(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: June 21st is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Two people searching for renewal and a fresh start attend a Summer Solstice Ceremony/Celebration/Festival. Do they find what they seek? Do they find something more?
Note: a) Dear q_drew, I had a plan. I saw your prompt, I was all over it, and then this story happened. I hope, even though I clearly made the left turn at Albuquerque, you enjoy this fic. b) The title is shamelessly lifted from a Tori Amos track. c) I am indebted to the K. Stepanich's Faery Wicca, Book One and Book Two, for the inspiration behind this story and some of the ritual elements embedded in it. Brightest blessings, Lady, and thank you for sharing. d) Basically, if you recognize it, it is most assuredly not mine. e) Finally, thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy.
Summary: "I watched what I believed to be his death and, because of truths I had been told as lies, I did nothing to save him. Knowing what I knew then, I would not change my actions. Knowing what I know now, I am compelled to aid those whose debts are as deep as my own." On the longest day, it is possible for mortals to journey to the fairy realms. Most come looking for lore or a guide. Hermione came for Severus.
Severus relaxed as he felt the vibrations of Potter and his sycophants' footsteps diminish. His mind clinically noted the flow of blood from his neck beginning to falter, the numbness creeping into his extremities; he could not move his fingers anymore even if he did have a way to use them to repair his missing flesh. The world was retreating from his senses and he felt himself sinking into the ground.
Death felt peaceful. He could hear pipes playing him to his rest.
It was the end of May and NEWTs were done when Draco approached her in the Restricted Section. She didn't know how long he'd been standing there before he rapped on the table in front of her, breaking her attention away from the slim volume she'd been reading. He tilted his head and looked at the title. "A Thousand and One Words: A Guide to Living Portraits," he intoned slowly. "Granger, that book is drivel. Why would you waste your time on something like that?"
Hermione sighed and closed the book. He was right; it was drivel. "What do you want, Malfoy?"
Draco looked around and, assuring himself it was just them, slid into the seat across from her. "I know what you're looking for. I can help."
Her eyes narrowed and she snarled. "Why would you help me?"
"I'm not helping you; I'm helping him. Headmaster Snape."
"What makes you so sure that's what I'm looking for?" Hermione countered.
"Anyone with ears this year knows, Granger. You have been the archetypal Gryffindor this year trying to figure out why Headmaster Snape's portrait hasn't awoken."
She snorted. "Fair enough, I suppose. Now for your next trick, tell me why you think I can help you."
"I can be more help than that waste of parchment you have there."
"You're still not convincing me why I should help you, Malfoy."
"I'm offering to help you, Granger. If you don't want my help, say so, and I will be on my way to deal with reasonable witches and wizards," he replied smoothly, rising from his seat.
"Oh, sit down. If you're offering to help me, it's because you expect that I'll help you. I don't mind that. I just want you to tell me what's in it for you. So, be honest, answer my question, and I'll deal fairly."
Draco smirked and returned to his seat. "Fine. My family and I think we know how to find the Headmaster. But we need your help to do it."
Hermione's eyes went wide. "You have my full attention, Draco."
Malfoy Manner was a vastly different proposition in the daylight when one was escorted as a welcome guest instead of dragged in as wanted criminals at night. The lack of madwomen was also a plus. Still, Hermione worked to repress the unease being here brought forth as she entered the grand manor. Some of her unease must have shown itself because Draco looked at her over his shoulder and said quietly, "We gutted the place after…after. Nothing is left from before."
Hermione felt her shoulders inch down from her ears and nodded. Draco continued to lead her onward into a parlor room in the main body of the building. From the walls papered in creamy silk to the wide windows open onto a field dotted with trees, it appeared to be designed to simultaneously intimidate and place visitors at ease. Seated in a high-backed chair, every inch the manor lady, waited Narcissa Malfoy. On the table, tea for three waited. Summoning every ounce of middle-class manners she possessed, Hermione waited pointedly to be asked to sit.
It didn't take long for Narcissa to incline her icy blonde head and gesture for Hermione to take a seat on the small chaise. Hermione sat as directed, her posture stiff. Draco looked at her and sighed.
"Granger, relax. No one is going to string you up."
"I think I'd be more comfortable if I understood what you and your mother want from me, Draco. You told me you know how to find Headmaster Snape," Hermione said after a moment.
Draco took a seat on the chaise across from Hermione and let his mother take the lead.
"Tea, Mis Granger?" Narcissa asked, her voice carefully neutral.
"Thank you, Mrs. Malfoy," she replied, striving for the same neutrality.
Nothing else was said as tea was served. Only when Hermione finished her cup and set it aside, did the conversation begin.
"Miss Granger, how familiar are you with the history of wizard-fairy relations?" Narcissa asked.
"Very little, I'm afraid, Mrs. Malfoy. I've read some on my own, but it seems like most of the information is considered myth," Hermione replied.
