Birch-Wood and Dragon-Heartstring, 11¾ Inches
AN: Heaps of fluffy and wonderful thanks go out to The Pinch-Hitting Beta, Birgit. She rocketh muchly. The undisputed fact is that Birgit Rockamole!
I don't really post my HP fiction on that much anymore, but this story is here by special request. Iva1201 wrote to me and asked for it, so here it is, Iva - I hope you like it.
ETA: Oh yes, one more thing... As I write, this fic has managed to garner twenty-two reviews. That's okay. I think I'm doing alright, considering most of these fics here at ff dot net have about fifteen minutes' worth of 'front page' time. But then I checked my stats and I discovered that over eight-hundred people read this fic! It boggled my bloody mind. Eight-hundred versus twenty-two. You don't have to be a math scholar to see that there's a rather large amount of disparity between the reader/review ratio. So... what I'm trying to say is, if you like it, please say! It doesn't have to be anything particularly profound. Just "Cheers, Ada. I like it so far" would be fab.
Now on with the fic!
The air pulses, and Ollivander is fascinated.
He floats in silence, high up above the clouds in the starry night sky - his cloak rippling and snapping, like a ship's sail, in the cold breeze. Below him, the colour of the clouds swirls, frozen, as if they were blind etchings for spectator delight. The dusty silver of the full moon scatters on his exposed face, glinting off skin and hair, casting gossamer threads of light into the night. The creature is here somewhere, he knows, drawing on the power of the moon and the night air, spinning a cocoon of living, shivering silk within which to encase him. As if reading his thoughts, a single tendril of air curls treacherously around his ankle. Yet there is no worry in his mind. He has done this before. He knows exactly what to do.
Before him, a hand stretches out, reaching for a strand of the silvery, fibrous ether. It is his own hand, and it appears almost transparent in the unnatural glare of the full moon: the skin, pale, taut and shining, stretched over protruding bone. As his hand makes to touch it, the ether shies away with a faint sigh of distress. His thin lips quirk with amusement, and with a swiftness defying his aged appearance, he snatches it, rips it, draws it to him. He can feel it beneath his clenched fist. It is sticky, like a cobweb, rippling and desperate. Icy blue eyes regard it dispassionately. He smiles.
Now he has it.
Whirling around him, whipping up his robes into a frenzy, sending electric blue sparks crackling through his white hair, its neighbours, as though sensing a break in the ranks, attempt to close in all the tighter. Again, a smile. His wand rises. His lips move. The air dissipates. The defence is broken.
There, he sees it.
It affords him no time at all. But there is no reason why it should. It knows why he is here. The briefest of moments passes in a flash. The air pulses once again, and a formless, writhing column of elemental energy rushes at him, aiming to kill, to rid itself of the irritant pursuing it. But Ollivander is ready and he raises his wand, his eyes fixed upon it. He murmurs the incantation and just before it reaches him, a pair of jaws - lined with rows of teeth, impossibly sharp and glittering like glass - are forced into being from nothingness and snap at him ferociously, only to miss. Hissing, frustrated, it curls in on itself in mid-air with a noise like a whip-crack and turns to face the wizard, baring its teeth and flapping its great wings that fan out majestically above it, that curl lovingly around its lithe, silvery-white body as two great plumes of colourless smoke. Its eyes burn in its sockets with a cold, spectral fire and he laughs as he feels the weight of its gaze pressing down upon his heart, freezing, constricting. But this does not matter, for he knows he does not have long to wait.
The air pulses. A searing heat. The night sky is suddenly ablaze. Scarlet, fiery orange and gold roar and dance before his eyes. A star is falling. It is what he has been waiting for. But he must be swift, for now he hears the creature crying out in fear, a keening, a whimpering - unbecoming of such a noble creature. For it knows.
A wry smile. He speaks the incantation. The creature turns to flee, but finds that it cannot. With a bang, the star falls into his cupped hands, burning with a beautiful, inconsiderate fierceness, jettisoning sharp rays and piercing the mist, the frost and the abjuring clouds. The light of the creature's eyes pales as it looks upon him. Unmoved, he closes his eyes, and at his command, with a fizzing, sputtering start, the star thunders towards his quarry, and with a shuddering boom that shakes the very heavens, it drives itself deep into the heart of the creature, which roars in agony as it twists and writhes, drifting between form and formlessness, falling through clouds and plummeting to earth - fluttering like a streamer of paper - in a ghostly, flickering sliver of silver light.
