Folk of the Wood
Inspired by the story "Shadow of the Wood" by Jennifer Roberson in Irresistible Forces, edited by Catherine Asaro. Not related to "The Birthday Present", but is HBP compliant. Post Voldemort. Character death. There's another fanfic out there where both Snape and Harry turn into trees, but I can't remember it, though it was very well done.
Rowling: all belongs to her and her assigns, except for the sacred grove bit.
The battle was over. Snape had trouble believing he was still alive and Voldemort was dead, slain at last by the Boy-Who-Lived. He doubted his survival would last for long. Still, he had planned for this day since Fawkes led him to the grove where his mentor's soul had been taken shortly after the funeral. His time after that dreadful night on the Astronomy Tower had only been borrowed, and he knew it. It was time to redeem the vow he'd made to himself the day he'd seen the old wizard's face in the heart of a sacred oak tree. He knew the old ways.
Damn! Potter was close behind. It wasn't enough for the boy to triumph over evil. Only give me time to make the sacrifice, boy, and you'll have all the vengeance you could possibly want, and Albus back to tell you how wonderful you are. Walking hurt, but he was too weak to Apparate. He didn't know if he could go to the grove using that method anyway. Damn that bitch Bella and that bastard Lucius, he thought, still in pain from the wounds gained from both of them as he'd kept them from killing Potter while the boy was busy with Voldemort.
I can think the name now and it doesn't hurt, he thought as he moved as quickly as he could after the impatient phoenix. Not my arm, at least. The rest of me, well, that won't last for much longer. "Wait up, you stupid bird. I can't fly. I'm following as fast as I can. And no, I don't see a broom anywhere either," he grumbled.
But the boy pursuing him was on his Firebolt, and catching up rapidly. Snape wished Madam Hooch were still alive so he could tell her that she'd been right all along. I wish I hadn't been so busy trying to cope with a troll and Moody at the same time, or I could have kept those vampires off her. The Quidditch coach had teased him, of course, but never maliciously.
Fawkes hovered over him anxiously as he had to stop to rest. "I know, I know, there isn't much time," he said, gasping for breath as he leaned against a tree. The grove was somewhere in the middle of the Forbidden Forest, though in a part not normally accessible by mortals.
Severus pulled out his wand and put an Ennervate on himself. He'd done it several times already, and didn't expect it to work again, but was pleasantly surprised when he gained enough strength from it to keep going. When this last one failed, he would collapse, but given the way Potter was gaining on him, didn't think it would matter much.
The trees changed. They became older somehow, and much stranger than usual. Even the Whomping Willow would feel out of place now. Only the bird's presence allowed him here, and only his presence allowed other humans to follow.
The wound in his side was bleeding more, a side effect of the Ennervate, no doubt. Well, I shouldn't suffer for much longer. No matter what happens. If the brat hits me half as hard as he went after Snakeface, I'll be dead in a moment. Even a light hex would push me over now, and I doubt Potter is inclined to be merciful.
At last the phoenix stopped. As he had seen nearly a year before, Dumbledore's face appeared out of the folds of bark in a huge oak tree. Snape fetched out a sickle-shaped knife, though he really thought just wringing out his robe ought to produce more than enough blood.
Severus…you shouldn't be here… The leaves of the trees rustled in odd speech.
"Harry is on his way with murder in his eye," Snape growled. "Take my blood and get out of there, old fool."
You should live…you should live the way you've never been allowed to…
"They're not going to let me. Albus, they all need you! Nobody wants me, except to give to a Dementor, and that's if they feel merciful. I'm a traitor to both sides now. I always have been. Don't waste my death, damn you!"
"There he is!" came the voice of Harry Potter, followed by his friends.
The tree was silent. "Right. Watch while your precious Gryffindor kills an unarmed man." Snape broke his wand and threw the pieces on the ground. He fell to his knees. "I…oh, Merlin, it hurts. I'm dying, Albus. I only did what you told me to…you know what they'll do to me if I'm still alive when they come here…"
The face in the tree slowly opened its eyes. Fawkes sang loudly and triumphantly as the black-clad form on the ground slowly disappeared, while an elderly wizard took human shape and stepped forward onto the ground.
