Chapter 29: Here Be Giants
Harry had no idea where to go. He only knew that he had to get away from Hogwarts, had to have time to absorb what Dumbledore had told him and to come to terms with his own emotions. He couldn't go anywhere in the wizarding world, of course, for fear of being recognized, so instead he opted for the teeming anonymity of London.
Avoiding the vicinities of Grimmauld Place and Diagon Alley, Harry Apparated to the busy streets in the heart of Muggle London where he'd followed Snape during his misguided quest for the Death Eater Vigilante. The memory of his poor judgment during that affair wasn't pleasant, but he was at least confident that he could wander these streets un-remarked and for nearly an hour he did just that. He walked aimlessly, letting the physical exertion help to ease the ache within him as he struggled to accept the terrible truth of what defeating Voldemort would cost. But despite what Dumbledore had said, he couldn't bring himself to believe that there wasn't another solution. He could have accepted his own death more readily than the need to sacrifice another and the longer he walked the more determined he became that he was not going to sacrifice Snape.
In the midst of trying to imagine what an alternative solution might be Harry found himself in front of the pub where Knight had accosted him so many months before. It was nearly dinnertime and Harry was both thirsty and tired, so he went in.
"What'll ye have?" the barman asked.
"Bangers and mash and pump – er, ale," Harry replied.
The man eyed the scrawny teenager skeptically. "How old are you?"
Harry sighed and pulled his wand discreetly from his pocket. "Confundus," he murmured.
The man blinked, then smiled somewhat vacantly. "Coming right up." He hurried away as Harry shoved his wand back into his pocket and made his way to a small table in a corner. Harry slumped into his seat. He needed to get back to Hogwarts, he knew. His friends would worry when they realized that he'd missed dinner, but Harry wasn't anxious to return to school. Sitting here in a Muggle pub he could pretend that Voldemort didn't exist, or at least that he wouldn't have to risk his life and the lives of those he cared for in order to defeat the evil wizard.
Harry's melancholy thoughts were interrupted as his dinner arrived along with a foaming pint of ale. Staring at his food, Harry realized that he wasn't at all hungry. He reached for his drink instead. The ale was bitter, but it warmed him as it went down which Harry found somewhat comforting. It was better than the cold ache of dread that had seized him in Dumbledore's office and refused to let go.
Harry drained his glass, feeling the icy grip loosen slightly. He stared out the window at the passersby, wondering what mundane worries occupied their thoughts. It was a fair bet that none of them had been charged with saving the world or instigating the death of any of their friends.
"Another round?" the still-smiling barkeep asked, nodding at Harry's empty glass as he passed the table.
The barkeep had stopped asking. He simply came by periodically wearing the same vapid smile and replaced Harry's empty glass with a full one. For the most part, Harry had stopped noticing when this happened. Slouched over his cold, untouched dinner, he simply stared forlornly into space wondering what he'd ever done to deserve such a miserable lot in life.
Harry had just finished draining his latest pint of the evening when a shadow fell across his table and failed to move away. He looked up, vaguely expecting another round of ale and it took him a few moments to register the fact that the person glaring down at him wasn't the barkeep. It took a few more moments before he was able to actually place the looming figure in black.
"You! Wha' are you doin' here?"
"I was about to ask you the same question," Snape said. "Have you any idea how many people are out looking for you? All of the Order have been pressed into service."
Harry stared blankly at Snape trying to work out what the man had said, but his brain didn't seem to be able to make sense of the words. His befuddled expression must have registered on Snape who frowned and glanced suspiciously at the empty glass in front of Harry.
"How much have you had to drink?"
Harry blinked, tried to work out the maths and failed utterly. He squinted down at his glass as if expecting to see the answer written at the bottom of it.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake!" Snape grabbed Harry's collar and lifted him out of his seat. Snape's grip was quite strong, which was good since it was the only thing keeping Harry from falling down. His legs didn't seem to be working properly for some reason.
"Is there a problem here?" asked a burly man, who must have been the pub owner, coming over to the table.
Snape immediately turned his wrath on the man. "This boy is drunk!" he said accusingly.
The man frowned at Harry in surprise. "We wouldn't have served him more than a pint or two with his supper."
"Really?" Snape sneered. "You'd swear to that?"
The man bristled. "Who are you to be asking?"
"He's my nean, masty, poshins smasher," Harry chimed in helpfully. "An' you bedder not gedin his way or he'll curse you."
Harry wagged a finger warningly at the proprietor while swaying in Snape's grasp. The man stared at Harry, bemusedly. Most of the nearby patrons were looking on as well, either smirking in amusement or frowning their disapproval.
"I'm his uncle and I'm taking him home," Snape said through clenched teeth as he pulled several five pound notes from his pocket and threw them on the table. The money appeared to quell the man's objections and he stepped aside to let Snape propel Harry across the pub and out of the door.
"Home?" Harry scoffed as they emerged from the pub. "Ha! I don' have a home. D'you know my aunt tol' the neighbors I died?"
