AN: So Hi again and sorry for the long wait. I really have no excuses except university and the fact that I did lose this chapter twice. I eventually couldn't bring myself to rewrite the chapter, and so I kinda skipped the last chapter, except for some contracted information at the beginning of this chapter. What that means, is some minor bits of foreshadowing are missing, but I will find another way to put them in. I would say that I'll update soon, but you all know how my promises are in that regard - pretty feeble. The truth is I am now in the ranks of the unemployed and so most of my effort will be expended on trying to leave that state. And promote my original work, which to my mind, is far, far superior to any and all of my fanfiction.
To that end, I've just started a blog on tumblr with a friend. Please find the link in my profile. Read and follow. I hope to update that a bit more regularly than this, seeing as I can actively promote that in my real life. We are called Patchworkfellows - Patchwork for short.
Also, I really, really like the fact that we can now have front covers for our stories. However, I have zero art talent and so can't draw one. If anyone wants to make a front cover for my story, drop me a PM. If multiple people want to that will be awesome and I will stick any extras on my profile for people to look at. That sort of thing encourages me to write almost more than anything else.
Finally, I will say that the task mentioned in this chapter in no way reflects my own feelings on the morality of the challenge. I simply thought it was accurate for wizards and witches to not have a problem with it.
Disclaimer: I wish I owned Harry Potter - then I wouldn't have to worry about my own financial state.
They gathered early, before the sun had even fully risen over the horizon. Autumn leaves swayed gently on the ground, squelching rather than crunching under the stamping feet of people trying to keep themselves warm or busy. Their breath rose in a white mist before their faces then disappeared in the morning gusts into the waiting arms of the trees, lined densely in front of them. It was the cusp of winter. It was the morning of the first task.
Harry swatted absently at the buzzing near his ear. A small creature, much like a glumbumble hovered there, but Harry's hand went straight through it. The non-glumbumble wavered for a second before re-solidifying. It let out a great buzz as it did so. It was a magical construct which, during the course of the upcoming task, would follow him and record everything that he did, transmitting it back to the eager audience in the Great Hall.
Two weeks before, Harry had awoken to the certain knowledge that the night before had not been a dream, and someone was probably, definitely trying to kill him or do something equally as terrible. He'd awoken to a school that was suddenly strangely cold to him, resentful of him for cheating his way into a tournament he did not want to be in. He'd awoken to a world that knew someone had taken his blood and made use of it.
"It's not right that the Prophet knew," said Moody that morning. "They shouldn't have. I want to know why. I don't like it."
"So, look into it."
"It's not that simple. Not with the Ministry Investigation still ongoing."
"What about – what's her name? Tonks? She's running the investigation isn't she?"
"Yes. Her team is small, but I think it could grow. It will have to."
After that he'd had breakfast, watched as some malicious prankster had made his food jump away from him, until fed up, he'd held out his hand and willed the breakfast to stay on his plate. The Hall had gone silent in the wake of that feat of magic that Harry rarely showed he was capable of, and in the silence Professor Snape had come up behind him and with his lips curling upwards and his dark eyes boring into Harry's, he said, "Your Majesty, your presence is requested in the ante-chamber. If you are quite finished with your little display."
After that Harry had entered into the ante-chamber to be met by an excited Bagman, Crouch (carrying an extra large, and particularly dusty text, which, when he placed it on the table, caused clouds of dust to shoot into the air, making Harry cough and splutter. Crouch, despite being closer to the object, merely wiped his glasses. Harry suspected a bubble-head charm) and Rita Skeeter. Skeeter promptly dragged Harry off to the side where she assaulted him with her Quick-Quotes Quill.
"Don't look at the Quill, Your Majesty! Just stay focused on me. Now, how did it feel when your name came out of the Goblet? Were you afraid?" Her eyes had gleamed in expectation. Harry, tried to avoid her gaze and found himself looking at the parchment which followed Rita around so doggedly.
His Majesty, his magnificent eyes shining, looks terrified as we converse about his name coming out of the Goblet. He attempts to hide his soft-hearted nature...
Harry had blown up at this description of him and the next day a scathing article had appeared in the Prophet, proclaiming at once, the need for a Regent for this juvenile King and a need to protect him from the dangers of the tournament, of which he was surely the weakest candidate. He'd had to deal with taunts for the weeks since.
