Necessary A/N: the story was planned and started before DH was published, and disregards the revelations in the latest book.
Chapter Twenty – The Child
The big white wolf slipped into the Forest, found under the snow the slithering path that led up to its core. The earth appeared here and there, at the foot of the trees, in dark patches that grew larger as he went deeper into the Forest. Soon he was at the row of Sentry Trees. Soon he had crossed over, into the sun-bathed alley of living trees, past the crooked oak tree that had killed Eric de Pallas — past the slender willows that still held in their vise-like roots the cadavers of Death Eaters — past the pale, golden-leaved tree that stood, isolated, where Isiame Rosalyn had been killed by Godric Gryffindor.
A red-haired figure in stripped pyjamas was slumped against the creamy bark of the lone tree.
The wolf stopped dead in his tracks. His route wound away from the clearing, following the river bank to the Elemental Gate, at the mouth of the river. The alleyway that lay before him, at a right angle with the river bed, climbed steadily up to the clearing, up to the tree.
It could be a trap.
His senses weren't to be trusted in the forest of spirit-trees.
He should ignore it, and go on.
Turning away from the path to the Isiame city, Harry trotted up the alleyway, all his senses on the alert. For the first time, the spirit-trees were silent, and there was an expectant quality to their stillness.
He crossed the clearing slowly, crouching in the tall grass, his limbs quivering with suppressed tension. The tree loomed nearer. Ron Weasley's lanky form had been propped against the trunk, arms hanging at his sides and legs sprawled in the grass, two inches of pallid ankle showing where the stripped fabric of the pyjamas ended. His chin rested on his chest.
And he was snoring, loudly.
Harry froze. He could not remember if Ron had been snoring when he had visited him in his ward at St. Mungo's, only twelve hours before. He recalled a comatose man, closer to a wax figure than to a living person. A picture that was at complete odds with the loud breathing, the steady, ample rising of the chest, the coloured cheekbones of the man before him…
Harry spun around out of pure instinct, poised for a jump, his teeth bared and a growl rolling in his throat — to find himself nose-to-nose with a child's rosy, gleeful face.
He tried to interrupt his reflexive attack but he had too much momentum; his front paws got tangled in each other and caught in the long grass, his shoulder rammed into the child's chest causing her to fall on her bottom with a surprised 'oof!', and he collapsed forward with an undignified yelp.
The little girl's bubbling laughter rang into his ears as he laboriously stood up, shaking his head and rubbing his dirt-covered muzzle with his front paws. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her get to her feet. She looked six or seven years old, and wore a white summer dress with lace at the sleeves and hem. Her black hair was held back with a white headband and curled around her shoulders. She turned to him a round-cheeked face, in which a wide baby-grin and a pair of emerald, almond-shaped eyes shone. She was missing a couple of teeth.
"Nice doggy!" she squealed. Her eyes glinted with pleasure; she showed no hints of fear at being knocked off her feet by a gigantic snarling wolf. She stepped closer to him and reached out to bury her little hands in his fur.
The fingers had not had time to touch him when Harry gave a start and Transformed back into his human form.
The little girl looked crestfallen. "Where's the doggy?" she asked, wide eyes fixed on Harry's face.
He stared down at her. She looked adorable, a perfect picture of a perfect little girl in a summer dress, in the eternal summer of the spirit-trees. Every time she spoke the trees rustled slightly, as though run through with shivers. He was certain he had never seen her; and yet she looked familiar.
The child's disappointed expression turned to a scowl and she stamped her foot.
"I want the doggy!"
A small grove rustled again, louder than before, and from between the thin trunks emerged Daphne Greengrass — dishevelled, puffy-eyed, and looking thoroughly panic-stricken.
"I just — I didn't — where — Potter!" she stuttered. "Thank Merlin, you're here! Is she all right?"
"I was playing," said the child, pouting. "With a big white dog. It was funny!"
"What's going on?" Harry asked Daphne, as his feeling of unreality increased. "Why's Ron here? Who's the kid? Why are you here?"
Daphne did not seem to hear him; her relief at finding the child safe and sound was painted all over her face. She rushed to her and gripped her hand.
"Bad girl," she scolded. "You were not to go anywhere without me. It's forbidden!"
Harry threw his hands up in exasperation and strode up to the golden tree.
"Ron!" he called loudly. "It's Harry. Wake up." He seized Ron's shoulders and shook him as energetically as he dared. Ron snorted loudly, twitched, but did not open his eyes. There was a soft chinking of metal between the roots of the tree.
Harry looked down. When he had shaken him, Ron's hand had brushed against something that lay in the grass — something pointy, hidden in the tall weeds, its presence betrayed by a dull metallic glint. Harry fished in his pocket for a handkerchief and used it to pick up the thing.
It was the blood-stained iron tip of an arrow.
Harry considered it for a few seconds; the memory of Ron's body, lying face down with a long straight arrow planted into his back, forced itself on his mind — and Sao's voice came with it, Sao's voice, saying, Someone with power could reverse the curse…
Putting the point back down, he gripped the collar of Ron's pyjamas and tugged forcefully on it, causing Ron's upper body to topple heavily against his left shoulder. Ron snorted again, then snored peacefully against Harry's back.
Harry stared down. The back of Ron's pyjamas had been ripped open, and there was blood crusting on the torn edges. A long wound ran along the spine, between the naked shoulder blades — a wound that looked as though it had just started to heal, marring the skin with an angry red line, dirty with dried-up blood.
"I took the thing out of his back," said a childish voice behind Harry.
He set Ron delicately back against the tree and turned around. The little girl, whose hand was firmly held by Daphne, stood right behind him. At second glance, the slender little fingers were not covered in dirt — as he had first assumed — but with dry blood. He felt a shiver run down his own spine.
"Daphne," he asked in a hoarse whisper, "what the hell is going on?"
But Daphne merely gave a vague shrug, clearly not listening to him; her eyes were glued to the little girl's head as though dreading she would vanish suddenly. The child looked aggravated that Harry would choose to speak to Daphne rather than talk to her.
