Chapter Four: Interstitial Interventions
Harry panicked when the first knock sounded on the door to her rooms, so she reflexively opened another one and stepped through it--and the snowscape swallowed the echoes of Severus' arrival.
"Damn your omniscience, Albus!"
The wizard had promised her that, if she would not learn to understand the Gift, it would surprise her at the most inconvenient of moments.
Harry did not quite regret ignoring Albus' warning; after all, she did feel completely out of her depth this evening. The day's events had stirred disturbing, long-quiescent currents of emotion and memory that threatened to pull her away from her painstakingly constructed island of calm.
The witch was not going into the water when she was not certain if she could swim, and she refused to believe the great wizard Albus Percival Wolfric Brian Dumbledore's assurances that her ability to suppress the power was, in itself, a measure of her control of it.
Wait. You're thinking of two separate issues.
But that did not matter, be it her feelings or her supposed power, because "Hermione was wrong. I can hide myself--I'm that weak."
The young woman was too preoccupied with her exercise in self-loathing to notice the massive tree pushing itself up through the newly pooling slush behind her, or the murder of crows that had swooped down out of the gray sky to darken its branches.
"Cor! What are those?" the young man, who had settled for being referred to as "boy," asked as a soldier handed him an oozing, lumpy, leather-like bag.
"Ya throw 'em. Black'n's cause smoke. Red'n's cause fire. Blue'n's cause the air to go. Put 'em in your knapsack, boy--carefully."
"And they ooze why?"
"I just pack'n'hack, boy. I ain't no wizard."
"I'm a wizard."
"Yeah, I was afeared o' that. Won't help you out there," the squat, stinking man said, gesturing toward the castle gate.
Having seen the surging animals from his room once he had learnt to use his window properly, the young man knew the old-timer was probably right. He shuddered in contemplation of the battle to come, but knew he would fight. You don't just sit on your arse and let the monsters come, he told himself with an excellent approximation of bracing firmness.
"So, am I in your unit, then?"
The soldier grunted. "No. The master wants you to get 'customed to things first. You're for a scoutin' party.
"Then why am I carrying these?"
"You'll be marchin' in the middle. Gives a man time to decide."
"I'm afraid I--"
"Now look, boy, I ain't got time for trainin', but I'll tell you this: if you're being rushed, fire is good--keeps 'em back, like. Smoke is for ambushin' 'em, and you only use them air-stealers when the mongrels are amongst yer own men--but call out, like, first, so's everyone can catch a breath."
This speedy list of instructions was not particularly comforting. "Um, how long do you hold your breath for?"
The soldier looked at the boy as if he was the worst kind of useless. "Why, until ye've killed 'em, o' course!" and then went muttering away to pack the next recruit.
That fellow looks pretty scared, the boy thought, backing into a stand of swords.
"Would Sir like one?" asked a tiny creature with huge eyes and floppy ears. It was wearing what appeared to be a bloodied sack of some kind.
A voice from behind the boy said, "I already have one for him, Flibbet."
The creature began polishing a blade with hurried care.
"I suppose this would be the time to tell you that I don't actually know how to use a sword?"
The vampire smiled, and suddenly the boy found himself in the garden in which he had, of late, spent most of his time.
"Your . . . friend left something for you here."
"Oh, yeah? That was kind of him. . . . Why?" And who is he? And why did he bring me here? And--
Tancredo murmured something unintelligible and unsavory sounding, and a groaning began to rise with a large stone from the earth. There was a hilt sticking out of it.
"This is a joke, right?"
"I assure you, boy, that safe-guarding enchanted, familial blades is not something I find amusing. I did not put the weapon there, your . . . Albus did."
"Is that the old bloke who came to visit me before?"
Tancredo laughed. Yes, Godrixibus, I think I might insist that he stay--if his blood is true.
Not all of his friend's progeny had been worth the care and feeding, as Tancredo well-remembered.
"The stone makes a convenient sheath--it prevents rusting."
The boy reached over and grasped the hilt. "If you say so," he replied, pulling the weapon out of its protection without strain.
This bodes well. "Oh, I do. Welcome to my keep, Ronald Bilius Weasley."
Harry was brooding in the solitude when a single caw alerted her that she was not alone. The down of her neck rising, she spun into an unwelcome wall of caustic crow castigation.
Oh, Merlin. No! I can't make birds here, and I'm definitely going to need a big bird--or a dragon! "Stop! Stop!"
The tree before her was filled with hundreds of birds who flapped at her in a sinister speaking fashion to match their shrieks.
