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Chapter 18: Exoneration
By the end of the week, Xeno Lovegood was anxiously scanning the sky more often than his clock cuckooed. He had reconstructed his flitfloat as far as he could but now was feeling remorseful that he had not ordered a better broomstick and an urgent delivery service. By Friday afternoon he was desperate. Audrey had not returned either and he was worried that he might have overtaxed the poor creature. Hopefully she had found a place to roost and was catching up on lost sleep.
He checked his handiwork yet again. The flitfloat was but a triangular platform of criss-crossed boards and struts across which stout canvas was strapped. He had originally designed it to silently hunt and observe exotic creatures from above. Although a blunted Vee-shape, it did not fly as an arrow would, point-first, but the reverse. Xeno, lying prone like a doll on a kite, could look over the wide, front end and view the ground below.
The craft was no more than eight feet long in either direction so there was only room for a small travel bag if Luna was to berth on the passenger side. He looked at his daughter's sleeping bag. How tiny it seemed now. She must have been only nine years old when last they flew. An enlargement spell would resolve that issue. The stubby post in the midsection chair-backed a seat cushion but in foul weather it tent-poled a low canvas stretched overhead from the side boards. This short mast could never sport a sail - nor did the flitfloat need one...
"Sweeper Ho!" called Bagstaff from his vegetable patch.
Xeno's head jerked up. Breaking through the grey clouds was a tiny dark movement - no more than a flicker - then it was gone.
"There again! To your right, Sir!" called the scarecrow.
"I see it!"
Xeno's excitement showed in his face and he took a few steps forward as the broomstick curved down to meet him. The stitches above Bagstaff's eyeholes twisted like a frown and his bag-head puckered up into a doubtful expression. The wood of the newly-acquired broomstick was grey with age but the pole looked stout and the bristles had been renovated.
"Let's see how she handles, Bagstaff!"
Xeno took the broom for a couple of quick turns around the house and his whoops of delight reassured Bagstaff who nodded appreciatively. The scarecrow was creaking and crackling to himself, "Good, I don't want to have to carry any spare baggage on this trip."
Once the extra broom was lashed into place, Xeno was ready for Bagstaff but the scarecrow refused to have his ragged greatcoat discarded.
"But it's extra weight, Bagstaff!"
"It's part of what I am, Xeno. Don't you remember? - when you enchanted me? The magical life you bestowed on the whole construction: head, pole, arms, coat and all!"
"And... it holds all my worldly possessions."
"You're a scarecrow, Bagstaff, what could you possibly have in there!" laughed Xeno.
"There are a few seeds that half-germinated I'm quite fond of - and some stones that have sentimental value." The scarecrow lifted his head proudly whenever he considered his stone collection. He hugged his coat closer about himself. "And it'll be bloomin' cold there, Xeno - don't forget that! They've had frosts up north already this year!"
"Very well," smiled Xeno as he summoned the scarecrow out of the ground with his wand, "you can carry that lot yourself."
He lifted the flitfloat with a hover charm then slotted the scarecrow between the main double-backbone struts with his head at the front like a figurehead.
"Oh, yes... Do it, Xeno - cast the enchantment!" said Bagstaff, excitedly.
Xeno flourished his wand for several seconds then declared loudly, "Integrare Adimpleo!"
The flitfloat creaked a little as the whole structure adjusted and lifted slightly. It wobbled from corner to corner as Bagstaff attuned himself to the old feelings.
"Happy now, Bagstaff?"
"Say it, Captain - say it!"
Xeno sighed and rolled his eyes. "I name thee, The Serenis! Lord of the Skies! God of the Dawn! Master of the Heavens!"
Bagstaff beamed with delight. The craft lifted gently into the air and the scarecrow's intoxicated crackles of glee were cast freely to the breeze. He sobered up when they tried a short flight over the nearby fields.
"She's slow, Captain, and pulling left slightly. It's that old broom that got crushed..."
"I've braced it well - it's stronger than ever," said Xeno as he tugged his cloak more firmly about himself.
"Its magic was depleted a little though."
"Let her out, Bagstaff, let's see what The Serenis can do!" cried Xeno.
"This is it, Captain. This is all it's got," said the scarecrow gloomily.
Xeno's eyes widened. "But I can almost walk as fast as this!" he moaned. "It'll take us days to reach Scotland."
"Better get going then, don't you think?"
"But Audrey's not back - I don't know if she's reached her yet - if Luna even knows that we're coming!"
"She'll know soon enough."
