Smuggler's End by centaury_squill Title: Smuggler's End Author:centaury_squill Pairing: Severus/Harry Rating: PG-13 Word Count: ~10,000 Warnings: Highlight to view: Non-magical AU Theme: Overcoming Adversity Prompt: Bump in the night Summary: A tale of smugglers, spies and derring-do, set in 18th century England.
Out in the windswept darkness of the bay the light winked once, twice. Up on the cliffs, Jeb closed his telescope and grunted with satisfaction. It was the signal; the Magnifique had arrived from St Malo at last. He turned to the youngster sitting shivering on a rock beside him.
"Nip down to the Bird in Hand, son, and tell the lads 'tis time."
As the boy ran down the path to the village, sure-footed despite the poor light, Jeb lifted his lantern and prepared to signal back to the ship. He was glad that she had finally managed to evade the English blockade and slip across the Channel with her cargo of fine French brandy. Now it was time for the lads to row out to her and bring the barrels ashore. There'd be some celebrations in the Bird in Hand tonight. Smiling to himself, Jeb lifted the slide on his dark lantern.
The ship's light shone briefly in reply, then darkness swallowed her up once more.
* * *
Below decks on Magnifique, a thin, sallow-faced man sat writing at a table. The guttering candle threw fantastical shadows onto the curved wall of the cabin, turning his hooked nose into the beak of a bird of prey, his long, clubbed hair into its jagged tail.
He dipped his quill into the ink bottle and carefully printed a line of tiny letters onto a thin strip of paper. Then he waved the paper in the air to dry it, and finally rolled it into a tight scroll which he sealed with a minuscule drop of wax melted in the candle flame. He slipped it into his pocket, ready to hand to his friend before leaving the ship. Rosier would attach it to the homing pigeon and send it off for him at first light. If only owls could carry messages, he mused, it could have been sent immediately. His thin lips quirked ironically at the fanciful thought.
He waited patiently, listening to the creak of the ship's timbers, the faint sound of the surf on the far-off beach. At last came the welcome noise of oars splashing through the water and low-voiced hails from the smugglers. On deck, the crew were in hasty motion, rolling barrels along the wooden planking and calling to the smugglers' boats in the sea below.
He blew out the candle, left the cabin and clambered up the ladder. Rosier was waiting for him at the top.
"Monsieur Snape! C'est l'heure."
Snape nodded and pulled his message from his pocket.
"Pour le pigeon voyageur," he whispered, slipping the tiny scroll into Rosier's hand.
Then came a hurried clasp to his arm, a whispered, "Bonne chance, Séverin," and he was handed down into one of the boats along with a couple of casks of brandy. He wasn't used to moving about in a small rowing boat in the open sea, and they nearly capsized several times. At last, however, the grinning smuggler at the oars got him settled firmly in the bottom of the boat, a cask on either side of him, and they began to draw away from the ship.
By this time the other boats had almost reached the shore; the moon had come out from behind a cloud, revealing the pale pebbles of the beach in the distance, sloping steeply up from the waterline. Suddenly Snape saw red flashes and heard shots and yells of fury above the pounding of the surf.
Something banged against their boat; the smuggler swore and bent to his oars. For a while everything was confusion. Snape was flung sprawling against the smuggler's thigh-booted legs, waves broke over the little boat soaking him to the skin, something struck him a sharp blow on the head. For a while he lost consciousness.
When he came round they were in calmer water. Moonlight outlined the nearby cliffs; there was no sign of the other boats. Snape struggled to sit up.
"Keep you still, zur," the smuggler grunted. "We be nearly ashore."
"Bloody revenue is what happened. Someun split on us."
For a moment Snape could see a glitter of fury in the man's eyes. Then the moon went behind a cloud and night surrounded them once more. With a grinding bump, the boat landed on the beach.
* * *
Snape heard shingle being scooped up, followed by an angry exclamation and the sound of pebbles striking pebbles as they were flung back onto the beach.
"We'm too far down coast."
"How can you possibly know that? It's as black as the Earl of Hell's waistcoat out here."
"Size o' pebbles. We'm too far west."
Iron scraped on the shingle as the smuggler heaved his boat around. The cloud covering the moon momentarily thinned, and in the fitful light Snape helped him to manoeuvre the boat into the water. Once the smuggler had clambered in and taken the oars, Snape splashed back to dry land.
"Bain't 'e comen?"
"You sure? It be tidy step."
"I'm sure." There might still be excise boats patrolling the coast, and Snape had no desire to come to the attention of English officialdom, of whatever stripe.
A grunt was his only answer, and the boat was away, the sound of the oars soon swallowed up by the crashing of the waves. Shingle scrunching and sliding beneath his feet, Snape followed along the beach, musing on the wreck of his plans. He'd intended to travel inland with the smuggled brandy, but that might no longer be possible; it depended on the outcome of the smugglers' conflict with the revenue. He might have to make his way to the nearest town and take a seat on the stage coach instead. And the sooner he found an inn, the better – his clothes were soaking wet, and he'd hurt his leg somehow.
He had been limping for at least an hour when at last he saw a glimmer of lantern light in the distance and made for it thankfully. The closer he got to it, however, the more puzzled he became. The light wasn't from a house or inn, in fact it seemed to be on the beach itself. And it was low down, lower than the height of a man. Snape hesitated. Could it be a trap?
But curiosity got the better of him and he continued to approach the light, as quietly and cautiously as he could on the shingle. He realised that the light came from a single lantern, placed beside what looked like a bundle of rags, almost on the sea's edge. In fact, as the tide was coming in, the lantern would soon be extinguished. Snape frowned; it made no sense.
But now he was close enough to see that the bundle of rags was moving feebly, was in fact a young man, lying among a seaweed-festooned outcrop of rocks below the high water mark, the lantern at his head. The tide was coming in fast.
Snape stooped over him, drawing in his breath with a hiss as he saw that the youth's wrists and ankles were tied to iron rings sunk into the rocks. The young man looked pleadingly up at Snape, his pupils huge and dark in the flickering light of the lantern.
Snape put his hand on the nearest ring and tested the strength of the rope. "Who did this?"
The tip of a bright red tongue peeped out of the captive's mouth and licked his dry lips.
