~The Boggart and the Bridge~
Summary: Is Hermione's greatest fear really failing her exams? What if her deepest fear is something far darker and more terrifying?
Author's Note: This story is written for UbiquitousTime's Irrational Fears Challenge. I was assigned the fear "bridges", the character Hermione Granger, and the prompts "brick", "suspend" and "collapse", and this is what my demented mind came up with. This story deviates slightly from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but only in one minor detail: The true nature of Hermione's boggart.
Warning: Don't read this story late at night. Or if you plan to cross a bridge any time soon...
Rating: T for dark themes and creepiness. I sort of freaked myself out, just writing this.
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Take a key and lock her up,
Lock her up, lock her up.
Take a key and lock her up,
My fair lady.
"That was some lesson, that was!" Ron's face was still pale under his freckles as he staggered out of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. He shuddered slightly. "Did you see the legs on that spider? They were all long and hairy and..." He swallowed.
Harry smiled at him. "You did great, Ron. Of course you were terrified for a moment; we all were. But you managed to fight off the boggart just fine. Too bad Professor Lupin wouldn't let me have a proper chance to fend off that dementor. I wonder why he ended class so suddenly - there were still lots of students who hadn't had a turn yet."
"Some people get all the luck," muttered Ron. "You didn't get a turn, did you, Hermione?"
Hermione shook her head slowly. She looked even paler than Ron. Harry couldn't blame her; some of the boggarts had been rather terrifying.
"What's your greatest fear, then?" Ron glanced curiously at Hermione. "I can't really imagine you being afraid of anything. Wait, I know: Your boggart is going to be a teacher saying you failed a test or something daft like that, isn't it?"
Harry laughed out loud, but Hermione flushed. "It's not... Oh, well, all right - it is. I am afraid of failing at my schoolwork. It's nothing to laugh at, you know; I have set high goals for myself, and I dislike falling short of my own expectations... Which is why I am going to go and study now. It really wouldn't hurt the two of you to develop a little more test anxiety as well; the year end exams are not that many months away."
She clutched her schoolbooks to her chest, her arms trembling slightly, and walked off in the direction of the library without another glance back at the boys.
Harry and Ron looked at each other in silence for a moment.
Then Ron said slowly: "She was lying, wasn't she, Harry? About her boggart?"
Harry nodded. "Lying? Yes, I reckon she was. I wonder what her boggarts really is. It must be something really bad if she doesn't even want to tell us about it."
Hermione didn't come back to the Gryffindor common room that afternoon. Harry and Ron eventually went looking for her in the library, but she wasn't there either. The empty classroom where Hermione usually practiced spells by herself was deserted as well.
Harry began feeling slightly worried now. "Do you think she is all right?" he whispered to Ron. "She looked awfully pale before, when she was waiting for her turn to face the boggart-"
"Of course!" Ron's freckled face lit up with sudden comprehension. "That's where she is! She's in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, practicing facing the boggart so she will do it perfectly when it's her turn tomorrow!"
Harry nodded. "That sounds about right. But she's been missing for hours now; we'd better go and see how she's getting along."
The two of them wove their way along the ancient torchlit corridors of Hogwarts until they came to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. The door was ajar, and they could hear a high, frightened voice in there.
"This... this time I will do it... Oh, God... I can do this..."
A deep rattling sound followed. The boggart appeared to be stirring in the cabinet.
Cautiously, Harry and Ron pushed the classroom door open and peered into the dimly lit classroom.
Hermione was standing by herself in the middle of the deserted classroom, her wand raised high. Slowly, ever so slowly, she walked towards the large wooden cabinet that housed the boggart. Something was thumping wildly in the cupboard now; whatever was in there wanted out.
Harry could see that Hermione's hand was shaking badly. But she pointed her wand at the lock and said, in a voice that trembled ever so slightly: "Alohomora!"
The cupboard doors creaked open. A soft grey mist seeped out of the cupboard, and the room filled with a scent of cold and ancient stones and stale waters. Slowly, something began to form itself in the mist; a dark shape was looming among the pallid wreaths of fog. Harry could make out old weathered bricks and gleaming black water. A bridge? Yes, a crumbling bridge, centuries old, a dark grey arch suspended over the swirling waters of a river.
