Chapter 11. Camulodunum (August 13-14, 1995)
Hermione had told she was giving them a choice, but that, of course, was just etiquette. She had already made up her mind about what needed to be done and wasn't about to let sloppy sentimentality get in the way.
Dabbing at her eyes and nose, Hermione grumbled at her unruly lachrymal ducts, then pulled out her diversionary masterpiece for one last scan.
Dear Professor Dumbledore,
I am writing to you to express concern and seek guidance. Although it's difficult to explain the phenomenon precisely, my instincts seem to be warning me of the possible presence of unusual magic emanating from some place here on the premises of Number 12 Grimmauld Place. In recent days, I have been sensing a strange and disturbing power within the residence. These vague stimuli have not yet caused me undue discomfort, and have not (to my knowledge) affected my health or behaviour, but I am nonetheless concerned that a disturbance such as this (whatever it is) may pose a hazard to us.
If I was to characterize the magical sensation I have experienced, I would say that it does not feel like the presence of a benign charmed object, but rather an object of subtle but distinct malevolence. I have inquired discreetly among some of the other residents and thus far nobody else has observed anything similar. Perhaps a dark detector of some sort would shed more light?
To date, I have not yet been able to pin down a precise location of the mysterious power, but it clearly does manifest itself more strongly at times, less strongly at others. I am operating under the hypothesis that this may depend on where I am in the building when I sense it. I have not yet proven this to my satisfaction, but will attempt to assess the trend more carefully in the future.
Sir, I am bringing this to your attention because I am preparing to undertake cautious investigations into the matter, and would welcome any advice or resources that you could bring to bear.
Thank you very much for your consideration!
Half truths, lies, shameless fabrication.
Hermione chewed her lip for a long moment, then smiled — a bit uneasily at first, but it soon settled into a confident grin.
Not many years ago, such falsehoods would have appalled her, but deceit was now just one of her many useful skills. The judicious use of deception had enabled her (and obviously also Harry) to survive the past few years, triumphing in some adventures of mind boggling intensity. Thus, if anything was weighing down Hermione's courage to initiate this gambit, the barrier wasn't some scrupulous compulsion to be honest. Rather, what was still giving Hermione pause on this (her fourth) draught letter, was whether she had captured just the right tenor of deceit to propel the Headmaster off on a wild goose chase that would buy Ginny and Harry a bit more time to ramp up their plans.
Hermione knew that Dumbledore was unquestionably knowledgeable and a master of cerebral jousting, but on the other hand she was willing to bet that, despite his outwardly self-deprecating manner, the man suffered from the same conceits as most anyone else - especially those with great power and responsibility. In particular, Hermione was wagering that he would fall for the oldest, best, confidence trick in the book - if you want someone to believe a lie, you need to tell him things he's ready to believe.
Dumbledore seemed convinced that there was dangerous magic at Grimmauld Place, so why not tell him that there was? The beauty of the lie was that there was probably a ton of strange, dark magic in this place, so why not set him chasing on things that might be legitimately dangerous? And if this charade worked, with a bit of care, Hermione might then be able to cultivate enough of a working relationship with the Headmaster to effectively gauge his attitude. If Dumbledore seemed to be open-minded and constructive in his approach to the issue, hopefully she could eventually even draw down her elaborate smoke screen and (if she could convince Ginny) then suddenly 'discover' the existence of the brooch. Conversely, if things went belly up, with a little luck she could get away with a shrug, an apology, and a claim that she must have misread the magical signals.
Hermione read the letter through carefully two more times, then exhaled.
Well, here goes nothing!
She furled the scroll, picked up one of the magical seals from her desk, and placed it carefully over the outer border of the parchment. With a satisfying pop, it fastened itself into place
And now to find Hedwig!
She rose from her bedroom chair and made her way quickly along the lamp-lit corridor toward the front rooms. Before reaching the kitchen door, she heard voices. Breathlessly, she stopped to listen.
“Ron, you're supposed to be watching Ginny!”
Hermione's breath caught! Watching Ginny?!
In the hours Hermione had spent alone, scheming in the library, she'd apparently missed some interesting developments… Could Molly truly have established a spy detail on Ginny??
Hermione remained frozen, listening for a reply.
“Well, young man?” It was Molly's voice again. “Why are you down here alone, when you're supposed to be with your sister?”
“Mwaw waff Uhnnggee.”
Molly huffed in momentary impatience, then laughed resignedly. “Oh, well go ahead and finish your mouthful.”
Some distinctly unappetizing sounds followed as Ron apparently attempted to masticate his way through what was likely a monstrous mouthful (Hermione dispelled the image of a small meal's worth of food all crammed into his straining cheeks), before loudly gulping it down with some beverage.
Finally Ron's voice emerged. “Sorry Mum, but I was starving! Three times I invited her to come join me for a snack, but all she wanted to do was keep, well… swotting. Blimey, she's reading and taking notes! In the summer time yet!”
Molly ignored the editorialising. “Well all right, but is she with Harry? The Headmaster told me the chances for dangerous magic could be worst when those two are in close proximity.”
Ron seemed to mumble something inarticulate (Hermione supposed he was likely speaking into his mug), before his voice clarified again. “… but yeah, she's alone in there. Harry's asleep in bed, already snoring away.”
“This early? Okay, fine then. Now Ron, please hurry up and…”
Hermione had heard enough. Pretending she had heard nothing, she strode into the kitchen and smiled at the two Weasleys. “Good evening Ron. Hello Mrs. Weasley. Have either of you seen Harry?”
Ron and Molly both whipped about at Hermione's sudden appearance.
“Errr yeah.” Ron put his mug down. “Harry's gone off to bed. Said he wasn't feeling well.”
Hermione nodded. “Oh? Well, to be honest, it's actually Hedwig I need most.” She brandished her sealed scroll. “I'm writing to Professor Dumbledore to seek his advice. The last few days I've been getting this peculiar sensation of strange power in the house — possibly some form of dark magic. I have a few ideas about it and some thoughts on how we might be able to track it down.”
Ron's and Molly's eyes both went wide; they glanced at each other in surprise.
