Severus lay curled upon the makeshift mattress that separated him from the cold floor of the cavern, gusts of wind billowing fiercely against the magical shield at its entrance. Beside him was Lucius Malfoy, his arm about Severus’s waist in a spooning position. It was only every now and then that Snape felt the oddness of their situation.
He remembered that night vividly, how the other Death Eaters looked at him as Lord Voldemort explained the mission, only half containing their jeers and incredulity. While even Dumbledore and his oaf of a gamekeeper thought it worth their while to seek to recruit the aid of the giants, it was well known that very few of them remained, given their laudable enthusiasm for fighting and waging wars, even amongst themselves.
It was therefore deemed a significant step forward that Voldemort’s first emissary had managed to persuade the latest patriarch of the mountain tribes to accept a certain promised gift – a form of magic called a homunculus which would help increase the speed at which the giants’ young would reach maturity, from years to a matter of days, as well as accelerate births. All that one would have to do was submerge the orb of the homunculus in salt water, amethyst powder, dragon bile, and fermented oak to turn it into a spell binding potion.
This ancient magic however required the use of two human ‘volunteers’, Voldemort explained, his eyes fixing themselves upon Snape while his lips curled into a mocking smile. A homunculus was not created in a cauldron, oh no, it had to be born.
“Surely Severus you would not object to the honors of motherhood,” the room erupted into genuine and sycophantic laughter as all eyes turned to look upon the greasy dark haired man whose lip twitched and whose pallid face burned with hatred and embarrassment that even his practiced demeanor could only half contain, “now the only question remains, who shall be the ‘father’?” a pair of snake-like eyes scanned the expressions of each of the Death Eaters in turn, stifling their voices one by one more effectively than any silencing charm.
As the eyes reached Fenrir Greyback, the werewolf flashed his teeth at Severus in a grin and then opened his mouth as if to speak, when suddenly another voice preceded him in dispelling the hush that had fallen over the room.
“I-I shall my lord,” said Lucius Malfoy, trying to steal a moment to regain his composure as he forced a cough, then looking up at none but Voldemort so as not to be unnerved by any inconsequential reactions. It was not a decision that he could have hoped to be able to deliberate and so he was left to hope that it had been the right one, for both Severus’s sake and his own.
The master regarded Malfoy as if considering, and then snatched a cursory glance at Narcissa, who continued to stare at her lap without any perceptible sign of emotion, and then at Draco, whose brow was deeply furrowed, mouth contorted in suppressed revulsion as he tried to force an unpleasant image out of his mind. It was with an idle curiosity that the figure at the head of the table savored the effect upon the room as they all awaited his response.
“Interesting – very interesting,” Voldemort leaned back in his chair, “yes, that will do. Leave now, Lucius and take good care of our dear friend Severus, who has already assumed the feminine virtue of coyness – how he blushes. Take him and do not wait, prepare for your journey. I believe two months will suffice to reach the mountains and return. Here is a something to keep you on the path,” he raised his wand and a compass shot out of one of the drawers behind him, sliding across the table towards Malfoy, who picked it up and rose from his chair in obedience, Severus doing likewise, just as eager to leave the room.
“In such a hurry are we?” they froze, “you must come to see me before you depart -- I have further instructions”
Behind them another round of laughter erupted, they were not loathe to have missed the Dark Lord’s parting remarks once they were well out of the dining hall, whether intended for their ears or not.
They walked up the staircase in tense silence while Lucius thought over his words.
“Severus,” he turned to him when they reached the landing, taking Snape by the arm and ushering him into one of the empty guestrooms, “I would like to explain to you, so that there may be no misunderstandings, --“
“It is not necessary,” Snape interrupted him, pulling his arm free and striding out of the room back into the hall, in search of his chamber.
“I insist,” Lucius paused at the threshold of the door, a scowl of impatience matching that of Severus.
“Very well, what is it that you wish to say?” Snape did not turn around but continued to furiously stuff robes and books into a well-worn suitcase.
“I do not know if this is intended as a test, punishment or merely an amusement, in addition to being a service that we must render to the Dark Lord, but I believe that I am better able to save your dignity in this way than if it were another that you would be obliged to...yield to.”
“Yes, how dignified and honored I feel,” said Severus sardonically, not waiting for him to find a more euphemistic word than those that came to mind.
“You know very well what I mean,” he snapped, annoyed at the other’s self-protecting retorts, “the others would not be so ‘patient’ with you, if you but take a moment to imagine yourself in the claws of gentlemen, or beasts, of the likes of Fen—“
“I do not care to discuss such images,” Snape stalked past him, compelling Lucius to stand aside from a forcefully opened wardrobe door, “I only wonder what Narcissa will say to you later this evening, in spite of your altruistic motives. No, I dare say she will say nothing, nothing at all”
“How well you know how matters stand with my wife and I,” Lucius smiled bitterly, folding his arms behind his back and turning as if to look out the window.
“And now you will have the pleasure of satiating your frustration to look forward to, is that so? Or are you reflecting upon her inexhaustible tolerance – although I must warn you, even that has its limits,” threatened Severus provokingly.
“It is rather too late for me now to escape my allegiances,” answered Lucius, referring to both his servitude to Lord Voldemort and the half-pitying impulse which led him to bind himself to Snape’s unfortunate plight, “I am your friend, or have you forgotten. I felt it my duty to protect you from – that. I have known you for too many years not to see through your reaction that you would not have been able to take being raped with indifference. You always were sentimental.”
“If it were not for your friendship, oh where would I be!” Snape said maliciously, avoiding his gaze.
“Really I should have left you to one of them, is that what you would have preferred?” he pointed out the door and for a moment they both strained to listen to the voices still partially audible from the floor below, each ashamed to wonder if their so-called ‘union’ was still the droll topic of discussion.
“You wouldn’t, you wouldn’t let them be rough with little old me – no, no – so unlike the gentleness that will blossom from our enduring ‘friendship’,” Lucius stood still as he watched Snape’s face move in vehement sarcasm, a part of him regretting his decision, “what – nothing to say?”
“I had come here to reassure you, but as you seem to be coping in your own manner, I shall not waste my time,” he left the room, intent on beginning his own packing, when, after a few minutes, he heard the other’s footsteps in the hall following him.
“Wait,” hissed Severus, the two of them regarding each other uncomfortably.
“Well?” Lucius raised a brow. The familiar arrogant look which Malfoy bore stopped whatever words Severus had intended to speak.
“I would like to see the compass,” Severus muttered instead, holding out his hand. Lucius threw it to him irritably and swept down the long passageway, not waiting to hear more.
Lucius sat in a large armchair in front of the fireplace, picking up a black leather-bound volume from the top of the nearest stack of books Snape had dragged into the study. No sooner did he do so that the tome was joined by several more of its companions, nosily flying through the door flapping their covers like the tattered wings of some puzzling bird.
The entrance into the study was nearly blocked off by the assortment of objects of which their luggage would comprise, ready for the Reducio charm. It seemed that Severus had thrown himself avidly into the finer points of the journey’s preparations, perhaps as a means of distracting himself and postponing by exhaustion the oppressive brooding that would have filled a mind such as his if left to idleness. Lucius could not help but notice how many of the necessary items Severus had already managed to acquire, surmising that the potions master was taken into the Lord Voldemort’s confidence a considerable time prior to the last meeting of Death Eaters.
The coming and going of footsteps and the scratching of a quill would at times interrupt Malfoy’s reading of ‘The Midwife’s Book of Spells', clearly a new addition to the professor’s collection. Out of the corner of his eye, he would distractedly watch as the other crossed off or jotted down items in a journal by which he kept inventory of their growing pile of jars, boxes, mortars, and miscellaneous brick-a-brack which on a different occasion might have evoked a critical remark. Nevertheless, he thought it better to leave his friend to his own devices, observing as he checked the seals and protection spells of several dozen bottles nested in a large wooden crate. Satisfied, Snape picked up one of them by the neck with a large pair of iron pincers and held it to the fire, waiting for it to reach its boiling point. All the while, Severus had not spoken a word to the blond haired wizard while they gazed together at the glass vial, the transparent liquid which it held gradually turning to a bubbling amber hue.
“What are you brewing tonight?” Lucius asked, rising from the chair to stand behind Snape, looking over his shoulder as he set the potion down upon a metal stand to cool, where it slowly transitioned to a pale violet colour.
“It is what I must drink for my body to transfigure,” Snape answered curtly, resenting the question like impertinence that he was obliged to bear. A part of him still felt the sting of jeering which he had been subjected to, as well as the knowledge that Lord Voldemort was not loathe to place him in the demeaning position of something not far removed from a brood mare, even at the expense of losing a spy at Hogwarts. His treachery had been discovered -- it was not possible to deny the implications. He had fallen from the lord’s good graces and had to be disposed of.
He watched the flickering dark shadows that were cast upon Lucius’s angular face from the light of the hearth, observing how it had grown more gaunt since the Dark Lord’s return.
“Am I required to drink of it as well?” ventured Lucius, picking up one of the bottles from the crate and examining it closer to the light.
“No,” Severus replaced the cavity of the empty bottle with a full one from another chest in one corner of the room. Then, taking the drink that he had already prepared, poured it into a chalice and drank the bitter potion in a single unpleasant gulp.
“You are considerably well informed upon this line of magic I presume?” Lucius examined the runes upon the chalice from a distance, “or will it be ‘experimental’?”
“The texts are satisfactorily detailed as to the procedures and ingredients that shall be required,” Severus considered, looking thoughtfully at the empty chalice, “but this form of magic is hardly common practice – not for centuries. It is I who had suggested it to our lord”
“Really?” Lucius could not mask something of his surprise at this confession.
“Not for use upon myself, as if that needs saying,” said Snape instantly, snatching the bottle from his hands, “it is an ancient magic, from the time of the Middle Ages, invented after the plague and pestilence which Muggles refer to as the Black Death” the wizard walked about the room as he spoke, checking crate after crate to ensure that he missed nothing in his inventory, “there were those among our kind who sought to replace the thralls that they had lost, and sever their dependence upon men who refused to serve and toil upon their land without wages -- once powerful lords and ladies whose fortunes had been desolated and whose heirs lay among the dead. From such motives the homunculus was born, only you may imagine the difficulties the magic posed. It was often only by force and unorthodox means that a pair could be found to create it, as the one who bares the homunculus would often die an agonizing death by unnatural labor, while both would become permanently barren thereafter. Any life that they might have created would flow into the homunculus – an embodiment of a thousand souls. As you well know, the associations which magic bore at the time were, not without reason, interwoven with fear and cruelty, a mere rumor was enough to condemn anyone who dabbled however fruitlessly in the dark arts. Of course by means of modern magic the odds have improved, albeit not so significantly as to recommend the spell to the ordinary wizard”
Lucius had listened closely to Severus’s words, watching him open a book to a page containing an old engraving of seven spheres depicting a human figure in miniature, passing through the stages of life, from birth to old age.
“You mean to say that you expect to die of this?” he turned to Severus, looking at him sharply.
“It is possible, yes,” Snape’s tone bore no sign of emotion, as if he were merely stating a commonplace fact.
“And does the Dark Lord believe likewise?”
“I had warned him to choose the ‘vessel’ carefully, amongst those whose service he is willing to forgo in the future,” those who were ‘disposable’ were the words which passed through his mind, “I believe he understands the inherent risks”
“Then it is evident that you have in some way incurred the Dark Lord’s displeasure,” Lucius concluded unsparingly.
Snape did not answer, taking a seat next to the fireplace.
“If it is as you say – that you have outlived your usefulness...how long have you known, may I ask?” Malfoy poured two glasses of firewhisky.
“As long as you have,” he replied, accepting the glass and drinking deeply, wincing at the strength of the burning sensation moving along his throat, “I had foreseen that my concentration would one day lapse, for even a master of Occlumency is not unwavering in his ability to mask his thoughts, so long as he is human”
“Inevitably,” Lucius sat down in the armchair beside him, refilling the professor’s emerald crystal glass. “And supposing that you do survive, do you think that your return shall be welcomed?”
“I do not know the gravity of my offense, whether it is suspected...or known”
“It is an unfortunate position for which I can offer few words of comfort,” tentatively, Lucius placed his hand upon the other’s knee and looked at him with sincerity, “only that you will not be alone in facing the consequences of the reckless days of our youth and the miscalculations of our wiser years. I acknowledge the debt that I owe you”
Severus thought of Lucius’s own position, as one whose fall from esteem was well known by all of the Death Eaters, much in contrast to his standing when Lord Voldemort had been at the height of his power, the Malfoy family rising with him. Yet Snape chose not to speak his mind other than by a certain bitter satisfaction that had momentarily crossed his face when he thought of the many followers of the dark lord whose fortunes would rise and fall precariously, considering many a dismal fate, both of the obscure and the notorious, plastered in black moving ink upon the pages of the Daily Prophet.
Unlike them, he could watch his demise approach with steady certainty, an inescapable thing for which he could only hope to prepare himself by growing numb even to the dread of it. He knew that he would either die in the birth of the homunculus or at his master’s hand before the year was finished. Even so, how soothing and surreal it was to watch the snow falling outside while he warmed his limbs by the fireside. There, too, was something endearing in the presence of his friend, who half comforted and half provoked him, as if unaccustomed to the role which he felt it was his duty to assume – perhaps by some ideal of honor which did not fit neatly with his other motives and inclinations.
That night, Lucius waited for the last of the Death Eaters to leave, so that only Snape and his family remained at the manor house, or so he had believed. Stalking from room to room in a mixture of anger and concern, he searched for Narcissa and his son, but to no avail. At last he sought out Severus, who was still sitting up by the fire, reading.
“They are not here,” he replied before Lucius had so much as stepped past the threshold of the door.
“Obviously not – but has she....has she spoken with you tonight?”
“Yes, several hours ago,” said Severus, not looking up from his book.
“What did she want?” he felt both hopeful and disappointed at this information, that his estranged wife would rather confide her thoughts in Snape than in himself, yet a part of him understood that there was little more than tolerance and necessity left to bind them, alongside a shared interest in Draco’s future...albeit along increasingly diverging lines.
