The musty basement kitchen was dark. The only light came from a few small candles that were scattered around the room. A lone figure in worn, food-splattered robes tended a cauldron of stew at the stove.
Once she finished adding ingredients to the stew, she slowly walked over to the worn table and fell wearily into a chair. Her red hair, once brilliant, long and shining, was now cut short for efficiency’s sake. Its texture, once soft, now had the feel of worn broom straw. Ginny Weasley didn’t care much about the state of her hair, her dress or anything else about her appearance anymore. She was too tired.
She was weary and had been for several months, ever since August 31st, when Hogwarts, due to some ancient spell, had simply vanished. The Board of Governors had been involuntarily apparated to the grounds finding only Hagrid’s hut and a bewildered Argus Filch with a mewling Mrs. Norris at his feet there. The old groundskeeper was clutching a small piece of parchment that read:
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has temporarily relocated to a secure location. Once it is safe to reopen, you shall be notified.
With best regards and wishes,
The Sorting Hat
It was, at first, sort of a laugh. A school, disappearing of its own accord? But, as the weeks passed by and as the war raged on, it became apparent that Hogwarts had really gone into hiding.
Not that the disappearance of the school mattered anymore to Ginny. What was important was keeping the hearth going at what used to be #12 Grimmauld Place. She and her mother were charged with making sure that there was a hot meal, a cot and perhaps some compassion for every refugee who made their way to them.
Ginny had lost track of those she had cared for over time. They were a swirl of stricken, pale, tear streaked cheeks, hungry mouths and begging voices. And, now that they were in Bristol, no Brighton, or was it Birmingham? Ginny couldn’t quite remember. The house, the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, took them to wherever there was the most need. While this ancient magic that was evoked a year before by Dumbledore was a miracle to those who found themselves adrift, the charm was Ginny’s prison.
Her family, her love and, most disquieting of all, Hermione had all conspired to trap Ginny at headquarters for the remainder of the war. Her mother knew what was happening; but, out of a deep need to see at least one of her children safe, had consented to slip Ginny a Dreamless Sleep Potion while Hermione completed the spell. Once the potion wore off, her mother told Ginny the truth.
Ginny and Molly were trapped in the house until such time that the spell was removed. If either of them tried to leave, the safe haven would disappear and the refugees would have no one to care for them. It would take the combined efforts of Hermione, Bill and Remus Lupin to lift the enchantment. And, as each of them was out fighting the war on different fronts, they would not be returning to the house until the war was over. Ginny didn’t bother to ask what would happen if any or all of them were killed.
A bell rang signaling the arrival of someone who would need something from Ginny. ‘Merlin,’ she thought, ‘I hope it isn’t children.’ These days, it was only the children that could awaken the emotions Ginny denied herself. Their innocence had been stripped from them cruelly, and seeing that touched Ginny in a place she liked to pretend that she no longer had.
Fortunately, it was only a few old men, tired and hungry. Ginny served them stew and mead with a smile so practiced that everyone truly thought she loved her work. After seeing them to an empty room and turning down their beds, she returned to the kitchen and made a cup of tea.
It would be a long night. Ginny took the night shift because, for the most part, it was quieter. Plus, Molly had aged at a shocking rate in the last year, and Ginny thought that her mother needed to keep a more regular schedule.
Sighing deeply, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a few bits of folded and worn parchment. It was silly, really, to do this. They were just numbers, nothing significant. Four grubby pieces, each with a single number on it: 3,4, 5 and 6.
It wasn’t the numbers that were so significant to her, not anymore, anyhow. Ginny knew full well what each of them meant. It was the fact that Harry had written them. It was only in the dead of night that she allowed herself any thoughts of Harry. These thoughts were her one indulgence, the only one she had left.
There was, after all, a war going on and her pathetic longings for Harry were nothing compared to the suffering and terror that were spreading like a cancer out of control all up and down the country. Harry was out there, somewhere, fighting for everyone. He had taken her aside, right before she was trapped in the house, and told Ginny that he loved her. That, if he could, he would come back. And maybe, if she could forgive him, they could start again.
A shot of fire whiskey would help her make it until dawn, she thought, as she poured some of the amber liquid into her teacup. After she finished her drink, she slipped the parchment back into her pocket. That was quite enough for one night. Ginny had things to do. Important work. It was time to begin baking for the next day.
Baking was a good distraction. The measuring of the ingredients, the kneading and rolling of the dough, the precise baking times helped to distract from the pain…the pain of being separated from her soul mate. Ginny debated whether or not another shot of Ogden’s was in order, but decided that she couldn’t afford becoming giddy with her sorrow. People needed her. She must not allow herself to need anyone or anything. That was not the job of the Keeper of the Hearth. That was what she called herself now, not Ginny, not daughter or sister or friend or love, just the Keeper of the Hearth.
Once the baking was done, it was on to the cleaning. Although she was allowed to perform spells in the house, as the protection charms blocked anyone from detecting underage magic, Ginny preferred to do the cleaning by hand. It helped her to do physical labor. It helped the time pass, and the vigorous scrubbing of the floors, counters and the large kitchen table gave her an outlet for her frustrations.
As she finished her labors, she noticed that the sun was rising. Her mother would be awake in an hour or so, and they would work together to serve breakfast to their guests and gather up the linen to launder. Then, Ginny would retire to the small attic room she shared with her mother and hopefully sleep some before it was time to eat dinner and begin her next shift as the Keeper of the Hearth.
Once again the bell rang, and with the sound would come another person, another need. The Keeper stood and made her way up the old stone steps that led to the front door. She stopped to glance in a mirror and, had it been another place and time, she would have been shocked at what she saw. As it was, no emotion crossed her face. Her face was pale, dirt streaked, and blotchy with fatigue. Dark smudges underlined tired eyes. She practiced her welcome smile and continued to the door.
As Ginny opened the door, the speech she usually gave in an overly cheery, singsong voice died on her lips. The visitor was a young man in torn, blood-splattered robes. His hair was matted with grime, his pallor ghostlike. Bloodshot and frightened green eyes peered out at her from underneath black-rimmed glasses. Indeed, he looked as if he feared that she could reach out and, with a touch or even just a word, end his life on the spot.
Ginny knew that she must have been hallucinating. Perhaps that fire whiskey George had snuck into her the night before was tainted. Maybe, finally, under all of the strain, she had succumbed to mental collapse.
But then, he raised his arm, revealing an envelope clutched in his hand. He tentatively handed it to her. When she took it, Ginny felt for a moment, the warmth of his trembling fingers grace her cold and careworn ones. He was real!
Her own shaking hands slowly opened the envelope and unfolded the parchment within. Her eyes filled with tears and she looked up to meet his gaze. Ginny then looked down quickly at parchment one more time to check, just to be sure. And, yes, there was only one thing written there: the number 7.