Chapter 9. Knife's Edge (August 12-13, 1995)
Harry knew a lot about dreams. He could generally tell, even before the opening image, whether or not he was destined for a bad one. And at this moment, floating in the languid twilight of semiconsciousness, he somehow sensed that he was headed to special niche of space and time where he truly felt… safe.
With no sense of urgency, he began to let sensory inputs filter in, starting with a deep breath of air — one that soothed his mind with a gentle fragrance...
Earthy sweetness of ferns; a cleansing hint of recent rain…
Then he listened carefully.
A swell of early morning bird song… the faint rustle of leaves in high tree boughs, setting loose a distant staccato of water drops that spattered down, leaf to leaf to… forehead!
Harry jolted instantly into his dream world. Blinking some intensely chilling droplets away from around his startled eyes, he glanced about to find himself fully upright, gazing through a grove of tall, slender birch and poplar trees toward a rosy sunrise, just as it burst anew across a shallow vale still shrouded in mist.
A puff of breeze from on high fluttered merrily astray, somehow finding its way down to the forest floor, rustling his hair. It blew cool across the fresh tracks of moisture on his face, but despite the early hour, the air was that of a very pleasant morning — far milder than the harsh winds he recalled from his journey south on the Great Ouse, or the spine-tingling final night in Camboricum.
With a start, Harry realized that a fair bit of time must have passed in this ancient world since he had last dreamed his way into the mind of his very distant ancestor. He was just beginning to speculate how long it might have been, when he sensed the Publican entertaining a very similar thought, almost as if the man had heard the question and was preparing to answer.
The Publican withdrew a scroll and magical stylus that he kept in a dry fold next to his emergency rations. Examining the parchment (it seemed to be something of a field journal; likely a log that he kept as part of his imperial administrative duties) the man scanned down to locate his various annotations from the previous day. He drew a thin line beneath them, and inscribed a new date.
Reading the crisp Latin letters, Harry stared in surprise. This morning marked day XI of the month of Junius! More than two months had passed in the Publican's life since the dramatic escape from a Camboricum dungeon!
Before Harry had any chance to wonder what great or terrible adventures or hardships might have occupied the Publican's attention through all the intervening time, he was afforded a bit of a clue. From a short distance behind him came the sound of a feminine voice — a soft, inarticulate groan; groggy yet contented. He turned to see a very familiar face — LannosŽa, princess of the Iceni — stretching from within their shared bed of furs, shaded beneath a magically reinforced bower of branches and leaves.
Her stretch complete, the princess smiled at him — an expression of honey and spice. Gleaming red hair fell about her in waves; vivacious eyes sparkled in the morning sun; delicately upturned lips just slightly parted — everything about her reminded Harry of an early morning image of Ginny.
Errr, well, except for the… lack of clothing.
Eyes wide at the glimpse of an immodest (but utterly tantalizing) expanse of smooth, lustrous skin, he twisted away bashfully… then cringed. That instinct — an epitome of respectful diffidence — had just betrayed him. He knew it immediately; he had blown his cover!
Yes, Harry did not need to look back toward the princess to feel her incisive eyes suddenly upon him; to know that her face had almost certainly turned from simple happiness to an expression of curious calculation. After all, prudish discomposure was very likely not the reaction she would have come to expect from a man who had, quite obviously, become her lover.
Harry silently cursed his carelessness, but he had to admit that cohabiting someone else's mind was never easy. Although in previous dreams he had felt quite at home experiencing the ancient world vicariously through the eyes of his ancestor, he knew there were parts of the role that he wasn't cut out to play very well. Despite the many close similarities between Harry and the Publican, there were definite differences — not the least of which involved how they each related to females.
That, of course, was understandable; it came down to culture and confidence. After all, Harry had been raised in a very repressed and repressive environment where his experiences with women (such as Petunia, Aunt Marge and Mrs. Figg) were perfectly calibrated to stifle warmth and affection. Thanks to Dudley and his thugs, girls Harry's own age at primary school had been effectively persuaded to shun him. Even at Hogwarts, his notoriety and constant state of peril had kept him from forming real friendships with any girls other than Hermione… and even she was not especially feminine. His discovery of Ginny had been full of brilliant revelations, but he was only a few days along that wonderful path and, even compared to the average clueless fifteen-year-old boy, he still had a lot of catching up to do.
By contrast, the Imperial Publican Paternas Peuerellius had been granted a tremendous head start. He been born into a Roman society in which girls and women fully expected flirtatious affection from the boys and men in their lives, and were rarely shy about returning or even initiating the attention. For someone like the Publican, born into a household of some privilege and admired by virtue of his family name, casual courtship had always been second nature. By the age of ten the Publican had been regularly beset by girls (mostly daughters of his father's associates) who adored the ground he walked upon. By the time Peuerellius had reached his fifteenth birthday, he was a man of the world — an apprentice Imperial administrator, already betrothed to a wealthy and rather beautiful maiden who would soon become his wife.
Not everything had been easy, though. Without exaggeration, the resulting marriage had been an unmitigated disaster — one that had brought Harry's ancestor to within mere inches of untimely death. Only by his quickest of reflexes had he evaded the worst intent of a deadly cursed blade. Decades later, in the depths of night, he could sometimes still see that hand… those soft, delicate fingers of a thousand velvet caresses… suddenly lashing out in homicidal mania.
The experience had left him scarred (some metaphorical wounds to his spirit, and that single thin white mark remaining from a not-so-metaphorical gash on his face), but it had not completely quelled the Publican's fondness for the fair sex. Through his many travels in service of the empire, he had always found it very helpful to cultivate casual friendships with local leaders and their families. Over the years, many sisters and daughters (and more than a few wives) had fawned over the man's polite, quiet confidence, his empathy and well-honed attentiveness.
