“Well this is bloody embarrassing.”
Prince Ronald stared at the offending wheel as though he couldn’t quite believe it.
Harry, rubbing his bruised head, could quite well believe it. Sitting on top of the carriage as he had, when the wheel had broken whilst going over a rut he had been jolted right off the carriage and into a nearby tree.
“We’ll head back to Durmstrang immediately, Your Highness,” the driver said, looking completely mortified.
Harry and Hermione exchanged worried glances at that. “Can’t it just be fixed with a few spells?” she asked.
But Ronald and Ginevra were shaking their heads. “Royal carriages are bewitched to be immune to enchantment of any kind,” the Princess explained. “Useful when you’re under attack but a bloody pain when something breaks.”
Harry was even more alarmed at that. No magic meant they couldn’t even use levitation or featherweight charms to speed up the journey back to the castle. Who knew how long it would take them and then what if there wasn’t another carriage available? They could even end up having to stay the night!
The Dursleys weren’t complete idiots. They may have missed Hermione’s increasingly frequent absences so far but eventually they would start to wonder where she was. After Remus’ warning last night neither was willing to draw Petunia’s attention any more than necessary.
“Well it’s a lovely afternoon, Your Highness,” Hermione said brightly after a short pause. “We shall continue on foot.”
Prince and Princess had never looked so horrified. “But – it’s a 2 hour walk!” Ronald protested, going green at the mere thought.
‘True, but it would take us at least half that to just get the carriage back to the Castle and then who knows how long that simpering fool of a Headmaster would faff about for,’ Harry thought, feeling a resurgence of dislike for the oily headmaster. Professor Karakaroff had been perfectly polite but the way he had fawned over the two royals disgusted Harry.
“Honestly, Your Highness,” teased Hermione, already beginning to walk away, “where’s your sense of adventure?”
Ron stared open-mouthed at her before scrambling to catch her up. “Lily, wait for me!”
“Well, I suppose that’s decided then,” Ginevra commented with a sigh. “Take the carriage back to Durmstrang,” she ordered. “Looks like we’ll be walking the rest of the way.”
“But Your Highness!” the driver protested, upset, but Ginevra waved him off. “Come on, Luna.”
As she and Lady Luna walked after Hermione and Ronald, Harry gave the driver, Laurence, a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry,” he told him, “I’ll make sure they get back to the palace ok.”
But Laurence shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said fearfully. “There are supposed to be Death Eaters in these woods. It’s why I was moving a little faster and missed the rut. It isn’t safe.”
‘Oh Merlin,’ Harry thought, feeling a new kind of worry worm its way up into his stomach. ‘Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.’ But as he turned to look for them Ronald and Hermione were already out of sight. ‘It’s too late now, damn it.’
‘Besides,’ Harry thought, trying to ignore the anxiety he felt, ‘we’re all of us witches and wizards. We should be able to fend off an attack.’ When he told Laurence as much the other man’s expression turned into one of relief and he left quite happily after that. Harry walked to catch up with the royal party, wishing he feel the same relief as Laurence did.
‘Merlin’s balls,’ Harry remembered with a jolt, ‘I don’t have a wand!’
He’d almost cried when Hermione had given him the splinters of James’ old wand, broken right in front of his face by that bastard guard. He’d always felt such a strong connection to his father when using it and now that, too, had been taking away from him. Just like nearly everything else.
‘This is no time for self-pity,’ Harry told himself firmly, pushing those thoughts aside. ‘Not now it’s just four wands against any possible threat – I’m as good as useless.’
So, he thought suddenly, were Ginevra and Luna. He didn’t know what sort of magical program Beauxbatons had but he doubted it included extensive coverage of magical jinxes and curses. Ginny seemed like she might know a few jinxes but he doubted it was anything with serious fire power. And as for Luna…
‘This really wasn’t a good idea,’ Harry thought. All their defensive hopes now rested solely on just Ronald and Hermione. Hermione knew more spells than anyone Harry knew and he was willing to bet that whatever Beauxbatons taught, Durmstrang offered a large range of attack spells on its magical syllabus. However he was also willing to be that Ronald had never had to use such skills outside an official duel. Hermione hadn’t even had that.
By this point, Harry had managed to work himself up into a slight state of panic. Every crack of a branch was a Death Eater lurking… every disturbed pebble evidence of an impending ambush… Turning to walk backwards, making sure no outlaw could catch them unawares, Harry winced at how loud Ronald and Hermione’s conversation sounded in the quiet forest.
‘Gotta keep vigilant, must keep an eye out…’
“Are you alright, Gryffindor?”
Harry swore as he jumped, a spell half on his lips as he turned to face a very surprised looking Princess. As she raised an eyebrow at him, he hurriedly dropped his wand arm, embarrassed to find that he had been pointing it at her automatically despite the lack of wand. “I’m so sorry, Your Highness,” he said, ducking his head into a bow and, annoyingly, going bright red. “You, er, startled me.”
“Yes… Er, sorry about that,” she replied, awkwardly.
Harry looked up at her then, surprised to hear her apologising. ‘I’m just the servant, why does she need to apologise to me?’ Maybe Hermione’s attitude was rubbing off on her? “Do you or Lady Luna require my assistance, Princess?”
