Chapter Ten: At Death's Door
Draco sat bolt upright. Sitting on Solomon's back as if she owned the pooka was a woman. A pregnant woman, he mentally added, a very, very pregnant woman. Women couldn't get any more pregnant than that, surely.
Her black hair was tousled as if she'd been in bed recently — fair enough, so had Draco — and lines around her mouth told of some great strain she was under. She had one arm wrapped protectively around her — very pregnant — belly. And this wasn't Solomon.
"Um... Sorry," Draco said. One of his best first lines ever, he told himself caustically. "I thought this was Solomon. But he's not, because Solomon isn't all shaggy like your... pooka."
The woman narrowed her ebony eyes at him and pointed her wand. "I should kill you now."
"Hey! I'd rather you didn't!"
"Can you give me a reason why not?"
"Well, not really, except that one of my professors would be really mad at you." Weak, Draco... really weak...
She peered closer. "That's a Hogwarts crest on your robes."
"Um. Yes. Slytherin, actually. Ah... can you tell me something?"
She snorted. "Speak quickly, Slytherin boy. I'm in a bit of a hurry."
"Where's all the snow gone? One minute I was on a pooka called Solomon in the middle of winter and the next minute I was sitting here." Draco did a quick mental revision on what he'd just said. Yup. Just as he'd feared. It'd come out a bit crazier than he'd intended.
Her eyes widened and she raised her wand. Not enough to remove the threat, but enough to tell Draco that she wouldn't hex him quite as quickly as she'd first intended. "What did you say to your pooka?"
"Uh, well, this is the strange bit..."
Her mouth lifted slightly in a grim smile.
"I was having a bit of a... discussion... with my father and then he disappeared. I was worried that..." Draco drew in his breath, not knowing why he was trusting this strange woman, except with her black eyes and grim set to the mouth she reminded him of Professor Snape. "Okay, I was worried that he was going to go and hurt someone I care about."
"Your father does this on a regular basis?"
Gosh, even the sarcasm was Snape's. "No — but only because there's hardly ever anyone he lets me care about."
"Your father sounds like a piece of shit."
"He is, actually," Draco confessed. "Have you passed him? He looks like me — except that his hair's longer and he looks older, of course."
"Please, I have to stop him!"
Draco nodded, unable to admit to a stranger that yes, his father was several razor-cuts above the average psychopathic murderer.
The woman's mouth, thinned by pain, twisted humourlessly. "I saw him. I... Oh!" She leaned forward, clutching at her pooka's mane.
Disregarding her wand, Draco leaped forward to lift a hand to her knee for support. The idea of this woman falling from her pooka made his gut churn "What's wrong?"
She snarled at him, then, as if realising he hadn't harmed her and didn't intend to, she pushed away the black strands of hair that were covering her eyes. "What's your name, Slytherin boy?"
"And... a pooka sent you here?"
"Yes, ma'am. But the sky looks like the sun's setting... and it should be winter..."
She shivered. "Feels like it to me."
Draco took off his cloak and slung it carefully over her shoulders. "I don't feel the cold," he told her when she frowned.
She nodded her thanks.
"I... I want to stay and help you, but I really need to find my father before he..."
Draco nodded, ashamed.
"I don't think you — oh... Oh!"
Her face contorted and Draco, terrified for Helen as he was, realised he couldn't leave this woman out here on her own. "Let me help."
She grimaced. "What about your father?"
"Solomon sent me here. Maybe he knew that Helen and Severus would take care of Lucius for me." He shrugged. "Besides, I'm only half the wizard my father is — he knows more about the Dark Arts than anyone other than Voldemort. And maybe Severus."
"Lucius... Lucius Malfoy?" She rolled the name on her tongue as if tasting it.
"Um. Yes. Do you know him?"
In answer the strange woman tucked her long fingers under his chin and tilted his head up against the fading light. "You look like a Malfoy," she said slowly. "You look like Cuthbert did when he was a lad."
Her eyebrows arched. "Really. Well, well, well. And a pooka called Solomon sent you here."
The pooka snorted and twitched his ears. The woman stroked his shaggy neck and whispered words in some other language. Then she sighed, and Draco realised that, despite her haughty air and the lines on her face, she wasn't very old at all. Maybe only in her twenties.
"Did you say Severus? Not Severus Snape, surely?"
"You know him?"
"You could say so." Her smile was grim. "Your father came to visit my husband. The wards... there are wards around my house that didn't like him. But my husband..." she grimaced again, a bewildered expression made up of pain and love. "He invited him into the house. And then your father hexed me. I managed to block the worst of it, and the wards themselves, they..." She doubled over again, groaning. When she propped herself upright on the horse's neck again there were beads of sweat dotted around her hairline and on her upper lip. The lines on her face were deepening, too, or perhaps that was the effect of the fading light. Her eyes held pain and anger and a deep, primeval fear. "He was going after my baby," she whispered, as if unable to believe such an atrocity.
