The harsh shrieks of the maldecorvae filled the air, that was the first warning the three raptors had that the giant crows had found them once again. Freedom hissed, partly in annoyance and partly in fear. Blast and damn! How did they find us again? I thought we gave them the slip.
Apparently, they are more relentless than I first thought, Warrior replied, clicking his powerful beak meaningfully. And more numerous. They still outnumber us ten to one.
Can we outfly them? Hedwig asked, increasing her speed.
After flying for over three hours? Doubtful. I am nearly at the end of my endurance and so too is Freedom, Warrior admitted candidly. Our best bet is to find a place to hole up for awhile. He began searching for a hidey hole as he flew, doing his best to ignore the taunts and screams from behind him as the maldecorvae sensed their prey weakening.
There! Look, Warrior, I see a crevice in that rock face, Freedom shrilled, flying down to a slender opening in a cliffside.
Just before he flew into the opening, Hedwig squawked at him to wait, that she would check it out first and make sure it was safe. Wait here, she ordered, then glided silently into the crevice.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the semi-darkness and she saw that it was a small cavelet, about three feet wide and four feet high, but it was dry and impossible for a maldecorvae to enter without getting pecked by either raptor. She spun about gracefully and called, Come in, hawks! It’s safe. Good work, Freedom.
Freedom preened a bit at the snowy owl’s praise, and flew in to land next to her on a slender spit that hung out from the right wall. Warrior followed moments later.
A good choice, fledgling. We shall be comfortable in here. Only one of us must keep watch in case the filthy carrion tries to enter here.
I shall take first shift, Hedwig volunteered. I am less tired than you are, I am used to flying long hours as a post owl. You two rest.
If you’re sure, Hedwig?
Very sure, Warrior. Take a breather. Hedwig flew up near the crevice and perched upon the floor, watching to see if any maldecorvae came after them.
Warrior settled wearily upon the rocky ledge next to Freedom and began to preen himself, paying special attention to his wings.
Freedom too was tired, but he did not want to sleep just yet. He had a few questions for his mentor. Warrior, I was wondering, why didn’t we just Apparate when the maldecorvae came after us before? Wouldn’t that have been quicker and safer?
Warrior paused in reordering his feathers. Normally, yes. Apparition usually can’t be traced. Unless you happen to be Marked by Voldemort. As I was.
What do you mean?
I mean that when Voldemort branded his thirteen most loyal followers—or what he thought were the most loyal—he marked not just our bodies, but our Apparition signatures as well. Apparition, like any spell, contains a thread of a wizard’s mage aura, but usually it occurs so quickly that it’s almost impossible to trace. Voldemort was a control addict, he wanted to keep tabs upon his most faithful all the time, so he somehow used the Dark Mark to tag our Apparition signatures, making them stand out. That way he would always feel when we Apparated to him or Disapparated away from him. So it’s not safe for me to Apparate, since Lucius and Bellatrix or any Death Eater could track me.
It can’t be blocked?
No, because in order to counter a spell you must first know what it is, and only Voldemort knew what spell he used to create the Mark and how to remove it. The Mark has faded since he has died a second time, I am hoping that once he dies forever, the Mark will vanish. But in the meantime, I dare not reveal our destination by Apparition. So we fly.
Oh. Damn paranoid Voldy. That really sucks.
Yes. Warrior carefully groomed his opposite wing.
At that moment they heard the savage howls and yips of Greyback’s werewolves, who had followed the maldecorvae, and now were gathered outside the rock face, scratching and springing up to claw and bite at the rock, but they were unable to get up high enough to reach the crevice.
Freedom was so startled, he nearly fell off the ledge. Werewolves! Bloody damn hell! How did they find us?
Mostly likely by following the maldecorvae, Hedwig answered, peering out the crevice at the milling werewolves below. There appeared to be about five of the ravenous creatures, including their leader Greyback, though he seemed much the worse for wear.
Freedom swallowed sharply, feeling as if he had a bone lodged in his crop. Then . . . does that mean that Darkmoon and the other wolfen are . . .dead?
I would hope that were not true, said Warrior, moving over to give the agitated red-tail a comforting nibble. How many weres are there, Hedwig?
The snowy told him.
Is that mangy Greyback there? Freedom queried.
He is, but he looks like he is on his last legs, from what I can tell, Hedwig replied. He has huge half-healed slashes all over him and he is favoring his left foreleg. He is the one Darkmoon attacked, is he not?
Yeah, I think so. But if he’s alive . . . Freedom trailed off, not finishing the sentence. He prayed that Darkmoon was not lying dead somewhere, being mourned by the rest of his pack. Anything but that.
