Chapter 10. Southern Slopes
For the briefest moment, Ginny knew she could sense Harry’s presence. She knows that, somewhere beyond her nearly-impenetrable wall of frozen flame, he is seeking her; that he is bending his thoughts and will to her; calling for her. She would give anything to respond… but she can’t break through!
Her frustrated thoughts are broken by the sensation of Gemina tugging on her hand; accompanied by a few simple, practical words. “It’s not working, luv.”
Resignedly, the pair of near-identical girls retreat from the frozen fire and find themselves, instead, in a featureless nothing.
“Ugh.” Gemina arches a displeased eyebrow, then shrugs. “Preferred the Burrow, but anything is better than those sodding flames.”
“Blast!” Ginny is barely listening. “Why couldn’t I reach him? Harry and I should be able to…”
“Sodding flames, sweets.” Gemina grabs Ginny’s shoulders and gives them a squeeze. “Sounds snarky, but it's also serious. The flames are messing up any chance to signal to him.”
“The flames…” Ginny stares, then scowls. “Shoot, of course. Fiend Fyre — it’s loaded with magical interference, right?”
“Partly.” Gemina nods, but she’s frowning. “Yeah, Fiend Fyre is potent enough to scramble magic trying to pass through it, but those flames are strange — a lot more powerful than any Fiend Fyre I’ve ever seen. Wonder what they are? And why are they frozen?”
Ginny hums for a moment. “Reckon they’re frozen because we’re frozen?”
“But…” Ginny chews her lip. “This all has a good side, too, right? The flames are sort of protecting us?”
“Bob’s your uncle!” Gemina laughs. “A complete wall around us! Those flames must be scrambling any hex that pack of punky plonkers punch at us.”
“Perplexed the poxy pea-brains, yeah?” Ginny snickers. Then she slumps a bit. “Yeah, it’s a consolation to know they're stumped, but I'm still miffed that we can't break through.”
"Sure." Gemina nods. “But it gives us time, Ginger. So let’s make use of it and move on your plan B? Head for the ‘ice’?”
“Right — find him in the void.” Ginny bites her lip. “It’s not going to be easy, though. I have no Cupla to reel Harry in, and the only other way that I know of is through Annisgwyl.”
“Huh? Briton birdie?” Gemina blinks. “What’s she got to do with it?”
“A lot, I think.” Ginny stares off into the grey nothingness. “You recall what I told you that Roman brooch?”
“Right. Well, Annisgwyl’s mother carried it all throughout her pregnancy and I suspect that Annisgwyl learned in utero to mimic the Cupla magic. It’s the only explanation we’ve ever been able to come up with for several previous times that Harry and I have communicated across the void without a Cupla.”
“Hey! So, that must be how she pulled Harry into Roman bloke!” Gemina’s eyes go wide as she ponders the notion. “This is effing brill — must tell Gravener!”
“Brill? Perhaps. But how do we make it work for us?” Ginny taps her lip. After a moment, she smiles at the girl’s infectious enthusiasm. “I'm going to sit and think a while. Why don’t you check in with Hettie now, then? See if she has some new ideas.”
“Roger! I’ll be right back.”
“Nah, no rush.” Ginny shakes her head. “It’s been a while since I felt anything from our ‘Briton birdie’. We may be stuck here until she gets fired up again.”
Harry barely notices the confused roar of Death Eaters reacting to Greyback’s sudden appearance. Creases of concentration line his forehead as he stares at the strange fire, trying to will his thoughts past its prodigious magical static.
Although the sensation of ‘presence’ is very faint, Harry goes through a brief moment of believing that Ginny might be attempting to respond. The feeling asserts, begins to actually amplify… then disappears.
Harry’s senses come briefly back to the chaos of the moment (Voldemort silencing his minions in order to interrogate the wounded werewolf) but these details are of little interest to him right now. He takes his eyes off the fire just long enough to assure himself that Hermione and Ron are monitoring the situation.
By coincidence, Hermione chances a glance at that precise moment, meeting his eye. Harry shakes his head slightly. A look of concern on her face, Hermione responds with a subtle hand gesture.
