Chapter 6. Second Chance (August 11, 1995)
“Harry had a dream!” Ginny and Hermione both exclaimed at the same time.
“Er yes.” Wide-eyed from the startling stereophony, Harry nodded. “I sort of had a bad dream.”
Sirius lit a soft glow at the tip of his wand and glanced around at the teens with a raised eyebrow. “Okay, well at least you all have your story straight. Er well, apart from Ron, that is..." He gazed down at the sprawled teen on the floor, whose twitches were now giving way to ordinary snores. "So how did everyone end up here then?"
Ginny edged back from Harry and shrugged innocently. “I somehow sensed Harry's distress. After what he did for me a few nights ago, I — I just wanted to help.”
Hermione nodded. “I woke up and saw Ginny's bed empty. I knew she'd been worried about Harry earlier in the evening, so I guessed she might head up here.”
Sirius nodded thoughtfully. “All right, that checks out with the ruddy traffic patterns going past my door the past half hour.” He shook his head in exasperation, smirked, then raised his wand to levitate Ron back into bed.
“So..." Harry fidgeted, establishing a bit more space between himself and Ginny. "You, uh, believe us?”.
“Hell no — I just wanted to see how sharp you were!” Sirius burst out laughing for a moment then rubbed his eyes and turned back to the scandalized teens. “Good try mates! When I was your age, I never ever prowled about after two thirty in the morning without a well greased alibi. Yours are okay, though personally I never got much traction with anything so sweet and innocent...”
“I beg your pardon?!” Hermione was practically hopping in place. “I'll have you know...”
“Easy tiger...” Sirius waggled his finger. “Save your protests for morning or you'll wake Molly. And believe me, you do not want to face her brand of inquisition tonight.”
Hermione sputtered into silence, glared at Sirius for a moment, then rolled her eyes in capitulation.
With another grin, Sirius tossed a blanket over Ron, then yawned. “Ah well. Obviously right now I'm more interested in getting back to sleep than interrogating you ruffians, so let's just forget any of this happened... on two conditions...”
“Namely?” Ginny inquired.
“If this is all fun and games, then fine. But if you three are up to anything that Albus needs to know about then, as the titular master of this shambolic dump, I expect to be told about it too. Understood?”
“Er, okay...” Harry nodded, albeit with a slight hesitation. “And the second condition is?”
“For Merlin's sake, don't rouse any other redheads next time!” Sirius gave a final glance at the snoring Ron. “Now everybody get to their own bloody beds before we all roast in hell!”
Sirius left the bedroom and headed back to his quarters without bothering to confirm that his order had been obeyed. Hermione had also stepped out of the chamber, but she lingered by the stairwell nearby, uncertain whether Ginny would willingly part from Harry's side.
Ginny was indeed reluctant to leave. Having released Harry from her embrace, she remained sitting on his bed for several minutes, her hand resting lightly on his, gazing out through the bedroom window at the murky night sky.
Harry shifted onto his side and curled his body comfortably against hers as he stared diffusely at dimly lit paint-peel patterns on the far wall.
Neither said a word.
A detailed conversation would come later — Ginny was certain of that because she had so much to ask. For the first night in a while, she had not directly experienced any of Harry's visions. Tonight's first dream she knew only as a sharp but undefined terror that had jolted her out of bed — an impetus to race up the stairs to his side. For Harry's second dream, Ginny had been fully awake, sitting on Harry's bed, silently pleading with him for some sort of response; desperately clutching his rigid, perspiring hand...
Only once before in her life could she ever recall having been so frightened. Even now, the thought of it sent a tiny quiver through her shoulders.
“Are you okay?” Harry whispered.
Ginny nodded. She took a deep breath, and turned to give him a quick, reassuring smile. “Get some rest,” she said softly, squeezing his hand and rising from the bed to make her silent way out of the room.
In truth, Ginny was not 'okay', but she did not want to worry Harry about it right now. After what he has just been through, she sincerely hoped that he would be able to relax and settle comfortably for the rest of the night to recuperate.
What Ginny did not want to burden Harry with was a deep trepidation that... it was her turn now... Just like Harry before her, she sensed that the time had come for her to find her own bed, close her eyes, and proceed, with whatever courage she could muster, into a world of strange, dark dreams.
On Ginny's way to the stairs, Hermione probably whispered something to her, and Ginny might well even have responded appropriately... but she had no recollection. Ginny didn't even recall laying her head upon the pillow, because by the time she was back in her own bedroom, the strength of the urgent summons had risen to drown out her conscious thoughts.
For all the urgency of her dream-summons, the vision confronting Ginny seemed rather anticlimactic. This dank smoky cave in the northwestern fringe of Norfolk was not at all a place Ginny could imagine herself wanting to be.
