(I apologise for the hideously long delay in getting this chapter out. I have made some plans, so hopefully the next one should be done quicker. The edited bits are just before the first line break and at the end.)
The group set up camp some time later. Harry set to work on his essay as soon as he could, sending glances at Snape and Hermione while chewing on his quill nervously. Sirius went hunting and Hermione sat down to pray to her God.
Ron approached Snape determinedly. The Death Knight looked up at the younger Fighter as he sat down on the grass. Snape was rubbing his broadsword down with an old cloth. Ron frowned at the already-gleaming metal.
"Does it need that?" he asked.
"There are enchantments in place to stop it from rusting," Snape didn't stop his polishing. "But old habits – very old habits – die hard."
"I noticed, with mine, the blood sort of... vanished after a bit," Ron said.
"As it should."
Ron rested his hand on the shortsword strapped to his belt. Snape noticed and gave a nod of approval.
"Seems you can learn after all," said the Death Knight.
"I've never needed to have a backup weapon before," Ron said, "I guess we'll be doing a bit more than chasing off the nearest bunch of Kobolds."
Snape made a noise of agreement. He put aside his sword and tugged his mace out of his belt. Ron watched carefully as Snape turned his attention to the spiky metal.
"Is that difficult to use?" the younger Fighter asked, "It looks a bit heavy."
Snape snorted. "Perhaps for you and any others who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of a bludgeoning weapon. 'The heavier they are, the harder they hit.' As one of my teachers was fond of saying."
"You had teachers?" Ron gaped.
"Did you believe me to have come into being like this? Fully skilled in the weapons of my choice?" Snape shook his head. "I thought you knew my story, boy."
"I do," Ron said quickly, "But it hadn't occurred to me that you were..."
"Human?" Snape asked, pausing in his cleaning, "A boy?"
Ron scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. "Well..."
"Even the Dark Lich learnt his early magics from an older Mage," Snape resumed his cleaning.
"I just never really thought about Undead like that," Ron said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Snape paused again. "I can safely say that in the past ten years approximately ten thousand Undead have been created. Zombies and Skeletons," Snape scoffed with a wave of his hand, "Unsentient, mindless things, completely useless for any real purpose. But it is still an impressive number."
Ron mouthed 'ten thousand'.
"Let us now say that a quarter of them will have actually died during that time, the others will be decades old. That leaves us with twenty-five hundred who have been animated to fight for the side they opposed in life. Let us take another quarter – for those who had their homes in Gryffindor alone – and a third of that for residents of Hogsmead."
Ron just stared at Snape in horror.
"Now we have... two hundred and ten, a nice round figure."
"People from Hogsmead were turned into Undead?" Ron asked, not quite believing Snape.
"Thinking on that," Snape continued, "I am quite sure that some of them found work in my Keep."
"You –!" Ron jumped to his feet, drawing his sword.
"Control yourself, Weasley," Snape barked, "I did not animate them myself. Sit down and think before you act."
Still scowling Ron lowered himself back to the ground.
Ron scowled. "Why aren't you telling Harry that? He's the one that nearly blew up you and Hermione."
"I have," Snape answered, "And just because he still needs to think before acting does not give you an excuse to let your temper control your actions."
"Shut up!" Ron yelled.
"My my, Weasley, you certainly cannot deal with criticism, can you?" Snape taunted.
Ron jumped to his feet again, brandishing his sword. Snape tucked the rag into his belt and rose more sedately. Harry watched in worried anticipation.
"Don't talk to me like that," Ron snapped.
"Are you challenging me, boy?" Snape sneered.
Ron attacked without warning. Snape fended off the blows easily.
"You are not a Berserker," Snape lectured, "Your anger is a hindrance, not a help."
"Stop. Telling. Me. What. To. Do!" Ron punctuated each word with a swing of his sword.
"Then learn," Snape grabbed Ron's wrist and twisted until he dropped his sword, "Listen to those who have a far vaster experience than yourself and appreciate that they are willing to teach you."
"Let go of me," Ron spat.