Molly stepped forward and placed a hand on Hermione's arm. “Hermione dear, have you already spoken to Albus about this yet? I, uh… well it seems he's already aware of something unusual of that nature. He called me into a quick meeting with Remus and Arthur just before lunch, and he told us about a little bit about his concerns.”
Hermione assembled her best crafted look of surprise. “Why no, I had no idea Mrs. Weasley! I had hoped to catch Professor Dumbledore this morning while he was here, but I was busy cleaning and missed him. It's truly fascinating to hear that he might have arrived at the same sort of conclusion. Did he provide you with any helpful details or precautions?”
“A few.” Molly glanced toward the door and dropped her voice to a low whisper. “He wouldn't speculate about the source of the threat, or what harm it might cause, but he suggested that we keep a close eye on Ginny and Harry, as he believes they might be rather susceptible to it, especially when they're together.”
Ron frowned. “Which seems like most of the time these day, eh?”
Molly gazed at him pensively for a moment, then shook her head. “I'm not sure about that, Ron. Perhaps it seemed that way initially, but we've been observing them all afternoon, and Harry and Ginny have barely spoken. I suspect that all that time they spent together last week was just a big effort to focus on preparing for that big Ministry appointment. Now that they're finished with that, maybe things will simply taper back to normal levels.”
Ron nodded, but his frown remained.
Hermione tucked her scroll away. “Just out of curiosity, but have either of you mentioned to Ginny and Harry that you're monitoring them.”
Molly fidgeted a bit. “No, well, the Headmaster said he'd posed the issue to Ginny and unfortunately found her somewhat… well, unreceptive. So, we didn't want to aggravate things by making either of them feel uncomfortable.”
Hermione felt an impulse toward anger, but she remembered how dishonest she was being right now and decided that she didn't have much basis for moral outrage. So she nodded instead. “Yes, I see your point. But I'm still confused as to what Professor Dumbledore expects to achieve by watching the two of them? My own sensations really haven't pointed me in their direction at all. Did the headmaster give you any more details about his suspicions or concerns?”
Molly shook her head.
Hermione frowned sternly. “Are you serious? He hasn't exactly provided a lot to go on, has he?”
Molly sighed wearily. “Oh, he never does share much these days, does he? He seems perfectly happy to borrow eyes and ears all around, but never tells them what the brain is thinking or planning.”
Hermione nodded sympathetically. “Yes, that's certainly what the others are saying as well. But, Mrs. Weasley…“ She trailed off, allowing the room to lapse into an awkward silence for just long enough (she hoped) to make herself sound willing but not necessarily enthusiastic. “Mrs. Weasley, something just occurred to me.”
“Oh? What is it, dear?”
Hermione met her eyes. “It occurred to me that since I already seem to have sensed the magical anomaly that the Headmaster is concerned about, I might be the best person to take over keeping an eye on Ginny and Harry for you? I've been spending a lot of time with them recently anyway, so they wouldn't notice the difference. And because I have an idea what to look for, I think I may be better positioned to notice if they really do seem to be at risk.”
“Hmmm…” Molly looked Hermione up and down for a long moment. “Well, you really always have been the responsible one, haven't you dear?” The Weasley matron nodded to herself. “Yes, I do believe you're right. If you're already sensitised to the problem, then you would seem like the ideal choice.” She glanced at Ron. “I suspect Ginny would be more comfortable with you around anyway. She hasn't exactly, uh, taken well to the increased attention from Ron.”
“Dunno what the problem is — I've been trying to be nice.” Ron rolled his eyes and tore into another immense chunk of his oversized sandwich.
Hermione stifled a snort. From what she had seen from Ginny over the past while, the tension between the two siblings had been building fairly steadily, and any arrangement that meant Ginny spending more time with Ron and less with Harry was a losing proposition. And putting Ginny in close confines with Ron when he was making transparent, ineffectual attempts at friendliness was probably the worst of all scenarios… and a sure-fire path to bat bogeys.
Figuring that she was on a tremendously lucky roll with her charade, Hermione plunged ahead. She smiled at the youngest Weasley boy. “Don't let it worry you Ron — I'm sure that deep down Ginny appreciates the attention, but on the other hand if she was really trying to study or do some research, she might have preferred quiet companionship.”
Ron glanced in her direction, but made no comment as the sandwich was occupying his current passions.
Hermione turned to Molly. “Maybe I should go find Ginny right now? I'm betting she'll know where Hedwig is anyway.”
Molly smiled. “That would be wonderful, thank you! I believe Ginny is up in the library. Isn't she, Ron?”
“Yehff.” Two cheeks, stuffed to the point of straining, bobbed up and down in agreement. “Ehn eh-hig ihh ubb vehh oo.”
Without waiting for a translation, Hermione smiled. “Thank you both! I hope you have a nice evening!” Purposefully averting her eyes from Ron's strained chewing, she made her way briskly out of the room.
Holy cricket on a cracker! This is… so bloody amazing!!
Fingers searing into his back; fierce press of fever-hot flesh scorching his chest and legs; sweet fiery breaths shivering his ear as he worked his lips down to the base of her neck. Oh soft, soft creamy skin. Silken red hair scented of spring blossoms and raw lust, those tiny ragged cries of…
In a scant second, Ginny was gone — sprung like a trigger out from under the invisibility cloak. Nearly as quick, Harry ducked down, back to his safe spot on the floor beside her desk, pulling his feet discreetly beneath himself just as Ginny collected a book and completed her transition back to prim, diligent student.
“Ron, do you seriously have nothing better to do all bleeding evening than…” Ginny paused in surprise. “Oh, hello Hermione.”
“Good news Ginny, I-I…” Hermione stopped and gaped at Ginny for a moment. "Ginny, are you okay? You look a bit... And what happened to your...?"
Suddenly Hermione's eyes lit up. She clapped a hand over her mouth… then lost herself in a fit of uncontrolled sputtering.
“Erm… Gesundheit?” Bewildered, Ginny stared for a moment then stirred self-consciously. "What?? I look a bit 'what' ? What happened to my 'what' ?"
