Harry’s ears rang from the tumble down the back step. He probed the side of his head gingerly with fingertips, and winced. He didn’t even know what he had done this time, could only remember the purple of Uncle Vernon’s rage.
His breath frosted in the air, and he shivered in Dudley’s castoff shorts. It was winter, yes, but he guessed it was better being out here than in the house.
He stared into the dormant begonias, which he had grown himself. Below them, a flicker of movement drew his eye, and he got cautiously off the step to inspect, going to his hands and knees and peering between the stalks.
A snake! A green garden snake, twisting slowly in strange patterns through frost-tipped leaves.
“Hello there,” he whispered.
To his surprise, the snake stilled and raised its head to look at him. “Did you speak?” it asked him.
Harry reared back, cast a worried glance at the back door, and then bent closer. “Did you?”
“I’ve heard of your kind,” said the snake in wonderment. “I don’t remember what they call it, but we call it snakeheart.”
Harry’s mouth dropped open. “Wizards?”
“Well, you must be one,” said the snake. “Are you?”
“No,” Harry said. “I’m just Harry.”
“Say, aren’t you cold?” asked the snake suddenly. “Where’s the rest of your skin?”
Harry looked at his arms. “What do you mean?”
“You two-leggers have more skin than that during the slow days.”
Harry picked at his threadbare shirt. “These are all my aunt and uncle gave me.”
The snake twisted its head upside down to consider him better. “Is your den very warm?”
Harry shook his head. “No, they just hate me.”
The snake hissed in agitation. “But you’re a snakeheart!”
“I’m sure of it. Here, come with me to my den. It’s better than this place. Warmer, darker, more meat.”
Harry looked at the house again, then at the snake. “Okay. But I have to be careful. They can’t see me.”
“Never fear,” said the snake. “Just do as I do.” Harry watched as it wiggled through the begonias and under the fence.
Do as it did. He dipped down and pushed his head under the begonias, trying to act like a snake. He managed to clamber through the flowers, but when he came to the fence, he paused, unsure of how he was to get through.
But then all of the sudden he was low to the ground, slithering right under, and up again on the other side.
He looked down at the snake in amazement. “Did you see that!”
The snake gave a wiggling shrug. “You just did as I said. Now come along.”
“Where are we going?” Harry asked. He was cold, tired, and hungry. They had been walking for hours. Well, he had been walking. The snake had slithered.
“To my den, of course,” said the snake. “You can stay there with my family.”
“How far is it?”
“I don’t know,” said the snake. “What do you mean?”
“What do I …” Harry trailed off, baffled. “How much longer will we be traveling?”
“We’ll get there as the sun comes up,” said the snake. “Does that make sense?”
“But,” said Harry, feeling a little upset. “It’s winter. I’m cold. I can’t walk all night, I’ll freeze.”
The snake kept slithering forward, but looked up at him. “Well, of course we’ll bed down for the night. But we should make more progress while we have light.”
“Well, okay,” said Harry, pacified. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“What’s a name?”
“It’s what people—other snakes—call you. Like I’m Harry.”
“I thought you meant because of your head,” the snake said in amazement. “What a strange concept. I don’t think we have those.”
“How do snakes know you’re different from other snakes, then, or get your attention?”
“Oh, by taste.” The snake’s tongue flicked in and out. “Obviously. You two-leggers don’t do that?”
“No,” Harry said. “I don’t think I have a taste.”
“Of course you do,” said the snake. “It’s muddled right now, of course, on account of those things you lived with. I’m sure you’ll freshen up soon, though, don’t worry.”
“Alright.” Harry sniffed himself surreptitiously. He smelled normal, he thought.
After a while more of walking, the sun was setting in earnest, and the snake found a hollow tree. “Here. I thought, I can sleep on you, since you’re warm-blooded, and you can have this tree. Sound good?”
“Y-yes,” said Harry, teeth chattering. “But I need something warm to keep around me.”
“Use leaves,” the snake suggested. “By the way, an owl lives in there, so we’ll have to share. I’m sure it won’t mind, though.”
Nervously, Harry gathered up leaves from the forest floor, stuffing armfuls inside the hollow tree until he couldn’t see any longer in the dark. Then he clambered in, tucking his knees up to his chest and burying himself in the leaves. It was quite itchy and not very warm, but definitely better than outside. The snake slithered into the trunk and up around his waist, where it settled under his shirt and promptly went to sleep.
