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The Sheltering Trees

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~*~*~*~*~
“When you go into a forest, anything can happen.”
- David Farr

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1
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Partially hidden in a deep shadow beside Greenhouse Three, Severus Snape watched a work party of Hogwarts’ house-elves steadily add rocks to the stone wall that would eventually shield Hogwarts from the dangers of the forest beyond. An elderly elf stood atop the wall, directing his crew on the placement of new stones, and speaking a language that was not the broken English Severus was used to hearing from the diminutive beings.

The potions master listened closely to their conversation, recognizing only a word or two, and realized the house-elves were speaking to one another in a dialect reminiscent of the Goidelic branch of the ancient Celtic language thought to have originated in what was now Scotland. While not an actual written language, Severus did occasionally find stray words of the Goidelic tongue interspersed in the archaic potions scrolls and journals he sporadically researched.

The elves suddenly switched to the gratingly squeaky broken speech they were known for, and Severus wondered if his presence had caused the abrupt change in their demeanor. He stepped from the shadow of the greenhouse and into the afternoon daylight only to discover that the elves took no notice of him.

Immediately, it was obvious what triggered the swift shift in house-elf behavior. Half-giant Rubeus Hagrid was crossing the school grounds, carrying two large buckets of dead rodents and kitchen scraps to supplement the diet of the semi-domesticated thestrals making their home just inside the perimeter of the Forbidden Forest. He was followed closely by his enormous, but faint-hearted, boarhound, Fang.

“Good afternoon, Professor Snape.” Hagrid’s voice boomed across the lawn. “Getting ready to head home for the day?”

“Eventually.” Severus fell in step beside the large man. “I am going to take a quick trip into the forest first to check on the status of the heliotrope beds. It is probably a few weeks until prime harvest, but I may be able to procure a few early blooms.”

In the years following Albus Dumbledore’s death, as well as the passing of many long-standing members of the Board of Governors, a younger, more forward-thinking group were now making changes to Hogwarts, both internally and externally.

Severus no longer lived within the castle and was no longer a full-time professor. Three mornings a week, the potions master taught NEWT Potions and NEWT Defense Against the Dark Arts to sixth- and seventh-year students. He now resided in a small cottage on the outskirts of Hogsmeade, devoting the rest of his time to research and brewing specialty potions for a varied clientele. It had been blatantly obvious to everyone but Dumbledore that Severus lacked the patience to teach younger students effectively but flourished teaching the older ones. And no, he did not miss teaching the pre-NEWT level dunderheads one little bit.

“You watch your back in there, Professor.” Hagrid’s jovial mood suddenly darkened. “Something in the forest is making the centaurs act all skittery-like. Ronan damn near put an arrow through Fang the other day. Whatever has those old nags in a lather is affecting the unicorns and the thestrals, too. They’re all acting strange-ish.”

“Did Ronan give you any idea why he was acting so defensive?” Severus asked. The centaur herd was usually indifferent, not antagonistic.

“Nah.” Hagrid shook his shaggy head. “You can’t get anything straight out of those ruddy star-gazers.”

As the two men approached an incomplete section of the eastern wall separating the school grounds from the looming forest, Hagrid grumbled.

“This wall is a load of codswallop if you ask me. It’s not going to stop the little ones from sneaking into the Forbidden Forest if they’ve a mind to do so.” As tall as he was, Hagrid casually stepped over the wall as if it did not exist. Fang took a flying jump over the still-low wall to follow his master.

Severus paused a moment before stepping up onto the knee-high wall and stepping down the other side. He was not certain how high the final wall would be, but the house-elves had left several open gaps in the meandering fieldstone length to eventually accommodate locked gates. The Board of Governors’ intent was to keep the smaller children safely out of the forest, not seal entrance off completely. The forest was an invaluable resource utilized by particular staff members and a rare NEWT-level student.

In all honesty, Severus thought the barrier was long overdue. Nearly every year someone, usually - but not always - a Slytherin, dared a gullible first year, usually - but not always - a Gryffindor, to prove their bravery by spending the night in the Forbidden Forest. While most of the children were stopped by Hagrid, older siblings, housemates, or prefects, a rare few did occasionally manage to slip into the dangerous woods undetected. So far this had resulted in more terror than injury, but Severus knew the next time could easily prove fatal. Last year’s gullible idiot, grandnephew to one of the new Board members, had managed to break an ankle and nauseate himself eating a somewhat toxic mushroom because he was ‘starving to death’ after being missing for less than four hours.

Three tiny forest faeries fluttered past him on their way to visit the Hogwarts gardens and Severus could not hold back a smirk as he remembered Pomona Sprout gently handing several members of the Board their arses when they proposed the new fencing be constructed of wrought iron rather than fieldstone. As if she were teaching a room of first years, Pomona firmly reminded them that while an iron fence would not deter the bees from pollinating the school fruit and vegetable gardens, that much cold iron would sicken anyone with the least bit of creature blood and outright kill the tiny faeries so imperative to the pollination of all magical plants.

