The Black Unicorn
Esmeralda had made up her mind. She was standing in front of Dumbledore’s main entrances, wondering how to contact him.
Dumbledore came to the door. This did not surprise her in the least.
“Ah. Esmeralda. Please…do come in. I was just having some tea; would you care to join me?” Dumbledore swept forward and over to an old Japanese cherrywood table. “Please, have a seat. Unless you prefer to stand? Is this about Severus?”
Esmeralda sat carefully down in another matching Japanese chair. “Yes. Yes, I suppose it is.” She leaned forward over her knees, one hand kneading the other palm. She bowed her head forward, thinking hard on exactly how to expose herself politely and yet be detailed enough to explain what happened. Dumbledore hummed and bustled domestically over the teacups.
“Um…..” she started, then Albus walked over and handed her the delicate porcelain cup before she could begin. “Ah….thank you so much.”
“You were saying, before I interrupted by my tea visitation.” Albus’ eyebrows crinkled up warmly. My god, the man positively radiated peace, joy, and happiness. Esmeralda re-focused, taking the cup and saucer from Albus.
He leaned back into the chair, crossing his legs politely under the mass of robes. He waited patiently.
“Well, I…” she paused briefly. “I…would not have come to you, Albus, if I didn’t think it was important. I just wanted you to know that. You’ve already done so much, you know. Please don’t think I’m trying to waste your time, all right?” Dumbledore waved his hand politely but dismissively.
“Please go on, Esmeralda. I do not doubt the sincerity of your concern.”
She ran her finger around the edge of the saucer. “I had….what one would call…..an intimate dream.”
“Yes.” Albus just waited, as if they were discussing varietals of dahlia bulbs for the instructors’ cutting garden.
“Well. And in this particular dream, the person with whom I was…..being intimate, shifted suddenly into Voldemort. And the creature said these words to me: “Stay away from my black unicorn.” Dumbledore, who had been listening quite calmly, became subtly rigid in his chair. He set his teacup down slowly and carefully.
“When was this, Esmeralda? What night?” Dumbledore’s eyes were intent on her face.
“It was…..third night after Severus endured the 2nd cruciatus. I had….been on watch, and left his room around 6:30 am.”
“Ah.” He looked down towards his teacup, frowning, his gloriously thick eyebrows clustering together in thought. She sipped her tea to hide her worry and her nerves. It wasn’t a good sign when he thought hard like this. Confirming her fears, Dumbledore gave her the look that said, “this isn’t going to be easy,” and he got up from his chair and paced a bit. “Esmeralda; have you told Severus about this.”
“No. No, I learned my lesson yesterday. I had no idea how ill he was.”
“Mmmmm.” He nodded. “When one is….concerned about another’s welfare, it can be difficult to be patient. Esmeralda.” He turned towards her, his face down, leaning over the back of his chair. “Snape became involved – well, lured really – 6 months ago, and in part because of me, into a ritual that subjugated him most vilely.” He looked at her expectantly, and paused, as if she was supposed to extract vital information from this statement.
“Could you be more direct with me? It’s most unpleasant to not know what is going on.” Her head, which had been threatening a dull headache all day behind the temples, began that drum-like throb that warned of too much stress and not enough sleep.
“Esmeralda.” He looked suddenly ancient and resigned.
“NO – I can’t wait for Severus to explain it all to me in his own time! Albus! I am starting to understand that he is in very real danger! What happened? Please. Albus.”
She fought the maddening impulse to leap up out of her chair to make her point. She felt awful – he had already done so much – but the two men were dancing around the issue as if they were in some complicated, personal ballet.
“Very well.” He drew himself up to full Dumbledore height. “But I have a question for you, Esmeralda! How much do you care for Severus Snape?”
She felt like she had been slapped. “That’s none of your business.” She didn’t even have time to stop the words.
“It is my business,” he rumbled, “because you risk your life becoming involved with him. I need to know what kinds of risks you are willing to take. If I tell you what happened, you most assuredly will begin to understand the grave peril that the both of you will be in. Do you accept that responsibility? Do you care for Severus enough to endure what he has endured? To fight for him, if necessary?”
“Yes.” She did not hesitate. She had stood up. There was too much challenge in his voice.
“Then your feeling must be deep, for he is still in questionable circumstances. And I know both of us, quite frankly Esmeralda, could use your help. I am heartened that you are willing to join us.” Dumbledore’s voice rang strongly within the office. He continued.
“Esmeralda. Severus partook in a ritual that began his magical bondage with Voldemort without knowing quite what it meant. This happened when he was a young man. He had been attempting to join the Slytherin crowd. But he did not realize the extent of his encroachment into the Death Eaters’ midst. Time passed, Voldemort was distracted by his quest for power and then the Potter boy stopped Voldemort suddenly, and there was some peace for a time. Then I enlisted Severus’ help with performing necessary but odious tasks of spying within Voldemort’s ranks. Voldemort went for him viciously, singled him out, and finished the ritual. Snape was becoming more aware of the ritual’s power, but…oh. This is very difficult to discuss.”
