Severus used his staff to poke a hole in the woven shelter's roof, so that they would not suffocate themselves when they used the brazier to sustain heat inside the shelter. The brazier did not smoke like a fire, but the escaping warmed air caused tendrils of steam to trickle upwards and across the snow-laden sky. The blizzard dumped over two feet of snow upon the land before blowing itself out late the next day.
Severus, Sarai, and Cafall spent half of the time trapped in the shelter sleeping, since that was the best way to conserve energy and body heat. They ate small amounts of food when they awoke and drank tin cupfuls of melted snow. Severus used special charms afterwards to relieve all of them of uncomfortably full bladders, since there was no room in the tiny shelter to find privacy to go to the bathroom or to let Cafall outside. Once all the basic necessities had been attended to, there was little to do but wait out the storm. Sarai snuggled beneath Severus' chin and told him amusing stories of her time as bodyguard to the Highstars, and some stories about her childhood, which had been filled with various mishaps and adventures.
"It seemed I was forever getting into one silly scrape after another," she chuckled. "My cousins knew I was vulnerable to being taunted about my swordplay, and so they were always challenging me to fights . . .or urging me to challenge older fae to duels or even races on horseback. And like a stupid idiot, I fell for it most times."
"Did you win?"
She shook her head. "Not always. I didn't have the experience then. Now though . . .I could take many of them." The wind whistled forlornly about the snow-encased shelter, sounding like a child sobbing. "So you see, Sev, I wasn't always the wise warrior. Like your sons, once I too was a hotheaded impulsive girl. But I soon grew out of it, especially after apprenticing to my Master."
"That's a relief," he muttered, smirking.
She elbowed him in the ribs. "Get off your high horse, Snape!" she ordered gruffly. "Your temper led you into plenty of trouble when you were young, I'd wager."
He pretended to be insulted. "Me? Are you implying that I leaped before I looked, my lady?"
"I'm not implying, I know. You told me so yourself, Severus. Your ongoing war with those spoiled brat Marauders kept on because your temper led you into fights with them."
He chuckled ruefully. "All right. You have me there. I never could resist a good scrap with Potter and Black. I was lucky Lily was usually around to rein me in."
He went quiet for a long moment, recalling the vibrant young witch who had always been able to make him smile and chase away his demons. He rarely discussed Lily with Sarai, he didn't want her to feel as if she was competing with a ghost for his affection.
Sarai gently touched his cheek. "She was a good friend and partner to you, Sev. And she gave you the best gift she could . . .her son to cherish and to love. There is no greater gift than that, my love."
"No," he agreed softly. He loved Harry more than he ever thought possible. Harry, Draco, and Nesmay. All held a special place in his heart, and always would. Even so, he still longed for another child, one that he could raise from the beginning. "I hope that someday, you shall give me that gift as well, Sarai." He turned his head slightly and their mouths met in a breath-stealing kiss.
"One day, perhaps, I shall," she murmured once he had relinquished her mouth. "I would love a daughter or a son with midnight hair and eyes."
"So would I. If and when we ever get out of here and find my sons, I promise I will do all I can to make that wish come true, Lady Valinek."
"I shall hold you to that, Severus my heart." Then, as if to accentuate her words, she wrapped her arms about him and held him close, their breath mingling in the still air.
"How long do you think it shall be before the storm ends?" he asked then.
She shrugged eloquently. "It's hard to tell. If this is a natural storm and not one called up by an Unseelie weather worker, it could end tonight or tomorrow. If it's a mage-called one . . .it could end in a week."
"Bloody hell!" he swore. "I pray it's the former. We can't afford to spend a week trapped here like rabbits. Anything could be happening to the children while we're stuck here."
"We'd have little choice in the matter," she remarked dryly. "The elements conquer even the most skilled swordmaster . . .or battle mage." She patted his shoulder. "Relax, Severus. Don't go borrowing trouble till tomorrow. These sudden storms are common here. It is Winter, after all."
He swallowed back the sharp retort that sprang to his lips, he had no need to unleash his temper on Sarai, it was not her fault that he kept imagining all kinds of dreadful things being done to his children. "Forgive me, Sarai. It's just . . .I fear for them . . ."
