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An Even Match by Sabrielle
Chapter 24: 24.
The forest loomed dark and foreboding in the grey light of early morning.
“You ok?” Malfoy asked, glancing at her with a small frown.
“Yes,” she said quickly. “Just cold.”
But it wasn’t only that. Heavy woolen robes worked against the chill, protecting her from air thick with winter frost. The land was blanketed in a layer of snow, crunching with every footstep. But still she wasn’t cold, not truly.
Scared. I’m scared. She was ashamed to admit it to herself, but so it was.
If she were with Harry and Ron it’d be different, she knew. She looked to her right, studying the tall figure next to her. He was hardly moving; she could only tell he was alive by the white puffs of air coming from his mouth, one shade paler than his skin. He was locked in his mind. She hated when he did this. Ron and Harry she could read with ease – she always knew what they were thinking. Not so with Malfoy. What is he feeling? she wondered. Is he scared too?
He looked so much older to her. These last few months had changed them all, but Malfoy more than anyone. His cheekbones seemed sharper, less boyish; his jawline stronger…and his eyes…His eyes were the same icy grey, but they were so much deeper now. And darker, somehow.
She shivered again.
“Here, take my cloak,” Malfoy said.
“No, it’s not that…I’m not cold, I…” she paused and bit her lip, shrugging carelessly. “I’m just a bit nervous, that’s all.” She didn’t dare look at him.
“I thought Gryffindors were fearless,” he said, but there wasn’t maliciousness in his voice, only curiosity.
“True courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the defiance of it,” Hermione said, finally meeting his eyes.
They sparkled with amusement. Hermione steeled herself, waiting for him to make fun of her.
“True courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the defiance of it,” he repeated quietly. “Only you, Granger.”
He looked at her once more, and Hermione realized by the softness in his eyes that he wasn’t taunting her. She dragged herself away from his gaze. “Well, on that note…” she said awkwardly.
“It’s now or never,” Malfoy finished. They stepped into the shadow of the Dark Forest together.
As they moved deeper through the trees the silence became oppressive. Every broken twig and raven’s caw was enough to startle them. Hermione judged it to be late morning when Malfoy suggested they take a break. They’d walked without making conversation for hours, only breaking the silence to say, “What was that?” “Nothing.” and “Let’s go faster.”
He sank down to the forest floor with a sigh of exhaustion. Hermione collapsed next to him, panting heavily. At least Malfoy has long legs, she thought in annoyance, brushing a sweaty curl out of her face.
Malfoy looked down with a smirk. “Doing alright, Granger? Not gonna peg out on me, are you?”
She glared at him indignantly. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she sniffed. “I’m just not a big exerciser, that’s all.”
With a chuckle, he changed the subject. “So how much farther do you think the cave is?”
“It’s hard to say,” Hermione said, biting her lip. “The dream moved so fast…I know we’re on the right path, because for some reason the trees and clearings we passed were familiar – I feel in my soul we’re going the right way, and the map, well…” she stopped and rummaged in her coin purse.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for the map, of course!”
“In there?” He snorted, raising an eyebrow. “I think you need to rest a little more, Granger.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s an Undetectable Extension Charm – I read about it last year and decided it’d come in handy.”
“Damn! That’ll be the medicine cabinet. Good thing I put an Unbreakable Charm on the vials…Ah HA! Found it.” Triumphantly, she pulled the worn little booklet out of her purse, only to find Malfoy laughing.
His laugh was unexpectedly deep and genuine. She had an urge to laugh with him, but then remembered that he was laughing at her.
“What?” she asked, annoyed.
He shook his head. “Nothing, Granger. Just – you’re surprising, that’s all.”
He became suddenly quiet. “Wow.”
“What is it now?” Hermione was shaken by this unfamiliar Malfoy.
“I can’t remember the last time I really laughed.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you give a genuine laugh…” Usually it’s snide and cruel.
“I AM human, Granger.”
“Really? I had no idea.” She said it in a jokey tone, but it was half true. The Malfoys were always perfectly dressed, perfectly cold, perfectly guarded. Untouchable.
She placed her wand to the blank pages of the book and waited as the winding ink paths bled into view.
“Ok…where are we, where are we…” she murmured.
“Let me see,” Malfoy said, sliding closer.
“I’ve got it, just give me a minute…”
“Granger.” Malfoy interrupted. “I’m not Potty and Weaselby. I can help. Anyway, Malfoys are notoriously good at map-reading,” he said haughtily.
“Malfoys are notoriously good at being a pain in my arse,” she mumbled.