Although some part of her was fascinated by the mysterious rituals unfolding before her, it took every ounce of willpower to keep herself from bolting back into the evening... to follow the urgent plea of the brooch... back south, to find the Publican... because once again, the man who reminded her so much of Harry seemed in desperate need a princess.
However, so did the queen. For the sake of the deposed Iceni monarch, Ginny stood her ground. She watched and waited. And waited. Ginny even forced herself to remain perfectly still and silent... lest she disturb the eccentric old Druid and once again incur the unnerving scrutiny by his strange, cloudy blue eyes.
Indeed, the famous wandmaker seemed to be a rather moody and sensitive old crank.
Some time ago, when the brooch had first stung Ginny with its dire knell, she had flinched, clenching her fists to dispel the pain. She had thought she had managed to be discreet in her discomfort, but the Druid had spun immediately to her and glared, his disconcerting eyes briefly flaring with... something...
Ginny was uncertain whether the old man had been enraged, frightened, or deeply fascinated, but whatever the response had meant, she had no desire for a repeat performance. Consequently, she held herself rigid; she locked down even her facial expressions, until he had once again fully immersed himself in his labours.
Despite the fact that no interruptions had occurred since then, those labours were turning out to be long and exhaustive.
Matching a wand to Heanua had proven trivial — the Druid had devoted less than five minutes to finding something suitable for the queen's eldest daughter, but the queen herself had apparently posed to the ancient sorcerer a much greater challenge. After almost deciding on one wand quite some time ago, he had put it away, lapsed into a long meditative silence, and had then roused himself again into an agitated state of bizarre magical exploration. Oddly enough, many of the Druid's actions seemed in Ginny's view (through LanossŽa's astute perception) to focus more on raw divination than on Boadicea's magical aura. It was almost as if he was not trying to find the wand that best suited the queen's magic, but rather to discover an instrument that would someday serve a specialized need that the Queen was destined to encounter.
With every moment that the Druid spent on his strange ceremonies, Ginny grew more impatient (and suspicious). Surprisingly, however, the normally abrasive queen stood in silent forbearance.
Finally, after a fire dance in which trails of multi-coloured luminescence trailed the hobbling wizard as he thrice circled the queen carrying several different wands, he lurched to a stop. Crouched in front of Boadicea, he extended one wand — a dark, unusually long and thick stick — toward her hand.
The queen glanced down at the approaching wand and reached to accept it. The instant the wood touched her fingertips, a brilliant flash ripped through the dark cave, a resounding SNAP sounded... and the smell of ozone filled the air.
Startled, the queen nearly dropped the wand, but quickly solidified her grip and raised it aloft, where the wand continued to spark for a moment before settling again.
“A wand, so late to bloom but with untold promise, has finally chosen to commence its destiny.” The old Druid handed it to the queen. “I seek no gold, silver, cattle or grain for this wand, but offer it to you so that the wand may grow to suit your need, until that need has passed.”
The queen frowned. “I do not understand. You seek no payment for the wand?” She examined first the wand and then the seller skeptically.
The man shook his head. “I require only that you return it to me once you no longer have need of it.”
The queen regarded him with raised eyebrow... then nodded. “Once I have regained the staff of my grandfather, I shall indeed return to you this wand. If it has served me well, I shall reward your... kindness...” The queen couldn't help but stare a moment longer at the peculiar wandsmith, as if still probing for deception.
“As you will.” The man gave her a toothy, unconcerned grin. “But long before any of that, you must rest, O' Lady of the Iceni. Go forth from this hallowed cave, and please dwell the remainder of this night in the nearby stable. Take comfort in shelter and dry straw before you depart on your perilous ways.”
“Thank you,” the queen replied in a simple neutral tone as she examined the wand one last time and put it safely away. The tall woman raised a hand to summon her two daughters as she led the way toward the mouth of the cave.
Ginny held back for a moment, watching as the downcast and barely responsive Heanua began to make her obedient way from the cavern. Ginny then turned to follow... but suddenly a hand — a vice-like grip on her wrist — locked her in place. She nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise over the unexplained interference, yet she found herself saying nothing; she offered no protest as the two women walked heedlessly out of sight without her; she did not confront the mysterious old man who had wilfully separated her from her kin. She merely waited, breathless, standing with him until the cave had fallen into complete silence.
“So...” In the absence of the queen's audience, the Druid's voice had taken on an odd quality - almost a purring tone, yet also vaguely grandfatherly, “You are the lioness who speaks with two hearts.”
Ginny quelled any outward response to the Druid's bizarre statement, but yet again he had succeeded in jolting her. Could he somehow have seen through LanossŽa, and perceived Ginny's spiritual presence within?