"I know. I'm afraid too. Jarillion is unpredictable and sly . . .he is like a runespoor, full of venom and hate. He has always envied Titania and her family and will do all he can to hurt them and anyone close to them." She shifted slightly, tucking her leg more comfortably in Severus' lap. "But we can't dwell on that now. Otherwise we shall go insane with fear." She threaded her fingers through his hair. "We must wait out the weather and then, once this has stopped, we shall be free to hunt down the miserable scum and make him pay for his audacity tenfold."
Severus allowed her words to comfort him, her advice had always been sound. He still couldn't shake the foreboding in his bones that something horrible was happening to the children, but as Sarai had pointed out, there was nothing he could do about it now. He shut his eyes and called upon all of the patience he had learned as a spy years before, and vowed that whatever harm Jarillion had done to the boys and Nesmay would be healed and the prince would learn the folly of harming a member of his family.
His chin dropped to rest upon the top of Sarai's head and he slept again.
When he awoke, the blizzard had ended and they could finally try and dig their way out of their frosty prison.
It took an hour or two to dig out, even using magically heated shovels, the snow was thick and deep and they had to be careful to shore up the path they were digging so it didn't collapse and bury them, but at last they were free and Cafall barked happily and ran in circles upon the snow, leaving pawprints across the virgin surface while Snape and Sarai gathered their belongings and strapped on their snowshoes again. Severus gave Cafall Harry's scent again and the misthound tore off across the valley, baying loudly.
"Damn!" the sorcerer swore as he realized that he hadn't attached the leash to the eager dog before telling him to hunt. He started to call Cafall back.
Sarai put a hand to his mouth. "Don't. Leave him go. We can follow his tracks in the snow and he won't run too far ahead. He needs to hunt and burn off some of that excess energy."
"And what if he runs so far ahead he forgets us?" demanded Severus, furious at his oversight.
"I have a horn from the Royal Kennelmaster," Sarai twirled a small silver horn charm on a thong about her neck. "He'll come in for this. No hound bred in the royal kennels can ignore it, they're trained as puppies to obey the song of the horn."
"Where did you get that?"
"It was a gift. I was often on hunting expeditions with Balin and Titania, and the Huntmaster thought it prudent for me to be able to call the dogs back if necessary." She tucked the horn pendant back beneath her tunic. Then she began to glide across the snow.
Severus followed in her wake, trusting her to scout the lay of the land, since this was her realm, after all, and she was more experienced and familiar with its traps and pitfalls. It was one of the things he loved best about her, the way she was so capable and efficient, when she did something, she did it well, and could be relied upon to do so again and again. There were very few people, male or female, that Severus admired. Sarai was one of them. He also loved how she never made him feel stupid or awkward, even when he had been her student. He didn't feel ashamed admitting his shortcomings to her, and she had never looked down on him for losing his temper or acting snarky. She accepted him, flaws and all, and that meant more to him than anything. He in turn tried to do the same for her.
Most of all, he wanted to share his life with her as a husband and wizard, he wanted what could have been all those years ago with Lily, had she lived and Dumbledore not meddled in his life. It was all he had ever wanted, and the one thing he seemed to be denied, again and again. But perhaps this time would be different. Perhaps.
He chanted another Warming Charm over himself as he half-glided through the snow. The temperature must have dropped again. Small prickles of ice pelted his skin and he drew his scarf more tightly about his face. He had always detested the cold and here he was slogging through snow and ice like some crazy crosscountry skier. He focused his mind on following Cafall's prints and on enduring the bitter cold, anything to keep his mind from drifting to his sons and Nesmay, and what horrors the Unseelie might be putting them through.
Don't think about that now. Just focus on finding where they've been taken. You can take payment out of Jarillion—and Oberon's—hide later. Right now you need to survive long enough to get to them. Those words he used as a mantra to drive his weary body forward, his iron determination eclipsing the ache in his back and legs, enabling him to ignore the high howl of the wind, which echoed all around him, reminding him of dire wolves on the hunt.