In return, the Publican had enjoyed their company but, in the long years since leaving his wife, he had always abstained from any relationship that might grow too intimate or serious. It was not that he remained true to the murderous witch. No, instead he was faithful to a fundamental conviction, treasured in the depths of his heart, that somewhere in what remained of his life he would find one woman (and one woman alone) whom he could truly love.
And indeed he had.
And at the moment, this very woman was, as Harry had rightly guessed, examining her lover with a suddenly curious look of calculation and concern.
LannosŽa raised her eyebrow. Her eyes scanned the Publican's oblique profile analytically. She put placed a thoughtful finger to her lips for a moment. “Terna?”
The Publican nodded.
“Terna, that visitor spirit you used to sense…” She tapped her head. “Has he returned ?”
Inwardly Harry groaned to hear his fears confirmed so quickly. Self-consciously, he tried to pull back from the dream but it was too late — almost instantly, he felt the weight of the Publican's internal scrutiny.
Harry braced himself, prepared to be driven from the Publican's mind; prepared to forfeit any chance of ever figuring out the real purpose of these dreams.
However, no rage or fear arose within Harry's ancestor. Much to Harry's relief, the probe ended without violent expulsion or panic. There was mostly just a sense of curiosity.
“Yes Lano, I do think you are right. The visitor does seem to have come back again.” The Publican frowned pensively and stepped back into their humble bower, taking a seat beside the reclining princess. “The Coritani wandmaker you met must be a very skilled Druid indeed to have perceived these little spirits. Their presence within us is subtle and well hidden, except if they are startled or angry. Over the past weeks since our blissful exile began, I had rather come to disbelieve the idea of us being possessed. I had nearly convinced myself that any memory of their presences was a shared delusion — a trick we played upon our own minds following those harrowing spring days of fear and peril.”
The princess nodded. “And yet, this morning we have neither fear nor peril, but we do both have visitors within us, do we not?”
“Er, yes. You do too?”
“Yes.” LannosŽa gazed up at him in thought, draping her arm casually over his leg. “The instant I deduced a presence you, I felt one in myself as well — a fleeting sense of someone fearing discovery. It is strange, though. These do not seem to be spirits of evil, or even mischief.”
The Publican shook his head.
LannosŽa stroked his arm unconsciously. “It goes against all of my lessons — I was raised to ever guard against intrusion, yet this voice who has chosen to visit me from time to time — she inspires no more fear in me than does the little songbird perched above our bower. Of course, at one time I cursed her, and despised her weakness, yet now my mind has changed. She has become like a friend to me — one with a peculiar innocence that warms me, and a wisdom that intrigues.”
“That is somewhat how I feel,” the Publican agreed. “I never truly feared or disliked my visitor, but I must admit that it took me far longer than you to even recognize that I actually had one.” He scratched his head reflectively. “Now that I know what to look for, I realize that I had unknowingly sensed his presence many times before without recognizing him as a foreign spirit. I mistook him for… for some overlooked part of my own soul. When my visitor is with me, it feels as if a long-forgotten shard of my youth has returned — almost as if a part of me broke away long ago to live a different life… only to finally now return, bringing a wealth of very unusual knowledge and perspectives.” He trailed off for a moment. “Sorry my love, I know not how to explain it.”
The princess found his hand and squeezed it gently. “I understand you perfectly, Terna.”
The Publican smiled warmly for a moment, then gazed off into the distance, his smile fading. “So what do you suppose it means that they have returned?”
LannosŽa lay back and gazed through the sparse leafy structure that, through magic, sheltered them every bit as comfortably as the stone roofs of a sturdy Roman fort. She frowned slightly. “Do you recall how I told you that the Coritani Druid foretold that I was fated to return to my mother in the hour of her greatest need?”
The Publican nodded.
“Well, my love...” LannosŽa reached for his hand and held if firmly. “I suspect that the hour is approaching.”
The Publican regarded her quizzically. “Do you mean that these visitors are harbingers of fate?”
“No, it is more complicated than that.” The princess paused a long moment, her expression slightly pinched as if she was trying to read a distant signpost. “It is very strange, Terna. My visitor speaks to me; she seems to know things that I myself cannot know.”
“She seems to read my future. Or parts of it anyway.”
The Publican eyes widened. “She is a seer?”
LannosŽa pursed her lips. “Not exactly. Not in the manner of my grandmother, who would meditate and see vague images of days to come. My visitor seems to truly read things. It is as though she recites my future — as might an old bard recount a story from deep in the past.”
The Publican frowned. “Your future is like her past? You speak in riddles, my love.”
The princess laughed. “Yes, well it is all a great riddle to both of us, and perhaps to her as well. But tell me Terna — you read the scrolls of your Roman and Greek historians, do you not? Just as I may read the great field stones of my ancestors?”
The Publican nodded.
“The voice in my mind bids you to suspend disbelief.” LannosŽa gazed intently into the Publican's eyes. “Imagine that you were to read of the plot against your great Caeser Julius, and find some magical way to reach back into the past to warn him? Or imagine some scion of mine was to see from the inscription on the Iceni stone by our river that my father would be felled by a Coritani poisoned arrow, and somehow bid him not to cross the Ouse on that fateful day?”
“These voices hail from days yet to come? They have heard the ends of stories that we have just begun? They offer guidance?”
The princess smiled. “I believe so.”
“That may be useful.” The Publican frowned. “Well, let us say that your visitor has read such a standing stone that describes your fate — what might it say?”
“I can grasp but little of what she thinks, Terna. But I believe we must be in… Camulodunum… seven days before summer solstice...”
