Chapter 3. Never Let Fall (August 8-9, 1995)
A long restorative sleep had taken away her pain, exhaustion and confusion, but this morning had brought new afflictions — a brief bout of harrowing dismay, followed now by sheer, red-blazing fury!
"I failed!! " the woodland princess roared across the surrounding meadows as she ran eastward along the Roman road. "How could I be so weak?! "
Her breath hitched as the second shout cut rudely across echoes of her first; she had barely enough oxygen to sustain her torrid pace let alone yell like a mad fiend, but even still she was not quite done. "Melltith o waed budr! ” she cursed, wilfully defying any rules of regal decorum.
To be fair, polite discretion mattered little if she couldn't focus on the ominous emergency she was faced with. That wasn't going to happen unless she could conquer her rage, and she knew of few ways to achieve that more effectively than through torrid physical exertion and shouting a few low-brow obscenities. Finally, she took a deep breath, and indeed, the red haze did begin to lift from the princess's (and Ginny's) eyes. At last she could condense her energies into steely determination, acknowledge the failure, and seek a path to redemption!
Her fierce rage had stemmed from her failure yesterday to deliver a message. While unquestionably urgent, the task had been perfectly straightforward and fully within her very capable means. Having failed, it was time to make amends. She knew with all her best instincts that a crisis was unfolding; if her mistake had in any way endangered her people or the Publican, she would not rest until she had repaired the damage to the best of her abilities.
Unfortunately all of Ginny's best instincts had not yet figured out what that crisis really involved.
As she ran, she turned her thoughts back to yesterday afternoon, when things had first started to go wrong. While out collecting medicinal herbs by the river, she had heard a sudden thrashing in the underbrush. Rushing to investigate, she had discovered one of her mother's warriors, bleeding profusely from a gash on his leg, staggering down the bank toward her. With ragged breath, he had fallen at her feet, begging her to run with all possible haste to the nearest post house along the Roman road and commission a courier to deliver a message to the Publican.
Alarmed by the warrior's unstaunched bleeding, she had sought to treat his wound, but in desperate agitation the man had urged her away, swearing with great conviction that the message was far too important to wait!
Not needing to be asked a third time, she had accepted the scroll and sped through the woods like the fleetest of deer. Upon reaching the road, she had aimed for a destination less than two leagues west.
Appallingly, she had somehow fallen short!
She had little sense of what had happened to her, and her memories were not very helpful. One moment she had been alert and focused, running nimbly along the road, taking heart at passing a milestone that placed her at less than a league from her destination. Confoundingly, her next clear recollection was waking up by the river, panicked by her deep conviction about the great debacle underway.
Between those two points, Ginny could draw on little but vague, disparate scenes clouding her mind. There had been a crazed, swirling scene of destruction... searing images of a vile reptilian face... reverent recollections some young man with a strange foreign-sounding name... and a glimpse of a mysterious object of power — a weapon referred to as the Elder Wand...
In addition to that tangled weave, somewhere in the midst of her bizarre palsy, she knew that reality had dealt her the strangest twist of fate in that very peculiar day. For who in all of Britannia should have arrived to lift her stricken body up from the roadway? None other than the very man her message sought — the Publican himself!
No wonder she felt like cursing! Blessed with the perfect chance to salvage the quest and hand him the precious parchment, she had proceeded to... babble incoherently.
Inexplicably, she had barely even recognised him — gazing at him in confused reverie, as if he was part of her bizarre dreams, completely forgetting what he truly was to her...
A family friend.
Yes, as a girl playing at the king's feet, she had been fascinated by the Publican — a rare foreigner who visited frequently, charming her and her sister (Princess Heanua) with exquisite gifts and tales of extraordinary sights and kingdoms far away beyond the southern sea. As a maturing princess, she had grown somewhat reticent around the Publican, speaking little, and instead watching him furtively from dim corners of the long house. She had studied his bearing and manner (foreign, but distinctly charming), and observed how her father, the king, had always treated him with deference, proclaiming him a brilliant negotiator — competent, considerate, and worthy of great trust. Most recently, she had come to prize that very trust, for after the king's recent death, the Publican had moved with decisive efficiency to secure the Proconsul 's recognition of Iceni sovereignty for her mother, the widowed queen.
To have failed to recognise a proven ally and confidante? To have failed to complete a simple mission? To have lolled about in bewildered fugue? She could imagine only one plausible explanation for such idiocy — black magic! She must have been overcome by some nefarious dark enchantment — an evil spell afflicting her with a thick cloud of confusion, amnesia, wild infatuation and paralysing grief...
She recalled agonizing, almost paralytic anguish, but what had she been grieving over?
In the vague shimmer of half-forgotten dreams, Ginny recalled the imagined death of the imaginary youth. She remembered almost nothing of the young man... except an eerie resemblance to the Publican, and an unusual (if still resonant) name.
Perplexed, Ginny shook her head at the strong unresolved emotions that continued to flummox her. It must have been a powerful spell!