And right at that moment, eleven year old Severus Snape jolted awake in his room in Spinner's End with a yell.
Moonlight streamed in through the window, illuminating a narrow bedroom with meagre furnishings. A rickety desk and chair sat in a corner; a battered, woebegone wardrobe squatted in another; and a bookshelf filled to capacity - the extras scattered about randomly on the bare floor - sat next to an austere-looking single bed, upon which young Severus Snape sat bolt upright and very much awake. His black hair, freshly washed and smelling of shampoo, was slick with sweat, his breaths came short and sharp, and he was trembling as though he'd just run a mile. Grimacing, he drew his knees up into his chest and rested his head upon them, trying to calm himself down.
He was also angry. Angry with himself, angry and astonished that a silly dream could cause him to react like this. He was eleven, for heaven's sake - and he was going to Hogwarts soon!
Get a grip and pull yourself together! It was a dream. Just a dream...
Yet it had seemed so real. He had seen the strange Hunter's eyes glinting with triumph as he broke the spell, had smelt the frost and mist clinging to exposed skin and hair and had felt... Had felt...
Slowly, hesitantly, he felt a shaking hand moving upwards to touch his heart. It was fluttering in his chest like a caged bird. In his dream when the Hunter had sent the star blazing towards the creature, he had felt the full weight of the force slamming into it, crushing its fragile ribcage, compressing, burning, consuming flesh and bone and turning them to cinders and ashes. He had felt its pain...
For a moment, his hand on his heart, he remained very still, as though he were considering something. Then he threw the covers back and, raising himself up on his knees, he peered out of the window.
Over the rooftops of the houses across the road, he could make out the forest just beyond - in the early hours of the morning, an indistinct, black, shivering mass - and in the darkness of his bedroom, hardly even daring to breathe, he watched and waited.
About a minute later, it came. A weak flicker of silver light in the forest. He felt an urgent jolt in the pit of his stomach.
It's still alive...
To this day, he would not be able to say what possessed him that night, would be unable to tell what drove him to do it. All he knew was that in that instant, it was of absolute importance that he saw the creature, that he got to it as swiftly as his legs could carry him.
And so Severus Snape leapt from his bed, forced his feet into his school shoes, pulled a thick, woolen sweater over his head, opened his window, and climbed out, down the usual exit he used when he didn't want to wake his father, down the criss-cross latticework of wood covered in trailing ivy until his feet hit the small square of lawn his mother had used as a drying green. For a moment, he hesitated, looking up at his father's bedroom window. The light was off. Muttering a brief thanks to whatever deity seemed to be watching over him tonight, he shot off down the close and raced out onto the main road, heading straight for the forest, driven by a terribly palpable sense of urgency.
Please don't be dead! I can help you! Hold on...
But could he help? He was a wizard, yes, and he knew some spells, but he didn't have a wand yet to practise them.
For some reason, this thought only caused him to run faster down the deserted street. Maybe when he found it, he could see just how badly it had been hurt and then go for help. But, he realised as the thought crept treacherously into the confines of his mind, who could he call for help?
If only mum were here...
When he reached the end of the road, he didn't slow down as he approached the grassy embankment, but hit it at a run, hurtling down the hill and plunging headlong into the forest. The ground was soaked with dew and his pyjama bottoms were getting filthy; he knew he would pay for it in the morning, but right now he didn't care. Tree trunks flashed past in a blur and the dim amber glow of the streetlights had faded to black. His head darted from right to left, searching, searching for the faintest glimmer, for a sign that the creature was still living. And there, to his left - an eerie silvery light, fatuous bright, flickered weakly in amongst the trees. His stomach lurched. It was dying...
"Please... Wait!" he gasped, as he pushed his way through and ducked under low-lying branches. "I'm here! Please, hold on! I can help you! I won't let him hurt you! I can..."
As he pushed the last branch out of his way, covered in mud, soaking and exhausted, he caught his first glimpse of the dragon and gasped, his black eyes round with astonishment and wonder.
