The Sidhe must not use wands, Hermione thought to herself. They haven’t tried to take ours. She racked her brains for useful non-verbal spells; most of the ones she knew were hexes and minor curses – spells that would be most likely to anger their captors. She turned her head and looked over at Snape. He was still lying where he’d fallen when the Sidhe’s binding spell had struck.
Concerned, she began wriggling over towards him. His eyes met hers, and he shook his head slightly. She stopped, sighing to herself in frustration. He had to be planning something. As she relaxed, the force binding her arms to her sides loosened. Some quick experimentation taught her that when she tensed up, the force would tighten again.
Hmmm. Wonder if it stretches at all. She relaxed her leg muscles, and then tensed them against the now-loosened bonds. Yes! There’s more slack in them now! In a few minutes, she’d gained enough slack to raise a hand and scratch her nose, which had been itching furiously for some time. She didn’t dare look at Snape; she could feel disapproval radiating from him. A thought struck her. I wonder what would happen if I shape-changed. I could run and fetch help.
A moment later, she stood in Shetland form, the bonds gone completely. Elated, she dashed off, hooves churning through the underbrush. She had a vague notion of the correct direction, and headed that way only to find herself running back into the same clearing. She rolled one terrified eye at Snape and kept moving. When she found herself back in the clearing for the third time, she halted, head and ears down.
“Foolish little girl!” One of the Sidhe appeared in front of her. The hood of his cloak was thrown back, and she got her first good look at their captors. Her overwhelming impression was one of ice; his skin was white as snow, and his expression as cold as the pits of Hell. This close, she could see the pointed tips of his ears poking through the silver fall of his hair. Under the finely arched brows, his eyes were the steely blue of the sky before a thunderstorm. She shuddered and dropped her eyes.
“You thought to escape us, didn’t you?” The Sidhe reached out a pale hand and tapped her muzzle sharply. “How extraordinarily foolish. You don’t care for your human form? We shall fix that!” He gestured swiftly, and she felt a prickle on her skin as some alien magic settled over her. “You with the eyes of a doe, a doe you shall be.” She felt her form shifting in response to his words. “And as for your friend,” the Sidhe paused a moment, staring at her. Then softly, “No, more than a friend I see. Not yet a lover though. How amusing. Him I shall give both hooves and horn.”
Again that quick gesture, and Snape vanished. In his stead was a stag with a fine rack of antlers. Hermione could not help but be reminded of the deer head her father used to have mounted over their fireplace at home. The stag lowered its head and made to charge, only to be brought up short by a jolt of blue-white light.
“Why play with them, Achrion?” Another Sidhe stepped out of the shadows. “They trespass. They should be killed.”
“Peace, Erias. They shall be punished in a fitting manner.”
The second Sidhe inclined his head slightly. “As you will.”
Achrion – Hermione assumed that was his name – turned to face them now. “You are guilty of trespass in our forest.” He softened his voice slightly. “Do you fear me?”
Hermione nodded, backing slowly away from him until she bumped into Snape.
“And you, stag, do you also fear me?”
Snape inclined his head slowly, trying to mask his fear – not fear for himself, but fear of what would happen to his student.
“Hear then, your punishment. I shall release your bonds and let you run free. At some point soon after, I will sound my horn. You shall be the prey for our hunt tonight. Elude us till dawn, and you gain your freedom. Fail, and your lives are forfeit.”
There was a crack like thunder, and Hermione felt some of their magic lift. She threw a look over her shoulder at Snape before glancing back at the Sidhe. They had brought out bows and were stringing them. The one called Erias looked up and met her eyes, “Run, my pretties! Run!”
She bolted. A crashing behind her indicated that Snape – she hoped it was Snape – was following. Some part of her noted that she was much faster in this form than as a Shetland. She came to a fallen log and soared over it, barely thinking about what she was doing. After a few moments of headlong flight, she slowed and stopped.
Snape pulled up beside her. “Hogwarts,” he said gruffly. “We must try to get back to the school.”
“Do you have any idea which way to go?” She was too relieved to hear his voice – it still sounded like him – to wonder how they were able to talk.
“No.” He stamped one cloven hoof. “I think it’s this way.”
“Wait, Severus! We can’t go that way! They’ll be expecting it.”
He shook his head in bemusement. “What did you just call me?”
Oh no! “I’m sorry sir. It’s just … I’m frightened.”
“Understandably.” He looked around at the forest. “We should keep moving. Let us head this direction.” Snape started off at a comfortable walking pace.” She crowded close behind him, taking comfort from his nearness.
