Within the hour, Luna's elation upon being rescued from Malfoy Manor was much diminished by sorrows. Dobby, the house-elf was dead. Her rescuer had laid down his life for the sake of Harry Potter's friends. The company at Shell Cottage was grim. Hermione had been through unbearable torments and lay recovering from the shock, tended by Fleur. Griphook the Goblin likewise had been treated for extreme injuries and now waited for the healing spells and potions to do their work. Mr Ollivander, though still terribly weak, was overjoyed at being saved - his body needed only time to catch up with his uplifted spirit. But outside, in the dark of night, Harry Potter performed a timeless task. Luna listened as the repeated sound of a spade hitting the hard, pitiless earth, was carried to her on the wind and into her heart.
While she waited, Luna considered often her father's fate and if Neville was happy with Hannah. She took a deep breath. The long months had pressed that particular sadness to a dried flower between the pages of her love life: faded but everlasting. The remaining sheets must stay forever blank. Luna had sometimes wondered if she might change; to act and think as others do and thereby become accepted. She knew it now as an impossible path for her to tread.
Yet if she was not to be loved as a young woman, she was grateful she had some true friends. A smile touched her lips as she re-read the line of the message that Audrey had delivered.
Thinking of you every single day.
She was not forgotten by, nor would she forget, Ginny.
Ginny sat on her bed in the early hours. Her mind, which had been chasing every possible thought, terrible and wonderful, since before midnight, had quietened since the dungeon had faded first to become a ship, and then to a castle. Still she stared at it, eyes red from earlier weeping, not wishing to distract him but ready in a moment should he need her.
Was this how it was to be? Forever? Weeks of waiting to see each other only to have their hopes dashed as they were preparing to meet. She shook her shoulders physically again, forcing herself to think positively. There'll be another opportunity. We were made for each other. Nothing can come between us.
Her travel cloak still hung on her bedroom doorknob, ready for a late-night tryst that never took place. She shivered. The window was still slightly open in preparation for her escape. Ginny got up to close it and gasped: she was stiff and aching. The window squeaked very softly as it was carefully closed. The bed also complained but only slightly as she perched in exactly the same place upon its edge. And, just as before, her eyes fell to gazing down at the very image she had focused on for so long.
A castle. This was new to her. It seemed friendly enough though she felt sure he was safe anyway. His deep sorrow touched her but no fear or sense of danger could be detected. Could Harry be at Hogwarts? During the Easter holidays? It made no sense yet she knew that was what Harry mostly saw on his medallion while she was at school. Ginny tried to recall what he had told her last summer during their first exchanges. Of course! Castle means being a guest somewhere! He must be staying with friends - or at least in a safe house. That's why he has not had a chance to reach out to me!
Sleep-deprived but ready for action if needed, she responded quickly to the sound of running footsteps. She lunged for the window but the sound of a door opening downstairs pulled her away without looking out. Wand raised, Ginny was quietly descending the stairs within seconds and she was in no mood to show mercy if her family were threatened.
The figure in the hall below threw itself to one side but she recognised who it was.
"Bill! I'm sorry!" she cried, running down, two steps at a time. "I heard a noise."
"Merlin! Ginny! I could have killed you!" yelled Bill.
"Never even had your wand out! You're the one who nearly got killed - sneaking in here in the middle of the night!"
"Don't move! What happened to your first broomstick?" It was Mr Weasley's voice from above. He sounded very serious.
"Charlie burnt it. He set it alight with an Incendio spell. Dad - we have to get everyone out - you all have to move - NOW!"
"What's happening, Arthur? Who is it?" Mrs Weasley's face appeared over the banister beside her husband's then she shrieked, "Bill!"
"Ron's been seen! We've got to get you all out of here quickly."
Mrs Weasley was running down the stairs in her dressing gown. She pushed Ginny to one side. "Is he alright! Is he safe? Where is he?"
"He's fine - he's at my place. He's--"
"Your place! What about Harry!" cried Ginny.
Bill gave her a strange look.
"Ginny... Why are you already dressed?" said Mr Weasley from close by. He had been slowly walking down the steps as they talked. Mrs Weasley spun around. She had scarcely noticed Ginny there before.
"Couldn't... couldn't sleep. I was going to get up and make a cup of tea."
"Better take this then, sis," Fred threw down her travel cloak. George's head popped over the railing too. "Seeing as how its hanging on your doorknob. Might be cold in that kitchen."
"Ginny... You weren't thinking of going... out?" Mrs Weasley stared at her daughter.
"Harry and Hermione are at my place too," interrupted Bill, still ascending steps until they were all blocking the stairs. "So are Dean Thomas and Luna Lovegood."
Ginny squealed with joy and flung herself at Bill in a big hug. He staggered back and against the side rail then patted her back. "She's fine - they're all okay. Even got your owl - her owl, I should say."
