Chapter Nine: Colder
Maybe it was the disappointment. Maybe it was the stress of travelling from one side of the world to the other. Draco didn't know. All he knew was that he was brutally exhausted. He napped after lunch and then went out to lie in the snow and stare up at the grey sky that seemed close enough to touch while snowflakes delicately blanketed him. When Helen became nervous at his blasé attitude to hypothermia he went back inside.
Luckily Professor Snape seemed to understand his need for sleep. The Potions master seemed to be the only one of the trio whose internal clock readjusted itself automatically. Draco and Helen, both of whom seemed to be experiencing what Draco had heard described as "jet leg", took a nap in the afternoon as well, Helen disappearing into the bedroom while Draco, who had only closed his eyes for a moment, fell deeply asleep on the couch. When he next woke it was to see Snape reading by a lit fire.
"How do you feel?"
Draco rubbed his eyes. "Better, I think."
Draco considered this. "Yes." He was. He felt as if he'd had to play Quidditch without a broomstick and then sit two exams.
Snape blinked his onyx eyes that were eerily similar to the flat black water of the Taniwha's Pool. "You've earned the right for some rest. Spend as much time as you want sleeping."
Draco lowered his gaze. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be a bother."
Black eyebrows arched and lowered scornfully. "Honestly, Mr Malfoy. Self-pity doesn't become you." When Draco opened his mouth to protest the injustice of this, Snape added more gently, "Neither does low self-esteem. Helen and I are not at all discommoded by your presence. In fact, Helen is so far over the moon at your company you could use her to look for intelligent life on Mars." He smiled. "I had planned on you staying at Hogwarts. I believed it would be safer for you there than here. Helen was, to put it mildly, less than happy at the prospect of returning without at least one Hogwarts student tucked firmly under her wing. You've saved me several nasty arguments. The very idea of having Harry Potter ensconced here until term started was not a welcome one, not for me, nor for Mr Potter. Helen was foolish enough to announce her plan that he would be calling me 'Dad' before his sixteenth birthday. The look of horror on Mr Potter's face was only eclipsed by my own."
Tentatively grinning, Draco asked, "Did she really say that?"
Snape looked sour. "Oh, yes. Helen feels that she has several years and several chicks — ah, children, to make up for. I'm hoping Dumbledore will honour my request for a sabbatical — probably not this year or the next, but definitely the year after. It's proving difficult to find a suitable teacher to take over the classes, unfortunately, and for some reason no-one wants to take on my duties as Head of Slytherin."
"Have you tried telling them that I was sent to Durmstrang?"
Snape's harsh features eased into one of his almost-smiles. "Somehow that wasn't enough. You aren't the only problem student I've had, I'll have you know."
Draco, knowing he was being teased, said, "I'm crushed. Did you really have students who were more trouble than me?"
"Believe it or not, yes. Last year Slytherin House was traumatised by the Sorting of triplets. Thankfully I wasn't there for most of the second half of the year."
By the way Snape's eyes suddenly emptied of emotion, Draco wished he hadn't asked. "Voldemort was expressive when it came to telling me of his displeasure. I... underwent several stringent tests of my loyalty that left me unable to fulfil my teaching duties."
Draco went cold. From hints dropped by Lucius he knew exactly what Snape was talking about. He wished he didn't. "I'm sorry."
Snape shrugged. "It served its purpose. I managed to get out enough information to save several lives."
Draco looked at him, wondering how he'd ever missed seeing this side of Severus Snape. The man had raised pragmatism to frightening new heights. "I'm sorry I didn't trust you enough to come to you when I left Durmstrang."
The twist of Snape's thin lips was wry. "If you'd known to come to me for help then I would have known that I wasn't doing my job properly."
"Um. I guess so. But thank you for finding me."
"It was the least I could do."
Funnily enough, Draco felt Snape meant more by that than he was saying. But he was too Snape-wise to say anything more. To get information out of the Head of Slytherin you had to be patience and guile combined. Even Lucius had remarked on that, although he hadn't said it in an entirely complimentary manner. Draco, son of Lucius Malfoy, had spent his life working on both patience and guile, and had decided at the age of eleven to take Finding Out About Snape on as a pet project to hone his abilities.
Truth to tell, he hadn't found out much, and quite a bit of that had been discovered in one five minute conversation with Harry Potter.
That, more than anything, was galling.
Change of subject... change of subject... "Good book?"
Snape angled it so that Draco could see the cover.
"Does it have any of the old spells? Professor Binns said Voldemort destroyed them all so that if there were any ortho-elementals left then no-one else could control them."
"Is that what he said?" Snape was wearing one of his almost-smiles that could mean anything. "No, no old spells, I'm afraid, Draco. But I'm always curious to see if anyone has rediscovered one."
"I suppose an ortho-elemental would be useful for Potions," Draco pried.