Greyback is a coward, son. If he was getting his tail whipped, he probably took the first opportunity he could to flee. Warrior consoled the agitated red-tail. And from what I saw just before we left the Forest, Darkmoon was doing some serious ass kicking.
Hush, you two! I can almost make out what they are saying, Hedwig chirruped excitedly.
The two hawks hushed and then came over to huddle beside her and listen to the werewolves’ conversation, which they could understand since the weres spoke English, having changed back into their human forms.
“Next time I see that bloody whelp Darkmoon, I’m going to rip out his guts with a sharp hook and eat them while he watches, I swear by Mother Night!” Greyback snarled, holding his left arm close to him. His face was a mess of scratches and bruises and one eye was swollen shut. His shirt was rent and torn, and there were bruises and a deep cut across his chest. None of the injuries were bleeding any longer, but they were sore and inflamed and they hurt like blazes.
“Yeah, they grow too bold, those little pups,” barked another, this were was tall and slender and looked as if he had not participated in any fight. “We lost seven to them. And none of us escaped without some kind of injury, boss.”
“No kidding, Ash,” sneered his leader. “I know we’ll heal in a day or two, but still . . .we should have been able to take those punk upstarts. Instead they ended up kicking our tails. Grrrr!”
Most of the weres looked ashamed and angry, but none of them contradicted their leader. The wolfen had inherited the best traits of both of their parents, and were extremely tough opponents, quicker, stronger, and more intelligent than their werewolf sires.
“We were lucky we escaped when the maldecorvae came,” said a smaller werewolf, he had long blond hair pulled back in a tail and his right hand was bandaged.
“Yeah, lucky,” Greyback growled, furious that a wolfen barely half his age had managed to beat him up so badly. “Dracula could have come himself, but no, he had more important business to attend to than catching a few renegade wizards. He only sent the maldecorvae to honor the treaty he made with Voldemort. Treacherous vampire!” The werewolf spat on the ground. “But his pets proved useful. At least we’ve found that Potter brat and his owl and the Potions Master.”
“Animagi,” whimpered a small man with a large scar across his face. “I never heard that Snape was an Animagus.”
“Well, he has to be, since he’s with Potter. And Master Lucius said that two hawks, a red-tail and a goshawk, attacked and killed the Dark Lord. That has to be Snape. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Aye. But how do we get them, Lord Greyback?”
“We wait for them to come to us, idiot!” Greyback curled his lip and cuffed the other across the ear. “Pay attention! They can’t get out without getting past us, although remember you’re not to permanently injure either Snape or Potter. Lucius wants them for himself.”
“What about the owl?”
“Tear her to shreds. Tasty meal, owl.”
Freedom though he would heave, he was so disgusted by the weres callus attitudes. They were discussing his familiar as if she were a roasted chicken. It made him both sick to his stomach and furious. Why that miserable son-of-a-bitch! That’s totally disgusting!
Language, young one! Warrior scolded. He may be utterly revolting and deserve to be hit repeatedly with the Cruciatus Curse, but that does not mean you have to swear like a sailor.
Yes, sir. Sorry. Freedom apologized quickly, not wanting to repeatgetting his mouth washed out with soap the way he had last term for swearing at Severus. At least Darkmoon is okay. Sounds like they walloped those werewolves good. He glanced at the snowy owl and the goshawk. What do we do about getting out of here? Any ideas?
A few, but first we should try and get a few hours of sleep, Warrior suggested. Hedwig, wake me in about four hours, I’ll take over and then you can sleep. I’ll wake Freedom for the dawn shift and after the sun is up, we can try and figure a way past them.
Sounds like a good plan, Warrior, the snowy hooted approvingly. She resumed her post at the crevice while the other two birds flew back up to perch upon the stone ledge.
In no time, Freedom was nestled against Warrior’s dark bulk and the elder goshawk had placed a wing about the smaller hawk, and tucked his head into his chest. Both were asleep in seconds, worn out by the chase and the flight.
Hedwig remained alert through the dark hours of the night, watching the crevice and fending off any curious or determined maldecorvae with wings, beak, and talons. After having taught several of the crows a lesson, the maldecorvae kept their distance, and Hedwig was able to wake Severus for mid-watch without worrying about maldecorvae invading. Then she cuddled up on the ledge next to a sleepy Freedom and tucked her head beneath her wing.
