Chapter 2 - A Long Bitter Night
Light footfalls crossed the carpet of moss and needles in the deepest part of the Forbidden Forest. The trees were so old here that the weight of the needles and leaves on the ground kept the underbrush from growing. Daylight filtered through in a welcoming green and brown light that dappled the ground playfully.
Severus Snape took in none of this beauty as he walked quietly, wand out and ready. Dumbledore followed behind him, their long strides almost perfectly matched. They had walked quite a distance looking for the boy. Snape was beginning to believe that if they were looking in the right place, it would be dumb luck. A tingle passed over him, familiar but very out of place. Instinctively he issued the counter-curse. Dumbledore came aside and looked at him questioningly. "A Death Eater protective spell," Snape informed him and shook his head once. "I did not know there was a safe-area spelled here."
"There is an small abandoned manor ahead," Dumbledore said. "It would make a fine safehouse."
Quietly, Snape stated, "It does make it more likely we are in the right place."
"The wrens are very precise in their own way," Dumbledore said as they continued on. "'It is just very hard to translate their directions into human terms." A breeze lifted his long beard and hair as he stopped and listened to a fierce string of twittering above them. "They believe we are on the right track as well, although very slow about it."
"No magic, Albus, at all. It will be detected immediately and we will have far too much company." Dumbledore tucked his wand away as they stepped down along a game trail that led into a ravine.
"I do hope Mr. Potter is worth this trouble," Snape breathed in annoyance.
"He is, Severus," Dumbledore chastised in a serious tone.
The going was slow on the muddy track and the late afternoon light didn't penetrate into the deep, and the air grew damp and chilled. Unnamed things chittered from a hollow stump. Snape broke off a thick dead sapling to use as a staff for walking or as a weapon, if needed. Something large with leathery wings flapped through the upper branches of the trees as they made the bottom of the ravine and skirted the creek to a narrow point where large stones made a footpath. By the time they reached the other ledge of the ravine, the sun had faded and a bitter wind pressed their cloaks against them.
"We really must find him before dark," Dumbledore said. "The oldest part of the forest harbors more than its share of night creatures; most of them quite hungry."
Snape frowned and didn't comment. He had already shared his opinions regarding irresponsible students earlier in the search.
Another fifteen minutes on, Dumbledore stopped. "There," he breathed and pointed at the edge of a black robe lying in the leaves, visible around the side of a large tilted tree.
- 888 -
Harry rested his head against the rough rotting wood on the side of the porch to what appeared to be an empty half-collapsed house. The fragile skin of whitewash peeled off and stuck to his cheek. His muddy cloak chilled him, but he didn't have the strength to adjust it to not press against him so tightly. He closed his eyes. A bird twittered loudly on a nearby branch, startling him.
Harry had felt worse, but not for quite so long. His whole body tingled and ached abominably and his right arm twitched ever so often of its own accord. His brain seemed to be trying to find a way to separate him from the pain, but it wasn't successful for long, and the pain spiraled in and out, taxing him. Maybe if he got cold enough he would go numb, but right now the cold only brought on more agony. He carefully settled lower to get farther out of the wind and tried to dwell on something other than the blur of desperation, screaming and pain that constituted the last few hours.
- 888 -
"Dead," Snape observed as he crouched beside the puffy, blue-faced Crabbe senior. His hands were frozen in a position as though he had been reaching for something.
"Not a mark on Mr. Goyle," Dumbledore commented as he looked over the other figure. He appeared to have simply collapsed limply in that spot. When he saw Snape going through Crabbe's pockets, Dumbledore did the same to Goyle. "Hmf," he grunted. As Snape turned to him, Dumbledore held up Harry's wand.
Snape gazed at in dismay and then looked around them more acutely . "That is a good sign, I suppose," he commented dryly.
"Unless there were more than two of them."
"Unlikely. These two rarely spent time around anyone but Malfoy. Which way is it to the manor house?"
Tucking Harry's wand away with his own, Dumbledore said, "This way," and strode off in that direction.
- 888 -
Every time Harry started to drift off, a bird would fuss nearby. It was starting to make him feel persecuted. A tiny bird with black stripes on its wings landed on the wood rail near him and tilted its head this way and that. Harry heard it then, footfalls in the underbrush. Stupidly, he felt in his pockets for his wand and grimaced at his empty robes. One of his tormentors probably had it on them. He should have looked, but he couldn't bear it at the time he had escaped and now it was a very long crawl back and too late anyway.
