Chapter One: Honoring the Intent
Old beyond memory, wrenched from the earth by fists of glacial ice, the Valley of Gwaun rests at the mouth of the Abergwaun beneath the shadow of Carn Ingli, the Mountain of Angels. The hills bear traces of primal forests, with the ruins of henges and long-abandoned stone buildings scattered among them. A hearty and resourceful lot, the people of the Valley still honor the Old Ways, aiding neighbor or stranger as needed and respecting the heart's desire of any who seek sanctuary in a place so shrouded in solitude.
Cleaving to the top of one such hill, encircled by birch groves shivering pale against the surrounding heath, stand the remains of a fortress dating back to those times when the Romans came in conquest. A solitary man, Gareth Islwyn, makes his home there. As is the custom, the Valley folk refer to him simply as "Gareth the Healer," believing he is beloved by those who inhabit the Otherworld and that he is fey, kin to the Tlwyth Teg, "The Good People."
His features are hewn by weather and age, marked by fog-grey eyes that look away into the past. No one is quite certain of his true age. Small in stature, wiry and tough as a tree root, he stands resilient and strong, belying his years. Thick grey hair, threaded with crow's wing black, pulled into a long plait, runs down his back contrasting with skin darkened by the sun and the distant bloodline of those long-departed Roman warriors.
He is a familiar sight everywhere in the Valley, trekking the hills on foot or on horseback, his dogs at his heels, gathering all manner of healing plants and elements, watching over the Addoldai, the sacred places. Like most in the Valley, he honors the Christ for His sacrifice and loves the Blessed Virgin for Her gentle intervention, regarding both as manifestations of far older Deities and the ways of Magick. Many stories are told about him, and those who have known him the longest claim all are true--at least in part.
While still a boy, he understood "The Good People" had indeed twice blessed him—granting him the gift of empathy and the clarity of vision to perceive the aura of magic. Knowing early on that his path would be that of Knowing One and Healer, for him the stories of dewinesau and brudwyr were never mere tales-- they were truth. As he grew in age and wisdom, these gifts had allowed him to encounter more than a few of those clothed in true magic, but regrettably, such occurrences were becoming far rarer of late.
Shortly after moonset on a mist-shrouded May morning, tending his hives tucked amongst the birches, Gareth was keenly alert, scarcely able to concentrate on his work. His dreams over the last several nights had been foreboding, full of undefined flickering images, brilliant flashes of light, cries of anguish and exaltation… and eyes… eyes set in phantom faces he could not see clearly.
Beautiful green eyes… springs of youthful hope and honor. Gentle blue eyes… wells of ageless wisdom and unceasing love. Piercing red eyes… pits of soul-rended madness and nameless obsession. Riveting black eyes… chasms of bitterness and devouring loneliness.
These haunting visions had roused him from a restless sleep, urging him into the grove to work and ponder, to calm his mind in anticipation of some extraordinary event. The energy of magic quivered in the air, thrumming like the bees he tended.
And so it was that they arrived… with a sharp crack like rock splitting asunder... a cluster of individuals appearing on the crest of the nearby hillside. Gareth's mind raced with anticipation as he recognized the auras of both witch and wizard, their magic shining around them in a nimbus of light that slowly faded.
There were three. One a regal woman in dark tartan robes, a witch whose dignity and courage were as a shield before her, the eyes behind her square spectacles exhibiting sharp intelligence and deep sorrow, standing stalwart as a lioness guarding and watching. Close behind her towered an enormous man, tall and broad as an ancestral oak, with hair and beard thick and wild as the brush which tangles on the flanks of mountains. Tracks of tears dried upon his face, his bright eyes sweeping the surrounding hills, he carried the third person in his arms with a massive strength which seemed barely restrained, as though he was prepared to do battle in defense of the burden he carried.