Ginevra shot a wry grin over her shoulder. Following her gaze, Harry saw Luna skipping along quite merrily, flowers already adorning her hair. The collection was all the more impressive considering that Harry hadn’t seen any flowers. “I think she’s quite happy by herself for the time being,” she said, turning back to him. Her expression immediately went awkward again. “Actually, Gryffindor, I just wanted to, er, talk to you.”
‘Merlin, Hermione really is rubbing off on her!’ “Talk?” he repeated, incredulous.
Ginevra shifted. “It’s just you’re really weird,” she explained, going pink as she belatedly realised how that had sounded. “I meant… It’s just I’ve never met – ”
“A servant like me before?” Harry finished, starting to smile. As she nodded, he pondered her carefully. Although the Princess still looked slightly embarrassed, she was staring at him with a hint of defiance in her brown eyes. Harry wasn’t quite sure why but he could take a guess; talking to servants wasn’t exactly a ‘done thing’, least of all for a Princess. But then neither were they supposed to play quidditch or jinx their brothers and it was clear that Ginevra did both. She was probably told every day by some pompous old courtier that she shouldn’t be doing this that or the other and was sick of it.
Harry wasn’t the usual sort of noble either, though, and he rather thought he much preferred someone who was intelligent, quick witted and daring over a bland, boring, pretty sheep any day.
Not that Ginevra wasn’t pretty. She was. Beautiful, actually, with the long, tumbling red curls and wide brown eyes. Her pale skin only emphasised her lips and the way her mouth quirked up to one side when she thought someone was being an idiot (Ronald, usually). And the way his hand had tingled after he had helped her into the carriage…
Harry gave himself a little shake. He couldn’t be distracted like this, not when she was watching him expectantly with those same brown eyes, now getting more suspicious by the second. Ignoring the strange feeling in his stomach he turned his thoughts instead to how to answer her question. He didn’t want to lie to her, but he also couldn’t completely tell the truth. Feeling her impatience begin to rise he settled on a vague version of the truth.
“The family I serve,” he said carefully, starting to walk after the other three again, “… well, they’re different to most other nobles. We are all educated – taught to read, write and how to do mathematics. We talk about what’s happening in the world and our opinions are listened to.” He shrugged. “I don’t know what other servants are treated like, but we’re treated as human beings. It’s as simple as that.”
He looked quickly at her to see what her reaction would be. ‘I should get used to being surprised,’ he thought, wryly, as Ginevra just frowned thoughtfully. He’d have thought she’d be outraged at his insinuation.
“You think servants aren’t treated as people?” she said, eventually.
“Being a servant is just a job,” Harry said, “but how often are we seen as anything else? We’re defined by our… status, I guess you could call it. But that’s not who we are – we’re just the same as you and anyone else in the world. You just happened to be lucky enough to be born into privilege whilst we haven’t.”
The look Ginevra shot him was a very shrewd one then and she didn’t say anything for quite a while. Harry himself was feeling oddly hopeful. Ginevra hadn’t scoffed at his thoughts nor cried treason – yet. It wasn’t much, but it was a promising beginning.
“You’re really just a servant?” she asked eventually, staring at him.
“I was raised as a servant, Your Highness,” he said, not quite answering her question. He didn’t want to lie completely to her now and ruin any groundwork he might have made. It was hard to keep calm though; the strength of that brown-eyed stare made him strangely nervous. “Just was luckier than most. Not the least because I turned out to be a wizard.”
“Magical education is very expensive, Your Highness. Institutions such as Durmstrang and Beauxbatons are only for the nobility and only very affluent families can afford private tutors for their children that show the signs.” He shrugged. “Having a witch or wizard in the family is nothing short of a curse for poor families. Generally they’re thrown out onto the streets by their family or the family they serve before they hit thirteen. They either struggle along as best they can or…”
“Or they become Death Eaters,” Ginevra said quietly.
Harry looked at her. “Yes,” he agreed, impressed she made the connection. “But, like I said, I was lucky. I wasn’t thrown out but was taught how to control my magic. I even had a wand before…” He trailed off, realising that he probably shouldn’t bring up his ‘criminal’ past. One of the royals was finally listening to him; he didn’t want to underline the fact that when the first met he was behind bars.
Ginevra, however, was not one to be put off. “Before what?”
Harry sighed. “Before I was thrown in jail,” he said quietly, not looking at her.
There was another silence then, punctuated only by the crackle and snap of branches underfoot and the thin strains of Ronald and Hermione’s conversation up ahead. Harry didn’t quite dare look at Ginevra. He knew he was innocent, but she didn’t and he didn’t think he could quite stand to see the coldness and disapproval that would undoubtedly be present in her eyes.
“I didn’t realise that was you,” she said eventually and Harry, shooting a quick look at her, was surprised to see she looked a little ashamed. The expression vanished so quickly though that he thought he must have imagined it. Then she asked the question he knew she would. “Why were you arrested?”
Harry grimaced. “It’s… complicated,” he said evasively. “I’m sure you hear it all the time but I was innocent. I have some… relatives, distant ones, who don’t, ah, like me very much. They paid some people off and contrived to have me arrested and deported.” He couldn’t help but shuddering. “I really hope they don’t find out.”
Ginevra stopped abruptly and turned to stare at him. “Really,” she said, “who are you? Why would anyone go to that much trouble over a servant? You don’t stand to inherit anything, don’t have any property, nothing – yet your relatives are going to extraordinary lengths to get rid of you. Why? And tell the truth!”