"That is very likely. And, well, history has never been taken seriously by Hogwarts." Narcissa paused, taking a deep breath that left her nostrils flaring, before continuing. "Nevertheless, the intersection of our world and the realms of the fairies is part of our history. What is pertinent for now is that some of the oldest bloodlines claim fairy ancestors. The Prince line, of which Severus is the scion, is one of them."
Hermione blinked and her mind began to organize a long list of questions ranging from "What kinds of fairies" and "Tell me everything you've ever heard about wizard-fairy interactions" to "How could you link the disappearance — and probable death — of Snape to fairies." It took an act of will to hold her tongue and wait for Mrs. Malfoy to continue.
"As I'm sure even someone of your…background…must know, fairies are long-lived and given to keeping an eye on their descendants. Based on some of the residual magic in the area where Severus was attacked, we believe that he may well have been spirited away to heal and recover by a fairy relation."
Draco added, "This is where you come in, Granger."
Hermione narrowed her eyes. "Excuse me?"
"What my son is trying to say is that we believe that you can reach Severus in the fairy realm where he is being held," Narcissa said.
It was moments like this that convinced her that being Muggle-born truly did mean something because this entire conversation sounded like so much bunk. However, as Narcissa already made clear, there was much she didn't know in this area. Hermione ventured, "Why would we need to do that? I mean, if they took him to heal him because he's related…"
"Child, they won't just give him back. He will owe them for his life. And life debts to fairies make ours look like cheap gilt compared to goblin gold. Without a reason to return him, he will likely stay until he dies in their raft," Narcissa snapped, the first emotion she'd displayed so far.
"But…" Hermione started before Narcissa cut her off with a long-fingered hand.
"No, we Malfoys cannot allow Severus to languish in a fairy hold without attempting to aid him. Unfortunately, our actions in this instance are circumscribed by our own history with fairies. We cannot directly aid him in this matter."
Hermione's gaze darted from Narcissa's benign mask to Draco's smothered worry. It was that unease in his expression that truly bothered her. She knew they knew more about this situation than they were telling her; she also knew that they would tell her what they thought she needed to know to convince her to undertake something that had to be incredibly dangerous if not downright stupid. But that did lead to the one question she didn't have an answer for.
"Why me?" she blurted.
Narcissa's nostrils flared again. "As I mentioned, we cannot go to Severus' aid. But our debt to him means we need to find someone who can. You are one of the few people who has actually looked into his situation beyond the obvious. You want to help him. And your background means that you don't possess the limitations in dealing with the fairy realms that most witches and wizards do. We can help you find Severus and secure his return. But you are one of the few people who can actually do the work."
Oh yes, incredibly dangerous and downright stupid. As if she didn't grow up with fairy tales.
"This is a lot to consider. May I take some time to think about this?" Hermione asked.
"You can take a week," Narcissa said after a moment. "We have a window of opportunity to open a doorway to the fairy realms at the solstice, but we must make preparations to do so. A week, no more. And if you do decide not to do this, the sooner you can tell us the better."
Hermione nodded. "A week, then. I promise to provide my answer sooner if I can."
"Thank you, Miss Granger. Now, I think Draco should see you out."
Hermione nodded and exited the room with Draco, letting him lead her back to the gates while she mulled over the information she'd been given and the questions she'd been left with.
Draco, for his part, was silent. However, before he opened the gate, he stopped and looked at her. "Look, I know how this sounds. But everything my mother said is true: we really do believe he's in the fairy realms and we really can't go to him ourselves. We need someone to go for us and there's no better choice than you, Granger. So, just, think about it, okay?"
Hermione nodded. "I will, I promise."
"Thanks," he said quietly, then opened the gate for her. She stepped outside the manor's wards and Apparated not home, but to Hogwarts. She had some research to do.
She ended up finding some of what she sought three days later on her own bookshelf, leafing through a book on she acquired from Grimmauld Place. The book discussed the earliest lineage of the sacred bloodlines of British wizards. And, as Mrs. Malfoy suggested, quite a few had some fairy myths tied to their ancestry. Supposedly, the Malfoy progenitor had aided a fairy princess named Rhiannon and been given magic as a result. According to the legend, any Malfoy who dealt poorly with a fairy would either lose their magic or their children would be squibs. The Black family's progenitor had slain a vicious fairy creature known as a firbolg and been granted fairy sight, which introduced a strain of madness to their blood. No fairy gift was unsalted, it seemed. Oddly enough, nothing in this book mentions families such as the Peverell cum Potters, who bargained with Death. Or the Prewetts or the Weasleys. Or the Princes. That took another day and a half to track down in archived editions of Nature's Nobility.
