Chapter 15. Very Very Wrong (August 16, 1995)
Hermione burst out of bed, and opened the door a crack.
Sirius was on the other side. He was unshaven, he had rumpled hair and clothing, and his breath was somewhat questionable, but the man's eyes looked alert, and his mouth was already in gear. “Great, you're already up! So, the way I see it…”
Hermione's finger shot to her lips; she shushed him as effectively as she could without actually making more noise than he was. She took a step back and beckoned him in.
Sirius entered, silently and quizzically. He glanced around and froze, seeing Ginny peacefully asleep. “Oops. I didn't mean to…”
Sirius closed his mouth and shrugged resignedly.
Hermione turned to face Ginny; she watched her sleeping friend conflictedly for a moment, then raised a thumbnail to her teeth and chewed it anxiously. Finally Hermione's resolution took hold and she approached the girl and knelt by the side of her bed. “Ginny…?”
Ginny's face remained placid and still; she didn't even make the slightest stirring.
Hermione's face scrunched slightly. For a moment she made as if to stand again, but then changed her mind, and continued whispering. “Ginny, we don't have much time. Can we show Sirius the, uh, thing?”
Ginny continued to lie undisturbed, breathing softly.
Hermione bit her lip and huffed softly.
Sirius smirked slightly. “Reckon she's a mite tired out. Up late with someone I know?”
Hermione shook her head with an annoyed look on her face. Finally she reached over and laid her hand on Ginny's blanket. After a slight hesitation, she tugged it down a bit to expose her room mate's hands.
Ginny's left hand was wrapped tightly around the brooch; its silver glinting slightly in the low, predawn light.
Sirius frowned. He came a bit closer, but stopped a few feet short, as if not wanting to intrude on a sleeping girl's privacy. He squinted curiously. “What is that thing?”
Hermione pulled the blanket back up to its normal level and rose to her feet, turning to face Sirius. “I'm not completely sure. I know it's an old brooch from Roman times. I know that it's magical, it's very important to them and it seems to give them dreams of the past or the future. They've never told me much beyond that, but I know that Ginny and Harry have been taking a lot of notes on it.”
Sirius raised an eyebrow. “Okay. So you figure that thing is what we're… I mean, what Albus is… looking for?”
“And where are these… research notes?”
Hermione jabbed her thumb toward the door. “I think they've left everything important in a drawer inside the old escritoire in the library.”
Sirius pursed his lips for a moment then nodded in reply. “Okay. Shall we do a bit of swotting then, Granger?”
Hermione rolled her eyes. Several seconds later, she had a bath robe wrapped around herself and was making her way up the corridor with Sirius in tow. As their footsteps receded into the distance, a slight stirring sound issued from the corner of the closed bedroom they had just vacated, and an elderly man with a long grey beard and half moon glasses materialised.
Whether from subconscious premonition, or from something in her dreams, the sleeping girl tensed. Albus Dumbledore gazed down at her with a look of vague disappointment in his eyes. Approaching her, he pulled out his wand, and reached for the frill of her blanket.
Exhausted from the long foot journey, the princess had slept for much of their time in the currach, letting the Publican take care of the piloting. Now that they had emerged into the flat meadows near the uplands of the River Nene, she had awakened and was indeed now very alert and engaged. In fact, without noticing it, her hands were gripping the sides of the small vessel, white-knuckled in nervous anticipation.
The Publican leaned over and laid a hand upon one of hers. LanossŽa glanced back and smiled, but her tension didn't subside. Her smile fading, she nodded slightly toward the northwest. “This is the Romans' chosen site, is it not? There are several grey plumes on the horizon.”
The Publican nodded. “Yes, this fits all that we have heard thus far. By way of the road, we would now be roughly five leagues north of Lactodurum. West of the road near here there is a ring of hills surrounding a marshy depression. I believe that Paulinus plans to lure your mother into it and pen her forces in.”
“Lure?” The princess frowned for a moment. “A small Roman force will bait her along? Draw her into the trap?”
“Yes.” The Publican paused for a moment to survey the waterway. Finding the upstream water unexpectedly low, he sought a place to beach their craft, sighting a gravel shoal that looked solid enough to walk on.
He turned his attention back to his companion. “Yes, that is my belief. When we noticed larger, heavier Roman units moving north, while a smaller, agile Roman unit moved south, I sensed a strategy. The small unit I believe to be the quick Roman mice, and I am guessing they will try to entice the Briton cats into a narrow den of hungry Roman bears.”
As the Publican landed their currach quietly and grappled for a nearby branch to brace them, LanossŽa contemplated the scenario. Her eyes widened as she stepped carefully out into the ankle-deep stream, then she nodded. “Ah! A fine strategy. I fear that Mother is unlikely to descry such a gambit in time to avoid the trap. The Iceni are versed with charging upon the open battlefield and thrusting silently from the undergrowth, but I don't believe we have ever blended the two. Yet despite this, I should wonder that Diras would not be more cautious. Might he not restrain Mother from striding boldly into disaster?”
The Publican shrugged as he disembarked. “Diras may exercise caution, although forget not that his greatest skills were in leading scores of men, not scores of thousands. His head may swell with the size of the force. After all, the ox is less wary than the fox.”
The princess grinned. “Your world is such a merry menagerie, Terna. Oxen, foxes, mice, cats and bears? And what exactly are we? Playful otters splashing about every stream in Britannia?”
The Publican laughed. “We may hope for such a merry future, Lano. But for now we must be the sly lynxes, stalking a certain grey rat.”
And so, the two self-proclaimed 'sly lynxes' made their way westward through an oak and willow carr. For the first ten minutes of walking, a brisk breeze masked any surrounding noises, but suddenly they pulled up short, both hearing voices at the same time.
The princess angled an ear toward the noise and frowned. “Romans.”
The Publican nodded. “Yes. On the road, I would guess. If so, we are closer to our destination than I might have believed.”
They both disillusioned themselves and began to make their way upwards through the underbrush toward a bright patch on the wooded horizon that signified an open pace. It was clearly busy with human activity; before even leaving the woodland cover, the Publican and princess had already begun to spot flashes of red tunics going to and fro. They paused to listen.
“… axes to hack it up, and throw the wheels and shards into the bushes. There's hardly the time to repair every broken wheel, Naevius. Besides, we'll soon be awash in Britons' carts for the taking.”
“Eh, but what about the crates? Praefectus castrorum has paid already good money for them. Surely we won't wish to leave sixty Aurei worth of medicines, surgical tools and bandages lying here for the barbarians, do we?”
