DISCLAIMER: The settings and characters are shamelessly stolen from Harry Potter. I am not making money. No copyright infringement intended.
NOTES: I realize I shouldn't be starting another story when I have so many works in progress already, but this bunny hit me and I just couldn't stop myself. Mostly I blame Fearthainn, of "Dark Directed" fame, and the books she made me read over the summer. She also beta-ed this, which serves her right. Also thank you to w&m_law who also provided a beta job as well. It's always appreciated, even if I don't always like what you have to say. *luff*
Chapter One: The Sky is Falling
"Why do I have to leave?" Ginny demanded, feeling one of her trademark door-slamming, feet-stomping tantrums coming on.
"Because it's not safe here, Ginny," her Mum responded with an equal degree of feeling.
Ginny didn't even know why she bothered arguing with her Mum. No one could out-shout Molly Weasley. And this time it was obvious she meant what she was saying. even Fred and George looked nervous, in the spot where they were eavesdropping, out of Molly's line of sight (and wrath). It didn't mean she had to like it though.
"I know. But why do I have to go? You're not making anyone else run and hide!" Ginny flailed her arms exuberantly, trying to make her mother understand how much she truly loathed this idea.
Sending her to Hogwarts. What rubbish. Ever since Arthur Weasley had been attacked and nearly died several months ago, Molly had been overprotective of her clan, but this was ridiculous.
"They're older than you, dear," Molly explained with all the patience she could muster. "They're of legal age. If they want to stay and… help… well, I can't stop them. But it's still my job to protect you."
"What about Ron?" Ginny spat, folding her arms across her chest. "He's not 'of legal age,' and he's friends with Harry! I bet he's loads more likely to get killed than me!"
Molly blanched at the mention of killing. Ginny heard Fred whisper to George, "I know I want to kill him," at just the right pitch, so Ginny could hear him but her Mum could not.
"Ginny," said Molly, the strain of the last year evident on her face, "I just want to protect you and take care of you while I can. If you're at Hogwarts – with Dumbledore – you'll be safe and it'll be one less thing I have to worry about." She looked at her only daughter imploringly. "I don't want to see you hurt. Please do this, for me."
Ginny sighed, knowing she was beat. No child could give in to the "please do this for me" argument, especially when their parents had been through the year Ginny's had. It was the trump card.
That afternoon she began packing her things into her trunk again. She had just unpacked them from the previous school year and she couldn't believe she was already going back, less than a month into summer holidays.
It wasn't fair, she told herself over and over. Her Mum always did this to her. She made her go upstairs when important news was being discussed. She was surprised she didn't have to hold her Mum's hand at King's Cross anymore, like she couldn't be trusted not to wander off into the crowd of Muggles, never to be seen again.
She bid her posters and fluffy duvet a mournful farewell. She loved her room. She loved her house. And, less than five hours ago she had learned she wouldn't be seeing it again for more than a year. That was, if they let her come home next year. She enjoyed Hogwarts, she did. But it was school. Who wanted to stay there all alone, listening to their own footsteps echoing in the empty corridors?
She wondered if the Professors stayed at the castle during summer holidays. She wasn't sure she wanted to spend her holiday with her teachers. It was just too embarrassing for words. All her mates would return to school with stories of their brilliant trips all over the world. They'd go to the continent and see places with lots of history and culture, or to someplace sunny and return with the type of tan Ginny couldn't get if she spent 24 hours a day out of doors.
And she'd be at Hogwarts. Maybe if she was lucky she could get a head start on her schoolwork. Help Professor Sprout squeeze bubotuber pus or bottle potions while Snape eyed her suspiciously. She bet Professor McGonagall would have loads of "fun" work to do.
She wanted to cry and throw her stuffed animals around but she knew that would confirm her Mum's suspicions: Ginny was not grown up enough.
Perhaps things would've been different if Ginny were not the only girl or the youngest. But there was no use speculating. Whatever the reason, Molly Weasley didn't want to see her baby harmed so she was shipping her off for a summer in the safest – most boring – place she could think of, truly believing in her heart of hearts that it was "for the best."
