The first Saturday morning in October was rather cool but that was not the reason why Amycus Carrow was rubbing his hands together. His smug expression indicated some sinister satisfaction that was nothing to do with the weather. Nott and Goyle had informed him that every Gryffindor had departed the castle. Most had gone to Hogsmeade; two had been detained by Alecto; the rest were in the Hogwarts grounds. A weak sun broke through the dull clouds only sporadically but students were glad to escape for a few hours from the confining atmosphere of the Death Eaters regime. Not that Carrow considered such feelings; he was merely pleased to be rid of the troublesome brats for a time.
He walked quietly up the steps of the Gryffindor Tower, confident that at last he would find evidence against those who resisted the Dark Lord's will. The headmaster had demanded the password from McGonagall for him and no one now stood between him and what he sought. Or so he thought.
Way above him, Luna Lovegood was beginning to slowly walk down the stairs of the Gryffindor Tower, thinking hard. She took out a handwritten page of an ancient Gryffindor House Journal she had copied from the library and read it yet again, though she knew what it said.
Gladde tidings the present weeke in which this Journal doth declare & recorde an betrothal to blesse our great House. Master Adgar Waryn Stockley & Miss Ellyn Martha Holbrook, sweethearts ever, bothe being sixthe years & moste eligible, wish & desire to be joyned in matrimony next yeare, God willing.
She pushed it back into her bag and thought a little more. Something was very wrong. She felt sure that Neville had said Adgar was in Slytherin. She looked at the envelope in her other hand then raised it cautiously to her nose. Its scent had changed to danger; there was a mix of sulphur, smoke, fear, and darkness. Draco's message to Ginny ought not to wait. She carefully prised it open, taking care not to tear it, and read the words that were written upon the single sheet within it. There were only four but their significance was chilling:
Stone cursed. Trail false.
There was no time to waste; Ginny had to be stopped before she used the Trysting Stone. The girl ran as fast as she could down the remaining steps - straight into Amycus Carrow, pushing him off-balance on the narrow, winding stair.
"Lovegood!" gasped the Dark Arts professor as he grabbed Luna by the arm. "What the blasted bladderworts you doin' 'ere?"
"Oh, visiting a friend," said Luna breathlessly.
"Lies! There's nobody up there!" His snarl echoed around the confined space of the stone stairwell and a nearby wall torch flickered as he ended with a wheezy cough, trying to get his breath back - or perhaps to hide that he had had a fright.
"I couldn't get in. The Fat Lady will--" panted Luna, wincing as the man tightened his grip.
"Wassat?" he cried, snatching Draco's message which she still clutched in her hand. His face twisted into a leer as if he felt sure that he had found her out in some roguery.
"I was... going to leave a message..."
Carrow turned away from Luna and stared at the note in the light of the torch. There was a puzzled and a disappointed look on his face. He examined the envelope too then, with an expression of curiosity, he sniffed at it. "Disgustin'!"
He thrust them back at her, irritated that he had not found any excuse to punish the girl. "Detention! Now!"
There was a few seconds of silent face-twisting as Carrow tried to think of a reason.
"For loiterin' where yer shouldn't." There was a smirk on his face as he contemplated where best to send her as far away as possible while he continued up to the Gryffindor common room. He seemed to enjoy the power he had over students.
"Kitchen! You'll scrub twenty - no, fifty pans. I want 'em lined up, shining, for my inspection when I go down later!" he frowned. "And five thousand lines I must not loiter where I ought not. Yes, that should do it."
"Wand!" he cried. "Gimme yer wand. Yer'll not use magic ter 'elp yer. Collect it later. He held out his hand and Luna despondently handed over her wand.
He smirked gleefully at his captured trophy then he glared at Luna.
"Well? Wotcha waitin' for? Kitchen's that way!" he said, using Luna's precious wand like any common stick to point down the stairs.
It was with a worried expression that Luna entered the Hogwarts kitchen. A fat little house-elf with big scruffy ears asked her if he could be of assistance.
"I need fifty pans, please."
"Certainly, Miss." The elf snapped his pudgy fingers and various pans started to jump, hop, fly, and float onto a lengthy wooden table which stood at one end of the great kitchens. The clatter caught the attention of two other elves at work on next week's menus and they looked up from their desk in annoyance. Nobody else was present at this hour.