Dumbledore gathered himself. “He was raped repeatedly. In the most vile ways a man can be taken without consent. Voldemort…..Esmeralda, this is the difficult part…..Voldemort developed a penchant for him and drugged him, sometimes for weeks on end; he referred to Severus as his “black unicorn”. Severus hid the abuse, hid the signs of the drugging, hid everything. This went on for a little more than 6 months. When he finally came to me that night, he was ready to die. In fact….he…begged me to release him. That I simply could not do. The only way to break the link, according to ancient texts, was……to create a stronger bond between a sponsor and the victim. I became Severus’ sponsor. His….partner….for the ritual. Do you understand what I am implying, Esmeralda? I dare not speak of the particulars. But, in order to sever the bonds I first had to assume them. The ritual was personal, very complicated. It involved sexual magic. Do you see why he doesn’t want to discuss this with you? Do you understand his position?”
Esmeralda stood still, slightly swaying, but one hand on the chair steadied her balance. “Why didn’t you send for me sooner? I could have helped him. I could have helped you. Why did you wait so long?” Her head was pounding, a blunt, painful thud in her skull punctuated by the beat of her heart. Albus shook his head slowly.
“No. No. Severus always took responsibility completely for his actions, no matter what the consequences were for himself. He blamed himself for several innocent lives lost, and spent a good deal of time suffering for his actions. He knew he could not forgive himself, and therefore, understood personally that no one else should be able to forgive him. His life at some point, was forfeit, and that is why he so willingly and silently endured his abuse under Voldemort’s hands. I stupidly thought he was just a simple spy, if I had had the first clue as to what was going on, I would have stopped it immediately. Please understand that, Esmeralda.” And for the first time, looking at Albus, she understood Albus’ pain and guilt over his role in Severus’ domination. The man looked haunted and sad.
She squeezed her temples with both hands, trying to massage the headache away. “My god. To keep such a secret….to endure such torture….it just seems incomprehensible! Surely he must have known there were others who would help him?”
“No. As I said, Severus took sole responsibility for his own actions. And I would have thought….” He continued slowly, his eyebrows rising, “that you, of all people, Esmeralda, would understand a secret. Would you not?” His eyes had become dark, and the light in the room shifted ever so slightly to a more muted tone. Her skin prickled. He walked in front of the chair, facing her. “I daresay even you might have a secret, something you are so ashamed of or worried about that you struggle daily to keep it out of the light. Something within yourself that could very well help you understand why Severus could not ask for help until he was ready to die.”
Her fingers, like talons, dug into the back of the chair. She felt like an abyss had opened up beneath her, and she was struggling not to plummet down into the rocky maw. “How would you know of these things?” She tried to maintain an even tone to her voice. This couldn’t be happening. Nobody knew. Nobody could know….not even Dumbledore…..
Albus sighed. He paced slowly in front of the immense library, dark and quiet now in the early evening. “I can see them, you know. Above you. They are quite beautiful. It’s too bad that you have to hide.”
Her face and her body were frozen. “How….how can this be? How long have you known?”
“Since you were a student. My powers weren’t as developed then, but I could still see the faint outline of those amazing black wings. And I could smell you, you know.” Albus smiled kindly. “There are not many of you, are there, Esmeralda? Your people are so rare. So incredibly breath-taking.” His voice was kind, full of tenderness. She sat down heavily into the chair.
“I thought…if you knew….I wouldn’t be able to come and teach. And after so long living with my kind, I was beginning to…change over. Permanently.” She sat down slowly, her back straight. She was in shock. No one knew. Only her family.
“Esmeralda, I would never expose you. I know what you are. I know who you are; do not ever fear rejection from me, or from Hogwarts. Do you understand that?”
“No.” She said adamantly. “No, I don’t believe it. You might protect me, but there are factions within the wizarding community that would have me in Azkaban in 12 hours if they knew what I was.” she said wearily. She was exhausted and overwhelmed. “I’m sorry Albus. It’s just that….what I’ve been through and seen….people are not kind to dragon changelings; we’re so rare, and because of that, we’re an unknown element. We’re feared and hated. We’re rumored to bear ill-will and spread disease and poison.” She looked up at the ceiling in despair. “It was stupid of me to come. Who I am will put Severus in even more danger. And then! When he finds out what I am…….” She shook her head sadly.
“I thought you wanted to help him.” Albus said gently. “But, did you only want to help him not as yourself? Hiding your own secrets while you prised his most personal and painful secrets out of him? Is that fair, Esmeralda?”
“No. No….” she said slowly. “It isn’t fair at all. I’ve just….hidden all my life. *All* my life, Albus. Can you understand that? What it must feel like to have your cloak ripped from you?”
“But you expect Severus to reveal himself to you.”