The footfalls stopped. Harry held his breath. The bird chattered again and this time Harry realized with a jolt that it was giving him away.
"Harry?" a familiar voice queried over the wind.
Stunned and relieved beyond his numbness, Harry leaned around the wood post and replied, "Professor Dumbledore?"
They charged over to him. Dumbledore crouched beside him and said, "I am every so pleased to see you, my boy." He brushed the paint flecks from Harry's cheek with his age-rough hands. Many sets of leathery wings flapped overhead, breaking branches in their path. "Severus, see if you can get into this place. It is too late to head back tonight."
"I could go back for the Thestrals," Snape suggested as he braved the weak timbers of the porch.
Dumbledore considered that, glancing up to the treetops. "I do not think you have time even for that. And we cannot signal, because at the moment, there is no one to signal to. Harry, do you think you can make it 'til morning?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said and moved to stand up. Dumbledore assisted him and walked him up the single wood step. "I couldn't get that open," Harry commented dully as Snape pushed the door aside. It creaked loudly on its rusty hinges.
"That is because you do not know the password, Mr. Potter," he stated snidely.
Harry shot him a look of confusion at that. They stepped around the collapsed staircase and into a long parlor room. Harry stumbled over his own feet as they stepped over to a half-rotted chaise that someone before them had pulled up before the hearth. Dumbledore strained to catch him.
"Severus, give me a hand with him."
Snape turned from investigating the grate to help lower Harry to the floor. Harry drew in a ragged, painful breath as he leaned back against the torn stuffing of the rotted furniture. "Potter?" Snape asked.
"Hurts to move," Harry explained with a wince.
Snape stood and after studying Harry a moment, stalked past Dumbledore. "I will return shortly," he said briskly.
Dumbledore crouched on the hearth stone and checked the flue before reaching for the scrap wood piled beside the hearth.
"I'm sorry, sir," Harry said tiredly.
Dumbledore continued with his task, "It is all right, Harry. One would not have expected it to be unsafe a mere two hundred yards from the castle. Had I thought as much, I would not have allowed you outside." He stood and looked into the old mugs lining the mantle. "Here we are," he said as he found flint and a metal plate. He plucked a tuft of the lining of the chaise and boxed it in with scrap wood on the hearth stone. With just a few tries, he had it lit. When the kindling was also burning, he turned to Harry. "Sometimes it pays to be old."
Harry grinned lightly at his headmaster through his many aches.
Snape strode back in. Harry looked up at him approaching and realized how dark it had become outside after he had been staring into the flames.
"Most impressive, Albus," Snape said.
"Are we going home?" Harry asked. The persistent throb in his body frightened him now; it felt like a dire warning.
"Harry," Dumbledore chastised him.
Harry turned his head away, remembering with a twinge that he wasn't supposed to think of the castle as home at the risk of breaking the protective spell on his aunt's house.
Snape looked between them curiously before he said, "I will fetch more to burn. If you can find some fresh water to brew these in." He placed some pieces of bark and a few leaves on the mantle and left again.
Harry's eyes fell closed and this time no bird interrupted him. He drifted, vaguely aware of shadows moving before the fire, of the fire roaring higher and then banking down again as it consumed its ready fuel, the clanking of a pewter mug on the grate. Someone was leaning over him, touching him. "No," Harry muttered. In that instant he believed the figure was Goyle incanting yet another Crucio. His right arm twitched as he tried to escape.
"Potter?" Snape prompted sharply. He crouched beside the boy and shook his arm lightly, trying to rouse him. Harry pushed weakly against him and said, "No," again. Snape grabbed his hand to fend him off and felt the iciness of it. He growled faintly.
"What is it?" Dumbledore asked as he knelt beside the hearthstone.
Snape felt Harry's forehead and said, "He has slipped into shock, I think." Moving rapidly now, Snape unhooked Harry's cloak and pulled it free of him. "No wonder; it is damp through." He shook his head and tossed the cloak over the chaise to dry. Harry's torn shirt pulled open, revealing a mottled bruise on his chest. Snape fingered the formally white collar and pulled the shirt aside a little farther. "He needs a Healer, Albus," Snape stated in an annoyed tone before tugging Harry's shirt back into place. He turned to Dumbledore expectantly.
"How much time would we have from spell to having anyone Apparating in to investigate?" the old wizard asked.
"Seconds," Snape replied. "A safehouse this close to Hogwarts would be closely monitored."
