Furious Wielder of Storms
Just a year later, the Wizarding world was at war, and Hogwarts castle in a state of siege. But the day Luna Lovegood and I lost the Bowtruckle, it was hard to imagine that Hogwarts could ever be dangerous, under threat or even cold. The sun was shining, the air was full of the scents of the last flowers of autumn, and the Whomping Willow was making half-hearted attempts to swat the last swallows of the summer out of the air. And we were having our first Care of Magical Creatures lesson of the year with Professor Hagrid.
Of course, everyone nowadays has heard of Luna Lovegood, the unworldly, beautiful, courageous young woman who single-handedly founded the Stabbursnes Snorkack Sanctuary in Norway. You can hardly fail to miss her these days: her face gazes dreamily out of half the best Wizarding pictorials, cuddling a large-eyed, fluffy Tufted Snorkack poult, or wrestling an adult to the ground in play, with snowflakes in her hair. I took both those photographs, by the way.
But back then she was just a rather odd girl with bizarre politics and peculiar notions about unusual creatures, whom most of her classmates avoided as much as possible. And back then I was not the up-and-coming photojournalist who first brought her and her Snorkack Sanctuary to the public eye, but a skinny boy a long way from home, excited by everything I saw in Hogwarts, and desperate to be a part of it all. Of course, back then I did not really understand the ways of the Wizarding world, and occasionally I got things very wrong indeed.
My classmates weren't speaking to me again, and as usual, I did not know why. This happened several times a year – in my first couple of years at Hogwarts it was usually for being over-enthusiastic and clingy, but after the second year it was more likely to be for more subtle things, like doing something the Muggle way (which was seen as "pretentious" or "tacky"), or paying too much attention to a girl from the wrong family. My classmates always came round after a few days, and were generally very kind in explaining what I had done "wrong", but it was annoying while it lasted, especially in the practical lessons, when we had to do group work.
That afternoon, we were having Care of Magical Creatures class. We were studying Bowtruckles in groups of two or three, and I was left alone and friendless by my tray. Hagrid tried several times to break up one of the other groups to get me a partner, but everyone was still ignoring me, and he was far too gentle to force them. He finally managed to detach Luna Lovegood, whom I vaguely knew from a Defence Against the Dark Arts club we had both been in the previous year. She had that, at least in her favour, though the other Ravenclaws said the oddest things about her. She ambled over, smiled vaguely at the Bowtruckles, and said:
"I like them, don't you? I feel sorry for them though: they used to have their own separate republic in Central Leicestershire till Cornelius Fudge persuaded the Muggles to build a municipal swimming pool on the site."
I didn't bother to reply. Everyone knew that Luna was full of crazy ideas that made no sense. Still, there was no doubt that she had a way with Bowtruckles, and the creature gave us no trouble at all until she passed it over for me to have a closer look.
When I got round to the theory part of my homework, I learned that Bowtruckles are children the greenwood and terrified of man-made substances such as plastic: this one had been spooked by my digital watch (an affectation in a way, as it did not work in Hogwarts – but it had been a Christmas present from Dennis three years ago, far more than he could afford, and I was not about to upset him by leaving it at home). But all I knew at the time was that the Bowtruckle I was holding dug razor-sharp fingers into my palm, causing me to yelp with pain and relax my grip. By the time I'd recovered my wits, it was racing off towards the Forbidden Forest as fast as its stiff little wooden legs could carry it.
Hagrid didn't seem that upset about it. Rubbing absent-mindedly at a half-healed scab over one eyebrow, he packed us off with a jar of woodlice and a little wooden box lined with leaves, together with strict instructions to retrieve the creature, which was wanted for another class the following morning. Normally, the Bowtruckle should have been easy to catch, but it fled in terror every time it caught sight of the plastic on my wrist. After a while, we worked out that it would run from me but not from Luna, and I managed to corner it against the bole of a great oak on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Then I kept a respectable distance while she coaxed it into its box.
We were both tired, bruised and scratched after running through bushes and attempting to rugby-tackle a panicked Bowtruckle, so we sat down to catch our breath back before heading back up the hill to Hagrid's hut. We sat in companionable silence for several minutes, and then Luna said:
"You know, Hagrid is keeping a giant in the Forbidden Forest."
"Don't be daft," I said crossly. I was still in a bad temper, and not in the mood for fairy stories.
"I mean it," she said, and pointed towards the middle of the forest. "Look."
I turned round, half expecting to see a giant, but of course there was nothing there. Still, something had moved in the Forbidden Forest – we had both plainly heard the crash – and could see flocks of startled birds rising into the air, not half a mile off.
"There," she said. "That was the giant. Shall we go and see?"
"No way," I said. "There's no giant. I've lost my House fifty points already this week – the last thing I need is to cop a detention for being out of bounds. Anyway, there are centaurs about, and I don't care what Hagrid says – those things aren't safe."
"Oh no," said Luna, very seriously. "They aren't safe at all. But they'll be much further west on a day like this, waiting for the sunset. And the giant is real – I've seen him. I come out here all the time, you know, when I want to be by myself – nobody notices. And he really isn't scary – Daddy says the giants are just misunderstood. Besides, he's all tied up."
"You're nuts," I said nastily, getting to my feet, slinging my book bag over my shoulder and starting up the hill. "Tied-up giants in the woods, my arse. As if. Well worth getting a detention for – I don't think."
Secretly, I would have loved to see a giant – I adored new things, and even after five years at Hogwarts, there was still so much I had never seen before. But I knew Luna was lying or deluded – everyone said so.
"Well, you're missing a chance to see something special – but if you don't like the idea of getting caught…" Luna fell in beside me on the path up the hill to Hagrid's hut, twisting one of her long, feathery earrings round her finger and humming to herself. It took me a moment to identify the tune:
You might belong in Gryffindor,
where dwell the brave in heart.
Their daring, nerve and chiv –
I wheeled round on her.
"All right! If you're so clever, put your money where your mouth is for once. You're always telling me about these stupid weird monsters – fine – show me one then. Just for once, show me one of your daft creatures that actually exists!"
I think I had expected her to burst into tears or flounce off in a huff, like many of my Gryffindor girl classmates would have done if I'd accused them of lying. But I didn't know Luna so well back then. Instead, she smiled happily at me, turned on her heel and set off down the track leading to the Forbidden Forest, saying:
"Come along, then. Let's go. We can be back for supper, if we hurry. And I promise you'll like him. He's ever so nice, really, once you get to know him."
I hurried after her.
"If you're leading me up the garden path, I swear I'll get you somehow. You'll wish it was Malfoy after you by the time I'm through with you…"
Again, I had expected her to be frightened (though looking back it is hard to see why a girl who had been bullied since she was old enough to talk would be scared of a weedy Muggle misfit barely as tall as she was), but Luna just crinkled up her bulging eyes against the sun and smiled at me.
"Don't worry. There really is a giant. And anyway, I know you wouldn't do anything horrible. Your upbringing is far too noble for that."
"Noble? My dad's a milkman!"
"It's very altruistic, isn't it? Bringing fresh milk to all those poor Muggles with no cows of their own. But perhaps you've got used to that. I sometimes forget my father's a great political reformer – to me he's just Daddy…"
She burbled on as we entered the forest. At first, it seemed a pleasant enough place for a stroll, with the late afternoon sunlight shining through gaps in the canopy, and squirrels and birds hopping about in the upper branches. But after we had left the edges of the forest well behind us, the trees seemed to close in around us, and the light was dimmer and greener. A few minutes more, and Luna turned off the path, following a series of goat-trails that got narrower and narrower. Thorn bushes tugged at my robes, and many-years-dead leaves crackled alarmingly underfoot. For a moment, I was afraid that Luna was playing a practical joke on me, but then I heard grunting and the crack of splintering wood up ahead, and glimpsed something large and dark moving through the trees. She put out a hand to stop me.
"Now we have to be very careful," she said in a voice barely above a whisper. "He doesn't know you, so I think you should approach very slowly, and hold out your present in both hands…"
"Present?" I said, alarmed. The thought of a great adventure with real giants seemed a lot less appealing where the sun could not reach, with something huge and uncontrolled moving around just out of sight. Besides, I'd followed Luna into the Forest on a whim – I certainly hadn't thought to bring along a box of Milk Tray or a bunch of flowers.
"Yes, with giants you should bring a present," replied Luna. "But it doesn't have to be anything big…" she pulled a bundle wrapped in a napkin from her robes. "I picked up these Chinese-style spare ribs at lunch – Cho Chang was moaning about how this isn't the proper Chinese style at all, and after that no-one at our table wanted any… as for you… haven't you got anything in your satchel?"
I knelt down, rummaging frantically through my schoolbag, cursing my stupid, Muggle lack of initiative. What would one of my DA friends have done? What would Hermione Granger, the girl with a plan for every occasion, have done…? Aha! I pulled out the largest, heaviest book, and hefted it thoughtfully.
"That'll do nicely," Luna said cheerfully. "He's bound to like that – a book will be a new experience for him. Now, I'll go first, because he knows me already, and then you follow, holding the present where he can see it."
