The Sugar Quill
Author: Murasaki99 (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Stars In the River  Chapter: Chapter 2. Knight Errant
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Stars In the River 2. Knight Errant

Stars In the River

A Harry Potter Fan Fiction

by Murasaki99

Sequel to Clouds Over Snow

Any Harry Potter character you recognise belongs to J.K. Rowling

Chapter 2. Knight Errant

Severus found his strength continuing to increase as the week progressed. Only two things marred the return of what passed for normalcy in his life. The first was the sure knowledge that Gobardon Agnen had taken up residence in the Forbidden Forest. The second was the failure of his wound to fully heal. Each day he had the doctor change the dressing, but nothing she did to seal up the injury would cause it to stay closed. At odd moments it would break open and bleed, a situation he found annoying, given it happened with little or no warning.

Finding blood on his clothing or bed linens distressed the house elves and they would nag him to see the doctor if they noticed. The wound itself was more coldly numb than painful, but the bleeding was a nuisance and a constant reminder of how things currently stood. Potions classes provided a welcome distraction and a level of irritation he was used to.

"Mr. Potter, kindly show Mr. Longbottom how to mince his soldier-crab claws rather than shred them into strips? This is not a London sushi bar." Severus glowered down the high bridge of his nose at the two Gryffindors. Harry moved to help his friend without complaint. "Thank you," Severus murmured dryly. Behind him, he could hear the titters of his Slytherins. Turning smoothly on his heel, he cast a quick glance toward them. "And Mr. Malfoy, if you would also perform the same act of mercy for Mr. Goyle? We do not need more than one detonation per class." He swept through the classroom, checking the progress of the fifth-years with a practiced eye.

"Professor? These won't mince!" Seamus Finnegan called, his voice filled with frustration. Severus drifted toward the workbench and scowled darkly at the student's work area.

"That is because you must shell the claws first, Mr. Finnegan, a detail which you would have known if you had troubled to read the notes before class as I assigned them." As he spoke Severus brought his left fist down hard on the stubborn claw, shattering the outer chitinous shell with his knuckles and causing Seamus to give a very satisfying jump. That task done, he rested his hands casually against the front of Draco's desk. With all eyes upon him, he drawled. "Now then, any further questions before we begin brewing?"

"P-professor?" Draco's voice sounded nervous and strained. Severus looked at his student - the young man's pale face had turned nearly white.

"What is it now?" he queried mildly, while at the same moment checking for any toxic leaks or spills. Experience had taught him that by the time a student had plucked up the courage to call his attention to something dangerous it was often too late, and so he scanned the class quickly while waiting for Draco's answer.

"You're bleeding, sir." Draco pointed at Severus' left hand where it lay resting on the desktop. A steady red trickle from his sleeve had fed a small pool of blood.

Severus hissed with irritation at the sight of it. "So I am, Mr. Malfoy, five points for a good eye. This could contaminate our efforts." Drawing his wand he quickly spelled the work area clean. Lifting his hand and arm to keep further drippage away from the cauldrons and chopping blocks, he strode to the front of the classroom.

"I suggest you keep your eyes on your work," he purred as he sat down. "The fresh-ground pixie dust will only be potent for another ten minutes, so carry on. I expect the Fever Reducing Potion to be finished by the end of the period." Much to his gratification the students quit staring at him with varying levels of concern and quickly returned to chopping, mixing, and brewing. That's better, give them something else to think about, he thought. The idea that people might worry over his health was both new and disconcerting and he was not at all sure he liked it.

While other matters held their attention, Severus applied a quick clotting charm to his shoulder. The bleeding ceased, but he could tell from the wet, gummy feel of his shirt that he would need to see either Madam Pomfrey or Eregion at the next break in his classes. He scowled at the thought, unsure if he'd get a harder time from the Mediwitch or the Chirurgeon.



"You probably should not have shattered the crab shells with your fist," Eregion said quietly as she cleaned the clotted blood away from the wound on his shoulder. "The force of your blow went straight up your arm to your back."

"I had reached that conclusion about thirty seconds after performing the deed," he muttered, shaking his head. "You have to understand those Gryffindors can bring out the worst in me and it was either crush the shells or be sorely tempted to do something worse."

Severus sat on the edge of a treatment bed, watching the doctor out of the corner of one eye as she worked on his back. "The injury should have been healed by now - why does it insist upon being so delicate?" he complained. "It is not as if I work to break it open on a daily basis." His voice took on a warmer tone. "I don't mind seeing you so often, but honestly, there are better ways to arrange meetings."

