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SIYE Time:3:21 on 15th December 2017


Splinters
By GHL

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Category: Alternate Universe
Characters:Albus Dumbledore, Harry/Ginny, Hermione Granger, Nymphadora Tonks, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley, Sirius Black
Genres: Drama, Romance
Warnings: Death, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Violence
Story is Complete
Rating: PG-13
Reviews: 278
Summary:

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

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

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


Hitcount: Story Total: 40388; Chapter Total: 1413
Awards: View Trophy Room




Author's Notes:

I swear to you all that I had no intention of leaving you with another cliff-hanger for this chapter. I did indeed strive to live up to that oath... but I'm only now just recognising a certain amusing irony. You'll see when you reach the end.

Just so nobody hexes me, let me eliminate any suspense and say that the grappling hook holds and the rope is sturdy...





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Chapter 16. Ex Nihilo (August 16, 1995)

“Heavens!” Hermione jumped, accidentally spilling Ginny's portfolio full of notes on the Iceni Rebellion, Peverell lineage and cupla mystica. “What on Earth was that noise?!”

Sirius frowned. “The voice sounded like Ron. He seemed, er, upset about something.”

“I think so too.” Hermione met Sirius's eye for one shocked, puzzled moment, before noticing the mess she had made. She hastily scooped up the documents and shoved the jumbled portfolio back into the escritoire. “Did you catch what he yelled? Nary? Merry?”

Sirius shook his head and scrunched his face. “Wary? Airy?”

They both stared at each other and their jaws dropped in perfect synchronisation. “Harry!!”

The burst from the library, dashed down the corridor and skidded around the bannister to the stairs. They were just tearing down the steps onto the second floor landing when Molly and Lupin charged up from the ground floor.

A haggard-looking Ron was just stumbling out of the boys' bedroom when all four people began shouting at the same time.

“What happened?”

“What's the matter, Ron?”

“Are you okay dear?

“Did someone shout, 'Very'?”

Hermione seized the collar of Ron's night shirt with both fists. “Harry! What happened to Harry?!”

Lupin and Molly blinked. “Harry?”

Ron shrugged helplessly. “I don't know. He, uhhh, cried out in his sleep. I went to check on him and found him… well, I don't know…”

Ron stumbled aside as Hermione and Sirius rushed past into the bedroom.

“Be certain to check around his neck, will you dear?” Molly made her way to the threshold, but paused just short of the room. She peered in uncertainly. “Scrofungulus would be raised and blotchy; Mumblewumps would be puffy beneath the jaw.”

“I know, I know.” Hermione hastily bent over Harry, prying around his shoulders. “There's no fever, Mrs. Weasley. No swelling or blotches or other sign of the usual illnesses. It's odd — he seems to be rather tensed up, but he's asleep. A deep sleep.”

Molly pursed her lips, gazing inwards but still not entering the room. “That is rather strange. Do you suppose it's somehow related to that ailment from several mornings ago?”

Hermione shrugged. “I suppose it might be, though on that morning I think we decided that they were both just knackered from a night of poor sleep. Right now, Harry is out so deeply, I don't know if I could rouse him.”

“Right.” Ron stirred uncomfortably. “After he cried out, I, uh, slapped him, you know, to see if he'd wake up? He didn't even blink… and the only thing he's done since then has been to close his eyes.”

“I wonder what that means?” Molly took a step toward the stairs. “I had best go check my home healer books to see what they say about really deep sleepers.”

Lupin frowned quizzically. “Ron, what did Harry say when he cried out? Did you hear?”

With a baffled look on his face, Ron's mouth opened mutely. The answer came instead from the twins, who were on there way up the stairs.

“Harry called for Ginny,” George announced.

Fred nodded. “Yes, we've been gathering some evidence to suggest that little Harrykins might rather fancy our little sister.”

Ron, Molly and Lupin all stared at the twins as they ascended to the landing. Lupin regarded them thoughtfully. “So, Harry was having a bad dream that involved Ginny? How interesting.” Lupin's gazed drifted a bit lower and settled on an odd fleshy thing that was partially protruding from the fluffy pocket on George's bath robe. “So how did you two hear Harry so well, when the rest of us could barely even make out Ron's howling?”

George grinned. “Superlative hearing, of course!”

“Finest ears in Islington, at your service!” Fred made a sweeping theatrical gesture to accentuate George's right ear, distracting everyone's attention from a much more subtle movement by George, who discreetly tucked a certain pink fleshy object away out of sight, deeper into his pocket.

Ignoring the antics, Molly glanced toward the bedroom where Hermione and Sirius were examining Harry. Seeing no appreciable change in Harry's status, she turned to Lupin. “I wonder why Harry would call out Ginny's name?”

Lupin glanced from the twins toward Harry (whose bed was visible through the open bedroom door) and then back to Molly. “It's possible that… I mean, perhaps he…” Lupin frowned. “You don't suppose that there's also something wrong with…?”

Molly bit her lip and gasped. “Ginny!”

Molly and Lupin burst for the stairs, scattering the two incredulous twins.

George looked from Fred and then fixed a somewhat baffled gaze on Ron. “Er, well, good morning to you, Brother Ron.”

Ron stared at his brothers, then slowly shook his head. “Uh no. It's not a, uh, good morning. Something's wro...”

A surprised shriek coursed up the stairwell; all three brothers jumped in response.

“That was Mum.” His eyebrow arched, Fred glanced from Ron to George and scratched his chin. “I wonder wh-ughhh…?”

Fred lurched back from the elbow that Hermione had inadvertently planted in his ribs as she raced past. George and Ron bailed as Sirius bolted out in her wake.

Fred pried his way off the wall and looked at his two toppled brothers as they picked themselves off the floor. His eyes settled on the younger Weasley. “So Ron, what was it you were saying? Something about what a fine morning it was?”

Molly covered her mouth, stifling her startled utterance. “Dear me! Sorry Albus, I just wasn't expected to see you, um, still here?”

Albus Dumbledore blinked; his eyes wide for a moment before he smiled and emitted an awkward chuckle. “Good morning Molly. Please accept my apologies for having alarmed you. I was just… checking on your daughter.”

“Checking on Ginny?” Molly stared, panic evident in her eyes. “That's what we were, uh… Um, is she okay?”

“Is she in some sort of impenetrable sleep?” Lupin wore a deep frown on his face. “Harry seems deeply comatose at the moment.”

“Oh, is he also sleeping?” Dumbledore fidgeted with his collar, taking a half step forward toward the entrance corridor that Molly was unintentionally blocking. He coughed slightly. “Well yes, Ginny appears to be resting very soundly right now. I was just about to rush back to Hogwarts to consult with Poppy in case this is evidence of an undiagnosed malady of some sort.”

Everyone whipped around at the noise of Hermione and Sirius clattering to a stop at the first landing. With eyes nearly as wild as her hair, Hermione stared down at the confused group, her piercing look settling on Dumbledore. “Professor, I hope you're not planning to leave here without a proper understanding of what's happening!”

