August 24th, 2002: Malfoy Manor, East Sussex (late morning)
They struck the road hacking in a cloud of pitch black smoke. They collapsed in the dirt, blonde hair frazzled and grey, batting away the snarling beasts molded by the stinking haze. A blistered fist slashed at the smoke, unzipping the cloud to reveal mother and son, gasping.
Fresh air fought the strangling fog until it finally rushed into their lungs. Tears streaming, they flung the cursed smoke to the four winds. The two lie blinded and shriveled on the ground outside the manor gates.
Overcast morning sun sapped all the color from them besides their scarlet heat-razed skin. They barely stirred, sheet white and ash grey and furious, char lined red.
Eventually, gagging, begging for water, Draco lifted his wand and doused himself with a freezing cold Aguamenti. He cried out at the stream of cold water hitting his tight, stinging face.
“Please,” croaked his mother, waving her wand fruitlessly. He obliged and cast again, more gently, to soak her skin and singed hair.
He winced at her pained keening. His off hand scrabbled in the forming puddles and grasped hers. Black caked under their fingernails, they clasped weak, shaking hands and cursed the pain, the wet ground, each other, even the sky.
“Why—what, what are we—mother! What’re we,” rasped Draco, nearly sobbing.
“P-promise me,” Narcissa croaked, climbing to her knees. Water seeped through to her shins, sending her into wracking shivers. She trembled like a foal, unable to stand.
“Draco, promise me, if anyone asks, especially the Aurors, we know nothing. Do you understand?!”
Her son crumpled again, rocking and pushing his chest. He coughed and gasped, wrecked either by smoke or emotion. She couldn’t tell, and balled his robes in her fist, making him meet her eyes.
“‘We were home all evening.’ Say it!”
Streaked soot scored his face as he forced out, “‘W-we were home all e-evening.’”
“Yes,” she said, letting him go to both sink into exhaustion.
They heard the gates squeal open and the rush of voices overtake them. The small, panicked hands of house elves plucked and gathered their employers. Heedless of the manor wards, the elves cracked them inside, fretting at the heavy infernal stench now haunting the immaculate halls.
August 24th, 2002: Spinner’s End, Cokeworth (four hours left)
Severus shushed the room and sneered, having wasted his breath.
Everyone besides himself had regressed to idiot childhood. Fred visited every tank, lisping excitedly as he bounced from English to Parseltongue. Weasley, snapped awake by the hissing, peppered everyone with queasy questions. Potter woke more fully as the other two carried on, and began tossing progressively louder accusations at Severus’ hunching back.
“Thisss isth blowing my mind!”
“Does that mean You-Know-Who could be...but Fox. How?”
“Snape, you have to have already known! If you knew, why didn’t you say anything! Please!”
Severus hunched over his work. His pen tap tap tapped on the hard desk top. He stared at his hand on the page, and fought for the last few details of his sketch. The wizard turned again to his only reference on domestic ward work, Loughlina Trixibelle’s Hearth of Steel.
Trixibelle tended toward grey magic, weaving Light and Dark Arts into ward patterns he could respect. She supported her snarky, blunt manner with the references to the many beings and deities to inspire human creation. The downside of her work was that it required many wands, her intricate designs demanding collaboration from every magic user in a home.
And so Severus, who as a young professor only read the book for pleasure, blew more dust from the yellowed page as he read.
“To confine Chaos: Wards for a turbulent home.” A moat of smooth scales flowed through runic nodes on an eight-pointed star. It proved a frightening amalgam of evocations. Just seeing it again inspired a sense of unbowed willfulness that reminded him of his company.
Weasley gasped something and Fred, forgetting English entirely in his eagerness, loosed horrid susurrus on the room. Everyone, including the man himself, shuddered, skin crawling. One could feel a hum of power passing over them.
The snakes made an awful racket, sending Potter into more frantic interrogation.
“What’s happening!? This isn’t right!”
Severus’ gaze flicked over to the discolored varnish under the edge of the monograph. Some teen version of him had etched, “never,” into the secondhand desk. He glared at it past his headache. He didn’t remember doing that, but wholeheartedly agreed. Whatever brought him to this new aggravation: never again.
“Potter!,” he barked, banging fists on the desk. “All of you, shut up! I am working!”
In the tiny break of surprised quiet, the song from Fred’s tape player changed. Chattering drums kicked up a crash of dissonant guitars. It was a furious sound—almost relieving in an immediate onset of sonic pain.
Inconvenient to his frustration, Severus found he rather liked it. He snatched up the Walkman, spun, and launched it at the open window.
Fred yelped, diving in its path, and caught it against his chest in a dramatic arc to the floor. Snarling, Severus bent to his work. He nearly left from his skin when the player was dropped in front of him.
“Bloody maniac!,” the yeti snapped, shaking the foam padded headphones at him. “Here, no one’s stoppin’ ya!Focus! Focus!”