"Very well, Bagstaff," said Xeno reluctantly.
He made one last check of his supplies then cast a spell to protect his home and another to conceal The Serenis. Finally, he was satisfied.
"Set the course, Mr. Bagstaff, if you please."
"Where to, Sir?"
"We sail for Hogwarts! - Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!"
"Aye, aye, Captain!"
Xeno tugged his cloak even tighter as they turned into the cold wind and he cast a warming charm upon himself.
"How'd you know about the weather up north anyway?" he asked as he settled himself down into his seat and lay his head back on the mast.
"Birds, Xeno - scarecrows have to know a lot about birds."
"Alright! who's the joker who's Confunded my book?" Neville glared around the common room and held up his copy of 'Going Nowhere Fast.' "By Merlin, I'll... if you don't keep your nose out of my s-- stuff I'll... hex it up your--!"
"Neville!" shrieked Lavender. There were a few giggles but nobody confessed.
Ginny looked up with a grin from the Charms homework balanced on her knee. "What's wrong with it, Nev?"
"Somebody's hexed my Apparition refresher book - all the pages are jumbled out of order. Not you, was it?" Neville transferred his glare to Ginny.
"Wouldn't know how," Ginny said airily. "How's it going, anyway?"
"Not very good so far," said Neville gloomily. "McGonagall says I think about the destination alright, and I'm quite deliberate when I make my move - but I just lack the determination." He sighed.
"I still don't understand how she's doing Apparition in Hogwarts," said Seamus as he gazed out from their common room at the worsening weather. He was fully recovered now - though permanently scarred. He came shivering back to the hearth and sank into the armchair beside his friends, raising the palms of his hands to warm them before the roaring fire.
"Same as Dumbledore I suppose," said Neville. "He lifted the enchantments on the Great Hall didn't he? - for the Apparition lessons. And McGonagall was his deputy so he'd trust her with Hogwarts' protections."
"You're not doing it in the Great Hall though, are you?" asked Seamus impulsively, shifting in his chair to look at Neville but keeping his hands facing the fireplace.
"Don't be a prat, Seamus - no, we're using one of the unused chambers upstairs. There's a big one McGonagall said used to be a meeting room but she cleared all the seats to the sides so there's loads of space."
His eyes lit up. "Hannah's great! She can jump twenty feet already!" There was a look of pride on his face before he continued, "I get fed up trying pretty quickly but she just keeps working at it over and over. Drives me crazy trying to keep up with her. I think she's McGonagall's favourite." His expression ended as a frown.
"I want to join," said Ginny suddenly.
"What?" said Neville. "Why, Ginny? You'll be taking your normal Apparition lessons next year anyway."
"I want to get a head start. I want to learn everything I can that might be of use to... surviving. That's what Harry did." There was a faraway look in her eyes. "He learned Accio and Impedimenta and other stuff for the Triwizard Tournament - and he could cast a really powerful Patronus when he was only thirteen - and..." She looked around at the other two as they stared back at her. "That's what we're doing isn't it? Trying to survive?"
She looked at Seamus. "What about you? Don't you--"
"I can already Apparate can't I?" He scowled at Ginny for not knowing. "- well enough for what I need, thanks. Got me licence, anyway," he added defensively. He moved his hands away from the warmth of the fire and crossed his arms.
Ginny turned back to Neville. "Will you ask McGonagall for me? You don't mind do you? I mean, you didn't set this up so it can just be you and Hannah?"
"Fat chance of a snog with McGonagall breathing down our necks! Yeah, I'll ask her." Neville hesitated then continued, "No, why not just come up with me tonight? What's the worst that can happen? She can only say no."
"No! Absolutely not, Miss Weasley!" said McGonagall. "What would your parents think! I am not a qualified Apparition teacher! Both Mr. Longbottom and Miss Abbott have had their initial training and I am merely guiding and supervising their practice; it can be very dangerous which is why we have someone ever on the alert for..." She looked towards Madam Pomfrey who was helping herself to cheese biscuits and a cup of tea at the only table. She abruptly whirled around and started paying attention. Hannah and Neville looked thirstily at the single cup.
"So... Madam Pomfrey is here in case of Splinching?" pouted Ginny. Harry's kiss almost distracted her at that moment but she showed nothing of it on her face. Not now, Harry, she thought to herself. "There's worse things than Splinching! What if... What if you read about me dead trying to escape Death Eaters just because I didn't know how to--!"