Her words were not a question.

Dumbledore's gaze flickered over Hermione and Sirius, and dashed quickly back to Molly. “A proper understanding, Miss Granger? Fortunately, I can assure you all that I have made careful observations to convey to Madame Pomfrey; she and I will assess the situation accordingly. Now, unless someone has important new insight in the matter, please excuse me, as it is in everyone's best interests for me to…”

“Careful observations??” Her glare pinning the Headmaster, Hermione gripped the bannister with white knuckles and began to descend the remaining steps. “How can you expect to provide Madame Pomfrey with careful observations on Harry when you've also claimed to not even been aware that he was unwell?” She gritted her teeth for a moment. “Either way, I think it's obvious that you haven't made any effort to examine him.”

“Well Miss Granger, having just examined Ginny, I assumed that Harry…”

Hermione stood at the bottom of the steps, her hands on her hips. “You assumed, sir, that Harry is suffering from the same problem as Ginny?”

“Well yes...” Dumbledore removed his spectacles and began polishing them. “Yes, I suppose that's a reasonable way to put it. And if Ginny and Harry do not rouse from their sleep soon, I promise to…”

“Professor, you know that Ginny and Harry are suffering from the same malady…” Hermione advanced on Dumbledore, glaring at him unwaveringly. “You know it, because you caused it!”

Molly gasped. “Young lady! What a horrible thing to…!”

Hermione whipped her finger to within three inches of Molly's nose. “Mrs. Weasley, I know what I'm talking about. Please don't argue, because we haven't any time to...”

“Hermione Granger!” Molly sputtered incoherently, then brandished her own finger menacingly. “You may not be my daughter, but as long as you are in my house, you will never ever ever use that tone with me or with the Headmaster, do you understand?! Go to your room! Now!!”

“Your house, Molly?” Sirius coughed incredulously. “Er, do you suppose I should just sign over the deed and make this…”

“Sirius, Mum, can you both shut it please?”

Ten shocked eyes swiveled to the landing to identify the source of the latest interruption… and settled their gazes upon a distinctly awkward-looking Ron. He blanched for a moment at the suddenly undivided attention, but then swallowed and found his voice again. “Er, that came out kind of crudely Mum — sorry. But I think we really need to hear what Hermione has to… Hey!”

Ron pointed abruptly over the other Grimmauld Place denizens, and they swung around to see Dumbledore hastening down the corridor. He pulled to a halt a short distance from the front entrance.

Molly looked somewhat confused and utterly mortified. “Albus, please pardon all of this disgraceful behavior but, er…” She shifted uncomfortably. “Would you mind terribly staying a few minutes longer — just to help sort out whatever lamentable misconceptions Hermione and Ron…”

“And Sirius!” Sirius stepped across to stand by Hermione, and regarded Dumbledore somewhat irritably. “I have the lamentable misconception that Albus is trying to walk out of here with the cure sitting in his pocket.”

“The cure…?” Molly looked at Sirius; her expression was not the usual one of disdain for the former Marauder. It was mostly puzzlement, perhaps also containing a grain of hopefulness.

Hermione nodded. “Yes, the cure. Professor Dumbledore is taking away the one object that Ginny and Harry may most need to recover from their inert state.”

“The cure, Miss Granger?” Dumbledore raised a bushy eyebrow. “Ah! Perhaps I am now beginning to grasp the basis of your delusions. The object of which you speak — the brooch — is not the cure, but the cause. It is a dangerous magical object and I am removing it from the premises before it harms anyone else. Now if you will all kindly excuse me…” He turned and took another step toward the door.

Sirius whipped out his wand. “Colloportus! ” The door emitted a dull whirring noise for a moment then fell ominously silent.

Dumbledore stopped; he raised his gaze wearily toward the ceiling for a moment, then turned to face the owner of the house. “Really Sirius? I'm certain you realize that I could break that spell in a matter of seconds?”

Fianto Duri!

Everyone stared in amazement at Hermione's quivering wand, then all eyes drifted toward the door, which was now encased in a rigid whitish luminescence.

Sirius grinned broadly as Dumbledore heaved a pained sigh and fixed Hermione with eyes that were rather devoid of twinkle. “Congratulations, Miss Granger...” Dumbledore clapped twice, slowly and wearily. “My compliments on the successful prosecution of a sophisticated post-N.E.W.T. incantation. I'm sure that Madame Bones will be most interested to hear about this notable exploit during your hearing for unlawful underage sorcery.” He raised one eyebrow high, and paused for emphasis. “Unfortunately I will compelled to testify that your life was in no way threatened at the time of your spell, and that your action was both a nuisance and a hindrance.”

Hermione huffed sharply. “Go ahead and report me, Professor. Go ahead and have a jolly time preparing your testimony, because it simply doesn't matter in the least. Unless you listen to us about the brooch, we'll all be as good as dead anyway.”

“Thank you for your endless theatrics and baseless concerns, but in truth I do not have time for such amusing diversions.” Dumbledore turned his attention summarily back to the door, examining the colour and texture of the spell. “Remus and Molly? Would you be so kind as to lend me a hand for a moment? Breaking a ward of this nature is best accomplished with several good wands working in concert.”

Molly made a tentative move toward Dumbledore, but Lupin took the three resolute steps he needed in order to stand with Sirius and Hermione. The former defence professor folded his arms across his chest. “Albus, I believe a bit of perspective is in order here.”

Dumbledore was about to respond, but Lupin continued quickly. “In my recollection, I rather doubt we'll find anyone at Hogwarts over the past four years who, in the face of crisis, has exercised consistently better judgment than Hermione. That assessment includes faculty and staff — yourself and myself included. Personally, I would rather like to hear what she has to say.”

“Me too.” Ron drew his wand and finished descending the stairs.

“Same for us,” Fred declared as the twins made it down to the landing. “I don't recall ever seeing Hermione get anything wrong before.”

George nodded with a deathly serious expression on his face. “Yes, and I'd hate to see something bad come to Ginny and Harry because we didn't listen to the right person.”

With near panic in her eyes, Molly looked to the old wizard, but Dumbledore merely sighed resignedly and turned to face the others. “Very well. If the young lady may state her beliefs as succinctly as possible?” He nodded deferentially to Hermione. “With any luck she and I should be able to tidy up any confusion and clear the air in the process.”

For a moment, Hermione's brow raised itself suspiciously, but she quickly stifled the emotion, clasping her hands behind her back and taking a step forward. “Professor, what you took from Ginny appears to be no more and no less than a cupla mystica — a magical tether made more than nineteen hundred years ago by one of Harry's ancestors and given to…”

“A cupla mystica? ” Dumbledore's eyebrows bristled. “Surely not, Miss Granger. The magical signature of that object is prodigious — completely out of the range of any cuplae mystica I have ever examined.”

Hermione sniffed in irritation. “Well then, Professor, it would appear that you've never before had an opportunity to examine an ancient cupla created by the Peverell family.”

