Albus called it an air of romance that had permeated Hogwarts for most of the fall term. Snape called it an epidemic of lovesickness. Whatever it was, all the staff had noticed. At their end of term meeting, Argus and Ivy announced their engagement.
“We thought we’d have a quiet wedding at the end of the spring term,” Ivy said, “and take a brief trip to the Continent during the summer. We’ll be back well before the fall term starts.”
“That sounds like fun,” Minerva smiled. “You’ll have to be sure to bring back some pictures. Albus and I will be pottering around here all summer, making ready for the new students.”
The Headmaster nodded. “That’s an excellent lead-in to business.” He looked around. “Where is Hagrid?”
“He said he had an errand to run, and might be late,” Hooch volunteered. “I saw him on my way from the Quidditch Pitch.”
“Let’s get started then.” The Headmaster cleared his throat. “You all know that Durmstrang was destroyed during the war. Beauxbatons cannot accommodate all of the children there. That means we can expect a large influx of students from Europe – I have heard that we will have nearly two hundred new faces in the fall.”
“Two hundred?” Lucius repeated. “That’s…”
“… over twice the number we’re staffed for.” Ivy finished.
“Yes – we’ve been giving some consideration to that. It’s difficult to find qualified instructors, so we’ll be hiring assistants for each major subject to take some of the load.”
“If there are any names in particular that you think should be considered, please let us know by, say, the end of January.”
“None of the classrooms are big enough for such large classes,” Filius mused aloud.
“You wouldn’t hire new staff for only a single year, Albus,” Severus interjected suddenly. “What haven’t you told us yet?”
“In addition to around two hundred first year students, we will be getting a large number of older students as well. Judging from the letters I’ve received, we can expect approximately thirty new students in each year.”
A series of collective jaws dropped around the staff table. Finally Ardis Vector found her voice. “That’s almost another House worth of students, Albus!”
“Yes. One of the things Minerva and I will be doing is enlarging the dormitories and the Common Rooms to accommodate them. The older students will be Sorted after the first years at the Welcoming Feast.”
The staff room door opened and Hagrid came in. “Sorry I’m late, Perfessor Dumbledore, sir. Ran into a bit of a set-to.” He sat down heavily. “In th’ Forest, I was lookin’ fer unicorns – fancied they’d do for a class, right? An’ come to find that there’s a band o’ Sidhe moved in.”
Although the Headmaster had announced that the Forbidden Forest was strictly off limits to all students, Lucius wasn’t sure it would be enough to quash the more adventurous souls. Thus, he rewrote his planned lecture for the first day of the spring term. His first class happened to be the 7th year Gryffindors and Slytherins.
“The Sidhe are an ancient race, hailing from before the days of Merlin. They practice a different type of magic than we do – one we know little about. They are a secretive people, and contact with them is rare.” He crossed his arms over his chest and swept the classroom with a serious look. “Make no mistake; the Sidhe are the most dangerous thing in the Forbidden Forest. Mr. Nott, would you care to speculate why?”
“Err...” Ted Nott shrugged. “Because we don’t know much about them?”
“Ignorance makes them dangerous, yes. But there are other beasts in the forest that we don’t know much about.” He spun around. “Mr. Longbottom, why are the Sidhe the most dangerous thing in the forest?”
Neville gulped audibly. “B-b-because they can think?”
“Correct! Four points to Gryffindor.” Lucius nodded in approval. “Any opponent who can reason is infinitely more dangerous than one who cannot. There are three accounts of contact with the Sidhe in the last two decades. Of these, one was a glimpse from a distance – much like that reported by Professor Hagrid. One of the other cases was a short and relatively civil talk. The last – the wizard who met up with the Sidhe was murdered by them.”
“Murdered?” The gasp came from half a dozen throats at the same time.
“Yes. He had boasted that he was going to force the Sidhe to divulge the secrets of their magic. His body was found at the edge of the Schwartzwald, with a note attached. It contained one word: Justice.” Now Lucius leaned on his desk, with his most earnest expression. “Do not think yourselves safe. Do not think you may wander into their encampments with impunity. They are not bound by human morals.”
That night, the Gryffindor Common Room was packed, with the new tenants of the Forbidden Forest being the primary topic of conversation.