Dumbledore shook his bearded head faintly. "We need a significant diversion then in order to depart safely. Minerva could arrange one but she is due back at Hogwarts in three hours at the soonest. Until then, something will have to be done for Mr. Potter."
"No warming spell. No warming potion," Snape muttered to himself. Glancing back at the low fire burning behind him, he held up his hand to gauge the heat and frowned. After a moment of thought, he growled faintly again. "I know you do not like me, Potter . . . " he said as lowered himself against the bolster and spread out his rabbit lined cloak before pulling Harry over onto it. With an exasperated sigh, he pulled Harry close to his own body and covered him with the furred surface. Fortunately, Harry seemed beyond caring at this point.
Dumbledore crouched beside them, adjusting the cloak better over Harry. "I've always admired this cloak of yours, Severus," he said vaguely, as he looked over Harry's unconscious features.
"No magic," Snape reminded him bluntly. "We are in no position for a fight."
Dumbledore released the edge of the cloak and stood suddenly. "It is hard to resist," he said in frustration. He strode over to the dark windows and looked out, hands clasped behind him.
Snape looked down at the unruly hair of the head resting on his chest. Harry's right shoulder spasmed for what Snape counted as the fourth time. It indicated more injury, damage to the sympathetic system. He could think of three potions that might help, considered idly whether he had all of the ingredients in his office. He wondered what curse had caused it.
"Potter?" Snape said. He sat upright a little more, causing Harry to gasp. "Can you hear me?" he asked. Dumbledore stepped back over. "I am wondering what spells were used on him," Snape explained.
Harry opened his eyes. His breathing sounded too loud to his own ears. Someone wanted something.
"Potter? What spells were used on you?"
Dazed and pained, Harry thought back and tried to remember the incantations Crabbe and Goyle had uttered.
"Crucio?" Snape asked.
Harry nodded. "Cryckenblat," he said dully. "Flamenstraif." Remembering made him cringe at the memory of his helplessness, so he stopped. The throbbing radiated across his back now; he shifted to try to escape it and found himself held fast, enveloped in Snape's cloak. He made a noise of distress.
"Perhaps some of the potion?" Dumbledore suggested.
"Potion it is not. More of a tea," Snape stated harshly. "And it needs a few more minutes to steep the acid out of the bark." As Harry's arm jerked again, he said, "Potter, you are safe at the moment. Do try to remain calm." Snape sounded as though he were trying for a sneer and failing to reach it.
Harry floated in and out of awareness over the next few minutes. Chills alternated with waves of feeling drastically overheated and suffocated. He imagined he was feverish and lying in his cupboard under the stairs with his Aunt Petunia complaining about the difficulty he was causing. He dreamed he was lying on the Quidditch pitch after falling from his broom, icy rain drenching him, his friends shouting from the stands to warn him of the dark figures hovering threateningly at the perimeter.
Snape shifted Harry to one side, sending a stab of agony through him. His voice cut through the disorientation momentarily. "Do you have the broken cup?" Harry cracked his eyes open and squinted in confusion as Dumbledore used the wide sleeve of his robe to wipe out a piece of porcelain. Orange flickered around the old wizard, a pool of light in the oppressive darkness. Reaching into the fire with his hand protected by his sleeve, he pulled out a blackened tankard and poured something from it into the cup half. Snape took this from him and brought it close to Harry.
"Here," he murmured, pulling Harry upright with an arm around his back. Snape paused to blow across the hot liquid he held gingerly by the broken edges. Harry drew in a sharp breath as this scene resonated with a deep memory and drew forth an agonizing longing for a lost parent who had once done the same thing. Bone-cold despair twisted his heart as the cup was pressed against his lips and hot bitter liquid, tasting of the forest, trickled into his mouth. "A little more," Snape murmured, sounding very un-Snapelike. Harry swallowed convulsively and more followed. The warmth of it spread though his chest and stomach. The chill gripping him dissipated in its wake, leaving a hollow behind like a warm Dementor attack.
Harry, too exhausted to hold his head up any longer let it fall against the figure beside him. His chest felt as though someone had put a binding curse around it. The twisting in his heart made his other aches pale in comparison. He drew in a sharp breath against the constriction, releasing it reluctantly. Cautiously, he drew in another.