“Peverell??” Lupin's eyes went wide. “Are you referring to the three brothers??

Hermione shook her head. “No sir, I'm referring to the father of the three brothers. If our Headmaster would ever deign to pull the brooch out of his pocket, then we could see for ourselves. There should be a clear inscription on it, bearing the name P. Peuerellius.”

Everyone stared at Dumbledore, who made no effort to produce the brooch. Rather, he shrugged. “Yes, I can confirm that the object does bear that name, but I also see no proof that it is anything so innocent as a simple magical love token.”

“Simple?” Hermione took another step toward Dumbledore. “Sir, do you regard love as 'simple'?”

“Er, well not as such…”

Hermione took another step forward. “Are you prepared to accept that love may be complex and powerful?”

Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I, well, yes. I have done some research in the matter, actually.”

Hermione nodded fervently. “Do you accept that the Peverell family was renowned for performing extraordinary magic, sir?”

“Well, according to the legend, yes.”

“Well then…” Hermione began pacing. “Are you prepared to consider that an object representing the powerful love of a powerful ancient wizard could be strong enough to bind not only that wizard and his soul mate, but in fact also reach out, over space and time, to two very distant descendants?”

Dumbledore continued to stroke his beard, making no response.

“I'm certain it will surprise nobody to learn that Harry and Ginny were those two distant descendants, of course. ” Hermione paused her lecture to scan the assembled group. The twins were nodding excitedly, Molly was white and tremulous, and the others embodied various forms of rapt attention as Hermione resumed. “From some detailed notes that Sirius and I just read through, it appears that Harry and Ginny allowed themselves to become immersed in the connections fostered by the cupla, not out of a juvenile whimsy, but because it became clear that the cupla offered them the only mechanism possible to counteract a rogue Death Eater who is attempting to re-write ancient history.”

Dead silence fell over the group. Hermione straightened her back and fixed Dumbledore with firm, steady eyes and resumed. “The nefarious Death Eater plot involves meddling with Harry's ancestors, seeking to prevent Harry from ever becoming the 'Boy Who Lived'; to prevent Voldemort from ever being defeated in 1981; to ensure that a culture of pure-blood atrocity runs rampant over our society, slaughtering nearly every person we've ever known and cared about.”

Hermione bit her lip for a moment and took a sharp breath. “I know this because I've seen it, sir. I've seen what the world looks like if Harry and Ginny are to fail. Please, please please believe me that they are our only hope!”

“I errr…” Dumbledore gazed distractedly at Hermione for a moment. “Well, personally, I find that those assertions stretch all manner of credulity.”

Hermione glared at him. “Are you prepared to face the consequences of your intransigence?” She gritted her teeth. “Well, I can tell you that I'm not prepared to let you be a stubborn old goat, sir! I believe that in stealing the brooch from Ginny, you tore both her and Harry away from both the present and the past. As far as I know, you may have stranded their souls in some sort of limbo without a proper space or time. Don't you think you should explain to us, Professor, how you were planning to reverse…”

“G-Ginny? Harry? Stranded?!” Molly's face collapsed into her trembling hands.

“We'll work this out, Mrs. Weasley, I promise.” Hermione instinctively placed a comforting hand on the Weasley matron's arm, then turned back to Dumbledore. “Professor, I think I know how to bring Ginny and Harry back safely. Do you?”

Dumbledore glanced at Molly with a tinge of regret around his eyes, but said nothing.

Hermione stepped closer again to the old wizard, her face now less than three feet from his. “You hold the key in your pocket, sir. You have a decision to make, and if you make the wrong one, you may instantly eradicate everyone in this room and doom our entire society forever. If you choose correctly, then hopefully it's not too late to permit two incredibly brave students to resume their efforts to save us all.”

“Balderdash!” The elderly professor's reticence vanished in a plume of outrage. “Even if this far-fetched scenario of yours was possible, I'm sure that the adults in this room would agree that such activities are hardly appropriate for mere…”

“For mere children, sir?” Hermione's eyebrows shot into her fringe. “Would anybody here like to hear about some of the grave and deadly serious tasks from the past four years that you've overlooked, condoned and sometimes even directly pawned off onto students?! Did you ever consider assigning some of those perilous adventures to adults, sir? Well, here's the irony — even if you wanted to handle this quest yourself, you couldn't. Every adult in this room can touch, coddle and beg the brooch for all their worth and never get an inch or a second closer to the world that Harry and Ginny have to navigate. The brooch chose them for this work! The brooch didn't choose Albus Dumbledore or Remus Lupin, Molly Weasley, Sirius Black, nor anybody within the most illustrious Order of the Phoenix. The brooch called to Harry and Ginny, and they accepted. They're off trying to save all of our lives because they know that they're the only ones who can!”

Dumbledore's shoulders slumped. All eyes in the room fell upon a tired, defeated-looking old man as he sighed deeply. “Well, perhaps what you claim is possible. If it is, then I only wish that they had come to me sooner so that we could have addressed this together in a manner that would be safer for all.”

Hermione's jaw dropped. “What…? Professor Dumbledore, you can't possibly have said what I thought you said?!”

Dumbledore looked at her quizzically. “I, er, said that…”

“Arrghh!” Hermione slammed her open hand down into the bannister post with a resounding smack.

“Eeeiighhhh!” The blood curdling voice of Walburga Black, having somehow slumbered through the prior proceedings, tore through the hallway. “Mudbloods!! Thieves! Blood traitors! May hell rain down upon ye…”

Silencio, you ignorant cow!” Within a split second of zapping the offensive portrait, Hermione rounded on Dumbledore, her chin jutting to within inches of his. “How dare you impugn my friends for not speaking to you, you addled hypocrite! You've spent weeks completely ignoring Harry and turning tail whenever he approaches. Then you attemptLegilimency on Ginny when she tries to tell you that she'll only talk about it with Harry present. I-I-I'm so angry that… that… ARRGGHHHH!!”

Moments later, when everyone's shocked ears had stopped ringing, they discovered that the headmaster had begun speaking. Softly, humbly.

“Ah indeed.” Dumbledore hung his head. “I feel a need to apologise, Miss Granger. I did have reasons for my actions, but, well, maybe now is not the time for faint hearted hand-waving.” He sighed slowly. “Perhaps it is instead time to vest some authourity in the capable hands of someone who has demonstrably earned it.”

“Huh?!” Hermione gaped at Dumbledore, struggling to process his sudden capitulation. She was so surprised, in fact, that she didn't notice the old wizard reaching resignedly into a deep pocket of his robe, to deposit a silver object into her hand.

Sensing the cold metal on her fingers, Hermione blinked and stared down at what she was now holding. “Oh my! I didn't mean for you to…”

The room swirled sickeningly. Hermione swayed; she felt an arm reaching from behind her — somehow strong; yet still a bit awkward — to catch her as both knees gave way…

“Are you all right, Hettie?” Rob's voice was filled with concern as his arm locked around her waist, stabilising her.