Angry and exasperated, the older man made to stand before he was forcibly seated and thumped hard on the back. Something slid over his hung head, and music blared so loudly, he felt his eardrums vibrate. He looked up, and scowled.
But finally, he could concentrate.
August 24th, 2002: Spinner’s End, Cokeworth (three hours left)
Severus worked and reworked the wards. Severus tried all the while to permit his mind to be calmed. With those few minutes of demolishing his hearing, lyrics vomiting rage over the feel of ballpoint on parchment, he finished.
He split his designs on several sheets of paper commandeered from a sketchbook. A page for each of their parts, and Severus with the master. Assessing them from every angle, he sat back, satisfied. It was experimental, imperfect, but mighty.
Eventually, he eased the headphones off of his head. He placed them on the desk beside his book, gathered his papers, and turned to the room. The others were entertaining each other, Fred having made a game of convincing the python to dance, with Weasley as morbid judge. Potter looked on anxiously, leg bouncing, fists tucked under his arms.
They froze when Severus sucked his teeth and stretched.
“Children,” he strained before oozing into a slouch. Severus rubbed one eye swollen with sleeplessness while, with the other hand, pointing at the vacated bed.
“We’re starting,” he grumbled. When he didn’t hear shuffling feet, he glowered. “I’m sure your clown jousting can wait. Sit while I summon the others.”
Potter and Weasley shared one of their conspiratorial glances before returning to the bed. Fred elected to stand, hands in his pockets. Severus handed the three their parts.
Weasley received a short paragraph beneath a sketch of the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. It stood roughly rendered, the artistic focus being on the hoof planted on every point of the star. Her eyes ran quickly over the words, widening with surprise. She met his eyes, baffled.
“I’m helping, too?,” she asked, forehead wrinkling.
Severus rolled his eyes, “I said as much earlier. Don’t think you’ll be here swaddled and safe while the rest of us work.”
The witch rolled her eyes back at him and scoffed. He caught her meaning. Though he’d only known her as an adolescent thorn in his side, even Severus recalled her devotion to team efforts. She was like her brothers in that way, always linked in arms with some struggling soul.
He designed to move on without comment. Potter accepted his paper perfunctorily, mouth formed around another objection. The boy uttered most of a heated, “Why,” before Severus interrupted him.
“Tell me: is English your first language?,” he drawled. It brought Potter up short, and he watched lip curling as the savior struggled to answer.
“One couldn’t tell, from your failure to understand basic instruction. Besides which, you’re predictably mistaken.”
The boy scowled. “I’ve been speaking it my whole life, professor. I think I’d know if it was my first language or not.”
Potter tossed aside his assignment, and started in again gesturing to the tanks. Severus plucked the page from the bedspread, rolled it into a tight scroll, and smacked the brat over the head with it.
“Oi! Listen to me, you git!”
“You listen!,” chastised the older man, posturing as if in lecture. “You’re wasting time—yours and mine—if as soon as I lend you my attention, you ask about the damned snakes. Have you ever considered that English is not your first language, you odious twit? The first you were exposed to, yes, but not the first you were able to speak?”
“Huh?,” said the boy, bemused. Severus sighed and motioned to Fred.
“Sasquatch, I believe your sister speaks Spanish. She used a word of it to calm your mother. Did you all learn English first or second?”
The man mused for a moment and shrugged, leaning on a dresser. “Second, I guess. Nan only spoke Spanish and we lived with her growing up, so yeah, second. Mum’s said she still dreams in both. Hmm, Zeddie, too.”
“And what about you?”
Fred scratched his beard. “Uhh, y’know, I thought it was weird, but I used to talk in my sleep a lot. I thought I dreamed in English only, but half the time it was—shit. I guess it was Parso, um.”
“Parseltongue,” Potter finished, going pale.
Severus nodded, cradling an elbow while he pointed with his work.
“Consider, Potter, that infants begin using rudimentary words sometime within the first year, year and a half. It isn’t unheard of for magical children to begin speaking later, closer to two years, as they first learn to express themselves with incidents of wild magic.”
He went on, “Even the most verbose child, like say a Granger, will not speak until after most Muggle toddlers. Rich pureblood babes are tutored from conception, and still experience a delay.”
Severus looked into Potter’s face. It grew more ashen by the word. “And so, a child age eighteen months receives a language gift in totality, sans years of education and practice. Is subject to the full fluency of an adult speaker housed in a developing mind.
“Do you then think, once the original speaker has gone, that not even a syllable of proficiency should remain?”
He pressed a finger into Potter’s forehead, near abouts the infamous scar. The boy flinched; Severus smirked.
“Your brain molded around the gift, imbecile. You had it for seventeen years. If Parseltongue could be ripped away so easily, then what would be left of your already pitiable mind? Another hole for the wind to whistle through?”