"Bye, Gin," said George, looking especially sorry for his sister. He leaned over to hug her. "Don't worry. We'll write." Then when their Mum was out of hearing he added: "And we'll send you "supplies" if you ever get bored."
His twin, Fred, nodded empathically and winked at her.
Her two oldest brothers, Bill and Charlie, were not at the Burrow. Bill was on some secret mission and Charlie was still in Romania. Oddly enough, both had sent her farewell gifts which only served to make Ginny angry. Obviously, they had both known about this plan before she had.
Though they had hoped the Ministry acknowledging that You-Know-Who had returned would bring him back to the family, Percy was still missing in action. Ginny presumed he was at his flat in London. She had received a card and a book about mythology from him on her last birthday. She hadn't told her Mum. It would only make her cry.
Ron was sitting at the kitchen table, writing intently on a scrap of parchment. Ginny was pretty sure he was doodling. "Bye, Ron," she said, to get his attention. He turned around to look at her.
"Don't look so glum, Gin. You'll have loads of time to practice Quidditch on the school pitch. You're sure to make Chaser now." He stood up and hugged her as Fred and George had. She was sure Ron was just trying to make her feel better about everything. As far as she could tell, her brothers all thought it was unfair that Ginny had to leave but were glad she was going somewhere safe.
"I'll see you on September 1st," he added in a last effort to cheer her up before she left.
Since Ginny was too young to Apparate, she was sent to Hogwarts on her broomstick. She didn't mind that much. She loved to fly and wanted the time to herself. What she did mind was being guarded by a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Like she couldn't be trusted to reach the school herself!
Ron patiently reminded her that Harry had several guards when he arrived at Grimmauld Place last summer. That only made Ginny grumble more. Famous Harry was heavily guarded like he was made of gold. Ginny just got one bloke who seemed annoyed at having to escort a little girl to school. You'd think he was just out of the academy, working such menial jobs.
The whipping wind prevented Kingsley and Ginny from carrying on any conversation during the broom ride, which was just fine with Ginny. She felt more like sulking and seething than talking about the weather or what she planned on doing after Hogwarts. She would only be terse and rude to him anyhow then she'd feel guilty and be forced to apologize. It wasn't his fault she was being shipped off to Hogwarts.
It was entirely her mother's fault. Ginny wanted to be angry at her as well. And she was, a lot. But part of her knew her mum was trying to protect her. That was what mothers did, after all. Mostly she felt guilty for needing to be protected, for doing such foolish things in her first year, and for being the one that couldn't be trusted to take care of herself. It was embarrassing.
Ginny felt warm, as though the skin all over her body was aflame. She imagined her whole body turning red, blushing from head to foot. She hoped Kinsley hadn't noticed. She looked down at her hands, and that was when the world fell out from underneath her.
For one brief, sickening moment, she hung in the air, realizing that the heat around her was not coming from her own body. Then she fell. Her stomach stayed above her, where it had been comfortably riding along to Hogwarts, while the rest of her body plummeted toward the earth. This time the wind whipped powerfully around her, throwing her hair and clothing up. Through the roar, she heard Kingsley, who was mercifully trained for emergency situations, shout something she didn't understand. She knew, through some bizarre sixth sense, that he was falling as well and for the first time was glad that he was with her.
That was her last thought before she hit the ground.
Ginny woke up to pounding. Falling from the sky was not easy business. It hurt. She felt like several of her limbs would never be the same. Her head ached something fierce and she felt like the ground was quaking beneath her. It wasn't until she looked up, and found herself face to – er – hoof with a very angry looking centaur that she realized the pounding had not, in fact, been in her head.
"Speak!" the angry half-man demanded.
"Something attacked us," Ginny warbled, "We fell."
"Not you, foal!" It shouted.
She bristled. She didn't like being yelled at and she certainly didn't like being called a foal. She rubbed her bruised legs and grumbled about adding insult to injury while Kingsley spoke on their behalf.