Hettie glanced about in disorientation. She felt her friend's strong body propping her up from behind. She saw the dimly lit quarters — small, sparsely furnished; no windows; a faintly musty smell as if the flat was located somewhere deep underground.

Hettie looked across to the door to another (even duskier) room, at the threshold of which stood a craggy old man in a white robe. His face bore deep, solicitous lines as he gazed at her with a pair of oddly clouded blue eyes.

He coughed slightly — an old man's cough. “I'm dreadfully sorry dear — I would understand if you found the implications rather foreboding…” Leaning heavily on a gnarled old walking stick, he gazed down at his feet.

Her head still swimming, Hettie struggled with the scene before her. It conferred a strange hint of deja vu, and a pressing realisation that she had missed some critical elements of recent conversation. “I apologise sir, but could you repeat, er, whatever it was that you'd just told me? At least, uh, the last bit?”

The man's face raised abruptly; his eyes bored deeply, disconcertingly, into hers for a moment, then he nodded slightly. “Yes certainly. In a moment I will be pleased to clarify. But first, might I ask you dear — do you have a visitor?

“Sorry sir?” Hettie stared at him, as his bizarre question failed to resonate. “What do you mean by, 'do I have a-a… visitor?'”

The old man began to approach her, moving haltingly as if in pain, yet with eyes never wavered as he regarded her. He nodded slightly. “Well, perhaps you would call it a voice? A presence? The feeling as though your mind houses not yourself, but also someone else who may seem both similar and yet somehow distinct.”

Hettie gazed, unseeing, into the darkness of the adjoining room. She chewed her lip, turned her thoughts inwards and suddenly found herself recalling half-imagined memories that did not seem to be her own; impressions that might have been based on someone else's experiences. She thought back over the past several months, remembering sudden sensations of disorientation when her perspectives suddenly shifted from normal to… something just a bit different…

Hettie turned her eyes back to the old man. “Yes sir, I believe I may actually have a visitor.”

“Indeed.” The man (whose name Hettie now remembered as Achaius Duff) nodded gravely; he glanced at Rob and Neill. “And so it would appear that the time has come, my friends.”

Rob decoupled himself from Hettie, who was now standing well on her own. He held her hand reassuringly, but his attention was on Duff. “So then, should we show her the, uh, object?”

Duff shook his head. “No, not quite yet Robert. The young lady is a bit discomfited. We have a little time, and ought not rush her into this until she is ready.” He smiled sympathetically at Hettie. “So Henrietta, you are aware that your intervention may change the course of history? You understand that you may be our last chance to recover a common decency that disappeared in our society some very hard years ago.”

“Also a chance to save lots of lives,” Rob added.

“Yes, I had gathered that.” Hettie nodded but a small frown crept over her face. “So what must I do?”

Duff shrugged. “You will know, my dear. When the time comes, you will understand many details that even I do not. The voice in your mind, I believe, is coming to you now because she is prepared to take you when you must go and guide your hand toward its appointed task.”

“Okay...” Hettie felt the ominous weight of Duff's gentle words, and felt the intensity of his piercing eyes. She shifted uncomfortably. “And what happens if I fail? What are the risks?”

Duff's eerie gaze did not falter. “The risks? Yes, of course.” He took several more difficult steps toward her, and grasped her free hand. “Failure is not a risk, Henrietta.”

Hettie looked at him quizzically.

Struggling with his walking stick, Duff pulled himself a bit straighter and repeated himself. “Failure is not a risk. If you succeed, then all shall be well. If for any reason the gambit fails, then we shall all die, comforted in the knowledge that at least we gave it our best attempt. Many variables in your quest may be beyond your control; there is no way to succeed unless you try, but even the best, most valiant attempt can never completely guarantee success.”

Hettie felt the blood begin to rush from her head, but the sensation of Rob's warm hand squeezing hers gave her strength. Glancing at him, however, Hettie suddenly noticed that the subtle but deep sorrow had returned to his eyes.

Rob met her gaze for a moment, then he looked away. “You do realize though, Hettie, that if you do succeed, everything will change.”

Hettie's lips parted as she tried to read the lines etched about the young man's face. “Change?”

“Yes, change.” Duff's voice dropped to a whisper. “If all goes well, the lives that each of us has lived will no longer be. Will never have been. Our terrible, failed world will cease to exist.”

Hettie stared, uncomprehending.

“There will be another world, Hettie.” The voice was Neill's; he was slowly approaching; his face plain and inscrutable. “The other world will be far better than this has ever been. Another Hettie Gravener in some other space and time will live and breathe, free of despair, ready for victory and peace.”

Duff's face, still grim and solemn, seemed pleased with the candid, heart-felt words of his acolyte. “Yes Henrietta. You would be sacrificing the world that you know. This is an easy choice for many of us — certainly for Rob, Neill, and any other witches or wizards who have already lost everything. For you, so sheltered all these long years, hidden from the lost society of the damned, never knowing the hidden perils you might have faced if Voldemort's foul demons had ever tracked you down… Never sensing that danger has been slowly, inexorably closing in upon you… For you, perhaps the decision is not so easy.”

Hettie glanced frantically around at the faces surrounding her. “My life has been in danger?”

“Yes, I am certain it has.” Duff sighed. “Rob and I have argued about this many times since January. At first, he was immensely resistant to my plan. He wished to leave you in peace, to live out your quiet life in New Zealand, but I eventually persuaded him that even the expatriate families would eventually be hunted down — lest they ever return to Britain to fuel any rebellion against Voldemort's regime.”

Duff's eyes landed sadly on Hettie's once more. “You would have been especially vulnerable, my dear. In all of the more virtuous and hopeful versions of this world, you always play an integral role in this struggle of good against evil. I am convinced that were this world of ours not so perverted and wrong, you would have spent many years as cherished familiar to people such Robert and Gemina Wilsey, and likely even to the last Peverell.

“Last Peverell?” Hettie stared. Deep inside, a part of her seemed to instinctively sense what the phrase might refer to, but it had never been explicitly explained to her.

Rob shifted at her side. “The green-eyed, dark-haired boy that Gemina used to dream of. Duff said that… in a better world, he would have been real.”

Neill moved closer. “He would have saved us — long before all of these horrors came to pass.”

“Nobody here has ever met him, save in legends and dreams.” Duff's eyes went distant for a moment. “Good and kind soul. He would definitely have been your dear friend, Henrietta.”

Hettie stared; her mind raced with strange, half-imagined images of some hark-haired, green-eyed teen... as if somewhere in her dreams she truly did know this 'last Peverell'.

Duff coughed slightly. “Unless we act now, I fear that such associations known deeply within your soul would eventually doom you. I cannot imagine a scenario wherein our evil overlord would not someday seek you out and… do that which he is best known for doing.”

Hettie took a deep breath. Such strange, half-connected details, as bewildering as they seemed, blew past her like autumn leaves. Somewhere deep within herself, a sisterly voice seemed to be gently exhorting faith and calm. Finally Hettie nodded resolutely. “If my family is in danger, then I too have nothing to lose. Please show me what to do.”