It was, in its present form, resolutely solid and it was both the saddest and the most beautiful thing eleven year old Severus had ever seen. Its scales were pure white and shone, opalescent, covering its sleek and strong serpentine body. It had no legs, but its wings, its magnificent wings, trailed out forlornly across the forest floor - bat-like, but filmy and transparent, coated with an argent shimmer. It had no spines, like other dragons did, but instead had a flowing mane of hair of a striking cobalt blue - a blue that matched its eyes, that gazed, unfocused, at Severus, through half-closed lids. Blood, black and viscous like oil, coated the forest floor making it damp and sticky. Severus kept slipping on it as he drew cautiously nearer, wondering what had caused it to lose so much blood. And then, his question was answered. Severus had to fight back a wave of nausea at the sight of the wound. The impact of the star had all but blown a hole in its chest, and its heart, purplish and pulsating, was raw and exposed beneath glistening fragments of shattered bone. Transfixed, Severus' mouth gaped in horror as he watched it - still beating - at a loss for words and for what to do.
But the dragon saved him the trouble. For the first of many times, he heard it speak to him, its words effortlessly entering his thoughts, though its presence was weak. It said: "I am not long for this world, young wizard."
Severus said nothing for a while. He knew what the dragon was saying was probably true, but that didn't make him feel any better. He had come out here in hope of saving it - and if his father found out he'd been out in the forest at this time of night to go and help an injured dragon, he was pretty sure he'd be in big trouble. If he did manage to save it, though, then it would be worth getting into trouble. There was no way he was going back until he had at least tried.
"Can't I do anything?" he asked.
The dragon closed its eyes and fell silent. For a horrible moment, Severus thought it had died, but then it made a rumbling noise and opened its eyes. It seemed to have been considering something.
"Yes, young wizard," it said. "There is something that can be done."
"Then tell me!" Severus said impatiently, frustrated and bewildered as to why the dragon would waste time like this when it knew it was dying. "Bloody well tell me, you stupid dragon, or I'll leave you lying here for him to come and rip your heart out! And he will," he added angrily, "I know what wand cores are made of!"
There was a pause and then, unbelievably, the dragon began to laugh a low, rumbling laugh, its scales shaking with mirth, though its breaths were ragged and it was obvious it was in pain. "Stupid dragon, am I?" the dragon said, clearly amused. "You are proud and brave, young wizard. There are few who would even dare to try and capture me, let alone insult me to my face - especially one so young and inexperienced."
Visibly affronted, and bristling from the allusion to his lack of knowledge and expertise, Severus' lip curled. However, at the same time, the dragon's words brought the gravity of his situation crashing down upon him like a ton of bricks. Here he was, small and skinny even for his age, outside in a forest in the wee hours of the morning, alone, unable to call for help even if he wanted to, and standing in his pyjama bottoms bandying words with a dragon that could probably, with one swift movement, snap his head clean off even in its weakened state. Severus started to feel a bit sick and inwardly scolded himself for being so incredibly stupid. He was terrified, but he did not let himself show it, for that was a sign of weakness (as his father often said) and the dragon would take advantage if it knew he was weak. So instead, he drew himself up to his full height and looked the dragon straight in the eye.
"Then if I'm so young and inexperienced, perhaps you won't be needing my help," he said bitterly.
There was a tense moment of silence as each looked at the other - dragon and boy wizard. Electric blue met smouldering black. In the forest nothing stirred and the only sound was that of the dragon's laboured breathing. Neither appeared willing to give in, their pride unwilling to let them. Minutes passed without a sound and Severus had to steel his will to keep himself from shaking or running away.
"That is not what I meant," the dragon said, its voice barely a whisper. "Please... Would you help me?"
Unbidden, at the sound of the dragon's plea, the urge to heal rose strongly within Severus, and genuine, heartfelt concern for the dragon's plight crept back into the corners of his heart which had lately been held by fear.
"What do I have to do?" he asked quietly. His voice quavered a little, but his eyes shone with determination. He knew what had to be done, and if there was any way he could help this dragon, he'd do it if it killed him.
"Come closer..." it breathed, "...and place your hand upon my heart."
