Tired and sleepy as they all were after a restless and worried night, there were still exclamations of wonder from everyone as they had their first view down into the Tiantang Valley. It was daybreak and the great valley basin was starting to fill with the golden light of the rising sun. Early mists that gently softened the placid surfaces of pools and lakes were slowly being teased away by the new warmth. The sun was ascending above the trees behind the round-eyed watchers and the yielding darkness gave an uplifting sense of hope and expectancy.
The travellers had deliberately made an advanced start and Rolf had soon led them to reach the forest's edge between large outcrops of rock smothered in foliage. Crouching low and keeping well back in the treeline, they were well concealed in shadow as they gazed at the vista, each lost in their own thoughts and the sweet birdsong around them.
Luna and Rolf had seen almost this same view before but were just as exhilarated as the rest of the group. For a while they both were able to forget the seriousness of their endeavour and share this joy in nature's ultimate paradise. Their memory of its overflowing abundance of life, provision, and beauty, had not exaggerated itself to them.
Rolf loved the great outdoors more than most and yet it was he who broke the dreamy atmosphere with a soft gasp that caused everyone to turn to him. He was looking around to their right and Bingley feared the worst.
"Did you hear something, Rolf?" Only her whisper was needed in the quietness of the new morning.
"Faintly but..." Rolf paused, then explained. "I think something, or someone, has been aware of us for a day or so. I sensed it before but thought it no more than..."
Bingley interrupted with annoyance and surprise in her voice, "You didn't think it important to tell us we were being followed? I have detected nothing!"
"Nor would you. You have to understand, as a woodsman I am attuned to sensations that can scarcely be described. I often sense nearby creatures and they detect me - even show curiosity for a while - sometimes a long while - then go on their way. It is normal."
Rolf hestitated again, then continued, "I have been on expeditions from my early childhood. When my father was killed, my mother did not want me to ever go into the wilds again but my grandfather persuaded her that nobody should live in fear. He helped me magically develop and enhance the animal instincts that my father never had. I was an eager pupil - more so because of the anxiety over my father's death."
Rolf looked around at the concerned faces. "What I have sensed over the last few days has been no more than the faintest of impressions. I hear the wind whisper; I feel the ground murmur; I sense the trees yearning towards the light. A brown bear walked within one mile beside us for an hour. A curious squirrel followed for a while. Several birds have watched while fluttering many trees ahead of us. It is normal and natural and I would not trouble you with it. But now I suspect that one of the sensations I have detected may be the same creature reappearing at different times over the last two days, perhaps longer."
"It's Worley sent it!" said Ron, drawing his wand. "We know she trained Fobey maybe they're are others she's trained. It can be anything! A tiger! We had a tiger in class once!"
"A faux-boggart." explained Luna to Rolf who looked more thoughtful before answering.
"I am not certain but I feel this creature is more intelligent than a faux-boggart. Sometimes it was behind us; sometimes to one side or ahead; mostly not there at all. Just now I had the strange impression it was looking at the same view we were and..."
"And what, Rolf?" asked Luna gently.
"I think it was... I think it had the same sense of wonder that we did. It paused. It turned. It gasped. Then it was gone."
"It was that near?" exploded Bingley, but stifling her voice to a loud hoarse whisper.
"In this quietness I can sense a muffled cry nearly a quarter of a mile away. I heard the bear further than that." said Rolf. All my faculties are charmed to be more acute when needed.
"You call this quiet?" said Hermione. "Listen to the birds singing!"
"The dawn chorus rests on top of the silence below." said Rolf cryptically. "Can you not hear that stillness too?"
"As if we haven't got enough troubles. Now we're being followed by some crazy monster." complained Ron.
Bingley sighed. "I don't see how we can be any more watchful than we already are. Rolf, please let me know anything further you hear of this creature. Meanwhile..." She was eyeing the muggle village across to the north of the valley, "Lead on. Do you think we can reach that village before nightfall?"
"Yes, we can make good progress with plenty of cover along the treeline and look at all those rocky areas over that side." He pointed to the northern edge of the valley against which the village nestled. There the stony slopes were steeper and more craggy.
