A Decoding of the Heart (Prologue)

Disclaimers :
JK Rowling created the Harry Potterverse ; Hogwarts and its inhabitants all belong to her. As she's not letting them out for another adventure until next year, I'm giving them some exercise - for pleasure not profit. Salomé the Snake is my own invention, the latest addition to Snape's Menagerie. Snape's beard/goatee /moustache may well belong to every other Sevromancer (and the American illustrator) but certainly does NOT belong here, or to me : it is Banished from this fic, understood ? Severus' forehead is in fact the property of Mr Sphinx, since he asked me (a tad plaintively) whether my favourite fantasy-figure bore any resemblance to him whatsoever.

Author's Notes :
First, an apology for the long absence. Been in computer exile for over five months, working on an exhibition and series of public art projects that demanded all my creative resources. I banned myself from writing, just in case it robbed my real work of necessary sparkle. To J L Matthews, Morrighan, Lilith Morgana and Winged Keys, huge thanks for the sustained and lively correspondence that kept me going in the gloomy Cybercafé‚ I frequented.
This story owes its existence to Morrighan, who suggested that I write a prequel to 'Letter from Exile One Merciful Morning', itself an alternative ending to Lupinlover's Snape-Hermione romance 'Beyond the Silver Rainbow.' Whilst I did fit my plot to Lupinlover's, in all the other respects the works don't match; besides, having more than once accused other S-H writers of Narrative Cheating (Hermione in love with Severus before the story starts so you don't have to explain it or make it convincing ) I felt obliged to write my own version.
My word, it IS difficult, isn't it ? Oh well, you can amuse yourselves watching a tormented Sphinx go through all manner of literary contortion acts to square her political/moral beliefs with a female student-male teacher romance. It's such a strain I've pulled all my cerebral muscles into lumps that can't think straight. Here's a titchy prologue (we're talking brief chapter postings) to show I still exist. The Explanation proper begins next chapter, mind.
I've also, in this interim, read far more Sevromances than are good for me. Any resemblance to Lilith Morgana's 'No Angel' is not intentional, but has certainly become recognisable. Quite uncannily, all our Severus stories have similar dynamics though they were written independently. We have agreed that twenty-first century feminist minds are bound to think alike, and are happy to deconstruct the patriarchal myth of Authorial Originality for anyone who'll listen (phew, thought not. Actually, all you need to know can be found in the book 'Gender and Genius' by Christine Battersby). Though the pacing of our stories is similar (SLOW - for instant shagging go elsewhere) and they are both post-Voldemort, I've steered mine away from her realism, and decided to tackle the inevitably Redemptive role of Hermione head-on. Very head-on, even though I'm an Atheist.
You may wish either to bless or curse the brilliant and insightful Morrighan, who hath delivered you a prequel but delayed the sequel thereby.
This all happens, not in an Alternative Universe, but a Slightly Dislocated one. For reasons that will become clearer in the sequel, this needs to take place in the academic year of 1999-2000. Hermione, Harry, Ron et al are in their 8th year at Hogwarts, the war with Voldemort having delayed their NEWTs. All their year have stayed on to make up for lost time (Literary Contortion no. 1 : Hermione is eighteen going on nineteen). Here, Voldemort's first defeat was in 1982, not 1981.
If you haven't read "Letter from Exile", read it before this. In plot terms this comes first, but hows and whys are more important than whats, and "Letter", which wrote itself in a week, is more inspired. It'd be a shame if you read this and decided not to bother with its predecessor. A kindly reviewer told me she'd be happy with something 'half as good' as that - so here it is.

Dead in the centre of the ancient cathedral at Chartres there is a labyrinth.

It is not in the least a frightening one, being neither underground nor made of walls. It is, indeed, no more than a diagram in black-and-white mosaic, designed by a nun some seven centuries ago. Compacted into a circle five-and-a-half metres across, its curved, double-backing path is exceedingly narrow. It falls into four distinct sections; only when you have covered every part of the track, switching from one wedge to the next in semi and quarter-circle swathes, do you reach the dead centre and find the straight line back to the world's edge.

Yes, the world's ; for despite its transparency, the readability of the path's progress, the labyrinth seems to be more than itself. It is not that it provokes a desire to uncover some hidden meaning - no doubt that died with the thirteenth century nun - but that every person who walks it applies it as a template to life as they see it and the world that they know. It is an infinitely re-usable, adaptable sign, suited to pilgrims of any sect.