We edged cautiously into the clearing. It was much bigger than I had thought, littered with the jagged stumps of trees, which looked as though they had been snapped rather than felled. In the middle of this patch of dry earth, tied to four of the largest remaining trees by long ropes knotted about his wrists and ankles, sat the biggest creature I had ever seen in human form. Broadly speaking, he was human-shaped, but the proportions were all wrong – the arms and legs too thick; the watery eyes too small, too high up in his face and somehow the wrong shade of green; the ears too round, too fleshy and set too close to his skull. His hair was brown and tightly curled, but more like a sheep's fleece than a human scalp, and it covered his shoulders, arms, neck and what I could see of his chest in an equally dense mat, while leaving his face bare. He was wearing a tunic pieced roughly together out of animal hides. There was a strong smell emanating from him, a reek of male sweat, raw meat and something stranger and less human, more like a goat than a man. Nothing had prepared me for this, and I gaped at him in amazement.
Luna jabbed me in the ribs with an elbow.
"Close your mouth!" she hissed. "It's rude to stare – besides, you're laying yourself open to attack by Carnivorous Tonsil Beetles, and you don't want that, do you? Now, let's go and say hello – I'll go first, to show you how it's done."
She shook back her hair, straightened her shoulders and strode out into the clearing, holding out her parcel of food in front of her chest. When she was in front of the giant, she bowed deeply from the waist and laid the bundle on the ground.
As Luna approached, the creature, which had been sitting listlessly in the centre of the clearing, scratching idly in the sandy soil with a stick, noticeably perked up. He raised huge, craggy brows, extended a muscle-bound finger and poked the parcel experimentally. He lifted the finger to his nose, and the terrifying, flat face split into a broad grin, displaying uneven, yellow, scaly teeth. His hand shot out, untied the parcel with surprising delicacy, picked up the largest rib between finger and thumb and popped it into his mouth. The tiny, odd eyes widened, as did the smile, and a humming noise of contentment issued from his nose. He picked up the napkin, twisted it into a funnel with a flick of his enormous, blunt fingers and poured the contents into his mouth, crunching the bones as easily as I would have crunched a biscuit. There was a thoughtful pause, and then the giant belched loudly, slapping his belly in appreciation. He bent down, very slowly, and with surprising gentleness chucked Luna under the chin. She staggered, but kept her feet. Smiling, she patted his enormous fingers, bowed and withdrew.
"Go on!" she whispered as she returned to where I was standing. "Your turn now. Show him the book, bow and put it on the ground."
I suddenly realised that I didn't want to get any closer to the terrifying creature in the middle of the clearing. True, he was even bigger than I had expected, and a lot stranger. But for that very reason, I didn't want to get any closer. Those ruddy, muscled hands were plainly designed to rend and rip, and the scattered bones all round the clearing left me in no doubt as to his ability to tear things limb from limb. Then there was that terrifying smell of carnivore… If I had been on my own, I would probably have turned tail and fled.
I realised my knees were shaking. Luna nudged me forward. I held the big, brown volume out in front of me, and advanced slowly towards the huge figure in front of me. By the time I was close enough to offer up the gift, my arms were trembling, as much with the weight of the book as with nerves. I bowed slowly, acutely aware of that strange, sludgy gaze on the back of my neck, placed the book on the ground at my feet and straightened up.
The next thing I knew, there was a basso profondo grunt, and a hand the size of a skip was coming through the air, aimed straight at me. My nerve broke, and I rushed back to the trees, grabbing Luna by the sleeve.
"Come on!" I panted, as I dragged her after me along the path we'd come in by. "It's coming after us – let's get out of here!"
Indeed, there was a lot of thrashing and odd bellowing sounds coming from the clearing. Luna was trying to say something, but I was too desperate to get out of there to listen.
Once we were out of hearing, I slowed to a walk.
"What did you say?"
"I just said how nice it was of you to give him The Lay of Rh'kap-wah. Those leather-bound volumes are really expensive nowadays – fifty Galleons or more… What? What have I said now?" She broke off at the sight of my expression, looking upset. "I thought the visit would cheer you up – don't tell me I've made it worse! I thought you'd understand – you've always liked special creatures…"
"It's not mine," I said glumly. "It's Professor Scrivener's."
Professor Scrivener was the Ancient Runes teacher – a cheerful, hefty woman who lived in a garret above the main library. Unlike teachers such as Professors Snape or Trelawney, who were kept in Hogwarts partly for their own protection and partly for use in the fight against Voldemort, Professor Scrivener was that rare thing – a talented teacher who adored her job. Cheerfully and unapologetically half-blood herself, she was determined that her subject should be open to all students, regardless of background, and since I was the only Muggle-born in my group, she took great pains to make sure I did not fall behind – no easy task, as I showed no particular talent. Still, with extra homework and occasional hours of personal coaching, I had somehow got through all my exams to date, and Professor Scrivener had lent me The Lay of Rh'kap-wah as "light reading to keep you ticking over the holidays". I had taken it home, where it had delighted my family with its obvious antiquity and difficulty ("my grandson – the classical scholar!" my grandfather had exclaimed proudly, and given me a ten-pound note on the strength of it). The family might have liked the book, but it had driven me almost to distraction with its turgid sentence structure, implausible and convoluted sub-plots, its tedious hero who kept behaving in the most ill-considered way (I'd already had a run-in with the Dark Arts, and I knew) and the most unsympathetic love interest I had ever seen. I had struggled manfully to the end, as I felt I owed it to Professor Scrivener, but it had been a boring and frustrating task. I would have been happy never to see the wretched thing again, if replacing it had only been a bit less expensive. Luna was right in a way – the milk delivery business was a lot closer to altruism than money-making these days. My parents had given me a Galleon to last until Christmas – there was no question of my being able to replace Professor Scrivener's book out of my own pocket, or ask for more.
"I'll have to get that book back off him," I said to Luna. "I thought I was giving him my 1000 Magical Herbs and Fungi – I can share with my brother, and I'm dropping Herbology next year anyway. Perhaps he'll like it better – I'm sure he will, actually – think of all the pictures. I'm going back to see if I can negotiate a swap." This often seemed to happen around Professor Scrivener – students would go to any lengths to avoid disappointing her. With hindsight, I have often wondered if there was some coercive magical element to it. In any case, I never seriously considered just owning up about the book.
"Hmm," said Luna. "I'm not sure that's how it works – "
But I was already on my way down the path back towards the giant's grove. Loud noises were issuing from the direction we had just come, and the undergrowth around us was full of the squeaking of terrified woodland creatures and the alarm calls of small birds.
The noise got louder as we approached. We could now make out a drumming sound that shook the very ground under our feet, interspersed with hideous howls, gurgles and moans.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Luna asked, as I peered round a tree trunk.
Instead of sitting, alert on the ground as we had left him, the poor giant had fallen over, and was prone on the floor of the grove. He was lying on his stomach, gasping for breath and groaning, drumming his huge, horny feet on the ground in some frightful paroxysm. The trees shook with the force of it, and he was gouging great wounds in the earth with his toes.
Luna and I exchanged a glance, and beat a hasty retreat without needing to say a word. I was grateful to Professor Scrivener, but not enough to risk my life. After all, she was very thick with Madam Pince – surely she could borrow a library copy if it came to that. I said as much to Luna on the way back.
"… and if I was her, I'd be grateful to lose that stupid Rer Krap War book anyway," I concluded. "It's awful – can't think what she sees in it."
"Rh'kap-wah," Luna corrected me absently. "But I love that book! It's not very sophisticated, I'll allow, but it's so funny! That bit where Dhe-Grang enters the Caverns of Mors, and he thinks the mammoth's his Transfigured girlfriend in love with him when all it wants is a scratch behind its knees…" her voice trailed off, and she burst into paroxysms of shrill laughter. She ended up having to sit at the side of the path, clutching her stomach, until the fit passed.
"What do you know about it anyway?" I said, looking down at her crossly. "You've never done Runes. You've certainly never been in any of our lessons."
"No, but I've been studying them with Daddy ever since I learned normal writing. He says that if you want to Fathom the Mysteries of the Ancients you really need to be able to read their works in the original. I've been keeping a Rune diary since I was eight. The nice professor lady said there really wasn't much point in me going to her lower school classes – worse luck – I had to take Divination instead. It's too bad – that woman will believe anything." She got to her feet, dusted herself down and set off down the path. "Come on, Professor Hagrid will be wondering about his Bowtruckle. And don't worry so much about Professor Scrivener – we've got all weekend to think of something. Why, we could form a Conspiracy!" She tripped up the path ahead of me, singing "When Celia Was Learning" in a thin, quavery soprano.
Neither of us mentioned the giant to Hagrid, or the book. I wanted to, but he had given us each a slab of his special bonfire toffee as a thank-you, and this effectively glued our teeth together until well after supper. Fortunately pumpkin and eel soup was on the menu that evening, so we did not go to bed hungry.