A moment later, they heard the horn sound behind them. Snape picked up the pace slightly. “I am attempting to get to the edge of the forest. Once there, we have a better chance of reaching the school.”
“Sir, would the centaurs help us?”
“Possibly, but they would be more likely to hunt us as well – for food, not malice.”
“That’s not much comfort.”
He whuffed, blowing dust out of his nostrils. “If the Sidhe catch us, you must run on and try to escape. I will hold them off as long as I can.”
“With all due respect, sir, that is unacceptable.”
Snape halted so fast that she ran into him. “May I remind you, Miss Granger, that you are still my student and as such, I am responsible for you?”
“Yes, but I got you into this.” She met his eyes. “Sir, I will not leave you behind.”
“For the love of Merlin, Hermione! Put that Gryffindor foolhardiness aside!” He stopped and clamped his lips together, realizing what he had just said. Then, “We’ve no more time to waste in discussion. Simply obey me in this.”
She shook her head. “No, sir. I never abandoned my friends during the war and I’m not going to start now.”
“Insufferable Gryffindor,” he muttered to himself as he started out again in his chosen direction.
“I heard that!”
“They what?” Duster yowled. When Severus hadn’t returned to his quarters at his accustomed time, the black tomcat had gone looking for him. He’d met Crookshanks looking for HIS pet as well. Then Fawkes had mentioned that Hermione had asked Albus for permission to go into the Forbidden Forest that evening, with Severus as her escort.
The phoenix sniffed. “Albus thought it would be perfectly safe. He said as much to Minerva – that Hermione is more than competent, as is Severus.”
“Fawkes,” Crookshanks began, his claws flexing dangerously, “why did they go into the Forbidden Forest?”
“They were after an ingredient for that research project.”
The two cats exchanged looks. “We need to either scuttle that project permanently, or finish it. One of the two.”
“Let’s discuss it later. Right now we have a more serious problem. Where are our pets?”
“Hopefully they’re just lost,” Duster said. But he knew better. Severus had spent much time in the forest gathering ingredients. He always used a navigation spell.
“Let’s go.” They streaked down the stairs, across the corridors, and through a certain hidden entrance that only they knew. At the edge of the forest, Crookshanks paused. “Look at that!” To the enhanced senses of the Familiars, the forest glowed with a soft blue-white light.
Duster reached out a careful paw and tested the edge of the light. “It’s magic of some sort.”
“The Sidhe. It’s not blocking us.” Crookshanks left the “yet” unspoken.
Duster sniffed at the glow. “I think it’s a ward. They’ll know if we cross it.”
“I don’t care.” Crooks slithered into the forest. “There’s definite magic here, Duster. I think your pet’s navigation spell has been confounded.”
“Damn.” Duster moved through the glow and joined Crookshanks. “I don’t hear or smell them.”
“If we split up, we will cover more territory.”
“Right. I’ll head up the edge and through the centaur glades.”
“I’ll go up to the river and then swing back through the spider caves. Then we can meet at the river and hunt the other side.”
“Let’s go then.” They took off in different directions.
It wasn’t fun any more. For the last hour, they’d been playing an increasingly desperate game of hide and seek with the Sidhe, each time coming that much closer to being caught. Indeed, one of their arrows had split the air an inch from Severus’ shoulder. No banter now; all their breath was reserved for flight.
Snape risked a glance behind them. Hermione – no, dammit, Miss Granger – was flagging badly. She needed to rest. He halted.
“Why… you… stopping?” she panted.
He shook his head. “You can’t run any further right now. Just catch your breath. I think we’re well ahead of them.”
He was going to say more, but a sharp pain flared in his side extinguishing his words. He looked down to see the shaft of an arrow protruding from his ribs. Even the pain from prolonged bouts of the Cruciatus Curse paled in comparison. Groaning, he sank to the ground. Through the blood roaring in his ears, he heard Hermione scream. Then a wave of blessed darkness rolled over him bringing surcease from pain and consciousness.
Hermione looked around wildly, expecting to be shot herself at any moment. But she couldn’t, wouldn’t leave Severus for those monsters to torment further. There! One of the Sidhe, she thought it was Erias, stepped out of the underbrush, his bow at his side.
Slowly, mockingly, he raised it, his right hand reaching over his shoulder to pluck an arrow from the quiver on his back. Hermione had just made up her mind to charge, when the call of a hunting horn sounded all around them. As she watched, the Sidhe faded into nothingness while the first rays of dawn brightened the clearing they were in.