"Molly - floo Charlie," said Mr Weasley. "Tell him on no account to come back here - nor the Trevetts. Then warn Muriel as agreed. Duck and Dock."
Mrs Weasley's eyes rolled but she knew when not to argue about silly code words. Mr Weasley looked up the stairs. "Fred. George. Dressed and packed in ten minutes, no arguments. Did you fix your shop stock?"
"As always, Dad," said Fred. "We'll be down in five, without pyjamas." He and his twin ran to their room chatting wildly together about absconding being their speciality.
"Ginny? Essentials always bagged like I told you?"
"Yes, Dad. Two minutes to top up."
"Then join me and Bill. I want to salvage what we can. Don't suppose there'll be much left if... WHEN we get back."
Ginny's heart was singing as she cast a final packing charm she had long since prepared. A few choice items struggled out from her desk and flew to her travel chest and bag; clothing from a chest of drawers caught them up fast; a pair of grey trainers walked out from under a chair, jumped up into the chest and wriggled down amongst the stockings. While this was going on, Ginny retrieved Harry's Christmas gift from her desk and scribbled a quick note which she slipped into her pocket with a smile. There was the distant sound of knocking on the back door and Ginny ran down. Her bag, chest and cloak hurried after her.
"It's for me," she called to Bill, who was about to set down a large chest he was hovering into the kitchen.
Ginny flicked her wand and the backdoor opened. A tired old broomstick flew reluctantly in. "Better than nothing," she said to her brother. "Don't suppose I'll see my own again."
"You never know," said Bill. "Hogwarts will always be there."
Mrs Weasley was fluttering around anxiously checking cupboards. The kitchen was almost unnavigable because of the bags and boxes that were accumulating.
Arthur Weasley's head appeared amidst the green flames in the fireplace. "All ready this end. Start sending stuff through."
"That'll be you, Stuff," said Fred to Ginny. He had just come down with George.
"Yeah, don't want to leave Stuff hanging around till last, do we Fred?" They hustled her towards the fireplace. She looked back at Bill, hoping for him to give Harry some message from her, wanting to talk about him. She caught his eye and they both looked at one another silently - then she was in the fireplace and Fred had pressed a little floo powder into her hand.
"Don't hold things up, Ginny. Say it," said George. "And no going for walks at the diversion. Dad's going to torch that floo connection once everyone's through."
"I know. I know. Do I look like an idiot?" snapped Ginny.
"Erm... Well only if idiots wear one green sock and one blue," said Fred.
"Jones, Little Diddino," sniffed Ginny without even looking down at her feet, then she was gone.
"I don't think she believed me about the socks, George."
In a small cul-de-sac in the still of the night, the only sound was the quiet crackle and buzz of a faulty street lamp. A very hungry cat sat upon a lean-to roof waiting to be let in to its home. It could not understand why its owners had not emerged for several days. The creature wished only for a place before the hearth and a square meal; she was tired of begging scraps from neighbours. The whiskers of the cat bristled and obeying some instinct it rose to stand completely motionless, eyes glued on the front window. There was a tenuous light within and the cat's eyes focused. Without further warning, a flicker of light exploded into flames revealing a young witch alive with green fire stepping from that same hearth that heretofore had seemed so inviting. With a screech that awoke many in the sleepy lane, the cat disappeared over the fence and never looked back.
Fred had not been joking but Ginny was not interested in matching footwear right now. Emerging onto the hearth of an empty Muggle house her father had set up as a temporary way station, she stared over the dust-sheeted furnishings aglow with the eerie light of her flames. A For Sale sign shone under a streetlight out through the undraped window. She paused before reaching for more floo powder to continue her journey. Perhaps she and Harry might meet in a vacant house... But no, they could not Apparate to anywhere they did not both know.
How were they ever to meet now she was moving to live with her Aunt Muriel? Harry had no idea of the location. The lane from the Burrow to Ottery would no longer be safe.
"Ginny! Hurry along to us!" It was her father's voice but Aunt Muriel could also be heard prompting him.
Everywhere she had ever been with Harry was now off-limits: Home, Hogsmeade, Hogwarts... Her mind went back through the memories - and then she had it! The one place to which they both had travelled but which would not be known to any Death Eater. She smiled as she cast the powder but the rebel in her was not quite yet ready to go to Aunt Muriel's.
Neville couldn't sleep. Away from Hogwarts he lacked purpose. If it was not for daily visits with Hannah his holiday would would have been a miserable one. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood up. Neither sleepiness nor hunger touched him but he could always manage a cup of tea.
The kitchen was in darkness but for the fireglow he had swiftly conjured. He squatted on a big saggy pouffe before the friendly warmth, curled his legs under himself like a wobbly ball on a fat sack, and took a big swig of tea. He snorted most of it down his nose and rolled over backwards in surprise. A hand had reached out towards him from a sudden flare of green flames then disappeared.
