The first friend Harry had ever made left in the morning, and Harry realized he was going to miss the green snake dreadfully.
“Please come back and visit,” he said.
Its tongue flicked the air noncommittally. “Well, you know what we had to do to get here. Flying, snake horses, centaurs. Lots of fear. You, though, you should visit me! You always have a place with my family. Perhaps not literally, but you know….”
“Ok,” Harry whispered. “It’s just that I’ll miss you.”
“Oh—” the snake flicked its tongue across Harry’s nose. “Well, I suppose I’ll miss you too, snakeheart. Goodbye.”
Harry sat and watched despondently as it slithered into the pipes and away. In the empty cave, a water droplet plinked loudly.
That voice, it was like a cavern. The basilisk was so big it was as if the walls themselves were moving, stones grinding together to produce words.
“Well, Snakeheart, what now?”
Harry would have liked to look at it. Instead, he looked at how its scales shimmered with light it seemed to emit itself. “Can I really stay?”
“I said you could, did I not?” The snake curled and coiled. Harry turned his head away warily. “I am in your debt, Snakeheart, and my word is my honor.”
Harry’s stomach gave a long, low rumble.
“What was that?”
“I’m hungry,” Harry said quietly. “Do you have any food?”
“No. I only eat every few weeks.” His heart sank. “But I will go hunt, as it is now my responsibility to provide for you. Stay…right here until I get back.”
“Right in this spot?”
“No, in the hall, two-legger. The hall or the den.”
“Alright. Anything else I should know?”
The basilisk started across the hall. “I am sure you will find out.”
He watched out of the corner of his eye as the basilisk squeezed its massive girth into a pipe. It took several long, slithering seconds for it to disappear from sight entirely.
He let out a choked sigh and looked around. Without the basilisk’s inner light, the hall was pitch black. He could make out the smaller den only because of the faint green glow cast by the spell within. He dropped to his hands and knees to crawl across the hall and back inside, not wanting to trip over any rubble on the floor.
He could feel the change the moment he entered the den: the floor was warm to the touch. The night before, he had slept here, curled against the basilisk’s glowing scales while the green snake coiled atop his heart.
He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the wall. When he opened them, the filmy greenness of the spell didn’t seem real. Was this a dream? The sensations of his recent journey were leaving him—what had the wind felt like atop the thestrals? He couldn’t remember exactly. If he was dreaming and he woke up, he didn’t think his heart could take it. But in this moment there was nothing, nothing to hold on to.
His breathing was getting harder, his body was starting to shake, and all of a sudden there was a prickle in his chest—something hot, not unlike tears, but much, much hotter. It fizzled down his arms and crept across his palms and exploded, and in the sudden burst of fire the cave was illuminated. For three seconds he stared around at the small cavern, indented in the middle where the green dome squatted over several large eggs, and the entrance back into the hall. Then the light ended, and he was alone again.
Not a dream. Not a dream.
And if it wasn’t a dream, and he had done magic, and he was in a huge snake’s den that was even know fetching him food, then he was lives away from his cupboard, and he would never have to think of it again.
His palms tingled but didn’t hurt. He remembered that day with the snake, when he had lit a fire. Hands to the ground, he swept the debris around him into a pile, and tried to do it again. What had he done? He had sort of thought of fire…and pushed out—
He sat back and covered his eyes until the memory of flame stopped blooming behind his eyelids, and decided he would have to make a sacrifice: his socks.
Wiggling bare toes inside his trainers, he pushed the magic out again, and set his socks ablaze. As soon as they caught, he scrambled around, using the meager light to look for any kind of wood. He found some scattered sticks that he piled atop his socks.
The blaze settled, at least for a moment, and he sat back feeling quite accomplished and only a little singed. The taste of his brief panic was fading into oblivion. He didn’t need the fire for warmth, but sight was good. Sight was very, very good.