“Don't be simple. Have your driver ride up to the castrum and ask someone to bring down a fresh wagon. Just get your carcass off the road — Postumius wants everything clean, empty and quiet down here by sundown.”
“Aye then! Valens, take the horse and follow the trail up to camp. Scaevola and I will dismantle the cart.”
The Publican and princess crept carefully out of the bushes to observe the gathering as it broke apart — three tradesmen set about cleaning up the wreckage of a collapsed cart, while an officer in uniform (the Publican recognized his colours as those of an administrator — a Tribunus angustsiclavius ) turned and strode north along the road to intercept another wagon.
One of the tradesmen cut a pony free of the tangled harness, quickly saddled the pack animal and rode quickly down the road a short distance, soon veering onto a path leading uphill, westward off the road. After watching the man's progress for a moment, the Publican reached for LanossŽa's invisible hand. He gently tugged it, urging her to follow.
Immediately off the road, the first roughly hundred feet of path looked quite unusual. A five foot width of sod had been carefully cut away from the trail bed and stacked to the side, and the remaining surface has been lined with flat slate, almost like a miniature road. Where shrubs and small trees had recently stood in the path's progress, they had not been hacked down, but had instead been meticulously uprooted, and their stems leaned against the sod.
Once they were out of earshot of the Romans, the princess leaned toward the Publican. “What do you make of the path? It seems normal for the Romans to take care in building roadways, but I have never known them to lovingly preserve any plants and trees in their way.”
By the look on the Publican's face, it was clear that he had been contemplating the same question. He gazed around for a moment, then observed further up the trail that the construction changed dramatically. As the route moved into a thicket that shrouded it from view of the road, the path was beaten into the plain ground, and downed saplings had been tossed carelessly off to the side. He smiled wryly. “I think, Lano, that by morning tomorrow, all of the lowest stretch of trail is simply going to disappear — almost without a trace. The fox leaves no trail to spook the hare.”
“But of course.” LanossŽa sighed. “This fellow Paulinus has been battling the western tribes for too long, Terna. He is beginning to think with the hard edge of an Ordovice, or the wily malice of a Silure.”
“That he is.” The Publican nodded. “He grows more cunning by the year.”
The path progressed upwards through elm, birch and poplar trees, steadily gaining in elevation. Although the trail was heavily beaten down, it was no longer heavily trafficked, indicating that the Roman orders to phase out transportation on the road below them were generally being heeded.
After fifteen minutes of fairly peaceful walking, the route crested a ridge and leveled off. Spotting a raised glade off the path, they both instinctively made for it and, after a minute's scrutiny, the princess had located a tall, well-branched tree suitable for climbing. She pulled herself nimbly upwards until she had surpassed the height of most of the surrounding woods.
Reveling in the beautiful weather, LanossŽa paused for a moment in her lofty vantage. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting the fresh breeze run free through her hair… then returned to her task. Facing the southeast from which they had come, she scanned the surroundings. Along that direction, she saw little out of the ordinary — a grey ribbon of road carving its way through the scrub and grasslands. The most noteworthy observation was that the southerly route was preternaturally quiet — not a single traveler could be seen along the entire visible stretch. Turning her gaze further east, her eyes registered patches of deeper green which suggested the presence of various waterways intersecting the Nene, the only other evidence of which was the occasional glint of sky shining on its trickling surface. There were no signs of boat travel or distant campfires.
Then she grasped a higher branch and swiveled herself around to face the other direction... and her eyes widened.
Deep brown scars against the greenery were obvious in the northern reaches of the Nene — a prodigious diversion of much of the river's flow away from the natural stream bed, directed instead into channels that lay behind man-made dykes which flanked a trough of rolling grasslands that formed a natural bowl off to the northwest. Along the ridges that encircled this grassy hollow on three sides were earthen defenses — primitive battlements which seemed to be strategically situated behind convenient stands of trees. She immediately concluded that the configuration would most likely be well hidden from down below — likely undetectable from the lowland vantages of the valley, and from other points to the east.
With a deepening frown on her face, the princess braced herself against the tree trunk and angled herself due west. This horizon was dominated by a large Roman encampment, not far from which was an old Celtic hill fort onto which the Romans appeared to have expended some major efforts enthusiastically refurbishing.
LanossŽa stared in awe at all of the artificial constructs scarring the landscape. She took another several minutes to carefully survey the layout of the various constructions, then finally clambered down.
The Publican had an expectant look on his face. “What did you see?”
The princess whistled softly through her teeth. “Do your Romans even fight with swords, Terna? Is it instead with earth and stones and water that they do battle? The lands ahead of us are no sane battlefield — the meadows look like a Gwyddbwyll board in which every fourth square has been pitted, pockmarked or piled high against us."
"Yes, such is the Roman way if they are given the opportunity to prepare." The Publican grasped her hand and paused pensively. "Please tell me everything that you saw, Lano. But first let us get a bit closer. It is time to spy on these busy builders."
Over the course of a busy afternoon, the Publican and princess reconnoitred most of high ridge, ultimately focusing their greatest attention on the area around the hill fort and nearby military encampment. The primary castrum occupied a high flat meadow near the southwest corner of the ridge. It was comprised of rudimentary earthen fortifications surrounding a sea of tents of the sort likely to house auxiliaries and most of the standard infantry of the Legiones XIV and XX. A quarter mile to the west lay the hill fort. Perched imposingly upon the highest hill of the ridge, the fort's new stone work looked distinctly inelegant, but the result was highly practical — strong, thick walls that would pose huge challenges to any attacking force, let alone an army of Britons whose hasty assembly and mobilisation was unlikely to have afforded them the luxury of advanced siege engines. The Publican surmised, based on the impregnable nature of the edifice, that it was likely intended as a praetorium (command centre), and as a possible fall-back location for lesser troops in the event of a severe setback in battle.
Making their way around the high ridge from the castrum and praetorium, the Publican and princess gazed down into the hollow below, trying to imagine how the battle would likely unfold. Walking quietly, always under disillusionment, they approached fairly close to several of the crude semicircular earth walls that had been arranged semi-regularly around the ridge. Confirming LanossŽa's original assessments, they saw that these fortifications were visually obscured from the valley, and concluded that they were almost certainly intended to give cavalry a degree of cover. Both the Publican and princess were versed with cavalry tactics, and saw clearly the brutal element of surprise that the Romans had crafted — every alignment was honed to permit deadly forces to lurk completely unseen, ready at a moment's notice to charge down into battle in the valley, or to cut off any possible attempts by the Britons to escape up the steep hillsides to the north, west or south. Under this configuration, the only viable exit potentially left to the Britons would be along the path that led them into the trap in the first place, via the eastern mouth of the hollow — which the Romans obviously intended (undoubtedly at the worst possible moment) to flood with waters redirected from the Nene and various other local streams.
