The Hogwarts grounds basked in the early morning sunlight; the trees of the Forbidden Forest were still and silent. The lake looked as though it had been covered in glass; it perfectly reflected the forget-me-not-blue sky overhead and the wisps of cloud floating by. Barely a ripple disturbed its surface, except for where three ducks paddled serenely, as though still half-asleep. A pervading sense of peace stole over everyone.
It was shattered by a high, piercing voice. The ducks took flight as two figures approached the lake's shore.
'Honestly Ron,' Hermione chastised, 'why on earth didn't you do all these essays yesterday afternoon?'
'Well, I was going to, but how I was supposed to know that Malfoy was going to jinx Harry's ears until they were down at his – '
'Alright, alright.' Hermione sighed as they seated themselves underneath a friendly tree. 'Thankfully I don't have to do his for him too – there's one advantage of having to spend the night in the Hospital Wing. Let's get started, then. Do you know what powdered moonstone mixed with Bubotuber pus and essence of goat bile creates?'
Ron shrugged. 'A bad-smelling mess?'
Hours later, Hermione snapped closed her Transfiguration book and scratched in the last word on Ron's essay. Holding it at arm's length, she admired her efforts to imitate Ron's messy handwriting. Satisfied, she shook Ron awake.
'Well, I'm finished now. I've made a few deliberate errors, but only small ones. Hopefully they'll never know that you didn't write it yourself. But I'm not doing this again.'
Ron nodded groggily. 'Thanks, Hermione. You're amazing. I owe you one.'
'More than one, by my record,' Hermione retorted. But she was smiling.
Taking Ron's hand, she pulled him to his feet. They strolled slowly back up towards the castle, revelling in the freedom of a warm Sunday morning. Neither noticed that there weren't half as many birdsongs as there had been earlier that morning, which was particularly strange considering that as the day gets older, more and more birds tend to come out.
Halfway there, Hermione stopped.
'Drat. Ron, we've forgotten to feed Fang.'
Ron groaned. 'But Hermione, I can smell the food from here! Can't Fang wait until after breakfast?'
Hermione sighed and shook her head. 'It's best to do it now, before we forget. And really, it's the least we can do for Hagrid. It's his first holiday since he became the Gamekeeper! And we did promise, Ron. We can't be breaking that on the very first day.'
Turning on her heel, she set off towards Hagrid's hut. Ron cast one more longing look towards the Entrance Doors through which the appetising aroma wafted, before hurrying after her.
They had almost reached the hut when they realised something was very wrong. The Forbidden Forest was quiet; no birds disturbed the silence. In fact, there was absolutely no natural noise: no insects, no owls, no animals scurrying around in the Forbidden Forest nearby. When Fang came out to meet them, his tail was between his legs and he was whining softly.
'What do you think could be wrong?' Hermione wondered as she bent over to pet Fang, trying to calm him down.
'I dunno, it could be just because Hagrid's awa-' Ron cut off abruptly.
Hermione straightened again, and turned to her friend. He was quivering as much as Fang was, and his face was the colour of off porridge.
'Hermione….' Raising a trembling hand, he pointed towards Hagrid's pumpkin patch. Following his gaze, Hermione froze as she saw what he had:
Spiders trickling in a long stream towards the Forbidden Forest.
'Oh, no. Not again…' Hermione said softly. 'There can't be another Basilisk, surely? I thought you killed it last year?'
Ron had stumbled backwards, half in and half out of Hagrid's Hut. He nodded his head, looking as though he was trying not to cry.
'No, I think we would know if there was a second Basilisk,' Hermione continued, almost to herself. 'And spiders flee at any type of magical snake, don't they? So, it could be a Basilisk, an Ashwinder, a Runespoor, an Occamy, or a Sea Serpent. Sea Serpent seems unlikely, considering we're miles from the coast; Occamy can't survive outside India; and Ashwinders are fairly common. I doubt one of them would alarm the spiders quite this much. It's a possibility, however…'
Her head snapped up. 'Well Ron, I think the only way to solve this one is to see which direction the spiders are going and go the opposite way.'
'I agree!' Ron said fervently. 'Away from the spiders!'
'And towards our mysterious snake-like magical beast,' Hermione replied grimly. Ron gulped.
Together, they set of towards the greenhouses. Once there, they could see quite plainly that this was where the beast was; spiders streamed out through cracks in the glass walls. Creeping inside, all seemed normal and peaceful at first. Until Hermione noticed that there was an unusual dash of colour in one corner of Greenhouse Three.
Stretched out on a dirty table, a big, fat snake basked in the sun. It was bright orange with black tiger-like stripes, and instead of the one head that would be usual, this snake had three.
'It's a Runespoor!' Hermione whispered in awe. 'They're really, really rare! And what is this one doing here? They live in Africa! Luckily for us, they're not particularly vicious. Professor Lupin will look after it, I'm sure.'
