When Ginny opened her eyes only seconds later, it was to the reassuring sight of the Burrow kitchen, mismatched and chaotic as ever in the bleary dark surrounding her. She heaved a sigh of relief, thinking she’d never been so glad at the sight of her ramshackle home before.
Stepping lightly, she pulled out a kitchen chair and collapsed in a clumsy heap, not bothering to remove her heavy cloak. She felt oddly weak, like she could be sick on the spot if she weren’t sure it would attract far too much undesired attention. Disturbingly, the hand she had used to make the Unbreakable Vow was tingling ever so slightly, like the dying traces of pins and needles flowing from her fingers.
The Unbreakable Vow.Even inside her own head it sounded completely surreal. She could only imagine what Ron would do to her if he found out, let alone what he would do to Malfoy. And Harry...
She shook her head quickly, mentally chiding herself for the thought. Now was not the time to presume what Harry might or might not do on her behalf, Unbreakable Vow or not. She thought she knew full well what his reaction would be if he found out, but thinking of what that implied was far too painful, things being what they were.
Exhaling hard, she pressed her fingers to her temples firmly, feeling all of the tension and unease that Malfoy had happily provided pulse through her slowly. Heeding only the soothing sensation, she looked around the all-too familiar room, until her eyes landed finally on the imposing clock hung on the far wall. She paused. The Weasley family clock, which her mother still took such great pains to mind...
Ron’s hand, like all the others, was still pointing resolutely at ‘Mortal Peril.’ She wondered vaguely if it was possible to be in any greater danger than mortal peril, which after over a year now had long since stopped seeming ominous. If so, she knew Ron’s hand would be pointing towards it now.
She sighed again. It’s not as if any of that mattered now anyway. She had made her choice, and there was nothing any of them could do to change it, foul as it seemed. If not for the piece of parchment still clutched firmly in her hand she might have thought the whole thing just a dream. A terrible, impossible dream, but a dream nonetheless.
Only it hadn’t been a dream. That church had been entirely real, as real as the inconceivable bargain she’d made with that smug son of a-
She started, her body instantly tense, jumping up from her chair to face the unknown speaker. In her haste, she felt her knee strike the heavy tabletop with a dull clack, and cursed loudly under her breath.
‘Lumos,’ she heard a familiar voice utterfrom just a few feet ahead of her, and immediately a pool of soft, yellow light washed over the narrow space between them.
‘All right there, Ginny?’ her brother George asked, a slightly amused smile on his face.
Still clutching her throbbing leg and grumbling slightly, she sat down again awkwardly, far from amused herself. As she did, she deftly slipped the scrap of parchment into the deep folds of her cloak. The fewer questions he asked, the better, she thought.
‘George,’ she said, her face unreadable. ‘What are you doing here? Where’s Fred?’
She knew the fact that he was alone did not fare well for her, as it could mean only one of two things: either Fred was on a date, itself not an entirely unlikely prospect, or they were both out looking for her and had decided to split up to cover more ground. From the way he was looking at her, she thought the latter seemed far more likely. His face had become uncharacteristically grave.
He eyed her briefly before answering, his gaze narrowing slightly in what looked entirely like suspicion. ‘Fred’s back at the flat. I just had to return one of Mum’s cauldrons.’
‘Right,’ she remarked offhandedly, thinking that sounded about as likely as the idea of the Cannons taking the league this year.
‘But I think a better question,’ he continued, crossing his arms in a distinctly Molly Weasley fashion, ‘would be, where have you been? And where are you going?’
Damn, she swore silently. ‘Going? What makes you think I’m going somewhere? Or that I’ve been anywhere, for that matter?’
‘Well,’ he said pointedly, ‘you’re wearing your travelling cloak, you haven’t been in the house for at least two hours, and just a minute ago you were good and ready to make a mad dash out of here.’
She blanked visibly, but only for a second. She hadn’t expected them to miss her so quickly, if at all any time before morning. Outside the moon had risen to its full height and started down again, a sure sign of how little time actually remained to complete her unseemly task. It had to be well past two by now, she thought grimly. She felt a familiar sweat start to break on her forehead, and wiped it away quickly before he could notice.
