Severus Snape woke from a nightmare of green light and sudden death to hear a woman's voice calling his name.
"Severus Snape! Awake!"
Someone was trying to shake him awake. Lying on his face in the dirt and gore, Snape closed his eyes and growled:
"Bugger off, Bellatrix."
A strong hand grasped his shoulder, and tried to roll him onto his back. He resisted, burying his nose in the blood-soaked earth. No hexes – not Bellatrix, then. The other side must have won. That left…
"Get lost, Granger."
"Arise!" came the voice. "Throw off the chains of sleep, and ride with me to the halls of your fathers!"
A callused, surprisingly strong hand grasped his face, turning it up towards the light. There was no getting round this. Snape opened his eyes, and found himself looking into a strangely familiar face that he could not quite place.
Strong hands grasped Snape under his armpits and hauled him to his feet. The strange woman half dragged, half carried him to a large, gilded chariot drawn by seven magnificent blood-red stallions, where a huge, rather smelly giant in a dirty tunic of uncured hides was sitting, waiting for them. The giant grinned at him, and placed an enormous fist to his head and mouth in the traditional greeting, as a loud blaring sound issued from his gaping mouth. Snape clutched his aching head, and winced, more an automatic gesture than because he needed to – for he realised with a sense of shock that the tension headache which had been his constant companion for the last twenty years had unaccountably vanished. He blinked, and looked around him properly.
Snape's benefactor had dumped him unceremoniously in the back seat, opposite the giant, and was clambering into the driving seat. This was his first chance to look properly at her, and even Snape, who was notoriously unmoved by physical beauty, having so little himself, had to admit she was quite a spectacle: eight feet tall, heavily muscled, with the fluid grace of a panther, clad in gilded breastplate and winged helmet with a sword and a battleaxe stuck carelessly through her belt and a large wooden shield strapped to her back. Where had he seen her before? Snape considered the woman (if woman she was) in silence for a moment before he realised that she reminded him not so much of one person as of several people: the broad, ruddy cheeks and strong arms were not unlike those of Madam Hooch; the small, shrewd, kindly eyes were pure McGonagall; the untidy hair poking out of the helmet in ragged, wavy hanks was quite as wild as that of Hermione Granger; and the large, round breasts beneath the beaten metal breastplate reminded him very much of Kate Sprout.
She caught his gaze and smiled at him.
"Don't worry," she said. "It's a glamour – part of your welcome to the Hall of Heroes. We never look quite the same twice over – it's part of the fun, actually. Now if you don't mind, we really ought to get a move on. This carriage only takes two passengers, you know." She paused, looked doubtful, cleared her throat and continued in an altogether more portentous voice: "I mean, let us haste, for time presses, and you are called to the halls of your fathers. Come!"
Snape looked over his shoulder. The battle was still raging. The air was still thick with curses and screams. Plainly the battle was far from over. Just a few yards away, Hagrid, the most physically strong of the castle's defenders, was collapsed weeping over a bundle of black cloth – some foolish Gryffindor reaping the rewards of a terminal piece of pointless bravado, no doubt. Fascinating though this woman and her unorthodox means of transport were, Snape knew very well what the Hogwarts defenders were up against – and most of them could not run a bath, let alone a defence. Despite the pleasant, warm lethargy coursing through his limbs, he forced himself to stand, and made to dismount from the carriage.
"Don't be absurd, woman," he snapped. "Any fool can see I'm needed out there – under other circumstances it might have been pleasant to make your acquaintance, but my comrades need me! Really, madam, this is neither the time nor the place –"
"On the contrary," said the woman, with surprising authority. "This is both the time and the place. You are destined to leave with me and Gruh-wah-phag here. Go closer and look, if you do not believe my words. Try to alter the course of life, and you will see. Already you have passed beyond such things – all that is behind you now."
Snape did not dignify this wishy-washy mysticism with a reply. He climbed down from the chariot, and as he did so, saw Pansy Parkinson fell a Death Eater with a well-timed Impedimenta jinx, but a new Death Eater rushed past him to fill the gap. Quick as a snake, Snape whipped out his wand, levelled it at the man's back and sent off a vicious Pustula hex – but to his astonishment, it appeared to pass straight through the back of the man's head. Presumably his aim was still off from whatever had stunned him… but right now the most important thing to do was get that sentimental oaf Hagrid back on his feet. Half the defenders to his right had gone off to deal with an aborted ambush from the Forbidden Forest, and with no teacher to lead it, a whole stretch of the line was crumbling.
