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Chapter 1 : Through All This Tract of Years
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The wolves had followed him for an hour now. Paved Muggle roads turned to well-trodden paths with signs he couldn’t understand, and when he stepped onto the dirt-tracks they saw him. Gleaming eyes of gold amid the clustered trees, bobbing lights in the shadowy intricacies of twisted trunks and branches and roots. The wind made the dying leaves dip and dance, made boughs bend and bark creak, but the eyes were steady, constant.
They were just wolves. Mere beasts, nothing more, or so he told himself as he picked up the pace and kept his wand in hand. In a way, he was grateful for their presence. Grateful for the way they made his gut twist in knots, grateful for the way they kept his every other thought focused on their movements, on their loping gaits as they moved about the shrouded undergrowth to stalk him. Moonlight trickled through the canopy of falling leaves to cast flashes of silver across their hides, all rippling stars and lean muscle. But he was a wizard, he had studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and he was not going to be cowed by some mere beast. But so long as he worried about them, he wasn’t worried about seeing his brother.
The path stabbed downhill, winding through the gloomy woodlands with the chirping undergrowth, and the sound on the breeze changed from the whistle in the leaves to the bubbling of waters. This was the place. Golden eyes followed as he plunged onward until the bubbling became a rushing, and there it was, the surging river with its waters rippling at the starlight above. Like sentinels stood the granite parapets of the bridge, and when he trod on the masonry the wolves did not follow. He stopped and looked to the other side. Nothing waited but these unfathomable woodlands as shrouded by day as they were by night. He pressed on until he was exactly halfway, and his hand brushed along cold stone until he found the carving.
Nobody had told him exactly what to look for, just that he’d know it when he saw it. When the carved face of a wolf looked up at him from the capstone, he had to concede they were right. His wand tapped against each eye, and he held his breath.
If this was a practical joke, I’ll wring someone’s neck. Practical jokes were more fun when he was the instigator.
There was no rushing of wind, no creaking of trees, no chiming of illumination. Yet when he looked to the far side of the bridge, he did not see darkened woods at all, but the outskirts of a village. Houses were wooden and solid, with broad, dark beams and painted white walls, and firelight crackled from every window, from the lanterns hanging off posts along the paths winding between the buildings. He crossed the bridge, and when he looked behind him, the golden eyes were gone.
Voices babbled in a language he didn’t understand, and curious, though not distrusting eyes turned on him as he walked down the street. It had taken some time to get here. Outsiders were likely not common, and so when a middle-aged man with arms like tree-trunks stepped alongside him and said, ‘You will want to come this way,’ he wagered they had the measure of him right enough.
The man’s English was fractured, but he led him down the main street to the heart of the village, a broad square dominated by a granite statue of a cloaked wizard. At the base of the plinth was carved the old, worn triangle of the Deathly Hallows, and he was so sick of seeing that sign he didn’t care why it was there. By the time he had steeled his expression, his attention was drawn to the tavern.
Golden light spilt from the windows like there wasn’t enough space for it inside, and when his guide gestured that way, the door swung open for a pair of young men to stumble out. They looked deep into their cups and cheerful for it, and so he chose to assume their words when they brushed hard against his shoulder were drunken apologies. Out here, there was nothing he could do about it. His guide left there, and so he tromped up the wooden stairs and stepped into the firelight.
The air was all revelry and hope, but his gaze swept across the well-stocked and well-attended bar, the thick tables around which witches and wizards gathered in jovial clumps, the central spectacle of light and joy and music. He knew where to look. He needed the shadows.
He found the shadow he wanted in a far corner given a wide berth. The locals did not avoid it with an air of apprehension, as he had expected, but simple, calm respect. And so he won more than one suspicious, protective glance as he crossed the tavern and approached the table, more than one mutter of distrust as he drew out the stool and sat opposite the lone occupant. ‘You’re not an easy man to find.’
Green eyes he hadn’t seen in so long watched him, framed by hair darker than he remembered, a face more lined than he remembered. ‘I didn’t want to be found.’
‘Then your better angels tricked you, since I found you because you helped people. The Polish government sent a Dark Creature Hunter here; he reported this morning that the feral werewolves had already been dealt with.’
‘You came all this way because some werewolves were already dead?’
‘I was right, wasn’t I?’
A sigh, the lowering of the tankard that had barely been touched. ‘What do you want, James?’
James Potter narrowed his eyes at his brother. ‘It’s been over two years, and that’s all you’ve got to say to me?’
‘If I had anything more to say,’ said Albus in a low, measured voice, ‘then I would have come to Britain to say it.’
