There was a dragon on the Quidditch pitch.
Crouching near the goal posts, it snapped at the Bludger, which buzzed around its arrow-shaped head.
Katie had fled into the entrance tunnel along with the other players and watched as the Bludger suddenly changed course and zoomed in a straight line towards the tunnel on the other side of the stadium.
The dragon’s wings flapped in irritation. A low growl rose from the depth of its throat, and smoke billowed from its snout. The coiled body stretched towards the entrance; scales ground against each other. Then, suddenly, the sky was full of lightning. Spells hit dragon hide as brooms circled overhead. The beast growled and roared, belching flame and smoke. Part of the spectator stands caught fire. The heavy scent of burning wood filled Katie’s nose. Mighty wings beat the air as the dragon attempted to take flight.
The witches and wizards who circled it on their brooms renewed their attack, and a Stunner struck its vulnerable eyes.
Blinded and enraged, it flooded the air with fire. Its long tail lashed out, shattering two of the three goal hoops on impact. Talons gouged the ground.
Stragglers fleeing from the stands screamed in fear.
Just like the people surrounding her, Katie was riveted by the spectacle before her. Watching the wild manoeuvres employed to evade the dragon’s fire stole her breath away. Anxiously, she steadied herself against the broad back of the person in front of her, rose onto the balls of her feet, and craned her neck for a better view.
"Katie, we need some help." Someone placed a hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. When she turned, she looked into the determined face of Penelope Clearwater, her team captain. The Romanian captain and two of her Chasers stood behind her. "We are going to do something about those fires. Are you coming with us?"
Without hesitation, Katie pulled her wand out of her robes and nodded in agreement. "Of course, I am."
They rushed through the tunnel to the outside of the stadium where the spectator’s entrances allowed access to the stands. Katie followed Penelope up the first set of stairs, while the Romanian players ran past them to the next one in order to reach the fire from the other side.
"You know, when you proposed a friendly match between the Arrows and the Dragons, I didn’t expect there to be any actual dragons involved," Katie panted as she reached the top of the stands.
Penelope only rolled her eyes. Her face mirrored Katie’s mixed expression of anxiety and exhilaration. Wands raised, they bounded over the stands and extinguished the fires that devoured the wooden benches. The Romanian players met them halfway, and Goran, one of the Chasers, put a shield in front of the creaking construction to protect them against further danger.
Martha, the Romanian captain, smiled apologetically. "We were worried that they had built the new stadium too close to the dragon reservation."
The dragon’s roar had dwindled to a low grumbling. Finally subdued by its keepers, it settled down, tail curling around its front paws. The great eyes blinked sleepily as it rested its head on the ground.
Wizards and witches swarmed onto the pitch; spectators, both excited and outraged, harried officials, and the remaining players of the Appleby Arrows and the Vatra Dornei Dragons crowded around the beast. Arguments broke out, and soon, a cacophony of sound filled the air.
"Do you think they’re going to let us finish the match?" Penelope asked.
Goran lowered his wand, breaking the shield. "They have to."
"I don’t think they can," Katie said.
"They can repair the stands in less than an hour. They only need to get the dragon back to the reservation. Look how many people are still here. It’s not as if we don’t have an audience."
"That leaves us with only one problem, then." Penelope and Katie exchanged a look.
"I’m sure they can replace it," Penelope said.
"They can’t. It’s against the rules."
"QUIET!" The magically amplified voice interrupted their conversation and made everybody flinch. "Will everybody please be quiet? Or do you want her to wake up again?" Movement swept through the crowd, and as one it retreated several steps. Loud arguments were abruptly quieted, only to be replaced by low whispers.
"I really want to know what’s going on down there." With a flick of her wand, Katie Summoned her broomstick and mounted it. The others followed suit. After a short flight, Katie touched down next to the referee who stood surrounded by both Quidditch teams, an official-looking witch with her hair in a tight bun, and Charlie Weasley.
With a grin on her face, Katie stepped up next to her former Gryffindor teammate. "Looks like you lost something," she said, interrupting the heated conversation.
Charlie looked down at her, blinked, and Katie noted with amusement that it took him a second to put a name to her face. Then, a smile made its way to his lips. "Looks like I found something," he replied.
"Well, considering the size of her, I’m sure it wasn’t too difficult. Though, she certainly made the match more interesting."
"Don’t tell me you were losing."
"We were leading ninety to eighty when your little lizard decided to join the game. She has good reflexes, but her manoeuvrability needs some work." Katie looked at the slumbering dragon. "Potential Keeper, I’d say."
"Ahem." The referee cleared his throat and regarded them with an air of amused sufferance. "Yes, well, the dragon’s suitability as a Quidditch player notwithstanding, it can’t stay here. We have a match to finish."
"We’ll get her back to the reservation right away. The stunning spell isn’t going to affect her for long. We’ll also reinforce the charms on the reservation’s perimeter. So, hopefully, this won’t happen again."
"Well, I certainly hope it won’t." The Romanian ministry official put one hand on her hip and regarded Charlie with obvious distaste. "You were told to reinforce those spells months ago."
Charlie held up his hands. "We did. I don’t know how she managed to get through, but I promise you: we’ll find out."
"See that you do." She tugged on her purple robes and squared her shoulders. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have to assure the generous guests whose money made the construction of this stadium possible that their investment was not as ill-advised as it would seem."
She turned and left them staring after her. Goran shook his head. "She is not so bad," he said. "But this stadium is very important to her. We have applied to host the next World Cup, you know."
"If she wants to add to Romania’s prestige, she shouldn’t have built the stadium so close to the dragon reservation," Penelope huffed.
Charlie intervened. "As far as I know, she didn’t want to build it here, but she was overruled by the committee." He clapped his hands together. "Now, let’s get Norberta back home before she wakes up."
They turned towards the dragon, which had been secured with spelled ropes and sailing canvas. The tarp rose and fell with its every breath. The stands were already undergoing repairs, and most of the fire damage had disappeared. Ropes had been secured to broomsticks, and two of Charlie’s colleagues, a young man and a tall, middle-aged woman approached. "We’re almost done. The sooner we get her out of here the better. We can’t keep her eggs warm for much longer."
Katie looked at Charlie in surprise. "She’s nesting?"
"Yes, which makes it even stranger that she flew off. They usually don’t leave their nests at all until the young ones hatch." He shrugged. "During the early stages of development, spelled fire is a poor substitute for real dragon fire. If we don’t get her back soon ..." he didn’t finish the sentence.
"Ah ... Charlie, there is a small problem." Katie looked over her shoulder and motioned for the referee to join them.
"What kind of problem?"
"She swallowed the Snitch."
Charlie stared at her in disbelief. "You’re pulling my leg."
Katie only raised an eyebrow.
Charlie burst out laughing. He regarded the dragon fondly. "Girl, when you cause trouble you don’t stop half-way, do you?"
The referee took the news with considerably less amusement. Mumbling under his breath, he pulled out a small booklet and began flipping pages.
"Surely, we can just use another Snitch," Penelope joined in.
Both Charlie and Katie shook their heads. "No, that’s against the rules."
"But this can’t be the first time that a Snitch was lost."
The referee cleared his throat again. "Well, strictly speaking, the Snitch is not lost, since we know where it is. And the game cannot end until the Snitch is caught."
"Well, it was caught. By a dragon," Goran said.
"Unfortunately, the dragon was not playing on either of the participating teams at the time of the catch."
"So what usually happens if ... let’s say, someone in the stands catches the Snitch?" Penelope asked.
The referee look outraged. "Such a person would be immediately dismissed from the stadium and fined up to five thousand galleons for trying to disrupt the match. The Snitch would then be released again in the middle of the pitch."
"So what you’re saying is that we can’t resume the match until the dragon ‘releases’ the Snitch." Goran was not the only one who looked disgusted.
"What I’m saying is that the match will not be over until the dragon ‘releases’ the Snitch. The match will resume as soon as the goal posts have been repaired."
"Nothing stops Quidditch," Katie trilled with fake enthusiasm. Her expression serious, she turned to Charlie. "How long will it take for us to get our Snitch back?"
Charlie’s smile had disappeared as well. "Dragons have a slow metabolism. Maybe a week. And with the charms on the Snitch that confine it to within two hundred feet of the stadium we can’t bring Norberta back to the reservation, either."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, I don’t know what happens to a Snitch once it’s been swallowed by a dragon, but I can’t risk it. If we move Norberta outside that perimeter it might cause serious damage to her inner organs and may even kill her." He addressed his colleagues. "Darren, I need you to fly back to the reservation and let Stefania know what happened. She needs to organize the transport of Norberta’s eggs. Ekaterina, we need to set up an enclosure outside the stadium. And we need to move fa-"
"Hold on. Now, just one minute here." The referee clapped his book shut with an agitated gesture. "You can’t just set up camp with a fully grown dragon. You can see for yourself how many people came here to watch the match. It will be pandemonium. It’s far too dangerous."
"If you have a better idea ..."
Martha and Penelope, who had wandered off to speak privately for a moment, rejoined the conversation. "The stadium wasn’t completely sold out, and about a fourth of the people went home after the dragon appeared. You could set up the enclosure on the practice pitch; this way, you don’t have to start from scratch. The pitch is behind the east curve of the stadium. If we keep that section of the stands free and put up additional Shielding Charms, we should be all right."
Penelope took over. "If we are going to keep playing for a whole week, we also need to bring in reserve players. We’ll have to send owls to the Bulgarian and British ministries to help us organize this."
Silence followed this announcement. Quidditch didn’t stop for anything. Not for bad weather, earthquakes, or erupting volcanoes. Certainly not for dragons. Once a match had started, it didn’t end until the Snitch was caught. Those were the rules. And it was a matter of pride for every Quidditch player that no match had ever been aborted. There was no question as to whether or not they would quit.
The referee cleared his throat. "Yes, well. In that case we’d better get started." He looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I suppose that I better inform Madame Brecska." He turned away and started to look for some purple robes.
* * * * *
In less than an hour, the goal posts had been repaired, and the spectators had been assigned new seats away from the east curve of the stadium. Once everyone had been informed of the Snitch’s whereabouts, and all organizational information had been imparted, the Quaffle and Bludgers were released, and the match resumed its course.
Charlie heard the rising cheers from the stadium, but was too preoccupied with the tasks at hand to pay much attention.
Darren had returned only a few minutes ago, accompanied by three keepers from the reservation and a crate containing Norberta’s eggs. Protective Charms and shields were erected to reinforce the boundary of the practice pitch, and Charlie waved his wand one last time to strengthen the wooden palisade.
Norberta restlessly prowled the confined space, her head swinging from side to side as she tried to gain a better view of the stadium. Her scaly legs where trembling slightly, and her wings lay limply on the ground.
"She still looks a bit groggy," Ekaterina said.
Charlie nodded. "Not for long. We should get her eggs in there, before the Stunners wear off completely."
They joined Darren and the others, and each of them heaved a jet-black dragon egg onto a blanket and carried it onto the pitch. Norberta growled from the depths of her throat when she saw them approach, but her reaction was slow, and her attention still fixed on the stadium.
Flanked by a protective detail of half a dozen witches and wizards, they ducked under the dragon's neck and carefully arranged the eggs in the nest. Then, watching from a safe distance, they waited for Norberta to breathe fire on the eggs to keep them warm.
Nothing happened. Norberta’s gaze remained fixed on the stadium.
Charlie scratched his head. "Unbelievable. Since when are dragons more interested in Quidditch than their own eggs?"
He raised his wand, and a circle of orange flames rose around the eggs. In response, Norberta roared, and a jet of fire hurled his way. Charlie cursed and threw himself to the ground.
"Is everyone all right?" he shouted as he pushed himself back to his feet. Ekaterina dusted dirt off her robes, and Darren, who was still on the ground, mumbled an affirmation.
His gaze fixing on the annoyed dragon, he watched with a mixture of relief and exasperation as Norberta finally turned her attention to her nest and bathed her eggs in dragon fire. With the early September sun low enough to skim the treetops, Charlie sent Darren and most of the others back to the reservation. Darren would return with tents and supplies, so they could settle in for the week along with Ekaterina and five other keepers who would take turns to guard Norberta.
Conjuring a pitcher of water, Charlie took a few swallows, and then dumped the remaining liquid over his head. The day had been hot and humid, and his robes clung uncomfortably to his skin. Combing his wet hair out of his face, he looked around, noting the tents, which had sprung up around the stadium. Curious, he approached. As another uprising of cheers erupted from the stadium, he saw Madame Brecska standing in the middle of the group of tents, her bun coming undone, her wand swirling and flicking in the air as she marshalled a group of harried-looking wizards about.
"Make sure we have enough beds for all the players. They are going to be exhausted. I want this section of the camp sealed off to everyone who is not a participant or Ministry official. Any spectator who wishes to stay can put his tent up on the other side of the west curve; that’ll put them as far away from the dragon as possible. I want guards stationed at both ends of the stadium to make sure no one wanders anywhere near the enclosure. Oh, hello, Mr. Weasley."
Without breaking stride, she nodded in greeting and dismissed her audience. Charlie fell into step beside her, and they walked around the far curve to see another group of tents, which had been erected among the willow trees.
A collective gasp from the stadium made them stop in their tracks. The following wild applause elicited a sigh from Madame Brecska. "I’d much rather be in there than out here."
Charlie offered a sympathetic smile. "I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to watch the match during the next week."
"Yes, well." She squared her shoulders and threw him an indecipherable glance. "How is your dragon? I don’t suppose there is any potion or other concoction that would speed this up a little?"
Charlie shook his head. "Sorry, but we’ll just have to wait. A dragon’s magical nature alters all potions with which it comes in contact. There is a reason why dragon bile is so expensive. Potions rarely have an effect on them, and if they do, it’s never the one for which the potion was designed."
Madame Brecska delicately wrinkled her nose. “Will that snitch even be usable when we get it back?”
“We’ll have to wait and see.”
Grumbling, Madame Brecska surveyed the camp and imparted orders to the Ministry official who came up to her and had apparently been assigned to oversee this part of the organization.
"The reserve players of the Vatra Dornei Dragons who weren’t already here, have arrived a few minutes ago, and we expect the Arrow’s reserve team to join us within the hour. After consulting with the team captains, we agreed on a six hour rotation. That way, hopefully everyone will be able to get enough sleep, and we can avoid any serious injuries and accidents." She gave him a forced, if not unfriendly smile. "Now, tell me how things are progressing on your end."
* * * * *
As the sun was setting behind the stadium, Katie was starting to feel the strain of the six-hour match. She dodged a Bludger and managed to catch the Quaffle, which Penelope had thrown her way. Seeing two of the Dragons' Chasers rushing towards her, she pulled into a steep dive and then threw herself backwards, spinning and zooming past the befuddled Chasers, until she saw Penelope waiting for her close to the goal hoops. She aimed and flung the big red ball at her teammate. The Quaffle’s flight arched above one of the opposing Beaters, but fell short. Penelope stretched and angled her broomstick downwards, but the ball fell and was caught by one of the Chasers whom Katie had just passed.
Cursing, Katie pulled her own broom around just as the referee’s whistle chirped three times in short succession.
"Oh, thank Merlin."
Along with the other players, Katie descended. Her legs where shaking and her arms ached. Pinning the broom between her legs, she shook her hands and moved her shoulders to alleviate the tension, which had built there. Then she joined her teammates and apologised to Penelope for her poor aim.
"Forget about it. This is going to happen a lot more before this match is over." She threw her arms around Katie and Thomas Ashton, their Keeper. "Besides, we’re fifty points in the lead. That’s a good thing."
The reserve teams had taken their positions on the pitch and were about to kick off. Thomas smiled sardonically and patted his replacement on the back. "Good luck, mate."
* * * * *
An hour later, Katie returned from her swim in the nearby lake. It had felt incredible to peel off the sweat-soaked Quidditch robes her and soak in the cool, clear water. The opportunity to take a deep breath and catch up on everything that had happened that day had been even better.
Ever since the dragon had swooped down and interrupted their match, everything had just rolled over her like an unstoppable steam train. There had hardly been any time to think; she’d been exclusively focused on keeping the match going. Only now that she had some time to herself did she realise that she’d have to owl her parents to let them know why she wouldn’t be home until next week. Also, her dad’s birthday was in five days. She would need to get permission from the Ministry to Apparate across international borders if she wanted to stop by for a visit.