Harry sat there shivering for a long time. He tried to will himself to sleep, but he was cold and hungry and not a little scared. But, he was surprised to find, he would still rather be in this cold tree with a talking snake than with the Dursleys.
A while into his chilly insomnia, a noise from above scared him so badly he jumped and smashed his head into the trunk. Stars floating in front of his eyes, he slowly looked up. Two golden eyes glowed down at him, wide as apples.
The owl hooted ferociously. Harry cowered into the leaves.
“I’m sorry!” he said. “The snake told me I could sleep here! I need someplace warm or I’ll freeze!”
The hooting turned softer, inquisitive.
Harry chanced a look up again. The owl’s eyes weren’t so wide anymore. “May I just stay the night?”
The owl hooted once.
“C-can you understand me?” His teeth chattered slightly with shivers.
The owl fluttered down towards him. He flinched and raised his arms above his head, remaining perfectly still as the owl climbed down his shoulder, the softest feathers brushing against his chin.
The owl settled into his lap and fluffed its wings, looking quite content. With extreme caution, h wrapped his arms gently around it. When it did not protest, he buried his face in its feathers. He felt warmer already.
“Wake up! Snakeheart!”
Harry sniffed and rubbed his cheek into his pillow, which was wonderfully soft. Then his pillow cooed and shifted, and he opened his eyes to stare at the owl. In the pre-dawn light, he saw it was brown with black speckles.
“Tell that bird not to eat me!” hissed the snake from his wrist. “Bloody great menace!”
The owl hooted in irritation.
“Thank you for warming me up,” Harry said politely. “Er. Please don’t eat the snake, it’s my friend.”
The owl, hooted, stretched its wings, clambered up Harry’s knees, and flew out of the tree.
“Let’s go,” said the snake. “We’ll be home by the time the sun is up.”
Harry was stiff and cold and entirely too hungry, but at least his toes weren’t frostbitten. And the mere thought of a home was warming.
The owl called down to him from the next tree as they climbed out and began walking.
“Thank you!” he called back. “Maybe I’ll see you again. My name is Harry.”
The owl gave another call: a short hoot followed by a long low note.
“That’s your name?” Harry imitated the hoot, and the owl flapped happily. “Bye, then.”
They were off. They traveled at a quick pace, and Harry felt his bones warming as they traveled. His hunger, however, only grew more intense.
“I need to eat,” he finally said, when he was clutching his stomach.
“I had a meal a few days ago,” said the snake. “But do as you like.”
“I don’t know what I can eat.”
“Just catch a mouse.”
“I can’t catch mice. And I can’t eat raw meat, either.”
The snake looked at him incredulously. “Why not?”
“It makes humans—two-leggers—sick.”
“I can’t help you, then. Some animals eat berries, or grass.”
“I can’t eat grass, either,” Harry said grumpily. “You don’t know much about humans, do you?”
“Why should I?”
Harry couldn’t think of a good response to that.
“How about I catch you a mouse?”
“I can’t eat raw meat!”
“Ugh!” Harry stomped his foot. “I have to put the meat in a fire so I don’t get sick!”
“Oh, is that all.” The snake huffed. ”Just make a fire.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Use magic, obviously.”
“Magic? I can’t do magic!”
“Of course you do. You’re a snakeheart, and the only two-leggers who are snakehearts are magic.”
“Then I don’t know how to use it!” Harry’s stomach let out a loud grumble, and he felt his eyes start to sting. Furiously, he pushed the palms of his hands to them.
“You just have to try, I think.” The snake knotted itself up and stared at him. “Look, you do that while I find you a mouse to put in your fire.” And with a rustle, it disappeared into the underbrush.
Harry sighed heavily and dropped to the ground, halfheartedly dragging a few sticks into a small pile in front of him.
“Do magic,” he whispered to himself. “The talking snake said you have magic, so obviously you must.” He rolled his eyes. But then again, if he didn’t make a fire by the time the snake returned, he was going to have to eat a raw mouse or go hungry for an unknown amount of time longer, and he wasn’t sure which was worse.