Gareth focused his attention on this third person… white as a sliver of bone, deathly still, slight as a youth in those huge arms, without defense other than the shelter they provided. Long oily raven hair matted with gore and sweat fell across the man's brow, veiling the harsh profile of a hawk, the gaunt face blank as silent stone. No light shone from him, only the rising darkness of impending death. His limp body was dressed in black robes bearing the stains of violent struggle, with the blood-soaked remnants of a once-snowy collar encircling a torn and swollen throat.
As silently as the rising mists, the group approached the grove where Gareth waited, his dogs circling anxiously around his feet, whining for reassurance. Quieting the dogs with a low "hust, ngh, hust," he hastily pulled off his netted hat and canvas gauntlets, dropping them to the ground, momentarily regretting that he would greet such visitors in nothing better than worn corduroys and a faded woolen shirt.
Advancing ahead of the others, the witch halted a few feet away from him, extending her open hands, the right cupped within the left in indication of peaceful purpose and great need, inquiring in a low but resonant voice, "You are the Knowing One who is called Gareth the Healer?"
Presenting his hands in the same fashion, left within right, thereby receiving her unspoken entreaty, he nodded, "I am Gareth Islwyn."
Remaining in this solemn attitude, the witch made response, her eyes keenly searching his face.
"You reveal yourself with this 'I am' and allow me power over you, should I choose to take it. Is that your intention? "
"Such is the Old Magick," Gareth replied in a cadence of ritual. "I offer you the trust of my true name. And will you do likewise?" He lowered his eyes in deference, awaiting her decision.
Standing arrow straight, she answered in quiet affirmation, "I am Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress, and Professor of Transfiguration… but Professor will suffice."
Carefully shifting the weight of the man in his arms before coming closer, her enormous companion lifted his shaggy head, his voice a muted rumble.
"I am Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of the Keys an' Grounds, Professor of Care of Magical Creatures. Jus' Hagrid ter most that know me."
Raising his eyes, Gareth nodded to each in turn, "Hawddamor, da ddewines, da brudiwr." He understood that while much had just been revealed, far more remained hidden.
Fixing his eyes on the lifeless figure in Hagrid's arms, Gareth queried gently, "What name, then, acknowledges this man, whom Death is seeking?"
Gesturing towards the rolling heath, he continued, "Corpse candles have shone on the hills for the last three nights, and the cwn annwn have been heard growling, foretelling someone coming with Death at his side."
Hagrid began to speak, but was silenced by a firm look from the witch as she cautioned, "His name must not be spoken." Hearing his gasp of protest, she gently admonished him.
"No, Hagrid, not to shun him, only to protect him. We will not speak his name for fear of losing him forever."
Her voice constricted, masking all emotion, she turned back to Gareth.
"He lives, Healer, although we hardly believed it when we found him. We're not certain whether it's Dark Arts or some unknown protection, which keeps him alive… it could well be both. He has been bitten, poisoned by the venom of an awful snake which served a Dark master. His bleeding has slowed, but he does not respond to our efforts to wake him."
As she spoke, Hagrid lowered himself slowly to take a seat on a low stone wall, taking great care to be gentle with his burden. Grim-faced, Minerva bent beside him, taking one of the pale wizard's hands in hers, as though seeking assurance that some vestige of life still lingered.
Gareth stepped closer to stand before Hagrid, reaching out to touch his huge forearm, but respectfully avoiding contact with the man he carried. Looking into those bright eyes, welling with concern and compassion, he deemed it proper to address his next question directly to this great guardian of magical creatures.
"Will you give permission for me to touch his thoughts?"
Some silent agreement was achieved in the look which passed between Hagrid and Minerva, and with a nod, his request was granted, though the witch's expression remained uneasy, and she did not release her hold on the wounded wizard's hand.
Placing one hand on his own heart, the other on the pallid man's dank brow, Gareth leaned close to whisper a Charm of Accord, the Unoliaeth, into his ear.
"As thou to me and I to thee, in breath and blood may one life be. In sense and thought, may one mind be. May Oneness be, as thou to me and I to thee. If you permit, so may it be. I wish it so, so may it be."