She knew that confounding enchantments of such magnitude, while rare, were not unheard of. As part of very rigorous magical instruction, her grandmother (Ginny's mentor) had spoken to her in hushed tones of how some wicked yet formidable Druids and Druidesses (especially among wilder tribes such as Brigantes, Ordovices, Silures, and fearsome Picts of the far north) would invoke such odious dementia in times of warfare, and sometimes even as unethical ploys in diplomacy. Ginny was aware that the spells were very challenging both to cast and to deter, but she had trained at length to acquire the skills to detect, and the strength to resist, such magic.
That, of course, was no consolation. As a figure of strength and power; as a perfectionist daughter of an uncompromising mother, there was NO GREATER SHAME than to succumb to some rogue enchantment while on a crucial quest!
On my honour, I will redeem myself! Or die trying!!
An oath like that was no idle boast. The princess had no doubt that peril lay ahead of her, and she would not shirk from it. Yet at times like this, she often hearkened back to wisdom her dear old grandmother had once imparted. That treasured voice echoed once again through her mind...
Only die for your honour when you cannot live for your ideals!
With those sage words, her demeanour completed a stormy cycle that she had experienced many times — blind determination moderated by deliberate calculation; her mother's fiery passion bending to her grandmother's wisdom; a wild rush into the fray giving way to a hunter's stealth.
Ginny slowed to a walk, disillusioned herself, and calmed her breathing. She sensed that her frenzied run had already brought her near to her destination, so haste was no longer essential. Instead, the time had come to conserve her energy for the challenges ahead. It was also time to think, because she still hadn't answered the one crucial question.
What is the crisis??
Revisiting memories of the previous day had produced little more than confusion and distraction. Her observations so far this morning contained scant insight. There had been no travelers on the road who might have offered any clues. A scan of the landscape offered only the ordinary sights, sounds and smells.
Then, in the cultivated calmness of her mind, an obvious thought finally occurred to her. The silver brooch!
Still clutched firmly in her hand, she raised the winged badge to her eyes and examined it carefully. The beckoning call it emitted to her was clearly magical. The magic was unlike any she knew from her own people, but since the physical craftsmanship was Roman, perhaps the magic was Roman as well?
Running through her mind, Ginny recalled her grandmother once telling her about a type of Roman magical object called a cupla mysticum — a magical tether used for long-distance communication. Since many Roman leaders and merchants traveled far from home, such cuplae might be exchanged among family members, friends or lovers at times of parting. Supposedly, most cuplae could only convey basic emotions (love, empathy, longing), but some of the better crafted tethers could supposedly reveal information about the owner's location and situation.
What she held in her hand was surely something of the sort. Ginny assumed that the Publican had given it to her as a token of comfort, to reassure her that he truly did plan to return for her. Given the intense foreboding emanating from the cupla, it had obviously failed to 'soothe', but might it instead 'save'? Could the brooch somehow help her to rescue the Publican?
By the seeds of Amaethon, please let it be so!
Running her fingers along the smooth polished surface, she acknowledged the basic sense that the Publican was in mortal danger, but she needed more detail. With concentration, Ginny let the magic flow into her mind, absorbed the bitter music of the brooch, and felt... a cold stone floor; throbbing pain; tight cords...
More than anything, however, the brooch was tugging at her, pulling her in a direction that was all too alarmingly familiar. With ever-increasing strength, the cupla was leading her inexorably back toward her own home.
With mounting trepidation, Ginny now understood. The Publican had very likely been swept up in whatever turmoil had struck the village — the same unknown fracas that had prompted her to run out yesterday to deliver the message...
She stopped and ran her hands frantically over the fold in her shift and located it. She whipped out the scroll, and having quietly discovered years ago how to break her mother's magical seal, quickly snapped it open. It had not been intended for her eyes, but she read it anyway.
Unforeseen Roman incursion!
Violates Iceni sovereignty.
Leader brandishes wand?
Romans?! Romans had invaded Iceni territory?? What conceivable purpose could be possibly served by that?!
Ginny scowled in utter vexation. "Why?! " she hissed aloud. The Iceni had maintained honourable and friendly relations with the Romans for nearly the entirety of her lifetime. The foreigners from across the water had rarely caused the Iceni any problems, and had at times proven very helpful, providing tactical support to the Iceni during the occasional hostilities (minor border skirmishes with the Catuvellauni, and the occasional raid by splinter groups of rogue Brigantes) that might disturb the kingdom.
The Romans had no conceivable motive for attacking an ally; that was not the way they behaved! Unlike many Brythonic tribes (especially in the unruly north and west), the Romans had a rigid code of conduct that made them very predictable. The foreigners never struck without warning; they were renowned for engaging in extensive and deliberate diplomacy (or at least bloodless intimidation) before launching any form of incursion. If the Romans had felt any legitimate tension with the Iceni, Ginny was certain that the Publican would have promptly informed the queen.
Whatever the crisis, Ginny was convinced that situation must have only worsened in the time since the queen had written the hasty note. If memory of yesterday's wounded warrior was not proof enough, then surely the brooch's urgent pull was confirmation. Yet, for all that warning, Ginny's greatest fear was still the unknown.
Why? What? How?
Who is alive? Who is dead? Mother? Heanua?
To those questions, she needed answers, and the only way to find answers was to follow the brooch into peril. It was time to judge the situation with her own eyes.