He returned the scroll to Potter’s slack grip. It unfurled to show an identical pattern to the sheet he handed Fred. Fluid coils of the Serpent, Jormungand, encircled a top-down view of Spinner’s End. Severus had translated the runes filling the circle into English with the footnote: “ In Parseltongue.”
Then he ordered the group to memorize, and left down the hall to rouse the others. He didn’t expect his first knock to be answered. The bedroom door swung open for Grace to be framed grimly in her woodsy nightgown. She was shadowed by bright, flickering light and the burning end of her cigarette.
Severus quirked a brow and peered over her head. In the room as cluttered as he’d last seen, the girl Marisleny bullied a handheld game, legs swinging off the edge of the bed. The bright lights flashed on the tiny screen, keeping the child enraptured.
“It’s two in the bloody mornin’,” Grace groused.
“And you’re both up. Good.”
He showed her two pages. One boasted the black ocean, dotted with trees. On the other was the trickster god, Loki, in female form, beside the giantess, Angrboda. Without a father in the house, Severus had to adjust Trixibelle’s roles. He felt some pride at the fascinated gleam in Grace’s eye. He’d drawn the lovers well.
“What’re you gettin’ up to, eh? Up late drawin’ naked ladies?” She brought the drawing to the tip of her nose and chuckled. “Jesus, Severus. This’s good! I’ll stick it on the fridge in the mornin.’”
She tried to return it, but Severus refused. He gave her the second one, indicating it was for the now attentive child. Again, the sketches focused on the most active details: the ocean composed the dark around the house, submerged in which would be the serpent; and the two women, nursing a fire between them, posed stoically over a stove.
“What’s this for,” she asked. Her child went unacknowledged behind her, even as the girl looked up, frowned at Severus, and returned to her game with a harrumph.
“A spell, for protection.”
“This looks like witchcraft, more than the tricks with the door or...” She seemed interested and uneasy. “Is it a curse or somethin’?”
He snorted, shifting his weight. “Well, it should look like what it is. And it’s not a curse on us, only those who seek to do harm. Come, I will explain to everyone together. Bring the child as well.”
A cloud of probing curiosity and residual resentment floated from the bed to by her mother’s hip. Severus glared down at Marisleny, who peeped, “I want to see,” with quiet resolution.
He glanced at Grace, who pushed her back into the room.
“Will this hurt her?,” she inquired, ignoring her daughter’s exasperated, “Mum!”
Severus shook his head. “Her part is minor and well within her abilities. It will take some concentration, but it’s designed for children to do with no ill effects.”
“And this ain’t gonna raise devils or anythin’? It’s safe?”
He didn’t hesitate. “The only potential danger will be to me.”
With this, he guided them to the last bedroom, where even Potter had capitulated and studied his part. Severus left the door ajar after two more filtered inside. He accepted Grace’s wary look with aplomb and journeyed to the basement.
The hinges on the bookcase squeaked as he emerged. He pulled the partially smoked cigarette from behind his ear, sniffed it, and threw it on the floor. It reeked of unwashed hair, and wouldn’t be better than eating.
He picked dandruff from his scalp and padded into the kitchen, taking in the open basement door. His stomach cramping for more real food. He stole a moment to eat.
The empty soup pot soaked in the sink. Severus stares at the oil and herbs floating on the soapy water as he chewed on a slice of white bread from the bag. Easy blues rose like warm air from below. The music faded and a new song started. A lighter flicked; Zinnia cursed. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and called down, “Have you seen anything?”
A heavy pause, and then his half-sister replied with a grunted, “Squirrels, mostly, and sparrows. What d’ya want?”
“You’ll be reading something for me. It will lend to the efforts to secure the house,” he answered. The last paper in hand was a wolf trapped on an island, and one phrase repeating—a call for enemies’ destruction. He listened to Zinnia’s insomniac shifting. It seemed after most of a morning spent sleeping, she’d break night.
“Piss off. I’m already playin’ bloody watchdog. Read it yaself.”
Traces of smoke and the pop of a can of cola. The music resumed louder than before. He considered Fenrir on her lonesome isle and pondering a spell on the safety of distance. Severus dropped the paper and it fluttered on an unnatural breeze across the kitchen, through the sagging doorway, and down the steps.
First a beat, and the radio turned down. “...You can draw?”
He grumbled, suddenly embarrassed. Perhaps he’d gotten carried away with the imagery. “Simply read it when you are called.”
Severus lingered a moment, then, affected by the gelling reality; because it was there, housed in the quiet by the blues: an indomitable urge not only to survive, but to protect. He’d only felt it a few times, and always he bore the burden it hailed alone. In a grand motion played quietly in the dark, his petrified knees bent to purpose, cleaving apart a pedestal built on four years in perforated obscurity. His will to serve shook the cold stone from his body, showering his petty fears in dust.