Rob released Hettie's hand. “Hettie, before you go in that room, please know how eternally grateful we'll always be to you. If things somehow fail, then…” He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and pressed it into her palm. “If things go wrong, then you might still be able to make a break for it. This contains detailed escape instructions, Muggle money and Muggle transport tickets — everything by the dullest but safest routes possible. I don't know if you'll ever see us again, but please, uh, remember us?”

Her muscles tensing in a swirl of strong sentiments, Hettie forced herself to look up, to see the kind earnest face of the young man who had progressed from being enigma, to dear friend, to…

No. Hettie knew that a very powerful emotion was there, ready to blossom... but not now. Not at this perilous moment. She must deny herself; she could not possibly admit such feelings right now — not when she knew with all her heart that she might lose everything… everyone…?

Hettie fell into Rob's chest. She hauled him in, pulling herself tight, clenching and trembling, against his heart. Her tears leaked uncontrollably down his shirt.

Rob reached up awkwardly… warmly. With the back of his fingers he stroked her hair atop her temple. “Hettie, I, uh… no matter what happens, I'll always be up here, you know?”

Hettie nodded. She felt several wracking sobs course through her body but she let them pass. She spent a final treasured moment simply listening to the beating of a heart… then she straightened up. As she decoupled herself from Rob, she turned her eyes onto a bland part of the dimly lit wall, studiously avoiding any of the other faces in the room, lest she see their expressions. She took another deep breath. “So what do you need me to do?”

“Please accompany me, Henrietta.” Duff's walking stick rattled its way toward the other room. His voice seemed distant but solemn. “There is an artifact over there in my study. When you see it, perhaps a part of you may recognise the object, as if from a dream… All we shall ask from you is to touch it.”

The room was less than twenty feet away but the walk felt to Hettie as if it were down a long, unlit tunnel. Finally, she found herself in a small room that contained nothing other than a single chair, an old oak table and a winged brooch of unusual craftsmanship. Hettie regarded the silver object. It seemed small and harmless, lying all alone on the table. She look up with a quizzical expression. “Why must it be me?”

Rob followed her into the room, standing beside her as Duff crossed around to the far end of the table. The old man met her eyes. “The reason is very difficult to explain, my dear, yet I am confident that you will prove to be the right person.”

Hettie's expression did not change. “What would happen if I was not the right person?”

“Well…” Duff scratched his chin reflectively for a moment. “If you were not the right person, I very much doubt that anything would happen. The vast majority of people who might pick it up would feel nothing, and would be quite pressed to detect any magic in it at all. From my limited research, I believe that if I created a cupla from the magic used by Peuerellius, the charm would be a reflection of my soul. The magic of such a cupla would be detectable and meaningful only to those rare people who somehow bring exceptional meaning to my soul.”

“I…?” Hettie stared at him. “I would be considered meaningful to a man who lived aeons ago?”

Duff nodded in a matter-of-fact manner.

Hettie raised an eyebrow. “How do you know? How do you know any of this? If you've managed to figure out so much about the magic of this charm, then shouldn't you be able to do this yourself?”

“Ah my dear…” Duff looked away. He had a distant, vaguely sad look in his eyes. “There may be others who can use the cupla… but I know of nobody else who should do so.” He paused; worry lines creased his face, and his gaze fell towards the floor. “We do not have much time left in this brief window of chance, Henrietta. Could I beg you to take a leap of faith, and place such an extraordinary trust in a somewhat untrustworthy old man?”

Hettie turned, not to the hazy eyes that remained fixed obliquely away, focusing on a place or time far removed from the present. Hettie instead looked up into Rob's earnest face. Rob nodded slowly and raised a hand to gently touch her cheek. “I trust him, Hettie.”

She nodded. Not prepared to again face the raw emotions of several minutes ago, she looked quickly away from the tall young man at her side. She moved forward to the table with a sense of purpose — a clear resolution to proceed with one of the most selfless acts imaginable; to complete the action before any further question might arise to weaken her resolve.

Hettie lifted the brooch from its resting place. The polished wings felt cool upon her fingers…

Hermione spiraled dizzily away from the dim subterranean site of Hettie Gravener's grim resolve.

Struggling for her balance, Hermione found herself confronted with a grey, drizzling sky that jostled and lurched in front of her eyes. Metallic clangs beset her ears, competing with the horrid din of shouts, cries and outright shrieks. Flailing bodies of men streamed past her — some were armored, some half-naked and painted in lurid colours, and all bore primitive weapons that slashed and hacked in homocidal fury. Wooden planks shuddered, groaned and tossed beneath her feet and below her white-knuckled grip.

“Atal!” At the sound of a young woman's raw shout, the two horses reared and whinnied. The groaning platform beneath Hermione's feet — what she now recognized as an ancient chariot — halted sharply, just short of a low line of shrubs.

Hermione strained, thudded against the side of a railing, staggered drunkenly… then stood. She glanced rapidly around herself; at a stand of tall pine trees less than twenty feet away, at the rough ground below… and then at the red-haired chariot driver.

Hermione gasped. “Ginny??”

Tying the reins down, the driver looked up in surprise. In spite of the perspiration, the hair wildly bedraggled from the mist and crazed ride up the hillside, Hermione had appraised the young woman instantly. This person was definitely someone who could easily have been mistaken for Ginny Weasley… but was not.

Shaking her head, the chariot driver immediately confirmed this in no uncertain terms. “I am not your Ginny.” The striking young woman studied Hermione for a moment then nodded. “Yes, I am not your Ginny, and you are not my Heanua.”

Hermione's eyes widened as she processed the second name, inferring that this must be… “LanossŽa! You are LanossŽa, princess of the Iceni?!”

The princess shrugged. “You make that sound far more important than it is. All I know is that 'LanossŽa, princess of the Iceni' is a dead woman unless you and I escape up through the woods.” She swung down from the chariot, and pointed toward Hermione's shift. “You have a wand on your belt. Can you use it?”

Hermione stared down at the primitive woven garment she was wearing. The shift was belted about her waist, and she found that she was armed with a jeweled dagger, as well as the wand that the princess had pointed to. Hermione pulled it free and weighed it in her palm. “Uh, yes I think so.”

“Good” The princess drew her own wand and gestured toward a tall, powerful woman slumped unconscious on the floor of the chariot, still clutching an ornate wooden staff. “Together we must levitate my mother through the woods.”

Hermione grinned and pointed her wand, immensely relieved to begin this wild adventure with a task she could handle. “Wingardium Leviosa!

Hermione felt the wand respond naturally, sensed the invigourating flow of magic through her arm… then grunted in surprise, as if encountering a heavy resistance.

The unconscious woman's arms and legs lifted slightly, but the rest of her body remained stubbornly anchored… until LanossŽa's spell merged with Hermione's.

