The road had been remarkably quiet all afternoon — a sign that the normal Roman commercial traffic had probably fled to find alternate routes, likely forewarned of the large force of marauding Britons. The Publican had been watching for any signs of Roman military movement, but that was conspicuously absent as well. If there was to be any real military intervention to protect the lively commercial centre of Londinium, it was not likely to come from the northeast.
Seeing a large, smooth stump protruding from the tall grasses beside the road, the Publican gestured to the princess, nonverbally suggesting that they take a quick rest. Sitting together on the stump, he leaned in and let the princess lie back against him. Taking her hand companionably, he scanned the skies to find the smoke's source. “I expect your mother is close, Lano.”
She sighed. “Yes, very likely.”
“We have come a great distance without a real plan. If my nose is not misled, we could walk straight into her camp in less than a half hour. I suspect that the time has come to make decisions.” The Publican gazed eastward along the road. “Shall we confront the queen?”
“So what about? Shall we dissuade her from the ruinous campaign before Paulinus sweeps down from the west with several legions?” The Publican gazed at her pensive face. “Many years ago your father battled the Romans just long enough to earn their respect, yet not so long as to accrue their worst wrath.”
The princess bit her lower lip silently, and the Publican sensed his mistake. “I apologise, Lano. That is surely not an apt comparison. I only meant that perhaps it is not too late for your mother to turn aside and broker a new peace that would preserve her kingdom and her life.”
“I understand your thoughts, Terna.” The princess swallowed deeply and set her jaw. “I think you realize that the situations could not be more different. Eighteen years ago, my father went into battle to prevent the Romans from sweeping brazenly across the land. No queen was flogged, no daughter defiled; my father's actions were a simple case of the political resolve to support his friend Caratacus of the Catuvellauni.”
LanossŽa turned slightly to meet his eyes. “Like any political decision, it was easily rescinded. When the Catuvellauni army crumbled, the fight was no longer in my father's interest, so he was one of those kings to sue for a fair truce. As a result, no Roman soldiers marched across the Ouse to plunder our horses and pillage our grain, no Iceni villages or forests were burned. Hands were shaken, and jeweled daggers were exchanged in peace.”
Indeed the princess did. With a sigh, she continued. “The damage this time has been far greater on both sides, and the wounds may be beyond cure. I fear that no reason or tactical expediency will stay my mother's hand, and I believe she has further succumbed to the poison words of Diras. She will battle the Romans to the death — most likely her death — and the Romans will surely feel no reason for mercy. But I believe we must still seek my mother out, and speak to her in words of whatever wisdom we can summon.”
“We must tell her to look to the manner of her death, Terna.” The princess stepped away from the Publican's embrace and stood to face him; a passion simmering beneath her stolid demeanour. “My mother will die, Terna. I have no doubt about that. So if she is to perish in battle, we must remind her of my grandmother's exhortation that all noble Iceni must die in honour and righteousness.”
LanossŽa recognized her lover's confusion. “By our tradition, a good Iceni may kill anyone whose crimes warrant it. A good Iceni may also protect everyone unable to protect themselves. To die in any such manner is a good death that shall bring favourable fortune upon all ensuing descendants. Yet should mother die while persecuting the innocent or the weak, it would render unto her line a never-ending curse of misfortune and despair. We may never sway her from the battle that calls to her, but we must guide her conduct back to a path of righteousness.”
“We must make her hear, Terna. We have no choice!”
The princess gazed back at him with fire in her eyes. “No. So say I.”
LanossŽa grasped both of his shoulders, looking fiercely into his eyes. “Terna, we cannot let my mother jeopardize her line, because...” She inhaled deeply, her breath shuddering slightly. “Because her line is your line!”
“But Lano, I have no...” The Publican's died on his tongue. He stared, wide-eyed.
He looked at the young woman in amazement then slowly reached for her hands, and held them wonderingly. “By… by Jupiter, Lano! You are with child?”
“Amaethon has smiled upon us, Terna.” Shyly, she gazed up at him. “Yet only by our own actions may his blessing truly bloom.”
Harry slipped quietly down to the girls' bedroom in the deepest, deadest part of the night. He paused at the door, put his ear to it and knocked gently, listening for the tell-tale whisper.
Slowly and firmly, with two hands to minimize the noise of the latch, he grasped the handle and opened the door just widely enough to squeeze his way into the room.
Hermione's raspy, slow breathing suggested that she was asleep, but Ginny had risen to sit cross-legged on her bed. She gestured him close.
Taking a seat on her bed, Harry faced her obliquely, staring at her folded hands in deep thought for a long moment. Finally he raised his glance as high as her chin, and his voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “No wonder you're sharing my dreams, Gin'. You have, definitely, the biggest role in all of this, right? The princess is pregnant with the third brother?”
Ginny reached for Harry's hand. “I don't know about me having the biggest role, Harry. The princess is absolutely key, but half the time she barely listens to me.” Ginny gazed off into the darkness. “But as far as whether she's pregnant with Ignotus Peverell, I would say sure, that certainly sounds like the best way to explain a lot of things — Beedle's tale; the Delphic oracle; the Publican's incredible resemblance to you.” She smiled distantly. “So you're descended from royalty, Harry.”
Harry shrugged. “Perhaps, but for all we know you are too. It can't be an accident that you look so much like the princess, right”
“Are you suggesting we might be cousins, Harry?” Ginny's eyes found his and twinkled.
Ginny squeezed his hand. “Don't worry — it's not an issue, Harry. There's probably not a single witch or wizard in any of the British purebred families who's any more distant than my fourth or fifth cousin. And Weasleys aren't nearly as inbred as a lot of families — not by a long shot.”
