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+++++ Tolkien Quiz, Round I: General Knowledge +++++

 

As Hermione walked up to the Ferret & Firkin, hands shoved deep in the pockets of her coat against the November wind coming off the Kyles of Bute, she glanced eagerly up at the sign that swung above the pub’s heavy wooden door. Every Tuesday was Quiz Night, and Jimmy the bartender, who was also the quizmaster, had a habit of replacing the pub’s usual black wooden sign with a temporary one giving a clue to the evening’s topic. Tonight the sign was grass-green and bore a bright-gold pony with creamy mane and tail, high-stepping legs, and a knowing look. A satisfied smile spread across Hermione’s face. Given that this was the first Tuesday of the month, when the quiz topic always centered on a well-known U.K. author, she had a good idea of what was coming.

She entered the pub and let out a contented sigh at the cozy warmth. The place had felt strange at first -- in a small town like Tighnabruaich strangers were always an object of curiosity, and Hermione had drawn polite stares for the first couple of weeks -- but it was comfortably familiar now after six months. She was entirely pleased that Minerva McGonagall had suggested the little Scottish village to her as a place to escape Rita Skeeter and her ilk, who were still poking and prodding and nosing and asking vexing questions more than a year after the end of the War.

She went up to the bar where a dozen or so people were waiting for their drinks and Jimmy and his son were serving their patrons with an efficiency born of years of practice. “Nice sign, Jimmy,” Hermione said when he paused to greet her. “The Prancing Pony. Will we be calling you Barliman for the evening?”

Jimmy laughed. “That was our Ewan’s idea,” he said, nodding at his son who was pulling a pint for a customer. “He’s quite the fan. Helped with the questions, too, some of which might be tough even for you.” He set Hermione’s usual drink, a glass of white wine, on the bar in front of her.

Hermione reached for the glass, but he slid it away from her. “Now then, you have to earn it, as usual. I think I might just stump you tonight.”

“Think so, do you?” She gave him a cheeky grin. “All right, what have you got?”

Jimmy narrowed his eyes. “Name the seventy-year-old landlady in The Consequences of Marriage.”

“Bibi Sanders,” Hermione replied promptly.

“Damn.” Jimmy shook his head in disgust at his own failure as he handed her the glass. “I never met a woman who knows so much about books. I suppose you’ll be walking away with the prize again tonight?”

She laughed. “I don’t win every night, you know. Second Tuesdays are all about sports, I don’t even try on those nights.”

“No, but every first Tuesday it’s you,” Jimmy pretended to grumble. “We’ll have to do something with you, young lady, or the regulars will just give up and stay home. And then you’ll have to make up the difference in my profits, all on your own.”

“As if that would be a hardship,” Hermione pointed out. “You have got the best fish and chips in Tighnabruaich.”

“Flatterer,” Jimmy grinned. “Now let me see, what question was it you won with last time? Ah, and don’t pretend you don’t remember, I know you do.”

The topic on the first Tuesday of last month had been Jane Austen. The crowd had proved surprisingly knowledgeable, and Hermione had squeaked out a win on the last round. “Name the Dashwood sisters in order, from oldest to youngest,” Hermione said. “Elinor, Marianne, Margaret.”

“Obviously we’re not up to big city standards with our quiz night,” Jimmy said with mock regret. “Whatever shall we do?”

Hermione took a sip of her wine and a scooped a handful of nuts from a dish on the bar. “How about British horror?” she said. “Bram Stoker. Mary Shelley. Too many people have no idea that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster.”

“Only you would think of quiz night as a chance for people to learn something,” Jimmy groaned, then waved a dismissive hand. “Get on with you, now. Go and sit down, we’ll be starting soon.”

Hermione took her drink and settled in at her usual table tucked away in the corner, inwardly gleeful. Tolkien! There was no way anyone could beat her tonight. She’d read the books so many times she nearly had them memorized (most of the poems she actually did have by heart). She shrugged out of her coat and scarf and sat back, watching the pub slowly fill up and replying to greetings from one or two of the regulars. Quiz nights at the Ferret & Firkin were always popular, especially since Jimmy was one of the few pub owners who had gone in for the wireless handsets, making it a much more relaxed experience -- no waving of pieces of paper and shouting “Who’s got a pencil, then?”

At eight o’clock sharp, Jimmy mounted a chair and waved his arms for silence. “Everyone ready?” Shouts of yes (and no). “You’ve all guessed the topic, or if you’re too stupid then your friends have told you.” Friendly shouts of derision. “We’ll have five rounds of ten questions each. There’ll be one round each on The Hobbit, Fellowship, Two Towers, and Return of the King, then a round on the appendixes.” Groans all around. “At the end of each round we’ll show the running scores. If at the end of the fifth round there’s a tie, we’ll have a tiebreaker. As always, teams or singles are allowed, but no switching once we’ve started. That means you, Angus.” He scowled ferociously at a young man laughing with his mates. “Right then, we’re off!”