Walking just east of the ridge along the boundary between the western woods and the expansive meadow that covered the bowl, the Publican and princess came to a halt, finding a fallen tree trunk to rest upon as they once again surveyed the valley. LanossŽa gazed at the lengthening evening shadows that had begun to fill the hollow. She sighed. "Well, we know where we are. We likely know what these cagey Romans are planning and perhaps we can even guess how and from where Mother shall enter the battle... but whither the Legate? We have neither seen nor heard anything to suggest he is truly here."
"Yes, whither...?" The Publican gazed southward toward the rebuilt hill fort that hda become a praetorium, partly visible through the mid-level branches of a tall pine tree at the edge of the woods. He lifted her disillusioned hand to gesture toward the imposing structure. "I don't believe he is up there."
"Not hiding behind a thick stone wall as he did in Camulodunum and Camboricum? Do you give him credit for some courage, Terna?"
The Publican chuckled softly. "No, I merely guess it would take him more courage to show his face within those walls than to skulk about, invisibly, somewhere else on the grounds."
The princess gave him an inquiring look.
The Publican smiled. "I do not believe that he has ever met Paulinus. The Legate arrived in the southeast of Britannia only after the Proconsul left for his war in Wales, and never before have both come within the same region before. But although they have likely not met, I am certain they both know of each other; if the gossip I heard in Verulamium was to believed, the Proconsul might well want the Legate clapped in irons and shipped back to Rome... or to Hell, perhaps."
"Oh? For starting a needless second war in the island before the first was won, perhaps?" The princess sounded distinctly amused. "So what sweet news did those chatty Verulamium townsfolk have to offer on the matter?"
The Publican cleared his throat. "Well, the rumour I heard was that as your mother marched upon Londinium, Procurator Decianus was already fleeing in disgrace to Gaul by the southern via, handing all administrative responsibility and commensurate blame to his most trusted advisor."
"The Legate? "
"Exactly." The Publican's gaze shifted east again. "I suspect that the Legate's administrative career is over... but he still has his own task to fulfill. I know that we had hoped to find, strewn somewhere within Paulinus's many devious machinations, a sign that the Legate had added his own little trap to the mix. I'm certain that he has something planned, but perhaps he is lying low, and will remain that way until the time is right."
She nodded. "He will wait until Mother is here?"
"Yes, I assume so. In that case, if he is being subtle and secretive, perhaps we too must wait quietly."
The princess rose to her feet. "We must wait, perhaps, but we must not dawdle. We may still make our own preparations, yes? We need decide upon a place of refuge to spend the coming night without fear of lumbering Romans tromping upon us; a place we can return to in the event that we ever get separated."
"Exactly." The Publican stood and grasped her hand. "Was that wooded hill to your liking? The one up above, half a mile west of the encampments?"
"Yes, most certainly. It is quiet and well removed from Roman paths. It is not too distant from the battlefield, and upon the branches of the tallest trees, I can see from there even down to the road and the Nene. Perhaps the last crucial task before nightfall is to define our own secret path back to it."
The Publican nodded and gazed around the horizon analytically. He gradually settled his eyes to the northwest, facing a thick stand of pines that towered dark against the dimming sky. Slowly, thoughtfully, he raised her hand. "Straight up through these trees. The branches are too low for cavalry to ride through, and the steep slope will hinder heavily armed infantry from using it, but the way is clear enough for two sly lynxes to prowl under the cover of dusk or the heat of battle."
LanossŽa squeezed his hand. "So it be, my love. Let us map the way, and retire to our latest humble den."
The light grew dark early under the heavy shade of thick pine trees, but they made their way slowly and methodically up the slope, stopping every hundred feet to cast subtle 'memento mei ' spells on the occasional rock or stump, giving them the cues to retrace their way, even in pitch blackness or in a state of blind confusion. Once they had crested the ridge, the dense pine stand gave way to thinner deciduous trees and the long eastern shadows were replaced by purplish glimmers marking the final throes of what must have been a spectacular sunset.
A while later, as gloaming fell in earnest, their feet felt the ground soften as they descended. The spongey earth soon became wet as they encountered a small spring that led upwards to the southwest, straight to their destination — a hilltop adorned with an unusual outcropping of jagged grey stones that they could recognize even in the darkness. Immediately beyond the outcrop lay their refuge — a placid stand of high oak and chestnut trees.
With neither flame nor lamp for comfort, two weary travelers huddled together for long enough to eat some berries and dried meat. Letting the princess curl herself into the blanket beside him, the Publican remained awake for a while, gazing in fascination at a series of lights that flickered faintly from the east. Once the signals faded, he settled into the place ar her side, drifting off to sleep as fog swept down to shroud the skies.
Everything was totally black.
Something was clearly but undefinably wrong. Harry could see nothing — not even his own hand in front of his face.
For that matter, he couldn't actually even feel his hand...
"Can you hear me, Gin'?"
Harry heard a soft breath coming from somewhere in the void... and then a very welcome voice. "Yes, Harry."
"Are you in total darkness too?"
"Yes." Her voice was growing noticeably fainter; more distant.
"Do you have any idea why?"
There was a long pause in which Harry imagined (or at least hoped) that Ginny was thinking. She was.
"I don't know. I guess it's some kind of dream." Her reply was so faint that Harry could barely make it out, even without any other competing noise.
When Ginny spoke again, her first words were too soft and remote to for him to discern... then her voice faded out entirely.
"Can you still hear me, Gin'?"
"Ginny?? Can you hear me?!"
Harry's non-existent head swam. Obviously they were dreaming. Weren't they? They seemed to both be experiencing this strange isolation equally, right?
He had a dreadful thought.
What if they were both suddenly... failing to exist?
But how could that be? Disaster hadn't somehow struck them, had it? Matters were far from resolved, but he and Ginny had been working well toward any challenges they'd faced. The same was true for the Publican and the princess. Besides, wasn't it so obvious that they cared far too much for each other and for the world around them to ever fail like this?
Had he been wrong?
Had Malfoy cast some spell? Twisted some knife? Had he outmaneuvered them? Moved his nefarious plan along too quickly for them to catch up?
Bloody hell — is it all over?!
