Hermione Granger had a splitting headache, and she seemed to be lying on the ground. Which was exceedingly odd, because the last thing she remembered was donning her Unspeakable robes and making her way to her laboratory in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic.
Keeping her eyes closed and her limbs loose, she assessed herself and as much as she could determine of her surroundings.
She was not hurt that she could tell. She was lying on leaves and grass, and she could hear insects, birds, and a myriad of other animals, almost as if she was using a charm to extend her senses. Something seemed to be whispering, almost singing to her, and an instant later she realized it was the trees. They were speaking. To her. Inside her mind.
Well. That was new, but not the strangest thing she'd ever encountered. It was entirely possible that they were simply a breed of singing tree that she'd never heard of, not having an especial interest in herbology.
No, more concerning than the talking trees was the fact that she appeared to be entirely naked, judging by the feel of air on her skin.
It wasn't until she opened her eyes and sat up that she realized that her body was much smaller than it should be. And not as if she'd been shrunk, but as if she'd been de-aged. Her proportions were those of a toddler - flat chested and pudgy with lingering baby fat.
She cursed, and then cursed again when her voice came out in a little girl's warble that was more musical than her voice had ever been, no matter the age.
"Bother. These sorts of things are supposed to happen to Harry, not me," she groused, and then groaned when she realized that she wasn't speaking English, or any language she recognized, but could understand all the same.
Perhaps this was what it was like to be a Parselmouth? Though the words that fell from her lips sounded nothing like the hissing of a snake. Rather, it was a language of flowing syllables that seemed to go with her bell-like voice.
Time to take stock of her circumstances then.
There was a little stream not far from her, so Hermione got unsteadily to her feet and made her way to it in order to study her reflection.
She was beautiful. Cherubic, even. It was as if she had become her perfect self. Her skin was even and clear, and it glowed with a soft light. Her hair was a rich mahogany brown, and not bushy at all, but rather fell in ringlets around her face as if she'd used a whole bottle of Sleakeasy and then spent hours on hair charms. Her eyes were a deep oaken brown and were large in her face, her lips rosy pink and perfectly shaped. Her nose was an adorable button, and when she opened her mouth, her teeth were white and perfectly proportioned. She was the most beautiful child that she herself had ever seen, human or non.
She raised a small hand to push her shoulder length hair back, and gasped when she saw that her ears ended in delicate points.
Events suddenly came back to her, making her squeeze her eyes shut and fold herself down into a defensive ball.
After the war, she'd worked hard to get her NEWTs and establish herself in a career. She dated Ron, and then broke up with him, and then dated him again in an endless cycle that would probably end in marriage, once she was ready to settle down - which was one of their most recurring fights. She wanted a chance to just be Hermione Granger, to work, to do something other than fight a war and worry about what Harry was doing at any given moment. Ron didn't see why she couldn't do that and be his wife at the same time.
Part of her, a part deep down that she tried not to listen to, but could not help agreeing with, didn't want to marry Ron because he left. They needed him, they hurt just as much as he did, but with him it was always about him first and everyone else second, and he left when they needed him the most. How could she trust that he wouldn't do the same thing again? Why would she want a husband who would flee every time the going got rough?
Of course, he'd come back. Ron always came back. But that wouldn't stop him leaving the next time, and she didn't know if she could take that in a marriage when it was already such a strain as a friend.
But that wasn't the point. She was going off on mental tangents as her mind tried to process what had happened to her.
The point was that she'd become an Unspeakable, and she'd been assigned to divine the secrets of an artifact that was thought to date back to Avalon. To the time of the High Elves who had interbred with humans and so given them magic. (Supposedly. There wasn't enough research on the topic to satisfy Hermione.)
She'd been in her lab, attempting to discover what sort of magic would activate what she thought to be a ritual stone of petrified wood that had been found buried in the Forbidden Forest. And then there'd been an explosion, not in her lab, but the one next door. An explosion so devastating that it had completely blasted apart the wards that were supposed to contain such things.
She'd been hurt, all over, and her mind was foggy, wouldn't work, and then she'd slumped over the ritual stone, rivulets of red paint - no, not paint, it was her blood - running over the table.