The unspoken message is clear. Keep trying.
Unfortunately, although he is truly committed to trying something, the question is, try what?? Continuing to struggle directly against the barrier of flames seems increasingly pointless.
Hand in his pocket, he briefly fingers the Snitch, but no… he won’t resort to risking the Resurrection Stone again quite yet. That leaves only one alternative — the void. He has little hope that descending into the barren desolation will truly lead him to Ginny without a Cupla to guide them to each other, but he must nonetheless try. Thus, he climbs back into his thoughts, pushing deep… deeper… into darkness — thick, impermeable, and utterly black.
The experience is almost that of frigid suffocation. It is a claustrophobia from which escape seems futile; every nerve on Harry’s skin prickles with the spreading panic one when his breath seems to fail. Yet, having done this before, he wills away the impulse to scream, kick and flail his way back to consciousness.
Instead he forces himself to hold back, hold together, hold on… and wait.
After a while, the near hysteria subsides to mere discomfort, and he gradually musters the ability to concentrate. The easiest sense to control is hearing, so he listens intently for any fluctuations from the absolute silence. Soon, his eyes join the search, groping outwards across the darkness. After a while, he succeeds in suppressing even the pin-prick tingles in his skin so that he can try to detect faint ripples that might emanate from other beings, knowing that signs of co-presence might be subtler that a tiny puff of breeze on a still day.
He hears, sees and feels nothing.
Not giving up, and recnognising that it can be simpler to call than to listen, he changes tactics, and attempts to broadcast positive emotions out through the emptiness. Mindful of his intended audience, he summons the details some of his better Patronus memories…
Huge black dog beside the pitch, howling in sheer, primal euphoria.
Ginny’s eyes ablaze; cheeks flushed; both hands off very broom, outstretched.
Her joyous words (“Harry has the Snitch! He’s won it!!”) somehow forgetting the 190 points that *she* scored.
Wind streaming through her hair as she runs up the hill from the Burrow, waving a scroll. “First in class on the OWLs!”
Her arms extend for a Mollyesque embrace. “Thank you thank you thank you Harry! ” Her eyes sparkle with gratitude.
“Er, that's stupendous, Gin'! But whatever are you thanking 'me' for??”
“Silly!” A wide beaming smile. “All those hours helping me revise? Work as hard on your own studies, and you'll earn straight O's!”
There are other recollections, of course. Not the least of which was early early (early) Christmas morning in Ginny’s bedroom when Harry nervously placed his mother’s pendant around her neck, vowing something more heartfelt than anything ever before in his life.
“What we have, will always be. I'll never lose you; you'll never lose me.”
Unfortunately this little couplet, however sincere and tearful at the time, seems all too clumsy and naive now. It would not make a good Patronus. The sentiment leaves a dull ache in his heart, for he has begun to question its truth. Although he knows that Ginny is barely a hundred feet away, the span feels like all the space in the universe, and he does not know how to cross it.
His call across the glade was blocked; his journey into the void has failed. Everything promised — he, she, they — now seems 'lost'.
Drifting in uncertainty, yet somehow still resolved to avoid despair, Harry dispels his thoughts — both good and ill — and lets his mind go blank. He disengages, and tried to let himself become a mere spectator to…
A mere spectator?
A spectator. Of course!
Apart from his accident using Cadmus’s ring, Harry recalls that the closest he got to Ginny — down in the fens of Puits in ancient Gaul — was, very likely, courtesy of them both being spectators to a person who has demonstrated a unique, unwitting power to act as a Cupla!
Harry now recalls how, years ago in a near-despairing moment of desolate darkness, he discovered the faint sensation of a beating heart — the unborn child of Harry’s (and Ginny’s) very distant ancestral relative, unconsciously imitating the magic of a Cupla.
Could Annisgwyl somehow produce another path?
Inspired, Harry attempts to recreate the memory of the heart beat, and the gradual sensation of it coming closer.