Recalling from the twins (both of whom rarely received grades worse than E in Trelawney's divination courses) that fraudulent seers routinely used strange pronouncements to provoke their subjects into providing useful information about themselves, Ginny stiffened herself further, standing in bland dispassion as the creepy character circled around to get a closer look at her.
“You speak with two hearts, and yet you also speak to two hearts...” The Druid hummed to himself for a moment. “And every voice to every heart bids you depart from here with all haste!” His gnarled hand thrust into the air, excitedly, as if he had just solved an abstract riddle.
“Yes!” Ginny nodded, blinking in surprise. Whatever disconcerting game the man might be playing, he was right about one thing - she certainly felt no further reason to hide the fact that she truly and desperately did want to get out of this cave, and longed (in all honesty) to escape the whole region.
The old man cackled in unexplained amusement and tugged on her arm. “Come thither with me, my two-hearted lioness. I will speed you on your way, but first I must introduce you to your steed!”
The Druid led her out of the cave, but instead of making for the small stable that was visible in the moonlight, he veered onto a path leading up into a thorny ravine. “You have seen death, have you not?” he inquired off-handedly as he led her hurriedly through the night.
“Have I what?” Ginny stared at him in confusion.
“Have you laid your eyes upon the dying? Accompanied them unto the moment of their release?”
Ginny would have had no idea how to answer that, but the princess within her did. “Yes, I gave comfort to my grandmother in her final moments and I... I...”
“Do tell me,” the old man urged. “I am not here to render judgment, but I am a curious old fellow.”
“I was not able to revive my father.” Ginny's mind was briefly filled with the image of strong-looking bearded man, pale and feverish... then the vision vanished as the princess suppressed it.
The Druid nodded thoughtfully as he led her past a heavy thicket and into a moonlit copse.
Standing tall in the moonlight before her was a beast of monstrous, nightmarish aspect, yet somehow also very gentle. Horselike, but with an appallingly skeletal head and body, and huge leathery wings folded to its sides, the creature was drinking peacefully from a hillside spring.
The Druid's grip about her arm loosened, and Ginny found herself stepping freely forward. Without fear, she extended one hand toward the exotic being. A reddish eye swiveled toward her, and the beast stirred and raised its muzzle to cautiously sniff her hand.
From behind her, the Druid spoke in soft reverence. “This is a thestral. There is no animal more hallowed to our people, but few that are less understood. A distant kin to the flying horse he is, but this creature has, in all its life, only ever sported two tail hairs. And one of these precious hairs, he has donated one to the wand that just chose your mother.”
Ginny gently stroked the thestral's cheek for a moment, feeling its cool breath on her hand. She then stepped back, curiously, to examine it's peculiar, nearly-hairless form. No more than a dozen hairs clung to the ridge of the animal's neck where a horse's mane would be. From its bony tail,Ginny confirmed that indeed, there now hung only one solitary hair — long and dark, glistening in the moonlight.
Observing her actions, the old man commented. “If a thestral is to surrender even a single hair, it is a noble act of extraordinary generosity. For a thestral may live to ages immemorial, never to be slain by the hands of any man or woman... save by a wand containing one of its own hairs.”
Ginny took a step back from creature, gazing wide-eyed at it, suddenly wondering how ancient it might be; what old deeds and centuries it may have borne witness to.
“But let us not even speak of slaying a thestral.” Surprised by the Druid's suddenly ominous, sepulchral tones, Ginny glanced back at him to see that his stooped form had straightened, and his eyes glinted in the moonlight. He shook his head slowly. “Such would be an act of abomination, with consequences too horrible to contemplate.”
Ginny shook her head vigorously. “I agree. I am certain that neither my mother nor any of her subjects would ever endanger such noble a creature!”
As if weighing her sincerity, the beast turned its large head and met her eyes for a long moment. With a silent exhalation, it then lowered its front haunches.
The Druid gazed appraisingly at the animal, and then toward Ginny. “The thestral deems you worthy. He shall be your steed, my lioness. He will bear you now upon your exigent quest of heart.”
“Now?” Ginny asked.
“Of course! We are all bound to our destiny, and yours lies thither. Your steed awaits, and your patience for lesser matters is very nearly at end.”
The Druid shook his head. “The queen requires you not for what she must do now. She will have need of you again some day, but only if you leave her side will you ever be available to rejoin her at the moment of her greatest need.”
Ginny stared hard at the strange sorcerer who stood unflinching as the moonlight reflected in his inscrutable milky-blue gaze. The way he proclaimed the future with such assuredness unnerved her, but the accuracy in which he perceived the present was equally unsettling. Indeed, he seemed to sense her motivations almost as well as she herself understood them… and she had to admit that he was right — unless she turned soon to obey the brooch, it might tear her mind apart.