"Oh, they're supposed to be dirty, please," said Luna, looking at her anxious face reflected in a shining copper lid.
"Hogwarts will have no dirty pans until after the lunchtime feast, Miss." The elf looked rather offended. "Would the young Miss like for Truggle to... make them dirty?" He shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself as if he needed comforting after such a dreadful thought.
"Could you perhaps... No, wait. That's alright. Would it be possible for you to line them up along this table? Professor Carrow will come to inspect them later. Can you spare them?"
"Can Hogwarts spare a few pans such as these? Hogwarts has as many pans as Hogwarts needs. It will be an honour to have these pans inspected. Might Truggle beg a favour of the young Miss?"
"Yes, of course."
"Would it be permissible... since they are to be inspected... Would it be acceptable for Truggle to polish them up extra bright? The young Miss wouldn't... perhaps... mention this?" The elf gave a timid little laugh and bit his lip like a mischievous little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"That would be wonderful, Truggle. I promise I will not say a word," said Luna with a smile. "Oh, I have an idea. Let me take the blame. If Professor Carrow asks then you can say I scrubbed and polished them. Is that alright?"
The elf's eyes lit up. He wrung his hands in supplication and begged the young Ravenclaw girl for more requests that he might better compensate for her generous promise and her unbelievable willingness to admit it was she who had polished the pans.
"Very well. May I sit at this table then for a while?" she said. "I have some urgent writing to do. Do you have parchment please? Enough for five thousand lines?"
"Yes, Truggle is so grateful to be able to help the young Miss." He eagerly snapped his fingers again. The other two elves and their carefully-worded menus scattered as their desk burst open and sheets of parchment flocked together into the air and flew across to the table.
Luna sat down and set to work. She was very glad that her Quibbler's Go-Anywhere Reporter's Quill could write out as many copies as needed of anything she wrote. She left the pen scribbling away the remaining four thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine lines and accepted Truggle's promise to return it to her when it was finished.
The elf seemed to be almost tripping over himself to help. Luna whispered one last request in his copious, floppy ears and Truggle rapidly filled a small sack for her to take away.
When Luna finally entered the Forbidden Forest she knew it would be near impossible to catch up to Ginny and Neville. She set out at a trot through the trees, heading in the direction she remembered from their previous trip with Hagrid. Her sharp mind had noticed that here and there, the half-giant had bent or broken a leaf stem or twig to mark the trail. Her woodcraft was not good enough to spot them all but the few she saw were reassuring.
It was soon evident, though, that there were other, less natural, markers. Slightly ahead, the trunk of a beech tree had a faint purple glow around its base. She recognised what it was and reached instinctively behind her ear. This was when she first became aware of her vulnerability. Carrow had her wand and she was alone in the Forbidden Forest. A series of magical markers must have been invisibly cast by Crabbe on their previous return. Ginny and Neville would have used a revealing spell but its effect was fading and without a wand, Luna could not reveal them again. She had to hurry while they still glimmered.
The sun continued to struggle occasionally through the thin clouds but was not very helpful where the trees grew thickest. The girl dodged and weaved among the trunks and undergrowth, eyes ever-alert for signs of her friends' route, and always watchful for danger.
Luna was now very much out of breath. She did not seem to be gaining on her friends; the purple glows seemed almost as pale as before. Furthermore, she was worried that she had not seen any bent stems for some time. She stopped and gazed around, trying to get her sense of direction. Although the midday sun had, once again, hidden itself behind the dirty skies, the brightest area indicated its approximate direction to the south.
Her stomach growled at the thought of missing lunch. She stopped and considered the sack that Truggle had given her. It contained food - but not for her. Why had she not taken the opportunity to get a packed meal for herself as well! She looked around again, trying to recall the direction she had taken during their previous visit here with Hagrid. She could come to only one conclusion:
They're going the wrong way.
Luna dropped the sack and sat down beside it amongst the fallen leaves to think for a while. She did her best thinking sitting down. She pondered what Draco had written: False trail! They had been sent to who-knows-where - or possibly a longer, roundabout route to the Stone. Yes, that seemed more likely since the original intention must have been that they reach the stone. Perhaps this was Crabbe's idea of a joke - to cast the markers far and wide as he walked back.