"Jeb and his smugglers. They said I'd betrayed them to the excisemen." His voice cracked. "But I didn't! I swear it! Please, please help me."
"Be still." Snape pulled out his dagger. "What is your name?" he asked, slashing away at the ropes.
"Harry. Harry Potter."
"Well, Harry Potter," Snape said, still slashing at the ropes, "We had better get you away from here before your friends the smugglers return."
"They won't be back till the lantern goes out."
"And why is that?"
Harry shivered violently. "The lantern goes out at high tide, when the sea comes in far enough to cover it. And by then –" He couldn't go on.
"By then you will be drowned. I see." Snape deftly cut the last rope, pulled the young man to his feet, and helped him up the beach away from the encroaching tide. "But fear not. You will not be drowned. You are safe with me."
Harry staggered and leant heavily against him. "I owe you my life, sir. How can I ever repay you?"
Snape tightened his arm around the young man's shoulders and smiled enigmatically. "No doubt something will occur to me," he murmured. "But now we must find somewhere to conceal ourselves from your smuggling friends. It is nearly high tide."
"There's a cave just round these rocks," Harry said. "But suppose Jeb and his men come looking for me?"
"They won't," said Snape. "When they find your ropes cut, they will think the excisemen released you." He looked doubtfully from the flickering lantern to the dark loom of the cliffs. "Are you sure you can find this cave of yours?"
Harry nodded. "I know every inch of these rocks, even at night. I can find it."
He grabbed Snape by the hand and guided him away from the incoming tide, towards the base of the cliffs. Behind them, the lantern went out with a hiss.
* * *
Snape and Harry crouched together inside the tiny cave. Snape could feel the young man tense against him, hear his irregular breathing.
"They're coming," Harry whispered.
The darkness of the cave lightened with irregular flashes; there was the sound of men's voices and the scrunch of boots on shingle. Snape laid his finger warningly across Harry's lips. They felt soft and warm and quivered enticingly against his touch. Snape's cock hardened, his mind suddenly filled with images of the young man bent over a rock for his pleasure. He snatched his finger back and suppressed the tantalising thoughts. There would be time enough for dalliance later – he hoped.
Outside, the voices were suddenly raised in anger: the smugglers had discovered that their victim had escaped. Snape clenched his fist over the handle of his dagger, preparing to fight, then slowly unclenched it as he heard the smugglers retreating along the beach, grumbling in low tones. The lights of their lanterns faded away, the sound of their voices died. Now all that could be heard was the sound of the waves crashing in, then sucking at the shingle as they slowly retreated.
Snape hissed out a long breath and returned his dagger to his belt.
He felt Harry nodding against him.
"I must thank you again – Um, I don't even know your name?"
"Severus Snape," Snape replied. "At your service." He settled back against a rock. Now that the excitement was over he once more became aware of the dull ache in his leg. "Well, Mr Potter, I suppose we had better stay here until daybreak. Perhaps we should become better acquainted. Tell me about yourself."
He gave a small part of his attention to the young man's story: an orphan, raised by unsympathetic relations – while grappling with the problem of what he should do next. Then something Harry said caught his attention.
"Pardon? You wish to join the navy? But that is no problem, surely. They are always short of men."
"Yes," Harry said, "but I don't want to be an ordinary sailor. I want to join as an officer – but one needs money and influence for that, and I have neither. I'm too old by now, anyway – most midshipmen have been at sea since they were small boys. I have experience of sailing around the coast, but..."
"I might be able to assist, perhaps," Snape said slowly, his mind churning with possibilities. "The man whom I was going to see is an old friend, and not without influence. I could ask him to help you. But there is a problem."
"He lives some way inland from here. Part of the cargo which just came ashore is intended for him, and I was to travel with it to his manor house. But then came the excisemen –" He shrugged and spread his hands wide in the darkness.
"You still can go with it," Harry said. "The cargo won't be moved for a while, not until the excisemen have left the village. Jeb's men will have hidden it somewhere safe. Go to the Bird in Hand on the coast road, and talk to the landlord. He'll arrange things for you."
"How do you know all this?" asked Snape.
"Everyone around here knows it. Most people along this coast are smugglers, or at least turn a blind eye." Harry was silent for a moment, then added angrily, "I wish I knew who told them I'd tipped off the revenue. It was a filthy lie! I'd never do such a thing. But they wouldn't listen to me."
"It sounds as though this neighbourhood is no longer safe for you," Snape said. "Perhaps you had better travel inland with me."
"Oh, could I?" Harry asked eagerly. Snape smiled in the darkness. Then Harry went on, sadly, "But the smugglers won't trust you if I'm with you."
"It probably would not be too safe for you, either," Snape said drily, "if you were to be recognised." He smirked to himself. "But I'm sure I can purchase a suitable disguise. I shall seek the village when it gets light, and visit this... Bird in Hand." His hand found Harry's shoulder and gave it a brief, reassuring squeeze. "Have no fear, my friend, I shall return for you when all is arranged."
* * *
The farm cart swayed and bumped along the grassy track. Harry, wedged firmly between two brandy kegs, looked back across the broad sweep of the Dorset Downs from beneath the rim of his bonnet. Snape had indeed returned for him, a bundle of clothes beneath his arm and a faint smirk on his face, and Harry was now dressed as a country wench. He irritably pulled at his skirts, trying to get comfortable. He wasn't sure whether to be pleased or annoyed that the smugglers hadn't given him a second glance, accepting without question Snape's statement that "she" was a dairymaid bound for his friend's manor.
The sun climbed higher in the sky, pleasantly warm on Harry's cheek. He blinked, and closed his eyes. It had been a long night, full of danger and excitement, but he was safe for the moment. He felt soothed by the warmth of the sun, the rocking of the cart, the deep murmur of Snape's voice as he said something to the carter. Harry gave a contented sigh, and fell asleep.
When he awoke the sun was much lower in the sky and the cart had stopped. Harry blinked around him. They were in a farmyard; the grunting of a pig came from a nearby sty, and chickens clucked and pecked among the weeds. The horse had been unharnessed and led away. The shafts of the cart rested on the dusty ground. Harry was just beginning to wonder what had happened to Snape when he saw him standing in the doorway of a barn on the far side of the yard, talking to a stocky youth dressed in countryman's smock and breeches.