Harry looked at her carefully, pondering what to tell her. Maybe now was the best moment to come clean. She was, after all, clearly suspicious and if the truth came out later and she hadn’t been told… well, trust was something they desperately needed. Not to mention he was reluctant to hurt her which undoubtedly she would be if Harry didn’t come clean right there and now.
On the other hand, this really wasn’t the right time or place, especially with Laurence’s warning still reverberating in his head. If she took affront, or called him a liar… they couldn’t afford anyone running off or separating in these woods. And if she started yelling, as legend had it Weasleys were wont to do, then they may as well put a big magical flashing sign up saying ‘Fresh Victims Here’.
“For all intents and purposes, Your Highness, I am a servant,” he decided on eventually. “But my relatives are a bit better off and don’t like to think that they are connected to such a lowly freak. They despise magic and think I’m some sort of devils spawn, hated me since before I was born because my mother was magical too.” He shrugged. “No doubt they were the ones who made sure my wand was broken in the arrest. It was the only thing I had that belonged to my father.”
Throughout his tale, Ginevra’s face had gone from suspicious and angry to horrified and even angrier. When he finished he could see her struggling to form a sentence that was more than just angry ranting for which he was glad. Glad because it meant there was less chance of Death Eaters overhearing them and also because she was angry on his behalf.
“That’s despicable,” she growled, eventually. “And disgusting.” There was a pause and then, quieter, softer; “I’ll get you a new wand, Gryf- James.”
To his immense surprise (and total embarrassment), Harry found himself going red. “Er, thank you, Your Highness. But you really don’t have – ”
“Yes,” Ginevra said firmly although she had gone a little red too. “Yes, I do.”
“Well… thank you,” Harry repeated, somewhat lamely.
And, as though there had been some sort of sign, they both headed off through the forest. They didn’t say anything else, both lost in thoughts about their unexpected conversation, but when Ginevra’s feet began to hurt and she took Harry’s proffered arm, Harry realised with some surprise that what he was enjoying himself.
What a pity the feeling couldn’t last.
Ron was extremely annoyed.
Although not a foreign emotion to the Prince, this particular occurrence was all the more frustrating because he was desperate to make a good impression on Countess Lily.
He rather suspected he was failing.
It had been going so well – amazingly well, even – and then that bloody wheel had broken! And everything had gone downhill from there.
First he had been shown up by Lily being more adventurous than he. Then, of course, he just had to go along with her, trying to play the part of strong, heroic prince. What had he been thinking?! Ron didn’t walk anywhere – he was a Prince! He rode a horse, a broomstick or in a carriage. And the places he did walk were smooth, carefully maintained pathways. This was a forest, chocker block full of little pebbles to get in his boots; dry soil which caused him to slip about on the banks; and, worst of all, perky tree roots just designed to trip him up.
The first time he’d fallen flat on his face, Countess Lily had rushed over to help him up, fussing over him. That had been nice, despite the fact it had been extremely embarrassing. Plus it gave him a chance to hold her hand.
Now, 12 falls later, she just laughed at him and even the thrill of clasping her hand was soured by how black the front of his tunic was with dirt.
And, to further compound his misery, he had blisters.
Countess Lily on the other hand strode through the woods like she’d been born there. She certainly didn’t get hit in the face by low lying branches or limp after blisters made themselves known on her feet. She hadn’t even stumbled once. Part of him was annoyed about that but it was a very small part.
So Ron hobbled and tripped after his lady, trying to disguise the fact that his boots would probably be leaking blood if this walk went on much longer.
Then, of course, they had to get lost.
“I’m sure the road was in this direction,” Lily said, frowning. “Mind you, I wasn’t paying much attention,” she added, smiling at Ron.
Ron immediately huffed up indignantly before he realised she hadn’t meant it as an insult; it was a compliment! She was too busy paying attention to him to keep track of where they were going. Frustration and pain melted away as he beamed at her. A chance to prove himself again! Brilliant!
“Well, those trees are pretty tall,” he said, looking at the larger conifers surrounding them. “I’m sure I can climb one and see the direction of the palace – the towers are pretty high.”
“Oh – Your Highness, you really shouldn’t,” Lily protested, looking alarmed.
But Ron was not to be deterred. “Don’t worry, Countess,” he said, reaching out to grab a low-lying branch. “I’ll soon get us back on track.”
“But, really, there’s no need to climb this tree – ”
“I’ll be up in no time, don’t worry,” Ron called down, managing to haul himself up onto the lowest branch level.
“It’s just that we can use – ”
“Please, my Lady, fear not,” Ron said, touch at her concern beginning to turn into annoyance. Couldn’t she just let him have his moment?
Seemingly she had caught something of his annoyance in his reply for she made no further protests. Ron felt a bit guilty about that, but it soon passed. ‘She’ll feel differently when I’ve found the way back,’ he told himself and then his mind was completely engrossed in climbing the tree.
He hadn’t got very far before Ron decided that climbing trees was bloody difficult. Part of his difficulties came from the tree itself. Whilst it looked quite sturdy the branches themselves were very light and prone to bending alarmingly under his weight. He’d already had a few alarming slips and his blood was pounding so loud in his ears that he wouldn’t have been able to hear any of Lily’s further protests had she made any.