"I'm taking you back to school, of course!" Snape snapped impatiently.
"No! I don' wanna go back there!"
"I don't care what you want, Potter."
Anger managed to pierce the fog in Harry's brain. He summoned all of his strength and wrenched his arm out of Snape's grasp. Unfortunately, the street chose precisely that moment to tilt precipitously and Harry staggered sideways. He was only saved from sprawling in the gutter by a lamppost that he managed to sling his arm around at the last instant. He gripped the lamppost tightly, swaying as the street righted itself, somewhat. Then he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his wand.
"I'm not – going anywhere – with you," Harry said slowly and distinctly, trying to keep his wand leveled at Snape, something that was proving annoyingly difficult to do. "So, jus' go 'way. I can take care o' myself." Harry gave up trying to keep his wand pointed at Snape and waved it dismissively as he laid his cheek against the lamppost.
"No doubt," Snape drawled, though his sarcasm was entirely lost on Harry. He regarded the boy with disgust, looking very much as if he would like nothing better than to walk away and leave Harry with his lamppost. "Unfortunately, it's my job to take care of you."
"Why?" Harry demanded, petulantly. "Why's it always hafta be you? Why cannit ever be someone who likes me?"
"Just our luck, I suppose. Now stop this nonsense and come along."
"No!" Harry brandished his wand once more, but Snape was unimpressed by the threat. With a sigh, he stepped forward, took the wand from Harry and pocketed it. Then he pulled Harry away from the lamppost and began to drag him down the street again.
"Why d'you hate me so much?"
"I don't hate you, Potter. I'm disgusted with the spectacle you're making of yourself."
"See! Tha's wha' I mean. You're always cri'sizing me."
"Only because you deserve it. You obviously don't appreciate how much trouble you're in."
"Yes I do. I've gotta kill all Volemort's Death Eaters. I don' wanna kill all those people."
"I see. So you're here to drown your guilt, is that it? Potter, how can you be so weak? I've warned you time and again to stop letting your emotions get the better of you."
"Tha's easy for you to say. You don' care about anyone. But I do. I don' really mind killin' his Death Eaters. But why do I hafta kill you? Ist not fair! No matter wha' I do – no matter how hard I try, the people I care about keep dyin'. An' I can't stop it."
"Potter, that isn't your fault. Stop blaming yourself."
Harry stopped and turned towards Snape. Planting his hands on Snape's shoulders, he leaned heavily on the man for support and gazed earnestly up him. "I'm sorry I called you a bastard. I mean, you are one mos' o' the time, but I think you jus' don' know how to be nice to people."
"I appreciate the vote of confidence. Now come along." Snape tried to pull Harry away, but Harry slung his arm around Snape's neck and whispered conspiratorially.
"You know wha' I think. I think you're afraid to be nice to people because you're afraid they still won't like you and ist easier to jus' make everyone hate you. But I don' hate you, Perfessor, even though you aren't nice. An' I'm sorry... so sorry. I don' want you to die, Perfessor." Harry burst into tears and buried his head on Snape's shoulder.
"Potter!" Appalled, Snape pulled Harry away while still supporting the blubbering young man enough to keep him from falling down. He managed to seize both of Harry's arms tightly and shake him. "For heavens sake, get hold of yourself!"
Harry stopped crying and stared at Snape. He snuffled and hiccoughed, but managed to hold back his tears.
"Oh, Potter," Snape whispered. He pulled Harry close, spun them around and they Disapparated.
Apparating was unpleasant when done sober. Drunk, Harry discovered, it was indescribable torture. With a pop, it was over, but Harry had no time to register the forest around him. He simply passed out cold in Snape's arms.
Harry came to with the sensation of something very wet and very rough being rubbed repeatedly over his face. He forced open one eyelid and found himself looking into the warm brown eyes of Hagrid's boarhound, Fang.
"Hullo, Fang," he said thickly.
Fang panted happily then set about licking Harry's face once more with even more gusto.
"Hagrid, could you do something with that animal before it drowns Potter?" Snape's voice said from somewhere beyond Harry's vision.
"Fang, down boy," Hagrid said. "You're sure there's nothin' else you need, Professor?"
"Right. Well, I reckon me and Fang'll go check on the Thestrals then. They've been actin' a bit twitchy tonight."
"You do that."
Still only half conscious, Harry heard the door open and close. A few moments later he felt a cool hand on his forehead. He opened his eyes and tried to focus on the man bending over him.
"Here, Potter. Swallow this," Snape said, pressing a vial to Harry's lips.
Harry automatically gulped down its contents and at once the thick blanket of fog in his mind vanished. It was replaced, however, by a blinding headache and severe nausea. Harry squeezed his eyes shut and moaned, wondering what Snape had done to him as the man turned away. Harry's stomach gave a lurch and he barely managed to lean over the side of the bed before he vomited. It didn't help at all; he still felt violently sick. Harry closed his eyes and moaned again in sheer misery.
