Chapter 5. A Friendly Hand
Racing through the darkness, Hermione catches her shoe on a root and lands hard. Gulping air back into her lungs, she picks herself up, teeters a moment on her shaky legs, and forges on into the darkness.
On high, a breeze picks up for just long enough to bare the moon, finally giving her enough light to see where she’s going. Glancing about, she finds that she has made it into the fringes of the forest. She is standing about twenty feet from a small brook that sparkles in the moonlight. Squinting intently, she scans the area, desperately seeking any sign of…
Oh pox — the blasted cape! If he's wearing it, I'll never find him.
She is about to groan in exasperation when something makes her stop. She goes completely quiet — listening, sensing.
Is someone near? The air seems so taut, that a heart beat could thrum like a harp, and Hermione could swear that she heard-
Ginny, are you alive?
Hermione jumps! The words were so soft that she isn't sure she heard them right, and for all she knows it could be a trick of the babbling brook but, noise or no noise, she feels something… something sad… almost eerie…
Scouring the surroundings, Hermione can still see neither friend nor foe, so she decides to risk speaking aloud. “Harry, are you there?”
There is a tense moment during which even the brook seems to go silent.
Then — no mistaking it — she hears a sigh! She glances to the right and there, in the moonlight, she sees Harry’s head! It is quickly followed by Harry’s torso, then the rest of him, as his cape slides to the ground.
He is alone.
“Harry are you there?”
Harry jumps. The words cut through him like ice, and whatever magic spell Cadmus’s stone had woven about him is broken. Ginny is gone.
Breath leaks from Harry, like a gutted tyre. His head throbs with the pain of losing her again; with the wretched ache of empathy and worry as he wonders whether Ginny's misery is even worse than his?
Lost, bereft and guilt-ridden, he lets his hands fall limp to his side. The invisibility cape slides away to the side, and he wearily places the Snitch and stone back into his pocket. Then he takes a deep breath, shunts aside any corrosive self-pity, anger, and even pique, and turns to face his friend.
His good friend.
Years ago, Harry's reaction might have been a lot less charitable, but he appreciates Hermione Granger’s persistence. Even when timing is less than ideal, Harry knows that dogged determination is the measure of her incredible loyalty… and he could really use a friendly hand right now.
He could also use her smarts. When it comes to untangling this most incredibly baffling mess, Harry can only think of one other person better suited to helping him work through it and that other person, unfortunately, is-
“Ginny!” Hermione rushes up to him, out of breath. “ You're right, Harry, we need to find her! I’m so sorry I doubted you earlier, but I… well, it’s still a bit of a mash, but I think I may be glimpsing a pattern, and I think she’s a crucial part of it.”
“Pattern?” His voice a hoarse whisper, Harry casts a quick privacy spell and looks around, very much hoping that no Death Eaters were in earshot. “A pattern of what?”
“Well, you recall a couple years ago how I dreamed of another reality where you never existed, and Ginny — well, I mean Gemina Wilsey — disappeared at the scene of a fire?”
Harry nods seriously.
“Well…” Hermione pauses; still fighting for breath. “You see, now our Ginny has vanished at the scene of a fire, which is an interesting coincidence, but then right of nowhere I start thinking of historically notable blazes and it occurs to me that Vesuvius erupted less than 20 years after the Iceni Rebellion from last Cupla dream. Furthermore, that eruption destroyed Herculaneum, which was the spiritual home of the most powerful dark cult of that time, which-”
“Whoa!” Harry waves her off. “Herculaneum?”
“Errr…” Hermione blinks. “Herculaneum. It was a city in the Roman empire, located really close to the volcano. It, uhhh… ”
Harry is staring at her.
“I, uh, sorry.” Hermione wilts under Harry's silent but intense scrutiny. “I honestly don’t know where all that came from. It just sort of popped into head, and… well…” She shifts awkwardly. “Oh Harry, I know you’ve been through so much, and this may not be anything more than wild speculation, but…”
“No, no Hermione. It makes sense!” Harry’s eyes blaze as he begins pacing. “Herculaneum. Order of Letum. Fire. Bloody hell — it all fits! But how?? How's this possible without the brooch? The Cupla was completely drained of magic years ago, right? Dumbledore swore it was, and Ginny and I both checked. You remember that too, don’t you ‘Mione? And besides, none of us have come anywhere near it in years anyway, right?”