They continued the journey northward along the forest edge and very soon Rolf stopped to examine the cracked slab of grey rock over which they were about to walk. Like many others it jutted out from the grassy hillside and seemed kept bare by the occasional breezes. But looking closely, Luna could see a fine dusting of various particles, seeds, pollens, and tiny fragments of dried leaf litter. On one side these had been twisted around as if by something turning upon them. Rolf began shaking his head in puzzlement and staring high up at the sky and the leaves of a stout tree thrusting next to the stone.
"I think this is where the creature was. I can tell little except I think it was very small and... I think it can fly or climb. There is only a faint trace here and nothing leading to or from this place - no tracks in the forest soil."
Ron, who still had his wand out, spent the next hour of the journey not only looking behind him but also peering up into the branches of the trees and the sky. "Spiders can climb trees." he was heard to mutter to himself now and again.
The group did not stop for a midday meal but continued in order to make sure they reached their destination well before dark. They made better time than expected and by mid-afternoon they were close above a track that seemed to lead into the eastern edge of the village and Rolf called a break. "I recommend you take a short rest and have something to eat while I go ahead fifteen minutes to see who's about. They won't see me."
Luna was visibly about to say something but Rolf raised his hand and shook his head. "I'll go alone, Luna."
The remaining team gnawed on cold meat and fruits and talked in subdued tones while they waited for Rolf's return. Luna packed up a few things in a cloth ready for Rolf to eat in case he missed out. Ginny passed around some chocolate and they drank from their water flagons. They did not have long to wait.
When Rolf returned he looked grim. "There is an easy way down to the track and I could see into the village but nobody is about. It's very strange at this time of day. It's too quiet, except..."
"What is it Rolf?" asked Bingley.
"I think... I think whatever has been watching us... I think it might be lying in wait for us in the village."
"I can't define it. I just feel uneasy about what is ahead. I had the same experience with a lion once in Africa. I never heard it nor smelt it but I sensed it so I approached from a new direction and sure enough found it waiting in the undergrowth. But there is no other easy way into the village from this side, I'm afraid. I might climb around the rocks on the hillside above it but that would take the rest of the day. Can we spare that time?"
"I'm for finding Neville as soon as we can," said Ron and there were general nods of assent.
There was a gloomy silence during which several of them as well as Ron were now nervously fiddling with their wands.
Harry spoke, "Oh come on! We are seven witches and wizards, armed and dangerous! It's just the fear of the unknown but at the end of the day it's only one creature against all of us. Why hasn't it attacked already? Because it's weak and wants to surprise us. It thinks we're not expecting it. Well we are. If you like, Rolf and I will go in first and bring it back on a lead."
"No way!" said Ron. "That's what it wants you to do. While you're gone, we all relax and it takes us by surprise. No, we all go together!"
Harry smiled and everyone else except Ron picked up on the joke too. Luna pressed her food pack onto Rolf and they all departed as stealthily as they might down to the village. At the side of the dirt trail leading into the start of the buildings they crouched or lay down in the thick foliage and peered ahead. There was no further cover between them and the rough dwellings.
"This is as far as I came before," whispered Rolf, "and still no sign of life." He craned his neck straining to see as far as possible through the swirls of dust lifted by the warm afternoon breeze. The houses were nearly all mud bricks around their bases but had walls that were mostly timber posts or boards. The roofs were sloping thin slats of wood or bamboo, some part-covered in straw; others bare. There were simple, pegged doors but the windows were unglazed narrow gaps with thin wooden shutters.
They waited a while but all was very quiet. Not even a dog barked. Apart from the occasional buzzing of a fly or a far off bird calling in the forest there was silence.
Suddenly Rolf said quietly. "It's there."
"Can you see..." whispered Bingley.
"No. Nothing. But it's there. I just know it." Rolf replied hoarsely.
There was unspoken tension for a time as everyone strained to hear the slightest sound or to glimpse some movement. The buildings were just a few hundred paces ahead and a large creature could come bounding out or fly across to them in seconds. All eyes were focused on the trail where it entered the village.
