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SIYE Time:7:02 on 19th October 2017


Splinters
By GHL

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Category: Alternate Universe
Characters:Albus Dumbledore, Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley, Sirius Black
Genres: Drama, Romance
Warnings: Death, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Violence
Story is Complete
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 277
Summary:

In the secret mists of time, a truth has been shattered. The path to victory has been cursed with despair... and nobody realizes it.

It is 1995 -- the summer of their discontent. Sequestered within the grimy walls of Grimmauld Place, Harry and Ginny begin having strange dreams of an era long past and events yet to come. Are the dreams somehow real? Is fate taunting them with tragic visions of doom, or are they being granted a precious chance to survive... and fall in love?

Note: this story presumes canon until Chapter 4 of OotP... beyond which things begin to go haywire.


Hitcount: Story Total: 38547; Chapter Total: 1604
Awards: View Trophy Room




Author's Notes:

So, you shall find that many questions are *starting* to move toward answers, although new ones are still emerging. Once again, I'm distinctly pleased with this chapter, and hope you enjoy it as well.

I do not leave you with a cliff-hanger this time, but I can't quite imagine not sticking you with one more at least sometime before the (not too distant) conclusion. Bear with me, dear readers :)

Speaking of dear readers, let me take a moment to say again how grateful I am to reviewers of this story. Although the narrative had a defined shell in place long ago, it has borrowed from the whims and consciences of many of you, resulting in a tale that I believe is quirkier, more poignant and more fun than it would have been if I'd simply churned the whole thing out at once and tossed it at you. I'm sure that many of you will be able to see your own little signatures sprinkled throughout the work, and for that I say, again, thank you!





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Chapter 12. Sister Awakening (August 14, 1995)

The Iceni had erected regular series of torches from their riverside encampments, up along the Roman road and into the ruined town. Harry and Ginny found themselves swept along behind Andras, tearing through the night toward the Templum Divi Claudii; trying to picture a confrontation that their young Iceni guide, with no magical abilities, had barely even attempted to describe.

By the time they had crossed through the gap in the walls, dazzling flashes and sharp cracks of noise assaulted their senses, buffeting them from down the wide via that led to the temple and the theatre. Dismayed by the bewildering magical display, Andras stumbled to a halt, leaving Harry and Ginny to race past.

Faced with a disorienting commotion (cloying darkness punctuated by sharp, glaring chaos) Harry felt a sense of reticence coming from within. The anxiety came from sources he had grown to associate with strength and assurance. Slowing to a walk, he pondered the vague hesitation and suddenly understood perfectly what the problem was. They were approaching a great unknown — a battle scenario that lent itself poorly to the talents of either the Publican (whose extensive skills included only minimal coordinated combat experience) and the princess (much more accustomed to woodland stealth).

Despite these deficiencies, retreat was not an option. In the half dozen furtive steps that Harry and Ginny took as they continued to cautiously approach the fracas, a subtle balance shifted for the first time. The dominant personalities of a veteran Publican and fiery princess stood respectfully to the side. To the fore stepped none other than Harry Potter — a young man whose hard life had taught him that the only sure route to failure lay in not trying.

Drawing on modest skills derived from the past two years of DADA classwork under Lupin and Crouch, Harry found himself sliding with remarkable ease into the unexpected alpha role. He instinctively scanned what he could see of the town square for cover and open sight-lines. Waving Ginny toward a ruined wall lining the south side of the street just west of the temple, he dashed across the street to run parallel to her, finding stealthy shadows beneath the arched southern colonnade of the massive theatre.

With the brooch in hand, Ginny barely even needed to look at her partner to sense his intent; every time she stole a quick glance in his direction, he was exactly where she guessed, almost as if they had been practising combat tactics together for years.

Reaching the jagged, easternmost edge of a collapsed building, Ginny crouched down and glanced across the street just in time to see Harry's shadow ducking behind a column. Breathlessly, synchronously, they peered out from their respective cover to stare in morbid fascination at the intense battle drama — a boiling stew of angry noise, blistering flashes of light, shattered stones and acrid fumes, bodies in motion, bodies fallen...

Although the scene seemed outwardly bewildering, Harry forced himself to cut away the distractions and parse the dynamics. After a few seconds, he was surprised to realize that the real situation was fairly straightforward — what had quite recently been a mad brawl had now actually settled into the makings of a stalemate. Garish and noisy perhaps, but a stalemate nonetheless, as neither side looked to have the strength to prevail.

Based on a quick count, Harry determined that most of the original combatants were already either incapacitated (at least three Roman wizards and five Druids lay sprawled luridly across the flagstones nearby) or marginalized (in particular the queen, who stood well back from the battle, her wand held at the ready, but not serving any role other than perhaps to guard Heanua who lingered impassively in the background).

As a result, despite the wild fireworks, all of the real action was distributed among only four fighters. Diras and two other Trinovante Druids darted and lurched their way about the debris-strewn square, circling like hungry wolves around their solitary prey — the Legate.

Staff raised high, the Legate cut an imposing image from his perch atop the bare marble block vacated by a toppled statue of Emperor Claudius. His prodigious shield — a great glowing disk of yellow light projecting out nearly five feet from his body — flickered occasionally as he sought opportunities to unleash curses during even the briefest intermittence in the daunting but futile torrent of sharp percussive hexes sprayed up at him by the three Trinovantes.

Recognising that all attention was fully captivated by the lurid combat dance, Harry sensed that it was safe to attack. He waved to Ginny, mouthing words that he somehow knew she would grasp. “The Legate! Hit him with anything you can think of! Together we'll bring down his shield!”

Ginny flashed him a thumbs-up and, from their separate positions fifty feet apart, they broke into a run, rushing straight for the havoc.

Raising his wand, Harry felt the Publican's magic swell within his chest. It pulsed almost instantly outward through his arm — a meteoric stunner that tore through the night, slamming against the Legate's shield.

Sensing Ginny bracing herself to cast a spell, Harry shifted his (or perhaps the Publican's ) focus to try to feel her magic, hoping to help her regulate the spell. Closing his eyes for the barest instant, he sensed the stirring agitation of power. In his mind, he pictured some sort of scorching fire from the princess's repertoire. He imagined that it would be an impressive enough spell, but (unlike the blast that had torn through the town walls yesterday) was unlikely to deplete Ginny's magical core.

He flashed her a quick grin. Have at it, Gin'!

Suddenly grasping the great opportunity, Harry pivoted quickly back to his own magic, opening himself up to summon the power for another of the Publican's rapid-fire stunners. At the very instant he saw Ginny's wicked Incendio leap from her wand, a surge of force and adrenaline raced through him.