"What do you want?"
"Pansy's head in my lap, but I'll settle for the end of this ostrich routine of yours, Madam Hero."
It did not occur to Harry to find it odd that Neville was suddenly there. "It's not like you to settle."
"How would you know, Harry. You're hardly an expert on my tastes."
"That's not fair! You turned me down," she replied, calmer now that it was quiet again.
"Yeah, well, I'm not Blaise Zabini, love," the young man parried with unmistakable affection as he pulled his friend into a chaste embrace. "And I don't fancy birds when they're too drunk to know who's in front of them."
"Always the gentleman."
Neville stepped back and looked Harry up and down with frank male appreciation, but without heat. "You clean up nicely. I hope that's not for Tall, Dark, and Disturbed."
"I don't see Blaise anymore."
"You never actually did."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"That you have disastrous taste in men, dearest."
"You never . . . really . . . wanted me, did you, Nev?"
"Just for a bit after the Change, but then, I know I'm not the only bloke who wanked to your unexpected attributes."
"Cute, Potter. You're shy."
"No, Longbottom. I'm horrified."
"Doesn't matter now, though. Besides, Pansy was a little demon. I only ever think of her, now."
Best not to mention Fred, then. "Spare me the details, you freak."
Neville laughed good-naturedly, and winter gave way for spring. "Let's sit down. You and I need to chat."
"About this odd avian enterprise of yours?" Harry asked, gesturing toward the birds perched on the now fragrant boughs of a robust apple tree.
"Nah, they're just trickery. I think it's time for my favorite parselmouth to learn to talk about snakes."
"Anything else you can tell me about those . . . things?" Ronald asked the experienced soldier to whom he had been nervously speaking.
There were men on the battlements turning the wheel to the massive gate of the castle. It was almost time to leave.
"When we push through the horde, don't look at them too closely. Just slice on through."
"Seems reasonable advice, mate."
"And don't go making any friends here. People die."
Ronald swallowed--hard. "No time to attend the funerals, then?"
Splendid. I'm about to die without being able to recall the face of my own mother, and she wouldn't care even if she knew--how else do you explain 'Bilius'?
"Names are important, Harry. Don't dismiss my theory out of hand."
The two friends were sitting with their backs against Neville's tree, eating apples and arguing.
"Draco never liked it, but I don't mind 'Ree'. How could Blaise giving me a nickname be anything to do with a spell?"
"It might not have anything to do with a spell, but to allow a person to name you can give that person power over your self-perception. And by now you ought to understand how important it is for you to perceive yourself clearly."
The witch craned her neck to peer quizzically at her companion. "That's just philosophy, Neville, not magic."
"How is it that with Hermione after you to study all the time you never did any better in Magical Theory?"
"The textbook had my picture plastered all over it. I never made it past page eleven."
"That's no excuse, Harry," Neville said, chucking his core away from himself with some force.
She shrugged. "Blaise likes me."
"Blaise covets you because Draco was preoccupied with you to distraction, and that one never shared well."
Neither of them did, as I recall, Harry thought. She spat a piece of apple into her hand, the ghost of an old hurt rising in her throat to choke her appetite. "He doesn't want me anymore."
Though she did not specify the "he," Neville understood that she meant Draco. "Of course not. He's dead."
"No, he isn't."
"I didn't mean Blaise."
"I didn't, either."
"What?" the boy asked, shooting to his feet and pulling Harry up alongside him.
"Draco's not dead. Don't you know these things here?"
"How would I? The last time I had any truck with the living, it was by bird."
Harry just looked at him.
"I sent one of the crows to get help for you when you were--sick--after the attack."
Her face softened from confusion to wonder. "Neville, that's amazing. Thank you. I didn't know."
"Don't thank me. Tell me what you mean by saying Draco's alive. He took the Dark Mark. He has to be dead."
"He apparently never got around to it, Nev. Draco's been in a 'respite facility' in France for some time now."
"No. I refuse to believe that. It was planned. Blaise told us. Draco told you. This is bad."
"This is ridiculous. There were pictures of Draco in the paper after the war. There have been pictures of him since. Our spell worked. If he had been marked, he would be dead. He's not. Don't get yourself all worked up."
But the wizard wasn't composed at all. He began tearing apples off of the tree and hurling them against the browning grass. How can she not remember? What's wrong? Someone must have . . . blocked her memory, but why? "What did I miss? What did I do wrong?" he screamed.