Sarai slowed down so abruptly, he nearly crashed into her back and sent them both flying. "What's the matter with you?" he snarled, twisting to avoid her and causing some new muscles to ache unexpectedly in the bitter cold.
She held up a hand, listening intently, her green eyes narrowed. Then she turned to him and snapped, "Run, Severus! They've picked up our trail."
"A pack of dire wolves. Bigger than the last one we faced."
He paled. "I thought . . .that was just the wind."
She smiled grimly. "An old trick. Come!" She began to run, rather awkwardly, through the snow, cursing the stuff inwardly with every step she took.
Severus followed. "What about Cafall?"
"He's far ahead, probably far enough to avoid them. I don't want to call him back, he'll only want to challenge the pack, and that sort of foolishness will get him killed."
"What if the wolves go after him?" Severus asked, his breath hissing in shallow gasps.
"They won't. We're the easier prey. Predators always go for the weakest."
They ran in silence for several more minutes, the howls of pursuit thundering in their ears as the dire wolves drew closer and closer.
"How did they find us? That storm should have covered our scent."
"Bad luck. They were out hunting and stumbled on our tracks," the warrior answered. She darted a quick glance behind her. "Hurry, Severus! We don't want to get caught in the open. We need a wall at our backs."
He understood the reasoning behind her words, but wondered all the same where they could find a wall in this desolate place. The landscape was covered in snow as far as the eye could see, but nowhere was there a tree in sight, unlike the Seelie Realm, where trees, shrubs and hedges grew in abundance. "I don't think I can conjure one up," he called to her, a half-smile quirking the corner of his mouth.
"You don't need to," she returned. "Keep moving! We ought to be close to the Vale of Sorrows."
"Vale of Sorrows?"
"A stand of woods where it's said that unquiet spirits roam at will, haunting anyone who dares step foot in it."
"Have you been there before?"
"Once. It's not a pleasant place, but I'd rather take a chance with spirits than with a full pack of blood-enraged dire wolves." Sarai told him. "We killed their kin, most likely, and now they're out for blood."
Severus quickened his pace, though running in snowshoes was bloody damn hard. The toe of one caught in a hidden patch of icy snow and he stumbled, going to one knee. He swore angrily at his clumsiness and tried to get to his feet.
Sarai whirled and came back to him, grabbing his hand and hauling him upright. "You hurt?"
"No. I just tripped." He admitted, flushing.
She gave him a crooked grin. "Be careful. Try and watch your step."
He glared at her. "Yes, Amarsi Valinek," he said, his tone faintly mocking.
She waited, watching as he started to jog again before she fell in beside him. "Ten more minutes and we'll be at the vale. Can you work a few Concealment Charms to confuse them?"
"Yes. But they're more effective standing still."
Onward they raced, their snowshoes throwing up little puffs of powdered snow. Just as Severus made out the shapes of some tall dark oaks, rearing up like twisted sentinels against the leaden sky, the dire wolves came into sight. They were some thirty yards back, their teeth bared and dripping with yellowish drool, their eyes burning with the need to rend and tear the puny humans to shreds for daring to kill members of their pack. They howled and began to sprint across the ground, moving at a terrific pace.
Severus turned and ran, chanting a spell to make him run more quickly, but even so he feared it wouldn't be enough. Not nearly enough. He felt the spell drawing upon his magical reserves, turning his body into a racing machine. He sprinted past Sarai and was almost ten feet from the first trees when he heard a dire wolf yelp in pain.
He tossed a glance over his shoulder and saw that Sarai was shooting them as she ran backwards, her ease with a bow the result of endless grueling hours of practice when she was a child and adult. All Seelie trained with a bow from the time they could draw a child-sized one, their famed accuracy was a result of aptitude, eyesight, and endless practice.
Five or six of the nearest wolves fell to the snow, arrows embedded in their chests and heads, never to rise again. But the rest, some twenty strong, closed the distance with leaps and bounds.
Sarai emptied her quiver of a dozen arrows, then slung her bow across her back and ran. She had nearly made the sanctuary of the trees when a dire wolf lunged at her from behind.
"Sarai, get down!" bellowed Snape, and then he cast a Blasting Curse and the dire wolf was blown to pieces, along with a hefty chunk of the earth.