Immediately, Hermione felt almost as if a large weight had been lifted from her own body. The woman on the chariot began to rise up, free of the platform.

The princess nodded approvingly. “Let us hasten to carry her uphill one hundred feet or more. Once out of sight, we will stop and disillusion ourselves. Then we may make the remainder of the journey at a more moderate pace.”

Hermione signaled her understanding. With LanossŽa in the lead, they walked together, carefully maneuvering the queen past shrubs and below the rough pine branches. After a couple of minutes they had progressed far enough into the brush that visibility down to the battlefield was minimal. The princess signaled that they should lay their burden down onto the soft, needle-strewn ground.

Somewhat winded from the magical exertion, Hermione saw LanossŽa find a spot to lean against a chest-high fallen tree. A momentary pang of regret crept across the princess's face; she reached into a fold in her tunic and withdrew a brooch — identical to the one Hermione had seen at Grimmauld place. The princess gazed at it for a moment, put it away, then turned to face Hermione with somewhat suppressed sadness in her eyes. “Might I ask one more favour of you?”

Hermione nodded, taking the opportunity to once again study this strong, assertive young woman who looked so much like the Weasley daughter.

LanossŽa glanced away self consciously for a moment, then raised her eyes again. “I know not who you are or why you choose to occupy my sister's body, but if you are versed with the name 'Ginny', then I assume you would also have heard of the one called… Harry?”

“Yes.” Hermione nodded. “Ginny and Harry are both my friends.”

The princess looked at Hermione sharply — a deep, penetrating stare as if she was trying to see beneath her skin. Then she turned away again. “Your friend Harry is kin to a man very dear to me.”

Hermione recalled the detailed notes she had glimpsed in the Grimmauld Place library; how Ginny's neat script had cataloged many details of an Inceni princess and her unlikely affair with the Roman Publican named… “Peuerellius. Peverell. Quite correct — he's Harry's ancestor.”

The princess smiled slightly in acknowledgement, then lapsed back into solemnity. “Yes. Well, if you happen to see this 'Harry'… or if at some point you are able to contact him… could you please remind him that we agreed to meet at our refuge?”

Hermione stared; her heart ached in empathy to hear such a simple, sorrowful request. She cleared her throat softly. “I, uhh… yes, I'll try.” She instinctively reached her hand toward the princess's arm, but the young Iceni woman was already pulling away, looking distantly through the high pine branches toward a mist-shrouded tower.

Hermione followed her gaze distractedly and… she couldn't help wondering…

Where was Harry? Where was Ginny? Were they okay?

And when, indeed, would she ever see them again?

Deep down inside herself, Ginny had steeled herself for this. Without consciously intending to, she and Harry had practised for precisely this scenario. In past dreams, they had suffered through dark, dreadful simulations of what it might feel like if she was to somehow lose the brooch.

Those sensations of isolation and despair, although very useful, had seemed patently awful at the time. Even so, such an exercise had not fully prepared Ginny for just how utterly wretched it would feel to experience the real thing.

Having been torn abruptly from a first century A.D. battlefield, and lacking the bearings or beacons to make her way safely back to her own bed at Grimmauld Place, Ginny found herself somewhere far less welcoming than either of those places. She was in a void, immersed in a suffocation of icy despair, divorced from all space, time, warmth and hope, afforded not even the cathartic release of a scream.

It was somehow strangely worse than any hell that a religion might have promised.

Fortunately, although her preparation was incomplete, it was proving to be… adequate. After the initial shock of the rupture, Ginny gradually found the presence of mind to focus; to recall what what she had needed to accomplish in those impromptu simulations to get past the desolation; to remember what it took to gradually recover the ability to feel; to acknowledge something better than emptiness; to finally find her voice in the darkness.

With a tremendous effort, she focused on imagining the requisite sounds…

“… hh…”

“… ar… ”

“… harry…?”

From somewhere beyond the deafening silence came that faintest of replies.

“… ginny?

“… see … light?”

Light?

Was there a light somewhere in this accursed nothingness?

Ginny strained her mind, trying to even recall what light looked like.

The light of a summer day… the light of a reading lamp… even dim firelight — she couldn't imagine any of those. Finally she settled on trying to perceive the solitary pin-prick of a single distant star… and she found it!

The first glimmer of light began so feebly that it could have been a trick of the mind's eye, but Ginny refused to let it go. Once or twice it nearly faded into the void, but she concentrated, tensed, held on… and it stayed. The light gradually strengthened and stabilised, forming the first viable dimension within the void. Here was her primordial hope; her objective.

When she had finally convinced herself that the light was real, Ginny began to move toward it. She had no idea how quickly she would reach it — after all, time and velocity had no meaning — but as she struggled along, it became clear that this journey toward that light was going to feel so very, very dishearteningly long.

Finally… finally… it seemed almost within arm's length.

In the dreams of emptiness that Ginny and Harry had shared in the past, they had always found ways to reach for each other — for comfort, communication, and to share in each other's strength. Within a real void, the sensation was impossible to describe. If Ginny later related it to stretching out to touch something just beyond one's fingertips, that was because there was no suitable analogy.

In truth, Ginny and Harry were both stretching magic; there was no other way to pull oneself from the depth of nothingness than to apply and bend magic in ways that were far beyond the bounds of any spell even written in any book.

If Ginny later described their eventual success as being like a drowning person reaching out to grasp a rescuer's hand, that is because nobody else could ever possibly understand what it truly felt like.

Except Harry.

For Harry was Ginny's rescuer, just as Ginny was Harry's.

Only with incredible love can two people ever hope to reach beyond the endless vats of nothingness and icy despair to rescue each other.

They did. They prevailed. And in the end, as language fails again and again to do justice to their feat, we can at least pay silent homage to their triumph.

In the dimness of a place that had only that sole slowly pulsating light, Harry and Ginny reached each other, sensed each other's presence, and strove together to recover senses and sensibilities.

The basic senses returned slowly. The best remedy for the void's unremitting cold, Harry realized, was to feel warmth. With immense concentration, Harry gradually remembered what it felt like to have arms… hands… and to feel them wrapped around someone warm… like Ginny. With great fondness, another recollection returned to him — the sensation of her soft breath against his chest. And, of course, Harry could never forget the feel of her hair running through his fingers…

And so they embraced… and felt warmth. The lingering sensations of pain or panic were fading quickly now, replaced by comfort. And yet within that hard-earned comfort, there was the plaintive call of reality.

“We have work to do, Gin'.” Harry sighed. “But where to begin? I feel like we've been gone so long. We need to remember where we are; what we were doing; what we need to do.”

“Hmmm? Where are we?” Ginny's hand stirred somewhat from where it was pressed against his back. “We're lying in our own separate beds in Grimmauld Place, but we're also on the outskirts of Boadicea's final battle. Soon I should return to the princess, who's climbing up through the pine woods.”

“Wow! How do you remember all that?”

“Girls are always better with details, Harry.”