As usual, the first question in each round was easy, the following ones progressively more difficult. Round 1 began with Bilbo’s mother’s name (Belladonna Took), progressed through the name of the dwarf whose ankles Bilbo dangles from during their rescue by the eagles (Dori), and ended with the dates of the Fell Winter (2911-2912). When the scores went up on the screen above the bar, Hermione and two others had gotten all ten correct. Hermione wasn’t discouraged, however; The Hobbit had few names, relatively little background information, and a short, straightforward storyline. The next rounds would be harder.

The second set of questions, concerning the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, were a satisfyingly tougher. How much time passes between the Party and Frodo leaving the shire was not too difficult (seventeen years), nor was who carries Frodo across the Ford of Bruinen (Glorfindel’s horse Astaroth). However, she blanked momentarily on the next-to-last question (name the room in Moria where Balin’s tomb lies) and only just got her answer in (the Chamber of Mazarbul) before time was up. Hermione had expected her own perfect score, but she was surprised to see that one other person, playing under the name “ss_gollum,” had also gotten all ten correct, both of them now leading the pack by two points.

Questions on The Two Towers would decide it, she thought. And yet, after correctly identifying “the spawn of Ungoliant” (giant spiders) and naming the orc killed by Sam inside the Tower of Cirith Ungol (Snaga), when Jimmy put up the scores she scowled in annoyance: her next closest competitor was now four points down but ss_gollum was still tied with her for first place.

By now Hermione was practically dancing in her seat she was so eager to find out who her competition was. When Jimmy announced a break before the fourth round, she left her things at the table and took a casual stroll round the pub, trying to identify anyone who was looking particularly pleased with themselves. But the pub was crowded, and some of the tables were obviously occupied but their chairs were empty, the owners taking advantage of the hiatus to get another drink or chat someone up, perhaps, so she had no luck.

She was so flustered that she nearly muffed an easy one in the fourth round (what was the original name of Minas Tirith?). She only hoped that ss_gollum was feeling the pressure as well. Apparently her hope was ill-founded, however, since the scores at the end of round four showed herself and ss_gollum still in first place with perfect scores.

All her hopes now rode on her knowledge of the appendixes. Surely ss_gollum would not have read those...Feverishly she focused her attention, one question after another. Then a two-parter: name the first queen and last king of Numenor. Tar-Ancalimë and... She ran a hand through her hair. ... Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, she typed rapidly, refusing to second-guess herself.

“And the last question,” she heard Jimmy say. “I hope you’re all good at maths! How many generations are there between Elros Tar-Minyatur and Aragorn?” Groans from the crowd (and shouts of Who?).

Hermione’s mind froze. She knew this. She’d once spent a month drawing family trees of all the kings of Numenor, trying to figure out exactly how Arwen and Aragorn were related. Cousins, but how many times removed? Was it sixty-one or sixty-two? Time was ticking... 61, she guessed desperately, crossing her fingers.

“And...time!” shouted Jimmy. There was laughter and shouting and good-natured teasing among the crowd while he tallied the scores, then “And the winner is...” Jimmy was too far away to catch Hermione’s eye, but she could have sworn he was laughing at her. “...not Hermione!” Cheers (and boos). “Hermione, you’re second with forty-nine points, and the winner is ss_gollum, with a perfect score of 50! Come on up and claim your prize, whoever you are!”

Furious, Hermione struggled to her feet and grabbed her jacket. She was damned if she was going to let whoever had beaten her get away before she could find them out. But the pub was full and by the time she made it to the bar, Jimmy was busy serving again and ss_gollum was clearly long gone.

Seeing her standing there frowning, Jimmy gave her a grin. “Not in such fine fettle this evening, were we?”

She took a deep breath and blew it out in annoyance. “Who was it, Jimmy?”

“Aragorn himself, come to taste our local ale.”

“Don’t be an ass. Who was it?”

Jimmy gave in. “Sorry, love. He’s been in a few times, but I don’t know his name. Tall man, dark hair. I hear he rented a cottage two or three months ago from Mrs MacDougal. Keeps himself to himself, apparently.”

“What does he look like?”

“A crabbit and peelie-wally fellah,” he replied, putting on a ferociously bad Scots accent and pulling a long face. “Ooh, like a mon wi’ a secret sorrow...”

Hermione scowled. “Oh shut it, Jimmy. You’re about as Scottish as I am.”

Jimmy let out a bellowing laugh that would have put Hagrid to shame. “Come back a month from tonight,” he called after her as she stomped out. “Maybe he’ll be back and you can try again!”