"My name is Clio," she said, pouting her lips. "And Daphne did nothing. I did everything! I found all three arrows!"
Out of desperation, Harry turned to her. "Three?" he repeated blankly.
She nodded vigorously, a pleased smile showing her milk teeth, her rosy cheeks creasing with dimples. "The one in the man with orange hair," she said, counting off the blood-stained fingers of her free hand. "The one in the blonde girl, and the one in the old man."
"The blonde — Luna? Luna Lovegood? And Professor Parletoo, the Head Healer?" Harry looked round. "Where are they?"
"The girl is behind the tree. And the old man is over there." She pointed at the other side of the clearing, where an indistinct figure lay on the ground, half-hidden by the tall grass. "But they're all sleeping. I was singing and they all fell asleep."
"It's very good," interjected Daphne. "Now, it's time to go home."
"I want the doggy," Clio said stubbornly.
Daphne's voice turned cajoling. "There are plenty of doggies at home. You will see them if we go back before they all go to bed."
"I want the white doggy!" Clio whined, stamping her feet again.
"Harry will call him up at home!" said Daphne, shooting Harry a quick look. "But only if we go back before bedtime!"
"Daphne," Harry started, but she interrupted him with a furious gesture of her hand, mouthing 'Not now' and waggling her eyebrows in a way that had probably reduced dozens of magical children into terrified silence.
It took several minutes of coaxing and scolding before Clio accepted to start the journey back to the Elemental Gate. She trotted up behind Daphne, dragging her feet across apparent roots and at times trying, without success, to pry her fingers from the young Isiame's hand. Harry lingered in the clearing behind them, refusing to abandon Ron and Luna. However, seconds after Daphne and Clio had vanished behind a curtain of young trees, from all around the clearing came six men and women Harry remembered seeing in the Isiame city.
"Hey, Harry," said quickly Brandon, the middle-aged man who had helped him and Daphne furnish their home.
"Hey," replied Harry. "What's happening to—"
"Lady Eunice wouldn't have them in the city, so they got patched up here. We're taking them back to St. Mungo's," Brandon said. He lowered himself next to Ron, and gestured at another Isiame to come and help him.
"How did you get them here in the first place?" Harry asked, bewildered.
"Magic," said a sarcastic voice from behind him.
He turned around. Lurking in the patchy shadows of the trees stood four more Isiames. They wore green, and supported quivers on their backs; Harry recognised with a flash of surprised anger the green fletching of the arrows that had been aimed at Ron, Luna and Parletoo, over a year before.
"The Eldest are creating a spell," explained one of the four archers, "that makes wizards forget about your friends' ward. They will remember it when we've put them back in their beds."
"They should wake up in a few hours," said Brandon, bent double under Ron's weight, as he passed by them. He addressed Harry a comforting smile. "They'll be all right."
"The wizards won't notice anything," said the first archer. "The wind will take us to their hospital, and they won't see a thing. Hah! We could throw a party in the middle of their school, and they'd still look in the air and pretend we don't exist."
"C'mon, Wilcox," the woman next to him murmured. "Let's go."
Harry debated whether to follow them or not; he wanted to make sure his friends would be all right. While there were good people among the Isiames, there were a few, too, who didn't dislike the idea of tormenting as many wizards as they could. If something was to happen to them — well, something worse than what had already happened to them…
The idea had barely entered his mind when he realised he could not go. His own Isiame powers still escaped his control, and tended to manifest only when he was in mortal peril or in a surge of panic. And even with the protection of trained Isiames, going to St. Mungo's would put him too close to the Unspeakables to his liking. Martin was a dangerous opponent for wizards and Isiames alike.
So Harry let them go, a tightening feeling inside his chest.
When he caught up with Daphne and little Clio, a storm was howling over the snow-covered mountains. Dawn was still hours away. The cold made him shiver and he contemplated turning back into a wolf; at least, the animal had thick fur…
I want the doggy! screamed a childish voice in his head. He shivered again, although it had little to do with the cold this time; turning the collar of his winter cloak against the wind, he hurried behind Daphne.
She had wrapped up the child in her cloak and carried her in her arms. Clio looked fast asleep. Daphne trudged on as far away from the precipice as she could, her shoulders hunched against the storm. Their path, thankfully, had been lit up: little balls of glass hung in mid-air, each of them shielding small dancing flames of the white fire that Isiames used to light up their houses. The spheres oscillated a little in the screaming wind.
"Need help?" Harry called over the deafening storm.
Daphne whipped her head around to look at him and nodded, a relieved expression stealing over her features. Harry secured the child in his arms and strode towards the city, while Daphne preceded him.
She led him into Eunice's gigantic house. The main hall offered to the visitors' sights its unsettling pattern of dancing lights, provided by large fires burning in chimneys that had been set in the walls at irregular intervals. A multitude of pillars of carved stone, scattered randomly over the immense hall, broke the light and reshaped it in ominous, ethereal shapes.
Twelve old men and women sat amongst the pillars, their hands linked. Harry saw Eunice among them; Sao faced her directly. Their heads were bowed, their grey hair falling into curtains on either side of their faces, and a low humming came from them — as though they were all muttering different incantations that mingled into a single chant.
Harry was unable to tell how long it lasted, how long he and Daphne stood there transfixed, prisoners of the chant like flies in a cobweb. At last, Eunice lifted her head and broke the chant.
Somewhere in the distance — or maybe it was in Harry's mind — there was the sound a faint, muffled detonation.
The other Isiames all stopped chanting; releasing the hands they were holding, they broke the circle, grabbed the staves that lay on the floor and wearily got to their feet in a great rustling of cloaks and robes. Ten of them filed out of the house without sparing as much as a glance to Harry and Daphne.
Finally, Eunice and Sao were the last ones left.
"Sao, you should get some rest," Eunice said. Her voice, too, betrayed a great lassitude.
"Are you sure you do not need my help, my lady?" murmured Sao.
She appeared, as always, bent under the weight of years; but Harry thought he saw her steal a hungry glance at the bundle in his arms. He shifted involuntarily, and felt Eunice's gaze on him.