The Publican's frown deepened at the mention of the Legate's stronghold. “Seven days before solstice — that is three days hence!” His exhalation coursed with concern. “What is to occur in Camulodunum in three days?”
LannosŽa turned back to stare vacantly ahead into the flourishing sunrise. “A great battle, my love. The long years of peace are at an end. The Iceni… my mother… shall rise.”
The Publican bit his lower lip. He cast his eyes about their humble bower, still glimmering in the leaf-filtered light. He thought about the weeks of placid seclusion spent with this young woodland princess — a perfect complement who had finally brought meaning to his strained and tumultuous life. He thought about how close their time together come to complete and utter bliss, and he took a deep breath.
The land was on the brink of war. His own store of peaceful days, too, had seemingly run out.
Ginny was astonished to see the changes that had come over the princess and the Publican in their well-deserved peaceful interlude. To her discriminating eye, the man's stoic visage had softened; the subtle but impermeable barriers to his heart (one that had known great disappointment) seemed to have given way to an embrace of mutual trust and affection. The princess's uncompromising fire had dimmed to reveal the warmth and wit required to tame her man. Both of them still bristled with power (Ginny was certain that they would be fearsome forces to be reckoned with in the coming battles) but both also seemed to be more human now.
Perhaps it was love; perhaps neither the princess of the Publican had ever before truly known nature's most potent and fundamental force, and maybe their acceptance of each other had transformed them. Yet, there somehow seemed to to something more. There was a hidden force in the pair that Ginny had never sensed before. Although present in both of them, this unusual new power seemed strongest in the princess — a new and different magic of some sort… but Ginny couldn't quite place what it might be.
For the time being, it was difficult to concentrate on such abstract speculation, however. Once the princess and the Publican had committed to leaving for Camulodunum, it sparked a rapid transformation from the morning idyll. Ginny was fascinated by how rapidly and efficiently they worked together to secure their sparse belongings and magically restore their bower to a pristine boreal state.
Ginny also paid very close attention to their conversation. She was intrigued to learn that, according to the Publican, their current location placed them at a little more than forty leagues from Camulodunum — a distance that could indeed be covered in two hard day's march.
The Publican had remarked about the fortuitous timing — they had learned about the prospective uprising just barely in time to join it. The princess, for her part, had simply shrugged. Ginny had come to understand LannosŽa better than most people ever would. She knew that, in the mind of the Celtic princess, very little ever occurred by pure chance; that fate had decreed a time that was neither too early nor too late.
Although she would have been very curious to know what LannosŽa might have hoped or feared to see in the coming confrontation, Ginny was left in the dark. The princess, although apparently now quite tolerant of an extra voice in her mind, had grown more guarded and opaque.
Recognizing that the princess was entitled to privacy, Ginny could still not help (for what would not be the last time) feeling concerned about these barriers. Ginny had tremendous faith in the purity of LannosŽa's spirit and intentions, but there was something about a person so powerful and impulsive that still gave her pause.
Ginny was not the only one who had been engrossed by the Publican-princess partnership. Harry was similarly impressed by the strength and synergy that had evolved between them in the past couple of months. He was moved to see how two people, both so proud, strong and independent, could so readily come to agreements on virtually everything that they needed to. They seemed to understand each other's perspectives and needs, despite factors that would normally have posed major complications — their very different cultural heritages, distinct temperaments, and some rather touchy issues regarding what different loyalties they might have in the coming conflict.
The latter could have crippled many long-standing marriages, but to Peuerellius and LannosŽa it was mere water off a swan's back. They would be loyal to each other; they were both sworn enemies of the Legate. For everything else, they could only stand together and await the winds of fate. Thus resolved, it had taken less than a minute to decide to break camp and move onto the commensurate preparations for the journey ahead.
Now why couldn't everyone work together like that?
Harry couldn't help but be somewhat chagrined. Since when had he, Ron and Hermione ever decided on anything without a raging quarrel? Had they ever shown each other such even-tempered respect? Progressed so effortlessly to useful compromises? Achieved closure without the least whinge or bicker?
Of course in fairness, Harry couldn't recall having seen such equanimity among any other friends or relations — not with any of his acquaintances at Hogwarts and not really even the Order of the Phoenix. The Dursleys had never worked together particularly well. Harry would not even (or especially not) hope for such cooperation among members of the Weasley family.
In truth, this partnership between his ancestor and this dynamic young woman (so much like Ginny) was an epiphany! Even under strain and disruption, the best of friends could actually act… like the best of friends!
Harry continued to watch the pair's considerate give and take as they made their way quickly through the woods, debating their route and travel strategies. Deciding on the very first leg of the journey had been trivial — they would make their way down to the nearby banks of the River Waveney (where they had concealed a currach ) and follow the river southwest at least until it reached the Roman road.
Beyond that, the choices became more ambiguous. The debate was still on-going as the Publican canceled the disillusionment charm on the small boat. He handed the princess a coil of rope and gazed at her thoughtfully. “The Roman road is a straighter and shorter route than continuing south by currach.”
The princess took hold of one end of the vessel and helped the Publican to settle it half-way into the river, securing it to a nearby tree. As she dusted her hands and reached for her sack she shook her head. “Actually, I would guess that apart from the portage overland from the Waveney to the Gipping, it should be easier to travel by river. One person may rest while the other pilots. We may even travel by night.”
“I suppose so.” The Publican nodded as he stepped knee-deep into the stream. Glancing across to the far bank of the stream he nodded again, more vigourously. “Lano, with all of the recent rain, the streams are very high. What is often a mere trickle cluttered with scrub and rock may now be easily navigable.”
The princess nodded. “This is good news. So by river then we may be able to reach Camulodunum with time to spy and plan?”
