The light was fading and Ana's head was pounding. It had been days since she'd spoken to another person, trying to fill the time as she had in Azkaban, by thinking of ways to make the most use of the passing minutes and hours. She had thus far made a camp so impenetrable even she sometimes had trouble finding it and gaining entry, warded at least a fifth of Britain's countryside and small villages to alert her to any Apparition (she had considered tackling the towns, but the number of Death Eaters there meant she would be throwing herself into trouble almost every time she responded to her own alarms) and thought of a thousand things to say to the Order so that they would be persuaded that her Father was not the enemy. Suffice to say the latter of those vetures had been by far the most taxing.
A small, scared part of her thought the lack of refugees meant that the majority remaining were either dead or imprisoned. Her rational side argued that they had perhaps escaped both her and the Death Eaters, living in secret, hopefully in small and inconspicious groups, safe. It was a small hope, she knew, but she held onto it. Her sanity depended on it. Especially considering that news of Harry and the others had become nothing - Sirius sent her letters when the owls could find her (which was rare) and his Patronus messages were few and far between for safety's sake. However what she knew was that there was a storm coming and the eye was almost upon them; her Father had, if the news reports from students rang true, stopped comings and going from Hogwarts completely. He was preparing for war, she knew. And somehow, she also knew, she was going to have to save him. Because the Order, almost to a man, would kill him on sight if he were to stray into their grasp. In the months since she had seen him in person there had been no communications. He had been silent. She had worried.
Tingling on the back of her neck, like spiders crawling amongst the fine hairs there, stopped her meandering mind in its tracks. One of her wards had gone off. A muttered spell revealed the location - east of the New Forest. After casting her eyes over her camp, wand running over wardings as she did so, Ana turned neatly in a circle and allowed the darkness to consume her. It had taken much racking of her brain and many long hours of, sometimes painful, experiementation to devise a form of Apparition totally incapable of alerting Death Eaters to her movements. However now, as she reappeared in a forested area, she was sure of herself. She had managed not to appear in a clearing, for which she heaved a sigh of relief, instead amongst a thick copse of trees. For several long moments Ana remained completely silent, listening to the quiet rustling of leaves in a gentle breeze, before finally voices brokes through the nothingness.
"...days since we last saw anyone else. I'm telling you there's something up."
Ana frowned as she listened. She did not recognise the voice but it was clear from what he was saying that this man was no Snatcher.
"Not like we pass that many usually, we're not holidaymakers out on a day jaunt, Ted. We're running for our lives. Chance'd be others would avoid being seen, same as we do."
Another unknown male voice, impacting Ana's suspicion of them being refugees. She couldn't help but allow a small smile to break the tension which had racked her features for days - weeks. There were others out there. There were still those who could call themselves free.
"Dunno about that - I'd say not many are that good at hiding themselves, since we usually see so many. First month we passed...what? Twelve groups? Twenty couples or singles? I think you're right, Ted, something's up. We've not seen one for almost a wee..."
The voice stopped dead and Ana tensed. They sounded close, very close, and yet she couldn't see them. Their voices indicated them being to the right and she edged that way, careful not to step on fallen twigs, to make no noise as she grew gradually closer.
The single word let her know, without doubt, that the Apparition had not been the group she was listening in on. It had been something all together more dangerous.
"OVER HERE!" a voice bellowed through the trees.
She sprinted past two, three, four trees, finally seeing a silhouette in the semi darkness of the forest. Their wand was out but they were facing away from her, towards the voice. A flash of light came from their outstretched wand - red, and she saw it flicker past tree after tree, completely missing its mark. However the spell illuminated what lay ahead; four, perhaps five, all dressed in black, all with the expressions of wild animals on the hunt, having finally smelt first blood.
Ana directed her wand to the shadow of the first and sent a Body-Bind Curse, knocking the figure so forcefully to the ground it skidded several feet once down.
"Get down!" she shouted to the portly, middle aged man stood before her, he who had released the Stunning Spell, her hand reaching out and pushing him aside as she charged into the fray.
In her periphery vision she could see others, two tiny, either children or goblins, and a total of perhaps three adult humans. Her wand flashed as she placed a ward between those behind her and those in front; just in time as a shower of spells came raining from the enemy in before her, bouncing harmlessly off her spell where once they would have done serious damage.
Ana strode on, breaking through her own barrier and ducking just in time to avoid a Killing Curse which was centred on her chest. She threw another Body-Bind back and a Stunning Spell straight after, taking down two opponents within moments of one another.