"I am quite sure," she said, stony-faced. "This spell was longer and harder than anything either of us has done in a long time, and you need to continue the young ones' training tomorrow. Leave."
Sao did not protest any further. Harry heard her shuffling her feet as she left, as though she was keen to linger. His arms instinctively closed a little tighter around the child.
"Mr Potter," Eunice said softly. "Give the princess back to Daphne. She's in her charge."
Daphne turned a little pink. "He was only helping," she muttered. "On the road."
"The princess?" Harry asked, as he transferred the sleeping child into Daphne's waiting arms.
Eunice slowly nodded. "Surely you will have noticed that she, too, has the Royal Family's features? This child will be, when she grows up, the Queen of Isiames. Only she has the power to assume such a difficult charge. Only she, consequently, had the power to heal your friends. Which was done today, as I had promised."
"This kid will become…"
"I know what you're thinking," said Eunice, her tone gentle. "How could we lay such a burden on such a young child? In fact, she does not know what role she will be called to play when she becomes an adult. I thought it was better if she grew up as any child would — and so, I raised her as my own. I control her powers, which are so great that, should they be left unchecked, they could get people hurt." The old woman smiled. "She is an orphan raised by her old aunt, until she is ready to face the task that shall be hers."
Harry said nothing. He was too much reminded of his own childhood among the Dursleys. Those were some of Dumbledore's reasons — that he should grow up, as an orphan raised by his aunt, away from his fame… Until he was ready to face it.
They were now following Daphne, who carried the child across the hall towards the staircase, crooning and singing softly to her the whole time.
"And today?" Harry asked Eunice in a whisper. "She ripped arrowheads from people's backs with her hands. Is that your idea of a normal childhood?"
Eunice's face closed up. "She was the only one who could heal your friends," she said. "I told her she needed to help these three people. I have been trying to teach her how to use her powers well, by showing her how to care for birds. She has set broken wings and pulled splinters out of them, under my supervision. She is a born healer. She knows exactly what is wrong with animals, and how to cure them. I hoped… that it would make no difference to her…"
They had reached the top of the main staircase. There, to Harry's surprise, they turned right, brushed aside a thick tapestry, and went down another staircase — narrower than the first and winding deep inside the mountain. Balls of glass hovered in the air, containing fires of varying colours, blue, pink, green and golden, and lit up the staircase with cheery glows.
At the bottom of the stairs the corridor expanded into a tall vault; there, the walls and arching ceiling were covered in leaves and budding flowers. Harry watched, his mouth slightly opened in bafflement, the twisting plants and gracefully bowing blossoms, the butterflies hovering here and there, the bees busying themselves.
"We're still inside the mountain, right?" he breathed.
"Yes," said Eunice, and she extended an arm to stop his progression.
They both watched, immobile, as Daphne moved through the green foliage, into a child's bedroom that appeared at the other end of the corridor. The door closed softly behind her.
"She will put her to bed," Eunice explained, without necessity. "We might as well let her do it. She has great skill with children."
"I think the kid managed to make her fall asleep in the Forest," said Harry. "So she would be left alone. Daphne burst out of a copse of trees when I got there."
Eunice threw at him a sharp look. "Clio likes to play tricks on people," she said slowly after a few minutes of silence. "Daphne will want to be more cautious."
"Yeah. So what's all this?"
Harry made a broad gesture encompassing the walls and ceiling, where the mess of vegetation stood, it seemed, at the beginning of a cheerful spring.
"This, Mr Potter, is the expression of our future Queen's power. I allowed it to run through these plants, so that it would not cause any accident while she was in her bedroom. It is canalised, as you see."
Harry was forcibly reminded of the Department of Mysteries, where a corridor with similar functions, made up of pure magic, stretched between Hermione's office and the Gearwheel Well. Yet nothing could be more different from the geometric perfection that had been Hermione's doing, than this chaos of living green…
The old Isiame extended a gnarly, thin hand from under the grey-blue robes she wore, and delicately picked from the wall a brand new leaf, of the most tender green.
"See this power," she said in a dreamy voice. "See the life and beauty it spawns. Here, in the depths of a sterile mountain, in the midst of winter — young life blossoms, month after month. This is what the Queen will be to us: life, youth, and beauty."
The last words expressed a yearning Harry had never heard yet in Eunice's voice. He glanced aside at her — powerful, but old, wizened, and suddenly looking overcome with weariness.
A thought suddenly unfolded in his mind — the question that had been bothering him for two weeks now, the source of his fight with Daphne forty-eight hours earlier, was burning his lips more than ever. Eunice seemed in a mood for confidences… If he wanted to get answers, now was the moment. Something was off.
"If you already have a Queen," he said, choosing his words carefully, "what use am I to you? Why have you all treated me like the one you've been waiting for?"
Eunice turned fully to stare at him, and as always, there was something disturbing about those eyes, sunken and deep-blue, calling to mind a pair of centuries-old wells, which saw a lot more than they should.
For a moment Harry thought she would give him one of her evasive and mysterious riddles for sole reply. Then she started talking in a voice he had never heard before — dry, factual, and tinted with bitterness.
"I am tired," she said quietly. "My power keeps my people safe and secret, but soon will come the time when it won't be enough anymore. A balance was broken. For centuries we lay low in the dark, hidden and happy, while wizards erased everything related to us from their memory.
"Wizards… They have a deep-rooted fear to see Isiames rise from their ashes; for they associate Isiames with wild uncontrolled magic, with the natural catastrophes our power can provoke, with werewolves and other terrifying subjects of the Moon, with the ancient curses plaguing thirteen generations that wizards are powerless to break. That fear takes its roots in the times when wizards themselves were poorly trained, without the wands that give them an easy access to their own magic.