The Prince family, like the Peverell and Prewitt lines, had died out as a family name. However, before there was a Prince family, there was a Morgan family, originally from Wales. The Morgan line didn't aid a fairy or slay a fairy beast or even bargain with a fairy. They married one.
A Morgan son fell in love with a fairy maid named Isolde. The fairy maid, like most sensible fairy maids, could not care less about any mortal. As a handmaid to the fairy queen, Titania, she spent her days busy seeing to the queen's whims and needs. It was on one occasion when Morgan was lurking, playing his pipe as he spied on his love from afar when he was heard by Titania. Drawn by the music, the fairy queen summoned the mortal into her bower. Before she could enchant him to play for her until he dropped, Morgan offered to play for a kiss from Isolde, proclaiming his love for the fairy maid. Titania, amused, agreed if the maid was willing.
Isolde was not.
She turned up her nose at kissing a mortal man. Morgan demanded the opportunity to prove he was worthy of the maid's affections. Titania set Morgan three challenges to prove himself: he had to fetch a diamond in the rough, the last ray of winter's light, and a mermaid's heart song to present to Isolde. It took Morgan a year and a day, all the time allotted, to complete the quest. In the end, he presented the small, unpolished diamond, the flickering light, and the oddly garbled melody to Isolde. Isolde relented, knowing that only an extraordinary mortal could have gathered this and only someone who loved her would do so much for her. When she accepted and kissed Morgan, the diamond, the light, and the song transformed, becoming a polished, faceted stone set in purest gold strung on a chain that would never break. Isolde left Titania and the fairy world behind and married Morgan, with the pendant being handed down through the generations.
Hermione snapped the book closed, owled her acceptance of the quest to the Malfoys, and flooed Headmistress McGonagall. She had a plan.
It was dawn of the longest day when she arrived in the small grove on the Malfoy estate. She came garbed as she was expected to be, barefoot and in the white linen robe belted with silver rope sent by Narcissa. Her hair was braided back and the only jewelry she wore was the Morgan diamond, which was no larger than her pinky nail but brilliantly white. It throbbed between her breasts, where it lay beneath her robe. She waited on the stone seat in the grove for her hosts.
As the sun rose higher in the sky it reached the tips of the trees surrounding her, causing pure light to shine within the clearing. As the edge of light grew, first Narcissa then Draco entered the clearing. Each of them carried a small basket and were robed as she was, though Narcissa wore a golden robe that matched her hair, tied with a golden rope. When Hermione began to rise from her seat, Draco waved her back down.
"Sit, Hermione. You're going to be doing the hard work today," he said. He rummaged in his basket and removed a small bottle containing a sea-green liquid. "Here, drink this."
Hermione accepted the potion, examining the liquid carefully. In its depths, she could see glimmers of light and streaks of shadow. As they had discussed, it was a potion designed to relax her and help prepare her for the journey to the fairy realms. With a deep breath, she uncorked the vial and drained it. It slid down her throat like bitter jelly and as it spread, her muscles relaxed, a decade of tension melting away.
With her muscles lax, her mind, too, slowed. She was open to the sun, the grove, the grass teasing her toes. It felt like being drunk while sober or a lucid dream. As she watched, Narcissa opened her basket and withdrew a brass blade. With sure steps, she waved the blade at a white birch, causing it to shed a long slender branch with a deep v on one end. Narcissa picked up the branch and with sure stokes of the dagger, she stripped off smaller branches, twigs, and leaves until it was a six-foot staff with a spiral pattern grooved in the bark. Chanting something Hermione could not quite make out, Narcissa set aside the blade and drew out strips of leather and a large, faceted, blood-red stone.
Narcissa's slender hands, shades richer than the snowy bark, worked with a surety that Hermione had to admit she didn't expect as she inserted the stone into the vee of the staff and used the leather strips to bind it in place. Once done, Narcissa rose and presented the staff to Hermione.
"Our magic is at best unpredictable in the fairy realms. This staff will serve as the key and guide for your journey. The birch is for purity, the garnet is for Severus. The carvings are all the protection and aid you may bring with you. Please, traveler, accept this aid."
Hermione nodded slowly, reaching for the smooth shaft. It fit in her hand like her wand and throbbed in time with the pendant. "I accept your aid, with gratitude."
With the staff in her hand, Hermione rose, standing to face Draco, who worked to prepare the way into the fairy world for her. She could feel the earth pulse slowly under her feet as Draco worked and the sun moved fully overhead of the grove. Like Narcissa, he too wielded a blade, but his was luminous silver.
With sure strokes, he cut a line in potion-soaked soil as he traced a rectangle in the air. As he worked, he murmured,
"Here, on midsummer's day
Opens the southern door
At sun's height show the way
And learn the truth of fairy lore."
With the final stroke, a door as red as the stone in her staff appeared in the air.
