Harry had to veer very sharply to the right to avoid crashing into an elm. He'd never flown so badly in his life. But he couldn't help it; for the past ten minutes he'd been distracted by the splitting pain in his head. His scar ached as badly as it had last year when Voldemort was near and feeling particularly nasty. Which meant something terrible was happening, and Harry was so afraid he knew what it was ... but he was even more afraid that the pain would suddenly stop, because that might mean ...
There! That opening in the trees ahead - that was it! Harry slowed in his flight and swooped down lower, skimming just over the tree- tops. He clutched his Invisibility Cloak tighter about him as he approached the clearing, dread beginning to make his stomach tight. What would he see when he got in sight? Would the Death Eaters really be there? Would Snape?
He got his answer less than two minutes later.
Hovering behind the thick trunk of an old elm, Harry's horrified gaze took in the sight of Severus Snape thrashing on the ground, clearly visible by the light of the moon, held in thrall by the pain issuing from Voldemort's wand. His mouth was wide open, as if shrieking, but only hoarse, choking noises emerged. Terrified, Harry clutched at his own wand while keeping the Firebolt steady with another: now that he was actually here he had no idea what to do, save that he couldn't bear watching this, seeing Snape dying by degrees under his very eyes.
"Crucio," Voldemort said again, sounding almost bored, and Snape, who'd been trying to get to his feet, collapsed again with a strangled moan. Harry squeezed his eyes shut as another blinding bolt of pain seared his scar. Neither of them could take much more of this. He looked wildly at the assembled Death Eaters, all of whom were watching the gruesome spectacle with the utmost fascination. What should he do? Could any of them see through Invisibility Cloaks, like Alastor Moody? Then, as Harry frantically ran through the possibilities, Voldemort lowered his wand slightly, raised his eyes to the sky, and frowned with irritation.
"The boy must be more stupid than I thought," he mused, sounding frustrated. "If he were coming at all, he'd have been here by now ... surely that vision was clear enough to instruct a child half his age ... "
Harry had to hold on tight to keep from falling off his broom. Him. Voldemort was talking about him.
Those thin lips set in a firm line. "Well, he is either truly obtuse, or - and how it pains me to say this, Severus - he doesn't care whether you live or die. Either one is possible, I suppose ... ah, well. Either way you shall pay the price for your treason." He looked down on Snape, who seemed to be trying to lever himself up on his elbows. "What can you be trying to do? Get your wand? But I have that now. I have it in many, many broken pieces. And surely you know it would have been useless against me in any case? Death with dignity, my friend, death with dignity, in that finest of Dumbledorian traditions! Crucio!" This time Snape did scream as he fell back again, and the sound ripped through Harry's nerves far worse than the pain in his scar.
His mind was whirling with questions. Voldemort had sent the vision - and was expecting him? But he obviously didn't know Harry was already here, and that was reason for hope. And action. Gritting his teeth determinedly, Harry withdrew his wand and, trying to stay behind the elm as much as possible, pointed it at a pine tree opposite him in the clearing. This was going to have to be done very fast, and very well. He wished Hermione were here.
"Inferno!" he whispered softly, and the pine tree burst into flame.
Well, it certainly served as a distraction. The Death Eaters turned as one with a horrified cry, and Voldemort whirled round, lowering his wand in the process. Snape dropped like a stone to the ground. Harry then pointed at another elm, this one nearest Voldemort himself. "Inferno!" And then at an oak. "Inferno!" Another pine. Another elm. Another ... "Inferno! Inferno! Inferno!"
The clearing was going up in a blaze, and the Death Eaters didn't seem to know how to react. Over the roaring flames Harry could hear someone shouting, "Dumbledore!" and Voldemort's roared "Silence, fool!" in response, but that didn't matter, because he was already in motion.
Setting his jaw and praying to whatever higher power might exist for young, stupid wizards, he held on tight to his broomstick and roared down into the clearing, determined not to let the flames frighten him, aware that they were far less terrible than Lord Voldemort. He paused to set another tree on fire on his way - the Death Eaters were regaining their heads and beginning to put the flames out. He had to keep them busy, that was his only chance - that, and the Invisibility Cloak -
He swooped down to where Snape lay, aware that he had to do it right the first time. There could be no second chance. He hooked his legs tightly around the broomstick, reached out with both arms, and, never slowing his flight, lifted Snape off the ground onto the broomstick, clutching him in his arms and feeling like he was dislocating both shoulders in the process. The Firebolt swayed and dipped for a moment as he urged it back up into the air, unused to the extra weight. But it was still the best broom in the world, and Harry had to count on that, because surely any moment now, in spite of the fire -
"Master! Master!" came the hysterical voice of a Death Eater. "Snape's levitating!" Harry could hear Voldemort's enraged howl in response and, as he
finally cleared the treetops, dared to glance back down. "He's not levitating, you idiot! He's half-dead! Someone invisible is CARRYING him!" Harry quickly turned his eyes forward again, but not before seeing Voldemort pointing his wand after them. Oh, God, he knew what was coming, he had to time this just right ...