Harry had never cared much for literature, but he somehow found himself recalling the voice of an old school mistress reciting the immortal (if repetitive) words of T.S. Eliot.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
A horrific ache settled upon him. Part of Harry's conscience could not help but agonise over the thousands and thousands of lives that would be ruined — not because he hadn't tried to save them, but because mere trying had not been enough. All of the immense effort and strain — his and Ginny's both — seemed to have fallen short.
They had failed.
Another major portion of Harry's psyche suddenly found itself wondering if this outcome might truly have been inevitable all along? They were merely two teens, neither of them through their basic magical education; neither of them even of age. They were battling the strength and wills of grown men, some of whom were powerful; some actually fairly intelligent.
Perhaps even Voldemort himself had somehow acted to secure an elusive revenge he had lusted for so long?
How could Harry have hoped to stand firm against such brutal strength? How could he not have known last June, sobbing on the Quidditch pitch with a dead Cedric Diggory in his arms, that Voldemort, or one of his powerful followers, would somehow find a way to end this. Harry had been brave and lucky for years, but surely he was always merely just forestalling an inescapable fate. Failure and death.
Not with a bang but a whimper
An icy desolation creeping over him, Harry felt himself drifting downward, falling from nowhere to nowhere, two parts of his own soul battling each other with two different flavours of the same despair... until despair itself slumped into a weary heap.
Yet as those two voices wore each other down into tepid silence, a third articulation gave a slight cough. It was soft and unassuming, but the voice that Harry heard — the memory of his own simple declaration from not so long ago — was anything but meek.
“They'll try to drive us apart, Gin'… but we'll hold on. I'll never let go.”
Harry thought about that resolute statement. It had been spoken with pure heart and conviction, but how could he possibly live up to that promise, now that...
“I know, Harry. And I'll always find you.”
That response! Had he actually heard it, or was it just a memory? An old echo of his mind?
Maybe he just had to believe! Maybe Harry simply had to trust that he and Ginny would be the ones who would always find a way!
Harry decided that the answers would come in knowing that Ginny truly had spoken to him; that she had answered him; that the two of them could truly promise to always be there for each other and keep that vow — no matter what other forces came to bear on them.
Now he merely had to test his belief; to confirm it. But how?
The only tools that Harry had to work with in this bizarre dream-void were his mind, his hearing and his voice. Maybe he should just call out to Ginny?
But what if she really isn't there to answer?
Sometimes one just has to believe, right?
Harry pushed aside fear and built a great hope. He spoke the first, most natural, words he could find.
“I love you Ginny.”
“I love you too Harry.”
There was a slight sniffle… and in the darkness, Harry felt a hand on his arm; a cheek pressing itself against his chest; soft hair brushing up beneath his chin; a subtle aroma of blossoms…
Harry pulled Ginny tightly to himself with one arm. Once again, as if prepared for a waltz, he found that they had embraced with one hand each (his right; her left) extended and clasped together.
A soft pulsing glow came from their hands.
Harry released a deep sigh of relief. They were together; they had not been driven apart. He took a moment to calm himself, then whispered, “Do you know what just happened?”
Ginny was shivering slightly and inhaled a ragged breath. “I don't know. A test perhaps?”
A long silence ensued as Harry wondered what sort of test it might have been; what strength it was meant to assay. Finally he decided to just accept the outcome. "Er, well... We passed, I reckon."
Ginny nodded. She pulled herself closer, resolving silently once again, somehow, to never let go.
Both Harry and Ginny slept significantly later than the Romans to their east. They awoke to a grey mist of indeterminate hour, roused only when heedless sparrows began foraging for seeds mere inches from their faces.
Their arms still wrapped around each other, the two protagonists struggled to a sitting position as the birds flitted off in startled agitation.
Ginny gazed about the quiet, wet woodland vista disorientedly. "Where are we?"
Harry groaned slightly. "Up somewhere in the Midlands, right? Sure as hell isn't Grimmauld Place."
The damp woolen blanket slipped from Ginny's shoulder. She stared in surprise at her own taut muscles emanating from the tunic she wore. "How strange, Harry. This..." She flexed her arm demonstratively. "This is the princess's body, but she's not really here, even though we're in ancient Britain. I'm really just me."
"Same for me and the Publican, right? Do you see lots of grey hairs?" Harry's eyes glanced upwards, trying to see the fringe of his own hair. "Just like for you and the princess, the Publican isn't really here, but I can sort of hear him. Just the occasional message, as if from a distance."
"Oh?" Ginny regarded Harry quizzically. "So what is he saying..."
"Er, well..." Harry blushed slightly. "Right now, he's kind of reminding me that the princess, or at least her body, needs taking care of."
Uncomprehending, Ginny gazed for a moment at the man who looked like an attractive, middle-aged Harry, watching as he decoupled himself from her and used his wand to fill a flagon with water. She was about to ask him what he had meant by 'taking care of', when a familiar acrid sensation lodged itself suddenly in her esophagus. "Oh shite." She gulped, and nodded vigourously. "You can make the morning tonic?"
"After a fashion, yes." Harry was reaching for a small pouch containing dried leaves when he noticed the urgency in her face. He hastily cast several pinches of the mixture into the flagon, heated it instantly with one of the Publican's thermal spells, and handed it to her. "Here, try this. It's not our usual recipe — I think it has raspberry leaves and a couple of other herbs. I hope it works."
After testing the temperature with her finger, Ginny dashed it back quickly, ignoring its grassy, somewhat bitter taste. The clenched feeling in her chest released immediately and she sighed in relief. Then she leaned over and kissed her thoughtful companion.
Harry settled in against her, still feeling somewhat disoriented. "Okay, that's one thing taken care of... but I wonder why we're us — why we're you and me?"
Ginny gazed off into the mist for a moment. "Well, I suppose it might mean that this last battle is ours, yeah? We're the ones who are supposed to know what needs to be done to save our own future, right? The princess and the Publican signed off on the Iceni Rebellion some time ago; they got us to this point, they set their own future on the line so that you and I could get our chance to thwart Malfoy, but it seems perfectly natural that the final actions would be left to us."
Harry nodded. "I suppose so — we're the ones who started this mess, so we should be the ones to finish it. I only wish I knew what it was that we really had to do."
"Watch and wait. Trust ourselves." Ginny shrugged and peered up at what little of the grey sky showed against the lightly dripping leaf cover. "Bloody fog — I wonder what time it is?"
"I don't know. I guess at this point, time is a bit irrelevant until the queen arrives."
Ginny pulled herself to her feet. "Right. Would you reckon that to be tomorrow morning?"