"Evanesco!" Snape said. He hauled Harry onto his back once more. "Sit up, Potter, you need to drink this."
Harry opened his eyes, winced, and shut them again. He took a few deep breaths then tried once more. He cracked his eyelids open slightly and held up a hand to shield his eyes from the subdued light which nevertheless seemed to stab at them. Snape grabbed his arm and pulled him into a sitting position.
"Drink this. It will dispel the headache and nausea."
Harry reached out blindly and Snape pressed a cup into his hand. He drank down its contents as quickly as he could and was relieved to discover that Snape had been right. His headache and nausea subsided at once leaving him feeling a bit weak and confused, but otherwise fine.
"Let that be a lesson to you in the effects of overindulging in alcohol," Snape scolded. "If I'd had my choice, I'd have let your hangover run its course naturally. You certainly deserve as much after the trouble you've caused tonight. How much do you remember?" he added at the blank stare from Harry.
Harry concentrated as the last wisps of fog faded from his mind. "The last thing I remember is going into a pub to get something to eat."
Snape's lip curled in contempt. "Unfortunately, you opted for drinking instead. Honestly, Potter, I wouldn't have thought that even you could be so flagrantly foolish! Didn't you realize the danger? Getting drunk alone in public is not the safest of pastimes for anyone, but had you been found by even the most mediocre of the Dark Lord's servants, you would be enjoying his company at this moment."
Harry made no reply. Of course he hadn't realized the danger. He'd had only one thought on his mind at the time and as all of the night's events came back to him now, he glanced warily at Snape. The man was perfectly composed, watching him with an angry, disapproving scowl.
"Professor, has Dumbledore talked to you?"
Snape blinked at the unexpected question, then arched an eyebrow at Harry. "Of course he has."
Harry stared at the man, whose dismissive attitude did nothing to convince him that Snape had the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Fortunately, Snape seemed to understand this and sighed.
"He informed me of what will be required to defeat the Dark Lord," Snape clarified impatiently. "Now come along. It's past time for you to explain yourself to the Headmaster."
Snape strode to the door and opened it. Harry could think of nothing else to say, so he wordlessly exited the hut. Snape was right behind him and set a brisk pace as they started for the castle.
The silence between them was horrible. There were a dozen things Harry wanted to say, but it was as though a silencing charm had been cast on him. He had no idea how to begin. Then he remembered his forays into Snape's mind and the first time he'd managed to maneuver the man's younger self into a conversation.
"I didn't intend to get drunk," Harry said, apologetically.
Snape looked sideways at him. "Then what exactly did you intend to do? Were you planning to abandon everything we're fought for? Did you honestly believe you could simply run away?"
"No! I just needed to get away for a while and be alone. How did you find me, anyway? I used anti-tracking charms."
Snape smirked. "The Weasley's Sniffer charm really is quite useful, more so than even they appreciate, particularly for one who understands the subtle interactions of various chemicals. Everyone's body chemistry is unique. All I needed was something you'd worn recently which your friends happily provided."
Harry had a vision of Ron giving Snape a pair of his dirty socks and changed the subject. "Why did you bring me to Hagrid's?"
Snape shrugged. "I hardly wanted to take you up to the castle given the condition you were in and I suspected Hagrid would have the proper remedies on hand."
Harry nodded, then took a deep breath. "So what are we going to do about Voldemort?"
"You are going to do precisely what you have been planning to do."
"If I do, you'll die."
"That is not your concern."
"So am I supposed to pretend I don't care?"
Snape sighed. "Potter, the fact that I am fated to die with the Dark Lord changes little. Do you imagine I ever expected to survive betraying him? I have already lived far longer than I would have thought possible and I'm certainly willing to give my life to finish him. We are all of us risking our lives."
"It's one thing to risk your life and to die fighting. It's another to be condemned to death for a mistake you made twenty years ago!"
"That is irrelevant. I hardly plan to sit in my quarters and wait to drop dead. I fully intend to die fighting and I've no doubt the Death Eaters will be more than happy to oblige me."
"That's not particularly comforting."
"It's the best that I can offer."
"But there has to be another way!"
Harry gritted his teeth in frustration. "How do you know that? How can you give up without even trying to find an alternative?"
"Because I know. I will not traffic in false hope nor will I shrink from what is unavoidable."
"It's not unavoidable! Every curse can be broken! Professor Knight taught us that much. It's just a matter of finding the right counter curse."
Snape stopped abruptly and turned to face Harry, his eyes blazing with an emotion Harry didn't recognize. He pulled up his left sleeve and thrust his bare forearm at Harry. The Dark Mark was clearly visible in the light of the nearly full moon.
"This isn't a curse!" Snape spat. "Don't you understand? This is a mark of bondage – of a choice freely made, a vow freely taken, a soul freely given. Such a bond cannot be broken."
"But you didn't know what you were doing."
"I knew I was subjugating myself to his will. That I didn't understand what that meant was my own stupidity."
"You were seventeen and you made a mistake!"