Hagrid was only a few yards away, still kneeling on the ground, cradling the crumpled figure in his arms, tears running down his face and into his beard, muttering something of which the only intelligible part was "so sorry… should've been me…". Snape strode up to him, robes swishing around his ankles, wand at the ready.
"For heaven's sake get up, you self-indulgent ninny!" he shouted. "Time for that later – students are in trouble just over there – grieve for him when you've saved them if you must, though goodness knows stupid heroics have no place at a time like this…"
It was at this moment that Snape noticed the corpse's boots. They were a particularly good pair, made to order from the finest Norwegian Black hide, sinfully soft but completely waterproof and impervious to all spells, embossed around the ankles and toecaps with the Prince family crest of Arctic hares carrying cowslips, their only flaw a tendency to leave blisters on the right heel if not rubbed weekly with salamander lard to keep them supple… Snape knew a great deal about these boots because they were his own. In fact, they were still on his feet. He was the dead man in Hagrid's arms.
Snape felt his strength leave him, and his knees buckled. But at that moment, Hagrid raised his head. Gently, he laid the corpse aside.
"Time fer tha' later," he mumbled as he rose to his feet, brushing the last of the tears from his eyes. "Sev'rus wouldn't've wanted it like this – grieve for him once the young 'uns are safe… Well then…" He threw back his head and let out a terrifying bellow: "FOR SEVERUS… CHARGE!"
He broke into a run, roaring defiance, barrelling through the Death Eaters' hexes as though they were not there and bringing down their leader in a rugby tackle, crushing him with his great bulk and trampling him underfoot as he sped on. The mask had been dislodged from the fallen Death Eater's head, revealing the stunned and agonised face of Lucius Malfoy.
Under normal circumstances, the thought of that vulgar, preening sadist Lucius Malfoy helpless on the ground, perfect hair ground into the mud, brought low by a half-human, would have been irresistible to Snape. But now it seemed that he could not muster so much as a smirk. He strode over and delivered a shark kick to a sensitive region of the fallen man's anatomy, but the boot passed straight through Malfoy's body, and there was absolutely no response. Snape suddenly felt cold and afraid. He could feel the last of strength draining from him, and his knees began to give way, but at that moment a warm hand touched him on the elbow.
"You are indeed a fierce warrior, but your time here is over," the armoured woman said gently. "Your time has come, and your reward is here. Come with us now, and there will be feasting. Minstrels shall sing of your deeds, and tell great tales of a death well-earned."
Suddenly unutterably weary, Snape did not protest as the woman helped him stumble back to the chariot, hoisted him bodily into the back seat, took her own place, gathered up the reins and clucked to the horses, which sprang into the air. Snape was so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open long enough to see the towers of Hogwarts for the last time as they were lost to view under banks of heavy cloud.
When Snape woke from a deep and dreamless sleep, curled up in the back seat of the chariot and covered in a thick bearskin rug, the sky was dark, broken only by large, lamp-like stars, and the horses were galloping alongside the Milky Way. The giant in the middle seat was snoring gently; otherwise there was no sound apart from the creaking of the axles and the rattle of galloping hooves.
"Are we nearly there yet?" asked Snape muzzily.
"No, not for ages yet," the driver replied. "Go back to sleep."
Rather to his surprise, Snape found his eyelids drooping again. Before he could formulate a reply of any kind, let alone a sarcastic one, he was fast asleep.
Like many people who risk their lives on a regular basis, Snape had never really contemplated the Afterlife, being far too busy attempting to keep it at bay for as long as possible. Inasmuch as he had given the matter any thought, he had assumed that it involved a more or less instantaneous judgement, followed by summary dispatch to a place of torment or reward – and his mind had always quickly veered away from that subject, suspecting as he did that torment was a likelier outcome for him than reward.
It had certainly never occurred to him that getting to the Hall of Heroes (where the driver had told him they were bound) was going to take so long. He had slept for what seemed like days as the waters of the Milky Way sped past, or lain drowsily on his couch in the starlit dusk, lulled by the lapping of the waters, the hissing of the wheels and the sound of the horses' hooves.
Perhaps this is paradise, Snape thought sleepily to himself, as he woke for the fourth time. A chance to sleep: healing, deep, dreamless sleep. No nightmares to disturb me here; no wretched Death Eater cruelties or vendettas to watch against day and night; no horrid brats waking me at all hours with their petty complaints… He stretched luxuriously, turned over, buried his nose in the cushions of the bench and slept again.
The next time Snape woke, he knew he was not going to go back to sleep. This time when he sat up, there was something faintly visible on the horizon. The giant opposite him had seen it too, for he grabbed Snape's arm, bawling something incomprehensible in his own tongue.
