They managed to hide Norbert beneath Harry's Invisibility Cloak, with Harry holding him so the dragon would be quiet. Five minutes later they saw Dumbledore coming down the path to Hagrid's cottage. Ron and Hermione slipped out the back door and hid in the pumpkin patch.
Dumbledore knocked on the door and Hagrid opened it. "Evening, sir. What can I do for ya?"
"Hello, Hagrid. I was just coming by to see if you need anything?"
"No, I'm fine Professor. Would you care for a spot of tea or cake?" Hagrid stepped back to allow the other wizard entrance.
Dumbledore declined the cake offer, but agreed to a small cup of tea. As he entered, he looked about curiously but saw nothing amiss. Fang was lying on the hearth, gnawing a bone.
The two chatted a bit while they had tea, speaking of other animals, including Fluffy, and Harry prayed they'd hurry up, for his arms were about to fall off. Norbert had fallen asleep in his arms and he was snoring lightly in Harry's ear. Harry shifted uncomfortably, then froze as Dumbledore cleared his throat.
"Well, Hagrid, I must be going. I will see you later."
"Be seeing ya, sir." Hagrid waved, then shut the door.
Harry whipped off the cloak with a sigh of relief and quickly set the sleeping Norbert down on the blanket that served as his bed. The dragon never woke. Harry massaged his aching shouldes and said, "Well, that was close! I'll bet Malfoy saw Dumbeldore first and told him."
Hagrid nodded glumly. "I'll have to figure out a better way to hide him, I guess."
Ron and Hermione crept back into the hut. "Hagrid, what are you going to do about Norbert?" Hermione asked. "He's growing too big to keep in your cottage. And Malfoy already suspects something."
"What can I do, Hermione? He's a baby, he can't hunt for himself. He'll die if I let him go in the Forest."
Ron looked thoughtful. "Hey, I know! My brother Charlie works for a dragon preserve in Romania, he trains dragons there. Maybe he could take Norbert for you."
Hagrid looked torn. "I dunno, Ron. Norbert might get lonely. He ain't used to anywhere but here. What if they don' know what to feed him? He likes venison and turkey. And a bowl of goat milk."
"Hagrid, they're dragon tamers, of course they'd know what a dragon eats." Ron said. "I'll owl Charlie and ask him, okay?"
Hagrid sighed, he was clearly unhappy about giving up Norbert, but he didn't want to be arrested for having an illegal pet. "All righ', you ask Charlie then. Now, best ya be gettin' back, before your curfew."
They bid the gamekeeper goodbye and all of them crowded under the cloak and slipped back into the castle.
Three days later, Ron got a reply from Charlie, saying they would be happy to take Norbert. During that time, Norbert had chewed up Hagrid's recliner, burnt a hole in the wall, and ate an entire barrel of salt pork in the pantry.
Hermione said Norbert was out of control and Hagrid ought to be glad he was getting the dragon a good home before Norbert destroyed his house. Norbert was almost the size of Fang now, though much more aggessive and intelligent.
"Charlie says that he'll come with some of his mates to take Norbert, but it's gotta be at midnight on top of the Astronomy Tower, so nobody sees."
Hagrid looked worried. "How am I gonna get 'im there without anybody seeing?"
"I'll take him," Harry volunteered. "I can cast a Featherlight Charm on him and carry him under my cloak."
Hermione cast him a startled envious look. "Where did you learn that charm, Harry?"
Harry didn't want her to know that Snape had taught him that charm, so all he said was he had read up on it in the library over break, making Ron look at him cross-eyed.
"Ron, will you be lookout?"
"Yeah, besides, I'm the only one Charlie trusts to make contact with. He's gotta be careful, 'cause taking an illegal dragon could mean trouble if the Ministry ever found out."
Harry eyed Hermione. "How about you, Hermione?"
Hermione groaned. "I really want nothing to do with this crazy scheme. You're sure to get caught or something and then what? I don't want to get another detention."
"Quit being such a worry wart, Hermione," Ron sniffed. "Everything's gonna be fine."
Hermione looked unconvinced. But at last she nodded. "I don't know how you convince me to do these things."
That night, all three Gryffindors snuck out of the school and down to Hagrid's hut to get Norbert. Norbert was very excited, he kept breathing little spurts of flame and twitching his stubby wings, they had not grown large enough for him to fly, and his golden eyes glittered.
Harry spent a few minutes petting the baby dragon, who wound himself about the boy's ankles, 'purring" happily. He even stood up on his hind legs and licked Hary with his red tongue.