Having crossed the bridge built across the Little Ouse, she entered what Roman treaties had long recognised as Iceni territory. She then veered immediately off the road and onto the woodland path that followed the east bank of the river, leading to the small border outpost where her family had long preferred to dwell.
Pausing for a moment to look and listen, she saw placid tendrils of fine smoke rising from the vicinity of the village. At first blush, this might seem a good omen — preferable to towering pillars of black (devastation) or nothing at all (desolation), but Ginny quelled any unrealistic hopes. The Romans rarely indulged in a barbaric lust for wanton destruction. They were motivated by power more than hatred, and found it easier to pacify conquered foes who were grateful to find their homes and livelihoods intact. But make no mistake — angry Romans were no less brutal than anyone; especially to opposing leaders! Based on tales from less peaceful regions of Britannia, she knew that if the Iceni ever raised arms against the Romans, the worst punishments would be levied upon the royalty. Her mother, her sister and (if caught) she herself would bear the brunt of any reprisal. And while most Brythonic tribes would offer the mercy of a quick death, the Romans had a penchant for... humiliation.
Ginny fought back a shiver as she began to fully appreciate the risks she was about to confront.
Approaching within about two stadia of the village walls, she decided that she would need to be even stealthier than disillusionment alone could provide. She abandoned the path, cutting carefully through the underbrush, quietly as a lynx. Avoiding the southerly route toward the main gate and long house (her normal destination), she instead made for the hill above the northwest corner of the village. There were logical reasons for her choice. The less-traveled path would also be less-guarded, and may also yield important clues. In particular, climbing up into the tall trees on the hilltop would grant her an unobscured view of the village square.
These trees (as she knew from daring childhood exploits) could also provide an unconventional way over the palisade walls. In particular, clambering across some of the long, stout branches arching over the walls could even lead her to the roof of the stockade — the strongest and best-fortified enclosure in the village, and thus the most likely place for an enemy to hold important prisoners such as the Publican, as well as her mother and sister... if they were still alive.
Yet, astride all of these logical advantages rode the one factor that drew Ginny more strongly than any other. The closer she got to the northwest corner of the village, the stronger she was drawn by the brooch.
Cresting the hill, she peered through a break in the leaf-cover to glance at the stockade. From this distance, it was tall enough to be seen above the palisade and was easily recognizable as one of only two stone buildings in the village. She couldn't yet see any unusual activity about the building, but this merely suggested that anything of possible interest was likely taking place down at ground level, blocked from view by the tall upright logs of the palisade.
About one hundred feet from the structure, she paused and found a suitable climbing tree. Stowing the brooch in a secure fold, she quietly scaled the trunk to a height greater than the log wall, and gazed down into the village. The central square was a hive of activity, but not the usual, friendly sort that she was accustomed to — it was indeed swarming with fully armed Roman Legionaries.
Yes, regardless of how shocking the message had been, the queen was right — Romans had come to the village in unprecedented numbers, and were behaving in every way like efficient conquerors. Some of the soldiers were performing what seemed to be harmless camp-breaking activities (gathering materials and supplies; packing them onto ponies and into wagons), but many others were plundering treasures, and shamelessly carting off and village food reserves from the granary and cellars.
Pulling her eyes away and taking a deep breath before anger could distract her, Ginny settled on her course of action. She braced herself very carefully in the crook of a large branch, and reached once more into the fold in her shift to touch the brooch. It verified that the Publican was still alive, that he remained in great danger, and that he was now very close — almost certainly imprisoned within the stockade.
Ginny assessed the stone building. There were four sentries posted outside, each manning one of the stockade's stout walls. That level of security seemed to confirm that the Romans were holding prisoners inside.
Given the late morning warmth, there was no fire inside the building. Perfect! Like many Celtic buildings, the stockade had a smoke hole on the roof — an excellent way to enter without being detected by guards on the ground.
After another minute of scrutiny, she plotted her route — a solid overhanging branch of a huge beech tree. It was rooted outside the village walls, but spread broadly across the defenses, and gracefully shaded much of the stockade.
Her greatest remaining concern was how to deal with any guards inside the building. A strong armed presence would make it difficult for her to reach the floor and move about the building without raising the alarm. Fortunately, for even that contingency, she now had the makings of a plan.
She clambered down the lookout tree and made her way over to the nearby beech. It came as no surprise to her that the lowest thirty feet of trunk rising up from the base of the tree had been stripped smooth of all branches. Her people loved trees and rarely cut them down without good reason, but of course they would have anticipated precisely the infiltration she was now about to attempt. No point in making it too easy!
Fortunately, unlike the vast majority of prospective interlopers attempting to breach the walls, she had a wand. Quickly conjuring a series of small handholds running up the tree, she ascended with ease and made her way carefully (and very silently) along the large overhanging branch. Once she was positioned above the near side of the stockade roof, she paused to scan the edge of the village square. Since Ginny doubted that this daring feat could be accomplished by stealth alone, she needed to sow a bit of... chaos.