"There are indeed." Eregion finished applying the last of the bandages and stepped back to face Severus. The Potions Master began to put on the clean shirt brought up to him by a house elf. "As for why it heals so slowly and bleeds so easily… I strongly suspect it has to do with Gobardon Agnen and his Morgul weapons." Her face was concerned. "I regret to tell you that not even the wise of my era understood all there was to know of the Úlairi. I know how they came to be, but not everything of which they are capable."

"You think his malice keeps the wound from healing?" Severus touched the bandages under his shirt where they crisscrossed his chest. "Voldemort would very much like such power - to torment his enemies at a distance, but for now he can only kill and hurt those who have the misfortune to come near him."

"It may not even be a conscious act. In his anger he struck you with a weapon designed by Sauron himself to create more wraiths. The victims were never meant to recover." She regarded him thoughtfully. "Does it feel as if he is doing it with will and purpose?"

Severus pulled his robes over his coat and turned to face the direction of the Forbidden Forest. As he stood still and quieted both body and mind, he became aware of a chill presence, and knew in an instant that it was aware of his regard and waiting patiently.

My Captain.

The whisper crawled along his nerves. His blood ran cold and he shuddered clear to his bones. "He's… here. He knows I can feel his presence and he can feel mine in turn… and my mind, my life." He drew his lips back from his teeth in a non-smile. "It is a most unpleasant sensation." Eregion stood beside him as the minutes crawled slowly by.

Come to me.

Soon. Severus sent that intention out along their connection, and with an effort broke the contact. Thus freed, he moved, turning away from the Forest and taking a few staggering steps. The color slowly returned to his face.

"Are you–"

"I'm all right." The answer came out a little too fast to be convincing. He heaved a deep sigh, rubbing at his arms to warm them. "And returning to your question, the answer is no. I do not feel that he is actively trying to harm me. He… waits for me, however."

"Long may he wait!" Eregion cried vehemently.



At eight o'clock Severus climbed the stairs up to the main battlements. The weather had broken during the day and now the stars gleamed down through a scattering of white clouds backlit by a sword-cut moon. The Forest lay beyond, dark and strangely still. The Potions Master was aware of the dangerous creatures that lived within, but none of them gave him the same level of fear as the Nazgûl. He patted the pockets in his robes, feeling the lumps of the items he had placed inside. I must deliver these before it grows much later, but first I need to do this. Facing the Forest he closed his eyes and for the second time this day sent his mind outward along the connection that had been forged three weeks ago.

Breathe in. A sensation of falling, of cold. Breathe out. The world is a thousand shades of grey, icy and still. Breathe in. In the heart of the Forest he waits. Breathe out. The sounds of devastation and weeping permeate the very air around him. Breathe in. Pain and longing. Loneliness so deep it defies logical description. It was part of him, close as his own shadow. He wanted to weep but his eyes remained dry. Hogwarts was a distant memory. He was elsewhere.

"Pain shared is pain halved," he whispered hoarsely. The words sounded strange coming from his own throat, as if someone other than his conscious self spoke them. At once the Nazgûl was aware of him and the force of his regard made Severus feel as if he were being pulled under the waters of a frozen lake. Severus could not have moved even if he had wanted to.

My Captain.

The icy voice was almost… pleased? Severus was unsure how to interpret the mental 'tone', but the sensation of terrible chill eased slightly.

You have decided.

I have, Severus replied. It did not occur to him to question how the Nazgûl knew he had come to this pass; their bond was too deep to hide such a thing.

Very good. Come to me here, at dawn. A mental chuckle, cold as hag-nails on glass, echoed in Severus' mind. The spiders will be asleep then.

As if a cord had been cut, the contact was released and Severus fell, only to be brought to a halt by hard stone. The jolt of his fall made him gasp and he became aware that his lungs hurt. Coming to his senses, he found himself sitting half-collapsed inside the parapet.

"Professor Snape! Are you all right? Should I call the Doctor?" As Severus focused his vision, he found himself looking into the wide and worried eyes of Harry Potter, who was crouching before him. "You look awful and you quit breathing!"

Severus coughed, trying to catch his breath before the young man could run off for the infirmary. "I'm fine, Potter," he rasped. "Give me a moment." He panted a little longer then added. "Stay. You're just the person I wanted to see."

"I… I am?" Harry's eyes went even wider at Severus' statement. Being 'wanted' by Severus Snape was not one of the things Harry had ever expected or wished to hear.