“Ah, well that's a relief then, Cuz.” Harry finally smiled for a moment, then he exhaled slowly. “But back to the princess… I know you say that the responsibility belongs to her, but let's not forget that Malfoy is setting some sort of a trap, and you and I know that pillock a lot better than either the princess or the Publican do. It seems fairly apparent that his scheme focuses on the queen or the princess, and you seem to be the one with the best chance of steering either of them clear of any pitfalls. I'll do what I can from the Publican's perspective of course, but I can't help but feel guilty for how much pressure is on you.”
“On me?” Ginny cocked a sardonic eyebrow. “So you'd feel better if these responsibilities were in the hands of someone like Ron?”
Harry rolled his eyes in exasperation. “You know what I mean, Gin'!”
“Yes I do.” She faced him; her expression subsided to one of earnest reflection. “I know exactly what you mean, but don't forget that you came for me in the Chamber of Secrets, right? I didn't ask for you to take on that responsibility, but I also didn't turn you away when you saved my life.”
Ginny squeezed his hand. “Let's not forget who we are, Harry. Apparently, you and I are the wildest, most reckless pair of sods imaginable. It seems like there's always going to be one of us getting into some ridiculously dangerous scrape, but for some reason the other always swoops in to save the day, yeah?”
Harry sat still for a long moment, then gradually lifted his gaze toward her face.
“Another scrape, another save, yeah?” Ginny smiled. “Do we have a deal?”
Harry grinned, his expression a blend of sheepishness and affection. “Deal!”
Ginny leaned in gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Okay partner, so what do you think? Am I going to have to stop the queen from doing something that will curse her line? Or does this all boil down to some strange magic related to the Coritani wand or the defiled staff?”
Harry pursed his lips. “Both? Or all three?”
Ginny nodded. “That's what I was thinking too. In the morning, let's see if we can hide in the library and brainstorm, yeah?”
“You bet!” Harry leaned his forehead to rest on hers. “Thank you, Gin'.”
She grinned for a brief moment, then she kissed him — not in the passionate way that they had so recently begun to discover, but rather in a quiet, caring exchange of comfort and mutual appreciation. As Harry felt the soft pressure of her lips; the warmth of her hands, he felt the prickly anxieties slip away, calmed by the sense of being with someone who would be with him through any sunshine and storm, as long as they both lived.
After a while, they pulled apart. Giving Ginny one last peck, Harry rose from the bed. He smiled a quick farewell, then pulled from a pocket of his shirt a small vial, which he placed on Ginny's night stand. “Tonic,” he whispered. “For when you get up.”
“Thanks.” Ginny's smile flickered slightly, as an awkward blush (undetectable in the dark) appeared in her cheeks — a blush suitable for a girl whose unusual dream connections with an historic princess had given her some rather extraordinary magical experiences, well beyond those of the average fourteen year old. Many of these experiences had been inspiring and empowering, while others (including this strange apparent case of magically amplified sympathetic morning sickness) were admittedly a bit… ugh.
At the doorway, Harry offered a final smile (mostly admiring, though perhaps also containing a bit of commiseration) to his cherished partner. He glanced absently at Hermione who was stirring and mumbling in her sleep, then turned to make his way back upstairs for the rest of the night.
After watching a sparrow flit about on the leafy canopy for a moment, Hettie Gravener finally returned her attention to the journal that she had, not very successfully, been attempting to update. This latest entry, in her prim and compact script, read as follows:
She looked up at the sound of footsteps, and smiled to see the young man approach their table carrying two pints. She had told him she rarely drank, but he seemed to think a glass or two might help the conversation. If that meant that he would be more forthcoming, then she would gladly play along. With a curious eyebrow, she accepted the tall beverage he placed in front of her. “And what have we here?”
“Rochdale.” He gave her an inquiring look. “Do you like it?”
Knowing that sparkling wine would never be served in such a large glass, she assumed it must be some sort of lager along the lines of those her father had occasionally shared with her. Taking a sip, however, she encountered not the expected malt and hops, but rather a blast of apple — a tangy, sweet aroma that raced straight to her nose, stinging her eyes with its sharpness. Blinking wildly, she coughed, then grinned. “Cider! It's nice.”
“Not just any cider, Hettie.” Rob took a seat and smiled. “It's from New Zealand. I asked the barkeep if he might have anything that a Kiwi lass might appreciate and he offered this.”
She laughed. “Thank you for being so thoughtful Rob, but honestly I've so little experience, you could have bought me the cheapest watery draught and I would hardly know any better. Besides, I'm really still an East Midlands girl at heart. I grew up in Northampton you know; we lived there until I was eleven.”
“Eleven?” Rob frowned. To Hettie, it seemed that the entire rest of her statement might as well have been whisps in a gale, but that one word seemed to resonate unusually heavily with him. He sighed. “Yes, eleven. Of course you would have left around then.”
“Pardon me? What did you mean by that?”
“Sorry, it's a bit daft.” Rob gave her a wistful, half-smile. “I keep forgetting that we're the same year. In better times, we'd have gone to school together.”
“School? But weren't you raised in Devon? Seems highly unlikely we would have ended up...” She stared at him in confusion for a moment before her expression brightened. “Oh! You mean that school of mag-”
“Ssh!” His index finger darted up to silence her. He paused for a moment as his right hand fiddled with something beneath the table.
Hettie had a sudden strange sensation, almost like her ears popping. The nearby bird song and traffic noise from Highgate West Hill faded into nothingness. She tapped the table, and was surprised to discover that although her hearing actually seemed to work properly close by, the rest of the world had gone completely mute. She stared at Rob in astonishment. “Magic??”
“Yes.” He nodded. “Silencing spell.”
Hettie's mouth formed a letter “O” shape.