Harry pursed his lips. "The Romans over in the camps would probably have a rough idea. In the darkness last night, the Publican saw lights. He assumed they're using the praetorium tower as a link in the beacon chain, and likely are receiving regular news regarding the the queen's progress."
Ginny gazed eastward in the impenetrable gloom. "Well, maybe now we know a useful thing to do while we wait — see what the Romans are up to; listen to what they're saying?"
"Yes, good plan. But should we have a bite first?" Harry stood up as well and glanced dubiously at the meager bundle that the Publican had been carrying. "Errr, some leftover reedmace roots?"
Ginny's face was distinctly unenthusiastic. "No, let's chew on knowledge first. Once we've filled our heads for a bit, maybe we can use our friends' hunting instincts to find ourselves some game; maybe lurk behind a seclusion ward and roast a real meal?"
Harry grinned appreciatively at his true love. He knew that it was an incredible amount to ask from her, but he loved how Ginny so often found ways to keep him grounded. Without losing the steely edge required to confront peril and an unknown fate, it seemed to him that no matter how close Ginny got to the encroaching moment of crisis, she was almost always still able to bring him back to homey, comforting thoughts.
They walked in silence for a while until they found the spring head from which arose the trickle that marked the route down to find the first of the magical pathmarkers that the Publican and princess had installed the previous night.
Making their way down through the pine woods on the west side of the hollow, Harry and Ginny began hearing ample evidence of vigourous activity, especially the eerie, fog-amplified sound of hundreds of men shouting slogans in unison. The choral shouts were then punctuated by the occasional lone call of a Centurion barking out commands or admonitions.
Emerging into open but misty air below the lip of the valley, they could discern numerous century-sized groups of infantry clustered in various spots just above the base of the depression. Each group, seemed to be proceeding according to its own unique set of assignments. Some centuries were carrying out coordinated maneuvers (sometimes on their own and sometimes coupled with multiple groups), while others worked on simple weapons-oriented techniques. Still others seemed to be reviewing commands or battle tactics.
Ginny stared wide-eyed. "Muggle fighters practise working together? They're acting like, well, rather like Quidditch squads."
Harry nodded silently as they watched the crisp, coherent responses of what the Publican would have recognized as the elite first cohort from Paulinus's own Legio XIV Gemina.
Ginny shook her head. "I know it's one thing to hear mad tales from Sirius, but if you listen to accounts from Mad-eye and even Professor Lupin, it's clear that if you're in the Order of the Phoenix, the focus is all on the individual. You may learn all kinds of complicated defensive and offensive spells, but as soon as you go into action you're on your own. You might cover a friend here and there, but it never sounds as though people actually plan how to work together."
"That's true, isn't it?" Harry stroked his chin pensively. "The Romans make it look so natural how wedges and flanks work. They force their soldiers to enshrine the functional differences between their different units, so everyone knows his own role."
Harry stopped to watch several dozen soldiers practising a Testudo advance — the entire group covered in front and on top by a perfect lattice of shields, out of which the only protrusions were a hedge hog's worth of sharp spears. He shook is head in wonderment. "Wow! I wonder one could ever get wizards and witches to subscribe to teamwork like that for defensive magic?"
"What's that you said, Harry?" Ginny winked at him. "You wonder if you should teach the rest of us teamwork like that for defensive magic?"
Harry rolled his eyes at her twisted words... but he was still stroking his chin as the pair disillusioned themselves and began to climb southwards toward the praetorium.
As they ascended, holding hands to avoid separation, they both spotted two men in elaborate uniforms walking toward each other; both carefully observing the exercises. Harry sensed (likely from his vague perception of the Publican's knowledge) that they were senior officers of the Tribune rank.
Sensing that the officers might be useful sources of information, Harry and Ginny approached them as noiselessly as possible and listened to the conversation in progress.
"... complete the exercises at the evening horn. At which point all cohorts are to report to the castra for a meal and rest."
"To the castra? So the Prefectus does not wish for the men to spend the night in their assigned positions?"
"No, the Britons will not be close enough to attack until early morning, so the Prefectus desires that the troops be rested. A silent signal will circulate to the camps two hours before sunrise. All men are requested to arm themselves and be in position no later than one hour before the sun. Our decoy cohort will attempt to pull the Britons into the valley shortly before the first rays touch the hillsides."
"Ehmmm... Pardon the foolish question, but will there actually be any rays touching the hilltops? It is all so very grey here!"
"Ha! A fine observation Horatius! Indeed no, by decree of the Proconsul, tomorrow shall lack either rays or shine. We shall do battle beneath a dark and dreary sky — chill and damp to quench the fire of the demon lady."
"By decree of the Proconsul? Lord Paulinus controls now even the skies above our heads."
"Well no." The man's voice dropped to a whisper, just on the edge of Harry's hearing. The senior Tribunus jabbed a subtle thumb toward the tallest of the praetorium's towers. "The skies may not heed directly the voice of our Proconsul... but it seems they are bent to the will of that cheerful fellow."
With a chill spiking along Harry's neck, his eyes tracked toward the hill fort's highest peak, coming to rest upon a solitary figure cloaked all in black, whose silhouette rose above the parapet, facing obliquely away.
With a wand extended outwards, the man on the tower seemed to be concentrating intently on something distant, focusing away down near the mouth of the valley. In the very instant that Harry set eyes upon him, however, the tall dark figure on the tower seemed to stiffen. He turned abruptly, raised his hooded, unseen face upward toward the sky, as if he had heard something, or felt something; as if he was suddenly listening... sensing...
Harry's blood ran cold; he felt his backbone and knees, and even his brain, begin to lock up from some undefined apprehension.
Ginny hissed under her breath and tugged Harry's hand.
Morbidly fascinated by the mysterious display, Harry barely even noticed.
Ginny yanked hard on Harry's arm. Caught by surprise, he gasped audibly — loudly enough to attract a sudden confused glance from of one of two Tribuni.
Fortunately the officer's confusion did not matter. By the time the soldier's puzzled eyes had spied a rustling bush that Harry and Ginny had disturbed, the two teens were running like mad, back along the wooded edge of the hollow. They didn't stop until they had returned, wheezing, to their woodland refuge.
Under the protection of their seclusion wards, Harry canceled his disillusionment charm and doubled over, hands resting on his knees. Seeing Ginny reappear nearby, he gazed blearily at her, trying to catch his breath. "Wh... why did y... you run, G... Gin'?"
