Title: The Living and the Dead
Characters: Bloody Baron, Severus Snape
Beta Reader: aigooism
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
Note: Many thanks to vaysh and mijeli for brainstorming and cheerleading. Huge thanks to aigooism for her wonderful beta skills. My sincere gratitude to the lovely moderator of the fest for being so patient and understanding. Dear readers, I hope you find this story to your liking.
Summary: There is a gulf between the living and the dead which is not meant to be crossed. And yet the moment the Bloody Baron sees Severus Snape, he knows that he is going to befriend the boy.
There is a gulf between the living and the dead, a gulf which is not meant to be crossed.
The living have their own joys and their own worries; we are not to meddle with them. We are ghosts. We are cold (but not indifferent), we are transparent (but not invisible). We have to stay apart and on our own. But we are not gone.
We are not here to make friends.
We are not here to make amends.
We are just here to stay.
They have their lives. This is their time. It will not do to be greedy and steal it from them. We have had our time, more than enough. (I think back at my lifetime, stretched unnaturally beyond a mere mortal's years by magic and servitude, my blood and my oath. I have had more than enough time. For three hundred years after my death, I wished someone had sheathed their sword in my chest before I sold my honour and my hand to Rowena Ravenclaw.)
The gulf between the living and the dead is not meant to be crossed.
This is what I keep saying, and there is some semblance of order most of the time, although sometimes my words fall on deaf ears. But they remember themselves soon enough — I am one of the oldest, and, for all intents and purposes, this castle is my keep.
I listen to the thrum of magic in the walls and make sure that the rooms are brimming with children's merry laughter, like cellars stocked with good wine. It is no good when children spend their days conversing with ancient shades. I make the other ghosts step back, and the living are joyful and sad, the towers and the dungeons full of real, vibrant emotions.
I walk the corridors — I float, I creep — I make sure that the doors are bolted and the locks are in place, that thick layers of spells keep the people within these walls safe from harm. It is what I know, and I do it well.
A seneschal and a mercenary, I was good at what I did.
(I used to make sure that the fires were lit, spreading the warmth with a thousand little charms, and that there was enough water, and that everyone in the castle was safely wrapped in a blanket of peace and contentment. I was as good with my quill as I was with my sword, and in my time the masters of this place never knew debt or danger. I was the best man for the job, and they spared no effort to find me — with my men knee-deep in the dirt, fighting over a plot of land for the man who bought my sword.
The following week I could have fought for his neighbour.
Instead, I sheathed my sword and mounted my horse, and followed my new masters to England. I had a new tunic made of blood-red wool, and my wand rested against my hip.
They bought my wand and my sword, my skill and my very life. They bought it for the promise of a long life and a chance not to die in a ditch, like any bastard soldier — a chance to live in warmth and peace.
They called me William.)
I know that the gulf between the living and the dead is not meant to be crossed.
And yet the moment I see the boy, huddled on the steps leading to the dungeon, looking through me — no, at me — with clever eyes filled with awe, I know that I am going to befriend him.
I walk towards him, my feet not quite touching the ground, and tell him my real name.
In England they called me William, and that is the name that stuck and seeped into my bones like the mists and the gloom. I could strangle a boar with my bare hands, and I knew how to sever a Bugbear's head with a single stroke — with either a sword or a wand.
But I never claimed that I had a title or a castle to call my own. I never owned even a handful of land.
I only had what I earned with my sweat and my blood: my gold and my sword, my clothes and my horse, my wand that was made from a blooming tree on my grandmother's grave.
No matter how skilled, no matter how swift, no matter how deadly — I was nothing more than a hireling. I never pretended otherwise.
(But I always wanted more than I already had or could have, and that, of course, was my ruin. In a way, it was inevitable.)
My father was a baron, that much is true. His castle was small, but it was his, and he spared nothing and no one to make sure it stayed his. He had an iron fist and iron heart; he fought tooth and nail to keep his land. He did not know how to read or write, but he had no need for quill or parchment: he knew how to read in the souls of his peasants and soldiers, and he wrote their destinies with a sword and a whip. His first wife was an heiress; she died of a fever. His second wife was a widow; she wished she had died. They bore him six sons, and three of them survived.
My mother was a witch who came to his campfire on a starless winter night.
I am their son, Guilhem.