"Ugh! Eeew, Norbert! Your breath really stinks." Harry grimaced.
The baby dragon made a burbling noise that sounded like oatmeal boiling--the dragon version of laughter. "Think you're funny, huh?" Harry pretended to be annoyed, but Norbert wasn't fooled.
Harry knelt and scratched him about the ears. "Okay, here's where you get to be light as a feather, Norbert." He drew his wand and tapped the little dragon once on the nose and chanted the spell.
The dragon sneezed, but didn't seem to mind the spell. Harry picked him up, and carried him easily. "Say goodbye to your dad, Norbert."
Hagrid hugged the little dragon and shed a few tears. "You be good, y'hear, and don't go wandering off and play nice with th' other dragons, okay? You'll like it there, you can make lots of friends."
Norbert purred and licked Hagrid. Then he curled up in Harry's arms. A faint trickle of smoke drifted from his nostrils.
"Here, give this to yer brother, Ron. It's a list of his favorite foods and toys." he gave a list to Ron and a blanket to Harry. "So he'll have something t' remember me by."
"Come on, we haven't much time," Hermione reminded, looking pointedly at the clock, it was eleven thirty.
They all squeezed under the cloak once more and crept into the school. Up the stairs to the Astronomy Tower they tiptoed, praying that Filch or Mrs. Norris wasn't on patrol there. Or Snape, who also roamed the school at night.
Hermione volunteered to go ahead and check the tower top, making sure the coast was clear. It was, and the three waited at the top of the tower, which was windy and cold, for Charlie and his mates to arrive. They shivered and trembled, the night was pitch black, save for a sprinkling of stars. Only Harry was not cold, since he was holding Norbert, who gave off heat like a furnace.
Finally, at five after midnight, there was a sudden glow, and a carriage pulled by two pegasus's appeared in the sky. Charlie, who looked like an older version of Ron, stepped out of the carriage and onto the tower. "Hey, kid. Where's the tyke?" he clapped Ron on the shoulder and smiled. He was dressed in red leather and his arms, which were well muscled, were crisscrossed with old scars from talons, fangs, and fire.
"There he is, Charlie," Ron jerked his head at Harry.
"Aww. C'mere, you little rascal." Charlie crooned, letting Norbert smell him. The little dragon eyed him, gave a soft hiss, then began to purr. He snuffled Charlie's shirt and the dragon tamer lifted him up and held him, wrapped in the blanket.
'Ron, give him the note," Hermione reminded, and Ron handed Charlie the parchment.
All of them bid goodbye to Norbert, and Charlie quickly climbed back into the carriage, and the pegasus's lifted off and flew away, swift as a falling star.
"Yes!" Harry cheered. "We did it!"
All of them slapped palms together in a group high five.
"Now we'd better get back to our dorm," Hermione said, relieved their mission had gone off without a hitch.
They turned to leave the top of the tower, and froze as they met the icy furious gaze of their Head of House. Beside her was a smirking Draco Malfoy. "See, Professor? I told you they were here, I saw them with a dragon."
"You're barmy, Malfoy," Ron said quickly.
"Mr. Malfoy, do not embellish anything," McGonagall said frostily. "I am appalled at all of you. To think that three members of my own House are out of bed, totally disregarding school rules. What have you to say for yourselves?"
All three of them hung their heads. "It was my fault, Professor," Hermione said suddenly. "I wanted them to come up here and watch the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter and a comet. It only happens once every hundred and fifty years, you see, so I thought they might be interested . . ." she trailed off at Minerva's stony look.
"There is no excuse for your behavior, Miss Granger. All of you will recieve detention and the loss of . . .fifty House points." Then she added, biting off the word as if it pained her, "Each."
"EACH!" Ron shouted. "But . . .but . . ."
"Professor, that's a hundred-and-fifty points!" Harry exclaimed, horrified. That would put Gryffindor in last place for the House Cup.
"I do know how to count, Mr. Potter." Minerva said frostily. "It is your own fault, and no one else's." Malfoy sniggered. She whirled on the Slytherin. "And you too will serve detention and lose twenty-five points, Mr. Malfoy, since you too were in violation of school rules."
"What? But Professor, that's not fair!" Malfoy whined.
"It most certainly is, young man. Now get back to your dormitories, all of you!" Her voice cracked like a whip, and they all jumped and raced down the stairs, ashamed and elated, for though they had gotten caught, they had also managed to get Norbert away safely.