"You have to open the door, Hermione. Once you do, you're on your own. We'll hold the door as long as we can, but…"
Hermione nodded. "I know. Come sunset, the door closes until the next equinox or solstice." She squared her shoulders and placed her hand on the door. It swung open at her touch, a dazzling light blinding her filling doorway. She didn't hesitate; she stepped across the threshold into the fairy world.
Hermione found herself standing in a dim stone room. The walls were rough-hewn, and the space was chilled. It reeked of age. One the wall in front of her, she found an oak door with a gleaming bronze latch. She reached for the latch, but before she could touch it, it lifted itself and the oak door opened onto a dirt road, smooth except for faint traces of footprints. In the distance, she could see the walls of a great city. Stifling a sigh, Hermione began to walk along the path. As she left the antechamber, she looked behind her and saw she had left a red stump of a tower. Fixing that in her mind for her return, she continued forward.
It seemed like it should have taken forever, but all too soon, Hermione found herself approaching a small village. She heard it before she saw it, the bell-like ring of a smithy alerting her. However, she didn't see the village until she stumbled over it; it was hidden in plain sight on a straight road. The village unfolded into a handful of buildings lining the road with farms in homes set away from it. One of those was the blacksmith whose song she'd heard on the road. In front of the smith stood a man with a wealth of wavy chestnut hair dressed in a rich blue tunic and hose, leather boots slicked up his calves. At his waist, she could see the bejeweled hilt of a sword. Hermione did her best to drift over and eavesdrop unobserved.
"Smith, how much longer shall this be? The Countess is deeply impatient, which means I am impatient," the noble sneered.
As she got closer, Hermione stifled a gasp at his chiseled features and golden skin; she had never seen a man this handsome in her life. His voice was a song even in its derisive tone. Desperate to regain a sense of balance, she looked away from perfection to the smith. Something in his rugged form also spoke of perfection, but not in sheer beauty the way the nobleman's did. Rather, he was the perfection of skill in execution. Watching the smith's scarred arm swing his hammer was poetry.
"Miss, how can I help you…" the smith began to ask, his words trailing off as he saw her fully.
"Oh, perfect, another jumped-up witchling here to see if fairies have wings and sparkle," the nobleman sneered.
Before Hermione could speak, the smith replied, "Lord Gwyllin, no disrespect, but she's no silly seeker."
Lord Gwyllin stared at her and Hermione planted her staff and stared right back. "Well, at least it's dressed as a proper seeker," he murmured before addressing her directly. "Go back to the door, little girl. You may have stumbled through across the lintel, but nothing is here for you."
Hermione responded as potion-guided instinct and her own research dictated. "You are wrong, Lord Gwyllin. I am no jumped-up witchling, but a witch full grown. I have come willingly through the southern door seeking not winged creatures and sparkling ones, but I come to find one of our own wrongly taken by your kind from our world. Will you aid my search?"
"Oh, are you now? A witch full grown? You are a worm, grubbing in the dirt beneath your better's feet. Again, take your leave and bother us no more."
"I am no worm to cower in the dirt; I am a true-born scion of magic and I come as an honest traveler seeking one who was stolen into this realm from mine. Once more, I ask your aid to find him. Will you give it?
"Aid you? A mortal with the lifespan of a fruit fly? You are here and gone in the blink of an eye, a mere moment's irritation to the Tuatha de Danann. Leave or waste your finite days in this village. You are ignorant, it matters not."
"Mortal I may be, but I am this moment's irritation to you, and I will spend my days being that nagging itch betwixt your shoulders as I choose. Or, you may render me the aid I thrice now requested: I am seeking a wizard and hero of my world, Severus Snape, brought into yours. Where is he, Lord Gwyllin?"
A brilliant smile lit Lord Gwyllin's face and stole Hermione's breath. The Children of Danu were once gods; that smile was beyond all she could hope to understand. Closing her eyes, she shook her head to clear it from the noble's bedazzlement. The diamond pendant pulsed against her skin, a shock of dull pain that brought her fully back to her senses. She met his brilliant blue gaze with her own chocolate.
"Very well, seeker. Aid thrice sought shall be given, this I do vow. I know the one you seek; he has been brought to the city of Finias and made welcome in the Countess' court. I will escort you to the gates of the city should you wish it."
Hermione nodded. "Thank you, my Lord. I would indeed wish your escort and any guidance you can provide. Tell me, though, how does he fare?"
Lord Gwyllin spoke carefully, "He fares better in mind and body than he did upon his arrival. More than that, I fear, I cannot say."
"Thank you. Will you tell me when you are ready to depart? I noticed as I arrived that you were conducting business with the smith."
"Take her to the city now, Lord. My work will take some time yet and the girl's time is limited," the smith said with a hard look for the nobleman.
Hermione did her best to keep her mouth closed.
Lord Gwyllin's lips curled. "On your head be it, Sir Smith. Know, however, that I expect my lady's order complete when I return."
