One deer and a wild boar later, the ruffed serpent was sated, she would not need to hunt again for at least three weeks. When she arrived back at the cave, a weak ray of sunshine had illuminated part of the cave, streaming through the rather large hole she had punched through the snow that had covered the entrance. The Wise One slipped into her home, emitting a soft purring noise of welcome. Ruffed serpents had a greater range of vocal sounds than any other kind of serpent, they could hum, squeak, hiss, purr, growl, and roar, depending upon their mood.
She found Snape still asleep, but Harry was stirring. "Unnghhh . . ." Slowly, Harry opened his eyes, wincing at the sudden bright light coming into the cave from the entrance. "What? Where?" Then he found his glasses, which were resting upon his chest, they had been strung around his neck upon a black cord. He quickly shoved them on and everything came into focus. "Hey," he greeted the Wise One, who had slithered over to him and was peering at him intently. "Where's that light coming from? Oh . . ." He trailed off as he discovered the hole in the center of the packed snow. Well, at least I won't be shoveling snow in order to get out.
**How are you feeling, littling? Has your fever abated?**
Harry blinked, he still felt tired and achy and the Wise One's vocabulary was sometimes hard for him to grasp. "Uh . . .Yeah, I think so. I don't feel like I'm boiling in a cauldron anymore."
The Wise One lowered her head and flicked her tongue out at him. She could smell that Harry was on the mend, he wasn't out of the woods yet, but he was not courting death any longer. **Yes-s-s, you are sslightly feverish, but you are recovering. That was due in part to my herbal remedy and also your teacher. He is a true Parselmouth. Quick to learn and recall things, if a bit more impatient than I would like. S-s-still, he is young yet, he hass time to improve his manners with patients.**
"You think Snape's young?" Harry gaped at her. "He's . . .like . . .my parents' age. Or what they would have been if they hadn't been killed."
**When you have seen as many centuries come and go as I have, Harry, anything under two hundred sseasons is young.** chuckled the Wise One.
Harry grinned, smiling for the first time since he had been stranded in the cave. "I can see why that's be true. Then I must be a little baby to you."
The Wise One nodded. **Indeed. But you are a very smart and magical serpentling. One that I am proud to call my apprentice.**
"Really?" Harry hissed in surprise.
**Yess. You and S-s-severus are the only Parselmouths I have had the privilege of instructing in a long time.**
Harry looked over at the slumbering professor, who was snoring slightly, and thought how yet again he owed the dark-haired wizard his life. Twice in two days Snape had saved him. Could you owe one wizard two lifedebts? Or was it only one per wizard? You owe him more than that, his conscience chided. You owe him the truth about the Dursleys. He trembled involuntarily, that long ago punishment still had the power to make him sweat and shiver. Never ever tell. Such had been his mantra. Only now . . .he turned back to the Wise One. "Did I . . .talk anymore in my sleep?"
The golden snake hissed an affirmative. **But you spoke of nothing that S-S-Severus or I did not suspect before.**
Harry swallowed hard and said in a tiny voice, "Did I . . .say anything about . . .my aunt and uncle? Or Dudley?"
Again the Wise One confirmed his suspicions.
"Was it . . .bad?"
**It was not pleasant to listen to. It made him angry, and me as well. Your relatives deserve to become basilisk food.**
Harry managed a short laugh. "I always thought Dudley would make a good ham. And Uncle Vernon is a good stuffed turkey. So . . .he knows everything?"
The Wise One tilted her head. **This troubles you, that he knows the truth. Why? I do not understand.**
"It's just . . . I feel ashamed . . . everyone in the wizarding world thinks I'm some kind of . . . hero . . . if they ever knew that I was just a messed up kid . . . I'm not supposed to talk about it . . . and here I am blabbing my head off to Snape, of all people . . . We've never really got along and yet he's saved my life several times now . . . I don't even know why . . .always thought he hated me or something . . . till he apologized to me last night . . .threw me for a loop, I can tell you." Harry said in Parseltongue.