“That is between herself and I,” Snape quickly turned the page of the book depicting a large diagram of the stages by which a man’s organs would transform into those of a woman by use of the potion which he had prepared about a month ago in the required quantity. Lucius caught sight of these illustrations and the other’s embarrassment despite his efforts, but made no remark upon them, wondering vaguely if Severus had lived in monk-like celibacy for so many years. Whether or not he was a virgin, the matter would wait for the time being as he considered the consequences of leaving on the following day without speaking to Narcissa, allowing her to assume he knew not what – and then there was Draco.
“Do you know if she will be returning in the morning?”
“I suspect not,” he set down the book with an exasperated sigh.
Lucius cursed under his breath, then paced about the room muttering something half-audible as his frustration mounted, unable to trace her by the succession of tracking spells he attempted one after the other – all proving utterly useless in locating them.
“How dare she,” he fixed his gaze in fury upon the fire, stirring the embers, “it is my right to see Draco”
“One that apparently you have no power to enforce,” Severus remarked casually.
“She cannot simply whisk him away before I have said so much as a word to him, of course – hiding is her speciality,” he pretended not to have heard, as if indifferent to having no more sympathetic a confidant than the irate Severus Snape, “I can only imagine what manner of slander she uses to manipulate him against me – something must be done, once I return I will make certain of it”
“You mean if you return,” the potions master corrected him.
“What do you mean?” Lucius pulled the book from his hands and smiled at him threateningly.
“I mean,” Snape snatched the book back from him, returning the smile, “that giants are unpredictable creatures”
Lucius was about to utter a retort when something caused him to pause, his face making a rather forcible transition. “I do not recall when there had been such a degree of animosity between you and I, Severus -- but perhaps you will agree that it is best if we do not continue to cultivate it,” he attempted to say, with an effort at delicacy.
Snape said nothing but understood his meaning well, his lips forming a thin line as his jaw clenched in suppressed wrathfulness at the thinly veiled reminder.
“Perhaps it would be best if you got some rest,” he continued, forcing a note of kindness into his voice as he placed his hand upon Snape’s shoulder. Their eyes met, both scrutinizing each other, wondering whether it was an appropriate time to lower their defenses, or even to pretend to.
“I shall do so,” said Severus after a tense silence, closing his book and setting it down upon the lamp table. Rising from the armchair he stood in front of Lucius, but the other did not move aside.
Suddenly, he felt the man’s arms wrap around him, pulling him close against his chest. The hook-nosed professor struggled before at last his body slumped into the embrace, leaning his chin upon the other’s shoulder. Lucius’s hand stroked his back and for a moment he felt a faint shiver pass through him, a warmth and nervous convulsion at the unexpected gesture of familiarity. It seemed to last for longer than he had expected, the two of them standing alone as the last embers of the fire flickered in the hearth, dying away.
When Lucius pulled away from him Snape felt a strange tension between them unlike the one that had been there before, as if something sharp within him had softened slightly at the touch, leaving him with an unpleasant sense of vulnerability which urged him to get away.
“Goodnight, Severus,” spoke Malfoy, slowly walking from the room and closing the door behind him, leaving the other standing with his eyes gazing at the floor like some old fragile creature that had lost itself in the rooms of the ancient manor house.
Lord Voldemort had summoned Lucius early that morning in order to describe to him the first stage of the journey, deeming it wise to use a mode of travel which would help them escape detection by the Ministry and not place overmuch strain upon Severus while his body underwent the necessary changes – regardless of how the other might protest. Furthermore, Apparition required great knowledge of the place the wizard seeks to visit, and neither he nor Snape would be able to visualise their destination, or even a worthwhile intermediary point, with sufficient clarity to justify the risk.
After their meeting, Malfoy’s dismal mood was somewhat lifted, sensing a certain eagerness in the lord’s manner which he interpreted as a sign that their mission meant more to him than simply a means by which to humiliate and destroy them for their respective failures, although these motives may well have played a parallel role. Nevertheless, he was given reason to believe that if the plan should succeed, their contribution would be sufficient to redeem them, regaining some of the trust that had been lost since the Dark Lord’s supposed downfall.
Meanwhile, Severus had breakfasted alone, drinking black coffee with his toast, divided whether he ought to risk spying upon the meeting between Lucius and the Dark Lord, or trust in the other to report the particulars to him unsparingly. A part of him was affronted that Voldemort seemed to have chosen Lucius as the leader amongst them, and moreover, entrusted the wizard with concerns which he decided were unfit for the potion master’s ears. Before he had time to ruminate upon these matters further, he heard the door of his chamber swing open.
When Lucius Malfoy walked into the room, he saw a haggard looking Snape sitting on the edge of his bed with a plate containing a couple of slices of toast. The sallow-skinned man did not look up at him, nor did Lucius speak, sensing something of the other’s moroseness and displeasure, and instead took a book from one of the shelves with languid interest, waiting for Snape to set the tone of their meeting.
Severus continued to cut the slices of toast with a knife and fork, bringing morsels up to his parched lips until the plate was empty, blatantly ignoring Lucius’s presence. His repast concluded, the man’s gaze searched about for the book which served as his primary resource upon the homunculus, at last resorting to the Accio charm.
The sound of a shattered wine glass was suddenly heard from a nearby room as the book swiftly hurtled itself into his arm. Severus scanned the cover for damage and then glowered at Lucius, their eyes meeting.
“Is it beneath you to observe common courtesy or is it the Malfoy way to take freely that which does not belong to you?” were the first words which broke the uncomfortable silence between them.
“I had borrowed it in order to prepare myself to better aid you during your difficult condition,” Lucius answered, turning an armchair with a spell to face Snape and taking a seat, crossing his legs and leaning back in assumed ease. He felt disappointed to see that Severus was still in a foul temper, for which he could not account for – wondering if it had to do with stress and nerves or even the potion he was taking – resolving to be patient with him for as long as he kept within certain bounds. “I hope that I am not disturbing you. Did you sleep well?” he said with terse civility.
“No, not particularly,” he answered, “I have too much on my mind for sleep. I see that you are up early,” Snape remarked insinuatingly.
“Lord Voldemort had called upon me to familiarize myself with the route and the precautions which we must take with both the homunculus and the giants”
Lucius hesitated, and then said, “Yes – the precautions which I must take with you,” he forced a smile.
“Of course,” Severus took a drink of lukewarm coffee, “one must keep an eye on traitors, however useful they may be”
“He is pleased that it is you and I that shall carry out this duty,” he continued, “Lord Voldemort takes it for granted that there is a degree of trust between us that might have been lacking among a discordant pairing – something that would be most detrimental to the cause” Lucius watched the other’s face, trying to read whether his words had the desired effect upon Severus, but the wizard remained still and impassive, thinking.
Then, Snape rose from his seat and stood inches from Lucius, who likewise raised himself from the chair and regarded the peculiar defiance branded upon the other’s cold black eyes.
“Submit to Legilimency, for I would see for myself how pleased he is with his two servants”
“That would be contrary to what it means to trust, would you not agree?”
“No, I do not agree,” said Severus with a chilling calmness, “I would like to see...or rather, to feel your intentions”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you volunteer for this? Is it to curry favor with the Dark Lord, at my expense? How am I to know that it was not you who betrayed me to him? I am certain that you had suspected where my loyalties lie, long before even Lord Voldemort had. Whether you are right or wrong in such allegations, it is not worth my while to attempt to defend myself with mere words. Now all who have doubted will see that I am prepared to die for the loyalties I have sworn -- ”
“I do not seek a defense from you, nor has our lord mentioned such suspicions to me when I attended -- ”
“How your ego has risen in such a short span of time Lucius, to think that what he says or does not say to you is indicative of anything,” Snape sneered, “already you believe that he has taken you back as his trusted lieutenant – well then, it is you who shall be disillusioned in the end”
“What is it that you want from me?” he felt impatient with Severus, growing weary of his confrontational manner, so unlike the usually civil relations between them. For a few second his mind had been violated against his intentions, his concentration lapsing when he became aware of the strength of Severus’s apparent aversion towards him, allowing the wizard to see into his thoughts. Their two wills had fought against one another for Lucius’s conscience and Snape had been granted what rather than appeasing him, only further whetted his appetite for knowledge into his friend’s true desires and fears, despite the consequences.
“I will not be satisfied until you grant me access to your mind directly, without Occlumency,” spoke Severus with righteous insistence, not waiting for approaching scruples to impede him.
“I have told you the truth, both about my motives and those of the Dark Lord, as far as they were laid open to me – ”
“Do you refuse my request then?
“I must refuse your request,” Lucius did not hesitate to say, “it is the will of Lord Voldemort that I should do so”
“Why?” he scowled, wondering whether this too might be a lie.
“It is impertinence to attempt to wrench by force that which He has chosen to keep concealed – surely that needs no saying. This time it is for your own benefit that I advise you not to seek to defy him,” Lucius replied, turning from Severus towards the door, “and the accusation that you have leveled against me – do you really think that I wish to use you for my own advancement? Really Severus, it seems that something is affecting your judgement” he said with a tone of contempt.
“You have done no less with others in order to save your own skin, although with more discretion than the likes of Karkaroff,” he said furiously, “in desperate times such as these, what wouldn’t you do is more to the point, my slippery friend” Snape echoed the Dark Lord’s words, catching the reflection of Lucius’s face in the mirror, pleased to see the effect upon him. With all his efforts to resist the potion master’s provocations, he could not mask the anger he felt to be reminded of that day.
“They are not you,” Lucius paused, turning to him, “those of the House of Slytherin make distinctions carefully, or could it be that you have decided to sever old ties?”
“No,” Snape felt shame pass through him, realizing the force of the insult that he had committed as he struggled to meet Malfoy’s gaze.
“Have you gathered your belongings? It is time we departed,” Lucius said coldly, making as if to inspect his pocket watch.
“Yes,” Severus stooped to pick up the remaining books, glad for a reason to end their uncomfortable conversation, feeling as if cold water had been poured over the flames of his anger, replaced by embarrassment and remorse.
“Before we go, there is something that I would like to give to you,” he reached into the inner pocket of his cloak and produced a small black box. Opening it, he presented Severus with a silver locket.
“What is this?” Snape took it hesitatingly, examining the simple curling design upon its lid and the small white stone which were its only ornaments.
“It shall allow us to communicate discretely if we are ever separated – all that you need to do is hold it tightly in your palm and concentrate upon the words that you would like engraved upon its counterpart. When you receive a message, the metal shall become warm and the stone will turn black. If one of us is in danger, the stone will turn red. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Snape nodded, placing the locket into the pocket of his robe, “a clever enchantment,” he muttered in reluctant approval.
“Perhaps it would be best if you wore it against your skin,” said Lucius, not waiting for an answer as he hurried down the staircase at the sound of a black cab which rolled up to the entrance of the manor house.
Snape joined him shortly after, reaching the door in time to see a thin slouching man stagger out to open the trunk of the vehicle. He wore Muggle clothing over his skeletal frame, jeans and an old fashioned jacket caked with stale blood, a scraggly white beard and a mop of unruly hair obscuring much of his face. As Severus approached and looked closer at the driver, he could discern the poignant scent of decay about his person, and the taunt appearance of his skin confirmed the suspicion that this was an Inferius.
Lucius was unperturbed by the appearance of the driver, nor the condition of the car, which suffered from a significant amount of rust as if it had spent some time submerged in water. He presumed that at least some enchantment had been used upon it in order to bring it to a working condition. Indeed, with a flick of a wand, the rust and clumps of seaweed had to be scraped away to make it ‘unremarkable’ before the two wizards climbed inside, having deposited their luggage in the capacious trunk.
Most of their belongings were organized in what looked like an apothecary’s travelling chest, in which something like the contents of a strange and elaborate doll’s house were carefully arranged in small compartments for ease of access. Other items of importance were kept about their person in inner pockets of robes and travelling cloaks – those things which they would not be compelled to part with even in the case of an emergency, including the transfiguring potions which Snape was obliged to take. Having begun the transformation, it would be unwise and dangerous to discontinue it part way, especially given that a full moon cycle was required to prepare a replacement batch. After two days he was already beginning to feel sharp pains in the area of his abdomen.
When at last they set out upon their journey, Snape felt a moment of mental relief, becoming aware for the first time that he would be leaving behind many of the most poignant sources of apprehension and strain – no longer being under the direct scrutiny of the Dark Lord and his followers, or even of Dumbledore. As the car sped along, the distance between himself and the manor were a growing source of pleasure for him,
Beside him slumped Lucius Malfoy, his eyes closed as he leaned back against the leather seat. Although his clothing and figure bore their usual elegance, there was something dishevelled and careworn in the man’s appearance for which Snape felt a pang of sympathy. By some strange impulse, he felt inclined to reach out and touch him, give him some sign that he was there next to him – a silent pleading apology.
Looking at the black leather gloves, his thin hands folded over the book in his lap, his chest rising and falling with his breathing, the pale skin of his neck half obscured by his high collar, parted lips, the slight scar close to his ear, the platinum hair falling over his shoulders, even the faint scent of his familiar cologne -- of all of these things Snape felt acutely aware. But he did not follow this suggestive impulse, he could not.
Severus remembered their embrace during the prior night and how he felt then, uncertain of how much of the other’s attempted kindness had been a matter of duty or self interest, how much Lucius must have been repulsed by the inherent ugliness of a body such as Snape’s, the body of a half-blood wizard in the decline of years, without the recommendations of position or fortune or even a warm and amicable temperament. Yet it was ridiculous, Snape told himself, that he should be considering an imposed union, a necessity, as if it were or ought to be something natural and sincere. It was as Lucius had said, however mockingly, that he had always been sentimental in his regard towards human intimacy, unable to bestow his affection lightly, nor to let go of it when it could not be returned.