At first, he suffered pure terror. He thought on Dumbledore, and Voldemort; Lucius, in those early years, and his father. He lost so much time with others’ hands on his head and his nose pressed to their hems, however gently. So when feeling dormant servitude stir, Severus fought not to be humbled.
However, like a word in a spell, like a rune in a ward, like an ingredient in a potion, he could transcend himself in his giving. To be part of a collective, even such a tiny, ragtag one—he found awaiting him a measure of grace, paid with meaning. Now something in him brewed with Zinnia’s tacit awareness, one he sensed as the two let the radio play.
He felt his gasping roots touch soil, and physically leaned over to sigh, suffering the changing wind.
“If you’re just hangin’ about,” Zinnia called up the stairs, “be a lamb and throw us down a sandwich!”
“Fuck you,” Severus laughed, low and broken, his body reforming around the sound, as new and smothered as the first grain of sand to be a pearl.
August 24th, 2002: Spinner’s End, Cokeworth (two hours left)
Harry worried a loose thread in his sleeve, eyes watering from minutes of unbroken eye contact. Green to brown, he refused to look away. He held his breath through the hard rasp of chalk on the splintering boards.
Snape circled Ginny once, twice, more and more, chanting too quietly to be heard. His black hair hung low, brushing the ground as he drew. The rings of the circle came closer and closer to Ginny’s feet. Harry hissed, as the man’s spidery scrawl cut jagged, white runes into the wood.
Each symbol leeched liquid darkness from the shadows wedged in the shelves or under the furniture. Despite the pale chalk, as each circle’s terminus, the runes turned a luminous black.
The whole house save Harry’s older sister had gathered in the living room. They were lit only by conjured purple candles at the eight points of a star. He looked to his mother, who gripped Laney to her side with fierce solemnity. Nobody moved but Harry and Snape—the former now pacing, kicking the rolled up carpet, while the latter finished the last rune, lyrical whispers dropped into silence.
“Read,” the dark wizard instructed Ginny. The witch shifted uncomfortably, spurring on Harry’s unrest.
“Why does she—!,” but Snape cut him off with a vehement, “Shush!,” and nodded at her to continue.
She grimaced, pupils like pennies in the glowing dark. A sheen of sweat coated her forehead as she cleared her throat and began reading.
Harry caught the first words: “Sleipnir, god bringer, mightiest steed.” Suddenly, the flames on every candle doubled in size, wrenching a fearful shout from those gathered. The Hedgerots fell back, even Laney who until then had been riveted. Harry spring forward, ready to pull Ginny from the ring, until the witch held up her hand, and stuttered.
She kept reading, only sharing through a wide-eyed stare that she was fine. The page trembled in her grip and Harry tensed, ready to leap in regardless. However, with a sigh and a last phrase, “trample our foes under hoof,” the roaring of the candle flames ceased.
Wick by snuffed wick, the room went dark. Nobody breathed as the spirit galloped around them, blowing their hair back. It swept up and out of the room, leaving a thudding drumbeat in its wake. The feeling was of many hearts beating in tandem.
Fred, swearing, clicked on the lamp. The amber light made the candles look brown. Harry rushed to Ginny as she stepped gingerly from the circle. They threw arms around each other and he felt the witch loose a shaky sigh.
“I’ve never,” she swallowed, lost for words.
Harry held her face and nearly Apparated them both to London. He didn’t believe Snape that this was ward work. In all their time camping, Hermione never resorted to anything more than wand work and incantations. This was undeniably Dark Arts. How could it protect anybody?
“Next,” Snape mumbled, dabbing away sweat with the wrist from his buttoned sleeve. He turned, eyes hooded, and stalked to the kitchen.
Harry looked around the room for anyone eager to follow. Grace seemed to do the same, head swiveling and landing on Harry with a deep frown. He could almost hear her question of, “Is this normal?”
Harry shook his head and led the way after Snape. The others listed behind.
Can we stop this? He planned to try.
Despite Snape’s “lesson” on evocations and home wards, Harry didn’t understand what was happening. In classic Snape fashion, the man had mostly paid homage to the “poetry” of chaos. He mocked Harry for his ignorance of Norse mythology, despite the boy knowing as much as everyone else. When asked to explain anything—for instance, what the symbols’ actually meant— Snape only offered snide remarks.
“Serves you right for dodging real education like the plague. Simply follow instructions, Potter.”
Then the man started in about sidewalk chalk and candles. Any helpful advice on raising ancient, violent, and deceptive gods came so buried in derision that Harry could only grieve its passing.
So, of course, he didn’t trust the whole affair. Far from it—his only thought now was of ending this ritual, even if he’d incur some evil wrath.
Harry squawked as he tripped over his little sister in the doorway. His glasses were knocked off his nose and clattered on the lino. The young wizard grunted an apology, squinting at the fuzzy girl-shaped blob in the hallway. The shape in pink pyjamas backed away from him, back toward the lights.
“What’s wrong,” he mumbled. He held out his palm. Some movement—she seemed to shake her head.