"That will be enough, Miss Weasley, thank you!" snapped McGonagall. "You are hardly likely to--"
"She has a point though," said Pomfrey, coming over with her teacup to join them. "Minerva, you don't see a fraction of the dreadful injuries that I do and we read about deaths every day in the Prophet." She paused. "Frankly, none of us know whether we will survive these horrors. If it were me, I'd take a few calculated risks now to increase my chances later." She sipped at her tea but she kept her eyes on McGonagall.
McGonagall was thinking hard; her lips compressed to a very thin line indeed. "Very well, then - but--" She turned to Ginny. "You will follow my instructions to the letter! Not one tiny deviation, you understand? When I say 'Go!' you go; when I say 'Stop!" you stop; and you will remain focused and attentive at all times! Is that clear!"
Ginny was nodding her head and grinning with Neville.
"Focused and attentive - got it!"
The rest of that first lesson went reasonably well. Although Ginny did Splinch off a little of her hair in doing so, she finally managed a short Apparition into the hoop on the floor one step in front of her.
"Vanish that, please, Miss Weasley," said McGonagall, pointing at the tress of red hair while it was still wafting down to the ground. "We must leave no clue as to what we have been doing here."
Neville appeared to be doing much better but he was still comparing himself to Hannah who by now could Apparate around the room to any point with ease.
"Well, done, Miss Abbott!" applauded McGonagall. She looked thoughtfully at Hannah. "I would... Yes, I'd like you to try to Disapparate into the corridor outside. Poppy, would you mind stepping out there, just in case? - and to keep watch?" The matron nodded and went to the door.
"Can we really do that?" asked Hannah. "I thought we could only Apparate inside this room?"
"I set up the disenchantments to extend just outside this room - but don't try Apparating to further than the surrounding corridors - it won't work. Once you can Apparate through walls then you have all the basic knowledge for Apparating - the rest is just practice."
"Now remember, Apparating beyond solid objects is no different to Apparating through space. It is no more difficult - unless you believe it is, of course. One simply has to master that belief then the best wizards can Apparate anywhere in the world.
After Hannah had Disapparated there was a squeal from the corridor and Neville ran out.
"Hannah? You alright?"
"Calm yourself, Mr. Longbottom," said Madam Pomfrey. "It's just the tip of her nose - there, good as new." She stopped flourishing her wand and Hannah rubbed her nose and said ruefully, "That was really painful." She dashed back into the room and before Neville could join her, she had Disapparated out again. This time she clamped her hand over her mouth to suppress a loud scream. Blood was running down her arm.
"It's nothing - don't worry," said Pomfrey, tiredly pushing an anxious Neville to one side. "Just skin and a little flesh you left behind - you can repair the sleeve yourself, later."
Neville followed Hannah back into the room this time but she was gone again and shrieking again from the corridor while he was still near the doorway.
McGonagall grabbed his arm to stop him running back and forth. "Longbottom - you might learn something from Miss Abbott about real determination - she is one very determined girl."
"Tell me about it," said Neville. His expression was a mixture of admiration and envy.
"Longbottom, you should understand that Miss Abbott is not better than you - she's just more willing to keep trying and failing until she gets it right." McGonagall was pointing her wand to clean up the tiny fragments of Hannah's flesh that bloodied the floorboards of the meeting room.
"Right... Try and fail - I can do that." Neville was looking wistfully towards Ginny. She had conjured up another teacup to make herself a cup of tea and was trying to hide the cheese biscuits she seemed to be scoffing behind her long hair. McGonagall just shook her head resignedly.
Ginny. May b danger nxt wk. No worry. Is planned.
Ginny tried not to be concerned as she pondered Harry's message but she'd have to wait a little while before she could answer it. She neither questioned nor challenged him when she returned his kiss later that evening as she prepared for bed,
I will be with you.
Although she knew her message would convey positive encouragement, she herself had trouble getting to sleep that night. Ginny was normally strengthened by her own interpretation of the Prophecy: a conviction that Harry was destined to vanquish the dark tyrant. But tonight, she could not stop wondering if one day soon she might awaken to find her medallion gone - a certain indication that Harry's life had ended.
When her disturbed mind finally yielded to sleep, she dreamed of Apparating through wall after wall right across the world to be at his side. There she found a monstrously fat Gylda Pyke, robed as Santa Claus. Harry sat ravenously wolfing hot buttered toast, oblivious to the plump girl who lay in his bed treacherously calling for Voldemort. Yet somehow Ginny could not alert Harry; the final wall was a monolithic silver disk towering between them and through which she could not penetrate. She threw herself at it, head first, over and over again like a demented Hannah Abbot, but Harry was forever out of reach. Perhaps it was only too many cheese biscuits.
