The Sword and the Doe
This story was written for the Support Stacie auction. The premise is: What if Ron had not arrived in time to rescue Harry when he is fetching the Sword of Gryffindor from the pond where Snape has planted it?
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 19. Setting: the Forest of Dean. Harry and Hermione are hiding out. They had to decamp the last location because someone was nosing around their campsite. It is night time. Harry is on watch, sitting at the entrance to the tent, wearing every sweater he possesses. He is repeatedly nodding off.
The night reached such a depth of velvety blackness that he might have been suspended in limbo between Disapparition and Apparition. He had just held up a hand in front of his face to see whether he could make out his fingers when it happened.
A bright silver light appeared right ahead of him, moving through the trees. Whatever the source, it was moving soundlessly. The light seemed simply to drift towards him.
Harry surged to his feet, brandishing Hermione's wand. His lips parted to call out for his friend, but instead of shouting to rouse her, they drew tight again. Something had reached inside him, and he stood dumb, caught up in the eerie emotions rising within him. As the glow approached, lighting the side of one great oak after the next, the feeling grew stronger. Harry was being unraveled by a gentle touch that found its way knowingly through an impossible tangle of old wounds. Harry did not want Hermione to awaken. The intimacy of the feeling was too personal to share with anyone.
The searing core of the glow stepped out from between two bulky trees and Harry caught his breath. The glow emanated from a pure silver doe. She made her way just above the ground, casting a brilliant light that clearly outlined the heavily grooved bark around her and threw the branches in the canopy high above into white relief on the dark sky.
She rotated her head to face Harry as she came fully into view, her gaze, her form so familiar, his heart ached all the way to its depths. Dizziness forced Harry to draw a neglected breath. He swayed faintly, arms limp at his sides, caught up utterly by the doe lifting her head high and contemplating him with her large gentle eyes. Harry knew her but could not remember ever seeing her before. He knew her better than he knew anything in the world and he could stand there, graced by her light, forever, if possible. She bore a truth, just for him, as if he had summoned her by staring into the Mirror of Erised.
Leading with her head, the doe turned, and strode delicately away, moving immediately behind a stout trunk, so that only her glow remained visible, shifting from one trunk to another.
"No," Harry breathed. Something scarred and wounded had connected inside of him and he could feel it tearing away again. The glow flickered through the trees, receding, leaving him alone to nurse the hollow it had outlined around his heart. The forest around him returned to unyielding darkness as the glow shrunk with distance. A cold wind rattled through, pummeling Harry's legs with gritty snow.
Unable to imagine how something so true could be dark magic, and yearning beyond reason to bask in that glow again, Harry pursued. He jogged at first, feet crushing the light snow cover, snapping branches underfoot. In contrast to the doe, who moved soundlessly, he was a lumbering giant going through the trees.
This thought made Harry hesitate. He looked back, worried suddenly about leaving Hermione alone. But the trees behind him stood empty. The tent had disappeared; he had moved beyond the magic protecting it. A simple wand wave would make it reappear, but . . . Harry glanced back at the doe, still plodding away from him. He felt an ache of loss like he did the first time Hagrid handed him a photograph of his parents, the photograph he had since turned to many times when things either were not going well, or were going so well, he ached to be able to show them.
Putting his head down with new determination, Harry moved his feet in the direction of the doe. She held some truth he badly needed to learn. But she could not speak, some rational part of his mind insisted, could not make any sound at all. He worried he may not be able to learn anything, but he had to try; he could not live with his heart unwound and spilled out like this forever. If he could just look into her eyes again, if nothing else. He could be happy with that, he thought. He hoped. He just wanted her to acknowledge him again, that felt strangely important.
The doe remained just ahead of him without appearing to stride faster. Harry fell back a pace and circled on fleet feet around to the side, but she did not react or turn to him, just continued on her way, dainty hoofs navigating over fallen logs and around trees with single minded purpose.