“Don’t worry,” he coaxed, shuffling forward and wincing as his big toe hit a lens. He heard his glasses skitter off across the tiles. “Dammit. No, I won’t let him hurt you.”
“Lower thy sword, oh valiant savior,” ridiculed Snape, the “him” in question. “She has an aversion to the kitchen, not my person. Would that she could mind me with such steadfast terror. Perhaps then I might know some peace.”
Harry rolled his eyes, and then felt the air shift. Snape rounded the room, falling eerily silent, pacing catlike and near soundlessly like he’d done at school. He had expected the man to insult him again, or mutter something precious about his ineptitude. Instead, there was only drilling nothing, not the busy quiet of like when he’d been at work at his desk. This was an absence of noise, almost like Snape had stopped breathing, as his mind left the room.
After a beat, something skated Harry’s way. With difficulty seeing in the dark, blurry kitchen, he kneeled to rescue his glasses while trying to track the thin shade passing in front of the closed cabinets. Hinges squeaked when Harry’s fingers finally brushed his wayward frames. Just then a melody Harry hadn’t noticed before announced its untimely end.
Snape’s baritone rumbled, “Zinnia, begin reading.”
A faint, “Huh,” and soon Zed’s rasp wrapped around,”Fenri...sulfur—what?—bound in chains,” before Snape stopped her, telling her to be serious.
“I dunno what it is you’ve given me, ya prick! I don’t read whatever this is!”
There was an angry clack of slapped plastic, and the radio he now couldn’t miss resumed, accompanied by the alkaline stench of burnt tobacco.
Maybe I won’t have to do anything, he thought, smirking some. If the one person just didn’t cooperate, they’d probably need a new plan.
Harry pushed his glasses on in time to hear the complaints of old wood and see Snape sink into the basement. The man turned, glowering, into the bulb lit room as he stomped down the stairs, such that the wash of halogen pulled out the yellow in his skin. Snape had a fiendish gleam in his eye, like a man possessed.
There was a harsh bark of laughter, and Snape’s head disappeared, ghoulish looks and all.
Harry broke from dread enough to feel worried for Snape—Christ, he looked ill—and sorry for himself for caring. He hated that even as he made to pursue and demand they end the casting, that he was glad for Ginny holding him back.
I’m not afraid of him, Harry insisted to himself, and he wasn’t. He simply didn’t know what to feel, besides lost in this new, alien night. He didn’t want to confront Snape, or rather, he didn’t want to have to. It took the snarky git going funny for Harry realize: rude, looming know-it-all had its charm, compared to this.
He looked at Ginny and shivered, meeting a strange glimmer in her eye a fraction the shine of Snape’s. It made her look changed and creepy.
“I’ve gotta end this,” Harry whispered, rubbing her hand in the crook of his arm. “This is mad!”
“It’s…,” his girlfriend muttered, breath stuttering. He’d never seen her struggle to string together a sentence.
She held on when he jerked away toward slowly ascending footsteps. Clearing her throat, she stammered, “I-it’s not—Harry, don’t. Don’t make me defend Snape out loud. I think he’s really, he’s...whatever it is, it’s protecting this house. I can feel it.”
Harry wormed his arm free, shaking his head. “He’s having us summon god-knows-what! Hermione never resorted to Dark magic to keep anyone safe! Even you—!”
“He’s not Hermione. Look, just wait for your part, it’s...,” she trailed off, given the basement door respectful distance as Snape’s dark head led from the entrance. He hung over all of them despite at least Freddy towering above him.
“Keep—,” the man started, but then bestial bass beat on the house. A song more like screaming ambushed his words.
It was like Freddy’s music, wailing and dissonant, only not springing from a tiny, headphone speaker. It devoured the quiet, amplified more than the output of any regular Muggle radio Harry had ever heard before. This was as if Snape had summoned a concert speaker directly underfoot. From upstairs, they could hear electronic bits buzz and rattle in their casings from the sheer force of sound.
A long, terrible howl overtook them. With a barely audible shout, Laney ran past him and sped out of a back door, hands clamped over her ears. He saw her slight form bound into the woods, scared as a baby deer.
He looked to their mother, mouth falling open to shout, “I’ll get her!” Except Grace had Snape by the neck, knocking over pans and plates and unlit candles in their struggle.
“I said no devils!,” she yelled, haywire curls flying in her face.
Snape smacked at her forearms, and Harry stood dizzy and torn. Help Grace? Go after Laney? His hand summoned his broom, which he mounted, head spinning. What was he doing? What was happening!?
Snape finally leveraged his height and pried Grace off of him. His breaking free of her made the the woman gasp and spin to the knife block, chest heaving.
“Get outta here!” Grace pulled out a skinning knife and slashed at Snape, who didn’t flinch, having himself entered a muttering trance. “GO!”