His breathing slowing into a deep and measured pace, Gareth's lids drooped as he sank swiftly into trance, but only an instant passed before he lurched back, gasping for breath with agonized sobs. Groping wildly, desperately, for something out of reach, he wavered glassy-eyed and ashen, with the rattle of death in his throat. Hagrid flung out one massive hand to catch him as he slumped to the ground, Minerva dropping to her knees beside him, seizing his face between her hands, commanding his attention.
"Healer Islwyn... listen to me... end this joining… release from him… you are Gareth Islwyn only… do not remain there with him… "
Gareth curled onto his side, retching and panting with pain, shivering violently with cold, his hands still struggling in a frenzied effort to touch the unseen. His voice began to rise in a thin wail, a desolate keening that struck Minerva sick with dread.
"Merlin protect us, Hagrid… what possessed me to permit him to even try such a thing… Healer, please… I should not have allowed you... return now… we are here with you."
Minerva sat back on her heels, pulling the heavy cloak from around her shoulders to throw over Gareth, watching him closely as his eyes began to clear and his breathing slowed, murmuring to him in reassurance, "The joining is ended, come back, come back," until his hands at last lay quiet, and his wretched lament fell silent.
Gingerly sitting up, Gareth took a shuddering breath before slowly rising to his feet supported by Minerva's steadying hand.
"Healer, what did you see?"
She no longer bothered to keep the sharp edge of anxiety from her voice. Watching to be sure Gareth was not about to collapse again, Hagrid stood as well, his face almost as pale as that of the man he carried.
Gareth remained motionless, only his eyes moving, a pendulum of sadness that swung reluctantly to each of their faces. When he spoke, his voice was raw, as though he had been screaming… or sobbing… for hours.
"He is… there… but I could not see him… strange for me… not to see him… his presence feels… splintered… I could not move beyond his pain… nothing I could reach… nothing to hold onto… only darkness… and cold … forbidding me to enter… "
"You cried out with the voice of the duine sidhe," Minerva whispered, as though fearful she might waken that forlorn wail once again.
Gareth hesitated, releasing another ragged breath before responding, knowing his words would be terrible for them to hear.
"I felt… agony… a despair that cannot be comforted… drifting and alone… "
Covering his face for a moment with his hands, regaining focus, Gareth abruptly turned to leave the grove, motioning for them to follow. Hastily retrieving her cloak from the ground, Minerva immediately fell into step beside him, with Hagrid close behind, muttering to the man in his arms.
"Yeh jus' were never right, were yeh … always by yerself like some bitter ol' dragon in yer dungeon… and now see where yer at… off in some place where no one can do anythin' fer yeh… yeh shoulda' told us, it wasn' right not ter tell us… Harry says it was Dumbledore an' yeh agreed ter all a' this, but yeh shoulda' said… "
His voice trailed away when Minerva turned back, urging him into silence, "Hagrid, please, he cannot answer and we must hurry."
Gareth quickly led them into the fortress tower, up steeply winding stone steps to a spacious room, the walls lined with heavily-laden shelves and cupboards, a high bed placed under one of the wide windows looking out across the Valley.
Though he struggled to climb the twisting steps and pass through the narrow doorway, Hagrid refused to relinquish his burden, not until he had carefully laid the unconscious man on the bed.
The Healer observed respectfully as for the first time a wand appeared, Minerva speaking soft incantations, placing protective wards, with Hagrid close beside her. He felt the full presence and force of their magic, as he silently cast his own blessing charm upon the room.
Crossing to the hearth where a stone basin sat among glowing embers, releasing the pungent vapors of steeping herbs, Gareth rolled his sleeves and began to drop clean linen cloths into the steaming water, his manner shifted now—no longer the mystic Knowing One in kindred with his patient's torment, but the well-trained Healer, assessing the needs of a broken body.