“Near it?” Hermione stares. “Near the Cupla?”
Nodding eagerly, Harry stops pacing.
“No. No, of course not.” Now Hermione begins to pace. “Besides, this doesn’t really feel like what I experienced with the brooch that summer. It's much more vague — my sight goes blurry for a moment, I daydream a little, and these images and ideas pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere. Of course, we’ve slept so little recently, it could be delusion or hallucination.”
“No, too many coincidences to be hallucination. Roman times, Herculaneum, Ginny — all things I've been fretting about.” Harry shakes his head. “Besides, mine are full-on dreams.”
“Like those with the Publican?”
“No, not exactly.” Harry strokes his chin. “In a sense, they’re every bit as deep and detailed — endless minutiae about stomping through the forests of Gaul at the head of a Roman legion, but it’s… cobblers. I have no control; no role; it’s like I’m glued to my seat in a theatre, watching a dull film. The only saving grace is that I kind of feel, distantly, like Ginny’s somewhere there in the same theatre, watching the same movie.”
“How odd.” Hermione forehead wrinkled in thought.
She is just about to open her mouth to ask what he meant about Ginny, when Harry jolts, cutting her off with an abrupt expletive. “Shite! How much time before Riddle goes mental?”
Hermione blanches. She looks at her watch. “Er, 38 minutes.”
Harry curses under his breath. He turns to hasten toward the bonfire he had glimpsed within the deep part of the forest where their enemy waits.
“Wait!” Hermione waves frantically, pleading, “We need to find Ginny first!”
“Please listen.” Hermione closes the final few feet to clasp Harry’s hand. “There’s something in the way she disappeared; something in the strange knowledge bursts I’m getting — something is telling me that Riddle needed her out of the picture for a reason. I realise I have nothing solid to back this up, but I’m somehow convinced that we're nowhere unless we get her back in the picture. We’ve got to figure out what happened to her, so maybe we should try going back to the castle, to see if she left any clues before disappearing.”
“Of course we’ve got to get her back, and of course we’ve got to figure out what happened, but I assumed that…”
Harry chews his lip. He had been about to tell Hermione that he felt, somehow, that by heading down toward the gathering of Death Eaters, he actually would find her. But that seems even less plausible than Hermione’s wild intuitions.
Why would storming off in the direction of Voldemort lead him to Ginny?
Harry very nearly draws a blank on his own question. All he has is the blind faith that every time he’s ever needed her, she’s somehow always found a way to find him. It happened in the Camboricum dungeon; it happened in the darkest void of despair; it happened in Malfoy Manor…
However, those were different. In all of those cases, Ginny was the rescuer, but this time the roles are reversed. Now, he needs to think back to how he once rescued her — that foul ordeal down in the Chamber of Secrets. And that episode, he knows, was preceded by sleuthing — lots of agonised head scratching to figure out where to look. And that, of course, is what Hermione is now proposing. The only problem is how very little time they have.
Dammit! Harry scowls at himself. I had her right here in my arms. Just moments ago! Why didn’t I ask something practical? Like, oh, do you need rescuing? Where should I look?
“Harry?” Hermione’s tone grows more anxious “Can we go? Let’s take a look through the Room or Requirement… maybe check with Neville or Luna. If we haven’t found anything up there in fifteen minutes, we’ll race back here in time to, er, improvise?
Harry bites his lip, wondering whether to try the Resurrection Stone again? But the cautionary tale is still fresh in his mind — the harrowing despair of Cadmus and his dead lover, all wrought by the stone’s false promise.
But Ginny is NOT dead, so the story is irrelevant!
Or is it?
Harry has to admit, he has no clue. But he has to make a choice.
“Fifteen minutes, eh?” He takes a deep breath, exchanging his qualms and questions for blind urgency. “You up for a little more running, ‘Mione?.”
Both Rob and Hettie are puzzled when Gemina suddenly withdraws from the conversation and closes her eyes. After a moment, however, Rob is prepared to shrug it off. “A lot of portraits do that. Just like Kneazles — sleep twenty hours a day if you let them.”
Hettie’s eyebrows twitch slightly at the strange word, but she decides that it’s likely some animal that, er, sleeps a lot? And learning about sleepy animals is not high on her priority list right now because she’s dreadfully anxious to evaluate her theory.