"Severus . . . " Dumbledore said in concern. "That tea . . . "
"It should not be affecting his breathing," Snape muttered. He tilted Harry's neck back and ran his thumb beside his windpipe. Harry fought his grip and twisted to bury his face in Snape's robe as another sob wracked him. Snape's arm went lax as realization struck.
"Albus," Snape said unevenly, "perhaps you should . . . "
Dumbledore ran his hand over his beard. "I would have great difficulty resisting using a spell on him." He shifted to a crouch, just a little closer. "Harry, everything is all right," he intoned soothingly.
Nothing seemed all right to Harry. He felt as though the room were full of Dementors, that he would feel alone and unhappy forever. The warmth in his stomach became an uncomfortable burn. He focused on that and swallowed hard against the next sob. The robe against his cheek was wet now. He raised one oddly clumsy arm to dry his eyes. His arm felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds. He let it fall.
A palm rested a moment on his forehead. The gesture eased some of the painful tangle inside. As grief released him, so did wakefulness. Harry's head fell lax as sleep took him.
- 888 -
The persistent twitch of Harry's arm woke him. His body was warm, his ankles cold and the bottoms of his feet much too hot. A fire burned low nearby. His head rested on something that rose and fell rhythmically with the relentless heartbeat resonating bizarre and dreamily within. Stiff, aching, and strangely half-numb, Harry shifted to free his hand, which was trapped beneath him. Arms tightened around him. Waking up much faster now, Harry sorted frantically through jumbled memories. Goyle and Crabbe came back first, making his arm spasm in renewed panic. Then he remembered his teachers. He lifted his head and squinted into the red-hued dimness.
"He is awake, Albus," Snape said from a spot much too close. Harry stiffened at that and tried to sit up, but couldn't find even a fraction of the necessary strength. "How do you feel?" Snape asked him as he raised them both to a sitting position. The sharp pain this caused brought the rest of the memories crashing back. Harry trembled at them. "How much longer, Albus?" Snape asked.
Dumbledore knelt beside the hearthstone and stirred the fire with a forked tree branch. He shook his head. "Too many things are happening at once. It is not possible to organize something significant on such short notice. I myself should already be elsewhere."
"Perhaps he will drink a little more tea," Snape suggested.
Dumbledore reached for the tankard, now sitting out of the fire. Harry was very grateful to see that it had been allowed to cool, he didn't want to repeat the earlier scene. The thought of it made him panicky and breathless.
Snape took the cup and, since Harry had his hands out, started to rest it in his palm. Harry's hands shook too badly, however. "Let me hold it," Snape ordered. After Harry finished the cool liquid, Snape set the cup down and took his hand. "Squeeze," he said sternly. Harry obeyed, realizing the pressure was weak. "Other one," Snape said as he gripped Harry's other hand. He sighed. "What spell did they use that caused so much damage to your nerves?"
Harry shook his head. His hours with Crabbe and Goyle had merged into a confused mass. "Pulsata? Repostuna?" Snape guessed. Harry shook his head again. "What happened to Crabbe?" Snape then asked, sounding intensely curious.
Harry frowned and dropped his gaze. Hoarsely, he replied, "I only know how to do two spells without a wand." He hesitated at the memory.
"And a binding curse is one of them," Snape stated. Harry nodded. "Around the neck?" Snape asked evenly.
"He was using a burning spell on me, on my legs," Harry explained, pained by the memory. Crabbe had been working his way up, taunting him with the awful, permanent damage the spell was going to do. "I just wanted him to stop."
"I was not asking you for justification, by any means," Snape scolded. "What about Goyle?"
Harry's glazed eyes stared beyond the hearth. "He saw what happened to Crabbe and he . . . he started to incant an Avada Kedavra," Harry explained in an empty voice, then stopped.
"Are you completely immune, Mr. Potter?" Snape asked in disbelief.
Harry shook his head. "I don't know," he breathed. "I didn't let him finish it." He swallowed and drew out the reluctant memory. "I saw it forming," he said slowly.
"The curse?" Snape asked in surprise.
"At his feet. It was a disk of green glowing on the forest floor. I didn't know what to do." Harry closed his eyes as the sheer desperation of that moment washed through him, as though it was happening this instant. "I slapped my hands down on the ground at his feet and shouted. He exploded in that awful green light. And fell."
"What did you shout?" Snape asked carefully.
Harry shrugged. "'No,' I guess. That's all I can remember shouting."
Snape shook his head and turned to Dumbledore, who raised his eyebrow in surprise.