Harry was pushed out of the way of Freddy’s one-man stampede. In seconds, Snape was trapped between the larger man’s arm lock and the point of Grace’s blade. The dark wizard didn’t even notice. His head had fallen back on Freddy’s chest, a fierce expression cut across his face, thin lips a blur sporting snatches of craggy teeth as he spiraled into recitations.
“...above the dead...rule the crimes of your siblings...unrelenting...icy and resolute…”
Even Ginny hung about growing grey at how the man held perfectly still, spindly and crooked. She recoiled when Snape began to keel over, as the screaming music crashed into a new level of fury.
“Mine wasn’t...like this,” she said, mounting Harry’s broom behind him and wrapping around his waist. “He’s channeling something else.”
“He’s absolutely insane.” Harry felt sick to see it. He felt poisoned. He heeded his mother’s slashing and pointing, and flew them out the back door, up and over the woods.
“We’ve got to find Laney,” Harry explained a minute or two into flight. Ginny nodded that she understood, resting her head on his back.
They leveled out a hundred or so feet above the canopy. The pair glided over the patchy forest, glad for the near full moon illuminating the glimpses of forest floor. He scanned the ground for a flash of Laney’s pink pyjamas and came up with nothing. He’d assumed she would run in a straight line and said as much, for Ginny to suggest they circle.
“I think I saw something,” she mumbled, directing him lower. “Maybe it’s clothes...it’s hard to tell, is that a person?”
Harry swooped closer, mind still sullenly in Spinner’s End. He searched the trees half-heartedly, and saw nothing, then remembered what he was looking for and guiltily applied himself to the search. He still found nothing, at least not anything Ginny might think was a person. Confused, he looked over his shoulder at his girlfriend, who matched his frown.
“You don’t see it? The pink thing?,” she asked, pointing.
They hovered over one spot in the woods, now, and he followed her finger to the treetops swimming below. Oddly, the spotty sprawl of trees had solidified, seemingly multiplied under the bright white eye of the moon. The occasional clearing and peek of underbrush disappeared under a carpet of black.
The scrubby Cokeworth forest was an ocean of trees. It didn’t end in the near distance with a next town cropping into view. Trees, that and cooling moonlight, rolled into the skyline, melding with more lightlessness.
Harry was dwarfed by the abyss. His breath clogged in his throat, vision blurring, as more insurmountable deep crushed every place except his hands on his broom handle, Ginny’s hands gripping those, and her red hair—falling into his lap as she wove under his arms and took control of the broom.
“I’ve got us, I can see her,” she repeated over and over, shushing him like a startled horse. “You’re doing really well, and I’m here, I’m right here. Look, we’re okay.”
She submerged them in the burgeoning black and for a moment, Harry gasped for air, afraid of drowning. But just as quickly they landed on twigs and soft brush to the fizzing cries of insects still taking up the late summer night.
He stumbled off the broom, falling on his arse in the dirt. “W-what—! What w-was—!?”
Ginny swung off of the broom, laying it gently on the ground. She moved delicately, reverently, bathed in cool white. Again, her eyes glimmered as she whispered, “I don’t know what it is...Snape did it. It’s not like Tom was. I…”
Her brow furrowed and some of the glimmer wore off. Good, Harry felt. She was scaring him. Ginny pushed both hands into her hair and sighed long and hard.
“Don’t do it if you don’t want to,” she reasoned, holding out a hand as if physically stopping a thought. “It’s a lot. It’s better than Voldemort—it feels natural, like I fit in it, but it’s nothing I’ve ever felt before.”
“What are you talking about,” he pleaded, voice cracking. She looked sorrowfully at him and twisted around, giving her attention to a trembling bush.
The witch crouched down and shimmied into it, giving a harrowing impression of having lost her mind. When he choked up and ran to the bush, ready to pull her out, he saw her huddled next to a small body.
A pink, cartoon-print pant cuff stuck out of the branches. “Laney!”
Ginny motioned for space and eased out of the undergrowth, bringing Harry’s little sister with her. The twenty-two year old fell to one knee, his legs losing all their strength.
Laney was fine, alert and unhurt with cheeks full of color. She was only a bit scuffed from crawling on the ground, but other than a little shaken, she seemed okay. Harry asked if anything hurt, just in case, but only got a head shake and a mush-mouthed apology.
“I shouldn’t have run off,” Laney admitted, looking ashamed. “Fred says all the time I could hurt myself. M’sorry.”
Ginny dropped a hand in her curls while Harry brushed off leaves and dewy spider webs. He went to inspect a dark smudge on her hand, thinking it was a scrape.
It was only mud. Harry held her small fist carefully as he wiped away the mess, and found a ball of paper she clenched in it, decorated with that wicked, spiky scrawl.
“Can I see that?,” he coaxed, unfolding her fist.
She gave it to him, and he smoothed out Laney’s assignment on his thigh. The paper turned to pulp at the edges from being squeezed in a sweaty fist. Ink stained her palm, as well as his.