"You're seventeen. Would you join the Dark Lord just because your classmates encouraged you to do so? Few of us are lucky enough to make mistakes without paying for them. I was of age and I wasn't naïve. I should have known better. Do you know the things I saw, Potter? The things I stood complacently by and watched in silent complicity? Shall I give you the details?"
"Then stop this! I don't deserve your pity and I certainly don't want it. Just finish him before anyone else sacrifices their life and soul to him!"
Snape turned away, but before he could take more than two steps, Harry seized his arm.
"Let's be clear about something," Harry said angrily. "I don't pity you. I care about you. And in case you aren't aware of it, there's a difference."
"I don't care what you call it, Potter. You have more than enough to worry about without concerning yourself with me. My fate is of no importance."
"How can you believe that?"
"Because for all that I have lived a life of deceit I am honest enough to admit that the world will not suffer for my absence, that in fact it will be better off."
"Don't say that!"
"It's the truth! I'm the one who has brought you to this misery, Potter. I deserve no consideration from you."
"Don't you think that's a bit arrogant? Even if you dismiss my dad and Sirius's stupidity – something you aren't usually willing to do – it seems to me that Pettigrew and Voldemort had more than a little to do with my current situation."
"Potter, don't be obtuse! You know perfectly well what I mean."
"Yes, I do and I'm tired of you being a martyr to your own guilt! I've put up with it for a year."
"Well, you won't have to suffer it much longer, I'm sure."
Harry winced, and Snape turned away once more. Gritting his teeth, Harry went after the man. He caught Snape's arm and pulled him to a halt again.
"Do you honestly think my mum and dad could have hidden all these years?" Harry spat, giving vent to his frustration. "Do you think they would have done when half the Order was out dying? The Fidelus Charm was never going to be fool-proof protection. Even if we could have hidden for ten years, I still would have come to Hogwarts. I'd still have to face Voldemort. Can't you see that? From the moment he heard the Prophecy, he was going to come after me and nothing was ever going to change that. So stop blaming yourself! This isn't your fault!"
Snape wrenched his arm from Harry's grasp. "Stop it!" he shouted. "Why do you refuse to understand? Are you that blind? Must I say it? Why do you want to make this harder than it already is?"
Harry gaped at the man whose face was contorted with anguish. He had seen Snape lose control in anger before, but never like this, never in pain – except for once. He had seen this same despair in a much younger incarnation of the man when he had confronted Snape's darkest side in the man's mind. Now, as Harry stared at Snape it was as though he was looking through the older man's eyes into those of the younger.
"Severus?" Harry whispered.
Snape's eyes widened in surprise, but before he could say anything, a loud peal of thunder off in the distance made them both start. Snape glanced around sharply as Harry looked up at the cloudless sky overhead. How could a storm be coming?
"We have to get back," Snape said, breaking away from Harry and setting off for the castle once more.
Harry quickly fell into step beside the man. "What's wrong?" he asked, sensing Snape's urgency.
"I'm not sure."
They hurried across the moonlit grounds towards the dark silhouette of the castle, standing silently in the distance. Snape's eyes darted back and forth, scanning the grounds to the horizon and Harry automatically did the same though he had no idea what he might be looking for. They were almost halfway to the castle when Snape stopped and cocked his head to one side as if listening intently to something.
"Shhh," Snape said, frowning in concentration. And then Harry heard it too, or rather felt it. It was an impossibly low rumble that seemed to vibrate in his bones and as it grew louder, Harry realized that the ground itself was trembling.
"It can't be," Snape whispered aghast. He whirled around to look back at the forest and Harry, full of trepidation, did so as well.
The forest looked animated, its trees swaying wildly and through the trees, standing tall above them, came dark shadowy figures the likes of which Harry had never set eyes on, but which he recognized all the same: giants.
"Go," Snape whispered. "The castle. Go, now!"
Harry turned and broke into a run. Snape did so as well and they dashed across the grounds as fast as they could. But although Harry didn't dare look behind them, he could tell that the giants were approaching rapidly. The ground was now shaking so violently it felt like an earthquake. Then suddenly there came a deafening roar. Harry threw a desperate glance over his shoulder and felt a thrill of horror.
The giants had broken out of the forest into the open and were now running straight towards them. They were enormous and easily covered ten meters with each stride. Harry realized that he and Snape were never going to make it to the castle. Snape must have realized it, too, because he abruptly slowed his pace.
"Keep going!" he yelled as he stopped and turned to face the invaders.
Harry skidded to halt. "Professor, no!"
"Potter, I said go!"
Harry looked desperately from Snape to the advancing giants. He knew that Snape would buy him the time to get to safety and he knew that staying would only be throwing both their lives away. Harry looked pleadingly at Snape. "I'm sorry," he said as he pulled his wand from his pocket. "I can't."
Snape let out an inarticulate snarl of frustration, but there was no more time to argue. The giants were nearly upon them and looked like small mountains approaching. Snape raised his wand and Harry did the same, wondering what spell could possibly even slow them down.