Two blasts, one dazzling white; the other a brilliant gold, tore across the square, pounding the startled Legate's shield at the exact same instant. It quivered and buckled, but held. Agape, the Legate lurched around to descry the sudden new threat. Squinting through the scintillating glare of spell fire, his cold eyes locked first onto Harry, then Ginny. Yet even as a third spell from Diras knocked him back a step; even as Harry and Ginny thrashed him with yet another coordinated blast and the dark wizard's knees shuddered under the combined onslaught, the Legategrinned??

Shite! A flash of panic raced through Harry's mind. What is he pulling? Is this a trap?

He frantically scanned the square trying to spot some hidden peril. Ginny's eyes were just meeting Harry's with the same expression of sudden urgent anxiety when they both glanced simultaneously toward the Legate, who had just now shifted his hungry sneer toward…

The queen.

Tense and frustrated only a moment before, Boadicea had watched the sudden appearance of the Publican and princess with great interest. A fiery determination had taken hold of her face. Amidst the blaze of intoxicating spell fire; the Legate's stumbles and flickering shield reflecting in her eyes, she was raising the Coritani wand.

From half way across the square, Harry felt Ginny tremble. A gripping trepidation seized them both.

“No!” Harry waved frantically at Boadicea. “Don't cast a…!”

But it was too late — from within the dusky shadow where the queen stood, the sickly green glow of a killing curse could already be seen enveloping her arm and pouring into the strange wand she was pointing toward the enemy.

Driven by pure instinct, Harry began to sprint toward Ginny, just as she was wracked with a terrible tremor. He thrust his will toward his girlfriend, desperate to try to staunch the horrific power she might be drained of to sustain the queen's curse. He had no idea what the consequences could be; he only knew with terrible conviction that… something was terribly wrong.

Delirious sensations streamed past.

The Legate's arms spreading wide, laughing… dropping his shield…

A fresh force of Roman auxiliaries streaming into the square from the south, led by a caped figure on a black horse.

Sweat on the queen's brow, glistening green from the lurid gleam of the killing curse bursting from her wand.

The Legate, his distinctive Malfoy sneer, sweeping his arm forward, offering up like a sprinter's baton… the great staff of Scavo.

Or was it the staff?

In an instant, with the Legate's shield down, Harry saw the powerful instrument in full detail. It had been defiled! The noble copper horse-head of the Iceni was twisted into some heinous horned gargoyle. The graven monster rose up out of the Legate's grasp, hovered in the smoky night air, then began soaring toward… Ginny.

Still reeling from the agony of having raw power torn from her to propel the queen's curse, Ginny froze, defenceless, staring in horror as the staff — the desecrated abomination — closed upon her, its mighty magic seeking her hand.

Bewildered and appalled, Harry's mind raced. None of these psychotic twists made the slightest speck of sense to him. He longed to rage against the vision, scream that it was nothing but a deranged dream, and burst from his Grimmauld Place bedroom in a tangled mass of sweat-soaked sheets to quake in harrowed relief.

But he knew it could never be so simple. One of these nights would bring a dream from which there may be no return; for which the choice would be simple — either succeed, or else throw any chance to save the light and spend a joyful life with the girl he loved. For all he knew, the price of failure tonight might even be to erase his very existence from human history.

Harry did not understand why he leaped, but there seemed to be no choice. He soared, not across a bedroom, but through the smoldering night air of Camulodunum… toward Ginny… toward a malevolent, perverse weapon of untold magic…

His Seeker's hand outstretched, Harry felt, rather than saw…

Ginny's look of blank, uncomprehending terror… the Legate's triumphant sneer devolving into rage… the black-caped horseman tearing across to pull the Legate from the path of the queen's killing curse.

Barring every distraction, Harry's fingers closed around the staff.

He had an instant sensation of searing magical fire raging through his veins — a flash of deadly, delicious power... but, mercifully, the hard stone ground smashed into him… and the dreadful staff clattered away.

The crazed swirl of fire and noise bogged down into a glacial slurry of disjointed sensations.

Blood oozing from his nose and mouth.

Crazed shouts… clashing metal…

Her tremulous hand (Ginny!) finding his and clutching it for dear life before she collapsed, shuddering, at his side.

As he fought to cling to his senses, Harry heard a woman's voice… emotive yet somehow also empty.

“Peuerellius, LanossŽa, my brave children.” The voice crumbled into a hoarse cough before restoring itself. “Dead or alive, I am forever indebted to you both.”

A woman's arm reached down to retrieve the staff from where it had fallen onto the cobblestones. The queen footsteps hastened away into the night. Shouts and clamour faded into the distance. Calming silence descended.

At the faintest final strands of his consciousness, Harry thought he felt a soft, long-fingered hand grace his cheek. His eyelids flickered, affording him a glimpse of long blonde hair that caught a tremulous glimmer of the dying light.

Then all went dark.

Harry blinked as the darkness receded. His eyes swam back into focus, and he desperately grappled for any other senses that could help explain the new scene unfolding around him.

There was a voice sounding in his ears.

"Does the wand in your hand know its last master was disarmed?"

The voice seemed strangely hollow. Harry had heard those words in his dreams often enough to know his speech by heart, but something was amiss.

Where was his confidence?

Harry felt his own legs side-stepping smoothly, sublime and catlike, sustaining a constant menacing motion but somehow... that hint of swagger was gone.

He willed himself to focus on the scene, returning his gaze to the scoundrel before him, whose coal-red eyes waited expectantly, almost chivalrously, for him to finish his statement.

Harry assembled his best face of calm resolution, and twitched his wand to point theatrically at the ornate stick in Voldemort's hand. "You see Tom, if it does, then I..." Harry tapped his own chest. "I... am the true master of the Elder Wand."

Voldemort regarded him skeptically; his mouth spread into an evil reptilian sneer. He threw his head back, as if to laugh, but instead emitted a hiss like a thousand raging serpents.

"Avada Kedavra! "

"Expelliarmus! "

Red and green spell flares burst across the Great Hall, reflecting in hundreds of mesmerised eyes. The morning's first ray of sunshine leaped through the shattered east window, illuminating the centre of the two clashing spells with a great shower of white sparks.

Snake face quaked in exertion. A heavy bead of sweat sprang from Harry's forehead, trailing down his forehead, as he pushed back against the killing curse. The white boundary between them crept forward, encroaching slowly into the green haze, when...

