Luna had been right. The clouds did huddle together and the weather certainly turned colder over the next month. The atmosphere inside Hogwarts too, was rather icy - most particularly in the Carrows' classes. Ginny and Neville had advised D.A. members to be extra cautious and low-key. The wanted posters were still successfully reasserting themselves and occupying Filch's time. The castle itself became eager to re-position staircases and walls to the inconvenience of the Carrows and McGonagall's smiling to herself suggested she had had a hand in that. Neville had persuaded Flywixel, the garden's resident cat, to divert the occasional rat towards Alecto's bedroom and the teacher's red-rimmed eyes and nervous disposition told him when she had suffered a sleepless night. But on the whole, there was a cooling-off period that matched the drop in temperature outside.
"Pass the syrup, would you please, Gin?" asked Seamus. "Can't have me breakfast porridge without some."
"Mmm...? What? Oh right..." said Ginny, sliding it over. "Thought you were sweet enough, Seamus."
Ginny's bacon sandwiches were only half-eaten. Since eavesdropping on Snape, Ginny had often become fretful but she kept it to herself for Harry's sake. Now, the focus of her attention was on supporting him and she was glad to do it. Why and how it helped she did not know. What occupied his time she could not guess. The hours in which he called for her to be strong for him were now more frequent. His burden was now hers too and she never hesitated to empower him with her words of encouragement and the sense of their togetherness. His success was paramount so she tried to ignore her own worries and concentrated on Harry.
She looked around the Great Hall. There was a subdued atmosphere at all the tables. Neville, sitting next to herself and Seamus, was definitely looking down in the dumps. Ginny looked over to the Ravenclaw table but she knew Luna would not be there. She had become chronically ill during this time. There was no accounting for it. Sporadically, she felt headaches, confusion, depression and was very weak for several days at a time. Matron could not explain it. Bed rest and Pepperup Potion in the hospital wing resolved the ailment within a few days but it kept reoccurring. Luna wailed that the Ministry were summoning Umgubular Slashkilters to drip a slow poison into her belly button at night from the ceiling but nobody took her seriously. She pointed out that these creatures hate the smell of hospitals. This was the reason, insisted Luna, why she recovered.
Her main concern was that she had not been well at any of the five weekends that had passed her by and so she had not seen Audrey, her tawny owl in all that time. She was not concerned about the owl feeding itself - the Forest was teeming with small creatures - but she wanted to read her father's reply to her messages.
Neville visited her in the hospital wing of course, but he was getting more and more forgetful and distracted so the number of these visits dwindled, and he could generally only get there in the evenings after classes had ended.
"I've brought Dippity along," said Neville, on one of the ever-rarer occasions he called in to see her. It was Halloween night and Neville had hurried to the hospital wing immediately after the final lesson of the week. There were to be no official decorations in the Great Hall but the D.A. had plans for mass-conjuring huge flocks of bats and instant-grow pumpkins. Hagrid and Professor Sprout had covertly helped with these. Luna had been looking forward to this so Neville hoped the kitten might allay her disappointment at being hospitalised yet again.
Neville cast a furtive eye around for Madam Pomfrey then sneaked the young cat out from under his robes.
"Oh, she's growing!" said Luna, stroking the white fur and tickling the cat under the chin.
"Flywixel is already teaching her how to drive out vermin," said Neville, earnestly. "They are very patient with them. Dippity is not daunted at all by rats as big as herself and she just keeps explaining to them until they understand not to come back. Ragdolls can be surprisingly stubborn when there are no Muggles about."
They were silent for a while watching Dippity play with Luna's nightcap. Neville was beginning to look dejected.
"Neville, I'm sorry about... our date. I've not been able to get to the Room of Requirement properly yet to finish it off - and I want it to be perfect before I bring in the food and drink... and I've so much homework backed up." Luna was looking very sorrowful. "The D.A. comes first, of course, so even when I'm well... How are you managing there without me?"
"Well, we've slowed things right down for now. Hannah's standing in for you - she's very good at organising things... You should see all the giant candles she's got for tonight's feast... It's going to be great! This'll shake them up I can tell you!" He tailed off as he saw Luna's expression.
There was a long thoughtful silence.
"Hufflepuffs are hard workers aren't they?" Neville said brightly all of a sudden.
"They're killing me, Neville," said Luna quietly. Her lip quivered and her head dropped despondently.
"Luna! You don't really think th--"
"You don't believe me either do you?"
"Well, look... L- listen, they can't... W- why would..." Neville leaned closer, trying to think how to answer, how to comfort her.
"Would you remember, me, Neville?" said Luna. She sounded more and more mournful.
"Luna! What do you mean? Remember you? Luna - it's the depressions you're getting. This is not you talking."