The old bridge hovered like an apparition in the mist, and its ancient stones were mirrored in the rushing black waters below. Slowly, the bridge began to crumble; pieces of age-old stone fell loose and plunged into the dark river. The bridge seemed to be on the verge of collapsing.
A faint voice floated towards them through the mist. It was a child's voice, singing:
London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London bridge is falling down, my fair lady. Take a key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up; take a key and lock her up, my fair lady...
Hermione screamed. Her wand fell from her hand, and sank to the floor, screaming wildly, as if she wanted to drown out the voice of the invisible child in the mist.
Ron leaped in front of her, and the swirling mists grew darker and more solid. Slowly, a vast dark shape formed itself, and Ron's wand trembled in his hand.
The giant spider that had emerged from the mist turned into an eight-legged ballerina this time, and Ron began to giggle at its impossibly twisted pirouettes. The boggart retreated into its cupboard again, and Harry sank down next to Hermione on the floor.
"Hermione? Are you all right?"
Hermione nodded slowly, although she was still deathly pale. "That... that was harder than I thought..."
Ron looked at the still shaking cupboard in wonder. "What was that, anyway?"
Hermione shuddered slightly as she whispered: "A... bridge. I have always been terrified of bridges."
"You are afraid of bridges?" Professor Lupin leaned forward across his desk and glanced curiously at Hermione. "Drink that all up, do you hear me? Chocolate is good for more than dementors." He nodded at the cup of hot chocolate in Hermione's hand, and she sipped it obediently.
"You are still shivering." Harry put a hand on Hermione's arm. "That's odd. Even the dementor - the real one, I mean, on the train - didn't affect me for this long."
Lupin nodded. "You are right, Harry. This is no ordinary fear. You did the right thing by bringing Hermione to me. Even the most terrifying boggart shouldn't leave you trembling hours later. This is something far deeper. Tell me, Hermione - when did this fear begin? Have you always had it?"
Hermione clutched her cup of hot chocolate. Her face was still white. "I've always had this fear, ever since I was little. My parents... They have always been very kind and understanding. Whenever we travel somewhere by car, they always look carefully at the map first to make sure we don't have to cross any bridges. They know how terribly it would affect me if we did..." Her voice trailed off.
"What caused this fear, Hermione?" Lupin's voice was gentle.
Hermione shook her head slowly. "I... I don't know, Professor. No one knows. My parents even took me to see all sorts of Muggle psychiatrists and psychologists when I was little, but none of them could sort it out either. I wish... I want to face my fear, Professor. I know that You-Know-Who is not completely gone; I know that there is evil out there, and I want to learn how to fight it. But what use will I be to anyone if I'm paralyzed by my own fears?"
A slow smile spread over Lupin's kind face. "You are a very brave girl indeed, Hermione," he said softly. "Harry is lucky to have you for a friend. I will help you face your fear, Hermione, but I am going to need some more information. Would you mind if I were to write to your parents? They may be able to shed some light on how this curious terror of bridges first began."
Hermione nodded. "Of course, Professor. I am sure they still have all the experts' reports if you would like to see those, as well."
"This letter just arrived from your mother, Hermione," said Lupin, motioning for Harry, Hermione, and Ron to sit down. "Do you mind if I read it aloud?"
Hermione shook her head, her brown eyes wide, and Lupin began to read:
Dear Professor Lupin,
My husband and I were extremely touched to receive your letter. We were very apprehensive when we first sent our daughter off to school in a world that we know very little about, and we are delighted that she has caring teachers who look out for her well-being.
I am not surprised to learn that Hermione has kept her darkest fear hidden even from her dearest friends. Her strange fear of bridges has always struck us as far more than an ordinary phobia, like a fear of heights or a fear of the dark; it is a deep terror that seems rooted in her very soul.