Draco could hardly believe it either. He wanted to be sick. As if in a dream he heard himself say, "You need to be somewhere safe. Can you go somewhere to stay for tonight?"
She shook her head. "I can't go home... I was going to... Uh..."
"I know a place near here. It's got a warm pool and it's terribly hard to find. I'm sure I could find my way back, though..." He had his hand on her wrist and was willing his warmth into her. "Please. I don't want... I can't let..." Words failed him.
Somehow this strange woman understood. "I know where you mean," she said. "It's sacred for my family. But aren't you afraid of the monster there?"
"Terrified," Draco admitted. "But I've got worse monsters in my own family and besides, she's the one who called me out tonight. I'm pretty sure she was the one who sent the pooka, anyway."
The woman nodded. "That sounds like her style. She's got a strong connection with pookas. God knows how. They're hardly native to New Zealand. Okay, Draco of Slytherin House. Lead the way."
The landscape had changed. Draco wondered if Solomon had sent him astray in time or sideways into a different dimension. By the colour of the grass and the few deciduous trees he could see, it was late autumn. So could he find his way back to the taniwha? He slitted his eyes, trying to see nothing and everything.
Ah yes. There was that strange tang of wild magic. He could smell it.
As he was at a loss for anything else to do, Draco of Slytherin House followed his nose.
By half-stripping the clearing of fern fronds and throwing his cloak over top of the pile Draco had managed to make a bed of sorts. It was under the cliff wall across the pond from the flat rock where Snape had tried to introduce him to Grandmother Taniwha.
The woman smiled a little. "Looks like a five star hotel from where I'm sitting," she said. She was leaning back against her pony for the warmth. Draco helped her up as carefully as he could.
"Uh oh." Running down the insides of her legs, liquid was splashing down into her boots.
"Um," Draco said, trying for tact. "What was that?"
"My waters just broke," she snarled, but not at Draco's lack of knowledge. At his continuing look of incomprehension, she added, "My baby's decided to come early."
Draco felt the blood drain from his face. "Um... ah... I... Do you want me to... Um."
The woman bit her lip, torn between laughing and crying, by the looks of her. "Help me to the lovely bed you made," she said at last, kindly and without sarcasm. She whistled and the pony went and lay down on the cliff-side of the bed.
"Neat," Draco admired. "Instant headrest."
"Family heirloom," she grunted as she lay down, puffing, so that her back was leaning against the pony's ribs. The pooka whickered and lipped her hair. "Uff. Stop that, silly. In my family we only keep what's proven itself useful and this old throw-rug —" she patted the "throw-rug" indulgently "— has certainly proven himself useful today."
He must have looked as downcast as he felt, because the woman reached out and clasped his hand. Her grip was very strong and warm. "Stop that," she commanded. "You're not your father."
"Thank God," Draco muttered. "What can I do to help?"
"Talk to me."
"Huh? What about?"
"Anything. It's going to get painful, so I'd like to keep my mind off the pain. Tell me about yourself. Your school... I bet Hogwarts has changed since I was there."
Draco shrugged, still holding onto her hand. "Probably not. Um, I expect Dumbledore was there...?" She nodded. "McGonagall?" Another nod.
"Does she still do that cool cat-animagus trick at the beginning of her first-year Transfigurations classes?"
"Yeah. It's not bad. She's Head of Gryffindor. Flitwick is Head of Ravenclaw, of course — I sometimes think he was employed by Rowena Ravenclaw herself. Professor Sprout is Head of Hufflepuff."
She laughed. "Is Hufflepuff still a bunch of dullards? By the look on your face I'd say yes. Speaking of dullards, how about Professor Binns? Does anyone manage to stay awake in his classes?"
Draco sneered. "Hardly. Dust is more interesting."
"Pond scum psychology."
"The social diary of an amoeba."
"The — Oooh." Her face contorted. Draco hoped he was going to get circulation back into the fingers she was gripping some day soon. Her breathing resumed and so did Draco's. "What about your Head of House?"
Draco raised his eyebrows. "I thought you said you knew him? Professor Snape. Wasn't he there in your day?"
"Professor Snape? Professor Severus Snape?"
Draco was having horrible thoughts. "How far in time have I moved?"
"Quite a bit, I imagine. If Severus is Head of Slytherin House I'd say Solomon threw you for quite a chronological distance."
"You know him?" Draco persisted.
"Ahhh..." Draco was at a loss for how to phrase the tactful question of her baby's parentage. I mean, she's obviously not Helen...
"Oh, not like that." She slapped at his wrist irritably. "But you seem to have come back in time."
Maybe she was related to Snape's family. With those eyes, it seemed highly likely. "Then what's my father doing back here? And Prof- uh, Severus. How do you know him? And how far back have I come? And —" The questions were tumbling out of him.
"Enough!" she managed to shout before wilting back against her pooka's shoulder. "No more questions... I just can't think..."