“I think so.” He helped his companion settle into their small vessel, hoisted it free of the bank-side gravel, then wrestled himself over the frame as the princess steadied the boat with her wand. After he gave the currach a quick glance to ensure that their supplies were properly stowed, he smiled to his companion. “The only remaining question, Lano, is whom you would prefer to encounter on our way — Romans on the road, or Britons on the river?”
LannosŽa laughed. “Neither, I hope! The queen will wring my neck for desertion if she catches us before we save her. And the Romans… the Roman necks you and I shall wring aplenty before we are done, but for every Roman we fell, three more will always rise in his place. No Terna, today I am in no mood for companions.” She raised her wand. “Before we go too far south, let us not forget to disillusion ourselves.”
The Publican's assessment was correct — recent rains had raised the streams by more than a foot's depth, giving them deep, level water to navigate. Although the first part of their journey was against the current, their magic still permitted them to make swift progress, and it was not until mid-morning before flotsam first forced them to step from the currach to tug the vessel along by hand. Even then, the debris was a good omen — it had been swept into the stream by the confluence of the River Dove. They had not expected to reach this point on their journey before noon time — they were already hours ahead of schedule.
The princess and the Publican paused to scan the mouth of the fast running tributary. In the course of their discussion of whether to remain to the east of the Roman road and make use of the fast-running Dove, they described to each other enough of what they knew about topography and local landmarks for Ginny to finally realize exactly where they were — right along the northern border of Suffolk. From that location, they were just about to cut straight through what had historically been the heartland of the Trinovantes tribe.
All throughout the morning, Ginny had been scouring her mind for details relating to the Iceni rebellion, trying to put their current situation within the historical context. As she sifted through multiple (somewhat conflicting) accounts of the Camulodunum battle, historical maps of the various Brythonic tribal lands, the layout of Roman roads and locations of major towns and outposts, she started to get the glimmers of an idea.
Trusting that the princess was likely monitoring her, Ginny began to focus her thoughts onto some specific details that she guessed might be useful.
Just as LannosŽa was just about to re-enter the currach, she hesitated and stared at the Publican in puzzlement. “Diras!” she exclaimed.
The Publican tossed the rope into the boat and met her eyes. “Diras? Diras who? The renegade leader of the Trinovantes from decades past?”
LannosŽa shook her head. “If you are speaking of Diras the Dispossessed, then no. I am thinking of his grandson.”
“Ah? I had no idea the line has survived.” The Publican regarded her curiously. “So, what of him?”
”He will rise up, Terna! He will heed mother's siren call to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Trinovantes, so long persecuted, shall rebel even if the Iceni remain unconvinced!”
“Trinovantes?” The Publican stared at her. “Are you certain?”
LannosŽa laughed. “No, of course I'm not certain! Without the eagles of Amaethon to soar the four winds gathering the harbingers of war, I am reduced to trusting the voice in my head.”
The Publican nodded. “Well I can see a certain sense to it. The Legate has almost certainly promised peace and prosperity to your own people in return for their passive obeisance, and even your mother thought it unlikely she could sway the Iceni to join a battle without the reassurance of the Staff of Scavo. By contrast, the Trinovantes have had more than fifteen years to dwell upon the hollowness of Roman promises.” He paused for a moment to steady the currach as the princess settled into it. “So, what do you know of this grandson Diras? He is not named in Roman records.”
LannosŽa, in turn, helped the Publican aboard and the pair began to steer their way up the brisk Dove current. Once they had established a stable pace, she settled back and gazed into the dark thickets lining the river as she summoned memories of the mysterious Trinovante. “Diras was rarely spoken of in my father's court, and he only ever visited once. He is quiet and wary, short and swarthy, in the manner of the Picts of the north.”
“Oh? Does he have Pictish blood?”
“Yes.” LannosŽa nodded absently. “After Diras the grandfather was murdered in his sleep by Romans, Brocius the father fled into the hinterlands with a small band of loyal followers. They were away for many years, during which Brocius likely wedded the daughter of a Pictish chieftain.”
“So they truly dwelt among Picts?? ” The Publican shuddered. “It is said that among all two-legged creatures in the great Empire, we shall never find any craftier, wilder and less human.”
The princess shrugged. “That is a very Roman manner of thought… but we the Iceni have been trained for many years to think like Romans so I will agree with you. In any case, upon the death of Brocius, Diras quietly returned south with several dozen descendants of the original Trinovante fugitives. They were hardened warriors, yet moved among the trees with a noiseless guile that baffled even our very best trackers. Their band visited father more than ten years ago. It was an awkward meeting in which Diras proclaimed the long friendship of the Trinovantes and Iceni, as if the former was still a kingdom, proud and free. He almost seemed not to understand that his people had long since become a ragged rabble — half dispersed like wolves into the wilderness; the other half bred by the Romans to be docile sheep.”
The Publican nodded grimly, but said nothing.
“Diras announced that he was restoring Trinovante sovereignty to the lands south of the Waveney,” LannosŽa recalled. “He assured my father that there would be peace along the border as long as the Iceni did not object. He also demanded that we never betray to the Romans any news of his return.”
“And as always, your father was a man of his word...” It was a statement; there was a hint of inquiry to the Publican's tone, but no anger.
“Yes. Father was no fool though. He resolved to keep his promise, but I do know that he would have informed you of the development if he had ever descried a clear threat to the Iceni-Roman alliance.”
“He never perceived a threat then?”
The princess shook her head. “No. If Diras ever did establish dominion over the northern reaches of the old Trinovante kingdom, he must have done so in preternatural silence and secrecy.”
“If he did…?” the Publican probed. “And am I to now assume that you do believe that Diras succeeded?”