But he hadn't really had time to notice because on top of his usual duties he had the first task of the tournament to prepare for.
"Now, I know you are all excited to know what the task is," said Bagman that morning two weeks before. "We've decided to ease you into it. Give you a bit of a chance to prepare. In fact this task is all about the preparation. Don't think these things through and you'll fail, unless you are incredibly lucky."
"But what is ze task. Monsieur Bagman?" Fleur asked, shooting a worried glance at Harry.
Bagman clapped his hands together, "It's quite simple really. Earlier this week three tebo were released into the Forbidden Forest. Your task is to find and kill one of them. But don't despair if you aren't the one to catch one of them. You'll be awarded points on how well you rise up to the challenge!"
Next to him, Glory gulped and tentatively raised her hand, "How long until the task begins and how long do we have to catch the tebo?"
"The task will start two weeks from today, during which time you may prepare in whatever way you see fit, except that you may not enter the Forbidden Forest. Once the task has begun you will have exactly one month to find the beast during which time you may not leave the forest until all the beasts are found, or until you have completed the challenge."
After that Harry had spent the two weeks frantically preparing in every way he could imagine. His guards had attempted to help in very unsubtle ways, by leaving books with relevant passages open and talking loudly about various defence against the dark arts techniques. Harry had appreciated their help, especially since he knew that all the other champions were receiving similar advice. In fact, Fleur and Krum had told him so when confronting him in the library to offer him their help and support. Harry had been confused by the fact that they had approached him together until Fleur had confided that she was bored of keeping up the pretence of being angry and protecting Harry was much more rewarding an endeavour. "It's more of a challenge, no?" Harry could only shrug.
Now it was the morning of the task and all of them were assembled, standing inches away from the forest. Chris was mumbling to himself and kept on drawing his wand. Apart from that he had a backpack and in it Harry could just see the thin wisps of something silvery. Harry suspected that Chris had taken the invisibility cloak. Harry hoped that Chris had planned more than that because he knew that many of the creatures that he would encounter relied on more than just sight to find their prey.
Standing next to Chris was Glory. She was clutching her wand tightly and her knuckles were turning white. She also had a backpack on, but it bulged in odd places, as if it had been packed in a hurry and with little thought. Glory, despite what anyone else thought, was at a distinct disadvantage. She was easily the youngest there and although she excelled in charms, she'd had little opportunity to put those skills to the test outside of a classroom environment.
A short distance away Krum and Cedric stood, talking together. Both were dressed practically in dragon hide and thick wools and had completely abandoned wizarding robes. Cedric had a sword at his side and various knives strapped to his body, and a short, heavy looking spear, with two strange attachments jutting out from the spear-socket, hanging from a harness on his back. He was smiling, as if the hunting of a type of boar was just a normal day for him.
Because that was what a tebo was, Harry had discovered. An ash-coloured boar with the ability to turn itself invisible. It was incredibly difficult to catch and had the temperament of a normal boar.
Krum had a broomstick, and it took Harry a moment to work out what make it was. Then his eyes widened.
"Is that a Tinderblast?"
Krum laughed, "Yes, but a new release. Not a vintage broom. They are sturdy, and in amongst the trees, sturdiness is better than speed. This is a Tinderblast 2."
Harry admired it for a moment but had little time to do anything else, because at that moment Bagman hurried over to give them some last minute instructions.
"Gather round everyone gather round. Can you all hear me? Excellent. How are you doing, Your Highness? Feeling nervous?"
Chris shook his head, but his hand tightened around his wand. Bagman smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
"Excellent. Excellent. I'm glad to see you all so prepared. Right then, the first task. In a minute I am going to blow this whistle. At that moment all of you must enter into the forest and we will hopefully not see you until the task is complete. But just in case, there will be Aurors and teachers standing on guard at all hours. If you get into any difficulty just send red sparks into the air and you will be retrieved immediately. In addition, we will be issuing you with emergency portkeys. These will activate automatically if you fall unconscious or if you are judged to be in immediate danger of death. We hope though, that you will have the skills necessary to get out of any difficulties you find yourself in. Does everyone understand?"