"Those robes and the other clothing must be removed, and the wound thoroughly cleaned before I can proceed. That, and warmth slowly brought back into him as well… not too rapidly … as long as he's so cold, the bleeding will remain slowed and whatever venom held somewhat in check… somehow his body has fallen into stasis… but if he remains this cold for too long, his heart will stop entirely."
Her wand still in her hand, Minerva stood firmly between Gareth and the bed, shaking her head, frowning.
"He rarely permits anyone to touch him, even those he's known for years."
Cocking his head, Gareth looked up, frowning in his turn.
"Well now, I'd say I've already done so, wouldn't you? I can't help him, if you'll not allow me to touch him."
Minerva squared her shoulders, her guard up.
"That's hardly the point, of course you must. But he detests being fussed over… it should be Hagrid or me to deal with such matters as his robes He's so particular about their appearance," her tone softened, "but his hair is always such a… "
Her voice cracked, and Hagrid reached to comfort her with a pat on the shoulder, careful not to unsteady her with the weight of his great hand.
"I'll do this part, Professor. He'll not know it was me, and even if 'e does, still it's what I do best, carin' fer poor creatures… 'specially them as snap an' bite 'cause they're hurt so bad. Let me do this fer 'im, and when e's cleaned up some, I'll call fer yeh."
He shrugged with a soft chuckle when she looked askance, her eyes narrowed and questioning.
"Well, it'd be all right then, wouldn' it? If 'is eyes were ter open, at least it'd be me e'd see… and it's that might make 'im angry enough ter bring 'im round… back maybe from wherever it is this Healer says e's at… "
His tone more serious, he turned back to Gareth.
"Take the Professor downstairs then, would yeh please, Healer, while I tend to 'im? She's about ter drop 'erself, and 'e surely wouldn' want 'er 'ere fer this."
Realizing that his patient's immediate care had been taken out of his hands, Gareth issued his instructions.
"No doubt, Hagrid, you'll handle this easily enough, but I must warn you to be very careful. I've no idea what is keeping this man alive. The venom is certainly deadly, and his blood may now be poisonous as well. Don't allow either to touch you. Work as quickly as you can but be thorough. I believe this man should be dead, and I'm not certain it's a blessing to him that he's not."
Nodding to acknowledge he understood, Hagrid turned away while shedding his enormous overcoat, rummaging in one cavernous pocket to pull out what Gareth could clearly see was an umbrella, all the while murmuring a litany of comfort, as though to some wounded beast from his forest.
"S'all right then, s'only me, an' yeh know I don' mean ter harm yeh… stay quiet now an' don' fight me… s'only Hagrid… yeh know me and yer goin' ter have ter trust me… I'm truly sorry fer yer hurt… "
"With your permission, then, Professor," Gareth motioned towards the door, a tiny smile twitching the corners of his mouth. Minerva's only response was a brusque nod as she concealed her wand within her robes and preceded him from the room.
At the bottom of the steps, she paused for a moment, shivering with exhaustion. Slipping his hand under her elbow, Gareth directed her to sit by the fire in his sitting room, before he hurried into the adjacent kitchen. Returning momentarily with two mugs and a plate of bara brith, he handed one steaming cup to her, and sitting opposite, cradled the other in his gnarled hands.
"Drink that tea while it's hot. There's a healthy dose of whisky in it should lift your spirits some, and you must take a bite of food as well." Seeing her hesitation, he raised his own mug, urging with gentle insistence, "Go on then. You're no good to him if you fall ill yourself. Hagrid knows exactly what to do, and I'll go back up in a moment." Taking a deep swallow of his tea and a bite of the currant bread, he waited until she had done the same, a faint flush of color rising in her cheeks.
"Now, you must tell me, da ddewines, who is this man, and why have you brought him to me, for in truth I don't know that I can heal him. I may only be able to ease his death."
Warming her hands on the comforting mug, Minerva paused, choosing her words carefully before she answered.