It was obvious that these were not Death Eaters. She had fought Death Eaters to the blood and bone, ripped her blade through their flesh and used her spells to fell them - Death Eaters could, for the most part, fight. They were skilled enough to know darkness and embrace it. These were Snatchers, low life but not capable of battle. Ana knew it from the moment she stepped beyond the barrier and, as if to reinforce her truth, the instant their third comrade hit the floor the remaining two Disapparated.
She let out a breath, looking down at the paralysed bodies around her. In truth she should kill them. Yet there seemed little point. Their deaths would achieve nothing and any tales they could tell of her existence had already been told a hundred times before. No - she would evacuate her survivors and leave the three to either be eaten by animals or revive ther senses and return with their tails between their legs. Being chewed on by badgers was more than they deserved but, as Remus would say, being on the good side was all about giving more than was deserved.
"Who the hell are you?"
She turned to face the portly man, his face white and covered in sweat. He looked terrified, as well he might, and the hand holding his wand was shaking.
"Ana Harte, member of the Order of the Pheonix. Saver of your life."
Ana turned her head to face the questioner. Her eyes widened as she recognised the face.
"Merlin...Dean? Dean Thomas?"
"In the flesh." he answered, smiling and yet looking as panic ridden as the other man and, in truth, a little confused. "I thought you were a...?"
"Squib?" she finished, joining the dots quickly, "Ah, no...sorry. Cover story."
"Ah." he answered, nodding in what she thought he might think was a wise manner. He didn't question further, whether to avoid showing his own ignorance in front of the others or simply because in the strange, post new-reign, world nothing was truly surprising any more.
"Harte? You're friends with Nymphadora?"
She returned her attention to the portly man and nodded at his question. Instantly he pocketed his wand and reached out a large hand.
"Ted Tonks, I think come to mention it we may have met...?"
"Of course, Mr Tonks," she shook his hand, despite it being rather damp, a note of recognition from a wedding flaring in her mind. She then turned to the others, "I'm afraid the other introductions will have to wait. Those Snatchers might be back with reinforcements at any moment. We'll have to Side-Along Apparate out of here..."
"I think we all know how to Apparate," another man, fair haired and with a large gash on his temple, contributed.
"Of course," she acknowledged, "But they may be able to trace conventional Apparition. Magical tracing, you know, so coming with me is safer. I can ward us against prying eyes and ensure we don't get any unwanted travelling companions.
"You can take so many?" the fair haired man spoke again, obviously knowledgable on such things, a look of doubt shading his expression.
"Yes." was her simple answer, allowing no doubt to enter her tone.
It was obvious in that moment that these people, for however long, had spent time together in trying circumstances. There was no lone voice, she saw eyes rove from one person to another, even the goblins, as detached at they seemed at first glance, peering to one another in silent conversation, weighing the pros and cons, calculating the risks.
"Alright," Ted Tonks finally agreed. "We...link arms, I suppose?"
"That'll work. Quickly though, if you please..."
The assembled gathered, Dean going down on one knee so as to hook onto one of the Goblins. She looked along the line, checking everyone was holding on tightly. A deep breath, in and out, focusing in at the core of her magic, visualising it, allowing it to seep through her arm to the fair haired man, through each and every person she was connected to, making them a whole being as opposed to individuals in a line. Ana closed her eyes.
"Hold on tight."
A sickening, squeezing feeling, more intense than she thought she could remember any Apparation being before, lasting what felt like ten seconds or more. Then, with a feeling of being squeezed through a very tight space and popping out the other end, her lungs filled with air and, gasping, she could breathe freely again.
"Merlin's hat that was tight," exclaimed the fair haired man, hand on Ted Tonk's shoulder for support. The other men were similarly shaken, grasping onto one another for support, pale faced from the experience. Even the Goblins looked wey faced, standing normally and yet seeming very still, as if afraid if they moved they would fall over.
"Is everyone alright?" Ana asked, straightening her back with a wince and trying to breathe as evenly as possible.
"Think so," Ted Tonks responded after a long moment of nothing but gradally easing, deep breaths from all present, "What was that?"
Ana raised her wand and drew the wards, making her camp visible to those assembled whilst simultaenously shielding it from the outside world. It was only when she was satisfied with her efforts that she addressed the question.
"Massive Side-Along Apparation is no easy task - making sure each extraneous body part is brought along can sometimes be...difficult."