I barely slept a wink all night. It was bad enough that I'd misread Professor Scrivener's farcical and occasionally highly suggestive comedy as a third-rate adventure story (I blushed in the dark as I realised what some parts were actually implying) – but how was I going to get the wretched thing back? If I couldn't, how was I to get the money to buy a replacement? I had plenty of rich classmates – but we were hardly on those sort of terms. I knew that as soon as I suggested anything to do with money, the friendship would be over.
I lay awake, wondering if I could Transfigure an ordinary textbook into a replacement – or borrow one from the library (impossible: failing to return one of Madam Pince's books was even more upsetting a thought than the disappointment on Professor Scrivener's face. Madam Pince's wrath was terrible to behold. There were rumours that she had stuffed Vladimir Montague head-first into a toilet last year, after she caught him drawing moustaches on the illustrations of the school's signed first-edition copy of Little Women) Perhaps I could steal one from another student? (unethical, more was the pity). Clearly, I would have to retrieve the book from that giant, or else go to Professor Scrivener and confess all.
Well, I was a Gryffindor. There was only one way it could go, wasn't there?
The next day was a Saturday, and I collared Luna after breakfast outside the Great Hall. When I told her I was taking her up on her offer of help, she was happy to go along with it, especially when she realised she was my first choice of fellow-conspirator, as she insisted on calling it. We retired to a secluded corner of the Periodicals section of the library, and sat down for a council of war.
Once we had made ourselves comfortable and spread our things out on the broad oak table, it quickly became clear that organising a dangerous snatch-and-grab session was not as easy as it looked when Harry Potter or the Weasley brothers were doing it. Not only were we hampered by an idea that most of the school rules were perfectly sensible and probably there for a reason, we were neither of us especially physically or magically strong, and both harboured doubts about whether we were really justified in what we were doing (a present was, after all, a present). That was bad enough, but the real problem was that neither of us had ever instigated an adventure before, and we didn't really knew how to do proceed – certainly, we'd been involved in all kinds of escapades, but very much in the role of hangers-on. My admiration for Harry Potter – always high – rose another notch as three hours went by without us producing a single workable idea that would not involve damaging either book, giant or ourselves.
"Look," Luna said at last, "this just isn't playing to our strengths. I'm a Ravenclaw – I can't make plans without data. And you – you're an observer with your camera, not a fighter. So let's observe and collect data before we decide what to do. I'm sure that's much more efficient than just running in there and trying to stun a sixteen-foot giant with our wands – the power-mass ratios are all wrong, we'd never be able to do it. I think we should have lunch as normal, and then go on a reconnaissance mission to the Forest. We can pick up something nice for the giant at lunch. Watch out for the steak and kidney pies though – a contact of Daddy's says that Hogwarts sources its kidneys from Cornelius Fudge, and we all know where he gets them."
We met an hour later outside Greenhouse Thirteen. Neither of us had a pie, but Luna had smuggled out half a loaf of bread and an entire carrot cake, and I had spent the entire meal quietly accio'ing sausages and pork chops into a sack under the table. We shouldered our bags and set off, past Hagrid's hut and into the dark forest.
The sky was overcast, and although there was no immediate threat of rain, the forest was silent and gloomy. We followed the previous day's route, in a much more subdued mood. The birds and insects were silent, and even when we were quite close there was no sound from the giant's clearing.
Luna looked at me anxiously, her protuberant eyes almost luminous in the gloom. "Golly," she said, "I hope it wasn't the spare ribs. How awful if he turns out to be allergic to aniseed!"
"No – wait – I thought I heard something," I said. "Let's see if we can get a bit closer – quiet as we can…"
We crept to the edge of the clearing, and peered in from behind a bush.
The giant was lying on his back, legs and arms thrown wide to fill all the available space, fast asleep and utterly relaxed. We could see his huge chest rising and falling slowly, and hear the rasp of his breathing – almost, but not quite, the most gentle of snores. All the harshness and wildness had drained from his face, and even from there we could see that the giant was smiling.
Luna nudged me, pointed, and there, by the giant's outstretched right hand, was The Lay of Rh'kap-wah, unharmed, lying in the scored earth.
"Quick!" she hissed in my ear, and I wondered vaguely why I had ever thought of her as unworldly. "Let's get it while he's asleep! Not a sound now… follow me…"
When we had got a bit closer, we could see that the channels in the sandy soil looked as if they had been scored with a stick. They formed a regular, elaborate pattern of great beauty, framing the book, which sat in the middle, looking no different from when I had presented it to the giant the day before. I reached out to pick it up, but Luna suck out a restraining hand.
"Aren't those runes? There, at the corners of the pattern…"
I could see what she meant, though the runes – if that was what they were – were done in an exaggerated, flamboyant style, with extra branches weaving in and out of the main strokes. I tried to remember Professor Scrivener's lessons.
"Gha… az… hu… wah?" I spelled them out to myself. "A name? Or is it Wah-hu-az-gha, if they're going anticlockwise, like on temples and gravestones?"
Luna shook her head.
"Well, it could be a name or something, I suppose," she said. "But in such a short phrase they're more likely to be Old High Runic ideograms – Runes that convey a whole word-meaning," she added, seeing my baffled expression. "Really, doesn't Professor Scrivener teach you anything?"
In truth, Professor Scrivener had taught us some of the commonly used meaning components of the major runes, and if I had not spent most of the summer term gazing in mooncalf fascination at Phaedra Royce, wondering how much she was wearing under her light, silky summer robes, I would have been in more of a position to help. Fortunately, I had my Rune dictionary in my bag.
"But it still makes no sense!" I said crossly, after leafing through the dictionary for a few minutes. "Luminous – pinnacle – the Other – rhetorical question – what's that supposed to mean? I bet he just liked the patterns in the book and was copying what he saw!"
"I don't think so," said Luna. There was an odd look of suppressed excitement on her face. "You're being far too literal – remember, Old High Runic's an ancient language, and word meanings have shifted. Nothing quite corresponds to a word in English, so you've got broaden your outlook… try to imagine what they might mean together."
I ran my hands through my hair in frustration. "But it's still gibberish! How can a book be luminous? It's not even shiny!"
Luna smiled. "I can't believe you've spent five years in the same House as Ronald Weasley and still have to ask me that," she said.
And then it hit me.
"Brilliant!" I cried, quite forgetting to keep my voice down in my excitement.
"Bloody brilliant, actually," she said, grinning. "A pinnacle is the highest part of a mountain, you can't get higher, so the ancients often used it to mean the very best."
"But what about the rest?"
"Keep going," she suggested. "You've got the hang of it now."
"…the Other… stranger?… a different one? Leave that for now… but what's this about rhetoric? I'm no public speaker."
"It's a question particle," she said. "It turns the sentence into question…"
"I've got it!" I yelped. "Bloody brilliant – got any more? He can read! Bloody brilliant – any more? He read my book, and he liked it! Bloody brilliant – any more? Wahey!"
"Mawr? Mawr?" said a huge, deep voice behind us. "Nee mawr?"
Luna and clung to each other, scrambling to hide behind each other as the huge body rolled over and into a sitting position in a way that more resembled a major landslide than a yawn and stretch. We cowered away as fast as our trembling limbs would let us, until Luna gave a little gasp and relaxed.
"It's all right!" she said, voice breathy with relief. "Look up! He's smiling!"
I craned my head back as far I would go, and I was right. The giant was not just smiling, he was positively beaming, pointing to the book on the ground. The fearsome, grinning mouth opened, and words came out in that terrible, deep voice.
"Can you understand?" I asked Luna in an undertone.
"Not a word," she said cheerfully. "But it doesn't matter a bit – let me just get my hands free…"
I realised that I was clutching Luna so tightly she could not move her arms, and let go very quickly, flushing and making a sheepish I'm-not-here-really kind of noise. Luna merely shrugged, reached up into her hair to remove her wand from her hair where she had thrust it, squatted on the ground, considered for a moment and began to write in the loose earth with the tip. Compared to the giant's careful mandala, her runes were schoolgirlish and unformed (though at least she did not use little hearts instead of vowel markings, as some of my classmates did), but she wrote confidently, and the giant was watching her with obvious interest.
I tried to edge away, but a huge, warm hand wrapped itself round my chest, and I was unable to move or go for my wand. Once I had stopped hyperventilating, I realised that I was quite comfortable – the palms were warm, and covered with dense, dry, tightly curled hair, rather like a wraparound sofa. I leaned back, watching Luna as she wrote in the sandy soil, her expression of fierce concentration very much at odds with her normal dreaminess.
Luna drew a line under what she had written, dusted her hands and stood back. The giant let me go, pushing me off to one side with a controlled but terrible strength, and got down on his hands and knees for a good look. Luna and I sat on a fallen tree at a discreet distance and watched the giant reach up, snap a branch from a towering beech tree, use it trace a perfect circle in the dirt and begin to sketch in a series of neat, careful runes around the perimeter.
"What did you tell him?" I asked Luna.