Ever since Hermione was very, very young, she has had a curious fear - or terror, rather - of bridges. I first became aware of this strange dread when her father and I took Hermione up to London for her fifth birthday. She was always a tremendously gifted child, and she actually had a keen interest in history even at that tender age. We had decided to bring her to London for the day and show her some of the famous landmarks that she had read so much about.
At first, everything seemed fine. Hermione was delighted with London, and she exhibited nothing but curiosity as she saw The Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, and other well known sights. But in the afternoon, an odd incident took place: The three of us were walking over the famous London Bridge over the river Thames. Without warning, Hermione began screaming. Not the crying of an overtired child, mind you - Hermione was never much given to tantrums of that nature, even when very young - but frantic screams of sheer terror.
We picked her up and held her, but she kept sobbing hysterically. The only words we could make out between her frantic screams were the words "The Lady... The Lady..." She did not calm down until we had carried her far away from the bridge. When we later asked her what had happened, she refused to answer.
After this incident, Hermione began to tremble violently whenever we got near a bridge. She was so terrified that we began to drive by strange inconvenient routes in order to avoid ever bringing her near a bridge again.
We brought her to see a child psychologist, of course. Did you know that the fear of bridges is a recognized psychological disorder, gephyrophobia? But the psychologists we saw - yes, there was a whole series of them- all found Hermione's fear to be strangely atypical. Most people who suffer from this particular fear exhibit symptoms of general anxiety, or other closely related phobias as well, such as the fear of heights. Hermione, however, never exhibited any of these other symptoms. She was never an anxious child, and she was not afraid of anything else. But for some reason, she had a strange terror of bridges that no one could adequately explain..."
Professor Lupin glanced up from the letter. "Your mother enclosed the written reports of several Muggle psychologists as well. I don't see any need to go into those, since they did not strike me as particularly enlightened or enlightening. They keep referring to a gentleman by the name of Freud, who apparently had the most peculiar ideas... No, nothing you children need to worry about. I think he needed to have his head examined, quite frankly." Lupin grinned and shook his head. "So where did this terror of bridges come from, Hermione?" he asked gently.
Hermione shivered slightly, but she did not look away from Lupin's quizzical glance. "I can't remember," she whispered. "When you read the letter, I could sort of recall that day in London, but when I try to remember what happened at the bridge, my mind goes blank with fear... I can't remember anything except a child's voice, singing in the mist..." She trembled slightly, and Harry took her hand and squeezed it.
"I'm going mad, aren't I?" Hermione's voice was a hoarse whisper. "This isn't normal, is it?"
Lupin looked at Hermione for a long moment. "Oh, I wouldn't say that, Hermione," he said gently. "Perhaps the reason that all these Muggle healers could never get to the bottom of your fear is that they never knew quite how gifted you were. They never knew that you are a witch, and that you have abilities that they are simply not familiar with. I wonder... Yes, I wonder: If the four of us were to travel back to that bridge with you right now, what would we see? We have magic like you, Hermione, and perhaps we, like you, will see what is invisible to Muggle eyes... Perhaps we will be able to see what you saw that day when you were five years old..."
He got up from behind his desk and reached for his cloak. "Shall we?"
The bridge over the river Thames was wreathed in a fine mist that softened the hard edges of the dull grey stones. There were few people about at this very early hour on such a gloomy day; only a few distant voices echoed through the fog.
"This particular bridge is quite new," said Lupin quietly as he gazed up at the bridge, "but there has been a bridge right here since times immemorial. Bridges were of vital importance for trade and for travel. I did a little research on the history of Muggle London, and it seems that there was a bridge here already in Roman times. That bridge has long since collapsed, only to be replaced by others. The Saxons built a bridge here, said to have been pulled down by the Scandinavians. The Normans rebuilt the bridge only to have it shatter in a freak storm in the 11th century. It was rebuilt, destroyed by a fire, and rebuilt yet again. The bridge that was erected in the 12th century lasted for over six hundred years, until it began to crumble with age and had to be replaced. Bridges have risen and fallen in this very spot, which is perhaps why the Muggle children began to make up a curious little song about it: London bridge is falling down..."