“Anyway Hettie, I had intended to start telling you a bit about the British wizarding world, but the plan was for us to wait on a mate of mine. He ought to be here by now. You'll like him I think — we were classmates for years, and he'll be helping us on this mission.”
She squinted slightly, peering over Rob's shoulder. “A mate of yours? Might it be that tall sandy-haired fellow over there?”
Rob turned in his chair and nodded. “Oi!” He waved. “Neill — over here!”
Watching as the sandy-haired man continued to wander heedlessly about the garden seating area, Hettie reached over and tapped her friend on the shoulder. “Er, Rob?”
She smiled as he turned around. “Didn't you say something about a silencing spell?”
Rob smacked his head. “Thanks Hettie — I'm rather a dope today.” He rose from the table and walked over to summon his colleague. Hettie watched with interest as the tall fellow spotted Rob, threw an arm around him, and the pair embraced with a powerful sincerity.
Pulling apart, Rob steered the young man to the table, and gestured toward a vacant chair. “Neill, I'd like you to meet Henrietta Gravener. Hettie, this is Neill Lawnbarton.”
Hettie rose to offer her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Neill.”
The man accepted her hand with an easier warmth than Hettie had ever found in Rob. Neill gave her a wide-eyed, slightly crooked grin. “The pleasure is mine, Miss Gravener. I can't believe you're actually here!”
Hettie smiled uneasily. “I, uh, well… Rob is a very persuasive fellow. Although not always particularly candid.” She raised a playful eyebrow for Rob's benefit.
Rob hung his head awkwardly for a moment, then emerged with a penitent smile. “Well, better very very late than never, yeah?” He turned back to his friend. “Neill, it was just rattling through my head how, if old Hogwarts hadn't gone to hell, Hettie would have been in our class.”
Neill's good-natured grin vanished. “I don't want to even think about that, Rob.”
For a long moment, Neill scowled darkly at the beer that he had brought from the bar, then finally raised his face, serious and clenched. “I apologise for being sharp, but we're long past the day when we can ever play games of let's pretend. Hogwarts turned into hell on Earth, and there's no point in getting sentimental about any might-have-beens, okay? As far as I'm concerned, it's a bloody fine thing for Hettie and for us that her family escaped when they had a chance.”
“What? Escaped?” Hettie's eyes crinkled in perplexity. “My father never said anything about escaping anything when we left here. He and Mum really just seemed excited to have an offer to practise dentistry in Auckland.”
The table went silent. Neill and Rob both shuffled slightly, before Rob coughed. “Eh, well I've been tip-toeing around a bit, Neill. You see, Hettie doesn't really know the situation yet. Duff wants us to brief her a bit before we bring her around to see him tomorrow.”
“Doesn't really know the situation…?” Neill turned to Hettie inquiringly. “So you don't remember getting a Hogwarts letter? Don't recall old Dunbar arranging your family's relocation? Nothing about V-Mo?”
Hettie shook her head in confusion. “Hogwarts? Dunbar? V-what? Is someone ever going to explain any of this to me? Hogwarts was the magical school — I've guessed that much, but as for the rest…”
“Just a minute please, Hettie.” Rob sighed. He turned to Neill. “Duff did warn me before I left that for New Zealand that she might not remember anything. He thinks Professor Dunbar Obliviated a lot of the families he expatriated.”
“Obliviated? Expatriated??” Hettie had begun quivering in anxiety. “Would someone please tell me what the hell…??”
Rob reached across and grasped her hand; he turned to her; his eyes — two deep wells of sadness suddenly laid bare to her. “Hettie, I apologise for leading you along for so long, with so little for you to go on. The secrecy was for your protection; we all half-expected this all to fall apart long before now; if things had gotten all bollixed then the less you knew, the better your chance of just being able to walk away unmarked, and go back to your old life in Auckland.”
Hettie nodded, still anxious but struggling to restore a modicum of patience.
Neill pursed his lips. “I still can't believe you got her here, mate. Intelligent, inquiring person as her hopping aboard something bizarre and fanciful like this?”
Rob shrugged. “Duff wasn't surprised. He said that if she was really the right person, she would come — even if she had no real idea why.” He turned to Hettie. “And so, here you are Hettie. You've trusted me this far; now it's finally time for a bit of background, yeah?”
Hettie nodded, trying not to appear too excited.
Rob took a long pull on his draught, closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Okay, you'll have to bear with me as history is hardly my strong suit and I have no sodding idea how and when this all truly started. I guess I can start back about twenty years ago, when a terrible movement seems to have sprung up within the British magical community. Please don't ask me to explain the reasoning, but it basically involved a troop of bigoted thugs starting to persecute people. They went after families like yours, Hettie — they targeted any family outside of magical community who had children with magical abilities.”
Hettie opened her mouth, but Rob raised his hand gently to cut her off. “Again, please don't ask me to try to give any decent reasons for that. Duff can give you an idea tomorrow, but all I can say is that it's cruel, insane and stupid, okay?”
Hettie said nothing. Rob looked away as he felt her shocked eyes upon him. An air of self-conscious reticence about him, he nonetheless forced himself to continue. “It started off subtle. Around the time you were born, it was mostly just low-level harassment — you know, like sneers, slurs, pranks, nasty newspaper articles. Then, a couple years before you should have started at Hogwarts, the government began willfully turning a blind eye to reports that families like yours were disappearing…”
Rob exhaled slowly; for a moment, his face was barren, almost that of a lost child. “The families just vanished. The Minister of Magic would claim that they were simply emigrating or whatnot, but after a whole slew of newly registered Hogwarts first years simply never showed up to school, Headmaster Dunbar did some investigating.”