He picked himself up, rubbing a bruised knee, and stared. There was a note on the hearth. As he began to read, a smile formed on is face. By the time he had finished he was grinning broadly at Ginny's abbreviated news. The Weasleys were going into hiding but Harry, Hermione, and Ron were safe. Best of all, Luna was free!
A weight of self-imposed guilt lifted from him and a shout of exultation had to be stifled. There was a need to celebrate - to do something. He would bake a cake. Tomorrow, they would have a feast.
Gringotts! Harry was troubled by his own audacious ambition though circumstances drove him along a single road: he had no choice. He reflected once more upon Bellatrix's terror when she thought they might have somehow penetrated the Lestranges' vault to get the sword. Only one thing seriously frightened Bellatrix Lestrange and that was her self-accepted lord and master. What had he given her to keep for him within the security of the bank? That it must be a Horcrux, Harry had no doubt. The most likely one was the Hufflepuff cup. Had Voldemort suffered second thoughts about the security of the Abomination curse? Had the dark wizard stood where Harry had stood and gazed out from the old charms shop towards the stones and columns of Gringotts across the way?
Once again, Harry was gazing out into the night. From the clifftop he rested his eyes upon the swirling sea below. It was a comfort to escape the others and the confines of the little cottage while he awaited Griphook's decision. It helped to clear his mind and they seemed to understand his need for an hour or two by himself. There was but one he truly wished to be with right now - and he would have to wait until the next evening to see her.
His heart had swooped up and down like a Quidditch broomstick when Bill had confirmed Ginny was safe - but beyond where he could hope to meet with her. Yet she, resourceful as ever, had thought of a way. He couldn't Apparate to near Muriel's for he had no way of visualising a location he had never visited. The immediate area around the Burrow was far too risky - likely it would be overrun with Death Eaters searching the house and grounds and even Ottery Lane would not be safe. He looked down at his medallion, at the one place they both knew and that nobody else would think of.
Stoatshead Hill. Midnight.
Located beyond Ottery, the hill was far enough away from the Burrow and so unconnected from it that no Death Eater would even know of the location let alone consider it. Harry smiled. In the midst of chaos would be harmony.
Late the next evening, Harry's eyes were on his wand laying amongst Fleur's many soaps, talcs and bathing potions as he dressed after taking a shower. Hawthorn and unicorn hair, Ollivander had said. It had been little used so far but felt much better than the Snatcher's blackthorn that Ron had given him. The wandmaker had confirmed that Harry had won its allegiance because it had been taken by force from Draco.
While Harry was pondering the vagaries of wands and their relationships, a strange feeling penetrated his thoughts that he was being observed. Did he imagine it or was there a dark gleam at the bathroom keyhole? He pulled down his tee-shirt and quietly retrieved his wand. There was no one outside when he opened the door but he thought he heard another softly closing. He crept along the landing. It could not be the bed-ridden Griphook. The only other bedroom at this end was where Ron was snoring.
A faint sound of a bedspring being compressed drew his attention. Harry whirled back to look at Griphook's door. He wanted to burst in and confront him but, for once, common sense stayed his impulse: he needed the goblin's help much more than he needed a quarrel. With a start, he glanced at his watch. It was almost time.
Once again he stood on the cliff beyond the cottage's protective spells but this was quite different. His sense of isolation would soon be over. He watched a large fishing boat steaming out past the headland for a long voyage. Would those brave men be missing their loved ones as much as he yearned for Ginny? He visualised his destination. Determination came easily. He turned.
The entire glistening expanse of sea appeared to drop into a pressing blackness and he lowered himself to a knee to stay from falling after it. The sparkling waves transformed oddly and he could not orient himself for a moment. The ship's milky wake was now ten-thousand glittering diamonds rocking and shifting and jostling but the waves seemed held by a steady light. Harry swayed. A moment's nausea passed then the view swam once more into sensibility. The distant street lights of Ottery St. Catchpole did not dance nor blink. The jewelled band was the river, bending and twisting around its outskirts. He was atop Stoatshead Hill.
He took a deep breath. The air did not have the salty clarity of Shell Cottage but it was fresh and apart from the breezy wind, the slope felt welcoming and safe. His watch showed that he was slightly late; Ginny should be here. Down the hill a rough track ribboned towards the town. He could not see her on it but why should she be? Apparating directly would save her having to walk uphill.
There was a sensation as if someone had seized his arm and he whirled round expecting to see her but he was alone. His eyes blinked at what he did see. A beautiful horse - smoky-luminous and silvery-blue-white, was charging silently towards him. He leapt aside to give it room to pass but it slowed and Ginny's voice uttered itself in a desperate plea, "Go, Harry!"
Before the Patronus had faded, Harry was already running over to the far brow of the hill. The dark figures way below on this slope were struggling to hold someone and a flash of red abruptly ended the brawl. He Apparated directly down but they were gone - not before he glimpsed moonshine on a Death Eater mask. Half-hidden in the coarse weeds was a bloody grey trainer and a blue sock.