 

+++++ Tolkien Quiz, Round II: Beasts and Creatures +++++

 

The bell above the Second Story bookshop door jangled as Hermione entered. A week of sulking over her loss at the Ferret & Firkin had done nothing to appease her, and to top it off, while paging through her worn single-volume copy of Lord of the Rings the next day to check a few details in the Appendices (which she was sure she’d gotten right), she had dropped the book in the bathtub. Before she could fish it out and use a drying charm, the ancient paperback had disintegrated, leaving her with a pile of soggy pulp and the feeling that her best friend had died. Second Story had special ordered a copy for her from London, and although she had not yet heard from them, she’d decided to take a chance and stop in to see if it had arrived.

“I think you might have a book for me,” she said to the young girl behind the counter. “A special order from London?”

The girl took a scruffy spiral pad out of a drawer and flipped to the first page. “Aye, we did get a book in yesterday, but it looks like it was for a gentleman.”

“Mine would be a copy of Lord of the Rings.” The girl reached under the counter and pulled out a thick volume, which Hermione immediately recognized. “That’s it!”

The girl looked at the slip of paper taped to the front of the book. “That’s what this is, but it hasn’t got your name on it,” she said in a puzzled tone. “I guess we ordered two of them?”

“Well, I’ll just take this one and you can give whoever it is the other one when it comes in,” Hermione said, wondering at the chances of two people in Tighnabruaich ordering the same book in the same week.

Hermione reached for the book, but the girl wouldn’t let go of it. She squinted at the untidy scrawl on the label. “I don’t think Mr...Snead? Mr Scarp? would like us to give away his order--”

“I believe you will find that the name is Snape,” said a cold voice from behind Hermione. “And no, he most assuredly would not like you to give away his order.”

Hermione whirled around, her jaw dropping. The last time she had seen Severus Snape, he was bleeding his life out on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. She’d learned later that he had survived -- Rita Skeeter had made sure that everyone found out -- but no one had seen him since that last blurred photograph The Prophet had published a year ago, the day that he had not shown up to accept his Order of Merlin, First Class.

And yet here he was, in this tiny Scottish town, in all his looming menace: pale skin, midnight eyes, bitter voice, dark swirling robes and all... Abruptly she realized that he was not, in fact, in Wizard garb, but rather in Muggle clothing: dark jeans, a heavy dark-grey cable-knit jumper, a green-and-silver scarf wound round his neck. Of course. He was in a Muggle town. In a Muggle store. Buying, if she could credit it, a Muggle book. “Sn-- But you-- Er, professor,” she finally managed to get out.

He sighed. “One would think, Miss Granger, that having finally passed the age of twenty, you would have acquired some poise. Apparently, that is not the case.”

She flushed, pleasure that he’d remembered her age mixed with vexation at his condescending tone. “Well, I’ll just take the book and be on my way, then.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Surely you would not want to take something that is not yours. Or did stealing boomslang skin give you a taste for thievery?”

She could feel her temper rising, as it had always done in his presence. He seemed to have a positive gift for irritating her. “One copy of a book is much like another,” she snapped. “And I’m sure you won’t mind waiting a few days.” With a jerk, she pulled the book out of the shopgirl’s hands.

Snape’s hand shot out and grabbed the other side of the volume, preventing her from stalking out with it. “But I do mind. I ordered it first. And surely you will agree that a person who doesn’t even know how many generations elapsed between Elros Tar-Minyatur and Aragorn hardly has the superior claim.”

She froze. How could he know that, unless... “It was you!” she said through clenched teeth, torn between fury at her defeat and grudging respect for the depth of knowledge he’d displayed. “You’re ss_gollum. You’re the one who beat me last Tuesday!”

He smirked. “I may have.” He tugged on the book but her hands somehow would not let go. “Miss Granger...”

“Sorry,” she muttered, releasing her grip as if the book had become red-hot. “Sorry. It’s just...” She looked longingly at the cover, with its elvish script surrounding a huge red eye. “I don’t like not having a copy around.”

“Nor do I.” He looked a little uncomfortable suddenly, as though he had not meant to admit as much. “Miss Granger...”

She braced herself for another cutting remark.

“...would you like to join me for lunch?”

A moment later she found herself walking down the High Street of Tighnabruaich with her former Potions professor. It was very strange...and yet, given how they had met, she felt already a kind of kinship. Someone who loved Tolkien the way he clearly did must have some redeeming qualities.

“So, what happened to your copy of Lord of the Rings?” she said, striving for the poise he had accused her of not possessing. “I mean, you must have had one until recently.”

To her surprise, a slight flush colored his pale cheeks. “I, er, had a slight mishap with an Incendio.”

She couldn’t suppress a snicker. “Really?”

He ignored her amusement. “What happened to yours?”

“Dropped it in the bath.”

