“Is this everyone, Tippy?”
Tippy did a quick headcount. “I thinks so. All but Orry.”
“Yous sure you’s staying?”
Tippy crossed her arms. “Snake, if I is going into hiding, what is the world thinking?”
Harry stared at her. “Uh … that you has a bounty on your head and doesn’t want to be killed by aurors?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, Snake, they is thinking I is afraid. I’s visiting the camp when I can. For now, I must remains here. There is work to be done.”
“Alright,” Harry said softly. In the tunnel behind him, fifteen liberated elves shifted uneasily, but kept quiet.
“Ready,” called Orry from down the corridor, hustling towards them in a deep green cloak, carrying a healer’s kit. “Tippy—I’s seeing you soon, my love.”
For the first time all morning Tippy’s face was something other than granite-hard. Harry turned his back to give them privacy, and after a quiet moment Orry put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go, Snake.”
With one glance back at Tippy, standing tall and strong in her high-collared black robes, Harry shut the tunnel entrance.
A flurry of elflights were lit immediately, and, with Orry at his shoulder, he silently led them away from the elf wing.
How like a year ago, evacuating elves in the middle of the morning. How unlike a year ago, when it was the ministry they were now escaping.
Reaching the entrance onto the grounds, he paused. “How many of you can turns invisible?”
About a quarter of them raised their hands.
“Alright. Hold hands and follow me. Anyone who can’t, come here.”
Eleven elves shuffled forward. Harry unclasped Áwere and carefully draped it over three of them. “You must sticks very close together,” he said. To a fourth he passed a pendant he never took off. “Keep the hair against your skin.”
Clenching his fists, he looked at the seven who were left. “The rest of you … we is just going to have to be very careful. Once we is in the forest, the ministry’s wards is gone. All we haves to do is makes it to the trees. We haves to be fast and silent. Gots it?”
“We haves it, Snake,” said Orry. “Listen up,” she called to the elves. “If one of us falls behind, none of you stops. Snake and I is handling it. Your only goal is to gets to the trees. Is I understood?”
Nods. Presumably the invisible elves nodded too.
“Alright,” Harry said. “Let’s go.”
Quickly and quietly they filed out of the castle, dropping silently from the pipes. Frost covered the ground; the lake was frozen over. Far away, Hagrid’s hut was decorated with bright green garlands. It was barely two days after Christmas.
The treeline loomed in the distance, with no visible obstacles between them. Harry began to jog towards them, the seven unguarded elves surrounding him, panting quietly from stress and exertion.
The sun was only just rising. They were late, but it was unavoidable. Could he see faint movement already in the treeline, or was that simply hopeful thinking?
“Snake,” breathed Orry, “to the east.”
He looked towards the rising sun. Figures roved over the horizon, silhouettes with strange glowing shields raised over them, accompanied by dark and shadowy forms.
“What are those?” Harry breathed. No one answered. They ran faster.
They were spotted.
The first spell bolt shot over their heads, yellow and acidic, and one of the visible elves jolted and nearly fell. Harry seized his elbow and threw him forwards, placing himself on the outside of the group. “Everyone go!” he hissed. “Go, go, go!”
The elves fled as he and Orry dropped back, putting themselves between the elves and the aurors … and whatever was accompanying them.
Spells screamed towards them, no pretense of subtlety now, and Orry seized his hand, tugging at his magic. Together they threw their hands up and raised a glimmering silvery shield. Three spells ricocheted off, and then a fourth shattered it, magic raining like glass down over their heads.
They were nearly to the Whomping Willow. Nearly there. He could see movement in the trees, he wasn’t imagining it.
The aurors and their shadowy things were converging. He and Orry raised another shield, another, another, running backwards behind the elves.
“Ah!” A short, sharp, cry—Harry whipped around—an elf had been hit in the pause between one shield and the next, and she was fighting to rise from the ground.
Harry tore his hand from Orry’s and scooped her up, spinning back around in time to see Orry’s shield fail, a spell heading right for her chest.
“Protego!” he shouted, reaching out a wandless hand. As always, the combination of a wizard spell and elf magic made the results twisty, and rather than be blocked, the spell rebounded, zooming straight back into the auror twenty yards away who had cast it. The man dropped to the ground, writhing.
An invisible fist knocked at his leg. “Give her to me!”
Harry dropped the elf into her invisible companion’s arms and seized Orry’s hand again.
They were at the Willow. The aurors now numbered four and their shadowy companions five, raising up a wave of spells to come down on them. Everything seemed to be getting darker.
“Snake?” Orry asked, holding out her hand.