The boy's name is Severus, and all too soon I figure out that he has had his share of beatings. (I can tell. I know.) He has the eyes of a hungry little wolf born in captivity; now he is off the leash and among his own, and he wants to trust and finally have a chance to become what he needs to become.
I can see that he is neither loved nor wanted, at least by his father, and he desperately wants to find a home — a sense of belonging that transcends flesh and blood. (I can tell. I understand.)
I keep finding him on the worn steps of the dungeon staircase, wrapped in his cloak and listening to the almost imperceptible hum of ancient spells in the castle walls. It's like he is trying to crawl back into the womb, only feeling safe in the darkest bowels of the castle, the magic thick and heavy around him.
(I look at him and strange visions flash before my eyes. I see myself, huddled by the broken wheel of an overturned cart, dried herbs and flowers spilling over the hem of my mother's skirt. I see the smith's fire and a white-hot blade, the warm, dry air whispering against my skin. I can almost smell the stables. I can almost hear the voice of my father, cracking through the air like a whip — I can almost feel the searing pain of a whip lash cutting into my bent back.)
Severus is alone. He misses his mother. I can tell that he is friendless, though I do not understand why. He does not know what awaits him yet, and he is afraid.
But there is so much fire within him, so much eagerness and life. I can see that he is a flame that will burn bright.
When little Severus sees me walking through the wall, he looks at me and smiles.
I hover beside him and tell him what I remember of my childhood, my mother's smile and the life of a castle servant; how I ran away; how I lived then; how I became a tourney champion; how I became a mercenary.
The boy talks with me like I am alive and, for some reason, I tell him where I buried my gold. I don't know why; I haven't thought about it for centuries. It is probably gone now. Nothing but a pile of dust.
But no one knows about it, and that was all I had. I feel like I need to tell him.
So I do.
The other children bully him, but I only find it out by accident. I don't know what to do. I wish I could protect him, spare him, but surely that is wrong? Severus is alive. He must live. Only the dead cannot be harmed.
Still, I try to teach him how to fight. He has a great interest for the old ways, ancient magic and combat tricks of yore.
Strangely enough, it is when some children see us conversing that I glimpse in their eyes something akin to respect and admiration.
Magic is being.
Nowadays, they teach the children that magic is art. I sometimes come to watch them listening to the masterly woven words of the teachers, lapping up knowledge like eager puppies. The children wish to learn the art of magic; to them, it is about the nearly limitless possibilities of creation, the heady rush that comes from performing magic.
Yes, I suppose that if one looks at it like that, magic is art.
This is something that Severus has learned very quickly; his eyes are bright as he imbibes the complexities of magical ideas and constructs, listening with rapt attention as a teacher spins world upon world of wonderful possibilities before his eyes. Magic is art, he accepted it immediately. Severus is greedy for it; he wants to be the most distinguished artist, the finest of all. It is sophisticated. It is intoxicating.
But I must tell Severus that magic is being.
Magic is battle.
Magic is forcing matters. Magic is forcing the destiny's hand. Magic is denying ownership of your power, magic is kneeling at the crossroads of fate.
Magic is dominating the forces of life one moment and submitting to them the next.
Magic is harsh and immediate like combat; magic makes one drunk and quick just like a frenzied fight does. Magic makes one weary and aware of the consequences of one's choices. Magic can leave one drained and bleeding, like a dying man on the battlefield.
But of course, they do not teach that to children.
I do not know if I am right sharing this with Severus. Still, I make this choice time and time again, not really knowing what flickers in his eyes — understanding? apprehension? or, worst of all, pity?
I tell Severus about the magic through which I lived and died. I spill out my memories — some hazy, some dirty, some painful, some sweet — and he drinks them up, like books and lectures, but the boy's face is different when he listens to me. Like he is on the cusp of something real and inevitable: adulthood.
I think he is beginning to understand. At the very least, I dare hope that when the time comes, Severus will remember my words — and understand.
Understanding is the cruellest rite of passage, after all.
Severus is often in the library, poring over tomes of archaic charms and hexes. Like most of the living — like most of those who were born in the last five hundred years — he does not fully comprehend the concepts and the principles that are essential to practice them. He is starving for knowledge, but he cannot understand what one has to believe to coil the summer wind in one's bow or to call upon the blood of the trees to make them follow one's troops like loyal followers.
