HBP-compatible! No spoilers.-----------------------------------------
The light cast by a wand-tip has a very short range. It provided no more than a tiny beam in the utter darkness surrounding him. Three feet was as far as he could see and beyond that everything was swathed in black. He was in a low and narrow tunnel, crudely dug out below the Hogwarts grounds. He had no idea where it led, or how long it might be.
He had slipped in through a hole between the tree’s roots and was now sitting on a low mound just underneath it. He peered around. Above, beside and below him was earth, warm and moist and squirming with creepy-crawling life. He did not trust it. He preferred the solidity of cold stone.
The air inside was dank, like that of a hothouse; his breathing felt unpleasantly constricted, and he had to repress an acute urge to climb back out again. But he mustn’t. He had to carry on, for his own sake. He would expose them, they would be sent away, and he would be at peace.
It was impossible to stand up straight. He took the first few steps walking bent-over, his back and shoulders scraping against the ceiling and his head at a highly uncomfortable angle. He had grown quite tall during the past few years, and his lanky frame proved most unsuitable to the exploration of tunnels. He sank to his knees and reluctantly began to move on all fours, his back arched and his lighted wand clenched between his teeth.
He hated confined spaces. And he hated not seeing where he was going. It was only his determination that kept him from returning to the reassuring vaults of the dungeon common room.
It really was horrible down here.
It was not that he was a coward. He was just cautious, and he did not like the thought of there being no escape route. Even simply turning around would be difficult enough in this place, where there was no space for two people to pass each other. He could only go forward, to God knew where. There were no forks, no niches, nowhere to hide. He would be exposed to whomever or whatever came his way. No running. No dodging. No shielding. He would be vulnerable and trapped, and he wished he weren’t so keenly aware of the fact.
He did not like this. He did not like this at all.
There was no noise except that of his own labouring breath. The soft soil muffled even the sound of his boots on the tunnel floor. It was as if he had wads of cotton in his ears. So quiet. It made him nervous. Normally he liked silence, but not of this kind. It seemed he could not rely on his senses here. And he needed them, because the gang – …But where were they? He had the uneasy feeling that they could be awfully close without him noticing. He turned his head in suspicion. Three feet of emptiness - and beyond, the stifling, moist darkness.
This tunnel was maddening.
He had crawled along for what seemed like hours now, and still he could not see the exit. For all he knew, he could be under Hogsmeade, or even further. And no sign of them. He stopped dead.
An alarming thought had just occurred to him. He could whack himself for not having considered it before. Could it be – the muscles in his shoulders contracted and he shuddered involuntarily – could it be that Black had lured him here? Could he have been aware of the eavesdropper? Did he want him here?
He let out a soft moan, settled on his knees and began to rub his neck with one hand. How could he have been so stupid? Of course it was possible. That idiot Evan Rosier had walked up to him while he was listening in on Black and Pettigrew planning a gathering of some kind at full moon. Rosier had complained about the points he, Severus, kept losing Slytherin in what was, after all, a personal feud with that Potter character and came to inform him their house had collectively decided that it must cease. The arrogant twerp hadn’t bothered to keep his voice down. But Black and Pettigrew didn’t seem to have noticed - or had they? - and prattled on about a knot on the Whomping Willow and a tunnel leading to their secret meeting-place. And he, fool, was so eager to catch the rule-breakers red-handed that he had rushed off, pushed that knot and clambered into this bloody hole. Must have been something he ate, that his brain was working so slowly. He had gone on a wild goose chase at a time when he should long have been in bed, and if he was caught he would be in trouble. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Just as he was about to turn back, something made him prick up his ears. Somewhere far away, someone called his name. He turned around with some difficulty and squatted, his wand at the ready.
“Snape? Thank Merlin! Look, you have to turn back immediately, understand?”
It was Potter, he was sure of it. He recognised his voice. Potter, who was ordering him about. And why did he want him to go back? Was he, perhaps, on the verge of finding out something Potter did not want him to know? So it was no ruse of Black’s after all; he was really about to stumble on a secret which he could use against his enemies. A smirk settled on his face. It was too late. They could not stop him now. He had to hurry; Potter was smaller than he was and could move faster in this confounded mole track. He let himself down on hands and knees once more, clamped his wand with his teeth as before, and crept on as fast as he could.
