"Well, goodbye for now," Horace said.
"Yeh take care," Hagrid growled as he opened the door for his friend.
They smiled a bit tiredly at each other, their eyes speaking of how worried both of them were. Hagrid sighed.
"We'll see each other tomorrow again."
"Yes, we will."
Horace went out through the door and waved at Hagrid. He heard the door closing and started to walk towards the castle. He did not choose the shortest path, but a rather longer one that would allow him to pass the greenhouses to collect some potion ingredients. He shivered slightly and wrapped his coat tighter around him to close out the coldness of the summer night.
He and Hagrid had spent nearly every day since Dumbledore's death together. Either the morning or the evening had they been sitting together in Hagrid's cozy hut, in Horace's office, in the comfy staff room or in the Hog's Head. Talking sometimes, more often not. Just sitting together and sharing each others company had usually felt sufficient, and what was there to say anyway? Every day when they parted they assured each other that they would see each other soon again. Horace wondered if Hagrid really meant it. He knew for sure that he never believed it himself. With Dumbledore dead it was only a matter of time until the Dark Lord would pay Hogwarts a visit, and what hope would they have then?
Walking in thoughts, Horace did not notice the shapes in the edge of the forest. He did not hear the whispered commands, nor did he see the light reflected in the white masks covering the faces of the people waiting for him. Not until they stepped out from the shadows, in front of him, behind him and at his sides. They were glancing nervously around, keeping an eye on the path as well as on the castle.
"Mister Slughorn," one of them said in a hoarse voice. '"We are so glad to see you..." His companion's laughed a bit at that. Horace stood as petrified in their midst. There was nowhere to run.
"We have a proposition for you," the death eater went on. "Please follow us." And Horace was led into the forest. His mind raced. This was it. They had came for him as last as he had known all along they would. He was dead.
He had no idea of how long they had walked. It could have been five minutes or an hour. The death eaters seemed to be nervous and jumpy, constantly keeping watch towards the dark forest. Finally they came to a small windowless cabin made of bricks. They motioned to him to step inside and he did.
Inside the cabin was nothing but a small table and a few chairs. There was a cold fireplace in one corner and a mouldy bed in another. The death eaters filtered in, and the one who had spoken before turned to him. He sneered under the mask. Horace involuntarily took a step backwards.
"Now, Mister Slughorn," he hissed. "You must realize that we are not your enemies. On the contrary we have a very generous offer for you. The Dark Lord has always spoken very highly about your ability. We would like you to join us. To use your extensive knowledge in the service of the worthy cause. What do you say?"
Horace did not answer. He felt his heart beat, wondering how many more beats it would have time for, and he realized that he did not want to die. He did not want to be killed. Not here and now, anyway. Not until he had had time to put his businesses in order. His throat was dry, he was unable to speak. The death eater frowned.
"I do understand your concern, Mister Slughorn," he went on, his voice oily. "You fear giving up the comfortable lifestyle you have nurtured so far. You fear the life for the worthy cause is a life on the run. On the contrary, Mister Slughorn. The Dark Lord can offer you rewards for your services, for your loyalty, far beyond your wildest dreams. After all, what has ever your service to Dumbledore given you apart from a drafty dungeon?'
"Hurry up," one of the death eaters at the door said nervously. A woman. "We are far too close to the castle."
"I know," the first death eater snarled in an annoyed voice. He turned to Horace again. "So what will it be? Will you join the worthy cause or not? You have to make a decision."
And Horace knew he was right. He had to make a decision. Briefly he thought of his wand in his pocket. Or the first one of the three hip flasks he always carried with him. But no, he realized. They were prepared. They were too many. Leaving him just one option, except for giving in...
"You will be of great service to the Dark Lord, you know," the death eater prompted.
...which was not an option at all. He did not want to die, right enough, but neither did he want other to die for his hand, for his poisons or for the truths revealed by his veritaserum. He had lived a long life, and had certainly made enough damage already. He was not to help the Dark Lord one more time, that he knew. And for his businesses - hadn't he spent the past three years preparing for just this moment, all since he had heard about the black mark at the Quidditch World Cup? He was as prepared as he could ever be. And he was as good as dead.