Severus adjusted his wrist holster before following Hagrid into the Forbidden Forest. It never hurt to be prepared.

~*~*~*~*~
Severus had never spent much time researching the behavior of thestrals, but even he knew immediately that something was drastically wrong. Thestral foals were usually quite trusting and inquisitive creatures, but that year’s tiny trio of colts was huddled in the middle of the large paddock, covered by the leathery wings of their dams. The other mares stood guard, their red eyes wide with alarm. In the distance, Severus could make out a pair of stallions tearing sizeable bloody chunks from something large, black, and furry.

“It looks as if they have caught the predator. That must be why the herd is so agitated,” Severus commented.

Looking to see if additional predators were in the area, the dark wizard drew his wand. He was ready to both protect the precious foals and protect Hagrid and himself from the thestrals themselves if necessary. In their frenzy, the carnivorous winged horses could just as easily mistake them as a threat and attack.

“Can you make out what they’ve caught? It looks too large to be a wolf.” Hagrid set the buckets down and grasped Fang by his collar. He squinted into the thick groundcover.

“Acromantula,” Severus replied as a long furry leg was separated from the corpse and flung aside. He glanced up into the trees and could see large fragments of an acromantula web drift in the breeze above the paddock. The damnable spider must have dropped right into the middle of the pen in an attempt to snatch one of the tiny colts.

“Oh, poor little fella,” Hagrid lamented as he shook his shaggy head. “It must have gotten turned around in the forest and couldn’t find its way back to the nest.”

Severus did not dignify that statement with a reply. He knew Hagrid honestly believed every monstrous creature was cute, harmless, and just misunderstood but that acromantula was not a juvenile spider and was certainly not a lost fist-sized ball of fur. The poisonous non-native species were apex predators, known to eat their own when hunting was scarce. That they were foraging so far from their domed nest deep in the heart of the woods was not good news for the denizens of the forest, or for the residents of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. Many first- and second-year students were easily the same size and weight of thestral foals.

~*~*~*~*~
Unable to convince Severus into delaying his plant gathering for another day, Hagrid left him at the edge of the thestral paddock, reminding him not to stray too far off the game trails and walking paths cut into the thick trees and dense undergrowth of knotgrass and thorny shrubs. The dark wizard reminded his companion that he did possess a Mastery in Defense, a wand, and an Apparation license if the situation turned deadly. Hagrid’s booming laugh followed him into the woods, his sarcasm wasted on the gentle man.

Severus was not foolish enough to disregard Hagrid’s concerns. The forest was home to a wide and strange assortment of plants and creatures, many of them feral and dangerous. He held his wand loosely in his hand as he made a mental tally of potions ingredients available for harvest.

The thick canopy of leaves above him blocked out much of the daylight, leaving the forest in a state of nearly perpetual twilight. The bright dapples of sunlight that bled through the rare openings were a welcome sight. Severus was hyper focused on the sights and sounds around him. Anything could easily hide in the dense canopy and undergrowth. A slight sound caused him to pause and examine the leaves above him. Something was jumping from branch to branch, and he thought it might be a large bird.

Severus stepped out of the darkness of the Forbidden Forest and into the bright daylight of a large meadow filled with wildflowers. The distinctive fragrance of the heliotrope flowers drew him to a large mass of the small bluish-purple flowers. Clusters of allium spikes, coneflowers, harebells, day lilies, dandelions and wild garlic filled the area in various stages of growth. Low to the ground wild berries, clovers and mosses added their perfume to the mix.

Tiny faeries flittered among the flowers, some making a temporary home in the larger blossoms. Severus holstered his wand, reached into the hidden pockets of his black teaching robes, and pulled out a few glass vials. Carefully he collected flowers, leaves and pollen from the maturing heliotrope plants. He made a mental note to return in a few days with additional vials and baskets to harvest some of the other wildflowers.

Even as he busied himself harvesting his potions ingredients, his dark eyes continued to scan the dark woods that surrounded the small meadow. He had the uncomfortable feeling that someone or something was watching him.

Continuing to scan the edges of the woods, he thought he saw a flash of something red against the deep green shrubbery. He shielded his eyes from the sunlight and stared into the forest where the bush’s leaves quivered slightly, but if the red object was still there it was hidden from view.

Shaking his head to clear it, Severus reminded himself that foxes and deer lived within the forest and they both had a reddish hue to their fur. Perhaps what he had seen was one of those shy creatures. His imagination was just running away from him, he decided and re-holstered his wand, unsure when he had once again drawn it.

Needing to brew an infusion while the heliotrope leaves were still fresh, he Apparated out of the meadow.