A blend of the day's mist and her own perspiration was streaming down her forehead. She looked at Harry. "What do you mean, why did I run? You were running too!"
"I was worried you might pull my arm out of its socket."
Ginny stared at him for a moment... then gazed down at her feet sheepishly. "Oh, I guess I did pull a little hard. Sorry."
Harry shook his head. "Don't worry about that. I just wanted to know what spooked you? I mean, other than the fact that it was Antioch Peverell up in that tower."
Ginny chewed her lip. "Harry, that man creeps me out! He can see through your disillusionment."
"Okay, that's a good point." Harry nodded. "But I think he can't sense me quite as well as he does the Publican."
"Thank Merlin for that!" Ginny began to pace. "Regardless, I don't want to mess with him if there's any way to avoid it. He wants us dead every bit as much as Malfoy does, even if it's for different reasons. Historically, he's not supposed to succeed in killing us... or I mean, at least we know he's not supposed to succeed in killing the princess, but, well..." She gave Harry a pained look. "I'm just worried that perhaps you and I fouled things up, Harry. We dragged the princess and Publican all the way up here when they would have been just as happy living out the rest of their lives peacefully in the woods of Norfolk. Wouldn't it be awful to find out that we hauled them here to stop Malfoy, only to give Antioch a chance to kill off your line instead?!"
Harry had glanced only the barest split second toward Ginny when he saw the full depth of doubt and anguish in her eyes. He stepped forward and caught her in his arms. "Thank you, Gin'! Thank you for thinking on your feet and getting us out of there. I... For some reason, I wasn't thinking about any of that. But we won't let it happen, okay?"
Nodding slightly, she slumped into him. Harry could feel the exhaustion and worry pouring off her. He knew then that, for all her strength, the strain of oscillating emotions and constant barrage of perils striking them from three different time periods was taking its toll; beginning to corrode the extraordinary resilience she had shown.
For an indeterminate time, Harry merely held her close, stroking her hair gently, humming a peaceful tune softly into her ear.
Without letting go, he cast a drying charm on the Publican's blanket that, in their earlier haste, they had left lying in the morning drizzle. Suitably straightened, they settled quietly down onto it, side by side with Ginny leaning her head against his shoulder.
Ginny flexed her fingers and sighed. "Things are far too tricky out there right now. I think we should stay out of harm's way until the battle starts."
Harry nodded as he put his arm back around her. "Yes, I agree. We've learned almost everything we could have hoped to. We never figured out where Malfoy is and what he's planning — but I'm convinced he'll lie as low as possible. The only thing we're likely to get from more prowling right now is trouble from Antioch."
Ginny rubbed her cheek against him as she nodded. Her voice was soft; barely audible. "Thanks."
"And the only thing that might roust me from our nice little sanctuary..." Harry paused for a moment to nestle his cheek in Ginny's hair. "... is food. I thought I saw a beautiful raspberry patch about a hundred feet west of the wards."
Ginny pulled back just enough to gaze up at Harry. Her eyes were twinkling and a wand had found its way into her hand. "Harry, have you ever heard of... Accio berries? "
For their quiet day alone in the misty woods, Harry and Ginny found themselves temporarily exiled both from the mundane real world of Grimmauld Place and from the gripping drama gearing up around them in the ancient hills of Northamptonshire. Without knowing of any other final preparations they could (or should) be concerned with, they opted simply to take one more (perhaps one last) opportunity to cherish their time together. Many teens their age would have been able to experience countless casual summer afternoons with few cares in the world other than enjoying each other's company, but very little of Harry's or Ginny's life had ever resembled such frivolity. Perhaps it was not yet too late.
For these rare, treasured hours, they had sworn off all conversations about an impending Roman-era battle. No mention was to be made of a mysterious brooch. They would forget any prospect of a future showdown between the forces of light and dark magic. If this didn't leave many other natural choices of conversation, that was all for the better... since they were able to find other, very happy, wordless ways to put aside their worries.
It is thus not surprising that as the dim daylight gradually waned to nondescript dusk and onwards into darkness, Harry and Ginny remained most contentedly together, ensconced in folds of the Publican's rough woolen blanket, wrapped within each other's arms; bound by each other's gentle breaths and embracing souls. It was in precisely that position that they found themselves, much later, when the horns sounded.
Their eyes fluttered open and saw... nothing. The morning was early, and it was still pitch black. Although charms had kept them comfortable, the air about them was still distinctly wet. A light drizzle on the leaves above gave a soft, undulating rhythm that, under any other circumstances, might have lulled them back to sleep.
Not today, however. The gentle background hum could not compete with the distant noise of hoarse cheers and shouts, and another round of horns... The distant din of emerging chaos.
They both leaped to their feet at the same moment, clutching their wands. In the thick gloom, Harry chanced a Lumos spell. Without a word. They set off together down the hill, leaping over the jagged outcrop to locate the spring from which trickled their tiny stream. They raced down the little waterway, somehow managing to not slip in the mud or stumble on the uneven stones.
A short while later, they found the first of their series of magical beacons, pointing them onto, and then over, the ridge. As they careened downwards through the pine woods, they began to see lights bobbing and darting in the distance. Harry extinguished his light and they raced along, almost by feel, heedless of any roots or branches that might (but somehow failed to) trip or snag them.
Hastily disillusioning themselves, they stumbled out of the woods and stared down into the hollow. What they saw seemed very nearly apocalyptic.
A wild horde of savage Britons has streamed into the valley, waving a bizarre assortment of swords, knives, makeshift spears and axes. The bait — a single Roman cohort that had led them headlong into the trap, was dispersing in and around a solid wall of waiting infantry, standing steadfast, protected by rows of long lances.
Unwilling, or unable, to halt their mad rush, the leading vanguard of Celts charged maniacally onwards, falling to the spears and a blistering hail of arrows showering down from Roman archers occupying the high ground.
Agape, Ginny stared aimlessly for a moment, then her gaze narrowed. "Where in all this atrocious mess is the queen?"
Harry frowned; his eyes frantically searched the crowd. Only the nearest portion of the battle was sufficiently illuminated by Roman torches to discern faces, and the queen's tall form and long flaming-red hair were definitely absent. "I don't know, Gin' — she's not in sight. I wonder if some of the Britons ran ahead without waiting for her."
Ginny's head drooped; she massaged her temples. "Idiots! No wonder they're going to lose!"
Harry continued his scan, looking diffusely toward the furthest reaches of vision as the earliest glimmers of predawn began to make faint silhouettes of the surrounding hills. He couldn't see very much, but even in the dim distance he could discern the ominous swirling motion of endless humanity. "Blimey — there are so many of them! There are many many more than we saw at the Fens of Gipping. They can almost afford to be stupid."