Snape had reached his forties never having felt what it was to be the object of another’s desires. At times, especially during his youth, such thoughts would be exceedingly painful for him to bear, yet while he grew older, other cares took their place, and time wore away the hopes and expectations that one day that figure would come, shrouded in the veils and mysteries of a romantic fantasy, to offer him the pure, unwavering, jealous affection which he coveted. Severus felt that it was a blessing, that his heart’s pangs had withered and left him a cold peace, disturbed only by a thin ghostly form, mercifully unattainable and idolatrously inhuman, ever-present in her benevolent influence – like a guardian angel and a reminder of the ideals of another age. His protective reclusion allowed him to pursue his studies and turn his imagination to the allurements of knowledge, believing himself satisfied with the polite companionship that had been offered to him at Hogwarts and at Malfoy Manor.
During the long hours on the road, watching the rain falling against the window, Severus was allowed much time to ruminate and daydream, to worry and to wonder, until at last he willed himself to turn his mind from such paths and focus his attention along more practical lines.
Severus was jolted awake as the car veered to the side of the road and an ambulance drove past along the dimly lit lane. He rubbed his eyes and looked out the windows, on either side were great expanses of farmland, dotted with faint silhouettes of distant barns or cottages. The professor noticed that he had been leaning on Lucius’s shoulder, having dozed off during the long and tedious road trip. A part of him wished he had not awakened for he became aware of an overwhelming nausea. He commanded the Inferius to stop at the nearest turn, stepping outside into the cool night air.
“Severus?” he heard the car door open as Lucius joined him.
“I’m fine,” Snape muttered, trying to contain a sensation as if he were about to throw up.
Lucius did not look convinced but said nothing, placing his hand on the other’s shoulder and regarding him searchingly.
“You need not fuss over me,” he pulled away, stepping further along the dark gravel path. The other wizard heard him retching and coughing, while gesturing to him to keep away.
“Who’s there?” an angry shout came from somewhere in the darkness, a lantern bobbing towards them to reveal the face of a heavyset man in mud covered boots and a woolen sweater, followed by an elderly woman in a flower-print nightgown.
“Are you okay?” the woman hung onto his arm while staring wide-eyed in the direction of the strangers, “oh Nelson put that down!” she pulled at the hand in which the man held a long hunting rifle, “maybe their car broke down and you’re just--”
“Who’s there!” the man ignored her and continued to take long strides towards the strangers.
Lucius and Snape exchanged looks, both reaching for their wands.
“We are deeply sorry to disturb you at such an hour, it seems we have lost our way” said Lucius, taking a pace back as the red-faced man inched forward, the gun poised.
“Put that down!” the woman huffed, “I’m so sorry, my grandson – he’s not used to visitors”
“What do you want?” he tried to free his arm from the bony hands which clung to it.
“Which way are you headed, maybe if you have a map we can point you in the right direction,” the grandmother let go of Nelson and trotted towards them alone.
“That is most kind of you but unfortunately we – “ before he had time to finish, a perceptible change took place in the expressions of the two Muggles, a look of horror which caused Lucius to turn, already knowing what he would find there.
The Inferius had left the car and was inching closer to them, the putrid body of the deceased cab driver looking more ghastly and cadaverous in the stark unnatural light. Not waiting for it to come closer, the farmer shot two bullets at the creature, thereby doing little to impede its progress, instead, this act of violence against it provoked it to pounce upon him in an ape-like leap, while the woman uttered a piercing shriek, stumbling over her robe onto the ground beside him. Lucius pulled Snape aside from where the Muggle looked as though he were being mauled by bone-white hands, struggling against the skeletal body whose strength seemed more than human.
“Leave him,” the blond wizard commanded, causing the creature to rise from where it hunched over the limp corpulent body, its face bearing no sign of emotion, fixed into a vacant stare as it wiped the blood from its hands against its ragged clothing, limping towards the car and returning to the driver’s seat.
Snape went to look at the Muggle, but at a glance he saw that nothing could be done for him, he was already dead. The woman stared at him, trembling with terror, her hand hovering over her mouth as tears poured down her face. The wizard could not help but feel a pang of pity for her, her powerlessness, her anguish, reminding him of the night when he had lost Lily. He could think of only one thing – raising his wand, he transfigured the body into that of a dog, equally bloody and mangled, and used the Obliviate spell upon her.
“We are very sorry,” said Snape, leaning down and picking up the animal.
She was still crying, although the reason felt strangely distant and vague. When her gaze focused upon the dog, she seemed to understand, as if remembering something she could hardly believe she could have forgotten. It was the shock, surely. Wordlessly, she took the body and cradled it in her arms, turning from the strangers in a daze-like state and trudging towards the illuminated doorway of her house in the distance, feeling as if all the strength had been drained from her.
Snape and Lucius returned to the car, feeling low in spirit. The Inferius continued to drive, following the route of the compass unwaveringly, where it hung loosely clattering about the creature’s emaciated throat.
They decided to stop for the night, following a large flashing sign to ‘Sunbeach Motel’, a curious name for a region with no trace of a beach for hours, nor much in the way of fine weather. After ringing the bell a few times, they were greeted by a lanky youth with an acne-ridden countenance of faintly suppressed annoyance, as he slipped his phone into his pocket and joined them at the counter.
“Do you have any rooms for the night?” Lucius’s eyes wandered between the youth and the stains upon the wall. A rather strong scent of tobacco wafted from somewhere nearby, he turned at the sound of laughter and a loud television set playing in the background – a man in his forties walked out of the motel bar with a thin blond woman in a red dress, his arm about her shoulder as they both made their way towards the single elevator.
“Yeah, just you two? What kind of room do you want?” the youth handed him a booklet with laminated photos and rates, bold letters highlighting a promotion on ‘Deluxe Sunbeach Lovers Suites’ and ‘Bingo Tuesday Breakfast Specials’. Snape examined the booklet over the wizard’s shoulder with a strange expression as if he had just swallowed a lemon.
“It is the nearest place for miles,” said Lucius in a hushed voice, “would you rather that we sleep in the car”
“We will take the ‘Deluxe Sunbeach Lovers Suite’,” said Snape suddenly, in a voice that showed he had narrowly made a decision between two equally despicable choices.
The youth snorted a barely suppressed laugh, doing a doubletake of the two men, as if seeing them in a new light, “Okie dokie,” he twirled a pen and stuck it behind his ear, typing something into the computer while a receipt began to print.
The clerk then handed them some forms to sign while Lucius placed a thick wad of crisp fifty pound notes upon the counter after some rummaging about in the apothecary chest.
“Rob a bank?” he smirked, pulling out a single note ostentatiously “hold on – these are ancient!” the clerk examined the date, about a hundred years ago, “hey maybe there’s a collector who would give you more for em – sure you don’t have anything else, I don’t know if we even accept these,” he pulled out his phone again.
“I’m sure,” Lucius flashed him a scornful smile, his patience with Muggles growing thin.
“Alrighty, I guess a fifty’s a fifty,” and then taking a cursory glance at the form, the young man’s quizzical expression intensified.
“Not from around here are ya sir?” he remarked, having never seen ‘old boot’ written in the passport field.
“What’s wrong with it?” scowled Lucius, snatching the form from him.
“Uh—gotta write there in capital letters you see,” he grinned. Lucius shoved the form back into his hand.
“Our keys, if you please,” said Severus with a note of impatience. The oily skinned youth looked like he was going to say something but decided against it at the last moment as his eyes met those of Snape, whose challenge he dared not accept.
“Check-out is at 10am,” he dropped the keys into Snape’s outstretched hand, “I hope you enjoy your stay, mister,” the youth waved, unable to restrain a wink. Severus grabbed the apothecary box gruffly and pulled Lucius away by the elbow.
“That impudent weasel,” muttered Lucius into Snape’s ear.
When the two wizards found their room at last, they were surprised to find a large bed with gaudy red covers and plush pillows trimmed with pink lace, over which was a large mirror in a mock-gilded frame. A complimentary bottle of cheap wine and the Karma Sutra lay on the nightstand.
“Go on Severus, I presume you are satisfied with your selection?” Lucius gave him a shove with his cane as Snape seemed to have frozen at the threshold of the door, his face a shade approaching that of the duvet.
“Shut up,” hissed the potions master, his eyes wandering to the jarring plaster statues of two fat cherubs in one a corner of the room.
Lucius took off his winter cloak and hung it over the back of a chair, somewhat puzzled to notice a pair of handcuffs hanging from it. “If you do not mind, I will go take a bath now – make yourself comfortable why don’t you,” he smirked at Snape, who muttered something inaudible under his breath.
Severus removed the plush pillows and put on his long gray night robe, climbing under the covers. Turning on one of the heart-shaped lamps, he hesitated before picking up the Karma Sutra book, opening it to a random page and then quickly closing it shut, sliding it back just in time as the bathroom door opened.
Lucius raised a brow and smiled knowingly at Snape, noticing from his alert and rigid posture that he had nearly caught him in – something. Then he noticed the book, much further from the untouched wine bottle than it had been when they first arrived.
“Enjoying a light read?” he said silkily, sitting down on a black velvet sofa and filing his nails nonchalantly.
Snape did not reply, pulling on the dangling light switch and turning off the lamp. He busied himself with adjusting his pillow and making as if to settle down to sleep, not trusting himself to know what to do with Lucius’s insinuating remarks. To his relief, the other did not say more, taking out the spellbook he had been reading the prior night and settling himself in the chair read. Meanwhile, the dark-haired wizard lay curled in the bed, away from the light, thinking, wondering what it was that he wanted.
“You should not stay up all through the night, you were good for nothing today,” mumbled Severus.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he looked up from the pages at the hook-nosed wizard, whose back was still turned to him. Lucius lingered a few moments more until he finished the paragraph and bookmarked the tome, replacing it carefully amongst his things, “we will be flying tomorrow, if all goes as planned” he said to Snape, climbing into bed beside him and turning off the rest of the red-hued lights.
Severus felt the sleeve of the other’s night robe brush against his cheek, sending an anxious sensation through his body, yet nothing further happened – no hand reached out to touch him, no word nor sound but the other adjusting the blanket. He did not exactly know what he expected, or rather, he could not quite come to terms with how he ought to think of or prepare himself for what must inevitably happen.
He imagined that henceforth every night that he spent next to Lucius, he would lay there wondering if that would be the night when they would attempt to conceive the homunculus. There was something both tantalizing and intolerable about the thought. He tried imagine how it might happen, how it would begin, how he himself would respond – should he try to fight and resist, or yield willingly, should he show pleasure or hide it for shame? Regardless, the transformation was far from complete, he himself was often much put off to so much as look at or touch his own body, like that belonging to stranger, neither a man nor a woman.
He wondered how Lucius would know when the time was right, or if he ought to be told – of course he ought to know, only Snape dreaded to give the impression that he was thereby asking him for the strange sort of intimacy he could only comfortably visualize in vague midnight visions.
The moonstone would tell them when the homunculus was conceived, that much was simple, only on this point his thoughts wandered to Felix Felicis. If Severus wanted it to happen as few times as possible, perhaps that was all that he needed to minimize the humiliating aspect of his role.
But what if lying hidden in the depths of buried desires was a hope to the contrary, a wish to prolong for as much as possible the external reason that would force a bond between himself and Lucius – there were means well known to witches that would prevent them from conceiving. Such a thing would be treachery against the Dark Lord, of course. Yet did that still matter to him, when his life meant little, and his fate was accounted for? All of these questions circled through his mind while he lingered in the realm between dreams and wakefulness.
Throughout the night, they both slept with their backs turned to one another, remaining rather unnaturally rigid and constrained to their respective sides of the bed, from which Severus could only presume that the other was also still awake.
He wondered if Lucius was considering the same questions that he was considering, waiting tensely for what conclusion he would reach.
When the light of morning came filtering through the blinds, Snape realized that he must have drifted off to sleep at some point in the night. Turning onto his back he looked up at the mirror above them, he saw his own unpleasantly familiar face and that of Lucius in profile, his long blond hair falling over the pillow. Severus roused himself to prepare the potion, boiling and drinking it as a most unpleasant morning cordial.
“Get up, it is nearly eight o’clock,” Snape said while packing away the potions box.
Lucius raised himself onto his elbow, in no particular hurry to get out of bed, as he watched Severus move about the room with efficiency, folding robes and rearranging the compartments of their luggage. Suddenly, his eyes caught sight of a significant amount of fresh blood on Snape’s side of the bed as he pulled back the covers.
“You’re bleeding,” he looked both troubled and shocked.
“Yes, the transformation is working quickly. I will get rid of the blood before we leave”
The cab and its Inferius driver parted with their final passengers at the edge of a pond-side dock situated near a derelict farmhouse. The two wizards watched as it sunk slowly through the murky black waters, the still-glowing headlights of the vehicle illuminating an unnaturally long descent, until nothing but a thick blackness returned to the mirror-like surface. For some time after this, they were obliged to travel on foot along the deserted roadside, except for the occasional rabbit or badger darting into the shadows.
Tapping a series of stones along a moss-covered wall, an entrance was made for them, revealing a busy platform overlooking an armada of large galleon ships, some having several dozen decks, each hovering in the air as if suspended by invisible ropes. These enchanted vessels rocked to and fro as men adjusted their sails, carried in cargo and boarded passengers. Over divided sections of the platform wooden signs swung from large blue poles the size of lighthouses, indicating a puzzling array of destinations, upcoming arrivals and warnings for impending storms.
Lucius felt about the inner pocket of his robe, confirming the presence of two tickets, before proceeding in the direction of a forty decked merchant ship into which a crew of goblins were loading heavy black cauldrons, hauling them in using an elaborate system of magic and pulleys with an admirable efficiency. Even so, the pile which remained on the platform appeared inexhaustible, numbering at least in the thousands. It had been gleaned from a reliable source that the cauldrons had failed to meet Ministry standards and were thus obliged to return to their distant shore of origin, despite the portion that had found its way into the black market, the merchant was far from pleased with the outcome of the venture and was only too glad to accept the proposal to transport an expedition of enthusiastic Norwegian Horntail photographers, a vacationing amateur Quidditch team, a troop of mountaineers, and a trio of herbologists in search of the arctic Monkroot onboard his ship. Amongst this motley company there numbered an invalid widow and her potato-nosed grandson – a long way from their solitary farm.