Harry Potter landed his broom just as he saw the Headmaster emerge from the tree. At first he smiled in joy to see Dumbledore alive again, then frowned at the two pieces of birch on the ground. "Where is he!" he shouted in anger. He glared at the old wizard and held his wand in front of him. "All right. If this is Polyjuice, it won't work. We'll just wait here for the next two hours for it to wear off, and then we'll finish things then. Ron!"
His friend, who had followed along on his own broom, landed and added his wand to the fray.
"Harry, it's really me," Dumbledore said with an impatient sigh.
"Of course you are," the young Gryffindor said.
"I remember when the Sorting Hat gave you Godric's own sword," Albus said. "I remember when you told me you had almost been Sorted into Slytherin, and wondered if you were really a Gryffindor. I told you how proud of you I was then."
Harry bit his lip. The Headmaster wouldn't tell anything like that to Snape, would he?
"I remember how quickly you and Miss Granger figured out how to use the Time-Turner to rescue Sirius Black from the fate that awaited him. I remember how you thought of him when Tom tried to invade your mind, even when you were angry enough at me to wreck my office."
The calm, elderly voice continued to recite things only Dumbledore could know. "I didn't have a chance to tell anyone about the potion underneath the cave, Harry, or how cruel it was for both of us when you forced me to drink it under my orders, now did I? Portraits only know what has been left in a Pensieve or a memory bottle for them, Harry, and I had no chance to fill one before that dreadful night on the Astronomy Tower. Fawkes brought me to this tree after I died to rest. I never expected anyone to bring me back."
"How did Snape know about it?"
"Fawkes brought him here. The silly bird is fond of me, you know."
"But Snape?" Harry wrinkled his nose. "I'm surprised he didn't blast the tree into splinters to make sure you were really dead. But it's you, it's really you!" He put his wand away and flung himself into the Headmaster's embrace.
After a few moments, he was calmer. Calm enough to stare at the tree Dumbledore had been part of just a little while ago. Harry pulled out his wand again. This time he wouldn't make the mistakes he had before. "That's Snape in there right now, isn't it?"
"Yes. He offered up his life and blood to pull me out," Albus said. "He wanted you to be free of the sin of murder, the way I wanted to Draco to escape it as well. If you have listened to my portrait at all, then you will know, at the last, why I begged Severus to be the one to kill me."
Harry laughed harshly. "See? Even you don't think his soul is worth anything."
Dumbledore winced. "I should put this another way. If you destroy the tree, you destroy his sacrifice and I will die now, permanently. He can harm no one now. In fact, if you can see his face in there you'll notice his eyes are closed. He will be like that for quite some time. Can you think of anyone who would sacrifice his life to bring him back?"
Ron Weasley snorted. "C'mon, Harry, let's go back. Ginny broke her arm, but that doesn't mean she won't break yours if you don't talk to her soon. I know Hermione's busy helping the wounded, but she'll fuss like anything if she thinks we've disappeared."
"I have only a few years left even this way," the Headmaster said gently. "I would like to spend them with those I love. Like you."
Harry sighed, and bent his head. "Fawkes knows the way back, doesn't he?"
"Of course, my boy."
The phoenix flew high up into the sun. Harry thought it was from sheer joy. Well, why not? Voldemort was dead, Dumbledore was alive, and Snape would be splinters as soon as he could manage it without any danger to the Headmaster. What more could anyone want?
Several years later, Albus Dumbledore lay on his deathbed in his old bedroom at Hogwarts. Minerva had been delighted to see him back and had forced him to take his old title, but had been wise enough to keep all real work away from him. I must order Fawkes to hide the location of the Grove from Harry, he thought as he glanced out into the sunlit day. Only a willing sacrifice must be allowed to go inside. If I told him now someone who destroys a tree there maliciously will replace it with the life of his first-born, he would not believe me. Young Mrs. Weasley has warned him of it already, and he doesn't believe her.
The dying wizard mentally called Fawkes over to him and whispered his last command. The phoenix was warm on his chest—the only warm spot left as his body gradually grew colder. The bird flew off, faithful to this last task.