"Not being funny, but you might have told us that before Miss..." Dean stopped, as though usure as to what to call her.
She couldn't exactly blame the boy. Fraudlently magically impared groundskeeper's assistant who had advocated the possiblity of skills other than magic whilst being an incredibly competent witch was rather without title, it was true.
"Ana," she gently advised, "And I'm sorry for that, but we didn't have time to debate the pros and cons. I think a few more minutes would have found all of us injured, dead or imprisoned - a few Snatchers are little challenge but a group of twenty or thirty Death Eaters are beyond me and, I suspect, you too."
The lack of response was answer enough. She moved towards her tent and poked her hand within, taking in the furnishings within with a fleeting glance before gesturing to the open flap with a hand.
"You can all go in and partake of whatever you like - food, drink, a seat or a bed. Everything you might need, I think, should be within. I have messages to send; hopefully, within the next few hours a member of the Order should send along a Portkey set to a secret location - a safe location. You will all be taken there and placed into hiding until such a time as you are able to walk free once again. Does that suit?"
This was an old speech now. In the early days methods of extracting survivors had changed weekly - now the same method had stood for over a month. There just weren't enough cases. There were less and less bodies to save. Her access to resources was also lessening. Where once Order members had flocked to give Remus supplies for her the fact was that shortages were biting hard at the heels of all outlaws, magical and non magical, and there was simply no more to give. Large areas of safe land were a thing of the past. Hiding in attics and basements had become the order of the day - though Ana was sure that a basement, whilst dark and dank, was far better than a prison cell.
"Firewhiskey!" came a call from within.
The men and goblins had trailed past and were making full use of the unexpected luxuries, their faces shining with glee at the basic, and yet most welcome, comforts.
"Shot for the lad too, he could use it." Ted Tonks instructed the fair haired man.
Dean's face cracked a wide smile and Ana found herself softly smiling at the scene, turning from the tent and treading the perimeter of the wards, ensuring they were impenetrabe as was possible. Once satisfied she murmured a slow, simple incantation, before reminding of herself of waking up in Sirius' arms in order to produce a Patronus.
"Five refugees; three adult males and two goblins. Portkey to safe location as soon as possible."
She kept the message simple, knowing her muttered charm would render her Patronus traceable, if the correct spell was used. Remus would hopefully respond quickly and her foundlings would be safe before the day was out. She brushed a strand of hair back from her face and let out a long, slow breath. It was good to be able to do good again. Her hand snaked into her skirt pocket and pulled out a few squares of wrapped chocolate. Lifting the wrapper she nibbled at the corner, allowing the food to do its good work.
Ana eyes roved over the trees surrounding them as she ate. In the last month, with things to do dwindling to naught, she had spent a lot of time staring at the old trees, wandering around her small haven of safety and thinking about what the future held. Reading had only held her attention for so long; there was nothing new she could get her hands on and past tomes seemed to tease her with remembrances, nothing unexpected laying from one page to the next, nothing unknown. So introspection had become her lot, as only a Snape could make it so, her mind filling with thoughts of what her life with Sirius could become.
She imagined perhaps marrying him one day. She had no idea, after the malnutrition and torture of Azkaban, if she could have children. Every indicator suggested the answer may well be no - yet medicine was always progressing in the magical world, perhaps it was something she could one day benefit from. Yet more and more her mind lingered on the immediate future - to simply be able to wake up next to him, every day, to not have to hide, to be able to walk down Diagon Alley with him at her side and be proud that he chose her, of anyone, everyone. Talking about their lives, him learning hers and she relearning this person whom she loved so dearly in every form he took. Drinking tea outside The Sticks as the sun set over the sea. It was the perfect peace she had so long, since her teenage years had come and gone, strived for in quiet, daydream filled moments. It was everything she wanted for them...and all of it sat on the shoulders of one boy.
A crack threw her from her thoughts. Instantly she was ready, her wand in hand, prepared to pounce at the slightest provocation, chocolate discarded unthinkingly on the ground. However, just outside her wards, the figure stood. She knew in a moment that that was no Death Eater, nor Snatcher. Posture, numbers, it was all wrong. It was...
She immediately stepped outside of the wards as realisation broke, pointing her wand to him, her expression set. She had just saved five wanted men from being taken - there was no guarentee this was not a false figure. It seemed to strange that Remus would simply risk so much and Apparate into a potentially dangerous situation. Yet she was sure it was him. Why then, was he here? Unless something were wrong...