“Orry,” Harry answered, and seized it.
One breath together, and two, and why was he so calm?, and as their arms swept up so did a wall of magic, absorbing the spells thrown at them and hurling them back.
Every auror went down.
Their five shadowy things did not.
And as those things crept closer, something terrible began to happen.
Orry took a great shuddering, gasping breath, hand trembling in Harry’s, and their shield evaporated. Harry tried to tug it back up—tug it up—but … but something wasn’t right.
He felt cold. He felt so cold, down to his very bones, and someone was screaming—who was screaming—it wasn’t Orry—
T R A D E
He swayed. Long, icy hands reached out to cradle his face.
A wave of magic blew past him like a spring breeze. His vision returned. A spectral phoenix, feathered and fierce and made of flaming rainbows, twisted and curled round him and Orry, driving those terrible things back, and their scream was even more terrible than the scream clawing out from his throat—
The things fled—
His sister took his hand.
He snapped back to the present, staring down at Limmy, whose eyes were glowing red and orange and green and whose wiggenwood wand was shining in her hand, somehow marshaling that spectral phoenix which whipped around them in a frenzy.
“To the trees!” she shouted. With a flick of her wand she snapped off the spell, and together the three of them sprinted the last distance to the woods.
A spectral phoenix, feathered and fierce and made of flaming rainbows
The moment they crossed the border, Harry fell to his knees, retching and shaking. Orry left him and returned in a moment. “Everyone’s here,” she said in relief. “And here, Snake, your cloak and pendant.”
He took them, standing with Limmy’s help. “What were those?” he asked in astonishment. “And what was that phoenix?”
“They is dementors,” Limmy said grimly. “Guards of Azkaban prison. They feeds on happy memories, and if they gets close enough, they sucks out your soul. And that was what Hermione and I is working on all semester, Snake. A patronus.”
“Is Hermione’s a rainbow phoenix too?” Harry asked in astonishment.
A glow of mischievous pride came to her eyes. “No. Just mine.”
“Snakeheart,” came a booming, urgent call, and Harry snapped to attention as Bane emerged from the trees, trotting up to him. His black skin looked almost grey with fright. “Dementors, we heard there are dementors on the ground—are you alright?”
“Yes,” Harry said shakily, exchanging bows with him and then accepting an awkward half-hug. “Thanks to Limmy. Are your warriors ready?”
“Yes. Where is Feverfew?”
“Orry’s here,” said Harry. “Orry, please meet Bane, mate to the leader of the Northern Stargazer Band. He and the Stargazer warriors will guide you across the forest to the site.”
Orry bowed to him, a bow which Harry had taught her. “Thank you, Mate Stargazer. We is in your debt.”
Bane shook his head. “No. You are a member of the forest nations now. When we stand together against the humans, there is no debt.”
“Limmy,” Harry asked, drawing her aside. “What is you doing now? Going back to the camp with them?”
She nodded. “I’s knowing the deep wood best, even better than Bane, I thinks. And I’s telling Sovereign Amaranth that I is returning with them. We haves a lot to do.” She hugged him tightly. “But I’s seeing you this summer.”
“I wish I had two sets of mirrors,” Harry said, squeezing her tightly. “How’s I going to survives without you bullying me all semester?”
She laughed. “You’s getting by. Draco is handling it. And Laila.” She sobered. “I is missing the babies. Please tell them.”
“Of course.” He hugged her one more time, adjusted her sparkly beret, and let her go. “Bane—Limmy Snakeheart is my sister.” Bane raised an eyebrow. “So,” he continued, “she is your family too. Please … just be careful.”
Bane ran a hand over his head gently, and then he bowed as Harry had never seen him bow to an outsider, hands to his heart. “Limmy Snakeheart,” he said. “As Snakeheart is my kin by fate, so are you. I will protect you as I would protect my own son.”
Limmy’s ears twitched, and she bowed back. “No need for that,” she said, punching Harry subtly in the thigh. “I’s thinking I does a good bit of protecting, myself.”
“I have no doubt,” said Bane. He looked to Harry again. “My son … sends his love.”
“I send mine,” said Harry. He hugged Limmy again, then Orry, then Limmy one last time. “Be safe, everyone. Please be safe.”
He watched them until they were all out of sight, disappearing silently through the snow-topped trees, almost ghostly. His heart ached briefly, and he ran his hands repetitively over his braid, soothing himself. They would be okay. With Limmy and Bane together, a combination he had never pictured, what in this forest would dare to trifle with them? Plus, there were fifteen unbound elves alongside them, with magic that would only grow stronger as they neared the deep wood.