He saw a sea of nothing drawn around a barebones take on Snape’s house—a crooked little shack with the lights on in every window. These were the picture’s only lights save the waning moon.
There were no stars or street lamps or sense of anything but black and the family’s ramshackle home. Written on the paper’s edge was a too simple ask, “Think of water.”
“This is all he gave you?” Harry showed Ginny the paper, who nodded like she understood. He gawked at her. “You’re kidding me. This doesn’t make any sense!”
“I’m telling you: family wards are just different. It’s supposed to go deep, so deep that the house becomes you. At the Burrow—you’ve not got to do it yet, but when there’s a new Weasley, they’re keyed in exactly like this.
“Well, no, nothing like this, but that’s because yours is new. These things is usually passed down generations, you know?”
He didn’t know and nodded anyway. Ginny groaned, reading his confusion plain as day.
“Think about how mad Hogwarts was! Just like Dumbledore! You didn’t see it when Snape was Headmaster, Harry, it was like the whole castle went to sleep. Not like Umbridge, where it didn’t recognize her at all. Snape took over and it’s like the school went into mourning. It—ah. I guess that should’ve been a clue.”
His eyebrows met his headline. “Ginny, are you okay?”
“Yes!? No! Merlin, why were you raised by Muggles!” Ginny returned his skepticism with earnest noises, throwing her hands up to welcome the whole forest-made-ocean. “This is your sister!”
He looked at Laney, who stared at her feet, then at a moss-covered rock doing nothing of interest; then back at Ginny, slowly, trying for no sudden moves. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean. Are you saying Laney did that, with the, the everything? Or like, the lack of anything, the blackness?”
“Yes! Gods!” The redhead shouted triumphant, “This is her part! Every member of a family has a part in protecting everyone else! It’s like—I’m so sorry, but it’s like your mum—Lily, not Grace, but maybe—it’s what she did for you.”
“Sacrifice herself?” He eyed Ginny’s hand on Laney’s head. What was he thinking? She’d never hurt a child. But then, he didn’t know what hold the dark magic had over her mind.
Except even suspecting that Ginny was a puppet for some evil ritual felt insulting. He appraised how eagerly she tried to make him understand. Usually he was the animated one, tossing his hands up and pacing the room if it was something he cared about.
Hearing his tone, Ginny cringed. “It’s an example, I guess, I—never mind. Just, the protection stuck to her blood, your blood, and followed you around your whole life. For a home, a proper magical home at least, wards are supposed to be that strong. It’s supposed to be a haven.”
“Good luck convincing me of that for Little Whinging,” snarked Harry, crossing his arms.
“Or that whatever demons Snape was summoning aren’t just evil fuckery! It’s done something to you. It drove Laney into the woods. It’s making me see things! And you saw him, he—.”
Harry swallowed bile, throat burning. “I won’t do it.”
“Then don’t, but,” Ginny turned and yelled into the woods, “Fuck! I just know you need this!”
Harry shook his head, unsure of what she wanted from him.
“Mum’s doing hers. I can hear her,” Laney said, lifting her head. She turned to face in the direction they’d flown from, like she could sense the house nearly a mile away. Then she looked to him and they traded stares for a second, Harry lost by what she meant.
He didn’t find any clues in her expression, mild as it was save for a slight squint. Harry held her gaze, wondering at the squeezing pressure around his head. It felt like—.
“Oh, you can’t do it.”
“Do what,” he asked the girl, who seemed suddenly disappointed in him. “What? What can’t I do!”
“A different thing. The reverend can do it,” she breathed. “I mean, I guess I could use words if you need me to.
“I’m saying I want to head back.”
“Er, I don’t think you do, actually,” he tried, looking up to his girlfriend. The two ladies seemed to be in agreement! Harry continued kneeling, incredulous. They wanted to return to that madhouse?
Ginny loosed an impatient, “Ugh,” and offered Harry help standing. She directed Laney to fetch the broom, who did so puzzling as to why they needed a broom in a forest. It wasn’t as if people went about sweeping the leaves.
“We fly on them,” Ginny explained. She laid the Cleaver down again, nipping a bit of joy from the evening by directing Laney’s hand over the handle.
Harry watched as the girl tried to guess what to do. She looked baffled by what Ginny described. Hardly thinking it the time for broom lessons, Harry suggested they Apparate to the house if they were so keen on returning.
He was left to the buzzing bugs while Laney clarified, “So I just say, ‘up’? That’s easy.”
“Yeah, it is,” Ginny grinned. Harry crossed his arms, irritatedly snapping, “Let’s just get this over with! We can get through the damn night first and then I’ll teach everyone to bloody fly!”
“Promise!,” Laney chirped. He looked at her, stunned. Oh, he had forgotten—he was in some part arguing with a child.
“Uh, yeah…sorry. Yeah, I’ll teach you later?”