A deafening crack sounded! A dazzling burst of light! The Elder Wand shattered in a spray of flaming wood…

Amidst the blistering convulsions of clashing power, two putrid blasts of green detestation shot diametrically across the centre of the Hall.

One struck Voldemort in the head.

The other tore through Harry's chest.

For the briefest fraction of a second, both men, both avowed antitheses, stared into each other's disbelievingly eyes.

Good and evil.

Honour and infamy.

Then Harry James Potter and Thomas Marvolo Riddle… both collapsed.

Thunderous silence fell upon the stunned masses.

Then, with a cry (half elation; half anguish), Ginny tore across the hall. Catching her feet on the rubble, she stumbled to her knees, skidding to a stop at Harry's side. Seizing his soiled and bloodied anorak in her fists, she half-lifted his torso, shaking him. “Harry! Harry! You killed him! We can do it! We can kill the sod, and now we only have to figure out how to keep you alive! Please, please, please give us a chance! Don't go and die when we're getting so...”

A shudder wracked her frame as she gazed into Harry's lifeless green eyes. “Oh Harry. Why does this have to be so god-damned bloody impossible?” She collapsed, sobbing, onto his rigid, but still-warm chest.

And yet, somewhere in one of the many intervening centuries, a weary arm rose from the charred ground beside her… and clasped her gently on the shoulder.

I love you Ginny. I am still with you.

Hermione's eyelids cracked open for a moment in the dusky predawn light. She was fairly certain she had heard Ginny sobbing, but now the room had fallen silent again. She half-debated rising from bed to check on her room mate, but her own weariness was too great.

Hermione's thin-slit gaze drifted over to the window, vaguely wondering how long it would be until dawn, but the shimmery quality of the light (perhaps the curtain rustling in a draft) had an oddly hypnotic effect and she drifted back…

to the ocean.

Undulating shades of grey.

They had left the bright blue tropical waters behind. She found the North Atlantic so dreary, but the endless rolling of the wakes thrust back from the ship's huge hull nonetheless fascinated her.

Just when she had convinced herself that the chilling breeze and spray barely bothered her anymore, a bracing gust rose up from the water. She shivered, hunched her shoulders, and… felt a warm hand reach around to rest upon her own.

Even without turning around, she knew that hand — large, freckled and fleshy. Clumsy, yet caring.

She shifted slightly, to obliquely face the mysterious but earnest young stranger who had lured her away from her college studies in Auckland. Glancing past the windswept russet hair, she glimpsed those blue eyes — the ones that seemed so close and yet so distant; so young but so careworn.

Hello Rob,” she said, shyly turning back to stare at the waves.

Shyly?

Why on earth was she still so shy around him? After nearly a month at sea together? After pledging herself to aid him on his desperate quest. After he had opened himself up to her to tell a story so utterly unbelievable… so wildly inconceivable… that it almost HAD to be true?

So, why indeed?

Taking advantage of the fact that he was gazing off into the nondescript sky, she stole a longer, more careful look at the fellow. She was quickly reminded what brought her such diffidence.

It was those eyes.

They were so deep, so gentle and so very sad. With eyes like that, she couldn't help but trust him, but the brooding intensity in their depths could still make her feel like an awkward, bookish little schoolgirl.

And yet, every once in a rare while, those eyes sparkled… like they were doing right now as he sensed her gaze. Glancing at her, he offered one of his rare smiles. “You're rather partial to the sea, aren't you Hettie?”

You noticed?” Her eyes sparkled for a moment infected by his candour, before the awkwardness set in again and she shuffled her feet. “Though to be honest Rob, I should rather like to see the end of it.”

Ah yes.” He sighed. “Well, not long now. Three more nights and we'll awaken in Tilbury.”

Oh.” She suddenly sensed the rigid bolts around the young man's soul begin to tighten again, as if they were both simultaneously reminded that this was hardly a voyage of pleasure. She looked to him searchingly. “Should I be utterly terrified, Rob?”

I truly don't know, Hettie...” He gazed off toward the grey northeast horizon. “But let's leave those thoughts for later, and enjoy these last two days while we have them.” He squeezed her hand, and gave her a smile that went to the corners of his mouth, but did not quite extend as far as his eyes.

Hearing footsteps behind them, they both turned to see a jacketed waiter approaching them. “Mr. Wilsey, Miss Gravener, your table is ready.”

As they followed the dignified server through the port into the dining room, a tiny twinkle had returned to the tall young man's blue eyes. He leaned in to whisper to her. “Mighty fine of your parents to spring for an upgrade, Hettie. I ate a whole bloody month's worth of corned beef sandwiches on the way down.”

As he yawned his way into the kitchen for breakfast, Ron paused and frowned. “Where's Harry?”

Molly looked up from the stove, whose servings of eggs and toast she was tending. “We were hoping you might tell us, Ron. You being his room mate and all.”

“Oh, that's right.” Ron yawned again. “He's still in bed. I asked him if he was coming for breakfast, but he just rolled over and groaned a bit.”

“Oh dear!” Molly wrung her hands and turned to Lupin. “I wonder if they've come down with something? Perhaps I should look in on them.”

“They?” Ron scratched his head, gazing around at the kitchen table trying to figure out who else might be missing.

Hermione fidgeted. “Ginny's sleeping in too.” She gnawed uncomfortably at a fingernail.

“Oh.” Ron nodded then shrugged. “Hadn't noticed any problems with Ginny, but Harry did say last night that he was feeling lousy. Might be something going around.”

“Poor dears.” Molly glanced around at the bustling kitchen. “I would go check on them if things weren't quite so busy in here.”

A worried frown spread over Hermione's brow. “I can go look for you, Mrs. Weasley. I can check for fever, and maybe gently rouse them to see how they're feeling.”

“Oh would you?” Molly gave her a relieved smile, then closed her eyes in thought. “Please examine them for bumps, and check around the neck for Scrofungulus or Mumblemumps. If you see anything like that, please let me know. And also wash your hands immediately after you see them.”

“Certainly, Mrs. Weasley.” Hermione rose to her feet. She deposited her dishes in the basin and made her way past Ron, toward the door.

“Er…” Ron scratched his head. “Did you need a hand?”

Hermione blinked at her friend in surprise. “Why, uh, no thank you. But I appreciate the offer, Ron.”

Hermione wasn't sure if she had imagined it but in that brief instant, peering into Ron's maturing face, into his eyes, she thought that she had glimpsed something unusually pensive and mindful. It somehow brought to mind odd images of… things… Cold rolling waves and ocean spray. Adventure. Danger.