“I do, and my little friendly voice believes this too.”
“In preternatural silence and secrecy…?” The Publican stroked his chin.
“Very interesting...” The Publican paused and corrected their course to avoid a sharp snag concealed below the shimmering waters. “And now your mother shall seek him out?”
“She will.” LannosŽa pursed her lips as her eyes strained southwards up into the trees and low rolling hills that lay ahead. “I do not see why Diras should agree to help her… but I imagine that mother sees no other way forward.”
In the late afternoon heat, with a bright sun bearing down and the soothing sounds of trickling water and breeze in the high branches, eyelids grew heavy. The Publican, piloting carefully through the upper reaches of the Dove, had let his princess slip into a doze off some time ago, and Harry took the opportunity to gaze surreptitiously at the young woman.
Harry wondered whether Ginny's consciousness had remained with the princess, even as she slept. He, Harry, had never experienced any of the Publican's dreams; whenever his ancestor had lost consciousness, Harry had always found himself pulled back either to Grimmauld Place, or to some new version of the horrors of 1998.
So, if Ginny wasn't dreaming the princess's dreams, what was she experiencing? Had she been summoned off to some other dream? Was it interesting or important? If so, what would happen to the other dream if LannosŽa suddenly awakened.
That latter question was about to become an issue. The currach was running out of water — it would very soon be time to rise from the boat and begin their portage.
As they reached the last viable pool, the Publican looked for the softest place to land. Ever-so-gently, he edged the vessel up onto the fringe of a silty bank.
The princess startled. “Amaethon, I was asleep?!”
The Publican gazed toward the sun. “Yes, for perhaps a half hour.”
“How odd — I never require midday rest. Whatever has come over me today?” The princess frowned. “And Terna! How could you have let me sleep?”
“You looked so peaceful.” He shrugged sheepishly and stepped out on the soft bank. “It brought joy to my heart to see your comfort.”
Her eyes blazed. “The time for luxuries is over. We are two of the most hunted people in all the land, straying into parts that are likely crawling with watchful eyes — we need all our wits about us!”
The Publican gazed around, gathering his bearings. “Yes, I suppose so. Good fortune has been with us so far, but we shall definitely need all of those eyes and ears now.” He dropped his voice. “We are less than two hundred feet from the springs of Dove. The waters at our feet pour straight from cracks beneath the Roman road. The springs are one of the most-frequented rest places for foot travelers, and we have little choice but to cross near them.”
LannosŽa's eyes widened. She quickly cast disillusionment spells on herself and her sack. “How long is the portage?” she whispered.
“Fairly short I believe — less than two leagues if the Gipping is as swollen as the Dove.”
Proceeding in silence from that point, the Publican miniaturised their currach, shook it dry, and placed it carefully in his sack. He then disillusioned himself and their remaining supplies.
Treading carefully along the soft river bank, they had gone no further than the next bend when they pulled up short.
At the base of a steep incline of soft stones were four legionnaries, chatting casually as they filled water vessels from the clear spring.
The Publican and the princess crept closer to listen.
“… other reports of Britons on the move. Are you being summoned back to defend Camulodunum?”
“Defend? No, as far as we have heard, Old Silver is calling us home for reassignment.”
“Reassignment? Yourselves and half of the Spanish Ninth Legion, you think? You're the fourth Century we've seen marching south today alone. Methinks your silver fox is spoiling for a fight.”
“Don't be daft — the only good fighting to be had is way off in the mountains of the west. This territory is brilliantly pacified now. Quiet as a dead Dacian.”
“Not as quiet as you might think. Something queer is afoot in these parts; it may remain out of our sight, but only because it pokes our eyes every time we try to look for it — we've lost four scouts in these woods in the past month.”
“Hah! As likely as not, your scouts ate some bad mushrooms, or fell into a bog after a heavy rain...”
The Publican carefully reached for the princess's invisible hand, and whispered to her. “A useful bit of gossip, but I have heard enough. We must find a way around them without getting caught.”
He guided them in a wide arc around the unsuspecting soldiers. As they made their way carefully through the underbrush, the Publican analysed the disjointed conversation. He nodded to himself. Most importantly, the Romans' idle chatter confirmed key details from the voice in LannosŽa's head. The region was indeed coming to life in a rather unusual and potentially hazardous way.
As the Publican led them to a roadside clearing a safe distance from the springs, he scanned the sizable gathering of soldiers milling about. They evidently belonged to two different Centuries proceeding in different directions along the road, having likely encountered each other by chance. Inferring from their standards, he recognized one as a local patrol unit from Camboricum, while the other had been making its way down from encampments at Branodunum.
The princess leaned in to whisper to the Publican. “Do you think the Legate is aware of imminent attack?”
The Publican gazed thoughtfully toward the rival groups of soldiers, still engaged in casual verbal sparring. “I'm uncertain, though I would guess he sees nothing imminent. He is calling troops back to his capitol, but has not commanded great urgency. Most likely he has reached a certain point in this wily scheme of his; he has perhaps been destabilizing the region enough that it is now time to prepare for the intended fallout.”
“Do you think Mother will not catch him by surprise…?”
The Publican exhaled softly for a moment. “Not a complete surprise perhaps… though she may well still catch him with his tunic hitched.”
The princess snickered quietly to herself as the pair carefully crossed the road and slipped into the bushes on the other side.
Minutes later, they had not quite even reached the wooded portage path leading from the springs of Dove across to the springs of Gipping, when LannosŽa suddenly tugged the Publican's arm. Rather than try to point (useless, since they were both disillusioned), she found the Publican's hand and oriented it obliquely toward a spot adjacent to the path, about forty feet away.