Rob took another long pull on his draught, then resumed, staring down into the rising bubbles. “The headmaster told my dad once that he visited maybe six or seven houses where the family had disappeared. Every case was the same — all the furniture, clothes and belongings were left in place; food was left in the ice chest, dishes in the basin, newspapers lying open on chesterfields. The Minister swore the family had simply gotten up and left, but to Dunbar the truth was obvious — any time a prospective new Hogwarts student was identified from any non-magical family, it was a death warrant.”
Wearing a grim look, Neill leaned forward. “The secret disappearances were bad, but five years ago, the bigots took complete control of all the magical institutions — government, Hogwarts, our main hospital, and so forth. That's when the last wheel came off. No more need for secret disappearances when you can have… public executions.”
Rob it his lip hard and inhaled a ragged breath. “Please don't think it was all of us, Hettie. A lot of us fought against it, Hettie. My family and Neill's were there in the thick of it — for decades we'd been part of an Order that's been battling to preserve what's… what's… what's just and right, dammit! I mean, how many innocent people do you need to see slaughtered like lambs in front of a hundred students to know good from evil! I just can't understand how people could...”
Rob thrust part of this thick fist between his teeth and bit down with a slow, shuddering ferocity. His face paled and twisted in agony. On the table near his glass, Rob's other hand twitched. Neill and Hettie both unconsciously reached for it, and clasped it in a three-way gesture of empathy and support.
As Rob recomposed himself, Neill leaned forward. His voice stirred with quiet, almost whispering, solemnity. “We struggled hard… the Wilseys, Lawnbartons and roughly another score of fine Wizarding families. We were led by Headmaster Dunbar, a remarkable wizard if there ever was one. Inspiring too — he always made us believe that the righteousness of our cause would win the day, but…” He pushed back from the table and gazed at his feet. “Well Hettie, we lost.”
Words fell away into nothingness. With no background noise, the silence was practically suffocating. Finally after nearly a minute, Rob's voice emerged, solemn, almost like a deep chant. “We lost everything. All of our eggs in one basket… smashed.”
“What happened?” Hettie was almost surprised to hear the question, even though it had come from her own mouth.
“I don't exactly know.” Rob dashed back the last of his draught and shifted in his seat. “Our safe house was a mere twenty minute walk from where we are right now. It was the heart and soul of the Order. It was the command center, the barracks. It kept us all alive… until it was compromised somehow.”
Rob tapped distractedly at the table for a moment before finding the heart to continue. “As far as we could unravel, last December, some operatives of our scum-infested government managed to creep into the basement, somehow breaching all our protections without tripping even the slightest alarm. The whole Order was on hand for a… for a… uh, well for a… an all-hands meeting… Nobody suspected a thing. Everyone was caught at complete unawares.”
Neill inhaled slowly. “They wiped out the whole Order. We're all that's left.”
Hettie gaped. “Your families are the only ones left?”
Neill slowly shook his head. “No Hettie. We — Rob and I — we're the only ones left.”
“What about…” Hettie's frantic gaze darted from one man to the other, imploringly. “What about ch-children…?”
Neill retreated behind his hands for a moment, rasped slightly, then re-emerged. “Rob botched a detail on you, Hettie. It wasn't exactly a meeting as such; it was a… Christmas party.”
“Oh!” Hettie froze, both hands clasped over her mouth.
A grim set to his jaw, Rob pushed quickly past the pall. “Neill and I were on a mission that night. We'd planned to be at the… the party… but we ran into some problems, and didn't get back in time for, well, for anything.” He stared off through a break in the leaf cover at the oblivious traffic streaming past. “You can't imagine two blokes more shattered. We cried, we smashed things, we vomited, then cried again. We… we hid in the sewers for a couple of weeks, and somehow down there in the darkness… you know, we ought rightly to have gone stark mad or something, but instead we held onto each other just long enough that we started to pull our heads together a bit. We came back out into daylight, disguised ourselves and were in the process of making plans to run away to, I dunno, maybe Romania, Egypt, Paraguay or some place... but then we were found out.”
Neill leaned forward. “We were tracked down by a queer old fellow named Duff. He'd been a government type, but had no use for the hell-raisers running the show. Said he knew a way to fix everything; set all the ills a'right again, if only we would help him. Rob and I were ready to believe anything at that point and, well, the strangest, most unlikely hope is still a hope, right?”
Rob nodded. “The fastest cure for self-pity is adventure and, let's say he knocked some sense into us pretty fast — gave us the most hellacious caper, risking our skins to break into the residence of one of the darkest, most evil families in the country in order to find an old sub-basement compartment where there was a-a strange magical artifact that he needed.”
Neill fixed Hettie with an appraising look. “I don't think either Rob or I can explain Duff's plan, Hettie, but there are two keys to it. The artifact is one key. Whatever power it supposedly has, Duff was absolutely thrilled when we retrieved it, because it seemed to validate his theory and give us a lead on how to proceed.”
Rob nodded. “Right. So, to make a long story short, the magic in the artifact led us to you. And it seems almost certain that you're the second key in all of this.”
Neill gazed at Hettie, almost apologetically. “So you're it, Hettie. You're our last hope.”
Hettie stared into space in disbelief for a long time. Both men waited patiently, hopefully. Finally she lowered her gaze and met Rob's sad, deep, but every-so-slightly optimistic eyes. Her voice issued nearly breathlessly. “Whatever am I supposed to do?”
Rob gazed at her levelly. “Well, you have to understand that Duff is a bit peculiar and doesn't always explain things in a way I can fathom, but from what little I know, in the simplest terms… we sort of need you to help my sister.”
Hettie blinked. “Your sister? Is she okay? Do you know where she is?”
Rob shrugged uncomfortably. “Errr, well sort of, but this is where my understanding gets a bit thin.”
“So?” Hettie's hands fluttered in agitated impatience. “Please at least try.”