She did not even stir while she observed the next marker fade to nothing. Grimly, she untied the sack; she would have to search the forest from above.
When Ginny and Neville finally stumbled into the clearing wherein stood the Trysting Stone, they did not know it. Although the glade was free of trees, it was consumed by other foliage which tangled the way and obscured the enchanted rock. A flock of starlings took flight at the couple's intrusion and a small creature, the size and colour of a fox but with far more legs, leapt to safety in the thick, tall grasses and leafery. It glanced back for a few seconds, its eyes shining in the gathering gloom, then it was gone.
"Merlin's Beard!" said Neville.
"What's wrong?" said Ginny, clutching his arm. The afternoon was over. Although the clouds had mostly thinned away, they were fiery-lit by the last sliver of sunset hidden behind the black-silhouetted trees. The evening star proudly took its place above the fading hazy glow to the west to herald the brightening moon.
"No - that mossy stuff is Merlin's beard. I think we're in the right area. It was one of the things we got before, remember? It doesn't grow everywhere."
Neville and Ginny began clearing a way with their wands and the wild plant growth parted reluctantly before them. They stopped. Ahead of them a tall, thin, pale rock pushed upward through the darkening shroud of foliage; it was twice as high and wide as Neville but not deep. Like a friendly old grandfather, its face was softened by age and it was leaning forward slightly as if to welcome them. Shadowed beneath this overhang were the densest ferns and knotted shrubbery hampering access to the great block.
"What now?" asked Neville.
Ginny struggled and writhed around to its spine, clearing away the vegetation that swathed part way up the pillar. She found what she sought. A cavity had been carved into the stone, just below shoulder height. She peered in and saw Neville blasting away the growth from the front of the rock. They grinned at each other through the hole.
"There's something written this side - carved in," he said. He read it out, "'Naught shalt love e'er sunder.'"
Ginny went back round to join him. Now that the moment had arrived she hesitated.
"Shouldn't Harry be here, though?" asked Neville.
"No, he can come later for me - but he doesn't need to; I'll never stop loving him; I'll never be disappointed in him. The Stone will know it's him; it knows your feelings. No, this time it's just for Harry - so he'll understand me; so he won't be disappointed in me; so his love will not fade."
Neville knew when not to argue. He looked hard at the Gryffindor girl, at her shining eyes and the hope therein. He knew Snape had burnt the fear and doubt into her and she could not help torturing herself. Perhaps this stone really will help.
Ginny reached out for the great rock. How many couples had stood here to be enjoined in love she wondered. She gazed upwards, admiring the shape and sense of magical power, feeling the emotion enshrined in it by the many.
There was something else there, high above them, beyond the very top of the stone. It was caught in the last, highest, softly-suffused rays of the forgotten sun, star-bright against the darkening sky.
"Harpy!" shrieked Ginny, pointing upwards.
Neville followed Ginny's frightened stare upwards. Several great creatures were circling, wings beating heavily, descending from the last of the light, down into the earth's darkness, lower and lower, directly towards them.
"Thestrals! - they're thestrals!" cried Neville. "You can't... How can you see them?"
"It's Luna. I see only Luna," Ginny said finally, as she recognised the girl in flight. As the figure sank slowly down, so did Ginny's feelings. This could not be good.
"Ginny! Stop!" cried Luna as she alighted from what seemed to be nothing. "Am I too late?"
"Luna! Why have--" said Ginny as she walked sullenly to meet her - but she knew why and there was a growing resentment within her.
"It's wrong! It's bad. You shouldn't do this, Ginny."
"You've come all this way to tell me that again?" said Ginny. "You don't understand--"
"Ginny, Ginny - I do understand. I know it hurts but--"
"No you don't!" Ginny's voice rose in volume.
"Adgar was a Gryffindor not a Slytherin!" said Luna. "He--"
"I saw him! I talked with him! He's Slytherin alright - you're just saying that to stop me!" Ginny was becoming more agitated. The disturbing view of leaves and grasses being invisibly turned aside and trampled underfoot did not help. She knew they were thestrals but the sight was still unnerving in the deepening gloom.
"No, look!" Luna reached into her bag to pull out the clipping but pulled out the envelope instead.