So he tried. Narrowed his eyes at the little pile of stick and imagined them smoking, sparking, blazing.
WHOOSH. The heat shot out from his heart and down his hands and the little pile went up in a blaze, so fervently that after a second, nothing was left but char. Harry fell back with a cry of amazement and alarm, returning after a moment to poke at the scorch mark on the ground. So. Maybe he could do magic.
The harder thing, he soon realized, was controlling it. But he kept trying, and by the time the snake had returned tugging a dead mouse by the tail, he was sitting in the middle of a scorch mark a meter in diameter, nursing a rather large flame.
“Oh, good,” said the snake after it had spat out the mouse. “Here.”
Harry picked the mouse up by its tail, poking it gingerly. He shuddered when he felt it was still warm.
“Well?” asked the snake. “If I were you, I’d just swallow it whole.”
Without further ado Harry nudged the mouse into the cinders of the fire. The smell of burning fur was immediate.
“Eugh,” said the snake. “No, thank you. You two-leggers do have odd tastes.”
When Harry got sick of the smell of burning meat, he pulled the little mouse out of the flames with hot fingertips, where he was presented with the task of actually eating it. Under the snake’s disgusted gaze, he found a sharp rock and cut into it, determinedly ignoring the head, and teased bits of meat off of bones. He managed about five tiny bites, the rest inedible.
“How wasteful,” remarked the snake. “Much better to swallow it whole, if you ask me. Don’t see why you have to pick around the bones, just send them back up later.”
“Humans can’t do that,” Harry murmured. He was less grumpy, but still almost as hungry. However, he gamely tossed dirt over the fire and got to his feet when the snake insisted they move on.
Luckily, in a few more minutes they came upon some bushes Harry recognized from having seen Dudley force other children to eat. Small yellow gorse flowers peeked into the cold air. Harry filled his shirt with as many of them as he could carry, minding the thorns, and stuffed his face while the snake derided herbivory.
A while later he had another stroke of luck: a small half-frozen stream. He drank as much as he could bear, and juggled a chunk of ice from hand to hand as they walked to suck on.
At last, when the sun was fully up, the snake slowed. “The den is up ahead!” it cried, and took off at double speed. Harry jogged to catch up, nearly tripping over several tree roots.
“Family, come out!” the snake called. It was hissing into a hole in the ground about the size of Harry’s fist. “Family! Parents, sibs! I’ve brought a friend!”
Muffled hissing began to float from underground, and then a tangle of snakes appeared, rushing through the entrance. They all halted, dumbstruck, when they saw Harry.
“Er, hello,” said Harry.
“A snakeheart!” said one of the new snakes, who was brownish-green.
“That’s its name,” Harry’s snake said. “It’s like its taste, see.”
“He’s huge!” said a yellow-green snake.
“Will it eat us?” asked one that was more turquoise.
“No, don’t worry,” giggled Harry.
“I’ve brought it to live with us,” Harry’s snake said proudly.
The other snakes looked at each other in confusion. “Live with us?” Asked the biggest snake, who was bright green. “Where?”
“In the den!” said Harry’s snake. “There’s … plenty of room …” It trailed off.
Harry’s heart sank straight to his toes.
“We can’t fit a two-legger in the den!” said the brownish snake. “We can’t fit its head in!”
“What were you thinking?” demanded the turquoise snake.
Harry sat down hard, head in his hands.
“What’s wrong?” asked his snake. “I told you those flowers were a bad idea.”
“I—I—” Harry scrubbed his face, which was wet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even think if I would fit or not.”
“Don’t be sorry!” exclaimed the bright green snake. “You’re not a snake, how were you to have known?”
“B-but now I’ll have to go back,“ Harry said miserably.
“No, you can’t!” wailed his snake. “Parents, sibs, I promised it a home!”
“Of course we won’t send it back,” said the bright green snake. “We’ll just send it further on, is all. You’ll take it, won’t you?”
“Where?” asked the snake and Harry at the same time.
“A bigger den,” said the bright green snake. “Biggest one I know of. Can certainly fit a two-legger like you.”
“Ohhh, with that one?” asked the yellowish snake. “Scary!”
“Scary?” Harry asked in alarm.
“It’s the only place that will fit you, I’m sure,” said the bright green snake. “And you must certainly go to a snake, being a snakeheart.”