But when I watch him, I realise that he is a wizard who, had he been born in the old days, could have matched the best. He will be able to fly one day; the boy's soul soars, unhindered, even if his mind is in shackles.
Unfortunately, I notice that Severus seems to imitate my wretched ways, walking around battered and unwashed, even if his gait is firm and speaks of hidden power. But what was common in the days of my life — my life, as it was, hot summers and freezing winters, the smell of horse sweat and incense, rebel magicians and clandestine sorcerers, a curse strong enough to raze an entire village to the ground, a brawl and a stab in the back in a roadside tavern — what was common then is not common now, and Severus seems to be out of place with his unwashed hair and well-worn, frayed robes.
The library is closing and Severus puts away his books and leaves briskly, hurrying to the dungeons of the castle with the look of a harried seneschal.
He doesn't listen to me.
Severus has a burning passion for the arts: the subtle alchemy of potion-making, the tethered might of magic, the ever-changing, ever-challenging life itself.
Severus sees the games of lines and shapes like no other boy his age I have seen. I can tell that he will be good at reading destiny, and he will be able to appreciate its macabre pattern.
Severus can see the beauty of misfortune. He sees the colour of death, the shape of grief; he can savour a thousand flavours of despair.
Severus is a boy with a taste for life. A boy with a taste for death. Standing on the rooftop of the Astronomy Tower, alone on a quiet December night, he does not seem like a boy at all.
I used to lead boys like that into battle.
(Their faces were young and grim, a wand or a sword clenched in their bruised hands.
They sat around the campfire, chasing the warmth on a chill autumn night; trading tales of their apprenticeships, mischief, and childhood; making light of their hardships, whispering about girls they had left in their home village; singing songs about Vivian the beautiful witch, boasting about the horses and hauberks they were going to buy with the money they had not yet earned.
Their faces were young and grim, a wand or a sword clenched in their bruised hands so tightly one could not pry it out of their grip. We laid them around the campfire the next night, with nothing but a shroud of magic to keep them warm.
One would have thought they were sleeping.
But they would never wake up.)
I know that I will not watch Severus die, but sometimes it almost feels like I already have.
He makes me feel like I should not. I am a shade, a ghost, an echo of the days long gone. I should groom the graves of my dreams. I should not be able to nurse new pains.
Last time I tasted helplessness like that, I was still alive.
And so was Helena.
My life was long, just like my masters promised me. It could have been even longer, but I chose to end it.
My lifetime stretched far longer than any mercenary's could. The blood of my mother and the promise of my masters kept me strong and young. My passions made me greedy.
I always wanted more than I could have — love and riches, safety and health, for my men to come back unscathed, for my brothers to have accepted me in their midst. I wanted to have gold and weapons, I wanted to be given custody of a castle. I wanted the sun of Poitiers to warm my face, I wanted to smell the grass and listen to the song of a river, knowing that it was bringing water to my land.
I wanted a woman to love me. I do not think I was unreasonable, but still, I wanted more than I could have.
I loved Helena and I wanted her to love me. (I could smell the woods in her hair and her eyes were bright like a moonlit lake. She could talk to the stars.)
Helena did not love me. I accepted that. I knew I wanted more than I could have.
But then she needed help, and she begged me, and she promised me — she promised me everything. I gave up everything for her, I broke my vows and, after many years, I stained my sword with blood. I lied for her. I helped her run away so that she could be free.
She broke her promise.
(Helena's voice was cold and ringing like the song of the stars. Her words cut deep. Some words can destroy lives.)
I followed her. I could have followed her to the end of the world.
She betrayed me and I killed her.
I have told Severus about my life.
I feel like I have been a terrible influence on him.
Severus is in love, and with this come all the traditional pangs of a young heart.
Falling in love was not a choice he was aware of making. However, and I cannot convince him to retrace his footsteps and give up that choice. It is the idea of being loved that plagues him more than the image of his lady-love. He is in love with Love, and Love is his mistress of choice; the red-headed girl is an emblem and a conduit, and Severus will serve her with all the doomed devotion of a boy who has fallen in love for the first time.
With all the fervour of a boy who has never felt that he was truly loved before.
