Disclaimer: The characters and many other things belong to J.K. Rowling alone.

A Forest Tale

Chapter 1

The Article of the Daily Prophet

Snape was walking round in the Potions classroom, watching several cauldrons boil and bubble simultaneously. The morning was just dawning, but this counted as normal work-time for him. He wanted to finish brewing some potions that had been maturing over night, and he could do it either early, before the first Potions class started, or late in the afternoon, when the students and the Potions teacher had already vacated the room. In the evenings, he had the classroom all to himself, but today he was going to spend that time preparing new potion ingredients, fresh from the glass houses.

It had been different in the beginning. Back in September and October, Snape had usually spent his afternoons in the company of Professor Horace Slughorn. Although Slughorn always let Snape make the potions alone, he apparently enjoyed talking to him. Slughorn knew innumerable anecdotes about generations of prominent witches and wizards, and seemed determined to tell Snape all of them. He stopped occasionally, noticing that his assistant had done something differently than he would have done, but Snape was always able to explain the advantages of his method. To his credit, Slughorn did not insist that Snape should follow the traditional way. After all, the results were always impeccable.

Snape suspected, however, that he could not be the ideal conversation partner for his boss. Even though Slughorn himself could talk as much as three other people, Snape must have been too reserved and silent even for him. After a few weeks, Slughorn declared that Snape did not need supervision any more (not that he had needed any before that), and he would not for the world offend him by constantly watching over him. From that day on, Snape was allowed to brew the potions in blissful solitude, which he considered a definite improvement in his working conditions. Without Slughorn, not only was he able to concentrate on the potions better, but he also had time to experiment with new and perfected potion recipes, many of them his own invention.

This was exactly what he was doing now. Leaning over one of the cauldrons, he noted with contentment that the potion was going to be ready about an hour earlier than it would be with the traditional method. He was quite used to spending his time in this way and in this classroom. After all, it was early May now, and he had been the Potions Master's assistant since September.

During the days, while the classroom was occupied by Slughorn and the students, he spent a lot of time reading in the library; or in his own office, making systematic notes of his potion brewing ideas and observations. It was also his responsibility to order potion ingredients from Diagon Alley by owl post so the school should never run short of anything important.

In December, as a further sign of Slughorn's trust and appreciation, Snape had been charged with marking all Potions essays and exam papers from year one to year five. (The Potions Master conscientiously reserved the NEWT students' written assignments for himself.) Thus, Snape was occupied for most of the day, conveniently avoiding the necessity - even the possibility - of thinking too much about the world outside Hogwarts.

True, his life had changed since he had been a Death Eater, and he did not wish for the old days to return for a minute. At Hogwarts, among the books and the potions, he could feel perfectly at home - now much more than in his student years. He had his private quarters, where he could retreat whenever he chose, without having to experience the utter loneliness he had so often felt at Spinner's End. The members of the Hogwarts staff did not know about his Death Eater past, or at least they never mentioned it to him. He was neither a teacher, nor a student, and he did not try to find any friends at the school, but his work was valued, and it gave him satisfaction.

Though Snape would perhaps never admit it to anyone else but himself, being a Hogwarts employee meant more to him than simply being in possession of a job or even a home. It meant refuge as well – the only possible refuge in a safe haven that he could accept with his head held high. At Hogwarts, he was able to earn his living while being safe from both the Dark Lord and the aurors; and he knew full well that it was Dumbledore alone who could guarantee him this safety. He had no idea whether the Ministry had any knowledge of the Potions Master's new assistant's past. If they did not know about his past, it was because Dumbledore did not want them to. If they did know about it, then it could only be due to Dumbledore's influence that they never came to look for him.

As for the Dark Lord, Snape was sure that his former master knew where he was. Among the students, there were some who were closely related to Death Eaters, or whose family otherwise supported the Dark Lord. It could only be a matter of time for Snape's whereabouts to become known by them. Whenever he ventured out of the school grounds, he had to count on the possibility that he might never come back. He did go out though - at least when it was an unavoidable necessity - but he always took care to do it secretly and never in a regular pattern.

His status as a member of the Order of the Phoenix had so far been a completely passive one. In the beginning, he had expected to get various assignments, but nothing had happened, and he even wondered whether it was lack of trust on Dumbledore's part or whether the whole Order was temporarily inactive. There had been no formal introduction or joining up; in fact, he had not even met the other Order members yet. Of course, he knew Lily and Potter and Black, but – as far as Snape could tell - they rarely came to Hogwarts. He had seen Lily only a couple of times since their meeting back in September, when they had had a long conversation (which later helped Snape practise the Patronus Charm with great success), and even those few occasions were short and the circumstances were official rather than private.

Until now, the only sign that the Order perhaps still needed him had been Dumbledore's habit of inviting him to one-to-one meetings, where Dumbledore kept asking questions about the Dark Lord and his followers, and Snape kept answering according to the best of his knowledge. Dumbledore was interested in everything - his curiosity could not have been greater if he had wanted to write the biography of the Dark Lord. Dumbledore inquired after incredibly small details, and Snape recalled memories he had never thought he possessed in the first place. How Dumbledore used the intelligence obtained in these meetings, Snape never knew, but he had no doubt that the Dark Lord was clever enough to guess that he was imparting information.