Snape seemed to sense Harry's gaze. He glanced over at the cart, where Harry was struggling to get down, hampered by his unaccustomed skirts, and immediately strode across the yard towards him. He caught Harry round the waist and swung him off the cart.
"Sssh," he whispered, leaning in under Harry's bonnet and giving him a quick kiss. "Remember you're supposed to be a dairymaid. Keep quiet and follow me." He tweaked the rim of the bonnet forward to conceal Harry's face and added loudly, "We stay here tonight. We can lie snug enough in the hayloft, and in the morning continue our journey."
To his surprise, Harry felt himself hardening at Snape's kiss. As he followed the older man towards the barn, his skirts brushed against his cock-stand with every step. He blushed beneath his bonnet. He didn't know whether dairymaids normally wore drawers, but Snape certainly hadn't provided him with any. Was this deliberate? And who'd have thought that wearing women's clothes and being kissed by a man would be so exciting...
* * *
A low whistle came from the barn below. Snape made his way over to the top of the ladder and peered cautiously down.
"Tis only me. Here be supper for thee and thy wench."
It was the farm boy. Snape stretched his arm down and received a jug of rough cider, followed by a basket covered with a cloth. He fumbled in his pocket for some coins, and tossed them to the boy.
"How about a lantern?" he asked.
"Dussn't," came the reply. "Farmer 'ud kill me if thee burns down barn." And the boy ducked quickly out of the door before Snape could protest.
"There's enough light coming in from outside," Harry said, spreading the cloth over a hay bale and beginning to unpack the basket.
Snape grunted crossly and came to sit beside him. He lifted the cider jug, tipped his head back and took a long swallow. Harry watched, fascinated, as the Adam's apple bobbed in his thin neck. At last Snape stopped drinking, sighed, wiped the lip of the jug with his hand. Harry took the jug and gulped in his turn. Snape picked up a loaf of bread and tore it apart with long, powerful fingers. He put a large slab of cheese between two pieces of bread and munched hungrily. Harry put down the cider jug and followed suit.
Soon all the food was gone and the jug empty. Harry leaned back against a hay bale, feeling dreamy and content. Dusk was beginning to fall, and what little light filtered through to them was fading fast. He could barely see Snape's face in the dimness.
The hayloft suddenly seemed very quiet. Outside in the fields a horse whinnied, insistently, and was answered by another.
Harry sensed movement beside him, heard a faint rustle. A warm hand clasped his knee. He turned abruptly, then cursed as his head banged against Snape's.
"Be still, mon petit," Snape murmured hotly, throwing Harry back across the hay bale and whipping his skirts up. Predatory fingers tightened around Harry's thighs. Harry growled, deep in his throat, and grabbed at Snape's hair. Snape dipped his head and licked Harry's cock briefly before rolling him over and transferring his attentions to Harry's arse.
Suddenly a horse whinnied again, from closer at hand. A man's shout, abruptly cut off. Muttering from outside the barn.
Snape raised his head, tensely listening. Then he sprang up, quickly putting his clothes to rights. Harry, too, struggled to his feet, confused and uneasy. "Wha– ?"
His question was cut short by Snape's hand across his mouth. Snape bent to whisper in his ear.
"I have been betrayed. They are here to take me."
"Who?" Harry hissed back. "Is it excisemen?"
Snape grabbed him and held him close, his whisper hot and urgent in Harry's ear.
"No. Listen to me. You must stay hidden. In the morning a carter will come for the brandy. You must go with him to Malfoy Manor. Do you understand? Malfoy Manor. Tell Lucius that Shacklebolt's men have me. He will know what to do."
The voices outside grew louder, followed by a loud hammering on the barn door. Snape let go of Harry, pulled out his dagger, and folded Harry's fingers around the hilt. "Take this."
His hand went to his pocket and pulled out a small bag of coins. "And this."
Catching hold of Harry again. "And this." His lips met Harry's in a brief but passionate kiss. Then he swung himself down from the hayloft. Harry heard the creak of the barn door opening, triumphant voices, the sound of a blow. A cry of pain from Snape, abruptly cut short; the jingling of horses' bridles; thudding hooves, fading into the distance. Then silence. Harry was alone.
* * *
Harry looked down at his wineglass, then up at the haughty blond man glowering at him from the head of the table.
"I've told you all I know, sir," he said, trying to keep his voice from quavering. "Men on horseback took him. He said to tell you that they were Shacklebolt's men."
He took a small sip of wine. Even his untutored palate could tell that it was of the finest; in the short time he'd been here he'd come to realise that this was typical for Malfoy Manor. But despite the fine wine and the ostentatious display of dishes spread out on the table – turtle soup, roast peacock and larks tongues among them – he knew that he'd been much happier with rough cider, bread and cheese – and Snape.
At least he was once more in male attire, though much fancier than he was accustomed to; Lucius Malfoy had eyed Harry's dishevelled skirts disbelievingly, then offered him a cast-off suit of his own son, Draco's, clothes. "—since I doubt my dear wife's would fit you," he had added with a smirk.
Harry glanced at Malfoy's rail-thin wife, toying discontentedly with a spoonful of syllabub, and suppressed a snigger. He was glad their son was presently in London; if he was anything like his parents, Harry had no desire to meet him.
He now raised his chin, and said firmly, "Snape said that you would know what to do."
Malfoy rapped sharply on the table. "I have done all I can, boy. I have sent men out scouring the countryside for news. But until I find out where they have taken him, there is little more I can do."
* * *
Harry strolled disconsolately around the extensive grounds of Malfoy Manor. They were full of imitation Grecian temples, immaculately-kept lawns, ornamental fountains, statues, shrubberies and the like. But however far he wandered, Harry made sure he could still see the conical structure of the dovecote, rising above the neatly-clipped yew hedges which surrounded it.
Lucius Malfoy had told him, with some pride, that it no longer housed doves, but homing pigeons. No matter how far away they were taken, when released these clever birds would fly, straight and true, back to Malfoy Manor. Not only that, but they could be used to carry messages, and every man he'd sent off to seek tidings of Severus Snape carried a wicker basket containing two of the creatures strapped to his horse's saddle. So the first news of Snape's whereabouts would, God willing, arrive at this very dovecote – and Harry wanted to be there when it did.