"Not much – it takes a long time to say anything in the Old High form because of all the honorifics and titles. I told him who we were, of course. And I asked him how he came here, and if he needed anything. Apart from that, I just said we were glad he liked the book and could get him others if he liked, but this one had been given to him under a misapprehension and we were going to have to return it. I just hope I wasn't too blunt… but he doesn't seem to be annoyed. Now we just have to wait and see."
It took a long time, but at last the giant rose, returned to the pallet where he seemed to spend most of his days, and folded his hands in his lap, occasionally picking at the places where the ropes had chafed his wrists.
Luna and I approached the circle. One glance was enough to show me that this was way out of my league, though it was beautifully done, with perfectly proportioned glyphs spiralling inwards around a central boss, displaying three larger sigils. Luna examined it with interest.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she said. "I've never seen anything half so fine, not even in the Hogwarts library."
"Never mind that," I replied. "What's he saying?"
Luna scratched her head.
"Well, he certainly isn't making this easy for me… this is a lot more complex than the Sagas or the Idylls… let's see… She who feeds the prisoner will dine on glory in the house of the Gods: He who brings wine for the captive's soul shall quaff the blood of his enemies in paradise…hmm, I think that just means he's saying thank you for the food and the book – if he was threatening to kill us he could probably have done it already… moving on… The younglings salute the tall one: The captive makes obeisance before his benefactor… must be saying he's pleased to meet us and thanks again for the presents... The saga of the foolish warrior has awoken the slave to mirth: But death to him who defaults on an obligation… Well, that's clear enough – he enjoyed the story, but if the book belongs to someone else it should go back to them. Now then… Those carried out of darkness and peril must endure idleness with fortitude: If your brother misunderstands you, endure it in silence, for your life is held at his gift… I have no idea what that means… move on for now… Flesh and puddles and caves…oh, I see… One may have no lack of food, drink and shelter, and yet be unsatisfied: Companionship, though enjoyed in secrecy and with the small and unlettered, (that's not very nice!) is sweetness indeed. He isn't hungry or thirsty, but he likes our company and hopes we can come again. But he doesn't want us to tell anyone. And then the last quarter is just formulaic, calling down the blessings of the gods on his sacred enterprise – that's just the way all Old High Runic scripts end – writing used to be sacred in the old days, and my Daddy always says quite right too."
"Then I can give Professor Scrivener her book back?" I said excitedly.
"Yes, Colin," said Luna, deadpan. "You can give Professor Scrivener her book back. We can take it with us when we go back to the castle."
I remembered my manners.
"And you've translated that amazing… thing on the ground, too!" I said enthusiastically. "Fantastic! Do you think he'd mind if I take a picture of it?"
"Better not, maybe," Luna replied, "writing's sacred for him, remember? Perhaps when you know each other better. Now sit there and be quiet while I write back and tell him we're going to have to go soon but we'll be back tomorrow. Any messages for him?"
I thought for a moment.
"Tell him I'll get him another Rune book out of the library… wait, I almost forgot to ask. What about the three glyphs in the middle?"
"That's his name," she said. "Grah-wuh-pharg – Furious Wielder of Storms."
The giant looked up at the sound of his name. He lowered his head, and touched his mouth and forehead briefly with his bound hands.
I took a step forward.
"Colin," I said, pointing to myself.
"Krawn." The giant touched his mouth and forehead again. I bowed and did the same. Then I pointed to Luna.
This gave him more trouble. Luna bowed, and repeated her name.
"Ruah-nar," Again the gesture, which Luna copied. Then she nodded her head briefly, crouched down with her stick, and set to work.
We were very late for supper that day. And the next. And every evening we could get away after that until it became too dark to go out in the evenings, when we started sneaking out at lunchtimes. Whenever we could, we brought a book from the Runic section of the library – songs, legends, tragedies, histories, whatever we could get our hands on – and the giant would return it a few days later, always in the same condition as he had received it, whatever the weather. It was very cheering to see his delight at whatever we brought. Although a part of me was still terrified of Grah-wuh-phag, learning how to communicate with him was fascinating, and for the first time, two years of poring over tedious textbooks of memorial inscriptions from lost temples seemed to be time well spent, as the dusty old Runes sprang to life before my eyes and under my hands.
The first time I attempted to communicate with Grah-wuh-phag in writing (we never managed to get much beyond names, yes and no in speaking: plainly the spoken form of his language had only a tenuous connection with the script), he laughed so hard that his roughly stitched tunic bust apart at the chest. Clutching the garment together with his huge hands, he gestured and bellowed us to leave, covering his eyes with his other hand, his darkening face visible through his fingers.
I couldn't sleep that night. Without realising it, Grah-wuh-phag had become an important part of my life. Of course, there was the DADA club, and I still had my camera, but they just weren't the same. Our visits to Grah-wuh-phag held a constant undertone of fear, but life without him would, I realised, be very dull. What had I done?
I needn't have worried. The next day he had killed a red deer (though how he had persuaded it to come within reach of his bound hands I still have no idea), flayed it and used the hide and sinews to patch his jerkin. And according to Luna, the sestina he composed on the contrition of a warrior who had foolishly caused innocent youths and maidens behold his nakedness was a model of understated elegance – unfortunately it was still way over my head.
But I was learning. I was able to hold simple written dialogues with Grah-wuh-phag now, and, emboldened by this, I started again with The Lay of Rh'kap-wah. I still found it a struggle, but now I was not expecting heroics or tragedy, I came to enjoy its surreal and often very bawdy humour.
Of course, our absences did not go unnoticed. In a school where all meals and most study was done communally, our classmates could scarcely fail to notice that we were missing a lot of evenings. After the first time we both came back late with leaves in our hair and dirt on the knees of our robes, rumours started to circulate. It says a lot for the strength of our joint preoccupation with Grah-wuh-phag that for a long time I did not even notice that the boys in my dormitory had started treating me with a certain respect – not until handsome Jack Sloper, Quidditch idol of Gryffindor, took me on one side and whispered:
"Colin, mate, you and that Ravenclaw girl…"
I made my face as neutral as I could.
"Luna? What about her?"
"Well…" he hesitated, and I saw to my amazement that he was blushing. "I just wondered… y'know… what it's like…"
"What's what like?"
"God, Colin… you know… with a girl…" his voice trailed off, as he traced neat little interlocking patterns on the ground with his shoe. The penny dropped.
"I have no idea what you mean," I said, after a long and stunned pause. "Really – I didn't – we never…" and when he still didn't look convinced, "Jack, read my lips: I did not have sex with that woman!"
Jack did not seem to resent this – indeed, he complimented me on my Gryffindor chivalry, and shook my hand. But the incident bothered me, for reasons I could not – or perhaps would not – put into words.
I don't recall thinking about Luna that way before Jack spoke to me, but I won't pretend that I never thought about Jack's comments again after that. However, even at fifteen and a half, I had the brains to realise that sex was beside the point. There might be other chances – and if the Hogwarts girls looked down on my birth, fine: girls back home didn't seem to think there was anything the matter with me – but there was only one giant in the Forbidden Forest.
I mentioned the conversation with Sloper to Luna the next day, on the way to the Forest. To my chagrin, she took it very much in her stride, and was much less shocked than I was. She merely said: "Oh, that was a very clever ruse, Colin! Now they'll never wonder if we're visiting a giant in the Forbidden Forest!" and laughed all the way to Grah-wuh-phag's clearing.
I have said that we were communicating better with Grah-wuh-phag, and discussed all sorts of things – and we did, but there was one matter on which he absolutely refused to be drawn, and that was Professor Hagrid.
We learned fairly early on that Hagrid had brought him to the Forest from where he used to live, and that the journey had been long and difficult. It was also clear that they had no common language: When the brother speaks, it is to the warrior as the twittering of insects: When the warrior declaims, it is to his brother as the roaring of the gales. Beyond that, there seemed to be nothing Grah-wuh-phag felt able to say. The most we ever got out of him were his words from the first day: Those carried out of darkness and peril must endure idleness with fortitude: If your brother misunderstands you, endure it in silence, for your life is held at his gift. Every time we asked if we could tell Hagrid about our visits, Grah-wuh-phag gave us the same reply – and the third time we mentioned the matter, he gently but firmly grasped one of us in each enormous fist, and ejected us from his clearing. After that, neither of us asked again.
Luna and I spent many hours mulling over Grah-wuh-phag's words. Plainly, he had been taken from some great danger by his "brother", and given Hagrid's enormous size and strength, it was not hard to work out who that must be. If that was true, then Grah-wuh-phag plainly felt that his life in the Forbidden Forest was something to be "endured" rather than enjoyed, and that he felt bound to bear it without complaint because of a life debt. And it was obvious that Hagrid and he were failing to communicate on the most basic level. Oh, Hagrid made sure that he had food and water and even brought things to keep him entertained, but they were so inappropriate that I could have cried. His idea of what would amuse Grah-wuh-phag was a large, mangy teddy bear with a bow round its neck, brightly coloured building blocks the size of packing cases, skittles as big as snowmen and a giant-sized cup and ball. Grah-wuh-phag had ripped off the bear's head and impaled it on a stake under the oldest oak tree in the glade, and considering his obvious intelligence, I could not blame him.
