Albus Dumbledore sat in his study, staring out the window at the darkening sky and mulling over Severus' latest report. The Potions master's logic was irrefutable as always, but it had merely served to confirm what Dumbledore already knew. He'd never had any real doubts that Harry was still alive. Divination was a fuzzy and inexact branch of magic, and even true predictions were notoriously subject to misinterpretation -- yet Dumbledore was all but certain that this was not the way Harry Potter was going to die. As for Voldemort having him, it was the obvious explanation for why no one -- not the Ministry, not Dumbledore, not even Hedwig -- had been able to find Harry.
It was a bit puzzling, though. Voldemort had seemed quite intent on murdering Harry that night in the graveyard; Dumbledore couldn't imagine what had happened to so quickly change his mind. Even if Voldemort had at last seen through James Potter's ruse, he had other reasons for wanting Harry dead, particularly if he grasped the full implications of his having taken Harry's blood to restore himself.
The only thing Dumbledore could think might induce Voldemort to spare Harry's life was if he'd discovered something else, unique to Harry, that could somehow be used to facilitate his takeover of the magical world. According to Severus, Voldemort had learnt of his and Harry's shared wand cores several days prior to the attack. But whilst Harry's wand might be of some value to Voldemort, he certainly didn't need Harry to wield it, nor had he made any attempt to retrieve the wand itself from Arabella Figg's.
That left Voldemort's research into Harry's family history. Dumbledore had never expected anything to come of this. The Potters were an old wizarding family, but for the most part an unexceptional one. Indeed, he'd been rather pleased that Voldemort had been gulled into embarking upon such a colossal waste of his time. Had Voldemort's enquiries yielded up something of significance after all? It seemed far-fetched, but there was nothing else to account for the Dark Lord's behaviour. Clearly, Dumbledore would have to launch his own investigation of the Potter family's background ... once he'd sorted out Cornelius Fudge, that is.
Dumbledore rubbed his forehead wearily. He wasn't looking forward to that interview, but the Minister had to be headed off before he managed to cause some serious damage. The man had a positive talent for doing the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. It occurred to Dumbledore, not for the first time, that Voldemort may simply have realised that it would create infinitely more disruption and difficulty, for both Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic, to leave Harry alive and in need of rescue, rather than dead and beyond help. And he still had no idea how Voldemort had got past the protections he'd placed on Harry and his relatives. None of the Death Eaters had been studying these types of spells, at least not to Severus' knowledge; they'd all been busy researching the Potters ...
Dumbledore felt a sudden coldness in his stomach. Was that what Voldemort had discovered? Something about Harry's family -- some inherited magic or peculiarity of the bloodline -- that acted to cancel out protective charms? It would explain why no similarly protected sites had been attacked, and why Voldemort hadn't killed Harry. If he believed that this power could be extended to break through other protections, but hadn't yet figured out how ... if he required Harry's cooperation to do so, and hadn't yet managed to obtain it ...
Dumbledore gave a shudder. He'd been trying very hard not to think about Harry's probable treatment at Voldemort's hands during his captivity. His chances of extricating Harry from the Dark Lord's clutches were extremely remote. In the eleven years of his initial rise to power, no one had ever succeeded in tracking down either Voldemort himself or any of his permanent bases. Barring unforeseen developments, Dumbledore had little hope of --
Something small and grey came pelting through the window, aimed straight at Dumbledore's face. He ducked to one side; the object bounced off the armchair's high back and landed in his beard with a flump. Dumbledore looked down. A tiny grey owl, with an even tinier white scroll held in its beak, lay on its back emitting a steady stream of muffled twitters as its minute legs kicked at the air.
With some difficulty, the owl found its feet. It tried to take off again, but whilst getting up its claws had become hopelessly ensnared in Dumbledore's long silver hair. Fluttering its wings madly, the owl rose a few inches into the air (dragging most of Dumbledore's beard along behind it), then sank back, exhausted, onto Dumbledore's lap.
The little owl gazed up at Dumbledore appealingly. Smiling to himself, Dumbledore took the scroll from its beak and performed a Disentangling Charm. Once free, the owl began rocketing around the room hooting with joy, as Fawkes regarded it benignly from his golden perch.