Stretching her fatigued muscles, Katie put on the one spare set of robes she had brought with her and made a note to ask her parents to send her more clothes. Slinging the bag with her cleaned Quidditch robes over her shoulder, she set off through the woods towards the clearing in which the stadium was located.
Soon, the moon disappeared beyond the thick canopy of leaves above her. Katie pulled out her wand. "Lumos."
As she navigated her way through vines and over roots, she could hear the sounds of the crowd mixing with the low growling of the dragon. Weighing the prospect of five hours of sleep against her curiosity, she decided to take a detour past the enclosure.
She found Charlie sitting in the stands. He had exchanged his wizard robes for a simple, white shirt and dark trousers and was leaning back against the bench behind him, his attention focused on the black-scaled beast that restlessly prowled the practice pitch. As Katie approached, a cloud of red fire shot from Charlie’s wand toward the dark shadow of the eggs. The dragon roared, and with a look Katie could only describe as resentful, the dragon imitated her keeper and engulfed her nest in flames.
A moment later she was back to pacing at the near end of the enclosure, her neck stretching towards the stadium.
"I’m far from being an expert on dragons, but I think this one missed its calling."
Charlie jumped at the sound of her voice. "Oh, hey. I didn’t see you come in. How’s the match going?"
"Well, I think. We were leading by fifty points when I left."
"Shouldn’t you get some sleep? You have to be back on the pitch in five hours."
Smiling cheekily, Katie sat down next to him. "Yes, Mum," she teased, eliciting a wry smile from him. "I just wanted to stop by and see how you’re all doing." She waved towards the dragon. "So, where did you find this Quidditch enthusiast? She isn’t a Romanian breed, is she?"
"No, she’s a Norwegian Ridgeback. As to how I came by her..." He hesitated, then studied her closely. "Can you keep a secret?"
Her curiosity roused, Katie crossed her heart. "I promise."
Charlie leaned close to her. "Hagrid won her in a game of cards."
"He won a dragon in a game of cards?" Katie snorted. "Why am I not surprised?"
"She wasn’t hatched, yet. He kept the egg warm in the fireplace; that’s why she is so small."
Katie stared at him. Then she stared at Norberta. The only other opportunity she had had to observe dragons in real life had been during the Triwizard Tournament. And while it had been difficult to judge size from the safe distance of the stands, she wouldn’t call Norberta small by comparison. As if agreeing with her, the dragon flapped her wings and reared.
Immediately, Charlie was on his feet, and without thinking, Katie pulled out her wand as well. But to her relief Norberta settled down again and trumpeted a forlorn cry into the night. Then she engulfed her eggs in fire and curled her body around the nest. The great head came to rest on her front paws and her eyelids fell shut. A deep breath, half sigh, half growl, issued from the snout before she fell asleep.
With his hands on his hips, Charlie regarded the dormant dragon. "You know, sometimes, when a dragon grows up among human keepers, it can be a bit negligent once it has its own eggs to care for. But this is getting ridiculous. I’ve never even heard of a case where the mother just took off and left her nest completely unprotected."
"Have you ever heard of a dragon who was obsessed with Quidditch?" Katie asked, half joking, half serious.
Charlie settled back on the bench and invited her to sit next to him. "No, but I’ve heard of a Common Welsh Green who thought it was a Shepherd’s dog."
"Not at all. It was about thirty years ago. A Muggle shepherd woke up one morning, found all his dogs eaten and a young dragon guarding the sheep. The Ministry was not amused."
Katie laughed. "So what was Hagrid going to do? Keep her as a pet?"
"He tried. Thankfully, Ron, Harry and Hermione talked him out of it. She is better off here, really. Although, I think I might be partially responsible for the Quidditch obsession."
"Why is that?"
"As much as I love my work here, sometimes I really miss playing Quidditch. So I asked around, and there is usually a good number of people who are up for a match whenever there is some free time. We chose one of the plateaus that was a safe distance from the nearest dragon nest, or so I thought, but one day I saw Norberta crouching on the cliff top some distance away. We chose a new playing field after that, but within a few days, she had tracked us down again."
"She never attacked?"
"No, she just watched. So after we’d moved to a new pitch for the fifth time, we decided to see what would happen, and kept playing. Turns out that we were a bit too close to the stadium at the time. We had just finished our match, when we heard the cheers from the crowd. And then Norberta took off and flew right through the perimeter spells, as if they weren’t even there. You know the rest."
"And you have no idea how she got through the wards?"
Charlie reached for a basket Katie hadn’t noticed before and extracted two bottles of Butterbeer. "No, but I sent a message with Darren that the entire perimeter has to be checked."
Katie accepted the proffered bottle and took a deep swig. As the cool liquid ran down her throat, Katie closed her eyes blissfully. She had been so preoccupied that she hadn’t even realized that she hadn’t had anything to drink or eat since breakfast. At the thought of food, her stomach started to growl. The sound was answered by a low rumbling from the sleeping dragon.
While Katie blushed with embarrassment, Charlie chuckled quietly. He stood and gallantly offered her his hand. "Let’s see if we can find something to eat. I’m starving, too."
They walked towards the camp where the Quidditch teams were housed, their conversation meandering from dragons to Hagrid to Hogwarts, and back to Quidditch.
"Two years out of school and you’re already on the first team. You’re doing well."
"Yes, and I love it. Although, to be honest, my promotion from the reserve team had more to do with the war than stellar talent. We lost Gerald McKeenan just before the Battle of Hogwarts." Katie took a deep breath, trying to escape the unwelcome memory. "Still, we were lucky. In that regard, at least. The Tornados were decimated. Most of the team was killed during a Death Eater attack."
She kicked a stray pebble across the grass. Most of the time, she could pretend that the shadow of war had disappeared with Voldemort’s death, but every now and then she woke up in the middle of the night, remembering dreams full of masks and snakes and death.
Charlie’s head was downcast, and Katie suddenly felt a lump in her throat as her thoughts turned to his dead brother. She halted and hesitantly touched his arm. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up any dark memories."
He grasped her hand in his and squeezed it gently. "It’s alright. George has threatened to send everyone a parcel of exploding dragon dung if we keep moping around. He said Fred would be annoyed if he could see us." He took a deep breath and stared off into the forest. "The threat didn’t really have much effect on Mum, though. She’s devastated, blames herself for some silly things she said and didn’t mean."
Katie fought the urge to hug him. While they were friendly with each other because of Katie’s friendship with his brothers and the fact that they had both played on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, she didn’t feel that they knew each other well enough to offer the intimacy of an embrace. During Charlie’s last year as a Seeker, she had been no more than an over-enthusiastic spectator, cheering her team and hoping fervently that she would be allowed to try out for a position in her second year at Hogwarts. And the six-year age difference between them had prevented any closer acquaintance. In the end, she settled for a sympathetic smile and squeezed his hand in return.
"I think all mothers are like that. But I’m sure, that with George, Ron and Ginny, and not to mention Bill and Fleur’s baby to occupy her time, she will get better."
"I hope you’re right."
* * * * *
The dining hall was located in a bright red tent, which had been erected in the centre of the camp. When they ducked through the low entrance, a large room was revealed, housing a desk and multiple drawers and cabinets near the entrance, while the remaining three quarters were taken up by an assortment of tables and chairs, decorated with flower bouquets and candlesticks. A canvas flap to the right allowed glimpses of a large kitchen. Only two of the tables were occupied, one seating Madame Brecska and the Romanian coach, while the other one was host to Penelope and Thomas, who were just finishing their supper.
With a smile and a wave Katie greeted her teammates, but dropped down into the first available chair she reached. Charlie sat down next to her. They spent their supper in companionable silence, each occupied with his own thoughts, and it was not long after Katie’s plate was clean that she bid Charlie good night and retired to her own tent.
* * * *
With the first light of dawn, around six o’clock in the morning, Darren returned to the stadium.
"We spent the whole night checking the wards. They’re in perfect order. I have no idea how she managed to get through."
Charlie ran his hand through his hair and stared into the forest where the reservation stretched from the mountain peaks in the east across the Romanian forest. "That’s impossible. There has to be something. How thoroughly did you examine the wards?"
"We could hardly check every inch of it, but if there were a breach big enough to let a dragon through, we would have found it."
Darren dropped down onto the bench next to him. Darren’s gaze rested on the dragon. Norberta had woken early, and while she paid more attention to her nest than she had yesterday, her head frequently turned towards the stadium.
"There aren’t that many possibilities. Either, we missed something, or there was a breach and it was sealed after Norberta went through. Or our wayward mother learned a new trick."
"If she could breach the wards on her own, she would have tried to get back to the stadium by now."
Darren concealed a yawn behind his hand. He blinked sleepily. "I’ll go back and tell everyone to check the perimeter again, if you want."
Charlie lightly slapped him on the shoulder. "The only thing you’ll do is get some sleep. It’s Ekaterina’s turn to watch Norberta, so I’ll go and have a look for myself."
With a wan smile, Darren gave a mock-salute and hauled himself to his feet.
* * * * *
The Vatra Dornei Dragons had taken the lead. High above the Quidditch pitch, Katie raced after one of the opposing Chasers, who had soared upwards after the Arrows had tried to corner him with Parkin’s Pincer. With a look over her shoulder, she saw Penelope close behind her. Her team captain gave her a signal, and they parted ways, approaching the hovering Chaser from either side, trusting their teammate to cover the area below.
Then everything happened very fast. The Dragon’s Chaser rolled and let himself fall backwards, pulling his broom into the dive with him. At the same time, he threw the Quaffle directly past Penelope’s back. She tried to twist and grab the ball, but the abrupt violence of the motion almost unseated her. Katie pulled into a sharp curve and tried to reach both the Quaffle and her teammate, when a Bludger smashed into her temple.
At first there was no pain, only darkness, which snuffed out lights and colour. Disoriented, she tried to lock her legs around her broom as she had practised so many times, but she could not feel her body at all. There was an odd rushing sound in her ears, and she dimly realized that she was falling.
Then, sight and feeling returned as suddenly as it had left her. The first thing she saw was the rapid beat of wings above the treetops. Gradually, the flags on top of the stadium, the stands, the multicoloured robes below faces of all shapes and ages came into focus. Two shadows raced across the forest to the east.
She hung upside down from her broomstick, which was falling fast towards the grassy ground.
Realising that she could not have been senseless for more than a few seconds, Katie tried to hold on to her broom and slow her descent. But when she moved pain exploded in her skull, and her fingertips slipped from the handle. Then, Penelope and the Romanian Chaser caught her around the waist, and accompanied by shouts and relieved applause, they landed on the pitch. A mediwizard awaited them. Despite her weak protests and resistance, Katie was examined.
"The skull is intact. She only has a concussion. You’ll be alright in no time, dear."
Katie gulped down the acidic blue liquid, which was unceremoniously dumped into her mouth. Coughing and sputtering, she stood up. "Good, because my rotation isn’t over for another hour." She was about to reach for her broom when the dizziness overcame her. She swayed on her feet until Thomas steadied her.
The mediwizard waved his wand, and a floating stretcher appeared in mid-air. "It’s only a mild sleeping draught, Ms. Bell. You’ll be up again before you’re due on the pitch at two o’clock this afternoon."
Katie tried to argue, but the brief burst of anger she felt was rapidly swallowed by the lull of the sleeping draught. The last thought she had before oblivion claimed her was that she needed to talk to Charlie about the dragons she had seen outside of the reservation.
* * * * *
Stefania, his second-in-command, came tearing across the lawn as soon as she saw Charlie land.
"Two of the hatchlings are missing," she said without preamble. "Alexander and Lore’s team looked in on the Ironbelly behind the peak. She was tearing up a storm when they approached. Smashed trees and rubble everywhere. They had to stun her. We don’t think they can have been gone long. We’re just putting together a search party."
Charlie clenched his jaw and fell into step beside her. His face was grim.
For the first couple of months after they hatched, dragons never wandered far from the nest. Even though the canyons in the Carpathians were best described as labyrinthine, it was unlikely that they had simply gotten lost during the short absences of their mother when she was hunting. Especially when only the day before a full-grown dragon had escaped the reservation. The only explanation was that someone had taken down the perimeter spells to smuggle the hatchlings out of the reservation.
"We need to check every nest throughout the reservation. And we have to inform the Ministry. Whoever did this tried to do it before. Let’s hope yesterday was a failed attempt."
"Whoever did this put the wards up fairly quickly after Norberta escaped. It was the first spot we checked. And we looked at that one thoroughly."
The search party that was to look for the hatchlings had already been assembled by the time they reached the main building. Lore met them at the entrance, her broomstick in one hand, a cage housing a tawny owl in the other. Attached to its leg was the letter for the Ministry.
"I’ll just carry her beyond the wards. I’ll be back shortly."
Within minutes, the remaining keepers were split up into pairs with orders to count both eggs and hatchlings of all dragons that dwelled in the Carpathians. Almost a hundred broomsticks rose into the morning sky. Joining the search party, Charlie touched down by the Ironbelly’s lair next to Stefania and two of the reservation’s trackers, Nadja and Roman.
Alexander was waiting for them a good distance away from the dragon, which had shaken off the effects of the Stunning Spell and regarded them warily with its deep red eyes. Seeing the debris of splintered timber and man-high boulders obscuring their path, Charlie raised his wand, intending to clear the way, but Alexander stopped him.
"Don’t. I cleared the space surrounding the lair, but she came to really fast and nearly roasted me alive." He motioned to his singed robe and hair. "She gets really tetchy when she sees a wand."
Thin trails of smoke billowed from the dragon’s snout. Its enormous grey body was angled parallel to the stone wall behind it. In between the beast and the mountain lay the nest. A high whining could be heard every now and then, and each call was answered by another puff of ever-darkening smoke. A rumbling vibrated through the dragon’s body, a sound pitched so low that it was easier to feel it than hear it.
"The remaining hatchlings are all right. I hid in the woods for a while, just to see what she would do, and she kept looking southeast. Judging from her agitation, I think she’s been debating whether she should go after the thief, but she doesn’t want to leave her nest unprotected. So I think southeast is where we should start."
They searched the whole morning and into the afternoon. Within the borders of the reservation, they found plenty of evidence of a large object moving through the forest. Low-hanging branches hung broken, only tenuously attached to a few scraps of bark. The path meandered beneath the thickest stretches of canopy, avoiding clusters of firs and pines as well as the numerous clearings spread out so close to the tree line.
Beyond the wards encircling the dragons’ habitat, the ground fell to a low plateau, which tempered out into several meadow-covered hills. Thus shielded from sight, there had been no necessity to stay among the trees. They spread out and circled the vast area below.
Three hours later, Charlie found what he’d been looking for. Sending up red sparks with his wand, he marked his position and landed next to the shattered remains of a wooden crate. The edges were singed where the planks had broken along with the Fireproofing Charm. Claw marks were scratched into the hard ground. Vegetation was sparse at this spot, and the canvas of grass was frequently broken by moss-covered stone.
Stefania was the first to arrive beside him. "This doesn’t look as if he let them out intentionally."
As they surveyed the space around them, Nadja and Roman inspected the tracks around the crate.
"No, my guess is he Stunned them before he put them in the crate. They woke up prematurely, made a ruckus, and forced him down."
"Do you think he managed to Stun them again?"
Nadja shook her head. "I can’t say." Roman crouched on the ground, his hand dusting splinters from a set of deep scratches. He and Nadja exchanged a look. "The crate came down pretty hard. It depends on whether it was cut loose, or pulled the broom down with it. If the thief was injured or even temporarily down for the count, then both of them could have gotten away."
"So our best-case scenario is that we have two hatchlings on the loose. And they’re too young to find their way back on their own." Charlie took a deep breath his gaze sweeping the forest to the south, behind which the Quidditch stadium was located. "All right, in this terrain we need more teams to coordinate our search. Let’s head back, get some rest and something to eat. You’ve been up all night. Maybe the others found out something that’ll help us. "
But only bad news awaited them on their return. Four eggs had been stolen from four different nests along the eastern border of the reservation.
"Two Longhorns, another Ironbelly, and a Horntail. And no evidence of who took them."