Harry continued to follow, warmed by the exercise enough that the cold wind no longer touched him. The trees thinned and the ground leveled. Harry thought to spurt ahead of her, so she would have to stop and look at him. Seeing the doe approach a clearing, Harry strode faster, but slowed again immediately when the doe set her feet and stopped. She stood boldly in an open circle of trees and turned to him, embodying everything Harry had ever yearned to know.
Harry opened his mouth to ask, something, but as he did so, she vanished, her light instantly smothered by the darkness.
Harry stood, heaving the frigid air in and out of his lungs that now spasmed in complaint at the cold. Her sudden exit left him in shock. Her image danced on his retinas as he tried in vain to peer into the forest around him. He recovered from the shock with a snap, worried that she had led him into a trap, despite every instinct trusting that was not possible.
Wand raised, Harry contemplated the forest more methodically. He blinked to try and clear his vision, but in the end gave in and producing a Lumos from his wand so that he could see anything at all. He did not feel alone here, and unease crawled over in the hair on the back of his neck.
He waited, raw and alert, but no attack spells came sizzling out from between the trees. Nothing came but the subdued movement of scuffling woodland creatures and the wiry song of the breeze in the branches overhead.
Harry's mind returned to him in waves. What had the vision been . . . something only in his own mind? Something projected from somewhere else, and if so, from where? He had been led here, of that he was certain, but apparently not for reasons the doe had promised.
Pained by disappointment and wondering what had become of his senses, Harry studied his immediate surroundings with more care. There must be a reason he was here at this spot. He paced in an outward spiral, looking all around. On his very first circling he came to the edge of a small pool, glazed with jagged chunks of ice. He touched the ice with his toe, making it rock and sending the distorted reflections of his wand light shifting up and down. But some of the reflection remained still.
His heart choosing a more rapid pace, Harry crouched at the pool's edge and stretched his wand out to the side so the glare was out of his eyes. He pushed at the ice with his other hand and saw again that something long and shiny lay beneath the surface. He pushed harder, burning his hand with cold but forcing the air out from under the ice. Red jewels and a cross of light rippled into view.
Harry leaned so far forward that the ice began to sink under his hand. He jerked back but not before it cracked in two and floated apart, like a wound, and his hand dipped into the fiery cold water. The ripples stilled again, more clearly revealing the sword of Gryffindor between parted curtains of ice.
Wand lifted high above his head, Harry again peered about at the forest. Nothing moved around the stalwart trees standing sentinel around the pond. The area stood peaceful, but it was an uneasy peace. Had the sword sent out the doe to attract him? Being a Gryffindor represented an important truth for him, but not at all the kind he had felt from the doe. That truth had been something intimately deeper, and barely understood compared to his destiny at Hogwarts.
However the sword had came to be here, Harry needed it. He waved an Accio at the sword, to no effect, and sighed with his entire upper body. He limply tilted his head back, and closed his eyes to think. Too bad it hadn't arrived in a hat, like last time, because fetching it from an icy pond was not going to be pleasant.
Harry set the glowing wand on a flat rock beside the pool and rubbed his hair back, mind running in ineffective circles. He just needed to get the sword out. The whys, the hows . . . he needed to forget all that and focus.
Wanting dry clothes when this was over with, Harry shucked off his many layers. He slipped his pouch off as well and rested it on the nest of his discarded sweaters. He put his hand on the locket around his neck and began lifting it over his head, but with a nervous jolt, worried that someone may come and take it. Holding the locket possessively, he glanced suspiciously around at the forest. The afterimage of the doe had faded and now he could make out the trees better, and see a little beyond them. Satisfied that nothing was sneaking up on him, despite his suddenly paranoid instinct, he dropped the locket to dangle at his neck again, and bent to remove his shoes and socks, and finally his trousers. Wearing only his underwear, he stepped to the water's edge, feet mincing around painfully on the gravely snow. Arms tight around his middle, which did little good toward warming him, he contemplated the cracked ice. This was going to hurt, and his whole being resisted it. Fundamental survival instinct screamed at him to back away, but he stood stock still, swaying slightly before the open dark maw of the pond.