“You read in the bath? Don’t you know--” His tone was faintly scandalized, but before he could complete the sentence his arm was seized by a small middle-aged woman with a dotted scarf tied over her head.

“Mr Snape!” she gushed. “I knew it was you!”

“Mrs Tabb,” he said, with what Hermione could tell was a stifled sigh. “How are you?”

The woman clutched his arm and gave him what she probably thought was a flirtatious smile. “You know you promised last month to take family supper with us and I am very much disappointed that you have not kept your word. You know Deirdre is so anxious to see you, though she’d hate me to tell you so.” She tittered.

“I am sorry, Mrs Tabb, but I have had a good deal to do. Another time, perhaps.”

“I shall hold you to it!” The woman simpered and then trotted off.

Hermione watched her departure with interest. “An admirer?” she asked, not bothering to hide her amusement.

Severus looked crosser than ever and began to stalk off down the street. “Not for herself. She has two daughters, and for some reason she appears to think that I would make a suitable husband for one of them. I think she may be congenitally insane.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Hermione said, matching his pace. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune—“

“—or an Order of Merlin First Class—“

“—must be in want of a wife.”

“No matter how little is known of his character?” he finished, a smirk lurking at the corner of his mouth.

“Indeed,” she agreed, even more well-disposed towards him than before. Anyone who could toss Jane Austen about like that had her half-won-over already.

Twenty minutes later they were ensconced at a table in the Ferret & Firkin, which did indeed have the best fish and chips in Tighnabruaich. Despite its being the site of her recent defeat, Hermione found herself with a good appetite for both food and conversation. It wasn’t often she met someone willing to delve into the minutiae of Middle Earth.

“Professor—“

“Please. I think you have been out of school long enough that you can call me Severus. And…” He paused; was he actually eying her figure?? “I would prefer not to think of you as a student.”

Hermione amused herself for a moment at the thought of what Ron and Harry would say if they saw her chatting up “Severus” in a pub. “Well then, er, Severus,” she said, enjoying the feeling of being treated as an equal. “You’re a Tolkien fan. How did that happen?”

“I would not describe myself as a ‘fan’ of anything,” he said reprovingly, sliding a beermat under his pint. “I do enjoy his books, and have since I was a child. My mother introduced me to them. My appreciation of them has changed over the years, of course,” he added, as if to make it clear he had moved well beyond such childish needs as pure escapism.

“Mine, too. I used to enjoy it just for the adventure. Then I read The Silmarillion and got hooked on the myth.”

“I myself have become increasingly impressed over the years with the author’s linguistic abilities. To invent not only a language that is internally consistent but also a script in which the shapes of the letters relate logically to the sounds they represent is quite an achievement.” He dipped his finger in his beer and absently drew a graceful scroll on the tabletop which Hermione recognized as the Elvish rune anga. “Not to mention it is visually beautiful, more so than any script except perhaps Arabic.”

“Yes, and also useful,” she agreed with a laugh. “For years I kept my diary in Elvish script, partly because it was pretty and partly to make sure my parents couldn’t figure out what it said without hours of decoding.”

“Impressive,” he said with a smile. “Can you still read it?”

“I’m a bit out of practice, but yes. What about his world-building, though?”

“Within the context of the trilogy?” The tangy odor of vinegar tickled her nose as he sprinkled it liberally on his fish. “Thorough and workmanlike. But elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, all those existed in Muggle literature long before Tolkien brought them to Middle Earth.”

“Cauldron of story, they’re fair game,” Hermione argued. “And his creatures? You have to admit some of those are pretty original.”

Severus narrowed his eyes. “I have a theory about that.” He paused to take a bite of fish, savoring the crispy batter. “I think Tolkien was acquainted with the Wizarding world.”

“You’re suggesting he copied them rather than making them up?” Hermione wasn’t going to let such a slur on her favorite author’s creativity go unchallenged. “Prove it.”

“I can’t prove it, obviously,” Severus said with a trace of irritation. “The man is dead and we can’t ask him. But the evidence is rather compelling. Consider Shelob, for example. Clearly an acromantula.”

Well, that was credible. “What about the Wargs?”

“Large and intelligent wolves. Modeled on werewolves. And Smaug--”

“Oh come now!” she interrupted. “Lots of other cultures have legends of dragons, you can’t claim that as a specific Wizarding derivative!”

“Not the general idea of a dragon, no, but the specific species, yes. Yellow eyes, bronze horns -- Smaug was clearly a Hungarian Horntail. And Ancalagon was no doubt a Hebridean Black.” He took a drink of his pint, then licked a trace of foam from his upper lip.

He had nice lips, Hermione thought, then flushed and glanced quickly away before he could notice that she had been watching. “Er, what about Ents?” she said hastily.

“Bowtruckles.”