“We’ll go now, then,” said Harry’s snake. “No use lingering.”
“How long is it?” Harry asked.
“Oh…a long, long way.” The snake seemed to deflate. “Four or five moons.”
“I don’t know if I can walk that long just eating mice and flowers,” Harry said nervously.
“You’ll have to fly,” said the bright green snake.
“Fly?” Harry asked. “I can’t fly!”
“Nor can I!” said Harry’s snake.
“No,” agreed the bright green snake. “You’ll have to ask a favor of those snake horses.”
“Ugh,” Harry’s snake said. “They’ll eat me!”
“You’ll have deserved it for getting this two-legger into such a mess,” said the brownish snake primly.
“Here,” said the snake. It had left Harry with its family, all but the turquoise snake, who had gone off with it. They had brought back two mice.
“I don’t really want to eat another one….”
“They’re for the snake horses,” said the snake. “Go on, take them and we’ll go.”
The bright green snake flicked its tongue at Harry’s hand. They had been having a very intense conversation about the benefits of skinning prey. “Do come visit when you’re back again, snakeheart. You’re very good luck, you know.”
“Thank you for everything,” said Harry, though he still had little idea what was going on.
“Come on,” hissed his snake impatiently.
Obediently, Harry picked up the mice by the tails, and they set off, leaving the little den behind.
“How far is it?” Harry asked.
“I don’t know.”
Harry thought about how else to ask. “Will we reach it by sunset?”
“Yes!” the snake said, pleased.
As it turned out, their destination was only two hours’ walk away. Harry could tell when they grew near, because the snake slowed with trepidation and the air began to taste funny, almost tingly.
“Can you taste that?” he asked the snake.
“It’s magic,” the snake said. “We’re close. Hey, pick me up.”
“Why?” Harry asked, even as he leaned down to offer his hand.
“Less risk of being eaten. Remember those mice, now. Here we are”
They came to a clearing. Harry froze, took a stuttering step back. “W-what are they?”
“Snake horses.” The snake hid in Harry’s sleeve.
More like skeleton horses, to Harry. They were leathery and translucent, with bat-like wings and wickedly sharp teeth. There were two of them in this learning, and they fixed gleaming black eyes on Harry. Pawing the ground with sharp hooves, they began to walk towards him.
“The mice!” hissed the snake.
Jerkily, Harry tossed the mice out in front of him. The bizarre horses paused evaluated, and then snapped the mice up, tossing them down their throats whole. Revoltingly, Harry could very faintly see the mice corpses inside their stomachs.
The had stopped approaching, and now stared at him, heads tilted.
“What now?” Harry hissed to the snake.
“Ask for a ride towards the mountains.”
“Er, hello,” Harry said softly. “My friend and I … need a ride. If you can? We want to go to the mountains. I don’t know … where exactly ….”
“The magic forest in the mountains,” hissed the snake. “Tell them.”
“That sounds silly.”
“Just tell them!”
“We want to go to the magic forest in the mountains,” Harry told the horses. They hadn’t moved. “We don’t really have anything else to give you … we could get you more mice? I could … well, I could groom you? Do you have any rocks in your hooves or anything?”
The bigger of the horses walked slowly over to him, and he realized how huge it truly was. His head barely came up to its shoulder. It bent its massive head and wuffled the top if his hair in a hot rush. He stroked its snout carefully, mindful of the fangs.
“Will you, then?” he asked.
It snorted, making him jump, and then raised a leg and held it there.
“Oh. You … you do have a rock in your hoof?” Carefully, ever-so-carefully, he inched over to peer at the hoof. A sizable pebble was lodged there, with quite a bit of mud. “Well, hold still then.” The horse seemed content to hold its leg up, so Harry dug the pebble out with his fingers, then tried to scrape as much of the mud as he could out as well, wiping his fingers on his shorts when he was done.
The horse snorted, then held up another leg.
When he had cleaned eight gigantic, razor-sharp hooves, the two snake horses were nibbling affectionately at his hair.
“So you’ll take us?” Harry asked. The second horse snorted. “Um, thank you.”
The first horse knelt heavily, and Harry had a moment of hesitation. The snake hissed, “go on, then,” and he clambered up, weirded out by the feel of its leathery skin, and slid his arms around his neck.