Harry drew in a deep breath and before he could question his actions with a more rational mind, jumped in. Impossible cold enveloped him, whipped and stung his skin like a thousand burning scorpion bites. He could not breath in properly, his chest muscles had seized. He had to hurry. He felt around with his toes until he bumped the sword handle, fortunately, not the blade. Already cold beyond belief, already with muscles thickening to sluggish, he ducked under and reached for the sword with numb fingers.
Despite not being much of a swimmer, Harry was too buoyant to easily get down to reach the sword. He had to kick several times to get his body submerged to where the icy pressure hugged him. Finally, his fingers touched the sharp facets of the gems. He took firm hold of the sword hilt, and as he did so pain shot across his neck.
Jarred from muted elation, Harry reached up with his other hand to find the chain on the locket had tightened so hard that it pushed a groove into his flesh. His lungs heaved, demanding air. Ice water filled his nostrils, stinging his brain. His vision tunneled down, obscuring the slate grey water and the play of the wand light on the blessed gateway to life above him. The sword slipped in his clumsy fingers, but he instinctively held fast before it could fall away. His feet butted against the unforgiving stones lining the pool's bottom, jarring his bones, since his flesh had lost all feeling.
Harry kicked out wildly, trying to push himself back to the surface, but merely propelled himself into the rocky side of the pool. Thrashing, suffocating, he scrabbled at the strangling chain, his frozen fingers unable to loosen it, and now little lights were popping inside his head, and he was going to drown, there was nothing left, nothing he could do, and the arms that closed around his chest were surely Death's . . .
Pond water reeking of green rot ebbed and sloshed around Snape, razor sharp with brittle cold. His robes grew impossibly heavy as the water sucked at them, pulling him down with the thrashing body he struggled to heave to shore. As Snape's feet found purchase in the crux of the rocks at the edge, the boy's struggles ceased and he fell into dead weight, worrisome, but far easier to manage.
Stumbling, abusing cold-pained limbs on the rocky edge of the pool, Snape managed a teeth-chattering Featherweight Charm that allowed both of them to get free of the water and safely onto the thin snow. The sword clattered free of Potter's hand, tilted, and began to slide back into the pond. Snape dropped his charge and grabbed for it, just as it sliced the surface for a final plunge. The sword did not resist him, thankfully. Barely feeling his grip on the rough hilt, he hurried back to Potter's prone body, laying still and bluish in a pose like one thrown down from a great height, still strangled by the thing around his neck.
Protecting Potter's neck with one nearly senseless hand, Snape wedged the sword point under the biting chain, and twisted the blade to snap it. Blood rushed beyond where the metal had left a thin burn, and colored Potter's face a warmer hue. Pushing wearily against the weight of his water-soaked robes, Snape sat up and deliberately placed the sword on the ground, oddly unwilling to release it. He made himself turn away from it to wave an Inflation Hex at Potter's chest, forcing it to fill with air, which gravity then emptied again. He repeated this, and lay his ear to Potter's chest to listen. Over the breeze shuffling the forest deadfall, he detected a thready heartbeat, but under his ear, Potter's flesh was disturbingly stiff with cold.
Snape knelt on the unforgiving, frozen ground and shifted Potter onto his own magically warmed cloak. He then waved a giant Bluebell fire to spring up beside them. It tore silent, blue rents in the dark forest beyond and danced on the agitated surface of the pond. Snape repeated the inflation spell again and again, each time with more force, until with a spasm, Potter's chest lifted toward his chin on its own. This first breath caught, and his body jerked and coughed wetly. Snape pushed Potter onto his side and held him that way until the spasms abated and he drew in a cleansing breath lacking any telltale rattle.