‘You’ve missed two Christmases. Lily’s seventeenth, to say nothing of my birthdays, Mum’s, Dad’s. All your friends leaving Hogwarts -’
The tankard slammed on the table. ‘Not all of them.’
So that’s still a raw wound. ‘Instead you’d rather be out here. In dark corners of the world, doing what, exactly?’
‘Trying to make them a little less dark.’ Albus didn’t look at him as he sipped his drink.
‘Running. This isn’t healing, Al, this isn’t having a life, this isn’t getting over your grief. You might be wallowing in the Australian outback, or the Amazonian jungle, or in the middle of bloody nowhere here in Poland, but it’s wallowing all the same. You were hurt, and you wanted to run, and Mum and Dad let you run but this has to stop, Al. Two years.’
‘Two years, four months.’
James thumped his hand on the table and didn’t care that the locals gave him unhappy looks. ‘Mum let you go because she thought you needed time to sort yourself out. She thought you’d be gone weeks, maybe months. Not this long. She thought you’d actually be back!’
‘I never said I would be back.’
‘So this is it? Your life? Drifting from place to place, righting wrongs like some sort of knight errant, fixing magical problems for magical people in exchange for a roof over your head, a drink at the end of the bloody day?’
‘What makes prancing on the Quidditch pitch inherently more purposeful?’
‘Because I do it with friends!’ James tossed his hands in the air. ‘Because I have Grandma’s Sunday lunch round the Burrow most weeks. Because I love the game I play, and I love the people I play it with, and I love the life I live outside of it. Sure, the press can bugger off and they cancelled the World Cup thanks to the sodding Council of sodding Thorns, but all that’s been dying out now.’
‘Dying out.’ Albus snorted. ‘Raskoph and his people have most of South America. A continent in the hands of deranged dark wizards with their anti-Muggle, traditionalist ways. Is the IMC going to ignore him now? Does the Grindelwald loyalist get a free pass because he’s not pestering the western world any more?’
‘The IMC doesn’t do anything any more. You’ve been paying this much attention; you know that. The Americans are dealing with Raskoph and Brazil and all that, and the Council of Thorns elsewhere are just skulking dark wizards that local authorities can deal with. We don’t need an international organisation with its far-reaching powers to deal with them. The bastards are dead, Al; they didn’t die with a bang, they went with a whimper, slowly strangled after they lost their weapons, but they are history. And that’s thanks to you, in great part.’
Albus wore a frown so unlike the sort James expected from his brother. He had always been serious, sombre, good-hearted, and his frowns were of concern, or thoughtfulness. The light in his eyes now was only bitter. ‘Then my reward is that I want to be left alone.’
‘Bloody hell, Al. I know Malfoy was your friend. I know you were close. And I can’t guess what it’s like to lose him. But two years. Rose has moved on. Why can’t you?’
‘I’m not Rose. Rose can do whatever she likes.’ But the big shoulders hunched up, and now concern did enter those honest green eyes. James had, for the longest time, been jealous of his brother’s eyes. He looked so much like their father, so much like the hero, that whenever the press talked about the heir to Harry Potter’s mantle, they always talked about Albus. Even before Phlegethon and the Council of Thorns and the burdens that had racked and broken Albus, until James couldn’t feel envy any more, only pity.
When Al continued, the falseness of his indifference was nearly tangible. ‘How is Rose?’
James shrugged. ‘I’ve not seen her since she left Hogwarts. Got a job at Gringotts, Curse Breaker. I think she’s in Egypt right now.’
‘Is she happy?’
‘I don’t know, Al. I’m not the one she speaks to. That was always you. You’d have to ask Hugo.’
Albus scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘And Selena? Matt?’
‘Er, Doyle might be out there with Rose. I know they got the same graduate scheme with Gringotts, couldn’t swear they’re on the same dig. Rourke’s working for The Clarion, I think. I don’t really know. I do know none of them are my brother, and none of them have been gone for two years, and none of them have been making Mum cry herself to sleep on a regular basis.’
Albus looked down. ‘I can’t come home, Jim. I can’t deal with everyone expecting everything to be how it used to -’
‘Nobody’s expecting anything of you, Al. Look, Mum and Dad don’t know I’m here, I didn’t tell them you were here, I didn’t want to get their hopes up and if Dad knew then he’d come drag you home by your ankles and I know that this has to be your choice…’ James slumped, all the pent-up steam now leaking out the gaps. ‘They just want to see you. To hear from you. To know you’re okay. And you’re obviously not okay. What the hell’s going on, Al?’