Sarai rolled to her feet and dusted herself off, resuming her quick pace until she too had reached the clump of trees whose trunks intertwined so much that it was hard to find a place to slip through them. She removed her snowshoes and Severus did likewise, shrinking them and stowing them on a clip on their belts. Once within the grove, Sarai felt a bit safer, and mopped sweat from her brow. "That was close. Nice spell, beloved."
"Too close," he muttered. "Now what? I don't like the feel of this place. It makes my skin crawl."
"Mine too. The dead walk here. Among other things. But the dire wolves won't come through here."
"You sure about that?" Severus asked.
"Look." She pointed through a small gap in the black oaks.
Severus saw the wolf pack draw up short and pace about the perimeter of the trees, whimpering and whining, but refusing to go any nearer. One bold young wolf ran up to a tree and tried to gnaw it, only to cringe backwards and yelp loudly in pain, his mouth reddened as if he had burnt it. The others, wiser than the foolish cub, stayed well away from the trees.
"I see. The vale has its own protections." He turned away then. The earth beneath his feet was not frozen and there was very little snow. Tendrils of mist crept up to twine about their ankles like a lazy cat asking to be petted. "Where to now?"
"Now we have to sit and rest for awhile." Sarai said pragmatically, walking always deeper into the wood. The Vale of Sorrows had an air of perpetual sorrow and darkness about it, like a living thing it pressed against them, seeking the warmth of their bodies and the sparkle of their magic. It was almost as if it was alive.
The air felt heavy and there was an odd dry smell about it, like the musty scent of an old tomb. The trees were so close together that only slivers of sky could be seen above them, and there was no sound of anything living save the crunch of their boots upon the decaying branches beneath their feet. No birds fluttered above them, no squirrels played in the branches, no rabbits scurried through the hedges, avoiding pursuit from a hungry fox or weasel. It was as though this were a shadow of a real vale, or one where, as rumor would have it, only the dead called home.
Severus drew his cloak about him tightly, and felt the magic he had cast to make himself swifter fade. He then cast a quick Concealment Charm, hoping to avoid drawing attention to himself. The branches overhead rattled and clacked, as if whispering to each other about the unexpected trespassers in their domain. The Potions Master felt as if there were unseen eyes watching him. "Sarai . . .do you get the feeling we're being . . .watched?"
She nodded, all of her instincts warning her to stay alert. "Yes. There are things here that will observe us. Hopefully that is all they will do." She closed her hand upon the hilt of her sword, but did not draw it. "They say there are a family of banshees in the vale, three sisters who loved the same man, or so the legend goes. But none of them would give him up to the other, even though he claimed to love the youngest only. In the end, their jealousy and hatred destroyed him, and then they destroyed each other. But when they died, they discovered they were cursed to haunt the Vale of Sorrows, to forever mourn what they had done, and what they had lost. It's said that they hate the living, especially handsome men who have known true love, and will do all in their power to steal the man away and drain him dry with their voice and their kisses."
"How pleasant," Severus said sarcastically. "Have you ever seen them?"
"No. But I was not with you then," Sarai hissed. She rummaged in a belt pouch and produced some earplugs and cloth. "Here. Put these on and wrap the cloth about your ears and head. That way you won't be affected by a banshee wail or persuasion."
Severus did so, feeling a bit like Odysseus trying to ignore the sirens as he sailed past the island. Now, his hearing muffled, he found he could walk more confidently. "What about you?"
"I am a half-fae woman. The banshees might hate me for what I have, but their cries and voice will not bespell me."
"Too true, sister," a low voice hissed, and suddenly a ghostly form materialized in front of them.
The banshee was somewhat translucent, her body clad in a kind of cloak and a scarf of mist that swirled about her limbs. Her face was neither young nor old, but some ageless inbetween stage, her hair was like finely spun strands of night, swirling against alabaster skin. Her eyes were dark pools of envy, and she stared at Severus hungrily.
"Why not take off those silly wax things and listen to my song?" she purred, circling Snape like a cat. "I'm sure you'll like it, everyone does, my magnificent man. I shall show you things you've never even dreamed of."