Then for a few moments the hairs on the back of Rolf's head stood on end. Rolf was definitely not used to hearing anything get up close behind him in the forest. He rolled quickly over onto his back with his wand already pointing and everyone else turned a moment later as they heard a soft voice right next to them, "Dead people..."
Rolf was completely bewildered and he was lost for words. "How did... Why are... How..."
"Dead people. All dead people. There is no one now. Please not to go Master Rolf, Miss Luna." It was Feya, the house-elf. Her voice was always pleasant but now it was also strained and full of fear and so was her face.
"Feya! How did you get here?" asked Luna, rising up and going to crouch beside the little elf. "Is it you that has been following us?"
"Feya wishes only to..." She was struggling with suppressed emotions, gazing inwardly at some unseen horror.
Seeing Feya's deep distress and remembering her first words, Luna put her arms around the little creature. "It's alright to cry now, Feya; Rolf won't mind."
The little house-elf wept softly on Luna's shoulder. Everyone else looked on either alarmed or baffled or both, waiting for some explanation. Feya looked up.
"People all dead. All killed." she said sadly.
"Everyone in the village? They've all been killed?" asked Bingley, glancing back at the deserted dirt street through the village.
"Do you think Worley could have had them killed so they can't tell us anything?" Hermione asked Bingley with a shudder. The idea that they themselves might have triggered this tragedy filled her with dread.
Feya was shaking her head. "Long time. Bones. Just bones."
Harry looked thoughtful. "Voldemort. He did it. When he set up this place years ago. When he seized this valley for himself and his Death Eaters." There was no disagreement from anyone else and they stared towards the village wondering what to do.
"Why did you come, Feya?" asked Luna, quietly, still holding the little elf in her arms.
"Mrs. Preed made Feya promise to go to Master Rolf if Master was in trouble," said Feya but she added in a whisper so only Luna could hear, "and Seraphina says Feya's help is needed."
"Mother doesn't usually..." began Rolf.
"Mrs. Preed always worries about Master Rolf." corrected Feya. She rubbed away her tears with the back of her little fists and went over to Rolf who had sat down on a big stone to think.
Bingley spoke. "Everyone stay here. Rolf, will you take charge please? I'm going to see for myself ... Harry?" she looked at Harry but did not insist.
"Yes. I'll come with you." said Harry, looking around as if hoping someone would stop him. Nobody did and nobody else volunteered although they watched with sympathy as the pair walked cautiously into the village.
There was little to see in the first part of the main street. It was the only proper street with rough flat stone slabs set in the dirt. The few side turnings were mere dust trails. Harry and Bingley were both chanting "Homenum Revelio" like a dirge but not a single living person was there to be revealed.
Bingley peered through some forced, blasted, shutters and saw a small skeletal body crouched facing a corner and still embracing the remains of an even smaller child. The torn remnants of their clothing suggested it was probably a boy and his little sister trying to hide from their killers. Bingley said nothing to Harry.
As they progressed they saw damaged buildings and loose bone fragments here and there among the natural litter and debris on the ground. Bingley knew that animals would have dispersed these but again she did not speak aloud. She was not sure Harry was even noticing what these occasional human remains really were. But he could not fail to notice the heaps of human skulls and bones at the far end of the village and he stared disbelievingly. These pitiful heaps of broken decay had once been living people. One still clung to a cracked bucket as if she had died while going to fetch water. The worn leather thong of a single sandal was still caught in a torn, faded dress where its wearer had fallen. Harry's numbed mind started wondering pointlessly if the strap had caused her to trip or if it had only got caught up after she was put down by a dark curse.
Only Bingley spoke. "Looks like the Death Eaters came in the same way we did and swept all before them. Some villagers hid but most ran this way - straight into more dark wizards waiting for them." She had seen before what was left of muggle families after they had been attacked by Voldemort's followers but not on this scale.
Beyond the west side of the village were disused fields, some still with crops now run wild, and Bingley called a halt. "We've seen enough. I'll inform Kingsley. When the aurors get here they will see it's not just talk anymore. Here is all the proof they need of something serious taking place."