She focused again on the large gentle animal, which still knelt to her in obeisance and silently welcomed her approach. “Please convey to the queen my sincere regrets,” Ginny said as she gingerly slipped one leg over the thestral's back, and tucked her foot into a fold beneath its wing.
The Druid merely cackled softly in the background.
Resigning herself to the many things unknown, both what lay ahead of her tonight and what was in store for her mother and sister, Ginny finished mounting the animal. As she settled herself into a curved span between the spurs of its large vertebrae, the thestral rose gently to its feet and spread its monumental wings. In the span of several white-knuckle seconds, Ginny found herself aloft — the moonlight and crisp night breeze in her long, flowing hair.
Harry stirred to the sensation of cool air settling across his collar and lightly ruffling his hair. A faint glow of undefined hope had lodged itself in his chest, and the sensation did not depart even after he had opened his eyes to the hard grey stone walls, and a glimmer of moonlight peering in through the heavy iron bars high above him, in what he guessed to be a Camboricum dungeon.
With some effort, he stirred himself from the dusty floor and attained a sitting position. Although his back ached from the close-range stunning spell, it did not seem to him that he had suffered greatly in his abduction. No bones were broken, and the bruising was only minor. A cursory scan of his limbs revealed no major wounds.
Harry knew that a harrowing confrontation was in his near future, but he pushed the unpleasantness of that fact into the back of his mind for the time being, and instead turned to a brief consideration of his captors' possible motives. After several minutes of thought, he decided that he had no idea why they had come here to this far corner of the empire to seek him out. He was fairly certain that he would not like their reason, but beyond that speculation seemed pointless.
Unable to think of any important preparations to make before the coming ordeal, Harry decided to relax. He let his mind drift... to a vague comfort that persisted in his mind.
She will come to help. She always does...
Without conscious thought, he gazed vacantly at the fine dry silt blanketing the earthen floor. His eyes fell upon a small shard of wood that had chipped from the cell's sole wooden bench. He picked up the shard, and lodged it into the curve of his hand with the comfort of a crafted stylus.
Turning his attention back to the silty floor, Harry reached forward with his empty hand and swept carefully across the dirt several times to create a smooth, blank surface. Extending his stylus, he lowered it to a corner of his medium and, with the Publican's practiced confidence as a skilled draughtsman, he pulled the point across the silt to etch a fluid curve.
Other marks followed as a face of strength and beauty — bold and resolute, yet gracefully compassionate — took shape from moon-cast shadows across the small silt ridges. Pausing in his labour of meditation, he stared down upon his creation for a long moment, recalling wistfully the person it depicted. He reached his free hand forward, as if to caress the princess's soft hair...
A brisk, unpleasant voice sounded from a corridor somewhere above Harry's cell. “How long has he been awake?”
“I know not, your honour.”
Harry leaped to his feet. Extending a foot toward the silt, he hastily rubbed out the image. He winced in momentary regret, but pushed the sentiment from his mind and whisked the residual dirt from his hand. He listened carefully as several distinct sets of footsteps descended a stone staircase down into the underground chamber where he had found himself. For a moment, he thought he heard a third, more soft-spoken man, then the louder second (rather gruff) voice raised again. “It has been fifteen minutes since I glanced down the spy hole and noted his motions. I came for you immediately, as you requested.”
The first voice grumbled something indistinct under his breath as a torch came into view, illuminating three figures as they turned the corner toward the cell. A stocky man in Legionary armor turned a heavy metal bolt in the door, and stepped aside.
“Aperiam,” spoke a voice that sounded, to Harry, rather like a somewhat more mature version of his own. The cell door flashed in low incandescence for a moment, then swung open of its own accord. Harry lifted his gaze expectantly. No longer empowered by the element of surprise, the first horseman from earlier in the evening strode into the cell, followed by a second person — a young man, barely more than a boy, with fine, straight brown hair framing a wide forehead and an intelligent, curious expression.
Harry stood in outward dispassion, examining faces that, beneath his polished shroud, stirred intense bile in his soul. Steeling his nerves, he fixed his eyes upon... the Publican's eldest son. “Twelve years it has been, Tio. Twelve years, and yet you seem no more than a manlike form of the boy I left behind.”
The tall, raven-haired man with eyes of deep coal grey gazed at Harry. “Well met, father.” His bland response seemed to convey his limited patience for pleasantries; his focus instead on a silent appraisal of the Publican.
Harry shrugged and turned his attention to the second of the horsemen. “And little Mus, you have grown tall. Were that my last memories of you had been happier.” Beneath the show of calm dispassion, Harry felt a distant, quiet ache from the Publican's bereft sense of family. Not wanting the weakness to show, however, he leveled his voice. “So, pray tell what brings you to far flung Britannia? I had never expected to see either of you set foot beyond the tall shadows and fine marble walls of Palatine Hill.”