“Rob?” She reaches her hand out. “Might I look in your folder again?”
“Sure.” Rob expands it again and hands it to her.
Hettie fishes around among the diverse array of oddments that Rob has apparently not explored. Finally she grabs a promising looking envelope. A moment later, a broad grin spreads across her face. “Spot on!”
Rob looks curiously over her shoulder. “Vouchers? For passage to… Naples? On an aero… plene?”
“Airplane,’ Hettie corrects. “A jet plane, to be precise.”
“Those things…?” Rob suddenly looks rather queasy. “They fly on the air using, er, Muggle power?”
Hettie blinks at him. This is a young man who has faced death much of his life, and witnessed horrors far worse than she could imagine, but yet… he has a fear of flying?? She can’t help but smirk at the irony, but it is gentle mirth and she softens the blow by pulling her arm around him. “Don’t worry, Rob — we’ll face it together. And think of the jolly adventure!”
“Er, what adv—?”
“Oh dash!” Hettie frowns at the travel documents. “The flight is tomorrow afternoon! I must rush back to the dorm to pack, and inform the house manager. And my parents! They let me get away with so much, but… oh dear!”
“What?” Deep concern spreads across Rob’s face. “What is it, Hett?”
“It’s just that I-I…” Hettie is biting a finger.
“Yes?” Rob stiffens. “Just that, what?”
“I’ll miss my maths exam and I…”
Rob blinks, quite uncertain of what he can possibly do or say to-
“I was going to absolutely blitz that beast!” Hettie bursts out laughing and gives the tall boy an impulsive hug. “Forget bloody maths! We’re going to Italy, Rob! And trust me — even if I don’t solve a geometry proof while we’re out there, you’re going to be glad you brought along someone with top scores in history and geology!”
“Geology?” Rob frowns. “Oh! As in, that volcano you mentioned?”
“Precisely! Ahh — you and I shall make such a charming pair of turisti.” She grins, then slides into her best BBC accent. “While there, be sure to visit the remarkably preserved Roman ruins in Herculaneum, then spend a day of natural enchantment, exploring the Parco Nationale del Vesuvio!”
“Errr…?” Not surprisingly, Rob is rendered speechless.
The lofty mountain passes from Raetia to Placentia offer striking vistas. Traianius has climbed this road many times in his career, and is always uplifted by the bracing air and sparkling skies. After a half day’s march past the high outpost at Insummo Pennino, he orders his troops to break camp early, and takes the perfect July afternoon (crystalline blue, if a bit chilly) to lead Annisgwyl up one of the rugged slopes lining the road. The route is taxing, but the girl clambers along without difficulty.
As the shrubs give way to an open tableau featuring snow-clad crags and a distant lake, Traianius takes Annisgwyl’s hand. “Have you ever seen such mountains?” he asks.
“No.” Annisgwyl sweeps her wide eyes across the open southwestern horizon. “I have traveled in the lands of the Ordovices. Their high stones reach longingly for the sky, but they do not pierce it.”
She pauses for a moment, then a shadow crosses her face. She turns to look south, even though there is nothing yet to be seen that way other than shaded boulders. Her forehead creases “There is a mountain near Herculaneum, is there not? What do you know of it?”
For a moment, Traianius is distracted by Annisgwyl’s look of unease (a look he has seen several times in recent weeks), but then he focuses on her question. “Vesaevus? I have heard of it, but never have I seen. It is surely smaller than these we view now. You would likely not find it a difficult climb, although perhaps I would not advise it. Old sages say the mountain is a place of unrest — spirits powerful, but unhappy.”
Annisgwyl nods. From tales told by her father, she has heard that there is tremendous Earth-magic at Hercules’ forge. Legends say that the magic has greatly enriched some sorcerers who have learned how to capture such power and channel it into prodigious talismans. But stealing the Earth’s magic comes with tremendous risks, for the Earth is slave to no sorcerer.
Yet her thoughts skip quickly past those details and reflect back upon Traianius, and his casual use of the term ‘spirits’. Seeing that he is gazing thoughtfully off into the distance, she surreptitiously watches him; looking within, wondering whether she can still detect the spirit presence she sensed there once before.