Warrior pondered their dilemma while he watched the crevice and the werewolves below, who were still awake and squabbling over a carcass of some kind of mountain goat, arguing over who got to eat next after Greyback. Greyback finally settled the quarrel by savagely biting the rump of one of the pack and the ears of another.
The goshawk could also make out the beady red eyes of the maldecorvae, some of whom were perched in the scrubby trees and about the rocks below, waiting patiently for their quarry to show themselves. In spite of himself, Warrior shivered. The maldecorvae gave him the creeps. He knew the tales of the great birds, knew that they might not be quite as smart as your average falcon or hawk, but they were dangerous if they struck en mass and mobbed you, and the thirty out there were more than capable of doing so if given the chance.
Not for the first time, he wished he could cast spells in hawk form. We need some kind of cover, like a thick fog or a steady drizzle, to hide us long enough to get through the cordon they’ve set up. But I can’t feel any cold front or air pressure building up.
The goshawk remained watchful all the rest of the night, waking Freedom with a gentle nip at dawn to take over. Wake up, fledgling. It’s your turn to guard the entrance. Watch it and if any crow tries to get through, drive them back.
Freedom chirruped an assent, then went to assume his post.
Hedwig awoke about midway into Freedom’s shift and flew down to keep the hawk company on watch. You look troubled, fledgling.
I am. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this one. We’re surrounded.
Do not despair, Freedom. We post owls say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. We simply need to figure it out. She eyed the werewolves and crows thoughtfully. What we need is a distraction, a decoy, to draw their attention away from the crevice and enable us to slip away.
Yeah, but what kind of decoy?
The best kind. A visible one, answered the owl. It is almost full morning. In another hour we should wake Warrior. She peered again at their enemies. Some of them looked bored and sleepy. They grow restless. If we are to get by them, we need to do it soon.
An hour passed and Freedom flew over and nudged Warrior awake. He told the goshawk what Hedwig had said. That’s true, but what kind of decoy can we make that will do the job?
There is no need to make anything, Warrior. I shall be the decoy, Hedwig declared.
Freedom gave a soft screech. No way! You can’t do that, Hedwig! It’s too dangerous. I won’t let you.
The snowy owl fixed the young hawk with a fond exasperated look. I am aware of the danger, my wizard. But I am the only one who will be visible enough to draw them away quickly and I have played the injured bird before. You two need to get back to England as quickly as possible, there is no telling what the Death Eaters have been plotting since you’ve been gone. Out of all of us, you are the ones who can fulfill the prophecy. You must live to do so. I am the most expendable.
No you aren’t! Freedom declared hotly. You’re my familiar and I won’t have you dying for me!
Freedom, that is not your choice to make. I respect you as my wizard, but in the end every familiar must choose his or her own destiny. This is my choice, fledgling. Nobody hurts my wizard.
Freedom shut his eyes, feeling his heart start to break. Please, Hedwig. There must be another way.
There is not. I knew when I came with you that I might need to risk my life for you. Such is the duty of a familiar, to aid her wizard even unto death.
No! Dammit, Warrior, tell her she can’t do this.
I have no control over her actions, son. Besides, she is a canny old bird and I think more than a match for those buzzards and mangy mutts out there.
Warrior is right, Freedom. In order to hurt me, first they must catch me, and I am not the fastest among the Hogwarts post owls for nothing.
I still don’t like it.
You don’t have to. Only honor my choice. The owl said serenely.
Freedom huffed, angry and miserable. But in the end he knew they had no other choice. Okay. But you’d better return to me.
I shall if I am able. Though it may take me a day or two. Look for me in Dover. And good hunting, my hawks.
She flapped up to the crevice and Freedom followed. Fly safe, Hedwig. May the wind bless you.
She nuzzled him affectionately. Then she darted through the crevice and out into the open air, hooting loudly.
Hey, carrion brothers! Look whoo-oo dropped in for breakfast.
She swooped low, clawing at a werewolf, nipping at another, making the pack go crazy trying to grab her. But she was too quick, swooping and climbing effortlessly, her white pinions brilliant against the cloudless sky.
The maldecorvae came out of the trees in a rush, crying for her blood and she flew hard and fast to the east, leading them away from the direction Freedom and Warrior needed to go.
Come, Freedom! urged the goshawk.
The two hawks burst from the crevice like dark bolts of wizard fire, soaring up into the sky and away west before the werewolves could turn and spot them. In moments they were heading for Rome at a lightning swift pace, their wings beating hard, using the wind to help them as best they could, but their hearts heavy within them for their gallant companion.