The driver turned round impatiently. She looked tired and frazzled after her long drive.
"Keep it down in the back there, can't you?" she snapped. "Or am I going to have to stop the coach?"
Cowed, man and giant lapsed into silence. There was no doubt about it, though: there was something ahead of them. It seemed to be a building, set in a floating island of solid ground, surrounded with a great double ring of flaming torches. If Snape had not known such a thing to be impossible, he would have sworn that the thatch was of solid gold.
After a while, the driver relented.
"The Hall of Spears," she announced in a more formal tone. "Some call it the Hall of Heroes. This is the place where those who die in battle find their last home, where they may rest from their wounds. Here they find refreshment and good cheer among their fellows, for a warrior is never truly at peace among lesser men."
"Who are you, then?" asked Snape. "You don't look much like a man of any kind to me."
The huge woman laughed hugely.
"I won the right to come here, just as you did. We Giants pay no heed to such trifles as that. It is sad that your parents never taught you our ways or our tongue – but there will be time enough later. As to your first question, my name is Ungh-gruh-zrann." She saw Snape's baffled expression, and smiled. "But I have an English name: you may call me Gunilla. Hush now – we come!"
The soft sound of hooves on air was suddenly replaced by the rattle of hoof on stone, startling after the long quiet. Soon they were driving along the side of the great hall, which was roofed not with gold, but with shields, laid in rows like slates, all of the brightest bronze that glimmered in the light of the torches. Many doors, great and small, were set in the wall, and these were all closed and barred, but for the largest of all, which had been left standing ajar. The woman who called herself Gunilla dismounted from the chariot, dusted herself off and motioned Snape and the giant to follow her. She drew her sword, and beat on the doors with the flat. The doors swung soundlessly open, and the three of them stepped through.
They entered a huge hall full of Giants, seated at long trestle tables fashioned from huge breastplates, feasting on roasted meat and drinking mead from great horns. Snape had not known so many Giants had existed in all the history of the world. Some were dressed in the finely wrought armour of the earliest legends, some were draped in lengths of brocade or tapestry looted from some great house or castle; some wore simple tunics of hides or nothing at all. Some were hale and hearty, flawless in their hairy Giant way, others were old with grizzled hair on face and body, and others bore terrible scars. About a third were women.
All of them turned to the door as they entered, and a deafening cheer went up. Again Snape automatically winced and clutched his head, and again he realised that the pain was gone. As were the aches from his injuries as a young man, the eczema on his hands and elbows and the aches in his teeth from grinding them at night. He was starting to realise that death was a lot more comfortable than being alive.
He realised that silence had fallen. A Giant wearing a wreath of golden leaves leapt onto one of the tables, and began to declaim in a hoarse, deep, resonant voice to the accompaniment of a bass drum. At intervals the other Giants stamped their feet and roared approval – all except the Giant behind him, who hung his head and blushed.
"It is the Lay of Grah-wuh-phag," said Gunilla in his ear. "The bard tells the story of a mighty warrior and a great heart, plucked against his will from an honourable death by his elder brother, who through his weakness could not bear to see his brother die. Though still a prisoner, the warrior brought hope and Art to two lost children, for all that they were not of his race. He died with great honour, defending innocent younglings whom his brother had sworn to protect, thereby repaying his life debt, turning honour halved into honour doubled, and shame into rejoicing."
The bard finished his recitation, and the giant Gruh-wah-phag flew across the room to enfold him in a crushing embrace, tears pouring down his woolly cheeks. Other giants leapt up to pound Gruh-wah-phag on the back, utter encouraging words and offer him meat and mead. He sat down at the centre of a happily chatting crowd.
Silence fell again. Three Giants clambered onto the table, one carrying a giant war-harp as big as he was. He plucked a chord, and taking their cue from it, the other two giants drew breath and burst into song. The one furthest away was singing in Giant, but the closer of the two was chanting in English, and Snape could hear every word.
"Silence, comrades, cease your feasting," he sang, "and let your ears be opened to my words. I sing to you of valour hidden by honour's cloak, of a mind as sharp as a sword to pierce the hearts of his enemies. Though mean in stature, he went where mighty men dared not, and gave his life for friendship's sake – silence for the Lay of Severus Snape, the Half-Blood Prince!"