The horse took off, launching them through the treetops and into open air.
Harry clung, wrapped his hands in the horse’s wiry mane, and shrieked with delight.
He had never felt anything so wonderful as being on the back of this animal, its membranous wings catching the air, hooves pawing as if running over nothing. The horse whickered in agreement with his glee, its partner soaring alongside them, swooping and diving.
“Snake!” he called. “It’s amazing! I never knew!”
The snake was curled around his waist, refusing to show its face. “Unnatural,” it hissed sullenly. “Snakes aren’t meant to fly.”
Snakes may not have been meant to fly, but Harry was discovering that he certainly was. Slowly, he released his death-grip on the horse’s neck, until he could extend his arms from his sides, the wind pushing them out behind him. He laughed until the sharp winter wind grew too fierce in his face, and then he lay his head on the horse’s mane and relished being alive—more alive, he thought, than he had ever felt.
They flew all day, and the horses landed at dusk when they reached the foothills of the mountains. Harry slept between them, warmer than he had ever been inside his cupboard, which was rapidly fading from his immediate recollection. Compared to the indubitable reality of what he was experiencing, his life with the Dursleys seemed hazy and dreamlike.
In the morning he woke with the horses, had the snake catch them a few mice, and ate a patch of dandelions he found. They were horribly bitter, but he hadn’t eaten since the flowers the day before. He cracked a frozen puddle with a stone and took a chunk of ice wrapped in his shirt to drink.
Then they were back in the sky, and as the snake complained and his horse did dizzying loops, nearly losing its passengers, he felt as though he could fly like this forever.
But it was not to be. Around midday they began to descend again, this time toward a massive dark forest, nestled between mountains that were a darker, deeper green than Harry had known existed. There was some kind of castle in a huge clearing at the far end, but the horses landed in the thick of the forest instead.
He realized why as soon as they touched down: more snake horses appeared from the trees around them, whickering and prancing in excitement, obviously eager to greet their fellows but wary of Harry.
Soon, however, his horses communicated Harry’s status as a friend, and he was surrounded by foals nipping his hands with sharp teeth and butting their ears under his fingers to scratch. The horse he’d ridden on nudged him, then held up his hoof. He went over to look, but it was clean. Instead, it butted him to the nearest strange horse, and he understood.
“I’ll clean your hooves if you like,” he told it. After a moment, it raised its leg the barest inch off the ground. Harry knelt and dug out the dirt, and when he finished the horse brayed in happiness and lifted its right front leg.
After that Harry was on hoof duty for the foreseeable future—there were about fifteen new horses, so he sent the snake out to collect as many mice as it possibly could.
By the time the sun set, the horses had settled down to rest, mice remains scattered here and there, and Harry and the snake slept once again in the middle of a pile of snake horses.
“Tomorrow we’ll see about your new home,” said the snake.
Harry looked wistfully around at the horses, wishing he could just stay with them. But for one thing, he was likely to starve if he didn’t find a home soon. For another, he didn’t fancy being a hoof-cleaner for the rest of his life.
The snake woke Harry as the sun was rising. “Come,” it said. “We must cross the forest to reach the snake. It lives in an old two-legger dwelling.”
“The castle we saw?”
“What’s a castle?”
“Well, you only saw the inside of my shirt anyway. A castle’s like a big stone building.”
It would be a long walk. He rose, petting the snake horses, thanking them for their help and hoping they would meet again one day. And then, for the last time, he and the snake set off.
“This forest is different than the last,” the snake warned as they walked. “Taste the air.”
Harry had been tasting it since they landed. It was heady and sweet; it made his tongue tingle.
“Magic,” the snake said. “All around. Be wary, always.”
“Alright,” Harry agreed. “Does that mean I shouldn’t eat those dandelions?”
“No,” said the snake. “Go ahead.”
The forest was unlike anything Harry had ever seen. The trees, gnarled and ancient, loomed in a way he was sure was purposeful, sometimes moving in the corner of his gaze. The sun rose but the understory remained dark, only the occasional beam of light penetrating the canopy.