Near the edge of the square, her eyes latched onto a tethering rail to which many of the Roman horses were hitched. Taking her best aim with a Reductor curse, the rail collapsed into a pile of splinters. Several stinging hexes later, and the square erupted into a frenzy of panicked, whinnying horses being chased by angry, confused soldiers.
Far above all of this bedlam, she conjured a rope, lashed it tightly to the branch, and scrambled quickly down to the roof. She ran nimbly over to the smoke hole and peered within. As hoped, the guards inside had grabbed their weapons and were staring distractedly out the south doorway, probably trying to determine whether their camp was under attack.
Ginny examined the three Romans carefully. Two of the men wore conventional Legionary uniforms with standard-issue weaponry — she assessed them as being common, non-magical soldiers. The third, however, had no armor and bore only a dagger on his belt. He also had a cape of fine cloth — among Romans, she recognised that as the mark of either nobility, or of a wizard. Trusting her guess, Ginny took aim at the third with a stunning spell, and he collapsed between his two comrades. The two soldiers spun about in alarm... then pitched forward onto their faces, stunned before either could so much as whimper.
Ginny rapelled quickly down through the smoke hole. Once grounded, she paused for a moment to magically bar the entrance and summon the fallen wizard's wand, then dashed from the central hearth toward the cells at the eastern periphery, cancelling her disillusionment charm as she went.
"Emaculo." It was a young woman's voice; a brave yet urgent whisper.
As if rescued from fire by a gentle summer's stream, Harry's cheek suddenly felt cool. A sensation of calm spread outwards, over his head, down his shoulder, chest, arms and legs, soothing his blistered legs...
And he opened his eyes.
"G-Ginny?" It came out as a pathetic croak. He coughed, shook the fog from his head and focused on the face in front of him. "LanossŽa! Please pardon me your majesty — I know not where that name...?"
Ginny? The princess blinked for a moment at the utterance of yet another peculiar foreign utterance that had haunted her dreams, but she pushed the memory from her mind and concentrated on severing the Publican's cords.
He stretched his arms gratefully for a moment, but then directed his attention back onto his rescuer. “You should not have returned here, your majesty."
His admonishment was mild and clearly ambivalent, but she couldn't help rolling her eyes at the typically-Roman paternalistic condescension. She resolved to ignore him. "Can you get up?" She ran her eyes up and down his grimy, bloodied face and body, looking for more wounds to heal. To her trained eye, the damage, although extensive, seemed superficial.
He braced both arms against the floor and pushed. A stab of pain tore through his side — apparently a broken rib that she had missed — but he pushed past the discomfort and reached a stable sitting position. Ginny extended her hands to him; he grasped them and found himself surprised by the strength with which she helped raise him to his feet.
Ginny pressed a wand into his hand. He scrutinised it for a moment, then nodded. A pang of regret over the loss of his own wand (likely confiscated and destroyed) crossed his mind, but was replaced by gratitude to a young woman who was clearly as industrious as he had always remembered her. "Thank you, my princess." A smile flickered across his features for a moment before the gravity of their situation weighed upon his mood.
"If memory serves me, the queen and your sister are in the west cell block." Harry gazed thoughtfully through the open cell door. "I will go release them, if you can arrange some sort of escape for us."
Ginny was about to protest any plan that withdrew her from the action, but Harry raised a finger. "Please understand." His voice was gentle, yet firm and instructive. "This is not about your safety, my safety or that of your family — the stakes are far too great in this and we must act with wisdom and caution. Nobody is aware that you have returned here. Is that correct?"
"If nobody knows that you're here, then when you escape, nobody will know to come after you." Harry paused to see that she understood. "You may have given us the glimmer of hope that we may all escape from here, and perhaps even evade pursuit, but our path is fraught with peril. It is absolutely essential that we have, at minimum, one uncaptured person who can leave here to recount exactly what I am now about to tell you!"
Ginny's eyelids flickered at the earnest and sobering request. Despite an visceral compulsion to personally secure the queen's and Heanua's release, she acceded to his compelling logic. “And what are you about to tell me?”
Grasping her shoulders, he fixed his eyes upon hers, boring deeply. "LanossŽa, you must be aware that this Roman Century has trespassed into Iceni lands in defiance of established treaty. This incursion is an illegal provocation, and may be part of a plot to destabilise all of Britannia.” His voice dropped to the faintest whisper. “The Proconsul is away, distracted by campaigns in Wales. Someone must get word to him before the whole land explodes into war and turmoil!”
Ginny gasped. Petty conflicts were not rare in Britannia, but any thought of the entire island erupting into mass conflict was nearly inconceivable. She nodded, wide-eyed.
“If you find your way clear, but cannot free us,” Harry continued, “then please flee from here with all haste and do not return. If you are the one to bear witness to these crimes, you must only communicate with people we can trust without question. Do not take the road to Camulodunum from which these scoundrels came. Instead, you must follow the river upstream to Camboricum. The garrison there is rigorously loyal to the Proconsul and not under the sway of any treachery. Is that clear?”
Ginny locked her steeliest gaze upon the Harry's deep, solemn eyes. “Yes.”