Still sputtering, Hermione unclasped her mouth and wiped tears of mirth from her eyes. “Harry, you brute. Come out — it's safe to show yourself.”
Harry's disembodied and very confused looking head appeared on the other side of Ginny's desk. “Huh? How did you know I was here?”
Attempting to hide a wide smirk with her hand, Hermione gestured toward Ginny. “Believe me, I've read some amazing books in my life, but none that made me look... quite like that!" She giggled. "Oh, and also the fact that Ron said that you were in bed snoring away. That might seem plausible except that you never snore.”
Ginny shuffled her feet sheepishly. “Two rolled up blankets and a snoring charm.”
Hermione cocked an eyebrow. “Snoring charm? Underaged magic, Ginny?”
“Desperate measures for desperate times.” Ginny shrugged impenitently.
“Desperate?” Hermione smirked. “Uh huh. By the signs of perspiration, flushed faces and cyclone-swept hair, I'll think I'll take your word for it.”
“Oops.” Ginny made a demure attempt to gather her hair into a pony tail.
Harry pulled the rest of the invisibility cloak off himself and stood up. “Okay Hermione, now that you've had your jollies, would you mind telling us what's going on?”
“Er, sure.” Hermione stifled another snort at the sight of Harry's half-untucked shirt. “I'm pleased to announce that I've gotten myself assigned as your new nanny, in place of Ron.”
Ginny gave her a quizzical look. “Er that's good… I think… but I thought you were staying away from us?”
Hermione nodded. “Yes, exactly.”
Ginny frowned, tapping her head. “But, uhhh…?”
“Ginny, I didn't promise anyone I'd be a very attentive nanny.” Hermione smiled. “In fact, I'm going to wander absentmindedly off to my bedroom as soon as I've asked you if I can borrow Hedwig…?”
Hermione's eyes swept the library and landed on the owl sleeping on a tall shelf near the hearth. Aside from momentarily cocking an irked brow, however, Hedwig didn't budge.
“Sure, no problem!” Harry turned toward his owl. “Hey girl, would you like a bit of fresh air?”
Hedwig came instantly to life, swooping down to land on Harry's shoulder.
Smiling, Ginny reached for Hermione's scroll. As Ginny handing it to Harry, she found herself the focus of some impromptu preening — Hedwig stretching her beak up to try to tame the wild red mane.
Ginny giggled as Harry attached the message. She stroked Hedwig's feathers. “Sorry sweetie — I'll try to have it back under control by the time you return.”
Smiling at the production, Hermione watched the owl ascend into the night sky, then she turned half way toward the door. “Well thank you. Your slyly skiving nanny is now off to leave you to mind yourselves. Be advised though…” She pointed a loaded finger at her two friends. “However dear you two ruffled ducklings may be, I am only covering you so that you can apply yourselves to serious, important matters that I'm not supposed to know about. If I find out about any more tonsil tag tournaments, we will all be very very sorry.”
“No more tonsil tag,” Ginny promised, semi-seriously.
Harry raised his hand. “Er, how about Lip Quidditch?”
Ginny snickered for a moment then shook her head. “Stop it Harry. We promise to behave, Hermione. Thank you very much for everything. I can hardly imagine asking any more of a friend!”
“Uh Hermione?” Harry scratched his chin. “What if Molly or Ron drops by and finds that you're not up here watching Ginny?”
Hermione shrugged and made for the door. “Stall them. Be creative. Say I got lost in the loo or something.”
“Lost in the loo? Okay, sure.” Harry dropped his voice. “It would hardly be the first time.”
“I heard that, Harry.”
Harry and Ginny smirked at each other as they listened to Hermione's steps recede down the steps. As their grins faded to weary smiles, Ginny gazed thoughtfully at the door. “A bit mental at times, but she's been quite a good sport, hasn't she?”
“That she has.”
Harry sighed. Lest any smoldering embers of their last heated entanglement reignite, he angled his gaze away from the girl at his side and picked up a long-deferred history book off the desk. “So, my princess. Back to Camulodunum?”
Ginny nodded. “To Camulodunum. And then to bed.”
Speeaking contemplatively to herself, the princess gazed over at the quiet predawn town from high in the tree northwest of the River Colne. This was the first time she had set eyes upon the site of what had once been a Trinovante capital. When she has born, the place would likely not have looked much different from her own village, but the town was now completely Romanised — so full of stone; so lacking in trees.
She frowned analytically. Despite the grandeur of the theatre and the great temple (which the Publican referred to as the 'Templum Divi Claudii'), the town itself did not look particularly impregnable. True, it had walls of stone, but if those were breached, the target appeared surprisingly soft, as if the Romans hadn't really considered the possibility of an attack here. There were no ominous fortifications such as she had seen (and indeed broken through) at Camboricum, no great camps of Roman legions, and no paddocks filled with cavalry horses.
She descended the tree and edged close to where the Publican was standing watch for her. In a low whisper, she quickly described what she had observed. “It looks very weak, Terna — few troops and fewer horses. If mother breaks through the walls, half the town may fall before breakfast.”
The Publican nodded in consternation but said nothing.
The princess grasped his hand. “Do you think it may be a trap?”
“I am certainly wary.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “We do not know where all of those Roman troops have gone. Why should they not be here to bolster a provincial capital? We may be in for a surprise, but I cannot guess what that may be.”
“Should we alter our plan?”
The Publican shook his head. “No Lano, our goals remain the same as ever, correct? You and I must wrest the Staff of Scavo from the hands of that diseased rodent Legate and rip the toxic fangs from his jaw. After that, we are beholden only to ourselves and to our future together. Any military gambits of either side are no concern of ours.”
LanossŽa pondered her lover's words for a long moment.
Without this man, she knew that her view of the world would look remarkably different. Even with the wise teachings of her grandmother, the princess recognized that she was susceptible to pride and lust for power, but the man she had chosen to cherish for all eternity aimed less for what was great and ominous, and more for that which was adequate and satisfying.