He released Potter's shoulder and pulled his wand again, expecting the young man to rouse, but he remained there on his side, arms limply tangled, fingers curled as though cradling something invisible. At least he breathed on his own now, and his heart thrummed steadily.
Too riled by long-term urgency to feel relief, Snape tried to stand, but found that his robes tethered him to the ground by their dead weight. He drunkenly waved random drying spells at himself and stood more freely to fetch up Potter's clothes from beside the pond. These he dropped on the corner of the cloak. He sorted through the bundle to pluck out Potter's trousers, which he snugly tied around the boy's eyes as a blindfold. He absolutely could not allow himself to be seen, and he did not want to rely solely on magic given Potter's weakened state. Keeping his full attention and the aim of his wand on Potter, he navigating around limbs splayed senselessly on the black square of his cloak and returned to kneeling beside him.
The Sword of Gryffindor lay beside Potter, parallel to his skinny leg, hilt just inches from the boy's alabaster fingertips. Snape picked it up and felt the way it fit into his hand, the way it felt perfectly balanced. The sword had let him wield it against the chain, which meant Potter had not earned it and would have to again. Ignoring the way the sword called soothingly to him, ignoring the agonizing memory of Dumbledore suggesting that perhaps the school sorted students too early, Snape tossed the blade back into the pond. After the splash there was silence, then a deadened tink as it hit bottom. He snarled and turned back to his charge. Leave it to Potter to be all guts and no brains about something this important. Snape's mind circled around possible alternative methods of getting Potter to earn the sword as Dumbledore's painting insisted must be done. None struck him as likely to work after this. If he only knew why Potter needed the sword . . . but Dumbledore had been unrelenting on that. Snape, despite his years of service, had earned only so much trust, and no more.
By the eerie light of the brewing fire, Snape lifted a flap of trouserleg from Potter's neck and leaned close to examine the wound left by the chain. It worried him that Potter remained unmoving. He should have risen to consciousness by now. Rubbing his forehead, Snape pondered the body before him, looking for injuries under smears of black grit left behind from being dragged out of the pond. At Potter's wrist he found a steady pulse against his fingertips, but his hand flopped limply in his grip. Snape used his other hand to raise up bone-white fingers and examine them in the firelight. Their youthful perfection brought forth a starkly contrasting vision of Dumbledore's aged and blackened hand.
Snape dropped Potter's hand, resisting that memory, not wanting to recall the state of half death from which Dumbledore had convinced Snape to kill him. Unwelcome, the memory came anyway: Dumbledore falling, always him falling. Body broken by the unyielding earth in addition to the affront it had already suffered from the Killing Curse. And Snape had run, like a coward with no sense of proper duty. Abandoning everything. Though he had not seen it, he often pictured Dumbledore, twisted and smashed, robes wicking up the hopeless mixture of blood and mud that came not from the curse but from the fall. The curse alone would have respected his body, at least. The fall, though . . .
Someone must have tended to Dumbledore's body. Put it to rights before feeding it to the pyre. Or as much rights as it could have been put to at the point.
Snape picked up Potter's t-shirt from the pile, and rubbed at a grey smear of pond mud marring the parallel furrows of Potter's ribs. He switched hands and cleaned off a bony knee. Tension rippled through the muscles of Potter's torso. His fingers stretched outward, prodding Snape's leg. Snape lifted his wand and spelled Harry with the gentlest of sleeping curses. Harry's shoulders uncurled and rested flat again. Snape watched Potter's jawline for additional movement, grateful that with the blindfold he did not risk seeing those dreadful eyes.
Potter's knee was darkened still, bruised. A spell solved that. Snape watched flesh lighten to normal under a fuzz of delicate body hair. Potter's whole body spoke of ripe youth brimming with impatient future hope. But if Potter did as Dumbledore intended—and Snape saw no reason to believe otherwise, given the boy's forthright adherence to Dumbledore's previous schemes—his body faced not only brutal loss of essential life, but criminal maltreatment. The Dark Lord and his followers would too soon be dragging forth and hoisting up this very body before the horrified eyes of everyone in the wizarding world who resisted them, abusing it, disfiguring it, exploiting it. It would not find another pyre anytime soon.