A towering man with a black mustache inspected each person’s ticket and identification papers as they boarded the ship, pausing over those of the latter with squinting suspicion. Before he had time to reach a definite conclusion, the papers were snatched from his hand with a gracious smile and a bow, a Confudus charm expediting the pair’s speedy passage to their quarters.
The line of impatient boarders moved ahead by a foot, the sound of raucous conversation echoing behind them through the winding planked corridors of the vessel. Once in the safety of their room, Severus took off the long black veil from his head and watched with a stifled smirk as the other resumed his usual shape, removing an unflattering bowler hat and enchanted pince-nez, the man’s potato shaped nose returning to its usual proportions.
Upon the hat there had been a brooch of green glass containing a swirling silvery liquid, to which the wizard added another lock from what looked like a snuff box stuffed with labelled bundles of hair. The liquid fizzed for a moment, the lock disintegrating, as another batch of potion fermented.
“Whose business were these?” Lucius placed the hat upon a hook and tossed the documents upon the dressing table.
“Ah, that explains it,” he grimaced "shoddy work indeed".
After taking some rest and discussing their plans, they resumed their disguises. The boarders were summoned to the first-class dining room, where a band of fiddlers was playing a goblin polka tune to encourage a group of six or seven disgruntled centenarians with their gruel, besides whom the hall was empty.
The pair chose a table in the corner, helping themselves from a great steaming cauldron of something gray and viscous. They did not linger nor talk, eating quickly and then going up to the deck for some air. There they found most of the travelers and crew, gathered in a cluster about the chief merchant, who lay in a drunken stupor singing loudly in a low guttural tone – reveling in the effects of a bottle of elf-made wine laced with a strong dose of euphoric elixer.
As one man attempted to raise him onto his feet, he got up and leaped between his legs towards a rope, climbing it with some difficulty until he reached a perilous position near the top of the mast. From there he bellowed with increased enthusiasm at the gathered onlookers, his face growing redder from the exertion.
Amidst the commotion, the two wizards darted towards the stern of the ship unobserved, looking down over the railing at the mosaic of snow-covered hills down below.
The seven arrows of the compass spun with vigor in Lucius’s hand, indicating that the time for action had come. While Severus lingered near the door of the navigation room, Lucius applied a charm to the lock and slipped inside. The chamber was illuminated by several green bulbs set into the ceiling over a giant globe fixed upon a golden stand decorated with figures of merfolk. Over this globe hovered a miniature version of the galleon like a hypnotized bumblebee, emitting a low hum.
Malfoy felt a mild sting course through his arm from his wand as he reached out towards it, pulling away instantly and reaching into his pocket for a pouch of azure powder. Shaking some liberally over the globe, a patch of something like a spiderweb melting away. This small gap just above the miniature ship was enough for the wizard’s purpose.
Murmurs of confusion broke out across the deck as the passengers felt a bout of turbulence, followed by an uneven descent towards a blur of rocks, forest, and snow that bore little resemblance to the chalet town towards which they were originally bound. With a bird-like swoop, the ship passed over a grove of stunted pine trees, and then rose back towards the clouds with a sharp jolt as the occupants of the vessel held on for their dear lives. The deafening clatter of a hoard of cauldrons was heard amidst yells while the crew struggled to regain order and calm the distraught passengers, a group of them racing towards the navigation room, their wands at the ready.
When the half-sobered chief merchant at last returned to the navigation room it was with a huff of mild displeasure that he noticed a bruised quaffle lying at the foot of the slightly lopsided globe. The strange incident left quite a mark upon the goblin’s venerable reputation; none could account for his liberal behavior, not even himself – vowing never again to sample vintages from anonymous benefactors, even while wallowing in the depths of pecuniary disillusionment.
Bracing himself for the fall, Severus managed to cast a charm that formed a barrier between a cluster of trees, like springing tangle of yarn, extending and sinking downwards until they reached the ground, descending upon a snowbank. Aside from a bruise to the shoulder from a collision with the apothecary case, the wizard and his companion were for the most part unharmed. Brushing off the snow from their clothes, Severus twirled his wand in the air in circular motions as if winding up an invisible thread, at which point the dark strands of magic began to slowly fade away into the air.
Lucius checked his pocket for the compass, feeling a jolt in his stomach at finding it empty. Then, with relief, he observed Severus tread a path through the thick bank of white towards a circular patch where the object had fallen, brushing it off and examining its arrows, which circled about for a minute until five out of seven reached a consensus as to the direction. These arrows each represented the paths to take based on the various motives and desires which drove he who held the compass. The dark-haired wizard quickly passed it to Lucius with an expression of condemnation .
“You should take better care of this,” he muttered, picking up the heavy apothecary box and hoisting it over his shoulder.
“Does that mean you shall not entrust me with this?” Lucius wretched the box from the other and placed it over his own shoulder. Severus said nothing but continued to lumber through the snow in the direction where the compass pointed.
Rousing himself back to the present moment, he recalled a certain magic – forming a fiery orb at the tip of his wand, which floated, expanded and multiplied as if it were a soap bubble. These spheres of fire hovered close to the ground, melting the sheets of ice to reveal a muddy path strewn with rocks.
“Excellent,” Lucius remarked, pleased with the other’s ingenuity.
Ahead of them they could see little except for the ancient trees which had managed to survive in the icy windblown conditions. During their descent form the galleon, they had been able to see mountains in the distance, knowing that it would be many miles before they could reach their destination. As they walked, each wondered if there was a means to lighten the difficulty of this stretch of the journey, only arriving at a charm which would at intervals soothe the effects of frostbite upon their extremities. At one point, Apparition was proposed, yet due to the heightened risks associated with Severus’s transformation, the plan was again discarded.
They had no choice but to trudge onwards on foot, observing that the gray sky was beginning to take on a darker hue as the sun began to set. It was essential to find somewhere to take shelter before nightfall. Unable to find anything like a cave, they contrived to form a burrow underground, using dwarf-made magic to excavate a large but relatively shallow passageway, encountering much resistance in boring through the stone. This however was a good sign, meaning that their improvised abode would at least be sturdy and safe from rockfall than if it were made of a more granular consistency.
The work sufficiently completed, Lucius cast a charm to shield and camouflage the entrance of their makeshift burrow from the outside. It had been the end of a long day by the time they were able to settle for some rest, reaching into the apothecary box to produce some items of furniture and cooking ware. They moved two low chairs next to a tripod set over a blue flame, frying some bacon, eggs, and potatoes while their boots and coats dried in a corner. A mattress and blankets were warmed by am antiquated looking silver object that resembled a stingray, swimming in the air between the folds of fabric to evenly distribute the heat that emanated from its many eyes. Before going to sleep, Severus prepared the transfiguring potion, drinking it with his tea as he watched the falling snow by moonlight. He thought he had seen a movement nearby one of the trees, hearing the muffled sound of digging. The wizard’s dark eyes narrowed upon what looked like a white fox. It paused in its work, its snout sniffing the air when suddenly a flash of green shot towards it. The creature darted out of the way as the spell collided with the trunk of a tree, sending a shower of snow to the ground from the disturbed branches. The fox was nowhere in sight. Severus lingered at the cavernous entrance, watching, but he could perceive no movement nor sign of anything out there. With reluctance, he retreated back into the burrow where the bed cot was arranged.
Lucius had removed the plates and tripod and was occupied with a strange device within which the compass floated, surrounded by several brass rings engraved with runes. A projection of a mountainous landscape shimmered in ribbons of light around the device. Carefully turning one of the rings, the bird’s eye view of a cave came into focus, emanating a fiery red hue which did not look like ordinary flames. The vision disappeared when the wizard looked away, distracted by the sound of footsteps.
“What were you looking at?”
“I would like to ask you the same question”
“Rockford Grundfos, the animagus – I thought I saw him”
“Having followed us for days unobserved? Ridiculous”
“Perhaps he had been waiting for us here”
“Yes, well, that is possible I suppose, but are you certain that it was him and not simply a fox?”
“It escaped,” he described what he had seen and the unsuccessful attempt at attacking the creature.
“To be trailed by an Auror is no slight inconvenience to be sure, but what do you suggest we do? Go out there and search the forest? Who knows where it may be by now, perhaps he has already left to report our whereabouts,” he felt annoyed that Severus had missed his chance, “and then, it could all have been nothing, merely a fox”
“I suggest that we do not linger here for long, once we reach the giants they are unlikely to cause a stir there, knowing well the kind of welcome they are likely to receive,” said Severus, feeling some degree of confidence in the fact that their proposal had gone as well as Hagrid’s had gone poorly.
“Giants are nothing if not mercurial in their temperament towards outsiders, especially of our kind – we cannot depend upon their protection, nor do I think it would be advisable to remain long in their camp. We must work towards sealing the agreement as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, we shall place better protections and keep on our guard”
“You are forgetting that certain…’complications’ are likely to arise after the homunculus is born, or do you intend to leave me there to rot once you have it? Of course, if I were to die, that would be the most convenient thing for me to do – am I not mistaken?”
“How long will it take for you to recover?” he listened with a furrowed brow, believing there was little good in arguing the latter point.
“I do not know”
They sat in silence, both considering.
“I will go to the giants on my own and return once our purpose is accomplished, there is no need to expose you to additional danger in your weakened state,” said Lucius with a tone of finality.
“That is not what He had instructed,” there was a hostility in Severus’s voice.
“Nevertheless,” Lucius did not elaborate.
“It would be foolish for you to go on your own given the dangers, you will wait until I am well enough to accompany you before seeking out the Gurg,” said Severus firmly, waiting for the other to challenge him.
“Let us defer the decision until we have seen what condition you will be left in once we have the homunculus,” he answered diplomatically.
Severus continued to glare but did not contradict him, making a curt nod.
When they at last retired to bed they stayed close to one another for warmth, with some initial awkwardness Snape allowed himself to relax into the soothing proximity of the other’s body as Lucius struggled to keep awake during the first night watch, his lids growing heavy from the strain and weariness of their journey. With unexpected gentleness, he felt Severus bury his face in the fabric of his coat, his hands clinging to him with a child-like helplessness.
By Severus’s urging, they rose early the next morning so as not to waste the few hours of daylight available to them during the winter month. Sorry to abandon the burrow, they repacked their things and set off into the gathering snowstorm, taking turns to maintain the magical shield around them against the onslaught of freezing wind. They argued for some time as to the advisability of turning back and waiting for the storm to pass, but Snape was immovable in his resolve to reach the next compass point before sundown.
Their path took them past the woods to a wide open plain. It was just in time that Lucius held back Severus from walking ahead, as before them lay a stretch of ice that melted quickly under the heat of the fiery orbs. Lucius used a hovering charm to carry Severus over the half-frozen pond, where he was dropped unceremoniously upon a mound of snow, after which Severus returned the favor. Having made it across, they both felt discouraged to see another obstacle in their way – a coursing river several meters wide, carrying along large fragments of ice along its dark waters, coursing against a high wall of rock which they would inevitably have to climb. There seemed to be no visible bank for miles.
“We could attempt to freeze a bridge, but then who knows if it would be strong enough against the current,” Lucius thought out loud.
“Indeed,” Severus agreed, “we should continue walking East along the river, there may be bank further along if we are lucky”
“And if we are not? This part of the ice is too unstable, I would rather not risk a pilgrimage across it”
“Fine, what do you suggest then?” he looked about them, feeling a bout of discomfort as his eyes scanned the exposed landscape, seemingly lifeless save for their two solitary figures. Severus saw as the other rummaged in the apothecary box, taking out a handful of cubic pyrite stones – before he could stop him, Lucius threw them one after the other into the water, speaking a charm at which they rose out of the river as a monolithic improvised walkway.
“Could you not have used the quartz?” muttered Snape.
“We have more than enough,” Lucius answered dismissively, adjusting the angle of some of the stones and forming barriers in the case that their footing should slip. Satisfied with his work, he then took the first step upon the closest stone platform, offering his arm to the other, “I would not want you to fall in now would I?”
Severus clambered onto the pyrite, his adrenaline racing as he leapt from one block to another, eventually resigning himself to the other’s assistance. They were about halfway across the river when a flash of red shot past Snape, nearly grazing his elbow. He turned sharply, reaching for his wand, but before he could react, a searing pain coursed through his leg, the force of the hex sending him falling into the racing current of water. Lucius saw nothing but white as he scanned the horizon, torn between defending against the invisible attacker and turning his attention to saving Severus. There was little time to waste.
“Accio Severus!” he called, narrowly dodging another shot of red light while the drenched form of Severus was drawn towards him, slumped upon a platform of pyrite. The wizard’s skin was a bluish hue from the cold, a shivering hand still firmly clutching his wand as he struggled to pull himself onto his feet.
This time Lucius was ready, at once returning the attack – aiming the Avada Kedavra curse at the source of the stunning hex. The lifeless figure of a man suddenly flew backwards upon the snow.
“Grundfos,” murmured Snape.
Snape considered what they ought to do with the body, it would not do to abandon it there to be found by the Order or whoever else was on their trail.
“Revelio,” he raised his wand, seeking to ascertain whether the Auror had been working alone or if his comrades still waited, lurking invisibly in the midst of the frozen terrain. Nothing happened, leading the wizard to believe that this power was intrinsic to the man who lay lifeless before him. He and Lucius approached the ragdoll-like figure, its fingers still stiffly curled around his Elmwood wand. Malfoy pulled it free unceremoniously and began to unbutton the Auror’s coat, searching about his pockets. About his person were found several objects of interest, including his Ministry documents, a miniature brass bowl, and what looked like a piece of a broken plate wrapped carefully in a handkerchief.
“Do not touch it!” exclaimed Severus, swatting the handkerchief out of Lucius’s hand with a charm, “it might be a Portkey”. He whispered an incantation over the object to confirm this suspicion, “yes, I sense that there is some manner of enchantment over it – the bowl as well,” his eyes flickered over it, observing a faint inscription upon it in an angular scrawl.
The bowl floated in the air over his wand, turning slowly.