Charlie bit down on the curse that rested on his tongue. Filled with anger, he balled his fists. It was no secret that a lot of gold was to be made with the illegal trade of dragon eggs and hatchlings. If not sold as pets or guard animals to families whose overflowing bank vaults were matched only by their arrogance and determination to tame or train an exotic animal, they were slaughtered before they became fully grown. Their hearts, blood, hides, livers, claws and horns were then sold as potion ingredients which, while far cheaper than what could be legally bought, still brought a vast amount of profit.
When Charlie had been sixteen, he had seen his first real dragon. It had been a defining moment in his life, for after spending two weeks of his summer holidays at the reservation in Wales, he had decided to forego a Quidditch career in favour of becoming a caretaker and student of these magnificent animals. The thought that six of his charges were now missing, and at the mercy of scrupulous black market machinations, made him sick with fury.
To make matters worse, aside from a few high-ranking Ministry officials in the Romanian Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, only the senior dragon keepers knew how to take down the perimeter spells preventing the dragons from leaving their assigned habitat. There was always the possibility that an outsider had achieved the required knowledge through bribery, but the apparent ease with which the thief had evaded the routine patrols across the reservation as well as the frequent checks on the nesting mothers was suspicious enough that he couldn’t rule out that someone he knew might be collaborating with the smugglers.
Charlie let his gaze drift around the people who surrounded him, the people who were waiting for him to decide how they should proceed. But before he could say anything, Alexander called out from the back of the crowd.
"Has anyone seen Lore?"
Stefania looked at two of their interning keepers. "She was supposed to join you at the nests by the river after she’d sent the letter to the Ministry."
The taller of the two shook his head. "She never showed up."
Katie chose to ignore the headache which had sprung up behind her eyes during her last half hour on the pitch. Grudgingly, she had to admit that no matter how vile the potion had tasted, it had worked its magic and after sleeping through the entire seven hours of her midday break, she had felt well enough to mount her broom and continue the match.
Now that she had another six hours to do as she pleased, Katie hurried down towards Norberta’s enclosure and found Charlie shovelling dragon dung onto a compost heap.
Katie pinched her nose against the smell. “I take it you can’t simply vanish the stuff, can you?”
Turning around, Charlie rested the pitchfork against a nearby tree and pulled off his gloves. “I could, but that would be a waste of excellent fertiliser.”
“I knew I should have paid more attention during Herbology. Listen, I saw someth...” Startled, she trailed off as Charlie stepped close to her. He gently lifted her chin and turned her face to the side. Her stomach flip-flopped beneath his scrutiny.
“Ouch. Looks like you got kissed by a Bludger. Let me give you something for that.” Stepping back he walked over to the broom shed, which adjoined the practice pitch, and retrieved a small satchel. “We use it mostly for burns, but its good for all kinds of things.”
“Thanks, I’ve been trying to avoid mirrors since I woke up.” Gratefully, she accepted the jar of ointment he held out to her.
“There is something I need to tell you. Just after I was hit by that Bludger this morning, I saw something flying over the treetops. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think it might have been a couple of dragons. Only I thought the reservation didn’t go that far south.”
Sudden tension radiating off him, Charlie grabbed her by the shoulders. His grip wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but Katie flinched nonetheless. “Where exactly did you see them?”
“It’s probably easier if I showed you.” She pushed firmly against his chest, and he released her with an apologetic look. “What’s going on?”
He filled her in while Katie Summoned both of their brooms.
“So you think Lore is the smuggler?”
“If you had asked me this morning, I would have said no. Now, I’m just not sure what to think. The letter she was supposed to send never made it to the Ministry either.”
Brooms in hand, they hurried onto the stands. Ekaterina and another keeper were sitting on the highest bench guarding a restless Norberta.
“Katie thinks she saw the hatchlings. We’re going to have a look around. Have you seen Darren?”
“Half an hour ago, he was sleeping like a baby. And before you ask, I don’t know where the others are either. Sorry.”
“Fine. So it’ll just be the two of us.” He turned towards Katie. “They are only hatchlings, so we’ll be able to handle them on our own. How good are your Stunners?”
Caught up in the rush of activity, Katie cocked an eyebrow. “Good enough,” she said confidently.
* * * * *
The sun had dipped below the treetops, leaving only the scarce illumination of a fading sunset to guide them. Taking the lead, Katie started next to the stadium and tried to remember where she had seen the flying shapes above the canopy. Finally, she decided to head south-east and mentally shortened the distance she had perceived according to the smaller size of the hatchlings.
The forest lay calm and unnaturally quiet below. The air was still warm and smothering, the humidity having increased over the past two days. Even at this altitude, there was no breeze to grant relief, and when Katie halted her broom above a group of evergreens, the temperature assaulted her sweat soaked skin and stifled her breathing.
Batting futilely at the swarm of insects that besieged her, she turned to Charlie. “I think this is it.”
Without a word Charlie rose higher and looked north-west. Following his gaze, Katie could see the dark shadows of a tree-lined mountain cliff rising behind an almost bare expanse of gradually growing hills. Charlie nodded, as if he’d just confirmed an assumption. He gestured towards the hills in the distance.
“That’s where we found the crate. Did the dragons you saw head east or south?”
Uncertain, Katie regarded the trees below her. “I only saw them for a second, but I think they were descending.”
“Are you sure?”
Katie gave him a look. “No. I’d just been hit by a Bludger.” She couldn’t quite suppress the terse note in her voice. To take the sting out of her words, she quickly amended, “Maybe we should circle the canopy before the light is completely gone. If we don’t find anything tonight, you can come back tomorrow with more people.”
He didn’t answer right away. For a moment he only looked at her. Then he opened his mouth, but stopped himself before sound had passed his lips. Instead, he pulled out his wand. “Lumos.” A ball of glowing light appeared at the wooden tip. He inclined his head towards her. “After you.”
Flying in ever growing circles, they searched the forest for any sign of the dragon. The light faded from the sky, until only their wands breached the dark shades of grey and black beneath them. Just as Katie was contemplating whether or not she should suggest that they break off the search, Charlie’s voice called urgently across the darkness.
Reaching his position, Katie immediately saw what had excited Charlie. Within a crop of oak trees, leaves had been singed or burned away, and below, a path of broken twigs allowed a clear view down to the thick, knobbly branches stretching above the earthen ground, which was lost in darkness.
A smile was on Charlie’s face as he regarded her. “Looks like you were right. What do you think? Do you feel up for a little adventure?”
Not a year ago, Katie would at least have hesitated before wandering through an unknown forest in the middle of the night. But searching for a couple of young dragons in the Romanian woods seemed a relaxing experience when compared to facing giants and Death Eaters.
The canopy was too thick to land, so they angled their broom westwards where the high crowns of a few pines rose above the surrounding beeches and oaks. Twigs tore at their clothes and Katie’s hair, and by the time they had passed the upper branches, their arms and face were lacerated with numerous shallow scratches.
“Diffindo.” Katie directed her wand at a particular thick web of entwining undergrowth and cleared away the last obstacle that separated her from the ground. She rested her broom next to Charlie’s.
Progress was slow as they made their way back towards the oak tree. The air was blessedly cooler near the ground, and Katie took several deep breaths, loving the scent of pines and moss.
“I’m beginning to understand why so few of you are wearing robes around here,” she said, when her hem was caught in a thicket again. She pulled hard and the fabric tore free, sending her stumbling a step backwards to regain her balance. Charlie’s hand on her back steadied her. It was accompanied by his wry laugh.
“We don’t let our owls fly free inside the reservations, because the dragons would regard them as prey. During my first week I accidentally let one of them escape from the Owlery and, predictably, it was chased into the forest by a Longhorn. I tore my robe to shreds before I wised-up and decided to change into trousers.”
“Did you catch the owl?”
“No, by the time I got back, she’d returned to the Owlery on her own.” He chuckled quietly. “Darren’s father was the senior keeper back then. He thought that it was a good lesson in not allowing impatience to overrule common sense.”
Katie nodded her acknowledgment. “I could probably use a couple of those.”
“Why do you say that?”
“When I first joined the Arrows, I had a few training sessions for the Seeker’s position.” She made a pained face. “It was a bit of a catastrophe.” At Charlie’s curious expression, she elaborated. “No offense, but I was bored to tears. A Chaser is constantly part of the game, and I love how the Chasers interact both with their own teammates as well as the opposing players. But a Seeker stands always apart from the real action; waiting to catch a glimpse of the Snitch. I just don’t have the patience for that. I want to get things done right away.”
“So, is impatience one of the reasons you looked as if you were going to bite my head off back there?” He motioned to the treetops above them.
“Ah... yes. Sorry about that.” She took a deep breath and met his eyes. “I think the match is making me a bit short-tempered.”
Suddenly, a loud screech interrupted their conversation. Flinching, they both whirled around, wands raised in front of them. The rapid sound of flapping wings filled the night.
“That doesn’t sound like a dragon,” Charlie shouted over the prolonged high-pitched wailing.
Carefully, they moved forwards. Abruptly, the animal’s cry stopped and left in its void the sound of scuttling legs, creaking wood, and rustling leaves.
“We should be fairly close to the oak trees.”
“In fact we’re standing right below them,” Katie said and pointed upwards. Goose bumps covered her arms and, irritated by her own reaction, she rubbed at her skin, and then pointed her wand at the ground. Claw marks were visible in the soft soil. “So, do we follow the trail or the screech?”
Charlie considered the option for only a second. “The trail,” he decided. “We can’t be sure that the noise had anything to do with the hatchlings.”
The trail meandered through the dark forest, passing from evergreens to beech trees while leading steadily south. After a twenty minute march, they finally stepped into a large space that was blessedly free of thickets, ferns, or low-hanging branches.
They both breathed a sigh of relief and continued their journey deeper into the woods.
“You’ve been here longer than I have. Is it normal that it’s so quiet around here? Aside from these blasted mosquitos, and whatever animals we heard earlier, this forest seems to be dead.”
“I have...” he began, but stopped and stared at the ground. Walking past her with two fast steps, he crouched and picked up a shapeless lump, which almost broke in half as his hand closed around its edge.
Katie stepped closer. “What is it?”
“It’s a dragon wing.” His voice was quiet, holding both anger and regret.
Not knowing what to say, Katie put a comforting hand on his back.
“How could this happen?” he wondered quietly.
“I’m sorry, Charlie.”
“No. I mean, how could this happen?” He turned towards her, his face stoic. “What could do this to an Ironbelly?”
“It was still a hatchling. Maybe....”
“No, even the young ones are incredibly resilient. That’s why whoever abducted them, couldn’t stun them long enough to complete the transport. And there is nothing in this forest that could just rip off a dragon’s wings.”
“Maybe I wasn’t the only one who saw them this morning.”
They searched the surrounding ground and soon found evidence of more than just the dragons’ presence. Along with scratched bark and broken twigs, there was blood on a few saplings, and a torn piece of black cloth half covered by earth and the first traces of autumn foliage.
“Is that human or dragon blood?” Katie asked.
Charlie pointed his wand at the black substance. A rain of silver stars fell from the tip and changed to misty swirls of gold as soon as they came in contact with the blood. Two small shapes rose into the air; the spectre of a great winged creature and the bipedal husk of a man. “Both.” With an angry gesture he waved the smoke away and rose from his crouching position. He turned the piece of cloth in his hands. “It’s a pity that it won’t be as easy to determine to whom the robe belongs.”
“Was Lore wearing one?”
“No, she was wearing a matching green shirt and trousers.”
Katie raised her wand high to shed more light on their surroundings. “Do you want to keep going?”
Charlie didn’t answer.
Feeling as if icy fingertips were dancing along her spine, Katie turned around.
He was standing motionless behind her; his eyes wide, his gaze fixed on a spot above and behind her right shoulder. “Katie, don’t look around,” he whispered.
Sudden fear clawing at her back, Katie froze. The urge to disobey his order was overwhelming.
“Lower your wand. Slowly. Don’t make any fast movements.”
Trembling, Katie forced her muscles to obey her. “What is it?” she whispered.
“Apparate to the stadium. Do it now!”
Katie swallowed and tried to concentrate. She took a step to the left, expecting the world to fade, but everything remained as it was. A rapid burst of clicking reached her ears.
Closing her eyes she focussed with all her strength on the stadium.
She took a step to the left.
Her eyes sought Charlie’s. “It’s not working.” The clicking noise came again.
“What is that?”
Instead of answering her question, Charlie slowly stepped sidewards; his eyes never wavering from whatever was behind her. “When I tell you to, I want you to run. Don’t look back. Don’t wait for me. Just get to your broom and get in the air.”
Knowing that fear would only work against her, Katie sought refuge in anger. “If you think, I’m leaving here without you, you are sorely mistaken,” she ground out. Her hand clenched around her wand.
“Trust me. I’ll be right behind you.”
“RUN!” A white flash exploded behind her as Charlie attacked.
Overruling her resolve, Katie’s legs started running. She sprinted across the open ground back towards the undergrowth, where they had left their brooms. “Accio!” she shouted, hoping that her thunderbolt could break through the vegetation. Her ears strained to hear Charlie’s footsteps behind her, and she was about to stop and look for him, when he was beside her grasping for her hand.
They reached the thickets and pressed on, not caring if the thorns shredded their clothes or skin. Suddenly, something collided hard with Katie’s back and she was thrown to the ground. Her wand slipped from her hands. A great, dark shape loomed above her, but moved on towards Charlie who had turned to divert the creature’s attention away from her.
Frantically, Katie searched for her wand in the darkness. The flashes from Charlie’s attack was all the light she had to see by, and both his shouts and the creatures clicking and screeching made her more frantic with every second that passed.
Then her fingers found a familiar length of wood. She threw herself around and aimed at the dark shape that rose between her and Charlie.
At the sound of her voice, the creature threw itself around. The spell impacted with one of its legs, which promptly exploded into a myriad of fragments. A shrill screeching rang in Katie’s ears, but she hardly noticed the sound. She stood frozen, her eyes unable to tear themselves away. Horrified, she stumbled backwards.
Charlie rushed over to her, and as he roughly pulled her away from the giant spider, she snapped out of her stupor. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“It’s an Acromantula.”
I can see that,” she snapped.
The spider didn’t follow them, but they continued to run, breaking through the undergrowth with reckless speed until they reached a small clearing.
Out of breath, both of them stopped. Katie looked at the stars above her, then at Charlie. “You’re hurt.” Carefully, she touched his arm, where a long gash opened his skin from wrist to elbow.
“You should take a look at yourself,” he panted as Katie tore a wide strip of cloth off her shredded Quidditch robe. He allowed her to bind his arm, then wiped a thin trickle of blood from her forehead.
Pain throbbed in her lacerated fingers, and by the light of her wand, Katie saw dozens of thin thorns embedded in her skin. “This will have to wait until we get back. Do you have any idea where we are?”
Charlie looked around. “No, it would be best if we could get into the air. I tried to summon my broom, but it didn’t work.”
“I did the same. They must have gotten tangled in the underbrush. Can you Apparate?”
They regarded each other for a moment, and Charlie cupped her cheek in his hand.
“We’ll get out of here.”
Nodding her acknowledgment, Katie covered his hand with hers. “I think the brooms are still our best bet. It didn’t follow us, so chances are good we injured it badly enough to make it retreat.”
“Then we should hurry.”
They left the same way they'd arrived; walking much slower and careful not to make any unnecessary noise. But with the ferns and bushes entwining and overgrowing the lower vegetation, their progress was far from stealthy.
Sweat poured down their necks and foreheads. By mutual decision they only used Charlie’s wand for lighting and even that was shielded by his hand.
Katie couldn’t tell how much time had passed, when Charlie stopped walking.
“Did you hear that?”
Katie listened closely. Leaves rustled lightly in the minuscule breeze that had sprung up since they’d left the clearing. She could hear the sound of their breathing and the buzzing of insects around them.
Then the rustling sound came again. Closer.
Taking a deep breath, Katie motioned to Charlie. “Which way?”
“We should be almost back to where we started. The vegetation is getting scarcer. I am fairly sure that by now we are roughly walking parallel to the path we took from where we left our brooms to where we found the dragon wing. If we cut north, we should get there faster.”
“But we’ll risk missing the brooms. We don’t know where they got stuck.”