The other part of his difficulties came from that his arms and upper bodies were no more used to pulling his bulk up a tree than his feet were made for walking. The branches were so supple that he was supporting his weight partly with his arms as well as his legs to spread it out but it was taking its toll. He had hardly moved higher than the level of Countess Lily’s head than his arms and back were beginning to ache.
‘I must be near the top by now,’ Ron thought, somewhat despairingly as his arms began to tremble slightly. He couldn’t very well back down now, not after he’d made such a fuss about climbing up. He leaned outwards slightly to see if he could get a glimpse of the palace. To his despair not only could he not see the palace but he realised that he’d hardly gotten very far off the ground at all.
‘I am such an idiot,’ he told himself, warring between his desire to go back down and his desire to not be completely humiliated.
As it turned out, the tree decided the matter for him. It had born him as best it could but now he had stopped it proved too much for the spindly branches. With much cracking and snapping they gave way and Ron found himself falling… falling…
“Your Highness! Are you alright?”
Ron looked at her best he could from where the levitation spell held him captive. “Oh, just fine, Countess,” he tried to say nonchalantly, but his blasé tone rather failed when it came out as a squeak.
Nonetheless, she looked visibly relieved and waved her wand gently, depositing Ron on his feet. His grateful smile at her froze on his face when he realised that his embarrassment was not a private one. Ginny, Luna and Gryffindor were all stood around him, Ginny shaking with silent mirth and Gryffindor fighting a smile of his own.
“What in Merlin’s name were you doing climbing a tree, Ronald?” Ginny managed to gasp out.
Ron puffed up indignantly. “Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Ginevra, but we’re lost,” he informed her stiffly. “I was trying to get our bearings so we could actually get back to the palace sometime this century.”
Ginevra rolled her eyes. “And you thought the best way to do this was to climb a tree?”
“Well do you have any bright ideas?”
Ginny didn’t reply, just glared at him, which told him she, too, didn’t have any clue. That made him feel better, but only a little. After all, he was the one that looked like an idiot by falling out of a tree.
“We could find a gernumblie,” Luna offered helpfully. “They’re extremely wise.”
“A what?” Ron asked, baffled.
“It’s a garden gnome, Your Highness – er, Ron,” Lily corrected as he stared at her. She frowned at Luna, “Even if we did find one here, Lady Luna, I’m not entirely sure that they’d help us.”
“Excuse me, Your Highness, there is always the ‘point me’ charm,” Gryffindor said politely.
“Point me charm?” Ron repeated, Ginny looking equally confused. “What’s that?”
“In its basic form it causes your wand to point north,” Gryffindor explained. “But you can get it to point more specifically at a location. Countess Lily can perform it.”
Ron looked over at the Countess, surprised, who was looking embarrassed and Ron’s face flared an impressive shade of red as he realised why. ‘Idiot, Ron,’ he told himself and not for the first time. ‘She wasn’t protesting because she was worried about you – but because she knew this charm. And there I go, rushing into climbing a tree like a proper idiot.’
Avoiding looking at Ron, Lily held out her wand and incanted, “Point me palace.” The wand vibrated in place for a split second before twisting in the air, pointing somewhere to the right of the Countess.
“We should get going,” Gryffindor said in the pause that followed. “There are Death Eaters in these woods – we don’t want to be in here longer than we can help it.”
Ron was about to protest Gryffindor ordering them around before his mind snagged on the words ‘Death Eaters’. “Death Eaters? How do you know?”
“The driver told me – the Princess and I were catching you up to tell you when you…erm…”
“Fell out the tree,” Ginny helped him out, smirking.
“Yes, thanks Ginny, for reminding us all about that,” Ron growled but his sister just smiled sweetly at him.
“Come on,” she said, pulling at Gryffindor’s arm, “I really don’t want to run into those Death Eaters again.”
“Aw, Your Highness – and I was so looking forward to seeing you – I’m hurt!”
There was a brief pause, in which Ron could see his own shock and horror mirrored in the faces of his companions.
Then all hell broke loose.
It was like living inside one of Harry’s nightmares.
One second everything had been fine and the next he was launching himself to the ground and watching his friends follow suit. Unlike Harry, however, they had not managed to get out of the way of the jinxes in time. Harry felt his heart almost stop as Hermione’s unconscious form crashed into the ground next to him. He growled and curled his fist around his wand…
Or where his wand would normally be.
“Gryffindor! What do we do?”
Harry turned, surprised to realise that he wasn’t the only one to survive the initial cull. Princess Ginevra, eyes wide but angry, was lying down next to him, hand curled around her wand. Harry was impressed by her reflexes until he realised that she had been holding onto him when he threw himself to the ground and had inadvertently brought her with him.
Harry opened his mouth to answer her but then closed it. What was he going to tell her? Hermione, Ron and Luna were down, they were surrounded and only Ginevra had a wand. He opened his wand to tell her, but someone beat him to it.
“You surrender, Your Highness.”
Harry and Ginevra looked up to see one of the Death Eaters jump down from a tree. Harry didn’t know him but Ginevra breathed in sharply. As he glanced over at her he was surprised to see she was glaring angrily at the leader in recognition.
“Face it, Princess, you’re completely surrounded and no aurors to save you this time.”
