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Chapter 26: Of Creaky Stairs and Sneaky Stares
With a loud crack, Hermione and Twinkles popped nearby a nice sized cottage with an overgrown garden.
“Here miss,” the elf said as she pointed her finger towards the cottage. Ivy crawled up along one side of the rugged stone house. The windows were all dark, giving the place an ominous feel.
Cautiously, Hermione approached the building, waving her wand about and checking for any wards that might be placed on the property. So far she had run into none. Her fingers shook slightly as she reached for the brass knob on the front door. The door was unlocked and swung open with ease.
She peeked her head in and noted that the door opened into a small entryway. Lighting her wand, Hermione entered the cottage, taking short hesitant steps. She noticed that the place looked completely deserted. A thin layer of dust sat on every surface, and by the look of things, it appeared that the inhabitants of this cottage had left on very short notice.
A pot still sat atop the stove with a thick crust inside of it. Thankfully, any attached odor had long since dissipated. There were clothes strewn about and a small twin sized bed was unmade in one of the upper bedrooms. In the same room, a chess game looked to be in process, minus the players.
She looked all throughout the upper corridors but found nothing of real interest. Via the back stairway, she found herself in the kitchen once more. There was a small whimper from behind Hermione and she twirled around quickly, wand held aloft, to see Twinkles sniffling behind her.
“Sorry miss, I is just seeing where she slept.” The elf sniffled once more and wiped the snot from her nose with the back of her hand.
Hermione patted the little elf on the head and looked over to see a small pile of blankets in the corner. There was nothing to indicate who might have been sleeping there, but Hermione knew.
Then she saw a door camouflaged to look as if it was all a part of the wall. The only thing that gave it away was the thin crack that ran from the ceiling on both sides. There did not appear to be any sort of handle, but raising her wand and casting a couple of different incantations, a small door knob appeared in the shape of a bird that resembled the same birds lining the walls.
This door stood locked, unlike the front door, and it took a couple of unlocking spells for Hermione to get it opened. When she did, she saw that it lead to a spiral set of stairs that didn’t seem to have an end. With her wand held high and the light as bright as she could make it, Hermione crept slowly down the stairs.
Twinkles decided to stay in the kitchen, and Hermione couldn’t blame the poor elf. The stairs were a little shaky and there was an odd draft to the place. After what felt like forever, she reached the bottom and saw to her horror a torture chamber to rival any of those she had seen in any of the Death Eaters' homes.
An Iron Maiden in the corner sat blessedly closed, and Hermione had no intention of opening it at this visit; that would be something for the proper authorities. A set of chains hung from the ceiling and below that, odd brown splatter marks. Whips of all assortments lined the walls, and Hermione need only guess what the chains were for.
Hermione couldn’t even look through anymore of the odd tools and devices, some of which she had no idea what they were for and some which unfortunately she did. It made her sick to think of what went on down in this room and she rushed to the stairs to get out.
She could feel the metal beneath her feet wobble and sway. There was a rough sounding creek and Hermione paused. Slowly she lifted her left foot and took a step up. Nothing. She sighed with relief and followed suit with her right. Three more steps in that manner had her feeling a bit more at ease, until the next step when the stairs gave a horrible groan.
There was another loud creek and the stairs swayed. Fearing that they had disconnected from the top bracers Hermione rushed back down to the bottom most stair right before the entire case came crashing down against the back wall. She was thrown to the ground and her wand rolled across the floor and into one of the corners.
“Is miss okay?” The elf’s small voice called down to her.
“Yes Twinkles, I’m fine. I’ll be up in a moment.”
She made an attempt to stand, but fell back to the ground with a throbbing pain in her ankle. It was probably just a slight sprain and easily fixed once she was able to get a hold of her wand. On her hands and knees she crawled over to the dark corner and patted her hand along the floor, groping for her wand.
Her fingers closed instead on a small hard clod of dirt of sorts, holding that in her left hand she reached with her right to find her wand once more. Her hands felt the smooth surface of her wand and she held onto it tightly. Lighting it up Hermione looked down at what she had found and saw that it was a ring encased in mud and dirt. She poked the clump from the center and used her part of her shirt to clean the rest off.
There in the palm of her hand was a thin gold ring with a small ruby chip set into it. Holding her wand even closer she noticed an etched designed that encircled the outside. Just as she was about to lower her wand, the light glinted and Hermione noticed an engraving on the inside of the band. To Forever With My Bookworm. Her throat closed and she found it difficult to swallow. Tears prickled behind her eyes and she brushed them away with her thumbs tracking dirt across her face.
She was unable to move. She was unable to do anything. All she could think was, He was going to propose. He was going to propose. He was going to propose. It was like a reel that kept repeating over and over again. Nothing else got through.
She didn’t even feel it as a small hand petted at her back, or as she was lifted in the air and flown up through the doorway. The only thing that she was aware of is when that same hand tried to take the ring from her closed fist. Instinctively, Hermione gripped the ring tighter and screamed out, “NO!” with all of the force in her being.