“The Sidhe don’t stay in one place for very long,” Hermione said as she dumped half a dozen books onto a convenient table. “It’s thought that they have some permanent settlements somewhere, but the locations are a big secret.”
“My Gran used to tell me stories about people being kidnapped and taken off to live with them,” Neville contributed. “I thought she was making up something to scare me.”
“It’s happened a few times,” Ginny said from the fireplace. She put down the broom polish she’d been using. “Mum told us that her great grandfather was a prisoner of theirs for nearly fifty years. But she never would tell us any details when we asked. Just that they let him go eventually.”
“That seems to be the pattern,” Hermione replied. “There're only a few books in the entire library that mention them.”
“Other than those in the Restricted Section, of course.” Lavender ran her hands through her hair. “Our class today was all about facts, but there are a lot of legends about the Sidhe, and none of them are nice.” She made a wry face. “You probably haven’t heard most of them, since you weren’t raised wizard.”
“There're stories among Muggles,” Hermione protested.
“Why don’t we swap stories around?” Colin suggested. “I bet each of us knows at least one story about the Sidhe that no one else does.”
“If we’re going to do that,” Ginny said, “let’s do it right. Dennis, come with me and we’ll go raid the kitchen.”
“I didn’t hear that,” Hermione reminded them gently.
“Right!” The two Gryffindors ducked down the tunnel. Behind them, the others settled in for a night of telling “ghost stories”.
“I don’t like this at all,” Swift said. “The Sidhe are dangerous!” The Familiars were back in the abandoned classroom on the fifth floor for their first meeting of the spring term.
“Definitely!” Chang agreed. “We need to put our plans on hold until they leave.”
“Perhaps we can encourage the Sidhe to move on?” Trevor asked.
“How?” Duster flexed his claws. “They have magic we don’t understand. They don’t use Familiars. They are nothing like our pets!”
“Poppy is quite worried,” Topper interjected. “She doesn’t believe she will be able to treat the students if they run afoul of the Sidhe.”
“We need to be vigilant,” Fawkes decided. “Even if our pets are wary of the Sidhe, it will upset them if their friends are less cautious. All of us must watch for wanderers, and alert the adults if necessary.”
As the Familiars dispersed, Crookshanks nudged his partner-in-crime. “Duster, did Sev say anything about the status of that research project?”
“Not much. He wants to review it with Hermione this week.” The black tom cat-grinned. “How did Hermione sleep over the break?”
Crookshanks returned the grin. “Not well at all as you very well know. Now that they’re back together, we can give them more pleasant dreams again.”
Snape’s sleep over the Yule holiday had been fitful and restless; he was almost glad when classes started again. The first day had been filled with the first, second, and third year students – all of whom had apparently forgotten everything they’d learned in the first part of the term. By dinner-time, he’d assigned a total of thirty-eight feet of essays, and handed out ten detentions to be served with Argus Filch. He was quite pleased when he awoke the following morning feeling rested.
And with an appetite for the first time in days. He was one of the first to enter the Great Hall and take his seat at the staff table. A mug of the strong tea he favored appeared at his elbow as he speared exactly three slices of dark pumpernickel that he then coated with a thick layer of Marmite. Half an hour later, he strolled back to his classroom, fortified to face the 7th year Gryffindors and Slytherins.
The older students, having survived nearly seven years of Snape’s uncertain temper, knew better than to come to his class unprepared. Even Longbottom managed to answer the question thrown at him without stammering for five minutes. Pleased in spite of himself, Snape set them to brewing the day’s assignment with a minimum of acerbic commentary. Everything was fine.
He ghosted through the classroom, observing his students without interrupting what they were doing. Miss Brown’s potion was going to be a remarkable failure if he were any judge. Mr Nott appeared to have actually studied the assignment. And Miss Granger… her potion was up to her usual excellent standards. He paused behind her for a moment. “See me after class to arrange a schedule for your research project, Miss Granger.”
“Yes, sir.” Her pulse rate doubled at his closeness; he could see the skin of her throat leaping where the big arteries ran close to the surface, but her voice was perfectly steady and she didn’t miss a beat in the careful stirring of her cauldron.
