“Could I have some beetles to take back with me? I have a friend who wants to try them.”
“Assuredly. I shall acquire you some.”
Harry watched as Mosag, eternally delicate, picked his way up a tree and into a high web, where several bundles were wrapped. He poked and prodded over a few before severing two that came sailing down through the canopy. Harry caught them and tucked them in his bag next to the thick scroll of meeting notes.
“Think nothing of it, honored emissary.” Mosag squinted about half his eyes in a way that Harry knew meant smiling, and carefully put the tip of one leg on his hair, moving it back and forth awkwardly. Harry had done it to him once, and now Mosag thought humans liked to be petted. Harry did kind of like it, so he’d never corrected him.
“Aragog conveys his apologies that he could not see you off—there was a convulsion in the eastern end of our territory that necessitated his attendance.”
“That’s alright,” Harry said. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
“For the autumn feast,” Mosag said. “I look forward to it. Goodbye, Snakeheart. ‘Ware you do not stray into the centaurs’ lands.”
“I won’t. Bye, Mosag.”
Mosag dipped a bow, touched his head once more, and scuttled away. Acromantulae did not believe in long goodbyes.
Harry checked to ensure he had everything—meeting notes, bugs, camping supplies—before leaving the encampment. It was half a day’s walk out of acromantula territory, and then another four to five out of the forest, depending on how distracted he got or whether anything tried to kill him.
This was only his second trip back to the acromantula encampment since being made emissary, and he was still a bit nervous about it. The first had been in the summer, and it had been full of frustration on both sides, as Harry hadn't had the answers the acromantulae were looking for, and he ended up having to take a long list of questions and offers back to the basilisk. But this one had been less stressful overall: he’d had answers, a bit more confidence in speaking for the basilisk, and, most critically, a dictionary.
He saw a few acromantulae as he wandered out of their territory, but none of them spoke to him. They were high above, and at most they raised a leg to wave. He didn’t mind. He was still a little scared of them. He thought it might be mutual.
At midday he crossed out of acromantula territory—he could tell by the change in smell—and took out some leftover fish to eat. He stopped after that to wash his hands in a little pond, and took a moment to ponder his reflection, which he didn’t pay much mind to usually. But it struck him now that his hair reached his chin, though it still stuck out, and his face wasn’t as bony as it had always been, and even though he was very small he felt very real.
He had been here a year. He had never felt happier.
Three days from home. He was sure he had veered around centaur territory, but the smell of them was still in the air, and it made him anxious. But if he veered any further around he would add too much time to his journey, and he was homesick.
In the end, it didn’t matter how far he veered. Bane always found him.
He was burying the remains of his lunch when a branch cracked rather intentionally. Bane stood a few meters away, looking huge and foreboding and mean, his arms crossed, dark eyes narrowed.
Harry stood and took a few hasty steps back. “I’m not in centaur territory,” he said quickly. “The basilisk is expecting me.” His hands twisted and twisted around the strap of his bag.
Bane’s lip curled. “Emissary between species?”
“Yes,” Harry said stiffly, trying not to tremble.
“Hm. Quite a position for one so young.”
“I’m a prodigy.” Harry regretted it instantly. Bad things happened when he mouthed off. He didn’t quite remember what those bad things were, but the specter of them was enough to send a cold flush through his body. He bit his lip.
“Hm.” Bane’s night-black eyes bored into him. “And that’s your excuse for wandering into our territory?”
A hot rush chased the cold one. He had been so careful. “Yes.”
It was not. It had only been a year; he could count his journeys into the forest on one hand. But this was a dire mistake. Bane had warned him before, and Mosag had warned him again.
“I think not,” Bane decided. “To the village with you, boy. Will you come quietly or by force?”
Harry eyed Bane’s gigantic form, muscled arms rippling, thick eyebrows merciless. “Walk.”
They walked in cold silence for a long time. Bane didn’t make conversation, and Harry was too scared. This wasn’t like the acromantulae, who had been taken by surprise by the truth. Nothing surprised centaurs, and they already knew everything about him.
It was dark by the time they arrived. For all Bane’s anger, Harry was sure he had only just been on the edge of centaur territory. Maybe this was just an excuse to finally find him guilty.
Harry would originally have gone to sleep an hour ago before it got too dark to see by. He started to stumble frequently, tripping on roots and stones, and eventually Bane seized his upper arm and towed him along, which he hated but was too scared to protest.