Harry swayed, trying to assimilate what had happened then reached for his medallion. It was gone.
He sank down onto the grass. This day he had dreaded. The medallion was bound to her life; it could not survive if she did not. Harry looked up at the scudding clouds and the half-moon swimming through them. Why did they not stop? Why did the wind still blow?
How could Death Eaters have possibly known that he and Ginny would be at this secluded spot? A thought struck him that instantly exploded to a fury. Griphook! Had he not said something about the Skele-grow having taken effect? Had he read Ginny's message on his medallion in the...
Harry screamed his last hope to the moon and Disapparated immediately. Had the medallion been left in the bathroom - forgotten when Griphook had interrupted him? Could the goblin have stolen it and betrayed him with its last message?
A dark figure was blocking the path as he ran through the garden towards the house. It was Hermione. She was fully-dressed and there was anger in her voice when she spoke, "Didn't you forget something?"
He glared at her. This was no time to mother him about getting enough sleep. "Out of my way, Hermione!"
"Harry, what have you been doing?"
Harry pushed her to one side but she hung onto his arm and slowed him down. "What are you going to do!"
"I'm going to kill that goblin first is what I'll do!" he yelled. "Get off me, Hermione! He's taken--"
"This? Is this what you're about to do murder for? Do you think I'm a fool!" She thrust the medallion in his face. "Must be a pretty important Roman soldier, I'd say!"
Harry stared for one moment at the engraved likeness of a dungeon flashing faintly in the moonglow then snatched the disk from her. There was one word upon it and he remembered then that only he could see it - not Hermione nor any goblin. But the message had changed since last he read the medallion: Lucius. He put it to his lips, muttering to himself and, ignoring Hermione, ran towards the cottage.
"Harry? Hermione? What's going on?" It was Ron at the front door, shivering in only his hastily-pulled-on tee-shirt and jeans.
"You have to give it up, Harry!" cried Hermione.
"You don't understand! Just let me have some space to myself to think!"
"It's a dark object, Harry - made by someone evil," said Hermione, "It's captured your soul. You're not yourself. Where did you get it?"
"No! No! No!" wailed Harry, crouching and clutching the medallion to his lips. "Not made by a dark wizard!"
Harry spoke without thinking. He just wanted to shake her off. "You made it, Hermione! You made it for us."
"I? I m- made it?" stammered Hermione.
"Who for?" said Ron, quietly. He was bunching his fists at his side.
Harry remained silent.
"Who for, Harry? You said 'us' and you don't mean Hermione and me. Who's it made for?" demanded Ron. There was suspicion in his voice and a growing anger.
Harry struggled to speak for a while then he whispered between clenched teeth, "Ginny."
"Bastard!" screamed Ron, stepping forward. "I knew it!"
Ron hit Harry. He punched him hard in the face and Harry rolled sideways and down to crouch on the path. He did not fight back.
Hermione shrieked. "Ron! Ron! No! Hear him out! Listen to what he has to say!"
"Nothing he can say, is there?" said Ron, turning back into the cottage. "Been messing with my sister after he promised! Risking her life just so he could take advantage!"
"Never! I never did anything wrong by Ginny," shouted Harry as he lurched to his feet and hurried in after Ron. "I... It's just... I couldn't manage... Couldn't think straight... Without her."
"Nothing wrong? Done nothing wrong!" shouted Ron. "She's bound to be at risk isn't she? Bound to be a target!"
"I'm... I'm sorry, Ron. I just could not endure being apart from her. Not knowing what--"
"But you're risking her life! What if they ever found out! What if she gets killed? You'll have to endure then won't you!" shouted Ron.
At Ron's words, it seemed to Harry as if a huge black void had opened before him at the prospect of there being no Ginny. He could not bear to look into its terrible emptiness. The world was dropping away beneath his feet and nothing could remain but the agony of no-Ginny. And Ron was right: it would all be of his own doing - it would be his fault. He had always known but denied it to himself.
Hermione was silhouetted in the doorway behind them. "Harry," she said, softly and the breeze fluttered the outline of her hair. "Where is Ginny?"
"They've got her..." murmured Harry, hardly able to accept the words he knew to be true. "You-know-who."
Ron screamed and threw himself again at Harry. Hermione tried to drag Ron back but his elbow, jerking swiftly backwards as he delivered another vicious blow to the side of Harry's head, jabbed hard into her face. Hermione cried out and staggered away, clutching her eye. Ron spun around, aghast at what he had done. Hermione was walking slowly towards the kitchen.
"Hermione!" yelled Ron. He ran after her.
Harry wandered groggily after them, his head hurting badly. All that was worthwhile seemed forever lost to him. A stab of extreme pain suddenly hit him in the forehead that he knew immediately was not due to Ron's savage blow, then everything was gone but blackness and a cry of exultation. And there in the blackness, a man cringed, wiry, furtive, and white-faced with fear, staring at him. He had the look of a Snatcher.