She stole a glance at the man beside her — one who spoke with the experience of someone who had already fathered a family when she herself was but a babe in her grandmother's arms. The Publican was strong and hale; he loved with a fierce passion that she doubted men her own age could ever have matched, but he was somehow also old and wise.
And he was speaking wisdom.
And she knew that, despite the pounding of her heart at the queen's fiery words about driving the Romans into the sea, it was the Publican whose simple quiet speech revealed the right path.
She and her lover had chosen a path that would take them both far what they once knew. They were neither Iceni nor Romans anymore. She would not lead her people, and the Publican would no longer serve his. If they bore any allegiance or served any charge, it was to some ephemeral future.
When the princess listened to the strange, foreign voice in her head, there was much that remained obscure. The voice concerned itself with great and terrible happenings yet to come; circumstances that seemed to depend greatly upon the events that she (the princess) and her beloved were fated to steer. Such thoughts were difficult to conceive, but LanossŽa did so. And her beloved Paternas Peuerellius agreed with all his heart.
In the dusky hour before the sun was to rise upon a battle of great infamy, the princess leaned in to greet the Publican's lips with a demonstration of love, and passion, and loyalty; a silent pledge to destiny.
After a moment, their lips parted. They silently disillusioned themselves and walked hand-in-hand to secretly rejoin the leaders of a Rebellion about to be born in blood and fire.
Torches flickered about in the half-light; confused shouts issued from one end of the town to the other; metal clanked as the Roman citizenry mobilized for a threat that they, seemingly, had failed to anticipate.
Scowling at the mighty queen of the Iceni, Diras cursed. “Where in the great names of Camulos and Scathach lies the power that you summoned the night before last? Work with me, your ladyship! We must bring down the gate before the sun breaks, or else we shall all slink back into our foul little holes.”
Brandishing her wand in two fists, Boadicea trembled with fury. “This blasted wand! It will not heed me! It acts when it, and it alone, wills.”
The dark-faced man gazed up at the face of the tall, agitated woman; his expression indistinguishable from hatred. He has about to open his mouth for a reply, when sudden chills raced along his spine. A slight rustling was heard nearby, even though no motion could be spied; even though the only people permitted to be near were two lowly druids holding up shield spells in complete silence and stillness.
Wincing over the inadvertent noise, Harry cast a silencing spell on Ginny and himself to permit them to rustle about and gasp for air, undetected, as they took their places. The princess's earlier surveillance had been most useful, but in taking the detour to a nearby hill, they had missed Diras's call to advance and had needed to sprint nearly a mile to catch up. Panting, Harry laid his eyes upon the two leaders.
The queen seemed oblivious to their approach, but Diras glanced quizzically in their direction. For a moment his faced screwed up into a visage of calculation, then he glanced at the queen. “Pray, let us try the spell again, Lady Iceni.”
Boadicea looked at Diras in annoyance but took a breath and nodded. She and Diras both leveled their wands toward the gate.
Instinctively, in strange premonition, Harry threw his arms around Ginny in protective fortification.
No sooner has Harry's two hands clasped themselves about her waist when every hair on his body stood on end. Ginny shuddered.
The queen's deep, rich voice sounded like the trumpet of dawn. “LLOSGI!!”
The druidic wand quivered menacingly.
Diras's lips curled into a grin.
Under the cloak of Harry's silencing spell, Ginny cried out as power erupted from within her…
The queen's eyes flashed in shock!
A blazing bolt, as if from Camulos himself, split the dawn with a deafening crack.
Harry staggered as Ginny was thrust back into him by the recoiling retort. He pivoted to shoulder the blast; to shroud her from its worst.
The sickly sweet smell of sulphur, dust and singed hair saturated his nostrils.
A roar of hot wind, punctuated by the eerily musical tines of thousands of shattering bricks.
Harry couldn't tell if he said it aloud, but the sound of his own voice seemed to fill his ears. “I love you Ginny. Please don't leave me.”
The sound of her reply. “I love you Harry. I'm still with you.”
Something slammed into Harry's back with hundreds of pounds of brutal force; his every rib arced inwards, tensed… and held.
Overpowering fatigue washed over him. He relaxed the tight sinews of his neck and settled the back of his head into coarse gravel. He felt Ginny similarly let go; her warm weight and rapid breaths settling limply on his chest.
All about them, a chorus of shouts and crazed cheers had erupted. Feet clattered past like a wild stampede, punctuated with the clang of swords and shields.
Harry's eyes flashed open with sudden panic lest they be trampled, but through the haze of Ginny's hair spread about his face, he noticed two figures standing over them — the two Druidic shielders, relieved of their immediate duties of warding Diras and Boadicea, had seeming come over to guard them; their presence (and perhaps a protective spell of some sort) deflecting away the hordes of battle-starved Britons streaming past in a race to the gaping hole in the Camulodunum walls.
Knowing that their disillusionment spells must have failed, Harry's eyes swept the chaos, trying to assess any danger that he and Ginny might be in, but the scan gave a modicum of reassurance. Nobody other than their two Druid minders was paying them any heed.
Or almost nobody.
Just as Harry was about to spare his eyes and fully succumb to exhaustion, his gaze settled on a spot adjacent to the ragged smoldering gap where once had stood the northeast gate. Through shimmering, smoke-bitten eyes, he saw the queen standing there, conferring with her advisors.
Looking regal once more despite the char and dust about her face, Boadicea's gaze turned momentarily from her warriors and met Harry's gaze. With a look that Harry, in his daze, could not quite interpret, she nodded in recognition… then turned to make her way into the Roman town, to preside over the unfolding carnage.
Harry finally closed his eyes and nestled his face into hair that, despite soot and dust, still brought him the comforting fragrance of spring blossoms…
Amidst the buzzing and rustling of a hot, breezy summer afternoon, the princess's eyes flickered open to a backdrop unfamiliar to her. Above a ground of trampled grass rose a horizon of blue… and tan… stripes.
Squinting her eyes, the strange skies resolved themselves into fabric. “Huh? Where am I?”
A hand she recognized immediately as the Publican's crossed her field of vision, bearing a moist cloth with which he cooled her forehead. “You're inside a tent. Roman infantry field issue.”