Still, what could we do about it, since our friend was so set on keeping Hagrid in the dark, and we had given our word? We decided that all we could do was visit as often as we could, and make sure Grah-wuh-phag had other things to occupy his mind.
Of course, in a place like Hogwarts, it was only a matter of time before someone caught up with us.
It was a frosty day in November, and Luna and I were heading out to the Forbidden Forest, munching sandwiches we had sneaked out of the Great Hall. Luna, who had had Herbology before lunch, had got hold of a large, creamy Expanding Peony for Grah-wuh-phag, and was waving it gently to and fro to make it fluff up to its fullest extent.
A voice behind us shrieked: "Oooo! Look, it's Loony Lovegood, off to the Forbidden Forest with her boyfriend! Really, Lovegood, you'd think even you could do better for yourself than a Mudblood like that – especially when you have to take second place to Potter."
It was Pansy Parkinson, Draco Malfoy's constant shadow and hanger-on. I suppose with hindsight I should have been more understanding of her perpetual fascination with boyfriends and girlfriends, as her fate had been bound to Malfoy's by both their families before she was old enough to walk. But at the time I couldn't see anything to pity, and I was furious.
"Better than marrying your cousins all the time," I yelled back. "At least no kid of mine's going to be born with two heads!"
Pansy looked as though she had been slapped. A Mudblood, talking back? What had happened to standards? Torn between astonishment and fury, she could think of no better retort as she stormed off than:
"I'm telling! You wait and see – you'll be sorry!"
Luna looked after her and shrugged.
"Poor Pansy," she said. "I think people like that are usually really unhappy underneath, don't you?"
"I certainly hope so. Mean cow." I muttered.
Luna just smiled at me as she walked along, singing:
"The friendly cow all red and white
I love with all my heart.
She gives me cream with all her might
To eat with apple tart."
Grah-wuh-phag was waiting for us in his clearing. He grinned his huge, ragged grin, and pointed to his latest elaborate inscription on the ground – a critique in verse of our latest book, the memoirs of a fifth-century goblin general (whom he plainly regarded as weak and unmanly), interwoven with a plaintive lament for the waning of the year.
Luna smiled at the conclusion of the text, and then began to help me spell it out, couplet by couplet, with the help of my Rune dictionary, while Grah-wuh-phag toyed with the huge flower, no bigger than a daisy in his hand, as he opened today's offering – The Saga of the Star in the River.
We were all so lost in what we were doing that we didn't hear Hagrid until he was almost on top of us, fully armed, crossbow cocked and ready, and his enormous dog Fang hard on his heels. He was breathing hard and looked panicked, wild eyed and dangerous.
Grah-wuh-phag started, growled, dropped book and flower, reached out for Luna and me and gathered us protectively to his chest.
Hagrid's eyes widened. He drew his crossbow to his shoulder.
"Grawp! You bad boy!" he shouted, in a tone rather like that which I had heard him use on his dog. "Put the kiddies down! Or I'll have to shoot you! Drop it, Grawpy! I mean it!"
Grah-wuh-phag did not react. But Luna did. Generally, life's troubles seemed to slide off her like water off a duck's back: I had never seen Luna lose her temper, or even seem particularly upset. But she lost it that day.
"Grawp? Grawpy?" she screeched, wriggling out of Grah-wuh-phag's grasp. She fell awkwardly, but scrambled to her feet and limped straight up to the sharp iron point of Hagrid's arrow, effectively preventing him from getting in a clear shot.
"You call him Grawp?" she gasped in a strange, hoarse, hysterical voice I had never heard her use before. "He's your brother – he's miserable – he's bored – he's all alone in a strange place, and you can't even be bothered to learn his real name? He's a warrior, a poet, you never even thought to check if he could write, or to try and understand his talk, did you? There's a whole library full of books about Giants here – I bet you've never opened a single one! You took him from the pine forests where he's at home, and you put him in a deciduous glade when there are fir trees just two hundred yards away! What kind of brother are you? Tying him up, talking to him like… like a dog… How could you?"
She kicked at a fallen branch in a passion, and burst into tears.
"Bu'… but that's what he calls himself!" said Hagrid, bow wavering and looking flustered. "…anyway, you get out the way, there's a good girl – leave it to the experts – he can get pretty nasty if he's not handled right…"
"Not handled right?" Luna screeched. She stood there, fists clenched, eyes bulging, tears running down her cheeks, looking scary and pathetic in equal measure. "You never even noticed that he'd been writing in the sand – look at that – just look!" she pointed at the patch of ground where Grawp had inscribed his latest poem. "That's a masterpiece!" she continued. "It's finer than half the stuff in Hogwarts library, and you give him skittles to play with… oooooohhh!" She hid her face in her hands, by now crying too hard to speak.
I was so immersed in the scene at ground level that I didn't notice that Grah-wuh-phag was putting me down until my feet hit the earth with a bump. His huge, warm hand gave me a none-too gentle push, so that I almost collided with Luna. She gave a wail, flung her arms round me and buried her face in my shoulder. Her face was uncomfortably damp, and I had no idea what to do. In the end I settled for rubbing her back in clumsy circles. It didn't seem to help much.
Hagrid was standing over Grawp's inscription, scratching his head.
"Yeah, I've seen 'em before," he said. "But how was I to know they was real writing? They threw me out of school in the first term of my third year, you know, and in those days if you didn't already know Runes, old Professor Standfast wouldn't have you in his class. And I wasn't brainy anyway – not like you two – I did Muggle Studies and Care of Magical Creatures…"
Grah-wuh-phag stooped again, and now there was a stick clutched in his right hand. Hagrid started, and raised the crossbow to his shoulder, but Grah-wuh-phag was too quick for him, and batted it contemptuously aside with his left hand. He scratched four runes into the soil, and then stood back, arms crossed over his chest.
Luna was still crying too hard to speak, horrible hiccupping sobs. I peered over her shoulder at the signs. Fortunately, they were all ones I knew.
"The first one's rwah – that means brother. The second's awgh – that's a life debt – we did that last week in the Goblin Art of War – then comes khuph, bountiful or gratitude, and the last one's mhun – but with a twist-crossed stem – which means it's because of something or a consequence – and that word means endure. I think it means that he's grateful you saved his life and you're his brother, so he has to put up with…"
Hagrid sat down on the ground, so hard that Fang gave a startled yelp. He covered his face with his hands.
"Grawp… all this time… oh my…" he said thickly, shaking his head. Then he suddenly seemed to pull himself together. "Here, why're you two still here?" he demanded sharply. "Nothing to see here! You get back to the castle right now – you'll be late for your lessons! And young Luna there don't look too well, neither," he added. "Needs to see Madam Pomfrey, if I'm any judge. Off with you now…" He got to his feet, making little chivvying motions with his big hands, but his eyes never left his brother's face.
We went, Luna leaning heavily against me. She had stopped the horrible, racking sobs, but tears were still pouring down her cheeks. Her skin was mottled and clammy, with strands of hair sticking to it, and she was trembling so hard that by the time we reached the main entrance she would have fallen over if I hadn't been holding her up. The clock struck two as I half-dragged, half carried her through the main doors.
Cho Chang was on prefect duty in the entrance hall, and caught up with us before I was properly through the door.
"Five points each from Gryffindor and Ravenclaw for being out of classes… Luna! Whatever's the matter?" Luna just shook her head dumbly, tears still leaking from her eyes.
"Er… we were in the Forbidden Forest. She… saw something that upset her…" my voice trailed off at the look of pure scorn on Cho's pretty face.
"Yeah, right," she said. "That's what they all say. Boys!" She tossed her head angrily, and put a comforting arm round Luna, which only served to set her off again. "Don't worry, sweetheart. I'll take you to Madam Pomfrey for a Calming Draught and a nice lie down." She glared at me over Luna's trembling shoulder. "Five more points from Gryffindor for loitering. Scat!"
The first lesson after lunch was History of Magic. Normally I was the only person in the class who listened to Binns's lectures. True, he was a terrible public speaker and had no sense of the drama or mystery of his subject, but I loved stories about the caprices and quirks of the world I was now starting to be a part of, and his lessons always gave me lots of good ideas about what books in the library to read in my own time. But today my mind just wasn't on the job. Luna's words had shaken me. It was hard to imagine our gentle, kindly, endlessly patient Professor Hagrid being deliberately cruel – but she was right. Grah-wuh-phag was not living the life nature or upbringing had prepared him for, and was plainly bored out of his mind. How could someone so kind to animals and so gentle with children be so oblivious to an adult's needs?
Binns droned on about the war of attrition between the Grey Goblins and the Great Goblins at the end of the fifth century, and I stared moodily out of the window, gnawing the end of the propelling pencil which I had smuggled into Hogwarts, in defiance of school rules. One of the nice things about History of Magic classes was a panoramic view of the school grounds, sloping away towards the Forbidden Forest. Two figures – one much bigger than the other – were crossing the lawn towards the Forest, and I realised that they were Hagrid and Professor Scrivener. Hagrid was carrying a heap of books for Professor Scrivener, who had to trot after him to keep up, gesturing so animatedly that she knocked her hat right off her head without even noticing it. They disappeared into the outskirts of the forest and were lost to view.