Bingley cast her owl patronus again and sent her dismal message on its way to the Minister then they turned back. Harry had been silent and remained so for part of the journey back before he voiced his thoughts.
"This must have happened while I was at school at Hogwarts fretting about potion ingredients or whether I could get to Hogsmeade at the weekend or even whether to have another helping of porridge." he said bitterly.
"Don't dwell too much on it Harry. You'll go crazy worrying about things like this. I've been haunted by seeing more than one family destroyed by Death Eaters but I've learned to put it out of my mind. We have to." Professor Anthea Bingley had a family of her own and instinctively felt motherly towards Harry. She was shorter than him and looked up at the young man to judge his reaction with a reassuring but grim smile on her round, pleasant face.
They both had troubled faces when they met up with the others again but Harry had started to look really sick. Nobody asked them anything for a while - perhaps because it would be difficult to frame a question that was not inappropriate.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Harry." said Luna. "Is there anything we can say to help?"
"No. Nothing. I'll get over it." Harry said abruptly and went to sit down on one of the many big stones that were scattered around.
Rolf changed the topic of conversation to take their minds off the horror most of them were imagining. "While you were away we were exchanging ideas about traversing the open areas. It's possible that there might not be many Death Eaters so we could simply cross anyway - fight if we have to.
"Another suggestion was to command some horses or other wild animals but not everybody is comfortable with that, never having ridden. They would also be vulnerable to an air attack if the Death Eaters use broomsticks. I'm not sure if there are thestrals here or if we could draw them to us but the same applies - anyone who is doing all they can just to cling on to a mount is a helpless target for an experienced flying Death Eater.
"We could try stealth - use disillusionment charms - but it is notoriously difficult to keep a group together and those charms can be detected and even broken. Then we would really be stranded in the open. If anyone got separated it would be very difficult for them to find the rest of us again.
"We might try during darkness but we are already short of sleep so definitely not fit to start tonight.
"I don't like any of the options." Rolf concluded.
After a half a minute of head-scratching silence, Bingley said, "Harry? Any ideas?" She was trying to force Harry to stop pondering what he had seen.
"What?" said Harry, raising his head for the first time.
"Harry, do you want to catch those who did that to those poor muggles?" Bingley said.
"Of course I do!" snapped Harry. "Sorry, I wasn't listening. What do we need?"
"We need to find a way safely across the open grasslands to reach the volcano."
"Oh right... If we had broomsticks... Yeah right - we haven't... Just go for it I suppose. Take a chance. Just walk."
"And we all end up attacked by five hundred flying Death Eaters! Is that what you want? Wake up Harry!" said Bingley. She deliberately wanted to annoy Harry which she felt would be preferable to his being depressed.
"OK, OK. Let me think..." Harry held his head but his thoughts were just blank.
"I still say there are not that many of them at all!" exclaimed Hermione. "It's obvious why won't anybody listen!"
"Me too," said Ron. "That's what I think too."
Ginny turned on them both rather loudly. "And you're willing to risk everyone's life and not only that but we may be the only ones in time to stop the world curse. No pressure, Ron but it's stupid to just assume..."
"Yes but meanwhile, what about Neville? While we're sitting around here he might be dead by now!" shouted Ron.
Luna had taken Feya and moved away to sit down on a mossy log a little further apart to think away from the commotion but she could not escape the sounds of growing irritation caused by the frustrating problem and lack of sleep.
"Ron..." began Hermione.
"You and Ron might be right - we may have no choice but just to walk out there." said Bingley.
"Suppose we split up?" suggested Rolf. "One group of three or four sets out. We have to keep in touch - a patronus will do it. If the first group fails then at least someone survives to try something else."
"That's sickening! How can you even think that!" choked Hermione.
"But think what's at stake!" exploded Rolf. "I don't like it any more than you do! The law of the jungle is a dreadful, dreadful thing. I'm willing to go out on my own if necessary so the rest of you can tell if it's safe."
"I know how we can tell if Neville is still alive."
Everyone stopped talking and turned around to look at Luna. She came over to Rolf and there was a whispered exchange for a while. Rolf went off to keep watch with Feya feeling a little rejected.