The Publican scanned the spot — just in time to see a bush jostle slightly, and catch a quick glimpse of a leather boot pulling back into the shadows.
So there are other spies lurking about!
After a moment of silent watching, LannosŽa tugged the Publican's hand again, this time to urge him to follow. Although he himself caught no more than a bare glimpse of the spy every minute or so, the princess guided then unerringly through the woods, maintaining a gap of 50 to 80 feet back from the mysterious figure, yet never losing him.
The spy spent several minutes weaving artfully through the underbrush, but then he returned to the edge of the woodland path and stood still for a long moment. The man (now plainly visible to the Publican as a Celtic woodsman) was listening and watching for signs of pursuit, but his attention was clearly directed back up the path toward the road, and not in their oblique direction.
Having apparently satisfied himself that he was untracked, the spy stepped out onto the path and began to run westwards toward the Gipping.
LannosŽa held the Publican back. She counted softly to five in her own language to give the spy a safe head start, then took off running, with her mate in tow.
Ten minutes later, they were brought again to an abrupt stop by the sound of multiple voices — Celtic voices this time. Creeping around a final bend in the path, they came to the edge of a small muddy clearing to find the spy. He was reconnoitering with a small group which, by their appearance, seemed to include another woodsman, and four Celtic warriors.
The Publican strained his ears but, despite fluency in all of the main Brythonic dialects in southeast Britannia, he was unable to follow their hushed conversation. He was able to make plausible guesses for perhaps one out of every ten words, but the strange speech was otherwise unintelligible.
Despite this, it was fairly apparent from tone and hand gestures that one of the warriors — a man of some influence — was ordering the two woodsmen off on separate quests. Gesturing to two currachs that could be seen off in the distance on the edge of a shallow pool, it seemed that he meanwhile intended to lead his warriors down the Gipping.
The Publican and the princess stood stock still as the Celts ran through a series of quick final instructions, then disbanded.
After remaining frozen in silence for another long moment until all had fallen quiet, the Publican finally leaned close to LannosŽa. “Well?”
“I'm certain by looks and dress that they were all Trinovantes, yet they spoke Pictish,” she whispered. “Perhaps they use the barbaric dialect as a secret code? I could not grasp much, but they are rapidly spreading the word.”
“The word? Of what?”
“A great gathering. A reckoning of some sort. On the fens of Gipping tonight in the rising moon.”
The Publican nodded. “Well then my love, would you fancy accompanying me to a gathering?”
LannosŽa squeezed his hand, and they broke into a brisk, silent run over the sodden ground toward the distant pool across which the two Trinovante currachs were just now slipping from sight.
Ginny could not have guessed exactly how a fugitive princess of the Iceni might be received if she had been detected by Trinovante warriors en route to a great mustering, but one thing was brutally obvious — under these conditions, an Imperial Publican would be distinctly unwelcome. Consequently, the excursion down the Gipping made for a rather spine-tingling game of constant evasion, whose complex challenges mounted by the hour. If they had only needed to carefully tail a quartet of warriors in two currachs, it would have been a simple proposition, but seemingly every bend of the river seemed to produce more Trinovante boat traffic.
The quiet woods were coming to life!
Harry deduced that the two woodsmen they had encountered earlier were likely part of a network of couriers despatched around the countryside to rally able-bodied warriors to the assembly. That network was clearly proving successful. By mid-evening, men and women of diverse ages were emerging from the woods in great numbers. The Publican had quietly estimated that this stretch of the Gipping alone likely contained a greater number of fighters than the garrison at Camulodunum generally hosted. Fewer than half of the Celtic masses were truly armed for war, but at some point their numbers alone might prove to be overwhelming.
Of course there was little time for idle speculation. With so many small vessels taking to a river of only modest width, the Publican and LannosŽa were both constantly taxed trying to avoid drawing any form of attention to themselves (collisions, noise, even a wake from their currach) and by mid evening they were both exhausted.
Fortunately, after one last narrow turn, the river opened into a wide stretch of stagnant wetlands. On the western side rose a sloping green hill near which hundreds of currachs had landed, and a much greater number of Celts had already gathered. The rapidly flowing streams had delivered them all to their shared destination!
By silent agreement, the Publican and princess landed their vessel a quarter mile north of their destination, and they completed the final short leg of the day's journey on foot along a path that few of the others had chosen.
Although they had kept some space between themselves and the densest groups of Trinovantes, the Publican and princess were nonetheless able to gaze about the fens in the final glimmers of sunset and marvel at the mass of humanity gathering here in this inhospitable wilderness. Harry was about to try to estimate the size of the crowd, when the Publican (quite skilled in such militarily useful assessments) did it for him — there were tens of thousands of Celts congregating on the hill.
The Publican reached for his partner's hand and gripped it with anxiety. “This is astonishing. Such a gathering is unprecedented!” His breath whistled softly through his teeth. “What can it mean??”
“I know not!” LannosŽa gazed around at the crowds, her attention distracted as lit torches began to circulate. Indeed, disregarding the fierce battles that had raged during the first year of the princess's life, she had never lived to experience any Iceni skirmishes involving even as many as a thousand combatants — a total that could be exceeded many times over if this mustering strode into battle!
As they walked about the base of the hill, gazing up to where a large beacon fire had been built upon the crest, Ginny wondered how the princess and Publican could possibly make their way through the crush of humanity to get close enough to the summit to figure out what was truly going to emerge from the gathering. Fortunately, almost as if fate himself had heard her concern, a group of tall, purposeful warriors began massing at the eastern base of the slope. All painted in red and black war colors favoured by the Trinovantes, the elite warriors approached the disordered masses with a confident authourity and began shouting instructions.