"If anything happened to me - would you... Neville, could you promise me something?"
"Nothing's going to... Of course, Luna - anything." Neville reached over and took Luna's hand. With a shock he found her skin was damp and there was a feverish look in her eyes. He looked around frantically for the Matron.
"Would you write me down - in a nice book perhaps - so you don't forget me. I don't think I could bear it if you forgot about me."
"Madam Pomfrey!" shouted Neville, rising to his feet, still clutching Luna' wet hand and reluctant to let her go.
"It's not your fault," persisted Luna. "You can't help being forgetful."
Neville felt her grip go limp and she sagged back on the bed.
"Matron!" screamed Neville - but she was already hurrying over.
Madam Pomfrey took one look at Luna and shooed Neville out under protest.
"Is she dying? What's happening to her?" he cried, as he pushed Dippity into the big pocket on his robes.
"Out!" Madam Pomfrey wasted not one word more on the young man.
As Neville walked unwillingly out of the hospital wing he kept looking back but the matron had drawn curtains around Luna's bed. As the door swung shut behind him he turned and abruptly found himself almost nose to nose with Alecto Carrow. There was something especially sinister about her. Perhaps it was her silence; possibly it was that she was just standing there in the middle of the corridor, watching; most likely it was the evil sneer indicating the delight she was taking in his sorrowful expression. He was too upset to care much about her at the moment.
Neville ignored her and passed by without any word of exchange from either of them - yet Neville sensed she had turned and was watching him go with malicious glee. Once out of her sight, his feelings overflowed and he ran. He ran as if trying to escape the terrible image in his mind of the real fear he had seen in Luna's eyes as she lost consciousness. Were those eyes closing forever?
He found Ginny in the Gryffindor reading room. He had observed that she often spent time stood in the corner behind the bookshelf, toying with her hair while browsing. It seemed odd but girls often do strange things he had noticed. Parvati was sat at a table reading, chewing on her quill, and making notes. Everything was so normal. Neville felt like the world was coming to an end yet nobody knew.
"Ginny... Ginny, it's bad..." said Neville, his eyes shining with unshed emotion. "It's Luna - she's very sick this time. She's passed out or..."
Ginny gripped his arm and fear flashed across her expression as she stared hard into Neville's face. The girl turned instinctively as if eager to dash off to the hospital wing.
"Matron's looking after her - best wait," said Neville, holding her back. "You don't believe Luna's story about Slashkilters sent by the Ministry do you?"
Ginny sniffed her disdain - but she looked very worried.
"She told me in the Forest she thought she was being watched" said Neville mournfully. "- I told her it was just animals... Just animals, I said. Do you think--"
"I thought it was me," said Ginny suddenly.
"When we came out of Snape's - I heard him talking--"
"What! There was nobody there! Did someone floo in?"
"I think it was one of the Slytherin portraits. I... we were so busy with trying to save Dippity I let it slip my mind. Truth is, I was so happy after we visited the Trysting Stone I didn't want to think about it."
"What did Snape say?"
"Something about a plan and discussing whether to... remove me or all of us!" Ginny stressed the word 'remove' and looked meaningfully at Neville.
"Why just you? Are you sure he meant you?"
"Well, he didn't actually--"
"So, it could be me - more likely me I think," said Neville.
"No, I think he meant me. I think he knows I'm the D.A. leader."
"I knew you'd been worrying about something!" exploded Neville suddenly. " - but that was a month ago! Why didn't you say!" Parvati looked up from her book and Neville turned his back and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. "All the D.A. must be informed!"
"No! They'd be terrified - and what can anyone do! I was certain it was me he meant but I pushed it out of my mind. I thought he was going to expel me at the first excuse he got. If he didn't he thought You-know-who might... do something... worse to anybody they thought might be in the D.A."
Neville was thoughtful for a while then he said firmly, "You actually want to get expelled, don't you."
"No! Why would--"
"You want to search for Harry - I can t- tell you're p- preoccupied with him," said Neville. "You keep coming round here to be on your own... I know you're missing him. You want to go and help him don't you?"
There was a slight commotion from the common room. Seamus' voice filtered through. "He's in the reading room, Professor."
Neville turned and saw Parvati looking at someone round the corner but she was tentatively pointing at Neville.
"Mr. Longbottom! I want a word with you!" It was Professor McGonagall.
McGonagall glanced around the room, and the look she focused on Parvati and Ginny didn't need any words; they both moved out quickly from the room to give the professor and Neville some privacy. Ginny held back just outside the doorway and Parvati pulled a face, grabbed her arm, and tried to tug her away. Ginny shook her head vaguely; she was listening intently to what she could hear from inside the reading room.