‘George-’ she started, but it was at that moment that a rather loud crack split the air before them, successfully drowning out whatever feeble excuse she had been about to dream up. Standing where only seconds before there had been only empty air was George’s better half, her brother Fred. Well, if not better then at least equal half.
‘Ah, George,’ he quipped. ‘I see you’ve found our wayward sister.’ Though his voice sounded joking as always, she saw that his amusement did not reach his normally bright eyes. There was a deeper, much darker worry in them, and a quick pang of guilt rushed through her knowing that she was the one who had put it there.
‘Fred, listen, I-’ she tried, but again she was readily interrupted.
‘Ginny, what’s going on?’ George stepped towards her, placing a hand on each of her shoulders, actual worry on his face now. ‘We’ve been looking for you all night. Dad went upstairs to talk to you when he got home and you were gone. He flooed us in a right panic to see if we knew where you were. He’s gone over to the Lovegoods to see if you weren’t there for some reason.’
‘What?’ she whispered harshly. The feeling of guilt instantly increased tenfold as she thought of the panic she’d undoubtedly put her parents in, even if it was for a very good reason. ‘Dad’s out looking for me? What about Mum?’
‘She’s still upstairs asleep. She doesn’t know you’ve been gone, and lucky for you I’d say,’ Fred remarked quickly. He sat down heavily in the kitchen chair she’d left out, pulling out his wand to cast a second Lumos spell. His face too bore an almost pained expression which somehow matched exactly that of his twin’s. ‘Ginny, where have you been?’
She didn’t answer. What could she possibly say? There was no way she could tell anyone what she’d done, not even the twins, not if she wanted any hope of actually getting to Grimsby before it was too late. They’d all lock her away without listening to a word of explanation, trying pointlessly to find some way to absolve the bond, in the meantime sending in a squad of Aurors or Order members to the farmstead. And at the first sign of action the Death Eaters guarding them would whisk them away, or hurt them, or worse...
No. She wasn’t going to let that happen. She’d made the vow with Malfoy willingly, and she had to uphold it whether they liked it or not. She’d stopped being a child a long time ago-- it was time they stopped treating her like one.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said to both of them. ‘But I can’t tell you. It’s too important.’ Hard as she tried, she couldn’t manage to keep the burden entirely from her voice. She hated the thought of lying to them. With the exception of Bill, she’d always felt able to confide in the twins more than anyone. The certainty that she would have to cause them pain, along with the rest of her family, in order to do what she had to was enough almost to make her doubt herself entirely. Almost.
‘This is about Harry, isn’t it?’
She flinched at his name, cursing herself for being so bloody obvious. Pulling away, she turned from both of their questioning glances and leaned against the worn counter top. Shutting her eyes, she forced herself to take a breath before facing them again. When she did, their eyes were still distinctly sharp, their stances both determined and obviously wary.
‘Fred, George, please,’ she pleaded urgently, her eyes now wide and desperate in her anxiety to get away. ‘Please, just trust me.’
‘I know where they are.’ She blurted the words roughly, regrettably, but she knew it was the only way to make them understand. Their anxiety was immediately replaced with an identical look of pure shock, as if they weren’t exactly sure they had heard her right.
‘What are you talking about?’ Fred uttered harshly, springing up from his seat, his eyes suddenly alight. ‘How could you know where they are?’
Looking into his face she recognized the same gnawing fear that clung to her own skin like a shroud. And behind it, unwittingly, the same foolhardy hope she herself refused to abandon, even though all rational parts of her had given up any chance of seeing them alive again the minute she’d laid eyes on Hermione’s quill. Her heart ached to see it there, in her brother, knowing as she did that she was about to add to his burden herself. They were just as desperate to see them again as she was, after all.
‘Fred, I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. I can’t.’ Tears sprang to her eyes unbidden, and she backed away hurriedly, willing the cold wetness not to spill over in front of them.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said again, knowing that it wouldn’t be enough, and swiftly withdrew her wand. It felt foreign and heavy in her fingers, as if suddenly troubled by its own role as an instrument of dangerous purpose. The twins were still staring at her in vague disbelief.