The early morning mist was all about them now, and the curiously cold odor of fog and stale water tore at their nostrils. Everything was silence, except for the quiet rushing of the dark waters below. A shape began to form itself in the fog, the indistinct outline of a little girl. A pale face floated like a white blossom in the mist. Harry could make out a faint voice, singing. The voice was high and childlike and curiously distant.
London bridge is falling down, falling down...
The song floated towards them through the mist, and Harry felt a sudden sharp thrill at the nape of his neck. The girl hovered for a moment, then began to drift slowly towards them, a small indistinct figure dressed in a long, grey dress. She cast no reflection upon the darkened waters below.
Hermione clutched Harry's hand so hard that it hurt. "Who is she?" she breathed. "What is she?"
"She is a ghost, of course," said Lupin gently. "You can see her, Hermione, and so can I. So can Harry and Ron. We can all see her because we are wizards. But that day when you visited London with your parents as a young child, you were surrounded by Muggles. You were the only one who could see the little girl hovering in the mist where the ancient bridge had once stood. It was probably the first time you ever saw a ghost, and you were very frightened."
Hermione stared into the fog, trailing the indistinct figure with her eyes. "Whose ghost is she?"
Lupin was silent for a moment. Then he said softly: "I can't be sure, of course, but I rather think she is The Lady of the Bridge..."
"The Lady of the Bridge?" Ron stared, wide-eyed, at the outline of the little girl. "She seems... old. Her clothes are so old-fashioned, as if she lived hundreds of years ago..."
"Perhaps even longer ago than that..." Lupin regarded the little girl thoughtfully. "I came across some curious pieces of ancient lore surrounding this bridge, and other old bridges like it. Did you know that Muggles once believed in magic as well? They never understood it properly, of course, but they could sense that there were powers in the world that they could not control, and they wanted so desperately to control them." He swallowed. "A very, very long time ago, Muggles used to believe that it took magic to keep a bridge like this from falling. Of course bridges would crumble from time to time, especially if they were not well constructed, and people would try to find some magical means to make the bridge last forever. Perhaps they would try incorporating strange and wonderful new materials into their bridges. There is a verse in an old Muggle song that talks about rebuilding a fallen bridge with iron bars, or with gold and silver."
He stared into the dark waters below and whispered: "But ultimately, they believed that there was only one form of magic that could keep the bridge from falling. A sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice of a human life."
The little girl was coming closer now, and her voice was a whisper on the wind: "Take a key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up. Take a key and lock her up, my fair lady..."
"The builders would commit a murder." Lupin's voice was unsteady. "Usually a young girl, or a child. And then they would hide her bones inside the foundation of the bridge itself, to keep it from falling down... A terrible, barbaric act of senseless murder - but then, what have Muggles ever understood of magic-?"
Hermione stood petrified and stared at the little girl who kept drifting closer to them. Tears began falling down her face now. "She was murdered? To keep the bridge from falling? But that's.. that's terrible..." She reached out hesitantly and tried to touch the little girl's hand, but the girl's form slid through her fingers. "What can we do for her?"
A shadow of a smile brushed over the girl's insubstantial features now, and she fluttered around Hermione.
"I think you are already doing it, Hermione," said Lupin gently. "She has been alone and invisible for countless centuries, and any wizards who may have passed her have been too busy to notice her. But you saw her... Perhaps she just needs some company."
Hermione nodded, her glance lingering on the little girl. "What is your name?" she whispered.
A small voice, quiet as a breath of wind, answered: "Ealdwine..."
Hermione smiled ever so slightly. "Ealdwine? That means "friend of old" in Saxon, doesn't it?" She sat down on a low stone wall near the bridge. "I saw you when I was a young child, Ealdwine, but you frightened me then, because I didn't know what you were. Now I have come back to visit you. Would you like to sit with me? I would like to visit you sometimes. We can sit right here by the bridge and tell each other stories."
"I would like that..." Ealdwine's voice was soft, like a bird's.
Lupin put his hands on the two boys' shoulders and pulled them away from Hermione and the ghost. "Come with me for a little while, boys. Let's go for a little walk around Muggle London and come back for Hermione in a while. I think she needs a little time alone with her boggart..."