Severus could hear her voice like a low buzz in his ears, it was flat, lacking the vibrant tones of a human voice. He felt a slight compulsion to tear off his headband and rip the earplugs out, but then Sarai touched his hand and the compulsion dissolved.
The banshee scowled. "Lovers! So very annoying. Perhaps I shall immobilize you with my scream?"
"All we ask is that you allow us to take shelter here for a time," Sarai bargained. "Then we shall be on our way."
"And why should we agree to this, Seelie trespasser?" sneered a second voice.
Another banshee appeared, this one wearing a tattered blue gown and bearing old bleeding scratches on her shoulders and wrists. She glared hotly at her sister, her hair was also midnight dark, but her eyes were moss green. "Why shouldn't you share the fate of so many others who dared trespass in the Vale of Sorrows?"
"Yes, why should you have a lover when we do not?" pouted a third, she blinked in wearing a dress that seemed made of stars, her hair was piled atop her head and she had a twisted smile on her face.
"Because I appreciate him where you did not," Sarai answered smartly. "I did not treat my beloved like a prize bone or an object to be won."
Furious, the banshees sucked in their breath, their eyes burning red like flame, their faces twisting into grimaces of terrible anger. "How dare you!"
"We loved him!"
"But he didn't love us enough!"
"That's why he never made a choice and he suffered for it!"
Then they opened their mouths wide, as if they were going to swallow the sun, and screamed.
The scream went on for what seemed like forever, their mouths were holes in their ghostly faces, holes from which spewed a deadly toxin.
Severus slammed up his Occlumency shields and backed away, he couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was obvious what they were trying to do.
Their wails reached a crescendo and then died down.
Sarai winced, wondering if she hadn't gone deaf. She might be immune to the feelings the banshees projected, but she wasn't immune to the sheer volume. Her eardrums were aching. The banshees tugged on her hair and tried to rip off Severus' headband.
Sarai drew her sword, which was made of a blessed combination of silver and iron alloys called silveron. "Get away from him! Before I stick this through you and really make you howl."
"What a termagant!" The one in the tattered dress cried. She swirled about Severus languidly. "You could do much better, handsome. Much better."
"No thank you. I'm betrothed," Severus said, shivering, for the banshee's presence projected an icy draft.
"So? Dump her and marry me, sweeting. I'll show you a real good time."
"No doubt. All the way to hell and back," Severus snorted.
The banshee giggled. "But at least you'd be warm, luscious one." She had her mouth practically touching his ear, but when he went to push her aside, his hands went right through her.
"No fair! I saw him first!" screamed her sister, and she pushed the dress-wearing banshee away.
Severus stiffened. "Stop it! I am not here to amuse you or to become one of your silly quarrels."
"Why are you here, sugar?" purred the last one.
"I am searching for some members of my family that were brought here by a Winter prince."
"Oh? Which one?"
The banshees gasped and clung to each other. "Ooo, he's a wicked one, he is!"
"Gotta watch out for him—he's colder than ice and more poisonous than a basilisk."
"Bad to the bone!"
"Once he has someone in his clutches . . .they're finished."
"Like poor Vonn."
"Better forget them."
"Never," Severus said firmly.
"Poor deluded mortal," purred the scarf-wearer. "You shall end up like all the others, bones buried beneath Jarillion's feet."
"Such a pity."
"What a waste."
"Take off those earplugs. We'll give you a concert like none you've ever heard before," pleaded the youngest one.
They wailed and pleaded, begged and cajoled, their ghostly fingers plucking at Severus' hair, an unmistakable hunger in their faces.
Until he repelled them with a Repelling Hex and Sarai thrust at them with her sword, making them squeal and drift back.
"May worms rot your bones!"
"May your hair fall out and you lose your looks and run crying into the street because your lover no longer adores you!" Tattered Dress spat. She wrapped her arms about herself, as if chilled, and then threw her head back and shrieked angrily.
Sarai winced, but she kept her sword trained upon the banshees, knowing full well that despite the precautions, Severus could still be vulnerable to them. They were very strong, stronger than she had thought. Their screams, though they did not make her go mad or want to become their slave, did hurt her sensitive ears. She could feel her eardrums pop and throb and something wet trickled down the side of her neck. But she ignored it, keeping her sword trained firmly upon her opponents.