"You have her?" Harry heard himself say, and his voice was high and clear.
"Yes, my Lord..." said the man, "bound - in the watchtower - well away from your other... guests."
"Here? Excellent! Guard her well."
Harry's view changed to look down at the stone floor. Shrieks of distant pain were coming up through it from many parched throats.
"She is watched most carefully. Greyback--"
"Fool!" hissed the voice sharply and the Snatcher fell silent. "You left her with that creature? He is not one to be trusted with a young girl! Return quickly to them. I shall attend presently."
"My Lord, she refuses to speak."
"Oh, but she will. She will beg to tell Lord Voldemort all that he needs to know."
Harry's scar felt as if it were about to burst. He wanted to tear away but he had to know...
"There was something, my Lord..." The man put forth a trembling hand. On it lay Ginny's medallion.
"What is this! You bring such a cursed object to me!" shrieked the terrible thin voice. A wand was raised in front of him by a long-fingered white hand. The man quailed and pulled away.
"No curse that we can find, my Lord." The man said hurriedly. He was shaking badly. "We think there is some connection with the boy."
"Go on..." The wand was lowered.
"When we took her - she held it to her lips and uttered something too low to - perhaps a warning?"
"Let me see it."
The silver medallion seemed to fill Harry's vision along with a sudden sense of dark joy. "Hidden magic... No words appear on it to our eyes - nor can there be. It must then be bound to her life."
"What should we do, my Lord?"
"Kill the girl immediately. His life must be bound to this amulet also. I think it most likely he will come directly to it. His foolish weakness for the girl will bring him to me."
With an almighty wrench that threatened to tear him apart, Harry pulled free of the vision and pressed his medallion to his lips. "Wake up, Ginny! Please wake up!"
He found himself moving into the kitchen, still kissing the medallion and with a single purpose - to reach out to Ginny. He became vaguely aware of Luna and Dean in their nightclothes reaching out, saying something. A huge owl was panicking wildly around to add to the chaos and commotion.
"This is all your fault!" yelled Ron. "Look at her!"
Seeing through a red haze, Harry was shocked by Hermione's appearance. Her face was heavily bruised on one side and her right eye was closed and swollen. There was blood high on her right cheek.
Ron was almost sobbing incoherently now. "I don't know how to help her, Harry - help her, please..."
Hermione swayed down to sit on a stool, trying to find another handkerchief in her bag to replace the bloody rag she already held.
"I... I can't..." said Harry, torn apart inside, still kissing the medallion, inwardly begging Ginny to awaken before it was too late. Ron saw what he was doing and screamed at Harry.
"You're supposed to honour your promises! You're a Gryffindor! Not so bloody noble now are you!"
"Ron, I'm sorry! It's too strong... Ginny is everything to me..."
Something was taking place within Harry he could not quite understand. He was lying down helplessly somewhere else yet standing here arguing with Ron...
"It's not love is it! Not when you endanger my sister!" snarled Ron. "What's he doing to her! What's happening to her?"
Harry crouched down to focus all his attention on what was occurring within him. Ron fell silent as he realised the possibility that Harry was trying to help Ginny.
"Ron, please..." begged Hermione, "Can you get me a tea towel - soak it in water. Please, Ron..."
Luna cried, "I'll do it!" She ran to the sink and, grabbing a clean hand towel from the laundry basket, thrust it under the tap with Ron at her side, frantically trying to help.
"Luna! Where's Fleur?" blurted Ron. "No, Bill - he can--!"
"Mr Weasley flooed them - called them away to search. They're worried Ginny's gone out for a walk."
"Ron, please... Are you there?" said Hermione.
Ron turned and stared back at Hermione and noticed for the first time that her left eye too was closed. "Your other eye! What's wrong with it, Hermione!"
"Please... quiet, quiet, I have to..." Harry was struggling with the urgency of Ginny's fate. Did they not understand? It was if there was a hazy feeling flowing that he could not quite pick out. But it was confused with his own message to tell Ginny to awaken. Still he persisted, still with the medallion pressed hard against his lips - as if he might be kissing Ginny for the last time and was determined it would last forever.
"Don't know, Ron," whimpered Hermione, "Have you got the towel?"
Harry, I need you... Harry...
I'm here. I'm with you... Ginny, you have to find out where you are... Do you...
Harry, They were taking me to Lucius...
Images swam hazily into Harry's view.
Ginny, I see a room - a stone chamber ... window ... Can you see out, Ginny? Can you see out of the window where you are?
"Here..." Ron choked out as he strode back, sloshing water everywhere.
"Luna! Hermione! Ron!" yelled Harry. "Is there a watchtower at the Malfoys', do you know? At the manor?"
Luna was shaking her head. "I never--"
"I don't know, Harry," whimpered Hermione, "Ron?"
"No idea," said Ron, "Not heard Draco say--" but Hermione cut him off.