They all nodded. Harry could feel the nerves mounting in his stomach as he accepted the amulet portkey which he placed around his neck. It was made of wood, and was of crude design, but Harry could feel the magic humming against his skin as he tucked it beneath his shirt.
He was nervous but he was also prepared. Much like Cedric and Krum he was dressed in dragon hide and had several weapons attached to his body but he'd done more than that. He'd enchanted his bag to be bottomless, anticipating a long time in the wilderness. He'd filled it with everything he could think of, from healing potions to books on both magical and mundane herbs. He'd filled it with rope to make traps, and pots and pans to cook any game that he might be fortunate enough to catch. He'd filled it with rune-carved sticks of warding, and maps and charts. He'd filled it with warmer clothes and he'd filled it with food.
He had more than he needed in that bag, but he expected that most of what he would need the forest itself would provide. It wasn't one of the most magical places in the world for nothing. He'd taken great care in placing his herbology and potions kits in the bag.
He'd considered taking a gun, but he didn't know enough on how to use one to be sure of safety and he wasn't entirely sure it would work in the magically rich environment.
Harry looked behind him, searching the crowds for familiar faces, and finding several. Ron, Neville and Luna stood near the front. Ron was leaning heavily on his stick and Neville looked slightly fearful but Luna waved happily when she saw him glancing at her. Harry was immediately cheered.
"So on my whistle," Bagman said cheerfully. "Three - Two - One -"
A shrill blast pierced the air and Harry and the other five hurried forward into the forest.
For a while, maybe an hour, they travelled together, chatting about the upcoming task and it wasn't until the sun was well over the horizon that they even began to separate. Chris and Glory left first, going off together, probably thinking to work as a team for a while.
Krum was the next to leave. With a command the Tinderblast 2 leapt up in front of him and Krum swung his leg over it and sat there hovering for a moment.
"I don't suppose there's any point in hoping you'll have some luck, but I wish it all the same."
"You aren't getting sentimental on us, are you Viktor?" Fleur asked, a half-formed smile fluttering across her face.
"Never," he said softly, but staring quite intently.
Fleur huffed, "I don't suppose you'd mind giving me a lift? I'd like to get to a nearby water source before sundown."
Krum threw back his head and laughed.
"You are quite lazy, you know that! Hop on!
He held out his hand and Fleur jumped up behind him.
"I haven't rode your broom in a long time Viktor!"
"Don't push it."
With a slow nod in Harry's direction and a flirty wink from Fleur, he turned the broom around and with a sudden woosh he sped beneath the branches until he was just a blur in the distance and then not even that.
Harry also had a broom with him but his was a Firebolt and though fast it was not designed for Forest flying. Harry had his with him for emergencies and little else.
Harry and Cedric decided to eat lunch together but soon enough it was time to make a move on again. They picked their way through the undergrowth, looking for paths or marks which might suggest a trail which would lead to water.
But soon the shadows from the trees grew tall and still Harry and Cedric were travelling together. Harry was beginning to get a niggling feeling.
"You know, we will have to separate eventually."
Cedric laughed, "Am I that obvious?"
"Yes, but I don't mind. But the Goblet compels us to try our best."
Harry nodded. He didn't need to say anything else, and after a few moments of silence, Cedric said, "You will be careful, won't you?"
Harry awoke slowly to the gentle sound of water lapping and pebbles being dragged along a river bed. He awoke to the uncomfortable feeling of twigs and stones sticking into his back, even through the wizarding sleeping-bag. He'd not found a place large enough to erect his tent the night before and the night itself had seemed warm enough to sleep in the open. But he'd awoken early, to a forest mist which seeped between the trees and numbed his cheeks which were open in the air. He swatted absently at the low buzzing of the non-glumbumble near his ear and sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He blinked.
He'd had the presence of mind to set up wards the night before. Anything larger than a fly would wake him the moment it passed through the barrier. He hadn't expected anything with the presence of mind to sit just outside of the wards – but there it was.
He sat there, sitting on a boulder, cross legged, dressed all in black and white stripes to match his all white skin, to match his all black eyes. He was gaunt, with a too wide smile and too many teeth and too high cheekbones which only made the thinness worst, wasted. His long, needle fingers were nimbly knitting a doll but he did not look at the doll. His head was tilted to one side and his eyes stared, unblinking, unfeeling into Harry. His chest didn't rise.