At that moment, Severus' resolve nearly failed him and he recoiled instinctively, the mingled look of shock and betrayal upon his young face unmistakable even in the gloom of the forest. "Do you think I'm that stupid?" he hissed. "You'll snap my head off as soon as I take a step closer!"
"Upon my honour, young wizard, I shall not harm you," the dragon said earnestly. "Not before, nor even after, for then I shall be eternally bound to you. And besides," it added with a touch of amusement, "why would I kill my rescuer? Then a dragon's honour would be worth nothing and that would truly be a tragedy."
Severus briefly agonised over the dragon's logic and then came to a decision, nodding his head once. Saying nothing, his lips thinned into a grim expression of determination, he began to edge slowly towards the prostrate creature, his right hand stretched out before him. His mouth felt dry as cotton and he was shaking, though now he wasn't sure whether that was out of fear or exhilaration. Up close, he could see the dragon's pearly-scaled chest rising and falling - could hear it wheezing and gasping for breath.
There was so much blood.
He could feel his feet slithering around on it beneath him, threatening to send him to earth with a bump. He could smell it, unpleasantly hot and tangy, and had to fight an irresistible urge to slap his hands over his nose and mouth. There was so much blood, Severus even imagined he could taste it - and wanted nothing more than a glass of water to wash it away. But beyond all reason, still he advanced.
Then, at last, he stopped in front of the dragon and knelt down on the ground. He felt blood seeping through his pyjama bottoms and a faint echo in the back of his mind reminded him that he was going to be in so much trouble in the morning, but he didn't much care. Slowly, hesitantly, he placed his hand upon the dragon's heart and instantly withdrew it again, repulsed, when it contracted, fiery-hot and wet beneath his fingers.
"Please..." the dragon whispered hoarsely.
Taking a deep shuddering breath, Severus briefly cast his eyes skyward.
Why am I doing this?
Then he steeled himself, screwed his eyes shut and plunged his hand deep into the open wound and wrapped his pale fingers around the dragon's heart. The dragon thrashed and roared in pain, its whip-like tail thrashing and flailing wildly. Panic gripped Severus and he cried out as he felt himself being tossed around on the ground, on his knees, by the dragon, and so he clutched all the more tightly to the one thing he knew for certain he had a hold on. The dragon's roars grew louder, more ferocious and it twisted and writhed and hissed and spat and Severus felt his hands slipping...
"I c-can't hold on… much longer!" he screamed. "I can't hold on if you keep fighting me! Stop fighting me! STOP IT!"
And then it happened.
Severus, up to his elbows in dragon, felt the wound contract.
What the hell was that?
Severus looked down at his arms in horror as a tingling sensation spread up them. Instinctively, he tried to pull them away, but they were stuck fast. The tingling rapidly began to spread to his chest, his legs, his feet - every part of his body - and his mind was screaming at him to get away, but he found that he had neither the will nor the desire to resist. He could still feel the dragon's heart in his hands, but it was beating strongly now - and it was wonderful! It was the most wonderful thing in the world! Flesh, sinew and bone shifted, shaped itself and reformed in his hands, and as he felt all his strength going into making this happen, he realised he was grinning and laughing.
I'm doing magic...
Somehow, Severus knew what he had to do, and just as he felt diamond-hard scales closing in around him, he slid both his arms out in one fluid motion and fainted.
Dawns rosy fingers gently prised away the last remaining traces of darkness, giving light to the pale sky. In the forest, Severus awoke, his limbs stiff and frozen. Immediately, he went through the inventory check one usually performs when one wakes up in a strange place and can't quite remember getting there, always concluding with the ultimate question: Why am I here?
With a start, he remembered the dragon and sat up, automatically scanning the maze of trees to see whether it was still there. It wasn't, but instead, Severus was greeted with the sight of another ominously familiar presence. He froze. A pair of icy blue eyes regarded him, on the surface, with amusement, but Severus could see that there was nothing about the situation that amused the man in the slightest. He wore a heavy, leather cloak and boots and his wand at his side in a sheath. His face was lined and his hair was wild and white, but Severus knew that despite his aged appearance, this was not a man to cross.
"So, how did you do it, boy?" the hunter asked casually, fixing him with that unnerving misty gaze.