For a long time there is nothing… but then, although he cannot tell if it is real or willful imagination, he wonders if he might not now be re-experiencing the faint undulation? With fierce concentration to not lose the evanescent sensation, Harry hits upon a promising idea. He imagines the wavery moonlight of a sultry night in Gaul; his eyes pass over the glimmering stream and settle upon his companion; he imagines his hand as that of Marcus Ulpius Traianius as it accepts the grasp of his captivating young companion…
“Forgive me, my lord,” the girl is saying. “I meant not to startle you…”
Harry’s recollection is not the perfect recapitulation of that sublime moment from so many centuries earlier but, apparently, it is good enough. For suddenly that heartbeat echoing through his mind strengthens, and quickens.
The moon is setting low over woodland stream; water trickles serenely, calling to her in its peaceful, reassuring voice. Somewhere in the distance is the sound of two owls heckling — a noise that makes her laugh to herself.
Through the low light of Annisgwyl’s dream, she spies a familiar silhouette, and hastens toward him. As she reaches out to him, Traianius suddenly twists to face her; his stern, muscular features are trembling.
She gasps. “Forgive me, my lord. I meant not to startle—”
Her words are drowned beneath a deep rumble. Alarmed, Annisgwyl realises that even she, herself, is shaking. Her legs are quivering… or is it the very ground beneath her?
Trees all around begin to sway. Traianius stumbles forward onto his knees. Annisgwyl glances up in time to see a branch above him shatter! Plummeting down, the massive jagged limb is aiming straight for the Roman general. Annisgwyl is grappling desperately for her wand, when-
Her eyes snap open!
It is dawn. The dark forest night blinks away to the dusty rose and blue pastels of a west-facing morning sky.
Her bleary gaze darting about, Annisgwyl’s breathless panic subsides. Traianius is not imperiled because, obviously, he is not here. Even the fleetest non-magical horse would have been hard pressed to bear him all the way from Rome in a single night. Furthermore, she determines that no tree has shattered.
However, it does appear that some disturbance has recently occurred here, which may have triggered her dream. Limbs above her are swaying, and some twigs are scattered over her bedding and nearby. Fortunately, the debris is nothing worse than what a fresh breeze might have loosened.
Yet, oddly, there is no wind.
Puzzled, she surveys the area for intrusion or any other basic signs of danger, but finds nothing. Devoting a longer moment to assaying the surroundings for sensations of magical power, she still detects no signal above a low-level buzz that is likely a form of natural Earth magic.
Having done due diligence, she breathes deeply and reverts to her normal waking routine. She quickly discovers, to her pleasure, that she has a new spring in her limbs. Wonderfully restorative, the night’s rest has infused new hope in her heart.
After picking enough berries, roots and edible greens for a makeshift breakfast, she returns to the mountain path, and determines that the track ascends fairly efficiently toward the summit. Still feeling vaguely apprehensive about returning immediately to Herculaneum, she decides to follow the trail upward and has soon climbed past the point where forest gives way to cobbles and low juniper scrub. Well before noon, she has reached the summit.
Although the day is shaping up to be hot, the late morning is fresh and breezy atop Mount Vesuvius. Clambering onto the highest boulders, she finds it possible to gaze a great distance through the clear air. She does so for a while, but then turns her eyes earthward.
Her shoulders slumped in disappointment, she descends back to the stony plateau. The mountaintop experience might thrill a common man, but Annisgwyl is seeking more than simple aesthetics. Her senses are primed to detect ‘magic’, and there is little to be found. The summit does not feel like a place of great power, and nor does Annisgwyl even sense evidence of magical residue such as she might have felt if a powerful wizard or witch had recently visited the place.
Wandering about the mountaintop, she spies several flat boulders nearby with the remains of burnt offerings. Analytically, she pulls out her wand to scan the evidence, but shakes her head. There is no mystical essence in these old stones that will reply to any prayers of the devout. Whoever comes here to worship (local peasantry, she surmises) is misled. This summit, although high and grand, must not be the famed Hercules’ Forge from which Earth force can be summoned to perform colossal magic. The place is barren. Dead.