‘My best friend was murdered.’
‘Except the way you’ve been acting, it’s like you killed him.’ James was being facetious. He didn’t expect a flinch in response.
‘I might as well have.’ Albus looked away. ‘James, don’t think I don’t appreciate you looking for me. But stop. Turn around. And leave. If I come back, it’ll be because I choose to come back, and there’s nothing you can say to change how I feel. You’re my brother, but you don’t understand, can’t understand.’
‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s nothing I can say.’ James pulled out the folded envelope.
‘I do hope fighting obnoxiously evil things all over the world hasn’t sapped you of the power of literacy, but I’ll make it easy. It’s an invitation. To Teddy and Victoire’s wedding.’
Albus froze halfway to reaching for it. ‘Oh.’
‘Yeah. Oh. It’s next month. And I know it would mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people if you could be there. That’s why I started looking for you. I thought - you can show up, and the day’s all about them, and it doesn’t have to be about you, and maybe if it’s terrible and awkward then you can leave again.’
‘I don’t want -’
‘To hurt people by showing up and leaving? Al, you’re hurting people right now by being gone and staying gone. I don’t think you could make this any more painful.’
Albus picked up the envelope with slow, deliberate fingers, like it might turn to ash in his hands. ‘How are they?’
Now he asks. ‘Dad’s been busy. Council of Thorns and all. Mum keeps busy, she did a spate in Morocco for the African Cup. And Lily’s started her NEWTs. She wants to be an Obliviator. And they’d all do a hell of a lot better for seeing you.’ James blew his fringe out of his eyes. ‘As would Teddy. He’s the only one who knows I’m here; nobody else knows you got an invitation because we didn’t know how to get you one… but he asked for you specific, Al.’
Albus dropped the envelope like it burned. ‘I can’t, James. They’ll be better off without me.’
‘I really doubt it.’
‘Everyone will sort out their own lives soon enough. And anyway, when did you stop being a puffed-up git more interested in Quidditch, girls, and fame?’
James was used to people trying to hit him where it hurt. He was not used to it from Albus. When they’d butted heads, it was on principle and belief; it was the job of him, James, to make cheap digs. Not Albus. Never Albus. He got to his feet, and drew his cloak around himself. The roaring fires were suddenly not quite so warming. ‘When I lost my brother. You’d understand that.’ This stunned Albus into silence, and he waved a hand at the envelope. ‘Keep it.’
Al was rising, too, but now the heat was stinging his eyes and he turned away. ‘You just be careful, running around as an international do-gooder. If something happened to you, we’d never even know.’
James didn’t wait for an answer. The locals were still giving him cautious, suspicious look as he stomped out of the tavern, into the chilly autumn air, down the darkening streets loomed over by houses shrouded in night. It was without a second look that he left, headed for the bridge and back into the forests which were soon enough all-consuming. The Portkey back to Warsaw was a long hike away, and he didn’t want to be home too late.
The wolves followed him most of the way back.
‘Almost four thousand years old,’ Matt hissed as sandstone shattered overhead, raining a fine powder down on them, ‘and he’s breaking it.’
Rose Weasley ignored him. The spells came thick and fast, and she still wasn’t sure how many Thornweavers had burst into the tomb. That Castagnary and his men were breaking things was not as big a concern to her as that they were trying to kill them. She risked a glance around the ornately carved pillar. ‘I see five. Castagnary at the back.’
‘Is that five with Castagnary -’
‘Well, of course he’s at the back.’ Matthias Doyle reached for the sword hilt at his hip, nestled in a scabbard no more than an inch long. When he drew the blade, it was as long as his forearm, and the adamantine edge glistened against the lantern-light. ‘Why would he be at the front when he can send his flunkeys?’
Again, Rose didn’t answer. She could see the other two of their team, not fighters but researchers, cowering behind Ranisonb’s sarcophagus as spells thudded into ancient walls and ruined the hieroglyphics and intricate markings so badly she could imagine Matt’s future rants. But it was the spells themselves she cared about. Exclusively Stuns, three wands only. Suppressive fire. Which means there are two not firing, which means -
She swung out from behind her cover into the alcove against the wall, not into the line of heavy spell-fire. ‘Stupefy!’
As anticipated, there was a Thornweaver there to flank them. He managed to bring his wand up and block the bulk of the spell, not the whole effect, and staggered. His movements went sluggish, desperate, and so the next flash from her wand took his legs out from under him, leaving him a bundled, unmoving mess on the cold, stone floor.