After thanking her once again, Harry disillusioned himself. Ginny did the same, and both stealthily exited the cell. Harry's eyes swept the main central chamber of the stockade, noting with satisfaction the three stunned Romans sprawled on the ground by the south door. A faint noise nearby alerted him to Ginny's mode of escape — a stout hemp rope twitching as she clambered up to a thick blackened beam just to the side of the smoke hole high above.
Mirabile! She's making for the roof!
Nodding to himself, Harry rushed to the western cell block, where he immediately identified the two cells that had been barred. As he opened the first door, he recognised none other than Queen Boadicea of the Iceni — as bruised and bloodied as he himself had been, yet very alert, and defiant as a caged tigress.
As Harry swung open her cell door, the queen whipped around. Despite her bound hands, she was undoubtedly ready to tear any invisible intruder to shreds... with her teeth if need be!
Harry hastily dropped his disillusionment charm, and held out his palms in a universal sign of capitulation. Still glaring in agitation, the queen exhaled and allowed him to slice efficiently through her bonds.
Signalling silently to the queen that he was going to open the other cell, Harry crossed to over release the queen's eldest daughter, Heanua. Harry knew her as a tall, willowy blonde, renowned throughout the land as a figure of great beauty. But what he found there, crumpled upon the stone floor, drove a spike of iced fury deep into his soul.
Stooping to lift the girl's nearly-lifeless body, he determined that she was not dead. Her heart was still beating, and breath still rattled through her slackened mouth, but nearly every ounce of spirit within the girl seemed to have been mercilessly crushed in ways that Harry wished that he could not imagine.
If he had been anywhere else, under any other circumstances, Harry might either have broken down and wept, or lashed out and begun demolishing things at random. Yet reason prevailed. There would be time later for healing or revenge (or both), but at this moment their only priority was escape — as quietly and speedily as possible!
As if to taunt his decision, several agitated voices erupted nearby, just outside the main entrance to the stockade — soldiers shouting urgent commands in Latin!
“Jupiter maledicam haec scelerati!” The muttered staccato of Harry's curse faded away as he refocused. With a hasty spell, he braced the girl's broken bones, conjured a blanket to cover her supine form, and hoisted her over his shoulder. “Make haste and follow, your majesty!” he called across the corridor and led the queen from the cell block toward the rope Ginny had left dangling from the roof.
Harry conjured a makeshift stretcher for the semi-conscious girl, and just as he prepared to levitate her toward the roof, he heard the stockade's door rattle. He drew his wand, ready to blast the first person through the entranceway, but instead he heard a frantic cry from outside...
“Ignem! Muros ignibus uri!“
The smell of some prodigious smoky diversion wafted past, and Harry exhaled in relief. "LanossŽa, bless you and your penchant for chaos!" The Roman soldiers outside apparently now had plenty of concerns other than what might be going on inside the stockade, and the reprieve would hopefully give him time to escort at least Heanua and the queen as far as the rooftop.
Pointing his newly-acquired wand at Heanua, Harry cast a Roman-era levitation spell. “Attollo! ”
Heanua's stretcher jostled a few inches off the ground, but faltered. Feeling a sudden strain, Harry carefully withdrew the spell to set her back onto the floor, then paused and stared dubiously at his wand.
“The fault is not in the wand,” Ginny called softly from the roof. “The fault is Heanua herself. Our bodies have been conditioned to resist spells cast by others. The resistance can be overcome, but only with effort. I will lend my power to yours and we will lift her together.”
Harry nodded, and cast his levitation synchronously with Ginny's. Somewhat strenuously, they managed to raise the queen's eldest daughter upwards, through the hole, and into Ginny's waiting arms above.
Harry ushered the queen onto the rope, waited nervously for two long minutes as she struggled up the rope. Making another scan of the stockade's interior and seeing no immediate threat of discovery, he finally turned and climbed up to join the others.
Reaching the rooftop, he glanced around, and spotted the second rope, hanging down from the beech branch high above. With a deep breath, he scrutinised the three females, trying to evaluate their readiness to undertake a final harrowing scramble to freedom.
Ginny's keen eyes were upon him; almost as if she were trying to read his mind. But for the urgency of the situation, Harry might have grinned with admiration at the fierce competence writ upon her face. He could at least be certain that one person in the party could face the trembling high-wire with aplomb.
The queen, however, seemed utterly distracted. Standing on the roof, she gazed down in dismay at the spreading flames ravishing her village, the ancestral home of her family, the favoured haunt of Icenian royalty for three generations. Whether she understood that the blaze had been set not by Roman marauders, but rather by her own enterprising daughter, was unclear, but the woman was unmistakably bereft, unfocused, and a poor candidate for vertiginous acrobatics.
The older daughter, Heanua, was in worse condition yet. Still bound to the brace; she had achieved some marginal consciousness, but was still dazed and mostly unresponsive.
Ginny's eyes met Harry's, and he realised that, through the tethering powers of the brooch, she had fully apprehended his concerns. Together, they stood in silent deliberation, negotiating a viable plan.
After a moment, Ginny's eyes flickered along an airborne path over the palisade.
Harry nodded in agreement.
"We must work together." Ginny contemplated her family members, estimating their weight and magical resistance. "We do not want others to see, but we, ourselves, must not lose sight of them.”