Shaking the peculiar sensation from her mind, Hermione tuned back into the kitchen chatter, catching the tail end of Molly's statement.

“… and very thoughtful of you, but it's really best we not send everyone around to see them before we know whether it's contagious.”

“Contagious? Oh right.” Ron shivered slightly. “Er, so what's for breakfast, Mum?”

With a subtle smirk at how quickly her friend could revert to normal, Hermione made her way out of the kitchen, and headed along the first floor corridor to look in on a girl who had definitely not made a habit of sleeping in so late recently.

Hermione chewed her lip in vague concern. Neither Ginny nor Harry had looked the least bit ill yesterday evening, and it had not seemed as though Ginny had been gone from the room for long enough in her nocturnal walkabout to necessitate such a late lie-in.

Then Hermione recalled Ginny's episode of nausea from the prior morning. Hmmm…

Ginny's discomfort had vanished quickly with Harry's draught, and had not seemed to resurface at all during the day, so Hermione had been quick to consign it to something like a momentary bout of nerves. But now? Hermione paused to chew another fingernail, then quietly entered the bedroom to take a peek at her friend.

When Hermione had gotten out of bed a couple of hours earlier, she had been a bit surprised to see Ginny still asleep, but in her efforts to leave the room quietly and not disturb the sleeper, Hermione had not thought to check for any problems. Now, with a bit more scrutiny, Hermione's anxiety began to mount. Ginny was looking decidedly pale, and strands of hair clung to her forehead and cheek — a clear sign that the girl had been perspiring profusely at some point in her sleep.

Hermione huffed to herself. “Ginny, how could you go and get sick? Are you trying to make me feel guilty for leaving you and Harry to your own devices?”

Ginny moaned slightly, but didn't awaken.

Hermione pulled a chair close, and began to study her friend more carefully. There were no physical signs marking any of the most common magical maladies, but that was no real surprise since Ginny very rarely came down with the usual viruses that swept their way around Hogwarts. Her temperature wasn't elevated, and her breathing appeared to be normal.

Hermione sat back and pursed her lips.

Poor dear — probably just exhausted.

She gave Ginny another quick once over and noted that her friend had tangled her bedclothes a bit and wasn't fully covered. Hermione began tugging on the covers, trying to fit them closer to the contours of Ginny's body. Lifting the girl's arm, Hermione felt her tightly clenched fist.

Hmmm…

Out of curiosity, Hermione pulled the sheet back a bit from Ginny's hand. Silver glinted between the fingers.

“Oho! Ginny, do you suppose this thing is draining your energy?”

Ginny made no response.

Hermione reached carefully for the clenched hand. “Ginny, I'm going to put this to the side okay? Until you're feeling better?”

Ginny groaned slightly and pulled her hand closer to her body.

Hermione grumbled. “It's for your own good, you know.” She reached for Ginny's hand yet again, and began trying to pry the girl's fingers away from the brooch.

Fire.

"Gak!" Hermione recoiled, blinking and glancing bewilderedly about the room, trying to reconcile a fleeting image that had flashed before her eyes.

Nothing.

Gazing around, everything in the bedroom seemed normal. It was the same place she'd grown accustomed to over the past month — lots of books and clothes; messy on one side; clean on the other. A wan rainy daylight filtered in from the curtain. Nothing looked particularly flashy or reflective. Ginny continuing to sleep peacefully on the bed. All seemed distinctly ordinary.

Yet for a moment, Hermione had been almost certain that she had seen flames dancing before her eyes.

Her eyebrow quirked, she slowly leaned back in, and reached a finger toward Ginny's fist.

Ginny now had a fierce grip on the object and had it pressed up against the front of her shoulder, but a small spot of bare metal was still visible.

Hermione paused for a long moment, torn between wanting to help Ginny in case the brooch was exerting some debilitating effect, but not wishing to disrupt the girl if she was engaged in some strange but crucial dream magic. Of course, those two inclinations paled next to a suddenly nearly overwhelming sense of curiosity.

Hermione willed herself to pull back. She knew that curiosity about a magical object could either be… Well, such curiosity could either be a normal human emotion, or it could be something much more insidious.

She frowned.

Perhaps Professor Dumbledore had been correct? Maybe she should go straight to the library and write him a second letter, telling him about this peculiarly powerful charmed object? After all, the brooch seemed to have knocked Ginny off her feet, right?

Nodding to herself, Hermione assumed that she was going to stand up and make her quiet way out of the room to go write that letter… but instead, more than a minute later, she found herself still in the chair, leaning even closer to Ginny and the brooch. She extended a trembling finger out to touch the…

ladle.

The wooden handle felt warm to her finger, but did not scorch her, despite the hot coals over which the cauldron sat. It had been charmed, of course, to resist the heat.

She stirred the contents of the cauldron one final time and leaned over the hot steam, taking a tentative sniff.

Nodding to herself, she submerged the ladle into the depths of the liquid and drew out a full measure of the shimmering golden potion, emptying it into the first of the two heavy flagons that sat on a flat stone next to the camp fire.

Cradling the flagon carefully in her hands, she rose to her feet and gazed around at her two patients, still sleeping despite a sun that had now risen above the southern eastern hills. The man (Harry?? No, not Harry. Too old, but a remarkable resemblance! ) was beginning to stir. His head wounds, which she had already healed, had not been serious. He had lost a fair bit of blood, but he was clearly in a better state than her magically exhausted sister…

Sister?

She stared at the young woman who lay limp within the furs arrayed on the ground near the fire. Long red hair, a sprinkle of freckles on her attractive and very familiar face.

Ginny??

Once again, the likeness seemed extraordinary, but of course this wasn't Ginny Weasley. However bewildering the thought, it was obvious that the woman on the ground was none other than LanossŽa, princess of the Iceni. Her sister.

She was roused from her confused reverie by the sound of a distant horn. Jolted into action, she hurried to the man's side, and touched his cheek. “Awaken, my lord!”

The man's face crinkled. His eyes opened and he gazed at her, blinking away the remnants of sleep.

She held the flagon toward his face. “Drink this my lord — it will give you strength!”

Obediently, but without obvious understanding, he struggled up to brace his torso on his elbows. She held the flagon to his lips, and he unquestioningly allowed her to pour several ounces down his throat.

Abruptly, she stood up. “Mother has broken camp and shall be marching northwest. I must go...”

But, what...” The man stared at her, obviously quite baffled by the situation.