Chastened, and wondering whether it is truly time to face her fears and descend into Herculaneum, she makes her way back westward toward the path she climbed earlier. Veering close to the edge of the plateau, she chances a glance downward, and-
She blinks. Something — perhaps a fleeting trick of the light — had caught her attention. Trying to pin it down, she strains her eyes southward, down into…
Her eyes fall upon plain basaltic boulders and a thickening mass of hardy evergreen shrubs that ring the summit in all directions save the main trail, yet in one brief instant she thought she had descried another path. Trying to catch another glimpse of it, she squints, alters the angle of her gaze, then frowns, puzzled.
On a hunch, Annisgwyl turns from the main path and clambers over several large rocks, as if she is honing in on… something. A sign? The long-sought hint of magical power?
Lowering herself down a short, rough incline, she finds herself in what appears to be a dead end. Hard, weathered boulders bar any further progress on three sides, and a thick mass of junipers and nettles deter any but the most desperate downward progress.
Puzzled as to why she bothered to wander from the beaten path in the first place, Annisgwyl is turning to rejoin the trail when she startles. Out of the corner of her eyes she thought she just saw…?
Turning all the way to her left, she looks back upon nothing more interesting than a solid mass of unforgiving nettles. Frowning, she yet again veers away to-
Amatheon! There it is again!
Indeed, it cannot be mere ruse of mind. Annisgwyl is now certain that she has located a new path but, perhaps through some magical charm too subtle to detect, it is only possible to glimpse it when she is not deliberately trying to see it.
Turning carefully so that only the furthest fringe of her peripheral vision faces due south, she can finally assemble the outlines with some clarity. There is definitely a trail — a well-traversed trail, clear of ridge, thorn and branch — cutting straight downwards.
Guided by peripheral vision and one cautious hand, she steps carefully down toward the hidden path, navigating to the trail head. Passing the point where she had earlier seen only impassable scrub, she encounters no barrier, and descends into the hidden gap. Within less than a minute, that the path becomes perfectly obvious, and she turns her gaze forward, progressing downward quickly, confidently, and with mounting excitement.
After some descent, the trail leads her to an area that, while still fairly steep, has again fallen below the line of scraggly trees, affording a welcome shade from the thickening heat of a noontime sun. Even so, the air beneath this south-facing canopy is dead still. Unshaded patches of stony ground begin to shimmer. Insects drone lazily. Moisture collects from the pores of Annisgwyl’s scalp and begins to seep downwards in itchy rivulets.
Beyond the bothersome heat, it gradually dawns on her that she feels rather unsettled… unwell. Her head swimming, she pauses for a long drink of water from her flagon, and attempts to centre herself on calm, stabilising thoughts. Unfortunately, this does little to ease a growing sense of strange torpid nausea.
Wiping her foreheard, she examines her fingers and frowns at the wet grime.
Odd. Hot, yes, but surely not more so than those stifling days near Florentia…
Suddenly her stomach heaves. One knee buckles and she grapples for a nearby sapling. She and the tree sway like drunken dancers for a moment, then she realises-
Two distinct forces seem to be swirling about her, muddling her faltering consciousness. One force seems to be a distant voice, emanating wistful melancholy, bringing to mind the raw sorrow of her separation from Traianius. The other impulse is blunt, cold and forbidding; her skin prickles from a loathsome dissuasion that recalls…
Belgica! The incantations of that tall, spindly wizard?!
Even as she teeters and her vision fades to grey, Annisgwyl’s mind dwells on the bizarre symmetry — two months and hundreds of leagues have passed since the night in late spring when she first met Traianius, yet the bizarre confluence of opposing powers feels all too similar — on one side she senses threat; on the other, a promise. Just as some mysterious clarity of purpose One cloud of disorientation rises up to battle.
Similar, yet also painfully different. It is not the dead of night, but rather… the dead of day. And Traianius is not here. He will not offer his strong hand to help her to her feet.
Or will he?
Annisgwyl can almost feel his presence. Longing desperately for the comfort of his arms, and finding it not, the final threads of conscious fray, as if dreams can promise her what the waking world denies.
Daylight fading to grey, legs surrendering to gravity, Annisgwyl’s eyelids flicker open one last time and she begins to understand why she has grown so disoriented. With a last bit of energy, her brow is creased by the faintest of frowns.
Who is the dark figure standing before her on the path?