Severus saw to his horror that a trickle of blood was oozing from Sarai's ear. Without stopping to think, he thrust his staff at the banshees, shouting, "Shut up, you bloody wailing cowards! No wonder you couldn't find a man and keep him, you selfish hags. Now . . .BACK OFF!"
He thundered those last words, yelling loud enough to be heard over the dreadful cries, his staff sizzling with pent up magical energy.
The three sisters yelped and streaked off, their wails dying away. Severus waited for a heartbeat before turning to Sarai. "Sarai, your ear's bleeding. I think they might have ruptured something with their horrible screams."
She touched her ear gently, and came away with blood on her finger. "Ah, hells." She removed a handkerchief from her pocket and blotted her ear.
"Let me." Severus plucked the handkerchief from her fingers and gently swabbed her ear clean. "I have an Ear Remedy that might help."
After he had administered the potion, Sarai said she felt better and they should continue onwards.
By the time they had walked through the entire vale and emerged back into the Waste, it was nightfall again.
"Where shall we make camp?" asked Severus, knowing they couldn't search any longer today, both were worn out and exhausted.
"Away from here. I don't trust the Screaming Sisters," said the warrior.
They walked over to a large outcrop that pointed upwards like a shard of crystal into the sky.
"Here." The Blade said. Then she pulled the horn from her tunic and blew on it.
Crystal clear notes sounded upon the air.
"Will he be able to hear that? He must be miles away by now."
"Yes. No misthound trained by the Royal Huntmaster will ever fail to respond to the horn's call. It's compulsive." Sarai said.
They started to pitch camp again.
Severus had just begun casting the first set of wards and heating some water over the brazier when he sensed something behind him. He half-turned and caught a glimpse of something sleek, orange and black striped, before it landed upon his shoulders and sank its fangs into the side of his neck.
He screamed and went to yank it free, when a silver dagger thudded into it and it fell, releasing his throat as it did so.
"Sev! It's tygrens!" shouted the fae warrior, before spinning about to slice the head from one of the vicious beasts.
Severus chanted a Blood Halt spell before attacking another with his wand, using Sectumsempra. Tygrens were nasty cat-like creatures who enjoyed stalking unwary travelers and then attacking them and eating them. They were very fond of human flesh and usually attacked in a mob. They were about the size of a large wildcat, savage and wicked.
As the Potions Master fended off a third attack, he saw flickers and flashes as more tygrens blinked into the fray. Before he knew it, they were surrounded by over thirty of the creatures, and all of them wanted but one thing . . .to kill the prey that had just appeared in their territory. Over a dozen pairs of eyes glowed an eerie yellow as the tygrens circled them, keening a cruel sonata, and licking their lips eagerly.
Pickings had been slim in the Waste of late and the tygrens were slowly starving and being forced to move out of their territory in order to find prey. Their bodies were sinuous and long, their tails curved and crinkled as they stalked about, claws glistening, their black stripes like jagged tears in their bright orange fur.
Severus backed slowly towards the brazier, his back against Sarai's. He did not need anyone telling him they were now in very deep trouble. Tygren packs were like sharks, they went into a frenzy and tore apart anything in their path.
Now they had surrounded the wizard and the warrior, hissing and growling, their tails twitching as they crouched.
They sidled to the left, paws moving along the ground.
Step. Step. Step.
One fell with Sarai's dagger in its throat.
Another collapsed when Severus hit it with a Bone Break curse.
Some of them turned and began to feed upon the bodies.
Severus began to hope they might manage to get out of this with their skin intact.
Until the tygren sprang upon them, en masse.
By now you should expect this sort of thing, so I won't apologize for the ending.
I don't know when I'm going to find time to update this next week, so you'll have to wait and see if Sev and Sarai walk away from this encounter.
Hopefully, my schedule won't be too crazy and I can write more next week. My work is changing my hours and I now have more of them, and it's exhausting.
Thanks to all who have been reading and reviewing and please keep doing so . . .even if it's to say you want to strangle me now.
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