"Aye, you'll have your chains and greaves when you return."
With a huffy sniff, Lord Gwyllin spun on his narrow heel and stalked into the village. Hermione picked up the front of her robe and chased after him, her bare feet pounding the dirt. She caught him in moments, staying just behind and to his left. He did not glance back once as he walked to the inn and around the back to the stables. He paid a small rotund man who reminded her of Professor Flitwick some coins and retrieved his horse, a gloriously white creature shining in the shadow of the stables.
The nobleman made quick work of saddling her and placing a small seat behind the main. A nasty smile marred his face as he addressed her for the first time. "I do hope you know how to ride pillion, witchling."
"So do I, Lord Gwyllin."
Despite his churlish manner, he helped her mount behind him and settle on the rear of the horse.
Following his instructions, she grasped her staff with one hand and his waist with her other as he took off at a vicious, jarring canter down the dirt road toward the city in the distance.
All too soon, they arrived at the gates of the city called Finias, the horse's hooves beating a tattoo as they came to halt. Lord Gwyllin stayed astride as Hermione carefully dismounted onto stiff legs. Before the gate stood two stone knights as sentries and no way to raise the gate or call for admittance. Annoyed, she stared at Lord Gwyllin. He smiled that ugly smile again.
"I promised you an escort to the gates of the city. From here, you must make your own way. Fare thee well, witchling." He laughed and wheeled his horse before taking off at a gallop.
"Bastard," Hermione muttered, trying to coax life into her legs. Giving it up as a bad job, she turned to face the statues guarding the gate. It was clearly a gate, heavy dark wood banded with darkened metal set in the whitewashed wall of the city itself. There was no mechanism she could see to open the way. Only the statues guarded the gate; no other person was present. Hermione looked up at the smooth expanse of the wall surrounding the city; it was too tall and too smooth to scale.
"Nothing for it," she sighed and used her staff to knock on the gate.
The statue to the left of the gate opened its eyes, revealing a cloudy quartz gaze. Slowly, it rumbled, "Who seeks entrance to the city of Finias?"
Not again, she thought, before replying, "I do."
The statue to the right opened its own eyes and added, "The city of Finias is to be entered by who?"
"Again, I seek entry to the city of Finias." Pity she couldn't hex the statues. Bombarda would take care of them — and the gate — quite nicely.
"This gate is not for visitors," Right replied as Left said, "Visitors should not use this gate."
"Oh, and what gate should I use?"
"North," both statues replied as one.
"And how far is it to the northern gate," Hermione asked.
"A half-day's ride around the city," Left said.
"Around the city is a half-day's ride," Right said.
"I'm afraid I don't have that much time. I need to go through this gate."
"This is the challenger's gate. Do you wish to undertake the trial?" said Right.
"Challenger's gate is only passed through a trial. Is this your will?" said Left.
"Yes," Hermione said, gritting her teeth.
"Then behold! Pass through the gate to enter the city of Finias!" the statues intoned. The wooden gate dissolved as the statues fell silent and still. In its place was a wall of flame.
Hermione's fleeting hope that the fire was an illusion quickly died as the heat of the fire made her take a step back. The flames were clear at the base, cooling to yellow in the upper half of the gateway.
Cautiously, she edged toward the flames from the side. The walls of the city were cool to the touch. The air before the fiery gate was hot enough to redden her skin. Withdrawing her hand, she placed it against the wall of the city to ease the ache. She had to get through this. Going around wasn't an option.
Carefully, she took the white staff Narcissa had provided for her and reversed it, so she was holding the garnet-tipped end. Gripping the leather-wrapped section, she angled the staff around the statue and into the fire. Maybe it was only a few inches across, something she could quickly pass. Her staff disappeared into the flame, but the leather and wood remained cool like the walls. She jerked it back out. Eyes wide, Hermione eyed the staff, its whole length unaffected by being placed in the fire.
Before she could think it through, Hermione backed up down the road and ran straight toward the fire, her staff held before her like a lance. Unbidden, she let out a scream of emotion as she crossed under the wall and into the flames. They tickled her skin and teased her hair as she ran through them, but they didn't cause her any harm. She inhaled summer warm air on each breath even as blue flames danced around her ankles. Just as she was beginning to falter in her steps, she broke through the other side of the flames and found herself inside the city proper.
She had come to a halt on a paved street just before a series of shops and halls. Glancing behind her, Hermione only saw the back of a brick building; she had no idea where the gate she had crossed was to be found. Stifling the urge to panic, she faced down the street, looking for an inn or pub or a gathering of people where she could find someone to help her gain access to the court and Severus. Instead, she was approached by a small, round man with pointed ears, leathery skin, and a gentle smile. He came up to her hip. She looked down at the man as he approached her, wondering if she would break a toe if she tried to punt him.