Luna spoke seriously. "I don't know how to cross the valley safely but I do know how we can tell if Neville is alive and prove to you all that Voldemort is dead and calm things down too so we can think more clearly."
Everyone was already calming down a little out of curiosity to hear what Luna had to say but it was Ron who spoke.
"Merlin's hat! Of course! You mean the mind realm! Why didn't we think of this before?" For the first time in a while, Ron had a grin on his tired-looking face.
"Can we tell where they are?" asked Bingley. She had had only the one brief session in the mind realm so needed reminding.
"No - there are no 'places' in the mind realm. There's no space at all," replied Ron, "but at least we can tell if Nev's OK."
Harry stood up suddenly and said, "We already know Voldemort is dead don't we? I should have remembered that - from that first session we did at the start of this term. Sorry again, Luna. I was an idiot to even think he might still be alive."
"You were exhausted and muddled up - not thinking straight." said Luna.
"No Harry - only you saw he was gone - but none of us were thinking of him at all that session - or any session." said Ron. "Anyway, he might have been restored since then! Remember the Deathly Hallows? There was a resurrection stone. Suppose it were real?"
"What!" said Harry, rather weakly. He had never told anyone that he had possessed it for a time then dropped it in the Forbidden Forest.
"Don't be ridiculous, Ron." said Hermione. "It's a myth."
"Yeah - like the elder wand? I was joking but even so, who's to say? Anyway, I think we all now agree you-know-who's probably dead right! But if we have a session now we can prove that for us all just by looking for him." Ron looked at Luna. "Great idea, Luna! We can check on Neville and relax everybody at the same time."
Luna smiled weakly. Like everyone else she had hardly slept for two days and the afternoon was drawing on to evening.
"Luna, how do you feel about going in without Neville? You've never gone into the mental realm without your bond." asked Ginny.
"Oh I have a few times. It's not anything like so good but I can handle it." said Luna.
"That's alright, then..." said Hermione.
"Wait a minute. Luna, I don't recall you ever going in without Neville." said Ron.
"Oh.. well, only... once or twice." Luna seemed unusually evasive.
"When?" persisted Ron. He sounded suspicious of Luna.
Luna hesitated then finally spoke.
"It was last year when you were all away..." she said guiltily.
"What? You went in alone!" exploded Ron. "You mean with Neville and Ginny?"
"No. On my own. You don't understand. I was..."
"What have I told you! We never go in with less than three!" shouted Ron.
"Ron, remember, we did. You and I..." said Hermione, trying to calm him down.
"That was different. I've progressed more. I... Anyway, there were two of us."
"Yes but you said you'd go in alone if you had to!" said Harry loudly.
"That's not the point. Luna, what on earth were you thinking of!" Ron shouted.
Rolf came quickly striding over and stepped in between Ron and Luna. "Ron, I don't know what this is about but stop it! Don't you shout at Luna - not while I'm around. I won't stand for it." He looked threateningly at Ron.
"Cool it guys!" said Ginny, moving over to Luna.
Ron half side-stepped Rolf and said more quietly to Luna over Rolf's shoulder, "Why'd you do it Luna?"
"You don't see... I was frightened... and..." There was a pause. "...lonely." Luna started to look very sad at the memories. She sat down on a long stone slab. Ginny sat with her.
"We were out being hunted and risking our necks looking for bloody horcruxes! What had you got to..." Ron stopped as Rolf glared at him and took a step forward, bunching a fist. Hermione digged Ron in the ribs.
"If it wasn't for Ginny here I'd have gone mad." said Luna. Ginny took her hand.
Luna continued. "You don't understand. When I was little I was alone. I wasn't really lonely - I was alone but not lonely. Even when mum died... that was different. I didn't learn to be lonely until I... until I made friends... and then lost them."
Luna looked very forlorn and Ginny put her arm around her shoulder.
"You never lost your friends, Luna." Harry said kindly. "Even when we were away... Even Ron. Don't take any notice of Ron being an arse. He's just annoyed because he knows the risks better than any of us. We knew you'd been up in the old classroom but we thought you just went there to be on your own for a while."