The rest was all in couplets, as the bard went on to sing all of Snape's deeds – and it was plain that whoever this Giant was, he knew a lot more about these than Snape was comfortable with. Why, even Dumbledore had never found out about that…
The shock was so acute that it took Snape a while to realise something else: the author of the Lay was on his side. Snape had always considered himself an honourable man, constrained by circumstances to perform shady and sometimes downright dishonourable actions, but he knew that few others in Hogwarts had ever viewed him in that light, and there was not a human soul living who had never doubted him. And yet a stranger had seen into his heart, and known that, however sordid his deeds, however dubious the means he had employed in his many moments of desperation, Severus Snape had turned from evil and never once repented of his choice. He knew that McGonagall had frequently suspected him of playing both ends against the middle; that Dolores Umbridge had thought him a coward who went over to the wining side out of fear, just as she had; that even Dumbledore had thought him blind to Potter's suffering when he had wished only to temper the boy into a more worthy instrument against the Dark Lord – but this man had read his soul and seen his deeds for what Snape had always meant them to be.
The song drew to its end, as the singer praised him as a true-hearted friend and staunch ally, who had thrown himself in front of the killing curse aimed at the kindly man who had befriended him as a boy. Even as his death overtook him, Snape the mighty hero had come back to exhort his broken-hearted comrade to rise and defeat the foe.
This is propaganda, pure and simple, Snape thought to himself. No-one can be that good – I've done hideous things in my time, whatever the song says – and I'm no suicidal Gryffindor… I'm sure it never happened like that… if only I could remember what really did happen…
With a final triumphant chord, the song drew to its thundering conclusion. There was a long, charged pause, and Snape experienced a stomach-churning moment of doubt. Had the giants seen through this pretty fiction to the unpleasant man behind it? And if they had – what then? Would he be turned out of the Hall of Heroes, to wander forever in the cold dark outside?
The moment passed. There was a collective sigh of indrawn breath, and then the spell broke. The giants broke into rapturous shouts and cheers, stamping their feet – and in more than one case, dashing tears from their eyes.
The next ten minutes were a blur, as Giant after Giant came up to pound him on the back and shout unintelligible words of congratulation in his ear. One thrust an enormous horn of ale into his hand; another plucked a horned helm from its peg on the wall and dumped it unceremoniously on his head, where it shrunk at once to fit him amid good-natured cheers. Utterly nonplussed at this complete lack of derision, sarcasm or even suspicion, Snape allowed himself to be led to one of the benches, where more Giants plied him with great, dripping slices carved from a huge roast from the central firepit, and toasted him with horn after horn of mead.
I mustn't drink so much, he said to himself. It could be a trap… He broke off, laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. What were they going to do, kill him?
He made a grab for the proffered horn of mead and downed it in one gulp, to appreciative hoots and growls from the giants around him.
When he came to some time later, the feasting had moved to another part of the hall, and he was stretched out over the table, head resting on his arms. Some kindly soul had removed the horned helmet and put it beside him on the bench. Snape groaned, stretched and rubbed his head, only to realise that he had neither hangover nor backache. The afterlife had a lot going for it, it appeared.
The Giantess who had told him to call her Gunilla was standing next to him.
"I see you're awake," she said.
"Did I do all right?" asked Snape. "I wasn't sure how to behave…"
"You did very well, for someone with no knowledge of our customs," she said. "You've made quite a hit with some of my sisters over there – you should have heard them: Oh, the straight hair; oh, the high nose; that smooth, hairless face, such a pity he's so tiny…"
Snape scowled furiously, and resolved to grow a beard at once.
"You mustn't mind them," Gunilla said. "It's going to take some of the older ones a while to get used to you, you being only half blood and all…"
"Half blood?" blustered Snape, aware that he was on shaky ground. "Have you any idea who I am? My mother, Eileen Prince, could trace her family back ten generations, and every one of them a pureblooded Wizard! My father's origins are shrouded in mystery and could very well be magical!"
"Look, it doesn't matter, really it doesn't," Gunilla continued. "You're here on your own merits now, not just by birth, though I'll admit I was expecting you to be a lot bigger and hairier. Now if you'd been that other chap, the one you were shouting at when you tried to go back… oh…"
She and Snape stared at each other in horror, as the same realisation hit them both.
Snape had taken the Avada Kedavera meant for Hagrid. And then he had come to the Hall of Heroes, taking the place that should by rights have been Hagrid's.
The silence seemed to go on and on.
"What are you going to do?" asked Snape at last. "Are you going to send me away? Where am I supposed to go?"
"I don't know," Gunilla replied, in something close to a wail, which contrasted strangely with her statuesque, warlike build. "I'm only new – this was my first Ride – how was I supposed to know this was going to happen?"
She stared at him for a minute, deep in thought. Then she picked up the heavy skirts of her robe and set off at a run.