The princess startled, but the Publican's hand gently restrained her. “Fear not, Lano. We are in your mother's encampment. The tent was among the spoils pillaged from Camuldonum; I commandeered it to give you shade, for there are no trees around.”
With the Publican's assistance, the princess rose shakily to a sitting position and stared out of the tent's mouth toward a flattened field leading down to the river. Britons milled about, hauling and piling diverse materials, speaking animatedly among themselves. The occasional gust of smoke issued past.
She rubbed her aching head. “What have I missed, Terna? How goes the battle?”
“The initial sortie is over.” The Publican's voice sounded diffuse and pensive as he stroked her hair. “The battle was short and brutal; much of the town is in ruins. All wooden structures have been pillaged and razed; all that remains is the sturdier stonework. Many Romans are dead, though several hundred citizens still persist, holed up within the temple compound.”
“Whither the Legate? ” She gazed at the Publican concernedly.
“I have not laid eyes upon him myself. Reports are that he organized the retreat into the temple, and may thus be there.”
She leaned forward, stretching her back. “And mother is obviously now aware of us?”
The Publican nodded, taking a seat beside her on the cot. “Yes. I have not spoken with her yet, but Iceni servants have said she wishes a private audience with us this afternoon.”
LanossŽa exhaled, long and slow, staring at the ground.
He draped his arm around her slumped shoulders and pulled her close. “You have come thrice to your mother's dire need; twice now since the cold day on the Ouse. The queen cannot possibly still hold any just anger for you.”
“Yes, you are right.” She nodded quietly. “It is not her anger I fear, Terna.”
The Publican examined her for a long moment. “And what do you fear?”
“I know not. Though it may be that I fear...” The princess pulled her hair back from her face. “… I fear for her mind and her soul.”
The Publican chewed his lip, then looked through the tent's mouth, toward which one of the Iceni elite was approaching.
Despite perspiration and a shallow gash running several inches along his left shoulder, the Iceni champion exuded strength and confidence. However, as he ducked his head beneath the tent flap to find the occupants awake, the man immediately fell to his knees in supplication. “Andras of the Pines, humbly seeking your majesty's attention.”
LanossŽa laughed. “Off your knees, Andras. In all your years of defeating me in archery and spear throwing tournaments, you never once 'your majesty-ed' me, so do not start now.”
The man looked up, grinning. The look faltered somewhat when he caught sight of the Publican rising to greet him, but he nonetheless sustained a sunny expression. “Are you well, my princess? The queen desires to speak with you.”
“I am well enough, thank you.” LanossŽa rose to her feet. “The Publican and I shall meet the queen together.”
Andras glanced at the pair, likely still trying to gauge their relationship, then nodded. “Yes, I assume that will be permissible. Please follow me.”
Walking across the marshy field between the river and the town, the princess gazed around at the busy activity — groups of lightly armed volunteers presenting themselves to warriors dispensing pillaged armor and weapons; men leading captured horses to a makeshift paddock; smoke rising from unknown locations beyond the town walls, and many other distinct signs of a battle that had drawn to a close.
LanossŽa quickly concluded that Andras was leading them to a large pavilion tent erected close to the gap in the walls — an area about which scores of men and women were milling about. Her heart quickened. These tall newcomers were not among any she had seen in yesterday's march from the Fens of Gipping. These were powerful warriors wearing the blue and black paints of the Iceni!
They are coming! My people are heeding mother's call!
With several short barks from Andras, the crowd stepped aside, leaving a clear path toward the entrance of the pavilion. The moment she and the Publican stepped inside, the princess noticed the queen stiffen. The monarch did not take her eyes from the two tall young Iceni nobles standing before her, but she did cut her words short. “Meinir, Tomos, it is in such troubling and exciting times that the people of Scavo look to you, our valiant cousins at Beccles, for friendship and fealty. In return, we shall bestow great favour and honour. Please settle your warriors upon the northern marches to prepare for a splendourous feast. Join me again for counsel, 'ere tomorrow's sun.”
The queen nodded her dismissal to the two nobles who bowed and turned to leave. On their way out, the young leaders nodded to LanossŽa in recognition, glanced briefly at the Publican in curious suspicion, and departed in silence.
Slowly gathering herself, the queen stared in silence toward a blank far wall of the pavilion. Still not meeting her daughter's gaze or acknowledging the Publican's presence, she called out to a servant. “Eifion, clear the tent of all save Heanua and my two guests. Please await further orders.”
As roughly a dozen attendants made their brisk, silent way out of the tent, the queen, seated upon a stately wooden banquet chair that had likely been plundered from the town, finally turned to acknowledge her daughter and the Publican.
An air of majesty emanated from Boadicea, marking her return to power. Undaunted, LanossŽa gazed at her mother, seeking to read the woman's expression. To the princess's sensitive perception, her mother projected a tense blend of anger and fear; resentment and gratitude.
The two woman stared at each other for an indeterminate moment. Finally, the queen nodded. “The old Coritani said you must depart. He told me you would return.” Her gaze pinned LanossŽa, but neither intimidation nor magic could penetrate the young woman. “He spoke true both times, for now I have you again before me. I welcome your return, my daughter of prodigious power.”
The princess nodded.
“You have not returned alone, it seems.” The queen glanced at the Publican. “Perhaps now you and my old friend walk the world as two halves of a whole.”
LanossŽa's back stiffened; her hand found the Publican's.
The queen smiled slightly. “So daughter, have you then deprived me of the arduous labour of finding you a mate to suit your station?” She paused for a moment, without any real expectation of a reply; she merely continued. “Very well then. When I next pray to my ancestors for their wisdom, I shall inform them that my youngest daughter has taken from a Roman that which the Romans have taken from my eldest.”
The princess's jaw clenched — mortified to hear the tactless comparison between her own pure love of the Publican on one hand, and the cold, calculated rape of Heanua on the other. Nonetheless, LanossŽa forced her protesting muscles to abate. As humour went, the queen's statement was dark, bitter and drenched in irony, yet humour it was.