Today as well, he had to appear in the circular office at eleven o'clock. This time, however, Dumbledore had hinted that they were going to discuss a task that Snape would do for the Order. Dumbledore had alluded to an assignment that "required a brave heart and a cool head". To Snape, it translated as a dangerous and difficult job. Still, if Dumbledore thought Snape was the person to be entrusted with it, he would do everything in his power to make sure that his mentor would not be disappointed.

He took the cauldrons off the fire; then with a single wave of his wand, he extinguished all of the fires at once. He spent some time bottling and putting away potions safely into their storing cabinets until he decided it was time for him to leave the classroom and have breakfast.

There was still nearly half an hour before the beginning of the first class, and the Great Hall was rather noisy yet. Snape sat down at the staff table, keeping a respectful distance from the teachers who were present. He did not like to force his company on anyone, and fraternizing with those who a few years before had been his teachers, known him as a kid, given him marks and detentions did not seem like an attractive idea.

Therefore he was quite glad to see his copy of the Daily Prophet land on the table before him, just missing his tea, followed by a cheeky post owl with more than average interest in the slice of bacon on Snape's plate. Those who were not in a hurry to their classes often chose to open their papers and skim through the news already at the breakfast table. This time Snape decided to do exactly that, although a more thorough reading would take place only in his office later on, when he needed a tea break during the marking of the essays. He took a quick look at the paper - and he soon wished that he had not.

On page 3, the following headline caught his eyes:

A Death Eater on the Hogwarts Staff?

He stared at the article with a stiff face.

A concerned member of our wizarding community has finally spoken up, revealing a terrible secret exclusively to our newspaper.

"I cannot be silent any more," says the middle-aged man, who, for understandable safety reasons, wishes to remain unnamed, "when I see what is happening behind the walls of the venerable institution in whose care generations of British wizards and witches have left and still leave their children with complete trust and confidence."

Our source has asserted that Severus Snape, the recently appointed assistant to Hogwarts Potions Master and Head of Slytherin House, Prof. Horace E. F. Slughorn, is closely connected to the Wizard Who Must Not Be Named and his followers.

"He is a Death Eater," says the troubled-looking wizard, "and I would be very surprised if either Headmaster Dumbledore or the Ministry did not know about it. Those who are in charge of the school are responsible for the people they hire; therefore they are guilty of either criminal negligence or complicity in a crime against our children."

In response to our inquiry regarding the origin of his information, our fellow-wizard of unquestionable integrity and indisputable reputation replied that he would only reveal the source and the evidence to an auror or other Ministry official who was ready to both find out and disclose the truth.

"I am greatly disappointed to see that the Ministry has allowed this young man to work in a position of responsibility at Hogwarts since September. I have decided to turn to the Daily Prophet so the power of publicity can force those whose duty is to guard our children's safety to finally put an end to this unacceptable situation."

The Daily Prophet contacted the Auror Headquarters at the Ministry of Magic, but received no definite answer to the question whether they knew anything about these accusations.

"We will examine every suspicious case in due course, but we cannot share each step of our investigation with the press without hindering the investigation itself," was the official response.

Prof. Horace Slughorn of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was much more willing to answer our queries. He explained that the assistant's position had been newly created in September with the specific purpose of employing Severus Snape to help the aging professor with his complex tasks. As mentioned above, the Potions Master is in charge of Slytherin House (incidentally, the Hogwarts House most closely associated with Death Eaters, and the House where Severus Snape himself was a student only a few years ago), and traditionally he had prepared the potions used in the school for various purposes, including the needs of the Hospital Wing. This latter job - potion making and the general care of the potion ingredients stored in the school - has been taken over by the young assistant.

"Yes, I am very satisfied with Severus," says Slughorn, who also acknowledges that he is planning to retire in the not so distant future. When asked about his assistant's possible association with Him Who Must Not Be Named, the elderly professor suddenly appears shocked and categorically denies the allegations (or at least his knowledge of them), then hastily declares the interview finished.

The Daily Prophet has not yet managed to interview Prof. Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts. As the case unfolds, we will regularly update our readers about a possible security hazard at the school of the British wizarding community.

He forced himself to raise his gaze from the newspaper. At the far end of the staff table, Professor Flitwick bent closer to Dumbledore, showing him something in his copy of the paper. Minerva McGonagall was reading the newspaper spread in front of her on the table. Her mouth was thin, and her lips were pressed closely together. Snape glanced towards the students. Not many of them were reading, but some seemed to be eyeing him.