“Nothing,” she said archly.
He scowled at her suspiciously. “Let me see,” he repeated.
“Fine. Look, here’s the clearing we passed earlier, so I think we’re here, at the base of this tree. And it’s POTTER and WEASLEY, by the way. I wish you’d stop calling them ‘Potty’ and ‘Weaselby.’”
“And I wish you’d tame your hair,” he retorted, trying to keep her wild curls from flying into his face as he leaned over the map. “But we can’t have everything we want.
“Hmmm. Yep, we must be at this oak...I think that is the clearing we passed,” he mused.
“Told you,” Hermione said matter-of-factly.
He rolled his eyes. “Quit being such a know-it-all; I’m sure if you’d have let me look at the map earlier I’d have found out where we are right away.”
Hermione snorted. “If you could see beyond your massive ego, that is.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Well, as fun as it is arguing with you Granger, we should get going. We look to be about 6 hours from the cave, and I don’t fancy getting caught in the Dark Forest at night. There are packs of werewolves around, I’ve heard.” He shuddered and glanced around.
“True. And the Acromantulas, too…”
“The what?!” Malfoy cut in.
“Acromantulas. Giant spiders. I never saw them, but Harry and Ron barely escaped from them 2nd year…” she bit her lip absentmindedly. “I wish I had asked them where in the forest they were, but I never thought I’d end up going in this far. Hopefully we don’t stumble into their nest, but one never knows…we should be on gua…”
“GRANGER! You’re telling me that there are GIANT MAN-EATING SPIDERS in this forest?!” Malfoy was fuming. “And you didn’t think to mention this before we ventured in??”
“Shhhhhhh, keep your bloody voice down, will you? Merlin! No one even knows WHAT kind of creatures are in this forest, and anyway, Hagrid is good friends with the leader, so….” She neglected to mention that Aragog was dead, and that being Hagrid’s friend hadn’t saved Harry and Ron even when Aragog was alive, but Malfoy didn’t need to know that.
“That’s real reassuring, Granger, thank you.” Malfoy spat sarcastically. “Because if I recall Hagrid’s little ‘pets’ have always turned out to be completely harmless. I feel so much safer now.”
“Oh please, that Hippogriff incident was your own damn fault, don’t even try to deny it – thank MERLIN we were able to rescue poor Buckbeak from that horrid executioner…”
“That was YOU?!” Malfoy exploded.
“Of course it was me you nitwit! You didn’t think I’d let an innocent Hippogriff get brutally murdered, did you? Unlike you, I have a conscience.”
“And how’s that working out for you?” he asked.
Willing herself to calm down, Hermione stood up. “Lucky for YOU it is working for me…unless you’d rather find the cave and rescue your father all by yourself?”
That shut him up. Scowling, Malfoy got to his feet, taking a moment to tower over her so she could be intimidated by his height.
She rolled her eyes. “Done posing yet?”
“Done giving your best interpretation of a shrew?”
Huffing angrily, they marched through the ever-thickening forest, both too annoyed with each other to realize the danger they were in.
They walked in stoic silence for another two hours before Malfoy broke the tension.
“Granger, are there trees that ooze sticky red sap?”
“Why are you asking me?” she said shortly, still annoyed that he’d called her a shrew.
“Because I thought you paid attention in every class we had, Granger, why else?”
“Herbology isn’t my forté,” she answered. “Why don’t you know what kind of tree it is? I thought Malfoys knew everything, since you’re so perfect in every way.” Her voice dripped sarcasm.
“Herbology is the sort of worthless thing Longbottom and Hufflepuffs excel in, Granger,” he said with extreme superiority. “It’d be shameful to pursue such a weak interest.”
And there’s the Malfoy I remember and despise. It was almost refreshing to see the old Draco. Almost.
“Shameful until you stick your hand into a flesh-eating acid plant, like the one you’re leaning into right now,” she said.
He yelped and jumped back on the path. Now it was Hermione’s turn to smirk. It turned to a frown when she caught sight of the tree behind him.
“This was the tree you were looking at?” she asked dazedly.
“Yeeees, that’s why I asked…. See the red sap? I’ve never seen a tree do that before.”
Hermione slipped gingerly past the acid plant and laid a careful hand on the tree trunk.
Pulling it away, she studied her palm in horror.
“Malfoy…this isn’t sap,” she whispered.
“What d’you mean it isn’t sap? What is it?”
“It’s bloo – AAAAAAAAAGH!”
Thick, sticky ropes of white laced around her arm and neck, hoisting her off the ground. And then she was staring into eight cold black eyes.