She scoffed at this. “Ridiculous! Bowtruckles are tiny. Ents are huge.”

“But they are the same in essence,” he pointed out. “Sentient beings made of wood.”

His argument was annoyingly convincing. The more she thought about it, the more parallels she found. “Beorn could have been an Animagus, I suppose. Whose form was a bear.”

“Exactly. And the Nazgul? Black-robed forms that engender crippling fear, surely you can see what they were drawn from.”

“Dementors!” She was getting rather excited now, more comparisons popping into her head. “And Aragorn’s army of the dead -- those could have been based on Inferi?”

“Possibly, although Inferi are animated corpses and the Dead Men of Dunharrow have no corporeal substance. And yet certainly they are something more than ghosts.”

“But who in Tolkien’s circle would have introduced him to the Wizarding world?” she wondered aloud.

“It happens more often than you’d think. Does Gandalf remind you of anyone, for example?”

She stared at him, her mouth open. “No! You’re not suggesting…”

Severus shrugged. “Dumbledore would have been in his seventies and eighties when Tolkien was writing. Who knows?”

Hermione began to laugh, and once started she couldn’t stop. “You know, the first time I re-read the books after I’d started at Hogwarts, every time Gandalf lit his staff I kept expecting him to say Lumos!” she gasped between giggles. “And I can just picture him wearing a pair of half-moon glasses!”

“And I strongly suspect,” he went on, ignoring her fit of hilarity, “that Radagast was based on Francis FitzHippo, Professor Kettleburn’s predecessor as Care of Magical Creatures instructor. He too had a sledge pulled by rabbits under a permanent Engorgio.” He stood up. “Shall I get us another round?”

That round was followed by another, and another. To her delight, Hermione discovered that Severus had not only read the Appendices but studied them in depth (“But nobody reads those!” “In case you have not noticed, Miss Granger, I am not the average reader.”). Despite his knowledge which rivalled, and in some cases surpassed, her own, she took great satisfaction in correcting him. Twice.

It was the most enjoyable afternoon she had passed in ages, and when at last they were standing outside the pub preparing to go their separate ways, she could not help feeling that the rest of the day would be rather flat and dull by comparison.

He glanced at her, his expression cautious. “Would you...” he hesitated, evidently not wanting to presume.

“Like to do this again?” she finished. “Yes. Yes, Severus, I would.”

As she walked away, she told herself firmly that the lift in her spirits and the bounce in her step was due solely to having found someone to geek out with over Tolkien.

 

+++++ Tolkien Quiz, Round III: Heroes and Villains +++++

 

Four weeks and eight lunches later, Hermione had decided it was time to stop eating pub food. Tasty it might be, but it wasn’t doing her digestion – or her budget – any good. That was how she found herself entertaining her former Potions Professor in the more intimate setting of her own living room, instead of across a table at the Ferret & Firkin.

Over dinner they had, among other things, thoroughly dissected the history of the elven-realm of Doriath and floated opposing theories as to whether the Girdle of Melian might have been similar to the wards that had protected Hogwarts during the final battle. Afterwards, when Severus had made a diffident attempt to leave, she had suggested a whisky in front of the fire. She poured them each a glass of Old Ogden’s and handed Severus his, managing to brush his fingers with hers as she did so. Really, the man did not know how to take a hint. Or maybe he was just shy? No, the idea of Severus Snape as some sort of shrinking violet was so ridiculous it didn’t bear thinking about.

She sat down on one end of the sofa and tucked her feet underneath her, half-facing her guest. The sofa seemed smaller than she remembered; their closeness was both unsettling and stimulating. If she uncurled her legs, she thought, she could put her feet on his lap... “What brought you to Tighnabruaich?” she asked abruptly.

Though obviously surprised at her question, he answered readily enough. “Minerva suggested it to me as a getaway.”

Hermione sat up straight at this and nearly choked on her Ogden’s. “Minerva?” she spluttered. “Recommended it to you?”

“Why shouldn’t she?” he said, looking a bit nettled at her violent reaction.

“But she recommended it to me!”

“You don’t own the town, Miss Granger, even if you do win the first Tuesday quiz night every month,” he reminded her with cool composure.

“Humph. Well.” She sat back in her corner in vexed silence for a long moment. “What did you want to get away from?”

“Everything.” He frowned. “Rita Skeeter was forever trying to pin me down for an interview, the Ministry was constantly badgering me to help them out with some public relations nonsense. Some ass even wanted to write my biography.” He scowled. “It was unbearable. At least here there is only Mrs Tabb.”

“I know the feeling,” she agreed, amused at his discomfiture. “Ron and Harry and I never had a moment’s peace. Professor Trelawney even wanted to publish a bunch of completely ridiculous predictions about where we’d all be in nineteen years. I think that’s why Ron and Harry went into the Aurors, because the training is so secretive.” She gave a wry smile. “Not much fun being a hero, is it?”