Harry could feel her face curl up into a slight smile from where it was pressed against him. Yet, he could also feel that smile subside as Ginny reflected further.

“Harry, we have to sort out how to help the Publican…”

Harry felt himself frowning. “The Publican… He's, uhh, in the air…?”

Ginny pursed her lips. “I suppose he may have landed by now. He's going to have to fight Antioch.”

“Right.” Harry sighed unhappily. “Please don't take this the wrong way, Gin', but, well… the Publican and I are going to have to handle Antioch alone.”

“Harry, that's…!”

“No, no, please Gin' — please hear me out. It has to be this way.”

Ginny pulled back slightly so that they could see each other.

And they actually could see each other!

Mercy! Harry nearly choked to see her face again after what had seemed like such an eternity in the void. Even in a state of anxiety, she was so incredibly beautiful!

Ginny's face softened somewhat as she recognized that look in his face. She smiled slightly, but she couldn't quite let him off the hook yet. “So, you were going to explain something, Harry?”

Harry blinked. He grinned for a moment, but fell solemn again as he refocused. “Okay, here's the problem. Malfoy wants to trap the queen. Tell me that the bastard isn't tracking LanossŽa as we speak. The instant you let the princess take her eye off Boadicea to rescue the Publican, Malfoy will pounce on the queen and that will be that. Point, set, match!”

“But…!!” Ginny's face seethed in frustration for a moment, then wilted. “Damn.”

Harry pulled Ginny into a tight embrace again; her form remained tense for several seconds, then she softened and exhaled slowly. He rocked her gently, soothingly. “It'll be okay, Gin'. Between the Publican and me, we'll take care of Antioch. I promise.”

“You will, won't you?” Ginny stroked Harry's jawline pensively.. “Hurry back to the refuge though. If it was purely a matter of strength, the Princess and I could hold off Malfoy indefinitely, but we still don't know what he's planning. I'd feel a lot more confident if we faced him together.”

“I'll get back to you — fast!” Harry paused for a moment to again take in the sight of her face. “It seemed like we were apart so very long; there's no way I'm going to stay away any longer than it takes to get out of the praetorium!

“Good.” Ginny nodded; she gazed distractedly at his mouth, uncertain whether, so close to another departure, she could meet his eyes without misting up. “Please be careful, though.”

“I'll promise that too.” Harry smiled softly and leaned in to kiss her forehead. “I love you, Gin'.”

Ginny grinned weakly and, tears be damned, she lifted her face to gaze into his eyes. “I love you too, Harry!”

They kissed… and any vestiges of the cold void were banished forever. In their last moment before separating, their dream had taken them to the woodland bower where the princess and Publican had shared their months of springtime bliss.

They pulled back from the kiss and gazed around themselves.

Ginny smiled. “It's pretty here.”

“Beautiful!” Harry nodded. “And peaceful too.”

They stepped apart and Ginny walked a few paces away, looking down toward the river, which was glistening in the sun. “That's the Waveney, right? Let's come here for real some day, Harry.”

Following behind her, Harry caught her hand. “Absolutely, Gin'! Someday soon!”

Ginny smiled; her expression sunny and hopeful again for the first time in a long while. “So this is farewell, yeah?”

Harry returned her smile. “For a little while.”

Ginny's smiling eyes traced the contours of his face, trailed down his neck, to his chest and arms, and…

She shook herself and laughed — a gentle sound; jaunty, musical. Eyes sparkling, she grinned at him. “Get out of here while you still can, Harry! Just now, I swear, I was a half-second away from tearing your clothes off!”

Harry's eyes flashed wide… then he chuckled. “You know, there's nothing technically wrong with that, considering this is just in your dream, right?”

“Yes, but it's your dream too, Harry.”

He grinned. “Don't let that stop you.”

Ginny smirked. “Go! We have to save the world from Antioch and Malfoy, okay?”

“Bloody tossers!” Harry growled and rolled his eyes. “If either of those berks get in the way of one more tender moment, they'll be the ones who need saving!”

Ginny winked. Harry gave a quick wave… and they were gone.

Harry had flown through the air before, but never without a broom. He was still pulsing with relief over the fact that he and Ginny had escaped the void, but racing across the sky without any control was hardly the way he wanted to celebrate.

The damp wind streamed past his face, drenching his skin and hair. As the looming stone tower expanded across his field of vision at an alarming rate, an idea popped into his head — the sudden notion that he could try again to fight Antioch's summoning spell… but Merlin only knows what would happen if he did that. Crashing headlong into the side of the tower would hardly be a better outcome than facing Antioch.

Harry forced himself to take a deep breath. He struggled for composure, and tensed his legs, ready to… land… hard… on top of the… praetorium...!!

In a blinding instant, he hurled both arms out to catch the hard stone; his spine jolted as he pivoted nauseatingly, banged one knee, then teetered — his unbalanced legs stumbling to the side as he fought to catch his balance. Harry staggered, straightened himself, and scowled.

“Bloody shoddy landing, Antioch!” The testy, defiant words streamed out of Harry's mouth even before he'd set eyes on the Publican's son. “You could at least have had the decency to bring me down feet first.”

Worn from the intense effort of summoning a man such a distance, the young man was nearly gasping, but he nonetheless managed to raise a sardonic eyebrow. “I am sorry for your discomfort… father.”

As Harry turned around, he saw Antioch studying him. The dark wizard betrayed a slight uncertainty, as if he sensed that the person he had just summoned was changed... that somehow the Publican he had just plucked from the battlefield was not exactly the same Publican he'd last imprisoned in Camboricum.

Harry recognized the puzzled hesitation, and put it to instant benefit, whipping out his wand, shouting, “Praemonio!

Harry felt the Publican's powerful shield spell rise up about him but, unlike the conventional Protego spell taught at Hogwarts, this shield also seemed to confer an exhilarating, empowering sensation.

A sudden inspiration hit him — with the Publican sustaining a shield for him, he (Harry) would be free to cast offensive spells! Even before the notion had fully crystallized, the tip of Harry's wand was already extended, etching out a familiar signature. “Accio wand!”

His opponent, although both weary and flustered, was still quick. Antioch's grip clamped down hard on his struggling wand, and the skilled young wizard mustered his own magic quickly enough to block Harry's spell and assemble his own shield.

The flurry of action was not without effect though. Antioch was clearly shaken by the multiple unexpected twists of circumstance. He took a step back and began to circle warily. “Fascinating tactics, father. A few new tricks up your sleeve since the last time we met?”

Harry didn't answer. He stared coldly at Antioch, wanting to get off the tower with as few words and as little drama as possible; wondering how he could break off this unpleasant engagement quickly and cleanly.

Harry's feet began moving, keeping the strong forward-facing part of his shield angled toward Antioch at all times. He aimed a dispassionate gaze at the dark-cloaked adversary and began speaking in a formal tone intended to mimic the Publican as closely as possible. “We both have impenetrable shields in place, Tio. You cannot strike me, nor I you. Let us waste no more time, and go our separate ways. You are keeping me from issues that are not of your concern, and I am distracting you from your duties to the Proconsul.

