Chapter 7. Fire First
“So all you desire, truly, is to repatriate Ignotus to Britannia?”
Annisgwyl nods nervously and turn away. She finds it very difficult to give her half-brother anything more than a passing glance. Whenever she looks upon Antioch Peuerellius, she finds herself drawn into making unsettling comparisons to her father. The physical resemblance between the two is astonishing, but it is overlaid with equally remarkable differences in mood and demeanour. For as kind and patient as Annisgwyl’s father was, Antioch is equally cold and brusque.
However, in that very moment, with her gaze directed out the window toward a hazy summer garden, she chances to miss a smile; a rare expression of fleeting satisfaction crossing Antioch’s brow. “Very well then, daughter of the old goat, I will help you.”
Annisgwyl blinks and turns in surprise. “Really? You will?”
“Certainly.” Antioch has already risen from his lectus and is reaching for his traveling cape. “Why should I not? To aid you now will serve your needs and mine. It will extract you from my atrium, where your company is not particularly desired, and may hopefully also remove your meddlesome brother from Herculaneum where he has proven exceptionally unwelcome.”
“But… right now??” Annisgwyl is not particularly bothered by Antioch’s insolence, but she is unnerved by the sudden haste. “Sir, need you not prepare for the journey? Herculaneum is a journey of nearly one hundred leagues from here, and-”
“One hundred leagues…?” Antioch frowns for a long moment, then bursts into laughter. “Ah, sweet little barbarian — I forgot that you crawled here on foot from the dankest corner of the empire. I shall have the pleasure of showing my father’s illegitimate whelp a merry flash of fine Roman magic!”
Annisgwyl regards the man’s joviality with deepening trepidation, but Antioch doesn't notice. “Take my hand, girl, and I will, this very minute, deposit you upon the decumanus, right at the edge of the Herculaneum forum.”
Annisgwyl glances first at the hand that is reaching out to her, then more pointedly toward the dark, intricate stick in Antioch’s other hand. “Aii!” She leaps back. “That is the Coritani wand!”
“Coritani?” Antioch lowers his extended hand, and raises the wand absently. “Yes, I suppose it is. I have forgotten the exact story but your reaction brings to mind some story about your… mother? She supposedly had a bit of a history with this same wand?”
Annisgwyl stares, saying nothing.
“Well, indeed it is the same stick.” Antioch shrugs. “An old druid gave it to me. In tribute, I suppose? As his offering of peace to the Romans? I have used it well now for nearly seventeen years.”
“He gave the wand to you in peace?? ” Annisgwyl’s hand rises to cover her mouth as she gauges the distance to the door. “Brother, to use it is folly! The Coritani druid was an agent of chaos. He loathed the Romans and distrusted any who dealt with them. His passion is so strong that he would willingly have suffered anything, even his own death, in order to drive the Romans from his lands. He is powerful and cunning and, by my mother’s account, he… he nearly set fire to time itself!”
Antioch raises a sharp eyebrow. Then he shakes his head. “Ridiculous superstition of weak primitive minds. The wand has served me without fail, and it shall serve you too, in delivering you to your brother.”
“No!” A suffocating panic seizes Annisgwyl. Leaping for the door, she slams straight into her half-brother, who has crossed the room with impossible instantaneity to block her escape.
Antioch wrenches her into a painful embrace, and a brilliant flash rips from his his menacing wand.
Around Annisgwyl, all of space lurches into a sickening blaze of distorted colour, lashed by a dark gale, whose teeth are like ice.
“Ercolani Scavi!” Hettie proclaims, standing and gesturing at the rail map painted on the car’s interior.
Rob knows the signal. Bracing himself against herky-jerky motions that remind him of the Knight Bus, he stands and prepares to follow a young woman who has masterfully (and indeed a bit mysteriously) taken charge of his life, ostensibly leading him through this wild adventure that Dunbar had assigned to him.
Exiting the train, Rob’s feet grind to a halt. His tense expression alerts Hettie that he may be worried the doors will attack him. Laughing lightly, she jams a foot into the impatient door, then takes Rob by the hand to coax him through. He accepts without question and follows her out into a brisk but sunny Italian morning.
In a moment they are on the street, and Hettie finds herself alternately squinting at a map and at the sky, trying to orient herself in a locale that seems to have no end of visual stimulation (fluttering laundry, technicolour trash, graffiti…), but very little street signage. Finally, she determines the direction that must (by dint of their shadows) be southwest. “That way,” she announces.