“It’s….different! He made choices! I was born this way! I had NO choice in the matter! I have hardly any choice in how people are socialized to react to me! Besides….he’s human. We’re all human. We all make horrible, mortifying mistakes. He can be forgiven. I…could lose my employment…. could be exposed and renounced; even murdered. I could take down loved ones with me. I could suffer for years in Azkaban. Don’t you think I’ve thought about this? Don’t you know what a huge risk it was for me to walk into this?”
“What are you so afraid of, Esmeralda?” Albus’ voice was barely a whisper.
What could she say? That she was terrified of rejection? That she wanted so badly to be accepted as human that it froze the very blood in her veins to know that Dumbledore had casually seen right through her strongest defenses? That it sent such tremors through her being that not even her strongest feelings for another human could prevent the traitorous scream that tore through her mind and up her backbone and made her want to leap out of the window and fly to freedom and the black safety of the Enchanted Forest? She had to compose herself. She had to think through this properly.
“I don’t know quite where to begin. When I was…younger….I totally embraced my dragon nature; I had a strong affinity with the Norwegian Ridgebacks, and for years I was blissfully happy. I spent great amounts of time as a dragon, you know? I loved it. One day, something….horrible happened. One of my best friends, a young Ridgeback named Dunsire – that was not his real name; his dragon name is difficult to pronounce with this human mouth - we were flying over a mountain ridge, playing really, being quite lazy, and he was shot. Out of the sky. One minute he was there, the next he was plummeting to earth. I tried to slow his fall and I succeeded to a point; when we landed, there were men, men with enormous weapons tracking us. It was a terrifying time. Since I was an enchantress, I was able to transform and protect Dunsire, but the cruelty of those men and their fear and loathing of our kind stayed with me. Dunsire never flew again. He had been crippled mentally and physically by their hatred. So when you ask me to blithely accept your offer of protection, I have to think very hard about it. After that happened, and after I lost Fafnaulda, and frankly I don’t know if those two events precipitated this in me, or whether it was just cyclically time, I began to find it…more and more difficult to remain human around my dragon friends, and I wanted that, you know? I wanted to be human, to *live* as a human, to be with other humans. To find a human mate. I have had dragon lovers, but….it was almost as if I was being called back here.” She did not tell Albus of the cry that night in the cave. “And if there’s one thing I’ve at last learned, it’s to trust my intuition.” She couldn’t think about Fafnaulda right now. She had to block out that awful night.
Albus was quiet. Fafnaulda’s death had dealt a massive blow to the wizarding world.
“Look. Albus. I’m not leaving you or Snape. I am staying right here. I will help you, I will fight, I will do anything I can to protect both of you. But just please understand; I don’t have a bright and shiny outlook about who I am or what I am. I know what I am, and I am proud of myself. But the reality is that others don’t see me the same way. All I can ask is that you do your best to keep my secret.” She ran her hand nervously through her hair. “It doesn’t matter if Severus accepts me or not. I’ll do everything I can to help.” She was, and had always been, a foolishly loyal and brave Gryfffindor.
Albus nodded silently. “I will protect you. And there is probably only one other wizard strong enough to see through your defenses, Esmeralda, and that wizard is Voldemort.” He walked over to her, and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “May I ask how it happened? Or is that simply too personal?”
“No, no.” Albus’ hand felt warm and strong. She relaxed a bit. He sat down again across from her, obviously absorbed. “My mother was from a small village in Norway; her mother had told her tales of changeling blood being in the family, something about mating with dragons when the world was young, you know, silly myths and superstitions. And it’s a recessive gene, a completely latent gene. Very rare, as you’ve already pointed out. My father was English, an enchanter; he had an absolutely amazing voice. Used to sing opera in the community halls. But when my mother had me, I was shifting, back and forth, as a baby. Always I would transfigure into….a black dragon….when I was upset. My mother went to her people, and they revealed to her the changelings on her family’s side. My father was fascinated, but my mother was worried all of the time. They gave me potions and taught me how to contain my dragon essence. It was my father really, who loved both parts of me equally and would just delight in my wings and in my ability to fly when I was changed. Being around him….I swam happily in his wonder of this dual side of me. He told me how special I was. My mother was far more practical, and taught me all of the charms and spells that would strengthen my ability to maintain my human form, because….there are really only two things that can make me transfigure out of my control.” She fingered the now very cold cup of tea.
“What are they, if you don’t mind my asking?” Albus was clearly enthralled. She guessed he had never known a changeling before.
“Well. It’s rather personal, really, Albus. But….anyway. Physical threats. Extreme physical threats to my personage, or to those around me at the time of the threat. And…sexual arousal.” Now she was highly embarrassed. She had to clear the silence. “You’ve not known any changelings, have you?”
“No. No, I have not. I’ve read about them, of course, but never met one before. I knew about you when you were a child, but it would have hardly been polite to ask you about it. I kept your secret then. I have no need to reveal it now. Try not to worry, Esmeralda.” He was so kind. Suddenly she was remorseful about her outburst, of not trusting him.
“I am sorry, Albus. I’m just overwrought.” He nodded. He did not need to add that he was, as well.
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