Draco, who had sat back and almost bitten through his lip at the outburst, nodded. "Yes, ma'am." He struggled out of his robes (managing to hide the wreath and his wand behind a clump of ferns in the process) and wrapped them around the woman. They were spelled for warmth and she needed them much more than he did."
"Hey, did I give you permission to freeze to death?" she asked.
"No. It's something I decided to do on my own initiative."
She managed a weak smile. "Don't freeze because of me."
"I won't. I'm just not susceptible to cold. There's a bit of Veela blood in me and —"
"Ah yes. The source of the infamous Malfoy charm." But she smiled and Draco smiled back. "I've met your grandfather, you know, and you seem even truer to the Veela line than he was."
"I get it from my mother's side as well," Draco admitted.
"Blimey. I don't know much about Veelas. So if you start to get cold or uncomfortable just tell me, okay?"
Draco decided not to say that right now, having been dragged back with his homicidal father a decade plus into the past, sitting in a clearing thick with the aura of the most powerful elemental he'd ever come across with a cryptic ebony-eyed woman who was about to give birth, he was several miles past uncomfortable and accelerating. "Okay."
"Good. Now, tell me about Severus. I haven't imagined him much past being a skinny little kid with eyes like mine."
"Well, his eyes are just like yours, and his hair is black and he's still kind of skinny, but he's really tall." He continued, telling her about how Snape was Potions master and (in Draco's opinion) the best and smartest teacher in the school. How he hated Gryffindors and Draco's father but cared for Draco enough to bring him home with him and his wife to keep Draco safe. He talked about Quidditch and Potions and the memorable occasion when Snape had thrown the erstwhile DADA teacher Gilderoy Lockhart across the Great Hall in a duel. And how he, Draco, had been flattered beyond belief when Snape had chosen him to stand up against Harry Potter in a duel. Deciding it was too dangerous to tell someone in the past about how Snape had been first a Death Eater then a spy against Voldemort, Draco glossed over that. He told the stories slowly. When the woman couldn't listen because she was concentrating so hard on her baby, Draco would simply kneel next to her and hold her hand. When she needed cleaning, he ripped off a portion of his robe and wetted it in the hot water running down a stream away from the pool. The woman assured him that it was safe. Water coming out of Grandmother Taniwha's Pool was both sterile and magically enhanced for healing. Draco remarked that it was a great cleaning solution as well, and as such could make her richer than Mrs Skower if she chose to bottle it. This made her laugh.
Draco also learned that her family had given birth here for generations. Both her uncles, who had died in World War II (a Muggle conflict Draco had heard of), had been born here. Draco had the image of a succession of ebony-eyed women coming here to birth ebony-eyed babies. The clearing was not only sacred, it was safe. Screened from the rest of the world by the power of a taniwha, very few outside the family found their way here uninvited. Severus Snape himself would have been born here, Draco supposed.
"You like him," she said between one set of contractions.
"Does he have many friends?"
Draco wasn't sure how to answer that. "The friends he has are good ones."
They were quiet for over an hour after that with only the woman's groans and harsh breathing breaking the silence.
She was lying back exhausted. Draco wiped her sweaty hair back off her forehead and wiped her face with the silk sleeve of his shirt. Her eyes slitted open. "Is he happy?" she asked.
That was the one question Draco couldn't imagine anyone asking about Severus Snape. Is he a spy? Is he a Death Eater? Is he alive? Is he dead? Does he really use the blood of failed Potions students in his quill? Does he sleep hanging upside down from the rafters and worship devils? He'd heard all those. But: is he happy?
He looked over at the pond and wrinkled his brow as he tried to think of an answer.
There was a light touch on his wrist. The woman was looking at him with a strange feverish light in her eyes. Draco felt icemelt trickle down his spine and he suddenly wondered how much longer this strange woman had to live. He didn't even know her name, he realised crazily. How can you go through such an intimate process as a birthing with someone and not know their name?
"Well? Is he?"
"I think... he's learning to be happy now." And he told her about Helen and seeing Snape's face when the man had found out his wife was pregnant. He told her about the glimpse he'd had of the couple dancing in the Great Hall. He told her about the fierce contentment Helen wore when sitting next to Snape at dinner and how she'd defended him against Trelawney, and then how after Trelawney had upset Helen Snape had gone and had one of his quiet talks with the Divinations professor and she hadn't gone near either Helen or Severus Snape again.
"Will he make a good daddy?"
Oh, these questions are so unfair! Draco answered truthfully. "I kind of wish he'd been my dad instead of Lucius." There. He'd finally said it. The words he'd hidden under layers of guilt at being a poor example of a Malfoy.
The fingers circled his wrist gently. "I wish he'd been your daddy, too." Her midnight eyes seemed to hold stars. A light was rising in their depths. Draco instinctively feared what that meant. "Help me up."
Draco supported her under her elbows so that she was squatting against the pooka, who had not moved during all the fussing and moaning and twisting and turning of the evening.
She gave him a sly, despairing look. "He's coming."
Draco panicked. "Who? My father?"
"No, dunderhead. The baby."
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