“I don’t need any aurors to save me,” Ginny retorted, scrambling to her feet angrily, but froze as the Death Eater simply pointed his wand at a groaning Luna, whose head was almost under his feet. The leader fixed her with a cool smile and she reluctantly put her hands up in the air.
“You too,” the leader said, nodding his head at Harry. As he got carefully to his feet, Harry studied the leader of the Death Eaters who had surrounded them so easily. For the fearsome leader of the Death Eaters the man was surprisingly young. Hardship had made his face appear older than he was and as a result, Harry was willing to bet that the man wasn’t much older than he or Hermione. His skin was dark, as were his eyes, but lines around them showed that he laughed a lot. Harry found that unexpected. He hadn’t thought of Death Eaters as having much to laugh about.
The rest of him, however, was much as Harry had imagined; skinny arms and legs; uneven, clumpy dark hair; mismatched clothing, riddled with patches; and a wand, old and worn, clenched tightly in calloused hands.
“What do you want?” Harry asked, eventually, as the Death Eaters made no move.
The man grinned. “Your wands, of course,” he said, waving his free arm at some of his followers. As they started to move towards them Harry stood in front of the others. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Hermione just beginning to stir, although Ronald was still completely unconscious. The Death Eaters paused and looked back to their leader.
“Just our wands?” Harry asked carefully, watching the leader closely.
“Well, maybe a bit more,” the leader admitted, smirking.
“How much more?” Ginevra asked, moving to stand up next to Harry. Harry was impressed by her bravery but wished she’d stayed behind him. If the Death Eater started firing he’d be hard pressed to get in front of her in time.
The grin grew wider. “Smart Princess to ask,” he said, “but not so smart, maybe, seeing as how you came into our woods in the first place.”
“Maybe I was looking for a rematch,” Ginevra retorted, causing Harry to stare at her in surprise. When on earth had the Princess come across Death Eaters before? “You all ran away before I could beat you thoroughly.”
The leader broke into a good laugh at that. “You know, you’re not exactly what I thought a Princess would be,” he told her almost conversationally.
Ginevra smiled. “Well, I’ve never been one to live up to expectations.”
“I don’t know, Your Highness; you’ve fair exceeded mine.”
‘Are they flirting?!’ Harry thought incredulously, looking between the two of them in astonishment. One moment he feared for his life and the next he was an uncomfortable spectator in a flirting match. He was also annoyed to feel his stomach clenching. Was he jealous?!
“Funny,” Ginevra was saying. “You’ve not exceeded mine. You’re exactly what I thought a Death Eater would be.”
“Dark, handsome and charming?”
“I was going for a sneaky, underhand and cowardly lowlife.”
“But you admit I’m handsome, right?”
“Um, Your Highness,” Harry interjected hurriedly before this bizarre conversation could go any further.
Ginevra blinked at the sudden interruption and went a bit red. The leader just smirked and raised an eyebrow at them. When neither of them started speaking, Harry decided to take back up the reigns of the conversation before the flirting could resume.
“You still haven’t told us exactly what you want from us,” he said, staring intently at the leader.
The smirk turned into a full on grin. “Should have thought that was obvious, my Lord,” he mocked. “We want to be listened to – and, with two royals and the niece of the great master wandmaker in our hands, their Majesties are going to be listening very carefully.”
Harry went cold all over as he exchanged worried glances with Ginevra. Losing their wands they could deal with, but abduction was another matter altogether. He shuddered to think of what would happen in the country if two royals were kidnapped by Death Eaters, not to mention what would happen to Ginevra herself. He clenched his fists in anger at the thought.
“You’re going to use us as a bargaining chip?” Ginevra asked angrily. “We’re not tokens you can barter with!”
The leader shrugged. “It’s not as if we have much choice, Your Highness. And don’t worry, we’ll treat you nice.”
“What about myself and my servant?”
Harry turned in surprise to see Hermione getting carefully to her feet. He hadn’t realised she’d fully come to. As he turned he saw that Ronald, too, was awake, although his eyes were slightly cloudy. Hermione’s eyes, however, were clear and she was watching the leader worriedly. Harry hoped they weren’t expecting a ransom for the ‘Countess’ because it would be a long time coming.
The leader looked at Harry in surprise. “You’re a servant?” He didn’t wait for Harry to answer, however, before turning back to Hermione. “We have no quarrel with you, my Lady, only with your wand. Hand it over and you and your servant can go.”
“I am not going without my escorts!” Hermione snapped, clenching her fists.
“You’re welcome to remain with them,” the leader suggested and for the first time his voice hinted that there was something more menacing underneath the smirks and witty banter, something that led him to lead this band of outlaws over far older men and women.
Hermione answered him with a glare.
The Death Eater laughed. “I should know better than to expect anyone you travel with to be a typical court lady, Princess Ginevra,” he said, only to meet another glare. He laughed again and then turned back to Hermione. “Well, Countess, I stand by what I said; you and your servant are free to go once you throw us your wand. But,” he added, pulling a mock-pity face, “far be it from me to be anything less than a gentleman, please feel free to take anything else from us that will help you on your long and difficult journey.”
At the end of his mocking speech the rest of the Death Eaters broke into laughter. Ginevra shifted angrily but made no move; throughout his speech the Death Eater’s wand had never wavered from Lady Luna’s worried face, even as she scrambled backwards out of his way. By their feet, Ronald was beginning to look around with a bit more clarity, although his eyes were still worryingly unfocused. It was possible the Prince had knocked his head as he fell and was now suffering from a concussion.