"Certainly you recognize us for what we are. Perhaps you already know… those without inherent magic, we refer to as Muggle. Our Ministry has always kept an accounting of unique Muggles such as you… those with deeper understanding… Healers and Knowing Ones who recognize and honor the Old Magick and are willing to shelter one of us should there be the need. Your perceptions… your empathy… I made note of you long ago for those abilities, although I fear I placed you in peril by allowing you to join with this particular wizard. I confess, he was not the one I expected I might need to bring to you."
Gareth folded his arms and leaned back, absorbing her words in silence before responding.
"Our… encounter… was indeed… unnerving… far more than I expected. I'll be better prepared before making another attempt… for both our sakes. As weak as he is, there's a rage, a ferocity of will, in him. Perhaps that's keeping him alive. But I question your reasoning in not taking him to your own Healers. Their knowledge is surely greater than mine, and they'd have far better success in treating such a wound."
Setting her cup down carefully, Minerva picked up a small wooden box with intricate knots carved on all its surfaces. "Your work?" she asked, and Gareth nodded. Thoughtfully, she traced the carvings with her slender fingers as she continued
"His story is like these knots, twisting and turning, doubling back on itself. Most of it I'm not prepared to reveal just yet, but I will tell you he is a brilliant Potions master, a powerful wizard with exceptional skills of mind. He was struck down in a terrible battle which ended only hours ago. It is not safe for him in our world… he must be hidden in yours."
Hearing a disturbance behind her, she turned as Hagrid, bending low to clear the doorway, entered the room, shaking his head in dismay. Gareth stood at once, clearly expecting an immediate report on his patient.
"There's no wakin' 'im. I near smothered 'im in blankets an' all, but e's so wretched cold 'e don' even shiver. He sighed once when I was washin' the blood an' that foul muck from 'is neck… an ugly thing that wound is... but so faint I 'ardly 'eard 'im. I thought it were 'is last breath. I was hopin' ter have 'im snarlin' at me in that way of 'is… I'd 'ave far rather 'eard that… "
"And the bleeding?" Gareth asked over his shoulder as he maneuvered past Hagrid towards the stairway.
"Thas' mostly stopped, but maybe 'cause there's 'ardly any blood left in 'im."
Tight-lipped, Gareth nodded and with no further comment disappeared back up the stone stairway.
Hagrid bowed his head, and having no task to occupy him, began to wander around the room aimlessly, knocking the table askew, tangling his shaggy head in the bundles of drying herbs overhead, startling the dogs dozing by the fire, and causing general havoc. Hurrying to his side before his great bulk could destroy Gareth's tidy dwelling, Minerva steered him towards the door that opened onto the yard.
"Hagrid, stop this blundering about, please. We've been away too long… we must return before we're missed, and I need to concoct a reason for the absence of his body. Wait for me on the hill. I have one other matter to resolve with Healer Islwyn before we may leave."
His face set with grim determination, Hagrid nodded in agreement and negotiated his way outside, as Minerva hurriedly climbed the stone steps to the tower infirmary.
Entering the room, she breathed in the fresh sweetness of hyssop and the rich bite of clove that permeated the air. Having removed his work-stained shirt, Gareth had filled a large earthen bowl with the steaming herb-infused water from the stone basin and was scrubbing his face, hands, and arms vigorously. Without a word, Minerva crossed the room and sank to her knees beside the bed. Having finished his ablutions, Gareth was pulling on a clean linen shirt when he glanced up and saw that she had dropped her head onto her clenched hands, and that she was trembling He stepped quickly to her side, gravely concerned and was shaken by the raw emotion on her face when she lifted her head.
"I cursed him, Healer Islwyn. I cursed him as a coward and a murderer I raised my wand against him, and he fled from me."
"Was it you, then, who summoned the serpent? Is this your doing?" he exclaimed in horror, motioning to the unconscious man.
"No, not this, never this… but I would gladly have seen him dead at my feet," she answered.
"But why, how is that even possible when now you bring him to me for protection and healing?" Gareth demanded.
Her response was barely audible.
"He killed someone I loved."