Harry veered to the right as if avoiding a collision with a bird, except that the threat was coming from behind, not ahead. He'd dodged the Cruciatus curse before, and he had to hope he could dodge this one too - and as the tree nearest him suddenly withered and turned black, he knew that he could. God, how far away was Hogwarts? Should he have headed for Hogsmeade? It was closer. But no, there was no Dumbledore in Hogsmeade, there was no one who could protect them there - he leaned forward, clutching Snape's unconscious body tighter, urging the broom on with his legs as fast as it could go. The treetops were whizzing by so fast beneath him that the leaves were blurs, but he knew this was nowhere near the Firebolt's top speed. How fast could he make it go, with all this extra cargo, before it began to burn out ... ?
Over the wind in his ears he heard the words, "After them!" Daring to turn around again he saw two Death Eaters rising into the air on brooms - how strange, hadn't Snape said they usually Apparated? - and giving chase. Their brooms were older, slower models, and both were far behind, but with only one man on each broom they could soon catch up. Harry was starting to dislike his chances. He glanced back over his shoulder again and recognized one of his pursuers; Lucius Malfoy had apparently lost his mask in the confusion, and was now pointing his wand directly at Harry.
"Oh, shit," Harry moaned, and this time swooped to the left. The hex, whatever it was, missed them by inches. His head was killing him, his hands were full with what felt like a bag of cement, Hogwarts seemed a million miles away, and now Dark wizards were right on his tail lobbing spells at him. There was no way he and Snape were getting out of this alive. No way, unless -
Harry veered to the right again, dodging another hex. He remembered something very important he'd learned in the Triwizard Tournament: play to your strengths. Admittedly, those didn't seem so very many right now, but maybe if he ... yes, maybe if he ...
Without allowing himself to think of what he was doing, Harry held Snape tighter and sent the broom in a nosedive, down into the dark woods below. He heard the startled exclamations of the two wizards above him as he carefully zoomed behind a very large evergreen; he had a few seconds, at best. He shook out his Invisibility Cloak and wrapped it around himself and Snape as best he could, tried to calm his insane trembling, and waited.
Sure enough, it was only a matter of moments before Malfoy and the other Death Eater - if Harry remembered that massive bulk correctly, it had to be Crabbe's father - dropped cautiously down into the trees. "Careful," Malfoy muttered. "I suppose my hex must've gotten him, but we can't be sure."
"Who the devil do you think it is?" Crabbe asked, sounding fearful. "D-dumbledore?"
"Don't be an idiot," Malfoy snapped. "Since when has the great Albus Dumbledore dirtied his own hands? No, it'll be some noble fool he has in his service, you can be sure ... careful!" For the broom Crabbe was riding had wobbled suddenly.
"Sorry," Crabbe muttered. "Looks like it's been ages since Snape had this thing serviced ... "
I could get them now, Harry thought nervously from his hiding-place. While they're distracted, I could hex them or jinx them or something ... and then get away ...
But these were not his classmates. These were full-grown, powerful wizards (even if one of them was related to Vincent Crabbe) and whatever worked on Draco might not work on Lucius. If Harry was caught ... far better not to take the chance.
He held as still as possible while Malfoy and Crabbe glided silently through the woods. With the canopy of trees obscuring the moon overhead it was almost impossible to see them, but Harry took heart in the fact that it would be even more impossible for them to see him.
Snape stirred slightly in his arms. Heart jumping into his mouth, Harry clutched the other man tighter and prayed he wouldn't make a sound.
If he waited long enough, quietly enough, they might just give up and go away.
His hopes of that were dashed, however, when Lucius called softly, "Severus, my old, dear friend? Are you here? Just moan in pain." He laughed harshly and Harry gritted his teeth on a surge of rage. "You know, that was a neat trick your friend had, whoever he is. I am thinking of imitating it." He raised his wand. "Invisibility does not mean invulnerability, as you well know, I'm sure. Even if I can't see you, you can still be burned. Come out now, before I set the whole forest afire."
He's bluffing, Harry thought desperately. He's got to be. From the way Crabbe seemed to hesitate, the other Death Eater was hoping the same thing.
"I say, Lucius," Crabbe hissed, "are you sure that's an awfully ... "
"Would you like to tell the Dark Lord we failed?" Lucius asked coldly, and when Crabbe fell silent, he pointed his wand at an old pine. "Inferno!"