‘I have to do what I can. Please understand.’
They realized what she was about to do just seconds before she grabbed her cloak and apparated, and sprang forward as if to grab her, but too late. Their fingers swiped only at empty air.
Ginny kept her eyes tightly shut as the familiar sensation that was apparition pressed firmly in around her. The thought that she may well have just seen her home and brothers for the last time ran mercilessly through her mind. She forced herself to push it aside.
She felt her feet hit solid ground, and immediately apparated again without thinking. The newly designed apparition wards surrounding the Burrow, cast to allow only Weasley blood relatives and a few Order members to pass through the house itself, would be able to determine the apparition point at which she’d landed. But after that, she knew, they would have no way to find her.
Her stomach plummeted sickeningly. She was alone and in the dark, in more ways than one, she thought grimly.
She glanced around hastily. She’d apparated herself several miles north of the Burrow, into the very thick of the surrounding Ottery-St. Catchpole forest-- somewhere she’d known would be deserted. All that remained now was to pinpoint the location of the farmstead outside Grimsby, and apparate one final time.
She closed her eyes, wishing she’d had more time to collect her thoughts before Fred and George had found her out. She’d been forced to leave the Burrow much sooner than she’d intended, without any chance to gather supplies that she might need to free Harry, Ron and Hermione successfully.
She sighed. In truth, there was nothing that could be of any more help to her beyond what she already possessed-- her wand, and whatever wits remained to her. That, perhaps, and a good deal of nerve. Or stupidity.
Shaking her head, she tried to drive her doubts away as far as she could manage. She needed to concentrate on locating the farmstead. Having never been there before, she would need to think of nothing else but her purpose for being there in order to apparate, or she ran the risk of splinching herself. And, she thought, given her current state of mind, that wouldn’t exactly be a difficult thing to manage.
She closed her eyes, shutting out all sources of light and sound, and willed the image to appear before her. Grimsby. Two miles southeast. An abandoned farmstead. Harry. Her fingers shut around her wand.
She opened her eyes.
At first glance, it seemed as if she hadn’t apparated at all. Looking around, however, she recognized several slight, but telling differences: the way the trees began to thin in front of her, the changed position of the moon overhead, the suddenly uneven terrain beneath her feet…
But more so, it was the way she suddenly felt that gave away the change. The hairs on her neck were standing inexplicably on end, and she felt a cold shudder creep down her spine. Something about this place was dark, and cruel. Painful.
Ignoring her common sense, she began to walk towards the thinning forest edge, stepping as lightly as she could on the damp ground. It took only minutes before she found what she was looking for.
Stepping out into the surrounding brush, she actually laughed despite herself, albeit unbelievably. She had actually managed to position herself directly behind the farmstead.
The decrepit lot of barely standing wooden buildings seemed haphazardly arranged, and obviously uncared for. An ancient scythe lay abandoned several yards in front of her, wasted and rotting. This place had clearly been deserted quickly.
To her immediate worry, the surrounding clearing was utterly quiet, unnaturally so, and her feeling of foreboding instantly grew. She looked around hurriedly, suddenly desperate for any sign of movement or life, anything to show she’d come to the right place and Malfoy hadn’t been lying to her, that they were even still here at all-
She ducked without thinking, crouching flat to the ground behind the thick bushes of goldenrod, her eyes casting towards the direction of the sound. Peering through the growth, she watched silently as someone cloaked entirely in black and wearing a gruesome mask, identical to those she’d seen at the Ministry of Magic the night Sirius had died, made a slow sweep of the area surrounding a small, low-lying building to her right.
She had found the right place then.
She watched him turn the corner, and then quickly skirted closer to the small shack, making sure to keep hidden behind the thick brush. It appeared to be some kind of storehouse; the few blacked-out windows it possessed were nearly at ground level, hinting that there was more space underground than above it.
A cold sweat came over her, her heart fluttering madly just below the surface of her skin. This was it-- Harry, Ron, and Hermione were inside this dingy storehouse, she was sure of it. She had finally found them, after months of wondering, of endless heartache….