The one named Tio sneered. “You misjudge us, as always father. We have traveled far in our young years — searching for the truths that you have always fled. And finally we searched even for you, since our destinies we cannot quite uncouple.”
Harry clenched his fists as the Publican's scorching emotions began to churn to the surface. “Truths that I fled?! There is no truth in children pledging to murder innocents! I warned you never to seek me without recanting the wicked ways of your vile cabal! And so here you are before me. Are you prepared to renounce your society of unconscionable lunatics?! Recant Tio! Recant Mus! Or forever leave me in peace!”
“Recant? Father, is it truly possible for you to remain so painfully misguided?” In the course of his statement, Tio's expression flickered unstably from feigned bemusement to cold disdain and onward to loathing. “My brother and I were misguided once too. Sadly, we led ourselves to believe that you would come back to us and lend your fatherly strength to a just cause. Yet Mother always warned us that you would never cease your pathetic coddling of crass, treacherous barbarians. Mus and I have long since accepted the truth of her words, but after all this time you still believe it possible that my brother and I would surrender our vows of truth and justice for our people, and accede to your pathetic delusion?”
Harry felt his jaw stiffen as he struggled to contain the Publican's outrage. “Misguided to believe it possible that you would rediscover compassion and reason?? No, I never quite dared to believe. And yet, in each passing year I have meditated upon you, seeking in my heart some sign that I might return you from your path of ruination, and save you from your heinous, murderous associates. Many times my heart has quailed as I heard of dark crimes mounting in your footsteps, and yet somehow I never truly abandoned hope. ”
The Publican's eyes bored deeply into his eldest son, daring the icy soul before him to betray some tiny vestige of humanity.
Tio met his father's glare with frigid abhorrence. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he stared long and icily into Harry's unblinking eyes. Seconds spanned toward a minute as the pair faced each other, unyielding, until... with a lightning flick of his wrist, the young man's wand was jabbed straight at Harry throat.
“Crucio! ” Tio hissed through suddenly gritted teeth.
Harry's nerve endings roiled in utter violation; his flesh had the sensation of being shredded from his body; he quivered... and yet, a flare of defiance in his soul, coupled with the Publican's inner strength, he defied the torture! Droplets of perspiration sprang to his forehead... but Harry remained standing, glaring into the brutal face before him.
“On your knees, father!” Mus approached his brother and father with a quiver of agitation in his voice. “Down on the floor! Beg of our mercy so we may grant it!” His breath rattling, the young man extended his hand, gesturing tremulously downward.
Within the Publican's feverish mind came the memory of a soothing touch; the gentle healing fingers of his princess. Harry reached into his mind and grasped the recollection of Ginny's embrace; a sensation of her stroking the back of his neck, like cool raindrops on a sun-scorched heath.
Within one man, two hearts bound to two hearts stood tall... rose even taller as Harry and the Publican girded the elder man's pride and stolid heart; giving him the strength to resist; willing him to project thoughts, as pure as Harry could fathom, of compassion and forgiveness — the greatest defences against such savagery.
“To your knees, father!” Mus pleaded one last time. Finally, quaking in unarticulated emotion, the younger son kicked out frantically, connecting with the back of his father's knee.
Harry felt himself lurch, about to topple hard down toward the cell floor... yet somehow he compensated, staggered, and regained his footing; his eyes returning to his shaken sons with a defiant glare.
Tio finally lowered his wand. Chewing his lip apprehensively for a moment, his face slowly morphed into a hard sneer as he closed in on the Publican. “Where is your whore, father?” The young man's voice descended to a snakelike hiss. “Where is your bloody bitch's whelp!!”
Harry blinked. “My what?! What in Jupiter's name are you talking about?” Momentary distracted by the baffling statement (and still recovering from his agony) he reeled and lurched sideways, then caught himself and braced himself fully straight again.
Mus approached him more diplomatically. “Where is your lover? Mother always said that you left us to be with another woman, so where is the mistress?”
Harry stared. He could feel the Publican practically choking in a mixture of disbelief and disgust, before finally finding his voice. “That is a filthy lie! I left your mother because she took from me my two sons, and sold them into virtual slavery in the service of darkness. Finally I left my sons too, for after all my entreaties they came to the junction and chose not a path of decency, but rather pledged themselves to the most repugnant Order of Letum! ”
Tio's eyes flared; he trembled and began to raise his wand again, but Mus grabbed his wrist and the rage subsided into smouldering hatred.
“Tell us where to find the woman and your other son,” Tio repeated with simmering vitriol. “Tell us, and we will permit you, our foolish and unrepenting flesh and blood, to live out the remainder of your pointless days in solitude, far from here.”