She shook her head, having no time for explanations. “There is more potion in the cauldron. You must administer some to my sister as soon as she is able. And now I must go.”

Not meeting the man's eyes, she straightened up and quickly made her way across the sunlit glade, hoping to…

Knock knock!!

Hermione jumped to her feet, spilling over the chair. Her gaze darted around the room for a couple of seconds before settling on the door.

Knock knock!!

“Hermione? Ginny? Anyone in there?”

Ginny stirred a bit and buried her head under the pillow. Hermione, meanwhile, finally managed to shake herself back into reality. “Sirius?'

“Ha, mortal fools! Make way for the great Genghis Khan!” He huffed loudly enough to be heard through the door. “Of course it's Sirius. Might we chat for a bit, Granger?”

Hermione took a moment to give Ginny a quick scan, to confirm her earlier assessment that the girl was probably exhausted but likely not ill. Then she cracked the door a bit to come face to face with the master of the house. “Er yes? Can I help you?”

Sirius smirked. “You two up weren't up to anything naughty in there, I hope?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Don't be ridiculous! Ginny is ill, and I was just, er, lost in thought. Sorry I didn't respond right away.”

“No problem.” Sirius shrugged. “So there was owl post this morning. Your Hogwarts letters came, but before you rush down to check your grades, I need to talk to you about my own letter.”

Hermione's eyes went wide. “You received a Hogwarts letter??”

Sirius barked out loudly, making Ginny flinch. He gave the quasi-sleeping girl a quick glance, then grinned. “Why so appalled, Granger? I'm sure you'd be thrilled to see my adorable face first thing every morning up in the common room, yeah?”

Hermione blinked.

Sirius smirked. “Don't worry, mine wasn't a student letter — it was directly from Dumbledore. He told me you wrote to him yesterday?”

“Oh. Yes I did write to him. And he, er...” A small frown knitted Hermione's brow. “He responded to you?

“Yes.” Sirius edged his way through the door and closed it behind him. “He said that you've been sensing strange powers in the house that nobody else seems to notice, and told me a bit about what you've proposed as far as searching the house for dangerous dark objects. It seems he's rather partial to the idea, but wants to accelerate the plans. Supposedly his gadgets observed some rather exceptional magic here last night?”

“Oh?” Hermione coughed. “I mean, yes, of course. Strange things afoot last night.”

Sirius looked at her quizzically for a moment then nodded. “Right. Well given the magnitude of the effects, he didn't feel comfortable having you work alone, so he would like me to assist you.”

“Ah?” Hermione's hand tangled itself for a moment in her expansive hair as she processed the unexpected turn. “Okay, well I suppose that might work.”

A roguish gleam sparkled in Sirius's eyes. “Well, I'm flattered to see you're so excited by the prospect!”

“Oh, sorry, I didn't mean...”

Sirius laughed. “Fear not Granger, I won't arse around with this. I know a few secrets about this place, and I also know a right foul little bastard who knows even more than I do.”

When Harry awoke somewhat dazedly, he did not find himself in the Great Hall, nor the Essex woodlands. There was no camp fire nor glittering sunrise. There was no debris or carnage, unless one considered the curled remains of wall paper and dead insects that littered the floor of the boys' bedroom at Grimmauld Place.

Harry groaned at the stiffness and bone-weariness that pervaded every corner of his body. That mattered little, however, compared to the most painful ache — the absence of a red-headed source of joy and comfort at his side.

That, hopefully, could be rectified… as long as he could actually make it out of bed. Harry experimented with moving his arms and legs and, despite some protestation, they all seemed basically fine. His back felt as though it had been slept on by an Erumpent, but it too still functioned. He had somehow survived yet another night of insane dreams mostly intact.

Exhaling with relief, he eased himself out of bed, dressed in a hurry, and exited quietly.

Harry was about to scurry down the stairwell, when a vague sound gave him pause. He paused to listen for… voices…

Sirius? Hermione? Kreacher??

The voices drifting down the stairwell were a bit too diffuse for Harry to descry actual words, but something seemed to be afoot up on one of the uppermost floors — an area of the house where few people other than Sirius ever seemed to go.

Hmmm… Rather curious for Hermione, Sirius and Kreacher to be having an argument in the attic, but... Harry shook his head. There was no time for frivolous distractions right now. He shrugged, and hurried down the remaining flights of stairs, to knock on his destination.

“Hello? Who is it?” Ginny's voice sounded a bit tremulous.

“G'morning, Gin'. It's me.”

The door popped open a crack and Ginny's eyes attempted to focus on his.

Harry gulped. “Blimey you're pale, Gin'!”

Ginny nodded, swallowing forcefully. “Harry. Hang-.” Suddenly she spasmed, clasping her hand tight over her mouth. “Hangover t-tonic.”

“Oi! Just a sec!” He bolted from the door, and raced up the corridor. A few feet short of reaching the kitchen, he slowed himself to a painfully leisurely walk, and effected a nonchalant gaze at the twins (who seemed to be debating something in the Daily Prophet) and Mrs. Weasley who was magically washing dishes. “Good morning, Mrs. Weasley. Fred. George.”

“Good morning Harry.” Mrs. Weasley eyed him carefully. “How are you feeling this morning? Will you be wanting any breakfast?”

Harry smiled solicitously. “I'm fine, thank you. I'll be down in a little while to fix a couple of late breakfasts, but I'll be happy to take care of that myself. And don't worry about the last few dishes — I'll be happy to finish washing up here when I'm done.”

“Oh?” Molly smiled. “Well, thank you Harry. And you're certain you're all right?”

“Absolutely!” Harry grinned reassuringly. “I just need to take care of something first. I have to find something from the pantry.”

“Ah, very well then. In any case, if you won't be needing my help then I believe I'll accept your offer.” Molly removed her apron and dried her hands. “It's time for me to put the finish touches on the new meeting room — the Order will be gathering there tomorrow.”

On pins and needles, Harry waited until she had left the room, then ducked into the pantry to grab the final dose of his prepared draught. Racing from the room, he waved amicably at the twins. Fred raised an amused eyebrow, then shrugged as he re-immersed himself in the fireworks article that he and George had been parsing.

Sprinting back to the girl's room, Harry burst through the door to find Ginny teetering on the carpet, doubled over in pain. Harry wrapped his arm gingerly around her shoulders, and guided her back to sit on her bed.

When Harry raised the vial toward her, Ginny grabbed it and whipped the contents down her throat. Eyes wide, she shuddered… and exhaled a ragged breath that smoothed out as it issued. Letting the empty vial fall to the bed she wrapped herself tightly around the boy beside her, breathing deeply into his shoulder. “Bloody hell, Harry — I never get sick. I wish I knew what was causing this!”