**Perhaps the best solution is for you to ask him yourself. He seems like a complex man, much like his ancestor, but his heart is good, child. A snake is often quick to s-s-strike, but will fight to the death to defend his own.**
"But . . . I'm not his own. I'm not a Slytherin, not his blood, I'm not anything to him. Except perhaps an annoyance."
**Sss-aaa . . .blood is not all that matters . . .this-s-s I have sseen, time and again. I sssee it now, between you and your teacher. Being born to a person does not always guarantee a happy relationship . . .S-S-Severus would know that better than any . . .I'd wager . . .**
"What do you mean?"
**Like you, I ssensse a deep pain within him, an old pain, if you want sspecifics, you must ask him yourself, for I have told you all I know.** The Wise One said serenely. **However, ssometimess the best judge of a person's intentions is his actions, not words. Though when ssspeaking Parseltongue, you cannot lie.**
**What need does a s-s-snake have to deceive another?** she asked wryly.
"Oh. Right. How can you tell if someone lies in Parseltongue?"
**Easily. Their words tingle upon your tongue, like a bitter herb. The truth is warm, like a hot drink.That is why it is so hard to deceive a Parselmouth.**
Now Harry understood better why no student ever managed to lie to Snape's face. Or even tried to. It was like having a built in lie detector. He mulled over what the Wise One said about the professor and trusting him. He thought back to all the times the snarky man had saved him, all last year, and now this year as well. And though he had been abrasive and rude to Harry, criticizing him all the time, and taking points and giving detention, he had never been physically abusive to him. Even with the flying car incident, he had not expelled them, or lifted a hand to them, and Harry suspected that he had entertained thoughts of walloping them till they howled. What Ron and he had done had been extremely stupid, they had also been extremely lucky—the luck of idiots—as Snape had said, to not have exposed the wizarding world in an even more spectacular manner.
Harry hadn't thought that at the time, but looking back on it . . .he could see why Snape had been so furious. Harry had to admit that they had put everyone at school in danger, and that need not have occurred if they had simply taken a moment or two and thought things through.
But the most telling things about Snape's true nature had been the most recent events, both in the forest and in the cave. Both times Snape had done his utter best to protect and help Harry, and he had not been prompted to do so by anyone other than himself. He could have left Harry to die of exposure, he could have used some kind of mind magic to make Harry tell him about the Dursleys, could have mocked him for being such a wimp. He had done none of those things. His actions had been that of a concerned educator or mentor. He had also made Harry feel oddly safe, and he had never felt that with any adult, not even Dumbledore. He liked the Headmaster, but ever since he had asked to stay at the school and been refused by the old wizard, and then told it was necessary to stay with his relatives, Harry had lost his trust in Dumbledore. Clearly the wizard had his own agenda, and Harry did not need to be a pawn, even a well regarded one. Snarky as Snape had been, at least he had been honest.
I have never willingly allowed harm to come to my students, and I believe I have misjudged you. I saw only a spoiled bully, which was what your father was to me at school, and assumed that like him you were given everything you ever wanted. I was wrong. I apologize for my mistaken assumption. Snape's words to him the other day echoed in his head. When he had heard them, he had felt relief that Snape had not disliked him for no reason and also that the professor had realized his dislike was wrong. He did not enjoy having Snape as an enemy. There had been a small part of him that protested Snape's calling his father a spoiled bully, but it had quickly died. He knew next to nothing about either of his parents, save how they had died, that one was Muggleborn and the other pureblood, what they looked like, that they had attended Hogwarts, and that was it. He had no memory of them, did not know their personalities, save that James like Quidditch and Lily liked Charms and potions.
But Snape had known both of them, and given James' background, he could have very well been a spoiled brat and arrogant, given everything he'd ever wanted, just like Dudley and Malfoy. Granted, none of the other professors had ever mentioned that, but Harry knew all too well how teachers fell for Dudley's innocent act whenever he'd knocked down Harry—"I'm so sorry, Mr. Price, I tripped and knocked him down, it was an accident. Here, let me help him up." Then he'd elbowed Harry in the ribs under the guise of "helping" him and growled, "Say anything else, freak, and you're dead meat." They had been all too willing to believe the popular petted Dudley over scrawny, shy Harry, dressed in baggy clothes. If that's the way it had been between Snape and James, Harry couldn't blame Snape for resenting his dad. Harry had often resented his cousin and wished that Dudley could switch places with him for a day and live his life. That was why he had been so very happy to hear Snape say he was more like Lily than he knew, because all he'd ever wanted was to be ordinary, not some famous boy hero that everyone expected to do great things.