‘Cover me,’ she told Matt, and lunged for the next column. The three Thornweavers throwing spells from the doorway hadn’t realised she’d foiled their flanking action, and so she moved from one pillar to the next, keeping low and in the shadows. Matt was in no position to offer covering anything, as spells still thudded into the air around him, the masonry he was hidden behind, but so long as they thought someone was there…
A spell whizzed an inch past her ear. She was almost to the left of the doorway, but they’d seen her, and she ducked low to avoid the salvo of spell-fire. Bellowed commands came from deeper into the passageway, and she recognised Castagnary’s voice, knew enough fractured French to understand. She was closer. She was the priority. After all, if she got too close, Castagnary might actually be in danger.
Rose allowed herself a thin smile, and her wand shot out. Matt’s going to kill me, she thought, and hurled a pile of four thousand year-old pottery out of the corner and at the trio of Thornweavers trying to blow her to smithereens. At the yelps and crackles of protective spells, she ducked out the side, lashed out thrice at the staggering wizards. One more went down, another blocked, the third -
And the world turned upside-down as a Stun cracked through her Shield and into her shoulder. Her limbs didn’t lock up, but they did stiffen, and she fell with a thud to the ground.
Ennervate. Ennervate! But concentrating through the effects was hell even without turning her wand on herself, without her heart trying to thud its way out of her chest at the knowledge she was a sitting duck. Light sparked at the tip of her wand, but it did nothing more than cast illumination along the wall of Ranisonb’s tomb, sending jagged shadows along the hieroglyphs and reliefs retelling as-yet unknown secrets of his life, his work, his magics.
She wondered if they’d ever finish unravelling this puzzle that had consumed them the last two months.
‘Swithefy!’ That was not a spell she’d heard before, but she knew Matt’s voice, heard his footsteps thudding on the sandstone slabs underfoot, and realised he’d charged the Thornweavers. Alone.
Ennervate! Her wand jerked at her command and she could move, think, breathe - roll to one knee, wand braced before her, just in time to see Matt crash into the enemy. The one in front had lifted a shield and looked dismissive, unperturbed that he was being charged by a man with a sword - except that sword cracked into the magical barrier, which didn’t so much as sputter before the adamantine broke it.
And the blade kept going, with a force so redoubtable Rose realised Matt’s spell had not been cast at the Thornweavers, but on himself. Metal met flesh and bone and the wizard who’d Shielded himself didn’t manage more than a scream and a gurgle before he dropped. Even then Matt’s wand, in his other hand, was moving, whipping up at the second Thornweaver with a wordless spell that blasted him into the wall with a crunch.
But Matt was out in the open doorway, and realisation bubbled in Rose’s throat as she flashed her wand at him to bring up a Shield, more or less -
It was more, because the slashing curse that barrelled from the passageway didn’t kill him. But there was an impact, a spurt of blood, the slashing sound of magic on flesh. Matt staggered, hand coming to his shoulder - or was it his throat - and fell like a sack of sand.
Rose didn’t remember moving. The next thing she knew, she was stood over his bleeding, only weakly-stirring form, hurling a volley of spells down the tomb’s passageway, the long, winding corridor that burrowed through the sands towards daylight. But down here there was only darkness and magic and death, and the only light in the corridor came from her onslaught as Adhemar Castagnary parried spell after spell with waning efficiency.
This wasn’t the first time they’d met, wasn’t the first time they’d crossed wands, and he had challenged her more in their pursuit for Ranisonb’s tomb than in combat. An unremarkable wizard of no distinguished features and a face as bland as Rose’s own cooking, she never would have taken him for one of the Council of Thorns’ foremost expedition leaders. They’d learnt the hard way, over the last few months, that he could be ruthless in his choices and his tactics, but she still knew she could take him in a fight, and she was full of fight.
Castagnary swished his wand to knock her spell to one side, but his next words weren’t an incantation. ‘Weasley! Every second you spend trying to kill me, he’s losing more blood.’
She froze, wand in a low guard, dark eyes locked on the man who’d hounded them throughout this hunt, and would hound them again if he fled. ‘You’re lucky it was him you fought in the Theban Necropolis, Castagnary. He didn’t want to kill you when you were at his mercy.’
‘Which I’m sure you would regret a great deal if you allowed that wound to be fatal. I have no doubt that, if you pursued, you would catch me.’ He took slow steps back, deeper into the shadows of the passageway. ‘But how long would it take?’
Her lip curled. ‘Give my regards to Raskoph when you tell him we got to Ranisonb’s tomb first.’