"Good Morning," said the being, noticing that Harry was awake.
"Good Morning – Gunter?" Harry said in reply and the Ghoul's smile widened.
"You know me? That is good. It saves us an introduction."
Harry stood up but did not cross the barrier. A flick of his wand and the sleeping-bag rolled itself up and jumped into his bag.
"I don't make it a habit to introduce myself to the undead."
"And I don't make it a habit to introduce myself to teenage boys, but there you have it."
Neither had actually introduced themselves, a fact that didn't pass Harry's notice.
"Aren't you going to invite me inside?"
Harry looked at the barrier which Gunter was gesturing at.
"I don't think so."
Harry stood for a moment, shifting restlessly before realising that eventually, he would have to leave the barrier to complete the task. Gunter didn't need to be invited inside.
Harry sighed but did not leave the barrier.
"Why have you followed me out here?"
"I'm not following you," Gunter said, elongating the ooo, so that it hung in the air.
Harry glanced around but seeing that no one was there he asked, "Who are you following then?"
"Isn't it obvious? I'm following what all Ghouls love."
"What!" Harry stumbled back but didn't leave the barrier.
Gunter put his doll to the side for a moment and stuck his chin on his hand.
"You are interesting. I think I'm going to stick around for a while."
He picked up his doll. "We Puffs do have to stick together after all."
Harry eventually did leave the barrier, if only because it was unnerving sitting there, having Gunter stare at him so unceasingly. So he'd shouldered his bag and set off into the forest, looking for the marks of the boar, the red rubbed trees, the rooted floor.
Gunter followed him, knitting the doll even as he moved, still staring at Harry except for those times that he stared just beyond him, at something that Harry couldn't see.
Eventually, Harry got bored of the silence, and as he knelt in the dirt to collect some valuable sap from a tree, he asked, "So how old are you, Gunter?"
"No, when did you die?"
"Oh, I don't know. Here, now, the past. Always."
Harry glared at the ground but didn't follow up on the question. Gunter remained silent.
After collecting all the sap he went to stand up. He placed his hand on the tree and pulled it away suddenly. It was sticky.
He looked down at his hand seeing a thin, silvery, thread coating it, and looked at the tree seeing faint traces of a web on its bark.
He laughed at himself.
"It's only a spider."
Gunter undid a stitch.
It was getting dark and Harry had found no trace of the boar that day, so he decided to head back to the river in order to make camp. He found evidence of a relatively large animal and so decided to follow its trail. He carefully threaded his way through the trees, stopping every few moments to check that he was still on the right track, or to wipe away hints of webbing from his hair or his glasses.
After a few minutes he frowned and looked at the ground.
"That is odd," he murmured, both to himself and to Gunter. "I seem to have lost the trail. But that isn't right. It couldn't just vanish like that."
In the corner of his eye he saw a tiny spider scurrying along the branch of the tree. He heard a clicking noise from somewhere behind him and turned to Gunter.
Gunter was looking about ten feet above Harry, staring in clear amusement.
But Harry didn't even have time to turn around, as something long, and hairy grabbed him around the middle, pinning his arms to his side, so he could not grab his wand. He kicked and struggled, but found himself being moved through the forest. In the corner of his eye, he could see bulbous eyes, clicking jaws and Gunter walking serenely with them.
Darkness fell completely and something howled but the Spiders – the acromantulas – carried on moving, obviously taking him to their nest. Harry tried to tell himself that it didn't matter that the acromantulas shouldn't have been in the forest – everyone knew that acromantulas hadn't been in Britain for years – all that mattered was that they were in Britain, and that Harry was a captive of them.
He stopped struggling after a few moments, seeming to relax into the grasp of the leg. There was no use struggling when he could see hundreds of the creatures, scurrying across the floor, up the trees, through the branches, all clicking and hissing in anticipation.
"Aragog!" They were calling, "Aragog! We've got a boy. A boy to feast upon. Aragog!"
And soon they came to a steep slope which the spiders lobbed down, and in the middle of the slope, in the middle of a hollow there was a large dome web. Already spiders were scuttling out of it, even as Harry was scuttled towards it.
"Aragog!" they called, and at last Aragog emerged.
And Aragog emerged, clearing a path of spiders in his wake, his legs feeling in the direction of the voice. His blind eyes staring straight ahead.