At that moment a streak of crimson flashed in front of them and suddenly Dumbledore was standing before them with Fawkes hovering beside him. He raised his wand high and called out a spell that Harry couldn't catch over the noise of the stampeding giants. Then Dumbledore turned towards them. "This ward won't hold for long. Hurry!"
Snape reacted instantly. He grabbed Harry's arm and shoved him towards the castle. "Move!"
Harry broke into a sprint with Snape and Dumbledore right behind him. A few moments later the charging giants reached Dumbledore's ward, and stopped, unable to go further. An earsplitting howl of collective rage rent the night, but Harry forced himself to focus on the castle which now loomed large before him. The front doors stood open, the warm, welcoming light from the entrance hall spilling out onto the steps.
Suddenly there was a loud crack from behind followed by a roar of triumph and Harry knew that the ward had collapsed. The ground shuddered once more as the giants resumed their charge, but Harry could see the entrance to the castle clearly now. McGonagall was standing in the doorway in her dressing gown, her wand gripped tightly in her hand. She stepped aside as they approached and Harry put on an extra burst of speed. He dashed past her into the hall. Snape and Dumbledore were through the door a moment later and McGonagall threw it shut behind them. She looked more frightened than Harry had ever seen her.
Harry clutched the stitch in his side and tried to catch his breath. Snape was panting as well, but Dumbledore seemed hardly out of breath at all. He turned to face the huge doors and raised his wand. He murmured what sounded like a chant, repeating it three times, then fell silent and lowered his wand.
No one spoke. Harry could hear the rumble, like thunder, building as the giants approached. He could feel the stones trembling beneath his feet as the noise from outside grew louder and nearer. Instinctively Harry backed away from the doors until a hand grasped his shoulder, stopping him. Snape was standing beside him, looking pale but fiercely resolute and Harry felt his own determination rise up to quell his fear. He raised his wand, ready to face whatever was to come.
A moment later the doors were pounded by a blow that Harry knew should have shattered them and brought half the ceiling of the entrance hall down as well. Somehow, though, the doors held. Blow after blow rained against them as the increasingly furious howls of the giants rose outside.
Harry had no idea how long the attack lasted. It felt like an eternity. Dumbledore never moved from where he stood, staring serenely at the doors with a small smile on his lips.
Eventually, the blows subsided and the giants furious howls turned to petulant grunts. Unable to achieve their apparent goal of smashing Hogwarts to rubble, they seemed lost for what to do.
Then a new voice interrupted the giants' inarticulate complaints. It was clearly another giant, but this one was managing to form actual words as he spoke. Harry strained to hear what was being said.
"Grawp show you better place. Many stones to tear down.
Harry's jaw dropped in astonishment. It was Hagrid's half-brother.
"Come with Grawp. Grawp show you."
The giants grunted amongst themselves and then the ground trembled once more as they began to move off. Harry could hear Grawp's continued urging along with the giants' grunting growing fainter. Soon, the voices and tremors faded entirely and there was silence.
"Oy, in there!" Hagrid's gruff voice call from outside accompanied by a heavy rap upon the doors.
McGonagall opened the door and the half-giant peered in.
"Everyone all right in here?" he asked anxiously.
"Yes, Hagrid," McGonagall said, sounding relieved and somewhat surprised that it was true. "We're fine. What of the giants?"
"'s all right," Hagrid said. "They're gone. Grawp'll keep 'em busy 'til the Ministry can round 'em up."
Dumbledore sighed. "Thank you, Hagrid," he said faintly, then he closed his eyes and collapsed.
The giant attack had roused most of the castle's residents from their beds and word of the headmaster's collapse had brought them streaming to the hospital wing. The main ward was crowded with people. Most of the staff and a fair number of the students were squeezed into it while more students lined the halls outside. All were awaiting word of Dumbledore's condition.
Harry paced up and down in front of the door to the private ward unable to sit still. Ron, Ginny and Hermione huddled nearby trying to console Hagrid who sat fidgeting on a chair that looked impossibly small and which Harry expected to splinter under his weight at any moment. The half-giant blew his nose loudly into his handkerchief.
"'s my fault," he said for what must have been the twentieth time. "I should o' got there sooner. I should o' found a way to get their attention."
"Hagrid, if you'd got their attention much sooner, they'd have squashed you," Hermione said, practically.
Hagrid sniffed. "'s all my fault."
The door to the private ward opened and McGonagall emerged, followed by Snape. Both looked exhausted and grim.
"May I have your attention, please," McGonagall said, though this was hardly necessary since everyone was watching her in breathless silence. "The headmaster is still quite ill and will be remaining in hospital for at least the next day or two, but I wish to assure everyone that the attack which occurred this night will not be repeated. We will be taking extra precautions to ensure that no harm comes to any of the students or staff at Hogwarts. Now, I will ask that all of the students return to your dormitories and for the staff to make certain that everyone does so as quickly as possible."