But Castagnary was too sensible to rise to the bait, and so all Rose got was a cheery wave of the wand in farewell as the agent of the Council of Thorns fled. She could hear his footsteps thudding down the passageway, and only when they faded did she let her wand drop. Then she rounded on Matt, and her throat closed up as she took in the growing pool of blood he lay in, only weakly stirring.
She didn’t care that she was getting blood on her trousers, on her hands as she flew to his side, and her only source of relief was that she saw the wound had indeed been to his shoulder, not his neck. His jaw was a knot of tight muscles as he gritted his teeth through the pain, eyes wide, and when she touched the bloodied gash a choke escaped past his lips. ‘Don’t -’
‘I’ve got you, it’s not too deep, it’s nowhere vital…’ Healing spells she’d summoned to mind a thousand times came for the thousand-and-first as her wand waved over the injury. Flesh knitted together, bringing up pink skin instead of vivid red blood.
‘I’m okay, it’s not too…’
‘Nejem, Lowsley, get over here!’ To her relief, her voice came out commanding, not shaking, as she beckoned the rest of their Curse Breaker team.
Twin heads popped out from behind the sarcophagus. They were three, maybe four years her senior in age and employment by Gringotts, but they still came when called like students answering Professor Stubbs at Hogwarts, all but falling over each other to cross the tomb.
‘Er, we were just, er -’
‘Cowering,’ Nejem cut Lowsley off. He was always the more frank of the two.
‘Good. It means you didn’t get your fool heads blown off.’ Rose didn’t look up from her work on Matt’s wound, letting the magic sink deeper to the root of the injury. She had dealt with the bulk of the sliced muscle and flesh and veins, but would have to root out the curse to make sure it didn’t wriggle these seams open. ‘Lowsley, get me my bag; Nejem, stop the bleeding one from dying and tie them both up - and stay still, Matt.’
Her hand on his shoulder tightened as he tried to sit up, and he gave a low groan. ‘How’d they find us?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Is Castagnary gone?’
‘Ran. As ever.’
‘You don’t think he’s going to block the passageway?’
‘This tomb and its complex have remained intact for the last four thousand years. There is no way Castagnary can bring them down in a matter of minutes. Besides, my understanding of Ranisonb’s protections is far superior to his.’
Matt gave a low, pained chuckle. ‘You say that with such certainty.’
‘Castagnary’s a parasite; he just followed our trail.’ Her gaze met his, the grey eyes which were gaining more focus at the healing. ‘What were you thinking, charging them?’
His expression hardened. ‘You were Stunned. I wasn’t sure I could bring them down before they finished you off. The advantage of a charge is that it not only confuses wizards, it distracts them.’
‘And left you open to be dropped by Castagnary.’
‘It would be embarrassing if he’d killed me.’
But then mousey Lowsley put her bag down, and she reached into the magically-extended pack and didn’t look at either of them. Lowsley ran a hand through his mop of dark hair, until the sharp voice of Nejem broke his hovering. ‘Come, Lowsley, good chap; we’ve got ne’er do wells to truss up like the scoundrels they are.’
Rose liked Nejem more than Lowsley, even if both young wizards were more research assistants than great minds here to push their work forward. Nejem had some grasp of social nuance, and so he had granted her a few moments where she didn’t have to fend off the gaze of a near-stranger before she found the solid case in which she stored her bottles, found the Blood-Replenishing Potion she pressed into Matt’s hand. ‘Drink. Now.’
He sat up with less difficulty, and drank the potion because he knew better than to argue. Colour rushed into his complexion within moments, though she was intent on administering at least one more before the end of the day. He coughed as he lowered the bottle and wiped his mouth. ‘I’m alright, Rose. Really.’
‘You will be, and only if you do as I say.’ She got to her feet, swept her gaze across the four Thornweavers being wrestled into magical bindings by Lowsley and Nejem. That would be a final indignity for their failure, to be tied up by a pair of hapless academics. ‘We’re going to have to send word to the Cairo office.’
Matt struggled to his feet. ‘We’ve got work to do here -!’
‘The Council of Thorns knows about this location,’ Rose said. ‘We can re-establish some of Ranisonb’s protections, but once breached they’re never the same again. This isn’t research to be conducted by a four-man team; now we’ve confirmed we’ve found something, Gringotts needs to send a full expedition, complete with security.’
His expression pinched, but he didn’t argue. He looked at the Thornweavers. ‘We hand these over to the authorities in Cairo?’