“My other son??" Harry blinked in uncomprehending consternation. "I cannot tell you what cannot be told. There is no other son. There was no other woman. I left your mother not in lust but in sorrow. I sought out this distant province to escape the harrowing pain of your constant heinous crimes; to grieve and atone for my inability to save you from your wilfull insanity. I never once sought the pain of bringing into the world yet another perfidious son. I answer not because the answer is none!”
Tio glared at him. “You may dare lie to me, father...” He paused, and a dangerous glint lit in his eyes. “But no man may contradict the Oracle of Delphi!”
“Oracle of Delphi?” Harry frowned in confusion.
Tio nodded, projecting an air of superior conviction. “Yes father, the Oracle of Delphi! There is no higher source of truth available to any man, and while many years now come between oracular pronouncements, the great honour of such truth was bestowed upon me. For in my long pilgrimage, I was summoned to the slopes of Mount Parnassus, whereupon, after fasting for four days and nights a wondrous voice arose and spoke to me of the greatness rendered upon our family and its line. The Oracle instructed me as follows.”
Two chains of power
A clash predestined
The union of the
Shall fall unto the
Deadening silence fell as Tio's ominous words faded.
Mus coughed, breaking the stunned contemplation. “The warning of the Oracle is never untrue, father. We have come here only to discover from you exactly where we may find this 'brother new'. Tell us this, and this alone, and you shall live. We shall escort you from this province and release you far away into safe exile.”
With a blank face, Harry stared at the Publican's younger son. “Had I another son to betray I would not. But I answer you both truthfully. I, Paternas Peuerellius, have no sons. None!” Fully recovered from the effects of the Cruciatus curse, the Publican stood unwaveringly, fixing each of his sons with a gaze of firm resolution. “These two damaged souls standing before me have, through their sordid actions, bequeathed all rights to bear our distinguished family name, and never have I sought another woman to bear me an heir. If our family line dies with me, then so be it.”
A difficult silence followed, with Tio seething quietly, and Mus staring at the earthen floor. Harry shook his head. “I cannot imagine what you believed you could accomplish here. Surely you realize that I would gladly misguide any foul criminal if doing so meant protecting any other innocent life. In this case, I need not waste your time or mine with any misdirection; the truth will suffice perfectly!”
“You worthless old scrap!” Tio growled, taking a menacing step toward his father. “I'll tear...”.
Mus stepped forward with a restraining arm and a distant, distracted look in his eyes. “Letum, placere dimitte nobis...”
Tio gave his brother the barest glance before restoring the unwavering glare fixed on his father. “What is the matter, Mus?” .
"Tio, the Oracle may have spoken the truth..." Mus chewed worriedly on his finger.
"Of course the Oracle spoke the truth!" Tio rounded on his brother in anger. "I heard it with..."
"No, please let me finish," Mus interjected with greater strength. "The Oracle spoke true, certainly, but the prophesy said nothing of what year or season this would come about. So perhaps this 'brother new'... has not been born yet? "
Another long silence ensued.
"You believe both the Oracle and our wretched old father, Mus?" Tio ran a hand through his hair, his face twisting in deliberation.
Mus nodded thoughtfully.
"Then there is one simple way to forever put an end our worries," Tio concluded.
Mus nodded slowly. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but faltered. The younger son bit his lip and turned slowly away.
With an expression of chilling hatred that neither Harry Potter nor the Publican could ever have summoned for even the bitterest of enemies, the elder son raised his wand...
Ginny soared through the air, marking passage of the various landmarks by moonlight. Her progress had been swift, but even the fleet wings of the thestral required time to cover the many leagues south to Camboricum.
Finally, after a journey in which the brooch had sung to her for some time in tones of great hopefulness before falling back into pain and trepidation, she was able to spy flickering torches within the town, and the Roman fort perched upon the adjacent hill in Duroliponte. The thestral raced knowingly for the latter.
Although it was now the deepest, darkest hour before the first glimmers of twilight would appear in the northeast, Ginny disillusioned herself and cast a notice-me-not charm on the thestral, knowing full well that many soldiers would have seen death and would thus be able to spot the large beast.
The brooch was pulling them toward the northwest corner of the fortress. As they approached, Ginny attempted to study the structure by the dim light. The princess had never laid eyes upon a building so large and stout, with its thick stone walls and two high watch towers, but to Ginny the magnificence paled relative to Hogwarts and did not faze her. What troubled her, however, was that the brooch and the thestral were both steering them down to ground level toward a place that had no gates, no doors, and only a small number of tiny ventilation slots for windows. If the walls in that corner of the fortress were magically reinforced, she doubted that she would be able to penetrate the barriers to find the Publican.