"It was as she said," Kingsley answered, with as much politeness as possible given how sore he was, "I was escorting Miss Weasley," he gestured to Ginny, "to Hogwarts where she would be safe under Dumbledore's watch."
The centaur roared incoherently and reared up on its hind legs. It was an imposing sight.
Ginny really wished he hadn't mentioned Dumbledore's name. Of course, she hadn't had time to tell him that the centaurs were enraged at Dumbledore for hiring Firenze as the Divination professor or that they had nearly killed a woman in this very forest only a few weeks ago, when Hermione had brought Professor Umbridge here.
"I suppose you work for the Ministry of Magic as well!" the centaur raged.
Realizing he had said something wrong, Kingsley only nodded, fear in his eyes but trying not to let it show, "I do."
"This is our forest!" he cried. "Any human who sets foot on our land has forfeited his life!"
Ginny had never met someone so angry. The only centaur she had encountered previous was Firenze, who was no doubt the reason for this centaur's rage. Firenze wasn't like him at all. He was smart, very rational, but he was also preoccupied sometimes even dreamy in his manner. He never seemed like the type of creature that would hurt anyone. She had no doubt that this centaur was capable of horrible things. She turned to search for her broom, silently begging for a way out of the forest and away from the angry centaur. But she found it difficult to locate a stick of wood in such a large forest.
When she glanced back at where the other two were, she saw Kingsley go for his wand. The centaur reacted immediately, as though he had been struck. He took the wand as not only an affront to all centaurs, but as an act of aggression. "You dare draw on me!" he shouted, and kicked out at Kingsley's face with his front hoofs.
The blood splattered all the way to where Ginny lay crouched in terror. She saw the red mix and sink into the brown dirt of the forest floor and disappear as she heard another crunch. This time he had hit Kingsley in his arm, where he held his wand. The wand flew from the wizard's grasp and into the dark shadows of trees.
Ginny heard herself cry out when the next hoof landed on Kingsley's chest, knocking him down flat. The centaur didn't appear to be bothered by her sobs only a meter or less away.
Kingsley's eyes were wide in shock and fear as all four hoofs came pounding into his chest. He convulsed at the strength of the blow almost comically, like Ginny's brothers did when they were mock-fighting. It took a few more hits for the blood to appear. It sank down into the ground but this time did not disappear. It pooled there, staining everything around it that terrible crimson color.
The sobs and bile rose in Ginny's throat. She shut her eyes, trying to block out the images in front of her, only to find them tattooed on the inside of her eyelids. Red and brown. Everything red and brown. She could smell the gore, heavy like hot perfume and she heard the crushing of bones along with the shouts of pain and fury. It was as though the whole forest had gone quiet so she could hear everything with perfectly clarity. She wanted to scream but was too afraid to make a noise, lest the centaur turn on her as well.
When there was silence in the clearing once again, Ginny ventured to open her eyes. Kingsley's body lay trampled-- in every sense of the word-- not far from the centaur. He was looking at her, suddenly even more imposing than he had been before. She watched him rear, his hoofs thrashing only inches from her face, and she thought it was the end. For that moment, she wished she were dead. She wanted to get it over with quickly rather than spend another second in this horrible place.
But when she opened her eyes, the centaur was no longer thrashing. His eyes, a mixture of shock and pain, were fixed on hers. It was then she noticed the spot of red on his chest. It hadn't been there before, she realized. It was where his heart would have been and seemed to be growing bigger by the moment. The spot trickled down his torso to his horse-legs and to the ground, where it turned the same color as Kingsley's blood. And then, the centaur fell. The ground underneath Ginny shook with his weight. She stared, disbelieving, his eyes still staring at her and at the arrow protruding from his back, its vibrant blue feathers standing proudly as they did when an arrow hit its mark.
Ginny couldn't quite believe that she was not dead and somehow he was. She let out a chocked half-sob, half-cry, not knowing whether to be happy for frightened.
A woman leapt down from her perch in a nearby tree. No one had noticed her, not Ginny or Kingsley, or the centaur had noticed her until she chose to reveal herself. From her sitting position on the cold ground, Ginny could only marvel at the height of the woman, who carried a longbow and an arrow, with blue feathers in her hand.