Harry's spell had been effective, but Malfoy's was devastating. The pine tree exploded into a ball of fire, flames roaring into the sky as high as twenty feet, immediately leaping onto other nearby trees. Harry could feel the heat as suddenly as if he'd run into a wall. There was no help for it now. He coughed on the smoke and urged the broom straight up, breaking through branches and leaves and pinecones and hearing Malfoy's triumphant "Ah-hah!" behind him.
The chase was on again, but now it was over fire. The flames Lucius had set were spreading like mad. Harry knew that if he went fast enough he could outdistance them, but as it was tongues of fire were curling into the air and made low flight hazardous, if not impossible. This was terrible, Harry thought in despair as he followed the rise of trees up a steep hill, Malfoy and Crabbe in hot (if blind) pursuit. Harry had his hands too full with Snape, it was only a matter of time before the Cloak slipped and they saw exactly where he was. If only he could get to the school -
The school! He'd cleared the hill. He could see it ahead, rising into the early morning sky, the dim hulk of Hogwarts. Safety was in sight. It still seemed ages away, but if he could just get the broom to go a little faster -
He did. And in the resulting whipping of the wind, the Invisibility Cloak flapped up in the air, showing Malfoy and Crabbe his precise position. It was only for an instant, but it was enough. Malfoy yelled something, Harry couldn't quite hear what, but he felt his broom shudder and jerk beneath him, and then begin to dip alarmingly.
There were powerful spells on the Firebolt. After what had happened last term, Dumbledore had seen to that. But it wasn't invulnerable, and whatever Malfoy had done to it was making it behave erratically in the air, almost too erratically to control without the use of his hands. Harry could feel his wits dissolving into panic. Not here, not when they were so close to safety! Had Dumbledore gotten his owl? Would he know they were coming, would he be looking for them, would he see Crabbe and Malfoy swooping around like bats and conclude that Harry and Snape must be nearby? Would he see the smoke? Harry could feel his throat catching with the need to scream loudly enough for his headmaster to hear him, even though that was obviously impossible.
Instead of screaming, he held onto Snape still more firmly and clutched his knees even tighter to the broom, feeling like every muscle in his body was howling in pain, and urged forward again. The Firebolt jerked into a burst of speed, then dipped down toward the trees. Malfoy and Crabbe were waiting for something to crash into the branches below, he just knew it ... he had to stay up in the air where they couldn't see him ... he was past the forest fire now, but it still seemed like he could feel the heat all around him, as if he were flying straight through hell ...
Then, due to an errant gust of wind, the Cloak flapped up again. Malfoy shouted something else. And, to his horror, Harry felt the broom under him jerk one last time - and begin falling through the air. No. NO. But as hard as he tried, he couldn't keep the Firebolt aloft, and it started to drop toward the trees below. This was it, then. He'd failed, and he and Snape would either break their necks now or be captured and dragged back to Voldemort. He hoped it was the former - maybe if he tried he could deliberately land on his head -
Then, incredibly, as if a hand underneath it had given it a gentle push, the broom buoyed itself back up in the air. Harry opened the eyes he'd squeezed shut, and blinked. The broom continued to lift and he heard Malfoy's outraged shout behind him. He turned and, to his shock, saw the two Dark wizards sitting still in the air, getting smaller and smaller as his broom continued on. Dumbledore, it had to be Dumbledore, Harry thought dizzily. They were so close to Hogwarts now that Crabbe and Malfoy had to turn back - they were safe!
Focusing only a section of his brain on piloting the broom - that invisible hand seemed to be doing all the work - Harry finally turned his attention to the still body in his arms. Except for that one time down in the woods, Snape hadn't moved. Was he all right? Voldemort had said he was "half-dead," but right now, looking into that pale, still face, Harry thought Snape looked more like three-quarters dead. "Snape?" he whispered, and coughed, registering only now the amount of smoke that had got into his lungs. "Professor Snape?" No response. Starting to feel panicked again, Harry wished frantically that the invisible hand would pull the broom along a little faster.
The sun was beginning to dawn over the horizon, and squinting down, Harry could see the border of the deserted Hogwarts grounds. No, not quite deserted - two figures were hurrying across the lawn, faces turned towards the sky. The broom jolted a bit, and then began to descend, and as they approached the ground Harry could see that the two people were Albus Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall. He felt himself beginning to shake with relief.
The broom dropped gently but Harry, his whole body locked into one position, couldn't make the landing. The Firebolt hit the ground, with its rider still clutching Snape in arms that felt as heavy and immobile as lead. Harry felt his ankle give way painfully as it connected with the earth. The hood of the Invisibility Cloak slipped off his face, and McGonagall cried out, "Harry!"
"Harry," Dumbledore repeated urgently, running to kneel down where Harry lay and pull the Cloak off him. "Are you all right? Where is Professor - oh, my." He removed the Cloak completely, and revealed the strange tableau of Harry with his knees still locked onto the broomstick and his arms locked round Snape, who in turn lay sprawled and still on the ground.