The girl’s smile wasn’t huge, but it hit him hard. It had Harry showing her how to sit in front of him on the broom, holding it steady while she tested her grip. Ginny Apparated ahead to check the mayhem at the house. And so Harry and this child short enough to prop his chin on zoomed across the disk of the moon, around which were unveiled the stars.
Having Laney with him, squealing into the rushing wind, “We’re so high up!,” without a lick of fear—Harry looked down again, expecting the abyss. He only saw woods speeding by below and their shadow rippling on the canopy.
The Cleaver dipped and he panicked, wondering if it was failing. Then he saw Laney’s sure hold steering them toward the house. Harry had to double check ahead of them, and there, Snape’s house leaned ever closer. Soon Harry was relegated to co-pilot to the beaming witch with the messy curls like his.
“You’re a natural!,” he praised, suppressing the sick flip at seeing the silhouette in the kitchen window. It watched them approach. “You’ll love flying classes at Hogwarts. They teach—.”
“My mum says I’m not going anywhere,” Laney replied flatly. She kept her eyes trained ahead and spoke softly. “She gets upset when I ask.”
“D...do you want to go?”
“I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from. I wasn’t supposed to, anyway. But, maybe. I wish I could test it out first, just to see.”
Harry didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter just then. She dropped her gaze to the backyard as they passed over to the house property.
“Who’s that in our yard?”
Harry scanned the ground and only saw Ginny gesturing at someone through the open screen door. His girlfriend then spun and shouted, and his heart kicked his ribs as she dropped on all fours, scrambling inside for cover.
A streak of red exploded against the siding. Harry wrested control of the broom and flew them around the front, mind racing. It must’ve been the assassins finally starting their attack. Harry cursed. The wards weren’t finished, and he didn’t trust what they had not to side with the bad guys.
“There’s someone else at the front door,” Laney breathed. She tightened her grip on the broom handle, and seemed to shrink between his arms.
“How do you know?” He flew one-handed as he cast a Notice-Me-Not on the two of them. He searched the street for attackers and again saw no one. Harry didn’t much like all these new sights unseen. “Where are they?”
“I can hear them splashing around. I can’t explain it, but she sounds angry.”
“She? Splashing, huh?” Harry tried harder to near the front door, looking for enemies.
A hazy spell with a tang like hot metal burst forth from the empty street. It was leagues beyond the Stunner flung at Ginny in the yard. This one reeked with malintent and slipped like mercury over the front window, eating away at the glass.
The house rumbled. A fierce wind blew into the street, taking the rest of the window out with it. Invisible hooves thundered through the front gravel, smashed the mailbox, bowed the street lamps, whipped up litter and silt. Two unseen things collided, and a woman screamed in pain. The wind stripped a cloaking spell from someone long swathed in close-fitting robes, kicked and trampled into the curb.
Harry recognized the pale hair first, and then, though aimed at the house, Harry realized the infamous, Black rage. She picked herself up off the sidewalk and staggered through the wreck, hollering.
“BASTARD,” howled Narcissa Malfoy, unleashing a barrage of Dark magic on the home. Spell and spell laid thick on the house, filling the air with fetid smoke. “COME OUT AND FACE ME. AFTER EVERYTHING I’VE DONE FOR YOU.”
“This isn’t an effective mode of communication,” intoned Harry’s little sister. He ferried them higher above the smog, thinking poor outreach was the least of it.
“IF LUCIUS CAN’T KILL YOU, THEN I WILL. I! You’ve made me—SEVERUS. SEVERUS! YOU WON’T LEAVE THIS SHITE HEAP ALIVE!”
August 24th, 2002: Spinner’s End, Cokeworth (one hour left)
Severus smeared dittany on his cheek where Grace had cut him. His blood thrummed with the call to Hel, his head still stuffed with visions of the teeming underworld. He’d felt that cold grip on his neck and thought, very faintly, he had heard his mother cry.
“That was dangerous,” he muttered to himself, unable to believe his luck. Severus had reserved the least forgiving goddess for himself and had he misstepped—well.
He hadn’t. That was what mattered.
Weasley crashed into the kitchen behind him. Only Fred jumped. Severus, Zinnia, and Grace all stood around the fire on the stove, warming their bodies like lost travelers in a storm.
“They’re attacking!,” the Weasley girl snapped. Severus grunted, staring into the purple flames. The stove wasn’t lit. The fire flickered above the cold burners, bringing life back into their faces and fingers.
Zinnia panted beside him, unable to catch her breath. Grace waved her son to attend them, afraid to speak. When she did, she had two voices, and it terrified her more than anything he’d seen. The three oldest in the room stayed clumped together, weathering the making of the home.
“Are you not hearin’ her? She says people are attackin’ the house! Rev!”
“Pity for them,” he sneered. Grace huffed, cupping the dancing fire. Zinnia looked askance at them and laughed.