"I don't know what you're involved with Mr. Longbottom, but it has got to stop!"
"Don't act the innocent with me, young man. You're killing Miss Lovegood and I am not going to let that happen!"
Parvati's eyes practically popped out of her head as she and Ginny gaped at one another. McGonagall seemed to divine their presence for she came storming out suddenly with a dazed Neville in tow. She glared at the two girls. "Haven't you two got homework to do before tonight's feast!"
Ginny's stare followed the departing figures as they went out through the portrait entrance. She was aware of Seamus and some others were coming over and Parvati was explaining what had happened. Ginny ignored them and dashed upstairs to her dorm to be on her own. Romilda was already sat on her bed but with her back to Ginny, absorbed in writing her diary.
Ginny hesitated. She yearned for Harry's sympathy but as soon as she had picked up her medallion she realised she was being childish. She could not keep leaning on Harry for every little emotional upset; on the contrary, it was her task to help him - he had been asking for and receiving her support for the last few hours anyway. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin - then kissed the medallion long and hard.
With U always. Strong 4U. Love U.
"But I've not done anything, Professor," blurted Neville. "I don't... I wouldn't--"
"I don't believe for one moment you are doing it intentionally," said McGonagall, "but tell me what you do know."
"Know? I don't know anything about it. She just keeps getting sick..."
They were in McGonagall's office next to the Transfiguration classroom. McGonagall's wand flashed quickly towards Neville and he flinched.
"Keep still," snapped McGonagall.
Her abrupt manner indicated how worried she was. She guided her wand over the youth who stood puzzled and anxious, if not fearful. He well knew McGonagall's power and she was not to be trifled with in this mood.
The professor frowned and put away her wand; she seemed disappointed.
"Matron informs me she has been checking her records and finds that Miss Lovegood's condition has worsened after each of your visits--"
Neville gasped and looked rather unsteady on his feet. McGonagall indicated a chair next to him and he sat down very slowly.
"She has also asked Professor Flitwick who informed her that you and Miss Lovegood normally sit together in Charms class - is this true?"
Neville nodded. "I sit with her in... every lesson where I can. And we meet every Friday evening in the library."
"That might explain why she is worse on weekends. It also suggests that... interaction is key."
"You are, I hope at least, busy studying in classes but when you meet in the library, I take it you don't go there to read books?"
Neville reddened slightly and McGonagall nodded. "I thought so."
Madam Pomfrey entered at that moment. She raised her hand to quieten Neville's questions and said, "I've put her into deep rest for a day or two. Miss Lovegood's condition has stabilised but she needs time to recover from... earlier." She looked sternly at Neville then looked at McGonagall with a questioning eye.
"By all means, Poppy. I found nothing myself."
Madam Pomfrey spent some time - far longer than McGonagall had, passing her wand over Neville using varying movements and with different chants.
"Am I cursed?" said Neville suddenly.
"That is what we need to find out," said Pomfrey. She wrote something on a small piece of parchment and handed it to Neville.
"What's this?" Neville examined the writing; it appeared to be a London address.
"I want you to memorise it because I am going to destroy it shortly," said Pomfrey.
McGonagall snorted and threw her hands in the air.
"Miss Lovegood's life may depend on it," added Pomfrey.
Neville stared at her for a few moments then began to study the address. He turned over the parchment and began reciting the address to himself over and over. Finally, he nodded. Pomfrey flicked her wand, and the parchment vanished.
"This magic may be very dark indeed. There is nobody we can trust now at either St. Mungo's or Hogwarts with the knowledge to uncover it. You must visit this address. They will know what to do. You are expected."
"But Matron, how can--"
"The holidays will be upon us sooner than you think. Until then... You have to keep away from Miss Lovegood."
"But Christmas is weeks away!" Neville stared as this information sank in. It was like the pronouncement of a prison sentence.
"I can't talk to her all that time--?"
"No visits, no meetings, and you should keep as far apart as possible in class," said Pomfrey. "No talking; no messages; no looking at each other. It's important; it's not just about nearness, it's about how you... react to each other. If... when Miss Lovegood recovers I shall be telling her the same. If she suffers a relapse then... we shall have to completely separate you. Now I must return to my patients."
"What about Miss Lovegood?" said McGonagall, "Did you detect anything?"
"Only that the symptoms are magically induced. I don't think there is a curse on her - not that I can detect - I can't be sure though. I shall be sending her to see my contact in London during the Christmas holidays as well - to make certain."
"Thank you Poppy," said McGonagall as Madam Pomfrey disappeared out through the door. McGonagall turned to Neville as he tried to follow. "Not so fast, Mr. Longbottom."