“None at all.” He took a sip of his whisky. “Do you suppose the Gondor Times pestered Aragorn for interviews?”

She laughed. “Oh yes. They would have talked to all of them: Legolas, Gimli, Faramir.”

“And yet,” Severus went on thoughtfully, “they weren’t the only heroes by any means, just the most noticeable ones. Lord of the Rings has so many lesser heroes that never get recognized as such. I find that...appealing.”

Something in his voice made Hermione wonder if he thought of himself as a “lesser hero,” but she refrained from questioning him. Over the past few weeks she had observed that, although he was much more relaxed than she had ever known him to be, his personal reserve was as strong as ever. He was also, she thought idly, much handsomer, now that the marks of strain and weariness had left him.

He had noticed her scrutiny and was now eyeing her suspiciously. “May I ask why are you staring at me like that?” he inquired with an edge of sarcasm. “Surely there are more interesting things in this room to hold your attention.”

“Oh yes. I mean no. I mean, I wasn’t.” She felt a strong urge to bang her head on the table at her own ineptness. “I was thinking about what you said about lesser heroes.”

“Yes?”

“Well, it’s something I thought about a lot while Harry and Ron and I were hunting Horcruxes. It seemed like such a huge task, and we didn’t know what we were doing. But whenever I got discouraged I’d think about what Gandalf said at the Council. Do you remember?”

“Of course. ‘This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.’”

She nodded. “Yes. It made me feel better, like we had a chance even though we were nothing but half-trained teenagers.”

Slowly he reached out and took her hand, laid it across his palm. His fingers were strong and warm. “Small hands do them because they must,” he repeated softly, and a shiver went down her spine at his touch. “Yours should not have had to do such things.” Abruptly he released her and shifted away, reaching down for the bottle of whisky to refill their glasses. “Tolkien missed out there,” he went on conversationally.

“What? Where?” she said stupidly. Her hand still tingled from his touch.

“With his female characters. All the heroes, large and small, they’re all men. He couldn’t write a strong woman to save his life.”

“You noticed that too!” The interesting sensations Severus had triggered in her palm were forgotten in the glee of hearing him echo her own long-standing opinion. “None of Tolkien’s women get to do anything,” she rushed on. “They spend all their time waiting for the men to do something heroic. Except Eowyn, and I think she must have managed to slip in without him noticing. Take Arwen, for example. She’s wasted as a character. All she does is sit at home, hang out in the Hall of Fire, and sew flashy banners while she waits for Aragorn to become King with her as the prize. She should have been out there doing something.”

Severus nodded. “I agree it would have made sense had he given her a larger role. But we all have different gifts. Perhaps hers were not suited for open aggression.”

Hermione made a rude noise. “An Elvish woman of her age, she must have had all kinds of power. It doesn’t make sense for her to be this fragile flower. Elves are practically immortal, anyway, so it’s not like she’d be taking much of a risk. Look at Eowyn, she’s mortal and she didn’t hesitate to go into battle. She’s the best of the lot, even if she does go mooning round after a man twice her age.” She broke off abruptly, calculating rapidly. Severus was nineteen years older than she was. “Er, not that that matters,” she went on hastily. “Her father--”

“Uncle,” he corrected, looking as if he knew why she’d slipped up and was amused by it.

“Uncle, right, sorry. Her uncle essentially tells her, ‘You’re a woman, stay home and shut up and let the menfolk do the fighting.’ I mean, what’s the point in being a Shieldmaiden of Rohan if you’re just going to poke around the house all day?” she concluded indignantly.

“You are not a believer, then, in the maxim ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’?”

“Not if you’ve got any kind of spine!” she retorted.

Severus swirled his glass, looking down at the amber liquid. “But Eowyn had been entrusted with the care of her people. Instead, she abandoned them, left them leaderless to satisfy her own desire for glory. Isn’t that desertion?”

“She didn’t ask to be put in charge!”

“But she accepted that responsibility, when Theoden asked her to take it on.” Severus was not looking at her; he was gazing into the fire, as if his words held some other meaning. “Shouldn’t a person do his sworn duty as he...or she...has promised, no matter how difficult, or how much he wishes it were different? Is there not as much honor in that?”

“But she--“ Hermione broke off, realizing suddenly what was in his mind. Severus had kept his promise; he had done his duty, though it made him appear a coward, a murderer and a traitor. No wonder the Order of Merlin had meant nothing to him: too little, too late. “I’m sorry,” she said, impulsively putting a hand on his arm, then withdrawing it as hastily.

He went on as if he had not noticed. “And then of course there is the smallest hero of all: Gollum. Ugly, unloved, hated by everyone, driven by an obsession he cannot shake -- and yet in the end he is the key to destroying the Enemy.” Severus leaned back, stretching long legs towards the fire. “I admit to a sense of kinship with Gollum.”