'I can't see it!' Ron complained loudly. Squeezing in front of Hermione, he craned his neck for a better look at the strange snake. His foot brushed a potted plant – it wobbled, rocked, and tipped slowly forwards, then fell to the floor with an earth-shaking CRASH!
The Runespoor's heads shot up. In a flash, it was off the table, and on the floor. All three heads hissing in shock, it sped past Ron, one head striking out and sinking into his ankle as it went. The next second, it had disappeared out of the door, leaving the pot in ruins, the plant writhing on the greenhouse floor – and Ron, collapsed against the doorframe, bent over in agony, clutching at his leg.
'Ron!' Hermione sounded hysterical. 'Did it bite you? Does it hurt? Are you alright?'
'Yeah, it bit me,' Ron said through gritted teeth. 'And it hurts like hell. I think it's poisonous. Do you… do you know anything about Runespoor venom, by any chance?'
Hermione bit her lip. 'Well… yes, I know a little. Do you know – do you remember – which head bit you?'
Ron thought for a little, sweat breaking out on his forehead. 'Yeah, I think it was the right head. Why? What's the difference?'
She hesitated before answering, 'Well, the middle head is harmless – that is, it still bites but there's no venom in its fangs. The right head, though… The right head's bad, Ron. It has venom in it all right – deadly poison. Most victims of a bite from the Runespoor's right head die within three hours.'
Ron let out a low moan.
'But I haven't told you about the left head yet!' Hermione hurried on, 'The left head bites too – but it hardly ever does. The left head, you see, has fangs filled with the antidote to the right head's venom!'
Ron's head snapped up again. 'So you mean, all we have to do is find the snake within three hours, get it to bite me with its left head, and I'll be OK?'
Hermione nodded. 'Yes. But the problem now will be finding the Runespoor… they're very shy creatures, Ron. I think we'll need help.'
Ron nodded his agreement as he battled with the fierce pain shooting up his leg.
In the Hospital Wing, Madam Pomfrey bandaged Ron's leg and cast a Numbing Charm on it. Behind her, anxious faces watched: Ginny, Neville, Fred, George, Seamus and Dean were all crowded around the bed.
'There. That should delay the spreading of the venom, and allow you to walk on it without much pain.'
In the bed next to Ron's, Hermione was talking loudly to Harry. Harry was still recovering from the jinx Malfoy had used on him; only one ear was back in its proper place, and he could barely hear a word Hermione was saying. Once he had gathered what had happened, he had tried to get out of bed to help.
'Oh, come on! You two could use some help. Three heads are better than one!' Ron had blanched at these words, and Harry looked stricken, but no less determined to help.
But Madam Pomfrey had insisted that he stay, saying firmly that 'he'd need rest, unless he wanted his ears to stay where they were'. Now, reluctantly, all he could do was offer advice.
But their real advice came from Professor Lupin. The Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher had arrived, looking stressed and haggard but determined, to hear their story. He had gone deathly still when he heard of the Runespoor, and a sheen of sweat broke out on his own brow when he heard that it had attacked Ron.
'I suggest that we split into search parties, to go looking for the Runespoor,' he said quietly. 'If somebody finds it, they should shoot red sparks into the air. If anybody finds evidence that the Runespoor has been there, perhaps by seeing spiders trying to escape, they should shoot green sparks into the air and then search the surrounding area most thoroughly. If you find the Runespoor, do not go near it. In its present state, it is most likely very confused and angry and will strike out at anybody it sees to be a threat. Just shoot the red sparks into the air and wait for Ron and me to get there.'
He paused, looking around at the sea of eager faces.
'Right, then. We haven't got much time to lose. We need to find that Runespoor within - ' he checked his watch '- two and a half hours. Now, Fred, George and Ginny should start searching around Hagrid's cabin and the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest. Neville, Seamus and Dean should look around the greenhouses and vegetable patch – I'm quite sure that the Runespoor will have travelled as far from there as possible, but it never hurts to be certain. Ron, Hermione and I will scour the area around the Whomping Willow. If we're unsuccessful in finding the Runespoor in two hours' time, we will have to transport Ron to St Mungo's and hope that they will be able to help him. Now, hurry! Be efficient, but quick! A lot depends on the quality of your search.'
On that dark note, he rushed out of the door, Ron and Hermione right behind him.
From Hagrid's pumpkin patch, Ginny put her hand up to shade her eyes and surveyed the area around her, eyes attuned to the slightest movement, the smallest flash of orange. Beneath the trees of the nearby Forbidden Forest, something rustled. A small bush moved, and Ginny fancied she heard the sliding of a long, scaly body on the dry grass. Carefully, stealthily, Ginny moved forwards, until she was standing right in front of where she had heard the noise. Raising her wand, she shot green sparks high into the air.
Ginny lifted the branches of the small, gnarled bush. A bird, startled at this sudden disturbance, flew into Ginny's face in a flurry of feathers, then darted into the air. Closing her eyes at her stupidity, Ginny smacked her forehead with the palm of her hand.