Today, her magical senses detect no hidden one, however her non-magical perception is rewarded, for she happens to notice the man running fingers through his thick, dark hair, as he gazes off toward the road ahead.
How very like Father!
This similarity is accentuated by Traianius's eyes, of the same incredible depth as Annisgwyl's father's. To gaze into them is to risk becoming lost; enchanted. At times, she has even believed that Traianius possessed the same extraordinary shade of emerald…
But not today. Today, the general's eyes are definitely grey.
Not green. How odd…
Unaware of Annisgwyl's quiet study, Traianius stirs from his thoughts and resumes leading them up the trail. Soon they crest the ridge, and pause again atop a flat stony slab that does finally open up a view to the south. He reaches out and traces a path with his finger. “Thus runs the road that we follow, rolling downward to the hills of Placentia and onwards through the homelands of the Romans.”
“Of the Romans?” Annisgwyl gazes thoughtfully. “You say the name as though you are not one yourself?”
Traianius shrugs. “My mother was Roman but I, like my father before me, am considered Iberian.”
Annisgwyl laughs. “My father was a Roman but I, like my mother before me, am considered a Briton. A fine pair of half-breeds we are!”
Traianius chuckles, but shakes his head. “No, cives Peuerellius. We are the future of Rome, you and I. For ours is an empire that learns to respect all denizens, regardless of tongue, or shade of hair or skin.”
It is Annisgwyl’s turn to shake her head. Her gesture is very slight, and Traianius does not really notice, but she believes he is only correct so far as he can see. The empire will never truly respect all of its people; it will never truly honour her.
Annisgwyl is buoyed in knowing that Traianius is of a generation that accepts the northern provincials, with their light skins and chaotic languages, but she is convinced that the Roman world will always fear and loathe the magic of her people. And it is from this fear that she glimpses a future Traianius has not imagined.
In her mind, she sees a world of heroes and villains set against each other, not by colour or heritage, but by murderous distrust between those few who bear wands, and the many who do not.
But fortunately this battle will not be waged by the man before her. As her eyes scan across his face and peruse his curious smile, she understands that, although Traianius will never cast his own delicate charm nor strike down a foe in a blast of magical fury, he will neither hate nor fear her witchcraft.
He is truly a good man, open-minded and tolerant.
Grasping this gives Annisgwyl the assurance that, if needed, she can use magic to protect him, or protect both of them, without fear of consequences. And from this, she finally finds the confidence to seek what time has led her to covet.
Annisgwyl takes Traianius by the hand, draws him close. Beneath a high dazzling arch of sunlit summer blue, she raises to the fullness of her height, and acquaints his lips.
With rapt attention, Gemina Wilsey had been hanging on Gravener’s every wild conjecture about alternate realities, and how time fracturing might have bound her pending demise at Allesley with some other fiery near death experience, perhaps involving a volcanic eruption in Roman era Italy.
Unfortunately, her bucket of questions is now swinging in the breeze because, just at the perfectly wrong moment, Gemina is swept away. She tries to fight the pull, but ultimately gives in, curious to find out exactly what, after weeks of tedium, is so bloody important that it can’t wait another five minutes??
The answer, apparently, is nondescript darkness.
Gemina squints, and primes her ears.
“Hello? Anyone around?” Her voice feels completely flattened in the void; she can’t even be certain she really even made a sound.
Then again, she can’t really even tell whether there is a place around her into which she can make a sound. She can see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing…
Ummm… Not true, yeah?
It was so faint, she nearly missed it earlier, but if she freezes all motion, stops breathing, and shunts all her useless senses, she perceives a sound.
It is the slightest hint of breath. It is the ragged breath of a suppressed sob.
Without limbs to move, or space to cover, Gemina instinctively wills herself toward the noise. As she listens for it, her senses hone in and begin to build some context.
The voice is female. Sad or frustrated. Or lonely. Not quite weeping.
The voice is coming from a young woman, about Gemina’s age. About Gemina’s height. And figure, and hair colour, and… Gemina’s breath catches!
The downcast face is her own!
Or not? Not quite her own?
In truth, the face is prettier. It is perhaps what Gemina might aspire to in a life with more love and less pain; more laughter, fewer tears.
Gemina is puzzled… but now seems not the time for puzzles. She hastens closer and gives a tentative wave.
“Beg pardon, luv? You need a hand?”