Harry gently rubbed her back. “Me too — believe me! I wonder if it's a side-effect of the unusual magic… or if it's just part of the magical exhaustion?”

Ginny nodded. “Yes, that's one of about six great questions I wish we had answers for. The situation is getting excruciating — we're so close… and yet we're ever so far.”

Harry squeezed her gently. “I hear you, Gin'. I realize that the Legate escaped and all, but we must have done a few things right last night." He paused a moment to rub her arm affectionately. "We must be getting close now. We're going to crack this nut! I can't make heads or tails of it yet, but I'm dead certain that all this madness is really starting to lead us to the right path that we need to survive and defeat Riddle.” He leaned back a bit and ran a hand through his hair. “The path sure is a bleeding pain to follow, though.”

Ginny gave a hollow laugh. “I know. Don't I wish it was over.”

Harry nodded; his chin rustling within Ginny's hair. “Me too. I wish we could move on and enjoy life for a while.” He sighed. “Imagine us at Hogwarts together — flying, studying together, going for quiet strolls around the lake. Sometimes I just picture us curled up in the Common Room chatting 'til dark. Nothing of consequence — just two kids gabbing about Quidditch, pranks and the best broom closets. Then we could trundle off to bed and dream normal dreams.”

“Normal dreams?” Ginny pulled back from him to gaze into his eyes. “Now what exactly would Harry Potter consider to be a 'normal dream'?”

Harry chuckled. “Okay, you got me there! Frankly I'd settle for anything that wasn't somehow vital to the past, present and future fate of British Wizarding society.” He paused and looked away shyly. “Er, especially if it still involved a, uh, certain… girl.”

Ginny's finger had somehow found its way onto his chest where it was distractedly tracing patterns. “And what would you be doing with this, girl, as you say?”

A trace of pink crept up along Harry's cheekbone. “Er, well… stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Heh, well...” he swallowed. “You know, like maybe dancing and, uh, stuff.”

Her colour having suddenly restored to full health, Ginny raised her index finger firmly to the base of his chin and guided his face into a much more suitable alignment. “You know, dreams can be fun and all, but there's some 'stuff' that would be a shame to sleep though, don't you think, Potter?”

“...”

His voice apparently failing, Harry nodded meekly. It seemed like one of those times when it would be best to simply close his eyes and find out what would happen next.

He was just about get his answer, when the bedroom door banged open.

“Oh ho ho! Snog alert!” Sirius loomed over them with a huge grin on his face, as Hermione hovered in the doorway; her face buried beneath two mortified hands.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Grow up, you filthy old hound!”

Sirius chortled. “We all have more important things to do than wait for me to grow up, mate. In particular, I wanted to get your impression on something that we just got Kreacher to dig out of the attic for us.”

"Oh?" A sudden chill ran down Harry's spine; he felt Ginny's hand instinctively squeezing his, fortifying him. “What is it?”

From his pocket, Sirius withdrew a strange, golden oval with a jeweled pattern on the front — an ornate serpentine S rendered in emeralds.

“Agh!” Harry winced. “What the hell is that?”

Sirius shrugged. “I have no idea, Pup — I was just curious whether you might have ever heard tell of something matching this description in any of your madcap adventures?”

Gritting his teeth, Harry shook his head. “No, I can't say that I have. Could you please get it out of here, though? That thing is bloody… vile!”

Hermione nodded concernedly. “Kreacher thought so too — he wouldn't hand it over unless we swore up and down that we would destroy it.”

Scanning his godson's reactions, Sirius's playful mood had vanished. “Okay, enough chit chat then? I'm going to find someone to run this over to Albus as soon as possible.” He glanced nervously at Ginny who was scowling at him. “Er, sorry to disturb you two. Oh, and Harry, I do apologise for causing you so much, er, discomfort?”

Harry nodded tersely. “Fine. No problem. Just get it out of here now, please!”

“Will do mate! Take good care of my kiddo, eh Ginners?”

Ginny managed a quick smile at the departing Sirius, before returning her attention to Harry, gently dabbing some perspiration off his forehead with the sleeve of her nightgown.

Hermione lingered in the doorway, listening as Sirius whistled his way up the corridor toward the entranceway. After he was out of earshot, she shivered. “Dear me, that locket must be cursed! I can't see how Sirius handles it so blithely.”

Already breathing easier, Harry gazed toward the window for a moment. “A side-effect of Azkaban, I suppose. I assume Sirius built up an amazing tolerance there.”

Ginny decoupled herself from Harry and turned to Hermione. “So what have you been up to Hermione? Are you becoming our resident dark hunter?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Merlin knows what I've become. Can you believe that I was actually excited to be locked in this rat nest for the summer? I thought it would be a perfect excuse to get lots of extra summer reading done. How stupid does that sound now?”

Ginny laughed. “Can't say I've made much headway either. I guess we'd all better get cracking, yeah? Only two and a half weeks left before school.”

“Oh!” Hermione's hand flew to her mouth. “That reminds me — the Hogwarts letters are here! Did you two want to go find out our grades and book lists?”

Harry shook his head. “Later. My first priority is to fix a late breakfast for myself and a certain room mate of yours. She hasn't asked to be fed yet, but there are few creatures more fearsome than an underfed Weasley.”

Ginny snarled… then winked, getting to her feet pulling up Harry off the bed. “Better get on with it then, Potter. I'll need a triple serving serving of rashers after everything you put me through in those blasted dreams last night, yeah?”

“Dreams...” Hermione seemed lost for a moment, then she shook her head. “Dreams — the ones I'm not supposed to know about.”

“Yes, sorry 'Mione.” Harry gave his friend a look of sympathy, but she was too distracted by the blank wall in front of her to notice. Hermione followed her two younger friends all of the way to the kitchen in silence, oblivious to their light-hearted speculations about the coming Gryffindor Quidditch season.

Crossing the threshold, they encountered Ron, sitting alone at the table with four sealed envelopes scattered in front of him. He grinned at them. “About bloody time you lot got down here. I've been dying to open my letter!”

Ginny gave her brother a confused look. “You haven't looked at yours yet?”

Ron shrugged. “Didn't seem right to start without Harry and Hermione. Everyone always gets on my case about wanting to tear into my Christmas gifts before anyone else is ready.”