Harry and several others entered the room after the phoenix's departure. Good. I must force myself to linger on till my fiery friend returns, or Harry will try to follow. He still wants to destroy Snape no matter how often I've told him how well the Potions Master served me and the Order. The moment I die he'll start looking. Severus deserves whatever healing he can find there. It had been all he could do, he and Minerva both, to allow Slytherins to stay here at Hogwarts at all. Even with that, the Sorting Hat had chosen no students for that House the last time, and when asked why, had said no student deserved that much persecution.
No, Harry must be saved from himself. Perhaps once he was dead, the boy—the young man—would find other things to do besides haunting Hogwarts and interfering with its administration in hopes of punishing anything and anyone to do with Snape.
I remember what Harry said, too. Did I really think Severus was of so little worth that it didn't matter how much his soul was torn? I suppose I did…or at least thought one more death would not matteras much to him as it would to young Malfoy. I was cruel to him, cruel to both him and Harry. My boy has prospered and healed, though not as much as I hoped. But I've done nothing for my Potions Master except to graciously allow him to free me from my prison. How easily I accept the sacrifices of others!
The phoenix returned and settled on his chest. Dumbledore saw in the bird's eyes that Sacred Grove was hidden in air and fire. Even if some horrid Muggle were to destroy the entire Forbidden Forest and build some hideous development, the Grove itself would be safe.
The voices of others began to fade from his ears. Even the spot where Fawkes lay was cool now. "Good-bye," he whispered to those he knew in this life. "Good-bye."
Severus drifted pleasantly through the seasons once he awoke. No pain. How odd. I have never been in a place where there was no pain. He shyly listened as the other trees talked, knowing he must not let them see he was there or they would shun him or despise him the way others always did. He allowed himself to sleep in winters, and began to enjoy the surging life within him in spring.
Then one of the trees asked why he was so quiet. If you really knew me, you would hate me. I can't bear that any more, he replied.
But we do know. When you sleep, you dream, and we share those dreams. When you have been here long enough, you will share our dreams and know we aren't perfect either. We've left you alone to heal from the terrible things you have suffered. We honor you for what you have done, even when you had no hope or love to sustain you.
He couldn't believe it. I murdered the only man who ever believed in me! I was cruel and harsh to everyone, even young children!
He was here for long enough to us to see what he had done as well, said another. He used you dreadfully and forced you into this Sacrifice. Yet you still gave it of your own free will. He has used others as well. We don't think he would have stayed here long. Judgment can only be put off so long for such as he.
Images of an oak being struck by lightning entered his mind. When…when will it be my turn? His branches shuddered in fear.
Look at yourself, said a deeper voice.
He saw himself, then, as he must be now—a tall Russian olive climbing towards the sky. More flexible than any oak, and sometimes longer lasting—and armed with both thorns and small, hard fruit suitable for flinging at impertinent birds. We cannot command the storms, Severus, but we shall protect you when they come. You are truly one of us now, as he could never be. He was far too restless to want to stay in any case. If you had not come, the lightning or the firebird would have released him when he wanted to leave.
You belong to us now, said a softer voice. You are safe here, and wanted. We welcome you.
Severus had a hard time believing it. Yet the next time the wind blew, the other trees appeared to huddle close around him, sparing him the worst of the storm. He lost only a few branches and leaves that time, while others lost far more. No one has ever protected me before, he thought, at least not without future use in mind. His anger and resentment began to fade.
During the next few years, he grew weary of holding onto his grudges over the past. It was enough to delight in the sun and rain, and to sleep through the snow. He felt joy now. So this is what it's like to be happy, he thought. He was less shy now, and participated more fully with the other trees, the other Sacrifices, some of whom had histories almost as black as his. But redemption was real. He and the others like him had achieved it here, even if their rest of their lives had been failures.
He sang, sometimes, on summer nights when the stars were bright. He was the tallest of the trees now, except for one stubborn pine, and enjoyed the blazing vista of the stars. He even gloried in the light of the full moon now, when before the sight of it had brought only fear. The darkest memories slowly dropped away as brighter ones took their place.
On occasion, some voices disappeared, to be replaced by new ones, though this didn't happen very often. Severus was the only tree not frightened by the occasional presence of the phoenix who visited every once in a while.
And then one night, an elderly man leaned on a stick and stood in front of him. "Snape? Is that you?"
Severus had no idea who the man was. Then he spotted the still-bright, emerald-green eyes. Lily's eyes. "Harry?" he whispered by way of his leaves.