The Publican glanced awkwardly, sympathetically, at the queen's eldest daughter who stood two paces back from Boadicea's right shoulder. Yet, if Heanua was disturbed by her mother's crass imagery, the willowy blonde did not show it; she gazed heedlessly out through the pavilion's tall entrance toward a blue summer sky.
The queen continued heedlessly. “So, the time has come again to offer my gratitude. My daughter and her chosen mate have once again proven to be of immense value to me. Old friend Peuerellius, although your presence in our camp stirs rumour and suspicion, I do now welcome you into my circle as an esteemed advisor as we progress upon our great campaign. Do you accept?”
The princess, still holding the Publican's hand, squeezed it simple, unquestioning solidarity.
The Publican faced Boadicea without emotion. “Your highness, I stand before you and pledge to right a grievous wrong. The Staff of Scavo belongs in your hand and no other. Alone or bolstered by others, I would deliver the staff to you, stripping it from the stained, murderous hands of the Legate, whether I live or die in the taking.”
The queen scrutinized him carefully. “Your pledge I accept with honour, esteemed Publican, yet you have not answered my offer.”
The Publican's chest expanded slightly, as if he was bracing himself. “Your highness, I am a man without a people, neither Roman nor Iceni. Once I have fulfilled my stated duty to fate and honour, I shall retreat from affairs to which I bear no allegiance.”
The queen stared at him for a long moment, then looked away, gazing above his shoulder toward an untold future. “It is not so simple, Peuerellius.”
The Publican nodded.
The queen glanced at LanossŽa. “My dear Publican, your fate and honour do indeed belong to you, and as Boadicea, a mere woman who bears you gratitude in great measure, I would accept your choice and stand aside. Yet, as Queen of the Iceni Restored, my obligations are great and my hand is forced. I cannot permit you to take from me my only viable heir.”
“What?!” LanossŽa's eyes flashed in shock and dismay as the implications of her mother's statement resonated. “Mother, I am not your heir! The succession has always been pledged to Heanua!”
The queen shook her head solemnly. “My dear second daughter — strong of mind, body, magic and will — surely you can see that your sister is too feeble to ever ascend the throne. She has spoken not a word in two moons. She has cast not a single spell and taken up no arms. She has not laughed nor smiled nor growled in anger. She has eaten only what little she requires to prolong her pointless, empty existence. She has stood nowhere save in my shadow. My sweet, sad, hollow first daughter shall never be queen.”
LanossŽa shook her head violently, leaving her spot beside the Publican to approach Heanua. She placed a firm but gentle hand on her sister's frail shoulder. “Mother, she is still in there — my beloved sister and your rightful heir! She will rise again to her great wit and wisdom. She will lead our people when you can no longer. Surely you will, Heanua? Please answer me!”
Silently pleading for a response, LanossŽa stared up into the eyes of the tall young woman, but her sister stood impassively, with no sign of recognition or response.
“Please trust me, LanossŽa.” The queen, for the first time, dropped her eyes in a measure of sorrow. “I have sat by your sister and pleaded with her even as you do now. All to no avail.” Boadicea sighed deeply. “Yet what I have been forced to apprehend, and you must as well, is that even if Heanua recovered her strength and fire, no good man would ever take her. Not after what the Romans did to her.”
The tent fell silent. In the brisk summer breeze outside, even the lively labours and celebrations of the surrounding field seemed to fall away into a mournful pall.
The queen rose to her feet. “Dearest daughter, princess of the Iceni…” Her tone was stately yet measured. “As my mother doubtlessly instructed you and your sister, it is the first great duty of every queen to find herself a great king. In this light, my mother won for us the great Scavo, and I wooed Prasutagus — a fine man lost to us far too young...”
Boadicea's eyes went distant for a moment before she settled them back onto the princess. “LanossŽa, now you too have discovered love, wisdom, strength and power. These virtues are the lifeblood of greatness. While never in my most fanciful dreams did I expect to welcome my dear Peuerellius as a son, I do so now with open arms. My cherished daughter and esteemed Publican, if you return together to your grateful subjects, the mighty Iceni, I shall step aside and gladly proclaim you queen and king.”
LanossŽa bit the inside of her cheek; her heart tearing between her responsibility to the Iceni, and her undying love for the Publican. The princess despaired of answering this call — a dire, shocking circumstance that she had somehow utterly failed to anticipate.
In the princess's moment of weakness, the Publican's hand rejoined hers and he stood before the queen. “Your highness, a weighty offer stands before us, but I bid you defer the question.” He raised his head high, and his green eyes sparkled in the filtered light of the tent. “The time is not right for this debate. You have tasted triumph on the streets of Camulodunum today, and the restoration of your throne seems in reach, yet I fear a trap.
The queen eyed him intently. “How so, Publican? What have you seen or heard?”
“There are many signs. These past few days, cohorts of the Spanish Ninth Legion have been buzzing about like flies hungering for meat. I doubt little that they shall come together and I fear, whether tomorrow, next week, or next moon, the Romans shall confront us in terrifying strength. Together we may stand against them and perhaps even prevail, but only behind a true leader. Your people will not heed a lowly Roman bureaucrat; they will rally only behind their great queen. And to lead your people to victory, their queen requires her great staff.”
Boadicea cocked her head. “You speak wisdom, Peuerellius. And yet now you have thrice evaded my entreaties.”
“Four times it shall be, your highness.” The Publican smiled in disarming reticence. “We know not yet who will survive these bracing deeds to come. I beg you, wise queen of the Iceni, defer your proposition until my pledge is settled and our fates are clear. Wait until the staff of Scavo is returned to your hands and the scurrilous Legate has been ground into the soil at our feet. If I yet live, your people may then judge me on my fortitude and commitment, and not on history and heritage. At such a time shall your daughter and I be prepared to consider your remarkable offer.”
The queen stared at the Publican, and then at her daughter who moved closer to him. Finally Boadicea smiled. “Well my old friend, I have no doubt that your sword may be sharp, but you lead by the tongue. I cede to your will. I shall defer my offer until it is known who shall survive this caper to which I subject us all.”