She sat down behind her desk and indicated the chair in front of it. Neville lowered himself slowly onto the seat, facing McGonagall's glare with difficulty.
"Now, perhaps, you will tell me how you might have come to be cursed?"
"No buts - I'm sure you must have some idea - some suspicion at least. You know something."
Reluctantly, Neville explained about the Trysting Stone - but he left Ginny out of it, implying that it concerned only himself and Luna. He looked McGonagall straight in the eye when he said they had received an anonymous warning afterwards that the Stone was cursed. As McGonagall was drawing breath to ask, he quickly added that the message had destroyed itself. McGonagall sighed.
"You are very foolish, Mr. Longbottom. You have broken so many school rules that I hardly know where to begin. Tampering with cursed objects is so risky that even trained Aurors have been known to lose their lives - not to mention venturing alone into the Forbidden Forest! - It is forbidden you know!"
"You're becoming as dreadful as Harry Potter - and as terrible I might add - walking into the most frightful dangers without a thought for your personal safety - or for the consequences! What your grandmother would think--"
McGonagall hesitated, staring, eyes-wide and tight-lipped at Neville's brightening expression. He looked ecstatic and was struggling to speak.
"Th- tha- ... k'you, P- Prof--"
"It wasn't meant to be a compliment you blitherin' idiot!"
Neville blinked but he seemed oblivious of what McGonagall had said.
"Get a hold of yourself, Mr. Longbottom - this is serious. I suppose you think you're ready to take on You-know-who now, do you? Well, let me tell you, young man, you're getting carried away with..."
She tailed off. Neville's eyes were far away. He looked as if a lifetime of doubt had been lifted off from his shoulders. McGonagall shook her head. She turned to look at her calendar.
"This cursed artifact is too dangerous to remain in the vicinity of the school. Fortunately, tomorrow is a Saturday. You will meet me and Professor Flitwick at six-thirty in the morning at Hagrid's hut. It's a pity you didn't do better in your Apparation test - you will have to lead the three of us to the Stone. Do you think you can remember where it is?" McGonagall's eyebrows raised several notches to indicate her doubt.
"Certain," said Neville. "Are you going to vanish the Stone or transform it into something? - it's huge!"
McGonagall sighed. "Have you learned nothing in your Transfiguration lessons? Size does not matter one jot except in your belief. In any case, if, as you say, it is of great historic value then I hope either I or Professor Flitwick can break the curse and leave the Stone as a harmless piece of rock. I am not hopeful though - we may have to vanish it or destroy it somehow." There was a sudden melancholy look in her eyes and in her tone. "If only Professor Dumbledore was still with us - we need an expert..."
She became very thoughtful for a few seconds then looked at her watch. "We'd better hurry or we'll be late for the Halloween feast. I've had enough shocks and surprises for one day."
"Erm..." began Neville, wondering frantically if there would be time for Hannah to perhaps reduce the number of bats planned for the Great Hall to below a thousand.
McGonagall stopped in the doorway and turned back to look at Neville. "Well?"
"Nothing... Just... Nothing."
Hermione was never quite the same. She had cried for weeks after Ron left and scarcely participated in anything other than the routine of eating and sleeping. But time heals all and slowly, very slowly, she became more communicative. Harry still refused to let her wear the locket as often as he did - and not at all while she slept. She was the better for a good night's sleep. They did not mention Ron's time share of the Horcrux but made up part of the difference by hanging the dark object from a branch or laying it down very carefully where they could snatch it up in an emergency.
At last, she was reading again - and not just trying. She had resumed in earnest her study of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and eventually they were both tentatively discussing likely locations for the Sword. Harry's original enthusiastic belief that Dumbledore must have placed the Sword where Harry would find it now started to test his faith - and his patience.
Harry shivered as the evening breeze stiffened from the east. Once again, they had pitched their tent on a wooded hillside but this one was a sloping maze of daunting brier thickets and scrub; at least the wind was not so severe as on yesterday's open moorland. They were camped above a long and meandering shallow pool - a clean water mere into which poured a succession of rivulets that weaved down the hill past their campsite. From these rushing streams they had successfully summoned several small trout and, having eaten well, they were both almost relaxed in their conversation.
"Do you suppose we might ever see Hogwarts again, Harry?" asked Hermione, as she looped an extra sweater over her back to keep warm in the cool air. It was already dark and they had started a fire for light and warmth. It was preferable to being cooped up in the tent - and safer to keep watch outside.
"Not certain I want to anymore," said Harry. "There are so many... bad memories."
"But there were plenty of good times weren't there?" said Hermione, trying to smile a little. "There were happy hours around the fire in the common room and warm, summer days walking the grounds."