“Because he was ugly and unloved?” She had meant only to tease him -- after all, it had been many weeks since she began to consider him as one of the handsomest men of her acquaintance -- but the moment the words were out she heard how awful they sounded. “Sorry, I didn’t mean--”

“As to ugly, I am not the best person to judge that,” he said quietly, his expression impassive. “Unloved...well, that remains to be seen. No, what I see of myself in him is the struggle to serve two masters. For him, it was a constant battle between Gollum and Smeagol: the one he had become but hated, the other he longed for but could never be. For me it was...much the same.”

Hermione thought of the things Harry had told them about Severus in the days after Voldemort’s defeat, about his past. “You had to be something you hated -- a Death Eater,” she said slowly. “And you couldn’t be what you wanted...what did you want?”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “To be normal, I suppose. Just another wizard. A teacher. A man like other men.”

To be able to love Lily, of course. Hermione cursed herself for an idiot. “At least you’re still alive,” she said, trying for levity. “You didn’t have to plunge into a lava pit.”

A smile crooked one side of his mouth. “No, I was just nearly decapitated by a snake. Much better. Then again, maybe that’s fitting since Voldemort wasn’t quite the same level of evil as Sauron. He was more...human.”

She pondered this for a moment. She’d never really thought about comparing the two. “How do you mean? I don’t know that I’d think of Voldemort as particularly human, at least not after he came back.”

“Voldemort’s viciousness was born out of human fears and desires -- the human fear of death, the human desire for power. Sauron has no humanity whatsoever. Voldemort tortured people because he got pleasure out of it. Sauron does it because it’s simply his nature.”

“Yes, I see. And Voldemort had followers because he needed the...the affirmation he got from them. One gets the feeling that Sauron doesn’t need anyone or anything.”

“Precisely. And --” The clock struck eleven and before Hermione could hold it in, an enormous yawn escaped her. Severus rose hurriedly. “I should go. You’re tired.”

+++++

Hermione closed the door behind Severus, turned to lean her back against it, and slid slowly to the floor. “What. An. Idiot,” she said emphatically, banging her head on the door in time with each word. She was, without a doubt, the stupidest person in the history of everyone everywhere. In the space of one short evening she had mocked his devotion to duty, suggested he was too old for her, implied he was ugly and unlovable, and made him think about what he might have had with Lily. What man in his right mind would come back after being treated in such a manner?

It was only as she admitted that she had very likely driven him away for good that she understood fully how much he had come to mean to her.

 

+++++ Tolkien Quiz, Round IV: Endings +++++

 

A week passed without a sign of Severus or a word from him. He didn’t even show up at the Ferret & Firkin for quiz night on the first Tuesday of the month, and Hermione began to think that perhaps he’d found her words unforgivable – or worse, that he’d simply lost interest.

She arrived home one evening to find a folded sheet of parchment pinned to her front door:

ss_invite.jpg

“Yes,” she said to no one in particular, her face alight with anticipation. “Oh, yes.”

[Translation of note: Hermione / I would be honored / if you would join / me for dinner tomorrow / at eight. SS" Ed.]
+++++

At eight o’clock sharp the next evening, Hermione was on the doorstep of the cottage Severus had rented, her stomach in a flutter of anticipation. She raised her hand to knock, and then paused. Something nagged at her, some familiarity. She backed up a step, taking in the stone walls, the dark-grey door flanked by holly trees, the broad flagstone stoop. As she did so, the moonlight fell full on the door and silvery lines began to glow: a tree, surmounted by an arch lined with curving elvish letters. Hermione smiled in recognition. A subtle and lovely welcome, from a subtle and lovely man.

Mellon,” she said, and the door swung open.

 

After the wine, after the linguine with clam sauce (heavy on the garlic, but they’d both eaten it so it didn’t matter), after the chocolate biscuits, after Hermione had scanned his bookshelves, remarked on the numerous volumes they had in common, and paged through a dog-eared copy of Leaf by Niggle, they settled in on the sofa to resume their conversation which had, inexplicably, turned to romance.

“It’s surprising, when you look, how many love stories there are in Tolkien,” she said, savoring the 20-year-old Basilisk’s Eye. Severus certainly had a taste for fine whisky.

“Not a lot of happy endings, though. Take Amroth and Nimrodel, for example. She is lost on her way to board the Last Ship, Amroth leaps from the prow of the ship and drowns himself.”

“True,” Hermione acknowledged. “Earendil and Elwing?”

Severus made a dismissive gesture. “He’s always sailing about, leaving her at home. Not conducive to marital happiness. Not to mention that she gets turned into a swan.”