The next thing that Hermione knew, warmth encased her. She opened her crusted, bleary eyes to see that she was in her bed; covers pulled tightly around her, and Twinkles asleep on the chair which she had pulled over to the side of the bed.
For a second she couldn’t really remember what could possibly have gone on, but then she felt a cramp in her left hand and noticed that she was holding onto something. She opened her fingers to see the small ring from last night and all of the memories came flooding back.
The blackness almost enveloped her once more, but Hermione pushed it away. It would not do to dwell. She needed to get the whole story. The question she now had to ask herself was, does she go to the source or does she go straight to Draco and hope he gives her the truth?
Either way she would be playing her hand and she might not get the answers that she needs. All she knew for sure was that Ron was definitely tortured in that house, and more than likely was held captive there.
First she would go to Harry.
There was a loud banging on the front door and Ginny dropped the spoon that she was licking clean. With sticky fingers, she strode over to the door and attempted to open it by only using her palms. After struggling with the knob for a second, the frantic face of Hermione greeted her.
“Hermione! Are you okay? Here come in.” Ginny ushered her in, taking care not to get any of the chocolate cake batter onto Hermione’s clothing. She licked her fingers clean as she led Hermione to a chair in the kitchen.
“Is Harry in?” Hermione’s eyes roved about the room, not stopping on anything.
“No, I’m sorry. He just headed out for a drink with Ron. What’s going on?”
“I just really need to talk to Harry that’s all.”
“About?” Ginny came and sat down in the chair across from Hermione.
“Look, I promise I will tell you everything, but first I have to tell Harry. Do you know where they went?”
Ginny tried not to look hurt, but it was hard. Why couldn’t Hermione confide in her? The brunette seemed to sense that Ginny was upset because she said, “It is a matter that requires an Auror, Gin. Otherwise, you know I would tell you first.”
She became slightly appeased and let Hermione know that the boys had planned on going to the Hogshead. With a rushed, ‘Thank you’ Hermione burst from the room and fled the house.
Ginny remained in her chair for only a moment longer when the smell of the chocolate covered bowl called out to her senses. Thankfully, no one was there to watch as she dived in headfirst.
It was a fairly slow night and Ron was glad to see that only a pair of hags and a lone warlock sat at the bar. Ever since he had come home, he couldn’t help but notice how people would stare whenever he walked into a crowded room. Of course, it was even worse when he was in the company of Harry.
The war had only ended five years ago, and with his re-emergence into society, it was hard to get any peace with a pint in public these days. The other inhabitants were as unobservant as Ron could have ever hoped; still they decided to head towards a booth in one of the darker corners of the pub.
Aberforth flicked his wand and two glasses of Ogden’s flew towards them. Ron wasn’t sure if it was such a good thing that the owner knew what they would be drinking, but he decided not to dwell on that. There were more pressing concerns at the moment. such as what Hermione had found out about Malfoy and his partner in crime.
Ron had already shared everything with Harry earlier that day; that was when they had decided to go for a drink.
“So you really think it was Malfoy then?”
“Harry, I’m telling you he was involved. Hermione’s reaction confirmed it completely.”
“I’ll dig into it some more. I’ll have to do it on my off time though. Reynolds doesn’t want to pursue the Malfoy line, says it’s a dead end. Ginny won’t be happy about that.”
“Who are you kidding Harry?Ginny will love it if you can find out that Malfoy was involved. She hates that wanker almost as much as I do.”
Harry choked on his fire whiskey, confirming that it was not a good idea to laugh and drink at the same time. Ron pounded on Harry’s back until the coughing fit subsided.
“I meant she won’t like all the extra time away from her, but point taken. If I tell her it’s to catch Malfoy, then she might let it slide. Though, with the way her moods have been changing lately, I won’t hold my breath.”
“Better you than me, mate.”
Harry grimaced, but his eyes sparkled with a different story. Ron knew that his friend would gladly take all of Ginny’s mood swings for the chance of having a real family.
“Nature calls.” Harry said a moment later as he rose from the booth.
Ron just nodded and stared into his glass as he thought more about yesterday’s activities and what they meant. His thoughts flitted from his case and settled happily onto a pair of rich brown eyes and the scent of bluebells. The door of the pub opened and let in an autumn chill.
Ron shook with the onset of the unexpected breeze and when his eyes focused again, he spotted the girl he had just been thinking of. She was wrapped tightly in a dark blue cloak, her cheeks pink from the cold outside. He blinked, trying to shoo away this obvious hallucination, but when his lids opened, she was not only there, but was headed towards their booth.
She rushed towards Ron, and without any greeting, asked where she could find Harry. She appeared a bit frantic, and wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Off to the loo, he’ll be back in a bit. Why don’t you sit?” Ron gestured towards the seat that Harry had previously occupied. He watched as her eyes darted about the room before taking the seat.
“You okay?” She had continued her search of the premises after sitting and had jumped slightly at the sound of his voice.
“Yeah.” Ron raised his eyebrow at her. She ducked down lower in the booth and whispered, “I just feel like someone is following me.”