“Can you make out the writing?” Lucius watched him as he did this. The words seemed to wander about the bowl, moving round and round in the glow of a green light, until they flew serpent-like, coiling and uncoiling in the air, growing larger, until the writing was undeniably clear to both of the Death Eaters;
I am powerful, therefore I fear not
I am powerless, therefore I fear not
As the bowl spun in the air, it grew larger, like clay upon a wheel, until it was about a meter in diameter. It floated down upon the ground, settling itself into the mound of snow and filling with water.
“Why don’t you look into the water Severus and tell me what you see,” Lucius whispered close to his ear. Snape turned to him with something of surprise, a questioning look upon his face.
“Do you recognize what this is?” the sallow-skinned man hesitated and then shuffled closer, regarding his reflection in the still surface of the water.
“I do,” Lucius did not elaborate, placing his hand about Snape’s waist as if to hold him still. Severus seemed to sway slightly, near to fainting, struggling to keep his eyes focused upon the images playing upon the water. They drew closer, closer to some fragment of his soul such that he felt that they were within his head rather than in the brass bowl.
“It is a form of magic similar to the Mirror of Erised,” spoke Lucius, his voice appearing distant and echoing, “only rather than revealing your deepest desires, it projects one’s greatest fears,” Snape felt the man lowering him upon the snow, his spell gently parting Snape’s eyelids as he leaned over him, his eyes focusing upon the other’s dark vacant gaze so that he may see through them, following Severus into the vision.
At the same time Severus seemed to see both Lucius’s focused countenance and that of another Lucius Malfoy, over which the perception of remorselessness and treachery had fallen – it was little more than an aura, like the shadow of the soul, yet it affected his image in acute and hardly perceptible ways. His appearance remained the same, only Severus could feel with certainly that something had changed about him, his dark eyes continuing to focus upon the cold gray ones of Malfoy.
He saw himself, lying upon the floor of a cavern, he could almost smell the damp musty air, laced with the unmistakeable tinge of blood.
Spasms of pain affected him and he cried out, forcing his eyes shut as he tried to block out the image. Snape felt an engulfing solitude, like that of the last survivor of a sinking ship in the midst of a storm, knowing that his time shall soon come, swathed in the knowledge of his impending demise where every man struggled for his own life with pathetic and hopeless desperation. With prodigious strength, he was able to will himself to rise, moving towards the hollow of the cave, blood dripping from his cloak, blood that he knew was his own. He shouted but no sound came but the echo of Lily’s voice, he could sense that Lucius was there, close to him, watching, and resented him for his silence – his indifference.
There was something in the distance, a light, and he trudged towards it with hope, holding onto the rough-hued edges of the stone wall. There were figures in cloaks, a white glow emanating from their outlines, giving them the impression of celestial sprits – he could sense that these were the enlightened, the good, the brave, the pure – Severus focused upon their faces with only momentary recognition, all of them were people he had once known, only their memory had grown strangely dim. They seemed not to see him as he passed among them, gliding through them as if they were no more than apparitions, all standing and looking up towards a pedestal. Those closest to it knelt, their hands over their eyes or in the posture of mourning. Upon a marble dais was a form that he could not fail to remember – Lily, as she had been when he had known her at Hogwarts. Her eyes were half open, looking directly at him, calling out to him. He read sorrow in them, disappointment, his own regret and longing reflected.
Seven Death Eaters approached her from alcoves, one of them removing the white shroud which covered her nude form and marking her with a dagger while the others spoke incantations like a mantra. Snape watched in horror as they desecrated her body that yielded like mist, with unsentimental focus dividing her with the ceremonial blade and removing her organs one by one, placing them in clay jars shaped with the heads of pagan gods, beasts and birds. The hall and its sacrifice disappeared and Severus saw the familiar sitting room at Malfoy Manor where he sat by the fire in an armchair, while Lucius sat in the other, a table between them upon which rested two wine glasses and a silver box engraved with lilies.
Severus knew what it contained and what would take place, yet watched while his limbs paralyzed with revulsion as Lucius’s slender hand seemed to caress it, opening it with careful delicacy, all the while his gray eyes were fixed intently upon Snape’s, as if eager for a reaction.
The lid opened, revealing a human heart which still pulsed, dripping blood upon the carpet as he picked it up, squeezing it over his wine glass and that of Severus’s. Then the heart began to blacken, as did Lucius’s hand, like a decay that was spreading through his skin, rising along his arm, his chest, his face until he resembled the hag-like Norse goddess of death, a grim and fierce grin across his face as he grabbed hold of Snape’s hand and pressed the putrid heart into his palm. Severus held it as the powers of decay completed their work, leaving something like dust or ashes in his hand. The emaciated hand did not let go of him as he sought to pull himself free, in flashes Lucius appeared to him both hideous and beautiful, pressing the cup to his lips. Snape strained to turn away yet he knew in the end that he must drink, the two of them falling onto the ground like impatient lovers while cloaked figures bore down upon them with daggers, the enemies of Caesar.
“He who is free in body but bound through the soul is a slave,” the inscription upon the brass basin morphed, still circling about its rim, joined by a blue eye surrounded by a white circle which Severus recognized as the Greek Mati, the supposedly superstitious symbol of the Evil Eye. A cursed sign and harbinger of injury and misfortune, or else of protection against such curses depending upon the creator’s intent.
The eye followed Severus as he flung the bowl away, pulling himself out of Lucius’s arms, who had been supporting him in a half-sitting position while he had lingered transfixed over the bowl. With unforeseen anger, Snape struck at the wizard, holding him down by the neck while his wand tip was pressed forcibly against the man’s temple.
A look of shock passed over Lucius’s face as he watched Snape’s strange behavior. Severus’s nails dug in more deeply into his skin as he tried to pry his fingers from his neck.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Lucius scowled, his breathing labored. He debated whether to attack Snape or forebear until he came to his senses.
Severus’s hand slackened slightly, imperceptibly, from a pang of uncertainty – then he proceeded, gathering nerve – knowing that it must be done.
“Crucio!” his voice rung in Lucius’s ears before an unbearable pain overtook him. Snape let go of him, rising onto his feet, watching with anguish as Lucius’s body convulsed.
Summoning what strength he could, Malfoy tried to reach for his wand but Severus’s foot fell upon his hand, crushing his fingers against the hard icy ground. The faintest awareness of cruel pleasure flitted through Snape’s consciousness, something he would have been loath to acknowledge, yet it was there, masked by a twisted righteousness – as of one avenging a great wrong upon an unrepentant enemy.
When at last Snape released him from the curse, Malfoy did not move or attempt to rise, his breath still heaving, curled in the position of one who had tried to brace himself from assaults from all directions. Feebly, he moved his head to look at Severus with a confused pained look, the other’s black cloak like a curtain obscuring the light from Lucius’s eyes as the wizard lowered himself upon his knee over him. In his weakened state, Snape had little trouble in attempting to penetrate his mind.
He searched, taking his time, as Lucius submitted to his will. At last he found what he had been looking for, heightening the remorse which had already begun to well up inside of him. Tears rolled silently down onto Lucius’s robes. He was afraid to look at him, filled with shame and horror at his own weakness, never did he imagine himself as a man so easily moved by external influences, how could he have allowed it – how could he have let himself believe. Severus clasped Lucius’s hand and kissed his forehead as tears continued to stream down his face in shaking cathartic sobs. Malfoy submitted, too drained of strength to resist, only with a vague awareness of everything but the fact that that the pain had ceased.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he heard Snape’s trembling voice close to his ear, “all this time you had tried – I know you had tried. W-we were both so afraid --” his words grew incomprehensible, the man’s thin frame shaking with emotion as he tried to pull Lucius onto his feet.
Malfoy leant against Snape as he was dragged off the ground towards the bridge, he did not raise his head lest the other should read the anger and contempt that he felt towards him.
“Wait,” he muttered, “the body – we must get rid of it. Buy us time, before his death is discovered,” he spoke in staggered words, wishing for nothing more than to collapse, yet he knew that he had to focus -- find shelter, the rest could wait. He did not wish to think about the meaning of Snape’s actions, seeking to attribute them to the cursed object, the curse alone.
Snape paused, turning to the fallen Auror, whose body began to disassemble in minuscule fragments of crystal, giving the impression of a masterful snow sculpture before it dispersed amid the snow bank. Like grains of sand scattered by the desert wind, no trace of a living creature remained save for the two figures moving slowly towards the river’s edge.
With great caution, they made their way to the final walkway stone where they were met by a towering wall of mountain. Severus attempted to mould a rough staircase, hewing the stone by magic and dragging Lucius onward.
The other wizard paused at intervals, often stumbling over the rocks, such that his companion had just barely managed to catch him in time. He moved with a certain recklessness, as if walking in a dream with only a middling concern for his life. As if crossing the river was not hard enough, Snape wondered if it was ill-advised to continue to force the man up the mountain’s edge in his present state. They paused for rest upon one of the steps, where Severus drew a bundle from his cloak pocket, unwrapping a small loaf of black bread, tearing it into two halves and offering one to Malfoy, who took it without a word.
They watched the sun continuing to set, how beautiful this landscape might have been were it not for way lay ahead of them, what lay behind them. It was comforting to imagine a warm hearth waiting for them after their long trek, imagining that it had been nothing more than an idle ramble, as the ones they would often taken along the expansive grounds of Malfoy Manor. Frequently they would talk while saying little, simply enjoying the presence of one another’s company and the peaceful solitude of the familiar forest paths they had explored since their youth amidst the changing of the seasons.
Snape felt the unexpected pressure of a hand upon his back, becoming aware that Lucius was gazing not at the amber-hued horizon but at him.
“Do you know now Severus?” he said, an uncommon softness in his voice.
“I do,” Snape replied, his voice faint, as if loathe to leave his throat. Then, he felt as Lucius’s hand reached out to his, drawing him closer. He thought he saw a certain look in his eyes, but it passed quickly as Severus rose, letting go of his him and brushing the dust off his cloak.
“It should not be much further, there is a cavern if we head this way,” he traced a path in the air with his wand, a glowing white line marking out a corrected route for Severus to adjust the stair steps, winding towards the East, “yes, it is somewhat out of the way but if we do not idle I believe we can reach it before nightfall”
Snape nodded in assent, not knowing why but feeling a pang of disappointment as he preceded Lucius along the stone ledges.
He still held onto Malfoy by a bond of magic, as a precaution in case his friend should lose his footing in his weakened state, although their rest seemed to have done him good. In time they reached the cavern as the wizard had promised, only something about it made Severus anxious – it was rather too good to be true. The cave was situated upon a relatively large plateau and judging from the outside, it had not taken on its shape by natural means alone, bearing the sign of rough tools applied to the stone.
They exchanged looks as if to acknowledge the shared suspicion. Lucius gestured for silence, placing his finger over his lip as he approached the entrance of the cave, casting a silencing charm over his footsteps. They could distinctly hear sounds coming from the cave, something like humming and a clattering of metal.
Somewhat annoyed that the other had not warned him earlier about what they were to expect, Severus complied with his request, by means of the sign language of their school days, to cast a fog within the cavern. Suddenly, an angry cacophony of yells was followed by more clattering of metal, like the sound of a rack of pots and pans falling over, and then shrieks of pain.
Heavy footsteps thudded towards them as the creature sought to escape, only to be met with a burning pain as a green light struck its eyes.
A twenty foot tall giant covered its eyes with its enormous hands, echoing screams causing an avalanche of snow to hurtle down the mountain towards the plateau. Thinking quickly, Snape fled towards the cavern. He had looked back only to see that Lucius was not running behind him, but rather, was engaged in sending the creature tumbling over the edge of the precipice as it teetered precariously, torn between rubbing its eyes and crushing the trespasser.
It was too late that he saw the great mass of snow and debris collapse upon him, with a final desperate effort Severus called out the Accio charm, pulling Lucius towards the cave entrance, his body colliding with stone and broken branches until he fell in a scratched and bruised heap upon the ground.
“You are lucky to be alive,” said Snape coolly, before setting to work the Vulnera Sanentur incantation over him – relieved beyond measure that the simple Accio spell worked. Lucius gave him an exasperated look, groaning as the other tried to reposition his leg. He reclined as comfortably as he could manage while Severus carried out the healing spell, Snape’s outer cloak bundled under his head for a pillow.
Having done what he could, Snape’s song-like incantation ceased and Lucius opened his eyes.
“Thank you Severus,” he said weakly.
“What were you thinking, and not even a warning –“
“It was one decrepit old giant,” Lucius interjected, “and you need not worry that he will be missed – this one is a known outcast amongst his kind, a mad old hermit by the name of Orkaniv”
“We could have found other ‘accommodations’ than risk our lives unnecessarily,” Severus insisted, his gaze scanning the cavernous room, which looked as if had been knocked about by a blind elephant.
A cauldron was still boiling over a fire with the scent of a steaming stew which could not help but remind him of his hunger. From amongst the broken and scattered objects on the floor he picked up what was either a spoon or a ladle and took two bowls from amongst their own belongings, filling them to the brim. He arranged a bed for Lucius and wrapped the hot bowl in a cloth before handing it to his friend to taste. They both dined on what they believed to be venison before settling under the blankets. Due to the day’s events Severus had nearly forgotten to take the potion, rising in the middle of the night to prepare it – awoken by the hooting of an owl.
When he returned back to the warmth of the covers, he lay awake for some time, wondering if the protective spells that he had cast over their temporary abode were sufficient, whether there were other Aurors on their track and what the reason was for Orkaniv’s solitary exile. These strands of thought were interrupted when he felt Lucius’s hand reach around him, the warmth of the other’s body pressing against his back. A slight sigh escaped the man’s lips and he could feel Malfoy’s soft breath against his skin, his fingers moving along Snape’s side, followed by the sensation of his lips as they kissed the crook of his neck, sending a shiver through his body. Snape lay frozen, his mind and his heart racing in anxiety and an embarrassed desire.
He felt a heat rise to his face in self-consciousness, at the same time worried that he appeared as receptive as one who was about to undergo surgery without anaesthesia. In that moment, Snape considered whether he had a choice, if he could postpone – how far were they from the main camp of the giants, and how much time it would take for them to be prepared to meet the Gurg, he asked himself. He knew it was his duty to submit.