"Hmm. I suppose."
"Did Voldemort really destroy all the spells?"
"I doubt it." Snape waved a dismissive hand. "He didn't have that kind of link with the elemental world that could allow him to draw the spells to him and then bind them and lock them away. That's something not even Dumbledore is capable of. Disposing of spells is a momentous task and the idea of a single person actually doing that has been dismissed as pure hokum."
"But someone managed to destroy all the spells," persisted Draco. "Professor Binns can remember when they were still in the books, and now all there is are blank pages where the spells used to be."
"That, of course, raises the possibility that a group of people disposed of the spells. Documentation pertaining to the existence of the old elemental binding spells is certainly not a rarity, and what isn't in dispute is the fact that there are no longer ortho-elementals roaming the world. I imagine that would be seen as quite a boon for the human sector of the magical world — no longer does it have to worry about upsetting local creatures when practitioners need raw magic for their spells. It must have been quite terrible in the old days," Snape added wryly, "when you had to check under the foundations of your new shop before you started your sales pitch in case there was a narwulf hibernating there."
Draco smiled. He'd had a picture of a narwulf in one of his nursery books. The beast had been half a ton of fur and fangs and long, spiralling tusks. For three years running Draco had asked his parents for one as a birthday present. "I read in History of Magic that it was only after the orthos were got rid off that you had the rise of wizards like Grindelwald."
"That's a plausible theory," Snape agreed. "It seems a little too coincidental for my tastes that the abolition of the higher elementals corresponded closely to the beginnings of excessively powerful magic users."
"Why do you think that is?" Draco asked eagerly. He'd always wondered how Grindelwald and Voldemort had become so powerful.
Snape stretched out his long legs, looking foreign to Draco in the Muggle clothing of black Levi's. The woolly socks with little yellow smiley faces must have been a Christmas present from Dumbledore. "The orthos were said to be attracted to large vortexes of power. That's according to Pipstock the Elder, of course, and he was notoriously unreliable in his studies thanks to overindulgence in kneazlenip. But as he's the best source I have, I'm forced to rely on his findings when I postulate that after the orthos were removed from the equation human magic-users were able to accumulate large, mobile, personal quantities of magic without having them sucked dry by a passing quattrain. Given the huge body of spells in the literature that were developed to exorcise elementals — above and beyond banishing Cornish Pixies — I'd add that as evidence towards supporting my theory of orthos destabilising the power bases of the more ambitious Dark wizards. Those who never made it into the history books."
Draco tucked his knees up towards his chest. "Have you ever seen an ortho-elemental?"
"How could I? They are, as you yourself pointed out, extinct. The Aurors did an exceptionally thorough job of removing them at the end of the Goblin Rebellions."
As so often with Snape, Draco had the feeling that there were extra layers of meaning unsaid. Comforted by the familiar, he dozed, dreaming in strange chunks of images containing moving rivers of ice and a wind that never stopped.
It was the middle of the night. Maybe it was the Portkey-lag, because Draco was wide awake. But the potion Snape had given him should have had him sleeping until the morning.
Sighing, Draco sat up. He'd left the window open and frost was crawling over his pillow from where the moisture of his breath had settled. He brushed it away and crawled out from under his blankets to see where the moon was.
There was no moon.
Instead, glowing brightly, was a small white horse. It pricked up its ears as it looked up at him with wise, milky-blue eyes, and tossed its mane, fluttering its nostrils in an equine whisper.
Draco sat back on his heels.
Was this the pooka Potter had told him about? There was something demanding in the way it was looking at him. Almost as if it was ordering him down from the window. But why hadn't it woken Snape? Wasn't it meant to be the Professor's horse?
It stamped a forefoot.
Draco came to a quick decision. Quietly, he slipped into his clothes; boots, woollen trousers spelled to resist water, flannel shirt and his Hogwarts robes. He threw his black travelling cloak down to the ground before climbing out the window.
He spared a brief thought to the little handholds encrusted with lichen. They were so old that the boy Severus must have used them for sneaking out at night. Draco couldn't help a smile. The idea of Severus Snape, stickler for the rules, once upon a time being a wayward child who ran around barefoot was a hard one to imagine.
He pushed away the last few feet and dropped lightly into the snow, falling backwards so that he was sitting at the pooka's hooves.
It whickered softly and lipped his hair.
"It's not hay, you know," Draco grumbled. He'd had this trouble before with equids. They all seemed to think that his hair was edible.
He was answered by a snort that sounded almost like a chuckle and a hefty nudge between his shoulder-blades.
Draco stood and picked up his cloak, swinging it around his shoulders before turning to the pooka. "Solomon, I presume. Well, what are you doing here?"
By way of an answer, the pooka turned to present him with its shoulder. When Draco hesitated, it nipped him lightly on the hip.
"Ow... Oh, okay..."