At that, Ron also began to look about the pub, but everything seemed to be normal. The hags and warlock were still seated at the bar, but none of the party appeared to even acknowledged Hermione’s entrance. While he was glancing about the room, he noticed that there was a lone figure standing outside of the pub, his back was facing the large front window, but Ron could have sworn that the person’s eyes had just been peering through the glass. As soon as Ron seemed to spot him, the figure turned his back.
“I think you might be right.” He motioned his eyes in the direction of the window.
Casually Hermione turned her head to the side and pretended that she was scratching her chin with her shoulder.
“Can you see his face?” She asked anxiously.
“No, I can’t make anything out. So you want me to…”
“NO!” She stated a little louder than obviously intending. “No.” She repeated more quietly. “Not yet, not until we know more about what’s going on.”
Noticing her nervousness, Ron reached across the table and grabbed her hand in his. He rubbed his thumb gently over her smooth skin as he tried to calm her down. “Don’t worry, Harry and I are here. We won’t let anything happen to you.”
Ron looked apprehensively towards the window again and saw that the figure was walking back into the shadows. Then, he glanced back towards Hermione. Her gaze was fixed on their intertwined hands, and quickly Ron pulled away. She brought her hand back, rubbed at where they had touched with her other hand, and then placed them both under the table.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s okay.” Hermione’s voice was small and she did not look up at him. They spent the rest of the time waiting for Harry in absolute silence.
How long does it take a person to use the toilet? She wrung her fingers together under the table as she stared blankly at the spot on the table where their hands had touched. Merlin, how she needed Harry here, now!
Hermione had considered breaking the awkward silence that had enveloped their booth, but had turned the idea away just as quickly. She couldn’t trust herself to speak to Ron. Not now that she knew he was going to propose to her all those years ago. Her heart wrenched, and when their fingers had met, she thought it might squeeze and burst right out of her chest.
“Hermione? What are you doing here?”
She sighed in relief, the torture was now over. “Well that’s a fine way to greet a friend.”
“Sorry.” Harry laughed as he slid in next to her.
“Er, Harry? I need to talk to you.”
“Okay,” he said hesitantly.
“Alone.” Hermione emphasized.
“All right.” He nodded his head. “Why don’t we just go upstairs for a bit?”
Harry extended his hand towards Hermione as he rose from the booth once more.
She accepted and followed behind him as closely as she could.
“We’ll need a quiet room.” Harry whispered to Aberforth.
The old man grunted and tossed over a key that Harry caught with ease.
Once ensconced comfortably in one of the shabby rooms that the Hogshead boasted, Harry turned towards Hermione and asked, “What’s going on?”
She heaved herself into one of the wooden chairs that were circling a small table before answering him.
“I think I found where they kept Ron.”
Harry’s back straightened and his tone switched from that of caring friend to Auror in a split second. “Where?”
“One of the Nott residences. It’s near Longford.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded then reached into her pocket and held the would-have-been engagement ring out to him. “I found this in their dungeon.”
He took the ring from her and studied it. It was a while before he seemed to notice the inscription on the inside, but once he did there was a loud gasp.
“Maybe the ring was someone el…”
“No,” she shook her head, “not unless there are many people out there affectionately known as Bookworm and have ruby as their favorite stone.”
“What’s this?” Hermione lifted her head to see what Harry was talking about.
“Just some decorative etching I think.”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t know much about ancient runes. Okay I don’t know anything about ancient runes, but Hermione, this looks like some kind of script.”
He held out the ring to her and she took it and examined the etchings more closely. The script swirled around the ring and Hermione could have hexed herself for not noticing that it was indeed writing. She must have been so focused on the engraving on the inside that she didn’t see that there was also one on the outside.
Focusing on the runes she was able to make out a few choice words. Words that sounded very familiar to her, words that she was sure that she had read before. Then like a ton of bricks it hit her.
“I know how Ron lost his memory of me!” She stood up so quickly that she knocked the chair back.
“I have to go home. Here,” She wrote out the address of the Nott’s place in Longford and handed it to Harry. “I’ll floo you as soon as I am sure about something.”
“Hermione! Please just tell me…”
However, Hermione didn’t hear the rest of what Harry had said. She was already half way down the stairs at that time. With all haste she rushed out of the bar, not even hazarding a glance at the back booth and the red head who sat there. She wouldn’t have been able to leave if she had looked upon his freckled face. No, she now had a puzzle to solve, something to distract her from making any kind of a decision.
A/N: And I am back... with another cliffie, sorry about that. But see I promised to get this up today and I did. Though this is the un-beta'd version.
Chapters 23-26 have now been beta'd. I do want you to note that there is a scene at the end of 23 that wasn't there before, mostly because I am a moron and forgot to add it. The other three are just grammatical changes that you can read or not. Thanks so much you wonderful beta of mine Georgia Weasley for getting these to me so quickly!
Thanks to all who have read and special thanks to those who reviewed the last chapter, it was great to come back to all those wonderful words.
Thanks of course goes to Georgia Weasley for beta-ing those three chapters in two days. She is a rock star!
Also tomorrow is my birthday. It is too much to hope that everyone who reads would leave a review, but it is worth asking anyway. All you silent lurkers out there I would love to hear from you.