Harry was dropped on all fours before the beast, but did not draw his wand. Not yet.
"What is it?" said Aragog.
"It's a boy."
Aragog paused. "A stranger?"
There was angry clicking from around the forest.
But Aragog hissed at them, "We were warned. We were warned that children from the school would be wandering around the forest, being watched by wizards and witches, and you bring one to our nest!"
"You brought him to our nest. They will kill us now, my poor children, and grand children, and great grand children. I've protected you all my life from the nameless beast – the creature in the chamber, and only now that it is dead, have you been able to grow, to move away from the nest and explore our home. But bringing this one here was foolish, very foolish."
Harry decided it was time for him to speak. "How did you come to be here? Who warned you?"
"You think you are so clever, trying to trick me into naming our honoured protector. He who nursed me and fed me and found me a wife for me to make little eggs with. I will not name him. I will not betray him. Well do I remember how he saved me from the dreaded beast."
"You are curious. I see that. Perhaps you worry that you know our protector. Don't worry."
"No. I wondered, how you remained here, unknown, for so many years."
"We like the dark and the cold and the quiet, and we feared the creature in the chamber. We saw no need to enter into your school, to eat the flesh of children, delicacy though it is. Centaur meat and animal flesh is nourishing enough for our kind."
The clicking picked up again and Harry felt sick.
"You aren't going to let me go, are you?"
"No. But your death will be painless."
Gunter stared and Harry smiled. "Alright then."
With a sudden flash Harry had drawn his wand and sent a wave of pure energy behind him, sending spiders onto their backs and creating an opening.
Harry set off at a run, but already he could see that the spiders were closing in on the gap, scrambling up branches with their far more nimble legs, speeding ahead of him, cutting him off, and clicking, clicking, clicking their pincers in delight. He dove to the left, running through the undergrowth, sending off blasting curses ahead of him and behind him. He heard a screech and a thud and more clicking and he turned right.
"Reducto!" he shouted, aiming the spell behind him. He heard a creaking, and then a loud thump and a squelch. He looked, just momentarily, behind and saw that his curse had severed a tree from its roots, and the tree had fallen, landing on several spiders and squishing them. But already, several more spiders were scrambling in to fill the gaps and more were licking the remains.
Gunter was running, and keeping easily apace with him.
"This is fun, isn't it?"
Harry turned back to the front, only to almost run face first into the jaws of a spider. He skidded to the left and started running up a hill, a curse already on his lips. He brought one of his knives into his hands, and threw it, summoning it back, and sending it off ahead of him. It chopped the legs off several spiders as it flew.
Harry was losing.
But then, out of nowhere, he heard a loud, honking noise and then there was a blinding light and something came careening through the forest, running over trees and roots and spiders until it squeaked to a stop in front of Harry, throwing its doors open wide.
Harry didn't stop to think about how a Ford Anglia (and a sentient one at that) managed to get into the forest. He dove into the car, blasting hexes and curses at the legs that clung and tried to find entrance. The car sped off.
"Reducto!" Harry cried at a fanged face that appeared at the window.
It hissed in pain as the spell hit it straight in the eye, and fell to the side, only for two more spiders to scramble over its form, whilst two other spiders devoured its flesh whilst it was still alive, tearing apart its limbs. The creature screamed.
And somehow, without any prompting from Harry, the car sped up, knocking spiders onto their backs, tearing apart webs, finding gaps and paths, getting scratched and banged by branches and fangs, until eventually, unbelievably, the clicking seemed to fade into the background and Harry realised that somehow, he was safe.
The car seemed to realise that as well, as it slowed down to a more manageable, less bumpy speed, and stopped hooting its horn.
Harry sighed, and putting his seatbelt on, he allowed the car to drive, trusting it to take him somewhere safe. He rolled up all the windows to keep out the winter wind.
He looked in the mirror and wasn't surprised to see Gunter sitting safely in the back seat.
"I do hope you'll be making a habit of this."
The car stopped suddenly and Harry jerked awake. He had fallen asleep, lulled into it by the smooth, humming of the engine. The car's stop had been a surprise, but Harry could see that the trees had thinned, enough to see patches of sky and gentle starlight through the forest top.