Harry did not know what else to do as Neville destroyed his creation. She watched him helplessly. Rain began to fall in syrupy droplets that pooled thickly at the worried corners of her mouth. Tasting copper, the witch knew that the metallic tinge to the precipitation meant blood. She blinded herself by looking up, and then retched.
Ignoring the scene of carnage behind him, Ronald was grateful to find himself alive at the top of the slope his squad had been making for. When all of his comrades had joined him, they collapsed into an exhausted, begored heap. After a certain point, their foes had stopped following them as though they did not wish to stray too far from the keep. He did not care why.
Ronald had not listened to his former . . . tutor. He had looked into more than one of the faces of the ogres who had died at his hand. Their eyes had been very like those of the odd little weapons keeper back at the castle. But it had not been a desire to be useful that had shone from their orbs.
Valiantly not answering his body's call to vomit, the boy could not stop his tears.
There had been fear in the faces of those creatures. Fear, fury, and more than a frisson of intelligence. This was not, as Tancredo had told him, a culling. This was an effort to eradicate a race.
"Get the bits and blood off yerselves 'afore it dries, men," rasped their commander. "'T'won't do to let blood call to blood."
Harry could not think past her gown, which was darkened by the ichor of Neville's grief . . . or fear . . . or anger. It was hard to decipher what he was feeling, but she knew that the bloodstorm had to be stopped before he turned his little corner of the Afterlife into the Fifth Great Hell.
Focus, she instructed herself. Let the power come to you.
Drawing the litany out of a part of her mind that she had hoped never to revisit, she began to chant.
The clammy, rubbery rivulets of red magic shivered in the air and were reformed, flowing to Harry almost instantly. She was not surprised.
She had done this before.
"[This is not mine]," the witch called to the power in a Parseltongue translation of the ancient wizarding dialect in which the Grimoire Nigromantia had been written. "[It is separate from myself. I will not permit it to sustain me, but will draw it inside the edges of my Self so that I might control it. . . . This is not mine]," she began again.
As the crimson curtain became a carpet, and then an indistinct light before appearing to coalesce inside of Harry's belly, she heard Neville's voice.
"Brace yourself. I'm pretty sure this will hurt," he said. Without further preamble he thrust his hand into her mid-section, clasped the hardening shard within her, and clawed the blood jewel encasing his magic out of her. "Cruoris Innocuous!"
The faceted bit of glinting nastiness began to dim, flaking harmlessly through the wizard's fingers.
The first thing that Harry noticed when she could breath again was that she was clean.
"This is filthy work," Ronald muttered.
Having cleansed themselves as best they could, he and the other soldiers were set up in an outpost of crumbling masonry that stank of shit and other offal. The dirt floor of the "room"--for there was no roof to shield the party from the elements--was strewn with charred pelts and other detritus. A large fire had been kindled in the center of the space, and a spit had been constructed over eldritch flames. Ronald wanted to ask about that, but was too disturbed by the hiss of fat dripping from the skinned creature's carcass that was to be dinner to question anyone about the flame.
I'm not eating that, he thought, remembering how his last ogre had seemed to call to its fellows as it had fallen underfoot.
With a heavy thud, the commander threw his bulk down next to Ronald and spared the boy a look. "Filthy work. Aye, so it is--and plenty of it, lad!"
"How can you murder them like that? How can you eat them?"
The other men laughed, an ugly sound.
"It ain't murder, boy. It's war," his commander said roughly, but not without sympathy. "You'll get used to it. We did."
"Do you know why they hate us? Have they ever said?"
There was an abrupt silence.
"Those monsters ain't people, boy. They don't say anything. Didn't Erasmus explain things to you proper?"
"Me brother, the one as gave you your kit."
"All he told me was what these nasty things did," Ronald replied, opening his pack to show the commander the odd weapons. "And when to use them."
"That's Erasmus for ye, always stickin' to the basics."
Ronald looked at the other man in perturbation.
"It's like this, see. The ogres 'ave been comin' for longer than anyone can remember, boy. They don't build nothin', nor grow anythin', and they don't speak."
"Now that you've asked, you'd better listen good. . . . All those critters do is eat. An' they," he paused to point at the spit, "don't put our flesh to the fire 'afore rippin' into it with their nasty sharp teeth!"
"That's right!" someone shouted. "The animals!"
He did not say so, but Ronald knew that the ogres built fires. He had seen the beings milling around them from his room in the keep.
Two men entered, one just behind the other. The commander stood to receive them.
"What'd ye see?"
The first man reported that "the fissure is still closed, sir, an' it looks about as we expected. The group seems trapped by the harmonics."
Harmonics? Ronald thought.