Rose shrugged. ‘I say we hand them over to Gringotts. The goblins will be less kind.’ She didn’t trust the magical authorities in Egypt. She wouldn’t have been surprised if the government had handed their team’s travel details to Castagnary in the first place. Gringotts weren’t above corruption or bribery, but they wanted Ranisonb’s tomb.
Matt sighed. Ranisonb had been one of the greatest wizards of the court of Amenemhat I, and they’d been chasing his burial tomb almost since arriving in Egypt. The main Gringotts dig site was in el-Lisht, but records had given them a lead which Matt had pounced on, and the head of the expedition had granted this little team the right to chase what had been assumed to be a wild goose chase. They’d suspected they were on to more when they found records in Swenett. They’d known they were onto something when they’d been attacked by the Council of Thorns at the Theban Necropolis, and what had started as a desire for Rose and Matt to make their names as new Curse Breakers for Gringotts had turned into a familiar, deadly race against followers of Colonel Raskoph. She still wasn’t sure why they wanted Ranisonb’s tomb, but Rose took the firm stance that if the Council of Thorns wanted something, it was a duty to the world to make sure they didn’t get it.
‘I was looking forward to exploring this place,’ said Matt, adjusting his now-torn jacket.
‘We still can.’
‘Like hell. If Cairo’s got to send in a whole team, or if Ainsley’s going to redirect people from el-Lisht; now this is a find, not a nothing, they’ll give this to a fully-qualified Surveyor. Someone with experience. Someone who’s studied Ranisonb for more than a few weeks.’
Lowsley looked up. ‘He’s right. Sorry, Ms Weasley, but we could have explored this place while waiting on Ainsley to send us more people. But if we’ve got to get security down here to keep the Council of Thorns at bay, we’ll be on assistant work.’
‘As ever, Lowsley,’ mused Nejem, nudging his dusty glasses up his nose, ‘you manage to find the cloud in every silver lining.’ He looked to Rose. ‘But they do have the right of it, I’m afraid. We’ll be relegated to the rank-and-file before you can say “Tutankhamen”.’
Rose noticed how they apologised to her, when it was Matt who was looking forlorn. She’d done her part. Thwarting the defences of Ranisonb’s tomb had been her achievement, the challenge she had wanted to test herself against. While no doubt there would be untold secrets in this burial site, and whilst the idea of being the one to discover them did bring a small, unusual surge of anticipation to her gut, the idea of reading someone else’s analysis and findings was not much less exciting. It was Matt who would want to write the papers, head the expedition, uncover all the secrets. She only cared because he cared.
‘Bundle up the Thornweavers,’ she said instead, ‘and take some pictures. We need to be in Cairo within the hour, and it’ll take me a little time to re-seal the tomb behind us.’
Matt looked across the tomb of Ranisonb, the both of them scarred and battered from the fight. ‘One of the biggest finds of this expedition, our first find as Curse Breakers, from a search across Egypt, thwarting Adhemar Castagnary and his Thornweavers, no less… and I bet that prick Ainsley’s going to dock us pay for letting this place get damaged.’
The lights of night-clad Cairo twinkled like treasure submerged in the ocean. Gringotts unofficially owned one of the magical hotels by virtue of always filling its rooms, and from her window Rose was high enough to get a good look at the city. Once she would have found it entrancing, full of opportunity and secrets. But now it was just another city, and she’d seen dozens of those all over the world.
She closed the shutters and turned back to the papers on the small writing desk. Nejem had been right; Ainsley and their superiors at Gringotts were sending a new team to Ranisonb’s tomb, complete with security guards and expert surveyors with long years under their belts. Their team had the choice: they could continue as mundane excavators, helping with the research, or they could take the bonus for finding the resting place of one of the Twelfth Dynasty’s greatest wizards and go home. Rose didn’t care; either was work, but she knew Matt’s pride balked at the idea of becoming a flunky on ‘his’ dig-site.
The fan whirred overhead, a buzzing interloper in her thoughts as she rifled through the missives from the office. It was a small, cramped room, the paint peeling away from the walls like it was offended by the masonry, and when she’d first stayed here in the summer, the muggy heat had been almost choking. Now they were marching onto November, and there was a pleasant breeze through her window. Which meant there was a crack somewhere, but that would be the next occupant’s problem.
She rubbed her eyes. Bureaucracy was her job in the team, not because Matt or Nejem or Lowsley were lazy, but just because she’d always done it. For once she couldn’t concentrate and her gaze drifted to the door. Matt had been put to bed two hours ago with strict instructions to sleep, though she knew she was fussing more than his injury necessitated. She got up and headed for the corridor anyway. The lantern hanging from the ceiling flickered, the charge in the magical light drained and in need of replenishment, and so heading for Matt’s room was like moving in stop-motion, every other second a jerking advance.