* * * * * *
But they weren't celebrating the next morning, when the rest of their House discovered what they had done to lose an unprecedented 150 points in one night. Everyone was furious at them, at Quidditch practice Wood bawled out Harry in front of the whole team and said he was lucky he didn't kick him right off the team for being the ultimate stupid bugger.
Harry said nothing, knowing Wood was right to scold him, and muttered a sorry. His team mates glared at him in disgust, even the twins. Harry felt his stomach twist in shame, though he was anxious as well over another person's reaction. He wondered in dread if Snape would send for him tonight, and how much trouble he would be in.
But evening came, and McGonagall summoned all four of them to her office for their detention. Harry expected them to be scrubbing the tower or cleaning the Trophy Room or something like that. What he did not expect was to be ordered into the Forbidden Forest along with his classmates and Hagrid.
"You will all accompany Hagrid on a special mission. He is tracking a predator who has been slaughtering unicorns." Hermione gasped. "You will obey him at all times, and perhaps this will be a lesson to you in obeying school rules and staying put in your dormitories. There is a reason why we tell you to stay in the castle at night and not go wandering about after dark. Pray you don't meet up with one of those reasons. Now, let's not dawdle, Hagrid is waiting for you at the entrance."
They reluctantly followed her, and Harry thought that she was even tougher than Snape when it came to giving members of her House detention.
* * * * * *
"You did what?" Severus frowned at his colleague. "You sent them into the Forest for detention, Minerva? Christ Almighty, woman! They were caught out of bed, not blowing up the Astronomy Tower."
Minerva raised an eyebrow. "And who was it, Severus, that kept telling me that I am too easy on my own House? That children need a firm hand? I believe his initials are SS."
Snape ground his teeth. "I know what I said, but Minerva, they are going in there with only Hagrid and Fang for protection. You know there are deadly creatures in the wood, you were almost killed by a manticore two years ago."
"Hagrid knows how to navigate there, Severus. He practically lives in the forest. He won't let any harm come to the students." Minerva said. "Your little serpent is safe."
Severus frowned, for he could not reveal the fact that it was not only Draco he was concerned over. "I still don't like it. Too many things could go wrong."
Minerva snorted. "Name of God, Severus! If you're so concerned, you could always accompany them unseen. Your Animagus form is more than able to track down four scared students, a dog, and Hagrid."
Snape nodded his head. "Perhaps it would be best. Lucius would be most displeased if a manticore ate his heir."
"Go, then. And mind you watch yourself, Severus. Your Animagus form can't intimidate everything, you know."
"Yes, Mother. I'll be careful," he called over his shoulder sarcastically.
Then he left her office and slipped from the castle, walking swiftly down the path past Hagrid's hut and to the edge of the great wood known as the Forbidden Forest.
Taking three deep breaths, he centered himself, closed his eyes, and blurred into the shape of a very large cat.
The great onyx and frost colored snow leopard shook his massive head and sniffed the air. Yes, he could smell the scent of four young wizards, the reek of boarhound, and the strong odor of a half-giant upon the wind. They were barely half an hour ahead of him, he could catch up to them easily.
The snow leopard, twice the size of his ordinary kin, lord of the Himalayas, bounded away into the dark oaks on silent paws, hunting the child he had sworn to protect. There was little in the forest that would threaten a cat of his size, and he was twice as quick and powerful as an ordinary leopard. He prowled the forest often, searching for rare hebs and plants for potions, only switching to his true shape to gather what he needed. Otherwise it was easier and safer to navigate the forest as a snow leopard.
He sprang up into a tree, graceful despite his bulk, and began to travel through the treetops, it was much quicker than being on the ground, and the trees here were very old and intertwined, making it easy to leap from one to another.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile, Harry and Draco had taken Fang and were following the iridescent trail of unicorn blood, as per Hagrid's orders. The trail had split and Hagrid had agreed to let the two boys track the blood for a few feet and if they ran into trouble, to summon him with red sparks from their wand. Harry wasn't too thrilled to be serving detention with Malfoy.
The feeling was mutual. Malfoy didn't speak much to him, for which Harry was grateful. He didn't feel up to making small talk with the kid who had peached on him and his friends to a teacher. It reminded him too much of Dudley, who had delighted in tattling on Harry in primary school for everything, and if Harry wasn't doing anything to get in trouble, Dudley made up something, until by the time they had graduated primary school, Harry had the reputation of a troublemaker.
A cold wind swept through the trees, making both boys shiver and clutch their robes tighter. The wind rattled the branches overhead and made Fang bristle and snarl. Harry reached down and gripped the big dog's collar and made soothing noises. The dog whined and snarled again, pressing against Harry's legs.