Pity on Hagrid, though.
"You can tell your lord," he answered, his left hand casually stretching to his pocket, "that if he had listened to my advice when he was still Tom Riddle, he would not have needed it now when he is Voldemort."
And he grabbed the third of his hip bottles and raised it to his lips in one swift motion.
But he did never drink. A gasp from the door interrupted him.
In the doorway could be seen a horse. A pale, winged spectral horse with fangs and red eyes, radiating a strange, unearthly intelligence. Horace, as well as the death eaters, stared at it, for a moment too taken aback by the sudden appearance of the spectres of death to do anything . Behind it two more could be glimpsed. There was not a single person it the room who could not see them.
"Don't mind the thestrals," the woman cried. "He defied the Dark Lord. Put the Imperius Curse on him and let us get out of..." and her words were cut off by a scream, as her right arm was pierced by a shining cross-bow bolt. Blood flowed from the wound and her wand fell to the floor. A yell was heard from outside the hut.
"Oi! Yeh lot get lost. Fang, Fluffy, get 'em!"
The death eaters quickly ran to the door, wands ready, but they fell back as they were confronted by two enormous dogs, sharing between them four heads, growling, snarling and biting. Behind the beasts the unmistakable shape of Hagrid could be seen, frantically reloading his cross-bow. To his horror, Horace saw a spell hit his friend, but it did not seem to have any effect whatsoever.
"Hagrid!!" Horace cried, without consciously thinking on it dropping the hip flask. It fell to the floor, the deadly poison it contained flowing out, mingling with the blood and dirt, unused. Horace did not need it any more. No one was currently guarding him. He had been given a third choice, and without reflecting on it, he had chosen to live.
His hand flew back to his pocket, producing the first of the hip flask he always carried. The one that had taken him months and months again to brew. The defence he had prepared. He drank it, feeling the tastes and textures, even the temperatures, of the droughts differing as he drank. Not many wizards could brew a potion like this. A cocktail of multi layered potions, each preserving its own effect. Troll blood for strength, Snake spit for speed, Eagle draught for the sharpness of mind. 'Tinselweed' for blood. Murtlap against wounds, dragon scales against fire, mandrake draught against petrifying. And last a little gulp of Felix Felicis for what nothing but luck can guard you against. He felt his mind and body boil with the different potions and he reached for his wand. The after-effects would be dire, he knew, but the potion at least had given him a chance to survive. What more than a chance could he ever ask for anyway?
The death eaters were shouting orders, organizing their attacks, forcing the two dogs back. The thestrals were silently moving in the edge of the battle, undoubtedly waiting for their feast. Urged on by Felix, Horace quickly shielded a spell that had been intended for the middle of the tree-headed dog Fluffy's heads. He was moving unnaturally fast, and before the death eaters had really realized what he was up to, he had managed to knock the wand away for two of them. But then he had to defend himself, and even if the world seem to move in slow motion, his enemies were far too good at their deadly craft. Horace backed off against the wall, curses showering over him. He deflected them, Felix giving him a few moments warning. Then the crossbow sang again and another death eater sank to the floor, hit in the chest. Hagrid had thrown away his weapon and was now on his way towards them, his fists held high, roaring in rage. Horace managed to shield a death spell aimed at the approaching half giant, but then he was forced back again. The dogs were both down, panting and whining, not moving from the ground.