When Ginny awoke with a dreadful headache the next morning, the flimsy tendrils of her dream dispersed like gossamer in a fresh breeze once she saw her medallion was safe. She sent her first kiss, lay back, cast a healing spell to clear her migraine then, with a start, remembered Luna's plan. Ginny rolled out of bed and had barely finished dressing when Lavender poked her head up at the top of the dormitory stairs.
"Get a move on, Ginny! Me and Rommy are just leaving for Hogsmeade and Neville's already up in the owlery on watch."
The back of her head disappeared down the stairs and Ginny raced down soon after. By the time she had reached Neville, it was clear she had missed something. He was at the window, gazing through Omnioculars and looked very agitated. He glanced back when he heard Ginny arrive.
"I don't like it Ginny - The Carrows are down there as well as well as Filch. They're inspecting everyone going out." He lifted the instrument back to his eyes. "They're questioning Hannah and Ernie... Checking them with their wands...
Ginny tried to grab the Omnioculars but Neville clung on until he saw Hannah was safely through. As soon as he relaxed his grip, Ginny pulled the Omnioculars from him and pointed them down towards the Hogwarts gate. It was a shock to realise that anyone might have seen her meet Harry there if they had been watching with one of these instruments the other day. The viewer was near its maximum but she could see enough to recognise the Carrows. What spell they were casting on outgoing students she did not know.
"Where's Luna? ... Can't see her..." said Ginny.
"Don't know - she said she'd be hidden - in case of emergency."
Ginny scanned back down the queue of students and found Parvati and Padma together though which was which she could not tell at this range. She guess Padma was the one on the right because she was holding a squirming black bundle - almost certainly a cat. It had to be Emmy.
"What they doing, you reckon, Neville? The Carrows?"
"Dunno," he said, tugging back the Omnioculars from Ginny and peering through.
"Where's Emmy? Can't see her now," he muttered.
Ginny grabbed the Omnioculars back. The cat was no longer visible as Padma and Parvati approached the Carrows. "They've hidden her! They've hidden Emmy in their robes or in a bag or something! That's stupid - that'll just look suspicious."
"Wind it back, Ginny."
"Action replay - that round knob there on the side..." said Neville, pulling the Omnioculars away from Ginny's eyes and pointing. Ginny looked through again and wound the view back then she lowered the instrument and handed them to Neville with a distant look in her eyes. "Why?" Ginny was muttering aloud but to herself. "She ran. Emmy panicked and slipped away into the shrubbery."
Neville held up his hand in alarm to silence Ginny. His head was on one side as if he were listening for something.
There was a faint voice way down the stairs. "You're certain it's her?" It was unmistakably Snape.
Ginny and Neville froze for a moment then Neville quickly stashed the Omnioculars out of sight behind the window mullion.
"Definitely Weasley, Sir." The almost inaudible whisper was Draco.
Ginny and Neville turned around as they heard the two enter the owlery. Snape was looking at Ginny. There was a very puzzled look on his face.
"What... is going on here?" he finally asked. Draco stood to one side and slightly back, wiggling his prefect badge and smirking at the two Gryffindors.
Neville dropped a screwed-up piece of parchment behind his back onto the floor but it did not escape Snape's attention.
"Hand it over, Longbottom."
Neville reluctantly retrieved the scrap. "It's private! It's..."
"Give it to me," persisted Snape. There was a malevolent look in his eye as he held out his hand and took the parchment. He unfurled it and began to read it out loud; there was a smirk in his voice.
"Hope you are well.
"You were right about the headmaster and the Carrows. Now I've stopped causing trouble they're quite reasonable. I'm concentrating on my studies and behaving myself as you said. I should have listened to you before.
"Looking forward to seeing you soon at Christmas,
Snape thrust the parchment back towards Neville. There was a undecipherable expression on his face. Approval? Disappointment? Relief? Suspicion? It was impossible to tell what he was thinking. He turned to Ginny.
"And you, Miss Weasley?"
"I'm with him," said Ginny sweetly. "Helping him send an owl."
"Helping him... send an owl," echoed Snape. "Have you nothing better to do on a Saturday morning?"
"Well, I'd like to have gone to Hogsmeade but I can't, can I?"
A sudden thought seemed to have struck Snape for his eyes widened and he stepped forward, wand raised.