Harry could also see the reason for their stop. Four centaurs, dressed in furs and leathers, each armed with spears and bows, were standing before the Anglia.
Harry sighed and undid his seatbelt. He stepped out of the car. The wind butted against his cheek and ruffled his hair. Harry wanted to warm himself but knew it would be a terrible faux pas to show his wand without their permission.
Instead, he stepped towards them, noticing the first hints of frost that had formed on the ground, crunching underneath his feet. He stopped, merely a meter away, and waited.
After several minutes of waiting, during which time, Harry's hands began to turn blue, the centaurs slowly knelt, and bowed their heads and dropped their weapons.
Harry waited a moment longer and then said, "Greetings, Honoured Centaurs, rise and be at ease, as I know it is difficult for your kind to lay close to the ground and away from the stars."
The centaurs rose and one stepped forward. He had the most magnificent red hair, and a tightly braided beard.
"I am Ronan of the Forbidden Forest Tribe and we have come on behalf of Magorian, Chief of Centaurs," he said in a deep, sorrowful voice.
"And what is your message, Ronan of the Forbidden Forest Tribe."
Ronan didn't answer immediately but looked upwards, at the sky, and then he sighed looking at Harry, but only for a moment.
"He bids me tell you that Pluto races across the sky and that the Forest is not safe for you."
"I cannot leave the forest," Harry said.
"Honoured King, we know that you are confined to the forest for a month or until your task is ended. The great Magorian asks that you accept the tribes hospitality for the night and find healing for your wounds."
Harry looked behind him at the non-glumbumble. Then he looked back at Ronan.
"I don't think I can accept your help. The task is mine to complete alone."
"Honoured King, are you not allowed to take what the forest offers you?"
Ronan, at last, looked at Harry properly, "And Honoured King, are not the Centaur Tribes known to be part of the forest?"
It was a strange procession that made their way, long past midnight into the centaurs' dwelling. Harry had been bidden to sit himself in the car, and then the centaurs had formed an honour guard. Ronan and a dark-haired warrior called Pholus at the front and two more at the back.
Pholus had stared in curiosity at Gunter for a moment, but a slight word from Ronan had him looking away again. It seemed that the centaurs had decided to ignore the presence of the Ghoul.
They were met as they approached by a young centaur, one with the most brilliant blue eyes and white-blonde hair which flowed loose behind him. He was admittedly handsome, but there was something less wild about him, or perhaps it was more wild.
"Ronan," he called, cantering up to them, pausing only briefly to bow to Harry.
"Firenze," said Ronan, still in his mournful tones, "is Magorian still awake?"
"No," he stomped his hoof, "His bite wound is bothering him and he retired an hour ago, claiming to have seen enough of the stars for the night. Chiron will greet him."
"I have been sent as escort. Chiron is in meditation."
Harry decided to get out of the car. "And who is this Chiron?"
"You are the King?" Firenze asked. "Chiron is the most honourable teacher and reader of the stars. Will you accompany me to him?"
Harry looked from him to Ronan to Gunter who was still steadily, unceasingly knitting.
"Yes, I will go with you."
Together, they walked away from his honour guard, who had congregated together and were staring at the stars, apparently mesmerised.
It wasn't a surprise to Harry that on such a clear night so many centaurs were awake. Indeed, it seemed all except the foals were awake. There were female centaurs, mixing potions and male centaurs cooking food, and one was skinning a rabbit, and all stopped occasionally to look at him, or look at the stars or gaze into the fire.
Harry walked silently for a moment, but couldn't seem to stop himself from glancing at Firenze.
"You have questions for me?"
"Don't be embarrassed. There was a reason I chose to be an escort tonight, and there was a reason Chiron allowed me this chance. I wanted to speak to you as well – no, don't stop walking. Some of the others won't be happy that I am choosing to speak to you so plainly, even if you are the King. They think that such things must be kept close and secret. Chiron doesn't agree, but there are some things that a centaur in his position cannot speak of, but one in mine, can."
Harry nodded and acted as if they weren't saying anything of importance.
"You know that everything that happens to me in this forest is recorded and transmitted back to Hogwarts?"
"Yes, do not worry. We guard our dwellings well against such scrying. Your monitors will see you, alive and well, but they will not hear you. Meadowsweet guards the air."
"What did you want to tell me?"