“We’ll have to try Summoning them again.”
They heard the rustling again. It was not far away now.
As one they bolted between the trees. The rustling grew louder and followed them, confirming their fears. Neither of them looked back; both only intent on their escape. Yet, they still saw the web too late.
Charlie, who had been ahead of her, threw himself into the gab between two gorses. A shout of surprise and fear followed his disappearance. Katie stopped dead and frantically gazed into the darkness behind her.
“Diffindo,” she shouted and cut through the bush, revealing Charlie’s stocky form twisting in the spider web. “Hold still.” Using her wand she proceeded to cast Severing Charms on the sticky strands which incarcerated him.
“Katie. Behind you.”
“Damn it.” She threw herself around and to the side and barely escaped the powerful pincers of the attacking Acromantula. Throwing an Impediment Jinx at the creature, she darted between the spider’s front legs. Fear slammed into her as she found herself staring into the liquid, dark, multifaceted eyes. Her skin crawled, and she stood paralysed, her breathing harsh and irregular.
Dragons, snakes and bugs didn’t faze her, but she had always been afraid of spiders. During her fourth year at Hogwarts, Professor Lupin had made them face a Bogart in class. Hers had turned into a sea of tiny, crawling, bustling arachnids, which had swarmed across the classroom floor. Katie had never managed to think of a way to make them funny, in order to banish them with the Riddikulus Charm.
Again it was Charlie’s voice that made her come to her senses. Shaking like a leaf, she raised her wand and blasted the spider backwards. The enormous body was thrown into the air, tumbled, and crashed onto the ground. She had not exaggerated her prowess with Stunners. Turning back towards the web, she quickly freed Charlie, who then pulled his wand out of the web. They both turned towards the motionless spider.
“Thank you,” he panted, once it became clear that the creature would not immediately get up again. “Come on. Let’s get our brooms.”
Katie was still trembling. Her gaze rested on the Acromantula which lay incapacitated in the sparse illumination of their wands. Only half aware of what was going on around her, Katie let herself be pulled into a hug.
“That Acromantula still has all its legs.”
She felt his body stiffen and his arms tighten around her. Without another word, they both turned away and hurried farther north. A few minutes later, they reached the oak trees where they'd landed.
They both flinched when their Summons was answered by crashing and tearing noises. Holding their wands high to cast as much light as possible, they followed the sound and found their brooms tangled in the underbrush.
Relief flooding her veins, Katie mounted hers and pulled it upwards, blasting the canopy above her to ashes and cinders.
She had hoped that her nerves and body would calm down, now that the immediate danger was removed, but instead it only got worse. Her skin itched, and Katie ran her hands repeatedly over her scratched arms and through her tangled hair, convinced that she could feel spider legs scuttling across her body. Her breath still came in flat, staccato puffs. She heard the sound of Charlie’s voice as if from a great distance. The forest flew by below her, and her vision blurred, not with tears, but with tiny exploding stars. She felt dizzy. Her stomach contracted painfully.
Katie didn’t really remember how she made it to the lake. Her first clear thoughts came with the welcome sting of icy water. She held her breath and tore at her clothes. Only when the pressure in her lungs became too great, did she kick upwards and broke the surface of the water, gulping for air.
Pushing her ruined Quidditch robes away from her, Katie closed her eyes and let her head fall back until her ears were below the waterline. Listening to the steady sound of her heartbeat, Katie focussed on the rhythm of her breathing. Her fingers combed through the long tresses of her hair, which floated in the slow current.
Pain returned with the ebbing flow of adrenalin, but Katie ignored it.
“Are you all right?”
The quiet voice startled her and looking up, she saw Charlie standing hip deep in the water. He was still fully dressed and armed with both wand and broomstick, and Katie realized that she must have given him a fright, the way she had let herself fall as soon as she had spied the lake below her.
“I’m sorry, I freaked out like that. I just can’t deal with spiders.”
“You did pretty well. If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead.” His eyes held her gaze, and Katie was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that her clothes were floating far out of reach. She felt a blush steal onto her face and was ridiculously grateful that the lanterns, which illuminated the deserted bathing area, didn’t shed enough light to penetrate the darkness around her.
“I could say the same thing. So we’re even.”
He gave her a crooked smile, then waded over to a spit of rock and put down the broom and the wand. “If you’re feeling better, we should have a look at your injuries. Do you think you’ll be able to play in three hours?”
Her relief at the change of subject was short lived. She couldn’t suppress a groan at the thought of mounting a broom again in so short a time. After everything that had happened in the past few hours, winning a Quidditch match seemed exceptionally unimportant, and she couldn’t help but note that only a few days ago, she would have termed such a thought sacrilegious.
“I’ll manage. I just need to get those thorns out of my hands.” Her palms were stinging as if they’d been pricked by a hundred needles. “We need to tell someone about the Acromantulas.”
“I’ll have a letter sent to Darren’s father right away. He is the Head of the Dragon Research and Restraint Bureau now, but he has a lot of influence in the Ministry. He’ll make sure that no one is going to do anything rash.”
“What do you mean? You can’t seriously be thinking about setting up another reservation for those monsters.”
“How about, because they shouldn’t even be here, but either in a jungle in Borneo or in the Malaysian research facility. Or because they tried to kill us, and have most likely killed your missing hatchlings, and in a truly poetic stroke of justice, the smuggler, who stole them. Not to mention that between the dragons and the Acromantulas, this stadium has to be the built in the worst location possible. You’ll have thousands of families running around here twice a month. That’s an impossible security risk.”
“You can’t punish an animal for following its nature. If the reservation is set up deep enough in the forest, I’m sure the Ministry will set it up as a research and study project. Witches and Wizards would be observing and guarding it, just like we do. The Acromantulas wouldn’t be able to get out, and anyone here for the match couldn’t get in. There wouldn’t be any risk.”
“Just like there wasn’t any risk that a fully grown dragon would swoop down into the stadium?” The water seemed colder than before, and Katie swam closer to the shore.
Charlie regarded her, his arms crossed over his broad chest. “Norberta escaped, because someone lowered the wards to make a profit with the trade of illegal goods.”
“To my knowledge, Acromantula eggs fall under the same trading restriction, and their venom is fantastically expensive. What makes you so sure that whoever is smuggling the dragon eggs, isn’t simply going to branch out?”
“Because we’re going to catch him and put an end to this.”
“Charlie, sooner or later there will always be someone else to take his place.”
She saw him clench his jaw. His expression was a blend of determination and defeat. “Look, this is shaping up to be a longer argument than I have the energy for right now. Could we postpone it till tomorrow, and just see to your injuries, so we can both get some rest?” He ran a tired hand over his face and through his hair. “We’ve been through enough today.”
Katie couldn’t agree more. “You haven’t by any chance seen my wand, have you?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What do you think I fished out of the water?” He took the wand from the rock and came over to her. “That was quite a spectacular dive, by the way.”
The teasing note in his voice did little to dim Katie’s awareness of him as she reclaimed her property. She tried to put her fluttering pulse down to natural modesty, but she knew better. Avoiding his gaze, she flicked her wrist and Summoned her travelling bag.
Being a gentlemen, Charlie caught it so she wouldn’t have to rise from the water and held it out to her. She was just about to accept it, when she realized that something was wrong with the wand in her hands. After a close inspection, she met Charlie’s questioning gaze.
“This isn’t my wand.”
Storm clouds were gathering below the stars. The wind, which had been no more than a light breeze when they had left the forest, was gaining strength. It whipped the hem of Katie’s robe around her legs and tumbled through her open hair, drying the dark strands.
They crossed the perimeter of the reservation and landed near a small cottage on the edge of a clearing that was surrounded by additional warding spells. Charlie stashed their brooms in the entrance hall and held the door open for her, smiling in welcome.
“So this is where you live.” Curious, Katie looked around the narrow hall which ended in a small kitchen. A door on the right was ajar and revealed a glimpse of a white-tiled bathroom. The two doors leading to the rooms on the left were closed, but an open archway right next to the front entrance allowed inspection of the living room beyond. “It looks cozy.”
Charlie laughed. “It looks like a mess. But thanks.” He led her to the small couch and freed it from scattered newspapers and magazines. Collecting the half dozen empty coffee mugs, he excused himself for a moment to retrieve bandages and ointment.
“Do you live here alone?” Katie called after him. She sank down into the deep, threadbare cushions and was ready to declare it the most comfortable sofa in the entire world. Lifting her feet, she stretched her legs and examined the bruises and abrasions that covered them.
“No, Roman, one of our trackers, has the second bedroom. He’s been here almost as long as I have.” His voice was muffled by the walls separating them, and Katie could hear cabinet doors opening and water running. “Would you like some tea?”
With the limited time of sleep she had to look forward to in mind, Katie declined the offer. Her hands wandered to the foreign wand. Katie had been sure that she must have picked it up from the forest floor after the first Spider attack. Thankfully, the ever useful Summoning Charm had brought her own wand back to her.
“Charlie, how difficult is it to temporarily take down the perimeter spells?”
Charlie appeared in the doorway and sat down next to her. He selected a small pair of pincers from the satchel in his hand and gently took her hand in his, turning the palm upwards. “The only people who can take down the wards are either working here or at the Ministry. And there are only five keepers senior enough to know all the spells. Roman, Stefania, who is responsible for the control and classification of the eggs and hatchlings, Ekaterina, who heads the behavioural research program, Lore, our chief mediwitch, and I.”
“And you’re sure that this is Lore’s wand?”
“Redwood, seven inches, dragon heart strings. Yes, I’m sure.” He didn’t meet her eyes when he confirmed the identity of the wand’s owner. And while he took care not to hurt her as he pulled the thorns out of her hand, Katie could feel the tension in his body. She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and softly touched his shoulder.
“You know, there was more than one person in the forest. We don’t know, yet, to whom that black piece of fabric belonged. Maybe Lore was just a bystander. Maybe she saw the dragon fly above the woods like I did and decided to follow. As a dragon keeper, she would know how to catch the hatchlings.”
Charlie froze, his hand trembling. “It doesn’t matter, Katie.” He faced her, his expression desolate. “It doesn’t matter if she was alone and the black fabric belonged to a sack or blanket, or if there was someone else there who ambushed her. She lost her wand. A defenceless witch among a colony of Acromantulas. Whichever scenario actually played out in that forest, Lore is dead.”
“You don’t know that. If she saw them in time... We got away, too.”
“I don’t even know how I’m going to tell Alexander. They were going to get married next spring.”
He grabbed the satchel so viciously that several jars and small boxes fell out of it. With a muffled curse, he slipped off the sofa and began to put them back on the wooden coffee table.
Following her instincts, Katie crouched next to him and wrapped her arms around him. For a moment, he remained absolutely still. Then he returned her embrace, pressing her firmly against him and burying his head in her hair.
“I came back here, right after Fred’s funeral. I couldn’t stay around and watch mum break into tears every two minutes. I just wanted to forget that it ever happened. I thought that coming back here, where I could just get lost in the routine and familiarity of my work, would make everything all right.”
Katie held him fiercely, but remained silent. His grief seemed beyond mere words of comfort.
“But it’s not all right, is it? It never will be. People still keep dying, and even if we execute every last Death Eater on the planet, there will always be someone to take their place. Just like you said.” A dry, humourless laugh broke from his throat. “You know, Bill keeps asking whether I’m all right, and if I don’t want to come back and spend more time at home. I tried to pretend that I was just fine when I left, but I think he sees right through the act.”
“Of course he does. He’s your brother. And he loves you.” She hesitated, then pulled back to look at him. “And not to be a mother hen, but maybe you should visit. If you’re uncomfortable staying at the Burrow, I’m sure Bill will be happy to have you stay at his place.”
He seemed unconvinced. “Yeah, maybe.”
Pulling himself together, he arranged his body into a cross-legged position on the floor, opened a jar of ointment, and reached for her hand again. “Now let’s see about those cuts.”
With the profound feeling that something had irrevocably changed in their relationship, Katie sat back and allowed him to bandage her hand. She would need some time to put the jumbled mess of her emotions into something akin to order and was, for the time being, more than happy to return to more mundane issues.
“You don’t by any chance have an old Quidditch robe lying around here that I could borrow, do you?”
Securing the last scrap of gauze at her wrist, Charlie looked up at her. “It just so happens, that I do.”
* * * * *
Unsurprisingly, Katie ended up not getting any sleep at all. After she’d seen to Charlie’s injuries, they’d walked over to the Owlery, and Charlie had penned his letter to Andrej Lior, Darren’s father, on the small smudged desk, which had been set up near the entrance.
With the best intentions to assure that Katie would get some sleep, he had escorted her back to the stadium after taking the snowy owl outside of the reservation’s border and sending it on it’s way. He had been just about to say his goodbyes at the outskirts of the cordoned off camp, when Penelope and Martha had come their way.
Covered in bruises, scratches, and bandages around their limbs, and, in Katie’s case, with an old red and gold Quidditch robe slung over her arm, which had yet to be altered to both fit her slighter build and represent the colours of the Appleby Arrows, the two of them made an extraordinary sight. Immediately, both team captains besieged them with question and exclamations of concern.
They found themselves pulled into the centre of the tents where a crackling, man-high camp fire had been set up. A colourful assortment of chairs, benches, blankets and wooden logs had been scattered in a rough circle around the flames. It seemed the entire camp had assembled around it to spend the evening together. Madame Brecska sat beside Darren and two keepers from the reservation, a bottle of cider in her hand. She stared at Charlie and Katie in open-mouthed amazement. The present Arrows and Dragons sprung up from their seats to get a closer look at their peculiar appearance, and by the time the night was nearing its second hour, Charlie and Katie had recounted their story of the evening’s events several times. The first mention of the Acromantulas had brought an outcry of worry and consternation, and, her face turning white, Madame Brecska had excused herself with the intention to return to the Ministry and have her say in the discussions that would follow.
At ten to two, a long, deep gong sounded out across the camp. Charlie excused himself, while Katie dissuaded any arguments to sit out the night’s rotation. Outside the camp, he took a deep breath and looked up to the stars. The celestial marks where blinking out one by one in the east, marking the progress of rolling storm clouds. The wind had died down a little and the scent of pines and damp grass pervaded the air.
Entering the enclosure, he heard hushed voices, which he recognized as Ekaterina’s and Roman’s. Quiet laughter accompanied the whispers, and, not wanting to interrupt an intimate moment, Charlie merely looked down at the misappropriated practice pitch from the top stair, while using the balustrade as cover. Norberta seemed to look straight at him. Her body lay curled around the nest, which was properly aflame. While he met her iridescent yellow eye, Charlie could not help but feel a sense of melancholy flowing off Norberta’s gaze.
Making a mental note to keep a closer eye on her, Charlie retreated and sought his own tent near the enclosure, where he fell into a troubled sleep.
* * * * *
With the third day of the match came pandemonium. Determined to turn the match into a public festival for the weekend, shacks, booths and tents had sprung up along the south side of the stadium, housing vendors, illusionist, and all sorts of diverting magical attractions.
Reporters had descended on both camps, hustling for interviews with ministry officials, players, and dragon keepers alike. The news of the Acromantulas spread like wildfire through the camps, and while some packed their belongings and left, even more newcomers arrived taking their place. Tickets were sold for a day, the weekend, or the entire rest of the match. To cope with the increasing numbers, the east curve of the stadium was opened to the public once again, and while Ministry officials were assuring worried witches and wizards that they would be quite safe, an army of Aurors were delegated to increase security and search the forest for the arachnid colony.
The treasurer of the Romanian Quidditch league keeled over from excitement only to land safely on the ever increasing mountain of gold the match accumulated, while not fifty feet away death lurked beneath the arboreal canopy of green and gold. Such was the turning of the wizard world.
For Charlie, the first order of business was to tell Alexander of the wand that he and Katie had found and to mount a search for their missing keeper. Though he was careful not to betray any of his suspicions regarding Lore’s allegiances, Alexander’s attitude became defensive.
“She didn’t steal those hatchlings, or the eggs. She would never do that,” he claimed.
“I didn’t say that she had.”
“You’re not exactly falling over yourself to assure me that you believe in her loyalty either.”