Both Neville and Ginny had their own wands out in a flash and were backing away.
"Put... your wands away. I merely wish to investigate any... anomalies."
He moved his wand in a curious swerve around Ginny as he softly chanted something softly that Neville couldn't hear then, apparently satisfied, he spun on his heel and went out, followed by a grumpy-looking Draco.
"Bye, Draco!" Ginny called after him. "Nice to see you!"
As soon as he was out of sight she muttered, "NOT!"
"What was that he was doing, Ginny?" said Neville, as he ripped up his message and stuffed it in his pocket. "He seemed amazed to see you up here. It's only the owlery - why shouldn't you be up here?
Ginny shook her head. "I think it was a revealing spell. He was looking for enchantments on me..."
Neville retrieved his Omnioculars and gazed through them out of the window again. "Can't see Padma and Parvati - guess they've gone through without Emmy..."
"It's almost like he..." muttered Ginny.
"Like he what?" said Neville, turning around to look at her.
"...thought it... wasn't me at all."
There was the sound of running footsteps and before Neville could hide the Omnioculars again, Romilda, gasping for air, burst into the owlery followed shortly by an equally breathless Lavender.
"They ... were ... testing!" puffed Romilda.
"Just ... warned ... Padma ... in time..." panted Lavender, pulling off her travel cloak that she'd been wearing to keep out the cold air.
"Who--?" began Neville.
"Prof... 'Gonagall ..."gasped Romilda, sinking down onto a stone bench, oblivious of the depth of owl droppings that covered it. "-cognized ... Carrows were doing... testing transfig ... urations"
"They knew?" shrieked Ginny, angrily. Her medallion trembled but she ignored it. She had the strange sensation of laughter in Harry's kiss but her fury pushed it out of her thoughts.
Both Romilda and Lavender nodded their heads.
"How?" said Neville. "How could they have known?"
Romilda and Lavender shook their heads. Romilda seemed to be getting her breath back first. "Pyke, I reckon. Must be! Done it before - why not again?"
"I'll shake it out of her!" yelled Ginny, striding towards the door. Neville was there ahead of her, blocking the way. He held out his Omnioculars in front of him.
"No you won't, Ginny," he said firmly. "Worst she's guilty of is being foolish."
"You going to attack me with Omnioculars? Out of my way, Neville!" stormed Ginny, pulling out her wand. Lavender seemed to move as if to restrain her but the ferocity of Ginny's attitude, and perhaps her reputation, seemed to inhibit Lavender.
"Go ahead, Ginny," said Neville, unflinchingly. "Hex me."
Ginny's eyes flared and she raised her wand... but then her shoulders sagged and she lowered it again.
"You just don't get it, do you, Neville?" she said. "Emmy would have been treated as a Muggle-born. She's using a wand, Neville! She's only seven and she's a Muggle-born using a wand. Death Eaters, Neville! Death Eaters and Dementors! They won't care that she's only seven!"
"I know," said Neville, "but two curses don't make a charm! How could Gylda know, anyway? We've been avoiding talking when she's near."
"Who knows? She might have bought some of Fred and George's Extendable Ears or used some spell." Ginny yielded the doorway and moved back into the owlery, trying to think what to do. Neville followed her and frowned.
"She's only a first-year," he said, " and a bit... slow is all - not some clever super-spy."
"Not bad at magic, though, Neville," said Romilda, "according to Spotty Midgen, anyway. She's as good as any of the other first-years in Charms and Transfigurations and--"
"Don't keep calling her that, Rommy," hissed Lavender. "She's not Spotty anymore."
"--and hexes and even reasonable in DADA magic - anything that's straight magical spells, jinxes, curses," persisted Romilda. "It's just potions and history and things that need analysing or mental work where she's weak. But let her point a wand at something and... watch out!"
"So, she's dangerous?" said Ginny. "Is that... Is she just play-acting you think? That lisp? And pretending she doesn't understand things? Is that just a cover?"
"Oh come on, Ginny!" cried Neville. A couple of owls scattered away from a nearby stone niche with much flapping of wings. "She's just an innocent kid manipulated by the Carrows."
"She's got to go," said Ginny, firmly.
"What!" said Neville. "How? Where to?"
"Don't know. We can't have her here. We're not talking about merely sneaking to the teacher and saying someone cheated in their homework - someone might be tortured or even die because of her. What family has she got?"
"Her dad's long gone; abandoned his wife when Gylda was born," said Romilda, contemptuously. "Her mother's a Muggle and is scared of her - it's enough to drive anyone loopy."