Harry's eyes swept the surroundings and tapped his head. “Notice-me-not charm.”
Ginny met his eyes squarely and silently assented. “Mother, please join Heanua.” She attempted to catch the queen's attention; gesturing toward the princess's supine sister.
The queen gazed at the inferno for another several seconds. Finally, she wrenched her attention away her from decades of obliterated memories, and nodded mutely without meeting Ginny's gaze.
As soon as the queen had knelt at Heanua's side, Harry drew his wand to cast the spell. “Non vigilate!
To Harry's and Ginny's eyes, the spell had no effect — they were fully aware of the presence of the queen and Heanua, and could still see them perfectly. To any other person who might gaze in their direction, however, the queen and her daughter had suddenly become so inconspicuous as to be invisible. The most observant and magically attuned of onlookers might penetrate the simple spell, but there would be little chance of such acuity from the scurrying Romans below, most of whom were still distractedly trying to salvage their wagons and supplies from insidious magical fires.
Harry and Ginny proceeded to train their wands upon the two females, levitating them carefully through the air and past the village wall. As soon as the queen and Heanua were just about to pass out of site beyond the palisade, Harry had an awful thought — he didn't know the layout of the unseen woods beyond! “Jupiter! How are we going to land them blindly? We could kill them if we misjudge the ground!”
With a start, Ginny grasped the dilemma.
Harry stared at the tall and completely opaque wall. “Can you visualise everything over there precisely? The ground; the locations of all trees, rocks and shrubs?”
Ginny frowned in deep thought. She did have a rough recollection of the terrain and vegetation beyond the wall, but had to admit that the tense, chaotic circumstances (nearly one hundred angry Romans clamouring in confusion below; more than a third of the village now engulfed in raging flames) were fraying her nerves. “It's very risky.” She shook her head. “Is there some other way?”
Harry thought for a moment. “Yes. I'll try to hold both of them in their current position. Meanwhile, you must climb back over the branch. As soon as you can see the ground on the other side of the wall, cast your spell to lower them to safety, and I'll rush across to join you.”
Ginny pursed her lips. "You believe that you can hold them?"
Harry shrugged. “I have no choice.”
Still maintaining her share of the levitation spell, Ginny paused for a moment to size up the Publican. She knew that levitating one other magical being was difficult enough with the conflicting magical forces, but simultaneously levitating two would be prodigious. She doubted realistically that she herself could hold both her mother and sister aloft for more than a few seconds... but she recognised that the Publican had many more years of magical conditioning. And she had to admit that she had never, not even from her grandmother, felt a healing spell quite as powerful yet gentle as the one he had cast on her yesterday.
With great care, ready to reverse course at the slightest sign of weakness, she withdrew her levitation spell.
Harry's incantation held; the queen and Heanua remained motionless just past the walls. A droplet of sweat formed on the Publican's brow, but he did not falter.
“You are powerful indeed, Publican.” Ginny smiled, betraying some assiduously hidden admiration, yet as she grabbed the bottom of the rope, she couldn't stop her gruff royal pride from reasserting. “But this is the last time I run away and leave you to do the saving.”
“We must each take our turns. You've saved enough people for one day.” Harry's eyebrow was raised in wry humour, despite the slight quiver in his voice. “Now go, and be quick,” he muttered between increasingly ragged breaths... but the statement was wasted. The princess was already gone — more quickly and nimbly than he would dare have dreamed.
Less than a minute later, Harry felt a wholly welcome tremble in his wand — a sign that Ginny had taken control of the queen and Heanua, and was guiding them to safety. In relief, Harry lowered his wand and tucked it into his belt. He permitted himself three deep breaths, then embarked on his way up the rope.
As a greying Roman Publican, the man clearly lacked the agility of a lithe woodland princess, but his years as a hands-on administrator deep in the more rugged imperial provinces had sustained his physical strengths rather well, and this stroll along a swaying tree branch was not the first delicate balancing act he had ever undertaken. Nonetheless, as a precaution, he conjured a series of ropes hanging from higher branches to afford him some handholds to temper the precarious dangers.
He had just reached the last of his conjured supports, and was looking ahead in grateful anticipation to security of the main trunk (now merely twelve feet away) when he heard an angry shout of recognition.
Harry realized immediately that he hadn't thought to disillusion himself, and now he was about to pay for the indiscretion. Without seeing or even hearing it, he felt the killing curse sizzling through the air toward him. Cast from a great distance (nearly two hundred feet), the spell tore through the air, ominously, but just slowly enough for Harry's instincts to guide his hand to one last desperate act...
Whipping around with wand suddenly in his hand, he yelled “Dormias! ” The spell, encased in a sharp white flash burst with lightning speed directly at his assailant... the treacherous Legate!
The two incantations, green and white, crossed in mid flight. Both were perfectly aimed. Off-balance from his wand action, no room to side-step, no time to cast even the simplest spell, Harry stared at the broad putrid green radiance closing in upon him...
In the final instant that remained, Harry glanced earthward... and glimpsed iridescent red hair – his last hope now; his best hope forever...
Then he leaped!
Ginny raised her wand.