“Look, I liked Lore too, and it’s difficult to even consider that something...” Charlie realized his mistake and scrambled to correct it, but it was too late. Alexander’s face was a mask of shock and fury.
“Don’t you dare speak about her as if she’s gone. She is not dead.” He stumbled backwards, determined denial submerging any other emotions. “She’s not dead.”
Knowing that no apology would be sufficient, Charlie merely nodded and turned towards the firm, authoritarian voice which called his name.
Madame Bercska was striding towards him, her gaze taking in the dragon keepers who had assembled next to Norberta’s temporary home.
“What is the meaning of this?”
Charlie faced her, his expression determined. “One of our own is missing. We are going to look for her.”
“And am I to assume that the area in which you are going to look for her is in the forest to the east of the stadium?” she ground out, her hands fisting against her hips.
Charlie squared his shoulders. “It is.”
Madame Brecska sucked in a deep breath, as if preparing for battle. But to his astonishment, she did not launch into an argument, but visibly deflated. Her expression softened, and her eyes met his in sympathy. “It seems that every other conversation we have had, since it was decided to build a Quidditch stadium on these grounds, has been an argument.”
Not sure how to gage her changed behaviour, Charlie remained quiet.
“I respect you and your work quite a bit more than I usually let on. And I understand that you want to look for your missing friend. But you have to understand that I cannot allow you enter that forest. A colony of Acromantulas is as dangerous as it is unpredictable. They may have human speech and near human intelligence, but those assets make them only more vicious. And while you are trained to deal with dragons every day, none of you have any experience with Acromantulas. We sent for experts from Borneo to advise us on how to deal with these creatures. In the mean time, Aurors will establish and maintain a perimeter to contain the colony in the forest.”
Alexander shouldered his way through the crowd and forestalled Charlie’s response.
“My fiancé is trapped in there. You can’t seriously think that I’ll just stay put and wait for some so-called experts to show up and tell me that there’s little hope to find her alive. We already lost too much time.” The last he said with a dark glance in Charlie’s direction.
“You understand nothing,” he barked and whipped out his wand.
Charlie jumped in between his colleague and Madame Brecska who had been surprisingly fast in raising her own wand.
“Calm down.” Charlie pushed Alexander’s arm away and stared him down, until Roman and Stefania appeared next to him. They each grabbed one of Alexander’s shoulders and pulled him back. Charlie turned back towards the Ministry official.
“I’m sorry about that.” While his head told him that it would have been suicidal to mount a rescue operation in the dead of night, he could not quell the guilt which had invaded his heart with Alexander’s thinly veiled accusation. The certainty that Lore was already dead – that she had most likely been dead even before he and Katie had entered the forest – did nothing to make him feel better.
Instead, it only made the futility of their mission more apparent. But they had to go. No matter how much he agreed with Madame Brecska, he could not stand before his friends and colleagues, who had shown up of their own accord this morning, and deny them the hope of saving Lore. He knew that it would be better for all of them to know Lore’s fate with certainty, even if it would be cause for grief, rather than to sit waiting and imagining what might have happened to her.
But before he could convey his determination to go through with the search, he spotted Katie approaching the enclosure. His chest constricted with sudden longing, and he clenched his teeth, berating himself for allowing any feelings which softened the grimness of the day’s mission, a mission from which they would most likely return carrying a dead body.
“Please tell me that you’re not going back in there.” She looked exhausted. Her face and arms were blue and green. She stood hunched over like an old woman, her eyes blinking far too often in order to chase away the lure of sleep.
Charlie explained their intention to both her and Madame Brecska.
“That’s madness,” Katie said. Madame Brecska’s objections were, while less succinct, far more forceful, threatening restraint through Aurors and legal consequences for interfering with a Ministry operation.
A tall, bald man on the far side of fifty walked up to them and interrupted her.
“My dear Ms. Brecska, I’m sure there is no need for that.”
Madame Brecska crossed her arms over her chest and shot him a look so full of loathing, that Charlie would not have been surprised if her opponent had keeled over dead on the spot.
“Mr. Lior.” She did not say anything else, but Charlie could see how the fight went out of her. She turned towards Charlie, her eyes still shooting arrows at the man. “Do what you will,” she said, her voice clipped. Then her expression softened for a second. “I truly hope that you will find your friend.”
A moment later she was gone.
Darren’s father greeted Charlie with a sombre expression. “Officially, I can’t sanction this rescue mission, but I wish you luck.”
He slapped Charlie on the back in encouragement. “Well, you seem to have things pretty well in hand, so I’ll leave you to it. And don’t worry about Madame Brecska, I’ll see that she leaves you alone.” He turned and motioned to his son. “Darren, a word please.”
Charlie excused himself and approached Katie, who had watched the scene with a grim expression. “How are you feeling?” He reached out and carefully brushed his fingertips along the outline of a purple bruise on her forehead.
“I’ve been worse.”
His eyebrows shot skyward. “You have?”
“Not really.” She sighed. “I don’t suppose there is anything I can say to make you realize how foolish it is to go back in there?”
“I already know how foolish it is.”
She tilted her head to the side and regarded him curiously. “Then why are you doing it?”
He considered explaining everything to her, the tumult of hope and grief and suspicion and guilt, but he knew that he would never be able to compress it all into the few minutes they had left before the search party would take off.
“Because the alternative would be unbearable,” he finally said.
They looked at each other. Charlie tried to decipher the emotions on her face and hoped that she understood why this was so important to him.
Before the silence could tip over into awkwardness, he said, “You should probably get some sleep... unless you’d like to join us.”
He already knew her answer before she shook her head, and he could not begrudge her her resistance. She looked as if she was going to fall asleep standing up any second now. “Sorry, but even if I wasn’t dead on my feet, I wouldn’t go back into that forest. Not for all the galleons in the world.” She winced at her own choice of words, and briefly touched his arm in apology.
Then, she turned and walked away, but stopped after a few steps. “Be safe. I’ll find you after my evening session.”
Charlie followed her with his eyes until she disappeared between the tents. Shuttering his emotions, he forced himself to focus on the task at hand. He surveyed the group of keepers in front of him, then marched determinedly towards the knot of department heads in its centre to discuss how to best carry out the search.
Darren joined them after a few minutes and for the first time this morning Charlie noted that the junior keeper looked almost as tired as Katie had. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m feeling a bit under the weather,” Darren replied. “It’s nothing serious. I just haven’t been sleeping well during the last two nights. I just can’t stop thinking about the hatchlings, and now Lore. It just makes me mad.”
Understanding his feelings only too well, Charlie put a hand on his shoulder in a show of solidarity. “Does your father have any information about where the Aurors are establishing the perimeter? We can cover more ground if we start our search in the middle of that territory and spread out from there.”
“Sorry, but they only just started to look for the Acromantulas. Dad said that we won’t know where the borders will be set up until midday,” he said apologetically.
Roman held Charlie’s broom out to him. “Then we’ll just have to start where you and Katie did last night.”
* * * * *
They searched all through the day and into the night. By midday, the storm clouds, which had been building up against the mountainside fulfilled what they had threatened since the early morning. Thunder and lightning accompanied the downpour, and when the search party returned to their lodgings within the reservation, the weather still showed no sign of relenting. Cold, drenched, and miserable, they slunk to their cottages to wait out the night.
Charlie braced himself on his broom and closed his eyes, letting the rain fall on his head. They had found no sign of Lore. A few Acromantulas, barely half a dozen, had been lurking in the depth of the woods, but faced with the combined strength of the search party, they ceased their attacks as soon as their food caches had been inspected and the keepers had decided to leave them be.
Only Alexander, his face expressionless and cold, had killed the last spider which had crossed his path, a large one who had been hovering inside a crop of trees, already injured and bleeding, probably from a fight with one of her brethren and thus twice as aggressive as the rest.
Now, all Charlie longed for was a hot bath and a warm bed. However, when he opened his eyes, he saw light shining in the long rectangular building across the lawn, which served the keepers of the dragon reservation as a meeting place. Curiosity overcoming exhaustion, he made his way over to the entrance, where he found Madame Brecska opening the door for him. Stefania stood right behind her and regarded him with a compassionate look. They’d known each other long enough that no words were necessary to convey their failure.
Both women stepped aside to let him enter and Stefania poured him a cup of the warm tea.
“Madame Brecska came by to inquire after the rescue party and whether any more eggs or hatchlings had been stolen,” Stefania explained.
Charlie looked up sharply. “Have there?”
“No, everything’s in order.” She grimaced. “Relatively speaking, anyway.”
Thankful for even this small blessing, Charlie addressed Madame Brecska. “What news from the Aurors? Have those experts arrived, yet?”
“Unfortunately, there have been a few diplomatic hiccups. They won’t be here until Monday.”
She looked far from happy about the delay, and Charlie quenched his instinctive reaction to the news and refrained from starting an argument. Madame Brecska was a senior official of the Romanian Quidditch League. Recent circumstances had broadened her responsibilities to coordinate the efforts of the League and the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Charlie knew her well enough to appreciate that she was competent and thorough, and that whatever problems the bureaucracy of both departments had created was not her fault.
“As for your other question: There is something which I would appreciate you kept to yourself, as I have been cautioned not to reveal the information to you at all.” She fixed both of them with a hard look, and the fact that she was willing to ignore a direct order from her superiors showed just how concerned she was about Lore and the entire mess that had come to light in the last few days.
Charlie exchanged a sombre look with Stefania. “You have our word.”
“When the Aurors entered the forest, they found a ward already in place around an area equalling roughly fifty square miles. In addition, the area has been blanketed with an Anti-Disapparition Jinx, presumably to ensure than no one who accidentally wanders into the territory comes out again. So, you see, the Acromantulas are not here because someone released a pet into the wild once he discovered that it would be too dangerous to keep or because of some random pattern of migration. Someone has been deliberately cultivating and maintaining a colony in the forest.”
Stefania leaned forward. “For what possible purpose?”
His tea long forgotten, Charlie’s mind returned to the argument he’d had with Katie last night. “For the same reasons, he’s been disabling the wards on the reservation; to steal the eggs and the Acromantula’s venom.”
Madame Brecska nodded solemnly. “That is the Ministry’s conclusion as well.”
* * * * *
When Charlie returned to his home half an hour later, he felt drained beyond recovery. After the absolutely necessary shower, he slumped into the cushions of the sofa, and gratefully accepted the cup of steaming tea Roman offered him.
Taking a sip, he coughed when the burning trail of fire whisky ran down his throat.
Roman smirked and swallowed the remains of his own cup.
“Thanks a lot,” Charlie said, gasping for air.
They settled in, drinking their spiked tea in companionable silence until the kettle was empty.
“How’s Alexander?” Charlie asked into the quiet.
Roman sighed and ran a tired hand across his face. “Warding off grief with fury.”
“I should go and talk to him tomorrow.”
“I think it would be best if you left him alone for a few days.”
Charlie threw his friend a sharp glance. “I didn’t accuse Lore of anything. I only told him where we found the wand.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you’ve always been a lousy card player. Your suspicions were written all over your face, mate.”
Before Charlie could get fired up, Roman raised his hands in a placating gesture. “If Lore had anything to do with the smuggling, than why would she report the missing hatchlings in the first place?”
“As much as I want to believe it, that doesn’t prove anything.”
“She and Alexander were with me, checking the wards until five in the morning. We were the last team to come back in. She didn’t have time to take the hatchlings.”
“You told me that you were going to check up on the Ironbelly yourself, and that Lore volunteered, because she’d had more experience with her. If she and Alexander were working together, there was more than enough time.”
“Listen to yourself. These are your friends.” Agitated, Roman pushed himself to his feet and started pacing the room. “Look, this is upsetting to all of us. We all want to know who is responsible for the abductions, but we are not the only ones who can take down the wards. There are half a dozen people at the Ministry who can do it, and those are people we hardly know. You might want to look there first, before you start accusing your friends.”
Charlie let his head fall back onto the sofa. “I’m not saying that you’re wrong. In fact, I really hope that whoever is responsible for this isn’t one of us. But I can’t let the fact that Lore, or anyone else, is a friend get in the way of this investigation. Katie thinks Lore may have seen the hatchlings fly over the trees, just as she did. If that’s the case, then why did she follow them on her own? Why didn’t she simply come back to the reservation and ask for help?”
“Because we were all scattered to the winds at that time, checking the other nests and taking a closer look at the perimeter, if you remember.”
“She could have come to Norberta’s enclosure, there...” Charlie’s voice trailed off. He glanced at Roman, than avoided his gaze.
Roman folded his six foot frame onto the coffee table and faced Charlie head on. His expression was one of exasperation and fondness. “Now look here, Charlie. You’re a good friend. And you’re a really good dragon keeper, but if you’re mind just went where I think it went, then the two of us are going to have a problem.”
“I didn’t say that I suspected Ekaterina,” Charlie said defensively, knowing exactly what his friend was thinking.
“Good; because if you did, you might as well suspect me.”
Throwing his hands up, Charlie stood and walked over to the window. Rain pelted against the glass, and neither moon nor starlight penetrated the darkness beyond.
“I’ve been second guessing everything and everyone, since Lore went missing. I think Katie had it right, when she said that she wanted to be involved and get things done right away, instead of just being a bystander for most of the game. I feel as if I’ve been flying head first into a brick wall over and over again. No matter what I do, I just can’t get to the other side.”
“What exactly do you expect to find there?” Roman asked.
Charlie laughed humourlessly. “Answers.”
Clearing his throat, Roman switched his seat on the coffee table for the comfortableness of the sofa. “How long have you known Katie, anyway?” His voice was suspiciously casual.
Charlie threw him a bemused glance. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” he asked, feigning innocence.
“Your fascination with my love live is becoming a little disturbing, you know.”
“Ha!” Roman threw his head back. “So he actually did fall in love, at last,” he exclaimed to the heavens above.
“I didn’t say that,” Charlie said, a little too fast. “And you’re just trying to change the subject.”
He immediately realized how utterly juvenile his defence sounded and glared at Roman’s smirking face.
His friend returned his gaze calmly. “How is that a bad thing?”
Charlie considered, and weighing the prospect of letting his mind run in circles around the events of the past few days against admitting that he felt more than friendship for Katie, he had to agree.
“Fine. She’s a friend of my younger brother's.” He clenched his teeth against the momentary pang in his heart as Fred’s face flickered before his eyes. “She started playing on the Gryffindor Quidditch team the year after I graduated. She’s a good Chaser,” he added at Roman’s inquiring look.
His friend shook his head in disbelief and addressed the living room ceiling with a tragic sigh. “It’s as tedious as pulling gum out of your hair. The bloke finally meets a girl he likes, and the highest praise she gets is that she’s a good Quidditch player.”
Smiling quietly, Charlie grabbed one of the cushions from the window seat and flung it in his face. “You’re an ass.”
Completely unperturbed, Roman picked up the missile and deposited it on the couch next to him. “Well, that’s better than being called an elf.”
At Charlie’s quizzical look he elaborated. “Ekaterina has a thing about this Muggle story her parents gave her when she was twelve.” He ducked his head and pulled his long black hair into a ponytail. A light blush had stolen onto his features, and he suddenly seemed far less precocious than usual.
“She does, does she?” Charlie teased.
“Oh, shut up.” He collected the tea cups and the kettle and strode off towards the kitchen, when a sudden question occurred to Charlie.
“Roman?” He waited until his friends had stuck his head back into the room. “Why were you going to look in one the Ironbelly in the first place?” At Roman’s look, he quickly added: “I’m only asking.”
“I’d overheard Stefania saying that it was giving her some trouble, and since you’d given her the morning off, and we were in the area anyway, I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to have a look.”
“How come she was back at the enclosure when I arrived?”
Roman rolled his eyes. “Because I used the floo network to get a hold of her as soon as Lore came back with the news about the missing hatchlings.”
Charlie added this piece of knowledge to the accumulate information swirling in his brain.
“Get some sleep,” Roman said, before he disappeared into the hallway again.
Mechanically, Charlie went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth, his mind considering and refusing different scenarios, until a headache sprung up between his eyes. Splashing his face with cold water, he promised himself that he would not stand idly by and let the Ministry handle the situation on its own. The need for answers had become akin to the need for air.