The princess bowed her head. “Thank you mother.”
Boadicea shook her head. “No daughter, it is I who must thank you. Again and repeatedly. And indeed it is those thanks that bring me to my second problem.”
LanossŽa raised her head. “And what is this problem?”
The queen reached to a small scabbard she had attached to her belt. She withdrew the Coritani wand, holding it in two hands, examining it once again in consternation. “This, dear daughter, is the problem. It was chosen to be mine… yet it so chooses to be yours.”
Unconsciously, the princess took a step back. She and the Publican stared uneasily at the object from which had sprung such astonishing feats of magic… and such grave discomfort. LanossŽa raised her gaze back toward the queen's inquiring eyes. “A problem indeed! It is for this reason, mother… this reason, first among many, that we must hasten to place grandfather's staff back in your hands, and return that stick of fate to its mysterious maker.”
The queen examined her carefully, then nodded. “Yes, I will be most relieved to recover the staff. It is not far from here. I feel its presence…”
Without explanation, the queen began to walk. The princess and Publican fell in step behind her as she led them wordlessly out of the tent, through the charred hole in the wall and along a cobblestone street lined with the smoldering remains of wooden structures. After several hundred feet, they came to a break in the ruins that allowed them to see, unimpeded, across to the imposing stonework in the town center — a noble theatre standing intact at least forty feet above the chaotic debris and, immediately south, the sprawling complex of the Templum Divi Claudii.
The queen's face glowed russet in the smoky evening sun. Her eyes glittered. “That is a hollow monument to a false god who walked the Earth with no less frailty than you or I, yet since this dead Claudius is now named as god, our savage Trinovante allies dare not breach the fake sanctity of the compound walls. My brave Iceni would tear it down at my command, yet the stones are bolstered by magic.”
The Publican stared at the complex, feeling a sudden icy hatred running through his veins. He turned away; his voice low. “The Legate's magic.”
Boadicea shook her head. “The staff's magic.” After gazing a moment long, she too turned away.
As LanossŽa continued to stare a silent thought came to her, unbidden, and without explanation.
The Legate's magic… the staff's magic… Are those not now one and the same?
On a hot summer night many centuries ago, an unconventional blend of frivolous lilting frog song from the River Colne and disarrayed thoughts of strange wand and staff allegiances were collectively lulling the Inceni princess into an uneasy sleep. Now, in the very early hours of August 14th, 1995, Ginny Weasley stirred in the darkness of another Grimmauld Place night.
She groaned softly to herself as the strange images and concepts swirled through her mind. What had previously been tortuous and complex, was growing nearly unfathomable.
Queen and king of the Iceni?? A death sentence. Any hapless dupes shouldering those dubious titles would be doomed as fodder for merciless Roman reprisal.
And what about the strange wand? A perversion! A twisted, manipulative tool of inscrutable aims. A death stick if there ever was one!
The day had been too disrupted to cover more than a small fraction of the strange problems at hand, and this evening's first dreams had just raised a new host of concerns! Ginny knew that she couldn't just lie there stewing over it all; she needed to talk to Harry.
Ever so quietly, she edged her legs out of bed and glanced across the darkness toward her room mate.
“Be careful, you git,” came the grumbling voice.
Ginny blew Hermione a kiss, but her grouchy friend had already rolled over, obviously not interested making a trip upstairs to help extract Harry from the boys' room.
Unconcerned, Ginny guessed that there was another way. She reached under her pillow to find the brooch. She placed it in her hand, closed her eyes, and visualized herself getting out of bed to make her way upstairs to the library. This was no meaningless cerebral exercise; if her instincts were correct, a certain dark haired boy would now almost certainly be awake (if he hadn't been already) and would know to join her.
Sliding slippers onto her feet, she wrapped a robe around herself and edged out into the corridor. By the time she had reached the second floor landing, she heard the slightest creak as a door opened ahead of her.
Ginny paused and waited. Sure enough, the dim flickerings filtering up from a solitary lamp on the ground floor glinted off a pair of glasses perched somewhere beneath a delightfully rumpled mop. Squinting in the darkness, Harry's eyes locked onto hers.
Her heart quickened. She had the sudden tremulous realization that in a moment she would be kissing him. The young man she had waited for nearly her whole life was now hers. She could simply walk over and kiss him. No excuses needed; no questions asked.
Was is possible that a treasured privilege like this would ever grow old?
Ginny knew she could either philosophize, ponder or fret about such deep questions, or she could just do it.
Not a difficult choice to make.
Grinning, she flowed cat-like through the darkness, and caught him. She pulled him close, exchanging the heartbeats and softly laboured breaths that made all of the other hellacious tribulations in their lives seem bearable. Their mouths met and in her reverie, Ginny had the momentary sensation of swirling, as if they were dancing a slow waltz to some beautiful ballad; as if they were reliving some half-remembered dream.
Soothed by the cathartic affection, they pulled apart by mutual unspoken assent and made their silent way up the remaining flight of stairs to the library. Ginny settled herself on their ottoman by the library hearth, leaving Harry his usual spot beside her. As he took a seat, she grasped his hand and wove her fingers through his. “Harry, I'm sorry if I woke you.”
Harry shook his head. “No, don't worry. I was already awake.”
Ginny squeezed his hand. “It occurred to me as I was lying there that we've been focusing on history and schemes and details, but not on our feelings. I'm certain that we're both really stressed, right? Maybe we'll feel better if we talk through some of it?”
Ginny glanced at him. “Did you want to start?”
Harry smiled. He reached over with his other hand and gently swept a lock of hair from her face, caressing her cheek in the process. “No. My greatest worry is how you're holding up, Gin'. You start.”
Ginny smiled briefly then inhaled. “Where to begin, yeah?” She sifted through the troubling aftermath of Camulonunum, but decided that those details, although captivating and rather vexing to the princess, were not her own greatest concerns. Rather, Ginny honed in on the strangest unknown she had yet experienced. Trying to put vague sensations into words, she stared vacantly in the dark, then began with a soft whisper. “Harry, there is a new magic inside me. A strange magic, that is more than just the residue of these dreams. In the past couple of days I feel… changed.”