With the fire to anchor him, he crawled back over to the entrance to the hall, peering cautiously out. Even if the basilisk hadn’t told him to stay here, he would have anyway. A huge, crumbling statue of a man stood right in front of the opening he looked out of, obscuring it from the front. A dilapidated fountain slumped in the middle of the floor, crumbled stone benches flanked the walls, and long-faded murals were decipherable from this distance as nothing more than smudges of color on stone.
The vast emptiness of the hall made Harry nervous. He spotted the remnants of a piece of wooden furniture, scrambled out, and dragged as much of the wood as he could back into the den. He dumped it on his fire and huddled beside it.
His stomach growled.
Be patient, he told himself. You’ve been hungrier than this. Gathering some pebbles and stones into a pile, he began to build a fort.
In the midst of a great battle between pebble wizards, rock centaurs, and small green twig snakes, the basilisk returned. Its movements sounded like the susurrus of wind through leaves. He remembered not to look in its eyes just as he was turning around, and clapped his hands over them until the basilisk said it was okay.
He was incredibly relieved it was back, but the sound of it scraping against the stone sent strange, subconscious fear plunging into his stomach.
“You made a fire,” hissed the basilisk. “And you say you are no wizard.”
Harry thought about that. “I don’t know. I don’t—I didn’t believe in wizards. I’ve never seen one, even.”
“You’ll see them in the school.”
“What do they teach there?”
“Wizardry. Magic. I don’t care beyond that. I only know that you may learn something there that can help my children.”
“Right. Is there water here? I’m thirsty.”
“See that depression in the corner? Rainfall collects there, after a long journey down.”
Minding the basilisk’s gaze, Harry crawled over to the corner, and found old damage to the stone had created a small bowl. He had four palmfuls of delicious stale water before he realized that maybe he should have left some for later.
“Oh….” he said. Something shivery trembled in his chest, and his throat tightened. “When will it rain again, do you think?”
He felt the basilisk looking over his shoulder, a dark and overwhelming presence. “I do not know. I don’t drink much.”
“Let me think on it. In the meantime, I have brought you food.” With its tail, it nudged something over to the fire. It was a dead rabbit. “You humans still cook your food, don’t you?”
“Um.” Harry poked the rabbit, trying not to think of how the Dursley’s neighbors had had a pet rabbit. “Yes.” He couldn’t say no, could he? He had to eat. And he knew how to cook meat, from the Dursleys, but not how to get it off an animal. The mouse experiment had proved that.
“I…I just….” His voice hitched. Oh, no. He scrubbed his arm across is face, but it was too late.
“What are you doing? What has upset you?” The basilisk started coiling and uncoiling with anxiety, making huge nail-scraping noises echo around the chamber.
“I’m sorry!” He felt as if he would throw up. “I don’t know how to do it, I’m sorry for crying! Please don’t make me leave!” He couldn’t stop, though, he just couldn’t stop.
“Child….” The basilisk sounded baffled. It had never called him “child” before. To Harry’s shock and fright, the tip of its tail curled around him, squeezing just a little too hard. He thought it might have been a hug, but he hadn’t ever been hugged, so he couldn’t tell for sure.
“You don’t have to eat the rabbit!” the basilisk said. “I’ll eat it! Are you wounded? What’s happening to your face?”
The basilisk didn’t know what crying was. It sounded scared. The thought was so funny that it shook away a little of Harry’s upset and fear.
“I’m—I’m just crying,” Harry said, trying hard to stop. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“Do you need healing?”
“I’m not hurt. It’s just tears.”
“What are tears?”
He was starting to calm down having someone to explain to. “Two-leggers cry tears when they’re upset, or scared, or hurt, or sad, or other things. But I’m not supposed to do it.”
The basilisk was quiet. “Why not? Is it dangerous?”
“No. My aunt tells me not to.”
“What’s an aunt?”
“The person who took care of me.”
“Why did she say not to?”
Harry bit his lip. “I’m a nuisance when I cry. But Dudley cries all the time and she’s never upset with him.”
“Dudley?” The basilisk sounded like it was trying to keep a hundred tangled threads straight in its head.