"Severus," McGonagall moaned. "Dear Lord, what's happened to him - "
"Quickly, Minerva," Dumbledore said, in as close a voice to a snap as Harry had ever heard from him. "Quickly, there's no time. Get Harry to the hospital wing. Tell Madam Pomfrey that he was out practising Quidditch after hours to take his mind off exams, and injured himself."
"But Professor Snape - " McGonagall began.
"I will tend to Severus myself. Until we know whom we can trust, no one must know what happened here, Minerva. After you've taken care of Harry, go to Binns and tell him that Professor Snape has been called away on a personal matter, and that Binns is to administer the Potions exams next week; if there are scheduling conflicts, work them out later. Now, Harry, we've got to get you taken care of - if you could just let go of Professor Snape - "
"I can't," Harry croaked, and it was true. His joints all felt like they were frozen solid, and even though his arms ached like mad he couldn't unwind them from Snape. "S-sir, he's, he's not breathing properly, and he won't wake up, and they set the woods on fire - "
"So I noticed," Dumbledore said grimly. "Have no fear, Harry, the Ministry is taking care of that, though I've no doubt that the Death Eaters are long gone by now. Here now, gently ... " He laid hold of Harry's arms and carefully pulled them away. Harry winced as his elbows straightened themselves out and the throbbing pain in his ankle began to make itself known. But there was no time for that now.
"Headmaster, it wasn't just the Death Eaters. Voldemort was there too." McGonagall gasped. "He said he sent the vision to me, to lure me there and to kill Snape ... "
Dumbledore's mouth set itself in a thin line as he gathered Snape's limp body in his arms, cradling the younger man as gently as if he were a child. "I've no doubt that's true, Harry. But we simply don't have time to discuss it now. I must take care of Professor Snape. Please allow Professor McGonagall to take you to the hospital wing; I promise you that I will listen to everything you have to say later."
McGonagall shook herself into action, waved her wand, and levitated Harry into the air so he wouldn't have to walk on his twisted ankle. But Harry couldn't go yet, not until he knew ... "Headmaster, Professor Snape, is he, will he be - " he ended on a another cough, and tears jerked into his eyes.
"He is alive," Dumbledore said, rising to his feet as smoothly as if he were a man of twenty and Snape weighed no more than a bag of feathers. "And he will remain so. That, Harry, I promise you." And then he vanished.
Harry gasped. "I thought you couldn't Apparate on school grounds!"
"You can't," McGonagall said wearily. "He's used an Invisibility Spell to make sure he can get Professor Snape to safety without being seen." For the first time, Harry remembered what Dumbledore had told him in his first year at Hogwarts: "I don't need a cloak to become invisible ... "
"Come now," the Transfigurations teacher added, and a measure of the customary briskness had returned to her voice. "Let's get you cleaned up. I'm sure Madam Pomfrey will be able to do something about that ankle. Now, give me that broomstick and we'll see if Madam Hooch can set it to rights later."
It wasn't just Harry's ankle, as it turned out; he'd seriously strained the muscles in his arms, and had bruises on the insides of his thighs from clinging so hard to the broomstick. Not to mention the ones that decorated the side of his body where he'd landed on the ground. A scandalised Madam Pomfrey demanded to know just what kind of Quidditch maneuvers he'd been practising, and for how long, and what on earth for.
"To take his mind off exams, he said," McGonagall said firmly. "Really, very careless of you, Potter."
"Sorry," Harry said vacantly, staring at the ceiling as Madam Pomfrey efficiently repaired his sprained ankle.
Pomfrey clucked. "I don't imagine the other Gryffindors will be too thrilled, eh, dear? How many points has the poor boy lost, Minerva?"
That distracted Harry, as he turned to stare at McGonagall in horror. He'd just saved a professor's life! Surely she wasn't going to take points off Gryffindor for that!
McGonagall looked discomfited, but replied, "He seems to have been well-punished already, Poppy. I'll wager these bruises and a few good detentions will do the trick; no need to take off House points this time."
Harry relaxed, and Madam Pomfrey nodded. "True enough. The hardest lessons we teach ourselves, I think. Right, Mr. Potter?" She patted his head soothingly, and when Harry opened his mouth to reply, he yawned. All of a sudden, he felt deathly tired.
"Er - he can sleep here, can't he, Poppy?" McGonagall asked hesitantly. "You'll keep an eye on him? So he won't get into more trouble," she added hastily. "I don't think he's slept all night, and it might be for the best if ... "
"Of course, the silly child," Madam Pomfrey said comfortingly, patting Harry's head again. "You just get yourself a good sleep - eh? Now then ... now then ... "
Harry was asleep before she could say another word.
Part 6 | Non Anime Fanfiction