"It's painful to think of--" Harry stopped himself; he saw it would not do to dwell on melancholy feelings. "--some of the detentions and exam revision and potions lessons - but yes, there are many wonderful memories - Quidditch for instance."
"Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts!" laughed Hermione.
It was the first time Harry had heard Hermione's laughter in more than a month and he joined in quickly - hoping it didn't sound forced. He had a feeling she was making an effort to be lighthearted and he wanted to help her.
"Fluffy!" grinned Harry. "And the giant chess game! We'd never have made it without--"
"How nervous you were when you first began to teach the D.A.!" Hermione had abruptly changed the subject, Harry noted, away from Ron. "You were good at teaching you know."
"That poor rabbit!" exclaimed Harry, "When we were down by the lake - you know -when I was teaching you that spell. What exactly did you--"
"A fox. I made it remember itself as a fox. Then it saw its own tail and went spinning around chasing itself dizzy!" Hermione rocked back and forth on her stool with peels of laughter.
"Draco as a ferret - I mean a stoat - or was it a weasel? I can never remember the difference," smiled Harry. "He's obnoxious whatever he is!"
"Professor Dumbledore taught you that spell, didn't he, Harry?" Harry could see she instantly regretted mentioning it - as if unsure how Harry might feel about that time with Dumbledore.
"No - he... He gave me no help with that at all. He left it all up to me how to get Slughorn's altered memory - or rather the original memory. No, ...erm, Ginny's dad, Mr. Weasley, taught me during the holidays. He's always using those charms - you know, when Muggle artifacts get misused and Muggles see things they shouldn't. I didn't tell him exactly what it was for, of course. I thought if I understood how Slughorn had changed his memory I might find a way to undo it. I practised on Goyle you know--"
"Yes, when he was coming out of a toilet I changed his memory so he thought he was just going. He turned around and went back in! After ten minutes of that he didn't know whether he was coming or going!"
Hermione shrieked with laughter. It was good to hear. "Toilets - Moaning Myrtle! - Oh, and you remember Nick's Deathday Party!" she cried.
"I've been trying to forget it," smiled Harry. He was struggling to remember memories where Ron had not participated and, he fancied, so was Hermione. The more they tried, the more the thought of him - and the more they realised both of them were doing it too.
The nearest gorse bush shook with some strong gusts of wind and Hermione used the distraction to go and make more tea. Harry eyed the locket where he had twisted its chain around the back of a canvas chair. He reached for his medallion instinctively as he did so many times a day. Castle - Ginny was still safe.
"Harry! It's Halloween! Did you know!" Hermione called from the tent.
Harry put his head on one side thoughtfully, thinking of Ginny. He kissed his medallion.
Happy Halloween from a secret admirer.
For once, Ginny, Neville, and Luna could not be blamed for a D.A. protest. The unauthorised festivities had already begun when Neville entered with McGonagall and Ginny arrived moments later from visiting Luna in the hospital wing.
It seemed to Ginny that Professor Flitwick was nonverbally casting protective charms over every bat and pumpkin because Snape and the Carrow combined seemed unable to vanish them without the risk of reducing the entire Hall to ruins. The smirk on Professor Sprout's face too, suggested the pumpkins had the Gemino curse for every attack only duplicated them. What had been expected to be a five-minute fun protest became an on-going festival to which Snape eventually seemed resigned. The floating banners inscribed Happy Halloween! We're still here! made it one of the D.A.'s greatest shows of resistance ever.
"How is she?" said Neville. He did not need to whisper for the tumult of flapping wings, popping pumpkins, and crackling candles made it unnecessary. There was also a suspicion that an increasing number of gnomes were chattering away beneath the tables - and, of course, everyone was furtively talking behind a cupped hand or a raised goblet.
"She was fast asleep all the time I was there," said Ginny. "She looked peaceful enough."
Ginny stared hard at Neville. "What was McGonagall on about, Neville? - you killing Luna?"
"They think I'm cursed," said Neville morosely. He muttered something that Ginny couldn't hear because of the racket around them.
"What did you say?"
"I can't see her again. I can't see Luna again."
Ginny looked even harder at Neville. "They can't do that! They've--"
"I'm making her ill - it's me that's making her ill. I can't go near her."
Ginny blinked, trying to make sense of what he had said. "But they can fix it can't they?"
"They don't know." A gnome sneaked from behind a jack o' lantern, stole one of Neville's roast turnips and ran off giggling. Neville scarcely noticed. He was staring through his plate of food rather than at it.
"I told them... I had to tell McGonagall about the Trysting Stone..."
"Had to... Luna's life might depend on it." Neville looked up and added hastily. "I didn't mention you."
Ginny remained silent.
"We're all going tomorrow morning early - me, McGonagall, Flitwick, and Hagrid - see if they can break the curse on the Stone."