"She's not loopy, Romilda!" stormed Neville, slamming his Omnioculars down on the recently-vacated perch. There was the sound of glass and metal crunching. "You don't know what you're talking about! Just because people... take a bit of time to... grasp things... doesn't mean..." As he spoke his attitude seemed to deflate and his chin fell to his chest. He turned his back on them all and stared into the empty niche.
The memory of seeing Neville's parents at St. Mungo's flashed vividly into Ginny's thoughts. "Neville..."
"Just go. I'll... be down in a minute."
Ginny signalled silently to the two other girls to go with her; they looked perplexed.
"Don't..." said Neville, over his shoulder, "Just... go easy on her, will you?"
Ginny nodded as she went out but Neville didn't see it. She told the two girls she'd catch up with them then slipped away to find a quiet spot to read Harry's words:
Feeling good. I'll tell u y 1 day.
She thought for a long time, letting her own temper seep away slowly, listening to footsteps echoing from distant corridors then finally dying away. She replied:
Was in foul mood but OK now. Tell u 1day
Ginny had scarcely got back to the Gryffindor common room and got Eloise Midgen to fetch down Gylda Pyke before Neville burst into the room through the portrait hole. His entire mood had changed and he looked excited.
"I've brought Luna with me!" he cried exultantly. "I've explained it all to her! - she'll know what to do!"
Ginny and the others stared silently first at Neville and then towards the girl at his side. Neville felt the weight of their puzzlement and scepticism and his excitement fell flat like the end of a bad joke. Luna was gazing dreamily around at the furniture and fittings of the circular room and didn't even seem to see the other students. Her eyes suddenly lit up and she went and flopped down on a sofa at the back of the room.
"Oh, these are much more comfortable than ours! Ours are too soft! This is just... perfect!"
She bounced up and down on the seat. "You don't even need a book or anything!"
"Luna..." began Neville cautiously as he saw the frowns gathering around the room. "We... I wanted you to... have a word with Gylda - remember?" He signalled to the worried-looking girl to come over with him to Luna.
Luna's eyes, always big and round, widened even more. "Oh yes! Come and try!" She looked at Gylda and patted the seat beside her. "Are all the seats like this? What do you think of them? My name's Luna. What's your name? You must be Gylda. I'm Luna."
Gylda Pyke sat cautiously beside Luna who now kicked off her shoes, pulled up her feet and sat cross-legged. "Try like this - it's even better. How do you normally sit? What's your favourite way?"
"Thith way," said Gylda, tucking her legs up into a sideways position.
"And how long can you sit like that without moving? I once sat for fifty minutes in our room then I had one fidget but I had two books underneath the cushion. One was a book about dragons and the other - I forget but it was a big one. I think I could sit here for more than an hour easily without any books at all, don't you?"
"I think tho too!" said Gylda warming to Luna's enthusiasm.
"And your name is?"
"And I'm...?" Luna looked looked puzzled as if trying to remember.
"Luna! You're Luna!"
"I think the hardest seat in the world to sit on for a long time must be a flying trapeze at the circus don't you think, Gylda?"
"Yeth, a trapeethe, yeth!"
"When you were at the circus you rode on an elephant didn't you? That must have been uncomfortable too"
Gylda looked puzzled. "Thirkuth. On a elephant."
"You remember - I saw you there. You rode the big one. You were very brave!"
"Yeth - thirkuth. On a elephant."
"How many times did you ride it round the ring? I counted ten times! You were very dashing!"
"Ride a elephant?"
"How many times did you ride? Ten times?"
"Yeth - ten timeth - on a elephant."
"There never was a circus was there?" said Luna, suddenly serious - but with a quiet, reassuring smile.
"No thirkuth - no."
"And no elephant?"
"No - wathn't there a elephant?"
"And the Carrows never made you do bad things did they?"
"Carrowth - no. Not bad thingth."
"You never told them about Seamus' classes did you?"
"Thamuth' clatheth, yeth."
"You told them?"
"Yeth. Told them yeth."
"No, you didn't tell them at all did you?"
"No, din't tell no one. Din't thay to anyone. Theecret"
"Are you sure? You did tell them didn't you? Or didn't you?"
Gylda looked eager to answer the question but seemed puzzled. "Yeth... Did I tell them, Luna?"
"How many beds are there in the hospital wing, Gylda?"
"There are five-hundred beds aren't there?"
"Yeth, five hundred bedth."