"Harry, I know where the manor is - on the map I mean - but I've not..." Hermione struggled to her feet and turned, groping outwards towards Harry's voice.
"Hermione! Can you get me near there? Close outside the wards I mean? Please, Hermione?" begged Harry.
Harry! Help me!
Hold on, Ginny!
They're going to... They're...
"Are you completely mental!" screamed Ron. "Look at her! How can she Apparate like this!"
"SHUT UP, RON! SHUT UP!" bellowed Harry with one hand over an ear as if to block him out and still with the medallion pressed to his lips. "They're murdering her! He's ordered them to kill her! THEY'RE KILLING GINNY RIGHT NOW!" He saw hazy figures, a wand was pointing at him, then there was pain and all went black.
Ginny? ... Ginny? ...
Harry broke down into incoherent muttering and sobbing when he knew their connection was broken.
Ginny? ... Ginny? ...
Ron stared in shock, unable to ask the question to which he desperately needed the answer. He guided Hermione back down onto her stool and helped her press the towel to her swollen face.
"But I could have done it," said Hermione. "Just the Apparition - I could have... Is it too late?"
Harry was nodding, his face contorted with grief. Ron sank to his knees besides Hermione. "Take me too, Hermione. Take me as well. I have to..."
Hermione tried to shake her head but only hurt her bruised eye against the soaking wet towel. Distressed by the thought of Ginny's death, she babbled to herself to control her thoughts, "Not sensible now... We can't help her anymore... have to be sensible... Horcruxes... We still have to..." She tailed off faintly.
"To hell with the Horcruxes!" shouted Ron, standing up and turning on Harry. "To hell with dark magic! To hell with your evil, effing medallion, Harry! This is your fault! You do know that don't you! You killed my sister!" Ron began to blubber incoherently as the realisation that his little sister might be dead slowly began to sink in.
"The medallion!" Harry stood up. "It's still here!"
"Destroy the d- damned thing!" spluttered Ron. "I don't ever want to see it again! Here! I'll do it!" Ron strode over to Harry with his wand raised threateningly.
"No! No, don't you see... Our medallions are tied to the other one's life... They vanish forever when we die..." Harry was exultant. "She's still alive! She must be! I can't hear her but... Maybe they stunned her again or something..."
"Why would they, Harry - if they were ordered..." whispered Hermione.
Harry fell silent as he remembered Voldemort's orders. They would not go against his direct orders. But she must be alive!
Harry strived to remember Ginny's last words... "Greyback!" shouted Harry. "The werewolf must have took her. Must have!"
Ron groaned. "She's lost... He'll have bitten her..."
Dean and Luna stood by, helplessly silent.
"Harry, Ron - grab my arm. Quickly," Hermione said. She looked a sorry sight. She still held the soaking-wet towel to her eye; water was running down her arms. "We go now! No - wait - we have to go outside - beyond the boundary wall, where the Fidelius Charm protection ends. Lead me there!"
"Hermione..." murmured Ron. "You just can't."
"Lead me!" insisted Hermione and she began to pull away blindly bumping into furniture, slamming into the doorway. Ron and Harry took hold of her and guided her outside - out towards the boundary wall.
Dean and Luna followed them out. Luna kept saying as they all half-ran up the path, "Can't we help? Oh, I wish we still had our wands!"
"No - stay here, you two! Tell the others what's happened if we don't--"
"Listen!" said Hermione. She spoke loudly and rapidly now; there was urgency in her voice. "Watchtowers are usually separate from the main building. Malfoy Manor will still have anti-Apparition jinxes in operation but they must embrace the tower as well or it would be vulnerable. Greyback will have to carry her outside the boundaries just as we need to do here now. Werewolves prefer to kill in darkness and anyway, he won't want to risk Voldemort seeing him. Werewolves like to... They normally bite without... They're animals when they transfigure don't you see? But Greyback - he can force a transformation even without a full moon or even bite while he's human - a thinking, reasoning, human. He... likes to relish his... meals. He'll take her away outside I'm sure... He won't be able to resist the prospect of flesh in the dark. He'll still see it as carrying out You-know-who's orders."
Neither Ron nor Harry pressed Hermione further as to whether she felt fit to Apparate. As they passed beyond the shelter of the outer wall, the squeak of the gate and the sea breeze in her face told Hermione where they were. Luna and Dean stood by the wall as Ron and Harry continued to hold onto Hermione's arms.
"We're here..." began Harry but Hermione did not wait for him to finish. She turned on the spot. There was an intense, unpleasant constriction which quickly released them then there was a cool wind coming from a different direction.
"Down!" said Harry, pulling Hermione to the ground with him. "That must be the manor! There are... there's more than one tower..."
"There is no separate tower this side," said Ron with a groan.
"What's that? Beyond that fire?" Harry pointed to a distant ground torch, a tall brazier full of coals filling the area around it with flickering light and sending up a bright halo of sparks to the heavens.