A white peacock strutted along the top of the nearest yew hedge, momentarily distracting Harry from his obsessive scrutiny of the dovecote. He watched its progress along the hedge, idly wondering whether it had been one of its companions they'd eaten the day before.
Suddenly he caught a flash of movement on the edge of his vision. Looking upwards, he saw a pigeon in the sky above the dovecote. It swooped down to land on one of the projecting perches. Harry gave a loud whoop and began running towards it as fast as he could, arriving only moments after the young lad on dovecote duty had coaxed the bird down with a handful of grain.
* * *
Lucius Malfoy and Harry stared down at the tiny strip of paper spread out on the cherrywood writing desk in Malfoy's study.
Yr Man held at County Gaol.
"We must act quickly," Malfoy said, frowning and straightening the thin scroll with elegant, aristocratic fingers. "This is likely to be but a temporary expedient. If I know Shacklebolt, he will order Snape to be taken to the Tower for interrogation."
"Not the Tower of London!" gasped Harry. He'd heard gruesome tales of what went on in the blood-spattered torture chambers of the Tower.
Malfoy nodded sombrely. "Yes, I fear so. We must not allow that to happen; even the most determined man is not proof against it."
It sounded to Harry as if Malfoy was more concerned with what Snape might tell his captors than with fears for the safety of the man himself.
"We must rescue him," he said firmly. "I will help in whatever way I can; I owe my life to him, and would repay my debt."
Malfoy looked at him curiously. "Strange, I have never heard Severus mention you. And I have known him for many years. Known him well." He gave a self-satisfied smile. "Intimately, even."
Harry instantly felt a raging demon of jealousy take possession of him. He clenched his fists, longing to smash them into Malfoy's insufferably smirking face. But that wouldn't help Snape, so he thrust them into his breeches pockets and forced himself to politeness.
"Then I am sure you must be as anxious as I to have him freed, sir. May I enquire if you have any plan to secure his release?"
"Indeed I do, you young coxcomb," Malfoy growled, rolling back the lid of his desk and rummaging within it. He picked up a folded bundle of linen-backed paper, opened it out, and held it so Harry could see. Printed along the top was Map of Wiltshire.
"Here is Malfoy Manor," he went on, "and here," tapping the map with a forefinger, "is the County Gaol. As you see, it is built on the bank of a river. And here, a few miles upstream, that river skirts Malfoy lands."
He looked challengingly at Harry.
"Tell me, young man, are you able to handle an oar?"
* * *
Snape paced restlessly around the tiny cell. Two strides took him from the hard wooden plank with its vermin-infested blanket to the locked door, two more and he was at the malodorous latrine bucket in the corner, another four and he was back where he started. His thoughts were as relentlessly circular as his footsteps.
Who had betrayed his whereabouts to the dragoons? Surely it could not have been Harry Potter...
Harry had been so grateful to Snape for saving his life, so eager to please...
Was Harry safe? Had he managed to reach Malfoy Manor without further mishap? Had Lucius Malfoy received him kindly?
Would Malfoy be able to get Snape free? Would Malfoy even want to do so, given that his mission was blown upon...
Someone had betrayed him...
Who could it have been? Surely not Harry Potter... Harry, so eager to please...
Snape clenched his fists and growled in frustration.
* * *
Concealed by an overhanging willow, Harry sat holding an oar and waiting impatiently. The little boat was drawn close in to the bank, its stern resting against the exposed tree roots. It had taken Harry several hours to make his laborious way down the lazily meandering river from the Malfoy estate; in places the river was so narrow he had to use one oar as a paddle rather than being able to row. He considered it time well spent, however, for he was now familiar with every little tributary and backwater where he could take cover in case of pursuit. And around the next bend in the river was his objective: the County Gaol, and Snape. Now he only needed the signal to tell him that Lucius Malfoy's bribe had been successful and Snape was waiting for him on the riverbank. Hopefully they'd get safely away before his absence was discovered... Harry swallowed hard, and tightened his grip on the oar.
Light-green willow fronds swayed in the breeze; the river gurgled and lapped against the boat as it flowed past on its way to the sea. A sleepy "v'croo" came from the bottom of the boat where one of Malfoy's pigeons dozed in its wicker basket. Harry shifted position uneasily on his narrow seat. When would he hear the signal? Would it come at all? Malfoy had been so confident that his plan would work, but what if he was mistaken?
He so longed to see Snape again...
There! What was that? The raucous cry of a peacock, twice repeated. The signal, at last!
Harry pushed off from the bank with his oar and emerged from the shelter of the weeping willow.
* * *
Severus Snape followed Malfoy's young stable-lad down the riverbank, his ears ringing with the youth's strident imitation of a peacock. He was still dazed by the speed with which his fortunes had changed: one minute pacing his tiny cell, the next being hustled out of the gaol between Malfoy's groom and stable-boy. The groom hastily explained that they'd bribed one of the guards to unlock Snape's cell and look the other way, but couldn't count on much time before his absence was discovered. The groom then disappeared into a nearby thicket, leaving the stable-boy to lead Snape down to the river.
Arrived at the edge of the water, the boy put his hands to his mouth, and the deafening peacock call once more rent the air. Snape glanced uneasily over his shoulder at the looming menace of the gaol, but there was, as yet, no sign of pursuit. He felt a tug at his sleeve and followed the boy's pointing finger upriver. A small rowing boat was appearing round the river's bend.
"That be fur thee," said the lad, "and now we mun change clothes."
Snape raised an affronted eyebrow.
"Tis the plan, see? I pretend to be thee, and Jim and me, we lead them guards astray." The lad was tugging off his shirt and breeches as he spoke.
Reluctantly, Snape followed his example, exchanging lawn and velvet for homespun and corduroy. "And what happens when they catch you?" he enquired.
"They won't!" the lad declared confidently. "We'm riding the fastest hosses in Sir Lucius' stables. We'll lead 'em a merry chase!"