"And it's cursed! The stone is cursed! Draco says so! Look!" She held out the envelope but she could see - and smell - that it had changed. It was unaddressed and its fragrance was sweet Jasmine again.
"Draco is just trying to stop me! He'd say anything! He's going to use the stone himself! You don't believe--" Ginny looked towards Neville but he had stood awkwardly away, not wishing to take sides; both the girls were his friends.
Luna pulled Draco's note out of the envelope. It, too, was without writing.
"He must have used a read-once quill," said Luna dismally.
"You've been had, Luna. He just said it to send you on a wild goose chase," cried Ginny, her face flushed with annoyance. "I've made up my mind. I have to do this!"
She turned, kicked aside a dead branch that tore at her ankles, and stomped back towards the stone.
"No, Ginny!" cried Luna. She sounded desperate and now she, too, looked to Neville for support; He shook his head doubtfully, wishing he were somewhere else.
The Ravenclaw girl ran after her friend and took her by the shoulder but Ginny wriggled away from her grip and shouted angrily at her, "Will you stop interfering! Just leave me alone!"
Luna was clutched by a dreadful fear. She fell to her knees and watched as her friend thrust her arm through the hole in the Trysting Stone. Ginny held herself there, waiting, unsure what to expect or what was expected of her. Luna felt adrift in a sinking ship; down, down, down, sank her heart.
Nothing happened. No storm gathered. No great wind sprang up. No thunderclap signalled disaster.
"You see!" cried Ginny exultantly. "You see!" She held up her arms and hands as if to show she was still in one piece; altogether whole and well. Perhaps she had felt some of Luna's doubts after all; perhaps her need was so great she did not care about any risk.
"But it might take hours to see its effect," said Luna. "The original charm may still be there. The curse could gradually overcome it..."
"Now you're just inventing things to put yourself in the right!" yelled Ginny. "Why can't you just accept you make mistakes like everyone else? You've spoilt this for me." She folded her arms in a tearful huff and turned her back on Luna. It had to work. It just had to be right - for Harry. It just had to.
"Perhaps... perhaps I was wrong..." said Luna, mostly to herself, and more with hope than conviction. "What do you think, Neville?"
Neville had become deeply absorbed in his thoughts. He had very mixed feelings. It seemed to him that Luna was the most intelligent and considerate of people but at the same time he hoped dearly that she was mistaken. He looked at the Ravenclaw girl; he had been pondering what she had done. Without thought for her own safety she had risked venturing alone into the Forest to find and help her friend. His fondness for the girl had grown this year and he wondered why he had ever hesitated to tell her so.
"I don't know, Luna but..." He turned to Ginny who still had her back to both of them. She was staring at the aperture in the Stone, wondering what was to happen; wanting something to happen. "Ginny, I'm sure Luna is only trying to help; you ought not to be annoyed at her. I respect and admire her for what she is trying to do. Ginny, I care for her very much. Can't you... apologise to her? Please? If only for me?"
Ginny turned and glared at Neville. Then her countenance softened as she saw Luna's chastened expression. She sniffed deeply and went over to hug the girl. "Sorry, Luna. I just get so irritable. I can't seem to help it - but it will be different now, I promise. I've just got a good feeling about this."
The three spontaneously sat on the ground and talked for an hour as it grew completely dark. Ginny lit her wand and gave Luna her spare baggy jumper to keep out the chilling air. The Ravenclaw girl had not eaten since breakfast and Neville gladly shared the food and drink they had brought with them. Ginny regretted becoming annoyed with Luna and made every effort to send kind words her way. As she fussed over her, Neville smiled; he hated to see Luna unhappy and was delighted to see the two girls had made up. All three of them seemed to grow closer together as they sat there; perhaps it was the proximity of the Trysting Stone and its love charm; perhaps it was that this had been a meeting place for thousands of years and that had its own magic; or perhaps it was simply that the lasting bond between them made it easy to forgive and forget.
The scene evoked a timeless, mystical comradery as the three tiny figures huddled agreeably together, chatting quietly at the dark picnic. The pale blue of Ginny's drifting wand-light silently complemented the silvered moon's ambience to illuminate the face of true friendship. All manner of small creatures were drawn to this, the centre of the enchanted glade; fireflies and fairies, tiny elfin creatures sensitive to all good feelings; scampering dormice and blue lace bats and living things of light and air, all curious as to why their domain felt safer, gentler, near these three magical folk. And to these three, the memory of this meeting would live within each of them for the rest of their lives.