~*~*~*~*~
2
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Deliberately avoiding the toadstools clustered in the faerie rings, Severus carefully harvested the highly toxic Amanita muscaria growing in small clusters adjacent to the mushroom circles. Only a fool knowingly stepped into a faerie ring, especially in a magical forest. Red capped with white dots, the poisonous fungi were known for their hallucinogenic properties. He gently set individual toadstools into a small flat basket to keep them from being crushed.

He was enjoying a successful foray into the forest, having plucked a few long strands of valuable unicorn tail hair from a thorny shrub, broken off woody chunks of Inonotus obliquus (chaga) used in medicinal tea from the branches of several birch trees, and harvested the toadstools.

Knowing that there were many dangers in the forest, Severus kept his guard up, but the only creatures he had seen so far that day were wood grouse and squirrels. His specimens secured in a knapsack, he began to travel a narrow path he knew would eventually lead to Hogsmeade.

A terrified scream echoed in the quiet of the forest, startling the dark wizard. More screams followed the first and Severus took off running in the direction of the sound. The high-pitched cry for help sounded like a child’s and the professor’s mind went to all the students trying to prove their bravery by entering the dark woods. That little dunderhead and the idiots who dared them would be in detention for the rest of their Hogwarts education when he reached them, he swore under his breath, momentarily forgetting that the school was now closed for the summer months.

Crashing through the tangled undergrowth, Severus stumbled into a shadowy clearing in the trees. To his left he spied a thick spiderweb secured between several tree trunks, spread across the ground and up into the canopy far above. Tangled in the sticky web was centaur foal, struggling to get free as an acromantula the size of a sheep dropped down from the trees above.

Severus raised his wand, but before he could cast a spell, an arrow whistled down from the treetops, impaling the large spider. Shrieking, the acromantula fell from the web, landing on the ground between Severus and the colt. A second arrow followed, tearing through the spider’s head. As the acromantula gave a final shudder, Severus looked up onto the canopy, but could not see any sign of the archer.

He carefully approached the frantic foal, its pale blue eyes wide in terror. The colt, having never actually seen a man with only two legs before, was almost as afraid of the dark wizard as it was of the spider.

“Were you bitten, child?” Severus asked gently, trying to calm the small centaur. The terrified creature just trembled.

The ground shook as the thunder of hooves crashed into the clearing. Severus jumped aside as two centaurs skidded to a stop. He recognized them as Ronan and Bane.

“Your assistance is noted, Wizard, but we will now take care of our own.” Bane spoke stiffly as he prodded the downed acromantula with one of his hooves, assuring himself that it was dead.

“Ronan, ask if they were bitten.” Severus stepped away from the foal as Ronan began to tug at the sticky spider web. “I always carry anti-venom, especially when I come into the forest.”

As Ronan leaned down to listen to the foal, Bane brought a horn to his lips and blew two loud blasts. From distant parts of the forest, single horn blasts returned his call. Severus gave him a questioning look.

“We have been searching the Dark Woods for this little one. Fern wanted to prove to her brothers that mares were braver than stallions.” Bane scowled at the little female, but there was no anger in his eyes.

“Merlin save us from the pride of small children,” Severus muttered under his breath, surprised when both the adult centaurs snorted in amusement.

After freeing Fern’s legs from the spiderweb, Ronan led the traumatized foal away, gently guiding her toward the centaur village deep in the forest. It would take hours to brush all the sticky web from her hair and coat.

Bane remained behind. He planted a hoof on the dead spider and pulled the arrow from its head. When he tried to pull the second arrow, the shaft broke, leaving the arrowhead deeply imbedded in the body of the beast. The dark centaur looked up into the canopy above.

“Took you two arrows this time,” Bane taunted the mystery archer with a practiced familiarity.

“Do you want me to harvest the beast for Magorian?” Severus asked, knowing the body parts needed to be collected before the corpse cooled. Magorian was the healer and brewer as well as the head of the forest’s centaur tribe.

“The arrow destroyed the eyes, but the venom is yours.”

Bane called up into the trees. “We cleared those two nests south of here yesterday. What remains is yours to harvest if you so desire.”

The invisible archer’s only response was to begin raising sections of the spiderweb as Severus squatted by the mouth of the acromantula, milking the venom from the fangs.

After a few minutes, a quivering ball of web was lowered using a strand of the web itself, stopping as it drew even to Bane’s chest. The stocky centaur tore a small opening in the webbed ball and peered at the writhing mass within. He showed it to Severus, who identified it as hundreds of acromantula egg sacs.

“Can these be used in a brew, Wizard?” Bane asked, slightly revolted.

“I know of no use for unhatched acromantula eggs unless you wanted to feed them to a snake.” Severus replied.

Bane dropped the ball of webbing and ground the mass of eggs into the dirt with his hoof.