"Don't move, and don't do anything silly!" she shouted over her shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can!"
Snape slumped back to the table with a groan. He should have known it was too good to last. In his foolish weakness, he had actually had the temerity to believe in the hero's welcome he had received in this place, and – poor, gullible booby that he was – he had welcomed and enjoyed it, in spite of instincts honed over the course of a lifetime of deception and rejection. Severus Snape, traitor and spy, useful to so many but despised by all, an honoured guest in the Hall of Heroes? The very thought was absurd – laughable in fact.
Well, he had been well and truly taken in – but no more. He would face whatever punishment was coming his way with dignity, and whatever awaited him next with courage. Torment and misery, no doubt – people like him were entitled to no more. He might have known that he would have to pay for his presumption sooner or later.
The most mortifying thing of all, he reflected, was how much the thought of leaving all that warmth and good cheer hurt.
A huge hand descended on his shoulder. Snape turned, thinking it must be Gunilla with news of his fate, but instead he found himself staring into the face of a large, ferociously scarred male Giant in a suit of heavy plate armour, wielding a terrifying-looking club in each hand. A dozen or so other giants stood behind him, some armoured, some in robes or roughly cured hides, a couple naked, but all armed for battle.
With a terrifying scowl, the Giant waved both his clubs in mid-air, bared his teeth and roared something unintelligible. Even before the minstrel from the night before shouldered his way through the group to translate: "This hero, he wishes a duel", Snape knew nothing good was going to come of it.
A lesser man – especially one lost in existential self-doubt as Snape had been – might have been paralysed at the sight of a gargantuan, battle-scarred warrior bearing down on him, with a dozen heavily armed cronies at his back. But Severus Snape's battle reflexes had been developing since his childhood, and he reacted almost without thinking. He kicked his bench aside, slipped under the table, scrambled past the astonished Giants at the other side, crawling over their feet and causing them to spill their mead, straightened up, took his heels and ran.
For a second, Snape thought he was going to make it, but the faster he ran, the more Giants joined in the chase, hooting and cheering. By the time they finally cornered him in an angle between the tables and the wall, they were almost a hundred to one, and Snape knew that the time for flight was past. Well, so be it – in the Hall of Heroes he should face them like a hero, whatever the outcome. He palmed his wand beneath the voluminous sleeves of his robe, and waited in silence as his assailant approached, until he could see the whites of his eyes. At that moment he pointed his wand straight at the Giant's eyes, yelling "Stupefy!"
With the slow, silent inevitability of an avalanche, the Giant fell face-forward onto the table in front of him, sending up a fountain of mead and gravy. There was a short, stunned silence, and then, with a collective growl, the rest of the giants closed in on him. Snape shut his eyes and waited for death.
In the scrum that ensued, it took Snape several minutes and a particularly loud-voiced interpreter to realise that the mob of Giants were attempting not to beat him death but to clap him on the back. He was picked up from the middle of the scrum, huge hands dusted him off, the horned helmet was returned to him and a horn of ale thrust into his hand. It appeared that his nerve under pressure and the cold desperation of his last stand had met with approval, and the Giants were particularly fascinated by his magic wand – or, as they insisted on describing it, "his tiny stick" (Unfair! thought Snape, it's a full twelve and a half inches – a very respectable size for a wizard of my age!). Giants are impervious to most forms of magic, but have no magical culture of their own. These were most impressed by the Reparo he performed on the broken table, and he was overwhelmed with questions about "his tiny stick", its use and function, in mimes and broken English. In the meantime, the minstrel had upended a keg of beer over Snape's fallen adversary, who had now managed to sit up, and was being teased unmercifully about his defeat at the hands of such a tiny foe. Another Giant, who had been tuning an enormous war-harp, plucked out a thunderous chord and burst into throaty song. It was a catchy tune, and soon the rest of the company were beating on the tables and joining in the chorus. The minstrel from the previous night whispered in his ear that Rawh-turrh-guugg, famous composer of drinking songs, was improvising a new piece: The Ballad of Severus the Small and his Tiny, Tiny Stick. He translated the words for Snape as the song progressed – by the time Gunilla showed up at the table it had reached a total of seventeen verses, twelve of which were very rude.
Snape, who had so far forgotten himself under the influence of all the mead and friendliness as to be on the point of attempting to join in the final rousing chorus, abruptly sobered up. He got up and followed Gunilla to a quieter part of the Hall where they could talk undisturbed.