"Then over the centuries, the Founders' wish was granted: wizards were organised, trained, provided with wands. Just like civilised Muggles, who delight in their superiority over their fellow human beings, wizards now find satisfaction in the thought that they, among all creatures, are unmatched in their mastery of magical power. And so the decision of erasing Isiames from the magical memory was taken — for the wizards' own good, and to stop those who, out of greed or curiosity, would be tempted to stir the mud where Isiames had sunk. But the fear remained in those who still remembered.
"That age is over. Something — I do not know what, and it matters little — broke the balance. And now Sao, as you have already guessed, believes the time has come to overcome the wizards at last: she believes in conquering Hogwarts valley again, through war and bloodshed. To her, you are the one who will lead us all into battle."
Silence fell in the corridor, the kind of silence that reminded Harry that over his head were piled up thousands of tons of rock and ice.
Eunice resumed in a lower, calmer voice.
"To me, however, you could be the only Isiame on earth who may prevent that. The only one our people will follow into building a great nation — in secrecy, and safety. The Queen is too young, and I too old, for this purpose."
She inhaled deeply, her eyes still fixed on Harry's face, shivering slightly as though run through by a current.
"How can you be so sure," Harry asked tensely, "that I would follow you and not Sao?"
She had a small, joyless smile, as she resumed walking. "That is easy enough to answer. Even if Sao had not compromised her chances by hurting the wizards close to you, she would still fail to understand what I do: your parents were wizards. You were raised by wizards, in Hogwarts. You have known war, and you have fought a wizard claiming he would cleanse the magical race and submit the Muggles. You, of all people, know the dangers hiding behind talks of submitting those with lesser power for their own good."
Harry licked his chapped lips.
"And Sao doesn't get that," he said.
"No, unfortunately, she doesn't." Eunice sighed. "Her hopes first attached themselves to your mother. When she died, Sao thought she had forever lost the chance of seeing a great leader come to the Isiame nation."
"My mother? I thought you said she was a witch, not an Isiame? That the powers she had were only given to her because—"
"—because she had been chosen as a Knight. Yes. However, you forgot that she had the Royal Family's eyes! Which our little Queen herself shares! This very rare feature has been intriguing Sao — and myself, if I am to be honest — ever since we found out about Lily Evans's existence. At the time, I resolved myself to sit and watch. Sao, however, was convinced this young witch would give birth to the leader she had been waiting for."
"But she did have a descendant when she died," Harry said, frowning, "I was one year old then. Why did you say Sao lost all hope?"
Eunice did not answer immediately; she seemed to be thinking of how best to word her explanations. There was, Harry was surprised to see it, a hint of embarrassment in her stance.
Before she could speak, understanding dawned on Harry.
"Sao didn't think I would fit, did she? She thought I'd be just another wizard?"
"Well, this is a good way to sum it up," Eunice admitted. "You see, we had failed to contact your mother and explain her duties to her. Soon after she left school, she grew more deeply involved into the war against the wizard Voldemort, and went from hiding place to hiding place. When she surfaced again, she had married a wizard."
Eunice nodded. "Sao believed your mother's destiny would be compromised by her marriage. That any child she would have from a pureblooded wizard would never have any chance to be an Isiame. I even suspect that, in desperation, she contacted the wizard Voldemort."
Harry's entrails suddenly turned to ice. "Voldemort?" he repeated, his voice low, disbelief and anger growing into his words. "She and Voldemort were allies?"
Eunice sniffed disapprovingly. "Sao would never stoop so low as to form an alliance with a wizard, any more than a wizard would ever form one with a Muggle. However, we were a lot weaker, then, than we are now; we were powerless to locate her, and the uncertainty was bound to push Sao to desperate actions. She refuses to talk about that period, so we can only guess. All I know is that the magical spell shrouding your parents' home from our view was broken, on the 31st of October, twenty years ago."
"That wasn't Sao. My parents' Secret Keeper told Voldemort their location," said Harry.
Eunice nodded slowly, purposefully, and her grey head suddenly seemed too heavy for her.
"The wind took us there at once," she said in hushed tones, "for I feared for Lily's safety… We knew how much her involvement in the war endangered her life, and we knew the broken spell did not bode well… Sao, however, was curiously undisturbed. She said to me Voldemort was not interested in Lily, and that there was a good chance he would spare her."
Harry slowed down and stared at the old Isiame's back.
"He meant to spare her," he said in bewilderment. "He told me so, when I was eleven. He hadn't planned for my mother to die."
"There you are, then." Eunice's voice came to him through the living corridor, ruffling leaves on its way. She did not sound surprised, or angry. "I did suspect that Sao would ask the wizard Voldemort to spare Lily; she was, as I understood it, of little interest to him… What worried me most was what Sao might have offered to trade for Lily's life… Of course, if such a bargain was made, following events ensured it had no consequence…"
Eunice stopped walking. As they talked, they had climbed the multi-coloured staircase and stood now a few steps from the main hall. The old Isiame looked exhausted; she gripped her staff with both hands and leant heavily on it. Harry had halted two steps below her and watched her hunched back. The only sound he could hear was the steady pounding of his heart, loud in his ears.
"Of course, when we discovered your parents' bodies… Sao believed everything was lost," said Eunice, her voice now thready. "And it was only… when the trees acknowledged you, four years ago… when you started using your power… that we both started hoping again. In vastly different ways."
She turned towards him her lined face, blue eyes sunk deeply into the orbits.
"Will you walk with me, Harry Potter?" she asked in a single expelled breath.
Harry stared up in her eyes, and he felt, once again, that those eyes held enough knowledge to have seen the beginning of the world.
"I don't believe in destiny," he said.
"But you believe in duty," said Eunice. "Don't you?"
"Yes, I do." He looked away, trying to think of an answer to give her; but this time he felt he could not temporise or remain neutral. His position was becoming too difficult to hold, not least because he was deceiving two people who were gradually earning his esteem — Robards and Eunice — letting each of them think he was working for the other team.