Convinced that the straightest path was futile, Ginny pulled back on the thestral's vertebra. It seemed to hesitate for a moment, then acceded to her judgment, allowing her to guide the flying animal upwards to the high ramparts about forty feet above the corner dungeon.
The thestral lifted its wings high in a delicate braking maneuver. With graceful but dizzying aerobatics, the animal landed its hooves smoothly and quietly on the wooden platform, and lowered its front haunches for Ginny to dismount.
Suddenly feeling an unexplained sense of great urgency, Ginny leaped from the thestral. She was about to sprint for the corner tower, but she felt the beast's wise eye upon her, questioningly.
She turned and met its gaze. “Thank you, my friend. You have done me a great service; I release you now.”
The thestral continued to stare at her for a long moment, strangely conveying in its large sentient eyes a hesitancy and regret. Finally, it nodded its head, retracted its wings and, with a sudden burst of wind, regained the night skies.
Ginny turned to race for the tower, to find some way of descent, when...
“Invenias qui honorem!”
Recognizing the voice instantly, Ginny spun around, raising her shield just as the revealing spell stripped away her disillusionment charm. With pounding heart, she fund herself twenty feet away from a man she loathed with deep passion. Although neither Ginny nor the princess had never before set eyes upon the Legate, there was no disguising (to Ginny) a detestable grin unmistakably reminiscent of Lucius Malfoy, and the princess recognized, in outrage, what the man held in his hands...
The mighty horse-head staff of the Iceni!
Despite having no realistic hope of defeating a competent wizard wielding such a weapon, there was no time for doubt or hesitation. Ginny attacked with immediate desperate urgency. Stunners erupted from her wand with a great flaming power that her fourteen-year-old self could never have dreamed of... but the Legate had his shield in place in the merest blink of an eye, his smile not losing even a hint of its oily lustre.
With surging anger, Ginny released a torrent of offensive spells she had barely even heard of — incendio, reductor, and a choice array of penetrating and concussive spells intended to bring down her opponent's infuriating shield... but drawing from the strength of the staff, the barrier held under the onslaught, and the Legate began to sneer, mockingly.
“Fight, you sniveling coward!” Ginny shouted, hoping to goad him into offensive spells that would require him to lower his shield.
The Legate merely grinned lasciviously. “Your head is far too pretty to bother itself over the pathetic, dying prisoner below. Come away with me, my sweet thing. I can take care of you in a fashion no Publican could ever dream of! Lay down your wand and accompany me to my villa, where you may feed my many appetites.”
“You bastard!” She unleashed a visceral shriek that tore through the night, and launched a terrifying barrage of explosive spells that drove the no-longer-smiling Legate to his knees...
Suddenly, cutting across the fury of the battle, Ginny's heart was pierced with an acute pang of bitterest desolation!
Transfixed in morbid fascination, Harry stared at the tip of the wand brandished by his dispassionate doppleganger. Harry then lifted his gaze to address the barren eyes of his captor — two glittering beads of shattered obsidian embedded in ice.
Harry opened his mouth. He wanted to ask the young man what terrible insecurity or fear could drive a wizard, without provocation, to kill an unarmed man?
Neither Harry nor the Publican could detest the hateful young man. Both felt sorrow for a misguided son, and a regret for not having tried one last time to coax him from seductive darkness.
However, there was no final chance for reconciliation... because, Tio would not entertain second thoughts.
In a voice of preternatural, mesmerising coldness, the young man calmly pronounced, “Avada...”
Ginny was floating. Somewhere dim and cold. Nondescript. Meaningless.
Where was she?
Was she dead?
But what had she died from? A broken heart?
Something within Ginny had deflated like the weary compunction of a leaking balloon. Although there were many aspects of her life in which Ginny might have imagined faltering, this was a commitment where abject failure had seemed utterly inconceivable.
Had she had broken her promise?
Had she truly let him fall?
Perhaps on some level Harry would know that she had tried… He would understand about inevitable delays with the queen and the Druid wouldn't he? He would surely not fault her for succumbing to the Legate's artful obstruction?
For a moment, anger broke through the nearly impenetrable shell of cold numbness. How could she have let herself become embroiled in those exasperating delays? At the worst possible time?! Should she have landed on the ramparts in the first place? Could there have been some other way? What had she overlooked?
Now she would never know. This failure was absolute and forever, wasn't it? There could be no second chance, because in the instant that the first syllable of the killing curse had welled within some evil man's throat; at the very moment that the first pulses of green glowing hatred had coalesced in the inhuman monster's wand, Ginny knew that the Publican's life was about to end. And, although she had no real way of comprehending why that should have meant so tremendously much to her, she had now somehow grasped that an irrevocable die had been cast in the struggle of light and dark. The repercussions would extend many many centuries after the Publican and the princess went to their graves. For Ginny now truly understood that the death of the Publican meant that her best friend ever... would never be born.