"But this was an oak tree before."
I like being an olive tree. For some reason it wasn't very hard to speak to this human's mind. There were some confused memories of a jar of cockroaches in there somewhere.
"I've…I've come here to take your place."
"I was wrong. Dumbledore was wrong to make you kill him, too. I know now that you didn't want to, that you wanted to die from that Unbreakable Oath rather than do it. With all those other Death Eaters there, you had to do something or both you and Draco would have died."
But he died anyway. Snape remembered it now. The boy had been cut down in his first battle as a real Death Eater, and he hadn't been able to do anything about it. Voldemort had meant it to happen that way. At the time, he'd thought that better than being tortured to death, which had been the only other choice. And so did I.
"I know," Harry said. "Moody said he was surprised it was so easy, and then we took off the mask—" The old wizard grimaced. "We laughed then, to think he was so bad at it. Now I think he didn't put up a fight on purpose. The way you didn't put up a fight when I was going after you after what happened on the Tower."
But why are you here?
"Dumbledore left me his pensieve. Over the years, I went through it bit by bit. It finally occurred to me to look at all his memories of you, because Hermione, Ron and Ginny said I was being too obsessive trying to find this damn grove so I could blast you into bits. I wanted to find out all the nasty, evil things you ever did so I could hate you even more, and maybe convince them to help me. Oh, I found lots of them about you, only…only it turns out that Dumbledore treated you worse than he did me. I saw him laughing over what my dad and his friends did, thinking it was funny, or worse, tossing you just enough of a bone to keep you from telling everyone that Lupin was a werewolf. I saw how he kept you in line when you wanted a life of your own. He pulled the guilt thing on you an awful lot, you know. And the way he jerked you around so I could have everything I wanted here at Hogwarts…well, no wonder you threw fits all the time. The only thing you ever asked him was to keep Draco safe, and what he made you do for that…That started me thinking long enough to keep looking.
"And then I found your memories. Oh, I found lots of horrible things, all right. But I was paying attention then, and not just watching. I remembered how I tried a Crucio on crazy Bella, and even on you. What made me so much different, there at the end? I'm glad you hid here, Snape. I'm glad you didn't let me kill you.
"It's been a hundred years since then. Things have changed, though probably not as much as they should. Hermione's been Minister for Magic twice. One of the last things she did before she finally retired was to shred your file. Oh, there's still weird stories at Hogwarts about you, but even Peeves is forgetting them, and the other ghosts liked you anyway. You can come back and be anyone you like."
You have a family waiting for you, Harry. Family and friends. They will miss you. I am happy here. I have friends now. I never did before, and I like it. Go home, Harry. Thank you—thank you for coming. I never thought anyone would care enough.
Potter wiped his eyes. "Well, I thought you deserved this chance. But I can see why you don't want to take it. I suppose you're right. I'll never fly on a broom made of this wood, I promise!"
Severus shook his leaves in laughter. That would be appreciated.
The old wizard slowly walked away, shaking his head.
Time passed swiftly, then. More of his friends left, to be replaced by newcomers. Now it was his turn to assure them of his companionship and help heal their pain. He was strong enough now for that, though some winters he still spent in deep sleep. It seemed to him that he had never slept enough when he had been human. He enjoyed the blissful rest, and the slow awakening in the growing sunlight.
Finally he was Eldest. How had that happened? His aging branches shook for a moment when he first realized it, then he settled down into the role. Now it was his turn to protect the new ones when they arrived. His voice was getting quieter now, he also realized. Time and weather had softened the wood of his trunk, and he put forth fewer leaves each year. He discovered that this slow dying didn't bother him at all. The sun seemed cooler, now, and basking in it brought less warmth and vigor to him. Yet he felt no fear at this fading.
One winter he didn't fall asleep, but was wakeful. He disliked the cold. One night when the stars were incredibly bright and the snow deep around him, an ancient spirit stood before him. "It's time, Severus," said a voice he almost remembered.
Time for what?
"You have served your last day in Limbo."
Limbo? I think it Heaven here. Let me be.
"I have been in Limbo myself, and I certainly haven't thought so. But then, no doubt this was so much better than you were used to. If you stay, you will simply fade into nothingness."
I don't mind.