“Why does the hunter not reveal himself?” Severus asked as he stored the vial containing raw venom into one of his pockets. “Is he a feral human or one of the elusive forest werewolves?”

“Do not make the mistake of thinking that the only fae living in these dark woods are smaller than the length of your thumb, Wizard.” Bane turned sharply, hitting Severus in the chest with his tail, before cantering off to join his companions.

As Severus watched Bane disappear into the thick woods, he realized that the centaur had spoken clearly to him. He had not spoken in the rhymes and riddles centaurs were known for. He had voiced no mythological double-speak and had never once mentioned whether Mars was bright or not.

Given a choice, he would rather converse with plain speaking Bane over the dreamy Firenze or Ronan any day.

~*~*~*~*~
3
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Severus stood with his face raised to the sun as he basked in the warmth of a rare cloudless day. The sun heated him to his bones, a welcome change from the months of ice-cold winter and the never-ending dampness of spring. He focused on the sound of buzzing insects and bird song.

He wandered the meadow looking for day lilies and a few late-blooming crocuses. He was collecting the pollen rich stamens found deep within the bell-shaped flowers. Since the crocus had such a short life, he wanted to see if he could substitute day lily stamens, because different species of them bloomed through most of the summer. Tiny faeries and bees flittered about the blooms, occasionally collecting pollen from the large blossoms. Severus peered into each flower before plucking out the stamens. He didn’t want to accidently kill a pollinator.

“Whatever are you doing?” A voice demanded.

Severus’ head jerked up. He had not heard anyone approach.

Before him was a creature unlike any he had seen before. Roughly shoulder height, the faerie had vivid copper colored hair and impossibly bright emerald eyes. The faerie was decidedly male, even though his long red hair was festooned with plaits interwoven with shells and beads. His slender body was clothed in handwoven slim leggings and a flowing tunic, both dyed true woad blue. The tunic had elaborate embroideries sewn with unicorn hair that glittered in the sunlight, as well as bits of mismatched jewelry and buttons as accents. From the lobes of his pointed ears were unmatching earrings of gold and precious stones. In contrast to his delicate appearance, a quiver of arrows hung across his back and he was holding a bow in one hand.

Severus clutched his wand as he stared at the faerie. He suspected that this was the mysterious archer that had killed the acromantula but did not know if he was in danger from him or not.

“You will not threaten me with your wand in my own home.” The faerie’s eyes narrowed. “What wood is that?”

“I have not brought a rowan wand into the Forbidden Forest,” Severus replied, knowing the fae were sensitive to rowan wood. The actual composition of his wand was personal to him and he had no desire to share it with a stranger.

The faerie examined him for several minutes. He looked to be about twenty years old, but Severus knew that some fae were rumored to live for a millennium or even longer, so appearances were deceiving.

“Why are you staring into the flowers? It seems a rather daft thing to do.”

There was an odd lilt to the faerie’s speech, not any of the modern Gaelic dialects, but something far older. Severus thought back to the house-elves speaking Goidelic and wondered if their languages shared the same origin.

“I am collecting ingredients to brew potions,” Severus replied, trying to think if there was any danger in his reply. Faeries were known to be tricksters and it was dangerous to give them too much information. “I was checking to make certain no creature was in the flower. There is a spider in that one.”

“A spider?” The faerie was on alert.

“Yes. A harmless garden spider, not an acromantula.”

The faerie squatted, resting on his heels. He plucked a few ripe wild strawberries and popped them in his mouth.

“I see that you carry a bow. By any chance are you the archer that saved the foal a few days ago?”

“Yes.” The faerie gave an almost feral smile.

“It sounded as if you and Bane often hunt acromantula together, or are you in a friendly competition?”

“We are at war with the monsters, so there is nothing friendly in our hunting. Centaurs are earthbound and I am not, so we work well together. Since the death of Aragog, his mate Mosag will not see reason. Aragog kept their numbers down to only fifty and they remained in their great nest, a nuisance at best. But she has let her children breed out of control and now there are thousands of them.”

The faerie stood up and peered into the flower that housed the spider, as if to check that Severus had not lied to him. Faeries hated being lied to.

“They are not from here and never should have been permitted to stay in the first place. Their usefulness once outweighed their danger, but that is no longer true. Now they threaten the Dark Woods. They are already a menace to the foals, fawns, kits, pups, and chicks who should be safe in their nests but are not.”

“Usefulness?” Severus could think of little practical use for those large talking venomous spiders. He used acromantula body parts only to combat the acromantula’s venom.

“Their silk. When I am not killing monsters, I am a weaver. I spin their webs into thread for my looms.” The faerie shook his head and the shells in his plaits tinkled. “I will leave you to collect your flowers.

“May I know your name?” The faerie paused, sounding only mildly curious. “Just in case we meet again one day?”