Hagrid reached the closest death eater and sent him flying across the room. The next in his path met with the same fate. No one that could see Hagrid in that moment - his enormous body outlined against the evening sky, his hammerlike fists moving up and down, hear his enraged bellowing - would ever doubt the non-human blood in his veins. He seemed to be made of wood and stone rather than flesh and blood. He fought as a troll, or a pissed off rhino, caring about as much for the humans in his path as an avalanche cares for the little wooden villages on the mountain side. Two of his enemies had boldly stayed in the door, showering him with hexes, but they were grabbed in a gigantic fist each and slammed together. Horace winced as he heard the only too characteristic sound of crushing bone. But it had given the remaining death eaters the time they needed to prepare their defence, and their next round of curses forced Hagrid down, despite Horace's best effort to protect his friend. The half giant was breathing heavily and his face was bleeding badly. Horace shielded another curse aimed for his friend and managed to stun the death eater that had talked to him earlier. Then he was hit in the chest. With the potion still burning in his blood he felt next to nothing, and even if it made him sway, he still stood. But he knew that it was a nasty wound he had just received.
"Kill them both," the woman sneered between gritted teeth. Her hand seemed to have been healed in a rushed way. The bleeding had stopped anyway, and she had retrieved her wand. The death eaters raised their wands and Horace did the same in a desperate attempt to shield as many of their curses as he could. But Felix told him to wait.
A sound as of thunder was heard and suddenly the pale moon light was in the cabin. It took a few moments before Horace and the death eaters realized what had happened, but then they saw that the roof was gone. Through the hole they could see the night sky, but most of it was blocked by an enormous face, grotesque and sulking. A large hand reached down towards them. One of the death eaters started to giggle nervously.
"So the Dark Lord sent one of the giants to help us? Isn't it fitting for Dumbledore's half breed to be finished by his own kind?"
"This isn't one of ours," another objected with rising panic in his voice. "I think it's..." And his words were replaced by a scream as the horrible hand caught him and lifted him out of sight. The scream was abruptly cut off, and a horrible crunching could be heard.
"HAGGER!!" boomed the voice of the giant, stretching down his hand again, causing the remaining death eaters to run in panic. Horace prepared to follow them, to try to stun one or a few of them in the back, but Felix told him otherwise.
Hagrid laid with closed eyes on the dirty floor, breathing painfully in small gasps, blood trickling from his mouth. His face was pale as the moon above them. With a sudden coldness in his breast Horace dropped his wand and gripped for the remaining of his three hip flasks, the one containing the strong healing potion. He forced the strong jaws of his friend open and pushed the bottle towards his lips, making him drink. Whether or not he actually could make the gigantic man swallow he did not know. All he knew that he had to keep trying. Somewhere in the forest, he heard screams, but he ignored them. He could feel the potion he had taken wear off, feel the heaviness and ache creeping into his head and body. He wondered if he should have taken that third potion after all.
That was how the aurors found them when they arrived. The death eaters had fled, but the dogs and the giant had kept them from retrieving their fallen comrades, which were moved to St Mungos under close watch from the aurors. By then, some small spots of colour had returned to Hagrid's face. Horace himself looked just as bad as the fallen half giant. The curse wound he had received felt like an open gap in his flesh and his head was close to exploding. Even his eyeballs ached. Horace did not protest, did nearly not notice, as he was gently drawn to his feet and together with his friend moved by portkey to the hospital wing.
Horace didn't wake up until well into the third day after that. He ached all over, even in parts of his body he had since long forgotten that he had, and he felt exhausted, despite the long rest. But his mood was lifted considerable as he saw the many get-well-cards, chocolate boxes, wine bottles and other gifts from various members of the Slug Club. They still remember me....
Before he had had time to examine the haul properly, the door opened, and his gigantic friend entered. Without any ceremonies, Hagrid threw himself down on the chair beside the bed and let out a sigh. He looked tired, with big black bags under his eyes. His face was decorated with a fresh collection of scars, and his clothes were newly washed, which was a sure sign that he had spent at least some days in bed, giving the house elves time to fight off the complicated ecosystem that had evolved in his pockets. His eyes, however, were warm, and twinkled when they met Horace's.
"So, yeh woke up after all," he rumbled. Horace smiled at him.
"Seems like I did. And so did you." Hagrid shrugged.
"Been up for a full day. Spent most of it in the forest, rounding up the thestrals and calmin' the critters. An' you've just been sleeping it over."