All the stories Draco had read about pookas told of how they were traps for the unwary or just plain stupid. They carried unsuspecting heroes to the death, generally by drowning, because once the luckless hero was astride the magical creature he would be stuck fast.
Draco wasn't unwary and he certainly wasn't uneducated, but his life had become unstuck and he was clinging to it by a thin thread. This pooka belonged to Snape and Draco's trust in Snape was that thread.
The pooka wanted Draco to go with it.
Draco sprung onto the pooka's back.
Despite it being winter the pooka had shed its winter coat and had its sleek, slippery summer coat. Draco slithered a little before he found his balance. It had been a long time since he'd ridden a horse, and that had always been with a saddle. Now he didn't even have a bridle. He hoped the pooka knew what it was doing because Draco didn't have a clue. Long-ago lessons resurfaced in his memory and Draco lifted his toes and pushed his heels down, straightening his back and relaxing his shoulders, all the time remembering that his centre of balance did not, as his fear of riding a pooka with no means of control kept screaming at him, reside in his throat, but about two finger-widths beneath his belly button.
Draco realised that the pooka was waiting for him to get comfortable. He took a deep breath. "Okay, Solomon. Let's go."
The pooka dipped its head and raced away from the cottage at a full gallop.
About a mile later when Draco managed to release his death grip on the silvery mane and started to relax into the ride, he realised that the pooka was incredibly smooth-gaited. Sure-footed, too. Surely there were a myriad of gullies and frozen streams in the landscape — he could've sworn he'd fallen into every single one of them when he'd gone walking with Snape that day — but the running pooka seemed almost to be flying arrow-straight over the snowy hills. Unless this was a pooka's idea of a joy-ride, it had some destination in mind. When it pranced into a steamy clearing surrounded by ancient trees Draco knew what that destination was and his brief courage trembled. He would have known this place even if he'd had his eyes shut just from the power it contained.
Grandmother Taniwha's Pool.
The scent of an elemental of great power was thick and carried to Draco in wafts of steam that made him choke.
Was he here to be executed as a threat to the Snape line? Draco fingered his wand through the thick wool cloth of his robes and nudged the pooka with his heels.
Solomon shook his head.
"Off?" Draco guessed. Solomon lowered his head, snorting great gusts of steam that merged with the mist from the Taniwha's Pool and rolled away into the louring trees.
Well, if a pooka wanted Draco off its back then there wasn't much Draco could do about it. His riding lessons hadn't covered this. He lifted his leg over the white rump and slid down. Solomon whuffled in his hair again, a rather friendly gesture, Draco hoped.
After hesitating just long enough for the pooka to give him a gentle if decisive nudge in the direction of the pond, Draco started towards it.
The only light seemed to be cast by the pooka. Steam swirling up from the black water caught the thin light and amplified it until, as Draco walked through it, he appeared to be surrounded by a miniature galaxy of water droplets. They settled in his hair, on his robes, misting his eyelashes and tickling the back of his throat as he breathed them in.
At the lip of the pool he crouched in the ferns. "Hello?" he called softly. "Is there anyone there?"
The power that emanated from the pool whispered around him. When it caressed his cheek he thought it felt like the loving touch of a mother's hand, or what that should feel like, Narcissa never having been that indulgent with her son. Helen's hand, then. It was like having Helen stroke his hair when she thought he was sleeping.
Draco blinked the mist away from his eyelashes.
When he could see again there seemed to be something floating across the pond towards him. Something that sparkled like the mist, and spun slowly as the water carried it towards Draco.
He reached out and took it.
It was the wreath of roses and ivy. Warm water dripped from it and ran down the inside of his wrist like silk until it soaked into his sleeves. "You don't want it?" You don't want me?
The power brushed his cheek again like lips whispering a kiss. He thought he heard words, but not with his ears; these words were absorbed through his skin and went straight to his heart. The words said that Draco had to take the wreath. It was necessary that he give it to someone special.
He jumped at a loud snort from the pooka. Solomon. Solomon knew where Draco had to go.
The mist gave him a gentle push back towards the pooka although, Draco darkly suspected, if it had wanted to be less than gentle the power behind the mist could have picked him up and thrown him all the way to... to .... to whatever the capital of this country was.
Draco backed away from the pond and bowed, feeling somehow that this was appropriate. Then he vaulted onto the pooka's back. "Okay, Solomon. Let's deliver this thing."
Solomon pricked up his ears and swished his tail as he trotted out of the clearing. Once out in the open and away from overhanging branches that could concuss a rider he broke into a smooth canter.
Draco, cloak flying out behind him in the freezing wind, gloried in the speed. He'd missed this... without quite being aware that there was anything to miss. But now he had to admit that, though backpacking through Europe sounded exciting, it was nothing to the thrills that could be found in this world. His world. He could never be a Muggle...
Blowing great plumes of steam, the pooka slewed to a stop.