The last lesson of the day was Ancient Runes, but when we arrived at the classroom, there was a neat notice pinned to the door, advising us in a clear Runic script that today's class had been cancelled do to exceptional circumstances. I was amused to notice that the other members of the Runes class were experiencing some difficulty in deciphering a message which to me had been a model of clarity.
Neither Professor Scrivener nor Hagrid appeared at supper, though Luna was there, rather blotchy about the face but apparently none the worse for her experience, and sporting a surprisingly fetching headband made of a stethoscope intertwined with white bandages and orange rubber tubing. But she was whisked off by Cho before I could have a chance to speak to her.
I was not due to have a lesson with Luna until Charms, which was just before lunch the following day. On the way to the Charms classroom, I got talking to my little brother Dennis, who was in the third year.
"Guess what, Col?" he said excitedly. "Mr Hagrid's joined our Runes class! No, really, he has! He was in our class just now! He sits at the back and makes notes all lesson, just like a real student! Professor Scrivener had to put a Strengthening Spell on his seat before he could sit down! And then when we were all doing our vocab test, she showed him how to write his name in Runes, and then she showed him how to write his brother's, and he burst out crying! He used Lizzie Bell's cloak as a hankie, and now it's all wet and covered with these huge bogies…" he was overcome by a fit of the giggles at the memory, and I couldn't get anything sensible out of him all the way to the Charms classroom, not even by whacking him over the head with The Standard Book of Spells, Book V.
Luna was in the Charms lesson, looking just the same as usual. No-one made any comment beyond a few knowing smirks when I crossed to the Ravenclaw side of the classroom and slipped into the empty chair next to her. But in the event Professor Flitwick kept us too busy for much conversation – and what little we did manage to say mostly revolved around a series of catastrophic errors on Luna's part, which turned her earrings blue, set the desk on fire, blinded us with a brilliant white flash, and finally caused the contents of a box of paper clips on Professor Flitwick's desk to rise into the air, chittering and buzzing. We spent most of the rest of the lesson herding them back into the box.
"For heaven's sake, Miss Lovegood!" Flitwick piped crossly, swatting at a particularly persistent paper clip which was hovering around his hat. "How many times do I have to tell you? Concentrate!"
"I don't know what's the matter with me," Luna said sadly, as we got our books together at the end of the lesson. "Something always goes wrong. I just get bored, and start thinking about something else."
Cho Chang was waiting for us in the corridor.
"Creevey, you're wanted at Professor Scrivener's office right away," she said. "And Luna, she asked to see you too. Will you be OK on your own?"
"Oh, I'll be fine," she said vaguely. "Let's go, Colin."
But Cho followed us until we reached Professor Scrivener's door, just to be safe, looking daggers at me all the way.
The door to the office was open, and there was a note on it telling us to come in and wait. So we did.
Luna stood in the centre of the room, gazing around her in fascination. I had always considered Professor Scrivener's to be the most boring of all the teachers' offices: it was rather like the headmistress's office at my old primary school (where I had been sent more than once for accidentally Transfiguring the contents of the sand pit into Demerara sugar and similar derelictions). Institutional pine shelves filled with books lined the walls, and the only other furniture was a table, four chairs and a gunmetal filing cabinet. There were no flashing lights, no whirling machines, no interesting smells, no creatures in tanks or animated plants – I'd never been able to see the point of it.
But Luna was staring at the filing cabinet with great interest, poking it with her wand.
"You Muggles really are awfully clever, aren't you?" she said. "A metal chest of drawers for all your secrets! But what happens in case of lightening strikes?"
I didn't reply; I barely heard her. I was gazing at the bookshelves. There were books of all kinds, from every era: collections of Runic prophesies from Roman times; accounts of Druid rites from earlier still; Goblin treatises on battle tactics, valour and economics; sagas from the Vikings; histories of peoples long forgotten before English was first spoken; lyric poetry written by the Founders of Hogwarts themselves; romances of heroes, beauties and fabulous beasts from the lost peoples of the Far Isles; stirring tales of battle and bloodlust from the Giants… How Grah-wuh-phag would love these! I thought. And then for the first time, I added: And so will I, perhaps, before so very long.
At that moment I realised that I had not been there for remedial lessons since the start of term – almost two months. I had forgotten all about them: I had been too busy with Grah-wuh-phag to do more than dash off my homework as best I could just before the lesson. It had simply not occurred to me that I might need extra help.
Professor Scrivener walked in, took a seat, and told us to sit. She was trying to look stern, but her suppressed excitement was obvious to anyone who knew her.
First, she told us that an Extraordinary Staff Meeting had been held late last night, and she regretted to inform us that our unauthorised excursions were to cease forthwith. There were things in that forest that would not hesitate to destroy us, body and soul, if we gave them the chance. The threat of Death Eaters was getting ever more serious, so Professor Dumbledore was introducing yet more dangerous creatures into the Forest. It was a miracle we had not been harmed. She absolutely forbade any unauthorised trips to the Forest – for our own safety, and for the good name of the school.
"But – " Luna and I cried together.
At this point, the severe expression on Professor Scrivener's face cracked into a reluctant grin.
"But we – with the exception of Professor Snape, who disapproves on principle of "foolish mollycoddling" – have decided that since you were the ones who established communication with Grah-wuh-phag in the first place, it would be most unfair to deprive you of all visiting rights. So we have decided to allow two supervised visits per week – Professor Hagrid or I will accompany you. How does that sound?"
We nodded, relieved. Professor Scrivener let out a breath, ran her hands through her hair and leaned forward.
"So," she said, "How on earth did you discover that Grah-wuh-phag was one of the 2 of giants who can read and write? And what led you to him in the first place?"
We were only too happy to tell her the whole story.
An hour later, standing in the corridor outside, a sense of anticlimax overtook us.
"Well," said Luna, "see you on Saturday, I suppose."
"Yes," I replied.
"It does seem a long time," she said thoughtfully. "Too bad we let Professor Scrivener put those Tagging Charms on us…"
"Look… no, forget it," I said.
"Yes?" she cocked her head at me.
"Well… don't take this the wrong way or anything… but your Charms could really use some work. D'you want to practise some evening?"
Of course, once we had been found out, there was no way that we could continue as we had before. We enjoyed our supervised visits to Grah-wuh-phag – Hagrid was pathetically grateful and always gave in when we pleaded for more time with our friend; Professor Scrivener, though more strict about timekeeping, was happy to let us raid the greenhouses, the library or anywhere else gifts for our friend, and her immense knowledge of Runic literature helped shape Grah-wuh-phag's reading and our own. In a lot of ways it was fun: at the start of every outing we would pick up a big picnic basket (crammed with delicious sandwiches and cakes for us, and dripping cuts of raw meat for Grah-wuh-phag) from the house-elves, then a book bag from the library, and meet the duty escort in the Main Hall. We would then enjoy a picnic lunch with our friend, and spend the afternoon writing and reading with Grah-wuh-phag. At the end of the afternoon, we would pack up the picnic things and return in time for supper in the Great Hall.
Still, there was something curiously sterile and contrived about it all. Both of us felt it, and both were ashamed of feeling that way – could it really be that Grah-wuh-phag was somehow less fun now he was no longer forbidden? Or was it that he seemed less grateful and more tolerant as time went on, now he had his brother and Professor Scrivener to talk to instead?
We did try to recapture the carefree old days a couple of times by sneaking out to the Forbidden Forest on weekdays, but every time we came within a hundred yards of the Forbidden Forest, the Tagging Charms went off, and an angry teacher would appear within seconds. The first time it was Professor Sprout, who gave us detention with Mr. Filch the caretaker. That was not so bad, as I was used to cleaning by hand at home, while Luna's terrifying tales of broom cupboards entirely taken over by Nargles disconcerted Mr. Filch so much that he refused to take another detention with her ever again. The second time, however, we were unlucky enough to run into Professor Snape, who, once we had scalped a gross of skunks and changed the formaldehyde in all his specimen jars, set Luna and me to putting his collection of recipes using Giant products into alphabetical order. There were several hundred of these, few of them requiring anything as innocuous as toenails or hair, and the exact methods for harvesting these body parts were explained in eye-watering detail. (I have never knowingly eaten liver again since.)
We took the hint (if hint it was), and tried no more unauthorised expeditions.
In truth, we could not have afforded to keep up the daily visits much longer, as the OWLs grew ever closer and we realised how much work we had left undone. Luna and I still spent plenty of time together, but now we were studying Potions, Herbology, Charms, Transfiguration and Rune grammar (I refused point blank to let Luna teach me anything about either Care of Magical Creatures or History) was hardly in the same league as extemporising tentative conversations with a real, live Giant, known only to the two of us. Still, it had its moments, such as the time Luna successfully Banished her own radish earrings onto Pansy Parkinson's earlobes, earning her a scolding from Draco Malfoy for dressing like a Muggle.