Yes, he thought, nodding to himself. It was silly to worry about them, when there was so much more to worry about instead.
He put on his pendant and invisibility cloak, peering out of the woods to be sure those terrible dementors were gone. He still felt shaky. The aurors were picking themselves up, shouting and gesturing with wands drawn. They seemed to reach a consensus and turn towards the castle.
Doubly invisible, holding his breath, he followed.
They didn’t get farther than the entrance hall. Dumbledore stood with hands tucked into his sleeves, flanked by Severus and Minerva.
“Albus Dumbledore,” said Dawlish, the head auror that Harry had witnessed before. “An attack on aurors on Hogwarts grounds—”
“I witnessed no attack,” Dumbledore said gravely, “and I have no clue as to whom you could be attacking. And furthermore, while the Ministry’s new mandate may allow auror presence on the grounds, the additional presence of dementors constitutes a severe breach—”
Dawlish seized a scroll from his belt and whipped it open. “It constitutes nothing except new ministry policy, Dumbledore. Your continued harboring of the dangerous militant terrorist group calling itself the “liberated elves” is a breach of—“
This time Dumbledore cut him off. “There are no liberated elves at Hogwarts.”
Dawlish gaped at him. “The devil there aren’t. You have held this castle as a sanctuary for the last year—”
“Which I revoked yesterday morning after the Ministry’s declaration,” said Dumbledore, mild of tone but fiery of gaze. “Never let it be said the Hogwarts headmaster is disobedient to the minister’s whim. The only elves Hogwarts harbors are its own employees, and employed elves, by the minister’s own decree, are exempt from your purview.”
Dawlish opened and closed his mouth. “I demand to see proof!”
“Proof?” asked Minerva, speaking for the first time from Dumbledore’s shoulder. “You wish us to prove there are no terrorists lurking in Hogwarts? How shall we do so?”
“We were just attacked by elves!” roared Dawlish, spittle flying everywhere. “A fucking rainbow phoenix drove away my dementors!”
Severus, on Dumbledore’s other side, folded his arms. “You are suggesting there is another phoenix on Hogwarts grounds?”
“No—it was a patronus, Snape!”
“Dawlish,” said Dumbledore, “you know as well as I do that it is extremely rare for patronuses to take the form of a magical animal, and furthermore are never colorful. I know you know this, as I oversaw your defense exam myself.”
Dawlish drew himself up. “I demand to see every elf in the castle right now, with their employment contracts.”
Dumbledore inclined his head. “Very well. But you will have to come back in eight days’ time. You see, it is winter holiday, and my employees are on leave.”
“On leave!” Dawlish shouted. “On leave! Your employees are attacking ministry officials on Hogwarts grounds!”
“This cannot be,” said Dumbledore, “as all of my elven employees chose to holiday elsewhere, and as Hogwarts is longer harboring so-called “liberated elves.” I have no clue who “attacked” you, Dawlish, but you were the ones stalking my grounds at five in the morning two days after Christmas. With your talk of rainbow patronuses and the simple fact that dementors induce altered states of mind, I cannot help but conclude ….”
“What are you implying!”
Severus stepped forward. “He implied, Dawlish, that you are deluded. Now get off Hogwarts grounds.”
“I have leave to be here!”
“Yes, but do you have the poor sense to remain?”
With a snarl and a snap of his robes, Dawlish whirled around, shooting one more poisonous glare over his shoulder before leading his aurors, limping and dazed, from the castle.
A few beats passed, and then Dumbledore slumped, hand on his forehead. “I am too old for this.”
“Chin up,” said Minerva, slapping his back bracingly. “You wanted to go fight a dragon this holiday, Albus. I’d say this is a decent alternative.”
“Snakeheart?” hissed the basilisk, as he dragged himself into the den. “Is everyone alright?”
“Yes, somehow,” he said, curling by its head. The babies were tangled together, deeply asleep, in the center of the den. “There were these things called dementors.”
The basilisk hissed long and low and angry. “Anathema."
“What do you know about them?”
“They do not think. They do not feel. They only consume. Snakeheart, do not try them. They are nothing you can reach through word or deed. They will leave you a shell of anything resembling a being. Stay far away. ”
Harry shivered, remembering that woman screaming in his mind. “I’m so tired. Maybe I won’t go back for the spring term.”
The basilisk laughed gently. “So you say every winter and every summer, Snakeheart. I am told mammals do have the ability to discern behavioral patterns.”
“Rude,” Harry said, pulling his blanket over himself. “Very rude.”