“Serpentus, stop,” Harry hissed. “No, seriously! Do you want me to do this or not? You’re going to fall!”
Serpentus blew out his lips in exasperation, but Harry felt he was justified. It didn’t matter that thestrals could fly—it didn’t make them any better at climbing trees. Currently Serpentus was testing that boundary, hooves splayed out across two different branches, wings shifting minutely to compensate for the tree’s sway. He looked astoundingly precarious, and quite silly. Harry was a little more stable with two hands free to hold the trunk.
Below them, Professor Kettleburn was digging something up at the base of the tree. He’d screwed a shovel attachment on in place of his fake hand and had been at it for a good ten minutes. Every so often he plucked out a bit of something and tossed it in a basket near him. Harry was pretty sure it was just some roots, but the deeper Kettleburn dug, the more agitated Serpentus got, and so they now found themselves, doubly invisible in two different ways, clinging to the top of this tree.
“Stay here,” Harry hissed, and made sure Serpentus did as he started climbing down. He stopped when he was a meter above Kettleburn’s head. The man had wild silvery hair, a prosthetic arm and leg, and enjoyed, so far as Harry could tell, trundling about in the forest making a nuisance of himself and giving the thestrals anxiety.
Reaching into his robe pocket, Harry pulled out a bag of powder Fred and George had given him a few weeks ago. He took a pinch of it between his fingers and carefully sprinkled it down. Kettleburn didn’t seem to notice as it dusted his hair and back.
Harry waited a few breaths. Kettleburn twitched, twitched again, scratched at his head, and then scratched at his back. Then he jumped up and started rubbing his back against the tree, huffing in frustration when nothing was alleviated.
He itched his hand with his spade, looking suspiciously from them to his hole, then to his basket. Muttering below his breath, he de-attached his spade and screwed on his hand attachment, took his basket, and departed.
Harry smiled a bit and came down from the tree. The powder was pretty harmless and would wear off in ten minutes—it didn’t even itch, it just made your skin feel a bit…squirmy. Hopefully Kettleburn would think it was something in the soil.
There was a huge crashing and flapping as Serpentus lost his balance at last, twirling gracelessly down through the canopy to land in an impromptu foreleg-stand before crashing into the tree.
Harry fell over with laughter, and Serpentus nipped at his ear.
“S-sorry,” Harry gasped out, and then started wheezing again, curled in the autumn leaves, clutching his stomach. Serpentus ignored him and pushed his nose into the hole Kettleburn had made.
Harry crawled over, pushed Serpentus’ snout aside, and looked in. At first he couldn’t really make out anything other than dirt, but then he saw something purple peeking through.
Carefully, he covered his hand with the sleeve of his robe and brushed the dirt at the bottom of the hole away, uncovering a strange bumpy purple surface that seemed to expand and contract. He stared at it in confusion for a moment before it shifted, blinking open one of the bumps to stare at him in affront with a pale yellow eye. A toad.
“Oh, sorry,” Harry whispered. “I’ll cover you back up.”
It closed its eye again, and he gently re-buried it, scooping in the dirt Kettleburn had dug out.
“You were just very lucky,” said a voice from behind him. “They are liable to stun those who disturb them, such as that…professor.”
Three autumns he’d been in the forest, and still he jumped and crashed into the tree in surprise. It was Serpentus’ turn to snort in amusement, as Harry clambered up and brushed himself off, straightening his shoulders as he faced Bane.
“I didn’t know that,” Harry said carefully.
They considered each other. Bane, twice his height, deep black skin, hair and mane strung with subtle red beads. Harry, scrawny in a robe more patches than anything, hair half out of its braid, clutching a bag he’d made out of an old sweater.
An old sweater that, during his climb through the tree, had decided to give up the ghost. Everything it had been carrying now lay at his feet—missives from the acromantulae to the merfolk and basilisk, primarily, but also several bugs wrapped in spider silk, and a battered library book.
Harry bit his lip, knowing Bane was judging him on every aspect of his appearance, behavior, and language. It didn’t make it any better that he just stood there, looking Harry and his fallen belongings over, arms crossed. His eyes flicked over to Serpentus once or twice as well.
Finally, Bane sighed, reached into the bag he wore across his back, and pulled out a bundle. “This is from my son,” he said grudgingly.
Harry’s heart lifted. “Araeo?”
A deeper, more world-weary sigh. “I have only the one.”
Harry tossed his ruined bag on the ground and ran forwards, taking the package from Bane and then retreating a meter to open it. Wrapped in a length of fabric was something made of leather. Excitedly, he unrolled it.
It was a beautiful handmade messenger bag.
Delighted, Harry inspected its many useful pockets and the clever straps along the back that indicated it could also be worn as a rucksack. Across the flap had been embroidered a rough constellation.
Harry traced the stars, glancing at Bane. “What stars are these?”
“They are Rukbat, Kaus Australis, Nunki, Ascella, Kaus Media, Sephdar, Albaldah, and Arkab. Together, they form the human constellation Sagittarius. The centaur archer.”
Harry grinned uncontrollably and showed the bag to Serpentus, who nibbled at the leather curiously. “How did he know?”
Bane raised one eyebrow. “My son’s prescience is unlike anything seen in centuries. There is a note as well.” He looked like he had provided the information begrudgingly.
While Harry rustled around for the note, Bane bowed to Serpentus. “Well met, cousin.” Serpentus whinnied and stamped his foot.
“Cousin?” Harry asked, finding the note rolled up in an inner pocket. He smoothed it out carefully.
“Of a sort,” Bane said. Serpentus walked over to him and Bane carefully stroked his neck.
Heartkin, read the note.
Bullied father into taking this to you. Saw your old bag would give out. My uncle made this pack, but I embroidered the stars! To wizards, they are a centaur archer, I’ve heard, but we see these stars as the upper half of a constellation forming a crowned figure. It is called the Queen, King, Seer, Prophet, Hero, Heir, and many more names by various bands. I know it best as the Leader, which at its core means a person who guides.
Don’t forget about the first of March. My uncle will be waiting to escort you through the territory.
And ‘ware the evening, Snakeheart. Sad tidings await, and hearts and anger stir.
Harry’s happiness at Araeo’s missive lessened as he read that last line. A shiver ran through him.
“I have to get back,” he told Bane and Serpentus, kneeling to start stuffing his things into his new bag. “Bane—will you take this to Araeo? Hold on.”
He unrolled the note he’d been carrying around for a week, in case he ran into a centaur. Taking out a piece of chalk, he made a few corrections.
Hope you are doing well! I got you this from under the lake—it’s abalone, my friend Parime has a piece that he rubs when he is anxious or sad. I thought you could do the same, or when you need to think, or something.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Happy to hear from you. I am looking forward to March 1st. Will I be able to enter centaur territory? Glad Firenze will meet me. Tell him thank you for the bag!!!! And thank you, I love it!!!!
Harry put the revised note back in the little bag that held a piece of thick abalone shell, worn down into a smooth oval.
“Here,” he said to Bane, handing it to him. “Thank you. I have to get back. Serpentus, will you fly me?”
Serpentus knelt and let Harry climb onto his back. Harry looked back at Bane, pressing a hand to the pendant under his robe. He could almost feel the pattern, so often had he run his thumb over it. Three trees under three stars.
Bane was someone to him now. But he didn’t know if he was anyone to Bane.
But then Bane put a hand to his heart and touched the other to his chin, bowing very slightly. Relieved and warmed, Harry returned the gesture. And then Serpentus took off into the air, leaving Bane behind.