“So, um, like the rest of my family she's uh...” Rob swallowed. “She's dead.”
Chest heaving, Hermione awoke with a start. Sitting up in the dimness of the predawn bedroom, her glance darted to her room mate who appeared to be sleeping peacefully. She slid her legs out of bed and started to cross the room toward Ginny, but then stopped herself.
Should I wake her, or does Ginny need her sleep?
Is Ginny dreaming anything important?
Was my dream the same sort of dream that Ginny and Harry have been having? If I somehow tapped into the power that's been giving them their visions, does that invalidate my promise to steer clear of their adventures?
Should I tell Ginny about my dream? Would it somehow be useful information, or would it merely cause undue emotional trauma to hear a dream where nearly everyone we know was killed in an Death Eater attack on Grimmauld Place?
Hermione sat back down onto her own bed. “Fooey.”
The statement was barely more than a muttered whisper, but Ginny's eyelids flicked open. “Ev'thing okay, 'Mione?”
That was all the invitation Hermione needed. She rushed across to the other bed and captured the bewildered recumbent girl in a fierce (if awkward) embrace.
Hermione shuddered somewhat as the dream's raw emotion coursed through her. “Oh, Ginny! What have you gotten yourself into??”
Ginny wheezed. “A bear trap apparently?”
“Ginny…” Hermione pulled back slightly, sniffling. “Ginny, you're going t-to die.”
Ginny raised an eyebrow. “Ah yes. And top of the morning to you too, Miss Granger!”
Hermione blinked at the sarcastic jest. It seemed to jolt her partly back into the present day, and she formed a half-smile. She pulled back a bit further (enough to let Ginny struggle to a seating position) then met her friend's quizzical gaze. “I-I think I've started dreaming too, Ginny.”
Ginny stared. “Dreaming? As in, like, dreaming that you're in AD 61 or 1998?”
Hermione nodded. “Yes, definitely 1998. I actually recall writing 'April 29, 1998' in a journal entry. As far as my other dream, I can't swear it was AD 61, but by the clothes people were wearing, it could certainly well have been that long ago.”
Ginny studied her friend's face. “Did you recognize anyone in the dreams?”
“Yes! In the ancient dream, I seemed to be tending to two injured people — one looked like a very fit, middle-aged Harry, and the other was nearly identical to you — a bit more mature and muscular, but otherwise a near-perfect match.”
Wide-eyed, Ginny smiled. “Aha! So you've met the Publican and princess, 'Mione? Did you see who you yourself were? Heanua, perhaps? Harry said that she prepared a restorative draft for us up in some wooded grove near Camulodunum. Was that you?”
“Heanua?” Hermione scratched her head. “The name rings a faint bell. Who was she?”
“The elder of the two princesses.”
“Ah!” Hermione nodded. “That would make sense then. Her mother was the queen — I assume that means Boadicea.”
“Yes, exactly.” Still somewhat groggy, Ginny yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Fascinating. I wonder why you ended up with Heanua. Of course, the more fundamental question is why you're getting wrapped up in any of this in the first place?”
Ginny leaned back against the head board, gazing toward the ceiling. “So, I've kind of figured out how Harry and I got tangled up together. In AD 61, the Publican gave LanossŽa a…”
“Ginny, should you be telling me any of this? What if Professor Dumbledore uses Legilimency on me?”
Ginny exhaled through her teeth. “Shite, I suppose not, yeah? Blasted old coot…”
“Ginny, watch yourself! He's the greatest wizard of our age!”
“Whatever you say, 'Mione.” Ginny rolled her eyes. “I don't know why the greatest wizard of our age should feel the need to bully fourteen year old girls, but whatever… Anyway, we all really need to give some serious thought as to how you've become a part of these shenanigans. None of the research or conjecture that Harry and I have bandied about to explain our own situation would do much to explain your involvement. It doesn't make sense.”
“Uh Ginny, I…” Hermione debated for a moment whether she should tell Ginny about having touched the brooch the previous morning, but decided it would complicate the situation, and possibly do even more damage to the promise she was trying to keep.
Ginny peered quizzically at her friend. “Yes, 'Mione?”
Hermione looked away. “I, uh, don't understand it either.”
Ginny nodded. “Yes, well we'll just have to add this to the growing list of potentially important vexing mysteries. But, say… would you mind telling me a little about your 1998 dream?”
“Oh, certainly.” Hermione placed an elbow onto her knee and sank into a Rodin pose. “It was an incredibly detailed, but very confusing dream. From what I was told, my family and I were Obliviated and expatriated before I ever got to go to Hogwarts, supposedly for our own protection. Then in spring of 1998, Rob — I mean Ron; sorry the names are all a bit garbled in the dream for some reason — Ron travels thousands of miles to bring me back to England, and I end up sitting in a pub about a mile from here speaking with him and Neville, and I find out that they want me to help you.”
“Me?” Ginny cocked an eyebrow. “How are you supposed to help me?”
Hermione sighed. “Sorry, I have no idea. I woke up before I could find out any of the most salient details.”
“Sure.” Ginny pursed her lips. “Next time you have a dream, you can try harder to hold onto it. Harry and I are usually able to stay with a dream for quite a while, unless we get banged up really badly in the action. Or killed, or whatnot.”
“Oh.” Hermione's face fell. “That was part of the problem — I was shocked to discover from Ron that you were, uh, dead.”
“I was dead?” Ginny studied her friend with interest. “That's strange. I had thought we were getting to the stage where we stood a real chance to… Sorry, I'd better not talk too much about that.” She smiled sheepishly at Hermione. “Anyway, don't worry if you have a dream where I'm dead, 'Mione. I feel like I'm used to it now. But did you get any idea where Harry was in this dream? Was he planning to storm Hogwarts or something?”