“Snape? Are you moving away or what?”
Potter was much closer by already, swift little devil. He must not let him catch up.
“You total, blockheaded moron!” Potter actually sounded exasperated. “Come back, I’m not joking! You don’t know -”
But he did, now.
He had reached a point close enough to the tunnel’s ending to distinguish noises from the other side – tearing, ripping sounds, things crashing down, the creaking of floorboards. He heard panting, and yapping, and yelping as if from a very large dog. And then there was a piteous whining that curdled his blood. He was petrified, and with wide eyes watched as the light inside what he now realised must be the Shrieking Shack threw against the wall the grotesque shadow of a man transforming into a wolf. He had not been prepared for anything of the kind, and it took some time for the terrible reality to dawn on him. He had set out to catch the Potter gang at one of their pranks, and had been tricked into the lair of a werewolf instead.
He bit so hard he felt his teeth sink deep into the wood of his wand.
In a normal situation he might have been able to respond reasonably and with agility. His mind would have gone over the things he had learned about werewolves and maybe, just maybe, he might have come up with something useful against the creature, because in ordinary circumstances he was actually quite resourceful. But the unexpectedness of the confrontation had numbed him with shock and his mind was, for once in his life, an absolute blank. There was only -
It held him in a pincer-like grip.
Blood rushed to his head; he felt it pound deafeningly in his ears, smothering even the werewolf’s terrible shrieks and Potter’s anxious shouts, and his heart suddenly beat much too fast; it hurt. His brain was clouded, he could only think of one thing: he was in mortal danger, he would be ripped apart within seconds if the beast got to him. He had to get out, and quickly, too; his reflex was to stand up and run, but he found he could do neither – his hands, his elbows, his feet, his knees, his back, his shoulders, his head all bumped into firm earth. He was engulfed with soil, it pressed him down, squeezed him, choked him, held him trapped like a grave. Panic seized him. The Hogwarts grounds had swallowed him whole. His mind raced in all directions at once and nothing made any sense. Now he couldn’t get enough air, and his wand – his wand was gone; he must have dropped it and now the light had gone out. “Lumos!” he cried, “Lumos!” – but in his agony he must be doing something wrong because the spell, simple as it was, failed. He balled his hands to fists, then began to flail his arms wildly around as if trying to swim to the surface, his breath coming in painful gasps; he clawed at the low ceiling, causing bits and pieces of dirt to fall into his eyes, his mouth, his clothes. He spat and coughed, his eyes watered, he hurt all over. There was a part of his brain that told him it was no good, that he needed to think coolly to escape; but his body was somehow useless and trembled like mad.
Suddenly someone yanked him backwards by the hood of his robes. He fell and picked himself up again.
“Quick!” Potter hissed, grabbing a wand from the ground and tucking it in Severus’ belt. “We have to get as far away as possible before the transformation is complete!” The meaning of his words did not really get through. Potter must have noticed; he took a firm hold of a portion of Severus’ robes and determinedly dragged him along.
They scurried through the pitch-black tunnel like rats escaping from a fire. In their struggle to get out they had no time to light a wand and no hands available to hold one in; so they stumbled forward in the dark, frequently colliding and kicking each other. Behind them, the werewolf’s whines changed into howls. They tried to move faster; their breathing grew ragged; they did not dare to look behind. The monster might be upon their trail already; they would not hear the pounding of its paws on the crumbly tunnel floor, and the distance of its cries was hard to interpret.
Severus worked his way behind James Potter with closed eyes. There was hardly any point in opening them. His heart kept thumping as if it would explode; he wished Potter would move faster, though he wasn’t sure how long he would be able to follow even their present pace. He was weary and he thought he could feel every single nerve in his body ache, but he was driven forward by a frantic desire to survive. The tunnel drove him crazy; he wanted to burst out of it; he wanted another way out; he wanted – control. But he was squashed between a werewolf behind and James Potter in front. He could not even push him aside.
His heart skipped a beat at a suspicious noise from inside the passageway.
“Potter, I think it’s…” he said hoarsely.