The crowd immediately fell silent, except for buzz of whispers as people began edging back at the behest of the warriors. Within minutes, a wide path had been cleared from the edge of the water all the way to the top of the hill.
It was then that Ginny glanced southwards, down stream. In the darkening night, she saw a dozen bright, regularly arrayed torches approaching. After a couple of minutes, the lights had resolved to reveal a barge occupied by a group of similarly impressive warriors, standing guard around a darker, shorter man endowed with vivid paints and a wild mien.
“Diras,” LannosŽa whispered.
The Publican nodded solemnly. He pointed upstream to where, just barely visible in the twilight, a sizable cluster of unlit currachs was making its way downstream. “And might that be your mother?”
The princess stared for a long moment with wide-eyes. Very slowly, she too nodded.
Diras and his entourage reached the bottom of the hill first and, without yet acknowledging the approaching Iceni delegation, strode up to the high central bonfire and turned to face the masses.
A heavy, expectant silence had fallen over the large crowd as everyone's attention fixed upon the mighty queen of the Iceni. Recognizing a brief window of opportunity, the Publican tugged LannosŽa's hand, leading her quickly (and invisibly) up the cleared path to the hill's crest, upon which they found, somewhat to the side of the fire, an unoccupied location where they could watch and listen with little risk of detection.
Ginny stared down in fascination as several Iceni warriors stepped out of their currachs into the water, and steadied the queen's vessel so that she could step proudly onto dry land. The monarch's fierce eyes blazed in the flickering flames; the wavering light danced upon her lustrous hair, giving her an aura of power, like an awesome earth-spirit or phantasm.
Hushed exclamations spread throughout the crowd, yet Diras himself watched with polite dispassion as the proud woman ascended the hill, trailed by her daughter Heanua and several dozen steadfast Iceni champions.
Ginny wondered whether the renowned queen, backed only by several scores of true warriors and at most a few hundred volunteers, would bow before a renegade woodsman in the presence of his many thousands of willing combatants?
She was not altogether surprised to see that Boadicea would do no such thing. For a long, quivering moment, the tense multitudes stared as the deposed lady of the Iceni stood in silence before the strange lord of an unheralded, yet powerful and mysterious, wilderness dominion.
Finally the queen spoke. “Diras, son of Brocius, son of Diras the Dispossessed.” Her voice that boomed from the hilltop with great force and majesty. “Master of the hearts of all Trinovante faithful, I come to you in peace, and yet it is war that I seek.”
While a zephyr of gasps swept across the hillside and nearby fens, Diras met Boadicea's blazing eyes without flinching. Yet he said nothing.
Undaunted, the queen continued. “Join with me, my long-standing ally. Join me and together we shall shake free of the yoke of foreign oppression. I entreat you to march upon Camulodunum and expel the Romans. No more shall sacrilegious outsiders despoil the sacred grounds of Camulos, our divine god of war. Diras, it is time! Take back the great capital of Trinovantes and free your land and people! Join me!”
Diras eyed her expressionlessly. “Who should be joined by whom, o' Lady Iceni?”
If the queen was rattled by the odd inquiry, she was too proud and too skilled in statesmanship to show it. “Please clarify your question.”
“Who should join whom? Shall, the master of thirty thousand courageous fighters fall in step behind the chieftainess of three hundred? The legends call your Iceni the People of the Horse, yet where is your cavalry? Where are your chariots? Show us your strength, my renowned Boadicea, daughter of Scavo!”
The queen fixed Diras with a glare. For a moment Ginny thought she would turn away in anger but then she slowly sank to her knees, finally lowering her tall stature below the level of the short, dark Trinovante. Her words, although still spoken to project far into the surrounding crowds, contained a measure of humility. “I shall join you, noble lord of our southern neighbour. Once we have, together, brought low the tyranny of Camulodunum, the Iceni shall ride to us by the thousands. Chariots shall rumble over Roman roads like a thunder of approaching doom, and together we shall drive the scurrilous invaders off the chalk cliffs to break upon the rocks and waves.” Boadicea withdrew the strange Coritani wand from her shift and held it out, laid across her two palms in a gesture of supplication. “I show to you my strength, Lord Diras. I bring to you the great and holy powers granted unto us by Scathach, She Who Strikes Fear, Goddess of Healing, Prophesy and Protection.”
Diras regarded her coldly, then he too drew from his cloak a wand. He raised it slowly toward the rising moon, stiffened for a moment… then a deafening bolt split the darkness, struck his wand tip, briefly ensconsing the man in a blue glow, as the cleansing scent of ozone drifted down through the crowds.
“You are not the only one here tonight who is versed in the arts of Scathach, O' Lady Iceni.” Diras sneered slightly at the sight of the queen's widened eyes. “Your father was very powerful, but are you as well? Pray tell, my lady, why have you come to me bearing such a crude stick? Why not arm yourself with greater might?”
A long silence hung between them, then Diras glared contemptuously at the queen. “Where is the Staff of Scavo?!”
Boadicea did not flinch, but she still said nothing.
Diras gazed southwards for a moment then returned his focus to the kneeling figure before him. “You have not seen fit to admit, dear lady, that your father's staff is cradled, at this very moment, within the pasty, perfumed hands of a Roman wizard, perched in the tallest tower of Camulodunum?”
Ever so slightly, Boadicea nodded.
The short man turned away dismissively. “The hour is late, and I have other concerns, but yet I shall bid you again. Show us your strength, o' lady of the erstwhile great family of Scavo.”
The queen rose to her feet. “Staff or no staff,” she said, “the powers of Scathach run deep in myself and my daughters.”