"You do realise," Snape said conversationally, "If I tighten my grip much more," he pulled Ron's wrist in front of his face, "I could cripple you in such a way that you could never wield a sword again."
Ron tried to tug his hand out of Snape's, but the Death Knight's grip was like iron.
"Let go of me," Ron snarled.
Snape gave an experimental squeeze and the colour drained from Ron's face.
"As you can probably tell, I have never had this done to my own arm," Snape continued calmly, but his eyes were blazing. "It would be interesting to see how it affects you."
"Let go," Ron begged, "Please."
Snape dropped his hand and, with an almost disappointed sigh, sheathed his sword and tucked his mace back into his belt. Ron, however, was shivering and rubbing his bruised wrist. He picked his sword off the ground awkwardly, using his left hand instead of his right.
"Have... Have you ever done that to someone before?" Ron asked.
"Many years ago," Snape replied, "The Dark Lich was very impressed during the second war."
"I thought you were on our side," Ron said warily.
"I was," Snape said firmly, "But it is... difficult, to infiltrate enemy ranks if you are unprepared to follow their orders."
"I guess," Ron awkwardly put his sword back into its scabbard.
"Did you approach me purely for the chance to test your skills? Or perhaps there was something more motivating you," Snape said, watching Ron carefully.
"Er..." Ron began awkwardly, "I wanted to thank you for saving Hermione." He held out his hand.
Snape shook it after a second's hesitation.
"Hermione?" Harry asked quietly.
Hermione opened her eyes and shook her head to clear the trance she was in. Harry dropped to the ground in front of her with a clumsy clatter. Hermione's lips twitched, but she managed not to smile.
"Well..." Harry scratched his nose and smudged ink all over it, "Snape set me an essay... and I was wondering if you could help me... or not, if you're still mad I'll go away! But I wanted to say sorry again, and I thought this might help, and..."
"Calm down," Hermione chided, "Let me have a look."
Harry handed over a roll of parchment covered in his messy handwriting. Blots of ink almost obscured a few words and Harry had clearly leant on it, as some of the words were smudged.
"I know it's a bit messy," Harry said apologetically, "I'm used to writing on tables."
"I understand," Hermione assured him, "And it's awfully nice of you to try Slytherin on a rough surface."
Harry frowned. "Nice of me? I just made it indecipherable."
"It will save Lord Snape from translating. I always find no matter how much practise I get with other languages, Gryffindor is always the easiest for me to read." Hermione explained. "Don't you find that?"
"Snape's from Slytherin?" Harry asked incredulously.
"Haven't you read the history of the First Downfall?" Hermione scolded. "Honestly, Harry, I'm surprised you even passed any of your exams."
"I'm not that bad," Harry complained, "It's just History."
Hermione made a 'humph' noise, but began reading the essay instead of berating Harry.
The Fireball spell is one of the most common well known Mage spells. Even as a child I could be found pretending to cast it in your 'adventures'. Up until that day I had yet to see it cast, thus I was surprise to see the amount of hurt it did...
Hermione sighed and reached for a quill to begin correcting. Harry hid a smile, things were looking up.
Sirius returned with a solitary rabbit, muttering unseemly things about Death Knights scaring dinner off under his breath.
After the meal, Sirius plucked at his lute a few times. A tune softly filled the air and the Half-elf began a tale.
"Our story begins, dear listeners, some hundred years ago. The Ancient Black Dragon Ebony terrorises any town or village she came across. None are able to escape her wrath, not even such a town as Godric's Port.
"Ebony was, as all Dragons are, obsessed with treasure. Anything shiny or magical and they were on it like jam on toast. Farms had been known to be destroyed, purely because Ebony had caught the sun on the blade of a scythe and believed it to be something of value.
"Now, the Queen of Gryffindor had a prized collection of jewels, she loved them like she loved nothing else. The King built a twisted maze, full of traps and monsters and riddles. A dungeon of magnificent proportions, enough to keep out an entire legion of Dragons.
"Of course, our vicious villain Ebony did not reach her advanced years without a small amount of cunning about her. Unable to even enter the crooked passageways of the King's labyrinth, she sought out any men who were willing to follow her orders.