Severus' love is unrequited, and, following the morbid logic that I myself know far too well, it grows stronger with each day that he is being rejected. The coldness and denial are familiar; he is used to the absence of affection and pursues the one who can give him more of the familiar pain. A child who has had too little love will grow into an adult who wants too much — but who is also terrified of possessing the prize he longs for. Fighting for the unattainable means never fearing that one might hurt or harm the fragile treasure once it is attained.
Severus is brimming with unspent feelings and every day adds to his misery. But he is not surprised that his heart was refused, and this is what makes me believe that he will hold on to his unhappiness. Love is distant and magnificent; a beautiful, yet cold mistress. If Severus thinks that his suffering pleases her, then he shall serve her well and place his broken heart at her feet.
Severus' love is not returned and he wants to be punished for it.
The boy believes that he is not worthy of being loved and yearns to prove that his passion is true. He wants to be punished for not being worthy of Love and I fear that he will stop at nothing to get his punishment.
He is in pain and believes that he deserves more pain for his weakness.
Severus longs for sinister magic to rip open his flesh and soul; that will be enough punishment. He has locked away his heart in a fortress, and only Darkness will be strong enough to safeguard it.
And of course, unlike Love, Dark Magic is a cordial and keen mistress. She is there before one calls. She comes without knocking. She sweeps one off one's feet and promises everything: power, knowledge, strength, success.
Soon, Dark Magic attaches itself to all the familiar places and objects. It is everywhere one knows. Anchored by the profound familiarity, it promises to break the monotony of one's life without breaking one's heart. Terror is its fuel. It simmers on the crass flame of one's desire and flows through one's veins with one's very lifeblood.
Until one wakes up one day, too numb to be afraid.
Severus is strong and stubborn, but his passions get the better of him. He fights with too much fervour.
Severus is a rebel, but colder, quieter, more callous men will weary him into submission. They will strip him of his ideals like marauders strip dead soldiers of their armour.
He pretends that everything is normal, like he cannot feel time and space shifting and turning everything into a battlefield, like the people around him are not already choking on the ashes of war.
This is Severus' last year at Hogwarts.
Some students don't come in September. Some don't return in January. It feels like Hogwarts is about to stand still, with so many children withdrawing and taking away their joy and their magic and their juice of life. They are pulled away, home, somewhere safe; they are no longer here, no song of blood in their veins, no pulsing echo in the halls.
Severus is still here.
He is still bleeding.
I have come to the conclusion that there is but one truth, one true state of things. Regardless of the strange, chaotic reality that clings to people and twists their lives and souls into improbable, unimaginable shapes; regardless of the names that people bear, hollow and truly meaningless, not reflecting who these people are at all; regardless of where people find themselves and who they are believed to be, their true essence is absolute and untouched by random circumstances and beliefs. Who people truly are, their true place in life — it is something else entirely.
My shadowed walks in the corridors of a cold castle standing amidst the mists and mountains, and the name of the Bloody Baron that I have born for years and years do not change who I truly am — I am, still, perhaps even more now than when I could breathe the bittersweet air, when I could shudder, when I could leave my bloody footprints walking the St James' Way — I am Guilhem, the second bastard son of a nobleman, a wizard and a thief. I dreamed and loved and served and prayed and suffered. I am someone, and I know who I am, even if no one recognises me anymore.
Therefore, even if Severus has let them burn a brand into his flesh (into his very soul, perhaps); even if he has wrapped their faith around himself like a cloak; even if his hands charm and force and strangle, paving the way for the ascent of a new, lurid power, it does not change who he truly is. Severus' true place in life shall be the same, regardless of the vows he makes and the vows he breaks.
He is a man who will take lives and save lives, who will hope against all odds, whose penitence will protect him from hatred, but will not protect him from himself.
He will dream and fight and love and serve and believe.
Severus is a man who will honour his pledges, who will not bargain for his salvation, whose passions will cut him to the quick. He will not spare his life for what he believes in.
Nothing will change that.
He is leaving today, small and tall, a boy and a man, a soldier and a wizard. His eyes are burning and his jaw is set, and it is like I am looking several hundreds of years back into the past: his ambition like a billowing cloak, his pride like a suit of armour, his destiny already written on his coat of arms.
It is there, on Severus' chest, right over his heart.
Party per cross.
One day Severus Snape is going to come back here, to this stronghold that is my prison, to this castle that has never been, however he wishes it, his home.
His coat of arms will be smeared with his own blood and we will talk, like equals.