“But she brings him the Silmaril and gets turned back into a woman,” Hermione argued, “and they both get to go to Valinor.”

“Yes, and then he is sent off again in his ship Vingilótë to eternally sail the skies, ‘for ever still a herald on
an errand that should never rest.’” Severus finished, somewhat smugly. “They don’t mention what happens to Elwing. Presumably she goes home and raises the children as a single mother.”

Hermione got up and began to pace the room. “All right, Beren and Luthien, then,” she persisted, determined to find one happy couple. “Beren loses his hand to the wolf Carcharoth, but he wins Luthien.”

“And then he has the dunderheadedness to go back and face the wolf again,” Severus pointed out. “He is killed. Luthien dies of grief.”

“But they get resurrected.”

He frowned. “Do they? I don’t recall.” He glanced out the window where the snow was falling thick and fast, then rose to put another log on the fire.

“Are you doubting me?” she said in mock indignation.

“Never.” He leaned one elbow on the mantel and raised his glass to her. “But look how far back we had to go to find those two. If you look at the love stories within the time period of the trilogy, we have Arathorn and Gilraen, Aragorn’s parents: Arathorn is killed by orcs when Aragorn is only two years old. Elrond and Celebrian, Arwen’s parents: Celebrian is kidnapped and tortured by orcs to the point that she never recovers and leaves Middle Earth forever. No happy endings there. And no,” he forestalled her, “you can’t count Aragorn and Arwen. That one is too...too perfect to be reasonable.”

He was right, really. Who waited sixty years for a man? “Fine. Faramir and Eowyn,” she said triumphantly. “Ha! You can’t deny that one.”

He opened his mouth as if to argue, then closed it again. “No,” he admitted. “You are correct. That one is not only happy, but...realistic.”

“She gives up her obsession with Aragorn—“

“—who was far too old for her anyway, I am given to understand,” Severus interjected with a smirk.

“—and Faramir is there waiting for her, and they live happily ever after in Ithilien. So there.” She swallowed the last of her whisky and set down the glass with a thump, only then noticing that in her preoccupation with their argument she had moved so close that she was almost touching him.

Severus cleared his throat. “Well...shall I--”

Hermione stopped him by taking his face in her hands and kissing him. She felt him stiffen in surprise for a moment, then relax into her. His lips were warm and firm, and sent sparks running from her head to her toes. His hands came up to touch her shoulders, tentatively at first and then firmly, sliding down to wrap around her waist and pull her close to him as he responded eagerly to her.

“What Tolkien quote can you come up with to cover this particular moment?” she said softly, half-laughing, pulling back to look into his eyes.

His face was sober as he lifted a hand to stroke her hair, brushing a curl back behind her ear. “Not long ago, I would have said, ‘Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man's heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.’ ”

Stricken, she dropped her arms from around his neck and stepped back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking anywhere but at him. “I didn’t...I thought...” She turned to go, tears starting in her eyes. How could she have been so stupid?

“Hermione, wait.” He grasped her arm. “Please.”

“It’s because of Lily, isn’t it?” she said, keeping her back to him as she struggled for composure.

He made a sound of frustration and turned her roughly to face him, his hands gripping her shoulders and forcing her to look at him. “Will you listen, you silly girl?” His eyes held hers, dark and intense. “Let me finish. Not long ago, I said, that would have been my answer. Not now.”

“But Lily,” she persisted, determined to find out once and for all. “Harry told us...well, he said--”

“The love I felt for Lily was the love of a lonely child for his only friend, not the love of a man for a woman. I was never able to let it go because for so many years everything I was doing -- everything I was -- grew out of it. My defection from the Death Eaters, my work as a spy, my role in protecting Harry. But Hermione, a little over a year ago, all of that ended. And when it did I was...set adrift. Lost.”

“’Wounded with knife, sting, and tooth and a long burden’,” she murmured, thinking of all that he had had to endure.

He gave a short humorless laugh. “Indeed. If I wasn’t a spy, who was I? If my role wasn’t to make amends to a dead woman, live up to my promise to a dead man, what was it? I had no one to fight, no one to protect, no one to fear. I was not ready for someone to love. I had to get to know myself again.” His eyes searched hers for a sign of understanding. “So yes, not long ago, I would have given you that as my answer.”

But not today. Her heart began to lift. “And now?” she prompted gently.

“Now?” He smiled and put a hand on her cheek, his expression warm and open. “Now, thank the gods, Aragorn’s peculiar form of guilt is not mine. If I were to be given the love of a lady as fair and brave as yourself, I would consider myself the luckiest man on earth.”

“And...what about returning it?” she whispered.

“If I said I cannot return it...” He took a deep breath and pulled her close, and she felt his lips on her hair as he ended, “I would be a liar.”

“And he took her in his arms and kissed her under
the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood
high upon the walls in the sight of many.”