"No they can't." Ginny raised her head, chewing her lip in anguish. "It doesn't matter how many Britons are here — it's going to be an utter catastrophe. Pure and complete slaughter. Merlin, why did we ever come here!?"
Harry found her hand and squeezed it. "We came to find the queen, Gin'. There's going to be enough barking insanity here this morning to last a lifetime, but we have to prevent her from doing something... well, something especially insane. We have to stop Malfoy from tricking her into cursing her own line and everything we've ever believed in."
"Yes, of course." Ginny nodded absently. Her backbone straightened and emotion left her face. "I don't think we can afford to just wait for her to come to us, Harry. We have to go down there to find her, and then we'll need to... I don't know... Watch her? Maybe shield her."
Harry scrunched his face as he re-examined the chaos. After a long moment he nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid so. Let's get ourselves closer to the action... but until we find her and figure out what we'll need to do, we had best shield ourselves, right? Wouldn't Voldemort just love it if we managed to get ourselves, and Ignotus Peverell's entire line, bumped off by a stray Roman arrow?"
"Right." Ginny's face took on a steely glint as she cast the princess's best shield charm and took her first step downward, toward the fracas. Moments later, the two of them were making their intrepid, if very cautious, way around the edge of the awful carnage.
On one hand, Harry and Ginny both forced themselves to watch the battle, seeking for any signs of the queen and her entourage, while monitoring the chaos for any sudden shifts in dynamic that could imperil their plans. On the other hand, they attempted, as earnestly as possible, not so see the action itself... for even in these early moments of the battle, the hillside was already growing slick with the blood of real human beings. The life force of real people, blessed with real cares and dreams, was being spilled away by the thrust of cold, callous metal.
At a point when both had begun to doubt whether they could tolerate the ghastly search much longer, Harry's grip on Ginny's invisible hand clenched. "There!" He tugged her hand toward the northeast. "A few hundred yards off! I see chariots!"
Ginny glanced in the direction of Harry's gesture. It took a moment for her eyes to dart around the various distractions, but then she too saw it — a host of several dozen chariots riding hard, but in an orderly formation, forcing a gap within the confused masses of undisciplined Britons. At the head of the formation, visible even by the light of faint distant flares, was the unmistakable mane of fiery red hair streaming, meteorically, back behind the Iceni monarch.
Harry and Ginny began to move instinctively in her direction, entering the fringe of the combat itself.
"Where is she going?" Ginny had to shout over the din, but nobody other than Harry so much as glanced or listened. "It's no use running to where she's been — we need to figure out where she's heading and meet her there!"
They paused and looked around, scanning both for the chariots' trajectory as well as the general shape of the battle. These factors seemed to point to a spot just slightly up from the bottom of the valley's trough — a place that seemed central to the crescent shaped front that had formed between the Roman and Briton forces; a location with enough clear ground for the queen and her chariots to occupy without trampling her own soldiers.
Silently, both Harry and Ginny recognized this apparent eye in the middle of the storm and began running toward it, hand-in-hand. Somehow managing to skirt the worst of the violence, they were able to get past the battlefront and into areas occupied mostly by the Briton forces. Numerous arrows bounced harmlessly off their combined shields; a confused legionary who had lost his cohort ran headlong into the magical shield and fell, dazed, to the ground. Nonetheless, Harry and Ginny both made it together to their destination.
Finding a loose boulder that seemed to naturally dissuade traffic, Harry erected a Muggle repelling charm that he knew from the Publican's repertoire, and the pair stood their ground, breathing raggedly, and scanned the tumultuous sea of swarming Britons, waiting for the queen.
On the breaking of a solstice morning — one in which the oppressive gloom would afford no sun — there was only grey sky and the glint of innumerable torches to illuminate the approaching queen's face, but it nonetheless glistened in dew, perspiration and passion. She raised a hand to slow the chariots' advance, and expertly reined her own vehicle to a halt.
Boadicea gave barely a glance about the circle; instead her eyes locked upon the lone boulder, meeting Ginny's invisible, shocked gaze. Obviously staring straight through the disillusionment charm, the queen pointed to Ginny, then wordlessly, imperiously, gestured to a vacant spot beside Heanua on the royal chariot.
Ginny turned to Harry, half-panicked. "I-I... Harry, what do I do?"
Harry grimaced. "Oh Merlin, Gin'! All the historical accounts state that both daughters stood with her for the great speech. You-you... I think, maybe, that you might need to go."
Harry swept her into a fierce embrace; his eyes misted for a moment, then he blinked them clear. He pulled back slightly. "It's your decision, Gin'. If you don't go then that's fine — maybe it doesn't matter, and we can just wait to see what happens. But if you do go, then I'll be right up next to the chariot, and I swear I will cover you with my life!"
Ginny took a deep breath. "Thank you Harry. I'll go." In an instant of raw passion, she seized her boyfriend's face and met his lips with all of the fire of eternal love...
But of course, in mere seconds, it had to end, and they found themselves racing across the meadow toward the lead chariot.
Near the queen's feet, Harry helped Ginny to mount the cart and Ginny canceled her disillusionment charm. Perspiration streaming down his still-invisible face, Harry began pouring every ounce of his strength into a shield to protect the courageous young woman whom he treasured above anyone or anything else.
Her family arrayed about her, the queen's voice rang out — a sonorous tenor that projected cold and clear about the natural amphitheatre.
"Fellow Britons! You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery. Hence, although some among you may previously, through ignorance of which was better, have been deceived by the alluring promises of the Romans... "
The fighting ground to a halt. Britons and Romans alike stood, arms at their sides, listening intently as one of history's most famous speeches thundered across the hillsides.
Rigid and unmoving, Ginny's eyes swept the scene, looking for any sign of the Legate... or Malfoy, and whatever unknown trap he might be about to spring. Her gaze still met with no clues, but she somehow knew that it could only be a short time now.
Harry glanced back and forth between Ginny and the more distant surroundings. Despite his distraction, he saw things that none of the Britons seemed to notice — the agitated, impatient rustling of Roman Cavalry spears high up on the hillsides, just barely visible against the gradually brightening sky. He also saw, standing dark upon the praetorium tower, the Romans' secret weapon — the ominous, sinister form of Antioch Peverell. And once again, Harry's blood ran cold, wondering what tricks the prodigious young wizard might be concealing.
Through all this, the queen was continuing to regale her rapt audience.