“Daughters? I see only one daughter.” Diras angled his head slightly to peer past Boadicea toward Heanua, who was gazing vacantly into the night sky. He raised a skeptical brow. “This young woman looks to strike great fear into the hearts… of flowers in the forest glade, whose stems she might pluck with maidenly truculence. My lady, your fair princess bristles with all the ferocity of a lame dove.”
Heanua did not blink or even alter her gaze, yet Ginny felt tremors course through LanossŽa as she valiantly suppressed a bitter vitriol that longed to blaze forth.
Oblivious to the mounting rage of the queen's other (invisible) daughter, Diras raised his finger toward the sky. “I see an omen, your ladyship — a cloud verges upon our meeting moon. Let this be our measure — if you do not drive me cowering to my knees before the dusky grey vapour shrouds Rhiannon's great silver lamp, then leave here and disturb me no more!”
The crowd fell deathly silent as many thousands of eyes stared up toward the thick dark cloud that had already begun to gnaw on the edges of the waxing moon. Ginny's eyes fell upon the queen, however; watching as she slowly shifted the Coritani wand from her palmed gesture of supplication…
For some reason, Ginny trembled as the fingers on Boadicea's right hand crept around the handle, collecting the wood into a firm grip…
A spasm wracked Ginny, tearing across her from somewhere deep in her midsection. Agony! Feeling as though she had burst into flames; the princess writhed as coarse, raw power burst from inside herself. The power sprang invisibly through the air, coupled with the Druid's strange wand and exploded into the night's sky as blazing, thunderous pyrotechnics.
Wracked by terrible convulsions, Ginny's senses swirled — a cacophony of shrieks, gasps and cheers racing through the crowd… a confused swirl of fiery apparitions blazing across the sky — the aethereal image of a bizarre ram-horned deity wielding the great horse-headed staff, smiting down huge ghostly towers amidst great claps of thunder… Diras sinking to his knees with a confused, giddy grin upon his barbaric face… Boadicea gazing upwards in a state of dazed stupefaction.
Amidst the fiery din, a single whisper escaped the queen's lips…
As the darkness overcame Ginny's vision; as the torrential noise faded into the soft pulse of a single beating heart, she was aware only of the Publican's strong hands sweeping his lover away from the confusion. She felt his coarse tunic pressed firmly against her face. She inhaled one final reassuring breath, graced with a hint of pollen, musk and applewood smoke… then she fell into a strange swirling vortex...
Dazed nearly to nausea, Ginny spit away the dust and acrid fumes, staring wildly about herself in bewilderment. Her gaze fell upon the two fighters circling each other warily among the char and debris of the Hogwarts Great Hall.
Jaw set, and a pure glint in his piercing eyes, Harry Potter twitched his wand, commanding the attention of hundreds of breathless onlookers. "So it all comes down to this, doesn't it?" he whispered. "Does the wand in your hand know its last master was disarmed? Because if it does . . . I am the true master of...”
Harry paused in confusion. Voldemort turned, with a quizzical look on his face.
It took Ginny a moment to realize that they were both staring at her!
More accurately, they were both staring at what she held in her hands.
With the entire Hall frozen in silence, Ginny gazed down to see her hands cupped in front of her, bearing a white light.
She had no idea what it was — the light seemed to have little or no measurable weight, and imparted no sensations to her hands, except perhaps for a slight warmth. The glow was not harsh, but her eyes couldn't penetrate within it to discern any shape or features.
The light seemed to be pulsing slightly — a rhythm that was somewhat, but not exactly, in tune with her emotions… or perhaps her heartbeat.
She looked up again to find the Great Hall gone. She was alone in some vast dark vacuum. All that remained was her light.
“What are you?” she asked softly.
The light's pulse quickened at the sound of her voice, then settled into its normal rhythm, just a bit faster than her own heart beat.
Ginny raised it closer to her face. “Who are you?”
For a fleeting instant, Ginny thought she felt… a feeling. The barest, vaguest emotion. A sense of comfort. Empathy.
She was just beginning to imagine within the light some sort of simple, ephemeral sentience, when her thoughts were interrupted. She felt something just as comforting yet far more tangible — the soft caress of fingertips on her cheek.
Opening her heavy eyelids, Ginny smiled weakly upwards into the darkness of her Grimmauld Place bedroom, knowing that she would find Harry… knowing the exact look of love and concern that would be on his face, even without any light to illuminate it.
Ginny ignored whatever whispered question or exclamation Hermione was making in the background, and instead lifted her quivering arms from her sides. She clasped Harry by the shoulders and pulled him gently down onto her bed.
“Are you okay?' Harry asked as he let himself be guided to her side.
“Uh huh.” Ginny's hand tracked downwards to rest on his chest. “But I feel very strange. I feel somehow that we're on the knife's edge, Harry. We're on the verge of great opportunity… or disaster.”
Harry frowned in consternation. He had just opened his mouth to say something, but Hermione got her words out first. “Ginny, you're going to have to give us more context. What opportunity? What disaster? We can't exactly read your mind, you know!”
Ginny closed her eyes. “'Mione… I'm so tired...”
“Hermione, please.” Harry angled his head around to speak toward the other side of the room. “Not now, okay? Can't it wait until morning?”
Ginny smiled in weary gratitude. She pulled closer to kiss her considerate boyfriend… but she didn't quite make it. Her lips trailed moistly down his cheek and she sank limply into the pillow.
Hermione huffed. “Listen Ginny! Harry bursts into our bedroom in the middle of the night and rushes to your bedside. A few incoherent mumbles hardly make an adequate explanation! I demand a full...”
Hermione's words trailed off as she registered their soft, slow undulating breaths. She flumped back down onto her own bed, the noise of the plaintive springs failing to jolt the two younger teens out of their peaceful slumber. She scowled and shook her head. “What is it about sleep that those two find so bloody exhausting?!”