I had to write you today because I have news. I think it's good news, but I don't want to put a hex on it. We have a line on a camp, I can't tell you where in case this letter is found, but it's a good lead. Our cell leader - I told you about her - she's taking out a reconnaissance team in the next few days and she asked me to be part of it. So if I don't write for another few weeks, it's because I'm on this mission. So don't worry.
Please give my love to Da. I know he won't understand, but tell him anyway. I miss him. I miss you, too.
He set down his quill and read over the letter. There wasn't anything in it that would put him or the cell at risk if his owl was intercepted. They had learned to be more careful after an owl circling down to Albina's Muggle brother's house was cursed out of the sky. Fortunately, her brother had been watching for the letter and ran out to pick up the mortally wounded bird. But it had been proof that the Death Eaters were closing in on their cell, that every message was at risk.
Cormac folded the parchment and sealed it with wax and string. He sat, watching the wax cool and harden. There were owls waiting outside his tent, but he didn't feel like leaving the relative sanctuary of his tent. Propping his elbows on the desk, he cradled his head in his hands and breathed in and out slowly.
Bright light flooded across the desk as someone pushed open the tent's flap.
"McLaggen, the medi-witches say you haven't checked in with them." Albina's voice was curt. "You know the rules. Every member of the cell…"
"… has to be cleared by a medi-witch after a mission," Cormac finished for her. "I know. There was a bit of a line-up today. I thought I'd sit down for a bit and then head over to see Phoebe and Claire."
"McLaggen, you're bleeding in at least…" she paused and gave him an intense once-over, "… four places. They would have bumped you up the line."
Cormac shrugged, and then winced. Albina shook her head as she sat on his cot.
"Cormac, a building fell on you." Her voice had softened. "You need to get checked out."
"I'm fine," he insisted. "I just needed some time alone first."
"You're not fine, you've bled all over that letter you just wrote. Do you really want your aunt to see that?" Cormac looked down and noticed drops of blood on the wax, staining the string.
"If I go to the medi-witch, will you get off my back?" he asked, pushing himself up from the table.
"Not only will I get off your back, I'll fill you in on your next mission," she said. It was a blatant bribe, and it made Cormac smile. Albina knew exactly how to motivate him. As he limped out the tent, he heard her say. "Good work, today, by the way." It stopped him in his tracks.
"Good work?" he asked, feeling anger rise in his chest. "Good work? I lost two people out there today. Two good people, Albina! They're dead because I didn't check the wards well enough."
Albina grabbed his arm and began pulling him towards the medical tent. "Mortimer and Flynn died because the Death Eaters set a trap for us." Her voice was fierce. "You did everything according to protocol."
"Well, the protocol," Cormac stressed the word sarcastically, "was obviously not good enough. And who created that flawed protocol? Me. So I killed them."
"Oh, get stuffed, McLaggen!" Albina stopped in her tracks. "You improved our ward and curse checks a hundred-fold. But as perfect as you think you are, even you can't figure out every Death Eater trick.
"And don't think I don't know why you skipped your medical check. But you should know Phoebe isn't hiding from her brother's death. And she doesn't blame you. If she's strong enough to keep doing her job, you had better be man enough to keep doing yours."
Cormac couldn't do anything but hang his head in embarrassment. He knew that Albina didn't intend to be cruel, but her famous bluntness was hard to take at times. He stayed silent as she led him into the medical tent. The two witches there assessed him quickly, healing wounds and putting compresses on his swollen knee. They worked quietly, murmuring questions and spells.
When they were finished, Phoebe wrapped him in a tight hug.
"I heard you stayed with him until he… uh…" she couldn't continue. Cormac patted her back and felt his eyes burn with tears. "I just wanted to say thank you. I'm really glad he wasn't alone."
She squeezed him tightly and then rushed out of the tent. Claire sketched a wave in his direction and then followed her friend.
Cormac wiped a hand across his face and sighed deeply.
"I'm not one to say ‘I told you so' as a rule," Albina began.
Cormac snorted, his melancholy mood broken. "Yes, you are."
"Fine, I am. But that's not what I want to talk about, anyway. We have a mission to plan."
"Right," he agreed. "After you."
As they walked through the camp, she outlined what they had learned from the past several missions. While they had had no viable leads on camps since January, the cell had managed to foil several kidnappings of known anti-Death Eater activists. Albina had also tasked her best trackers to follow snatcher teams, trying to find common meeting points.
Once in the command tent, they added the latest information about the snatchers' trails to their growing map of Death Eater activities. With each report, the pattern had become more clear. By now, even the most skeptical members of the cell agreed that there was a key snatcher base in Scotland, not far from Hogsmeade. It was this base that Albina intended to hit.
She laid out the plan: a dawn attack, with three teams. She would lead the largest cell, which would target the prisoner tents, freeing and apparating away the captives. A second group would go to the tents identified as the command tents and steal as much paperwork and information as they could. Finally, a select group of wizards and witches would be sent into the camp to identify and, if possible, capture the leaders of the snatchers. Cormac would lead this group. They would attack at dawn on the second of May.