And what spell issues from his blackened wand…?
Since embarking on the Vesuvius tour, Hettie has been too focused on internal deliberations to notice that the Wilsey family album inside her rucksack has been jostling in an agitated way that does not quite match the shuddering of the bus.
Her nose pressed to the window glass, she watches the scenery with a fierce intensity. It seems as though she's looking for something… but has no idea what.
Nowhere near the summit, not more than ten minutes into the ride, her eyes flash wide, fixing onto a patch of thick greenery; a worn kiosk… dirt and gravel leading back from the road.
“Trail!” Hettie’s finger batters the glass. “We want that woodland path!”
“We whuh?” Rob awakens from a doze. “What’s the matter?”
“We need to get off the bus.” Hettie glances around frantically.
“Why?” Rob frowns. “I thought you paid the driver a bunch of Muggle coins to take us up higher so we can walk to the mountaintop?”
“No. Yes, but… Argh!” Hettie shakes her head in vigourous agitation. “Stupid stupid stupid of me not to have thought this through!”
“Thought of what?”
“Why ever would we want to walk to summit, Rob? That whole area has been flattened to flinders by dozens of eruptions since A.D. 79!”
“Uhhh…” Rob taps his chin intelligently. “Uhhh? That means we’ll find nothing?”
“Not up there.” Hettie hauls out a topographical map. “If there’s anything to find, it would have to be some place sheltered by a ridge… like these southern slopes.”
“Er, yes, sheltered.” Rob scratches his head. “So, where do we start then?”
“Down here in these woods.” She waves toward the driver. “Grazie me signore! Possiamo scendere?”
“Cosa vuoi?” Puzzled for a moment the driver glances back through his mirror. “Scendere al museo?”
“Errr…” Hettie traces a finger along her map, then nods urgently. “Sì! Sì grazie!”
Appraising Hettie’s distressed yet pretty face, the driver’s eyes twinkle and he nods affably. Several tight switch-backs later, he stops the bus and lights his emergency flashers. With a jaunty wave, he opens the door, laughing roguishly at all the angry beeps that instantly spring up from the line of traffic behind them.
Grateful, Hettie dumps a handful of change into a plastic cup and hands it to the driver as she whisks Rob off the bus.
Showing a predictable lack of civility, several motorists make rude gestures through their windows. Hettie ignores them, but a red pulse surges up Rob’s neck, and his jaw clenches. “Bloody berks. I’ve half a mind to hex their bits to-”
“Shush.” Hettie grabs his hand, and begins leading him purposefully up a narrow lane leading toward Museo Vulcanologico dell'Osservatorio Vesuviano. “Tetchy tossers look for trouble, and sometimes trouble finds them.”
Rob opens his mouth to respond, but his brain catches up in time to process the 'Hettie-ism'. Finding a bit of earthy wisdom, he shrugs and nods.
In fact, Hettie could not have known the prescience of her words. She could not have known this as nobody is aware that, in mere minutes, the entire line of tetchy traffic will experience an unusual inconvenience rather worse than a 45 second bus delay — Legilimency and Obliviation at the hands of two dark wizards blocking the road less than a mile further up.
Blissfully unaware of this, Hettie hums a tune as they make their way up the lane, further back from the main road.
“So…” Rob stares questioningly at a nearby sign. “We’re, uh, going to a museum?”
“I’d love to, but not today.” Hettie shakes her head then smiles. “No, Rob. I’m looking for a shortcut back down to that nature trail.”
“Oh right.” He scratches his head. “So we’re going there because, uh, Like you said? It hasn’t been destroyed?”
“No Rob.” Hettie laughs. “We’re going down there because I have a blind, irrational hunch, and I never get anywhere in these crazy capers without following blind irrational hunches.”
“Ah.” Rob’s brow knots slightly. Uncertain of how best to react, he simply nods. “Very good, then. Sounds fun.”
Hettie says nothing but, a little while later, Rob can't resist stealing a quick glance over at his companion. The cheery-focused-enthusiastic expression on her face is all the validation he needs.
Apparently, he must be starting to figure out this boyfriend-girlfriend thing.