"It is the closest thing to a counter I have heard," Dumbledore said.
"Leave it to Potter," Snape said in annoyance.
"He does have an excessive amount of experience with it. Unfortunately."
Harry looked between them and leaned back against the chaise. His cover had started to slip off, so he wrapped his arms around himself for warmth and shivered.
Snape unhooked his cloak and shifted off of it before wrapping it around Harry alone. "Thanks," Harry murmured. Snape leaned over and covered Harry's legs completely before sitting back with his arms crossed.
"So we wait until morning?" Snape inquired. "That is five hours away." Dumbledore didn't respond.
Harry, happy to be away from Snape, now found a downside to it—he had no place to rest his head. As it grew too heavy to hold up, he had to let his chin fall to his chest, which wasn't very comfortable.
Rubbing his arms for warmth, Snape said, "I think you are underestimating the boy's injuries. The longer the delay, the more likely they are to become permanent."
Harry lifted his head when he heard that and looked from one teacher to the other. They didn't notice him.
"What do you suggest, Severus?" Dumbledore asked.
"I suggest that I go for the Thestrals. They are native to the forest and would not set off the spell alarm like a broomstick would."
"That is a very long walk back. I doubt you would make it by daybreak, or at all."
Snape stood and lifted Harry's cloak off the chaise. It had almost dried, though it was stiff with mud. Snape draped it over his shoulders anyway and sat back down and huddled toward the hearth. "I was considering the other direction. We are near the edge of the Apparation limit—that is why this safehouse is so located."
"But you do not know where the border is?" Dumbledore pointed out.
"Not precisely," Snape admitted.
"It was a new moon yesterday; there is sparse light."
Frustration in his voice, Snape said, "If the boy is so important to you, we must do something."
"He is important to all of us, Severus," Dumbledore said levelly.
Snape ran his fingers through his hair angrily. "I am aware of that—that is why I am willing to go."
Harry frowned at them and wondered if they talked about him like this often when he wasn't around. He was used to this from the Dursleys, but that just made it sting more. Dumbledore stood up and moved to crouch beside Harry, who had been forced to let his head lay back on the moldy stuffing of the chaise. "How critical is he?"
"I do not know," Snape muttered darkly. "I am not a Healer."
Dumbledore finally turned his attention to Harry. "How are you feeling?" Dumbledore asked him gently.
Harry shrugged. He couldn't stand to let Dumbledore down again and say how truly awful he felt.
Snape answered for him. With sharp tones, he said, "So well, he cannot hold his head up, and he has the strength in his hands of an infant."
Harry couldn't bring himself to argue.
"Take him up then," Dumbledore said decisively. He picked up the tankard and tossed the tea over the hot coals. Steam billowed out and the room darkened to pitch black.
"What are we doing, Albus?" Snape asked.
Harry felt a hand grab his arm. With hurried, clumsy movements he managed to hook the borrowed cloak at his neck.
"Take this," Dumbledore said. Harry couldn't see what it was, but from the sound, Snape apparently put it in his pocket.
"Albus?" Snape questioned dangerously. He'd been arguing for action but not this, it would seem, whatever this was.
"Get Harry to his feet and get your wand out," Dumbledore instructed with a calm that seemed inappropriate to the circumstances.
Fearful now, Harry tried desperately to see either of their faces. Only colored explosions swam in his vision as Snape slipped an arm behind him and pulled him upright. "Try to stand," he ordered, as he pulled Harry's arm around his shoulder and held him up fast with his left. Harry grabbed a handful of his own cloak against Snape's back and tried to stop shaking.
"Take hold of the mug," Dumbledore said. "I will hold the portal open until you are completely through and then I will destroy it so you cannot be followed."
Snape's wand hand grasped Harry's fingers and wrapped them around the handle of the mug. The wooden handle of his wand pressed into the back of Harry's hand painfully. Dizzy, he leaned heavily against his teacher. The new fear had left him already, burned out from long exposure to it. He waited with numb patience for whatever was going to happen.
"I will join you when I can," Dumbledore said, then tapped the pewter with his wand several times as he incanted something under his breath. It rang out loudly, like a bell and Harry's nerves complained at the sharp noise breaking the stillness. The hook on his navel grabbed hold at the same moment his scar seared, as though he had fallen into the grate and rested it on the coals. Harry cried out and thrashed to free himself. Snape was far stronger and, in the next instant, their feet hit the pavement of an alleyway surrounded by red brick walls.