"Ah, traveller! Welcome to the city of Finias! I am Thom, here to guide you about the city!" His voice was cheery and free of malice and the double-speak she'd encountered from the Lord who dropped her at the gates.
"Hello, Thom. I'd like help finding the court of the Countess," she said bluntly.
"I can help you with that, young lady. My cousin Rhys works in the manse's kitchens. Come with me," he said, before turning on his heel and heading down a side street she'd not seen in her initial survey.
Despite her best efforts, she was hopelessly lost in a few blocks as her guide led her down every alleyway, side street, and shortcut that was available. She was following him around a corner when she heard the cry of a child. Her head whipped around behind her, straining to locate the source of the cry.
It didn't take long for her to find the child, a small toddler, smudged, and dirty from hiding in the alleyway.
"Hello, are you lost?" she asked, crouching down beside the crying boy.
The boy looked up at her and hissed, jaw opening wide to display a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
Hermione gasped and he leaped at her, knocking her down. The hissing snarling child was trying to bite her throat. She snarled in return and rolled around, trying to dislodge the little monster before he bit her. Grasping, she grabbed the staff with one hand and began to smack him awkwardly with it.
The minute the white wood touched his skin, the monster howled in pain and confusion. As she continued to smack it, he began to scramble off of her before finally fleeing on all fours, leaving her lying on the ground on the dirty alley, panting and disheveled. Thom found her there a couple of minutes later as she began to rise.
"Tsk, tsk," he said as he pulled a soft brush from a hidden pocket and began to dust her off with it. "My dear journeyer, compassion is all well and good, but it must be married to wisdom to be truly effective. Ah, well, no real harm and you're presentable once more. Come, let's continue."
His perfunctory dusting had restored Hermione to a pristine state, her robes gleaming white and rope belt a soft shining silver. Her hair was neatly plaited once more and even her feet were clean from road-stains. Shaking her head, she chased after Thom.
This time, he stayed on the main thoroughfare, a wide boulevard cutting from the gate in the distance to a sprawling garden ahead. As they walked, Hermione listened to Thom speak of the city. "Finias is one of the four gateway cities, a true crossroads of our lands. Of course, being midsummer's day, it is our busiest day. So many travelers like you popping in, hoping to learn some lore, meet a guide. Occasionally, we get one who's mad for the tales, but they usually don't get to the city. It takes more than a head full of old stories to get to the city. Lady Tanwen holds the city for the High King and the High Queen; as someone who's lost a loved one to the mortal world, she knows its allure and its dangers well. For all that, though, she's a fair noble indeed, and one who honors the treaties as well. Ah, here we are, let me see if my cousin can help us get past the gate."
For they had arrived at the sprawling garden at the apex of the boulevard.
It turned out they didn't need to go through the kitchens or sneak through the palatial complex. A young towheaded boy of luminous beauty garbed in what Thom whispered was page's gear greeted them at the inner gate to the complex.
"Traveler, please come with me. My Lady, the Countess of Finias, requests your presence," he said in a voice that reminded her of birdsong.
Hermione stifled her urge to be contrary. Between her guide and her escort, her suspicions had been roused. Her reading in preparation for this trip didn't tell her a lot about the world she was in, but they stressed that nothing was as it seemed. She longed for Lord Gwyllin's sneering challenge. Still, time was short, she was nearer to her goal than she honestly expected to get without a fight, and it was possible that smoothing the way to make her paranoid was their way of deriving enjoyment from her presence.
"Thank you," she said after a long pause.
"And with that my role if done. Fare thee well, traveler!" Thom said with a chuckle, turning on his heel and departing back through the elaborate garden.
"Come, my Lady awaits!" The page scurried away; his movements graceful even as he hurried.
Only by dint of longer legs did Hermione manage to keep up with his pace. She was a bit saddened by it; they moved too quickly through the halls for her to do more than get an impression of beauty and wealth. After all the stories of the riches held by fairies in their rafts, she hoped to see similar wonders herself.
They finally arrived at their destination, an overtly feminine office in an undistinguished hallway. The page rapped on the door and a grizzled male voice said, "Enter."
The page held the door open and gestured for Hermione to enter before him. Confused, she did so, stepping into the room and pausing. The room held only two people besides herself and the page, who followed her then closed the door behind them. The first was the essence of a grizzled veteran knight, his belt clearly missing a sword, his face missing its left eye. The other was a middle-aged woman dressed in a simple tunic and pants. Her skin was milk pale and unlined and her features were hawk-like with hooded dark eyes. Raven black hair was slicked back into a firm knot at the nape of her neck.
Despite her lack of innate beauty, she radiated charisma.
Before the page could announce her, Hermione inclined her head and said, "Lady Tanwen, Countess of Finias, I presume?"
"Very good, traveler," she murmured in a velvety voice. "And will you honor me with your name?"