“GRANGER!” Draco whipped out his wand and fired hex after hex at the massive hairy spider, trying to strike its underbelly. With hisses of fury the Acromantula dragged a struggling Hermione backward into the cover of leaves and branches.
Draco swore desperately. He could no longer see the spider, but he could hear the gigantic beast moving from tree to tree as he raced underneath in hot pursuit.
After a few minutes Draco realized the Acromantula’s pace had slowed.
It thinks it lost me, he thought, taking care to keep extra quiet. His natural grace aided him as he slipped silently from shadow to shadow, keeping the spider’s rustling trail always in his sights.
Gradually it stopped. Draco looked around and grimaced in disgust. As far as he could see, treetops and bushes were coated with sticky webs. From a distance it looked almost like snow. Something crunched underneath his foot and he shuddered in horror, staring down at the broken skull of some long-dead woodland creature.
Hardly daring to breathe, he drew his hood up to hide his white-blonde hair and slowly advanced. Icy sweat dripped down his back. His heart was in his throat as he willed himself forward, closer to the gap in the web-topped trees.
Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the defiance of it, he remembered.
As he stretched out under a particularly leafy bush, he could make out a symphony of hisses. They’re talking to each other, Draco realized. But where’s Granger?
Then he saw her. “No!” he gasped in a whisper. Her face was deathly pale, her eyes frozen open. She’s not dead, she can’t be dead…he reasoned. They’ve just paralyzed her, yes…Draco took a deep breath in, reminding himself that spiders liked to eat their food alive, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to kill their victims first. The Acromantula who’d taken Hermione was spinning her ‘round and ‘round in his huge hairy front legs, wrapping her into a webbed cocoon.
Draco watched intently as Hermione was strung up on the far side of the clearing. Skirting around the outer bushes, he made his way cautiously to the tree behind the one Hermione was dangling from. As he had moved, so had the other Acromantulas. A group of them were steadily advancing toward the prone figure. The one who’d taken Hermione hissed angrily and gnashed his giant pinchers together, warding them off. The hissing and spitting grew louder and more pronounced. Clearly they were fighting over who would be the first to feed.
Now’s the time Draco, while they’re distracted, he told himself.
Staying in the shadows, he slipped forward and mentally performed a Silencing Spell. Thanks to his height he was able to hoist himself into the lower branches of the tree and slide over until he was directly above the branch Hermione was dangling from.
Now he was in a predicament. How was he supposed to get her down without alerting the spiders? They were fighting in earnest now. Draco blocked out the hisses of fury and the clash of joined pinchers, trying to concentrate.
A desperate plan began to form. Ok, you can do this. Be brave, brave… ‘But you’re not a Gryffindor!’ a tiny voice in his head said. He shook it away and took a deep breath. But I am a Slytherin. And nobody is more determined or skilled at secrecy than a Slytherin.
It all happened very quickly. With a downward slash of his wand he severed the thick rope of spider silk. But Hermione didn’t drop. Grunting with exertion, Draco levitated her at the same height, slowly climbing down the tree as he did so. He’d never concentrated so hard on anything in his life. If he failed now, he knew, they’d both die.
Thus far the fighting Acromantulas hadn’t noticed them, but in an alarming turn of events the beast who’d kidnapped Hermione lay twitching on the forest floor. The others had won. With jubilant hisses they skirted the dying spider and looked toward their prey. But something was wrong – the silken cocoon was moving backward. In their confusion they stopped, and Draco knew this was his only chance.
“ACCIO!” he shouted, breaking cover with a still-bound Hermione zipping along behind him.
Panting and using all his mental capacity to maintain the strength of his Summoning Spell, he plunged through the trees, looking for any place they could temporarily hide.
The spiders were gaining on him. The monsters’ eight long legs were no match for his. Making a sudden decision, Malfoy turned and released the Summoning Spell on Hermione, putting a Camouflage Charm on her as soon as he did so. She hit the ground and faded into the frozen undergrowth as the first Acromantula scurried into view.
Spitting victoriously, it rushed him. With a deep inhale, Draco opened his palms and closed his eyes, feeling the icy winter breeze brush against his skin. Harnessing all his strength, he drew it to him and felt the air grow even colder, swirling faster with energy.