Naturally, it was pitch-dark at the village center when they finally arrived. For how else would centaurs see the stars? It was the largest clearing Harry had seen in the forest yet: a canopy of stars rolled above the forest in a sudden and beautiful unfolding. Harry had never seen them so clearly.
He had occasionally wondered how the centaurs lived. The answer was: in quite a bit of comfort. A low fire blazed in the center of the clearing, its flames green, and on the edges where the trees started up again, boughs were woven together to create intricate shelters, huge tunnel-like constructions, inside of which he caught flashes of movement. It reminded him of a massive, living honeycomb.
Clotheslines stretched the clearing, blankets hung over them. Over the fire were several huge pots, and Harry saw parcels of food nesting in the coals.
Also scattered throughout the clearing were many intricate instruments, some made of metal, some of wood, some of glass. They reminded him of giant stick insects. Glass and crystals hanging from them threw moonshadows on the ground. Involuntarily, he took a step towards them, but Bane’s grip on his arm held him back. The same grip held him in place as a group of centaurs exited a honeycomb bower.
The biggest group of centaurs he’d ever seen had been the group of three that had killed a graphon in front of him. Six now approached them, male and female, all looking sternly at him. Had they expected him? How? Had Bane sent word back somehow? Had he gone looking for Harry? That hardly seemed fair, to be sought instead of simply caught.
Bane kept his grip on Harry’s arm and turned him to face the others, who stood in a semicircle near the fire. That was a little surprising: Harry had been expecting him to join their ranks.
The female centaur in the very center tilted her head to appraise him. She had shiny black hair braided in a crown atop her head, and brown skin that caught the moon glimmers the crystals were throwing. Like the other centaurs, she wore no clothes. Harry had never seen a woman’s breasts before, and for some reason he felt embarrassed. But the centaur woman didn’t seem embarrassed. She also had some kind of lump in her stomach that freaked Harry out. None of the others had it.
“So,” she said. “This is the human who has been troubling our boundaries.”
“Smaller than I expected,” murmured the centaur woman beside her.
Harry wrung the strap of his bag with the hand that wasn’t attached to the arm Bane was gripping. “I’m sorry for trespassing. It was an accident. It won’t happen again.” He hesitated. “The basilisk is expecting me back.”
The centaur woman frowned. “It certainly will not happen again.” She stepped forward. “What is your name?”
Harry glanced nervously up at Bane, who simply stared. Bane knew his name. “It’s Harry. But I go by Snakeheart.”
The centaurs murmured to themselves, indistinct. “Lift up your hair,” said the woman, taking a step towards him.
Instead, Harry clapped a hand to his bangs, which had grown long enough they really weren’t bangs anymore. The memory of Bane grabbing his head washed over him. This wasn’t funny anymore, it wasn’t remotely enjoyable. His vision tunneled in; he was as scared as he had been the first time he’d met Bane. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be anywhere but here. He wanted to be with the basilisk.
Everything went huge for a moment as his perspective shifted wildly, and then somehow he was on the other side of the fire, his arm free, though it throbbed. “Stay away!” he called, voice shaking. “Please, just let me go! The basilisk knows where I was supposed to be, it’ll come looking!”
Maybe, in a few weeks, he thought to himself. Whenever it gets back from the deeps. But he kept those thoughts from his face.
The centaur woman had frozen, her hands raised slightly. “Peace, child. I won’t touch you.” She look at her companions, and then at Bane, who had an eyebrow raised. She looked like she was deliberating, and Harry could see when she made up her mind. She half-turned to the others. “I think we can all agree this child is no true threat, so long as he skirts our territory.”
The other centaurs seemed to concede. A few of them wandered back into the bower, others went to fiddle with those strange instruments. Bane remained, however, putting a hand on the centaur woman’s shoulder. Harry watched them warily.
“I am Nayla,” said the centaur woman. “Leader of the Northern Stargazer Band. You know my mate Bane. I apologize for frightening you, Harry Potter.”
Harry’s whole body went rigid. When was the last time he had heard that name? It echoed through him, pulling memories out of sleep: Potter, spat in disgust. Discomfort wriggled through him like a parasite. “How do you know my last name?” he whispered.
Nayla folded her arms. “It is written in the stars, and it is our task to read. I will say nothing more.”
He stared into her eyes. They were a deep black, but he could catch flecks of blue light inside them: stars shining a vast distance away.
Bane was looking at him. His hand was careful on Nayla’s shoulder, and something about that made Harry’s opinion of him rise a bit.