Snape hadn’t taught teenagers for years without learning what certain physiological reactions meant. He retreated back to his desk to contemplate this new bit of information. Could it be that she was attracted to him? Flattering, if it were true. The dreams he’d had came back to him unbidden. She’s a student, he told himself severely. But she won’t be after this term. No, but she’s still a child! She will be eighteen – an adult by all standards. Yes, but she will have her own path to follow; she won’t want to be tied down to an old man.
Everyone in the room looked up at a knock on the door. Snape stalked over and threw it open. A very abashed Harry Potter stood there holding out a roll of parchment. Hermione paled and gripped the edge of her desk. When Harry didn’t even look her way, she relaxed slightly.
Snape seized the parchment and skimmed it quickly and then once more slowly, a series of expressions flitting over his face. Finally he stood aside. “Very well, Mr Potter. Come in and take your seat. For this one class session, you may partner Mr Longbottom.”
Harry nodded, and slowly walked into the room, continuing to ignore Hermione. He dropped his books next to Neville, and began slicing the toadstools carefully. Neville opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again and continued stirring in silence.
It was the quietest class Snape had ever held. When it was over, the Potions Master gestured for them to bring samples of their work up to his desk for his perusal. As he’d expected, Miss Brown’s potion was neither the proper color nor consistency. He assigned her a five-foot essay and happily docked three points from Gryffindor. Miss Bulstrode’s potion had turned out exceptionally well, and he gave Slytherin two points. Mr Potter and Mr Longbottom’s joint potion was acceptable, and he took it with a sharp nod but said nothing to either young man.
Miss Granger was the last to bring up her potion. It was properly done, just as he’d predicted. He made something of a show of examining it, finally meeting her eyes. “Up to your usual standards. Well done.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He steepled his fingers in front of him. “Sit down, please. I have given the matter of your project some thought over the holidays. Professor McGonagall has agreed to test the potion for us. Once we have shown that it works, we will proceed to the next step.”
“Errm…” Hermione flushed with the memory of her unauthorized sampling of the potion. “What happens if it doesn’t work?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I was under the impression that we had discussed that. There is no reason why it shouldn’t work.”
“Yes, but… shouldn’t we be prepared for all contingencies?”
“Very well. If it does not work, we shall begin again.”
“Now, the next step will be modifying it to allow an Animagus to communicate with animals. This will be somewhat more difficult and time-consuming. I recommend that we meet every evening after dinner in the laboratory. We should also have a discussion with Professor Flitwick about integrating the necessary Charms.”
“Yes, sir. Starting this evening?”
“Of course. Now off with you; you don’t want to be late for your next class.”
Two days later, Hermione arrived at the laboratory to find Snape deep in discussion with Professor McGonagall. The vial of yellowish gelatin that they’d brewed the previous term sat on Snape’s desk in plain view. She flushed and bit her lip. This isn’t going to work, and he’s going to be furious.
“Miss Granger. Good.” Snape’s voice held an undertone of excitement and anticipation. “We’re ready.” He scooped out a small spoonful of the gelatin into a saucer and turned to McGonagall. “Professor?”
Minerva shifted into feline form with her usual blinding speed and approached the saucer. Her ears flattened at the smell, but she gobbled it down and sat back glaring at them with an expression of utmost disdain.
“Perhaps something to drink?” Hermione offered. She filled another saucer with water and put it on Snape’s desk. The black and white tabby nodded gratefully and took a long drink.
“That’s much better, thank you.” The voice was unmistakably Minerva’s, but with a scratchy undertone.
Hermione stared. “It worked!” Why didn’t it work for me? None of the ingredients become more potent with age. Oh! It has to be consumed in Animagus form!
“You’ll have to do something about the taste and smell if you want to market it successfully,” the cat continued. “It tastes slimy and sticky all at the same time, and smells like a sewer.” She shuddered delicately. “And the aftertaste!”
“We appreciate your help, Minerva.” Snape replied. “Perhaps, when we get the next stage completed, we can revisit the cosmetics of the potion.”
The cat shifted back into human form. “Congratulations, Severus. Congratulations, Miss Granger.” She ran her tongue over her teeth. “That is one of the foulest potions I’ve ever tasted. But it definitely works! Please let me know if you need further testing.” She swept out in a flurry of green tartan.
Hermione couldn’t help grinning. A quick look at the Potions Master showed that he was sporting a definite smile also. “Congratulations, sir. You did it.”