"What the hell's the matter with him?" asked Draco, a note of fear in his voice.
"I don't know. Maybe he hears something. But I think the wind blowing startled him."
"Huh. Some guard dog," Malfoy sneered. He held his lantern up high so they could still see the path.
"Come on, Fang. Let's follow the trail," Harry spoke encouragingly to the dog, trying to keep the uneasiness twisting his stomach at bay. He had the strangest feeling that he was being followed, but when he glanced behind him, there was nothing there. It's just nerves, Harry. You're jumping at shadows.
Still, he could not help but feel that there was something sinister lurking in the forest. It was like a chill wind down his spine, a forboding that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Danger. Danger. His instincts were shrieking at him. Something wicked this way comes.
He swallowed hard, feeling his scar start to throb. He rubbed at it absently, wishing that Severus were there. True, the man would probably scold him into the next century and smack his bum for being a foolish incorrigible brat, but Harry would be safe with the dark protector beside him. He felt exposed and vulnerable out here, even though he knew that Hagrid, Ron, and Hermione were probably within shouting distance.
"Malfoy, do you feel something . . .strange about this forest?"
"Besides the fact that we're wandering about it in the middle of the night, Potter? Why? Are you scared?"
"No," Harry said evenly. It was a lie, he was quite afraid, but he knew better than to admit that to Malfoy. You never showed your throat to an enemy. "But there's something not right here. It feels . . .wrong."
"Aww, little bitty Potter is scared!" Malfoy mocked, smirking. "Poor baby, d'you want to run and hide behind your mummy? Oh, I forgot, you haven't got one!" he sniggered nastily.
A soft snarl came from somewhere behind them.
Draco jumped about a foot. "Ahhh!" he yelled, peering about wildly. "Did you hear that?"
"Yeah. Sounded like an animal," Harry remarked, smiling a bit. "Scared, Malfoy?"
"Shut it, Potter! Let's keep moving. I don't want to be here all night." He pushed past Harry and Fang and practically ran down the trail.
Harry followed more cautiously, recalling something Severus had told him once, about unicorns. 'Unicorns are one of the purest of all creatures. It is said that when God created the unicorn, He did so by breathing on a cloud, and from his breath was born the unicorn. Unicorns cannot bear the touch of evil, their horn can cure almost any wound or illness and when a unicorn dies, angels weep. To slay a unicorn is to slay a pure innocent creature, and anyone who does so deliberately is forever cursed, doomed to a half-life of damnation."
Something in the forest was slaying unicorns.
The young wizard suppressed a shiver and forcd himself to continue onward. His scar began to burn, but he forced himself to ignore it. He never noticed the golden eyes that watched from above, nor saw the shape that darted after him through the branches.
* * * * * *
Severus the snow leopard snarled softly as he followed his charge. When Malfoy had said that cruel statement to Harry, he had longed to spring upon the selfish brat and cuff him into next week. But he did not wish to reveal himself, few people knew he was an Animagus, the exceptions were Minerva, who had taught him how to become one, and Lily, whom he told nearly everything to. Not even Albus knew his Potions Master was an Animagus, though Severus was registered with the Ministry.
So he trailed the young wizards, careful to stalk silently and swiftly, as only a snow leopard could. They were often called the phantoms of the Himalayas, because they could appear suddenly, strike down their prey, and vanish almost like magic. In fact, in his leopard form he was called Wraith, and like his namesake he walked unseen.
Suddenly a sickening miasma of evil flowed through the trees, making Wraith lift his lips in a silent snarl. The fur on the snow leopard's back stood up in warning and his tail lashed hard, as the unmistakable stink of blood magic invaded his nostrils.
A dark wizard was abroad in the forest.
And Harry and Draco were headed right for it.
Wraith quickened his pace, springing in great leaps through the dark oaks.
* * * * * *
They came upon the dead unicorn abruptly. Draco rounded a bend in the path and halted so quickly that Harry banged right into him.
"Hey, what's--" Harry began, then felt the sickening dread seize hold of him. He had never felt anything like it before and for an instant he was unable to move, as he stared at the limp body of the unicorn, whose silvery blood pooled upon the earth, its throat ripped open.
That in itself was terrible enough, but even worse was the black shape crouched over it. Soft sucking and slurping noises came from it, and Harry felt his stomach threaten to rebel. The black shape was drinking the blood of the unicorn.