The spider was upon him. With a mighty yell Draco directed the air currents at the Acromantula’s grotesque underbelly. To his shock the creature flew backward, slamming into a nearby boulder and falling motionless to the ground. The other giant spiders had caught up. Exhilarated at his own power, Draco reached his arm up and focused on the gathering storm clouds high above the forest. Instinctively he curled his hand into a fist and brought it slamming down into the snowy ground. There was a deafening BOOM as the grey-black clouds split open, sending hail the size of bowling balls hurtling toward the forest. One by one, Draco sent them slamming into the Acromantulas, wreaking havoc on their forces and splattering the snow with poisonous black blood.
In mere moments, the Acromantula clan was decimated. Draco sank to the ground, utterly spent. His eyes swirled rapidly from silver to stormy grey and back again.
Gradually his heart rate returned to normal and he moved heavily through the carnage to where Hermione lay.
Lifting the Camouflage Charm from her, he carefully severed the thick strands of spider silk.
She’s so pale, he thought in panic. Surely she… “Whew,” he breathed aloud. She had a heartbeat. It was faint and painfully slow, but it was there. Now he was at a loss.
“Granger, wake up! How am I supposed to heal you when you’re not here to be a know-it-all and tell me how to do it?” He frowned. “Ok, that didn’t make sense…” Realizing he was talking to himself, he shook his head and tried to concentrate. Spider venom, spider venom…Where had he heard about this? Probably some boring First-Year class I should have been paying attention in…
“Of course, the purse!” Draco unbuttoned Hermione’s woolen jacket and searched the inner pockets. There you are. He pulled out the little beaded bag and reached in, sinking up to his shoulder and feeling about. Girls, why they need to carry their whole lives in their purses I’ll never know…. “Ouch! Bugger it all,” he grumbled, shifting what had to be a knife to a far corner. Wait a minute…
He pulled his arm out and grabbed his wand.
“Accio books!” he commanded. Bad idea. Roughly 20 books sailed out of the purse, one particularly large hardbound striking him painfully on the nose. “Damn it, Granger!” he growled. “Why don’t you just pack the whole stinking library next time??!”
Fuming, he flipped through Poisons and Their Antidotes until he found the chapter on serpent and spider venoms. The passage on Acromantulas was at the top of the very first page.
‘Banned from trade in the 16th century and one of the most powerful venoms in the world, Acromantula poison is highly toxic, causing instant paralysis to the victim. In extreme cases (such as the already sick, young or elderly) a single dose of Acromantula venom causes death. If the victim be still alive, the poison must be carefully extracted through use of a Hezemphrius Potion and a series of healing spells…’
Draco’s heart sank in dismay. No way would he be able to brew a Hezemphrius Potion in time, even if he did have the ingredients. And he didn’t know a single healing spell. A crucial gap in my education, now that I think about it, he mused angrily.
“There must be something else...” he said desperately. “Accio medicine cabinet!”
This time he was ready, catching the cabinet neatly as it sailed out of Hermione’s little purse.
Vials were strewn haphazardly on the shelves and in the drawers. Feverishly he searched every nook and cranny, hardly knowing what he was looking for. There has to be another way…
And then his hand closed on something at the back of the smallest drawer. Something walnut-sized and shriveled. “YES! That’s it!” he shouted happily. It was a bezoar.
Gently, Draco lifted Hermione’s head up and cradled it against his chest. Slipping the bezoar into her mouth, he supported her neck so it wouldn’t slip down her throat. Within a minute the color seeped back into her cheeks and Draco felt her heart beat stronger and faster. Thank Merlin and Agrippa.
The frozen look in her eyes dimmed until she blinked, staring up at Draco with awakening horror.
“It’s ok, you’re alright, the spiders are gone,” he said quickly.
“Malfoy! Oh my gosh, I can’t – how – what in Merlin’s name happened?” Hermione was shaking uncontrollably. “The legs, there were so many legs…and stickiness…UGH horrible, hairy, BEASTLY….”
“Whoa, Granger! Steady on; you’re ok, just breathe.” Unconsciously he pulled her tighter against his chest.
She took a deep steadying breath, inhaling against his robes.
“You smell really good,” she mumbled in a small voice.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I think you just said I smell good,” he said with a pleased smirk.
“I said you smell like a troll, actually,” she sniffed haughtily.
“Really? Pretty strange that you’re burrowed into my chest if I smell so unbearable, don’t you think?”
She shoved him backward into the snow and pushed herself up. “Get over yourself, ferret.” But she was laughing.
“Admit that you’re attracted to me, bookworm,” he grinned.
But she wasn’t listening. “Merlin and Agrippa,” she gasped. She looked at the tangle of legs and splattered blood that had turned the snowdrifts around them black. “Malfoy, I think you’d better tell me what happened.”