“Er, Hett?” Rob’s eyes are darting nervously; his free hand clenched within the pocket of his anorak.
Hettie looks around and identifies the source of Rob’s anxiety — a pack of street urchins that, she supposes, would be perfectly happy to set a pair of naive tourists in the right direction. And liberate their wallets.
Hettie pulls Rob close, whispering, “Stand tall, grin, and talk loudly.”
“Talk?” Rob frowns. “Huh?”
“The weather. Sports. Any old silly thing.” Hettie smiles broadly.
“Silly…?” Rob thinks for a moment, then his eyes light up. “Hey, yeah! Have you ever heard about the sport called ‘Quadpot’? The name itself sounds pretty daft, but the game? Oi, it’s beyond barmy! After our Quidditch League disbanded in 1994, I needed a distraction, so I started staying up late — really late — on Friday and Tuesday nights to listen to the a-MUHHR-icans broadcast matches on the wireless, and let me tell you… “
Hand in hand, laughing gaily at all of Rob’s exaggeratedly ridiculous quips, Hettie navigates the pair down Via Panoramica and thence to the Golden Mile, in search of their hotel.
The street urchins quickly lose interest and, when it comes to this annoying yet seemingly harmless pair of tourists, none of the other locals pay much heed.
None of the locals do. However, the heavy-set man in a dark cloak is not a local.
“Harry Potter…” Gemina sighs. “You know, I did sometimes try to guess his name.”
Ginny nods, as she shifts into a very relaxing position. She is sitting with her back against a smooth, weather-worn stump rather like one she recalls from her childhood. All murk of the Stygian void has now transformed entirely for the better, giving them a breezy summer evening atop a knoll overlooking an imaginary Burrow.
“I’ll bet he’s positively peng, yeah?” Gemina Wilsey is seated atop the stump, lazily braiding Ginny’s long, gleaming tresses. “He sounds like the sweetest lamb.”
Gemina’s enthusiasm is genuine, although for a moment there is a shred of strain to it; a measure of some internal conflict that she finds herself having to push into the shadows.
Unaware of any tension, Ginny twists part-way around, aiming to beam some appreciation back to her companion, but Gemina edges away just enough to subtly evade.
It isn’t that Gemina is embarrassed by the gratitude. Rather, she, er, seems to have something in her eye… perhaps even in both eyes… and they’ve somehow gotten the tiniest bit watery. Nobody in Germina’s life (or afterlife or whatever she’s in now) gets to see her with moist eyes. Not even her alter ego.
Unfazed, Ginny returns her gaze back toward the warm glow in the southwest. It is her turn to sigh. “Well yes. He is kind and thoughtful. And shy. Yet determined. And he’s amazingly powerful. So many qualities, but he never admits them — not even to himself. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without…”
Ginny tails off. Her teeth capture her lip, growing uncomfortably aware that her endless prattle might seem a bit insensitive to someone whose life has been so hard and barren.
The attempted discretion earns a laugh. Gemina, herself, is almost never circumspect, but she can spot chariness in others right off. She squeezes Ginny’s shoulder. “Don’t fret luv — I’m happy for you. Beyond happy! Besides, you’ve always been good about sharing, you know?”
Ginny frowns slightly, not grasping what Gemina means.
“Years ago, I somehow found this green-eyed boy…” Gemina closes her eyes, and tilts her head back to let the reddening sunlight pour over it. “He’s been with me ever since, watching out for me; if I need a friend, I just close my eyes for a sec and he's there, ready to step up and take my side. Whenever I've felt lost or abandoned; if I’m down in the dirt, bruised and battered, I’ll always find his hand in mine, pulling me back to my feet. I mean, sure it’s in my head, but it’s not as if I’m some silly little sprog with an imaginary friend.”
Intrigued, Ginny turns with a question on her lips… but freezes at a glimpse of two tiny tracks glistening down Gemina’s cheeks. Eyes averted, Ginny’s half-formed query is lost to the summer breeze.
Gemina straightens up, dries her eyes, and restores her brash, defiant look. “Yeah, well obviously my life does kind of suck at times, but I’ve always come along okay. And I finally know who to thank.”
“Who?” This time Ginny does engage her alt-equal, eye to eye.