In Greenhouse One, Seamus tiptoed between the plants, wand outstretched and suspicious eyes darting back and forth around the seemingly tranquil building. He stepped on a twig, fallen from the purple potted plant beside him. It broke with a snap, and Seamus yelped, jumping up into the air. Racing back towards the door, he saw a sudden patch of orange coiled around one of the little flowering shrubs. Eyes wide, he pointed his wand through the door and sent up a flame of red sparks.
Turning back towards the shrub, blood drained from his face. It was not the Runespoor; it was an orange piece of twine tying the shrubs to a stake in order to make it grow upwards.
Almost simultaneously, Ron saw green sparks shoot up from one direction and red from another.
'Professor!' he yelled. Lupin turned, and saw their predicament.
'One of them must made a mistake,' he murmured. Coming to a decision, he turned to Hermione. 'Hermione, you go to where the green sparks were. I'll head off to whoever shot the red ones. Ron, you stay here. If either Hermione or I shoot up golden sparks, hurry over because it will have meant that we have found, and captured the Runespoor. Hermione, I spoke to you about how to do that before.'
Hermione nodded, and strode off in the direction of Hagrid's cabin. Lupin glanced at his watch, and headed towards the greenhouses.
'Professor!' Ron called after him, his voice breaking. 'How long have I got?'
'Half an hour,' Lupin replied over his shoulder.
Chilled to the bone, Ron hobbled over to a nearby rock and sat on it, nursing his wounded leg.
Could this be his last half-hour on earth? What would happen if he died without having said good-bye to his family? His mother, his father, his brothers, Ginny… He would have died without saying good-bye to Harry. Without having said anything to Hermione. His stuff would lie sprawled over the dormitory, never to make the journey back home to the Burrow. The ghoul above his bedroom wouldn't have anyone to yell at it to shut up. He'd never attend another Hogwarts feast, or have to ask Hermione to do his homework for him. He'd never get to ride another broomstick. He'd never be able to –
He yelped suddenly as something scuttled over his hand. Shaking the spider off, he leapt off the rock, injury forgotten. The spider, however, didn't stick around to argue but scurried away at lightning speed, seeming to want to put as much distance between itself and Ron as possible.
Ron… Or something else.
Ron turned around fearfully. Behind him, there was a sliding sound. A long, orange and black glistening body moved from behind the rock he had been sitting on. Three forked tongues tasted the air, and three sets of unblinking black eyes fixed themselves on Ron's own. Slowly, imperturbably, it slid forwards, heads raring back, getting ready to strike again as Ron stood as if paralysed, immobilised by fear….
Then behind him there was another hissing noise. Ron let out a whimper. Was there another Runespoor behind him, also preparing to strike? Was he surrounded? Half of his instincts were screaming at him to turn around and face the new danger behind him, but the other half forbade him from taking his eyes from the dangerous snake in front of him. Even as he stood there, it was striking forwards, striking, striking, that orange head slicing through the air and burying its fangs in Ron's leg….
But it was the left head. A cool, fresh feeling raced through Ron's veins, as though somebody had poured sweet-smelling water into his blood. He was barely conscious of the Runespoor slithering into the arms of a figure standing beside him, as the pain he had been enduring was swept away. Ron swayed and fell sideways; he was caught by the free hand of the person next to him.
It was Harry. Harry, both his ears firmly in place, cradling the Runespoor in one hand. It was fast asleep. Harry, grinning from ear to ear. Harry, who could speak Parseltongue. Harry, who had told the left head to strike and the others to stand down.
Harry squeezed his friend in a one-armed hug.
That night in the Great Hall as Ron, Hermione and Harry enjoyed dinner together. Ron's near end was a matter of the past, and they were free to laugh about it now that the danger was gone.
'Did you hear?' Percy said, leaning across the table. 'Professor Lupin had asked Hagrid for a new creature for his Defence Class. Apparently, Hagrid sent away for the Runespoor – probably hoping that he would be able to keep it afterwards, I guess. For his class, and for a pet. He didn't know it'd arrive when he was on holidays, and when the delivery wizard left it on his doorstep it managed to tear its way out of the package, and into the grounds. Professor Lupin was so upset about that, Ron. I think he's going to have a word or two with Hagrid when he gets back! Serves him right, too. Professor Lupin would never ask for a Runespoor. Hagrid should have known that. Completely unsafe, and against the school rules of course! It really is up to our school leaders to make sure that guidelines are... '
'Is that true, Harry?' Hermione asked over Percy's monologue. 'What did you do with the Runespoor?'
Harry shrugged, helping himself to more pasta. 'You'll have to wait and see what our next Defence class is about, I suppose.'
Author's Note: I took some liberty in giving the Runespoor venom. I wasn't going to, I just got an idea halfway through. Oh, and the bit about spiders running from all magical beasts was fabricated as well. Plausible, though? Everything else about the Runespoor is accurate, however. I really hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! Thankyou so much to Anna for betaing this for me and to Hypatia for thinking up the awesome title.