It was cold but full of life: magical life. Impossible to isolate, and impossible to determine if that rustling just behind him was leaves in the winter wind or some creature stalking. His whole body felt prickly with paranoia. He and the snake went quiet, quiet as they walked, like the slow sounds of the forest were pushing their own noise down.
“Careful,” hissed the snake after a while. “Something is coming.”
Harry stood stock still. “What is it?” he whispered. But the snake had retreated. Harry grabbed a large stick from the ground and waited, trembling.
It was a … a thing. A centaur, Harry thought, as it stepped into view. Huge, as tall as the snake horses, a man’s torso rising from a horse’s body, with dark skin and black fur. He carried a bow across his back, his arms were crossed, his face stern.
Harry redoubled his grip on the branch, much good it would do him.
“Who are you?” the centaur asked in a deep, clear voice.
“I’m Harry,” he said. “I’m just passing through.”
“Harry.” The centaur’s head tilted, his eyes narrowed. Abruptly, he lunged forward, hand outstretched towards Harry’s head.
Harry yelled and stumbled back, swinging his branch wildly, but it was useless. The centaur caught the branch in one hand and clasped his forehead with the other, a broad thumb sweeping his fringe back. Harry continued to struggle, and after a moment the centaur released him to fall back several steps.
They stared at each other, the centaur’s eyes narrowed, Harry’s wide and blurry with panic.
“Harry,” said the centaur. “You smell of thestral, Harry.”
“What—what’s a thestral?”
“A great winged horse.”
“Oh. I called them snake horses, I guess. I rode one here.”
The centaur tilted his head. “And what is a human boy doing riding a thestral into the Forest?”
“I’m going to visit a friend. Well, a friend of a friend. Sort of. It’s a snake in the castle.”
“A snake in the castle.”
“Yes. And I don’t mean any trouble. Please let me pass.” He hadn’t meant the “please” to come out as desperate-sounding as it had.
The centaur shifted. “You are in centaur territory.”
“I didn’t know. I’ll go around.”
One more considering glance. “Very well then, human.”
“Indeed. And I am Bane. Do not stray deeper into our territory, and I will not kill you.”
Bane stood there, watching him. Harry took one slow step, then another, and then ran from the centaur, veering strongly left. His heart was beating rapidly, he was panting. Why had Bane grabbed his head? And how was he to know whose territory he was in? In any case, he and the snake made a wide arc: it had gotten a good taste of the centaur and knew when they were safely out of its territory.
“That was close,” the snake told him. “All of this danger isn’t for me, you know. Back home it isn’t half so magical.”
Despite the scare, the magic still buzzing in the air was intoxicating. Harry was quickly falling in love with how the forest felt. “I love it here,” he said. “Magic is amazing, I think.”
“Surely, surely. But so is a nice soft den in the dirt.”
They barely avoided two more incidents: once with spiders, and another with something big and hairy. The snake caught both scents at the last second and steered them around, and finally, as the sun was beginning to set, they came to the edge of the forest.
The castle Harry had glimpsed from the sky was the biggest thing he had ever seen, straight out of one of Dudley’s cartoons. Harry felt as if he were in a story book. What was next, dragons?
“What do you say?” asked the snake. “Go introduce yourself now, or wait until morning?”
Harry cast a look at the darkening forest around them, no more thestrals to keep them safe. “Introduction.”
The snake, as it turned out, was unfamiliar with the castle itself, so they went to visit its friend first: a little brown snake that lived on the edge of a garden. Harry was startled to realize that an actual person lived in a little hut on the edge of the forest, and grew pumpkins and other vegetables. While the snake talked to its friend, Harry devoured two cucumbers and some carrots, all growing unseasonably.
“My friend gave me directions,” said the snake. “Say hi, you’ll be neighbors.”
This snake was just as delighted as any to meet a snakeheart, and promised him it would catch him a mouse sometime, and wished him luck with the mother.
“The mother?” Harry asked.
“That’s the snake,” said his snake. “Don’t know what a ‘mother’ is. Something snakes around these parts picked up from the centaurs, I think.”
“A mother is a parent,” Harry said. “One who has children.”
“All parents have children.”
“It’s the one who gives birth to them. Lays the eggs.”
“Oh. Well, let’s go. Sun’s going down. And quietly, we must be secretive now.”