Harry laughed. “This is hardly Christmas, Ron. As you may recall, I haven't any exam results to dread this year because of the Triwizard nonsense.” He bypassed the table and made straight for the ice box to retrieve food. “You three go ahead and check yours while I make breakfast. If anyone absolutely needs mine to be opened with all of the others, then Ginny can do it.”

Ron raised his eyebrow in askance, but then shrugged. “Suit yourself." He lunged for his own letter and tore it open, accidentally sending a badge clattering onto the floor. “What the…??”

Hermione stared at the object that had come to rest between her feet. She stooped to pick it up. “Oh my! Is this what I think it is??”

Harry placed his handful of eggs carefully onto the counter and squinted across the room to see what Hermione was holding dazedly in her hands. He laughed. “Ha! Poor Ron! Your days of mischief are over, mate!”

Ron burst up from then table, waving his arm. “What is it what is it? Give me that!”

Ginny burst out laughing. “Settle down Percy Ignatius! Hermione will hand it over as soon as the shock wears off.”

“Percy?!” Ron glared indignantly at his sister then reached for the object that Hermione was gingerly handing to him. “Whatever are you lot going on about? What is…?”

Ron's mouth fell open. “Blimey.”

“Congratulations Ron!” Harry flashed a quick smile as he returned to the counter to crack eggs. “I'll bet your mum will positive wig with excitement.”

Ginny smiled as well. “Check your letter first to make sure there's no mistake, Ron. But otherwise, yes, congratulations!” She handed Ron the rest of his scattered package, then grinned impishly. “Just don't expect me to treat you with any more adulation than the twins did for our last Weasley Prefect.”

Ron scratched his head, staring at the letter. “There's got to be some mistake.”

“No mistake.” Hermione had nudged in close to the tall Weasley boy, scanning the letter from his side. “Your note is basically the same as mine. Congratulations Ron!”

“But… but...” Ron frowned and glanced nervously about the room. “This was supposed to be Harry, right? His grades have always been better than mine and he's like, well… Harry.

Harry laughed. “No mate, it's your turn. Carpe diem!

“I agree — it's your turn, Ron.” Ginny smiled at her brother, then eyed the dark-haired youth behind the counter. “Besides, Harry will be far too busy this year with non-prefectly… activities…” She gave him a searing look… then stifled a snicker as Harry froze, wide-eyed, knocking a heavy cutting board onto the floor.

Ron flinched at the loud thud, then turned to Harry. “Are you sure you're okay with this?”

“I'm okay if you're okay, Ron.” Harry retrieved the cutting board. “What I'd like to know is how everyone else did with exams. Hermione? Nine O's?”

Hermione fidgeted slightly as she took a seat. “Er, well, ten.”

Harry grinned. “Brilliant! How about you, Gin' ?”

Ginny slid her finger beneath the crease in the envelope and pulled the letter out. Her eyes raced to the bottom of the parchment… and she smiled broadly. “Three O's and five E's.”

“Wow — that's wonderful!” Harry put his utensils down, and came over to the table to give Ginny a half hug. “So, how about you, Prefect?”

“I, uh… Well, just don't ask, okay?” Ron grinned sheepishly. “I passed everything but, you know…”

Parsing her own letter, Hermione frowned distractedly. “Ron, if you're going to be a Prefect, you'll really have to work harder to set a positive example. Younger students will be looking to you as a role model, you realise?”

“But, I…!” Ron's cheeks flushed hot or a moment, then he slumped down in his chair. “Yeah, you're right. And there's O.W.L.s and stuff to worry about too I suppose.”

Hermione's wide eyes caught a quick peak over the top of her letter, then she quickly ducked down behind it again. All the better to disguise her spreading grin.

That evening, Harry lay on his side, lengthwise along the ottoman, with Ginny seated, resting against him. A stack of books lay scattered on the floor.

“So, what was the difference?” Harry's fingers stroked Ginny's hair as he pondered the previous night. “Why did it almost work this time? What did we do differently? Was it the fact that we worked together?”

Ginny chewed her lip. “I don't think so Harry. Don't get me wrong — I'm convinced more than ever that we have to keep trying to work our magic together. If we don't, then that queen is going to be the bleeding death of me one of these times, but…”

“I can't believe she cast Avada Kedavra using your power!” Harry scowled, then shook his head. “But sorry, please go on.”

Ginny shook her head wearily. “I can't believe it either… or maybe I can believe it…” She sighed unhappily. “Anyway, I have no idea why, but I believe that the absolutely critical thing was you keeping that staff away from me.”

“You think so?” Harry chuckled lightly. “Well if I have to go and fall on my head like that, it's nice to hear that it was worth it.”

“It was so creepy to see the staff seek me out like that.” Ginny shivered as she stared into the fire. “What is it about me, and Roman-era sticks of wood?? There's this psychotic wand that will only cast magic through me, and now some demonic staff flies at me. Everyone's heard Mr. Ollivander say that the wand chooses the wizard, but this is getting naffing ridiculous!”

Harry frowned. “Wand… That reminds me — I wonder why the Elder wand exploded?”

“Dunno. Ambiguous allegiances?” Ginny chewed her lip for a moment. “The wand didn't know which of you to kill, so maybe it split the difference and nailed you both?”

“Yes, but none of this fits the least with any of the wandlore that Dumbledore shared, or what we've read in books.” Harry nestled his chin onto Ginny's shoulder. “How on earth are we always jostling these allegiances about? Surely wands aren't that arbitrary and capricious?”

“Or are they, Harry?” Ginny nuzzled her cheek against his. “There's something really really peculiar about those filthy pieces of wood, and… and…” Her neck stiffened. “And I'm scared that the Legate, or Malfoy, has already figured it out.”

Harry reached his arm about Ginny's waist and pulled her close again. “So, let's think about it. What goes into wands? What makes them work? What are the fundamental principles of wandlore? What could you do to bend those principles in strange, baffling ways?”

Ginny huffed. “Why do you keep asking me all the hard questions? Who do I look like — Hermione Granger?”

“If you looked like Hermione Granger, do you really think I'd start nibbling on your neck?”

Ginny jumped… then giggled. “Okay, okay. But you're not getting any more answers tonight if you keep doing that, yeah?”

Harry's lips on her earlobe was the only answer either of them needed after that.

This was not the first time that Albus Dumbledore had regretted placing a bowl of Pepper Imps on his desk right beside the Sherbet Lemons. When he was in a particular state of distraction, entire handfuls of candies might find their way into his mouth at one go, and, well… it was fortunate that he had learned spells to counter the effects of a class II irritant.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.