"Might be," said Ron. There was a faint suggestion of a tall dark outline beyond the glare of the fire.
"Ron, you and Hermione go back now!" said Harry. "I can--"
"No way! Hermione - you go! Go now!" ordered Ron.
Hermione was binding the sopping-wet towel around her head and over her eyes. She pulled out her wand. "I'm an extra wand. Just lead me and tell me what to do."
Harry and Ron stared at each other for a second or two then they each took one of Hermione's arms.
"No, no! Ron!" she cried. "Stand on my left and keep my wand arm free. Don't hold me - I'll hold onto you. You're my eyes, Ron. Harry - you lead the way."
"Right!" called back Harry. "Catch me up, Ron - but steer well away from that light!" Harry raced off towards the tower, curving around clear of the ground torch with Ron hustling after him and Hermione clinging to his arm.
Hermione was gasping for air and struggling to keep hold of Ron who was trying to break into a run to catch Harry. The wet towel had slipped half over her nose and water dripped into her mouth. Her neck and shoulders were soaking wet. Suddenly Ron pushed her to the ground and he pulled away. "Stay down, Hermione!" he yelled back at her.
Hermione dropped low, trying to suppress her noisy panting. She heard Harry and Ron and someone else shouting curses and there was a terrible animal snarl mixed with the sound of many spells all at the same moment.
"Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy!" Hermione targetted her wand sightlessly at where the creature-growl had been, using a non-deadly spell - afraid to injure her friends. Silence fell upon her ears like a smothering blanket and she was utterly lost in a black hush.
"Ron?" Hermione kept down on her knees. Her eye was hurting more than ever now; a dreadful, stabbing, pulsing pain. She felt around on the ground without turning her legs; it was scrubby grass and sharp stones but no path nor anything to relate to. She had no sense of direction except towards where she had last heard the snarl so she made sure she held herself pointing that way.
"Ron? Harry?" Hermione scrambled rapidly forward on her hands and knees as straight as she could. Abruptly she felt her terrible vulnerability; her skin crawled with fear.
She stopped. Hard, rasping breathing accompanied by a smell of rancid bloody meat and sweaty hair filled her sense void. That it must be Fenrir Greyback, standing there quietly, enjoying her helplessness, she was certain. An inner picture, made vivid by her lack of sight, was of his jaws apart, long sharp teeth drooling and a savage leer in his eyes. Summoning all her will to overcome her revulsion, Hermione reached forth a hand and crawled onward slowly. She completely forgot about using magic - she was a blind, primitive, terrified creature in the wild.
A loud gasp escaped Hermione as her hand skidded through slippery, matted hair, over an open eye and into a thick clump of grass. There was a snort of rage and fetid breath fell hot upon her face, stinking of blood. Greyback was down but a partly-stunned werewolf might be as dangerous as a cornered manticore. Instinctively, like any terrified prey animal, she recoiled - twisting and turning and scrabbling away a few paces - anything to put distance between herself and that horror. Perhaps he was just lying there, playing a cat-and-mouse game with her? Her hand she still held up in front as if it were something disgustingly untouchable; something that needed disinfecting. She tried to withdraw further but one-handed on the ground, she could not help but lose her straight line.
"Harry! Ron!" she whimpered to herself. A lost, frightened child took over, calling for her mother. What if they're all dead? Just me and the werewolf watching me? She was helpless in a wilderness of absolute silent blackness. Harry dead. Ron dead. Hermione curled up, hugging herself with her one clean arm, and began to cry. Cold water trickled like drool down her neck and she shuddered away from an imagined Greyback. Anger rescued her. Come on, Granger, you big baby! Ron needs you. Harry... Ginny...
Go anywhere! Come on, Hermione! Crawl blind - anywhere! Maybe get lucky. We all die if I stay here.
The young girl scrabbled onward, gasping and sobbing uncontrollably with primeval dread. It would have been sensible to keep the same direction as before as best she could but how to be sure? - she might be going further away. An acrid smoke touched the back of her throat. Stop your whining, Granger! Shut it! Listen!
There was a faint crackling sound nearby and the smell of burning coals - the floor torch! She had gone around in a circle and was a sitting duck in its bright light for any watcher from the house. In a panic Hermione whirled away, stood up and ran through the blackness as fast she could to get away from the firelight. Something solid and unyielding - a tree stump perhaps - hit her shin very hard and she crashed heavily to the ground, moaning in pain. Piercing through this nightmare came something worse - the faint but methodical sound of a search party, the controlling blasts of a whistle. They saw me!
Hermione Granger sat up against the stump to await her fate. She had failed; failed herself but worst of all, failed her friends. Never was a girl more miserable; more wretched, than she was right now.
She was not crying any longer, but resigned. Soberly, she took off the wet towel and rubbed her hand with it - the one that had grasped Greyback's hair. She knew she was not bitten - not infected - but the revolting sensation of having touched him still lingered like she had been violated; it made her sick and she wanted to cleanse herself of it. Again, her magic was forsaken; she needed to feel the sense of his contact removed physically.