Potter cursed. “We’re there. But the Willow... I’d quite forgotten about it. We’ll have to do some acrobatics.”
“We can’t push the knot. Tree’s supposed to keep the werewolf in, savvy?”
“That’s where you’ll end up if you don’t hurry, Snivelly.”
Severus watched as Potter climbed out of the hole, propped himself up against the Whomping Willow’s trunk to survey the movement of its branches, then extended a hand and pulled him up, too.
“Look,” Potter said. “See the large branch on the left? Makes this funny sweeping movement. The branch over there on the right lashes, and when it’s out of the way, the one above comes down like a sledgehammer. I think the trick is to jump-” But his explanation was cut short by a howl so unmistakably close that it sent shivers down their spines. Potter gave Severus a mighty shove, catapulting both of them between the aggressive plant’s whipping and beating branches, so that, scratched and bruised but without any permanent damage, they rolled to a standstill on Hogwarts’ moonlit lawn.
Severus wasted no time catching his breath; they wouldn’t be really safe until they reached the school. If they could get the better of the Whomping Willow, so might the monster, despite Potter’s protestations to the contrary. He quickly got to his feet and ran, as fast as his tired legs could carry him, to the castle, Potter on his heels. They crossed the sloping lawn in seconds: terror gave them wings. Severus clutched the cool bronze knobs on the oak front doors and swung them open with force, hurtled inside, and slammed them shut again behind Potter. It was only when he had shot the seven heavy bolts in place that he collapsed, holding on to the last one.
“Well, that was quite a run, eh, Snape?”
As if it had been a game of some sort.
Footsteps. Pettigrew’s giggle and Black’s voice.
“Prongs, mate, you all right?”
“Yeah, I am.” A curt tone. “Snape looks a bit off colour, though.”
“That’s old Snivelly for you: all dissolved in tears.”
It was true. Once he had reached the safety of Hogwarts, once he had put thick stone walls and robust wooden doors and trusty steel bolts and a zillion powerful spells between himself and the werewolf – once he had managed that, his strength had entirely deserted him. He was spent. He just sat there, leaning against the door, his knees pulled up, looking, and feeling, perfectly wretched. Violent sobs rocked his thin body and tears welled from his eyes; he had no more energy to fight them back. He was too worn out even to react to Black’s jibe. He closed his eyes and let his head sink on his knees, wishing the three of them would disappear. He couldn’t stand up to them anymore. He was finished.
“What, pray, is the meaning of this nocturnal gathering?” McGonagall’s stern tone. He didn’t care enough to look up.
“Snape asked for it, Professor. He was spying on us. So I thought a practical joke…”
“What kind of practical joke?”
“He seemed eager to find out where Remus went, and why, so…”
“Mr Black, you can’t have… Whatever were you thinking? No wonder Snape looks so upset.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him. James came to his rescue.”
Slippered feet moving closer. Rustling of clothes and the scent of shortbread. A hand on his shaking shoulder.
“Shush now. You are safe. Come with me.” She sounded kinder than he had thought possible. “You can let go of that bolt now, Mr Snape.”
He couldn’t. His fingers were convulsively clenched around the handle. Slowly, carefully, she loosened them one by one.
“I am taking you to the Headmaster’s office,” she said.
Severus Snape considered himself tough. By wizard standards he was still very young, yet at thirty-four his life had been quite eventful already.
At eighteen he had joined the Death Eaters. A Dark Mark had been burnt into his skin. He had witnessed torture, death and destruction and had been subjected to the Cruciatus Curse, a fate that was bound to befall every servant of the Dark Lord sooner or later. He had been forced to learn and live with the perpetual threat of being hunted down by Aurors and so to become the victim of even more Unforgivable curses.
At age twenty he had turned to spy for Albus Dumbledore. That meant he had lived in constant fear of being found out, with as added burden the knowledge that if he cracked up, he would put other people in danger. He had to watch his movements and words at all times. He had to lie to people who trusted him. He was a traitor. There would be no mercy for him from either side. He had alienated everyone.