Harry found that he preferred Snape's honesty over Dumbledore's sugary-sweet "you've done a wonderful job, my boy, but you still have to endure your nasty relatives" attitude. He remembered feeling extremely let down at the Headmaster's reaction to his request, his second attempt after the disastrous first one to tell an adult about how awful he'd been treated. And it had been brushed under the rug, so to speak. It was so unfair! He had longed to scream or throw something, call Dumbledore a sodding arse, or burst into tears. But he had hidden his pain away, like always, because it never did any good to cry, or to rage about nobody caring what went on over the summer. Such had been his lot since he was a toddler and nothing would change it, not even his entry into this wonderful magical world. There were times that Harry looked upon his time at Hogwarts as a kind of dream state, and his return to Privet Drive as his wake-up call to reality.
Except now he was starting to feel something else besides resignation of his lot. Now, for the first time ever, he began to hope that somehow things would change for the better. Snape had protected him from Quirrell and Voldemort, had saved him from a blizzard. Did he dare hope that Snape might also save him from the Dursleys? Or should he go back to simply pretending everything was okay at home, as usual?
Feeling vastly confused, Harry rose and managed to walk slowly to the back of the cave, where the makeshift toilet was. His feet were still tender. His bladder was about to burst, his stomach felt hollow, and he was parched to the bone. He methodically went about attending to his needs, using the commode, then drinking the pure spring water, scooping it out with a small cup he found near the water's edge. A cup that appeared to have been made of snakeskin. The water felt heavenly on his tongue, and it eased his dry throat immensely. The water tasted better than pumpkin juice right then. He drank one cup and then another, and the water managed to quiet his hunger pangs a little.
He made his way back to where Severus slept, now pillowed atop the ruffed golden serpent's bulk, and stood for long moments staring down at his professor. Can I trust him? Dare I trust him? Snape's breathing was labored, broken by snores and coughing. He sounds sick, really sick. Concerned, Harry reached out a hand and felt Severus' forehead. But he couldn't tell if Snape had a fever, or if he was warm due to lying atop the Wise One. Asleep, Snape looked oddly peaceful and vulnerable, no sneer distorted his mouth, or glare hardened his features. He looked very . . . human. Was what the Wise One said true? Did you go through the same thing as me growing up? How did you stand it? How did you manage to make the pain go away, make yourself feel like you were worth something? Maybe you didn't. Maybe that's why you're so sharp-tempered and angry all the time. Because you're still hurting. When does it stop? When will I ever be free of it?
All of those questions and a dozen more swirled in his head, but with Snape asleep he could ask none of them. So he decided to go back to sleep, he still felt foggy and tired. He curled up in the hollow of the Wise One's tail and slept again, never waking, even when the snake lifted him and laid him down next to Severus.
The next time Harry woke it was to the sound of Snape coughing harshly. He sat up and saw his professor hunched over, coughing into a handkerchief violently. "Sir, you don't sound very good," he blurted out before he could think better of it.
Snape eyed him irritably once the spasm had ended. "How very astute of you to notice," he drawled, wiping his mouth. "My cold seems to have worsened. Probably due to the influx of cold air coming in through that hole there." He indicated the cave entrance.
"The Wise One did that," Harry said.
"Obviously. It's a mixed blessing." He coughed again.
"Maybe you ought to take something for your cold," Harry suggested.
"I shall do so once we are back at the castle. Now that she has opened up the entrance, we can leave as soon as you feel up to it." Severus told him, reaching out to feel Harry's forehead, his palm resting lightly upon the lightning bolt scar. "No fever, thank Merlin. How are you feeling otherwise?"
"A little tired and achy, but much better than yesterday. Thank you, sir, for helping me."
"No thanks are needed, Potter," said the professor gruffly. "I would have done the same for any student in need of medical care. Or tried to."