Severus looked at the faerie in amusement, knowing full well that you never gave the fae your actual name. By doing so, you gave them power and control over you. He considered making up a name, but decided his silence was a better option.

“Fair enough,” the faerie laughed, not at all insulted by Severus’ lack of response. He drifted into the woods, attaching himself to the bark on a large oak tree. The last Severus saw of him was a flash of red high in the forest canopy.

~*~*~*~*~
4
~*~*~*~*~
Having spent the better part of the day performing a detailed inventory of the contents in all the Potions storerooms and classrooms, Severus gathered up various scrolls listing tentative lesson plans for all seven years, Poppy’s written request for restocking the Infirmary, owl order forms for accredited Apothecaries, and the Master Potions Register. He would need to spend a few days building lists breaking down what ingredients would be required in the coming Autumn Term. Thorough lists would then need to be created to determine what must be purchased and from where, which plants and animals Pomona and Hagrid could provide, and what items he and Hagrid would need to collect from the Forbidden Forest.

Hearing the clock in the Hogwarts clocktower chime the quarter hour, Severus realized he had worked through the day without taking a break and it was nearly five. With so few non-house-elf staff working in the castle during the summer, no actual meals were scheduled, but simple fare was available in the kitchen at any hour, and the tea kettle was always on. He would stop in for a quick bite before heading home for the day.

Severus acknowledged the single elf managing the kitchen and settled himself at one of the empty tables. There did not need to be an entire crew of house-elves manning the kitchen while school was not in session, so all other elves were tasked with cleaning, mending, gardening, or building maintenance, including construction of the fieldstone wall. After all the years he had been employed at the school, the house-elves were aware of his dietary likes and dislikes, so he did not make any special requests.

Intending to begin working on his paperwork, Severus sorted the scrolls by subject and took a sip from the mug of tea that had appeared in front of him. Before he could get too far in his work, the house-elf settled a tiered tray of finger sandwiches, meats and cheeses, and scones. Since they knew he did not have much of a sweet tooth, a few pieces of fresh fruit were also included.

“Do you mind if I join you, Professor?” Hagrid asked as he brought a basket of freshly harvested vegetables into the kitchen. Due to the summer heat, he was not wearing his greatcoat. “Or are you in the middle of something?”

“This will keep,” Severus replied, indicating for the half-giant to join him. An enormous teacup, a large cold meat pie and an entire loaf of bread materialized in front of the big man.

Severus paused in buttering his scone, intending to ask Hagrid a question about bowtruckles, when he observed a tiny red snout emerge from the middle of his companion’s thick black beard. Noticing the direction of Severus’ stare, Hagrid gently reached into his beard and extracted a tiny fox kit.

“Found him in my cabbage patch last night, covered in blood that wasn’t his. Couldn’t find hide nor hair of his mummy, so I’m thinking she hid him from the thing that killed her. I’ll try my best, but he’s really too little to be without his mum, so we’ll probably lose him, too.”

“Do you think what killed his mother could have been an acromantula?”

“Acromantula? There’s plenty of other dangerous critters out there, so why pick them?” Hagrid set the kit onto the tabletop and covered him with one of his massive handkerchiefs.

“In the past week, I’ve seen acromantulas try to kill both thestral and centaur foals. They could have possibly gone after unicorns, too.”

“The centaurs were attacked? I did not hear about that.” Hagrid’s voice boomed.

“Met someone unusual in the woods the other day, hair the color of that fox kit. Killed the spider with a bow and arrow.”

“You met Harry!” Hagrid exclaimed in delight.

“Harry? The faery’s name is Harry?”

“No one knows what a fae’s actual name is. They certainly won’t tell you. I just call him Harry.”

“Why Harry of all things?”

“Magorian and his herd call him Harebell. I’ll admit he’s a pretty little creature, but he’s a boy. You just can’t name a boy after a frilly little blue flower, even if he’s as pretty as one.”

Harebell, Severus thought, was a fitting name for the fae he had met. Campanula rotundifolia had blue-violet bell-shaped flowers on slender, wispy stems. Delicate in appearance, it was a tough little plant, so like the archer himself.

“Kind of dresses like he robbed a niffler’s nest though,” Hagrid remarked as he began to devour his meal. “Taught me how to knit.”

~*~*~*~*~
A garden house-elf approached Hagrid with a possible solution to the fox kit’s dilemma. One of the school’s ratters had lost all but one pup and was desolate. She might be persuaded to nurse the little kit.

Unable to get the fox to feed using an eye dropper, and afraid of crushing the tiny thing with his massive hands, Hagrid relinquished care of the kit to the garden elf. Only time would tell if the little creature had enough fight in him to survive.

~*~*~*~*~
Severus carefully scraped a patch of lichen from an overgrown stone wall buried deep within the Forbidden Forest. He wanted to capture only the parasitic growth and not the crumbling rock beneath it.