Harry, however, had not known Hermione for four years without learning to read her. As a result he was probably the only one that noticed her eyes light up. She’d obviously found something she could work with. What that was, of course, Harry had no clue. That’s why she was the smart one.
“Do I have your word on that, sir?” Hermione asked carefully once the laughter had died down.
“Barring the wands, my Lady,” he said, still grinning, “anything you or your servant can carry. My word.”
Hermione immediately turned to Harry triumphantly. “H-James,” she said, almost slipping. “Baling hay.”
For a moment, Harry couldn’t think what she meant. And then, suddenly, everything became clear. “2 or 1?”
“Just 1 for me,” Hermione said, ignoring the completely perplexed expressions of their companions, not to mention that of the Death Eaters. But that was fine – the longer it took them to figure out their plan, the less likely they were to stop them.
“Excuse me, Your Highness, Lady Luna,” Harry whispered, as he pulled the former to her feet, “but I’m going to need you to drop your wands.”
“Why?” Ginevra hissed, even as Luna let hers roll out her fingers. It was she who answered the Princess, “Because he’s the lightning bearer.”
Ginevra looked she was going to argue but finally just sighed and threw hers away. “Fine.”
“Wait, what are you – whoa!”
The leader swore as Harry ducked down and, with a bit of a groan and a surprised “Oof!” from Ginevra, managed to heft both her and Luna over his shoulders. As he straightened up as best he could under the weight of the two nobles, he looked over to see Hermione had managed to lift the extremely confused Prince over her own shoulders. She shot him a small smile before turning back triumphantly to the astonished Death Eaters.
“We thank you for your hospitality,” she said, even managing a small bow, before turning and walking away. Harry followed his ‘lady’, struggling not to laugh both at the flabbergasted expression on the leader’s face and the equally flummoxed expression on Ronald’s face as he bumped around on Hermione’s back.
And then suddenly there was laughter, but it wasn’t Harry. Instead, the laughter was coming from behind them.
“Wait, come back!”
“As if we’re that stupid,” Harry heard Ginevra say to Luna. It was quite strange to hear two ladies having a conversation somewhere around his… ‘Oh,’ Harry thought, going a bit red, and not just from the strain. ‘Oh, bloody hell!’
The leader of the Death Eaters, however, wasn’t going to let them go that easy. “No, please, stop!” he repeated as he came running after them. Harry stopped with a sigh, although he didn’t let down either noble. It was always going to be a long shot to escape with their captives. Word or no, the Death Eaters would be fools to let them walk away on nothing but a promise. ‘We should have gotten an unbreakable vow,’ Harry thought sadly, although the Death Eaters would never have agreed to that.
Hermione too had stopped walking now and turned back to the Death Eater with a glare. “You gave us your word, Death Eater,” she snapped angrily, but he cut her off.
“And I mean to keep it, my Lady,” he told her, grinning, before bowing gallantly. “I must commend you on your wits, Countess – and your arms,” he added, with a laugh. “It’s been a long time since someone has gotten the best of me.”
“I thank you, sir,” Hermione said uncertainly, “but if you mean to keep your word why are you stopping us from carrying on with our way?”
“Because I think our leader would be most interested in meeting you, Countess,” the Death Eater told her, smiling.
Harry looked at him sharply. “You mean you’re not the leader of the Death Eaters?” he asked, shifting Ginevra and Luna carefully. His back was beginning to ache.
The leader – or non-leader, as it turned out – threw out another one of his laughs. “Me? Merlin, no! I follow a much greater man than I.”
“Why would your leader be interested in meeting us?” Hermione asked, also shifting under Ronald’s weight.
“I think he’d like you,” the Death Eater said quite honestly. “And don’t forget, my Lady, that I said all we wanted was to be listened to. We may not be able to reach the King anymore but that doesn’t mean I won’t let the chance to talk to some intelligent, well-connected nobles pass us by.”
“How do we know this isn’t some kind of trick?” Harry asked, narrowing his eyes.
“On my honour,” the Death Eater replied instantly, “this is no trick. You will be free to leave once you have met with our leader and I’ll even provide horses.” Seeing the uncertainty and mistrust on both their faces, he sighed and said, “Look, I’ll even give you these back,” and shoved something into Hermione’s free hand. When Harry looked closer he realised with a shock that they were their wands.
“Look, this is ridiculous,” Ginevra said suddenly, shifting so unexpectedly that Harry almost dropped both her and Luna. “Let me down, Gryffindor, I’m not going to sit here like a lump of lead while our fates are decided.” She was wriggling so much that Harry had to let both her and Luna down, arms tingling where the Princesses hand met his own once more. Harry was pretty sure it wasn’t down to pins and needles but he tried to ignore it; Ginevra certainly was. Hermione hesitated a moment before following suit with Ronald. He was looking slightly green but managed to stand without falling over.
“Let me get this right,” Ginevra said after she straightened her dress and snatched her wand back from Hermione, “you want to invite us over for a chat, not two minutes after you were going to hold us all for ransom?”
The Death Eater shrugged. “Believe what you will, Your Highness, I do have some semblance of honour. And as you might be able to tell, we are desperate. We need someone to listen to us. I’ll admit you weren’t the ones I would have picked, but we’ll take what we can get. Especially,” he added, with his trademark grin reappearing, “as you’re not the dunderheads we were told to expect of court nobles.”