Harry bit his lip. Then he drew in a breath and asked in Parseltongue, "Did I . . . talk in my sleep again?"
"You did." Snape replied solemnly in the same language. Obsidian eyes met green and a shared understanding passed between them.
"So . . .you know about what happened." Harry stated.
"Yes. Your nightmares were very explicit."
Harry gulped. "I never wanted anyone to know."
"I had gathered that by your refusal to speak to me before. What caused you to change your mind?"
"You saved my life again. And you seem . . . to know what it's like. The Wise One told me that . . .she could feel an old pain inside you . . ." he trailed off when he saw a scowl emerge on Snape's face.
"Bloody intuitive reptile!" Severus growled under his breath. He sneezed. Then he nodded once. "She is right. I . . . did not have a very good childhood. My father wished for me to be normal, to give up the magic that was my birthright and never attend Hogwarts. When I refused, he became violent."
"Oh. But your mum . . .didn't she try and explain it?"
Severus snorted. "Nobody ever explained anything to Tobias Snape that he didn't want to hear. And nobody ever defied him, especially not his son."
Harry shivered, for the look in Snape's eyes was terrible to behold. "He sounds like Uncle Vernon. Only he never . . . smacked me around."
"Neglect is abuse too," Snape hissed. "So is locking a boy in a cupboard for days. Or making your wife work like a dog and then taking her pay to drink it all down at the pub. They are one and the same."
"I couldn't tell. It would've made things worse."
"Nobody would've listened anyway."
"I know. Only one other ever knew about me."
"Did she . . . help you?"
"She tried. But she was a child too, and all she could do was listen." Severus reached out and clasped Harry's hand in his own. "I am not a child, Mr. Potter. I will listen, but I will also act. I am pledged to protect you, and sending you back to Privet Drive violates my oath, since you are not safe there."
"But Dumbledore said I have to go back there. That my mother's love protected me from . . .You-Know-Who."
Snape made a disgusted noise. "The Headmaster places too much emphasis on blood ties. He believes that family should look after family, and the old magic works best upon those related by blood to one another. But he fails to realize that sometimes the ones who hurt us most are family."
"Especially if they never wanted you in the first place," Harry said bitterly. "I was never really their nephew, just a burden on them. Or so my aunt always said. She always said I was the cross her sister left for her to bear."
"Typical. And you believed it and felt guilty and ashamed."
"But it was not so. There is no shame in surviving, Potter. The shame belongs to those who would take your right to do so away. Your aunt made a choice that night, as did Dumbledore. But you were the one who had to live with it. Until now. Now you have to make a choice. To endure in silence like always, or to reveal the secrets you have hidden to Wizarding Children and Family Services. I shall help you as best I can, but the first step must be yours."
"Can't you just . . . file a report or something?"
"Certainly. But you have to confirm it."
Harry gnawed his lower lip. He had hidden the truth for so long, could he really talk about it now to a stranger? You're talking to Snape about it. His conscience argued. But Snape was no longer a stranger. And he understood how it was. "I . . . I'm scared."
Snape's hand squeezed his gently. "Anyone would be."
"I don't want to remember. It hurts."
"Yes, but sometimes healing is painful. In the end, you can look them in the eye and know that no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't beat you. You never let them win, in spite of everything, you're still here and here you will stay. It is the hardest thing you will ever do, harder even than facing a dark wizard. But you have the courage. Unlike me."
Harry shook his head. "No. I'm brave because I have you, sir. Who did you have?"
Snape said nothing, but they both knew the answer to the question. No one. Abruptly, Severus looked away from that too intuitive green-eyed gaze. "Don't feel sorry for me, Potter. I survived."
"I'm glad," he said sincerely. Truer words had never been spoken.
"We can discuss this more back at the castle," Snape changed the subject neatly. "I'll need to talk with the Headmaster before we contact anyone in the Ministry." He did not say so, but having Albus on their side would help to pave the way through red tape tremendously. Plus, Dumbledore should know what his choice had cost Harry all those years ago. "Are you ready to travel? I shall cast some Warmth Charms upon you so we won't have a repeat of last time."