The rain had spent its fury by the following morning. When Katie left the stadium at eight o’clock, a light drizzle greeted the rising sun. She walked unsteadily, bracing herself on her broom; uncaring if her weight damaged the twigs at its bottom. She felt sore all over, and although she had gone to her tent immediately after saying goodbye to Charlie, neither of the two six hour resting periods had done anything to re-energize her.
As she looked towards Norberta’s enclosure now, she could muster little motivation to traverse the distance to find out how the search party had fared, especially since she was sure that someone would have let her know if Lore had been found alive.
Deciding that once again a warm bed and a few hours of oblivion held more allure than anything else, she was about to follow her teammates when an owl cry close by caught her attention. Turning towards the west curve of the stadium, Katie saw the bird fly low above the tents towards her. When the owl altered neither its height nor direction, Katie ducked. A gust of wind brushed her face as the owl passed her. Its feathers were tawny coloured and wet, and it took Katie’s sluggish brain a full minute to remember the description Charlie had given her of the owl, which had disappeared along with Lore.
By the time Katie made the mental connection, the owl had reached the enclosure. Exhaustion forgotten, Katie jumped on her broom and followed it.
When Katie reached the enclosure, she saw Charlie and Ekaterina on the stands below, the latter using her arm as a perch for the large bird. When Katie descended towards them, she noticed that Norberta lay apathetically on the ground. Her eyes followed Katie as she touched down on the lowest bench, but no other reaction was forthcoming. Under any other circumstances, Katie would have inquired as to the dragon’s lack of aggression, but the excitement of seeing Lore’s owl washed away any concern she might have felt.
“Is that the owl Lore took with her?” she asked as soon as her feet touched firm ground.
Ekaterina nodded. “The letter she carried is missing.”
Charlie inspected the bird carefully. “She looks all right. Where have you been, gorgeous?” He stroked the feathers on its belly and rummaged in his pocket for a treat. Retrieving a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, he offered it to the bird. “Maybe you’ll find a mouse flavoured one in there,” he joked weakly.
Regardless of the variety of tastes, the owl enthusiastically picked at a grey coloured bean. Ekaterina rolled her eyes, but refrained from commenting. Instead she addressed the bird directly. “Where is Lore?”
Katie stepped closer. “Do you think that could actually work?”
Ekaterina nodded, her expression serious. “Post owls are bred for their magical ability to locate anyone for whom they are carrying a letter. One of the first things we tried when we heard that Lore had gone missing was write a letter to her, but the owl only circled the forest before it came right back to us.”
“What does that mean?”
“If an owl refuses to carry a letter, it means that either the recipient is dead or has protected himself through magical means, so he or she can’t be found. There are a number of ways to do that. Making yourself unplottable is the most common method, but invisibility cloaks work as well. So does the Fidelius Charm.”
Amidst hoots of protest, Charlie returned the bag of beans to his trouser pocket. “Enough now. You’ll only make yourself sick. Where is Lore?”
The bird remained unmoving on Ekaterina’s arm and regarded them with its round, brown eyes.
Charlie put his hands on his hips. “Let’s try something else. Where have you been for the past two days?”
Immediately, the owl spread its wings, hooted and took to the air. It circled the enclosure once, then flew off towards the stadium.
Startled into action, both dragon keepers raised their wands to summon their brooms, but Katie had already straddled hers again and interrupted them. “No time.” She extended her hand to Charlie. “Come on.”
Without hesitation, Charlie settled in behind her, and as they gained altitude, he shouted back to Ekaterina: “Don’t tell anyone, yet. I don’t want to get people’s hopes up.”
Ekaterina gave him a mock salute.
Katie flattened herself against the handle of her broom. She felt Charlie’s weight settle securely against her back as his arms looped around her waist. The owl was flying ahead of them, above the player’s section of the camp and around the west curve of the stadium.
When it reached the second encampment where the spectators had settled down with their families, it spiralled downwards as if looking for something. Then it hooted again and landed next to a sky blue tent with three chimneys and a turret. A small girl, of about eight years, was riding a miniature broomstick, which hovered a couple of feet above the ground.
As soon as the girl saw the owl, she squealed excitedly and tumbled off the broom.
“You came back. You came back. Look, mummy Cassandra came back.”
A tall, blond witch in deep green robes stepped out of the tent, an expression of curiosity on her face.
“Can I keep her, now? You said I could keep her, if she came back.”
The witch looked at Katie and Charlie as they landed. “I think she already belongs to someone, Bessie.” She nodded in welcome, her face open and friendly. “Hello.”
Both of them returned the greeting, and Charlie crouched down next to the girl. “Has...” he looked at the owl, “...Cassandra been staying with you over the last couple of days?”
The girl stared up at him with wide eyes and nodded silently.
“She said she found it in a cage, and that someone had abandoned it.” The girl’s mother stepped protectively forward.
Katie introduced herself and explained the situation. “Your daughter is not in any trouble. But it is very important for us to know where she found the cage.”
Putting an assuring hand on her daughter’s head, the witch smiled at her child. “Tell them Bessie. Don’t be afraid.”
The girl fidgeted and twisted her hands. “I wanted to see the dragon. I know I wasn’t supposed to go,” she added hastily. “But I’ve never seen a real dragon before.”
Charlie smiled encouragingly. “They are beautiful aren’t they?”
“I didn’t get to see it.” She looked disappointed. “I found Cassandra first. I snuck past the guards and walked through the forest by the other tents.” She smiled up at him. “No one saw me.”
Katie chuckled despite the tension she felt. “That was very clever of you.”
Bessie beamed proudly at her audience, her shyness falling away from her. The rest of her story spilled out in a rush.
“I heard the dragon roar, and then that Lady landed, and she had Cassandra with her in a cage. She called out to a man and they talked, and then the man raised his wand, and his broom came zooming out of the stadium. And then they went away and left Cassandra behind. So I snuck up and took her with me. She looked so sad. I like her very much.” She hesitated. “Can I keep her?”
His voice shaking, Charlie started to reach for the girl’s shoulder, then visibly restrained himself. “Bessie, do you remember what the man looked like?”
Katie held her breath.
But Bessie shook her head. “No, they were far away.”
“Are you sure? Any detail would help me. You see, the Lady is a friend of mine and she has gotten lost. And if we don’t find the man she was talking to, we might never find her again either.” Charlie’s voice was gentle, but Katie could see the strain in his broad shoulders.
Bessie considered his question, her teeth chewing on her lower lip. “He was tall, and he had dark hair. And he was wearing a black robe.” She looked up at her mother. “That’s all I remember.”
Charlie stepped back, his face a mask of stone. “Thank you.” He turned towards the girl’s mother. “Are you staying until the end of the match?”
Puzzled, she met his gaze. “Yes, we are.”
“Then you can keep Cassandra, if you like. Is it all right if we come back, in case we have more questions?”
Her sympathetic acquiescence was interrupted by Bessie’s exclamation of joy. Spontaneously, she hugged Charlie’s legs, then bounded towards the owl.
Without another word, Charlie turned away and stalked back towards the stadium, leaving Katie to say a hurried goodbye.
“I hope your friend is alright, and congratulations on your lead. It will be pretty difficult for the Dragons to catch up to that,” Bessie's mother said.
Katie nodded her thanks, hoping that her confusion wasn’t showing on her face. As she hastened after Charlie, puzzled by his behaviour, she realized that she had no idea what the score had been when she had left the stadium. More and more of the match was passing her by as her world shrunk to a big red ball, three goal hoops, and the constant pain of sore muscles and slowly healing lacerations. As if to remind her of her rapid descent towards her body’s breaking point, a wave of dizziness overcame her. Stumbling, she fell to her knees, her broom falling to the ground as her hands groped for anything against which she could steady herself.
“Woah,” she mumbled as the world swam before her eyes. She let herself fall backwards onto the soft grass and closed her eyes, hoping that her head would stop spinning on its own.
Instead, sleep threatened to pull her under. Realizing how close she was to passing out, she fought against the lull of peace and quiet and pinched the bridge of her nose. With a groan, she forced herself into a sitting position, when, without warning, strong hands lifted her up.
With a quiet curse, she reached blindly for something to hold on to. Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself in Charlie’s arms, her own hands fastening behind his neck.
“Well,” she groused, “this is slightly embarrassing.”
Charlie smirked. “Not really. Once you get drunk enough to let yourself be talked into performing a strip-tease in front of a Romanian Longhorn, then you can talk about embarrassing.”
Katie stared at him.
“And this was what? Some kind of initiation ritual for the Brethren Circle of the Juvenile Dragon Keepers?”
“No, just Roman’s idea of a good time.”
Choking, she closed her eyes as the scene played out in her mind. She didn’t know whether she wanted to laugh or cry. “I think this particular piece of information might be a bit much for me to handle right now.” Then she dissolved into giggles.
They had reached the outskirts of the encampment.
“You can let me down, now. I can walk.”
“I’m sure you can,” he replied and kept on walking.
“Come on, let me down.” She lightly punched his shoulder, which he ignored.
“Let me feel like the hero for a bit, will you. There’s precious little opportunity for me to do so otherwise.” He tried to keep his tone light, but Katie could hear the underlying seriousness.
“The information Bessie gave us helps a lot,” Katie tried to reassure him.
“Does it?” She watched him clench his jaw. “If she had seen the man Lore talked to up close, her story might have helped, but this way...” He shook his head. “We’re no closer to finding out what happened then we were two nights ago.”
“I think, Lore saw the hatchlings, just like I did. She came here to pick up one of the keeper’s who were left to take care of Norberta, and they went after the dragons together.”
“Except, that all keepers are present and accounted for, so if she asked one of us for help, then he is definitely involved with the smugglers. One the other hand, Bessie said, that the man Summoned his broom from the stadium. Our brooms are all locked up in a shed by Norberta’s enclosure. So it might not have been one of us after all. We’re back to running in circles.” Frustration laced his voice. “This is one giant puzzle, and the more pieces we find, the bigger it gets.”
Hearing the resignation in his words, Katie felt an irrational anger rising inside her. “Well, then we’ll just have to find enough pieces to make sense of the big picture.”
She felt beaten, aggravated and exhausted beyond words. And with her temper on a constantly shortening leach, she felt herself struggling not to start a fight in order to release some of her pent up frustration. Merely the feeling that Charlie was only too ready to do the same, made her pull back from the edge.
Instead, she changed the subject. “Bessie’s mother told me that the Arrows are in the lead.”
Charlie blinked once, then followed her onto the new track. “Why did she have to tell you? You left the pitch less than thirty minutes ago.”
“I didn’t pay attention to the score. I don’t really pay much attention to anything that goes on in that match anymore.” To her own annoyance, she suddenly had to fight against the tears that welled up in her eyes. “I’m so sick of Quidditch. When this match is over, I don’t think I’ll ever want to play again.”
Charlie set her gently on her feet in front of the entrance to her tent, which stood almost at the edge of the large clearing. Tenderly, he cupped her face in his hands. “You don’t mean that. You might be sick of it, now, but you’ll see. In a few weeks, you’ll be craving to go back onto the pitch. You just need a few days of rest: Preferably at home; far away from renegade dragons, that want to play Quidditch, and their self-pitying keepers.”
She managed a weak smile. “You’re not self-pitying.”
“But a little too morose and brooding, I suspect. At least, at the moment.” He looked down at her for a while, his thumbs stroking her cheeks. “I’ll tell you what. How about you get some sleep. I’ll make a few inquiries, and when your afternoon session is over, we get out of here for a couple of hours.”
“Where are we going?” Katie asked, butterflies in her stomach. Her gaze wandered from his hazel eyes to the soft mouth below. If she hadn’t been too tired to stand up, she would have kissed him.
“How about a picnic in the mountains? I can show you the entire reservation from up there.” He smiled. “And the sunset looks absolutely magnificent.”
Katie steadied herself against his chest as her mind became shrouded in a sleepy haze. “You’ve got yourself a date, red-head.”
Chuckling, Charlie made sure that she reached her bed, and the last thing Katie saw before her eyes closed was that he brushed an errand strand of hair from her face.
* * * * *
How’s that Quidditch enthusiastic lizard of yours? George and I have been discussing Norberta’s little hobby, and we think you should set up a team. I think a couple of your Ukrainian Ironbellies would make excellent Keepers. Of course, you would have to content with very low scores and even more swallowed snitches. I’m also not sure how they would react to the Bludgers, but I’ll leave you to work out the details.
The Daily Prophet was full of news about the Acromantula colony. Mum has urged me to tell you that you shouldn’t put yourself in danger. She even went so far as to talk to McCormak at the Welsh reservation to see if they have a job for you there. I tried to reason with her, but you know how she is.
I do have to agree with her on one issue though. It would be nice, if you found some time (after this mess has been cleaned up, of course) to come and visit us. You know that Fleur’s birthday is coming up, and we’d really like to see you again. You are more than welcome to stay at our place, so stop being such a prick. You’re not fooling anyone, and you’re also not the only one who misses Fred.
Think it over. We’d have a blast making plans for those dragon Quidditch teams. (I’m serious. It would be awesome. Norberta could set an example for the entire reservation.)
Much love, (Not that you’ve deserved it lately.)
With a laconic smile, Charlie folded the letter he’d received shortly before midday. It was late afternoon now, and having spent most of the day asking people if they'd seen either Lore or the mysterious stranger, he knew that he had to hurry, if he wanted to get everything packed for his picnic with Katie.
This had been the third letter Bill had sent him within the last two weeks; each one ending with an invitation to visit. And even though it became more difficult with each of these to refuse, his resistance strengthened every time he read them. While the rational part of his mind wondered as to what he was afraid of, the emotional part had barricaded itself behind a wall, refusing to answer the question. And so the letters disappeared in a drawer in his bedroom, where he could ignore their beckoning.
Pushing the letter into his trouser pocket, he rose to his feet and regarded Norberta. The dragon had not moved from her position all morning, staring languidly off into space and only breathing fire on her eggs when prompted.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Charlie addressed her.
“She seems bored.”
Startled by the female voice behind him, Charlie turned around and found a man and a woman descending the stairs towards him.
“Can I help you?” he asked. “I’m sorry, but this area is off-limits for everyone not associated with the reservation or the Ministry.”
“Oh, that lovely woman... What was her name?” Expectantly, the woman turned to her companion.
“Ekaterina,” he supplied, the corners of his mouth twitching.
“That’s right. She let us through. She was so kind to tell us where we could find you.”
The man offered his hand to a bewildered Charlie. “We should introduce ourselves, Dora. I’m Michael, Katie’s father. We decided to take a few days off work, so we could be here for our daughter.”
After the introductions were made, Charlie discovered that one of the reasons Katie’s parents had made the trip was that her father’s birthday was tomorrow. And having correctly judged the demands a week long Quidditch match would put on their daughter, neither one of them had wanted to let her take the risk of an international Apparition.
“I tried to pull some strings at the Ministry, to have the Floo Regulation Panel make an exception to their restrictions on international networking, but in the end, it was easier to just take the train. That’s bureaucracy for you.” Katie’s mother smiled at him, and Charlie couldn’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable under her scrutinising stare.
“I’m sure Katie will be happy to see you, even if it took you a little longer to get here.”
“Oh, we already saw her right before she went back to the stadium this afternoon. She told us that you’re taking her for a picnic this evening.”
Suddenly understanding why her parents had sought him out, Charlie fought the urge to shift his weight from one foot to another. He couldn’t help but feel like a teenager again as he met Dora’s encouraging look.
“Yes, ma’am. We are going up into the mountains, so I can show her the reservation.” He bit his tongue keeping a question as to their consent from slipping out. He wasn’t fifteen anymore. And neither was Katie.
It was Katie’s father who took pity on him. Laughing quietly, he issued an invitation to attend his birthday celebration. “It’s only going to be a small party, very informal. We invited both Quidditch teams as well. With all the hard work they’re doing, it will do them some good to get their minds off the game.”
“I’d be happy to come.”
“Excellent.” Dora hooked her arm around her husband’s. “We’ll see you tomorrow, then. I hope you and Katie enjoy your evening out.”
“I’m sure we will,” Charlie answered pleasantly.
It was astonishing how much a suitcase full of clean clothes, the arrival of her parents, and the prospect of a date with Charlie Weasley cheered Katie up. Whatever cobwebs had remained in her head, had been eradicated by another five hours of sleep, further inspection from the mediwitch, and the contents of a blue glass vial with its familiar abhorrent taste.