Ginevra made a face at him, although it was half-hearted. She looked across at Hermione. “Countess, what do you think?”
Hermione stared at her wide eyed and it struck Harry just how ridiculous this situation really was. Here they all were, being asked to discuss politics and laws with terrorists on behalf of the monarchs, when Harry hadn’t even managed to hold onto an estate that was legally his and Hermione was a servant, who had no political power or say in the country at all.
“I think,” she said slowly, “that it’s time someone listened to what the Death Eaters have to say.”
The man who led the infamous Death Eaters, the most feared
terrorists in the country, was a little bit of a let-down, truth be told. Ginny had half been expecting a maniacal
psychopath, with glowing red eyes and a snake around his shoulders. What she got instead was a scholar.
Tom Marvolo Riddle was a lot older than she would have expected; the other half of her expectations featured a teenaged hot-head with no common sense but a ton of rage. Instead Tom, as he insisted they called him, was at the very least in his sixties, with a carefully groomed mane of grey-white hair around his wrinkled face. He was surprisingly well dressed considering that he was living in the middle of the forest although his clothes were well worn. His eyes, far from being red, were a dark grey-brown that searched them curiously as the Death Eater – whose name it turned out was Dean – introduced them.
If Riddle was surprised that Dean had brought them all along as guests rather than the hostages he was expecting he didn’t let it show. Instead he had greeted them all amiably and even had a spare bow for Gryffindor. Ron was a little bit awkward around the wizard, as per usual in nearly any social situation, although considering who they were meeting, Ginny couldn’t blame him. Lady Luna, on the other hand, treated Riddle just as she would anyone else. That is to say she eyed him carefully, warned him he was plagued by an excessive amount of wrackspurts, before wandering off to pick some flowers.
Riddle watched her go, warring between amusement and confusion. Amusement won.
“It’s not often I meet someone who doesn’t care who I am,” he commented almost wistfully. “It’s quite refreshing. People’s impressions and expectations of you weigh rather on your mind, don’t you find, Your Highnesses?” Ron blinked uncertainly, but Ginevra stared at him in surprise. She made no comment, however, so Riddle carried on. “I assume you’re wondering why I wanted to meet with you?”
“Meet with us?” Ginny asked coolly, raising an eyebrow. “I was under the impression you wanted to abduct us and hold us for ransom.”
Riddle fixed her with a piercing stare but Ginny didn’t waver. Terrorist or not, she wasn’t going to dance around the fact that he’d try to abduct her, her brother and Luna not half an hour ago. The only reason he hadn’t managed it was because of Lily’s quick wits, Dean’s vague sense of honour and Gryffindor’s strong arms. Very strong arms… and then there was –
‘Snap out of that, Ginny,’ she scolded herself, banishing the memory of the view she’d had as she’d been carried away to focus on the problem at hand.
“We are desperate men and women, Your Highness,” Riddle said softly. “We are the forgotten masses, the children thrown out into the cold to die, abandoned by all. We are tired of being ignored but those who have the power to help us – whose duty it is to protect us – turn away from our problems like all the rest.”
“Well of course the King and Queen aren’t going to listen to you if you attack innocent people,” Ron said, like an idiot.
Ginny refrained from hitting her senseless brother, but it was a close call. Riddle, however, didn’t seem to take offense at the comment and instead gave a small sad smile. “Well, Your Highness, I didn’t start by ‘attacking’ people. I started by seeking a petition with the King. I campaigned, I spoke to as many nobles, wealthy merchants and even commoners as I could, I wrote letters, I spoke at parties and practically beggared myself in the process. Nobody would listen.”
There was silence as that sunk in. Ginny could well imagine that all the others were as surprised as she was, although Gryffindor and Lily strangely exchanged meaningful looks. She had not realised this issue had been going on so long. Indeed, the first she had heard about it was only a few days ago and that encounter in the woods. Since then she had spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time questioning the aurors and reading reports on Death Eaters to satisfy her curiosity. In none of those reports had she seen any hint that the problem had been going on for longer than a few months. Nor, for that matter, had she seen the name Tom Marvolo Riddle anywhere.
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me that the nobility are experts in not listening to anything other than themselves,” Gryffindor said wryly. That was unexpected. Ginny and Ron both looked at Gryffindor in surprise, although whereas Ron was affronted by his comment, Ginny was struck by how acute Gryffindor’s observation was. Just look at her parents!
“What surprises me, Mr Riddle,” Lily said, giving Gryffindor a warning look, “is that, whilst you are clearly from a wealthy family, you took up a difficult cause that was not your own. Why do it?”
Riddle looked at her carefully. “Well picked up on, Countess,” he said, giving her a smile. “A sharp mind, but I knew that already.” He sighed. “You’re right; I was fortunate enough to be born into a merchant family, one just wealthy enough to afford some semblance of magical tuition. I was not abandoned onto the streets to die, but my mother was.” He didn’t pause to acknowledge their shock but went straight on.
“My mother was born into a poor family of common labourers. Although the family itself had at one point been magical, over the generations the magic had ‘fizzled out’, as it were, of the family line. My mother was the first to be born with any noticeable magical gift in several generations. My grandfather was a ghastly example of a human being and, once he cottoned onto the fact the strange things that were happening was the result of my mother’s magic, he ran her out of the house. She was just nine years old.