"And somebody poorly in every one. That's five-hundred patients isn't it? It's very sad isn't it?"
"Yeth. Lotth of poorly patienth ith thad."
"You spoke to them all didn't you? When you were in there?"
Gylda shook her head.
"You remember - I was there - I saw you there - and we talked to all the hundreds of patients. You remember?"
"Yeth, talked to them. Hundredth."
Luna put her arms around Gylda. "You've not done anything bad at all, have you, Gylda?"
"No, nuthink bad. Not done nuthink."
"Have you ever been in the hospital wing, Gylda?"
"No - not in the hothpital wing. Ith it in Thaint Mungoth?"
Luna now appeared to notice the other students for the first time. Some looked shocked, others rather chastened, at what they'd heard.
Seamus whispered sideways out of the corner of his mouth, "Ginny, I thought you'd seen her in the hospital wing?"
"Didn't get a good look - and she was heavily bandaged round the head," murmured Ginny.
"You jumped to the conclusion it was her," said Neville.
Ginny nodded and her cheeks flushed. "Sorry," she said, in a tiny voice, glancing briefly around the group.
"Not us you should apologise to," said Neville, softly.
Ginny forced herself over to the back sofa; apologising was not something that came easily to one used to the tough, rowdy give and take of a family of seven siblings. She sat down next to Gylda, on the opposite side to Luna.
"Sorry, Gylda," said Ginny in a hoarse kind of voice. She tried to add more but she couldn't think of anything but bad excuses. Nor could she ask for forgiveness because she felt she deserved none. Nor could she leave because just "sorry" seemed inadequate.
She sat there as Neville, too, came over and said sorry, followed by Seamus. Pretty soon, most everyone there had stepped forward with an apology and still Ginny sat there, trapped by a need to atone. She could not meet Luna's eye nor look directly at Gylda.
"Nobody haith me, now, Ginny?" Gylda said.
"Nobody hates you, Gylda."
Ginny swallowed. She felt like she was sinking into a terrible pit. "She's scared, Gylda. Some Muggles are scared of magic. Perhaps you can tell her at Christmas not--"
"Dothn't want me for Chrithmath," said Gylda sadly.
Ginny could hardly speak. "You're staying alone at Hogwarts over Christmas?"
Now Ginny did meet Luna's eyes but saw no answer there.
"Thpeak Perfether Mdogenal, now? Will thee thtill be furiouth?"
Luna spoke again at last, "Did Professor McGonagall tell you to go to her if you need help?"
"Need help, yeth - thpeak Perfether Mdogenal."
Luna looked across Gylda to Ginny. "I just left her with... the cat and Professor Flitwick."
Eloise Midgen pushed forward and spoke without being prompted for once, "I'll take her. I'll go with her."
"Will you tell McGonagall what's happened? Tell her..." Ginny hesitated as she was rising from the sofa then her voice went very quiet. "Tell her it was all my fault."
Eloise nodded and walked with Gylda to the portrait entrance.
"Ginny, we all--" began Neville.
"No, I was the one who..." She waited until Gylda and Eloise had gone out before continuing despondently, "I was the one who said she was spying on me in the reading room. I was the one who said she was in the hospital ward."
"Then who was?" said Romilda.
"Who was what?" said Ginny.
"If it wasn't Gylda in the ward, who was it?"
Ginny looked thoughtfully at Romilda. "We need to watch out for another short, fat kid."
Neville noticed Luna slipping away towards the exit, almost unnoticed. "Luna? You alright? You look a bit..." A sudden realisation hit him and he took a step backwards. "It's not the curse is it?"
Luna gave Neville a weak smile. "No - I just feel rather sad sometimes."
After she had gone out, Neville pulled Ginny to one side. "We've got to find that room - that chapel; figure this curse out once and for all. Maybe that's what's making Luna sad."
Ginny looked at Neville as if he were slightly mad. "Neville... it's you that's making her sad. It doesn't need a curse. Every time she sees you - but can't have you, it's like a knife through the heart. It's a physical ache. Believe me, I know."
Neville looked up to the ceiling as if seeking an answer from the heavens. "What can I do, Ginny?" What in Merlin's name can I do for her?"
"Come on, let's look for that chapel. Take your mind off it. Whose got that pagan book? Hannah?"
Neville turned inward, furiously trying to recollect what they had done with it. Finally, he said, "We'll have to ask Hannah when she gets back from Hogsmeade."