As the rest of the teachers began to herd the students out of the ward, Harry approached McGonagall.
"Mr. Potter, come with me," McGonagall said, forestalling Harry's questions. She turned and led the way back into the private ward where Madam Pomfrey and Professor Flitwick were hovering around an unconscious figure on a nearby bed. Harry's breath caught in his chest as his gaze fell upon Dumbledore. He looked old. Old and frail in a way that Harry could never have imagined.
"What happened?" Harry whispered.
It was Flitwick who answered. "Professor Dumbledore used a very advanced charm to defend Hogwarts from the giants' attack. He essentially tapped his own magical power and life force and used it to strengthen the castle's defenses. It took an inordinate amount of power to accomplish and cost him dearly."
The teachers all exchanged glances.
"How dearly?" Harry repeated, gritting his teeth in frustration. "Is he going to be all right or not?"
"We don't know," McGonagall said. "It's impossible to say if he'll recover at this point."
"You mean he could die?"
"Potter, we're doing everything that can be done."
"That doesn't answer my question!"
"Potter!" Snape snapped. "You are not the only person here who cares."
Harry looked at the haggard expressions on his teachers' faces and felt his anger subside. They were all as worried as he was and certainly didn't need him shouting at them.
Harry took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. Can you tell me what his chances are or at least how long it will be before we know?"
"The odds of his surviving are very slim," Snape replied quietly. "If by some chance he is still alive two days from now, then he will recover. However, it is far more likely that he will die before then."
Harry's heart sank, but he nodded in silence and looked back at Dumbledore. This was the man whom they had all depended on for so long to be their bulwark against Voldemort. It was nearly impossible to imagine losing him and yet Harry's thoughts were already racing ahead to just that eventuality. He turned back to McGonagall and Snape.
"What happens if he dies?"
Before anyone could answer, there was a crash from somewhere outside the hospital wing, followed by the sounds of distant shouts.
McGonagall sighed in exasperation. "For heaven's sake! What is it now?" She hurried out of the ward and Snape and Harry followed her.
Out in the hallway, the commotion was much louder and the three headed towards its source. As they approached the main staircase Harry could make out Hagrid's enraged shouts coming from the entrance hall below. "You're not takin' one more step! Not without Professor McGonagall's say so and not as long as I'm here to stop ye!"
A throng of students and teachers was gathered having obviously stopped on the way to the dormitories to watch the altercation. McGonagall cut a path through the crowd until she arrived at the head of the stairs and stopped to survey the scene below. Harry was right behind her and looked over her shoulder to do so as well. There were a dozen Aurors gathered in the hall with Ian Day and Percy Weasley at the front of the group. Hagrid towered over them, blocking their way to the stairs. Professor Sprout stood next to him looking equally outraged.
"What is the meaning of this?" McGonagall snapped.
Day looked up and smiled his thin, sour smile. "Mistress McGonagall, I understand from your groundskeeper that the headmaster is indisposed?"
"Then I will serve this to you in his stead. Weasley."
Day handed Percy a small roll of parchment with an ornate gold seal and Percy obediently hurried up the stairs and handed it to McGonagall. She broke the seal, unrolled the parchment and began to read it.
"As you will see," Day said in an officious tone, "that is a warrant for the arrests of Harry Potter and Severus Snape."
Snape and Harry exchanged a quick glance behind McGonagall's back as Day continued.
"Both are known targets of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and it is the view of the Ministry that the attack that occurred here tonight was an attempt by Dark forces to capture them. They are a danger to both this school and society at large and as such will be taken into custody for the public good."
A stunned silence filled the hall. Even Hagrid seemed too shocked to do more than gape at Day. McGonagall, however, simply handed the arrest warrant back to Percy and looked down at Day calmly.
Day's mouth puckered unpleasantly. "This is not a request."
"I'm sure it's not. But if you think I intend to stand aside and allow you to touch anyone in this castle you're even more deluded than I thought."
"Obstruction of justice is a serious offense, Mistress McGonagall."
"Justice! How dare you? You don't know the meaning of justice. Get out and take this sycophant and the rest of your henchmen with you!"
Day drew his wand and so did his Aurors. "Are you really prepared to defy me?"
In response, McGonagall drew her wand and so did every student and teacher present. They easily outnumbered Day's group five to one.
McGonagall smiled. "We've already taken on giants tonight. Do you really want to try your luck?"
Day's eyes narrowed in anger, but he clearly knew better than to take on the angry crowd facing him. He lowered his wand.
"This school is under Ministry curfew. No one will be allowed to leave until the fugitives have been handed over. If you continue to hamper lawful Ministry operatives then everyone in this castle will suffer the consequences. I will leave you to consider that, Mistress McGonagall and I am certain that you will see the benefit in cooperation."
Day turned on his heel and stormed out of the castle. Percy dashed down the stairs and out the door after him with as much dignity as headlong flight would allow, which wasn't much. The Aurors were the last to leave and as soon as the door closed behind them, the hall erupted into cheers as the students all congratulated each other on having driven out this second set of invaders.