"It is very strange," she said to him. "I have consulted the Tomes of Lore, and your name is entered with full honour in the Roll of Heroes – no-one could dispute your right to be here in any case, not if The Ballad of Severus the Small and his Tiny, Tiny Stick is anything to go by. However, your life must have been even more complicated than I realised, as your name also appears in the lists of the Garden of Paradise and a newly created hell. All of these places are open to you – it remains only for you to choose. Personally, I hope you will stay, as you will be most appreciated here – almost all our kind are dead now, and we so seldom see new heroes in this place. Of course, you will miss your own people – but with time you will learn our language, and perhaps with proper nourishment you may even grow a little… well… taller…"
Snape swallowed. "How do I choose?" he asked.
"Most of us get bored with feasting – yes, even the fighting – after a decade or two, and we turn to other matters: art, philosophy, science or the more practical arts," she said. "Mugh-phaa-rrawh, the famous warrior who battled a dragon for twenty days and twenty nights without rest has turned his hand to astronomy, and created a device rather like what you would call a telescope. I do not understand the principles, but he tells me that you may observe the other afterlives through his lenses, and make your own decision. He is waiting by his machine. Will you come?"
Gunilla led him through the Hall of Heroes, which was even larger than it had appeared from the outside. This time, Snape noticed doors leading off the main hall, some of which were ajar, and through which he could glimpse vast libraries, a theatre, huge workshops where giants carved enormous sculptures in stone or blew delicate glass vessels as light as thistledown, a laboratory full the most intriguing glass tubes and crucibles…
At last they passed through the main doors and out into the starlight. This time, though, they walked parallel to the side of the building, past the stables, where a bunch of bloodstained but cheerful Giants on horseback were returning from what seemed to be a hunt, judging by the huge, tentacled monstrosity strapped to the back of the largest horse. They called out cheerily, indicating by gestures that they were going to roast their prize in the Great Hall, and Gunilla and Snape should drop by and taste it later on. They passed a battle-scarred warrior with a shield strapped to his back watering a bed of superb peonies, a Giantess in a leather apron beating out a red-hot sword on an anvil, and a delicate wind chime that tinkled and rustled as they passed. When they finally came to the telescope, a huge bronze and crystal structure, adjusted by an interlocking set of enamelled cogs, Snape had seen so many wonders that he was almost ready to forego his chance to see Paradise on the spot. However, the telescope's creator (a craggy young male in an uncured sheepskin loincloth) greeted him with such enthusiasm, and put so much effort into the correct pointing and focussing of the machine that there seemed no polite way to refuse.
At last the telescope was ready, and Snape put his eye to one of its eyepieces. At first he could see nothing, but gradually his eyes started to focus, and pictures began to form, blurred at first, but quickly becoming more distinct. Then came a buzzing noise by his ear, which grew louder until he began to distinguish definite sounds, and finally words.
He saw a verdant garden, full of blooming plants, sunlight, birdsong, soft greenery and trees heavy with fruit or blossom. His heart caught in his throat as he saw Albus Dumbledore walking under an alley of Cheering Cherry Trees in full bloom, arm in arm with Emmeline Vance and a dazed-looking Kate Sprout. The trees hooted and shook their branches as the two passed, showering them with soft, fragrant petals until Dumbledore raised a warning finger to his lips, at which point the branches furled themselves neatly, and Dumbledore was able to continue.
"…No, my dears," he was saying. "Poor Severus was never an easy man – we all know he could be very trying at times – but everything he did was done at my command. You didn't see him in the final battle: he crossed the Hogwarts barrier by night, risking his life so that we would be ready for Voldemort's forces when they came. He led the final charge where the danger was greatest, even though he was already wounded in half a dozen places, first from escaping the Death Eaters' lair, then by our side when Lord Voldemort's forces attempted to gain access to the castle. And then, after all that, to take the Aveda Kedavra curse meant for Hagrid, just because of a fleeting memory of kindness shown to him as a boy...
"So," Dumbledore concluded, "whatever else Severus Snape may be, he died a hero, not a traitor. In fact, I'm surprised not to have seen him already, to tell you the truth – no doubt he'll be along shortly."
"Rubbish," said Kate Sprout. "The wretched man was a turncoat, pure and simple – cared for nothing but his own skin. I was against him coming back, even under observation, and I don't care who knows it! And how you can stick up for him after what he did to you I'll never know…"
"Quite right," said Emmeline Vance, with some heat. "He sicced the Death Eaters onto me, and don't think I don't know! They never got a word about the Order's plans out of me – but believe me, it wasn't easy! Hero's death, my foot – Snape didn't even have the stones to take me on in person, the nasty little rat."