“My cousin. My aunt’s child. He’s horrible.”
“And your aunt…is it horrible too?”
Silence. The tears had stopped at last. The rabbit was still sitting in front of him, though.
“I’m coming close. ‘Ware my eyes.”
“Wear them? How?”
He felt the basilisk’s head coming to rest next to him. He kept his gaze low so he was looking at its mouth, smooth with scales the size of his palms, and its nostrils, which flared and twitched constantly. It took the rabbit delicately in its fangs and tossed it to the side, then bumped its massive head against Harry’s arm. It was like being nudged by a car.
“You can cry if you want. So long as it is not dangerous. Why are you upset?”
“I don’t know.” Harry sniffed. “I’ve never been away from the Dursleys. I’m cold and hungry. I drank all the water. And I don’t know how to cook a rabbit.”
The basilisk thought for a moment. “You need a knife,” it said at last.
“I’m sure of it. You use a knife to…to take the skin off.”
“Do you have one?”
“I have….” The basilisk uncurled its tail from him and went into the hall, where it clanged and clashed around for a few moments. When it came back in, it sent a jeweled dagger skittering across the floor to him. “There. Will you try it?”
Harry looked from the knife to the rabbit. It was dead and disgusting, but he was growing hungrier and hungrier. Had his last meal really been dandelions and berries in the forest? No, there had been vegetables from that garden…. “Yes. I’ll try.”
With the basilisk looking over his shoulder curiously, Harry discovered that even with a knife and the instruction to remove the skin, he still did not know how to get meat from a rabbit. In the end, the basilisk advised him to set the whole bloody thing on a rock near the fire and wait til it smelled right.
Harry did so, and sat for a dubious moment watching it. His forearms itched. He scratched them, watched dried blood flake to the ground, and realized he was covered in dried blood and holding a knife like a villain one of the movies Uncle Vernon liked. He started to laugh.
The basilisk laughed hesitantly along with him, a hissing, heaving sound that had a worried air. “Why are you laughing?” it asked him. “Weren’t you just crying?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. It felt good, though. He let the laugh run its course, and when he had finished he felt lighter, like he had splashed cold water on his face. “How am I going to find out how to cook a rabbit, basilisk?”
The basilisk gave an excited shimmy, which gave the impression that the walls were wiggling. “You can ask the elves!”
“Yes, the house elves! They live in the kitchen and do the cooking. Quick, take it off the fire.”
Harry pulled the poor rabbit from the rock. “How do I get to the kitchen?”
Harry traipsed after the basilisk into the hall, and then beyond. On the other side of the statue hall was an expanse of corridors, which they walked straight through until they came to a pipe. As the basilisk started to slide into it, Harry took a risk and hopped onto the tip of its tail, squeezing tight with his arms and legs.
The basilisk paused, then gave a hissing laugh and took off at full speed. They slid so fast through the pipes they almost seemed to fly, and in that flight Harry forgot everything but joy. He let out elated yells in the darkness as they took turns at high speed, though the basilisk’s faint shine lightened it from pitch blackness.
Finally, sadly, the basilisk slid to a stop. “Come up to my head, Snakeheart.”
Harry hopped off, stumbling a little, and walked up. There was a pinprick of light coming from a tiny aperture, just enough to see a carving of three intertwined snakes.
“Remember this sigil,” the basilisk advised. “Where there are snakes, there is a door. Bid them open or closed in our language and it will be done. Once you are through here, exit the room, turn left, and keep going until you see a painting of fruit. Tickle the pair, and that’s the kitchen. I will await you here."
“Right.” Harry took a deep breath and looked at the emblem. “Open.”
A hidden doorway in the wall swung open. With a reassuring nudge from the basilisk, he stepped out of the pipes and into a bathroom.
“Close,” he told the sink, which was what had swung open. He heard the basilisk hiss “good luck,” as it shut.
The mirror above the sink swung back into place, and he was confronted with his reflection.