McGonagall, on the other hand, did not look pleased. She turned to Harry and Snape with frank worry in her eyes. She laid a hand on Harry's arm and another on Snape's and drew them away from the crowd. "He'll be back soon and when he arrives, the two of you can't be here."
"We'll leave then," Harry said. "We can go right now."
"The difficulty, Potter, is that we can't Disapparate from the school grounds," Snape said. "While we can attempt to flee, Day and his Aurors are undoubtedly waiting for us to make just such a move and he will have reinforcements here in no time. While you and I might be able to fight our way out, the odds are heavily against it."
"We'll get you out if we have to fight them all the way to the main gate, Severus," McGonagall said determinedly.
"That is hardly an appealing option. You can excuse your defiance just now as the overwrought result of the trauma of being attacked by a hoard of giants. But should you actually engage Day's people in battle, he will have every right to arrest you."
"Do you think I care?" McGonagall demanded. "I will not give in to that wretched man!"
"I am not suggesting that we do. But much as I admire Gryffindor heroics, we don't need the entire staff, to say nothing of the students, in Azkaban."
"Then what do you propose to do?" McGonagall asked in exasperation. "Do you expect to take brooms and fly off the Astronomy tower – as if Day won't be expecting that?"
"Maybe what we need is a Slytherin approach," Harry said thoughtfully.
McGonagall and Snape both looked at Harry in surprise and he smiled. "Come on, I know a way out."
Harry set off for the second floor and led the way to the statue of the one-eyed witch. He tapped the statue and its hidden panel opened to reveal the secret passage beyond.
Snape and McGonagall peered into the tunnel, then cast identical looks of accusation at Harry.
"Potter!" McGonagall exclaimed indignantly.
"Don't complain to me about breaking rules right now," Harry said, glaring at his head of house in exasperation.
With a sigh, McGonagall relented.
"Where does this lead?" Snape asked.
"Hogsmeade. We can slip out here and Day will never see us."
Snape nodded and turned to McGonagall. "Tell Day that you've reconsidered and that you have us under house arrest and are ready to hand us over. When he arrives with his Aurors and discovers we're gone, you can claim that you have no idea how we escaped." Snape looked at Harry. "After all the school does have a history of such things."
McGonagall smirked. "I'll be certain to be very surprised and very regretful."
"Professor McGonagall!" Neville came dashing up the corridor to them, out of breath. "Day's coming back and he has about fifty Aurors with him. He'll be here any minute."
McGonagall nodded grimly. "Tell all of the students to get to their dormitories immediately."
Neville blinked in confusion. "But –"
"Do as I say, Mr. Longbottom!"
"It's all right, Neville," Harry said. "We'll be gone before he gets here. But he's not going to be happy, so tell everyone to stay out of his way."
Neville nodded and took off at a run.
McGonagall looked at Harry and Snape. "I'd better go and meet him and you two need to get out of here. Good luck." She turned and hurried after Neville. Harry watched her go then looked at Snape who was eyeing the secret passage.
"I always suspected that this statue was hiding something," Snape said with a small, triumphant smile. "After you, Potter."
Harry started to climb into the passage, but paused when a distant crash echoed through the halls. He wondered what Day and his army would do when they discovered that he and Snape were missing.
"They can take care of themselves, Potter. We're only endangering them by tarrying."
Harry nodded and ducked into the passageway. Snape followed him and they shut the panel behind them. Then they lit their wands and struck off through the cramped tunnel.
"Where exactly does this lead?" Snape asked quietly.
"Honeydukes. It comes up in the basement."
"So this is how you managed to find your way into Hogsmeade and back during third year without being detected."
Harry hesitated, but knew that it would be ridiculous to try to deny it. Besides, it seemed a trivial matter now. "Yes."
They walked for a few minutes in silence, then Harry asked. "How long do you suppose it'll be before Day gives up searching for us?"
"That's rather irrelevant. We can't go back to Hogwarts as long as there's a warrant issued for our arrest."
Harry was quiet for a while, mulling over that depressing fact. At last he asked softly, "Do you think Dumbledore's really going to die?"
Snape sighed and replied in an equally soft voice. "I don't know. Albus is the greatest wizard of our age, but everyone has his limitations."
"What will happen if he does die?"
Snape didn't answer at once, so Harry prodded. "He's the only wizard Voldemort has ever feared. What will happen if he's gone?"
The tunnel came to a dead end at a set of stairs.
"We're here," Harry said. "I wish I had my Invisibility Cloak with me."
"There's no need. We're beyond the school's wards. We can Apparate from here. I'll meet you at headquarters."
Harry nodded and he and Snape both Disapparated. They appeared in the alley across the court from Number Twelve Grimmauld Place and cautiously made their way up the walk to the house.
Dobby answered the door and motioned them towards the Library where Remus, Moody and Tonks were huddled around the fireplace.
"Do you need any help, Minerva?" Remus asked.