None of the three noticed the two faded figures standing watching them from the dark trees. Nor did they hear the faint sighs even in the silence of the evening. If they had looked in that direction they might, perhaps, have seen they affectionately held each other around the waist - but they would not have seen the sorrow in their eyes.
Eventually the three friends had to prepare to depart. Ginny went back to the Trysting Stone. It seemed, even to Luna as she watched, that the tall monolith, partly-lit, partly-silhouetted by the fat crescent moon, did not look threatening at all but seemed to exude a warm welcome. Ginny rubbed her hands over the softly-worn rock and spoke quietly, "Thank you."
Luna turned to the three thestrals that were standing patiently nearby. She pulled down the sack of meat that one of them carried and began to feed them. Neville went to help.
"Luna, we had a lovely time here, didn't we?" he remarked.
"It's this place, don't you think? It's very special."
There was a short pause.
"Hogsmeade was special too wasn't it?" he murmured. He needed her answer.
"Yes, Neville." Luna had cast the last piece of meat that she held but she did not reach for more from the sack. She wiped her hands as she watched the thestral eating.
"Luna, I promise, no matter what - I will... That is, if you're willing... I will take you to Hogsmeade next year if the ban is lifted. Just you and me."
"That will be lovely." Luna turned to Neville and stepped closer. The moon was behind him; his face in deep shadow, but her own brightly-illumined face was near enough to reflect upon him - enough to see his hopeful smile.
Neville gazed at Luna. Her gentle expression shone in the silvery light and her eyes were bright with love. The tenderness and trusting look he saw therein touched him deeply and he reached for her hand.
Harry's kiss took Ginny by surprise. It was deeper, longer, more loving than anything she had known before and it seemed it would not end. She had been holding onto the tall stone, smoothing over its friendly texture with her hands and reluctant to leave it - but the trembling of the medallion pulled her into something higher. In a dream, she glanced over her shoulder. Neville and Luna seemed more absorbed in each other than in feeding the thestrals; the creatures had found the forgotten sack for themselves. Ginny lifted the medallion and turned it to catch the light from the luminous sphere which she had cast over the place where they had all sat entranced together. She could feel Harry was still kissing her. She saw the words flow and keep flowing as she touched the silver disk to her own lips while he still did too.
The Sword! I heard all. You cannot guess how marvellously you helped. Bless you, my Ginny. I will tell. Willow - tomorrow. Bring lunch!
Ginny was exultant but not a trace of that bliss showed upon her face as she turned to walk slowly back to the other two.
They had no reason to speak so softly but Neville kissed Luna's hand and whispered to her, "I wish we could meet sooner - a proper date I mean."
"We can," Luna breathed back. "The Room of Requirement can be a romantic tea room just as easily as a war room."
"You have to really need it, not just want it, or the Room doesn't work," said Neville, breathlessly.
"Oh, we need it very badly, don't you think?"
Neville leaned forward the last few inches...
Ginny called, "Luna - when you took the herbs and things up to Snape the other day - was the sword really gone?"
Luna saw her own moonlit face clearly in Neville's dark eyes; felt his warmth close and welcoming. Someone had spoken. The words were separated in Luna's mind; they did not join together. She blinked. The moment was gone; the words connected. "Yes, the glass case was empty." She turned, reluctantly, towards Ginny. "Why?"
"Nothing. Just wondered..."
The flight back to Hogwarts on the backs of the thestrals would have been memorable of itself, but Ginny's feelings were flying even higher. It had been a wonderful evening. That Harry was not now, nor ever could be, disappointed in her, she knew now it had always been thus; she felt it to the uttermost. No magic can create true love; no curse destroy. And she was to meet with him tomorrow; touch him; hold him; be held by him; be really kissed by him. She glanced across at her friends as they all flew like gods on invisible steeds through the stars. She was closer than ever to them both and she sensed they were to each other at last. Yes, it seemed a day of rebirth and Ginny would save its last kiss until she was tucked up in bed, snug and warm. Love you forever, Harry. Love you always.
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