What did he want? Obviously, Sao's dreams of glorious conquest did not find an echo in his heart. Hogwarts stood where it was supposed to, at the edge of both worlds, and he did not care to see the castle taken down or the students and teachers driven out. His friends were all witches and wizards, with the exception of Daphne. Yes, wizards had betrayed him, yes, they were now hunting him down. And yet, he felt more of a wizard than he had ever done since the end of the war…
For equally obvious reasons, he found the idea of rallying the Unspeakables repugnant. Their uncharacteristic recklessness seemed to show that Isiames were more than mere study material to them; doubtless, guided by the same blinding fear that had caused wizards to erase Isiames from their memories, they wanted to find and destroy them — and Harry with them.
Robards, however, had not derailed from the exclusively investigating stance that had always been his. And all Eunice wanted was to live in peace, safe and secret.
Could he do that, while trying to solve the enigma of his origins? Could he help them bring both worlds to the point of equilibrium again?
That was a duty he seemed to have inherited — for he knew, at least, that he could not let things unravel as they promised to do.
"I will walk with you," he told the Governess of Isiames. "There will be no conquest, and the wizards won't trouble your people."
Eunice slowly bowed over her staff, without saying a word.
When she turned and started walking again, Harry followed her instinctively. The silence of their newly sealed pact accompanied them as Eunice led him up two floors, along one firelit corridor and to the small chamber Harry had already been in two days before, which she used as study and bedroom. The austere bed, chair and desk filled up most of the space. Along the walls, the fresco of green landscape under a sky that borrowed all the hues of day, night, and seasons, instantly drew Harry's gaze, as it had last time.
"Dawn is about five hours away," said Eunice. "Before you get some sleep, I would like to share a few things with you — things you will need to understand in the future."
She had a circular motion of her hand encompassing all the furniture, then pointed at the opposite wall; the bed, desk and chair rose a couple of inches in the air and obediently drifted from their initial spot to line up against the wall. At Eunice's invitation, Harry sat down on the cleared space of stone floor.
"Sao does not teach that kind of things," Eunice added softly. "And I have the strange feeling that we are running out of time…"
She sat cross-legged opposite him. Harry tried to focus on her, but the unravelling fresco around him kept intruding in his concentration; the rolling, green hills, the small painted characters, the swaying trees burst inside his field of vision, as though trying to swallow him up in their dream-like scenery.
"There are many sides to the Isiame power," said Eunice. Harry's eyes snapped back to her. She was observing him with a hint of a smile on her lined lips.
"Sorry," muttered Harry.
"It seduces the senses, appeals to the deepest feelings," Eunice went on with the same small knowing smile. "It enthrals through nostalgia, regrets, daydreaming, foreboding, fear of the unknown. It taps on forces that are uncontrolled, wilder, and more ancient than magic. Most Isiames are acquainted with elements, and may do such things as control — to various extents — the wind, the water, or the fire. However, contrary to wizards' magic, it gains power from alliances. Major spells are wrought by ideally three Isiames working together; the more people involved, the more powerful the spell is."
"So the spell you cast on St Mungo's Healers—"
"They found themselves irrationally worried for those of their patients suffering from acute conditions; the coma ward, which already gets fewer visits than it should, was completely abandoned for an entire six hours. The hospital is very distant and the targets of the spell were many, hence the gathering of twelve Isiames."
Eunice closed her eyes for a moment. Silence thickened in the room, a pregnant, expecting silence that eerily reminded Harry of the atmosphere in Dumbledore's office — even the tiny characters peopling the fresco seemed to be listening intently, as the old Headmasters' portraits used to, centuries ago, when Dumbledore had told Harry of the Horcruxes.
He broke the silence. "The kid — the Queen, I mean… She was acting alone tonight, when she cured my friends. Isn't it a major spell, though?"
"It is, and that is why she is Queen," said Eunice evenly, her eyes still shut. "That poison locked your friends' minds in their own dreams for over a year. It was too powerful to be broken by any other but the Queen — or, barring that, a combined effort of the entire people of Isiames. That is what has always distinguished the Royal Family from common Isiames: power, so considerable and so perfectly controlled, that it could be exerted alone.
"However, treating those wizards was an exceptional measure. It was with great difficulty that I talked the Old Council into accepting it. The Queen shall not make use of her power again until she is of age — it is too dangerous for her to use it."
There was another silence, and Harry measured for the first time how isolated Eunice was in her current position. She supported him so fully that she had gone against her own people, her own Queen's interest, to mend Sao's faults. She was, he understood, a firm ally — in an obstinate, underground way.
He was touched, despite himself, and his own double play made him feel uneasy before such gratuitous loyalty.
"The better you know your adversary," resumed Eunice, apparently unaware of the moral struggle taking place within Harry's head, "the easier it is for you to influence them. The better they know you, the easier it is for them to counter your spell, should they recognise they are being enthralled. Thus it is a subtle art, which prefers suggesting over imposing, adapting to people's minds over forcing them into a predefined shape. Obvious and brutal spellcasters are vulnerable."
"So you… control people's minds." Harry shifted on the spot. The only person he knew to have implanted emotions into another's mind, was Voldemort — and it was his mind he had been tampering with, the day he had sent Harry running headfirst into a trap by making him think his godfather was in danger.
Eunice had a faint smile that did not reach her eyes. "We suggest emotions," she corrected him. "We make ourselves feel those emotions and project them onto receptive minds, where they cannot take root unless the receiver gives them substance. We initiate a process, then let it unravel."
"Why didn't Sao ever tell us any of this?" asked Harry, who vividly recalled the sessions on windswept, icy-cold plateaux. There had been no talk of mind or emotion-crafting then; it was all about catching balls of wind between their outstretched hands, making fire erupt from their frost-bitten fingers, or causing a stream to run across a few yards of stone before it was frozen solid.
"Sao's a warrior," replied Eunice, her voice a little sharper than before. It was clear she was still annoyed at her subordinate's independence streaks. "The power I speak of is hard to wield in battle. Sao is more versed in the more ordinary Isiame power — forcing movement and intent upon dead matter. The simpler the matter is — the simpler the concept being the matter is — the easier it is to bind to your will; hence, the use of elements."
"Fast and dirty."
"You may say so."