"No, no. Day is beside himself and threatening to tear the castle apart stone by stone, but he'll soon find that Hogwarts can take care itself. He'll get tired of it soon enough. I just wanted to apprise you of the situation and tell you to keep an eye out for Severus and Potter."
"We're already here," Harry said.
"Well done, Potter!" McGonagall said, sounding genuinely proud of him. "Fifty points to Gryffindor."
She looked back at Remus. "I'll leave you to it then. I'll contact you again when Day's gone."
McGonagall's visage disappeared and Remus turned to face Harry and Snape. "It sounds as though you two have had a busy night."
"And a busier day ahead of us," Snape replied.
Remus nodded, a slight frown appearing between his brows. "Come and have some tea."
Remus led the way to the kitchen where a large, piping hot kettle of tea was waiting along with sandwiches and biscuits. It was past midnight and Harry was reminded that he'd had no dinner by his stomach, which let out a loud growl. He sat down and picked up a sandwich. Snape and Remus joined him, though both opted only for tea.
"Minerva filled us in on the attack and Dumbledore's condition," Remus said. "Moody will inform the rest of the Order while Tonks contacts our allies among the Aurors."
"Good," Snape said. "Has there been any other unusual activity?"
"Not that I've heard of, but Arthur will be able to tell us if the Ministry has got wind of anything."
"Regardless, we need to start planning."
Remus cast a quick glance at Harry. "Surely we can at least wait 'til morning, Severus."
"We haven't the luxury. Dumbledore may be dead by morning."
Harry swallowed the last bite of his sandwich and washed it down with tea. "What do we need to plan?"
Snape and Remus exchanged a glance, but neither answered.
Harry sighed impatiently. "If it involves me then I reckon I need to know, so would one of you just tell me?"
Remus looked at Harry and smiled apologetically. "Those giants didn't decide to attack Hogwarts on their own, Harry. They aren't that clever. Voldemort has to have put them up to it."
"He also undoubtedly anticipated that Dumbledore would repel the attack," Snape added. "And he will know by now that Dumbledore was injured while doing so."
"Do you think he'll try something else while Dumbledore's in hospital?" Harry asked worriedly.
"Not while he's alive, no. There are extensive wards in place at Hogwarts, many of which Albus created and which remain in effect even though he is incapacitated."
"No one can get past them, Harry," Remus reassured him. "The only reason the giants managed it is because they're exceptionally resistant to magic. No one else could have penetrated the school grounds as they did. Not even Voldemort himself."
"But if Dumbledore dies those wards will fail?" Harry guessed.
"Enough of them will to make Hogwarts vulnerable," Remus confirmed.
"So, how do we reinforce these wards?"
There was another noticeable hesitation, then Remus sighed. "We don't. Only Dumbledore possesses the skill to create wards that Voldemort can't penetrate."
"You need to understand as well, Potter, that Hogwarts has always held a special fascination for the Dark Lord," Snape said. "Not only is Salazar Slytherin's chamber there, it is the oldest wizarding institution in Britain. His fear of Dumbledore is all that has kept him from moving against the school in the past. Should Albus die, the Dark Lord will not hesitate to swoop down upon his long awaited prize."
"He'll take over the school?"
Snape nodded. "And likely slaughter every Muggle-born and 'blood-traitor' there."
Harry stared at Snape in horror. "We can't let that happen!"
"You're right, Harry," Remus said. "We can't."
Harry looked from Remus to Snape and back. The two men were watching him intently and abruptly Harry understood.
"You mean I can't," he said quietly.
"Dumbledore has insisted for weeks that you were prepared to face the Dark Lord whenever the time should call for it," Snape said. "That time has come. We can't wait and hope for Albus to recover. We must act now, as soon as possible."
"It isn't only Hogwarts at stake, Harry," Remus explained. "Voldemort has been cautious up until now for fear of running afoul of Dumbledore. With Albus gone, he'll have free reign and there's no telling what he'll do."
"We also mustn't underestimate the psychological blow," Snape said. "Dumbledore is revered as the most powerful wizard in the world. If he falls, many who have been waiting on the sidelines to see who might gain the upper hand in the war will be convinced of the Dark Lord's ascendancy and will flock to join him. His ranks will swell almost overnight."
"If at all possible, we have to act before that, Harry," Remus said. "Before he consolidates his power and becomes even stronger than he already is. But the choice is yours. We can give you whatever support you need, but you're the one who has to face him. Do you think you're ready?"
Harry stared at the two men in silence, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they'd just told him. Scores of lives, maybe even hundreds were depending on him to finish Voldemort once and for all and suddenly they were out of time. Harry felt the full weight of what he had to do settle on him. He couldn't afford to fail, but he also knew what it would cost to succeed. He looked at Snape. How can I do this?
Snape answered the unspoken plea smoothly. "Remember what I taught you in Defense."
Snape continued to hold Harry's gaze. Finally Harry took a deep breath and nodded. He looked back at Remus. "Yes. I'm ready."