"It's just..." Ron tailed off, feeling a little sorry for Luna but not knowing what to say.
Luna was determined not to cry but she was choked with emotion and struggled to speak between gasps, "I know... It was just so... So calm and peaceful in the..." Luna looked sideways at Rolf. "...there - away from the cruelty of the Carrows. They were horrible... to the little ones... And... And then I could see you all again. I had no idea where you were but in that... you were as close as ever. It helped me... not be so lonely for a few days. I think... why I was drawn to Neville... He's sweet but... suppose he needed someone too."
Rolf looked at Luna with a fleeting look of relief.
Bingley took control. "I think we must just do it. Right now. Sorry Rolf. You've no idea what we're talking about but that's how it has to be. Would you mind putting up protection and silencing charms then keep watch with Feya? Ron, would you take charge?"
Bingley conjured up a campfire in the middle of the stones, more for its cheery atmosphere than anything and they all sat round it. Rolf took a last look at Luna who nodded at him sorrowfully and he went back to Feya to watch the sun setting over the far end of the valley.
Ron began the routine and eventually cast the enchantments that led them into the mentasphere. Rolf glanced back now and again. They just seemed to be sitting there quietly together. He shook his head and looked at Feya with a worried look.
"Deep magic, Master Rolf. Miss Luna is happy now with friends so Feya is happy too." Feya smiled.
Rolf resigned himself to not knowing everything about Luna Lovegood but so long as she was safe and happy then he should wish for nothing more. Yet he did. He wished he could be more a part of Luna's life. The more he thought about it the more he wished he could be every part of her life. He remembered how she had not only asked him for a date but 'more dates'. He smiled. The thought was comforting.
"Master likes Miss Luna?" said Feya.
"Very much." smiled Rolf forgetting he was talking to his house-elf.
What was it Luna had said? Rolf thought back. If you don't like the first date then you don't do any more so you only waste the one date. The thought of any date with Luna being a waste seemed ridiculous to Rolf.
Rolf blinked. His thoughts were playing tricks inside his head. He glanced back to the group who were still sitting motionless and silent together. What on earth are they doing? he wondered. He could see the side of Luna's face, so calm now, so poised with the firelight flickering gently over it. It evoked in Rolf such feelings of tenderness that he had to shake himself and stand up. Feya stood up with him. Rolf sat down again. So did Feya. Then he remember what he was supposed to be doing.
"Are you keeping watch, Feya?" asked Rolf.
"Yes, Master Rolf. Feya is watching very carefully." replied the little house-elf, looking at him with a smile.
After the brief session there was elation. They had all clearly seen that Neville was alive and mentally intact at least. Everyone felt refreshed and all conflicts were forgotten as the twilight deepened and stars appeared overhead.
Bingley smiled. "So, if I could give house points for this I'd give fifty points to Ravenclaw for being right about Voldemort being dead and, let's see ten points each off Gryffindor for being wrong."
"Well, for someone who's dead, You-know-who certainly causes a lot of bother." grumbled Ginny.
"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones." said Hermione.
"What's that mean, Hermione?" asked Ron.
"It's by a great muggle poet. It means Voldemort's dark will still lingers on in others and in this world curse." said Hermione.
"That's cheerful!" laughed Harry. "How about this verse instead?
"There was a dark wizard it's said,Had worms crawling out of his head.When they poked it about,The eyeballs popped out,So he's definitely, definitely, dead."
As laughter started to fill the night air, Rolf and Feya rejoined them and they chatted and joked for an hour while sipping hot chocolate and resolved to leave the decision about travel until the morning. When they turned in for the night, the girls went into the Weasley tent to sleep but the valley night was warm enough for the boys to sleep comfortably outside. Bingley took first watch.
As they were all dozing off, Harry suddenly started chuckling to himself.
"Put a sock in it Harry!" moaned Ginny from the tent - but she was secretly pleased to hear Harry was happy again.
Just before he drifted off into a deep, contented sleep, Harry's last thought to himself was, Tomorrow I'll tell them how we cross the valley.