"Well now," the commander said, "you'll get to see some real monster-stickin' soon!"
"Yessir," answered the second man. "It's pretty eerie, an' that's the truth. I wouldn't want ta move into that sound even if I was stuck with the ogres mesself!"
"We just might have to join the attack squad, men!" the commander said. "And you," he continued, looking back at Ronald, "will get plenty o' use out of them wizard balls."
Everyone stood and cheered lustily.
Ronald squared his shoulders and gathered his courage. He was about to disobey an unethical order.
Sitting under the dried husk of the large splinter that had been Neville's tree, Harry finished her tale of what had occurred after the Final Battle--reconstructing events primarily from what she had been told upon coming out of her coma. The subject of Draco and Blaise had been firmly dropped, though the witch knew her friend was disturbed about it.
"And how did the Ministry handle not being consulted in our plans?" a subdued Neville asked.
"Publicly they were all praise--there's a statue to you now in the Garden of Peace."
"It's a memorial for those who fought and died."
"You in it?"
Harry looked embarrassed. "I'm afraid so."
"Glad I missed all that rot. And privately?" he pressed.
"There were questions. But after that one meeting between Minister Weasley--"
Neville's face brightened as he interrupted Harry. "Yeah? That's great news!"
"And myself--it is nice for Mr. Weasley--all official inquiries ceased. Essentially, the Department of Information Disbursal has put it about that we were all in accord as to how to proceed against Voldemort."
"Politics," Neville said with evident distaste.
"So, you must be besieged by well-wishers."
"Actually, Albus has been very helpful there. And I don't get out much since becoming a professor, so it's not an issue."
"Then why are you all dressed up?"
Harry blushed. She was not sure how her friend would take the news of her involvement with the Potions master. "I have a date."
"Where's Charlie taking you if you 'don't get out much'?"
When she did not reply to his question, Neville chuckled. "Sweet Merlin, it's about time!"
"What's so funny?"
"Tell George Weasley to give my share of the bet to Pansy, will you?"
"You're finally shagging Snape!"
They bet about us? "You bet about us?"
Neville just kept laughing.
"Who did you bet with, Longbottom?"
"You'll have to ask . . . George," he spluttered as he caught a glimpse of Harry's expression. "He was . . . responsible for the pot."
Beginning to recover his composure, Neville said, "Well, we did ask Madame Rosmerta, but she wouldn't hear of it for some reason." He sat up and wiped his tears of mirth away. "Odd, that--she usually loves a good wager."
Git, Harry thought vehemently. "Of course Rosmerta wouldn't have wanted to--didn't you know that she and Severus--oh, never mind!"
"You can't be serious--Snape and Rosmerta had a . . . thing?"
Harry was indignant. "Why is it okay for me to be--we're not shagging!--seeing Severus, but it's so difficult for you to imagine her with him?"
"I don't know. I guess I just assumed that she'd have better taste than you."
Harry pushed the now-standing Neville back into the withered grass on his bum. "It's a good thing you're already dead."
Looking up at her, the boy's expression turned to seriousness. "Yeah, I wouldn't have wanted to make you angry when I was alive, not truly."
A warning prickled up her spine. "Why do you say that?"
"Because I saw what you were capable of when you were angry."
Ronald stood in the small garden that he had come to consider his own as he waited for Tancredo. After successfully preventing his own battlefield execution for treason, he had accompanied the commander and what was remaining of the scouting party back to the castle. Its numbers had been decreased by two, and the rest of the men in it bore wounds of varying degrees of severity as well as the bodies of their fellows.
Ronald was fairly certain that he was going to die. He thought that the vampire might know more tricks than the men he had fought.
But that doesn't matter. I won't be a part of this butchery.
"So, kingling, what can I explain to you?" Tancredo whispered from a breath's length behind the boy's left shoulder.
Ronald started and jumped away from the being, drawing his sword and turning as he did so. "I didn't hear you come in."
Tancredo inclined his head toward the blade. "Yes, do clutch that over-forged metallic splinter if it gives you comfort."
The mocking words made Ronald feel foolish. But he did not relent his ready stance.
"Your arm must be tired, Ronald Bilius."
I should have known better, the boy thought as his appendages began to feel like heavy lead pipes. "No!" he ordered himself, shaking off the sensation. "You're only guiding my thoughts because I'm not guarding them. I won't let you do it!"
As he spoke the words, his arms began to feel like themselves again, but he decided to sheathe his weapon anyway.