The same could have been said of Draco's heart.
"That would be me, yes," said the tall, silver-blond man who had stepped into the pooka's path. Idly he prowled around the pooka, keeping care not to get in range of its hooves. "Well, well. Look at you. All grown up and riding around in the middle of the night on a little pony." Lucius was dressed in black, as usual, but instead of his sliver-headed walking stick, from his gloved hand dangled a carved wooden flower on a string. The moon must have risen, here seemed to be some sort of opalescent inlay in the centre that caught the moonlight reflecting off the snow as it swung from side to side, always swinging a little stronger in Draco's direction.
Draco bit his lip and held his tongue. Lucius in a quixotic mood... this couldn't be anything other than bad.
"Do you have nothing to say to your father?" Lucius purred. "An apology, perhaps?"
Without moving Draco managed to assure himself that he still had his wand. It was tucked into his robes right next to the wreath.
"Time to come home, my boy. Your mother has missed you."
Draco wanted to say that Narcissa hadn't looked excessively perturbed when he'd passed her out shopping, but his tongue seemed to have cleaved itself to the roof of his mouth.
"You've had your little flirtation with the Bohemian life and now it's time to return to who you really are."
Why have you only decided to come for me now? But his tongue wouldn't move.
Come here, Draco," his father commanded. When Draco, who was frozen with terror, didn't budge from the pooka's back, Lucius' handsome face turned ugly. "Are you deaf as well as stupid? I said Accio —"
He didn't complete the spell.
From somewhere in the darkness a voice said: "Petrificus totalus."
The spell narrowly missed Lucius, who ducked as he spun, cursing. "Snape! I might've known you'd stick your big ugly nose in where it would get cut off."
The darkness didn't reply.
"Lumos!" snapped Lucius Malfoy, and a bright light illuminated the snowscape. Plumes of crystals flew as he spun around looking for this new adversary. "Snape..." he growled. "Show yourself, you coward!"
Draco, who knew Snape wasn't a fool to be suckered in the way a Gryffindor would be, wasn't surprised when no gullies or mounds of snow sprouted an early blooming Snape. He was, however, a little embarrassed that Lucius would think Snape could be brought out by such crude means. Lucius must really have been stressed out by Voldemort's defeat.
Lucius changed his tone to a purr. "Come now, old friend. You and I both know Draco's destiny. That was, after all, why you helped me select him... Did you think I would forget your kindness? Your help? If not for you... why, Severus, I would be a much sadder man. Narcissa and I would never have been able to raise our wonderful son. We would have had to settle for a much more inferior child."
Huh? thought Draco. He was getting some fairly wild mental pictures here.
"Come, Severus." Lucius' voice was silken and persuasive. "We've had our differences, particularly those when it comes to raising my son..."
A bottle landed at his feet and exploded into purple smoke which crawled up to wrap around Lucius' throat. Lucius yelped and leaped back, batting at the smoke with his wand and falling into a snowdrift. The wood flower flew up and was instantly hit by a fireball from Snape's wand. There was a howl of fury from Lucius.
A dark shape crawled out of one of the gullies and crawled on knees and elbows towards Draco's fallen father.
He ducked as Lucius threw a fireball at him, throwing up his cloak to ward off the heat.
A split moment was all it took.
Lucius held something small, round and metallic in his hand: Draco could see the gleam of it between his fingers. "Idiot," he spat. "Oh well, I'll just have to get him again without you. I'll manage somehow... but first..."
He vanished with a pop.
Draco's wide eyes met Snape's. "Helen," they both said at once.
Pookas were rumoured to be able to travel anywhere...
Draco kicked Solomon in the ribs and shouted, "Follow Lucius!"
Solomon gave a terrific leap over a snow bank and then stopped dead.
Draco kept going, minus pooka.
When he hit the ground the first thing he thought was that Solomon could have had the decency to throw him into a nice, soft pile of snow. He'd landed on dry grass and knobbled, dirty ground that had frozen enough to give him bruises while still — amazingly — managing to muddy him all down one side.
His second thought was that either his eyes were getting really good again, or the sun was rising.
The third thought was the frightening one: All the snow was gone.
He sat up, wincing. A quick check for wand and wreath ... Oh, the roses were okay. Better than his ribs, anyway. That was good, he realised dimly.
What wasn't good was that he seemed to be somewhere else. Somewhere without Professor Snape, although on the plus side he couldn't see Lucius anywhere.
But there was Solomon. The white pony's legs were shuffling in front of him, as if the pooka was nervous. Probably embarrassed, Draco reasoned. Embarrassed about chucking me over his head. Although... How come the pooka was on the other side of him? Shouldn't he have been over there?
And where was the snow?
"Hey, Solomon," he managed. "Where did you bring me?"
A low, frightened, female voice demanded, "Who the hell are you?"
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