“Duties?” Antioch's eyes narrowed. “Father, I serve the Proconsul by choice and not by duty. My presence at this battle has been little more than a convenient ruse to locate you.” He sneered. “And then to kill you, of course.”

“You'll fail.” Harry's voice was emotionless; his face radiated a certain cold. It was all an affectation, of course — he truly had no idea whether the Publican was destined to survive this encounter — but the facade was solid and polished, and Harry could see it etching its way into Antioch's faltering confidence.

Antioch's face twitched. “You do not know that, father. I am armed with powerful magic. You may dismissively refer to my powers as 'dark', but they will strip away your shield, strip away your soul and leave your worthless body bare to be picked by the rooks.”

“The instant you lower your shield to attack mine, I'll drop you where you stand, Tio. You have only failure to look forward to — you know it; the Delphic Oracle proclaimed it. Now, stand aside and I shall let you live another day.”

Internally, Harry was astonished to hear his own frigid confidence project such a bald bluff. He knew that the Delphic Oracle was irrelevant to this point. The prophesy applied not to the Publican, but to the Publican's unborn son, who was (hopefully) sheltered in relative safety a half mile from here. But, with the passing of every awkward, stalemated second, it became more and more obvious that Antioch wasn't even close to parsing the distinction; he was almost certainly no longer even considering the possibility that such a son had already been conceived. He still vested his foolish hopes solely in the Publican's death.

Harry smiled at the man's growing discomfort. “It is over, Tio. You may stand aside.”

Antioch's footfalls slowed, and he came to a halt, staring at Harry in consternation. “How can you stand before me, father, like a frozen waterfall on the cusp of spring? Today a great victory blossoms for the might of our superior magic, and a devastating humiliation for the red bitch and her filthy Druids. My cause is right and ascendant; yours is flawed and failing. For that alone you should bow down, unshielded, and permit me to slay you in a gesture of quiet, dignified mercy.”

“No Tio.” Harry shook his head and felt the Publican's wise convictions flow into him. “Today comes only the Roman victory that ensures Rome's defeat. Whatever fine intentions the good men and white magic of Rome may pursue in Britannia, it will never outweigh the atrocities inflicted by dark wretches like yourself and the scurrilous Legate. This island may tolerate Rome for a while, but the Druids, the hunters, the shepherds and farmers will never forget the noble martyr Boadicea. In time, Britannia will discard the Roman way, and so too will every other spot in the world — even the gentle banks of the Tiber, and the marble-clad Palatine Hill. For that alone you should bow down now, unshielded, and permit me to bid you a quiet, dignified farewell.”

Antioch scowled. “You lie!”

The hint of an ironic smirk crossed Harry's face, amused at how Antioch, consistently unnerved and dismayed by deceptions, should now try so bitterly to defy a real truth.

Harry shook his head, and gestured toward his opponent's wand. “This is no lie. You have chosen the wrong side, Tio. Put your wand away, and I will release you to go rethink your ways.”

Antioch stared at him, desperately seeking now to find solid grounds for disbelief.

Harry erased any emotion from his face other than a vague expression of empathy.

Conflicted, Antioch's wand hand wavered for a moment.

Harry waited, deathly still, ready for anything…

Antioch lunged, shield down, wand thrust forward to emit a ghastly white flame. He thrust himself hard against the Publican's shield and a blinding shower of white sparks burst around them like a tremendous Roman candle. Antioch's brute strength, prowess and raw desperation pressed relentlessly inward against the shield… Harry felt a sudden searing heat closing in on his exposed skin… he gripped his wand sweatily, and…

Protego!!

Harry's own shield thundered outwards, past the Publican's, catching Antioch like a hammer's blow to the forehead…

Antioch lurched backwards, his spine wrenching like a rag doll. The young man reeled, stumbling back, back, to the edge of the parapet.

Harry hastily retracted his shield, but Antioch's momentum carried one more half-step backwards; the young man teetered… his bewildered eyes darted madly about… settled on Harry with a look of sheer, astonished incredulity.

Then Antioch's face, and all of the rest of his body, leaned backwards… finding nothing — no support more substantial that the grey misty air of the dark wizard's own devising…

And Harry leaped!

There was no time for any magic; no other possible way that Harry could ever have crossed twelve feet in time to save the man… yet somehow he did. Harry caught Antioch's flailing wrist and pivoted, wrenching the wizard's supine body sideways, pinning it hard against the unforgiving edge of a crenellation. Several nasty crunches sounded; Antioch wheezed, winced, and slid to the floor.

Harry glanced quickly at the wizard's hands. They were empty. Somewhere in the frenzy, Antioch had dropped his wand.

Nodding in grim satisfaction, Harry pointed the Publican's wand and declared check mate with one of the simplest spells. “Petrificus Totalus.

He knelt by his immobilised enemy, ran his hands quickly along Antioch's ribs, ungently realigned two bones that had snapped, then channeled the Publican's healing magic. “Emaculo.

Standing hurriedly, Harry took a step back to gaze at a man who was destined to become such a tragically immortalised figure in wizarding history.

Although Antioch was likely still in significant pain, Harry assured himself that the injuries were already mending and that the man would be fine. Harry's expression softened. “As promised, it's time to say farewell, Tio.”

His larynx frozen, Antioch made no sound, although his eyes glanced about in semi-panic, as if he was still trying to grope for some last hope of achieving his preferred ending.

Harry shook his head. “For what it's worth to you, future histories say that you will walk away from this battle alive. The immobilisation will wear off in a few hours, unless you have another wizard on hand to cancel it for you sooner.”

Harry turned away. He conjured a roped grappling hook, which he fitted securely around the edge of a crenellation, and then wove the rope twice through his belt. Taking a deep breath, he raised one foot onto the rampart… then paused to look back at the young wizard who still reminded Harry so much of the face he saw every morning in the mirror. He sighed regretfully. “There is nothing that I can say that will dissuade you from foolish quests, Tio, but you are destined for an interesting life — one long enough to meet your newest brother Ignotus, when he comes of age. The future records that you will come to know him well, and that the three Peverells — you, Cadmus and Ignotus — will achieve incredible things together.

Harry paused to fix the prostrate Peverell with a hard glare. “I also know that your new brother will outlive you both. You cannot change this fate. Learn your lesson from today, Antioch Peverell — do not even try to kill him.”

Antioch met Harry's glare and, ever so slowly, raised his two eyes a fraction of an inch, then lowered them in assent.

With that, Harry sighed. He was free; he had escaped! He had neutralised a homocidal dark wizard, and still preserved a future that he knew must take place…

The pressing concern that weighed down heavily on Harry's heart, of course, was whether it had taken too much time??

Tugging the grappling hook hard to test its bite; taking a quick breathless glance down the sheer wall of the tall tower, Harry swung himself over the parapet, ready to descend as quickly as he could manage... without killing himself.

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