"Snape?" asked a younger voice, and the head of that silly Quidditch player who had bought it in the Triwizard Tournament popped up from behind a bush, where he had been gorging himself on its ripe berries. "No sign of Snape here, thank the lord – imagine – stalking around, handing out detentions and unpleasant remarks left, right and rat's ramble – dreadful type… I think I'd leave, wouldn't you?"
"Cedric!" Sprout cried blissfully, clasping the youth to her bosom with a squish. "Oh, Cedric, I might have known I'd see you in Paradise! A credit to our House – I always said as much! – Bless you, dear boy!" She brushed away a tear.
"Oh, really," said the youth, looking sickeningly bashful, "it was nothing…"
Snape had had enough.
"I don't think I need to see any more," he said, and stood back from the telescope.
"And that's where I should have ended up?" Snape said after a long pause. "That garden was Paradise?"
"I must say I'm surprised," Gunilla replied. "It seemed a lot more your kind of place when I read about it in the Tomes of Lore – much nicer people, for a start. I'd have thought they would have spoken about you with a bit more respect, after all your bravery and sacrifice!" she continued in tones of deep disapproval. "Do these people have no standards at all?"
"Well, I did kill the kindly old man they all worshipped as a saint and loved as a father, to be scrupulously fair…" said Snape, rubbing the back of his neck and feeling surprisingly awkward.
"So?" Gunilla shrugged her huge shoulders. "You were at war. Here, we follow the Old Way, and you are judged by valour alone, not by the petty moralities of the weak. No, perhaps to them that place would seem a great reward – but it is not for you."
"And that's it, then?" said Snape, feeling obscurely let down. "All clear, all understood? No more mystery, no intriguing moral ambiguity? No more is-he-evil-or-isn't-he? You must appreciate that this comes as something as a shock to the system. I did kill a kindly old man who was fighting to save us all when he was sick and disarmed, you know – really I did."
"So you keep saying," Gunilla replied patiently. "And I've been doing my best to explain to you that for us a valiant death wipes out all wrongs. Really, if you want to be consigned to a Hell, there are still plenty of vacancies in the new one your precious Dark Lord created. Perhaps you'd care to take a look? I promise you won't like it any better. Even though most of the people there still think it's a Heaven."
Snape did his best not to look intrigued, apparently without much success, as Gunilla gestured to the giant working the great telescope, who set to again with a will. With much creaking and groaning, the apparatus swung round to a new position, and when Snape looked through the eyepiece again, he found himself surveying a very different scene.
Anything less like a hell it would have been hard to imagine. Snape saw a long room whose floors, walls and ceilings were all of the finest polished white marble. Torches burned with clear white flames in gilded sconces supported by cherubs and decorated with elaborate carvings of overflowing cornucopias of fruit and great swags of carved marble drapery. White columns in a vaguely Greek style held up the ceiling, and mirrors in heavy gold frames threw back the torchlight into the centre of the room. Between the mirrors, wine was gushing in bubbling amber torrents into cockle-shell basins balanced on the backs of prancing sea-serpents.
At one end of the long chamber was a dais, on which Voldemort sat enthroned in a great chair carved from a single block of blood-red marble into the shape of a rearing cobra, heavily engraved with runes of power and signs of the Zodiac. He wore a heavy toga of the most magnificent purple velvet, and was crowned with a heavy garland of gilt laurel leaves. Beneath the wreath, his pale, bald head turned slowly from side to side as his red eyes surveyed the scene below him with immense satisfaction.
Extending away from the throne was a long row of low marble tables, heavily decorated with gold leaf and flanked by two lines marble chairs, elaborately carved and heavily gilded, with arms in the shapes of intertwined wands and serpents. In each gilded chair was seated, rather stiffly, a male Death Eater in a toga of pure white, their hair loose and clean about their shoulders. White-clad women in Roman-style robes of finest silk, clasped at the shoulder with serpentine brooches of solid gold, were gliding between the seated men, bearing delicate gilded trays.
Bellatrix Lestrange was the first to bend the knee, heavy dark hair falling over her face, and a huge chalice of solid diamond held in her upraised hands.
"Drink, my lord!" she cried. "Taste the wine of victory that is rightfully yours!"
"Wine of victory?" muttered Snape to himself. "Some victory – you're all dead!"
Voldemort took the cup with ponderous satisfaction, raised it to his lips, paused and nodded in approval. Bellatrix rose to her feet, and Snape saw her sister Narcissa kneel in her place, head bowed, the tray in her hands raised high. She spoke in the soft, refined tones that had graced a thousand elegant dinner parties:
"Canapé, O great one?"