"The word etched into my flesh." she asked, knowing that there were only two people who could know that, who would understand she meant something other than her tattoos, other than she.
"Mine." he responded, tired eyes fixing hers.
She lowered her wand and reached over, taking his hand in hers and pulling him through her warding, her contact allowing him safe access. He followed wordlessly and she thought perhaps there was a paleness to him which had not been there at Christmas. It was only five days until the full moon, which was no help at all, yet her Wolfsbane was sitting waiting at Shell Cottage and so there should be no reason why...
Her hand tightened involuntarily in his.
"He's safe?" she asked.
"He's alive," was Remus' discouragingly vague answer, before the man added, "He's about to become very unsafe - it's time Ana. We need you back. He's going to Hogwarts to complete this mission Dumbledore set him and once he does..."
"Once he does The Dark Lord is defeated." she finished.
A strange thrill ran though her blood, a shock of electricity so strong it took her by surprise. The mere thought of the possibility of it being over, finally over after a lifetime of war, was so incomprehensible to her...an end. She could not remember a time when the chance of an end had existed.
"It's our one chance. We need everyone assembled for a full assault. Hogwarts is where it will be. We empty it of Death Eaters, we cast Snape into the pit he deserves and we make our stand there."
She loosened her grip on his hand at his slight of her Father. It was unintentional and yet instantly she regretted doing it, despite Remus' seeming ignorance to her reaction. It would all have to come out then, now, her truth, her past. She hoped Sirius would help her, and knew if it were simply for her sake he would, but in her heart she also realised that his hatred of Severus Snape might surpass even his love for her.
A noise from the tent beyond make Remus stiffen and Ana was abruptly reminded that they were not alone.
"I have," she paused, clearing her throat, trying to normalise her voice, which was slightly rough with something she didn't like the sound of, "...five refugees. I should have mentioned it sooner, Remus, I only just sent the Patronus. One of them is Tonks' Father."
Remus looked at her for a long moment, as though trying to digest the information, before releasing her hand and moving through the partially open tent flap. She heard an exclamation from inside and other voices joining to a growing chatter.
Ana breathed deeply in, trying to steady what suddenly came upon her as a great queasiness. The final great battle; for good or ill, that was what it would be. People would die. People would die on both sides and some of those would be people she loved. The odds were just too high for that not to happen. It could be Fleur or Bill, Kingsley, the Weasleys, Remus, Tonks, Harry, Draco, her Father, Sirius...any of them. Their faces flashed in her mind and she felt her hands begin to shake. She was, she realised, afraid. Acutely scared, for herself, for them, for everything that was to come.
"You were dead once, you can do it again," she murmured to herself, hearing her own voice speak the words, clenching her fists as she clung to the partial truth. "If it's the price of protecting them you can do it again."
It was a potential death in a every way. Physically, of course, they were at war. But if they cast her out, her friends, when they found out her true parentage? She knew already that would be an emotional death infinitely more terrifying. A tick flickered at the back of her mind. She had to contact her Father. He had to be on the right side of the battle lines before all hell broke loose or...or she didn't know what would happen. She might well be the only person on the side of good not gunning for his death, not desperate to be the one to illumnate his figure in deathly emerald green. She had to save him this time. It couldn't be like before. No sacrifice. Not this time.
A shuffling followed by the emergence of Remus.
"We can't linger any more. Everyone's gathering in Hogsmeade - Harry's already in Hogwarts according to Aberforth Dumbledore. Sirius fought hell for leather against it but Harry insisted and he's the most important thing we have right now. He, Ron and Hermione had to go ahead, he said, try and find whatever it is they're looking for before it's known what's happening..."
"If they're doing something big it's already known." Ana observed quietly.
"I know," Remus affirmed, rubbing a hand through his greyed hair, "I just hope Snape doesn't get his slimy hands on them...Merlin knows what he'll do if..."
"We should go," Ana interrupted, "Ted, Dean and the others either need to join the battle lines or find somewhere safe."
Remus nodded thoughtfully, obviously overlooking her interruption through his own distraction and worries.
"Alright then," he agreed, meeting her eyes, "To battle it is."
A/N: I have been remiss. It has taken me a year to find the ending for this. But now I have it. And I intend to give it to you. Yes, the end is in sight. Thank you all for your support, I only hope I can live up to your enthusiasm. Only four - five chapters remain. Enjoy.