"I haven't been able to do anything willingly," Harry said before he could stop himself. It had been intriguing him for some time now, although he didn't feel much worried about it. He had been, on the other hand, considerably relieved to see he was still able to do magic like a wizard. He was an exception there: most Isiames who had started off as students in Hogwarts had never been very capable with a wand; Daphne was a fine example of that.
Eunice hesitated for a second before she answered — and Harry caught something that looked like concern on the old, wizened face, before she composed it into her usual serene expression.
"I have been told as much," she said. "It will come in time, though, I am sure. Maybe you're more apt for traditional spellcasting, as I have just described it to you."
Harry said nothing. He remembered how mediocre he had been at Occlumency, and at any form of what Snape called 'the subtler aspects of the art'. He doubted he could ever sit down with two of the Third Kind and try to suggest emotions to a foreign mind. His power, indeed, had been of the quick-and-dirty variety Eunice seemed to regard with slight disdain. Whether it had been blocking the air in Lance Colman's and the Unspeakable spy's throats, or sending a tidal wave crash over Malfoy, it had been brutal, uncontrollable, and deadly.
Uncontrollable. That was the thing. It had rushed to its fingertips whenever he had found himself possessed by fury or fear, but without any conscious thought from him; it had merely used him as a channel to carry out its task. Once he had begun, he had not been able to stop the on-going process.
Carry out its task…
"Does it have a mind of its own?" he asked aloud.
Eunice stared wide-eyed at him and again, worry flicked across her face. "It is part of you," she said. "Your mind is its mind. Why would you ask such a question?"
"It's…" He shook his head. "Never mind."
His legs were aching. He uncrossed them and scrambled to his feet; he felt lightheaded and the fresco spun around him, a sea of green streaked with the silver of painted rivers and the misty blue of mountain peaks. A tinkering laughter reached his ears.
He shook his head and the room stabilised again.
"So, practice?" he said.
Eunice gazed up at him from under swollen lids.
"No, I don't think so," she said slowly. "I just had a thought. I have to… verify something. I will see you tomorrow night. In the meantime, maybe you should go back to Miss Greengrass's house and get some sleep."
Harry blinked, surprised at the abrupt dismissal.
"She'll be on duty, won't she? With the child?" he asked.
"Miss Greengrass does not watch over the Queen's sleep," said Eunice. "I have that honour still."
She was no longer looking at him; she seemed to have folded upon herself, and sat hunchbacked on the hard stone floor, staring down at her empty hands.
Harry almost asked what she was so keen on verifying — a strange declaration, coming from a woman who hardly ever seemed surprised by anything — but thought better of it. He was not too sorry that the session was cut short; he had a strange feeling that nothing would come out of it, and he was reluctant on showing Eunice how inept he was at handling the Isiame power.
He was nearly on the threshold when Eunice's voice came drifting back to him.
"Have you found out where the sword was?"
Harry froze on the spot. Eunice had not moved at all from her position on the floor.
"The sword?" he repeated, his mind blank.
"The sword, yes. Rosalyn's sword, which your mother picked up." Deep blue eyes shone briefly under the curtains of thinning grey hair. "Have you found out where it was?"
Harry backed up out of the room.
"No. I haven't." He fought to keep his voice even. "Did you expect me to look for it?"
Eunice's unerringly deep gaze dropped out of his sight again as she appeared to concentrate once more on her hands, lying in her lap like two broken, dead things. "It was just a passing thought. You are Lily's only son. While the sword was hidden from us, it might have… wanted to come to you."
She fell silent once again. Harry wheeled about and left the room, eager to get away from the fresco — seducing the senses, appealing to the deepest feelings — eager to escape the internal struggle between instinctive gratitude and necessary wariness, eager to find Daphne again, so he could, at last, talk freely.
He thought he could hear a faint sound coming from the depths of the mountain as he hurried through the main hall — the same fleeting feeling he had experienced once here, that someone else was living, intensely so, in the stone house.
But he now knew that a future Queen shared the house of the old Isiame leader. He thought no more of it.
Daphne was swifter, more silent than Harry remembered. The door opened soundlessly, offering to his sight a narrow triangle of pitch-black sky that vanished almost immediately; and she was inside the apartment. Through the open door separating the bedroom from the entrance Harry saw her snap her fingers. At once, tiny dancing flames sprang from under her fingernails, throwing a golden glow on her pale, drawn face. She held them up as naturally as though she had just clicked a lighter and moved into the bedroom.
She stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Harry, who sat on the bed, twirling his wand in his fingers.
"Evening," said Harry, and he felt stupid at once for that shallow, flat greeting.
Daphne, however, did not seem to mind.
"Hey," she said. She stifled a yawn and came to sit next to him, so naturally that Harry, speechless, could only watch her take off her shoes and wriggle her toes with a contented sigh.
"Long day," said Daphne through another yawn.
He sounded heartfelt. Indeed, he had been gone from that bed, that room, that little house carved in the mountainside — for no longer than two days. It felt like ages.
"Tell me about the child," he said.
"It's been a long day," Daphne gently repeated. "We'll talk tomorrow."
She was acting as though nothing had happened, as though he had never threatened her, never sworn he would not trust her again, never stormed out of the Isiame city. She slid out of her clothes with no affected modesty, unhurried and calm, her gestures expressing nothing but weariness. Harry watched her slip under the covers and roll over in the foetal position. Her hair spilled out on her pillow and glowed palely against the dark bedspread.
He stretched back and propped himself up on his forearm, looking at her, thinking of his anger against her, of his uncontrollable surges of longing — longing for her irritating, passionate, loud, insubordinate presence. Then he thought of her new position of power alongside the Queen, of the magical spying device Robards had given him; the device which he was supposed to charm into place on her clothes.
Daphne's slow breathing filled the room. She was asleep.
Harry took the grass out of his pocket. It had taken the shape of a cloak fastener, but as he watched, it changed into a cufflink; and always small and boring, of an unassuming grey colour. He reached for Daphne's everyday robes, tapped his wand to the large, gleaming black button that fastened the collar shut, and it fell off. Harry pocketed the button and charmed the grass sewn in its stead. At once it grew larger and took the black sheen of obsidian. There was no discernible difference.