"Oh, gods, Severus, it's all my fault you ended up here in the first place! If I had only paid you half the attention I did to anyone else, you never would have become a Death Eater. And then when you repented of it, I used you for my war like a tarnished sword. I could have stopped Harry from killing you that night, even as a tree, but I wanted to be alive again. I was as bad as Tom that way, as things turned out."
Harry wanted to take my place. But I told him to go home.
"I know. I was shown it, where I was. I know there was nothing here on Earth for you, except your loyalty to me. I made sure of that while you taught at Hogwarts, didn't I! I could have helped you find friends of your own, but no, I thought you would be more loyal to me if I was the only one who showed you any favor. And then I made you love me anyway. Harry was right. I didn't count your soul of any worth when I asked you to kill me at my command. Fawkes took my spirit to the Grove after the funeral, but even then I was still trying to fight the war from long distance. When you stumbled at my feet, I pretended to be reluctant, but I really wanted to come back for the few years you gave me. I knew that Harry was so close to becoming a Dark Lord. I knew if he killed you his fate was sealed. It wasn't for your sake that I protected you, it was for his."
I think I knew that. I don't care now.
"Please come with me, Severus. It's time for both our final judgments, and I'll admit right now that I think I'll fail mine if I can't bring you with me. You see, I'm still being selfish."
I'll fail mine if I come. He felt fear again, as he had not done for a couple of centuries.
"No. Trees, whoever you are, show him what he is truly like, I beg you."
The inner spirits of the trees then became visible to Snape's eyes. Men, women, and even a couple of children stood there where the small forest had been before.
You shine like a beacon, one dark-browed man said.
You sang to me when I was afraid, said a bright-haired girl who smiled at him.
You stood next to me during the last storm, and lost more branches than I did, said an old woman with beautiful blue eyes.
We'll miss you, they all said together. But it's all right if you go.
Severus remembered the name of the spirit standing nearby now. Albus. I'm still afraid, he said. With the greatest reluctance, he eased himself out of the slowly dying tree, ready at any moment to pop back in again.
He gazed at himself with the help of the other trees and Albus. His spirit wasn't tarred or stained, but bright green with streaks of silver. There was a form vaguely outlined in it, of a thin, gawky man with a beaky nose, but that didn't matter any more.
Severus gazed up into the sky. Time must have passed more swiftly than he thought while he and Albus were talking—the sky was blue, the sun was brighter than ever, and the grass was thick and green around his feet.
He felt himself floating in the air and then soaring upwards towards the Light that was now brighter than the sun, but did not hurt his eyes.
Then it looked as if he were standing before the Wizengamot, only he didn't recognize any of the faces. Then everyone rose and applauded him, cheering him by name.
He understood when they were replaced for a moment by trees, He knew who they were, then, and applauded and cheered them right back. Over time he had seen them all, first when he'd arrived, and then as they had come and gone over the long seasons of the years.
A few of them weren't trees. One was Hermione Granger, grown old and withered like a second McGonagall. Another was Hagrid, who was laughing with glee. "I knew you'd make it, Snape! Nobody believed me, but I knew it!"
Even Harry Potter and his sidekick Ron Weasley were there, waving at him. Severus felt tears run down his face when he finally spied Draco's bright hair in the crowd. But he felt no shame at them now. Rain and sun both fell in their season, and this was both all at once.
Then the place was enveloped in Light. Judgment was over, and he had won.
The spirit of Albus Dumbledore bowed his head, and stepped into the rotting Russian olive. It was his turn now to receive the healing and the grace that Severus had been wise to choose. He knew his soul was still heavy with pride, even after all the time he'd spent faced with his own memories.
The elderly tree changed over the next year into a sturdy oak. He learned to listen, first, rather than always talk. He was the youngest now. It was his time to learn.
As time went on, he understood why Severus hadn't wanted to leave. He had always been so impatient himself even over the long years he'd spent on earth.
At last, just before his time for judgment came, a new sapling sprang up in the middle of the Grove. Albus felt the fragile mind inside, shattered and cleansed by some horrific ordeal. You're safe here, youngling. Rest and heal. What shall we call you?
I don't remember much...but everyone calls me Tom…
Albus tried to remember where he'd heard the name before, but he couldn't. Well, it didn't matter. He'd protect the tiny tree the best he could in the next storm anyway.