He rose, determined to leave as calmly and naturally as possible. If only he knew what the natural way of leaving the Great Hall was. He had never paid any attention to it before. He did manage to leave without any hurry, without looking at anyone, and without closing the door behind him much more violently than at other times. The door of his quarters was not so lucky. He slammed it with all his might; then he crumpled the newspaper into a ball and flung it onto the floor. For a moment, he stood clenching his fist with so much force that his nails hurt his hands, then he threw himself onto the sofa and there he remained staring at the cold fire-place with a blank expression.

He had expected that it would come out one day. He had expected it - and yet he had not been prepared. He had not thought that it would feel like this. Now he was imagining hundreds of parents and grandparents reading the article about the security hazard at Hogwarts. He could already see the teachers discussing the mortifying revelations, demanding explanation from Dumbledore... The Ministry...the Aurors were bound to investigate now... and Slughorn ... why had not Slughorn mentioned the interview to him?

He could as well start packing ... even if they believed his change of heart and he got pardoned by the Ministry, he could not stay at Hogwarts. No one would want him there, perhaps not even Dumbledore any more... He would end up either in Azkaban or on the run from the Dark Lord...

But he did not start packing. He lacked the willpower to even move his arm. And later, much later, when he did find the strength to move, he was only reaching for his wand. He struggled to recall a happy memory. Nothing in his life seemed happy now; everything was spoilt, failed or lost irrevocably. He might never have the power to cast a Patronus again. He wanted to ask her if she would stay with him in Azkaban, if there was a way for him to call her to his side without a wand and without any happy memories, but he gave up before trying the charm. It was as though he could already feel the presence of the Dementors.

It took him a while to notice the knocking on the door. He did not want to see anyone, but then again, he was not hiding, was he?

"Enter!" he said at last, trying to sound "natural" again.

The door opened and Dumbledore came in, his expression grave. With a silent gesture, Snape offered him a seat in one of two armchairs beside the small coffee-table. Snape sank into the other one. Dumbledore's visit to his private quarters was quite extraordinary. Usually, he would get only a short message summoning him to the Headmaster's office. The professor looked round in the room and his gaze lingered on the crumpled ball that used to be a copy of the Daily Prophet. After a few moments of pensive silence, he turned to Snape.

"Do you have any idea about the identity of the mysterious informant?" he asked.

Snape frowned. He had not bothered to make a guess yet.

"No," he said. "Does that matter?"

"It does," said Dumbledore. "How many people know that you were once a Death Eater?"

"I cannot tell," he answered. "The Dark Lord knows... and the Death Eaters... and you and ... some people in the Order." He could not bring himself to mention Lily or Potter or Black. "That means any number of people I don't know about."

Dumbledore slowly shook his head. "It will be easy to ask the members of our Order -"

"Ask them what? If they have recently reported me to the Prophet without giving their names?"

Snape knew that he was being impolite but he did not care.

"Of course not. I will ask them if they happened to mention this information to anyone. But I don't really think they did."

"So?" asked Snape, who had no idea where Dumbledore was trying to get with this.

"That would mean the source of the information must be Lord Voldemort and his circle," Dumbledore answered quietly.

"The article described the informant as a wizard of unquestionable reputation and -" Snape stopped. It was suddenly beginning to make sense to him.

"For all we know, the actual informant could be anyone," said Dumbledore, "a secret Death Eater or a wizard of the type the article described."

"Imperiused," said Snape.

"For example," agreed Dumbledore.

It was quite clear now. If the Dark Lord, as Snape had long assumed, could guess that Snape had already shared his knowledge with Dumbledore, it was no more in the Dark Lord's interest to keep Snape's Death Eater past secret. The Dark Lord could not reach Snape while Snape was at Hogwarts so he decided to use the aurors and public opinion against him. Even if Snape was not locked up in Azkaban, if he had to leave Hogwarts, he would be an easy prey to the Death Eaters hunting him. Snape knew that the Dark Lord could not afford to let a traitor off the hook. It would send the wrong message to his followers.

"Is it true that the Ministry -" he began tentatively.

Dumbledore nodded.

"It is true that so far they have had no knowledge about your past. Now, however, they will be obliged to investigate."

Dumbledore glanced at the large clock on the wall.

"It is nearly ten o'clock now. Soon I will have to deal with a reporter, who announced his visit just half an hour ago. In the meantime, you will see an auror in your office. He wants to talk to you."

"That is really quick," Snape grunted.

Dumbledore actually smiled.

"You will not think me too conceited if I confess that this speed is chiefly my achievement."

Snape gaped at him.

"Taking the first step towards the Ministry gave me the advantage of being able to choose the auror who would be handling the case," said Dumbledore earnestly. "It is much better than waiting for a random auror coming this way some time later today."

He rose and went to the door. With his hand on the door handle, he stopped and looked directly into Snape's eyes.

"There is one thing that must remain between us, Severus," he said slowly. "Please, do not mention to anyone the Prophecy that was made about … Lord Voldemort."

Snape nodded to indicate that he had understood the order, feeling Dumbledore's piercing eyes examining him for a moment. Dumbledore sighed then spoke again.

"This is going to be a difficult day, but on no account should you forget our meeting at eleven o'clock. Do not be late."