"They believe it?" Ginny was astounded. "But... It helped me and Harry. It... You mean just because we were near it? We're all cursed? I was the only one that used it! What about Harry? Is he safe?"
"I don't know, Ginny, I'm sorry. They don't know."
"So if they break the curse on the Stone - does that mean we're all safe?"
"No - that just makes the Stone safe for anyone else in the future I think."
Ginny's mind was in a whirl. She disentangled a bat that was fluttering in her hair and cast it over her shoulder absentmindedly, ignoring Romilda's squeal from behind. Should she warn Harry? What could she say? What could he do? Was he safe right now? She lowered her face to curtain it with her hair and inspected her medallion. It showed a sailing ship; he was still safely on the road. It trembled as she looked and the words appeared, "Happy Halloween from a secret admirer. He sounded well and Ginny was comforted by that thought. She decided to say nothing for the time being.
"Neville, we need to find out more about the Stone. What's wrong with it. Why are you cursed? And why is it only affecting Luna, not you? Did you put your arm through the hole?"
"No - I did clean the vegetation away from it though - I might have put my hand inside. Yes, I did - to pull away the weeds and creepers and..."
"But why am I..." Ginny gasped and her eyes suddenly sparkled in the flickering candlelight. "So that means... I can't see Harry ever again! He's not sick now - I mean he's probably not sick now but if ever I see him..."
Ginny thought furiously. She had seen Harry since. It had been the day after she had used the Stone. She lowered her head again and kissed the medallion. Were U ill after shack?"
Harry's answer came back almost immediately. Yes. Too many pork pies. It was worth it!
Ginny clutched hard on her medallion. It was inconclusive. It was true he had eaten rather a lot. She remembered worrying how hungry he must have been. She had to know.
"Ginny?" Neville had abandoned his meal. Ginny hid away her medallion and looked up.
"Ginny, where did you get that clipping from - the one about the Stone?" he said. "You're right - we need to find out more. How can I help?"
They spent the rest of the early evening scouring the Secret History and the library books in general but their search was fruitless. They found no other mention of the Trysting Stone other than what she had discovered before. They were both at a loss where to turn to next. They resolved they would have to make more thorough searches through the library over the coming weeks. It was not a happy prospect.
Harry hugged his mug of cocoa with both hands and shivered as he peered down towards the dark surface of the pool which was beginning to ruffle and spray as the wind increasingly gusted. The streams and brooks which fed it seemed more excited too, glittering palest blues and silvers in the wand light he had cast up. He looked down the slope and felt reassured their camp was way up above the pool should the waters rise during the night. He would have liked to have gone down to see the mere closer but the gravel bank that separated thick thorn patches from the nearest rivulet was loose stone and earth held together by twisted roots - not really a trail at all. He certainly would not want to explore it at night.
"Looks like the storm's finally coming in, Hermione," he said. "Are you still sure you want to do the night watch? I don't mind if--"
"You can't do it all yourself, Harry," said Hermione. "You did it last night and you only got four hours sleep this morning."
As she spoke, Harry could see a squall rushing across the pool towards them. He turned and dashed for their shelter, trying not to spill his hot drink. "Take cover! It's coming!"
Hermione smiled from her seat on the watch chair and cast a charm upon her heavy storm cloak. It hung so large and loose around her that Harry fancied she had a book hidden inside its canopy-like folds.
Crouching just inside the tent entrance, he looked out, sipping the remains of his cocoa and watching Hermione. When the rain hit the campsite it steamed off her impregnable spell producing a warm, sparkling aura around her. She drew her face back deep inside her hood and pulled in her arms. Dim light from her wand leaked out from sleeves and neck to give a curious, spooky glow.
Satisfied that Hermione was well protected from the elements, Harry drained the last of his hot beverage, exchanged goodnights with her and went sleepily to bed.
Early on the Saturday morning Neville felt sure he was being watched from the darkness around him. He hurried forward through the trees to keep up with the others. Although it was the main trail into the Forbidden Forest, the leaves underfoot were sodden and muddy from the overnight storm and even though the rain had now stopped it still dripped from the branches and twigs and down his neck at every opportunity.
As he squelched along he recalled Luna's same anxiety in this forest. He regretted now that he had not really believed her when she had voiced that concern, I think I'm being watched, Neville. As he pursued the scurrying feet of Professor Flitwick and the heavy stomp of Hagrid leading the way he pictured to himself how it might be if death took Luna from him - and because of him. He shook his head and drops of rain sprayed aside. Not going to happen he murmured to himself.
He resolved that so long as his presence might harm her, he would never, ever, go near the girl. He cared for her more than his own happiness and to be the cause of her demise was so unthinkable he had already accepted without question that they must separate if no solution were found.