Hermione paused. "You know, you are the first person I've encountered who has actually asked for my name?"
At that, Lady Tanwen chuckled. The sound evoked every fantasy she'd ever had and nearly brought her to her knees. Hermione's curiosity faded and she steeled her will.
"I think I'll keep my name for now, if you please," Hermione said firmly.
"That could be construed as quite rude," the Countess countered, amusement lacing her voice like wine. "After all, I have far more to fear of my name in your mouth than you of yours in mine."
Hermione thought carefully before responding. "True. Very well, you may call me Granger."
"Too plain a name for you and yet, true enough to respect the spirit of the request. I will accept it. Now, 'Granger', what brings you to my city on the longest day?"
Lady Tanwen looked for a moment like she'd been slapped. The knight reached behind his back and steel scraped on leather. The hiss was enough to snap the countess back to her previous poise.
"He is no longer of your concern," she said. The room was heavy with the weight of her will and Hermione could feel it smothering her. Behind her, she could hear the page whimper.
"I've come to verify that on behalf of those who owe him a debt," Hermione choked out.
"Debts? What does your kind know of debts?" the knight snarled, hand still behind his back.
"Enough to know that we should pay them at all as we can do so," Hermione snapped back, anger giving her the strength to speak without effort.
"What debt?" The Countess asked, trying to alleviate the pressure in the room.
"They owe him for their freedom, if not their lives. They could not come themselves for the debts they owe your kind. I agreed to come in their stead."
"Ah, not quite true, that," she countered. "What else? What else brings you into my city?"
"I am here for Severus Snape, nothing more."
"You spoke of debts others owe. Why did you agree to come? You know enough to be wary of giving your name."
"I owe him my life, many times over. I watched what I believed to be his death and, because of truths I had been told as lies, I did nothing to save him. Knowing what I knew then, I would not change my actions. Knowing what I know now, I am compelled to aid those whose debts are as deep as my own."
Lady Tanwen closed her eyes, thinking for a hard moment. The knight sheathed his hidden blade. The page stopped his fretting. Hermione summoned her small store of patience and waited.
Finally, she spoke. "Very well. I'll allow you to see my nephew. His choices are his own."
Hermione's eyes widened as the suspicions she nursed were all but confirmed. "Thank you, Lady Tanwen."
A smile ghosted across her lips. "I think, on the whole, you deserve the opportunity."
"Eridanus, please escort Granger to Severus's suite."
With that, she turned back to the desk, dismissing her. Hermione took a deep breath and let the young page, Eridanus, lead her back out into the hall and into the complex.
Just as before, he sped her through the halls, forcing her to walk as quickly as she could to keep up with him and giving her no time to take in the space around her. This time, her speed walk ended at an elaborate ebony and bronze door and decorated with runes that Hermione couldn't identify. The page rapped on the door.
"Enter," said Severus.
Hermione felt something tighten in her chest. She'd been focused on the search for so long, she wasn't actually prepared for this moment. Before she could try, the door opened and, there on a chaise, book in hand, was Severus Snape. Whole, healthy, alive.
Hermione sagged to her knees and leaned heavily against the doorframe to keep herself upright. She smiled weakly and said, "Hello, sir."
Severus chucked the book at her. It struck her shoulder before falling softly to the floor. He stood up and began pacing and ranting.
"Absolutely not! I refuse to believe that you befuddled idiots could not manage your own affairs for five damned minutes before you hurl yourself into a godforsaken fairy raft chasing my ghost. You left me to die and I was glad to be left for dead. You will not meddle and bring me back to life once more! I am done with you, all of you and most especially you, you imbecilic, jumped-up excuse for a parrot. Begone!"
He collapsed on the chaise, panting from temper. His little tirade gave her time to regain her senses and she stood on her own steady feet with her staff planted at her side. Snarling, she yanked twice on the chain around her neck before recalling the chain would not break and lifted it over her head. She hurled it in return at the man who flung hatred at her without a hello.
"And thus I have fulfilled my obligations, Severus Snape. I did not come to 'resurrect' you; I came to verify that your presence here was in accord with your will on behalf of Draco and Narcissa. I can only assume, as I am a mere 'jumped-up excuse for a parrot,' that you do not wish to return to the land of the living and are content being your ultimate aunt's guest for a hundred years or more. Further, as you are indeed hale enough to hurl invective at such length and volume it appears that your wounds, which I bore witness to, have been healed sufficiently that they will no longer plague you. Thank you for your time."
Hermione turned to leave but found the door closed and the page missing. The door didn't respond to her efforts to push it open and she couldn't find a latch or know to pull it open.
"Damn it," she hissed.
She turned back to face Severus, who was holding the small gem in his hands and staring at it with wonder.
"Professor?" she asked. He didn't answer her, instead being bent on the stone in his hands.