Hermione fell silent for a long moment. “Well there was definitely no talk about anyone storming Hogwarts, although I got the distinct impression that Neville would be happy to see the place obliterated. No, the funny thing is that there was no mention of Harry whatsoever.”
“Funny? I think not.” Ginny exhaled sharply through her teeth. “Damn!”
“Aggh! Just when I thought we were finally making real progress!” Ginny sank back down into her bed, looking suddenly quite miserable.
“Oh Ginny!” Hermione grabbed her hand and tried to project her most sympathetic look. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No 'Mione.” Ginny exhaled slowly. “Well maybe, but I don't know what to ask of you. For starters, maybe you could just let me know if anything else interesting happens in these dreams of yours.” She slid out of bed and wrapped a bath robe around herself. “If you're going to be doing all of this dreaming too, I feel like I should ask you to be careful of what you do or how you do it… but obviously I have almost no clue how to steer things properly anyway, so who am I to be telling anyone else what to do?”
Uncertain how to respond, Hermione sat wringing her hands for a moment, then noticed Ginny making for the door. She rose to follow. “Where are you going, Ginny?”
“I…” Ginny's shoulders sagged for a moment. “I need to see Harry.”
“Ginny, it's not yet even 4:30 in the morning. Don't you suppose you should let him sleep a bit longer?”
Ginny sighed. “Yes, you're right.” Reaching into an inner pocket of her nightgown, she pulled out the brooch and tucked it under her pillow. Remembering what Harry had left for her on the night stand, she picked up the vial, drank the tonic, then turned quickly back toward the door.
“Er, Ginny?” Hermione frowned in confusion. “What are…? Where are you going now?”
“To see Harry.”
Hermione blinked. “But we just agreed that you would let him sleep.”
Ginny rolled her eyes. “I said I was going to see Harry. I'm not going to chatter at him or bounce on his bed, like someone I know. With any luck I won't even wake him, which was why I'm leaving that thing behind.” She pointed at the pillow under which she had hidden the brooch.
“Oh?” Hermione raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You're just going to go upstairs to… look at him?”
“Hermione, listen.” Ginny sighed deeply. “Until he and I figure out what the problem is with the past or the future or whatever, my life in the present is going to be hell. Every night when I go to bed, I'm going to wonder what I'll find the next morning. When I wake up, will everything be completely, permanently changed? Maybe I'll discover that I never ever knew Harry; that he never existed! Or maybe he'll have died as a baby. Or maybe I'll wake up knowing that it's Harry's last day, month or year to live.”
Ginny's lip trembled slightly; she averted her eyes, but her jaw was set. “Try to see things from my perspective, please. Every morning until this is all sorted, I'll be getting out of bed wondering if there really is a boy lying in that bed upstairs across from Ron's. If I walk upstairs right now, am I going to find that the bed is cold? Never been slept in? Maybe there's not even a second bed in there? Do you have any idea what I'm going through?”
Hermione stared blankly.
“So yes Hermione, I'm going to go upstairs and I'm going to go look at Harry. And let me tell you this — if I crack open the bedroom door and I see him in there with his eyes closed and his tufty hair flopped down on the pillow, a hundred little muscles in my chest are going to unclench a little. I'm going to take a long slow breath, smile a tiny smile, and burn that image into my soul as indelibly as possible in case some day that's the only thing I have left of him. Once I've finished with that, I might stand there for another moment, quiet as a mouse, and let a few happy little tears run down my face. Then finally, I'm going to close the door, tip-toe down to the kitchen and make myself some tea. Is that all right? Does that meet with your bloody approval?”
Hermione bit down on her lower lip.
Not waiting for an answer, Ginny made her way around her room mate and left the room.
Harry did indeed exist that day.
He didn't really think much about the fact that he still existed; he was mostly just happy to be, because, in general, the day had been going pretty well. Many of us measure the quality of our days based on how much attention we receive, and this was true for Harry. Sort of... To be accurate, though, the crucial thing for Harry was whom he was getting attention from. Today he had been the beneficiary of plenty of fun companionship from Ginny (even more than usual), coupled very conveniently with quite a bit less of than the accustomed levels of undesirable attention he had grown to expect from other people.
A big reason for Harry's welcome break from prying eyes was the fact that Grimmauld Place was gearing up to host yet another party.
Knowing that the Order was planning a meeting this evening, Molly had decided at breakfast that the day would provide an excellent excuse to invite everyone over a bit early to celebrate Ron's and Hermione's imminent prefectures. The short notice had meant a hubbub of preparations, starting with a rushed round of owled invitations, some accelerations to the cleaning regimen, and a fair bit of cooking. Fortunately, Harry and Ginny had already nabbed breakfast duty and volunteered for morning kitchen cleanup even before any of the other chores had been proposed, so they were able to spend most of the morning together, taking care things that they enjoyed doing together.
By they time Harry and Ginny had finished in the kitchen, most of the remaining work had already been assigned, and they were only tasked with the relatively modest chore of mopping and dusting the entranceway. This had left them with a decent chunk of the afternoon in which to escape to the library for a regimen that alternated between brainstorming over wand lore and taking several long interludes to catch up on… less studious activities.
Hours later, Harry and Ginny now found themselves in one of the quieter corners of the drawing room, biding their time before the party wound down enough for them to justify excusing themselves.
The gathering had been mildly interesting. Having the spotlight thrust upon Ron and Hermione had made it easier for Harry to quietly navigate the crowd. He and Ginny had managed to have pleasant conversations with some of the more soft-spoken Order members such as Hestia Jones and Emmeline Vance. In addition to that, a well-intentioned (if technically quite unnecessary) pep-talk by Sirius and Lupin about why Harry shouldn't be bothered about being overlooked for a Prefect position had been amusing in terms of hearing a few new stories of Harry's father's school days. Ultimately, both Harry and Ginny had been most captivated (if somewhat appalled) by Alastor Moody's fascinating but remarkably grim recollections of the First Wizarding War.