"Yes. I intend to run some… errands tomorrow and I need to leave two things with you before I go." Now that the world felt somewhat more real and stable, Severus drew his legs under his body and rose to his feet, leaning against the parapet for support while his legs readjusted to bearing his weight.

Harry stood up with him, looking both nervous and stubborn. "You should see the Doctor, Professor."

"I've seen her already. She has done all she can for me." He straightened up and fixed Harry with a steely stare. "Now then, Mr. Potter." Reaching inside his robes he brought out two items, one in each hand. "These are for you to keep safe." He gave a thick packet of folded parchment into Harry's right hand. Into his left he pressed an ornate iron key.

"W-what are these?" Harry stared at his hands in surprise, then looked up at Severus.

"The key is to a locked cupboard in my office, on the left, behind my desk. In it you will find a year's supply of the Wolfsbane Potion."

"Wolfsbane!?"

"Yes. Is something wrong with your hearing?" Severus growled softly.

"N-no Professor, but why?" Harry looked at the parchment. "And what is this?"

"That you may read later." Severus waved a hand as if it were something of minor import. "As for why, I told you, I have errands to run tomorrow." He frowned, looking out over the battlement toward the Forest. "If I do not return, you and your 'dog' will need the aid of the Werewolf, I believe. The potion is for him. I have reset the wards on that cupboard so that only you will be able to open it. Do not forget!" He walked away, moving quickly toward the door leading into the Castle.

"But Professor! What are you going to do? Why wouldn't you return?" Harry began to follow, but Severus fixed Harry with such a forbidding look that he froze in place.

"Potter. You have your obligations ahead of you. I have mine. Fulfilling this one may take…" He ceased speaking and glared at Harry before continuing. "Suffice it to say if all goes well, I will return before the day's end tomorrow, in which case you may simply keep those things against a future need. If I do not return, you must do with them what you think best." He began to turn away, then thought better of it and paused to add. "And Potter be aware– if I catch you or any of your friends trying to follow me– I know some Curses new even to Voldemort." Chuckling wickedly he strode into the castle, leaving Harry to follow after a safe interval had passed.



Once he was sure Professor Snape was out of cursing-range, Harry ran for Gryffindor tower to gasp the password to the Fat Lady, enter the common room and finally dash up the stairs to the room he shared with his friends. Sirius in his dog-shape sprawled across Harry's bed, sleeping soundly. No one else was inside right now and Harry woke his godfather with a touch. "Sirius, you need to see something!"

Sirius Black rose and stretched, then shifted shape to sit cross-legged on Harry's bed. "What do you have, Harry?"

"I found Professor Snape standing up on the battlements looking as if someone had Petrified him. He didn't move for oh, fifteen minutes or more– and he was pale grey, almost the same color as when he was sick. He spoke once, but it sounded so strange, and then he quit breathing. I was just about to run for the infirmary when he fell down and that seemed to break the spell because he started breathing again." Harry gasped for air after that first rush of explanation and continued. "That's when he spoke to me and told me to stay."

He displayed his strange little trove. "Professor Snape gave me these." Harry passed the packet of parchment and the iron key to Sirius, quickly describing the use of the key, as well as Severus' mission and warning.

"Hmm, the long-nosed git has decided Remus might not be all that bad, eh? Perhaps spending so much time in hospital got him thinking?" Sirius looked at the parchment curiously. "Strange. I wonder what he's really planning? We know what the key is for, what about this?"

"I don't know, just a moment." Carefully checking for curses, Harry untied the string holding the packet closed, then unfolded the parchment and began to read the precise script aloud.

"I Severus Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts, being of sound mind and will, do make this deposition under my seal on this day attesting to the innocence of one Sirius Black. The details, as I understand them, are as follows…" In a halting voice Harry read the rest of the parchment to his godfather. When he had finished he looked at Sirius. "This will help to prove your innocence! Why did he give this to me?"

Sirius' face was grim. He took the parchment gently and read it through for himself. "This is a death-gift. He does not think he will survive whatever it is he set out to accomplish. Did he tell you what he intended to do on these 'errands' of his?"

"No." Harry knit his brows as he thought. "But when I found him he was looking at the Forest. He said something like 'pain shared is pain halved'." Harry rubbed his forehead. "It can't be Voldemort, I don't feel any pain in my scar." He let his hand fall. "He couldn't be thinking of finding the Nazgûl, could he? He's barely recovered!"