That, certainly, is the view of Frère Laurent, who never tires of watching visitors try the labyrinth between noon and one-thirty each day (except Sunday) the only time it is opened. There is no ritual involved, yet the random individuals who can be found with heads down, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, are drawn into a casual unity that Frère Laurent finds endlessly pleasing. It is as if the labyrinth has settled the differences between them, demanding of each the same : patience, concentration and the ability to construct significance. For all that, it is the residual distinctiveness of each journey that fascinates our monk. Some people would clearly never make good pilgrims : they take short cuts across the rings instead of following them round, and exit any old how before reaching the middle. He imagines that such people get little out of life, though they expect to be given much. Others treat the labyrinth as a puzzle, constantly referring to the little photograph in their guide book so that they retain a sense of the whole while their eyes glaze over looking at the busy monochrome at their feet. Still others take as long as possible, as if each turn of the path represented a like change in their own lives. They pause in places, causing Frère Laurent to wonder what catastrophe or triumph they are recalling.

Youthful visitors approach the centre eagerly, as if it represents the fulfillment of love or ambition. The elderly do so with trepidation, as if it symbolises death. In truth, it could be either.

There are only two people on the labyrinth today - no surprise : the Easter holidays are over. It is the Saturday after Pâques but before the cluster of Bank Holidays in early May. They are obviously a couple. You can always tell, even when the labyrinth is crowded. (People who are alone keep their eyes fixed on the ground. Those who are together make eye contact across the circle, checking each others' progress.) Their serious air and sober clothes suggest they are among the many scholars who visit Chartres, except that the frequency with which their eyes meet shows Frère Laurent that they are as much concerned with reading each other as with deciphering the labyrinth.

It is hard to tell their ages. The man is clearly older, but has the thinness, and occasionally awkwardness, of adolescence. His features are overly sharp, and his excessive pallor all the more noticeable for the dark eyes and blue-black hair. Frère Laurent decides he is at least thirty-three, like Notre Seigneur when he died, for, he fancies, the man would look just like that emaciated effigy of Our Lord if only he had blue eyes, blond hair and a beard. The woman could be anything from sixteen to twenty-six. Her skin has the translucency of youth; she is freckled and rosy, with a girlishly snubbed nose and round eyes of, to be honest, a sludgy, indeterminate brown. It is her manner - poised, decisive - that gives her the authority of someone older; and her hair banishes girlishness : a short, geometric cut that reminds Frère Laurent of the scandal his nephew caused in the town's municipal gardens : the lad's avant-garde approach to topiary was much admired by Chartres' Adjointe Culturelle - but she was the only one. No-one else protested when the bushes were summarily cropped back to traditional lumps.

The couple have nearly completed their journey. They set off in opposite directions, but kept pace with one another all the way through to ensure they reached the middle together. Now they are circling each other tightly, hardly breaking eye-contact - a stately dance rather than miniature pilgrimage. When they achieve the centre they pause, locked implacably in a mutual gaze, but are too respectful of the place to kiss. They seem to be exchanging some kind of vow.

Suddenly they relax into smiles and saunter out, drifting over to the souvenir stalls by the West tower, where they pay thirty francs for the right to climb over three hundred steps to the top of the Cathedral. Frère Laurent frowns. There is something odd about them that goes beyond the age difference and (judging by their accents when they asked about the tower) Britishness. Something uncanny he can't quite put his finger on. They have a furtive look, as if they are involved in some secret deal, or are kids playing truant. (That is precisely what they are doing, but Frère Laurent can hardly know that.)

After half an hour, they still have not reappeared. Of course, most people linger over the tower. There are so many fascinating views. You can peer through to the interior of the Cathedral, get vertigo looking down at the flying buttresses and see all the carvings close up, marvelling at how stone can be delicate as lace. Many couples stop to scratch in their names and a date. That annoys Frère Laurent. The medieval masons were content to remain unnamed, leaving as their mark collective, un-attributed beauties. These tourists must needs tell you that they, personally, Were Here in disfiguring letters that damage the building. He decides to follow the pair up the tower. He climbs quickly, puffing for breath - it is incredibly hot for April - and he catches sight of them on a circular walkway right near the top. They are looking across to the other tower, perfectly still in the shimmering heat.

Then they disappear.

Frère Laurent blinks. He was not imagining it and they could not have simply slipped behind a pillar. He definitely saw them in front of one that, progressively, grew more visible as the two became translucent and vanished. He flops against the parapet. He has never been one of those 'religieux' who are subject to visions, and he has no intention of starting now. He grips the stone firmly, as if to reassure himself that he is solid - and notices something odd.