He finished lacing the shirt, then scrambled off up the riverbank. Snape barely noticed; all his attention was on the little boat, which had nearly reached him. With a warmth in his heart and a tightening in his groin, he recognised the oarsman's tousled black hair and skinny frame.
"Harry..." he breathed.
The boat bumped against the bank and Snape clambered into the stern. An agitated fluttering came from a wicker basket at his feet.
"Ah, you've brought one of Lucius' pigeons, I see," Snape commented, settling himself onto the narrow seat facing Harry.
"Yes," grunted Harry, between tugs on the oars as he manoeuvred the boat round, "we're – to – send – message..."
Snape feasted his eyes on Harry as he battled against the current, rowing upstream. Once they were round the bend in the river and out of sight of the gaol, Harry rested on his oars for a moment and said, "Could you release the pigeon now? It's already got a message tied to its leg, saying you're free."
"Better not," Snape said. "I heard the dragoons saying that their next task was to search Malfoy Manor. Lucius is suspected of –" he paused, then added awkwardly, "of being involved in the same matter as I."
Harry stared at him in dismay. "But the plan was to hide you at Malfoy Manor until Lucius could arrange to have you smuggled out of the country!"
Suddenly realising that the boat was beginning to drift back towards the bend, he gave a few strong strokes with the oars.
"So we can't go to Malfoy Manor," he went on, "but we must get off the river. There's a little backwater a bit further on, where we can hide and decide what's best to do."
And he bent to his oars again, lips compressed with effort, rowing strongly upstream.
* * *
Half an hour later, Harry and Snape were snugly hidden in the depths of a leafy thicket, their boat out of sight among the reeds lining the backwater. Snape put his arms around Harry and held him close. He could feel the heavy thump of Harry's heart against his chest.
"This time you rescued me," he whispered, and brushed his lips against Harry's cheek.
"It was mainly Lucius Malfoy," Harry whispered back, wriggling free. "He didn't want you telling all in the torture chamber at the Tower."
Snape gave a deep chuckle. "It would be rather... embarrassing... for him, if I did." He put his hand on Harry's shoulder, only to have it shrugged off.
"What's wrong?" he asked, surprised.
"Nothing," Harry said, scowling at his feet.
The ensuing silence was heavy and uncomfortable, broken only by the occasional splash and cry of a water fowl. At last Snape tentatively brushed his hand against the back of Harry's neck and murmured, "There is much I should tell you, mon petit, but explanations must wait until we can reach a place of safety."
Snape went on, "One thing. Whatever Lucius Malfoy may have been to me in the past –" He felt Harry tense under his hand and smiled slightly to himself. "– he is now a ...business associate... only. Nothing more."
He was relieved to feel Harry relax slightly, though he still didn't speak.
"And so. We cannot spend the night in a bush, especially a bush so close to the prison."
Harry stirred, and spoke at last. "If we can't go back to Malfoy Manor –"
Snape shook his head. "No. Too dangerous." He tried to ease his cramped limbs, without much success. "The annoying thing is, I do know of somewhere we could take refuge for a while. But it has been so long since I was in these parts, I doubt I could find my way there. If only we had a map..."
Harry gave a muffled exclamation and hit himself on the forehead. "But we do! I'd forgotten. Sir Lucius lent it to me."
"Where is it?" Snape demanded.
"In the boat," said Harry, "under the pigeon's basket. Shall I go and get it?"
But Snape was already wriggling clear of the bush. "Stay here. I shall be back soon."
Snape made his way cautiously back to the stream, stopping every few minutes to listen for any sounds of pursuit. All he heard, however, was a moorhen calling from the reed beds in front of him. He soon reached the channel between the reeds where they'd left the boat, tied to a sapling growing on the bank. Snape leaned over the transom and picked up the pigeon basket, revealing a flat oilskin packet beneath. He set the basket down on the wood plank seat with a bump, eliciting a startled squawk from its occupant, picked up the packet and drew out Malfoy's map.
Snape turned the map in his hands, trying to get his bearings. He glanced up at the sky. Ah, the sun was starting to set over there, so that must be west – he looked down at the map – and the bend in the river was here, which meant – he turned the map again – Malfoy Manor must be to the northwest, over there, and he and Harry must make for the wood lying to the northeast. Snape gave a satisfied nod, folded the map and slipped it inside his shirt.
His glance fell upon the pigeon's basket; a beady black eye peered back at him through a gap in the wickerwork. Snape unlaced the fastenings of the wicker basket and thrust his hands inside. A flutter and a scrabble of claws, and the pigeon was caught. Snape murmured soothingly to it as he took it from the basket and removed the tiny slip of paper from its leg. As Harry had told him, it announced Snape's escape. He shook his head. Typical of Malfoy's arrogance, to think his manor immune from search. If this message arrived while Shacklebolt's men were there, things would go badly for him. There was no reason not to free the pigeon, though. He opened his hands and tossed it into the air. The pigeon rose steeply, circled overhead, set off towards the northwest.
Snape watched it disappear into the distance, then tore the paper into tiny scraps and dropped them into the water.
* * *
Harry waited for Snape to return, his mind churning with dark thoughts. Yes, Snape had saved his life. Yes, he was dangerously attractive. But...
But. What had Malfoy been to him? Maybe still was, despite Snape's denials? And what was the "business" they were both engaged in? Surely not a simple matter of smuggled French brandy. That might have attracted the attention of the excise, but hardly a posse of dragoons and the threat of the Tower. That smacked more of...
Treason. He hadn't wanted to think it of Snape; had been pushing the thought away. But Harry knew well that despite much friendship and trade (both licit and illicit) between England and our neighbours across the channel, the fact remained that the French powers-that-be had ambitions for – invasion. Harry could not bear the thought that Snape might be one of their spies, but what other explanation could there be?
It was his duty as an Englishman to find out. He would be subtle, encourage Snape to talk about his past, maybe nudge the conversation in the direction of politics. He would be calm and self-possessed. He wouldn't let Snape's physical attraction distract him...
The cracking of twigs announced Snape's return; he ducked under the spreading branches and held out his hand. His dark, intense eyes met Harry's.
Harry felt a strange pain clutch at him. All his good resolutions vanished. He blurted out:
"Are you a French spy?"