A few seconds later, Hermione was annoyed to discover that the Sidhe had lied. Here it was daylight, and she was still trapped in her doe form. Swearing to herself, she looked at her teacher again where he sprawled on the ground. He was still breathing; she could see his ribs rising and falling. But that arrow… it had to come out. Cursing her lack of hands, she knelt next to him and attempted to grip it with her teeth.
“Gently, child. Let us do that.”
Hermione yelped and scrambled to her feet. There were three dark-haired women standing nearby. She could’ve sworn there was no one else around a moment earlier. “Who – what – are you? How can you understand me?”
“Questions later, child. Do you wish our aid?”
“Oh yes! Can you help him?”
“We can and will.” The one who’d spoken knelt down beside Snape’s form, and touched the arrow gently. “A barbed head, meant to do as much damage as possible when pulled out.”
“They do not reckon on the use of magic,” said another. She ran a hand down Snape’s side. “No real damage, but he’s bleeding inside.”
The three joined hands and chanted in a language Hermione didn’t know. A gold light enveloped Snape for a moment, and she saw the arrow working its way back out, exactly along the path it had traversed. In a few moments, it dropped to the ground and the light faded.
“Thank you,” Hermione said. “I know that doesn’t sound like much.”
“You know courtesy, child. That speaks well of you and your friend. Come, there is a well nearby. You must be thirsty.”
Now that the danger had passed, Hermione had to admit that she was both parched and ravenous. She followed the woman across the clearing, and behind a small lean-to. The promised well was there, and the woman drew her a bucket of clear, cold water. “Drink and rest here, child. Your friend should regain his senses soon.”
“How can you understand me?”
“It is our nature, child. We speak the languages of all living things. Now, rest. There will be time for questions later.”
Snape slowly became aware of his surroundings again. It wasn’t the sharp shift into consciousness that normal waking brought. Instead, it was a gradual drifting, as if the world slowly grew brighter and more solid around him. A most unusual sensation.
Snape’s internal clock told him it was well past morning. That meant he at least had survived the Sidhe. His side was sore, but not with the sharp pain of an unhealed gash, more like a pulled muscle. He shied away from speculating on Miss Granger’s fate. With a grunt, he opened his eyes and attempted to sit up, only to find that he was still wearing the form of a stag.
He wasn’t really shocked, but he was thoroughly annoyed and looked around for a convenient target for his temper. He was in a largish clearing in the middle of a woods. The Forbidden Forest, he assumed. There was a small lean-to on the far side of the clearing, with an equally small garden next to it. As he rose, the door of the lean-to opened and three women came out.
“Who are you?” he asked, knowing they wouldn’t understand him in his stag form. To his surprise they approached him. All were about his age if he was any judge, all dark-haired. None of the three were classically beautiful, but all three faces showed character.
The one on the left spoke:
“We are Keepers of the Art,
Freeing lovers bound apart,
Always mending what we may,
Healing, helping, day by day.”
Without missing a beat, the one in the middle continued:
“We are Guardians of the Light,
Bastions against the Night,
Bound to war against the Dark,
Bringing Light to Shadow’s Mark.”
The third picked up the chant:
“We are Wardens of the Green,
Fairest that the world has seen,
Healing ills that Shadows bring,
Healing all who yearn for Spring.”
I hate women who speak in riddles! Snape thought to himself. “What do you want of me? And do you know where Miss Granger is?”
The first laughed. “I assure you that we mean you no ill, nor your friend. She is resting.”
“You both had a strenuous night,” the second chimed in. “and you were quite fortunate to have run in this direction.”
“It was more than fortune,” the third finished. “The Sidhe drove you this way purposefully.”
“But for what purpose? And can you lift this enchantment on me?” Snape was not sure exactly what these women were, but he did not feel particularly threatened by them. “And might I know your names that I might properly thank you for your kindness?”
The three exchanged an unreadable look between themselves. Then the second said, “We have no names as such. However, you may refer to us as Oak, Ash, and Thorn.”
“You are Fae,” Severus said slowly. His mind dredged up what he knew of these cousins of the Sidhe who lived in Forests and were rarely seen by man. “My gratitude for my life.”
Thorn inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Aye, Fae we are. We are charged to keep the green woods here free from evil’s taint.”
“The Sidhe are not evil,” Oak said, forestalling his next comment. “They have their own laws and customs which are different from yours, and they find you as evil as you think them.”