"He's got to have more sense than that!" Sirius snorted. "Even I wouldn't do such a thing." He thought a few moments longer. "All the same, we should probably step 'round and see Eregion tomorrow and let her know her patient is contemplating doing something foolish."

"He said not to tell anyone. Not Dumbledore, not even the Doctor." Harry stared at his godfather with worried green eyes.

Sirius made a noncommittal sound at that. "He's a big boy, Harry. If he truly is mad enough to tackle that Nazgûl by himself, it's his business. Now that I think about it, I can't believe he'd be that stupid or reckless, not our star Slytherin." He tapped the parchment. "This must be some sort of clever ploy of his."

"But Sirius… He said, 'if I do not return, you must do what you think best'!"

"Snape?!" The older wizard stared at Harry. "He said that? To you?" Sirius focused on nothing for a long minute as he thought. "Maybe we'd better talk to old Snape in the morning, before he gets himself under way?" He ruffled Harry's hair. "Don't fret, we'll have time enough to catch him and pry the truth out of him. And we can get the Headmaster or the Doctor to help sit on him if we need reinforcements." Sirius allowed his body to flop back down across the bed and groaned. "I can't believe either of us are worried about him!"


The sun was not yet up as Severus rose and began to dress. He put on his riding breeches and topped them with his formal robes even though his destination was the Forbidden Forest. As he shrugged the outer robes into place he felt once again that cold jab of pain followed by a warm trickle, which meant he had reopened his wound. He growled in annoyance and sank into a chair to lace up his riding boots. Not again. It's been barely a day since the last time.

I should go to Eregion, have her attend to my shoulder, and tell her… he stopped with a grimace as the realization hit him. Tell my Gryffindor elf that I'm off to have a nice diplomatic chat with Gobardon Agnen, the person who killed her once and who almost killed me? He grimaced again. Did kill me, however briefly, if I want to be precise about it. Yes, I can see it now. I'll tell her to stay here at Hogwarts, safe behind the wards, while I go and talk to the old King. I'm sure she'll be willing to wait patiently and not do anything foolish while I'm gone.

He rose to his feet and drew his wand. And Voldemort is going to repent any day now and become a model wizard, I'm sure. He smiled briefly at the awful comparison.

Tapping his left shoulder he said the spell. "Fibrilus." The wound stung sharply for several seconds but the steady trickle of blood stopped as if someone had turned off a dripping tap. He nodded in satisfaction.

The first pale light of predawn showed in the eastern sky as he reached the paddock that housed Nox Fortuna, Eregion's sturdy charger and his mount for the great race of three weeks and one eternity ago. Also sharing the paddock was Gobardon Agnen's black stallion, which normally carried the Nazgûl into battle. Both horses looked at him curiously as he entered the paddock. Nox greeted him with a welcoming nicker.

Moving quickly and quietly, he saddled and bridled the mare. Eregion would not begrudge me the loan of her horse, he thought, trying not to feel guilty about either the horse or the fact that he was leaving without consulting her. He knew very well what he would have thought of such a thing. I know I'm going to hate having to explain myself later… he frowned as he thought. Of course, I'm assuming that there will be a later for me! Gobardon Agnen may save me the trouble of having to beg pardon of everyone. He led Nox through the gate and closed it behind them. Now there's a cheerful thought.

He mounted the mare and turned her toward the Forbidden Forest, riding toward the verge of the great trees where they bordered the meadow. The black horse watched them go, then smoothly leaped the fence and followed at a brisk trot.



Harry rose before breakfast. With 'Snuffles' at his side, the two ran down the stairs to Severus' quarters in the dungeon. The Potions Master was not in. Nor was he in his office or the classroom nearby. Neither was he at breakfast or the library. Boy and dog looked at each other in consternation.

"Where is he?" Harry asked in growing fear. In desperation he grabbed the nearest Slytherin and after some quickly edited explanations convinced the girl to check the Slytherin common room, to no avail.

Harry leaned against the wall outside Slytherin, desperately racking his brains for any alternative hiding places for the Potions Master. Sirius sniffed the stone of the floor outside the entrance. "Can you smell if he came here?" he asked. The black dog woofed and shook his head in a negative. Watching Sirius reminded Harry of Fang, Hagrid's mastiff. The thought of the groundskeeper reminded him of something else and he snapped his fingers. "Nox! Come on, Professor Snape used to practice early in the morning for the race! He could be down there, with the horse!"

Harry and Sirius ran through the courtyard, out the main gate, and down the stairs. The paddock was empty. Both Nox Fortuna and the new black horse were gone.