Few people had ever heard of a spell that might safely catch a wizard plummeting from that height. Fewer still could have cast one. Many of the finest wizards and witches would have stood there, aghast, frozen, helpless...
Encyclopedic knowledge was irrelevant, because she knew with all her heart that she would never let Harry plunge to his death. She understood equally well that LanossŽa could not let the Publican perish this way.
Ginny was certain that there would be no broken body; no bitter tears spilled upon the forest floor.
What Ginny could not guess was where... or when... would he land?
"... Because if it does, I am the true master of the Elder Wand." The young man's calm declaration ushered aside Ginny's disorientation; fixing her attention.
Opposite them, a quiver of doubt ran across the face of the scaly abomination; a flicker of pain... but the response was predestined; he must proceed, and could but only hope that dark secrets from the depths of time were still auspicious.
All uncertainty thrust beneath his grisly veneer, the monster's voice tore across the Great Hall at Hogwarts, sibilant, like steam on flaming brimstone...
"Avada Kedavra! "
The opposing spells clashed in a scintillating plane of white light...
Yet, in an instant, all magic of hope and honour dissipated. A universal truth was proved false; a cherished balance had shattered; the pulsing white fulcrum between the green and red spells vapourised, and a lurid tongue of bitter death — the vomit of hell — slashed unchecked across the Hall...
The bold and selfless young man, the icon of love and sacrifice, began to crumple...
“No.” Ginny's note of defiance, soft yet firm, spread through the vast room like the light from a lone candle.
And time froze.
Obedient to her command, all noise and motion ceased. Students, teachers, Order of the Phoenix, and Death Eaters alike, all stood in rapt, statuesque attention. Swirling dust and smoke hung like delicate veils draped across the static, prickling air...
Ginny blinked in surprise, but quickly pushed aside her incredulity and stepped forward toward Harry.
She refused to see the terrible contortions of his body, frozen on the cusp of tragic demise. She dared not gaze upon his face, lest she find pain or defeat. Rather, she gave every devout fraction of herself to Harry's irrepressible eyes.
Frozen but for his gaze, Harry met her with a nearly mystical tenderness; a falling knight glimpsing his grail...
Ginny did not quake in desolation or scream in fury. She did not sink to the ground in despair, even though she understood that Harry, and all the light that stood behind him, was a single heartbeat from death.
This was, after all, only a dream.
Regardless, as she peered into those verdant beacons, her eyes began to blur with mist... because this was so much more than any dream...
“Why am I here?” she asked quietly. “Isn't this your story, Harry? Your dream? Your fears?”
She was met with a silence, absolute but for the undulations of her own breath and heartbeat.
“I hope that didn't sound petty, I... I...” Ginny faltered, struggling to express feelings too vague and profound for words. After a moment, she marshaled her most neutral expression and tried anyway. “I mean, of course I will always be here if you want me. You realise that, right? It's just that this is... hard for me to understand... What am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here? I feel as though I'm only now finally beginning to get to know you, and...”
Ginny's breath caught, and she needed a moment to re-compose herself, before continuing.
“Harry, I really want to get to know you, but... it's just that everywhere I go...” Ginny paused in inarticulate confusion. “Everywhen I go?” She shook her head. “Bollocks, I'm making a complete mash of this, but the point is, every time I truly start to get to know you... you always have to d-die.” Ginny shuddered as silent, tremulous sobs coursed through his chest.
The voice was Harry's. Although thin like a breath of wind, it came not from his rigid mouth, not from his frozen body, nor anywhere within the silent hall at Hogwarts. The voice came from deep within Ginny's own mind... and yet she was certain she had not imagined it.
Wide-eyed, Ginny stared uncomprehendingly into his eyes. “N-no? You don't have to die?”
There was no response.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, well that's a daft question. We all die someday — I realize that! But does it have to be... this way?”
Guided by some deeply buried instinct, Ginny lifted her gaze from Harry's eyes and took a tentative step backwards, absorbing the entirety of her friend's face.
Although Ginny's sight remained misted, she could tell that Harry's expression was perfectly placid, oblivious to his precarious stance. Everything about his face could have been ensconced in restful slumber... except for those brilliant eyes, shining at her with care and compassion; following her, curiously, expectantly.
Ginny took two more steps back, and let her gaze drift across his entire form.
Harry was older than she knew him to be. He had acquired at least two inches in height since their summer at Grimmauld Place. He was as slender as ever, but he had muscular definition, strength, and maturity. He was on the verge of true manhood.
Or the brink of death...
Either outcome hung upon his next heartbeat. Would he stand or would he fall?
Ginny shook her head softly, releasing two small teardrops that had been clinging to her lashes. “Harry,” she whispered, “I will not let you fall.”
Lying awake in darkened room, having woken several minutes ago feeling deeply pensive, Harry had been half-expecting to hear a girl call to him. Yet when one did precisely that, he was thoroughly baffled by the voice he heard.
The only response Harry received was the sound of Ron snorting loudly, and thumping about in his bed. He tried again, this time dropping his voice to a whisper. “Hermione, is that you?”
The girl didn't reply. In the faint light seeping in from a lantern downstairs, Harry could see her watching Ron intently, obviously waiting to ensure that Harry's best mate was asleep.