“You.” Gemina finds her smile again. “I owe it all to you.”
“Huh?” Ginny blinks. “Why?”
“The bounce in my step; the spark that keeps me buzzin’.” Gemina grins. “My Green-Eyed Boy.”
Ginny stares, uncomprehending.
“We’re the same person, yeah?” Gemina continues. “Different universes, but you’re still me, and I’m still you. Sitting here, somewhere out of space and time, chatting like old gal-pals, I finally realised today that it’s you I’ve been borrowing from all the while. Your happiness; your confidence — everything about you practically glows, luv. It’s like your aura is all spritzed with the one perfect essence.”
“The one perfect essence?” Ginny quirks her neck. “Love? Hope?”
“Either. Take your pick.” Gemina grins. “Ever since you got your Green-Eyed Boy, you’ve always had plenty enough love and hope to keep us both charging, cap’. So that’s what I owe you for.”
Ginny stares, speechless.
“And now…” Gemina’s grin fades, but her eyes lose none of their spark. “Now it’s time for me to pay you back.”
“Pay me back? How?”
“We’re in a rough spot, yeah?” Gemina’s face has gone very serious. “Whatever the hell happened to us, we’re both in one nasty little pinch — cut off from our lives; we could be half-dead, for all I know. It’s the pits, and I’ll wager most blighters would just ditch. But not us. Together — me; you — we’ve got the pluck and punch to bust out and hit the ground where we’re needed. And you, Ginger, are needed back with your boy, so it's about time we get you back there.”
“You bet. We can do it, yeah?” Ginny is infected by her companion’s vim. But after a moment, perspective sinks in and Ginny cradles her chin thoughtfully. “The big question is ‘how’? Whatever happened to us is really odd, Gem’. I’ve been separated from Harry before, but never like this. In the past few years, any other time something bad happened, I always knew if I set put my mind to it, I could reconnect but…”
“But not now, huh?” Gemina scrunches her nose. “No idea what’s getting in the way?”
“No.” Ginny shakes her head. “But, I’d wager Harry and Hermione are wracking their brains on this too, and they might know more than we do. If Harry tries Cadmus’s Stone again, we could ask him what he thinks… but… well, I doubt he’ll use it a second time. When he pulled me back earlier, I think it was an accident. It was pretty clear he hadn’t recognised the stone until I pointed it out. But now he knows exactly what it is, and he’s aware of the risks.”
“Okay. But you told me there are still things that we can try, right?”
Ginny nods. “Working together gives us more options. For
starters, we could return to, uh, you know…”
“Return?” Gemina frowns. “Back to the brink? The flames?”
“Yes.” Ginny’s tone doesn’t exactly vibrate with zeal. “If we’re there to prop each other up and bail each other out if need be, then I think we can risk reverting to the last frozen moment of our, uh, life. Maybe if we re-examined the scene we might notice something that might help us to identify the barrier and overcome it.”
Gemina frowns. “You’re sure those fires are still burning? I realise that time’s likely gone a bit queer, but it seems like it’s been quite a while…”
Ginny quirks her neck for a moment, then nods. “Pretty sure mine is still there.”
“Okay, good enough.” Gemina shrugs. “But, we’ve got a backup plan, just in case?”
Yes.” Ginny brightens a bit. “Well, obviously, what
worked best for us that other time was to descend back into the darkness and
try calling together to him across the void.“
“Us? Other time? Together across the void?”
Looking into her alter-ego’s eyes, Ginny sees genuine puzzlement. Sorting through the various timelines in her head, Ginny groans, realising… “Crumb — of course. You’re not dead yet, yeah?”
Gemina raises a very sharp eyebrow, sustains it for a long moment, then bursts out laughing. “I kinda don’t know how to take that, Ginger.”
Ginny thinks for a moment. She ponders the apparent paradox, wondering how she might go about explaining to her alt-equal that, years ago, she (Ginny) met her when she (Gemina) was a bit older (and deader) than the Gemina she’s now talking to. This, of course is why only Ginny (and not Gemina) can recall having met once before within a frigid, desolate darkness. Only Ginny can recall their shared struggle; the thrill of together finding the strength of voice to successfully call out to Harry.
Of course, Ginny could explain that, and she will. But that can wait. Right now, Gemina is still chuckling, and smiling, and it seems far more immediately important to Ginny to join her in a good laugh. And hug.