Still more satisfying – if more for the sake of times past than any present friendship – was when Harry Potter and Ron Weasley sidled up to me one Saturday lunchtime.
"Hey, Colin, is it true?"
I rolled my eyes.
"How many times? I did not have se-"
"We don't mean that, Colin," Harry said hastily. "We just wondered… Hermione says there's a giant in the Forbidden Forest and you and Luna are the only ones allowed to see it. Is that true?"
"He's not an it, he's a him, and his name's Grah-wuh-phag," I said coolly. "But there is a giant, and yes, Luna and I do visit him."
"A real giant? Cool!" exclaimed Ron, in tones that reminded me of me in my first year. "Brilliant! Can we come with you next time? If it's not too much bother, that is…"
It was a moment to cherish, and for an instant I was gripped by a most unworthy urge to turn them down flat, or fabricate a transparent excuse and run off – not because I disliked them, but just to give them a taste of their own medicine. But in the end my good nature came out on top, and I explained the situation, adding that Professor Scrivener or Hagrid might be prepared to take them along one afternoon.
"You're dead brave, Colin," Harry said wistfully. I've only seen one giant, and he was awful – huge great violent hairy brute. I was scared stiff – I'd never have thought of making a penfriend of him…"
"Oh, it was nothing," I said airily. "You just have to know how to treat them, that's all."
All too soon June came, and with it, the OWLs.
The afternoon of the Ancient Runes examination, as I sat back in my chair, my exam paper done and checked with an hour to go, staring idly at my classmates' toiling backs, I composed my first Runic poem – a simple four-liner of thanks to Grah-wuh-phag for "opening the portals of the ancients to the ignorant traveller" (a cliché, I know, but I was only sixteen).
I carefully copied out my poem for Grah-wuh-phag onto a sheet of vellum, and brought it along on our next picnic. He laughed so hard that vertebrae from the sheep he was eating flew out of his nose, but next time I came by, I noticed that he had impaled it on a tree with a splinter of wood, in a way that reminded me of my mother sticking paintings to the fridge when Dennis, my sister and I were small.
Term ended and we went home. In due course, the OWL results came out. Luna passed her Charms by a comfortable margin, and got Os in Potions, History of Magic and Care of Magical Creatures. I got four O grades, including Ancient Runes. Later that day, an owl arrived, bearing a letter announcing that I had got the best Ancient Runes OWL score in Hogwarts that year, with an enclosed token for ten Galleons, redeemable at Flourish & Blotts. My grandfather took the whole family out for a pizza on the strength of it, and was heard to exclaim "My grandson, the classical scholar!" at intervals throughout the meal.
I sent Grah-wuh-phag an owl to tell him the good news. Hagrid wrote back, saying he had been very pleased, but not to send any more owls, please, as Grah-wuh-phag had caught the bird and eaten it, and a man from the Post Office had had to come round and have a word.
Luna came to stay with my family for a few days that August. She insisted on accompanying my father on his milk round every morning, and came back beaming with the satisfaction of a job well done. But the highlight of her stay was when she went with Mum on her weekly supermarket shop and spent over two hours wandering among the air-conditioned aisles, goggling at the strange things on display there.
"Now, that's what I've always thought a witch ought to look like – edible jewellery and all that!" my mother said when she left. "Does she live in a gingerbread cottage too?"
That was the last summer of our childhood. The following year, shortly after the Christmas holidays, Voldemort and his supporters set up a provisional government of their own in opposition to the Ministry. Within days, Hogwarts was in a state of siege.
At first life was relatively normal, though food gradually became less varied, owl post was disrupted and of course Hogsmeade visits were out of the question. We even managed a brief visit to Grah-wuh-phag once, accompanied by both Professor Scrivener and Hagrid.
Then the aerial attacks started. Ancient enchantments prevented broomstick riders from entering the castle from the air, but they flew high above the towers of the castle, dropping rocks and flaming brands though the invisible barriers, and some spells as well. It became impossible to go outside without danger, and even Professor Sprout's greenhouses were not altogether safe.
The teachers did their best to continue with our normal education, but it was difficult to pretend nothing was wrong when no student was permitted out of doors because Death Eaters were patrolling the skies, and the last three students to venture outside had been felled by the Cruciatus curse within seconds. Inside the school, the atmosphere was terrible, as everyone knew that a full frontal attack could take place at any time. Harry Potter was missing from all his lessons, and his two best friends looked as though they had given up sleep for good. Morale plummeted, students wept or fainted in class, and even the ever-patient Madam Pomfrey had a stand-up row with Professor Snape in the Great Hall because he had not made her enough Calming Draught to get through the week.
No-one was surprised when the attack came, and all of us had been drilled and prepared to deal with it. The younger students were crowded into the Hufflepuff common rooms and the cellars, where they would be kept safe by Madam Pince and Professor Roberts, who taught Muggle Studies. Those in the fifth year and above were co-opted into defending the school from attack.
I was not as magically powerful as some of the others in my year, and physically rather puny, but I had good eyesight and moved quickly, so I was a lookout, taking messages between the main points at which the defences of the castle were coordinated. So it was from my lookout point at the top of North Tower that I saw Death Eaters breach the wards at the gates in clouds of obscene, lurid smoke, and advance up the drive in serried ranks, sinister and terrifying with their swirling black cloaks and blank, white masks. My heart sank.
But they were not going to get into the castle so easily: as the Death Eaters rounded the last turn of the carriage drive, wands raised high to fire curses at the ancient walls of Hogwarts, secret chambers by the roadside were thrown open, and witches and wizards from Dumbledore's Order of the Phoenix who had been lying in ambush sprang out at the invaders. The defenders were powerful and angry, many were defending their own children and they cut great swathes through the ranks of the Death Eaters. At the same time, the four House Quidditch teams swooped down from the West and South Towers, pelting the attackers with vicious hexes and magical hand grenades. Within seconds, the orderly ranks had broken up into a melee of vicious hand-to-hand fighting. I had always thought that "cursing the air blue" had been a figure of speech. Not that day. For a while, it really looked like our side were managing to hold the Death Eaters back.
From my vantage point, I also saw six slighter figures slip out of a postern gate and disappear in the direction of the lake. Even from the top of the North Tower, I could see Luna's long hair, and hoped that she would remember to tie it back before any fighting started – it tended to get tangled up with her wand and start fires.
For a time, it looked like we were winning. The Death Eaters were in disarray – they were breaking up – they were starting to retreat. A tentative cheer went up from the defenders – but only someone stationed on one of the highest towers could see that a new danger was approaching from the other side of the castle.
Everyone was so busy watching the struggle to the south that I was the only one to notice the flash of red rising from the trees of the Forbidden Forest to the west: a fire arrow, the centaurs' most urgent signal of distress. Then came another one, and yet another – and now I could see dark figures pushing their way from the trees at the edge of the forest, and hear Hagrid's dog barking frenziedly from his hut. There were at least forty of them, and their route to the castle was completely undefended. The lookouts on the other towers were all leaning over the parapets, cheering on the fight to the northeast, and the greenhouses obstructed the view of the fighters on the ground. I shouted till I was hoarse, but no-one could hear. All my owls had been sent, and a stray curse had caught my broomstick and reduced it to matchwood. For a moment, I thought all was lost, and the defenders would be taken in the rear.
Then, with a roar, Grah-wuh-phag burst from the fringes of the forest, wielding a gigantic mace, howling fearsome curses in his own tongue. The Death Eaters turned and faltered for a second – and that second was enough. In a few paces he was on them, crushing them beneath his huge, bare feet, bashing them to the ground with his mace, sending them flying through the air with sweeps of his enormous limbs. Cries of rage and dismay rent the air, alerting the defenders to their danger, and the broomstick riders veered off towards the new peril from the west.
But they were too late for Grah-wuh-phag. Giants are strong, but they are not magical, and have no defence against magic except their enormous size and unnatural strength. His first onslaught left a dozen Death Eaters stunned or dead, but the rest immediately turned on him, firing off all the most vicious curses at their disposal. He fought back valiantly, and nine more of his foes were lying crushed and bleeding on the grass by the time the rest of them had brought him to the ground, where he writhed, groaning in pain, bleeding from a score of wounds and scorched over half his body by unnatural fires. They left him lying there, and proceeded up the path towards the school.
But Grah-wuh-phag had done his work, and they were too late. Riders on broomsticks were on them now, pelting them with curses and firepots; reinforcements were pouring out of the school towards them on foot; and now, with angry shouts, centaurs came charging out of the Forbidden Forest, firing off a storm of arrows, so eager to avenge themselves on the trespassers that they galloped right over Grah-wuh-phag as if he were not even there. Battered, burned and under attack from all sides, once the Death Eaters saw the way things were going at the front of the school, the few left standing flung down their wands and threw themselves on the mercy of the defenders.
Soon it was all over. Students poured cheering out of the shattered doors of the school to congratulate the victors and bring help to the injured.