Holding the faded photograph that Moody had given him, Harry watched the battered Auror shuffle-stomp his way over to the drinks table to top off his flask and berate Kingsley Shacklebolt over something or other. As Harry scanned the room observing the semi-drunken merriment in vague amusement, he felt something warm and stockinged make its way onto his lap. Unconsciously, he began stroking it, eliciting a soft, feminine purr from beside him on the chesterfield. He half-noticed Fred eye him and give him a sly wink (then elbow George, who also glanced over and smirked), but Harry's thoughts were mostly elsewhere.
Ginny ceased her purring long enough to reach up and lay her hand on his arm. “What's on your mind, Harry?”
Harry glanced at the old photo again. “Mostly just aimless wandering but… say, this is the first time I've seen a picture of your uncles.” He looked closely at the picture again for a moment then turned to study his girlfriend. “Huh.”
Ginny smiled quizzically. “What is it?”
Harry frowned analytically. “You know, a lot of people talk about the red-headed Weasleys, but you're much more of a Prewett, aren't you?”
Ginny lay back a bit further and gazed up at the ceiling. “I'd honestly never thought much about it. Why do you say that?”
Harry hummed for a moment to himself. “Well, your dad and most of your brothers have vividly coppery red hair, but yours is more like your mum's and uncles' — deeper colours, with rich with tints and tones that go all the way from strawberry to auburn.” He studied her for a moment. “Also, the Weasley face tends to be rounder, but yours is kind of slender. Again, it seems less like your dad and brothers, and more like your uncles.”
“Oh? That's an interesting observation.”
Harry gestured toward the photo. “You know, Gin', if LanossŽa was to somehow magically step into this old Order of the Phoenix photo, I'm certain everyone would guess she was Gideon's and Fabian's younger sister. To me, she looks every bit the Prewett — maybe even more than your mum does.”
Ginny reached for the photograph. Harry handed it to her and watched as she looked at it with a slight frown. Ginny gave a furtive glance over to her mother and snickered slightly under her breath (her mother was animatedly proclaiming something to Dedalus Diggle and Elphias Doge in front of a blushing Ron and a distinctly uncomfortable Hermione) then returned her gaze to the photo and nodded. “Yes, I see what you mean. So, do you think the Prewetts are her descendants then?”
Harry shrugged. “I wonder. There's also the whole name thing. Peuerellius, Prewett, Potter? Over nineteen hundred years of fiddly accents and semi-literate ancestors, you can almost convince yourself that it's all the same name, gradually evolving as people crossed into different dialects.”
“Okay, you have me convinced.” Ginny laughed. “So I really do have my very own kissing cousin, yeah?” She smirked for a moment but her smile subsided. Buried deep beneath the lighthearted conversation, she knew that Harry was almost certainly still replaying the princess's solemn words...
… unto her line, a never-ending curse of misfortune and despair…
… her line is your line…
Ginny sighed and studied at the photo again — so many cheery, jocular faces. At the time of the photograph, so many unknowingly had mere days left to live. It was difficult not to conflate in her mind the hard life of the first Order of the Phoenix with the dystopian wizarding dream-world that Hermione had mentioned — another courageous crusade dangling by a faint thread of hope, teetering on the edge of total annihilation.
Who was to say that some sort of curse wasn't already playing out? Maybe even without Malfoy's interference, the queen's indiscretions had managed to afflict them all with pain and tribulations?
Somewhat subdued, Ginny found herself, yet again, gazing at the wonderful person beside her.
Was he the end of the line?
If so, it apparently didn't matter much to him yet, because he was smiling at her.
“Huh?” She blinked, and belatedly returned a smile.
“The party is breaking up early — it's probably time for the Order to start their meeting.” He glanced around the room. “Should we go back up to the library, go to bed… or just stick around here where we're comfortable?”
“I don't know, Harry.” Ginny stared into space for a while, oblivious to all the people shuffling about as the drawing room emptied. Finally she squeezed his arm and smiled at him. “I do know one thing, though.”
He leaned closer with a quizzical look on his face. “What's that, Gin'?”
“I know that…” She reached up to touch his cheek with her fingers. “I know that we'll find a way, Harry. Somehow or other, we're going to do what has to be done.”
As Ginny watched for his response, she saw, in the span of one wordless second, Harry's face going through a number of subtle changes of expression.
Fear. Hope. Love?
In the end, she found his eyes gleaming, gazing deeply into hers.
And then he kissed her.
Hermione was nearly at wits end.
After her recent dream, attending a party was the absolute last thing in the world she wanted to be doing.
Furthermore, to add to the stress, she had striven throughout the evening to try to protect her two close friends, in spite of them neither recognizing her efforts nor doing much to even help themselves. Specifically, Hermione had attempted to draw prying attention away from Harry and Ginny whenever they started to get publicly affectionate.
Hermione had to admit that, although the pair was getting frustratingly oblivious, at least they had chosen a quiet and semi-secluded nook of the drawing room to cuddle. But Hermione was convinced that they were still being far too careless, and she was nearly resigned to their secret being futile. First Sirius had nearly caught them snogging yesterday morning, and now she had noticed the twins beginning to study the younger teens rather closely throughout the party. Surely it was only a matter of time before discretion fell apart and the whole house swooped in on them.
Even now, pushing Fred and George out of the drawing room door while regaling them with any details she could think of about Muggle pyrotechnics (Hey, whatever works!), Hermione couldn't help but notice George take a sidelong glance out of the corner of his eye toward the spot where Harry and Ginny were sitting.