Now if he could only invent a magical diagnostic instrument capable of explaining to him what was truly causing those bizarre bursts of nocturnal magic at Grimmauld Place!

After dabbing his sopping eyes and banishing the troublesome Imps, he turned his attention to the rather horrifying item ensconced within a glass box on his desk. It was an object of dreadful evil. It spoke of Voldemort's breathtakingly powerful and disturbed mind. It suggested a ghastly new twist in the developing Wizarding War.

But it was not what he had been looking for.

No indeed, the locket (that he was now levitating over to storage within a secure cabinet) could not possibly have cause the remarkable power fluctuations that had been taking place within the Order of the Phoenix's only viable safe house.

Returning to his desk, he sat back and steepled his fingers pensively. After a while, he nodded to himself, resolving that he would have to take very careful measurements tonight to see whether removing the Horcrux from the house would have any effect on the phenomena that he had been observing there. He was definitely willing to wager that, despite Miss Granger's efforts, the magic would still manifest itself. For the seventh time in these last eight nights.

The headmaster decided that if his suspicions proved correct, he would write Sirius again in the morning and request that he and Miss Granger redouble their search, perhaps broadening it to include items that were not quite so obviously dark. After all, a magical item need not be dark to be dangerous.

He massaged his aching temples, re-evaluating his approach to the problem.

This was the right way to address the issue, wasn't it? Miss Granger was keen and knowledgeable, and of course Sirius owned the house and understood most of its idiosyncrasies. Surely there would be no better people in the residence to delegate the task to, right?

Dumbledore was never a person to be comfortable delegating responsibilities that he felt himself best qualified to address, but times were simply too tenuous and distracting right now for him to handle everything personally. As if it had not been galling enough to constantly bicker with the Ministry on matters of Hogwarts administration? Gah! The day before last, Fudge had rushed out to unilaterally appoint a meddlesome bureaucratic toad as the next Dark Arts Defense instructor! Now, on top of that, lay this evidence that Riddle had likely engineered his own immortality using a most depraved form of sorcery!

Yes, trying times! If ever there was an occasion that justified relying on people such as Sirius and Miss Granger to help him out, this was it. He would monitor the situation of course, and if things got out of hand, he must not hesitate to intervene, seeing as how much might be at stake. This was especially true, considering how grave danger always seemed to march hand in hand with their great prodigy — the boy who lived. Whatever the threat unfolding within Grimmauld place, surely Harry was tangled up with it, right?

Dumbledore sighed deeply and turned toward the bird of magnificent plumage who was dozing by the window. “Fawkes old friend?”

The phoenix stirred, gazing at him with half an eye.

“Fawkes, do you think Riddle may be somehow manipulating Mr. Potter to garner strange new powers? How likely is it that Harry would fall for such a ruse, and perhaps even unwittingly ensnare the young Weasley girl as an accomplice?”

The bird's trill was unusually sharp and terse for a phoenix call.

Dumbledore frowned unhappily. “Ah well my dear friend, you always have held a special place in your heart for the boy, haven't you?”

The princess stared at the battered undergrowth and trampled ground, hand raised to her forehead as she gazed toward an uncertain horizon. She frowned. “Whither are they going? And why?”

The Publican stood beside her, scratching his head. His mind was still on the carnage they had just witnessed (great piles of charred corpses still smoldering in a devastated meadow not far from the Roman road), but he sighed and forced himself to weigh the evidence. “I have not gotten far enough in my thoughts to guess their latest goal. From what we have seen, I believe that your mother led an expeditionary force with the purpose of attempting to subdue the Legate. They were followed, I assume, by a large and more cumbersome rearguard.” He shifted his gaze back to the battlefield. “Whether they waylaid the Legate is impossible to determine now. Any traces of a magical clash were likely obliterated by the subsequent non-magical battle.”

The princess continued to face southwards, away from the charnel. “Have you appraised the battle's outcome?”

The Publican nodded. “Yes. The bodies are nearly all Roman — Spanish Ninth Legion by their colours. I assume that they must have issued from Camboricum, which lies eighteen leagues further up the road. I imagine that they intended to sweep down to quell the rebellion at Camulodunum, but were overwhelmed far short of their goal. By all appearances, the better fraction of an entire Legion was destroyed.”

He turned back toward the princess. “So then in victory, for whatever reason, mother chose to forsake both road and water, and turned her forces south over bracken and fen.” LanossŽa squinted in the noonday sun and gestured toward the trodden hills. “What lies thither?”

The Publican joined her pensive gaze. “Fourteen leagues due south lies another Roman road.”

“To whence would that lead?”

The Publican frowned. “Londinium.”

The princess nodded. “Mother and father would speak of Londinium at times. Is that another great Roman fortress?”

The Publican shook his head. “No, that is what bothers me. Londinium is a centre of commerce. It is a civilian town — fewer defences even than Camulodunum.”

“What?” The princess turned on him. “Mother would not harass merchants when our quarrel is with soldiers!”

“Perhaps not, but what of Diras? Would you vouch for his soundness of mind?”

The princess stared at him for a moment, then a look of dark discomfort passed over her face. “No.”

LanossŽa settled herself onto a smooth boulder resting at the side of the road. “Terna, there is hope and glory in the good fight… but this is not a good fight.”

“No. There will be endless dishonour on all hands in this.” The Publican took a seat solemnly beside her. “Yet, still we follow them, Lano. Should we not go north into the wilds to rejoin our simple life? Forsake your people and mine? Let them go off to destroy all that they are bound to destroy?”

“No.” The princess shook her head slowly, with a hint of misery. “No, we must go on. The voices call us.”

“We shall go on, even if these voices call us to our death?”

“My people do not fear death." The hard words softened as LanossŽa met her lover's gaze and reached for his hand. "To be honest though, heart of hearts, I do fear to lose the life that I have discovered with you. I would weep to throw away even a single day that we might have together.” She sighed deeply. “Yet I fear that our failure would exact a terrible price.”

“What do you fear, Lano? What do you see?”

“I see noble hearts, Terna.” The princess gazed into a distant blue sky. “Imagine great souls — people such as us but kinder and nobler. Suppose that we have the power to grant them the chance to love and strive for goodness with a magnificent and pure passion. What if, in turning our backs upon them, we doom those great hearts to never beat? Imagine a frightful darkness rising up and pouring across the land simply because we denied the chance to those who would stop it.”

The Publican grasped her hand. “So say the voices, Lano?”

“So say the voices.”

The Publican sighed. “The voices call… so on we shall go.” He rose up, and helped LanossŽa to her feet.

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