Dumbledore turned his attention to scroll. It was made of Muggle paper, white with blue pinstripes, and tied closed by what appeared to be a length of dental floss. He pulled off the fastening, unrolled the strip of paper and read:
I think I know how Harry's been hiding.
On a fine clear morning in early August, a handsome white-tailed eagle circled the sky above the stockbroker belt of Surrey. Such a bird would have been a remarkable sight in Britain even in the countryside, yet none of the people in the suburb below seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary. They paid no heed when the eagle dropped like an arrow into a neat Great Whinging garden and rose again with a hoarse cry of triumph, a small green snake clutched in its talons.
The eagle glided to a nearby street lamp, on which was balanced a round straw basket. It dropped its quarry into the basket's narrow mouth to join the half-dozen odd other snakes it had caught in the course of the day.
Next instant the eagle was gone and Albus Dumbledore stood floating in mid-air beside the basket. Very gently he lifted out his most recent catch, which hung limply in his hands.
'Harry?' he said.
The snake made no reply. Taking his wand from his robes, Dumbledore began poking and prodding it, muttering incantations. The snake remained as unresponsive as ever, and after several minutes Dumbledore lowered it back in the basket to rejoin its fellows.
'Getting a bit crowded in there,' Dumbledore observed.
He picked up the basket and silently vanished.
Sitting cross-legged on the fluffy pink carpet of Hermione Granger's bedroom, Dumbledore took the snakes from their basket one by one, holding them out for her great ginger cat Crookshanks to inspect. Hermione herself watched anxiously from the edge of the bed.
Crookshanks gave each snake a desultory sniff, but showed no particular interest in any of them. When they'd all been checked over, Crookshanks leapt up on the bed and onto Hermione's lap, looking up at her and purring. Hermione stroked him absent-mindedly, but continued to gaze, downcast, at the basket of snakes.
'I'm not sure Crookshanks would recognise Harry as a snake,' she said in a low, worried tone. 'I mean, he detected Wormtail, but Wormtail was an Animagus and I don't think Harry's one, and Crookshanks wasn't around any of the times he transformed ...' She went quiet for a second or two, then burst out, 'And if Harry did turn into a snake, why hasn't he changed back? Could he be stuck, do you think? Could something have gone wrong with the transformation?'
'That would be highly unlikely,' said Dumbledore. 'You said he became a serpent on four separate occasions without incident. Once the Animagus transformation is successfully established, it's quite rare for it to miscarry at a later date, and such failures in natural shape-shifters are practically unheard of.'
'Reversal spells didn't work on him,' said Hermione dully. 'If he did get stuck, we couldn't turn him back. And what if he was run over by a lorry, or eaten by something? If he's -- if he's -- dead ... if he stayed a snake, we'd never know ...'
She buried her face in her hands. Dumbledore reached up and patted her knee comfortingly.
'He could be halfway across the country by now,' Hermione said in a muffled voice. 'I should've thought of this sooner, you could've started hunting for him before he'd time to get very far ...'
'I've put the word out amongst the larger birds of prey that they are not to kill any snakes at present,' said Dumbledore soothingly. 'They'll report it to me immediately should they spot one behaving strangely. All the snakes I've captured are being kept in a safe place, whilst Professor McGonagall and I research fresh ways to reverse Transfigurations.'
'If I hadn't been so afraid of getting in trouble ...' said Hermione bitterly, 'if I'd told Professor McGonagall when we first found out Harry could change into a snake, she'd probably have already worked out how to reverse it. Or after Madam Turpin was caught ... I meant to try and convince Harry to tell someone, but Rita Skeeter'd just written that foul article about Hagrid, and with helping Harry with the Triwizard Tournament, it completely slipped my mind. It was only when you asked me if I knew how he could've stayed hidden for so long, and I remembered Rita ...'
Hermione's lips thinned into an angry line.
'Well, at least that's one thing we don't have to worry about in any more --' she said grimly, '-- her snooping around for stories.'
-- the end --
You can find out what happens to Harry in "The Serpent of Lord Voldemort"
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.
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