"I'm older than you," Horace said dismissingly. "I need my sleep."
Hagrid chuckled and they looked at each other for a little while, smiling. Then the smiles left their faces, almost simultaneously.
"Don't yeh go dying on me again," Hagrid said seriously. "I'm not loosin' 'nother friend just yet."
"I won't," Horace assured him. "I won't give Riddle the pleasure. You better keep yourself out of trouble too."
"Oh, I'm fine," Hagrid said. "Take's more than those wimps to get a big fella such as myself. 'specially in the forest... Really, they were the ones that were lucky to get out of it alive."
"I can imagine," Horace agreed, shuddering at the memory of the thestrals in the edge of the battlefield, eagerly waiting to feast on the fallen.
"'ere," Hagrid, suddenly said, picking up one of Horace's chocolate frogs and tossing it to his friend. "You're still pale as a sheet, eat sum of that chocolate instead of just hoardin' it."
Horace felt a tiny stab of annoyance as Hagrid handled his gift so very recklessly, but it faded away almost immediately. He had been hording quite a few things, other than chocolate, for entirely too long, after all. He picked up the frog and made a generous gesture to his friend.
"Help yourself," he said, and Hagrid happily did. Then the room fell into that kind of silence caused by all its inhabitants suddenly being busy with stuffing themselves with chocolate. Horace smiled and picked up the card that had been included with the frog. He looked at it and his smile disappeared. He looked up and met Hagrid's eyes, that suddenly had tears in them.
"Dumbledore..." he softly said. Hagrid nodded.
"Yeah. Mine too."
Suddenly, Horace didn't want any more sweets. He sat up more properly in bed.
"He really left us at the worst possible time, didn't he?" he asked the world in general. Hagrid shook his head.
"Must have had a reason for leavin'... he wouldn't have walked away on us otherwise..."
"I suppose..." Slughorn agreed without much feeling. Suddenly he felt very old.
"What will happen to us now?" he asked. The half-giant shrugged.
"Dunno, really... I'll stay here an' keep an eye on the critters an' the grounds, I suppose. Wouldn't want any more of the scums to sneak up here. If we get any students next year, I'll teach 'em. I'll try to help Harry as good as I can... If he needs a door crushed or a neck broken, or just a friend to listen to 'im. He really got the shitty end of the stick, didn't he? I'll help. What'll you do, Horace?"
Yes, what indeed? Horace didn't answer for a moment. He looked at the picture in his hand, the picture of the happily smiling, twinkling headmaster emeritus who until recently had been the free wizarding world's greatest hope. He shrugged.
"Stay here, of course. Where else? I'll brew my potions and gather my information; the Slug Club is good for more than Christmas gifts, I'll have you know. Potter will need some Felix when he leaves, and possibly a very strong healing potion. He'll have them. And I'm needed as the head of Slytherin house more than ever. Those young girls and boys will find themselves more alone, more despised and more singled out than ever. They will find themselves subject to whispers about a Dark Lord that really appreciates them and their services. They'll need me to point out what monster their "Dark Lord" really is, and what their alternatives are."
Hagrid nodded approval.
"I'm glad to hear it. Yeh and me are needed here. We can't let Dumbledore down."
"No, when all is said and done, we can't. And if we die, as we very well could have done this night, then we'll at least have done something right before we do."
"Hey, Horace. None of that talk. We might just live through this yet. Yeh and me're too old and too clever an' too tough just to go an' snuff it. We'll make it some way."
"You really think so?" Horace asked tentatively, smiling at his friend.
"Hey, I know it," Hagrid cried. "An' when the war is over, you an me'll sit in my ol' hut again, drinkin' the goblin-made beer and singin' 'bout Odo. Yeh an' me an' Fang an' Harry an' Ron an' Hermione an' all of us. We'll make it through the war, I tell you!"
Horace laughed at his beaming friend and raised his half eaten chocolate frog in a mock toast.
"Then I say; To friendship, to victory, and to goblin brewed beer."
"And may the two of us meet again to drink when the war is over."