“Your duty may also be your pleasure,” he heard Lucius’s familiar silky voice, feeling as a hand began to stroke his thigh. Instinctively, Snape pushed him away, hearing an exclamation of pain as Malfoy clutched at the place of his rib, not yet fully healed.
“Sorry,” Snape breathed in deeply, turning away his face in chagrin with a poignant awareness of his own ineptitude. His mind felt slow and staggered, as if he had been Confunded.
He waited for a reply but none came, making him even more ill at ease.
“Would you have preferred it if I asked first?” said Lucius at last, with something of condescension in his tone. “We cannot delay for much longer, you know that as well as I do. This must be difficult for you, I understand,” he said, somewhat more apologetically. He was reminded of the uncomfortable tension and awkward delicacy that was required when he and Narcissa had sought to conceive a son, remembering how they both avoided each other’s gaze throughout, suppressing whatever sign of pleasure they might have felt in a twisted sense of pride and disdain. Their encounters in the bedroom were meticulously scheduled, neither having much inclination the repeat them after Draco was born.
He questioned why he had volunteered to repeat a similar procedure with Snape, becoming aware of the parallels in his motives and of the other’s responses – yet there was something different this time, perhaps more imagined than true. Was it his own vanity and touch-starved longing that had led him down a path of self-delusion? Yet it was too late to feign indifference – Severus knew the truth, stolen out of him after the Cruciatus curse. Twice he had tried to find confirmation, was it this pitiful part of himself that he had sought after so mercilessly.
“Y-yes, you are right,” Snape spoke into the darkness.
“Good, we are in agreement then,” Lucius answered with more confidence than he felt, more than hesitant to repeat anything in the realm of amorous advances, while Severus waited tensely, curled in the direction of the opposite wall. After some long minutes passed, the hooked-nosed wizard exhaled in exasperation with both himself and Malfoy. He turned towards him suddenly, such that Lucius looked taken aback by the sharp look he was given, as if he were a student that had done something incredibly stupid in potions class. With his head bowed with something like a scowl, Snape reached down between Lucius’s thighs and began to touch him there in fumbling repetitive motions.
“I do not think that is – well...no Severus, let’s not do that,” he manoeuvred Snape’s hand away with as much decorum he could manage under the circumstances, forcing an awkward half-amused smile.
“Then what is it that you expect me to do?” snapped Severus with impatience.
“Nothing – I mean, perhaps it would help if you...if we did something that might possibly be not objectionable to either of us,” he searched for his words as he spoke, feeling that such conversations were beyond the scope of his repertoire for persuasion.
“And what might that be?” Snape stared at him, feeling more at ease the more unnerved Lucius seemed.
“Why don’t you suggest something Severus – after all, I am more than willing to be...accommodating to your tastes,” he turned upon Snape, whose lip quivered slightly, “unless of course you find me utterly repulsive, and there is really no hope but to use Polyjuice Potion, although we may need that for later if the giants --”
“That won’t be necessary”
Lucius smirked, teasing him, but Snape did not seem amused. “So, will you tell me then – what can I do to please you Severus, or are words doing more harm than good in our case?”
“Indeed it is better if we do not speak,” Severus bit his lip slightly in indecision before gathering the resolve to kiss Lucius’s lips. The other’s eyes were still open in surprise, before he reciprocated with a sense of relief.
Malfoy slowly began pulling up the hem of Snape’s night robe, which the other wizard seemed to forebear, albeit without much in the way of encouragement. He continued trying to caress Severus with what he hoped was a tenderness the other would not scorn to submit to, kissing the bare skin along his collar bone, moving down to his stomach, surprised to find that the other was actually aroused by his efforts, despite his unyielding demeanor.
“I’m afraid that you still look as though you are about to be tortured,” he drawled, “do try and relax”
Snape naively wondered whether it would be painful and if it was to be anything like what women experienced, or worse. Still, he tried to relax, his hands unclenching from the blankets.
He made an attempt to think about what he would actually want – he knew that he found Lucius Malfoy handsome, even strikingly so, if only he could shake the perception that the man found him ridiculous and pathetic, that they were both enduring something unpleasant but necessary. Snape felt Lucius’s body close against his, pinning him down upon the mattress by his wrists as he moved on top of him, careful to avoid his injuries. He tried to restrain an urge to push the other away, the impulse which sought to preserve him from humiliation and remorse for most of his adult life – he knew that Lucius cared for him, perhaps as more than a friend, if he were only able to submit to his feelings.
Malfoy’s hips moved against Snape in slow rhythmic motions, his own body reciprocating in pleasure that increased as he felt the other’s arousal between his legs against his groin. Severus felt the blond’s labored breathing, like his own stifled moans, and he could not deny that Malfoy was enjoying him. He allowed himself to touch him, exploring the contours of his body through his robe. After some time he felt Lucius pause to undress further and Severus did likewise, trembling under the sensation of the other’s bare skin against his. He felt no further reservation, guiding the other’s hand as he entered him, reaching a climax of pleasure after a few mere minutes. Severus could feel his heartbeat racing in his chest as he experienced the other do likewise, kissing his face as he watched him in the throes of gratification. Snape stroked the other’s hair listening to Lucius’s breathing, resting his head on the pillow beside him. Lucius kissed his lips lightly, gladdened to see the openness of affection in Severus gaze, a blissfulness spreading through his features. He hoped that the careworn man would be able to sleep peacefully that night as he held him for warmth.
Snape gazed at the other man from where he lay upon the mattress, long past his usual hour of waking. A bittersweet feeling lingered about his conscience which seemed to cast itself over the cold gloom of the cave. How strange it still felt, the entirety of their circumstances. There was something that made him both guilty and pleased, to have found pleasure and even happiness in that which had brought them together. Having spent so long in the company of Lucius Malfoy during their arduous journey, the companion of his worries and fears, it at times felt as though it were just the two of them who remained of the wizarding world, the only person who he could view as a friend among countless enemies standing in the shadows. Anxiety and embarrassment were also intermingled with his strange gratitude, wondering if he could look at Lucius in the eyes after what they had done. The act was not shameful in itself, Severus told himself, yet there was nevertheless something carnal and jarringly repulsive in imagining their two bodies locked in fumbling embraces, which struck him especially as he looked at Malfoy shaving by a small glass and washbasin, dressed in elegant black robes. Seeing the other in the morning light made him question the reality of the night which they had shared, in contrast to the dignity and cold politeness which they had assumed around each other for many years, as if an enduring illusion had been shattered. Snape had heard Malfoy rising early to bathe, wondering if it was to wash away the memory -- his own touch upon his skin, where his hands and lips had defiled him in some inexplicable way, or if this feeling belonged to Severus alone.
Parts of him conflicted in their wish to treasure and shun the reality of what had happened, not knowing how an ordinary wizard in his position would have come to terms with like circumstances, if honor called upon him to die rather than to subject himself to the indignity. Yet surely it was not indignity, to be joined with one who felt for him sincerely, whose union would create life – these and other thoughts wound about his mind as he lay in bed, feeling too weak and morose to leave the warmth of its covers, longing for Lucius to return to his side.
“Severus, there is something that I need to say to you,” Lucius voice broke through Snape’s reflections, almost frightening him with its severity. He felt vulnerable and childish under the man’s scrutiny, unable to define the emotion with which he looked at him, both unyielding and sorrowful.
“Yes,” said Severus, his throat felt dry and rasping.
“I do not wish for you to die for... for this, for the homunculus. As a disposable object in some strategy,” it sounded as though he struggled to find his words, yet Severus knew that he must have rehearsed them in his mind several times, unable to say them as he had planned.
“I don’t believe we have a choice,” Severus said automatically with conviction he did not feel but only knew. “You are not insinuating that we run from our obligations to the Dark Lord, are you Lucius, because that would be rather foolish”
“Foolish? And does it not strike you as strange what we are doing – for His sake?” he retorted. “In truth, it is as if we have become so captivated by terror of Him that there is almost nothing we would not do, if only to prolong our – our what, our pathetic grovelling servitude?”
“Is the aversion that you felt last night what has driven you to revolt at last?” there was a fury in Snape’s eyes that he had not seen before, as they glared at one another in silence. At last it seemed that Severus had won, for the expression of Malfoy’s face began to soften, and he spoke.
“It is not aversion, it is love for you,” he willed himself to say, yet the words sounded cloying when he heard them out loud, and he knew they would not do, “I do not wish to lose you, not like this,” he sighed, sitting down on the side of the bed, finding it difficult to look at Snape, whose glower of anger did not waiver, although straining under the force of his discomfort at hearing the strange and unexpected words.
“Love? Since when have you loved me?” he sneered.
“Since the days of our youth,” answered Malfoy, uncertain of the answer himself, yet believing that his affinity to the hook-nosed man had begun there at Hogwarts, impressed by his skill and determination in potions and the dark arts, lured by the opportunity to become a mentor to a talented youth born of unfortunate circumstances, finding in his character many qualities which resembled his own, and flattered by Snape’s naive idolatrous adoration of him.
“If that is true, you had hidden your love well. Even as a friend, you had always been self-serving, only giving that which cost you little to spare,” snapped Severus, recalling the various favors and advantages that Lucius was eager to thrust upon him, glad to exert his influence to forward his disciple’s position, something which Snape cared little for. The only aspect of his claim that held credibility was Malfoy’s unwavering loyalty to him, that their relationship, whatever it may be, had lasted through the years. He did not doubt that Lucius respected him, for his abilities if nothing else and held him in a position of trust. Yet rarely would they speak of sentimental matters, even his arranged marriage to Narcissa, as he was able to recall it, was discussed as a matter of business or obligation, insensitive to the daggers it had cast into Snape’s heart at the time.
“What could I have done, disgraced my family for the sake of – “
“A poor snivelling half-blood boy?” Snape said the words as if they were a curse.
“It has nothing to do with that,” he could feel his temper rising but he tried to control himself. “I did not know, at the time, what you would mean to me”
“And then you married her”
“Yes, and you know the rest of it”
“You could have given me some sign, even then”
“It would have been cruel. I did not imagine that you would live a monkish life, something that even now I attribute to your love for a rather different object than myself”
“Every being that I have ever loved has shunned and recoiled from me, I vowed never to suffer that indignity again. I would rather continue to show devotion to those to whom I gave my heart with unrequited feeling rather than to seek new desires and new disappointments. How ridiculous it would be at my age, to do otherwise. And you Lucius, you had never loved me, not as a man loves a woman”
Malfoy did not attempt to argue the point, unable to fully acknowledge his feelings when said in such a manner. He tried to think of those past years, if there had been signs, recalling only that he had been more physical in his manner with Severus than he ever was with his peers. Small, insignificant gestures, they seemed at the time. There was a particular memory that came to him, when Snape’s head was on his lap and he was stroking his hair, sitting upon the grass by the lake. How he would walk with him, holding him by the arm at times, when a similar act would be uncanny with Goyle or Avery. Perhaps it was because there had been something fragile and almost feminine about the slight awkward boy that invited him to give him such attentions, which he received willingly, gratefully even. Of all of his companions, he had always felt most at ease with Severus, most like himself. There was no need for pretense, no need to guard himself – he had never ceased to trust him, despite Snape’s cleverness and cunning.
He leaned closer, drawing Snape into his arms, pressing his lips to those which yielded to him willingly, as if this was the answer he had truly needed, yet never dared to hope for. With tenderness Malfoy ran his hands through Severus’s hair, kissing him softy, imbuing each touch with the affection that he had so long denied him as he caressed the other’s trembling body. Snape leaned into him, sinking into his arms as if all strength had left him, submitting to the comforting warmth of the other’s body.
The two wizards resolved to stay in the giant’s abandoned cavern abode, finding there abundant supplies to replenish their provisions for the rest of the journey as well as safety from the snow storm that had arisen outside in full force. They had managed to shift a large metal slab to block off the door, which had served the original owner for this purpose, as well as for an anvil, given the marks and impressions upon its surface. Among the giants hoard they had found spears, arrows, and shields of a formidable size, and also as some smaller items, half-finished, which Severus suspected were goblin made. The presence of the latter was rather unusual, given that there had been few accounts of their kind dwelling in these parts, and they could only be accounted for as having been stolen from wizards, perhaps even recently.
During the night they were at times disturbed by a strange scratching noise which seemed to be coming from the wall. At first they each had dismissed it as the wind shifting the snow or dirt, yet as the sound continued, Lucius felt inclined to investigate, following the noise until he traced it to a particular spot of wall. He examined it closely, passing his hand over the rough stone to see if he could feel anything like a door or a hinge, but there was nothing peculiar about the spot. Nor could detection charms reveal anything. Only it was peculiar that the scratching stopped at his approaching footsteps, resuming again with greater force as he lingered close to the wall, as if it sensed its presence. Severus too made similar investigations, nor could he discover anything amiss.
This mysterious occurrence caused them no harm, yet it could not help but make them ill at ease while remaining in the cave by the impression that they were not alone there. Nevertheless, two fortnights were passed there without incident and they began to grow accustomed to the nightly scratching, coming no closer to discovering its source. They had both decided that it was best not to continue further on their journey until the homunculus was born, and this was well for it gave time for Lucius’s wounds to heal and for deeper inquiries to be made into the books which they had brought with them.
The cavern was fitted with some of the furniture which Snape could recognize from the Malfoy manor house and many a domestic comfort was brought out from their case to give a sense of home to the otherwise bleak and dismal cavern, creating an incongruous setting between the primitive and the worldly. A certain sense of idleness and impatience began to disturb Lucius as he waited for signs from Severus, troubled that perhaps something had gone wrong or been misunderstood in their attempts to adhere to the manuscript of ancient magic. At times he would pace in the night, leaving the cave to breathe the night air and watch the dark starlit sky, which was clearer than he had ever seen it even in the countryside, often joined by Severus, who would sit beside him in comfortable silence. Their relationship had changed greatly since the night they had spent in union, from which both found that they could take solace in one another’s closeness, without fear or disgust, revealing to them the poignant absence of something that they had longed for and yet denied by burying it deep within themselves in the unlikely realms separated from hope. During such careworn times of uncertainty, one another’s love had seemed like the only thing that had given them happiness and they clung to it desperately through the cold nights that passed, knowing that their bliss would soon end. They wondered if they would ever return from the journey, and what they had to return to, preferring not to think of the future, nor the past which they had squandered in ignorance and ambition.