He was shocked by the realisation of how simply he had accepted the inevitable. The idea of never seeing her again did not seem to distress him as much as he might have expected. He was very sad, yes - but why was he not grieving? why no emotional agony? no tears? He knew that he loved Luna deeply. Yes, but are you IN love with her? said a voice in his head.
Neville stopped abruptly on the trail. The others halted also and turned around to look at him.
"Something's following us," said Neville.
McGonagall, Flitwick, and Hagrid, all looked back along the track.
"I'm being watched."
Flitwick cast several revealing spells. "Nothing there but animals, Longbottom."
"Yeh get 'undreds of creatures aroun' 'ere, Neville," Hagrid called from the front. "Don' yeh be--"
"Magical creatures?" said Neville.
"Well o' course theh's magical, Neville," chuckled Hagrid. "This is th' Forbidden Forest, after all."
"Mr. Longbottom, we must get on." McGonagall shooed Hagrid ahead of her and the big man turned and resumed their walk. Neville sighed and continued after them. Almost immediately, they stopped again. There was a figure up ahead on the track.
"Ah, Mr. Weasley," said McGonagall, "glad you got my message. How are you now?"
Bill Weasley brushed his fingers over the scars that Fenrir Greyback had inflicted upon the side of his head. "I'm fine." He looked over the group. "Ginny not with you?"
"She's not involved with this," said Neville, perhaps too abruptly.
"You're her friend, Neville Longbottom, aren't you," said Bill, striding forward to grip his hand. "I remember you from the Astronomy Tower fight. Tell her from me to be careful. I don't like her being here at Hogwarts to be honest." He turned to the others. "What's it like in the school now?"
"About what was expected with Death Eaters running the place," scowled Flitwick. "Not much we can do though. How is young Ronald?"
"Bitterly regrets he... he's still sick. Yes, very ill." Bill looked sharply at Flitwick, then at McGonagall, but he could not tell what they were thinking. "Ginny - you'll...?"
"We'll keep an eye on Ginny, don't worry, Bill," said McGonagall. "We keep telling all the students to stay out of trouble and not antagonise the Death Eaters." Her eyes tightened as they focused on Neville.
Bill nodded at her. "This Stone - you said it was cursed? How recent?"
McGonagall pointed him to Neville.
"We don't know," said Neville. "The Stone is very ancient."
"Right up yeh street then, eh, Bill?" said Hagrid with a grin. "If anyone can break th' curse - reckon you can! Come on, we get off the trail here."
"There's markers, Hagrid - we need to reveal them," said Neville.
"Don' need no markers, Neville," said Hagrid, pushing his way past a thorn bush. "If it's near where we wen' before, I'll find it alright."
As they disappeared into the denser thickets off-track, that which had been watching them persisted no further. Its great eyes watched for a while and it listened as they trudged away out of earshot. It knew one of them to be a friend but the others it did not trust. It blinked, then, swift as the wind, it returned to the forest's edge. It would have to find another way to do its duty.
"Harry! Wake up!" Harry felt himself being shaken and being splashed with water. One second later his hand had reached out to grasp his wand. His glasses he put on only moments later. He stared at his agitated friend as he quickly swung out of bed.
"They've found us! We have to leave - now!" Hermione was already rushing around casting spells to pack everything away and shedding droplets wherever she turned.
"They can't see through our protections but it's just a matter of time," continued Hermione. Her face was shining wet and her hair was plastered back.
"I think my charm failed during the night," she moaned as she squelched off towards the entrance with her bag in her hand.
Harry did not waste any time with questions. He had already pulled on his jeans and was into his jacket almost before Hermione ran out of the tent. He could see it was still dark out there but the noise of the storm had subsided and the only sound was from the rushing, gurgling, waters nearby.
"Horcrux! Hermione?" was the first thing he said as he joined her outside. She pointed at her throat and was about to point to the sky but she saw she did not need to. Harry could not fail to miss the ominous sign; it was the Dark Mark, almost on top of them.
If Harry had not been fully awake before then, he certainly was now. He gasped in shock as he stared up at the skull and serpent sign. It was so close it had to be somewhere near the pool. He looked down along the bank, straining to see anything - a light, a glimmer - there was nothing but a thin moon that had broken through the angry, ragged clouds to give shape and outline to bushes and cascading streams. He could hear Hermione behind him summoning the tent and its contents into her bag.
"How many? Did they see you?" said Harry, spinning around and rushing to Hermione's side.
"I've only just seen the mark - I'm not waiting to find out any more -- here, grab my arm."
There was a puzzled look on Harry's face as they Disapparated together.