Snape spread his hands, his face suddenly unreadable.
"And if I were?"
Harry felt as if he were choking. He pulled out the dagger which Snape had given him.
"Then I'd kill you."
* * *
Harry plodded along beside Snape, glad that the gathering dusk obscured his face, which turned red with embarrassment every time he thought back to their brief exchange. Bad enough that he'd come right out and asked Snape if he was a spy, but to threaten to kill him! Of course Snape had quickly disarmed him, murmuring that he thought the dagger would be better back in his own possession. Then he'd announced that they must set off at once if they were to reach shelter before nightfall.
Since then they'd walked in silence. Every so often Snape stopped and consulted Malfoy's map until the light grew too bad for him to make it out. Even then he insisted they press on, they must reach Remus' hut before it got completely dark. Harry had asked who Remus was, but Snape just curtly told him to save his breath for walking, and had set such a pace that Harry had no choice but to comply.
So Harry was relieved when at last they came to a halt on the outskirts of a wood. Snape seemed unsure of the way, finally settling on a broad track which led them between oaks and beech trees, into the depths of the wood. He muttered to himself and sniffed the air, which completely puzzled Harry until he, too, caught a whiff of wood smoke.
"This way," said Snape, and at that moment Harry saw a glow of firelight showing between a gap in the trees. They left the path, heading towards it, and soon came out into a clearing. A small fire burned at the far side and a trickle of smoke came from a large mound in the centre. As they watched, a man appeared from the shadows and came into the firelight. The flickering flames showed him to be gaunt and savage-looking, with a tangled beard. He stooped to pick up a clod of earth from a pile heaped ready on the ground, and slapped it onto the mound. The trickle of smoke was immediately cut off.
"Remus!" Snape called softly, and stepped out from the trees into the clearing. "Remus, my old friend!"
The man whirled round, tension evident in every line of his body. Snape moved closer, allowing the firelight to fall on his dark, sardonic features. The man relaxed, recognising him.
"Severus! What brings you here? After all this time?"
"A long story," Snape replied. "But before I tell it, I must introduce a... friend... of mine." He beckoned Harry into the firelight and put a hand on his shoulder. "Remus, this is Harry Potter. Harry, meet Remus. He is a charcoal burner."
Remus nodded, bright eyes wary.
"Come in. You can tell me all about it."
He gestured towards the fire. In the shadows behind it, Harry saw a hut made out of long poles, obviously cut from nearby saplings.
* * *
Harry stopped on the threshold of the hut, seeing the adder coiled up in the doorway. The snake reared up, arrow-shaped head angled towards him, black eyes menacing. Its forked tongue flickered out, tasting his scent on the night air. Remus murmured to it, stroked the patterned skin of its back with a roughened forefinger.
"He's a friend, Nagi. Let him in."
"You keep an adder as a pet?" asked Harry.
Remus gave a hoarse laugh. "Most of us charcoal-burners do. He keeps bad folk away." He deftly picked the snake up with a stick, dropped it into a small wooden box and closed the lid. "Come in. He won't hurt you."
Harry cautiously entered the hut, stooping to get through the low entrance, closely followed by Snape. Inside, the hut smelt fusty, in spite of the rough sacking door being pinned back to allow in light and warmth from the fire outside. More light came from a battered lantern hanging from the apex of the roof. Harry could see a couple of logs lying on the earth floor with a pile of blankets between them.
"Sit," Remus said. "I must check on the burn."
Harry sat down on one of the logs. "Burn?" he asked.
"Charcoal," Snape told him. "You saw that mound? It's full of sticks, burning to make charcoal. But they have to burn slowly, that's why he has them covered with earth."
Remus was soon back. He sat in the doorway and began a low-voiced conversation with Snape. Harry tried to make out what they were saying. His heart was sore with the fear that Snape might be a traitor; he longed to hear something that would allay his suspicions, feared to hear something that would confirm them. But he could only catch the occasional word. Every so often Remus got up and went to check his charcoal stack for leaks.
Harry's eyelids felt very heavy. It had been a long day, full of danger, excitement and hard physical work with the oars. He stretched out on the pile of blankets, telling himself it was only for a moment.
As he was drifting into sleep, he thought he heard Remus saying, his voice sharp with concern, "You daren't be seen around Malfoy Manor now, Severus. I'll go instead." But it might have been a dream.
* * *
Snape sat beside the fire, head cocked to keep an eye on Remus' charcoal mound. His mood was as dark as the surrounding wood. His mission, difficult enough to begin with, now seemed virtually impossible. So many complications...
A faint snore came from the hut behind him.
... of which young Harry Potter was by no means the least.
He longed to go into the hut, to seize the youth, to ravish him. He stood up, his face twisted with torment.
A wisp of smoke rising from the stack caught his eye. With a muffled oath Snape hurried over, catching up a sod from the pile beside it. A glimmer of red showed through a crack in the mound. Snape hastily stopped the leak, once more containing the fire within.
He slowly returned to his place by the fire, his face impassive, as harmless-seeming as the now quiescent mound.
* * *
Remus loped steadily through the moonlit night, a breeze ruffling his long, tangled hair. It was good to see Severus again after all these years, but oh, what was he entangled in this time? If Lucius Malfoy was involved, it could be nothing good... Frowning, Remus touched his shirt and felt the square packet Malfoy had slipped him in exchange for Severus' note.
He'd got away from Malfoy Manor just in time, slipping away through the shadows of the park as the dragoons demanded entrance at the ornate wrought-iron gate. He'd thought nobody had seen him go, but as Remus halted to catch his breath at the top of a rise, he heard the faint sound of hoof beats behind him. Alarmed, he started to run.
The hoof beats got louder.
Remus tried to reach the shelter of a nearby wood, but he was too late. Before he'd even passed under the spreading branches of the first oak, the horse had run him down. He stumbled over a tree root and hit the ground, all breath knocked out of him. The horse reared up, neighing wildly, held back by brutal jerks on its reins from its rider. Remus drew in a painful breath and rolled aside, clear of the wildly plunging hooves. But before he could recover enough to get to his feet, the rider had controlled his horse, leapt down, and put a booted foot on the charcoal-burner's neck. Remus blinked up at him, taking in the long dark cloak and the mask which obscured the other's features. Black eyes glittered through the holes in the mask. This was no dragoon.