**You need not fret so, professor. I s-s-shall take you back to Hogwarts, the s-s-snow is too deep for you to walk, and both of you are unwell s-still.** The Wise One lifted her head and stared at them.
Severus opened his mouth to protest, then recalled that Harry was still recovering and travellingupon the Wise One would be infinitely easier on both of them. If only he could rid himself of this dratted cough! "Very well." He began casting.
Harry felt the charm settle about him like a fuzzy electric blanket, wrapping him in warmth. He sighed in relief, then rose and handed Snape back his cloak.
Snape fastened it and re-cast the charm upon himself. Now they were ready to face the arctic chill outside.
The Wise One stretched her top length out and Harry and Severus straddled her, somewhere in the middle. Then the giant snake undulated out of the cave, the two Parselmouths astride her, perched like dikdik birds on the back of a rhino. The sun struck the snow and reflected back a dazzling brightness.
Both Severus and Harry had to close their eyes against the glare. The Wise One quickly shielded her eyes with a second transparent eyelid, which enabled her to see through the brilliant glare of the sun upon the blazing white snow. She traveled swiftly across the snowy landscape, her ruff flat against the sides of her head, her body siding easily upon the slick snow. She left a large trail behind her, however, though it could not be helped. Unlike her sire, the feathered serpent, she could not fly.
They had gone perhaps a hundred feet from the cave entrance when she heard the low hungry screeching of bloodspawn upon the hunt. Severus stiffened, he recognized the warped howling and drew his wand. Harry just glanced around.
"What's that noise?"
"That is the sound of bloodspawn hunting," Snape replied, looking about for them, but not seeing anything except trees and snow.
Severus explained what they were and how he had carried Harry to safety into the cave when they started to attack him. The wails and shrieks became louder and the Wise One hissed in anger, her head bobbing from side to side. "Wise One, the bloodspawn appear to be hunting us," said the Potions Master.
**Yess, they overstep their bounds. Their new leader is bold, and forgets-s in whose territory he hunts.** She swung her head about to fix them with her bright jade green gaze. There was no fear in her eyes. **If they ssseek to make me prey, they ssshall learn why I am not to be disturbed. If they come for me, get down and keep behind me. Underssstand?**
"I can help you fight them," Severus pointed out.
**I appreciate the offer, but it is not necessary. In fact it is bessst if I handle this. they need to learn that I am not to be trifles with.** The ruffed serpent's frill stood out from her head and her eyes glowed with determination.
They continued on their way. The Wise One slithered across a snowy glade, her head lowered slightly. Abruptly she halted and raised her head. She had felt some odd vibrations through the air.
Above them, in the tree tops, came several loud snarls and wails as the bloodspawn emerged from the trees and sprang for the Wise One, Severus, and Harry.
"Potter! Down!" shouted the professor, grabbing Harry and rolling off the serpent just as a bloodspawn landed upon her back and swiped at the spot where they had been sitting moments before.
The two wizards landed in the snow, and Severus quickly regained his feet and pulled Harry away from where the golden serpent was fighting against a pack of twenty bloodspawn.
"No! We have to help her!" Harry struggled in Snape's grip, gazing upon the fighting serpent and the vicious pack of hybrid cat-weasels in terror.
But Severus held Harry firmly in an unrelenting grip. "Potter, be still! This once, you shall obey your elders. She knows what she's about, she's had centuries of experience. We would only be in the way, a distraction. Look there!" He pointed to where the Wise One had whirled about and struck at the bloodspawn upon her back, her fangs biting deep into the cat-like creature's shoulder.
She jerked her head back, the bloodspawn dangling from her jaws like a mouse, then flicked her head and sent the broken, poisoned, bloodspawn flying through the air to slam against a tree.
Immediately, some of the pack broke away, drawn by the smell of blood, and began to feast upon their dead packmate.
Harry nearly threw up upon seeing that. "That's totally disgusting! They're eating it!"
Severus' lip curled. "Bloodspawn don't care where their next meal comes from."
The Wise One reared up half her length and wrapped four lunging bloodspawn in her coils and constricted, suffocating her enemies, while simultaneously swiveling her upper half about and spraying the other five who were springing at her with her sleeping mist.