“I use lichens to dye my wool. What do wizards use it for?”

Severus looked up to see the redheaded faery perched on a tree branch above his head. His leggings were still woad blue, but his tunic was a soft saffron yellow.

“Historically, Highlanders have used it to dye wool used in their tweeds, but I am uncertain if they still do,” Severus fell into his teaching voice. “For centuries, some Northern European and Asian cultures harvested varieties of mosses and lichens as sources of food. I have also heard that the mundanes have experimented on using it to purify contaminated water reservoirs. Have not heard if that worked out or not.

“But as to what wizards use it for…Certain lichens have antibiotic and antiseptic qualities and I use them in many of my healing potions.”

The faery crept closer to Severus, interested to watch what he was doing, but recoiled when he saw the knife in the potions master’s hands.

“You have brought cold iron into the Dark Woods,” he exclaimed, in horror.

“What? No!” Severus held up the glittering black blade of his knife to show the fae. “Obsidian. The blade and handle are carved from a shard of obsidian. Cold iron does not just endanger magical creatures, it destroys the magic in the plants it touches. I’d be a pretty piss-poor potions master if I damaged my ingredients before I ever even harvested them.”

The fae relaxed, leaning against a tree, as Severus continued to harvest the lichen from the crumbling remains of the ancient barrier.

“How long have you known the half-giant?” Severus asked, deliberately not giving Hagrid’s name, just in case the fae did not know it.

“Hagrid? He was still a boy. His wand had just been snapped and he was adrift. The Headmaster let him stay, apprenticed him to the Keeper of Keys, because he was an orphan. He spent days wandering the woods, trying to find peace with his future.”

Hagrid had been a child more than a half century ago, so the fae was obviously much older than he appeared.

“Hagrid, bless him, can not keep a secret, especially if spirits are involved. How is it that no one has known of your existence for over fifty years?” Severus stared at the impassive fae. “You placed a geas upon him, didn’t you? Only those who know of you can discuss you.”

“It was and is necessary. Wizard-kind will hunt us to extinction if they know of our existence.”

“This geas…you have placed it upon me as well?”

“Yes.” The fae was unapologetic.

Severus was not pleased to have had a taboo placed without his knowledge, but he did understand the faery’s reason. The eldritch magic used by other races was not well known, so it was unsurprising that he had been unaware of the geas being placed.

There was nothing to be done about it, he decided. Preservation of the species was ingrained in every culture. In a way, it was just a twisted version of the Statute of Secrecy.

“It is my understanding that Magorian has named you Harebell and Hagrid calls you Harry. I am fully aware that neither is actually your name, but do you have a preference?”

“Yes, Harebell…after the flower. I am not particularly fond of ‘E’ names. They remind me too much of those disgusting designations placed upon the brownies – house-elves you call them. Blinky, Stinky, Rinky Dinky.”

“I always thought they gave themselves those ridiculous names.”

“What self-respecting mother would want her precious elfling to be named Moopey?” Harebell demanded, and Severus had no argument with that statement.

It was beginning to grow dark in the forest, so Severus started to collect his possessions. Harebell was holding a conversation with an excited pair of tiny faeries in a language he did not understand. The larger fae, reacting to something said, suddenly bolted into the darkening gloom without explanation.

~*~*~*~*~
5
~*~*~*~*~
Busy brewing multiple potions, Severus did not return to the Forbidden Forest for several days. Needing to harvest additional heliotrope for another infusion, he Apparated into the meadow, intending to collect some flowers and immediately return to his laboratory.

Harebell was already in the meadow, collecting edible plants for dinner. He had a mesh bag hanging from one arm, filled with salad greens, wild garlic, and spring onions, and was in the process of filling a cracked porcelain cup with wild strawberries.

The faery acknowledged Severus with a brief nod to his head, and the dark wizard realized Harebell was not alone. Perched on one thin shoulder was a small barn owl, still covered in an owlet’s preflight downy feathers. Its tiny claws were clutching the fabric of the fae’s tunic to keep balance.

“Good afternoon, Harebell,” Severus called. “Who is your little friend?”

“Good day to you as well. Since you are addressing me with a name, what may I call you? Bane calls you Wizard and Hagrid calls you Professor, but they are both what you are, not who you are.”

“And the students call me Dungeon Bat when they think I can’t hear them.” Severus gave the briefest of smiles. He had no intention to ever reveal any part of his name to a fae, but he did not want to anger them either. “I will let you choose a name for me and I will answer to it.”

“I will think on that,” Harebell replied, not yet admitting defeat. He held out an insect and the owlet snatched it in her beak.

“This owlet is the only survivor of a small family that lived in a hollow tree not too far from here. While the father was hunting, an acromantula targeted them. Trying to save her young, the mother pushed her chicks out of the nest just before the monster overpowered her. The father also died trying to defend its mate. The other chicks did not survive the fall.”