They crept slowly towards the castle, hugging the walls once they reached it. It was simply gigantic, and he gazed up at the towers in astonishment as they went. He had thought that the smell/feel/taste of magic had just seeped out from the forest, but in reality this castle was as deeply, fundamentally magical as its surroundings. It thrilled him.
“Here,” hissed the snake at last. There was a hole in the wall.
“A pipe?” asked Harry.
“Whats a pipe?”
“Oh.” The snake slithered in, and Harry followed on hands and knees, trying not to worry. They were going inside the castle by way of a slightly slimy, damp tunnel. It smelled of must and algae, but nothing worse. It must, Harry thought, be a very old, no-longer-in-use pipe.
They crawled for a long time, the snake leading Harry, who was blind. When he complained, it told him to use his tongue. He tried, but it made no difference in how often he bumped his fingers on stones and his head on the top of the pipe.
They kept going, jinking left and right and occasionally up and down through the pipes. There were places where he had to sit down and slide for long, winding, half-terrifying, half-exhilarating stretches; at other points the pipe narrowed and he had to talk himself through wiggling on his stomach.
“Almost there,” hissed the snake. “Can you taste it?”
Harry opened his mouth and breathed in. No, he almost said, but then he tasted something. It was magic, but different: old, and heavy.
They turned one more corner and the pipe spat them out into a massive stone chamber. On one wall was a great crumbling statue of a man, and all around the hall were pillars carved with coiling snakes. Crumbling ruins of what might once have been fountains and benches were strewn around. The entire room reeked of that heavy aura.
At the snake’s request, Harry picked it up, and it coiled nervously around his neck. “It’s here somewhere,” it hissed. “Don’t worry, it probably won’t kill us on sight. But you mustn’t look it in the eyes!”
“Why?” Harry asked, alarmed. “Did you say kill us?!”
“You must not look!” cried the snake. “Its gaze kills! Don’t look it in the eyes, promise!”
“I promise,” Harry said anxiously. Wasn’t he supposed to live with this creature? “Are you sure it will let me stay here?”
“That’s what you’ll have to ask,” hissed the snake. Harry noted its use of the word 'you’. “Now call it out.”
The snake hid its face under his collar.
Harry’s breath was coming heavily. But he had come this far, hadn’t he? What was he supposed to do, go back to the Dursleys? No. Never. Not if he had to eat only mice and dandelions for the rest of his life.
“Hello!” he called. “My name is Harry, and this is a snake! We’re visiting from Surrey, we have a favor to ask you!”
His voice echoed around the cold chamber, reverberating back against his skin. He wrapped his arms around himself, shifting from foot to foot. The floor was freezing. And growing colder, it felt like. Had his breath steamed around him like that before? The snake contracted around his neck with shivers.
And then the wall erupted and the snake around his head hissed, “Close your eyes!”
Just before he snapped them shut he saw the wall had not exploded—it was simply that the creature slithering out from it was the most massive creature he’d ever seen. Then all he saw was black, and the snake around his neck was speaking rapidly.
“Cousin, greetings from afar,” it hissed. “This two-legger is a snakeheart, one of us by magic.”
“Wizards!” The voice of the creature was terrible indeed, the voice of a landslide. “You bring a wizard into my domain!”
“Not just any wizard, a snakeheart!” the snake protested.
“A snakeheart cursed my brood and I!” shrieked the creature. Harry felt it coiling around them, its scales brushing his arms. He fought to keep still. “A snakeheart, long dead, holds sway over my will! A snakeheart, long dead, ensures my children will never live!”
“This one is a child,” said the snake. “He needs a home—we thought—that is—my den is much too small—we traveled a long way!”
“Wizards are good for only death!” roared the creature, and Harry felt a great rush of air, and the snake around his neck constricted—
“Please!” he shouted, “I’m not a wizard!”
The furious movement halted. “You are a wizard,” said the creature.
“Only wizards are snakehearts.”
“I’ve never even met a wizard!”
“You are a snakeheart, so you are a wizard, and a wizard and a snakeheart cursed me!”
“Maybe I can help! What’s wrong with you? Snake, what’s wrong with it?”
“He cursed me!” the creature wailed. “To follow his commands, obey him, and even in death he haunts me, keeping my own will from me! The specter of my subjugation hangs over me always!”