Seeing no one else around, Sirius took his man-shape, casting about in vain for signs of his quarry, a fierce frown on his face. "Curse his slimy Slytherin heart! He's gone and left already! Proper serpents never get up so early!"

"Perhaps he's not quite a 'proper serpent' anymore?" Harry queried as he made for Hagrid's hut. "This way, Sirius, we can call Dumbledore from Hagrid's fireplace!"



The pallid light of dawn did not penetrate much beyond the eaves of the Forbidden Forest but at least it served to cause the more carnivorous nocturnal creatures to seek out their dens. Severus rode Nox carefully through the woods, over great tangled roots and around the half-rotted boles of fallen trees, new trees sprouting out of the rich humus created by their fallen ancestors. His eyes, which had been so very light sensitive since his wounding, now seemed to compensate by being able to see in the gloom much better than before. This clear vision enabled him to guide the mare around the deep holes that might have served to trap and break one of her legs.

Every few minutes he would stop Nox and sit quietly, feeling along his connection to Gobardon Agnen, then adjusting their course as needed. Nothing tried to disturb them as they rode, a situation Severus found most odd. Where are the wolves? The werebeasts, spectral hounds, and cockatrices? Not all of them sleep with the rising of the sun. It is abnormal to go this deep into the Forest without a challenge.

They rode on in peace, Severus following the invisible thread that bound him to the Nazgûl. I suppose soon enough I will see if a simple plan will work as well as one far more complex. It doesn't get much simpler than 'meet the king and attempt to talk to him'. Inside the layers of his clothing he shivered. That simple plan contained so much risk in itself his thoughts refused to pass beyond that initial hurdle.

Somewhere above them, the sun rose higher and the deep gloom lightened slightly. The trees in this part of the Forest were true giants of their kind, soaring far above their heads. Silence lay heavy under their branches. At last he felt the air grow cold, chilling the sweat that clung to his skin. Nox snorted in alarm and balked, refusing to go forward any further.

"Easy, my friend," he murmured to the nervous horse as he dismounted. Patting her neck he spoke to her softly. "You have more sense than I. Stay here and wait for me, if you can. And if you cannot, then return to Hogwarts, where it is safe." Throwing the reins over her head so they would not drag on the ground, Severus left her standing free and walked on toward a grove of tall elms, feeling the air grow colder as he advanced.

The branches of the elms arched skyward, forming a high, vaulted ceiling. The trunks of the trees were so close they formed the walls of a vast green hall, larger even than the great hall of Hogwarts.

As he entered this space, the air became arctic. At the far end of the elm-hall, a dark form stood, waiting for him silently. Severus halted on the threshold. The being in black raised an armored arm and hand and beckoned to him. Drawing in a deep, steadying breath of the icy air, Severus stepped inside and walked onward.

The form in black became somewhat easier to see as he approached. It looked like a tall man, clad in a black, hooded robe, which hung loosely over black armor. That part of the face and head not covered by the robe was entirely hidden by a full helm, but eyes gleamed like cold stars out of the ebon depths under the hood and armor. The robe had been well-used, the edges of it hung in frayed tatters, as if it had been worn for years with no regard for looks. The armor as well had the patina of long use, but it seemed to be in good repair, if grim to look upon.

Severus halted, barely a sword's length away from the Nazgûl. His living breath hung smoky on the air. For a long moment they faced each other in silence.

"Severus Snape. My chosen Captain." The spoken voice was cold, but not quite as cold as Severus remembered it. Still, it sent a shudder down his spine. "You have come to me at last."

"I have, my Lord." Severus gave him a formal bow.

"I say again that I chose well. You have rare courage." The Nazgûl lifted his left hand and drew from a sheath at his side a long blade of pallid metal; it gave off mist like dry ice.

With a rush of horror Severus realized he was looking at the same weapon the ringwraith had tried to use on him as he lay wounded on the grass during the race.

"You will join me now."

Footnotes

I probably shouldn't compose the more dire scenes while listening to the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack. I'll have to see if the LOTR soundtrack makes for more tranquil writing.

Continued in the next chapter, First, Do No Harm.

Grateful thank-yous to my beta-readers Judi, and Kat.

Disclaimer: If you recognize the characters as being from the world of Harry Potter, then they belong to J.K. Rowling.
Further disclaimer: This non-profit fan-fiction is not meant to infringe on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, either. All his stuff still belongs to him (and his heirs).
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