When he was twenty-one he was apprehended by the formidable Alastor Moody and tried in front of the full Wizengamot, which happened to include his grandfather, on charges of terrorism and mass murder. He had survived a cross-examination by Bartemius Crouch, who had seemed really bent on sending him to Azkaban. Dumbledore had spoken on his behalf, vouching for his character and work at Hogwarts, and his name had been cleared. His father had disavowed him.
The next twelve years had, admittedly, been more peaceful, as from crime and spying he had seamlessly moved on to a career in education. Teaching at Hogwarts held, of course, risks nonexistent at Muggle schools, including, to name but a few random examples, nearly losing a leg to a giant three-headed dog, having a Basilisk at large, being forced to work alongside Remus Lupin and, last but definitely not least, tutoring the likes of Neville Longbottom.
And now another threat was looming at the horizon: the Dark Lord was assiduously preparing his return. If he succeeded, the position of a lapsed Death Eater would be precarious indeed. He was certain to be punished by death when caught.
Severus Snape considered himself tough. He had a remarkable memory that registered, ordered and stored countless potion recipes, transfiguration diagrams, charms, incantations, dates of Goblin uprisings and warlock councils and Giant battles, book titles, page numbers, the names of plants and creatures and people, their faces, facts, addresses, histories, scientific discoveries, and, clearest of all, the events of his own life in all their minutiae. Considering that an unpleasantly large portion of those dealt with inflicting and receiving pain, with betrayal, fear and prosecution, Minerva McGonagall had once, when she thought he was out of earshot, remarked to Dumbledore that in his case amnesia would be a blessing. He knew that she suspected him of being suicidal.
She couldn’t be further off the mark. Severus clung to life with a tenacity and a passion that would have surprised her no end. He took pride in his capacity to overcome the traps and pitfalls his opponents set for him. He did not exactly enjoy challenges of the kind; he just had an irrepressible instinct of self-preservation and, however strange it might perhaps appear in a misanthropic and bitter man such as he, his own existence was dear to him.
He could live with everything that had been dealt to him. The horrors of his past did not haunt him. They did not turn into nightmares from which he woke up screaming.
It was not that he had no conscience. It was circumspection, anticipation and a readiness to face the consequences of his actions that made him resilient. He was not impulsive. He was cautious – his schooldays had made him so. Whenever he took a step or made a decision, he carefully calculated the advantages and disadvantages, estimated the risks, and considered a number of possible exits. He did not need the Sight for that; in most cases simple common sense sufficed. He did not allow anyone to catch him unawares. If he was prepared for what was coming, he could steel himself, take the blow, deal with it, and shake it off like so much lumber. He was tough.
But it still happened that he woke up in his bed fighting for breath, his whole body trembling and wet with perspiration, his heart thumping frantically in his constricted chest, his hands clawing at the sheets, struggling to get out of that tunnel that suffocated him with the werewolf drawing nearer and nearer, howling, snarling, and he defenceless, smothered, crushed, unable to move or even cry for assistance, a helpless prey to the bloodthirsty monster that had been masquerading as an ordinary boy, and triumphantly handed over to it by Sirius Black.
It was the one memory with which he was singularly unable to cope.
They said his antipathy for the Potter gang was childish.
And here he stood, at the foot of the motionless Whomping Willow, at the entrance of the nightmare tunnel, picking nervously at Potter’s invisibility cloak. Three of his students had climbed down for he knew not what reason, and Lupin had followed them – Lupin, who had neglected to take his Wolfsbane Potion on a night with a full moon.
He was a professor. He had a responsibility towards those three. They probably didn’t know-
He had with him…
…only the wand with the tooth marks that bore witness to the fiercest terror he had ever experienced.
But the Headmaster counted on him to keep the Potter boy from harm. He must-
Lord, give me strength.
Severus Snape considered himself tough. He pulled the invisibility cloak over his head and resolutely plunged into the tunnel.
He would sorely regret it a few hours later.
A/N: This story was (believe it or not) inspired by a visit to the Vietcong tunnels in the summer of 2004.
It has been patiently beta-read by Charybdis, Elfie and Sugar Quill's Ada Kensington.
The usual disclaimers apply.
The Tunnel has been nominated for the Multifaceted Fanfiction Awards in the categories Tears (Darkfic) and Intelligence (Drama).