“That could have been the end of my mother, were it not for my paternal grandfather. I don’t know why my mother moved him so, when he must walk past tens of starving beggars every day, but he saw her and pitied her and took her into his own house. He bade the servants care for her and, once she was well enough, began working as a maid in his house.
“There were accidents, of course, that could not be helped but my grandfather laughed at them all and, through promises and calling in favours, managed to get my mother a little bit of magical education. He even got her a wand in lieu of wages for her first two years.” Riddle shrugged. “I don’t know why my father fell in love with her, any more than my grandfather rescued her. By all accounts she was not a pretty woman, but there was obviously something more to her for, once she was old enough, my father married her. She died giving birth to me, but I listened to the tales my father and grandfather told about her and I have never forgotten.”
There was a weighty pause at the end of Riddle’s tale. Ginny felt oddly moved and very sad that he had never met the woman who had endured so much to give life to him. And had he not, in his own way, given his life for her? For it was clear that his commitment to his cause came from the memory of what his mother’s fate could have been.
“That’s very sad,” Lily said simply.
Riddle shrugged. “Unfortunately, Countess, that is a happy tale. There are many more that ended far worse than mine. Take Dean, for example,” he said, nodding his head towards the younger man who was still stood with them. “When Dean started showing magical powers, his mother realised that her husband was a wizard who had deceived her. She ran away from him and left Dean, just five, in the woods to die.”
Ginny was horrified, as was Ron. Strangely, whilst Lily and Gryffindor were saddened, they were not particularly surprised. “That’s horrible!” Ginny said, staring at the Death Eater in a new light. To grow up all your life knowing your mother abandoned you because of something you couldn’t help…
Dean’s face was carefully blank. “Don’t worry about me, Your Highness,” he said, although his usual laidback tone had disappeared, “I’m perfectly happy with my life as it is.”
“I didn’t realise this sort of thing was so bad,” Ginny said, half to herself. Despite having touched on it with Gryffindor earlier, the idea of magic being a curse, something to be despised, was new and alien. She loved having magic, couldn’t imagine her life without it; it was part of who she was. But if that part of her was the reason her mother would hate her or her father threw her out… she rather wondered how people like Dean could live without despising themselves.
“It’s not just poor families, Your Highness,” Gryffindor said. She went a bit pink as he looked at her, feeling oddly uncomfortable. She put it down to spending a fair few minutes doing nothing but staring at the man’s backside. She tried to push the image out of her mind once more – even if it was a lovely backside – to focus on what Gryffindor was saying. “It happens to well-placed servants as well. We found one of our maids, He-Heather, living on the streets and rescued her. Her family, who were important servants in a large noble household, had thrown her out once she’d started showing signs of magic. They were too frightened of losing their jobs to protect their daughter.”
He looked over at Lily, who was looking very sad, and it struck Ginny once again how very unusual the Countess really was. In her own way, Lily was more like Riddle than she was like Ginny herself. Ginny just sat and went along with what she was told. Sure, she liked to think that she had a rebellious side, but in reality how far beyond her own polished doorstep did she ever look? Lily not only looked, but she went out and changed things, improved the world she lived in and she didn’t have half the power of a Princess.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been ashamed of what I am before now,’ Ginny thought to herself, staring at Lily and Gryffindor. ‘Or, more accurately, of what I could be but aren’t, because I haven’t really tried.’
She opened her mouth to ask Riddle to pass on his message, but someone beat her to it.
“Alright, Riddle – we’re listening now. What have you got to say?”
Ginny stared at her brother in astonishment, before smiling. ‘Seems I’m not the only one getting an education from Countess Lily,’ she thought wryly. Although, she realised, Gryffindor was a bit of an education, too. Her eyes drifted over to the servant, pondering their earlier conversation. She had wanted to talk to him because she was curious; both about what both Luna and Dumbledore had hinted at and also because he was so very un-servant like. She hadn’t felt any clearer after talking to him though. Rather, her head was now bursting with another hundred questions she wanted to ask him.
Suddenly she realised that this Heather wasn’t the only one in the Ravenclaw household to suffer for being a low-born witch or wizard. What had Gryffindor said?
“They despise magic and think I’m some sort of devils spawn, hated me since before I was born because my mother was magical too.”
It was clear that Gryffindor was an important person in the Ravenclaw household, but even with that protection it hadn’t stopped his own family from persecuting him because of his magical abilities. Even Lily could only just save him in time, with all the power she had at her disposal. Ginny rather wondered then if that was the real reason Lily had suddenly popped up at Court; to rescue her servant.
As if sensing her gaze, Gryffindor looked over and locked eyes with her. To her immense embarrassment she found herself blushing, of all things, and immediately turned back to Riddle who was thanking her brother profoundly before starting on all his carefully thought out points.
Shame, it seemed, was becoming a recurring emotion to Princess Ginevra. For all throughout Riddle’s speech Ginny felt extremely ashamed. It wasn’t due to the extreme injustice she had failed to notice just down the road, although that was a small part of it.
No, Ginny’s shame came from the fact that, although she had promised herself to properly listen to Riddle’s arguments, at least part of her attention was always dwelling on the sensation of Gryffindor’s eyes locked on her own.