But I did not follow them to the carriage drive – instead I clambered down the broken steps of the tower as fast as I could, and dashed over scorched and blackened grass towards the edge of the forest. There I found Hagrid sitting on the ground, his brother's huge head in his lap and tears running down his cheeks.
"'S too late, Colin," he said, hoarsely, as he gently closed the huge, unseeing eyes. "He's gone."
We sat there in silence for a long time.
Of course, that was not the end of the war, not quite. Dumbledore's army had won a battle, but had no way of knowing if their war was won or lost. The end came about two hours later, towards sunset, when Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Neville came limping back to Hogwarts. All five were heavily injured, Harry the worst of any of them, but he would not relinquish his grip on a Safeway's carrier bag, which turned out to contain the severed head of Voldemort. The reaction was swift and immediate. Express owls were sent to the Ministry and the Daily Prophet, the house-elves were instructed to tear down the barricades they had prepared with such loving care and get to work on a feast; Weasleys' Wizard Wheeze fireworks were let off from the castle roof and a search party was sent out for Luna.
They found her later that night, wandering in the Forbidden Forest, dazed and covered in blood. I later learned from Harry that she had been closest to Voldemort at the moment when he perished, and, always sensitive, she had been overcome by the sudden burst of unnatural forces as he finally relinquished his death-grip on life.
Luna was taken straight to St Mungo's, where she remained for some time.
Hagrid, Professor Scrivener and I missed the Victory Feast. We were working through the night to prepare a funeral pyre for Grah-wuh-phag, which had to be done before the representative for the Department of Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures appeared on the scene and demanded a "hygienic disposal of the remains" as set down in the Ministry Ordinances. As far as we could make out, this appeared to involve rendering the carcass down for Owl Treats, and we were not going to stand for that.
Between us, we managed to Levitate Grah-wuh-phag's huge body back to the clearing where he had spent the last two years of his life, and lay him out on the ground with his weapons and his few possessions around him. Then there was the question of getting wood for a pyre, and for a while it seemed that this might be beyond us, even with the use of Severing Spells. But as midnight approached and Mars rose over the trees, a dozen centaurs walked into the clearing, with a grim, dark male at their head, who introduced himself as Bane.
"His cause was not our cause," he said in a cold voice, "and he was no kin of ours. But he fought alongside us to defend our woods, and he was valiant. We honour him, and we offer you our aid. We have axes, and the strength of our arms." He clapped his hands, and the centaurs spread out around the clearing and laid their axes to the great trees.
By the time the stars were starting to fade, the pyre was ready. Professor Scrivener told us that it was customary to recite sagas or make speeches in praise of the valour of the departed, but we were too weary for that. We stood in silence, watching the flames leap up against the lightening sky, and remembered our friend.
As the fire burned low, I noticed my old poem, damp and curling now, still nailed to its tree. I took it down when no-one was looking, and threw it into the heart of the pyre, where it steamed for a second, and then burst into hot, bright flame.
"It's not right," said Hagrid miserably as we trudged up the hill towards whatever the Death Eaters had left of the castle. "I should never've taken him away from the others, even if they were knocking him about a bit. I thought I was helping him, an' all I did was take him far from home, an' now he's dead…"
"Not by his lights," said Professor Scrivener. "Giants believe that those who die in battle will spend eternity in the Hall of Heroes, feasting with the gods. Your brother died a hero's death, saving the innocent. For a giant, there is no better way to end a life."
"I'm going to miss him…" I said miserably, and we walked the rest of the way in silence.
Artistically speaking, I suppose my story should end here, with Grah-wuh-phag's heroic death and furtive funeral pyre. But of the three friends, two were left behind. Neither Luna nor I are heroes, but we are still alive, and our story goes on.
I spent the next five months at my parents' home, working in the local supermarket while repairs were made to the fabric of Hogwarts, injured students and staff received treatment, and replacements were found for Argus Flich, Kate Sprout and Severus Snape.
I did not enjoy my time in the supermarket, but every time a customer was ungracious or my supervisor unfair, I looked at the piles of carrier bags and thought of Lord Voldemort's head.
I visited Luna at St Mungo's on my days off, and sent her postcards in Runes when I couldn't make it in person. Her injuries were extensive, and of an unusual nature that proved difficult to heal. Sometimes she was in the Spell Damage ward, sometimes in the psychiatric ward. The healers seemed to keep her unconscious a lot of the time – to speed up the healing process, they said – but when she was awake she seemed glad enough to see me, though even more vague and detached than usual.
By the time lessons restarted in summer, things were almost back to normal. Structural repairs to the Gryffindor tower were still going on, and the Gryffindors had to spend the first term back living in a huge pavilion beside the lake. Professor McGonagall was still on crutches, and Professor Flitwick was still occasionally troubled by muscular spasms that made him something of a danger to all around him. But that did not matter – the NEWTs were less than year away, we had missed a term and a half and there was not a moment to be lost.
Five months stacking shelves at Tesco's had convinced me that I needed a proper career in the Wizarding world, and for that I had to have NEWTs and good references from my teachers. On my return I applied myself to my studies with a dedication which surprised my teachers and appalled my friends.
I was still taking Ancient Runes, of course, and continued to do well. Not even Luna, I think, noticed that I was not taking the same joy in them as before, and often found myself staring out of the window towards the Forbidden Forest when I should have been paying attention in class.
Luna was still about, but the battle and her time in hospital had changed her. Where she had been merely dreamy, she was now so distant she seemed to vanish; where once she had been calm, she was now simply indifferent. I knew she visited Grah-wuh-phag's old clearing from time to time, as I used to find her poems scratched in the scorched earth, but she would not discuss what had happened, or the war. Her talk was all of strange monsters and secrets of the ancients in distant corners of the world, and nothing we learned in Hogwarts could hold her attention. She would attend classes for a while, and then disappear – sometimes to St Mungo's for further treatment, but increasingly she simply wandered off, and no-one knew where.
The day came when a panicked Professor Flitwick came looking for me, demanding if I knew where Miss Lovegood had gone. What with school work and one thing and another, I hadn't even noticed she was missing.
The following day an exhausted and very damp Great Grey Owl landed on Flitwick's desk with a note from Luna, saying that she had Apparated to Norway, where she had found a job scaring Boreal Nargles away from reindeer calves in the north of the country. She was fine, and no-one was to worry about her, please.
There were moments in that long, exhausting year when I found myself tempted to emulate Luna, and just run off. But I needed a start in life, and there were no newspaper-proprietor connections in my family to give me the first step I needed. So I stayed on, took the NEWTs, and passed them all. I even won the Alderman Black Prize for the best Runes essay – the first Muggle-born ever to do so. The look on Cornelius Fudge's face as he handed me the cup made it almost worthwhile.
Professor Scrivener had found me a post decoding tablets at an ancient stone circle in Limerick, and was very keen that I should take it up, but I refused. There were problems at home: although the Croydon one-way system had kept the Death Eaters at a distance far more effectively than any spell, the milk business was going from bad to worse, my elder sister Sylvia was expecting a baby and my parents were having trouble keeping up with mortgage payments. Dennis had two years of school to go, and one of us needed to earn some real money, so I became a paparazzo for the Daily Prophet, and took pictures for social functions on the side. It took Professor Scrivener a while to forgive me (she and Granddad still get together to grumble about it, I believe) but seeing my brother win the Alderman Black prize two years later, and go on to a prestigious archivist's job in the Roman catacombs, did much to console her. In truth, Dennis has a much better head for Runes than me, and always did. I've never quite dared to ask where he picked it up.
Rather to my surprise, I was much in demand for society portraiture. It seemed that Wizarding photography had not advanced since the late '50s, and my Muggle technical skills were much in demand, even among Purebloods. No-one could capture the mood at a society dinner or coax a smile out of a colicky infant the way I could. I was even commissioned to take Naming Ceremony photos for all five of the Malfoy infants. The fact that Pansy looks drunk, sluttish, fat or shrewish in every single one is, I am sure, no more than coincidence.
All this time, Luna and I continued exchange postcards. Hers were usually in Runes, green ink on birch bark, never more than a few lines, but correctly composed in couplets, and always very much to the point. It was Luna who persuaded me to give up the society wedding photography that was making me rich but eating away my soul, and her timely invitation to join her on a Snorkack-watching trip in north Norway probably saved me from a nervous breakdown. She was the one who found a copy of the National Geographic in my bag, and suggested I took a break from Pureblood gossip columns to specialise in high-class nature photography. Luna and her Snorkacks were my first inspiration and my first independent commercial success.
We stay in touch, and I go to see her whenever I can. Molly Weasley always gives me a hard time when I come back from my Norway visits – she believes that young people should settle down and restock the Wizarding world with charming infants as quickly as possible – as do most people in my adopted culture.
But Luna and I just ignore her. Since we met Grah-wuh-phag, we have had practice enough at ignoring the well-meaning advice of people who do not understand us. We follow our own paths. And after waiting all these years for our paths to lead us back together… well, I can wait a little longer, I think.
One day, perhaps, I will hang up my camera and join Luna among her Snorkacks and snow. But not quite yet.