Unable to wait, she made her way around the clearing, until she had a clear view of the front and the only door inside. The Death Eater was pacing slowly back and forth in front of the entrance, his wand held at the ready. Patiently, she watched.
For what seemed an eternity, the Death Eater simply continued his lazy march before the entrance, apparently painfully unaware that he was being watched. She waited until he made his round again twice, gauging the time it took him to return.
The scenario before her made absolutely no sense. Despite her eagerness at being so close to them finally, she couldn’t put herself at ease. There should have been scores of Death Eaters here, along with at least some form of ward or alarm. Something that would warn of anyone trying to free these, undoubtedly, most important of prisoners. But there was nothing.
The whole thing was wrong, and she knew it. Her hands were slick with sweat, and she tightened her grip on her wand. Everything she saw screamed that this was a trap, one she was about to walk into willingly.
She swallowed hard. Thoughts of her parents, her brothers, flashed indeterminably through her mind, as if in a last, desperate warning. There was only one way to find out.
Breathing hard, she waited until the guard turned the corner again, and then took her chance. Crouching low, she ran as soundlessly as possible across the open clearing to the storehouse door.
In seconds it was before her, half-barred by what looked like a makeshift lean-to the Death Eater had apparently conjured in his boredom. Glancing around hastily, she raised her wand, ready to mutter the incantation, when…
Immediately at her feet, poorly hidden behind a log being used as a seat, she suddenly noticed something that surely shouldn’t have been there. She blinked hurriedly. He couldn’t really have been so stupid, could he? She bent down and picked up the haphazardly left items.
In her hand she held three wands, one of which she recognized immediately. It was Ron’s-- she had been with him and her mother at Diagon Alley when he’d purchased it after her first year. The other two, as she looked at them more closely, she also recognized as Harry and Hermione’s.
Silently thanking whatever force had seen fit to grace her with this one stroke of luck, she stuffed them in her cloak and raised her wand again, pointing it at the dark, shimmering barrier that had been erected in the doorway. It was now the only thing standing between her and the three people she hoped more than anything were safely inside.
Immediately, the fluid substance within the doorway glowed a dull, peacock blue. Then, as if she’d only imagined it, the light went out just as suddenly, leaving the barrier as insidious looking as before.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside.
Passing through the now harmless barrier felt vaguely like stepping through a wall of solid water, though one with a consistency entirely unlike any body of water she’d ever encountered. The clammy substance pressed relentlessly in on her, seemingly straining to make space where only seconds before there had been none. It was an entirely disconcerting feeling, and she struggled furiously to free herself from it.
The threshold seemed impossibly long; she knew under ordinary circumstances she would have crossed over it long ago. Starting to panic, she began to think that perhaps Malfoy had been lying to her, and this was just an elaborate trap designed to torture her, because they really were dead after all, and they were going to kill her too, and she was…
… suddenly gasping for breath, tumbling forwards out of the thick wall into an equally heavy darkness. Shuddering, she shook off the threads of the unnatural substance, stumbling before she quickly righted herself. Her eyes darted through the air like rapid-fire, straining to adjust to the sudden lack of brightness. She held her wand high in front of her, in expectation of any sudden movement. There was none.
Her first instinct was to cast a light spell, but she quickly thought better of it. What if there were Death Eaters lying in wait? But she knew the noise she’d made emerging from the barrier had already eliminated her chances of taking anyone by surprise.
In truth, she was simply afraid of what she might find in front of her.
Cautiously testing the ground beneath her, she took a step forward, straining to make out any sign of them in the pitch black surrounding her. But the murky air was totally still, heady with an oddly pungent odour, almost metallic, she realized suddenly. It was strangely familiar, and yet she couldn’t quite place it somehow…
Wheeling around, her heart pounding in her ears, she aimed her wand to where she thought the sound had come from, but in the endless dark of the place it was impossible to tell-
She spun furiously to her right, but she barely had time to register the simultaneous commands before a sudden blaze of blinding red light came towering directly at her from the darkened corner, catching her without warning square in the chest.
‘Harry-- Ron, no!’
It was the last thing she heard before conceding finally to the stifling darkness, and collapsed to the ground.