By eight o’clock in the evening, the Appleby Arrows were still over a hundred points in the lead, Katie’s bruised temple had abandoned its vibrant shade of purple for a more mellow greenish orange, and the clouds had finally been chased away, taking the rain with them.
With a clear blue sky, the scent of wet grass in the air, and the sun standing low on the horizon, Katie changed into a light green robe and met Charlie at Norberta’s enclosure.
He greeted her with an easy smile and tousled hair. A basket had been harnessed to the broom in his hand and after a short greeting they took off across the forest to the north and into the mountains.
They set foot on a plateau high above the tree line and Katie admired the spectacular view, while Charlie spread out the blanket and arranged fruit, pastries, scones, a small assortment of pies, sausages, bread, cooled butterbeer, and cider on the cloth.
“Quite an ensemble,” Katie teased.
“I wouldn’t have your parents thinking that I’m not feeding you properly,” he tossed right back at her.
With a sound, half groan, half laugh, Katie settled in next to him.
“I hope they didn’t get on your nerves. My mum can be a bit overbearing.”
“They were both very nice.”
“Just wait until I tell them about the strip-tease.”
Charlie froze mid-motion, and his freckles became all but invisible as he blushed crimson.
Katie threw her head back and laughed.
“I’m beginning to regret telling you about that,” he noted wryly.
Katie nodded in fake sympathy. “As far as blackmail material goes, that one’s pretty good.”
“So what you’re saying is that I am at your mercy.” He gave her a devilish smile.
Blushing in turn, Katie held his gaze. “We’ll see about that.” She picked up a fork and added her selections to her plate. “Now, tell me about the reservation. I already know how you came by Norberta, but how come you have Ukranian and Hungarian breeds here as well?”
“Darren’s father has very good connections. He wanted to study the interaction and social adaptability between different breeds. Since he started working at the Ministry, he’s been trying to set up a pilot study about mixed breeds as well.”
“And you got his job, now.”
Charlie piled an assortment of food on his own plate. “Yes, I got the promotion about a year ago. But with my responsibilities to the Order, I didn’t really have the time to be much of a leader. I left most of it to Stefania. It’s only now that I can really sink my teeth into the job.”
Far away, a jet of orange flame shot into the air.
“That’s a Horntail. They are the most territorial and the most short-tempered of the lot.” He proceeded to point out different nests and breeds to her. About half a dozen dragons circled their various territories at any give time, be it to hunt, or simply to pass the time. They both watched the great beasts fly with surprising grace, their scales glistening in the setting sun as their majestic wings kept them airborne.
Having finished her dinner, Katie threw the remains of an apple into the basket. For the first time since she had set foot on Romanian soil, she felt content. As the sun skimmed the verdant canopy in the west, Katie let herself fall backwards and stared at the dusky sky. A few white clouds lingered against the mountain tops in the north.
“It’s peaceful up here,” she said.
“I know. I come here occasionally, when I want to be alone. The dragons know that the perimeter wards start right over that peak behind us, so they rarely come up here.”
“I heard my parents invited you to my dad’s birthday party.”
There was a decidedly impish look on his face as he looked down at her. “Your mother seemed very happy when I told her I would come.”
Katie bit the inside of her cheek and rolled her eyes. “Was she?”
He laughed quietly. “I got the impression that she was only just restraining herself from letting her inner match-maker come out.”
Covering her face with her hands, Katie groaned theatrically and sat up. “She was under strict orders to refrain from any such nonsense.” She faced him, a resigned expression on her face. “Now, I’ll simply never be able to see you again.”
“Why is that? It’s not as if I minded.” His face was unexpectedly serious as he caught her eyes with his.
“You don’t?” she teased and leaned closer.
Catching her cheek in the palm of his hand, his lips brushed softly against hers. “Not at all,” he whispered.
Then he caught her upper lip between his and kissed her deeply. Falling into his touch, Katie enjoyed the lingering taste of peaches and cider on their mingling breath. His mouth coaxed her, tugging tenderly on her open lips. With a contented sigh, Katie pushed him slightly backwards and straddled his lap. His hand tangling in her hair, he pulled her closer and slanted his mouth against hers.
A small groan escaped his throat as she pressed herself against him, enjoying the firmness and the warmth of his body so close to hers. Her hands fisted in his shirt, then smoothed a path along the curve of his torso to his muscular back.
Her tongue met his eagerly, and they explored each other's mouths until they were both short of breath. Panting, Katie broke away. She felt slightly dizzy, but was quite certain that this time the sensation was not due to exhaustion. Warmth suffused her entire body; her heart was beating hard against her ribs.
Bereft of her mouth, Charlie’s attention wandered to her neck. Trailing kisses along the line of her jaw, he pressed his lips to a spot behind her ear and ran his warm, moist tongue across the pulse point he found there. Katie shivered with arousal. One of her hands tangling in his hair, she held him still and sought his mouth again.
As small lightning bolts exploded behind her closed eyelids, she reached for the buttons on his shirt, eager to feel more of his skin beneath her hands. But he stalled her; gentle, but determined.
“What is it?”
“As much as I’d like to continue, it’s suicidal to make love inside a dragon reservation.”
“You said they don’t come up here.”
He kissed her lightly. “I said they rarely come up here. And I don’t think your parents would be too happy to hear that you were roasted alive. And neither would I, for that matter.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be; because before that happens, I would expect some extraordinary act of heroism on your part,” she teased.
He gave her a quick smile. “Naturally.” Cupping her face between his hands, he pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. A silver bracelet, half hidden underneath the cuff of his shirt, glinted in the fading sunlight.
Curious, she pulled his wrist closer and twisted her head sideways to read the inscription.
Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus
“Why do you have Hogwarts’s school moto inscribed on a bracelet?”
“Mum and dad gave it to me the summer I set off to Romania. They though it was fitting.” His hands stroked across her back.
Katie’s fingers toyed with one of the buttons on his shirt. Her fingertips brushed against the smooth skin below the garment and she dipped her head to place her lips against his neck.
She felt him swallow as he dipped his head back. “Katie.” Her name was at once question, reproach, and welcome. Her tongue flicked out across his skin, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from him. His hands fastened around her waist. His thumbs brushed across her quivering stomach muscles.
“You know, when we stopped by at your cottage, I really only saw the living room. How about you take me on the full tour? I’m particularly interested in the bedroom.”
He chocked on a laugh, then claimed her mouth with his.
Holding her shoulders in a gentle grip, he rested his forehead against hers. “I want to, but I can’t. The delegation from Borneo arrived this morning, and I made an appointment to see them tonight. Besides, you almost passed out from exhaustion this morning. I’m not going to be responsible for keeping you up all night.”
Katie didn’t know what information the Malaysian experts would be able to contribute, but she understood that Charlie had to try.
They kissed again, briefly. Then Charlie gently pulled away from her. As the sun dipped below the tree tops, they packed the basket with the remains of their picnic and mounted their brooms.
* * * * *
Once Charlie had kissed her goodbye, Katie ambled across the camp site towards her own tent. She briefly considered looking in on her parents, but then decided to forego the notion and spend the few minutes thus gained with the memory of Charlie’s hands and kisses.
Night had fallen by the time she reached the edge of the clearing and approached her tent.
Suddenly a branch cracked nearby, and Katie froze in her tracks. Turning slowly, she saw a shadow move between the tents. Instinctively crouching down, Katie wrapped her hand firmly around her wand.
The shadow hovered behind the last tent on the clearing using the canvas as cover, and Katie realized that only the lonely oak tree which loomed into the sky behind her, had prevented her detection. Keeping herself motionless, she breathed slowly through her mouth, careful not to make any noise. After what seemed like an eternity, the shadow moved again, and slunk past Katie into the forest. In the faint glow of the waning moon, Katie identified Madame Brecska.
After a brief hesitation, and feeling as if her had stomach knotted itself into ribbons, Katie followed the Ministry witch. The forest closed in around her; the undergrowth far less hindering this close to the dragon reservation than it had been within the Acromantula territory.
Small rodents, beetles, and insects buzzed and scuttled around her, and the cry of nocturnal predators ruptured the silence every now and then, making her flinch. It was not difficult to follow Madame Breska, who, while trying to move as quietly as possible, betrayed her position by the rustling of her robe when it brushed against the ferns and bushes.
Then, after a few minutes, the sound stopped. Freezing, Katie listened, but she could not decipher Madame Brecska’s whereabouts. Carefully, she inched forward, until the sound of low voices reached her ears.
Katie swallowed nervously and bent a sapling to the side in order to step past it. Muted wand light shimmered through the trees. Her curiosity getting the better of her, Katie approached slowly, until three figures materialized from the shadows of the woods, their whispered conversation barely decipherable.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. This operation has worked seamlessly for years. I will not allow your incompetence to risk everything, now.” The loudest voice was male and full of anger.
“The stadium’s location...always a risk...someone might ask questions and find out...that stupid Ridgeback following him around...Charlie isn’t daft.”
“I don’t care. Fix it. We have a schedule to keep.”
A third voice spoke, its volume pitched so low that Katie could not understand it at all.
“I’ll take care of this. You just make sure that everything goes according to plan from now on. No more mistakes. From either of you.”
“The illusion spell isn’t...have to hurry... if it doesn’t...in the next few... they’re all going to see.”
“Then find a way to strengthen the spell, damn it.”
The third voice whispered again, and Katie leaned forward. Her shifted weight caused a twig to snap beneath her toes. She flinched and held her breath.
Agonizing seconds passed in silence. Then: “Did you hear that?” A female whisper full of fear.
“It was an animal. Pull yourself together.”
Katie breathed a sigh of relief and decided to retreat. One of them, she could have handled, maybe even two, but her duelling skills were no match for three fully trained witches and wizards.
Another twig snapped. Katie whirled around and muffled a scream as she came face to face with a curious Clabbert. Its monkey-like face looked at her with mild curiosity as it extended one of its long arms and patted her benignly on the head.
“I told you there is someone there.”
Shouts echoed through the woods, and while the Clabbert simply scaled the tree and disappeared among the upper branches, Katie found herself running with three criminals in pursuit. Flinging a Shielding Charm across her shoulder, she jumped over a broken branch and rushed towards the apparent safety of the stadium. The bright lights of curses exploded all around her, and just when Katie was sure that she would never reach the clearing, she heard a female voice shout out in pain behind her.
Then, she tore through the last line of oak trees and found herself among the tents. Pointing her wand into the sky, Katie sent the sound of thunder rolling with ear-splitting might across the camp.
Within seconds, shocked, sleepy faces appeared around her, the Arrows and the Dragons and several Ministry witches and wizards she had never seen before. Charlie came running from the other side of the camp, a group of Asian wizards in his wake.
“What happened? Are you all right?”
In a rush, she told her story and soon the forest was swarming with witches and wizards intent on finding Madame Brecska and her accomplices. Charlie was walking beside her, his wand raised high to shed more light on the trees they passed.
“I can’t believe it. I would never have suspected her. But it might explain why she was so vehemently opposed to the stadium's construction in this area.”
“Didn’t she say that you were always fighting about that?”
“Yes. Well, she might not have wanted the stadium to be built here, but once her objections had been overruled, she submitted to the party line and broke the news to us.”
The search was a failure. When midnight approached, Andrej Lior broke off the endeavour and sent them back to their tents. Frustration and anger were carved deeply into his face as he stepped close to Charlie and Katie.
“I will immediately write to the Ministry and see to it that Madame Brecska is found. Are you sure that these people said that they intended to steal more eggs?” The last he addressed to Katie.
“Not in those exact words, but it was the impression I got.”
Andrej Lior sighed deeply. “Very well, than we have only one option left. Charlie, we have to lock down the wards. That’s the only way to ensure that the thief’s plans are foiled. We should have done it days ago.”
Charlie nodded in agreement. He squeezed Katie’s hand and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Let’s get to it.”
Katie released his hand and turned towards her approaching parents. Her mother opened her arms to her, and, craving a little comfort, Katie nestled into her mother’s embrace.
In all honesty, I did not remeber that this fic suddenly became a lot darker. I'm not going to rewrite it, but it's really interesting to revisit this. If I wrote this story today, this chapter would end very differntly.
I'm going to edit the tags to reflect the darker tone.
* * * * *
The fifth day of the match began with a nationwide manhunt for Madame Brecska. Charlie was informed of the news by Darren’s father, who had come down to Noberta’s enclosure with an offer of breakfast.
“The Ridgeback does not look too well,” he commented with a concerned expression. “Are you sure that her fascination for Quidditch is the only reason for her behaviour?”
“I don’t have any other explanation. Ekaterina and I checked her over a few hours ago. There is nothing physically wrong with her, but she’s completely apathetic. She doesn’t care for her eggs at all, anymore.”
Andrej Lior rubbed his chin. “I only hope the Snitch isn’t causing any internal injuries.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “A dragon who wants to be a Quidditch player. Alas, I never understood the fascination with the game.”
Charlie laughed. “There is something you have in common with Stefania. When I asked her, if she wanted to join us up in the mountains, she looked at me as if I’d asked her to eat raw dragon liver.”
“A sensible woman,” Andrej noted, winking. “Now, what are your plans for today?”
“I thought I’d go over and have a look at the match. And while I’m there, I’ll ask around if anyone saw Lore or the hatchling above the forest three days ago.”
Andrej gave him a doubtful look. “Do you really think anyone was paying attention to whatever was going on outside the stadium?”
With a sigh, Charlie shook his head. “I doubt it, but I have to try.”
Before he set off toward the stadium, Charlie made a detour to the Owlery. His mind kept throwing doubt in the way of his reasoning, and during the few hours of night, in which he had tossed and turned in his tent, a question had come to the forefront of his mind.
With the Acromantulas so close to the dragon reservation, was there any significance in the stadium’s location?
On the surface, the stadium’s construction presented a huge risk to the smugglers, as it made the discovery of their operation more likely. But the more he thought about it, the more he started to consider a different possibility. In his discussion with the Malaysian delegation, he had learned that the Acromantulas they had encountered in the forest had most likely been sentinels stationed to guard the core of the colony. Since the keepers had searched the entire width and breath of the forest in the east and found nothing but the sentinels, it followed that the main colony had been hidden by magical means.
Upon his report, the Malaysian experts had promised to venture into the forest and look for any enchantments powerful enough to disguise the gigantic spiders.
But the very fact that someone had gone to this extent to cultivate and hide the colony, presented him with only one logical conclusion; that this was a long term operation, which had gone on for years. And while this assumption narrowed the circle of suspects considerably, he had, as of yet, no way to prove it.
Hoping that an old school friend, who worked at the Romanian Ministry, would be able to shed some light on the matter, Charlie penned his letter and set the owl free on his way to the stadium.
By the time he reached the top of the stands, it was almost eleven and the reserve teams had long taken over the match. During the night, the Vatra Dornei Dragons had managed what many had thought impossible and taken the lead. The Appleby Arrows were now forty points behind, and Charlie could not help but snort when he saw the five digits on either side of the score board.
He made his way to the south-west corner of the stands and began to randomly tap supporters of either team on the back.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but have you by any chance seen a couple of dragons fly across the forest over there? It was three days ago. And two people on brooms followed them shortly after.”
Most had seen nothing, but a young man furrowed his brows in concentration. “You can see dragons flying over the forest all the time from up here.” He pointed towards the reservation. “Look, there’s one right now.”
“I don’t mean the reservation. I mean the forest in the east. It was probably right around the time the Arrows’ Chaser got hit by a Bludger and almost fell.”
“Oh, that. That was very exciting, wasn’t it? Bloody good move, too, even if the Beater was Romanian.” The man nodded to himself; recalling the accident. “Wait a minute. There was a dragon. I remember, now. It was flying right behind her. I didn’t see anyone on a broom, though.”
“Are you sure?” Charlie restrained himself from bouncing with excitement.
“Yes, quite. It was a small one. I only saw it for a second though. I was really paying more attention to the game.”
“And you’re sure it was only one? Not two?”
The man shrugged. “I honestly can’t tell.”
“Thank you, anyway.” Charlie managed a friendly smile and walked further into the west curve.