"The forest is dangerous and grows more so. 50 years ago acromantulas arrived and four years ago a unicorn was killed. Death haunts the forest but doesn't rule it."
Gunter looked up from his doll, "Oh? How curious? Who does rule it then?"
Firenze didn't answer, but shook his head in agitation, "Something evil has arrived or awoken and I have set myself against it, alone if I must. The others, they do not see. They do not like to put themselves in the affairs of men. But they cannot see..."
"What?" Harry asked, glancing in the corner of his eye at Firenze. He seemed to glow in the moonlight, his hair turning to platinum.
"The planets are more bright and active then ever before, but it is the affairs of the earth that are the most potent of signs. Kings do not return for no reason."
He stopped suddenly, next to a particularly dense patch of trees and a wooden dwelling with smoke wafting from the roof.
"We have arrived. Listen to Chiron, my King. He cannot speak plainly, but he is the wisest of centaurs."
Harry nodded and entered the building.
The dwelling of Chiron was smoke filled and hazy and it took a moment for Harry to adjust. When he did he saw, standing in front of a fire, the largest centaur that Harry had ever seen. He had long, dark hair, and coal black eyes and his chest was naked, as if he was unbothered by the cold.
He looked at Harry and gestured him forward.
"Ah, Your Majesty, I see that Firenze has taught you well. He is a great student and wise beyond his years, come, let me tend your hurts."
Harry came forward, so that he stood right next to Chiron. He only came up to his waist. Chiron grabbed Harry's chin and forced it up. "A few minor scratches and a terrible scar. I'd remove it if I could."
"No one can," Harry said.
"No one can yet, you mean. Eventually someone will find the grail or the cure. They always do."
He went over to the side of the room and pulled a jar from a shelf. "Essence of Murtlap. It should do the trick. If you'd been poisoned, I'd be talking to a corpse."
"Pity," said Gunter.
"Perhaps," said Chiron absent mindedly. "If you don't mind stripping, Your Majesty, I need to tend to all your injuries – and I can't do that if I can't see them."
Harry blanched slightly, "Err, everything I do can be seen on a big screen in Hogwarts."
Harry looked at Chiron. Chiron seemed amused.
"Are you planning on not washing for your entire month in the forest?"
Harry blushed and shook his head.
Harry stood there for a moment, his arms crossed defensively over his chest, before he reluctantly began to strip off.
A moment later he stood, shivering in the cold, as Chiron smeared paste on various cuts on his body.
"Done," he said, after a minute.
Harry hurriedly began putting on his clothes, rubbing his arms to keep himself warm.
Meanwhile, Chiron was pulling out a bowl and filling it with a warm stew.
"Come, Your Majesty. Eat the food, and don't forget the bread and wine. You must accept our hospitality."
Harry accepted the bowl gratefully and not caring much for decorum started shovelling food into his mouth, using the bread to scoop up the meat. Chiron nodded in approval.
"Thank you," said Harry, once the last drop had been mopped up. "That was delicious."
"It wasn't difficult."
"But I did need it."
"Yes, you did. Now, we do not have beds, but you are welcome to sleep in my dwelling tonight and many more nights if you wish. We can discuss more in the morning."
"Why is he sleeping like that?"
"Shhh! You'll wake him up!"
"Isn't that why Uncle Chiron sent us?"
Voices – young voices – penetrated the thick curtains of sleep and Harry awoke with a start, pulling out his wand and throwing out his hands towards whoever was grabbing his shoulder. Someone, one of the voices, let out a high pitched squeal in delight, and Harry opened his eyes to see the back of a tiny, centaur child galloping away.
He blinked. The centaur – a little girl - peeked round the entrance to the dwelling. Harry smiled sheepishly and the child stepped back inside, followed by another centaur, this one a boy, with big brown eyes. The boy had a huge grin on his face.
"That was brilliant!" the boy exclaimed, clapping his hands together, "Do it again!"
"That growl!" the boy said, "It was ferocious, like a bear or a wolf! Do you always wake up like that?"
Harry grinned lopsidedly, "I'm normally not asleep at all at this time of day."
"Boys," the little girl huffed, crossing her hands over her chest and stamping her little hoofs, trying to look grown up. She then glanced at Harry.
"Is it true that you are a King?"