And then nothing, and she woke up here. Completely naked, and a beautiful child. With pointed ears.
Like a High Elf.
Hermione heard someone panting, and looked around wildly before realizing it was her. She was hyperventilating. She should stop that.
When next she woke, it was dark in the wood she'd found herself in, and her skin was glowing even more brightly than before, as if she were somehow infused with a lumos, or else was a very solid patronus.
She was sure now that she had somehow become one of the fabled High Elves who had long ago vanished through a portal into a different world. All of her new characteristics matched what few credible descriptions they had of the beings. (The most detailed account Hermione ever read came from Hogwarts, A History. It was said that Helga Hufflepuff was considered an elf-friend and one of the last High Elves had blessed the land surrounding Hogwarts at Helga's request.)
Perhaps the ritual stone Hermione had been working on was once a part of the elves' world portal, and something about her life sacrifice - and yes, she could not flinch away from the most likely scenario that she had died in that explosion - had resulted in her waking here, in the body of an elf child, in a forest that she was becoming more and more certain was not in England, perhaps not on Earth at all.
She took a deep breath, tamping her emotions down as best she could (which wasn't very well at all), and rocked back and forth as she thought. She didn't notice the tears flowing down her cheeks.
Working theory: The Avalon artifact was part of the portal used by the High Elves to leave Earth. Her life blood falling on the stone at her moment of death activated it somehow, and pulled her through a similar portal. But as the portal was only meant for elves, it either transformed her body when she went through, or it only pulled her spirit through and created an elf body for her.
Alternate theory: She died and was in some kind of afterlife, or was resurrected in a different world as a different species.
But if she had been reincarnated, shouldn't she be a baby, not a child? Shouldn't she have new parents? And why did she remember her old life as a witch?
Was she still a witch? She'd never been powerful enough to feel the currents of magic around her. Not like Harry, who did it without even realizing. But what she lacked in power, she made up for in cleverness.
She wanted to know if she still had magic? Well, then she needed a wand. And while she'd never made a wand before, she'd become quite an artificer in their year on the run and the two years following. She'd made her beaded bag, and improved their tent, and studied all sorts of secret techniques once she joined the Unspeakables. And she had the materials right here. All she needed was a branch from a tree, and a part of a magical creature for the wand core. And wasn't she a magical creature, one of the most magical of all?
So Hermione got up and toddled around her little glade, trailing her fingers over the tree trunks, looking for the one that felt right, careful not to lose sight of the stream. She didn't want to go too far, as she seemed to be safe where she was, and she had water here, if not food.
At last she found herself standing at the base of a massive willow that seemed as inviting as the Whomping Willow was ominous.
"Hello. Can you help me, please?" she said to the tree, both hands on its trunk. The trees seemed aware, with their whispering and singing, so it couldn't hurt at all to be polite.
Her question echoed through the tree's branches, passing from root to leaf, and tree to tree, like a game of telephone, spiraling out through the forest until the whole of it rang with the sound of a little girl saying Help me, please, to those who were able to hear. In the center of the Greenwood, in a palace carved into shining caverns, a crowned head jerked up and a young prince gasped.
But Hermione didn't know any of this. Instead she focused on the willow tree, and smiled when it whispered back to her, yes, yes of course, little elf, my little elf, come sit in my branches and sing to me.
And then the flexible branches of the willow wove themselves into a ladder for Hermione to climb up, which she did, settling herself into a little hollow in a junction of the tree's branches that seemed made just for her. The willow then crowned her with a tiara made of its own woven branches, giving a little sigh as it let go of part of itself, and Hermione giggled, an overwhelming happiness pushing her tears away.
For the moment, at least, the childish nature of her new body overcame the calculating mind of the adult, and Hermione thanked the tree for her crown, and then sang it nursery rhymes until she started to yawn, lulled by the swaying of the branches.
As her words had before, her songs spiraled out through the wood, and gave hope to those who could hear it.
"Keep singing, little dove," the Elvenking said, turning his mount. "Lead us to you."