His own appearance was so frightening that he actually spun round, looking for the disgusting creature in the mirror. He was covered in dirt and blood; his hair, which had never lain flat, was defying gravity in new and terrifying ways; he was scraped and bruised and clutching a dead, bloody rabbit.
There was a pile of hand towels by the sink. He wrapped the rabbit in one of them and set it down, and then dedicated a solid ten minutes to making himself look as human as possible. He didn’t quite achieve it, but he did at least make liberal use of the soap.
Once he could be improved no further, he took his towel-rabbit and exited the bathroom. Only as he walked down the hallway did it strike him that perhaps there was a need for secrecy. Fast on the heels of that thought was the observation that no-one had been in the bathroom, and now no-one was in this corridor. He couldn’t hear anyone, anywhere. Where were the supposed wizards?
A few seconds later he came upon what the painting. Feeling slightly foolish, he reached out and tentatively tickled the pear.
It scared him so badly he nearly fled back to the bathroom when the pear actually giggled, and transformed into a doorknob. He spent a good few seconds just staring at it, until it gave a grumpy huff and started transforming back. Before it could, he seized it and pulled open the door.
Burning sunlight, gleaming brass, and a swirl of spices washed over him. His eyes watered, already accustomed to cavern lighting, and he squinted furiously against the glare. The kitchen must have been as large as the basilisk’s hall, full of sparkling pots and pans stoves and ovens, and four massive tables, the room made even more expansive by the seven huge windows that were letting the afternoon sunlight into the room. Harry was glad to know it was afternoon; he had lost all track of time.
And the food. Vegetables hung from the ceiling a full story up, baskets laden with gleaming fruit rested on countertops; in a fireplace a pot of something was simmering, sending nearly visible waves of flavor into the air. Harry’s stomach turned into a bottomless pit; he wiped a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth.
Oh, yes. And there were three creatures at the nearest table to him, playing cards.
They stared at him with as much astonishment as he did them. They were short, only as tall as his shoulders, with huge furry ears, bulbous eyes, pointed noses, and long spindly fingers. They all seemed to be wearing tea towels.
Finally, the one sitting nearest him, with a long face and nose, leapt up. “A boy!”
The one across from it, with freckles across its face, stood as well. “Is you lost?”
The third one, with ears that stuck almost straight up, began gathering up the cards. “We is only taking a small break!”
“I…I….” You are a secret, some small part of Harry recalled. “I’m…not a boy!”
They looked at him, incredulous as one. Harry flushed.
“What is you, then?” asked the freckled elf, for that is what they had to be.
“I is…I’m a…” Think, think! Elves and centaurs and basilisks… what can you be? “I’m a fairy!”
“You…is a fairy.”
Harry clung to the story.” “Yes. I…is a fairy. And I’ll grant you a wish if you don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
The elves looked at each other. The one with the freckles smiled slyly. “I wants a wish.”
Harry swallowed. He wasn’t a fairy, but couldn’t he do magic? Maybe he could manage a wish. “What do you want?”
The elf put a long finger to his face, lips pursed in thought. “I wants….”
“I wants to know why a dirty boy is in Hogwarts over winter holiday. That’s what I wants.”
“Drippy!” the long-nosed elf scolded. “You is mean.”
Winter holiday. That explained why no one was around. But Harry was clean out of lies, and something told him he needed to make some kind of deal with these elves quickly.
“I live here now,” he said hastily. “What do you want for not telling anyone about me?”
“That’s more like it,” said Drippy. “You’s not here to hurt anyone, is you?”
“Swear it,” said the elf with the pointy ears. “Swear it on your life.” The look in the elf’s eyes was abruptly chilling.
“I swears—I swear it on my life.” The air around them went shivery and tense for a second.
“Good,” said the long-nosed elf.
“So you won’t tell anyone?” Harry asked.
“We isn’t saying that yet,” said Drippy.
The long-nosed rolled its eyes. “No, we won’t be telling,” it said. “So long as you helps us when we asks for it.”
“Helps you? With what?”