"Professor!" she said loudly, stamping her foot at his lack of response.
Finally, she stalked over to him, set aside her staff, and grabbed him by the shoulders, determined to make him pay attention to her long enough to get her out of his room.
"Severus Snape!" she shouted, shaking him by the shoulders.
He was a pliant as a rag doll in her grip until his grasped loosened on the pendant in his grasp. It was shining like a sun in his grip, pulsing kaleidoscopic rainbows. The lights were mesmerizing and despite herself, Hermione found herself sliding into them.
It would've been prosaic to say that the light was providing Severus with a reason for returning to the world. What it showed him the multitudes of futures that could await him. Hermione stood by Severus' side, two shadows watching the opportunities the stone promised.
In one, he was married to a buxom brunette with a passel of daughters, a doting father and a passionately loving husband. Another, he was a curmudgeonly merchant running his own apothecary, isolated and alone save for his clerk and assistant brewer who was his friend despite himself. A third, he was Headmaster of Hogwarts once more, but respected as a hero and leader of Britain's wizard community. Here, too, he had a bride, an angelic blonde who doted on him. Yet another showed him to be a forgotten Ministry employee, toiling away save for a co-worker who was as stuck as he and who gave a good as he got.
One thread all the visions had in common: no matter what future — and they were not all pleasant — he was never alone. He would always have companionship, a friend if not more. A second was that he was free: no more kowtowing to masters, no more enforced servitude, no specter of Azkaban. He could choose any path unencumbered by his past.
With a shuddering gasp, the pendant's spell ended. Awkwardly, Hermione slid herself off of Severus and used her staff to help her gain her feet.
"I don't suppose you would mind unlocking the door—" Hermione began when Severus interrupted her.
"What trick is this, Miss Granger? Was it supposed to bewitch me into following you around like a lovesick puppy, another 'war hero,'" he sneered, "on your string?"
"Oh, for the love of all that is good and holy, that pendant is yours, you stubborn git! Now, will you please open the fucking door so I can leave?"
"Not until I get some answers!" Severus snapped.
"What answers? It's yours! It's a Prince heirloom! I brought it with me so if you chose to leave, it could help us bargain with the fairy lord who was responsible for bringing you here to release you," Hermione finished with a sigh.
"Yes. Now, about the door?"
"I'm not done with my questions. Why would it show me such romantic foolishness? A wife? Children? Especially with you," he added derisively.
"I don't know. Maybe because you secretly want that? Or, maybe because it's an heirloom that founded your damn family line and it wants it to continue? What does it matter?"
Severus didn't reply, merely stared at the pendant swinging from his fingers.
"Look, I respect your decision to stay. But my time is limited. I need to return to the real world soon. Will you please open the door?"
"Be honest, Granger, do you think there's anything for me to go back to?"
There was a plaintive note to his question, and it compelled her to answer as kindly as she could.
"Do you have a life waiting for you? No, Severus, you don't. You've been dead for a year. You've been exonerated by the Wizengamot and awarded an Order of Merlin, First Class, by the Ministry posthumously. Minerva is Headmistress now and she hired a potions teacher from Belgium and a defense instructor from Norway to fill those vacancies. Your old life is gone.
"But you have friends waiting for you. Draco and Narcissa did everything in their power to dragoon me into coming here to rescue you and, despite Lucius' conviction, they retain enough money, power, and influence to help set you up in any life you choose. Given how much they think they owe you, they would likely be grateful to balance the scales that way. Harry will never be your greatest fan, but he has made it a point to speak in your favor whenever your name comes up. He, too, would probably help you if you went back. If you choose to return, you'll have options. And I don't think you can ask for fairer than that."
"And you?" he pressed.
"What about me?"
"You featured…prominently…in many of those scenarios, those options I was shown. Why would you come for me?"
"I came because I thought I owed it to you. A notion, I might add, you disabused me of within seconds of seeing me. Why I featured in those scenarios, I've no idea. Maybe because I've been wearing the pendant all day? But I certainly don't harbor some secret crush on you," Hermione said with a huff.
Severus laughed and it was better than Lady Tanwen because it was real and still made her knees weak.
"Thank Merlin for that! No, I think if I were to ever have that kind of relationship, I don't want the seeds of a schoolgirl crush involved."
"If? Are you thinking of returning?"
"I think…I think I will." He stared long and hard at the diamond in his hand. "I wanted to die, Miss Granger. That night, I was grateful to die. And then, Lady Tanwen intervened. She has made clear that there is no debt beyond blood for her aid and I could return at any time. And yet, I didn't see a reason to. Nothing to live for, nothing to go back for."
He took the pendant and hung it around his own neck, tucking it under his tunic. "And then you came. You brought me what I was missing, Miss Granger, and I think I will never repay that debt."
"Hope," he corrected. "Now, I think it is time we went home."