In the early hours of morning, Severus awoke to hear something like burrowing, the breaking of stone, and he saw that the wall was crumbling. He observed that Lucius was standing there, the place where the scratching noise had been heard, only this time it was accompanied by the sound of some kind of animal, a low pitched growl, not of warning but of pain.
Lucius’s wand was raised and from this he judged that it was he who had sought to break down the barrier between themselves and the creature, and could only wonder at what instigated this action. Before he had time to speak his incredulity, the being was visible to them as it knelt in the darkness within a cavity that served for its den. The two wizards recognized it as a thestral, only its skin was white, almost transparent, tinged with blood, raw from its enduring attempts to burrow itself out. Its eyes had a vacant bluish hue and it shunned the light which emanated from their wands, pressing itself closer to the wall as it tried to skit away. They were uncertain whether or not it saw them, or only the change from dark to light, they observed also that its snout was deformed, distinguished by a harelip, while its flank boar the signs of carefully made gashes, the scars of which had only recently healed.
As Severus drew closer towards the albino thestral, they felt the ground beneath them shift, like the cave was being swallowed up by the mountain, dragging it deeper within itself with a deafening noise. From the tremendous movement, somewhere in the distance they could discern heavy rockfall, crouching upon the ground and creating a shield charm in a futile effort to protect themselves. However, as they waited tense with fright for the walls to crush them, suspecting that they had set off some kind of trap, the mountain’s movements seemed to have settled, minutes passing without disturbance.
They waited and waited, yet nothing but a low whining noise from the beast met their ears in the stillness, and at last they dared to breathe. From time to time, their anxious gaze had been fixed upon the creature, which unlike them, seemed not to be perturbed by the shifting cavern as much as by their presence, sniffing the air from where it crouched, wishing to determine what manner of living soul was there. Then, as if emboldened, it approached them. Severus swiftly grabbed onto Lucius’s arm, pulling him away from the rearing creature, which had scrambled to its feet with an unsteady movement and staggered towards them. They cleared out of its way, watching it circle about the small chamber of the cave in a prance, knocking over a stool and colliding with the giant cast iron pot, with the effect of lightening its enthusiasm for such mad dashes for freedom.
To Severus’s consternation, he saw that Lucius was still set upon trying to capture and restrain it, half suspecting the reason. His thoughts were confirmed while he watched the wizard bind the thestral and draw its blood into a glass vial, well known for its healing and strengthening properties particularly useful to the convalescent, retracing one of the scars upon its flank and healing it once the glass had been filed. For some time, both had been aware that Severus’s condition was beginning to change, although they knew not when the time would come and were glad of the thestral. The beast continued to thrash, kept within the confines of its original den by means of magic. The two wizards would check on it from time to time as they prepared the strengthening potion.
That night they took turns keeping watch after the thestral, feeding it morsels of salted meat from the giant’s stores. At times they thought they heard a shuffling of many footsteps, leading them to suspect that there were other corridors nearby, and other living creatures, whether men or beasts, which put them on their guard. They whispered amongst themselves regarding what it could have been that had kept the thestral trapped, something that dwelt in the darkness mountains. Moreover, they wonder how they would escape, the entrance having moved they knew not where.
They tried to excavate but to no avail, the mountain seemed to have become impervious to magic, creating a claustrophobic sensation which greatly lowered their spirits. The situation was not dire, Severus tried to comfort the other wizard, their stores of food and water would be sufficient to last them several weeks, only they both agreed that their circumstances boded ill and that they had made a mistake in lingering in the cave for as long as they had. Yet there seemed to have been little choice, for Lucius refused to risk taking Severus into the storm, scaling the mountain given his condition, when even one that was able bodied would struggle to perform such a feat. They knew that only time would tell whether their decision had been prudent, each waiting and thinking for some means of finding a way out. The compass which had led them until then spun in circles ineptly whenever they attempted to seek its guidance, whether by some magnetic force or as an admission that their journey had come to an end, they could only guess.
They tried to cope with the oppressive atmosphere by resuming the activities that had occupied them before, at the same time racking their thoughts for ideas that would help them find a way out. During leisure hours, which at times grew to be tedious with monotony and isolation, Lucius would read out loud to the other to lift his spirits and occupy his mind, or else play a game of chess, both finding it difficult to focus or find enthusiasm in these pastimes as a sense of foreboding loomed over them. Severus was confined to seek rest, abstaining from most of the mild domestic work that their survival required as the pains of his transformation intensified, submitting himself to drink various noxious brews said to possess healing qualities, many of which were derived from the thestral, who by then had grown used to its new masters and the reward of dried meat which it received for maintaining a peaceful temper.
They did not know when night turned to day and longed for fresh air, wondering how they were able to breathe at all in the confined space, fearful that even this sustaining enchantment would suddenly cease – having come no closer to discovering its origin.
On the eight night since the shifting of the mountain, an ethereal music was heard through the walls. At first Lucius thought that he was slipping into dreams, moving from the hearthside to drink from a mug of tea that had by then gone cold. Even when he was certain of his wakefulness, the music did not cease. He shook Severus gently to wake him, eyes opening at once as he supported himself upon his elbow, looking between the dark silhouettes which filled the room. They saw that the thestral grew restless, pulling at the magical chains which bound it to its place. The two wizards dressed quickly and obscured their presence by a protective charm, sensing that there was something approaching.
Through the music they heard as another corridor crumbled, revealing a short stout figure in footman’s livery. The dwarf was muttering to himself as he inched closer to the thestral, clearly distraught to find the barrier between its den and that of the giant broken to smithereens. It looked inside the giant’s chamber, ears straining to hear any sound of movement, but the room was eerily still. Looking around, he could tell at once that something was wrong, that others besides the giant had discovered the abode and were making use of it, for there had been no time for the wizards to hide anything save for themselves. Severus and Lucius exchanged a look of understanding, then, sent a curse upon the goblin, paralyzing him at once, or so it seemed, for as they broke their concealment to examine him, he lifted his eyelids open groggily, their gaze meeting his, and a curled lip of malice. They did not know what had been done to them, for they felt no pain or malign influence, yet they knew that something had been done, and certainly in ill will. Severus attempted another curse before the creature had time to rise and this time the being showed no further signs of life.
They were well familiar with the nature of goblins and the futility and danger forming deals with them or attempting interrogation, their position of dependence in the goblin realm left them with little choice. The two wizards hid the body and then traced the footman’s steps towards the newly formed corridor, only then did the curse become evident, for as Lucius tried to speak to Severus, he found that no sound escaped his lips. The other wizard soon discovered that the same thing had been done unto him.
Such magic was commonplace enough even amongst the youngest students of Hogwarts and so they did not feel greatly troubled at first, yet as they attempted to lift it, they found their attempts were futile against the enchantment. With a scowl of annoyance, Lucius waved for Severus to follow, deciding that the curse, being minor enough, was something they could deal with later. Gesticulating his protests, Severus at last acquiesced to go with him to see what lay beyond the corridor from which the music of string instruments continued to resound, leaning upon his arm as he looked down forlornly at his swollen abdomen. At the same time, he could see that it would not do for them to separate, if more of the goblins were to make their way to the giant’s cave and find him there on his own.
They walked for nearly an hour through a passageway lit by orb-shaped lanterns of ornate latticework, undoubtedly the work of a skilled craftsmen. The deeper they went, the more even and polished became the walls, yet the music appeared neither closer nor further than before. In some of the orbs, a small bird was occasionally sighted rather than a candle, and an overpowering odor of tallow pervaded throughout. They stayed close together, well aware of the danger of walking in on an encampment of goblins, hoping that their concealment charm would suffice to avoid detection. Severus wondered at the other’s motives for venturing there, not believing him to be someone naturally reckless. He could think of no other justification save that it seemed to be their only hope of leaving the mountain before they were starved to death.
The light at the end of the corridor grew brighter and brighter, their eyes wincing, unused to such intensity. They found themselves standing upon a balcony overlooking a cathedral-like hall, its towering ceiling stretching up to such a height that its pinnacle was obscured in darkness even with the illumination of thousands of candles below, set upon the heads of statues of human-like figures with grotesque exaggerated features almost like gargoyles.
Amongst these pillar-like forms of cast metal, there danced miniature courtiers in long gowns and coats of gaudy hues, spangled with gemstones and adorned with lace. They moved in a kind of waltz to the music of an automaton orchestra of instruments played by mechanical hands and bellows, a marvellous machine positioned on a large pedestal at the center of the ballroom, made of crystal and intricately wrought metals. Other goblins sat feasting in shadowy alcoves, grouped around small tables set with dainty sweetmeats and fine meads, surrounded by decorations in imitation of the kingly courts of bygone days. Suits of armor and marble statues of goblin heroes lined the walls, giving a martial air to the room, while sculptures of ice slowly melted in enormous fountain-like bowls scattered about the hall, depicting writhing forms of wild beasts and naked humans. It seemed that they had arrived in the midst of some kind of celebration, stepping aside just in time as an amorous couple raced past them along the corridor, laughing raucously before disappearing through a wall of stone.
Somewhat reassured that the goblins were not able to see through their concealment, they ventured further, away from the main festivities to a hall lined by several arched doorways, some so small that they would have to stoop in be able to pass through. From the largest of these passageways there emanated a prodigious heat and the clanking of metal gave them a an notion of what they might find within. This room, about as large at as the ballroom which they had seen earlier, was occupied by several dozen workbenches and foundries, upon which the absent craftsmen had abandoned half-completed works of armor, tools and materials of their trade.
All but one, for a single goblin was still occupied with the toils for which his kind were so renowned, hunched over what seemed to a miniature silverwork cradle engraved with details of nightingales in flight suspended upon silver threads over a boat-like bed. With meticulous care, his knobby fingers sought to place the finishing touches, placing tiny emeralds for eyes into the sockets of each of the twelve birds. For some time, the two trespassers watched him at his work, striding past the row of workbenches and glancing over what would have been a fine dowry for lady, or even a queen. Various trinkets and baubles were in the process of being completed, all bearing the nightingale motif. Even upon the armor the birds did glisten in polished gold.
The lone goblin’s head jerked upwards suddenly, dropping the pincer-like instrument with a clatter as he looked around the room. A hammer lay on the floor and he rose from his creaking stool to pick it up, examining it and again scanning the empty workshop. Severus and Lucius had left, their muffled footsteps unheard by the hunched creature, who returned again to resume his labor after the minor interruption, humming to the tune of the music which filled the mountain.
They wandered through countless corridors, at first with avid interest and curiosity, and then with the weariness of unsatisfied hope, unable to trace a passage out.
During their search they discovered a section of the mountain where the goblins had built their dwellings, carving windows and doors opening onto a lantern-lit promenade, as well as shops and public gardens, showing an abundance of masterful metalwork. Gold and silver imitated trees and flowers such that one might be convinced that king Midas had laid his touch upon a subterranean arboretum, surrounding an artificial lake whose blood-red waters bore an acidic scent which jarred with the beauty of the place.
They did not know how many hours they had passed in this way, exploring the strange world which they had intruded upon. They felt like ghosts from a past or future age, seeing without being seen, things familiar yet at the same time fantastical. At last they settled themselves to rest in a quiet place beneath a willow tree, its copper leaves like curtains falling around them. Two more days passed, Severus’s condition growing more grave such that he could no longer accompany Lucius to search further amid the winding corridors. They considered returning to the giant’s cave to sleep, but decided that it would be too dangerous, going there only to retrieve what they needed, finding that the thestral was no longer there and that the goblin that they first encountered lay by the cauldron in plain sight, surrounded by an unpleasant scent of decay.
They found for themselves what must have once been a residential area, frequented only by scavenging vagrants, which existed even amid the society of goblins. Against these there was little that they could do, making it necessary to keep on their watch and make minimal use of light in order not to draw attention to their derelict abode. The door was kept firmly fastened and the windows barred, while a cavity was made in one of the walls to allow them to come and go, hidden by enchantment. Lucius returned to bring Severus food, making porridge mixed with dried berries and watching for any change in his state. The wizard seemed to grow weaker with the passing days, showing fewer signs of alertness, while his sleep was restless and troubled by physical agonies.
The potions that had been used hitherto no longer had much effect to relax his pains, or perhaps it was the absence of the crucial ingredient of thestral’s blood that rendered them so. Lucius tried to distract him by giving accounts of what he had seen during his searches, of the wonderous objects displaying the skill of the goblins and the strange customs of their society. He believed he had beheld a competition where many of their number displayed their masterpieces for the judgement of their monarch, a wizen creature with a voluminous tuft of gray hair arranged atop of her head, kept in place by a cage-like structure of grape vines perched upon her ears. Attendants in green coats crowded around her, supporting a pagoda that followed her about as she walked from stall to stall, leading a mole-like creature on a leash. These accounts reminded Snape of fairy stories he had read during his childhood and he listened to them slipping in and out of consciousness, he knew that Lucius was loathe to leave him, going for no more than a few hours at a time before returning to check upon him. They had still been unable to discover a means to lift the curse of speechlessness and communicated by writing in the air that appeared with their thoughts. It was a matter of days before they knew the reason behind the goblin’s curse, which seemed at first to be too trivial for a creature’s dying malice. It was by chance that Lucius had followed two goblins down one of the corridors and heard them speak words of enchantment, whispering them near the place where a rune had been engraved into the stone. His joy was without measure when he felt the cool mountainous air sweep into the chamber accompanied by the morning light as the two goblins exited the passageway. Thinking of Severus was all he could do to keep himself from following them. Snape’s agonies were becoming increasingly unendurable and Lucius feared that he would not last much longer under the strain upon his body and the derelict conditions of his seclusion, yet having no other hope, each day they would wait by the rune for several hours, waiting for a goblin to come and open the mountain.