Except the little prickling Harry now felt against his thigh, where the original button was now hidden.
He arranged the robes on the floor so they appeared to be undisturbed and lay back, fully clothed on top of the sheets, next to Daphne's shape. They would talk the next day.
Dawn rose a few hours later, and found them both fast asleep.
Harry woke first. Daphne had rolled over and her face was a hair's width from Harry's folded arm; he could feel her breath glide over his skin.
His glasses had slipped off his face and were now trapped between his cheek and the pillow. He freed them with his right hand, without moving the arm close to Daphne's face, and put them on. As if on cue, Daphne's eyelids twitched, creased, and fluttered open.
"Hi," she mumbled.
Harry tried to grin in answer. The muscles of his face felt stiff, and he wasn't certain of the result. Daphne propped herself up on one elbow, leant over him, and between two curtains of tangled blonde hair she dropped a kiss on his mouth. The kiss was unexpected — yet Harry was struck by the absence of the passion and possessiveness that Daphne's kisses always had in abundance. It was not unconvinced, just serene and businesslike.
"I have to get to work," she added, as he still struggled to grasp the unsettling changes in her demeanour. She rolled onto her side in a sitting position, her bare back exposed to Harry's eyes as she bent over to retrieve her clothes. It was a beautiful back. There was something very young, very fragile and infinitely graceful in the long, perfectly aligned curves of her spine, in the slimness of the shoulders that outlined delicate bones, in the slenderness of the waist.
"What work?" he heard himself ask, his eyes glued to a spot between Daphne's shoulder blades.
"I'm in charge with the young Queen." She pulled a white tee-shirt over her head, her back arching to accompany the move; the shoulder blades vanished. "My experience with wizards' children helped. I could babysit a Blast-Ended Skrewt after that."
Harry sat up, now wide awake, as Daphne got to her feet and picked up her winter robes. "How long have you been babysitting that kid? What d'you know about her? What is she like?" he uttered, his words tumbling over one another in his haste.
Daphne had a fleeting moment of hesitation — barely discernible — but Harry picked it up.
"I've been doing it since yesterday," she said conversationally. "She's a really powerful child, you know. With Eunice and Sao as her mentors, she'll be the greatest Queen we could ever hope for. But right now, it's a mother she needs, not a pair of century-old teachers."
"Yeah, but who told you about her? No one ever mentioned anything, for as long as we've been here—"
"Only the Old Council knew. But Eunice had to tell the people about her when she decided to heal your friends, since everyone was supposed to help." Daphne's tone had turned a little acerbic. "They also needed someone to watch over her while it was done. That's when I volunteered."
Her golden head disappeared in the folds of her robes, and Harry heard her sniff in a disapproving sort of way. Harry could tell she was of the opinion that pulling arrows out of people's spines wasn't a suitable activity for such a young child. He could only agree; the image of the sweet little girl with blood-stained hands had imprinted itself in his memory, and he doubted he would ever get rid of it.
"Anyway," Daphne said, emerging through the collar of her robes, "I have to go. I need to be there when she wakes up, so Eunice can get some rest."
Harry watched her fasten the fake obsidian button, on the side of her collar. Something like regret and a little bit of shame bubbled in the pit of his stomach.
"Daphne, I have to tell you…"
Daphne stopped in the act of throwing her cloak over her shoulders and gave him an enquiring look. Her hair was still tousled, and it framed her face in a disarray of locks sticking out at absurd angles. She was lovely. She was unafraid. Harry was struck by the desire to keep her that way, but he could not hide that piece of information from her.
"Your sister, Chloe," he said. "She's gone missing. We suspect the Unspeakables got her. We're on her track."
Daphne's forehead creased, expressing — Harry was taken aback to see it — something that looked more like suspicion than alarm or worry.
"Who is 'we'?" she intoned slowly, carefully.
Harry's puzzlement grew. "My old team," he said. "A few Aurors," he elaborated quickly as he saw her frown deepen. "Not following the current line of the Ministry. A couple of Aurors were killed by the Unspeakables, and my Head of Department is on the warpath. We're right behind the ninth-floor — Daphne, they wanted Chloe because Sao got her to arrange our meeting, you know that! The Unspeakables are closing in on the Isiame city…"
"You allied yourself with a few wizards," Daphne repeated in the same careful intonation, "to protect the city from the Unspeakables?"
Harry stared at her, infuriated that she did not seem to get his point.
"I'll ally myself with anyone that's willing to stop these guys from killing more innocents!" he ground out, sliding off the bed and getting to his feet so as to be level with Daphne. "Something changed, something made them afraid of Isiames — more afraid than they've been in centuries! The Minister is backing them up—"
"The Minister," Daphne interrupted, and Harry was stunned to see she was smiling, almost fondly — if Daphne Greengrass could ever wear such an air — at him. "His Unspeakables, his Aurors. They're all wizards, Harry — just wizards. They're nothing to us. We don't fear them."
Harry took two steps forwards and reached up, seized those thin shoulders in his hands and squeezed hard, trying to communicate through the contact some of the urgency he was feeling.
Something in the way she said 'we' — in the way they all said 'we' — struck the wrong cord within him.
He wanted to tell her it wasn't a good moment to be careless or arrogant. He needed her to know the menace was real. In the end, what came out of his mouth was, "I'm not an Isiame."
Daphne's smile faltered. "What?"
"I'm not," he insisted, feverish. "I — I can feel it. I feel better here, but it's as if I was being transfused with someone else's life. I can't use the Isiame power, it uses me. I am a wizard, Daphne, I'm sure of it. You have to believe me."
Why this was so important, he did not know. But he squeezed her shoulders harder, his face bent towards hers so that their breaths mingled.
"You have to believe me," he repeated. "I don't know why I can do… what it is I can do. I don't know why the Forbidden Forest picked me. My only lead is, it picked my mother before me. You saw it: it gave her a sword, and the sword went missing when my mother died. The Head Unspeakable — Martin — he got hurt in the process, somehow. And now he wants my head, yours, Eunice's—"
"Harry, stop that, you're hurting me," Daphne snapped, seizing his wrists.