"Are you hurt?" the woman asked. Ginny was surprised to hear concern in her voice rather than coldness. She had been taught to always fear the inhabitants of this forest.
"No," lied Ginny, "well, a little. It was a long way down."
"I saw you fall," said the woman. "I am surprised you lived for Magorian to confront you."
Ginny looked over at what was left of the body of Kingsley and felt tears welling up in her eyes. The woman, on the other hand, seemed entirely unconcerned. "Come with me," she said, "we can heal your wounds."
Mutely, she attempted to rise. She wanted badly to get away from this place and lick her wounds. Her legs were still throbbing. She was surprised that she could stand, and nothing seemed broken. The woman smiled a grim smile, pleased as well.
They walked a little way in silence. Ginny stumbled often, trying to keep up with the woman's long-legged strides. Her legs didn't want to do what she told them. The woman stepped lightly, with a grace that Ginny hadn't thought was possible. She tried to mimic the woman's steps and not show her injuries, not wanting to show her weakness in front of this woman for some reason she couldn't pinpoint.
"I'm Priene," said the woman after they had traveled a ways without conversation.
"Oh," said Ginny, unsure of herself. "I am Ginny Weasley." Then she got up the courage to ask: "Where are we going?"
"To Otrera," replied Priene simply, as if Ginny should know who or what Otrera was. Not wanting to disappoint, Ginny only nodded.
The forest was nearly as quiet as the two women. There were no howls from werewolves or any more thunder from centaur hoofs. Ginny was grateful for small mercies. Even with her tall companion, she wasn't ready to face the evils of the forest tonight.
The forest was black. She couldn't see more than a few steps in front of her. Priene had no difficulty navigating, and Ginny was content to merely follow in her footsteps. She was certain, even without knowing which direction they were heading, that they were heading deeper into the forest rather than out of it. It made Ginny wonder what type of creature this woman was. She seemed human. She spoke English. But there were subtle differences. For one thing, she was taller than any witch Ginny knew. The clothes she wore were not like any robes Madam Malkin's sold. She had a green tunic, cut raggedly at the knees, that was held on by a strip of brown leather that could only be described as a girdle. Her hair fell messily around her shoulder blades. It looked as thought it had never been properly cut and had simply been allowed to grow for years.
Thought she was much bigger, Ginny got the sense that Priene was not much older than she. As they continued their walk, it became apparent that she was less confident of herself than she had appeared to be in the clearing. She held her bow tightly, and dark eyes darted back and forth, looking for possible danger. It made Ginny feel much better to know the other woman was nervous as well. She seemed much less imposing, and more like a rescuer than a captor.
Priene held out her arm to stop Ginny. "We must stop here," she murmured so softly she could barely hear. "There were Acromantula hunting here earlier. We do not want to be caught by them."
Ginny was reminded of the hair-raising tale her brother Ron had told her, when he had nearly been eaten by an Acromantula named Aragog in this very forest. She gulped and nodded her assent. Spiders were not her greatest fear, as they were Ron's, but she didn't want to encounter any giant ones in the darkness of the Forbidden Forest.
The pair lay in wait and listened. Ginny drew her wand, knowing she was allowed to use magic to protect herself if necessary. Likewise, Priene strung her bow. They didn't hear any scuttling feet or see any movement in the shadows. Ginny breathed a deep sigh of relief, but Priene didn't seem satisfied. She pointed her bow upwards, toward the canopy, and let the arrow sing. Rather than fall to the ground, it stuck, caught in invisible threads woven between the trees.
Moments later there was a noise, a horrible scratching noise that made Ginny's already weak stomach turn. She saw only the vague outline of a massive creature with many legs. She looked to Priene, wondering what they should do. The other woman reached behind her back and pulled another blue-feathered arrow from the air. Ginny didn't have time to marvel how she had no quiver and had managed to make the arrow appear from nothing, only enough time to watch as the arrow was strung and hit its target. From the way the creature screamed before it fell to the ground, its legs curling above it, Ginny guessed it had been hit in the head, maybe even the eyes. How Priene could see where its head was in the dark, she didn't know.