“Actually, Miss Granger, the accolades are your due. You did the majority of the research and work. I assume you have given some thought to the next stage?”
“Yes, sir.” She took the saucers over to the sink and began cleaning them. “I’ve been going through the list of Charm enhancing ingredients to determine which one or ones we should work with. My notes are in my bag there.”
“And what are the results of your investigations?” Snape asked.
Hermione set the saucers to dry and fished in her bag for her notes. “Sir, there is only one ingredient I can find that meets all our criteria for this potion. Pooka blood.”
“That might be problematic.” He turned to put the vial of yellow goo back in the cabinet. “Pooka blood is not readily available for research purposes.”
“There’s another option, sir.” She took a deep breath. “Pookas are often found with the Sidhe.”
Snape spun around to face her. “Don’t even think about it, Miss Granger! The Sidhe are not to be trifled with. Did you pay no attention to Professor Malfoy?”
“But it’s not necessarily a given that they’re dangerous. From what I’ve read, they can be bargained with.”
“Let me phrase it this way then. The Headmaster has placed the Forbidden Forest off limits to students. If you disobey him, you will leave yourself open to discipline and possible expulsion from Hogwarts.”
“But if you came with me, I wouldn’t be disobeying.” The words were out of her mouth before she thought about it.
Snape sat down heavily. “And just why do you think I would consent to such a foolhardy scheme?”
In for a penny… “Because you want this potion to work just as much as I do, sir.”
“Yes, it would please me for you to succeed. But not at the cost of my job and your schooling.” He rose. “The Headmaster would not take such a transgression lightly.”
“What if I got permission?”
Snape snorted. “You won’t, but you are more than welcome to try.”
“I’ll go see the Headmaster tomorrow, then.”
“Yes, m’dear?” The Headmaster looked up as the Head of Gryffindor House stormed into his office.
“I have just been informed that you have given Hermione Granger permission to enter the Forbidden Forest!”
“What – oh, yes. Is there a problem with that?”
“Albus! She’s a child!”
“Miss Granger is an accomplished witch, Minerva. Surely you agree with that. And she won’t be going alone. Severus will be going with her.”
“Severus? He agreed to this madness?”
“Miss Granger said that he had. You don’t think she’d, ah, lie do you?”
“Of course not! Albus, I’m surprised that you’d even suggest such a thing!”
“Well then. What are you worried about? Come now, it’s late.” He waltzed her out of the office and down the corridors while their Familiars exchanged smirks behind their backs.
“And how, exactly, did you persuade the Headmaster to sign this?” Snape almost snarled. Almost, because – he admitted privately – he was impressed with her tenacity.
Hermione gave him a smug grin, an expression she had never dared before. “I asked, sir. I told him you had agreed to escort me, and he signed it.”
The Potions Master threw up his hands in exasperation and rose. “Very well. Let us not shilly-shally about. Pookas are most active at night.”
“Yes, sir. I’m ready now.”
“I, however, require a moment.” Snape went to his supply cabinet and withdrew two glass vials. “These will do. Please charm them to be unbreakable, and put whatever other protective spells you think fit.” He began rooting around in the bottom of the cabinet.
She took the vials from him and cast the requisite spells. “May I ask what you’re looking for, sir?”
Snape stood up, a large white box in one hand. “Pooka bait.”
“Pooka bait? I don’t recall reading anything about that.”
“Nor would you.” He tilted the box, showing her the ornate gold lettering.
She stared in disbelief. “Honeydukes chocolate?”
“Of course.” He opened the door and gestured for her to precede him. “It’s a little-known fact that pookas cannot resist chocolate.”
The Forbidden Forest loomed behind Hagrid’s hut, more dark and menacing than it appeared by day. Snape strode into it, ignoring the shadows lurking in the underbrush. Hermione followed him, ignoring the shadows somewhat less successfully. Once past the forest’s edge, the professor halted.
“We cannot use Lumos spells; they are likely to attract the attention of the Sidhe. I do not wish that attention if it is possible to avoid it.”
Hermione looked up at the canopy. “We’re not going to be able to see in here without some source of light.”
“Our eyes will adjust momentarily. Patience is all that is required.”