You should let him rest, she told herself, and knocked on his door. If he didn’t answer, then he was resting too deeply and needed it, but it was only nine o’ clock, it was possible he’d napped -
The door swung open after a hasty scraping back of the chain, and there he stood, skin pale against his dark, dishevelled hair, but his grey eyes were bright, alert. He gave an anxious smile. ‘Hey.’
‘Hey.’ She clasped her hands together. ‘I’m not interrupting?’
‘I woke up about ten minutes ago. You’re never an interruption.’ He stepped back and let her in, his room identical to hers except the papers on the desk were research notes, not Gringotts bureaucracy. ‘You okay?’
‘I confirmed with Ainsley and the head office we’ll be taking the finder’s fee and returning to London. I assumed you wouldn’t have a problem with that.’ She perched on the edge of the desk, looking to the window. His room overlooked the outskirts of the city, so there was a harsh line where light succumbed to darkness, and the stretching oblivion of Egypt beyond Cairo. He hadn’t turned on the fan, so the room was filled with the city, the warmth and sound and scent like a blanket of a world so different to Britain and Hogwarts and home. But then, he wore the rest of the world like a part of him in a way she never did.
‘Of course not.’ Matt slipped the door back on the chain. She knew the locks would include all manner of additional magical protections, because she’d taught him hers. ‘Ainsley’s a hack, he’s just in it for the money. I’d rather blast myself in the foot than be his excavation monkey.’
Rose swallowed a memory and nodded. ‘Then we’ve got a Portkey to Britain tomorrow. We can let Griznak know the situation.’
‘I think he’ll be pleased. And I’m pleased, Rose, don’t get me wrong.’ He leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, watching her with the faintest knot in his brow. ‘Ranisonb’s tomb on our first proper assignment? Ainsley didn’t believe us and now it’s egg on his face. He won’t get a reprimand for it, but we’re establishing our credentials. I bet we can get our own team out of this.’
‘You’d rather have that? Chasing leads and then dropping them when we find the dig-site, letting someone else do the long-term work? I thought you love poring over Ranisonb’s tomb.’
‘I would. But Surveyors are ten a knut in Gringotts. People who’ll chase the leads, do the homework, dance through protective traps and spells, even though nothing might come of any of it? Much less competition in those departments. Once we make our names, we can pick our assignments. And let’s face it, Rose, we’ve got a better idea of what it takes than half of the department.’ She would have been satisfied doing the grind, taking her time, but Matt wanted it all, and he wanted it now. Considering he’d cut his teeth on one of the greatest finds of the twenty-first century, even if they’d then lost the Chalice of Emrys, she couldn’t blame him. And she certainly wouldn’t stand in his way.
She tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. It had escaped the tight braid she wore these days, no-nonsense and out of the way, but today had been a frantic occasion and she hadn’t cared for her coiffure. ‘Do you want to keep Lowsley and Nejem? It sounds harsh when they’ve got years of experience on us, but I bet Griznak would let us call the shots.’
‘I like them.’ Matt nodded. ‘Lowsley does what he’s told and Nejem’s down-to-earth, in a ridiculous academic sort of way. They’re bright, I like doing research with them, and I think they’re learning of the spirit of adventure.’
‘Adventure. Sure.’ She stared at the motionless fan, lips thinning to a fine line. ‘How’re you feeling?’
‘I’m fine.’ He shrugged - then winced, and had to smirk. ‘That wasn’t smart of me. But seriously. Castagnary doesn’t have enough mojo in him to make me more than flinch.’
‘He flattened you and had you bleeding out.’
‘It was a sucker punch!’
She didn’t move, her voice remaining flat. ‘I don’t care. That sword still makes you move out of cover.’
‘I couldn’t down them at range; their Shields were too strong, but nobody expects someone to come at them with a sword and collapse their magic.’
‘And if that doesn’t work, you’re in the open, up close, and usually against superior numbers.’
‘I didn’t have a choice. They were going to pick you off at their leisure.’
Only now did she straighten, chin jerking up half an inch, jaw tightening. ‘I didn’t ask you to expose yourself like that.’
‘Of course you didn’t.’ His eyes followed her as she started pacing, stalking closer to the door, closer to him. ‘But I thought we were way past asking things like that.’