The ledge he is touching usually bears a particularly inept incision telling us that Jean-Pierre and Marie-Celeste were there in 1973. Now, instead, the same legend is carved in tiny gothic script, and the original graffiti nowhere to be seen. Frère Laurent spends the next hour missing lunch and checking the graffiti up and down the deserted tower. Nothing has been effaced, but every recorded presence changed to that same, delicate carving. There is one that is new. Lined up under an especially diabolical gargoyle he finds a minuscule rectangle, like the letter of an illuminated manuscript. It contains an ingeniously rendered lion and snake over the year : 2000 AD.

There is only one explanation. He knows the transformations have only just appeared - he walks up the tower every morning for exercise, and would have noticed. No ordinary human beings could have chiselled all those names so perfectly in under an hour.


Frère Laurent is not unduly perturbed. He knows of these things, and credits their existence just as he credits the existence, somewhere, of angels (though he's never met one personally.) Besides, this is definitely not magie noire. Quite the opposite : a modest, minor, considerate miracle. Why, if the two were to reappear in the Cathedral right now, he would personally go and Bless them. It has been a year of minor miracles; or rather, since last June, a period in which a series of evils evaporated, just like that. He remembers Easter '99 with a shudder. Even taking into account the notorious incompetence of the French police, there had been an unprecedented number of unsolved murders, rapes and possible suicides. In the confession box people had whispered to him continually of nightmares, of sick fantasies they never knew they had in them, and how they recurred no matter how many beads they counted off on their rosaries. Then it had all stopped; and every ordinary, happy event had taken on the aspect of enchantment. He can't help connecting, somehow, the cessation of unexplained terror with the unexplained presence of these two sorcerers.

He makes his way back down to the nave. His stomach is rumbling, and he'll have to wait a good five hours for supper (a moderate but tasty affair, for this is France and even a friar must eat, especially as it affords him a direct pleasure, not one acquired second hand from the imagined lives of others). Yet nothing can spoil his mood. The fragile labyrinth is now roped off. He wonders why the magical lovers walked it, and what they thought about when they did.

You, readers, may imagine more easily than Frère Laurent the thoughts of the pair as they snaked through that sacred maze. The little world they come from is likewise carved into quarters: four Houses, not alike in dignity, so they were charmed that, contrary to what first appears, the sections interlock, are one and the same path. For Hermione, the startling but orderly twists and turns underline the ever-intriguing gap between one's immediate perception of things and the understanding that comes with time and distance. Less than a year ago, setting out on this path (so to speak) she would never have guessed who she would find at the centre. Not simply knowledge, but the processes of acquiring it, fascinates her. For Severus, it is the exhaustiveness and repetition of the labyrinth that delights. It offers a multitude of chances to cover the same ground, and when you think you are almost finished, that there is no turning back, the path flips you to the outer rings and you are allowed to start again.

For me, the labyrinth is my only excuse. How Hermione Granger ever came to love Severus Snape, and he her, I can render convincingly only within such an artifice : one peculiar and complex enough to account for strange confrontations between desire and destiny ; one befuddling enough to give the impression of openness whilst actually conniving to deceive. We might as well confess, all of us, that we make indifferent pilgrims. I cannot pretend that we shall walk the whole labyrinth, that I shall never, by some narrative sleight of hand, nudge the characters across to the middle if the readers' desires (or mine) insist upon it. Nor would it be beyond me to snatch certain persons away from the dead centre, on the pretext that we have reached one of those hairpin bends that takes you back to the world's edge.

Character is but one of the Fates, the others being the reader and the writer. In the world of fiction, these sisters rule as a Trinity, or Triumvirate; and though Character has traditionally been accorded the most power (and Reader the least) most people concede that things are more egalitarian now. If desires and destinies are not in accord, all three are to blame.

So, let us go back to the beginning of the path, to a sweltering day in late June, in London, in 1999.

It was Honours Day at the Ministry, and the speech was getting long.

Ha - bet you weren't expecting that! (unless I've emailed you my angst.) Next Chapter (1) - Severus-n-Sirius confrontation plus very odd scene in a hairdressers' (maybe); why Hermione ditches Ron; Salomé the snake's chat with Harry and a return to ordinary past tense narrative.

Brownie points for spotting the two refs to Romeo and Juliet, and knowing which novelist said "Character is fate."