"I see that not every Defense Against the Dark Arts professor that Albus has employed has been without merit. I'm pleased with you, Ronald Bilius. You may defend yourself before I pass judgment on your lack of obedience."
"I'm a volunteer in this army, you know."
"Yes, you are. You elected to follow orders of your own free will."
After a tense moment, Ronald asked, "What's Hogwarts?"
"I noticed it while we were studying Advanced Counter Charms at the novitiate. Zabini already knew the defenses to everything Moody exposed us. He had been trained in the Dark Arts."
"Blaise's family is full of dark wizards, Neville," Harry said patiently. "It's not surprising that he'd have absorbed some of what they knew. That doesn't make him a dark wizard."
"Knowing about fell magic doesn't, but using it does."
Harry shuddered. I know where this is going. "He never used it except to help."
"Don't be so feeble-minded, Harry! It was a conscious decision on Zabini's part to set that squad of Death Eaters alight--or were you too preoccupied with your own adventures in charcoal to notice?"
"Please don't, Neville. I don't want to talk about it," Harry said, standing up.
"Why not? You did murder those men. You know you did."
"I did no such thing."
Neville's face held both compassion and understanding as he persevered. "You did. Those men put their hands on Zabini, and it made you angry. He was yours, after all."
"That's not how it happened," Harry said, her tears forcing themselves through squeezed eyelids.
The boy reached up and jerked her down into his arms none too gently, but loosened his grip as she began to sob outright. "Dearest, we both know what you did, and we both know why. The story you told Ron and the Aurors about having made a mistake was a lie. . . . I had no idea that you had made yourself believe it."
"You said it yourself. Using dark magic is what makes a person evil. Only a monster would kill because it pleased her to do so--I'm no better than Bellatrix Lestrange!"
"Look at me."
"I'll call the birds back."
Harry looked at Neville at once.
"Have you done anything remotely like that since the first time?"
"Good. Now say what you did. Tell the truth to yourself."
"What good will that do? You know what I am."
"That's the point, love. I do. You don't, so say it. Tell me what happened in the clearing now."
Neville's tone brooked no refusal. "They drew their wands on Blaise . . . ."
"He didn't notice, and one of them got close enough to where he had landed to grab his robes. I . . . ."
"I cast the first spell that came to mind."
"Really? You used your wand? What did you cast?"
Harry's eyes narrowed. "Neville, I told you what happened. Now leave me alone!"
A crow flew from the tree to the wizard's shoulder.
"I hate you, Neville."
"Tell me about that spell, Harry."
She pulled away and leapt to her feet, furious now, but controlled. "I didn't use my wand! I wanted them dead, so I killed them, all right?"
"Why do you care?"
"Caw!" came the cry of a crow from overhead.
The one on Neville's shoulder just stared at the witch.
She was not sure why the noise bothered her so much, but the call forced the truth from her at last. "I pulled all the fear I was feeling into my eyes, all the remnants of power from the spells that had been cast, and focused it in my gaze at the Death Eaters. My one thought was that they should smoulder into dust and disappear, and they did."
"Good, Harry. I'm glad you do know the truth."
"Is that why you played with me?"
"I wasn't playing with you, love. I wanted you to see it, to hear it."
She fell into the crackling grass next to her friend and leaned against him. "To see what?"
"That fear is what motivated you--fear for another," he said, stroking her hair. "When I watched Zabini call the flame and torch his victims, the only thing I saw in his face was pleasure."
Master Tancredo of the Wilds was quite satisfied that young Weasley would do well for himself. The strength, character, and heart of Godrixibus had bred true in the boy. Now the vampire felt that it was time to allow him his memory, and then to send him home.
He's quite the philosopher, that one, but his humanity will not be of service here.
Tancredo had little time for sophists.
"Ah, Vedette Aurelia 'Jasper'," he acknowledged the woman who had just entered his council chamber, "I have a commission for you."
And though you have served me well, young one, your retirement from my service is at hand.
"You're welcome. Now come sit down so that I can charm your braid into something suitably elegant to this occasion," Hermione said--again.
The sense of déjà vu rolled over Harry so hard that she swayed.
Hermione looked at her in suspicion. "Have you been so nervous that you forgot to eat?"
"No. I think I may just be nervous," she responded, taking her friend's outstretched arm, and trying to reorient herself.
Hermione settled Harry into a chair and began to unplait her hair. "You needn't worry, you know. You will be on the Terrace."
Harry allowed the gentle stroking of the soft-bristled brush to soothe her. "You didn't have any money in the pool, did you?"
"How did you know about that awful bet?"
"A wrangler of large birds told me."
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