‘You should have been more careful.’ Her throat was closing up, a familiar, bitter taste rising, and this time she couldn’t fight the quaver in her voice. ‘A few inches to the left and Castagnary’s spell would have been -’
‘But it wasn’t.’ His hand caught her elbow and she froze, teetering on the brink. ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. Today was a win.’
‘It almost wasn’t.’ She couldn’t meet his gaze, so studied the paint peeling on the wall behind him.
‘Almost doesn’t hack it. Hey. Look at me.’ She did, and found those grey eyes, like a sea she could swim in. The corner of his mouth curled. ‘You can let go. It’s done. We’re okay, and we can worry about Castagnary and all that -’
Later, she finished silently, and the word unlocked something in her chest. Relief and anguish melded together in that eternal bittersweet cocktail, the closest she got to feeling anything which didn’t punch a hole in her. But with him she could let herself drown, and so she cut him off.
Not with more arguments. But when she fell into his arms, they were open, hopeful, shrouding, and his lips on hers were like a chaser that beckoned her into the intoxicating depths. Her hand ran over his shoulder, her touch delicate as it traced the wound, and she knew the dark magic would guarantee yet another scar. But he had survived to be marked, and could once again be her harbour, the safe ground.
He cupped her chin in his hand, tilted her mouth up to deepen the kiss, and his touch drew the bubbling in her chest out as a small, involuntary noise at the back of her throat. She had to break the embrace, had to gasp for air, and words spilt out the moment they could, rushing against his lips. ‘I can’t lose you…’
‘You won’t,’ he breathed, his hold on her tightening, pinning her against him, and she was all-too happy to be helpless in his arms. ‘I promise you, Rosie, I’ll be careful, I promise…’
He’d been waiting for this, she realised as she smothered his promises with another kiss. He’d known she would need to steel herself before she came to him, and he’d waited, because Matthias Doyle would wait a hundred years for her. He’d waited almost two, waited through the grief of her shattered world, helped put the pieces back together, and though he’d said nothing, expected nothing, she knew he’d hoped. And now they were here, and he could silence the screaming shards of that shattered world.
Afterwards, when she lay bundled against him and staring at that motionless fan hanging above, he nuzzled her loosened hair and murmured, ‘I didn’t mention, with everything. I got that flat in Cambridge.’
She frowned at the fan. ‘You say, “that” flat…’
‘A flat.’ His breath caught. ‘Dad helped find it, but he’s paranoid on security these days. And probably souped it up. But I’m gainfully employed in a job which tries to kill me; I don’t fancy living with my parents when we get back to England. The papers were waiting when we got here. Contract’s signed, deposit’s paid, the place is mine.’ She could see where the path ahead wound, but couldn’t bring herself to take leaping steps down it. So she waited until he led her further, murmuring, ‘I know you don’t like staying with your parents much if you can help it…’
Even though uncertainty was her stock in trade, she despised relying on it, and had to shift to look him in the eye. ‘Is this an invitation for me to have drawer space, or…?’
‘Or more. If you want. It could be our place.’ Matt winced. ‘I know, it feels fast after just a few months, but I don’t care about the normal rules; there’s not a damn thing about our life together that’s been normal. And when weeks racing across Egypt being hunted by a crazy Frenchman is par for the course, that’s saying something.’
He was starting to babble, so she silenced him with a kiss, and had to mirror his smile when she drew back. ‘Cambridge. I like Cambridge.’
‘I thought you would,’ he murmured, and she reflected how this was as much an in-depth discussion as they ever gave these matters. The most important topics were never dissected as much as the magical protections of tombs of wizards dead for thousands of years. The decision was made, and that was that.
The beds in these hotel rooms were all creaking springs and threadbare sheets, but for a time she slept as deeply as he did, nestled in his arms. The ventures of the day, physical, emotional, psychological, were enough to exhaust her beyond dreams. So it was almost dawn when they came, as they always did, as they especially did after Matt had silenced them for a time, twisting visions of falling shapes and grey smoke and shimmering veils, and she woke like she always did, choking back sobs.
Matt slept too deeply to be woken, and for once she was glad of this, because she didn’t want to see the shadow in his eyes which came every time he saw her torment. He meant nothing by it, was as patient as a man could be, but after over two years, she couldn’t fight the guilt that she could go to bed with Matt’s name on her lips and rise with a dead man’s. It was better he rested. For her scars as well as his.
A full night’s sleep was a fantasy after all this time, and so she greeted the dawn like she always did, sat at a desk with some book or another before her, consuming words about something, anything, so long as they chased back the shadows of her loss.