* * * * * *
Hedwig rolled, tucking her wings tight against her and spinning away from a maldecorvae’s rush, the dagger-like claws just missing her vulnerable neck. Caw! Caw! Arrarrk!
She ducked away from another of the black winged menaces, dodging a spear-like beak aimed at her eyes, then climbed higher and dove down among the trees, trying to buy herself some breathing room.
The heavy branches of the conifer and ash sheltered her, she flew swiftly and silently among the branches for several minutes before the maldecorvae caught up to her again. Then she broke cover and soared into the sky once more.
The werewolves howled in glee when they caught sight of her and chased her hard. Rocks and pointed sticks hurtled through the air, one of them narrowly missing her right wing. Another clipped her tail, but not enough to knock her down from the sky.
She hooted in derision at the pack. Is that the best aim you’ve got, mutts?
A maldecorvae flew at her and she pulled up, striking at the crow with talons extended. Her talons were much larger than her opponent, and they fastened upon him like a vise, piercing his vitals in seconds.
The maldecorvae wailed a death cry and tumbled from the sky. Then she flew on, gliding on an updraft, always making certain she stayed within line of sight of her pursuers.
It would be a long hard chase, but she would lead them a merry dance through the hills of Rome and Tuscany, allowing the two wizards the time they needed to fly to Calais and across the Channel to home.
* * * * * *
Three days later
The cliffs of Dover:
Freedom scanned the sky for the fortieth time in an hour, desperately searching for a familiar white shape. Nothing. The sky remained empty of everything except low lying clouds scudding across the Channel. There had been no sign of either the owl or their pursuers, and the two hawks had managed to set a record pace, reaching Calais in two days. They had paused to rest there and then continued across the Channel and now they had been sitting here upon the cliffs waiting for Hedwig.
Warrior returned from a brief sortie and landed next to the agitated red-tail with a thump.
No. I am sorry, Freedom. But we must leave soon. Every hour we delay is another hour that could be spent finding the last two objects. Lucius and Bella are searching for them too and if they find them before we do . . .
Freedom whirled upon the elder bird angrily. Is that all you care about? Finding the bloody objects? My familiar is out there somewhere, maybe dead, and you don’t seem to give a damn!
Warrior’s eyes flashed and his beak snapped inches from the other hawk’s head. Don’t presume to tell me how to feel, boy! I know very well what sacrifice Hedwig made for us. The least we can do is to honor it and not make it be for nothing. And that means finding what we set out to find and finishing our mission. That may sound cold and hard to you, but remember this is war, and people die. Even familiars die.
Freedom flinched away from his mentor. I never should have let her go. This is all my fault.
Warrior nipped him sharply on the back of the head. Stop that! How many times must I tell you—you are not responsible for the choices others make? Hedwig chose to be a decoy, chose willingly, knowing the risks involved. Now we must honor her choice, fledgling, and keep going. To do less would mean her sacrifice was for naught.
You don’t understand.
No? Think you this is the first time I have ever lost a companion or a friend? You know better, Freedom. I have lost many I care about. More than I wish to remember, and yet I cannot forget it. And it hurts no less now than it did the first time.
Freedom hung his head. He could hear the sorrow in the goshawk’s voice, rough-edged yet no less poignant. I’m sorry. I just wish . . .it were me instead of her.
I know. Warrior gently nudged the other hawk. I shall wait for nightfall and then, if there is still no sign we must go.
Freedom merely nodded once, and then trained his eyes across the Channel.
Please, Hedwig. Please come back to me. What would I do without you?
The wind picked up, ruffling the brown plumage, and still Freedom remained staring stubbornly out to sea, hoping to see a speck of white coming across the Channel. He could not bear to think that she was gone forever. But time passed and the sky began to darken and still the snowy owl did not return.
The first stars of evening had begun to emerge and Warrior shook himself and looked towards the sea. Still no sign. His heart sinking, he made his way to where Freedom was still perched, a silent lonely figurehead.
Freedom—he began, his voice apologetic, regretful.
The red-tail continued staring out across the whitecapped water stubbornly. Just a few minutes more. Please, Warrior. Just wait—Kree-eearr! Look! Do you see it?
The red-tail suddenly took off into the sky, screeching. Hedwig! Is that you?
A tiny white dot flew slowly across the Channel, and as Warrior watched, hope flaring anew within him, it grew larger and larger, until it resolved into a snowy owl, making her way wearily over the water, coming back home at last.
Three cheers for Hedwig!
Okay, who liked this chapter? How did it make you feel?
Next: More of Voldemort's past is revealed as Sev and Harry search for another Horcrux in the orphanage where it all began.