"... However, even at this late day, though we have not done so before, let us, my countrymen and friends and kinsmen — for I consider you all kinsmen, seeing that you inhabit a single island and are called by one common name — let us, I say, do our duty while we still remember what freedom is... "
The speech seemed almost like a strange, annoying background buzz to Ginny — a distraction from her urgent search for the invisible threat. She felt Boadicea place a hard, distinctly non-maternal hand on her shoulder — a gesture that she supposed the queen intended as a gesture of solidarity. Ginny tolerated the cold affection, put it out of her mind, and searched, scanned, mentally excoriated the rapt faces and hypnotically swaying bodies of so many thousands of friends and foes.
"... Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.
A tremendous, hoarse cry of cheers and shouts arose, deafening Harry as he saw the queen brandish the staff of Scavo high in the air, blasting aloft great bolts of blue flame. Stalwart Roman legions staggered back, aghast at the sudden display of overwhelming supernatural might, but Harry knew it would not go unanswered. He felt a wave of dread pulse through his head like a high pitched klaxon. He saw a plain white flash streak out from the distance, aimed not at the queen or any of her horde of followers, but at levees near the mouth of the hollow.
Harry did not even need to look behind himself to see the low wave of water rush forth, drenching the entire mouth of the hollow, turning it into impassible quagmire, barring the only viable means of escape and snapping shut the Romans' brutal snare. No, Harry did not even glance that way; his every attention remained locked upon the shield he was projecting onto the platform of the chariot — for he was certain that water was not the only weapon Antioch would unleash this morning.
Ginny saw the Britons surge against the Roman lines as a raging chorus of wild hatred erupted everywhere, but she blotted it all out because, just as her instincts had been quietly whispering to her for days, she knew that this was the moment she had been waiting for... or dreading.
Protected from the surrounding lunacy by a glimmering sheen of magical shield, the Legate canceled his disillusionment charm a mere twenty feet away. His lurid grin — and the deadly grey eyes of Lucius Malfoy — seemed crafted solely for Ginny's benefit, even though his wand was pointed at the queen.
A blazing arrow of light sprang forth.
Ginny stared for the briefest moment at Malfoy's hex.
Ginny tried to push her own shield out to encompass the queen... but Boadicea's eyes were already glazing over, and the monarch's powerful legs began to buckle.
At that precise instant, a prodigious pulse of magic shot forth from the tower, and Harry recognized it immediately.
Harry gaped. What was Antioch trying to summon? And why??
Despite his vexation, Harry knew that the answers to those questions didn't matter. What he knew, above all, was he could not let Antioch take the queen. And he absolutely would not let the filthy sod take Ginny! Raging at the appalling thought, Harry's magic merged with the Publican's, and together the distant relatives braced for a horrendous impact of wills.
A pane of golden magical fire licked here inches front of Ginny's face, then subsided. Her shield had managed to push back Malfoy's stunner from herself and from Heanua who was standing at her side. Ginny found herself instinctively ducking down to grab the chariot's reins as they fell from the queen's slackened grip. Ginny's left hand had just closed around the leather strap when everything (the reins, Ginny's hand, her whole body, the entire chariot) lurched! Looking up in bewilderment, Ginny saw everything about her engulfed in a strange white glow; the whole chariot and even the two horses all seemed to be lurching sickeningly forward... upward.
Harry yelled in fury, and a red flame shot from his wand, tangling with the summoning spell that had engulfed the chariot. He watched, terrified yet defiant, for a second as two panicked horses and one wheel lifted slightly off the ground... but from somewhere deep within, Harry's counter-spell pulsed harder. With his last ounce of energy, the Accio spell fell away from the chariot, and the vehicle clattered roughly back to the ground.
His disillusionment spell having fallen by the wayside, Harry met Ginny's eyes as she teetered then regained her footing. Relieved to see that she was unharmed, he flashed her a wide grin in his relief... then froze.
Something was tugging at his own ankles. Harry had the sickening sudden realization that he was six inches off the ground... and rising!
Ginny stared in horror. She dropped her shield spell and tried to assemble a counter-summoning spell. "Accio Harry!!"
Wand leveled, Ginny was just beginning to feel the thrilling surge of magic coursing out to reach him, when her left hand seemed, inexplicably, to burst into scorching pain.
She gasped — it felt almost as if the flesh were being stripped from her fingers!
Still attempting to grapple for her boyfriend, Ginny chanced the briefest glance down at her own left hand. Clutching the reins, trembling slightly, the hand actually looked normal... but the pain kept growing... mounting... to searing agony! And that was when Ginny realized exactly what the problem was.
Many many centuries from now, in a bedroom many miles from here, five sleeping fingers knew that a critical connection was in grave danger. Someone was prying back her desperate grip... trying to steal the brooch!
"Please Professor, not now!"
Trembling; tears streaming from her eyes as she poured all of her fading power into trying to hold Harry, Ginny cried out in frustration and pain. "Professor, I'll explain everything later, but please don't take..."
Ginny's words died in her own ears as she felt herself being torn from the scene.
As if from a great distance, Ginny sensed LanossŽa's presence. Ginny doubted that the princess could do much to stem the disaster of the stolen brooch, but the young Iceni woman still had the presence of mind to act in her own time. The very last impression Ginny had was that of LanossŽa whipping the reins and uttering an urgent command to the horses. Then the final glimmers of Ginny's dream fell away... and all was black and soundless.
Pulled nearly vertical by Antioch's summons, Harry's white fingers clung desperately to a strut above the chariot's wheel... but his last power and strength had drained from him as water from a shattered urn. He tried to look up, one last time, to set eyes upon the one person who meant everything to him.
But Ginny was gone.
Harry's plaintive call faded...
And his dream was no more.
Ron leaped from bed and sprawled onto the floor in a heap of tangled bedclothes. He scrambled madly across the dusty floor and thudded against the other bed.
"Harry??" Ron's shout echoed through the room; through the entire house. "Harry?!!"
Ron stared at his mate's wide sightless eyes. Not knowing what to do, Ron reached back and slapped the rigid face.
Nothing. Harry didn't even blink.
Ron groped for Harry's arm and clasped Harry by the wrist. It was stiff, and clenched as if in great pain... but the wrist was still warm.
Ron clamped his eyes shut and held his breath... trying to focus all his attention on the wrist he was holding. Was it moving? Could be feel anything? Could he feel a...
Yes! He had a pulse!
Ron slumped down beside Harry, and tried to fight a sense of raw panic. His best mate was still alive... but something was very very wrong.