Harry's brow furrowed. “Changed? For… the better?”
“That's a good question.” Ginny smiled at the hopefulness in Harry's reply. It didn't carry a strength of conviction, and she couldn't tell whether he truly dared to hope, but it was nonetheless very heartening that, unlike a week ago, he didn't just automatically presume the worst.
She glanced away, rubbing the back of Harry's hand for a moment before arriving at a response. “I don't know. Let's just talk about what it is, and maybe together we can start trying to figure out whether it's good or not.”
“Sure. That makes sense to me.”
“Thanks.” She leaned in slightly so that her shoulder pressed warmly into his. “What I've been noticing, Harry, is that in our dreams I seem to have gotten tremendous new powers. Think about it — I launched offensive hexes that drove Riddle to his knees and shocked the Legate; I caught the Publican's fall, blasted my way into the dungeon, summoned that crazy celestial vision at the fens and annihilated the gate at Camulodunum.”
“Yeah, those were astonishing, really.” Harry gazed at her; his eyes slightly widened. “Maybe you've learned the spells working through the princess? I've picked up a lot from the Publican.”
“True, I've gotten new skills from her, but I don't think these are hers.” She tapped her foot softly on the floor as she thought. “You see, the princess is as baffled by this magic as I am, and so is the queen. And the magic is clearly not all good for me either. Sure it's a thrill to be able to do awesome new spells, but I don't seem to have a whole lot more magical reserve than I had when I left Hogwarts six weeks ago. Doing wild magic like that is like pouring every ounce of fuel onto the fire at the same time. I swear, Harry, if I knock myself off my feet one more time with magical exhaustion, I'm going to scream. Or at least whimper.” She grinned at him sheepishly. “Anyway, let me be brutally honest — as much as I love the thought of being carried away in your arms, I bloody well hate needing to be carried!”
Harry smiled sympathetically and squeezed her hand. “I understand — I really do! And you know, a part of me finds it incredibly cool to see you pull off spells like those, and another part of me gets a huge kick out of getting to play hero for a beautiful witch… but those two parts don't exactly line up right. It all seems a bit unnatural.”
“Right. It's not natural.” Ginny sighed. “I wonder what happened to me to give me the ability to cast powerful new spells that I don't really have the training or conditioning to sustain?”
Harry sat quietly, uncertain whether he should admit that he had no clue, and wondering whether there was anyone around who might be able to shed any light on the dilemma. Not very likely, considering how isolated they seemed to be right now.
Ginny gazed at him. “Can I share something else, in case it's related?”
“Sure!” Harry gazed at her, intrigued.
She pursed her lips for a long moment, before speaking. “Harry, I had a strange dream the other night after I faded away at the fens. I don't know if it was realistic or just symbolic, but I dreamed that I was holding another magical source in my hands. Having it in my hands felt a little like the warm sensation one gets when casting a spell, but it wasn't the same feeling as my magic. It was similar, but just a bit different. For a moment I imagined that it was not just power, but that it was actually alive — as if it had a heartbeat and really simple emotions. I dreamed that it could somehow understood comfort and fear, and that maybe, just maybe, it had some sort of self-preservation instinct.”
Harry rested his chin in his free hand. “Well, it doesn't sound exactly like how the Publican and the princess might perceive us, because they can probably feel clear emotions and even some detailed thoughts.” He paused for a moment. “Are you sure that this is what's giving you these new powers? A magical force, that's not exactly your own?”
“I'm really not sure.” Ginny quirked her face thoughtfully. “The image came from a dream that didn't feel much like our other dreams — it was more vague and surreal.”
“True.” Harry shifted his sitting angle to face her. “But, it could just be like your Dad said — you know, about dreams being the way we grapple with things we don't understand?”
Harry smiled diffusely. “Well, maybe we're better off sticking with what's tangible anyway, right? You have new magical abilities, but haven't found the best way to control them.”
“Right.” Ginny sighed. “I suppose control is the sort of thing that comes with time. I just wish I knew that we had time.”
“What? Nineteen hundred years isn't enough for you?” Harry smirked… then yelped as Ginny (semi-playfully) whacked his shoulder. He turned pensively back to face the hearth. “You know, it's a shame you couldn't just tap into the Publican's skills.”
Ginny frowned. “What do you mean?.”
“Well, you see...” Harry ran a hand through his hair. “I have no real idea how much pure power he has, because his magical control is so refined. He casts spells like a surgeon with a scalpel — not a speck more or less force than he needs to get a job done.”
“Ha! It's ironic that he ended up with the princess, because...” Ginny paused and frowned.
Harry stared at her. “Huh? You were saying Gin'?”
Ginny gazed distantly into a dusky for a moment, then turned to Harry. “I was saying, Harry, that we might have the solution!”
From the pocket of her bathrobe, Ginny withdrew the silver brooch and held it up in the air between them.
Harry frowned, puzzled for a moment, then his eyes brightened. “You think you can absorb some of the Publican's instincts for control… through this?” He reached out and touched the silver with his finger.
“I honestly have no idea what to think.” Ginny shrugged with a smile. “But, I'll bet that we'll find out one way or another later tonight.”
The Publican and the princess leapt!
Before anyone had the slightest idea what had happened, an intruder was on the ground of their tent, curled into a shivering fetal position with two wands at his throat.
The Publican's wand produced a glow, dull and red so as to not spoil their night vision. Carefully pulling the wand back just enough to make out the man's features, he heard the princess laugh in relief.
“Andras, please call out before you enter.” Lighting her own wand, she stood up and helped the man, panting, to his feet. She smirked. “Please pardon us, for we have grown wary in our time away, and our animal instincts have grown sharp. What brings you to disturb our feral den in the middle of the night.”
Bewildered, Andras looked from princess to Publican and back again, recovering his bearings. “You both must come immediately.” He fought his ragged breath under control. “A Roman sorcerer has broken out of the Temple compound. Our queen and Diras are struggling to contain him!”