Gareth's eyes clouded, recalling the moments of Unoliaeth.
"I've seen terrible curses placed by certain of your folk and some of mine as well. When I touched him... there was an emptiness of mind approaching madness... yet I felt as though he was searching… desperately searching… do you know what he seeks?"
Minerva could only shake her head and whisper, "It could be many things."
Gareth hesitated, hoping for something more.
"I will do all that I can to heal his body," he sighed, "but a shattered mind is another matter. He may remain a Wanderer Between for days, months… years. If I overcome this wound and he lives, he may wake… if he chooses… and if he's able. But if he's held there by some dark magic, you'll have to reveal far more than you have, or we cannot call him back."
Her face pinched with weariness, Minerva reminded him, "I did caution you, Healer. But be assured, we will abandon neither of you."
Silence followed this pronouncement until the Healer asked, "What do you ask of me, Minerva McGonagall?"
She answered without hesitation.
"I ask you to protect him, whether he lives or passes through the Veil. His true name will be kept from you, at least for a time. Many of us are able to trace even the echo of a name, and those in Darkness will be seeking revenge in his death. Many who serve the Light will want to condemn him to a horrible imprisonment, unwilling or unable to comprehend the price he's already paid. Only a few truly know how much is owed him."
"This War of yours is not ended, then?" Gareth asked.
"A dark wizard has been defeated, but such wars are never ended." Minerva sighed, "They're only postponed for a while. One evil ends, but there is always another close behind, and the darkness rises again. It's no different in your world, after all. "
Her demeanor changing, Minerva suddenly stood, hurling a challenge into the brightening morning air.
"Gareth Islwyn, do you understand the obligation of a Life Debt, or the severity of an Unbreakable Vow? These things hold the most powerful magic and are not to be considered lightly."
The Healer responded with equal fervor, his eyes locked on hers.
"If you believed only those with magic might accept such a Debt or swear such a Vow, you'd not have brought him here, and you'd not be seeking my help."
A ghost of a smile flitted across the witch's face.
"My apologies, Healer Islwyn, for my harshness. I would not require such a Vow from you, but I would ask you to honor the intent. This man accepted his own Life Debt, bitter as it was to him, and fulfilled an Unbreakable Vow with great courage. His need is honorable, but if you cannot trust this, we will take him and go."
Gareth's response was somber and resolute.
"You have acknowledged me as Knowing One and Healer. No one in my care leaves this place unless they wish to, and I'll not permit any one to be dragged from my home by force to suffer and die alone. I must do as you ask or betray my own nature. You have my word."
Their eyes remained fastened, an unprecedented Vow now bridging the gap between Magical and Muggle, until Gareth broke the silence.
"He must have a name, though for a time he'll not understand. As he starts to associate my voice with relief from pain, the sound of the name will be soothing. Something in the old tongue would do well. This man is valuable to you." A strange expression flickered in the witch's eyes before she nodded. "And you've spoken of his courage. In the old language, the word Neirin means 'treasured' and Maldwyn is 'courageous friend'. Let him be called Neirin Maldwyn while he remains with me."
Minerva gave a sadly wry smile, looking down at the bloodless face of the wizard.
"Neirin Maldwyn… it's a good name. I think it suits you. Hecate knows how livid you'd be about it though. No doubt you'd think us all loathsomely sentimental, but you must accept this name for a little while. It has no resemblance to your own, and it may help to keep you hidden."
She knelt again beside the bed, gently touching the man's empty countenance, her own face etched with misery, speaking to him as though he might respond to the anguished appeal in her voice.
"In spite of yourself, you should have trusted me enough… this is not what he intended… surely you knew that… " She took one icy hand in hers. "What must we do to help you? If this had happened to any one of us… we would have come to you for advice… even he would have come to you… "
Gareth had been moving quietly about the room, opening cupboards and drawers, gathering sundry items, but now he moved to stand behind her, troubled and bemused. Indeed, as she had said, this man's story was epic in its complexity. He stepped back as Minerva rose stiffly to her feet, watching as she reached into a pocket hidden in the lining of her robes. From it, she produced an ebony wand, without adornment, stark in its simplicity. Balancing it carefully on the palm of her left hand, she extended it towards him.