The faery sat, setting the owlet on the ground beside him, to see if she would attempt to forage on her own.

“I must caution you against entering the Dark Woods alone.” Harebell’s tone was somber. “The unicorns have fled to the far side of the forest and Magorian has ordered all but his warriors to follow them. Hagrid must move his thestrals out of the woods and into the protection of the castle grounds today or Magorian will have them taken to safety himself. Nothing is safe in the woods. The alarm has gone out. War is upon us.”

“What has happened?” Severus was alarmed.

“Magorian, Firenze, and Bane met again with Mosag but it did not go well. She has declared the Dark Woods to be her domain and her domain only. She will do with it as she wishes.”

Heliotrope forgotten, Severus Apparated away to warn Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. If the acromantula were on the rampage, and the Forbidden Forest was under attack, the safety of the castle and the village was also at risk.

~*~*~*~*~
By the time Hagrid, with Pomona’s assistance, had corralled the thestral herd into a paddock used by the Care of Magical Creatures classes, Ministry officials from the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures were arriving to the Quidditch Pitch en masse.

Aberforth Dumbledore and Josiah Honeyduke, representing Hogsmeade, soon joined them. Magorian and Bane stood at the edge of the field, needing to have a presence, but not wanting to associate with wizards. Deputy Headmistress Septima Vector and the Head House-elf joined Severus, Pomona, and Hagrid as the Hogwarts coalition. All the other human staff members were currently away on summer holiday and would not be able to render any assistance.

Severus searched the tree line, but did not see a flash of red. He knew that Harebell was in as much danger from the Ministry as he was from the acromantula, so he would not show himself, but he also knew that the faery would join to protect his woods from danger.

Department Head Amos Diggory dispatched a group to fly above the Forbidden Forest to see what they were getting into. While they waited for the flyers to return, he was quizzing Hagrid on possible numbers and nest locations. Having spent years trying to circumvent Hagrid’s love of “misunderstood” creatures, he did not even discuss how the acromantulas got in the forest in the first place. Honestly, after the debacle of a cerberus named Fluffy, he really did not want to know.

Acromantulas usually lived in a much more temperate climate than Scotland, so the fact that they could survive the bitter winters opened another can of worms. Newt Scamander’s definitive tome had never even toyed with that possibility. Diggory put out a call to UK’s leading acromantula silk producers in the hopes that they could provide some expert advice.

House-elves brought out tables and filled them with a range of sandwiches, side dishes, and beverages. From a distance, Severus noticed that one of the elves had a small barn owlet perched on his head and the air was thick with tiny forest faeries. It seemed as if any creature with the gift of speech had evacuated the forest.

Severus approached the centaurs. Out of all the wizards he was possibly the one they tolerated the most.

“Have the lycanthropes been notified?” he asked them quietly.

“Yes. Most of their den has followed our herd to help protect the evacuees, but a few of them who can shoot well have remained behind. We will put the children of the moon in the trees under Harebell’s command once these wizards get their heads out of their arses,” Bane replied. He held his crossbow, itching to get on with the fight.

“I’d best let Diggory know we’ll be sending a team of archers into the trees. Merlin knows we don’t want them killed by idiots who can’t tell a man from an acromantula.”

“Women archers as well.” Magorian looked to the skies. “There is a very comely female archer with them, unturned mate to a wolf. Blue eyes, not gold. Have her twitch her tail a few times, and they will not be so quick to shoot into the trees.”

~*~*~*~*~
Hagrid, unhappy with the orders to kill all his beloved spiders, tried a final time to talk sense to Mosag. He was accompanied by Diggory, a representative of the Silk Guild and a few additional wizards as back-up. The representative tried to offer her family resettlement in a warmer climate, and but she insisted the forest was hers to do with as she wished. Attempts at a compromise were soundly ignored, and her final reaction was to order her children to attack the negotiating party.

The negotiating party barely managed to escape. Hagrid was forced to kill Mosag to clear their path to safety. The death of their matriarch sent her children into a frenzy, and the battle for control of the Forbidden Forest began.

The Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures staff covered the huge domed nest in a barrage of fire spells and curses, killing as many of the giant spiders as they could while the centaurs and the archers picked off those that tried to escape. In the air, a small band of flyers from both the ministry and Hogsmeade began to clear out smaller nests high in the canopy, being especially careful not to hit the archers hanging from the tall trees or their centaur partners on the ground.

And in the midst of the battle, the representative of the Silk Guild pleaded with the warriors to capture, not kill, any acromantula smaller than a quidditch bludger. Hagrid, while surreptitiously using his pink umbrella to fend off attackers, was the only one to take the man’s request to heart. Diggory could only watch in alarm as the half-giant began to tuck small acromantulas into his shirt for safekeeping.