“Whatever we asks of you,” said the long-nosed elf. All three elves stared at him. Their eyes, bulbous and pale, were suddenly eerie.
“Well…okay,” agreed Harry.
There was a prick on Harry’s hand. He raised it to look: there was a small black circle on the meat of his thumb.
“Your promise,” said Drippy. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Oh, um. Snake.”
Drippy rolled his eyes. “Okay, Snake. This is Norry,” he pointed to the long-nosed elf, “and Tippy.” The pointy-eared elf wiggled her ears.
“What have you gots?” Norry asked, pointing at his towel bundle.
“Oh.” He unwrapped it. The elves took a horrified step back at the sight of the mangled rabbit carcass. “Can you teach me to cook this?”
Two hours later, Harry had gone through the stages of discomfort, revulsion, curious intrigue, and finally practical acceptance. Drippy taught him to skin and gut the rabbit, Norry showed him how to clean the innards and which to save, and Tippy demonstrated the art of cooking it over an open flame, which she had been horrified to hear was Harry’s only means of cooking.
They shared the finished meal together, after Harry insisted, over a game of euchre, which Tippy made them play since they now had the correct number.
The elves sent him away with a full stomach, a small sack of vegetables and fruits, and a reminder, with an ominous timbre to their voices, to not forget his two promises: to harm no one in the castle, and to help them when they called.
Back in the bathroom, he bade the door open then closed, and was greeted by the basilisk hesitantly inquiring into his emotional state.
“I’m good,” he said, climbing onto it’s back. “I know how to cook a rabbit now. But they wanted a promise.”
“What kind of promise?” the basilisk asked sharply.
“To help them when they ask.”
“Help with what?”
“…whatever they ask.” The basilisk was silent. “Did I do the wrong thing?” Harry asked quietly.
“I am unsure. It’s your prerogative. I’ve long been wary of those creatures. Then again, they are enslaved.”
“Wizards keep them enslaved to work in homes, cooking and cleaning. They tell themselves the elves enjoy it. And they call us beasts.”
Harry was silent, digesting this horrid news. Something else occurred to him. “Was I enslaved?”
“I don’t know,” the basilisk said. “Did your aunt make you do labor? Did she keep you against your will?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Then I don’t know either.”
Harry shrugged the thought off. It didn’t matter now, in any case. “Maybe we can help.”
“Maybe. And maybe you no longer have a choice.”
On they went.
The basilisk had solved the water problem while he was in the kitchen. The dilapidated fountain that had been in the middle of the floor of the hall had been smashed apart, and brown-tinted water was spurting from the pipe in the middle of the floor.
“I think it will clear,” the basilisk said. With its nose, it carved a huge gutter in the stone from the fountain to downward-sloped tunnel running out of the hall. “There. That tunnel runs down to an underground river.”
Harry was a little caught on the sight of the massive snake bulldozing through the stone floor like it was sand, but he was pleased all the same, so long as the water would run clear before he got really thirsty.
With hot food and, if not water, then the promise of water, Harry’s mood had improved quite a bit, and also he was starting to get tired. He yawned.
“What do you smell?” the basilisk asked curiously.
“You scented just now, did you not?” It yawned as well, showing a mouth like a cavern in itself and fangs the size of Harry. “I smell the water, which promises to flow clear, the rabbit on you, which smells nice though I don’t cook my food, I smell you, the two-legger smell, I smell the magic of this castle, the stinking magic around my eggs, I smell the river far down below….”
“I yawn because I’m tired,” Harry said. He made himself yawn again, tried to discern the things the basilisk had said, but could not. He could felt the magic of the castle on his tongue, still, but none of the other things.
“If you’re tired, then sleep,” the basilisk said. “Are you cold? I never know how warm mammals should run. You may sleep next to me if you like.”
Harry had lost most of his earlier fear of the basilisk, and what remained gave way to exhaustion. “Okay.” They went into the egg cave where the fire had long since gone out, and Harry curled up near the basilisk’s tail, which it wrapped around him like an ineffective blanket, and he slept.