“I’m the emissary between the acromantulae and the basilisk,” Harry said. “You can’t keep me here.”
“We will not. But we will offer you hospitality for the night. We brought you here, after all. Will you accept?”
Harry didn’t really want to stay with the centaurs, but on the other hand it was firmly night, chilly, and he was exhausted. “Okay,” he said reluctantly, his glance flicking to Bane before he could stop it.
Bane read the gaze. “I am going to speak to my brother,” he said, and kissed Nayla on the cheek before entering the honeycomb bower.
Nayla watched him go, then went over to the fire and knelt. It was a great production to see a centaur kneel, and Harry was fascinated.
“Come here, Harry Potter.”
The name sent a shiver of unease through him. “My name is Snakeheart,” he said faintly.
“Come here, Snakeheart.” She smiled at him. “Share food with me. And make me a promise.”
Harry was wary of making promises to people. He had done it too much already, or so the basilisk said. But he knelt down beside her as she dug a parcel from the embers, hardly seeming to feel the heat.
“What do you want?” he asked.
She opened the parcel to reveal a potato stuffed with spices, meat, and wild onions. It smelled intoxicating. “Swear never to reveal the location of our territory.”
“Like…to the basilisk? The acromantulae? They already know. How could they not know?”
“I mean to humans. Those who know, know. If they do not know, do not tell them.”
“Oh.” Harry carefully took the half of the potato she handed him, inhaling the spiced steam. “Them. I don’t talk to them, really. But I swear.”
“Thank you. I return, I swear to tell no-one of your name or presence. Let us eat.”
They ate together by the fire, and though Harry was not at ease, per say, he felt himself relax. The food was delicious, Nayla contemplative, watching the stars, and Harry finally felt comfortable enough to ask what he had been wondering.
“What’s wrong with your stomach?” Harry asked, licking his fingers. “Are you sick?”
Nayla looked a little amused and a little alarmed, and put a hand to her abdomen. “I am pregnant, child.”
“Oh.” He stared, hoping it wasn’t rude. He’d never met someone who was pregnant before, unless you counted the snake who’d laid its eggs in his fire. “You’re having a baby?”
“That is what the word means,” Nayla said. She gazed at him appraisingly, wiping her fingers on the fur of her leg. “Would you like to feel their heartbeat?”
“Um.” Alarm prickled through him. “I don’t want to hurt it.”
“Centaur foals are much stronger than human babes,” Nayla said, smiling. “You couldn’t if you tried. Give me your hand.”
He rose to his knees and shuffled over; she placed his hand on her stomach. Her fur was coarse and thick, and Harry could feel a steady thudding beating through her skin. For a second he was alarmed, for it was a double heartbeat. Then he realized it was perfectly aligned with her own.
He had seen a lot of incredible things since coming to the forest. But somehow, this was beyond them all.
He could hear their heartbeats in his own chest, thrumming. A song. His heartbeat began to beat in time too. The triple beat drummed through his body, in his hand on her stomach, in his head, and behind his eyes visions of the stars began to spin.
He fell forward into the sky, pinpricks of light falling to meet him.
The beat released them all and he fell away from her, pushed—she had pushed him.
Her hands were on her stomach and heart. Bane had broken them from the reverie, and he knelt protectively next to her, hands on her shoulders, glaring at him. Harry hardly felt his gaze. He could have cried for the lack of that beat beneath his palms. In his head, galaxies swam. “Starchild,” he said, and his voice was not his own.
“What?” Bane said. His voice was subsonic.
Harry sat up. He was so dizzy. Bane’s hand was around his shoulder—it hurt—Harry twisted and pulled but he didn’t let go—“What did you just say?” Bane hissed, dragging him close—“What did you say?”—Harry cried out—
Bane fell back. Nayla had stood and was dragging him by the shoulder; she hauled him to a stumbling stand and then shoved him back. Her strength astonished Harry. “Do not touch him,” she said lowly, and Bane skittered backwards at her anger.
She turned to Harry, face unreadable.
“I’m sorry,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. He wanted to go home. He wanted the basilisk. But he was so far from home.
It didn’t matter. He stood up, clutching his back, and backed away.
“Wait, Snakeheart,” Nayla said. “I am not angry. Please stay.”
Harry didn’t want to stay. But it wasn’t safe to go out in the dark alone. Was it safer here?
Nayla knelt again, arm outstretched. “Stay, Snakeheart.” Behind her, Bane stared at him, eyes dark and angry.
Harry shook his head, stumbled back another step, and ran.