She grumbled – quietly – but waited. In a minute or two, she found that she was, indeed, able to see well enough to make her way through the forest without tripping over anything. It helped that the path Snape chose resembled a game-trail of some sort. They detoured around a clearing containing a centaur who was busy skygazing, and wound their way deeper and deeper among the trees.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she whispered after fifteen minutes of brisk walking.
“Pookas are affiliated with water more often than not. There is a stream nearby, and I believe that will be the best place to begin searching.”
Hermione tilted her head to one side listening. “I think I hear the sound of water. Straight ahead.”
“Excellent. We are closer than I thought.”
Another minute of walking brought them to the bank of a swift running stream. Snape stopped and looked around. “I believe this will do. Are you ready, Miss Granger?”
“Yes, sir.” She had no idea what she was to be ready for.
Snape opened the Honeydukes box, set it on the grass and stepped a few feet away. “When a pooka appears, we shall speak with it and offer to trade the chocolate for two vials of blood,” he said softly. “Once the transaction is complete, we will return immediately to Hogwarts. If anything goes wrong, Miss Granger, you are to Apparate to the front gates immediately.”
A nicker from the water interrupted her reply, and a horse rose from the stream, its nostrils flared and neck arched. A … purple horse. No, not purple, Hermione realized, as the horse shook the water from its coat. Maroon and deep green and hints of gold meshed together in a regular pattern of squares and bars.
“A plaid pooka?” she whispered to Snape.
“Unusual, certainly,” he replied without taking his eyes from the beast. No, not a beast. There was intelligence in the pooka’s expression. They sensed that it was waiting for them to speak.
“Starlight ward you,” Snape said softly.
“And may the moon guide your sight,” it replied. Its voice was a muted trumpet. “Why come ye into these woods, mortals?”
“We crave a bargain.” Snape explained the trade he had in mind.
“A princely offer, mortal. Half in advance.”
“Agreed.” He transferred half the chocolate to the lid of the box, and took it with him, stepping further away from the rest of it. Hermione backed away with him.
The pooka approached the box, snuffling the air and twitching first one ear and then the other at the forest around them. Satisfied, it began eating. In moments, it was done. “For my part of the bargain, then…”
Snape took out the vials and a small but sharp knife. “I will do this as quickly as I may.”
The pooka nodded and extended one foreleg in his direction. “Approach then, mortal.”
Hermione gulped. Snape was putting himself in awful jeopardy for the sake of her potion. As he knelt to collect the blood, his back and neck were completely exposed to the pooka’s teeth. And he was very close to those sharp hooves. Should it turn vicious, her teacher could be badly hurt. That story Dean told, about how they drag their victims under water, never to be seen again. Oh why did I do this?
Only moments later, though, Snape was standing again and putting the filled vials in his pocket. With a swift nod, he set the remainder of their chocolate on the ground in front of the pooka. “Our thanks for your consideration.”
“You are well-spoken for a mortal,” the pooka replied. “I will remember this. Now I must sleep for a time.” It sank into the stream again on the last words.
“We did it!” Hermione said exultantly. “We actually did it!”
Snape looked very satisfied. “We should return to Hogwarts now. We have pushed our luck as it is. Let us not tempt fate any further.”
They Disapparated, only to reappear exactly where they’d been standing. Hermione looked around nervously. “I didn’t realize you couldn’t Apparate out of the Forbidden Forest.”
“This is new magic,” Snape said. His wand was out, held at the ready. “Come, we will retrace our path. Quickly now!”
They started back toward the school, attempting to mix speed and caution. After a few minutes, Snape halted suddenly. “Something is not right here.” He took a few steps to one side, and snorted in disgust. “My navigation spell has been confounded.”
“Quite right, mortal.” Where the pooka’s voice had been a muted trumpet, this voice was a sibilant, venomous hiss. “You trespass on our lands. Do you think to escape our justice?”
They turned slowly. Half a dozen shadowy figures stood there. One stepped forward and bowed mockingly. “A maid and a man we have here. Come out in the forest for privacy perhaps? Foolish to wander so far from where the mortals hold sway.”
“We mean no harm,” Snape began, only to be cut off by a harsh laugh.
“Your harm is in your very presence. It offends.” The Sidhe made a swift gesture, and Snape and Hermione found themselves bound and gagged. “Wait thus while we decide your punishment.”