Instantly, their limbs went slack and they crashed to the earth, sound asleep as if they'd been hit over the head with a hammer.
The other ten were clawing and snapping at her, but her scaled hide turned away their teeth and claws as if they were mere paper. Two more fell to her fangs, her venom slaying them almost instantly.
The other eight circled and spat at her, wary now, and beginning to fear her. The Wise One's eyes narrowed to slits. Then she opened her mouth impossibly wide . . . and roared.
The roar was unlike anything either wizards or bloodspawn had ever heard before. It echoed and re-echoed through the trees, as menacing as any dragon's, and powerful enough to cause the remaining bloodspawn to freeze in their tracks or flee as quickly as their paws could take them.
Harry stared at the massive serpent with awe. "Merlin! But that was like . . . the most awesome fight ever! She totally thrashed them!"
The Wise One turned about, carefully avoiding the blood spattered snow, and glided over to them. Her scales were glowing slightly. **Apollo's Far Seeing Eye! I haven't fought a battle like that in I can't recall how long. I forgot how a good fight makes the blood race. Wicked carrion eaters! At least they won't be around to tear apart innocent young wizards any longer.**
"You were brilliant!" Harry grinned.
**Thank you, Harry. Come, mount, we are only a few kilometers from the school.**
Harry and Snape climbed aboard the golden snake. "I was not aware you could roar like a celestial serpent," Severus said, admiration coloring his tone.
**Yes, well, that was one of the defenses my sire endowed my siblings and me with. Though we prefer to heal instead of kill, all ruffed serpents can fight when we must.**
"You sure can!" Harry said. "I'll bet you could even lick the basilisk."
**If it came to it, I might be able to,** the Wise One answered. **Though I would much prefer to talk to my basilisk cousin rather than fight him.**
They continued through the Forbidden Forest, the Wise One moving at a fast clip, weaving in and out of the trees.
Harry squinted, the trees were blurs, and the wind whipped his hair back, though he was not even the slightest bit cold.
Within fifteen minutes they had emerged from the forest, about ten feet from Hagrid's hut, where a small party of wizards and witches had gathered. Severus saw Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sprout, and Flitwick. The rescue party has finally got underway. Too bad it's no longer necessary.
The Wise One halted and said, **Here is where we part, my friends. You are back home, and safe, as promised. It was a pleasure speaking with you, and if you should ever need me again, you know where to find me.** She turned and lowered her head. In a moment she lifted her head and presented both wizards with a gleaming golden scale. **Use this to find your way back to my home, should you need me. The scale will grow warmer when you are near the cave. Best of luck, my apprentices! Come and visit me again. I would be pleased to instruct you on brewing any kind of healing potion.**
"It was an honor to meet you, Wise One. I shall take you up on your offer over the break," Snape hissed in Parselmouth.
"So will I," Harry added, clutching his scale tightly. He would miss the great serpent, her kindness and wisdom had helped him a great deal. "Have a very merry Christmas, Wise One."
**You as well, littling! Until we meet again, my wizardsss!** then the ruffed golden serpent turned and slipped back across the field and into the Forbidden Forest quick as blinking.
Harry stared after her wistfully, until Severus put a hand upon his shoulder. "Come along, Potter. Everyone is sure to be worried that you are missing and will be glad to see you safe and sound." He shepherded Harry up the path to where the other wizards and witches were milling about.
Dumbledore was the first to spot them. "Severus! Harry! What a fortunate coincidence! We were just coming to search for you two. How are you? Not too cold, I hope? Come along, let's get inside. I have some hot spiced cider and cocoa for you. You can tell me all about your adventure over some scones and apple fritters."
His blue eyes twinkling, Dumbledore led the way back to the castle, happy to have his professor and the Boy Who Lived back under his wing once more.
Hope you all like this chapter.
Of course, Dumbledore has no idea how things have changed between Snape and Harry, nor the conversation Sev will have with him.
What did you think of Harry's conversation with the Wise One and Severus? How did you like the battle between the bloodspawn and the Wise One?
Should the basilisk be saved by Harry and the Wise One?
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