Yet though all was lost, the memory of her treatment by Bellatrix came to her. Even now she remained weak from that ordeal and shuddered still at the fear of it. A vision presented itself of Harry, Ron, and Ginny at the mercy of the dark witch, not for gain nor information but toys for her endless pleasure. Hermione did not see herself in that black fantasy; She stayed aloof outside, watching - she was its cause.
I just HAVE to find a way to save them from that, she thought dully, striving to rouse herself from her lethargy of self-defeat, even at this late hour. A little voice in her head told there was no hope. I'll manage without hope then! What would Harry do? He'd do something stupid - but he'd do SOMETHING! Think Hermione! In the few seconds left - think!
She pressed upon her wound that pain might enlighten her but it was no more than a regretted distraction. She sniffed deeply - but smelt nothing new that might help. Vision was denied her and it never occurred to her to Disapparate to safety and abandon her friends so all that remained was to listen.
The whistle continued to pipe faintly - once every ten seconds or so - but was getting no nearer. If the searchers had strayed in the wrong direction perhaps she might find time to... There was something odd about the noise. It was just one whistle - and it was not moving. Hermione turned her head towards the sound. It came not from the main house but from the direction in which she had been travelling. Could it be Harry! Yes! Harry had a whistle when he ran the D.A.! Harry! It's Harry! He saw me in the light!
She threw the towel away and fumbled in her pocket for her last handkerchief; it was only slightly bloody. Carefully she teased open her good eye. For a few seconds she was convinced she was blind but then she saw a faint glimmer. Of course! It's night! Her partly-seeing eye remained half-closed in sympathy with her badly bruised one but she could see a little! - not well, but even the tiniest glimpse was treasure in a sensory poverty.
She squinted about her. There was only a half-moon but a few stars showed through the partly-overcast sky. Over on her left were a few lit windows in the black dominance of the manor. Not far off was the floor torch - a huge, multi-holed cauldron on three elongated iron legs, and beyond it, on one side, slightly illuminated by its light, was what might be Greyback's prone form. He was completely motionless as far as she could tell and facing sideways away from her. He would have no reason to be play-acting now; he must have been hit. She hoped it was her curse that hit him.
To her right she could see a tall dark space amongst the hazy stars which had to be the tower. It was her only visible target. From it, or near it, came the whistle sound. Hermione clambered towards it on hands and knees; she needed that contact - something to cling to while near-blind. Faintly could be seen a body lying on the grass ahead of her. There was a commotion from the direction of the main house. She turned. More lights were coming on.
She scurried forward faster than she knew was prudent and stumbled across a body lying in her path. "Ron?" No time for niceties; she ran her fingers over his face. It didn't seem like him; smelt more like Harry's shower gel. She felt round his neck and found the medallion. "Harry!" Her fingertips searched his face again more slowly, carefully around his eyes, hurrying against the increasing noise of people out from the manor - people out in the dark. Harry's eyes closed as her fingers gently reached them and she could feel his eyeballs turning under the lids; he was conscious! "Harry! hold on," she whispered.
"Renervate!" She was trusting that it must be just a body-bind by which he was trapped. Harry stirred.
"Harry - no time to waste!" said Hermione, shaking him mercilessly. "There are more coming out from the house - they'll be here anytime now! You've got to get up!"
A series of moving growls, growing in strength, told them that Greyback was struggling to his feet.
"Right," said Harry, feebly. Then pain hit his scar - badly - and he felt Voldemort's rage. Fear made Harry rip himself out from the feeling. "He's coming! - Vold- You-know-who!" He groped for his glasses which were hanging off one ear. He was still holding his wand.
"Don't make a light! Harry!" said Hermione. "Find Ron. I think he's got your whistle - I can still hear it. Find Ginny... Did you see her at all?"
"Yes - near the tower entrance - Ron went after her." Harry headed off towards the tower. It was only thirty or forty paces but Hermione felt quite alone again. She could feel the ground rumble, heavy with Greyback's approaching staggers: he was forcing a transformation. Afraid to lose contact with Harry, she scrambled after him on hands and knees - not trusting to walk - the ground was completely dark to her. Harry could be heard using the reviving spell twice. Then she heard him talking.
"Ron! Help Hermione - we've got to go - now!" whispered Harry loudly. They could all hear the sound of footsteps running in their direction; torches were being lit and beginning to head their way.
"You alright, Ginny?" whispered Ron hopefully. It was too dark to see much more than recognise it was her. "I got your wand off that Snatcher."
"Harry?" Ginny's voice was very weak.
"I'll take her!" said Harry. "Get Hermione, Ron!"
Somehow the four of them united but the half-beast was almost upon them. Harry was hugging Ginny close to him and Ron held on to Hermione. "Together..." They turned as the creature howled its fury and leapt.
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