The boot pressed down on Remus' throat, stopping his breath. Through the ringing in his ears, he heard a voice above him: harsh, cold, full of menace.
"Where is Severus Snape?"
Remus momentarily blacked out. When he came round, the stranger was kneeling on top of him, cruel, abnormally strong fingers at his throat.
And to his shame, Remus heard himself begging for mercy, babbling everything he knew, before darkness descended on him once more.
When Remus came round, he was alone. He groaned, dragging himself to his feet. What had he done? What would happen to Severus? He pawed at his shirt, but the packet which Lucius Malfoy had given him was gone. Despairingly he hunted around in the grass, knowing already that he wouldn't find it.
At last he gave up and staggered off into the night, guilty and hurting.
* * *
Severus Snape sat dozing in front of the charcoal-burner's hut. The small fire at his feet glowed dully, almost out. Not even a wisp of wood smoke came from the earth-covered mound in the centre of the clearing. The sound of horse's hooves entered his dreams; he shifted uneasily, almost waking, but the sound stopped and he sank back into sleep. The first he knew of the masked figure entering the clearing was when the point of a sword pressed cruelly against his throat and a familiar voice hissed, "I'm going to kill you, Severus Snape."
Snape's eyes snapped open. "Tom Riddle," he said, his voice expressionless. "Imagine meeting you here."
Riddle's voice was full of hatred as he said, "I trusted you, Severus. Yet I find you were double-crossing me all along."
He drew back his sword and tilted it so the point touched the underside of Snape's chin, forcing his head upwards.
"Stand up. I'll have some sport with you before I kill you."
Urged by the sword point pressing insistently upwards, Snape rose slowly to his feet, eyes wary. He took a step back. Riddle followed, sneering, as Snape backed into the doorway of the hut, stooping to clear it. Once inside he stood up abruptly, hitting his head against the lantern hung from an overhead pole. It swung wildly, casting confusing shadows. Snape heard Harry stirring behind him and whispered urgently, "Keep back!"
Riddle, thinking Snape spoke to him, laughed scornfully.
"I'm the one with the sword, Severus, in case you hadn't –" stumbling over something just inside the doorway, "– what the deuce?"
Still keeping his sword pointing towards Snape, he bent down and scooped the object up one-handed. It was the adder's box.
Riddle flipped it open, chuckled darkly when he saw what it contained. "How fortunate," he said, "I can set one snake against another, eh, Severus?"
And with lightning-swift movements he forced Snape to his knees, slashed his homespun shirt to ribbons, and thrust the open box against his bare chest. Riddle took a step back, tilting his rapier menacingly, but before he could strike, Harry leapt out of the shadows and flung a blanket over his head. Taken off balance, Riddle stumbled and fell, impaling himself on his own weapon with a gurgling shriek.
Harry reached up to unhook the lantern with trembling fingers and held it close to the bloodstained body. As far as he could tell, the man was dead. He turned, seeking Snape. "Severus! Who is he?"
But Snape was lying on the earth floor of the hut, struggling to breathe. The adder had bitten him on the throat.
* * *
Harry was almost frantic with worry. He'd done what he could for Severus – which wasn't much – and now, to top it all, he caught an ominous crackling sound from outside the hut and an acrid smell of smoke. He ran out to find the charcoal-burner's mound was glowing a lurid red and pouring smoke from a dozen leaks. He stopped, looking from it to the hut. What should he do? He must get help for Severus. But if he left this unattended, it might flare up, burn the clearing, even set fire to the hut with Severus inside.
His mind made up, he rushed to the stack of sods and turves, and began to plaster them onto the mound. But as fast as he closed one, another crack opened, and some of the clods of earth were so dry they crumbled beneath his frantic fingers. He stopped, thinking, then ran to the huge iron kettle he'd seen to one side of the fire. As he'd hoped, it was full of water. He lugged it back and poured water liberally over the turves before slapping them against the mound. A cloud of steam shot up, blistering his fingers before he had time to snatch them away. He worked on, ignoring the pain, until a large hand grasped his shoulder and pulled him gently away.
"I'll deal with it now, lad."
"Remus!" Harry gasped, recognising the charcoal-burner. "Severus is hurt – your snake bit him – and there's a man dead – inside the hut."
Remus' hand tightened on Harry's shoulder. "Go to Severus, then. I'll be with you in a moment." With deft, competent movements he finished bringing the charcoal stack under control, then followed Harry into the hut.
Severus was lying on a blanket, a strip of cloth bound round his neck. His eyes were half-closed, his breathing laboured. Remus stooped and examined him in the light of the lantern, then straightened up, his face worried.
"We need an apothecary for him, but I don't know who we can trust..." His glance flickered from Severus to the body lying on the floor.
"It's Tom Riddle," Severus gasped hoarsely. "No loss."
"Riddle!" Remus' eyes were wide.
"It was an accident," put in Harry. "He was going to kill Severus and I tried to stop him. He tripped and ran himself through with his own sword."
"Nobody will believe that," said Remus, biting savagely at his nails.
"What are we going to do?" demanded Harry. "You said an apothecary –"
"Slughorn," interrupted Severus. His face was sweating and drawn with pain. "Horace Slughorn. Does he still live nearby?"
Remus nodded. "Yes. That's a good thought." He hurried out of the hut, calling back to Harry over his shoulder. "Keep him still and quiet. I'll be back with the apothecary as soon as I can."
"Lose no time!" Harry shouted after him, his worried eyes on Snape's face.
"Don't fret," Remus answered with a feral grin. "Riddle left his horse hobbled beside the brook. I warrant it's a speedy beast."
Harry gave a sigh of relief and settled down beside Severus, putting his arms around him.
"I don't know if you're a traitor or not, but I don't want you to die, Severus," he whispered.
* * *
The chill pallor of predawn was beginning to lighten the sky as Remus rode up to the apothecary's house. As he waited impatiently for Slughorn's servant to fetch his master, Remus prayed that they'd be in time, that he hadn't met his old friend Severus again only to lose him. It seemed an age before a sleepy Horace Slughorn appeared, longer to convince him that matters were urgent.