There comes a point in devastation where there are no tears to shed, nor eyes to shed them. At that point, all that remains is a weariness, so ponderous that it will ever be unimaginable to those who live and struggle and strive.
Yet when Ginny recalled within her mind a voice of distant memory, saying,
There is nothing left now.
Please take me away.
She did not fade into black nothingness. Instead Ginny found herself reflecting upon an extraordinary young man who had brought meaning to her life; who had shared with her that quiet humour, modesty and compassion; who was the wizarding world's only remaining hope. He had come to her in his hour of need, seeking her helping hand so that he could bring hope to a nation teetering on the brink.
Harry had asked from her a favour, and she had made a promise.
Had she truly broken her promise? Was the favour forever voided? Would Harry never ask for anything more? Was he, himself, no more? Had he vanished from history?
Yet… if Harry Potter never existed, then how could she now be regretting her failure to him? How could she think of him at all? How could he possibly still find a way to fill her heart with some very distant (but real!) memories of joy?
Ginny focused her thoughts on simple remembrance — his perennially mussed hair, his slender hands upon a wand, his piercing eyes... In her reverie, she found she could thrust back the insidious thoughts of a world that had never contained her best friend ever. She could dispel the ghastly dystopic images of skulls, and the horrible marching, chanting children… because those were all lies!
In recognizing the lies, Ginny finally reaffirmed the truth.
“Harry...” As Ginny spoke, her voice became substance, regaining strength and clarity. “I will never let you fall.”
So utterly convinced was Ginny of this inalienable fact, that she was not the least bit startled to feel the rough but reassuring hide of a thestral braced between her legs, and the cold moonlit breeze whipping through her hair.
Bracing herself with all her strength, she crushed herself low against her loyal steed and willed it onward, onward, and downward!
Because Ginny had a promise to keep!
In the razor-sharp instant when fate hangs in the balance, always open your eyes. This is the moment when distractions fall away, and one may gaze plainly upon the face of truth.
Truth, to the Publican, was that his princess would not fail him.
Truth, to Harry, was that Ginny would not let him fall.
Truth to us all, however, is that only a fool does naught to help himself.
Neither the Publican nor Harry were fools.
The ancient utterance, 'Kedavra ', still clung to the taut air of the subterranean cell as Harry's muscles jolted with a shot of adrenaline. His eyes ablaze, Harry leaped down and to the side. One wrist and knee hit the ground rolling, as his other hand lashed out to grasp Tio's wand arm, hauling the startled captor off balance. Together, they collided with the cowering Mus, and the three men careened headlong into the far wall.
As they staggered, the wayward killing curse pulsed belatedly from Tio's wand, blasting the ceiling at the very juncture where a thunderous crash struck from above. The spot where the three men had stood an instant before suddenly rained with tons of hard, heavy stone.
Amidst the chaos, Harry extracted himself from the dazed figures of the Publican's two sons and squinted through the swirling dust. In the center of the cell block, presiding over a great pile of rubble and bathed in the silvery moonlight shining down from the open sky above, was a sight that nearly made him cry out with joy.
“You have a flair for grand entrances!” Harry grinned as he accepted Ginny's hand and leaped onto the thestral's back.
“I always liked your style too,” Ginny replied with a laugh. “And this time I don't even have to steal you a wand.”
For a moment Harry had no idea what she was talking about, but then he looked at his hand... and blinked. Somehow in all of the struggle and mayhem, he had walked away with the wand that had nearly murdered him.
Hermione rolled over, stretched, and opened her eyes to a rosy predawn glow peaking in around the curtain. She gazed across the room...
... and gaped.
“Blo...!” Hermione coughed away the raw expletive. “Blazing heck, Harry! What are you doing here?? After the close shave last night, I wake up and find...?!” A vein raised unattractively on her forehead. “Urrrghh!! You two are impossible!”
From his perch on the side of the chamber's other bed, Harry didn't stir or budge. His smiling eyes were far too occupied gazing down to the equally happy face of his best friend, whose own eyes beamed admiringly upwards with great ardour.
After a while, a quizzical look flickered across Harry's forehead as he realized that someone had spoken. He cocked his head. “Are we impossible, Gin'? Is that what all this is?”
“Impossible? Hmmm...” Ginny pursed her lips. “No Harry. Fairly inexplicable, to be sure, but there's no such thing as complete impossibility.”
“Right.” Harry nodded thoughtfully to Ginny. “No Hermione, we're not impossible — just inexplicable.”
Hermione gawked at them for a long moment.
Finally, she closed her mouth and huffed loudly. “I bloody well hope not,” she declared, with no further attempt to suppress the epithet, “because I know two people who are going to have a bit of explaining to do today!”