The little girl's eyes widened and her arms dropped to her side.
She crossed her arms again and looked down her nose at Harry.
"Daddy said that we don't have a King. He said that it was unfitting for centaurs to be ruled by humans."
Harry stood up and started to pack away his blanket.
"And who is your Daddy?"
"Bane!" the boy interrupted. "He's the greatest warrior in the centaur tribe, and he's going to be leader of it one day."
Harry nodded and sniffed. He needed to change his shirt. He swiftly pulled it off and replaced it with a clean one.
"Why are you here?" the girl asked. "I've never seen a human before?"
Harry paused. The truth was he didn't know why the centaurs had invited him to their dwelling and given him hospitality, especially since the centaurs' acknowledgement of his rulership over them was sketchy at best. Oh, they acknowledged that magic had chosen him as King – they just didn't see how that effected them in the least bit. Centaurs were for the wild, and the stars, and the forest. Not for governance.
"I was invited," he said at last.
After that Harry was led outside. There were several centaurs manning fires and several more fletching arrows, and a few came galloping into the clearing, having finished a patrol, and a few more left, and some were cooking what looked to be an acromantula in a pot. Harry was led by the children past all of this, past a group that were grazing, past a group that were sewing, past some that were skinning a bear.
He was led to the centre of the camp where stood a group of centaurs, amongst them Chiron who was deep in conversation with a handsome chestnut. They looked up at Harry's approach and Chiron disengaged. The chestnut turned to greet Harry properly and Harry saw that his arm was bound up in a sling, and his left flank was shaven and seeping a yellow pus from two sharp holes.
"Greetings, King. I am Magorian."
"Greetings Magorian, Chief of the Forest Tribe. I thank you for the hospitality that you have extended."
Magorian gave a quick glance towards Chiron. "Our honoured teacher has given you food, shelter and healing?"
Harry nodded, "He has."
Magorian said nothing but after a moment he looked back at Harry and said, "Will you walk with me? We have things we must discuss."
Harry nodded and fell into step with Magorian who led him out of the clearing and amongst the trees. Almost immediately the sound of the clearing disappeared.
"Meadowsweet, does its work. I have brought some with me, so we can converse in private."
Magorian set a slow pace, leaning heavily to one side, to avoid putting too much pressure on his back leg, and soon they seemed to enter another part of the forest altogether. It was only then that Magorian began to talk.
"My tribe has no love for Wizards."
Harry inclined his head, "So I have heard."
"Many of my kind were killed in the last war, slaughtered like beasts though we were neutral. And every year our lands get smaller as humans encroach upon it."
"I am sorry."
"It is not your fault. You are a foul."
He might have been, but that wasn't an excuse as far as Harry was concerned.
Magorian stopped walking and leaned heavily on a tree trunk.
"It is not your fault, but many in my tribe won't see it like that. They see two legs and assume the worst. I once would have counted myself as one of them. I still do not like humans, but magic chose you and I listen to the signs. Something is stirring."
Magorian whirled around, violently and quickly, but he paled rapidly with the effort and clutched wildly at a tree branch, as he all but collapsed onto the ground.
"Don't," he hissed through the pain. "Don't tell me what Firenze told you. I cannot know. I must not know."
Harry held out his hands, "Alright. Alright I will not say anything more."
He did not offer to help, knowing that the centaur's pride would not allow it, and so he waited for a few moments for Magorian to recover himself.
When Magorian had eventually straightened himself he spoke again, "My tribe is not ready for a King, though we desperately need one. Our ways our failing. Less of us our born. Our knowledge is being lost and few can boast the wisdom and height of Chiron. But for me to publicly acknowledge you will tear us apart and heighten our demise. So I won't publicly acknowledge you."
Harry understood. "When?"
"Soon, I think. We will have no choice soon. But until then, I will do what I can. We have offered you hospitality and you have accepted it. It is not much, but as long as you are under the forest, you will be under our protection. No centaur will disregard that."
Harry bowed his head, "Thank you."
At that moment, Gunter, sitting in the front seat of the Ford Anglia came out of the trees to their left.
"There you are," he said blandly. "I was so bored without you for company."
Harry sighed and looked at Magorian. "I understand all that you have said and say to you that though in the forest I am under your protection, always and everywhere, you are under mine."