But as soon as the apothecary had grasped that Severus Snape had been badly bitten by an adder and that Tom Riddle's body lay in the charcoal-burner's hut, he became alert and professional, ordering his carriage to be brought round and Riddle's horse to be put up in his stable. While this was being done he bustled about making his own preparations, and he was soon seated in the carriage, his bag on the floor between his feet. Remus gave hasty directions, climbed in beside Slughorn, and they were off, the driver whipping up his horses to a fine pace.
After musing to himself for a while, Horace Slughorn tapped Remus on the knee. "Tell me, what brings my old pupil Severus Snape to these parts?"
Remus shrugged unhappily. "I'm not really sure. Severus came to my hut last night, looking for somewhere to hide from Shacklebolt's dragoons. I took a message to Lucius Malfoy for him, but on my way back I was stopped by what I thought was a highwayman. He... he made me tell him where Severus was." Remus stopped for a moment, clenching his fists. "Turns out it was Tom Riddle. When I got back to my hut, though, Riddle was dead. Harry said it was an accident –"
"Harry?" asked Slughorn, a bemused expression on his face.
"The young man with Severus. He said Riddle tried to kill Severus, set my snake onto him and then attacked him with his rapier. Harry tried to stop him, and Riddle was stabbed instead."
"So Severus is in danger from all sides!" exclaimed Slughorn. "What dark game has he been playing?"
He fell silent, pondering. Apparently it wouldn't be sufficient to merely cure the adder bite; he'd need to get Severus – and presumably this companion of his – safely out of the country...
He smiled. Lucky that the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries had decided to finance an expeditionary voyage to seek medicinal plants in the South Americas, on a ship which was even now fitting out in Plymouth docks. Luckier still that both the leader of the expedition and the ship's captain were personal friends of his...
* * *
Harry sat back in the shadows, anxiously watching as Horace Slughorn examined Severus, then anointed his throat with a thick liquid before replacing Harry's bandage. Slughorn rummaged in his big leather bag again and produced a large bottle.
"Do you have something he can drink from, Remus? And some water?"
The charcoal-burner left the hut, coming back after a moment with a cup full of water. Slughorn moistened the bandage with some of the water, topped the cup up from his bottle of potion.
"Try and get him to drink this, while I make sure Riddle is beyond all help," he said, holding out the cup.
Remus hesitated, and it was Harry who came forward to take the cup and hold it to Severus' lips. Severus opened his eyes and looked at him blankly. Harry put his hand behind Severus' head, supporting him gently, and coaxed him to drink. Intent on this task, he was only vaguely aware of Slughorn examining Riddle's body. Then a sharp exclamation pulled his eyes to the apothecary, who was peering at a tightly folded wad of paper.
"God's blood, where did Riddle get this?"
"From me," Remus admitted in a low growl. "He ambushed me when I was bringing it to Severus from Malfoy Manor."
Slughorn glanced sharply over at Severus, saw Harry watching him, and lowered his voice to a murmur. Harry caught only a few words: urgent, invasion, Kingsley, and something that sounded like order of the phoenix. He felt a sudden chill. Invasion? Were his fears correct? Was Severus a French spy? He stared at the papers which Slughorn had unfolded. One looked like a chart, with scribbled annotations. Maybe it showed the English defences along the Channel coast! He moved closer, trying to get a better look, but Slughorn noticed what he was doing and quickly refolded the chart.
"Has he drunk his dose?" he asked Harry.
They both looked at Severus. He lifted his hand weakly, took the cup from Harry, and drank.
"Horace," he whispered. "Am I done for?"
Slughorn took Harry's place at Severus' side and grasped his hand. "I have every hope you will recover, my boy. Though you'll need careful nursing for a while."
Severus' eyes were fixed on the papers in Slughorn's hand. "Those must reach the Order without delay," he said, straining to sit up.
"Lie back, Severus, you need to stay calm and still," said Slughorn. "Don't worry, I'll send my most trusted servant to London with this on the fastest horse in my stable. But as for you, my friend, I think it would be best if you took a long sea voyage. For your... health."
A look of understanding passed between them.
Harry couldn't bear it. He snatched Riddle's rapier from the ground and backed away. Thrusting the rapier's point into Slughorn's startled face, he said, voice shaking, "No! I won't let you!"
There was a long silence. Then Severus began to laugh weakly.
"What do you think it is, Harry?" he gasped. Then, to Slughorn, "Show him, Horace."
His plump face glistening with sweat, Slughorn warily unfolded the chart and held it out for Harry to see.
"I- I don't understand," Harry stammered. "This isn't the Channel coast." He took a closer look. "It isn't England at all!"
"No," Slughorn said. "It's Normandy." He looked at Severus. "Where Riddle planned to assist the French to transport their troops across the Channel, am I right?"
"Indeed. The invasion plans are all there," Severus whispered. A faint smirk of satisfaction twisted his lips. "But now it will fail."
Severus sat on deck under the shelter of a canvas awning, contrived by Harry from an old sail, watching the sun set into the ocean. He had all but recovered from the adder's bite, though you wouldn't think so from the way the brat fussed over him. In fact, here he was now, bearing a wineglass full of that potion Horace had provided, a silly grin on his face...
"Time for your evening dose, Severus!" Harry announced cheerfully.
"Shouldn't you be off helping to reef a sail, or something?" Severus grumbled, nevertheless taking the glass and downing its contents with a grimace.
"Horace persuaded the captain that nursing you takes precedence over my work for the crew. After all, you're a valuable member of the botanical expedition."
Severus smiled reluctantly. "I never cease to be amazed at the contacts that man has."
"And," Harry went on, his cheeks red in the light of the setting sun, "it has also meant we share a cabin."
Severus scowled. "I had hoped you'd welcome that for other reasons than pouring Horace's nostrums down my throat every couple of hours."
Harry's cheeks were redder still. "He said you were to be kept calm at all costs, until all danger from the venom was past."
"Oh, I think I'm recovered enough now to stand a little... excitement," Snape murmured, his dark eyes full of promise.
And, that night in their cabin, he proceeded to demonstrate to Harry just how excited he could become, with no ill effects whatsoever...