After Ron rolled over and fell back into his normal rhythmic rasping, Hermione beckoned quietly to Harry.
Harry nodded and rose carefully, following Hermione soundlessly into the corridor... where Ginny was waiting for them.
Hermione gave Ginny a quick half-smile, waved her younger friend a silent adieu, and then turned to descend the stairs.
Ginny, in turn, signalled to Harry, and proceeded to lead him up the adjacent staircase to the third floor. Harry followed her unquestioningly, as she steered him back up to the library, to the same ottoman where they had chatted the previous afternoon. She patted the seat next to her, and he took his place at her side.
The two teens sat in thoughtful silence for a time, gazing out toward the distant street lamps on Highgate Hill.
“Errr...” Harry mumbled after a while, “uh, why did Hermione...?”
Ginny looked away. “I was going to sneak out of the room to come find you, but she woke up. She thought it would be... safer... if she was the one to knock of your door.”
“Safer?” Harry gave her a puzzled look. “Oh, you mean because of Ron?”
Harry nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. I can't pretend to know what goes inside his head, but I imagine that deep down he has good intentions.”
Ginny sighed. “Yes, I'm sure he does, but that's not what I need to talk to you about.”
Harry nodded again, and waited patiently for her to continue.
“Harry, are you dreaming about me?”
For a moment, Harry could barely believe that the sharp-witted girl at his side would ever ask such an unguarded question without at least one zinger ready to fly. But in the gloom of the nocturnal library, Ginny's tone was of the utmost sobriety and her expression was perfectly earnest.
“Er, yes, I suppose maybe I am,” Harry answered carefully. “Or, at least that's to say that I think it's you...”
“What am I like?”
Beautiful... smart... powerful...
Harry's eyes popped for a moment as the words rattled through his head, daring his tongue to unleash them. Yet, he held his peace, reluctant to risk possible embarrassment. Instead, he scrounged through his memories for a more conservative response. Although many specific details of his most recent dreams had already faded, he found he had held onto some general impressions; enough to sound plausible. “Well, sometimes you're definitely you, except you seem older. In other dreams, though, I see someone who reminds me a lot of you, but she's... different. More hardened, more stoic... but deep down she's no less kind.”
Ginny laughed — a soft puff of breath that stirred the stray lock of hair hanging down her forehead. “That figures.”
Harry chanced a glance at his friend, seeing a distant look in her eyes. Distant, yet vaguely amused.
Ginny emerged from her reverie and gazed analytically at him. “Yes, well in my dreams, you're definitely you. In some dreams, you're calmer, more composed... but deep down the real you is no less sweet.”
“I'm flattered... I think.” Harry grinned at her with a twinkle in his eyes. “But are you serious though? You're dreaming of me too?”
Harry chewed his lip for a moment. “Er, I know this is round the twist, but do you reckon we're, uhhh... having the same dreams?”
Ginny shrugged. “That's what I was wondering too. If so, what could it mean?”
“Yes, I wonder,” Harry mused. “If Sirius heard about this, he'd take the mickey something fierce and tell us it's all 'teenaged hormones'.”
“And this is why,” Ginny replied, “we are NOT discussing this with Sirius!”
Harry chuckled for a moment, then fell sober again. “Well, if this truly is hormones, then I'll take a pass. These dreams are hell!”
Ginny thought for a long time before answering. “Yes, they're definitely harrowing, but don't you think there's something... right about them too?”
“Right?” Harry ran a hand through his hair. “Well, I suppose so... After my bloody heart stops pounding, I actually do feel okay. In fact, I've actually been in a fairly good mood since these dreams started.”
“Oh? You noticed that too?” Ginny winked cheekily before turning solemn again. “My Dad once told me that our most complicated dreams help us to get a handle on our problems and work on solutions.”
“Huh...” Harry hummed thoughtfully to himself for a moment. “Yes, that could be.”
“If so, you seem to be...” Ginny began, but then paused for a long moment. When she resumed, her voice had dropped to a low, breathy tone. “You seem to be sorting through some rather heavy stuff, Harry.”
Harry shrugged. “I guess that's life, yeah?”
“Your life, perhaps.” Ginny found his forearm and gave it a squeeze, before withdrawing her hand to stifle a yawn. “Well, I suppose I should let you get back to sleep, you reckon?”
Harry nodded passively. He stood up and, without conscious thought, extended his hand to help Ginny to her feet. As she rose, she did not let go; instead she led him along quietly, back down to the second floor landing.
Before they could part company, Ginny stopped and pulled Harry around to face her, reaching for his other hand, gazing searchingly into his eyes. “Harry, I really do think that I'm experiencing your dreams. What's odder still is that I think you already knew that.”
Harry bobbed his head slightly, equivocating.
“Why, Harry?” she whispered. “Why me?”
Harry shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Ginny could tell that he had responded too quickly; too reflexively. She somehow could also tell that, as her friend stood gazing past her shoulder into black nothingness, there was another response forming — one worth waiting for.
Slowly his features schooled themselves and his eyes met hers. His mouth parted, offering words, both subdued and contemplative.
“I think it's because... you'll never let me fall.”