Harry loosened his hold on her. She looked much more like her old self now — no longer brimming over with that kind of calm confidence, but alert, suspicious, her eyes alive with defiance mingling with a kind of vague apprehension, her mouth set in a stubborn line.
"Why does that matter?" she hissed at him. "I mean, sure, your mother and all that — but why can't you just let it go for now, let them break their teeth on our mountains, they can't get in, they can't find us! So what if you're not really an Isiame? It barely shows. Sao and Eunice are so taken with you, they will only believe it if you club them with your wand, and the others — the others haven't lived with you, they can't have noticed anything…"
"You knew?" Harry blurted out. "I only just figured it out, but you knew?"
"I—" Daphne glanced left and right, frantically, her eyes wide open in terror of being overheard. "I suspected something. You don't feel like the others. You're still really good with a wand, you do everything with wizards' magic, you're… you look better and more relaxed when you're here, but you're not fond of the place. But it doesn't matter, act normal and happy and they'll buy it!"
"Happy? Why is that so important?" Harry threw up his hands and let them fall back to his sides, curled into fists; he started pacing to refrain from the urge of grabbing Daphne again and shaking her back to reality. "The Unspeakables are eliminating people. It's personal. It's been personal for a long time, judging from how harsh they've been. It's connected to all those injuries Martin got, twenty years ago. He was hurt by Third Kind power."
"Isiame," Daphne corrected him sharply. "Isiame."
"And now he's after their blood. He's started killing people standing in his way, and I have friends working for me on the wizards' side, they're in danger."
Daphne's mouth twisted in an ugly grimace. "Oh, yeah? Who? Your little brunette waitress?"
Harry stopped pacing, taken aback by the hostility in Daphne's voice.
She caught the look on his face and scoffed. "Oh, don't worry — I'm not going to shoot her in the arse with a green arrow, as much as I'd like to. That's how she'll probably end up, anyway, if Sao suspects you're seeing her."
"I imagine," Harry said, his voice a little hoarse. "She doesn't like people hooking up with wizards, does she? She's worried about how pure my offspring should be, right?"
"I knew you'd say that. You're probably going to say she's no better than You-Know-Who, too, aren't you? And go into a crusade?"
As she spoke, she had finished fastening her cloak to her left shoulder and now stood, ready to go out, her gloved hands on her hips.
Harry drew a little closer to her. "Whose side are you on?" he demanded. "What're you playing at?"
Daphne shook her head, slow and obstinate.
"If you still need to ask, Potter, you don't deserve to know."
"Oh, now listen—"
"Let me ask you something," she snarled in a low, low voice. "If someone took the only person in the world who's ever loved you — really loved you, just the way you were, without afterthought or bargaining; if they twisted their mind, turned them into their personal slave and spy, and finally abandoned them to their fate… whose side would you be on?"
Harry bit down on his lower lip. The feeling of shame that had been growing in his stomach was now trying to claw its way out of his chest.
"Oh, don't try to save me," Daphne snorted. "You have that look on your face again — as though it's all your responsibility and you're going to make everything right all by yourself. I'm used to people not liking me, Potter. I'm used to doing everything on my own, and to counting only on my sister's help. Now they've taken her, well, I don't need your help to get her back. And I don't need your help either to kill that bitch Sao."
She had spat the word with enough venom to burn a hole in the threadbare carpet on the stone floor.
"But it would help me, though, if you didn't give her reasons to suspect you," she went on more calmly. "While I'm near the child, I'm near the centre of things — near Sao, Eunice, and the Old Council. I have a chance to do something to hurt her. But the day Sao suspects you, she suspects me; then she'll take the little Queen away and raise her to do exactly as she says, and I'll lose my only leverage."
She grabbed her bag and walked to the door, throwing over her shoulder as she went: "And if I'm late, she'll suspect something, too. So, please, stay put and don't get yourself killed. I'll be back tonight at nine."
The door slammed shut behind her.
Harry swayed on the spot for a couple of seconds.
Then he started grinning. He knew what she was doing — this entire scene had been retaliation for the way he had yelled and threatened her, two days before. And there was also the warm relief that blossomed in his chest, loosening a tight knot he had not known was there: he no longer had to worry about Daphne Greengrass's loyalty. The thought of her possible duplicity had lurked in the back of his mind for two days, alarming, dangerous for his plans, and unpleasant in a deeper way he could not quite explain. But that was over: Sao had definitively alienated herself to the catty Slytherin the day she had harmed her sister Chloe.
And Daphne Greengrass, as he was learning, could take care of herself in the Isiame world.
He would not, though, lie low as she had suggested. He had to plan ahead with Eunice, and figure out Sao's schemes to take over the Isiame nation. Things were speeding up — who knew who the Unspeakables would hit next…
Realisation hit him brutally, and he felt the blood drain from his face. He knew.
It was obvious. Ron and Luna were about to wake up and recover. They had to be taken away from St Mungo's.
Harry grabbed his cloak and rushed outside. The air bit into the skin of his face with frosty teeth, the slithering wind brought hot tears to his eyes and attacked his bare fingers; he struggled through the foot-deep snow and over the thin layer of ice covering the passageway, hurrying to get to the edge of the city, where his spellcasting would have no witness.
A couple of people called out to him, and one of them reminded him Sao's practical class had already begun. He waved vaguely in answer.
At last, under cover of two huge slabs of black rock streaked with white, bizarrely sticking out from the side of the mountain like two fingers forming a defiant 'v', Harry cast his Patronus.
Ron, Luna and the Head Healer are in danger. Find them a safe place. Be quick, be quiet.
The great silvery stag stared into Harry's eyes and inclined slowly its head, heavy with huge twisting antlers, as it registered the message Harry had woven into the charm. Then it whirled about, bounded lightly over the black slabs and up the snow-covered mountain, towards Hogwarts.