Severus drew his legs up toward his chest and wrapped his arms around him but did not take his eyes off the Hunter. Instead, he shivered defiantly at him as if daring him to say anything else, while he did some quick thinking. Then, he settled on his approach and replied, as scathingly as he dared, "If you touch me, I'll call the police."
The Hunter laughed, but again, there was no humour in it. "Don't be obtuse, boy," he said, his voice deceptively soft. "You're covered in amphiptere blood - up to your elbows in it. How did you do it?"
He'd only read about them in books, and even then some had argued that the evidence for its existence was tenuous at best, mainly because no one had ever seen them except in dreams. He should have known. It had no legs, only wings, and it had come from the sky - formless like smoke - in his dreams. His heart swelled with a sense of great privilege of not only having seen one in the flesh, but of having spoken to one.
Hah! How's that for evidence, you tedious old gits!
But these thoughts were shoved unceremoniously to the back of his mind. He had more pressing matters to attend to...
"Blood?" he said flatly, an eyebrow raised, as if he had serious doubts about the man's sanity. "It's mud. I've just got dirty from lying here all night. I sleepwalk all the time - it's nothing new! And what the hell is an ampleteer, anyway?"
"I should hope you would be able to tell me, having managed to heal one of a grievous, mortal wound with neither a wand nor any magical education," the Hunter replied, unrelenting.
"Look, mister," Severus snapped, getting angry that the Hunter wasn't buying his story, "I don't know what you're talking about, but if you don't leave me alone, I'll call the police." Wrapping his sweater around him, he staggered to his feet, ignoring the yammering protests of every aching muscle in his body, and threw the Hunter the filthiest glare he could muster. Looking over his shoulder as he started off back home, he added coldly, "And if you follow me, there'll be hell to pay."
"Oh, I don't doubt that, boy," the Hunter said gravely as he watched the skinny, dark-haired boy with the proud, black eyes weave his way through the forest until he was out of sight, "I don't doubt that at all..."
From somewhere in the trees, there came a faint but menacing hiss and the hem of Ollivander's robes began to sway even though there was no breeze. Around him, the air began to feel uncomfortably heavy.
"I'm impressed," he announced, "you managed to call on him, get him out here and convince him to heal you in time. And you picked a good one too," he added thoughtfully. "Most fortunate for you. He will grow up to be a powerful wizard, there's no doubt about that. And you're watching over him already, that's good to see. Yes, it is good to know that a dragon's honour is still worth something." This comment elicited a wry smile from Ollivander, before he added, more seriously, "Though is the boy aware of the cost?"
Suddenly, he felt a band of air pressure creeping like a noose around his neck. He laughed derisively.
"So you didn't tell him. No, I didn't think so. Though he may have went ahead with it anyway, even if you had told him. He seems the type. Could have saved yourself a bit of trouble if you weren't so concerned about saving your own hide."
As the pressure on his neck grew stronger, he deftly extricated his wand from its sheath and held it aloft.
"He's going to be very angry when he finds out, you know. At least you could have afforded him the courtesy of having a choice in the matter."
Then he uttered the incantation, spun once, twice, three times on the spot before disappearing with a sharp crack, leaving the forest, once again, in silence.
The air pulsed, and all at once, the pressure lifted. Slowly, gradually, the dawn light penetrated the rustling, emerald mass and the birds felt that they could safely sing once again.
A few minutes later, Severus clambered through his bedroom window, filthy, shivering and absolutely exhausted. When he felt his feet touch the carpet, he collapsed onto it in a heap. His head was spinning and he felt strangely empty. Then he noticed that there was something in his hand, something he had been holding, clenched tightly in his fist.
Slowly, he uncurled his fist and, with astonishment, he saw a silvery string of gossamer thread glittering in his palm.
A dragon heartstring?
His eyes wide, he stroked it with a thin finger and smiled a little. It was fragile and felt cool and smooth like silk. Fascinated, he gazed at it for a while, before he reached under his bed for one of the empty jars he kept his potions ingredients in. Gently, he placed the heartstring inside and screwed the lid tight shut.
Feeling very, very tired, he took off his wet clothes and, after he put on clean pyjamas, he crawled into bed. Smiling, he remembered that it was Saturday, and his last thoughts before he drifted off to sleep were that he might just get away with this, after all.