A doe came around the corner of the building just then, carefully not treading on the garden. Snape had no trouble recognizing Miss Granger. He took a certain perverse comfort in the fact that she was evidently still trapped in her current form also.
“Thank you for rescuing us,” she said to the three Fae. “I – when he got shot, I didn’t know what to do.”
“We dislike seeing blood spilled heedlessly,” Ash said. “Too, one of our friends spoke well of you both. We would have interfered, had dawn not come when it did.”
“You should not linger overlong in the Forest though. Our protections here are limited, and the Sidhe gain strength with the rising of the moon.”
“What about this shape-change they forced on us?” Hermione asked. “Can you lift it?”
“Tis not an ordinary curse,” Thorn said. “It may only be broken when its conditions are met.”
“What conditions?” Snape barely beat Hermione to the question.
“Some say,” Oak put in, “that telling one of how such a spell may be broken interferes with the breaking.”
“I’m willing to take the chance,” Hermione said quickly. Snape nodded his agreement also.
“As you will.” The Fae joined hands and chanted:
“Stag and doe, man and maid,
On them is the magic laid
Until what neither dares to say
Is spoke aloud by light of day.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hermione asked.
“That is all the aid we may provide,” Oak said. “Return to where mortals hold sway before sunset, lest the Sidhe seek you out again.” With that, they faded away, leaving behind a sprinkling of laughing sunlight.
“I despise riddles,” Snape growled, as well as a stag could growl. He shook himself from head to foot. “We should, however, return to Hogwarts posthaste. This way, I believe.”
Hermione fell in behind him again. “That’s almost as bad as Trelaw – I mean Professor Trelawney’s prophecies.”
“That’s right, you and she had something of a falling out.” He exhaled in a long breath. “What do you think they meant by this riddle?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t been entirely truthful with you. I… I broke into your supply cabinet in my second year and…”
“…stole the ingredients for Polyjuice. Yes, I know. I had the brewing of all those potions that Madame Pomfrey gave you to undo your … accident.”
“And I set your robes on fire in my first year.”
“That was you? I rather thought one of the Weasleys was responsible. Any other confessions?”
“Umm – don’t you have any to make, sir?”
He shook his head. “Miss Granger, I have nearly forty years of life experience that I have not told you about.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said boldly. “Whatever it is that we haven’t acknowledged has got to be in the last seven years. That puts us on an even footing.”
“Igaveyourhousetenpointsforsolvingmylogicproblemduringyourfirstyear,” he muttered.
“Really? Ten points?”
“Really. It took me four months to create that puzzle, and you solved it in less than ten minutes. I was quite impressed.” He sighed. “I doubt the Sidhe would hinge our fates on trivia, so I shall up the ante. I gave Cornelius Fudge the evidence he needed to put Percival Weasley in Azkaban.”
She would’ve gaped. “You! What evidence was that?”
“His diary and a Pensieve memory. He wasn’t as bad as most of the Death Eaters, but he embezzled a large quantity of gold from the Ministry which found its way into Voldemort’s coffers.”
“I didn’t know. I thought Fudge was keeping him in prison as a bargaining chip with Mr Weasley.”
“I daresay many people believe that. However, my confession does not appear to have solved our problem.” He stamped one hoof to emphasize his point.
“I guess not.” She flipped her tail back and forth, thinking. “I… did something you’re not going to like.”
“I like the alternatives less,” he pointed out.
Hermione took a long breath. “BeforeYuleItriedourAnimagusPotiononmyself.”
“And it didn’t work. It wasn’t until Professor McGonagall tried it that I realized that you must consume it in Animagus form.”
He would’ve laughed at the contrition and embarrassment in her voice had the situation been any less serious. Instead he looked down at his hooves and swore silently. “Miss Granger, we are constrained here. I will not take points from Gryffindor for anything you have said. In return, I expect that anything I say will be held in confidence.”
“I… I can’t think of anything else I haven’t told you.”
“Hmph.” He considered. “There must be something.”
“We don’t have much in common,” she said, thinking aloud. “You’re older – you have a whole different set of interests.” It’s silly to even mention it – how could you possibly care for me?
“Other than academia, I’d have to agree.” And that is exactly why I will not speak of coming to care for you. You would never return my feelings.
They plodded on through the Forbidden Forest, each lost in their own thoughts. Twice Snape opened his mouth as if to speak. Twice, he shut it again without saying anything. As they neared the school, Hermione finally broke the heavy silence. “I – there is one other thing I haven’t told you. Or anyone.”