With the domed nest in flames, smaller groups began to split off to search for additional spiders. Diggory ordered the representative back to Hogwarts with the injured, leaving it up to the extermination teams whether they wanted to capture the not yet venomous baby monsters or dispose of them outright. He knew what his decision would be.

He had the sinking feeling they would be forced to strip the half-giant down to his unders to make certain he did not try to abscond with any of the ‘misunderstood’ juvenile acromantulas.

Severus did not see the battle firsthand. Because Poppy was on holiday abroad, he was the representative of the school, and all potions masters had some medical training, his task was to oversee the running of the Infirmary. St. Mungo’s provided two battle-trained healers and an apothecary to help with the injured. Both St. Mungo’s and Hogwarts’ entire supply of acromantula anti-venom were brought to the Infirmary.

His only information on how the extermination was progressing was from conversations between the wounded.
It was frustrating to hear everything secondhand - not that he wanted to fight the beasts – but he was worried about Harebell and he couldn’t really ask anyone about him.

~*~*~*~*~
“Can you believe that silk twit,” a ministry worker with a long gash on his arm exclaimed. “Capture the little buggers, don’t kill them. Thought Amos was going to place a stunner between his fecking ears.”

“Those archers are something, aren’t they?” Another worker said, this one with a festering bite on his leg. “That fiery vixen was dead accurate...saved my arse, she did.”

“I’d like to thank that sexy red head up close and personal,” his companion chortled. “Wonder if she’s as good in the sack as she is with a bow.”

Severus gritted his teeth as he heard many of the male patients make sexually laden comments about the female archers, especially one with long red hair. How dare they speak of Harebell that way, he seethed. His fingers itched to send a hex their way, but was beaten to the punch, literally, by several of the witches who also worked for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. They did not appreciate their co-workers’ attempts to downplay the bravery of the talented female archers and denigrate them to their body parts.

Severus relaxed knowing the faery had so far survived the battle. High in the trees, with his slight build, flowing tunic, and long fox-red hair, Harebell was mistakenly identified as a woman because that was what they expected to see. He had successfully hidden his fae status in plain sight.

~*~*~*~*~
6
~*~*~*~*~
The last of the wounded treated, Severus quietly slipped out of the Infirmary just as the sun began to rise. He made his way through the silent school and out onto the grounds. Heavy fog blanketed the area, and the dense trees were lost in the mist.

Bone tired, he sat on one of the wet benches in the courtyard and closed his eyes. He felt, rather than heard, someone drop into the seat beside him. Turning his head, he opened his eyes. Harebell’s green eyes glittered in the early morning light.

“Good morning, Snape,” Harebell greeted him, pleased to have learned one part of Severus’ true name during the battle. His plaits were half unraveled, and his beautifully embroidered tunic was torn and blood stained.

“Is the battle won?” Severus asked. With the influx of Ministry workers on the castle grounds it was inevitable that Harebell would have overheard someone address him by name. With any luck he would be able to keep his other names private.

“A few acromantulas are in hiding, but Bane can hunt them at his leisure. With any luck the Ministry will stop searching the Dark Woods soon and leave us in peace. I need to return home. I have neglected my weaving long enough.”

“Is your home far away? Severus asked. Unexpectedly, he hoped the answer was no. “Who will ask me ridiculous questions while I try to do my work?”

“You must not be much of a professor if your students don’t ask you ridiculous questions,” Harebell laughed. “Perhaps I will see you again during Lughnasadh or Samhain and I can convince you to dance with me.”

Not bloody likely, Severus thought as Harebell faded into the mist. Dancing with the fae, or to faerie music, often ended in the dancer’s death.

~*~*~*~*~
Severus sat at a table in the Hogwarts kitchen, his long fingers wrapped around a warm mug of tea. He wanted to return to his cottage and take a hot bath before sleeping for days, but he had an Infirmary to oversee.

“Snape,” Diggory said as he sat across from him. He looked as tired as Severus felt. “I’ve been looking everywhere for the archers to thank them for their assistance, but I can’t seem to locate them.”

“They’ve returned to their homes.”

“Are you sure? I thought I saw you talking to the redheaded one earlier.” Diggory smiled. “I’ve never seen anyone that accurate with a bow before standing on the ground. How the hell she did it hanging upside down in a tree is beyond me.”

“The redhead has gone home…gone home to weave.” Severus drifted off to sleep, still sitting at the table, with a mug of tea in his hands.

~*~*~*~*~
Severus Apparated into the wildflower meadow to finally harvest the heliotrope. He looked around, but there was no familiar flash of red. He watched the bees and the tiny forest faeries flitter in the warm summer air for a while, struck with an unexpected feeling of sadness.

He would not return to this place again, he thought as he Apparated out of the Dark Woods.