Snape stared far upward to where the unnatural light of the bluebell fire touched the highest, curled, brown leaves still clinging to the tiniest branches. Potter would soon be dead. Snape would find a way, against all odds, to pass on Dumbledore's prophetic pronouncement that Potter must allow the Dark Lord to kill him. Only when the time was right, though. Only then. And for reasons as mysterious as any of Trelawney's ramblings.
Potter would do as he was told, and another would be dead because of Snape's words. More death inherited from past death, relentless in its march. Larger—Snape decided, kneeling there in the middle of the Forest of Dean—than one meaningless soul, already damaged beyond repair.
Snape pondered the supine form before him. Fate loomed around them, surrounded everything like the trees towering around the clearing, reaching their ever-expanding branches to form an unbroken net overhead, a snare from which one lone wizard, prone to critical mistakes and misunderstandings, could not possibly hope to escape. The past reared up, unbidden as ever, haunting as ever.
Lily's body too would have been mishandled, dealt with as it had been by Muggles.
Snape returned his attention to the body before him. He lifted Potter's hand and placed it over his bare chest, then purposefully sat forward to lift up Potter's other hand and wrap it over the first. The sleeping curse rendered limbs quite limp, so the boy's arms remained that way, guarding his heart.
Snape breathed in, and out, wishing the cold would numb his insides as much as it had his outside. His past fantastical notions of Lily's forgiveness would matter little once Dumbledore's plans ran their course and her son was dead anyway. All these long, unyielding years, every teeth-gritted spell to save this boy, every special potion to treat his injuries, everything done so far to preserve his life was solely in the interest of the right kind of death, a notion so twisted only the most dedicated Slytherin could appreciate it, let alone concoct it.
Potter's death, in just the right way, would move them closer to their goal, but how much closer was not clear. Dumbledore as usual, in his maddening, punishing way, refused to explain. Despite the old wizard's senile mumblings of hope to the contrary, the Dark Lord would still require dealing with after Potter's sacrifice. Snape would carry on with that, as he always did. He would fulfill every last promise he had ever made to the old wizard, no matter the cost.
Snape would dutifully speak the words he had been given and the last damning reminder of both James and Lily would be gone. And even though it would certainly help Snape's nerves to not turn and find her eyes staring suspiciously, accusingly at him at every turn, this chapter would close too soon, before it could be grasped and put to rights. Everything involving this boy and himself was hopelessly unresolved and there was no path Snape could see to resolving any of it. But the dead . . . the dead should be laid to rest. There was no shortage of the living in need of the scant protection he could provide, when luck would allow for it.
Snape tossed the t-shirt aside. Potter's flesh had warmed, his breathing was strong, and there was no reason to keep him this way any longer. Snape would set him back on his course and wait. It lightened Snape's leaden heart to consider that they were all the same, all on courses beyond their control. His own course had been set from the moment he had made that fateful promise to Dumbledore, perhaps even before that, the moment love had rejected him. Or, he had believed it had rejected him, utterly, until this night.
Snape held up his wand so it was backdropped by the fluttering light. His Patronus had lured Potter here, had enchanted him to come alone against all better sense. Attempting that had been a test of something Snape had previously avoided examining closely, but could not resist trying anyway. Something still lived of her, binding everything together. His loyalty counted for something. Loyalty to old promises was all Snape possessed, but it had apparently preserved something more with it.
Potter's head rocked to the side, but he otherwise remained still. Snape picked up an oak twig from the snow and held it suspended in an arm of the fire until it ignited. He turned it one way then the other, blackening it thoroughly, until it coughed tiny bursts of smoke.