Then Draco moaned and turned to run back the way he had come, and the thing spun about with a hiss, and Harry caught a glimpse of red eyes and pallid skin and a face that was more inhuman than not with fangs that dripped silvery streams of unicorn blood.
Draco bolted, screaming, followed by Fang, leaving Harry alone to face the awful damned creature. Before he could speak or use his wand, his scar exploded in agony, and he dropped to his knees, clutching his head with both hands and whimpering.
The evil thing lunged at him and Harry could not react in time.
It would have killed him there where he crouched upon the forest floor had not a gigantic cat sprang from the trees with a keening coughing roar, pinning the black cloaked figure to the earth.
The black creature hissed and shrieked, but the leopard was very strong and filled with fury, he raked all four sets of paws down the thing's back. Harm MY child, will you? Not on MY watch, devil spawn!
Harry jerked up at the great leopard's roar, astonished to see a beautiful cat crouched atop the slayer of the unicorn, intent on ripping it to shreds. He tried to get to his feet, but the pain in his head made him dizzy and he could not rise.
The leopard's eyes met his for an instant, and Harry winced, for he could swear that the cat was telling him to run, but he was helpless to obey.
Now the creature was struggling, trying to throw off the big cat, but the leopard clung stubbornly to the thing's black cloak, until the evil one gave a short sharp cry and vanished, leaving the great cat gripping only mist inbetween his paws.
Harry could barely see because of the pain and he hardly noticed when the leopard came up to him and nudged him hard, purring. "Ow! Okay, damn it, I'm getting up," Harry groaned. "My head . . . heaven help me . . . I think it's about to come off . . ." He tried to stand, but the movement made his head spin and his stomach lurch. "Ah, Merlin . . .!"
Before he could stop himself, Harry threw up, retching uncontrollably. He emptied everything he had eaten onto the forest floor, the pain in his head and the smell of the dead unicorn causing him to become unbearably nauseated.
Then he felt hands holding him, and he relaxed, thinking it was Ron or Hagrid, but then he recalled that Ron and Hagrid were in a different part of the forest. He lifted his head at last, trying to turn it and see who held him, and saw a familiar long-fingered hand on his shoulder.
"I'm here, child. Can you sit up a little?"
Slowly, Harry did so, leaning back into the Potion Master's arms. His scar still hurt, but not as much as before.
"How are you feeling?"
"Do you feel like you're going to be sick again?"
"N-no. Least I don' think so." He made a face, for there was a disgusting taste in his mouth. "Did you see it, Severus? The . . .the thing that killed the unicorn? It was drinking its blood." Harry gulped. "And then it attacked me and the snow leopard came and saved me. Did you see the leopard?"
"No. The only thing I saw was you being sick all over. How is your head now? Do you think you can walk?"
Harry tried to stand, but his legs felt weak and heavy, and when he took a step, stumbled and nearly fell, Severus swung him up into his arms.
"Severus, what are you doing?"
"Taking you back to the castle." He began to walk through the trees.
"No, you can't! I've got detention . . ."
"Not any more. I'm canceling it. Teacher's prerogative. Now hush." He walked a few more feet, Harry snuggled securely in his arms. He was awash with relief and anger, relief that he had been able to save Harry and anger that Harry had been put in this predicament in the first place. Once again the Angel of Death had visited his son . . .and passed over him.
"Severus? What . . .was that thing?"
"A lost and damned soul, Harry. Don't worry, it's gone." For now. He stroked his son's hair. "Go to sleep, Harry."
Harry yawned, then closed his eyes. He woke briefly to hear voices, one silky baritone and the other a soft Scottish burr.
"...found him alone in the forest . . .near the freshly killed body of a unicorn . . .crying and vomiting . . ."
"Is he all right . . .?"
"Yes, he was merely shaken and he should be fine in a day or two. . . with your permission . . .put him to bed . . ."
Then he felt himself being carried again and the last thing he knew was being set down on something soft and feeling a fluffy blanket being tucked around him. He felt a cup being placed against his lips and he sipped obediently and tasted water. He swallowed and rid himself of the lingering sour taste.
"Good. Now this."
Another vial was given to him, he swallowed that too, recognizing the mint taste as an anti nausea potion.
Then he drifted off to sleep and his dreams were filled with a dark figure that spat silver blood at him and a magnificent snow leopard who saved him by tearing the sinister figure apart. Then the leopard became Severus and held him tight and he slept without dreams for the rest of the night.
Chapter End Notes:
So how did you like this episode? Did you think Sev's Animagus form was cool?
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