"His?" he inquired quietly, already knowing the answer.
"Yes," she responded, her voice heavy with regret.
In all his years, Gareth had never touched the wand of a true wizard. He made no attempt to do so now, though the wand was easily within his grasp.
"Da ddewines, why would you tempt me so? I am no wizard. I may not raise a wizard's wand, or even receive it into my hand, you know that… "
With an authority as encompassing as her robes, she replied, "Forgive me. A final test for you, Gareth Islwyn. If you had reached to take his wand from my hand, we could not have left him here with you, no matter how great your skills as a Healer."
He bowed his head, understanding that this temptation had been offered in challenge to his humility and acceptance of his place in the greater scheme.
"But 'r lath chan brudiwr who has fallen in battle should remain close to him," he asserted, the gravity of being entrusted with the guardianship of such magic prompting him to speak in the old tongue.
Minerva nodded, "That is true. His wand's heart may call to him and give him strength. Perhaps it will help him find his way. A wand serves its wizard, but the wizard also serves the wand. There are times when the bond between them is so great that when one is lost, the other grieves, and each refuses the use of any other. It may be his wand that he seeks so desperately."
Gareth moved across the room to kneel in front of a beautifully carved chest of white birch. From its depths, he brought forth a slender box of moss-green Connemara marble, veined with silver and white. Every surface was carved with exquisite knotting, ogham and runes, so intricate and delicate that they seemed to shift like a shadow of smoke across its face.
Handing it to Minerva, he said, "I've worked on this piece for nearly twenty years and have only recently finished it. I suspected it might someday have some great purpose, but had no idea what that might be. That seems evident now."
Smiling fondly, she gently placed the ebony wand inside, a perfect fit.
"The colors would please him."
She began to put the beautiful lid in place and suddenly sank onto the edge of the bed, her hands trembling. Centered there, hidden among the other carvings, following the veining and shading of the marble, was the tiny figure of a snake, coiled around the base of a slender lily. Tracing the image with her thumb, she looked up at Gareth, her face white with shock, and whispered, "You could not have known… "
He answered quietly, "I carve only what the stone shows me. I do not question the meaning."
Minerva took a deep breath, gathering her composure, and rose to return the box into his hands. "Knowing One, protect this wand and its wizard. We will return soon and try to do more."
Standing by the bed, she studied the harshly graven face of the man who lay there. Her lips moved silently, and Gareth knew she spoke neither incantation nor spell, but rather the simplest and oldest of all prayers--an entreaty to the Divine to show mercy. In an instant she turned to leave, only to be halted by Gareth's hand, laid gently on her arm.
"Professor McGonagall… Minerva… before you go, one question please… his eyes… what color are his eyes?"
The witch smiled sadly.
"Black… the most profound black I have ever seen. Is it important?"
Remembering his visions of days past, Gareth shook his head, "I don't know…perhaps it's nothing… just dreams I had before you arrived… "
Suddenly, to his amazement, Minerva stepped nearer and for the briefest instant embraced him, whispering, "Thank you, Gareth Islwyn."
Breaking away, she hurried from the room, not looking back as she sped to the twisting steps. Remaining near the bed where he could watch from the window, Gareth soon saw her join Hagrid on the hillside and in an instant heard the sharp crack as the two vanished, leaving the third behind.
"Ffarwel, da ddewines, da brudiwr. Ymwroli. We will be here."
Author's Notes: Other than Gareth, I may take no credit for any of these characters. They belong to J.K. and I thank her for lending them to me. Those who have been following this tale may wish to re-visit the first four chapters, as they have been edited and expanded. Those readers who are new, I bid you welcome. Profound thanks to Meghan and Chris who always give an honest critique, and to Kelly, my enlightened and generous beta.