“Let me see it,” the snake hissed. Harry dearly wished he could open his eyes. “Oh,” it said. “Disgusting.”
The creature roared.
“Snake, what is it?” Harry asked nervously. “Can I help?”
“You are a wizard,” the snake said. “Perhaps you can remove it. Come down here, cousin. Just lower your head so my friend can feel it. There, snakeheart, reach out. Cousin, will you close your eyes?”
“It is safe for the wizard to look.”
Harry opened his eyes and gasped. In the middle of the creature’s forehead, which itself was broad as a wall, one scale was inflamed with sickness, the magic there putrid and diseased. It was repellent, but Harry reached out just the same.
“This is horrid,” he said. “How … how should I get it off?”
The snake hissed noncommittally in his ear. “You’re the wizard.”
“Not,” muttered Harry, but all the same he clambered onto the creature’s head to get a better angle, using the scales as grips—each was double the size of his hand. “All right. I’ll have to pull it off, you know.”
The creature was silent.
“Right.” Harry tugged. The creature shivered under him. The infected scale was making Harry feel very odd. Like it would hurt him if he kept trying to get rid of it.
He felt something in him rising to the surface to meet its challenge.
He pulled again, hard. This time the creature moaned, long and pained, and thrashed. He held on, and the scale began to steam under his hands—it burned, but he didn’t, couldn’t, let go.
That something inside him was rushing forward. He knew what it was—it was magic. He pushed it out of him, from his heart to his hands, and as the creature bellowed and thrashed so hard it threw him off, he gave one almighty pull and felt his magic snap the scale from its host.
Scale in his hands, he was flung across the room. By miracle or magic, he bounced to a halt on the floor ten yards away, clutching the rancid scale. He dropped it and gingerly examined his blistered hands. They weren’t as bad as the time he’d burnt himself on the stove cooking breakfast.
The creature had reared up, and Harry realized its eyes were open just in time to keep from looking at its face. He watched its body instead, as it rose higher and higher, towering over him.
“Wizard,” it hissed. Harry’s snake tensed around his neck. “Snakeheart. You—you have freed me.”
“His magic is no longer on me. I am liberated at last, after thirty years. I am in your debt. But will you also help my children?” Its voice was quite desperate.
“What’s wrong with them?” Harry asked.
The creature writhed in anxiety. “They cannot hatch. The snakeheart used magic, used a spell, so they will only hatch on his command, to be his slaves. Please.”
“Where are they?”
The creature slithered back into the hole in the far wall, which was hidden behind the carving of the man. Harry clambered after it, the snake hovering over his shoulder in curiosity.
“What’s your name?” he called. “Do you know what a name is?”
“I know of names,” it said. “I have lived among wizards for a long, long time, I know the foreign two-legger ideas. They call me Mother, and Fearsome, and Basilisk.”
“Do you also have a scent name?”
“Yes. I may understand the two-leggers, but I am not one of them.”
“As if you would want to be!” said Harry’s snake, who had been quiet, shaken from the action.
Behind the statue was a second chamber, smaller, circular, and quite warm—the floor itself seemed to emanate heat. The cracked floor dipped into a bowl in the middle of the chamber, and at the bottom a web of sickly, greenish light formed a dome over three giant eggs.
“He put that over my children,” moaned the basilisk. “I cannot get in to them, I cannot warm them, nor encourage them to hatch. Only his word will break the barrier, only his word will call them to life.”
Harry approached it, sliding down into the depression, but he already felt something was wrong. When he put his hands to this magic, it didn’t seem to react. He tried to reach through it, or tear it, but it was futile.
He turned to the basilisk in trepidation, keeping his eyes low. “I—I don’t think I can fix this one.”
“He wove this one for a long time,” said the basilisk. “Made me watch while he did it, stood over them and waved his wand and spoke in our tongue, damning my brood. I would rather they die than serve them, but even this I cannot do.”
“I don’t know enough about magic and wizards to help,” Harry said sorrowfully.
“This castle, it is a school,” said the basilisk. “Perhaps if you were to stay as you requested, you could learn. Learn enough to free my children.”
“Yes!” Harry said. “May I, then? I’ll find a way. I promise.”
The basilisk coiled around the room, butting against the barrier to its eggs. “Yes. Stay.”