A sharp wave of the twig put out the flame clinging to the tip of it. He watched it smolder, breathed in the pure scent of its destruction. Oak, symbol of inner fire and courage, the doorway, the transformation at the solstice from Duir to Tinne when Holly, and good fortune, would rule. Snape pressed the blackened tip along his thumb, transfering a black streak onto his skin.
He leaned over, tugged the makeshift blindfold free and chanted the words of proper wizard Rites, the ones that instruct the soul to move on, and not return, to complete the transformation into death, and welcome the embrace of the veil. On the concluding line, he wiped the ash onto Potter's forehead, right across his scar. Oak, attractor of lightning, survivor of lightning. Potter's eyes had cracked open and peered out at him with a dreamy lack of focus. For the first time, their color did not bother Snape, quite the contrary.
Someone called out from a distance, a friendly voice. Moving rapidly, Snape waved the fire away, and freed his cloak. Potter was warm enough to survive a few minutes exposed as he was to the cold ground.
Snape double checked the arrangement of things around the pond and slipped away to his hiding place.
Ron Weasley approached, a gangly young man with undue length of limb that he could not properly control. Despite the slow intellect he had displayed in school, he quickly took in the scene beside the pond. He checked Potter, tried to rouse him, then in looking around for what might have precipitated things, spotted the sword in the depths of the water. With a waterproofing charm on his clothes, he retrieved this with only a few yelps of honest displeasure, then returned to his friend. Potter lifted his head, winced as he rubbed his neck, and asked with a croak what had happened.
- 888 -
"You've been very quiet this morning, Harry," Hermione said as she handed him breakfast. She sounded overly solicitous, as if wishing to create an additional contrast to how she was treating Ron.
"I had a really strange dream," Harry said.
Hermione at first ignored this, but then shook herself and asked with real concern, "What was in it?"
Harry shook his head, remembering the voice, Snape's voice, speaking something like a spell, but muttered, which is not how he would normally do a spell from what Harry had ever seen. As far as Harry had ever seen, Snape only shouted spells. And he had touched Harry's forehead, rubbed his blackened thumb over his scar. It was all so strange that, just in case it was something weird his subconscious had cooked up, he really did not want to say.
"The dream?" Hermione insisted, quickly sinking into sounding tired of idiots already today.
Harry scrubbed at his forehead where it itched, and stared at his fingers, which were stained from something he had rubbed off.
"You didn't clean up last night," Hermione stated knowingly and bent her head back to her breakfast.
Harry spoke some of the words he had heard that now flowed back to him from the dream. They did not sound like Latin.
"What did you say?" Hermione asked, sounding surprised on top of annoyed.
Harry was too happy with having destroyed a Horcrux the night before to get annoyed back. "I was just remembering my dream," he said.
"You dreamed an ancient wizard funeral?" Hermione asked, nay demanded.
"If I did, it was mine." Harry rubbed his forehead again, getting off the last of the black.
"Wait a minute," Hermione said, coming over to him. "You had that mark on you last night." She pulled his hand out and stared closely at his marred fingertips.
"Of course I had a mark on me. I fell unconscious in the dirt after a Horcrux tried to strangle me."
Hermione glared at him. "What you just said . . . The soul should travel on and not return. That's what you said just now. It's a funeral rite. An old one. And ash . . . oak ash on the forehead, to remind the soul that life ends just like the solstice gives way to the approach of winter."
Harry stared back at his friend. "A bit of ash is supposed to do that? Doesn't sound likely to work."
Hermione dropped his hand when Harry gave a good tug on it so he could eat.
"I don't like you having dreams about funerals," she said stiffly, raw, like her emotions would resurface with a vengeance.
"So, I won't anymore," Harry said, now getting annoyed. "Happy?"
Note: The italicized excerpts are from the Canadian edition, copyright J. K. Rowling 2007, Characters, places used and everything else, inclusive of the ramblings of your demented granny and any funny looks her cat may have given you over the years, copyright Warner Bros,. 2000