Hermione attempted to thrust her own rather unruly hair into George's line of sight, then turned to tug Fred through the doorway, all the while lecturing animatedly. “Don't forget! Even very tiny quantities of strontium, barium, lithium, sodium and copper will give exquisite colours.”
“Could you write that down for us, Hermione dear?” Fred smirked. “I fear I got a bit distracted back there.”
“Distracted indeed!” George snickered. “I think we're not the only ones around here with a flair for making fireworks.”
Hermione pulled the drawing room door shut and huffed. “You two are so immature! Why don't you give Harry and Ginny their privacy? They've both been through a very trying time; I'm sure they're merely offering a bit of comfort to each other.”
George's face went stone serious. “Oh, that must be it! Of course they're comforting each other.”
Fred nodded. “Hey Hermione, yesterday I stubbed my toe and it still aches terribly. Would you be so kind as to comfort me?”
George's mouth suddenly morphed into a pair of guppy-lips.
The twins exploded into a quivering mass of hilarity. They snorted and gasped for the better part of three seconds before they began noticing waves of steam pouring off Hermione. Taking a wary, wide-eyed look at her, they straightened up and bolted for the stairs, laughter trailing behind them.
Half in impotent rage and half in a growing funk of despair and isolation, Hermione glared at the staircase for a long moment.
Then she felt a hand on her shoulder.
For reasons she had not quite processed yet, she was hit with a momentary fantasy that the hand on her shoulder was Rob's. Or maybe even Ron's. Then Hermione sighed. She knew that unlike any dreams she might have had recently, this was definitely the summer of 1995 and, as such, she had no basis for any fantasies. She would just have to make do with Sirius Black.
As she turned to face him, Sirius chortled merrily. “Happy as ever to see me, eh Granger? Who pissed in your porridge?”
“Sorry, it's been a difficult day.” She attempted to manufacture a smile. “Why aren't you in the meeting?”
Sirius's roguish look subsided. “I need to check with you first. Albus is supposed to attend tonight, and may ask for an update on the question of a strange charmed object in this dump. He was fascinated by the nasty locket I sent him, but his owl this morning informed me that it wasn't what he was looking for.”
“Oh?” Hermione did her best to hide a rather bitter disappointment.
Sirius shook his head. “Nah, he said that although last night's magical readings here weren't incredibly powerful, and despite them changing character a bit compared to previous nights for some reason, the effect is still in place.” He shrugged. “I have to admit that I'm stumped. Have you come across any other objects that might explain any of this?”
Hermione was in the process of figuring out how best to answer, when they heard a sudden whoosh and clatter coming from the kitchen.
Sirius gazed down the stairwell. “Sounds like the floo; that must be Albus now.” He turned back to Hermione. “So anything to report in thirty seconds or so?'
Hermione shook her head. “No, I was really hoping that finding the locket would ease his mind.”
“And whose mind would you be easing?” Professor Dumbledore was making his way briskly up the stairs. “A good evening to you, Sirius. Congratulations on the unsurprising selection as Prefect, Miss Granger! I hope you're both doing well.”
“As well as can be expected in this squalour.” Sirius winked. “I've been meaning to have a word with the proprietor about the deplorable living conditions.”
“Ah yes — please do so, Sirius. And you, Miss Granger?”
“I-I'm fine, sir.”
Rising to the landing, Dumbledore nodded and gazed pleasantly at Hermione. “Sirius may have mentioned that I'm still on the lookout for a peculiar object of power on the premises. By any chance have you felt any unusual magic in the house today? Perhaps a slightly different sensation than what you may have experienced previously.”
Hermione shuffled her feet. “Well no sir. I haven't really felt any unusual magic today. As I was just telling Sirius, I had hoped that the problem might be solved by removing the locket.”
“Ah, we are not quite so lucky.” Dumbledore's eyes twinkled as he gazed at his student. “Please continue to search this house and your heart, Miss Granger. Not all that feels friendly is truly safe. We must find that item.”
Hermione felt blood drain from her face as she attempted to parse various possible interpretations of his words.
Dumbledore, meanwhile, had already shifted his attention “So Sirius, shall we go learn what wisdom our friends have to offer?”
Sirius glanced at Hermione then turned to Dumbledore. “Please go along without me, Albus. I need a few minutes with Hermione before she goes to bed; we have to coordinate tomorrow's search.”
“Capital plan!” Dumbledore smiled as he began to make his way up the next flight of stairs. “I shall let the troops know you'll be along. Best of luck to you both. I'm certain you'll succeed if you set your mind to it.”
Sirius turned to Hermione and gave her a somewhat strange, serious-looking wink. He opened his mouth, and a bland string of words started to flow. “So, having failed with the dark detectors, I'm going to ask Kreacher to find us a couple of old-fashioned divining rods, and what I recommend is that we divide all of the rooms between us. In the morning I'll do the lowest three floors, while you do the three uppermost. After lunch we'll switch, and check each other's work. In that way…”
From upstairs came the sound of Dumbledore entering the converted store room, then closing the door behind him.
With a look of concern, Sirius turned to Hermione, his business-like speech completely forgotten. “Well blimey, Granger! Do you have any idea what that was all about?”
Hermione felt cold and drained as she faced Sirius. “W-what was what all about?”
Sirius cocked his head slightly. “You didn't feel that?”
Hermione's neck prickled at his question. “Feel what?”
Sirius squinted in thought for a minute. “Well, unless I'm mistaken, and I don't believe that I am… old Albie just gave you a hell of a deep brain scan.”
Hermione stared at him for a moment… then her head swam as blood rushed from it. Just as her knees began to give way, she had the vague sensation of Sirius's arm wrapping itself around her waist to steady her. But none of that particularly registered because Hermione's mind was filled by one single, simple but overpowering thought.