"They laid out their plans and waited for the opportune moment.
"But what is a story without a hero? Here I am praising the villain's mind, but not a word about the bright hero. Well, our hero, a noble, handsome man is nothing but a farmhand at the moment. After all, are not the best heroes those who start with the most humble of beginnings?
"Our hero had always dreamed of adventure. Often the great bulk of Ebony had flown overhead. Our hero swore to be the one to take the beast out of the skies before the acid breath melted his home.
"Since it is all well and good promising these sort of things, our hero must prove himself, must he not? So, one night, our hero overhears the whisperings of the Dragon's faithful. 'Tonight,' they whisper, 'Tonight we will rob the King!"
"What is our hero to do, except of course rush to the palace and warn the guards. The armoured folk laugh at our hero. 'Who could get through His Majesty's maze?' they scoff, 'Begone with you, before we find reason to run you through.' Our hero, finding none who will help him, runs off to stop the brigands himself.
"Now you may believe our hero is to be gutted the second he stands up to the thieves. But he is quite a bit smarter than that. After all, he is the hero of our tale. So, under the cover of darkness, as the thieves stole into the King's labyrinth, our hero stole into the Dragon's lair.
"A Black Dragon's lair is a sight to behold, or so I've been told. A large pool of water surrounded by heaps of gold and jewels. The Blacks can breathe underwater of course, so that is where our villain lay in slumber, waiting for her henchmen to return.
"Our hero begins searching the mound of treasure for an artefact he had heard tell of. As dawn approaches he stumbles across it finally. A crystal, as big as a man's head, that has the power to transform water into unbreakable diamond. It will petrify anyone who dares to touch it with their bare hands.
"Luckily, our hero has heard enough of the tales to know to wrap a cloth around his hand before grabbing the crystal. At that moment there is a loud growling noise. Ebony has woken!
"Knowing he had but seconds, our hero throws the crystal with all of his might toward the pool. It works its magic, solidifying the water quickly, but not quickly enough! Ebony Manages to get her ugly snout and eyes out of the water before it crystallises around her.
"'Man,' Ebony rasps, 'Get me out and I will reward you by not killing you.' Our hero trembles at that terrible voice, but holds his ground, as the word of the Black Dragons is as worthless as anything touched by their corrosive breath.
"Our hero hoists his sword, readying himself to end the life of this monster. Ebony sees this and spits a jet of black acid at the man. Our hero jumps out of the way, but his left hand is caught in the caustic spray. The flesh melts from the bone and Ebony laughs at our hero's scream of agony.
"That laugh was Ebony's last. Our hero stabbed the Dragon through the eye, ending his life with a single stroke.
"At that second the thieves returned with the Queens jewels. Our hero apprehended them and led them back to Godric's Port and the prison where they belonged. The Queen was ecstatic to have her precious jewels back and bade the King knight the young hero.
"The King did so happily, now that Ebony was dead he had decidedly less trouble. However, when they reached the ceremony, it turned out that our hero did not know the family name to which he belonged. People whispered amongst themselves, 'Such a scandal!' they said.
"However, the King had no trouble with this. 'Since you have defeated such a dangerous beast,' said he, 'You shall take its name. Arise, Sir Black.'"
There was a respectful silence, broken by Ron's snores.
"When I first heard that tale, there was an adventuring party, not just an inexperienced farmhand that slew the Dragon," Snape commented, "The leader took the name 'Black' and it was one of the spellcasters who froze the Dragon's lake."
"Different versions," Sirius shrugged, "The basics are true, but it makes for a much better story this way. And it puts people off stealing large gems, just in case they'll be petrified."
"So it did actually happen then?" Harry asked.
Sirius held up his left hand. A birthmark wrapped around the palm and over his thumb. He traced it carefully.
"Any Black has this mark, from where Ebony melted the hand of our ancestor," Sirius said.
"Wow," said Harry.
"Sleep now," Snape ordered, "If you fall off your horse I will drag you along the ground."
Grumbling, but yawning, Harry settled down for the night.
(Apologies for the re-write, but there was no way I could write further until I'd gotten past this point.)