Several dozen candles floated at some distance from the sickly form of Severus Snape, his thin limbs appearing ever more emaciated in relation to the roundness of his middle. Lucius crouched beside him, feeling a certain helplessness as he looked down at the suffering of his friend, not knowing how much assistance he would be able to render when the time came. His lips whispered inaudible healing charms to soothe some of the pain as he listened to Severus’s hoarse tones describing the pressure he felt around his midrift, how afraid he was. Rarely had he seen tears well in the man’s eyes as he struggled against that which was stirring within him, not knowing whether it would spare or discard him like a wasted husk, splitting his body or gouging itself out from him. The hideous imagery which Snape foretold was plain enough for the other’s body was reminiscent of an adder that had attempted to swallow an ostrich egg, his greasy hair falling over his forehead, drenched with beads of feverish sweat. He felt as though his skin would alternate between extremes of hot and cold, struggling with the blankets and heavy coats piled over him and then pushing them aside. Lucius bore the other’s demands with patience, trying to satisfy as many of them as he could. He brewed a cup of warm milk, bringing it to his lips to drink and then laid a damp cloth upon his forehead as he settled back down upon the bed of coats and carpets.
“How do you feel?” Lucius leaned close to him, brushing aside some of the stray locks of dark hair from his face, “is it close?” the words formed in the air in lines of light. All the while he held his hand, giving him what faint reassurance he could, both of them exhausted from sleepless hours of dread.
He could make out no words, only something that sounded like a growl, while Severus’s eyes closed shut, giving him the understanding that he had no desire or strength to converse. Lucius continued to regard him, feeling ill at ease by man’s stillness, only comforted by the signs of breathing as Snape’s chest heaved in a steady rhythm.
It was late in the night, several hours passing by, when Lucius was stirred into full wakefulness by the sound of an agonized scream. The remains of the candles glowed once more to give some light to the dark musty cavern, by which Malfoy could clearly see how Severus writhed upon the bed, his long fingers digging into the blankets, teeth clenched tightly as he tried to contain the unbearable pain of something like daggers forcing themselves out from inside of him.
After a few shocked moments of staring, Malfoy pulled away the blankets and tried to position the other’s legs as streams of blood flowed from between his thighs, the wizard’s screams intensifying as he struggled more fiercely like one possessed. These struggles only relented as his throat became hoarse and his body grew exhausted from thrashing. At times Lucius thought he could see a glowing purplish tinge in the veins which seemed more visible upon his pale skin, especially around his stomach. He racked his memory for the charms which he had sought to learn during the dull evening hours, trying to staunch the bleeding. Malfoy struggled with worry at the terrible agonies that Severus was undergoing, wishing above all else that he would survive this trial upon his body.
The screams again rose in forcefulness as the orb of the homunculus pushed against the cavity that the potion had made when transforming him for the birth. Taking a deep breath, Lucius cast the spell that would help the other’s body make way for it, struggling not to avert his eyes while the bloody glass-like sphere slowly came out. He reached out for it, wiping away the gore from its surface with the sleeve of his robe, so that he could see what looked like a ruby, the size of a walnut, floating at the core. Setting it down carefully, he turned his attention back to the defeated form of Severus, who was still lying upon his back taking trembling breaths, only his body appeared less tense, the intensity of pain under which it burdened having subsided to something sufficiently bearable. Lucius continued to clean him from the blood and mend the wounds which his healing charm was able to reach, when he thought he heard a voice.
“No – the homunculus, the --” Snape tried to raise himself onto his elbow and look about the cavern for the orb that had been the cause of his grief.
“Lay down,” said Lucius disapprovingly, at the same time surprised to find that Severus’s voices had returned, but no words left his mouth, obliging him to resort to casting writing. “You must rest”
“It must be placed in fire or it will be all of nothing!” hissed Snape, throwing a bloodied rag at him to ward him away from his well-meaning efforts. He too was surprised at the return of speech, wondering why the curse had lapsed, and for him alone. The conclusion that he came to was that the change in him had confused the spell, that it had lost sight of him since the homunculus had left his body, and thereby he was freed from its effects, whether this was only temporary only time would tell.
“Are you –“
“I’m fine,” snapped Severus, “place it into the fire”
Lucius obeyed, picking up the orb and staggering to the makeshift fire pit in the goblin cave. He had the homunculus hover over it, licked by flames. A most peculiar transformation took place before his eyes, the gemstone-like object began to glow with golden veins, peeling away like a skin or a shell, until a miniature baby was visible. Its curled plump body then morphed into that of a child, a perfect miniature doll with dark hair and pale skin, growing taller by the second until it turned into man, all the while its hair and its nails lengthening like those of a hermit in the wilderness. The elderly figure’s body shrivelled like a prune, growing skeletal and dark until there was nothing to behold but floating dust. Before Lucius had time to be alarmed, the dust gathered itself again into a solid lump, burning and turning a fiery hue, beginning the cycle anew, this time as a fair haired girl.
“That is enough,” a rasping voice called out from the darkness of the cave, for by then all of the candles had burned themselves out, having served their purpose of illuminating the delivery while the wizard’s minds were too distracted with other spells and struggles.
Lucius rose suddenly, having the orb float out of the fire, bobbing beside him as he returned to Snape’s bedside. He used his wand to remove the drenched and soiled blankets which surrounded Snape, helping him to move as he replaced them with clean linen. Severus seemed not to notice this, his attention was fixated upon the glass orb where stood a young girl faintly visible in the dimness of the cave. He stared at her floating figure in awe, feeling a flood or relief that the most difficult part of his role was finally over. There, too, was something mesmerizing in beholding a being that was made from a part of himself, its features resembling his in part, or so he imagined, and partially those of Lucius Malfoy.
After examining the orb to his satisfaction, the feeling of complete exhaustion returned to him and he longed for nothing more than to lay down and sleep. He allowed Lucius to help him into a change of robes, washing away the rest of the blood from him so that few of the signs of his labors remained. Extinguishing the light, they both could do nothing more as sleep overcame them. Severus felt himself at peace as the other put his arm around him and they settled upon the bed with renewed hope for the day to come.
Lucius believed that he had heard the sound of Severus’s voice reaching him from somewhere in the distance. He could not make out the words that were whispered, nor could he open his eyes, his body seemed as though it were paralyzed, yet he did not feel afraid. Malfoy strained to listen, all the while knowing that the whispering was not meant for his ears.
There was another there, someone who he knew, but vaguely – he tried to remember. If only he could open his eyes. Lucius tried to focus his thoughts, willing his eyelids to open and search through the darkness.
Somewhere there stood two silhouettes outlined by a painful white light. He struggled to reach them but they seemed to be moving further away in an endless tunnel. He knew then by some strange intuition who the other man was, and his face became clearer, flickering as if by the light of a dying candle. Snape and Dumbledore were arguing, he could feel the anger in each of their chests, both immovable in their resolve. Then, a spell was cast, the spell of forgetting, at which Severus would protest no further, returning with him into the light as a thin shrivelled hand was placed firmly upon his shoulder.
Morning came, leaving Lucius with the groggy feeling that he had no slept. He lay upon the disarray of blankest in the familiar surroundings of the goblin cave, however, it took him several moments to realize where he was and observe the absence of Severus as something real and true. The homunculus he uncovered from the black shroud of fabric that had been draped over it during the night, revealing the miniature figure of an infant, its limbs curled up against its body such that he could not tell whether it was male or female.
He called Snape’s name but no sound left his lips, flooding him with fury and fear as he scanned the confines of the cave, however foolishly, as if his friend had fallen in some shadowy corner, had hidden in an obscure nook like a child playing hide and seek.
Stepping out upon the threshold he looked out at the deserted lane of derelict houses standing in rows like the dens of stray dogs. Nothing moved there as the mountain slept, not even the wind. A bundle of cloth lay slumped against the wall, he ran towards it until he was close enough to see a goblin with a grizzly tangled beard, the stench of mead and filth about him. Malfoy staggered back in revulsion and shock, that such a creature he had mistaken for Severus in desperation. Suddenly, the goblin stirred, opening its eyes and shifting its stiff limbs. It seem to stare straight at him with its startlingly blue eyes and for a moment he wondered if it could see him.
The wizard turned from it, continuing down the lane. He heard it cough and wheeze but no footsteps followed behind him.
Lucius knew that Snape was gone, all the while that he searched the streets, running until he had long left behind the ghettos of the goblin realm, entering a street of shops. The windows were all dim, all but one. Two goblins stood arguing upon the steps, their conversation growing more heated by the second. Lucius stared at them, grateful for some distraction from his confused thoughts, when he recognized who one of them was. He remembered the look of malice upon the face of the liveried footman that had cursed and ensnared them within the mountain caverns, likely hoping that they would be found and killed by his brethren.
The image of the goblin appeared to him like an apparition that had risen from the dead, and to death he would return him. The emotions which had boiled within him since waking were focused upon the green light that issued from his wand, striking the goblin in the chest with vented force. He fell like a rag doll cast furiously aside by an invisible hand.
The shopkeeper looked on in horror and confusion, as much for his own sake as for that of the other goblin. Seeing no one in the empty street, he scurried inside, bolting the door after himself in cowardice as he rang the warning bell. The spell resounded through the streets, the shops becoming alive with voices and candlelight at the sound of the warning toll. Malfoy did not linger there but continued to run towards where he had beheld the rune, clutching the veiled orb of the homunculus tightly in his arms.
Panicked hysteria and adrenaline had sustained him until that moment. It was with exhilarating relief that the biting cold wind lashed against his skin, billowing through the thin nightgown which he wore. He turned aside the blanket and gazed down at the orb with the mad possessiveness of a widow, or the greedy eye of a thief, who knew full well that this treasure, too, would soon be taken away.
Approaching the great fire pit, the wizard observed that the giants who were gathered there were few in number, many bearing the signs of a recent battle, their wounds still fresh. Furthermore, the giant Golgomath, who had been Gurg at the time of the last emissary, was no longer amongst them, the throne being occupied by a bald apish creature prominently missing several teeth.
Lucius introduced himself, knowing that he ought to have been pleased to hear that Lord Voldemort’s offer had not been forgotten.
“Only to Grafor will give the magic, yes?” spoke the giant, his large black eyes staring down at the wizards with a look of expectancy mingled with mistrust.
“Lord Voldemort offers his power to all willing to join him in battle,” answered Lucius. He heard murmurings of displeasure as he scanned the faces of those gathered about the throne.
A guttural growl issued from the Gurg, who stretched out his hand towards Malfoy as if to pick him up by the cloak. Before he could do so, Lucius raised his wand and summoned a large wooden chest which appeared at the feet of Grafor, who gaped at its sudden appearance, distracted from the offending wizard.
“A token to honor your reign – the Unfailing Arrow of Armathal,” said Malfoy, as the lid of the box opened, revealing the silver-pointed arrow the size of a javelin, and explaining its enchantment – he who directs it will never miss his mark.
The giant grinned, plucking the arrow from its case and examining it with a toothy grin. Apparently satisfied, he slammed his hand upon a large drum the size of a barrel, at which the other giants began to shift from their seats, departing to carry food before the throne – wild boars skewered like a row of marshmallows.
After the meeting with the Gurg, Malfoy lingered about the camp, conversing with some of the elders of whose language he had a rudimentary grasp. From the more communicative of these giants, he was able to piece together that Golgomath still lived, however, he and several other aspiring leaders had split off into smaller tribes, seeking out suitable locations to establish their own separate camps.
This boded ill for the Dark Lord’s plans, greatly impeding the impact of the homunculus in increasing their numbers if its use was confined to a single diminutive group. It was unlikely that they would be reconciled by any appeals to reason, perhaps an appeal to pride or to fear would be effective in urging them to share the power of the homunculus to bring their kind back from near extinction, but to attempt as much might well alienate what goodwill there remained – suggesting that they reconcile with their enemies to fight a war on behalf of wizards.
Under different circumstances, perhaps he would have undertaken it, but the stake which he had in these diplomatic matters felt to Lucius as something secondary. A part of him no longer cared whether he succeeded or failed, he longed only to return to the Dark Lord and find out what had happened to Snape, believing with unaccountable certainty that Voldemort would know of his whereabouts, or at least, whether he was still alive. The dream, or vision – or whatever it had been – told him that Dumbledore had a role in the disappearance, and he replayed it in his thoughts, while the memory grew dimmer and more distorted. His faith in it began to wavier, that it had been something more than his own jealousies and suspicions which he imagined he had seen.
Malfoy proceeded with the mission despite his loss of will, believing that he could not return otherwise than by bringing it to a conclusion – making some credible effort to fulfill the task that had been cast upon them, with or without Severus. This he had done, placing himself somewhere between success and failure – unabashed mediocrity.
He sensed that the strange lethargy that had fallen over him was more than exhaustion from the long journey and the disappointment to be found at the state of the tribes of giants; a kind of depression from not knowing had taken its toll upon him. He did not strategize or manipulate, giving the giants the homunculus and presenting to them plainly what the Dark Lord expected.
Whether they heeded to the orders was beyond his control, whether or not the consequences of Voldemort’s displeasure would fall upon him, his conscience no longer vexed him. He would wait until the worst of the tumultuous weather subsided before beginning the return journey. Lucius felt doubt and weakness weave themselves into his cold limbs as he sunk into the solitude, the vast expanse of snow stretching out before him.
The Dark Lord was disappointed, yet he granted him his request, that he too should forget, repulsed by the strange entangled feelings that had no place in the hearts of his disciples, distracting and ensnaring them, occupying their minds – their hearts and their minds, these belonged to him, and him alone.
Sitting between his son and his estranged wife, Lucius Malfoy gazed at Snape with an expression that troubled the other man with signs that he could not read. He could say nothing, ask nothing. And when the Dark Lord dismissed his Death Eaters, all but one, Severus knew that Malfoy would pay for his weakness. He had pitied him before, yet when he saw how plainly the sorrow was written upon his face he could not help but feel contempt for the man. A shadow of his former self. Pathetic.
How easily his proud will had crumbled under his failures, which he had not the decency to disguise.
Snape swept out of the room, followed by Bellatrix and Grayback who likewise had lingered, curious of what would become of Malfoy – but the Dark Lord did not grant them the pleasure they had hoped for.