"Come," said Priene, with quiet intensity, "there was only one, but there will be more now that the web has been disturbed." Ginny did not need telling twice.
The ran through the forest now, Priene's feet were light as always but Ginny could hear the thumping of her own as they struck tree roots and solid ground. She was frightened of tripping, moving so quickly in unknown territory. As if she knew what Ginny was thinking, Priene reached out and took her arm, guiding her path and steadying her when she stumbled.
"The quicker we make it to Otrera the better. They will not follow us there. They know better," she called out. Ginny nodded. She didn't know why; Priene wasn't looking in her direction.
She imagined hairy legs crawling all over her body and shuddered. She knew it was just her imagination; the spiders had not caught up with them but the thought gave her chills down her spine and crawling skin just the same. She couldn't have been more relieved when, after running for a few more minutes, she saw a patch of light up ahead. Priene relaxed the hold on her arm and Ginny knew that they had reached their destination.
It wasn't a village. It was more like a gathering of people, lumps of old blankets and a fire in the middle. There were several women there, all dressed like Priene. More jumped down from the trees when they saw the odd pair approach. They looked at Ginny with shrewd, piercing eyes. She was very conscious of how much shorter she was than all of these women, how oddly her jeans and jumper looked compared to their tunics, and the fact that she carried a wand, not a bow and arrow.
"Who have you brought here, Priene?" demanded one woman with stormy, dark eyes, her arms folded across her chest.
Priene seemed to lose height under the gaze of the other women. "Her name is Ginny. She was attacked by centaurs."
A ripple of whispers went through the crowd. They all knew about the centaurs vow to kill humans who ventured into the forest. They also knew that the centaurs had promised not to attack young girls, like the one who stood next to their sister, Priene. That still didn't explain what the girl was doing in Otrera though.
"What happened?" asked the dark-eyed woman, with a little more sympathy.
Priene shifted nervously where she stood, the way Ginny was sure she did when her mother or Professor McGonagall admonished her. "I slew Magorian," she admitted, without looking into the other woman's flashing eyes.
The crowd gasped. "Priene!" shouted one woman.
"He violated our trust! He attacked a "foal" without reason!" cried Priene defensively. "I had just cause." Some of the women nodded; others continued to stare at her stonily. "Harmonthe…" she pleaded with the dark-eyed woman.
"I will speak to the centaurs," said Harmonthe, "but it may cause trouble between us."
Priene nodded, and looked at her feet again. Harmonthe turned to Ginny. "Welcome, Ginny. You will have to stay here in Otrera, until this matter is resolved."
Ginny opened her mouth to protest. Her mum would be sick with worry when she didn't turn up at Hogwarts. Didn't they realize she had to get going soon? Perhaps they wanted to wait for morning? Would it be safer then? Ginny didn't know, but she certainly wouldn't be leaving the glen without the protection of Priene and the other women. It was dangerous and she didn't know the way.
The crowd began to disperse. They all shot backwards glances at Ginny as they leapt back up into their trees or went about their business. Only Priene was left standing with her at the edge of the glen. The other girl smiled a wry smile. "Welcome to Otrera," she said. She held out her hand, gesturing to the camp fire and few small dwellings. "It isn't much compared to your castle. I've seen it from a distance. How did you get all of those rocks to stay in one place?" she asked, her voice alight with wonder.
Ginny giggled. "I dunno. I wasn't the one who built it."
"Oh," said Priene, deflated a little.
"I will ask Professor Dumbledore if you'd like…"
Priene grinned, a wide, toothy grin that looked oddly foolish on her somber face.
Priene waved Ginny forward. "This is where we sleep," she said proudly.
"It's lovely," lied Ginny, eyeing the mass of musty, old blankets lying around the center fire pit. Even when she and her brothers had gone camping (that is to say, decided to go sleep outside one night while their mum kept a careful eye on them from the house) they'd had better accommodations.