"Oh, Neville! Try to remember!" cried Ginny. "Think back; it's only a week or so ago. You were reading it with Hannah..."
"I... I didn't really... I wasn't paying much attention to the reading bit to be honest, Ginny."
Ginny sighed. A thought occurred to her. "You didn't leave it up there did you?"
Neville followed Ginny up to the old classroom. Only a slight gloom filtered in through the grimy windows from the wintry sky so Ginny lit her wand.
"There's the book! - the pagan book," said Neville. He picked it up and flipped through as if the page they wanted might leap out at him. He laid it back down on the desk. "Hannah was sitting here... She was holding the page... She was... She must have put it down here... He smoothed the palm of his hand over the nearest desktop. "Must have... she had the rose in her hand..." His gaze was faraway.
"You gave her a rose?" smiled Ginny. She looked at him with fresh admiration, wondering where the old Neville had gone - yet seeing something of that boyishness in this young man. "That is so... romantic."
Neville blushed and pretended to examine the book again. "Just a... little one - with an enchantment so its petals will never wilt - it'll last forever..."
"Like your love." Ginny had a dreamy look about her. "Wish Harry..." she stopped herself but Neville picked up on what she had begun.
"He'll be back - no worries," he said. "You'll have all the time in the world for getting roses."
"I was thinking more of giving. It'll be something personal - he's had a dreadful childhood." Ginny looked wistful, staring blankly towards the grimy window.
"Merlin!" She strode forward and used the scouring charm on several of the window panes and looked out and upwards.
"What is it, Ginny?"
"We're on the fourth floor, right?"
"That's the balcony. Across this little courtyard - up there on the fifth. That's where it all happened." There was a kind of reverence in her tone.
"Where what happened?" He joined Ginny and peered up through one of the panes.
"Where Ellyn Whatsaname fell. You can see where-- Neville! What if it never was a curse but Thurgis Wotsit just... Oh, Merlin! I never really thought about it before. You see where the stone parapet's smashed? I saw it out the window from the other side. It looked like it was blasted by a curse. What if... What if... he murdered her? I mean direct - not by a curse on the Trysting Stone at all? I mean, she was supposed to just have had bad luck from the curse and fell... Luna said you were never cursed didn't she!"
"But the Stone was cursed, Ginny," Neville said firmly, as they went back to the four desks in the middle of the room.
"How can you be sure?"
"Your brother Bill. He definitely found the curse - and broke it."
"Oh yeah, of course... then it makes no sense. We have to find that page - you sure it was just here?"
"Not absolutely - don't you remember seeing it when you came back, Ginny?"
"I never came back, Neville."
"Sure you did - later on. End of breakfast. We nearly forgot to go to the first lesson!"
"Neville, I never came back."
"At the door... Didn't you come to the door and stand there? Thought I heard you. Must have been the Fat Friar then..."
"The Friar? Leave breakfast early?"
Ginny thought furiously for a seconds - then she sank down slowly onto one of the chairs. "Snape!"
"It was Snape! And it's all my fault... again." Ginny's shoulders sagged. "What was I thinking? He asked me where you where. I thought it would be harmless to tell him you were here doing homework. I didn't really think he'd bother actually."
"Snape watched me snogging Hannah Abbott?" Now Neville slumped down onto the chair beside Ginny, muttering almost inaudibly. "That was our first kiss; our special, precious moment together..."
"He's got the page," grumbled Ginny to herself. "Snape took the page."
"Don't tell Hannah!" murmured Neville.
"What's he up to?" she was thinking out loud.
"No, wait. That must have been an hour later..." Neville scratched his head and thought deeply, mumbling to himself, "We'd finally stopped kissing and cuddling... Hannah had conjured a crystal vase with some water for the rose. I said it didn't need any. She said it looks nicer. Started talking about how her mum had always loved cut flowers. I thought I heard you at the door but all I was thinking about was how glorious Hannah looked bustling about... just doing stuff... It was really dark with only that one candle flame. I said we'd better hurry or we'd be late for Charms. Hannah panicked - rummaged through the papers in her bag..."
"It's alright, Ginny!" he cried.
"This is awful, Neville," said Ginny.
"We'd stopped kissing when Snape came!" said Neville.
"Hope so - after an hour!" said Ginny. "Listen - we've got to find that chapel door before Snape does. What can you remember about what was on that page?"
"Nothing," Neville said solemnly. "Nothing whatsoever."
Ginny's voice was equally low. "Then we're lost. There's no way of retrieving it from Snape - no way at all."