Audrey the owl took up her position on a high branch facing the great castle of Hogwarts to wait. Yet she was troubled. To her leg was attached something of great importance - that much she knew - but its mistress had not returned for a complete moon. Audrey well understood that she must not return to the owlery. Only one possibility remained: she knew two friends who met every day.
She flew low and fast, skimming the wet grass, until she reached the gardens. It was still early morning and there was nobody about. The great wings flapped once more.
It took some time before she espied that which she sought - then she swooped silently as any efficient predator might drop on its prey.
CRASH! The owl slid down off the angled frame and fluttered, dazed upon the ground for several seconds. Chicken wire was unknown to the creature. She fluffed up her feathers and resolved to try again - but there was no need.
Serendipity sat, completely unconcerned, watching her from the other side of the wire. Audrey held out her leg, still not comprehending the nature of the mesh that separated them. The little kitten seemed to be thinking for a while then it trotted of to the far end of its open run and into a large doghouse-shaped structure. Her face appeared at a tiny window, miaowing to the owl.
Audrey was on the ground; this was not her territory and she glanced nervously around before scurrying and fluttering along to join the kitten. She listened intently at the opening, then turning to one side, pecked dexterously at a latch that held shut a tiny door into Dippity's enclosure. As the latch fell away, out came the kitten.
Together they gnawed and clawed at the message attached to Audrey's leg until it came away at which point the kitten ran back with the message into its enclosure and the owl obligingly refastened the latch. Satisfied that she had delivered her message to a reliable friend of her mistress, Audrey flew back to the edge of the Forbidden Forest.
"I think it was just one of them," said Harry, casting a bright wand light high so he could better examine the walls of the great cave in which he now stood. "What is this place? Is it--?"
"Why only one? Anyway, there'll be scores of them there now." Hermione looked at Harry. She was still dripping and looked dreadful. "Did you think I was too hasty! Harry, I don't care even if there was one Death Eater or a hundred, we--"
"No, no - I don't think you were hasty at all - but with hindsight, I wish... I'd have liked to have checked. I really think there was only one. He came up from the pool area and somehow detected us. Then he probably didn't fancy... I mean, he wouldn't know how many of them there were, would he? We could have had twenty Order members in the tent for all he knew. He went back down to the pool to cast the Mark. I saw his muddy footprints there and back."
"It makes no sense, Harry--"
"I tell you I saw them, Hermione. We never went down there did we? There were definitely footprints - deep footprints. The streams overflowed in the night - it was all mud."
"I mean, why the Mark? We were in the middle of nowhere. The Mark in the sky might not be seen for weeks - months! That's why I chose that place - nobody goes there but fishermen and it's off-season until... I don't know, springtime anyway. Why not... use the Mark on his arm? It doesn't add up."
"He wouldn't be sure who we were perhaps? Or maybe... maybe he wasn't a high-up Death Eater - not all of them get the brand, do they?"
"Harry! You're not thinking we should go back?"
"No way! - No, I'm... just trying to figure it out, is all."
"Our job is to find the Horcruxes not fight Death Eaters!"
"I know! I know! I'm agreeing with you! Don't let's..." Harry paused as he looked at his friend and grinned; she looked a complete mess. "Hermione, you're still soaking wet!"
"Tell me about it!" moaned Hermione. "Come on, let's get the protective spells--"
"No. First things first. To hell with the shields for a minute." Harry pointed his wand at Hermione and cast the hot-air charm. She staggered backwards slightly before the warming blast and her hair frizzed up like a great ball of fluff.
"Better?" said Harry. "Don't want you going down with a chill."
"Thanks, yes." Hermione walked off to the cave entrance to begin casting concealments.
"How come your spell to keep off the rain failed?" called Harry, as he dug the tent out of Hermione's bag.
"Don't know." She looked back. "Harry, I'm sorry - I was so warm and cosy that I dozed off - I'm really sorry."
Harry's eyes bulged. "That must have been when the Death Eater came up!" He shuddered, but it was not the cold. "How did he not see you!"
"I'd finished reading. I'd put my light out - I'm sorry, Harry."
"Don't worry - I'm just glad you're alright! It's difficult to be watchful twenty-four hours a day with just the two of--" He broke off, not wishing to remind Hermione of Ron's absence.
Harry joined her at the cave entrance. He could glimpse crashing waves beyond a wide bank of coarse vegetation that struggled for a place on the stony ground. She saw his look and remembered his earlier question. "Campers only come here in the summer. It's not a deep cave - not even potholers are interested in it. Bit boring really."
"Sounds good to me then," said Harry, trying to get a better glimpse of the sea beyond the swaying curtain of wind-blown grasses. "Think there are any kippers swimming about out there? I'm ready for breakfast."
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