The spindly white fingers reached out, closed around a small pastry case stuffed with some kind of pale, prawn-based substance, and popped it into the lipless slit of a mouth. Another pregnant pause followed, and then Voldemort graciously inclined his head.
"Delightful, my dear," came the high, cold voice. "A good omen indeed. Ladies – you may go to your tasks."
An audible sigh of relief went up, and there was a visible relaxation of tension in the room – in so far as the hard, heavily carved chairs allowed. Narcissa and Bellatrix advanced with more goblets and nibbles on the table closest to Voldemort's throne. At the same time, the few other female Death Eaters were carrying similar fare to the lower tables. Low murmurs of "Sparkling wine?" and "Canapés?" filled the room, together with mutters of thanks.
Snape wondered what was going through Bellatrix's head at that moment, as she bent submissively towards her brother-in-law and one-time rival for the Dark Lord's favour, encouraging him in tones of the most perfect gentility to accept a goblet brimming with sparkling wine. Was it his imagination, or had he seen a vindictive smirk flash briefly over her sister's face?
There had never been many female Death Eaters, so it worked out quite well from the point of view of staffing – a couple of women to each long table. Snape had not noticed it before, but the tables had been arranged in a strict hierarchy, and he distinctly saw Hetty Crabbe, who had been one of the Devonshire Flints before marriage, engaged in a silent but vicious shoving match with Priscilla Malfoy, whose grandfather had been a Birmingham weevil breeder, over who got to serve vol-au-vents to the better of two tables. And over there was Messalina Edgecombe, who in life had ruled over the Department of Internal Strife at the Ministry of Magic with a rod of iron, serving sausages on sticks to Walden McNair, who had started his career as her tea boy. She had schooled her face to a mask of dutiful politeness, but the expression in her eyes was murderous. If they had been still alive, Snape would not have given a Knut's worth of Leprechaun gold for McNair's life.
Even more interesting were some of the gaps in the ranks: no Marcus, Aurelius or Cletus Flint; no Millicent Bulstrode, Draco Malfoy or Vincent Crabbe (though Gregory Goyle was sitting stiffly between Augustus Rookwood and Rabastan Lestrange, looking bored and fractious); no Horace Slughorn or Rosmerta Spinks; neither of the Casaubon twins nor a single member of the Parkinson family. Now he came to think of it, one of the things that gave the room an uncomfortable, temporary feel was the sense that it had been designed to hold many more occupants than it actually contained, and that tables had been concealed or moved out of the way in a hurry.
A part of Snape wanted to keep watching, taking in every last detail: Jepthah Nott and Rupert Thatcher jockeying for position over the head of the fourth table; Sophrona Goyle telling her husband in a furious undertone to remember where he was and not embarrass himself after too much wine like at Gregory's first Dark Ritual… but another part of Snape recalled that he was now a member of the Hall of Heroes, and that he had certain new standards to keep up. He removed his eye from the eyepiece of the telescope, stretched and straightened up.
"I'm quite ready to go back to the Hall of Heroes now," he stated. "I am forced to conclude that I don't belong there either, thank you very much."
Gunilla looked quizzically at Snape.
"I agree with you. And despite all my years of study, I do not understand your race. For this, they were prepared to turn against your human morality and duty? Not for glory, honour or valiant death, but for sparkling wine and dainty seafood nibbles?"
Snape considered for a minute before replying:
"I suppose that to many of them, this is elegance and taste, the way their forefathers lived and a return to traditional values – inasmuch as they ever considered the matter. I think it likely that they were too caught up with hatred of others to ever ask themselves what was actually good." said Snape, sobered as he spoke by the knowledge that he could have been describing his eighteen-year-old self. "Though it seems to me that this lack of foresight is something they will live to regret – if you'll pardon the expression. Especially if that performance is typical of their existence."
"Not altogether," said Gunilla. "I believe that tea and scones are served in the afternoons."
"Dear me," said Snape with a smirk. "Still, presumably when they realise what a tasteless, tedious hell they have created for themselves, they will be at liberty to leave, just as I would have been allowed to leave here if I had not come to my senses in time…"
"I'm afraid not," replied Gunilla. "That hall is technically classified as a hell, after all – and that means of course that it is not supplied with exits of any kind. Still, after a few hundred years of internal feuding and rebellion they may yet make something of it – it's happened before."
"Well, since there's nothing to be done for them," said Snape, "perhaps we should be getting back to the Hall. One of your fellow-residents was saying something about a Monster of the Deep roasting in one of the firepits…"
"You mean, one of our fellow-residents," corrected Gunilla with a smile.
"Indeed," said Severus the Small.