The large fire pit, circled with white stones was the main focus of Otrera. Everything else revolved around it. There was wood, for burning and for making bows and arrows and a few stumps to sit and do work by the firelight.
"You can sleep here," she pulled up some blankets in a sort of nest shape.
"Thank you," said Ginny earnestly, "for everything."
Priene looked away. "Don't worry. I'm just glad I was there. You could have been gravely injured."
"So, er, did you see what shot us – me – down?" Ginny asked, voicing for the first time something that had been nagging at her since she had woken up on the cold forest floor.
"No," replied Priene matter-of-factly. Again, she looked away. "I don't know what it was."
There was a brief uncomfortable silence in which Priene reached down to fiddle with the old blankets and refused to look Ginny in the eye. Ginny shifted from one foot to the other, thinking. She believed Priene. She had no reason to doubt her. But somehow she thought there was something she wasn't being told. Priene was starting to remind her of her mother.
"Oh," Ginny said at last. "Can I ask something? I mean – I don't want to be rude."
"What is it?" Priene asked, looking at Ginny with concerned and interested features.
"I've read about… in books… I didn't think they – you – were real…" She bit her lip, gauging the other girl's reaction. "Are you Amazons?"
"Oh!" cried Priene, appearing somewhat relieved that this was the question. "Yes. We are."
Ginny took a moment to process her new information. Amazons weren't like Ginny had imagined them at all. She had read a book once, and in the pictures the Amazons had dressed in outfits that looked like bathing suits. She only remembered because her brothers had "borrowed" the book from her once they had seen the illustrations. The women had been bursting out of their tops in a most distracting way. A red-faced Molly Weasley had finally taken the book away from all of them.
These Amazons didn't wear bathing suits. They wore loose fitting tunics that didn't show their figures at all. It gave them all an androgynous look. And their unkempt hair didn't do anything for them. Ginny, who didn't wear makeup or style her hair, felt quite girly in comparison. She couldn't imagine what Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil would think of them. They'd probably die of shock.
She realized Priene was staring at her, and blushed. "You're not what I expected."
Priene smiled. "Good. We don't want to be predictable."
"I've never heard of Amazons living in the Forest before," Ginny observed, curiously.
"We haven't been here long," replied Priene, her mouth pulled tautly downward into a frown. She didn't offer any more explanation than that and instead went back to fidgeting with the blankets.
Laying in her "bed" that night, Ginny thought of her Mum. It wouldn't be long before word that Ginny never arrived at Hogwarts reached the Burrow. She could only imagine the looks on the faces of her family members. She remembered watching her Mum sob into her hands as Harry and Ron led her to Professor Dumbledore's office at the end of her first year. She had never seen her Mum look like that. It was enough to make Ginny want to rush out into the forest, racing toward the castle with twigs cracking underneath her steps.
Leaving now, shunning the Amazons' hospitality and challenging the centaurs' vow to kill her, was more than just foolish. It was suicide. And there were more than just centaurs to be afraid of.
Kingsley was dead. She wanted to cry – a lot. But she couldn't. Not right now. There were too many other things to be preoccupied with right now. Would the centaurs be angry with Priene for killing one of their kind? What was Harmonthe going to say to them tomorrow? She could only assume that the centaur had been the one to shoot her down earlier. Thought she didn't know how or why nor could she explain the strange heat she felt just before she fell or how a centaur had managed to magic a broomstick many meters from the ground.
She didn't know what was going to happen to her. None of this was familiar territory and she wasn't sure how to react.
The stars were out. She could remember most of the constellation names from Astronomy class and many more from what Firenze had taught her in Divination. The centaurs were always looking to the sky, weren't they? Only a few hours ago she and Kingsley had been up in that very sky, flying along, completely oblivious to any danger around them. Now Kingsley was dead. And she was in an Amazon camp, surrounded by dozens of other sleeping girls, looking at the sky and listening to yet another Amazon on watch prowling in the trees above her.
She thought they probably had the right idea. There were a lot of things to look out for.