So, after their silly interlude, Gemina pulls back from the embrace. Having processed the options, her expression slides back to sobriety. “All right, which should we try? Fire or ice?”
“Good question.” Ginny restores her own solemnity, and thinks for a moment. “We ought to have more information in hand for the next time we talk to Harry. So, fire first.”
“Scorchin’!” Gemina squeezes her hand, then releases it. “Now that we’ve got a plan… I really ought to check in with my peeps. Take a minute to enjoy the sunset, and I’ll hurry back.”
For a while (regrettably, an all too little while), Harry believes he is hearing Ginny’s voice. Or ‘voices’ even? It almost seems, with the undulations and oscillations, that the sounds are mimicking the flow of conversation? Regardless, there is a soft musicality in the tones, like the natural poetry of whims and reminiscence.
Harry’s concentration is waxing; he is almost on the verge of catching actual words and phrases, when his hyper-sensitised ears are jolted by:
“She is gone?”
Traianius’s interjection, both unexpected and painfully close, cuts across Harry's conscious like lightning. This shock, however, is immediately subsumed by very different anxiety — a torrent that includes both Harry’s own pain from losing the tenuous connection to Ginny, and a powerful surge of alarm emanating from his Roman host.
With a silent groan, Harry opens his eyes, not to the Hogwarts stairwell where Hermione and Ron wait anxiously, but rather to a lamp-lit summer evening on Palatine Hill, in imperial Rome.
“So, you confirm that she was here, but also that she has departed?” Traianius’s voice, despite the internal strain, is now the practiced calm of someone who has dealt with human sorrow and loss many times before on battlefields of the empire. Yet, deep within, Harry can detect a tremor of grief, greater and more personal than any he has before sensed from the general.
“Yes.” The tall, thin patrician standing in the marble doorway nods impassively. “The young woman requested news of her brother, whom I know. Consequently, I arranged for her safe and expeditious passage directly to Herculaneum to locate the young man.”
“Safe?” Traianius scrutinises the coal-dark eyes. “You vouch for her safety?”
“I vouch for her safe passage.” Antioch casually removes his traveling cape. “I pledge she will attain her destination without incident. Beyond that, I guarantee nothing. Herculaneum may seem quiet next to Rome, but it too harbours risks.”
Traianius spends a long moment studying the face before him. He cares little for this patrician, but the story seems plausible, and years of instincts honed in tense diplomacy do not suggest falsehood.
“I will accept your word.” Traianius nods. “And I thank you for attending to her wishes.”
Antioch nods in deference to the Legatus legionis, and retreats to the deepening shadows within his villa.
His heart full of suppressed misgivings, Traianius straightens his spine and descends the steps. He lays a consoling hand upon the slumped shoulders of his dismayed scout. “Fear not, Hectorus. You did well to summon me here without delay. Now I would bid you to commission a horse, and ride in haste to the Praefectus castrorum. Alert him that we shall break camp early. Before daybreak tomorrow.”
“Yes sir!” The scout snaps to attention. “With good speed, perhaps we shall overtake your lady upon the road?”
Traianius smiles, but the smile is hollow. He does not wish to deprive his loyal soldier of a hope for redemption, but somehow knows that their legion will not encounter the young woman on the way. Rather, his goal is to hasten to Herculaneum as quickly as possible, before it—
Harry lurches, urgently shearing yet another connection, wildly groping in the darkness for… something he has been waiting for!
Whether by fate or odd instinct, he senses some distant thread of a message — an opportunity greater than the rare luxury of an unguarded Traianius deliberation. In an instant, he is tearing through the void toward a lilting sound that, moments ago, he despaired of losing. The connection has already surged, and is already fading, but his timing is fortunate. He gets close enough to discern one last perfectly crystalline phrase:
“So, fire first.”
“Of course!” Harry’s eyes fly open to the Seventh Floor landing, accidentally causing Ron to fall over in surprise.
Harry rushes back to the window. From their high vantage, he is staring straight across to that single distant spear of flame rising from deep within a woodland glade beyond the castle grounds.
“Ha! Like a moth drawn to flame; no wonder it kept pulling me!” Launching himself from the window, he scrambles down the darkened steps, waving wildly back to Hermione and Ron. “C'mon! Got to get to that fire in the forest!”