When the referee’s whistle sounded the next change in rotation, Charlie had accumulated several pieces of information from the crowd. From a number of corroborating reports, he had determined that only one hatchling had been flying above the trees, and that shortly afterwards two people on brooms had circled the area before they had disappeared beneath the canopy. Charlie could only surmise that in the confusion of her accident and being concussed as she was, that Katie had been mistaken as to how many dragons she had seen.
Knowing that the hatchlings would have stayed close together, he assumed that one of them had been caught again, right after its transportation crate had been smashed to pieces.
He watched Katie play and bought a couple of small pastries and a scone from a passing vendor, but his thoughts would not let him enjoy the game. Preoccupied, he wandered down the stairs, and through the campsite to the south.
His mind went over the bits of conversation Katie had overheard last night and relayed to him. The mention of the stadium had nagged at his brain and had been one of the reasons he had sent his letter to the Ministry. He wondered if the stadium could be used as some sort of meeting point. After all, two people discussing the smuggling of illegal goods would hardly draw any attention among a crowd of sports enthusiasts. Or could there be even more to it?
If Charlie extended a mental line from the Ironbelly’s nest to the point where they had found the smashed crate, then the thief’s flight would have taken him directly to the stadium. Was there a place where the stolen goods could be safely stashed, until they were sold?
Veering sharply to the left, Charlie returned to the stadium and looked up at the grand facade. He pulled out his wand, and began to examine the stone wall for a secret entrance.
But he soon realized the futility of this endeavour. Covered in layers of Muggle-repelling Charms and spells to make the area unplottable, any additional illusion spell would be undetectable to all but the most experienced wizards. Charlie was sure, that if Bill were here, his brother would have detected any spells that did not belong among the regular protective charms, but the art of spell detection was out of Charlie’s expertise.
Nevertheless, he moved on into the tunnel, reasoning that it was a far more likely place to build a secret entrance. He could only hope that there would not be quite as much magical interference there.
* * * * *
Freshly showered, Katie entered her parent’s tent an hour after her rotation had been over. The reserve team had made her mouth water with their descriptions of the cakes and fruit pies they had enjoyed this afternoon, and Katie was more than famished.
Making a bee line for the buffet table, she was disappointed to find meat and gravy, mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, and vegetables in place of the expected sweets.
Her father came up to her, and, with a smile, produced a plate of cream topped apple pie from behind his back. “Your mother and I defended it with our lives,” he joked.
With a broad smile, Katie hugged him fiercely. “Happy Birthday, dad.”
Exchanging the plate for the present she had gift-wrapped for him, he thanked her and tore away the dark blue paper.
“George Weasley gave me and Angelina a tour of his joke shop last month. These aren’t on the shelves, yet, but when I saw them, I knew I had to get a pair for you.”
Her father looked down at the pair of padded house shoes, an expression of delight on his face as he regarded the furry sheep heads that stared up at him. “What do they do?”
Katie smiled mischievously. “You’ll see. Just promise that you’ll have a little mercy on mum, will you.”
Michael Bell laughed and hugged his daughter. “We’ll see.”
He spread is arms in a gesture of innocence. “I can’t make any promises. Now, go and have fun with your friends. I promised your mother a turn on the dance floor.”
Katie wandered through the crowd, eating her pie and stopping to chat here and there with her teammates and the Dragons.
“It makes me so mad. If I get my hands on those blasted thieves, then Basarab have mercy, because I won’t.” Goran set his glass down more forcefully than necessary. “My brother started working at the reservation only a few months ago. He is one of Lore’s assistants, and he has been very upset and angry since Lore went missing.”
Martha nodded in agreement. “Whoever has been stealing from the reservation should be strung up and left as bait for the dragons. It would serve them right.”
Having replaced her empty plate with a bottle of cider, Katie listened to the heated conversation until her eyes fell on a familiar figure by the entrance. Her heartbeat sped up as she approached Charlie, who greeted her with a soft smile.
“It looks as if I’m late.”
“Not very, the buffet is still open and most of us only got here half an hour ago.”
He motioned towards the bottle in her hand. “I’m not particularly hungry, but I’ll take one of those.”
They walked over to the long table, and Charlie retrieved one of the cold bottles from its water bath.
Katie looked at him askance as he gulped half the bottle down within a matter of seconds. “Is there any news?” she asked.
Charlie shook his head and informed her of what he had learned and deduced from the gathered information. “And I spent the last few hours on a wild goose chase.”
Then, he smiled down at her and offered her his arm. “May I have this dance?”
Smiling, Katie accepted. “I have to warn you, though. The only time I’ve ever danced was at the Yule ball at Hogwarts. And that was rather awkward.”
Confidently, Charlie pulled her into his arms. “I’ll do my best to make this experience more pleasant.” While his words were unfailingly polite, the devilish twinkle in his eyes belied any pretence of modesty.
Katie laughed and stepped closer to him. They swayed to the music in blissful silence, the soft pressure of his hand on her back guiding her in the direction he desired. The music was slow; a saxophone accompanying a deep female voice.
With her head resting against his shoulder, Katie breathed in his earthy, musky scent. She could hear his heartbeat and feel the warmth of his body seep into hers. One of her hands gently caressed the nape of his neck, while the other swept slowly around the curve of his shoulder and down his chest.
When she looked up at him, she felt herself fall into his dark brown eyes, his gaze lighting a fire deep in her stomach.
“Would you like to go for a walk?” she asked quietly, her voice husky.
His expression soft and still, he nodded and grasped her hand.
* * * * *
In her dreams, she was flying. The wind whistled as it brushed against her face and tangled in her robes and hair. She could hear her heartbeat as a steady drum in the distance, lulling her to sleep. She was at peace.
A voice mumbled something in her ear, deep and angry, demanding of her to open her eyes and see. She turned away, not wanting the voice to intrude on her blissful state.
But, suddenly, she tumbled, free and wild, falling down, down, down. Breath was stolen from her lungs, and supernovas exploded behind her eyelids.
Then, the pain came. She felt lash marks open on her skin as her face and body were struck repeatedly. Something heavy hit her side, and she could hear the sickening sound of breaking bones. She rolled, was thrown sideways, and then forward, and still the unseen whip bit into her flesh.
A deep, hard drum sounded out as her body impacted with the ground, and with cessation of motion came consciousness. With a low groan, she rolled onto her back and opened her eyes. The only thing she saw was darkness and shadows melting into deeper black. Beneath her hands, she could feel soft earth; leaves and twigs.
Her hands searched her robes, but she did not find her wand.
Pain lacerated her chest as she tried to sit up, forcing her breathing into shallow gasps.
A low clicking sounded in the distance.
She reached out and found bark beneath her hand. Steadying herself against the tree, she pulled herself to her feet; slowly, agonizingly, each breath laying a trail of fire from her waist to her chest. Broken ribs moved against each other with every movement.
Blindly, she stumbled forward, her eyes slowly adjusting to the lack of light. She wandered between the trees, bracing herself against their sturdy trunks whenever she could. She did not know how long she had wandered, when a clearing opened up before her.
The clicking noise was closer now.
She shivered and walked out into the open space, her gaze on the sky above. She blinked in confusion, not understanding the blurriness of her vision. Turning, she inched further into the clearing, and just before she reached its centre, she saw the knot of spun silver up above and froze.
Her heart seemed dead inside her chest, her bllod frozen to solid ice.
Madame Brecska looked at the giant domed web that arched above her and heard the faint tolling of a bell.
An excited clicking came from behind her. Forgetting her broken ribs, her pain, her dizziness, she ran; not looking back, not daring to hope. She reached the edge of the clearing. Farther and farther she went, deeper into the forest. She saw a shadow spring up in front of her and screamed. Zigzagging, she crouched into a narrow gap between a close-knit crop of trees.
Loud, feverish, angry, the clicking came from all directions. The giant bodies of Acromantulas scuttled in circles around her. Fighting broke out among the colony as they tried to get closer, their pincers cutting off branches thicker than a wizard’s arm as if they were mere toothpicks.
Crouching into the small space between two large roots, Madame Brecska closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable.
* * * * *
They walked along the lake, listening to the sound of the waves that spilled onto the shore.
“Bill invited me to come home for Fleur’s birthday.”
Katie looked up at him, her hand firmly entwined with his. “Are you going to accept?”
A rueful smile tugged at his lips. “I don’t know, yet. A part of me wants to.” He looked at her. “I could visit you, while I’m in England.”
Katie suddenly felt quite coy and playful. “You could. I’ll just have to tell all those other men not to visit while you’re there.”
A surprised laugh bubbled from his throat. “Ah, I see how it is, now.”
Katie bumped teasingly into his shoulder, and then stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. “You don’t see at all.” Emboldened by his mischievous smile, she stopped and wrapped her hands around his shoulders. “I don’t want anyone else. Only you.”
Before he could see the blush rise on her features, she pressed a quick kiss to his nose. Then, laughing at the stunned expression on his face, she bounded towards the lake, pulling her robe up over her head as she went.
The water was comfortably cool and flowed sensually around her naked body. She took two long strokes into the deeper waters and turned around.
Charlie was nowhere to be seen.
Confused, she swam back, but then she saw his discarded clothes next to hers on the shore.
Only a second later, she felt someone grab her leg and pull her under. When she came back up for air, she was sputtering and splashed a wave of water into Charlie’s laughing face.
They cavorted in the water and swam to the other side of the lake, where the moonlight bathed the rocky shore in mysterious light. Here, Charlie pulled her into his arms as soon as they could feel the ground beneath their feet and kissed her thoroughly.
Katie’s hands fisted in his short red hair, she pressed herself eagerly against him. Her tongue slipped into his welcoming mouth, and standing on her toes, she enjoyed the sensation of his hard body sliding against her skin. Water pearled in the hollow of his throat, and Katie was only too eager to lap it up.
His hands roamed her back and descended to her ass, cupping the firm cheeks in his palms and pulling her closer against his waist. She moaned when she felt him harden against her stomach and instinctively moved her hips in slow, enticing circles. Charlie lifted her and gently bent her backwards over a flat rock behind her.
With only her legs below the water, he let his gaze roam over her exposed body, his hands supporting her weight as much as the stone at her back. Her name fell quietly from his lips as he bend down to trail a path of open-mouthed kisses from her throat to her nipples. His tongue worried each of the small, taunt peaks in turn, and the alternating sensation of his warm breath and the cool night air on her skin stroked the fever within her.
His teeth nipped gently at her skin as his mouth descended to her belly button. His tongue dipped into the small hollow, and Katie threw her head back in desire. She rubbed her thighs against each other, seeking the friction as she felt moisture pool between her legs.
Gently, Charlie lifted her higher, until her body rested entirely on the water-smoothed rock. While his tongue lapped water from her stomach, his hands slowly parted her thighs, and then his lips fastened on their inside to suckle the sensitive flesh he found there. Squirming with need, she called his name, and obligingly, his mouth descended to her core. A small cry tore from Katie’s throat when she felt his tongue parting her folds.
Her hips pushed upwards of their own volition. Chuckling quietly, Charlie flicked the tip of his tongue over her clit, eliciting a wanton moan from her throat. Her whole body seemed on fire. She could hear the rapid staccato of her heart beat echo in her ears. She writhed beneath his ministrations, her muscles straining and clenching with every touch of his tongue. Heat spilled into her abdomen, and just when Katie thought she could not bare this exquisite torture any longer, the night exploded into a myriad of stars.
Panting, she closed her eyes as languid warmth suffused her body. She gingerly pushed herself off the rock and into Charlie’s arms. “Thank you,” she said and kissed him soundly.
She could taste herself on his lips as her hands roamed the broad expanse of his chest. Her thumb rubbed gently across one of his flat nipples, and she eagerly swallowed his resounding moan. Her free hand dipped below the waterline to cup his cock in the palm of her hand.
He shivered with barely restrained desire, his kisses demanding and hard as his hands caressed her back. She ran her fingertips along the length of him and felt the pull of need deep in her stomach.
“Take me,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “I want you inside of me.”
Without hesitation he crouched down, his hands gliding over her ass to the back of her thighs. Then, he lifted Katie up until she was leaning against the rock again and positioned himself between her legs. His mouth pressed a kiss to the hollow of her throat before he looked deeply into her eyes.
Katie reached eagerly between them, anticipation heightening her senses as she guided him into her.
Their breaths left their bodies in a sound, half sigh, half groan when he pushed inside of her. Katie could feel him stretch her inner muscles with his girth and pushed against him, lost in the delicious friction. He moved slowly at first, allowing her body to adjust to his size, but soon Katie urged him on. Water sprayed up between their colliding bodies, mingling with the fine sheen of sweat on their skin.
Bending over her, Charlie buried his face in the crook of her neck as his thrusts became faster and harder. Their moans echoed across the lake, and Katie arched up to meet his frantic pounding, her hips angled just enough for his pelvic bone to stroke her sensitive clit with every thrust.
She tensed, surprised that she was teetering on the edge of ecstasy again so soon. Her hands clawed at his back, her voice pleaded with him to move faster. Her belly throbbed with heat and liquid fire, and then she finally fell into the abyss.
As her muscles clenched around him, she could feel him tense. A husky cry fell from his lips as liquid pooled between their bodies. He almost fell on top of her, only supporting himself on shaking elbows, and Katie wrapped her arms protectively around him.
They held each other for a while, both sated and blissfully alive.
Katie felt bereft when he eventually pulled back, but he gathered her into his arms and sought her mouth for a slow, tender kiss.
When they came up for air, Katie rested her head against his shoulder. “You better come visit when you’re back in England.”
His response was a deep, male laugh. “Count on it.”
* * * * *
His hand trembled as he reached the ward. Praying that everything had been arranged as planned, he flicked his wand and watched the bulky blanket float through the invisible barrier between the stone markers.
Puffing his breath in relief, he stepped across the border after it. His heart jumped when a shadow materialized from the trees.
“Did you get them?”
“Make sure they stay hidden until I come to you. We’ll move them to the catacombs as soon as the other keepers are gone.”
His heart missed a beat. “That wasn’t the plan. We were supposed to deliver them to the trading point right now.”
“He was delayed.”
Hating the hysterical note his voice, he hissed: “With what? What in Merlin’s name could be more important, right now?”
The shadow stepped closer. “We don’t have time to argue. I would keep them with me, if I could, but no one suspects you. They will be safe with you.”
* * * * *
With the light of dawn, colour materialized within the shades of grey that was her world now. The Acromantulas had disappeared hours ago, but Madame Brecska had not dared to leave the small sanctuary between the roots.
She could not hear their maddening clicking now; nor the soft, rapid scuttle of their many legs. The pain in her side had dulled to a steady throb, and still, her breath was shallow. The sweat of fear had dried on her skin, making her robe clammy. Her skin and scalp itched.
The voice made her flinch.
“Is anybody there?”
She hesitated, too scared to believe that her mind had not simply crossed over into insanity; too scared it now played tricks on her, too scared to believe in rescue.
The whisper was closer now; more urgent.
Swallowing, she lifted her head, still not daring to move.
“I’m here,” she whispered back
Leaves rustled softly, and, quickly, she huddled back against the roots.
“Then hurry up before they come back,” the voice urged.
“I am injured.”
“We’ll worry about that, once we get you out of here.”
“Who are you? How did you find me?”
“I came here from Borneo.”
Relief flooded her veins. “You’re one of the experts?”
“Yes.” A faint clicking penetrated her hearing. “Hurry. They’re coming. Hurry.”
Fear propelled her into action. “Oh, thank Merlin,” she exclaimed and crawled out of her hiding place.
Pushing the leaves of a large fern aside, she saw another domed web arching not fifty feet before her. Shivering, she realized how close she had come to walking into its earthbound edge last night. Her gaze automatically swept the expanse of the silver thread and came to rest on the crown of a nearby tree.
Carcasses of birds and forest animals hung wrapped in spider silk from its branches, some no more than desiccated husks, others still ripe for an impending feast. With the palm of her hand, she muffled her horrified scream as her eyes came to rest on the shrivelled corpse of a witch. At the edge of her cocoon, the dark green material of her trousers and shirt spilled forth.
Her heat leaping into her throat, Madame Brecska turned around and searched frantically for her saviour.
“Where are you?”
The clicking came from above; loud and eager.
“Right here,” said the spider.
Charlie woke up confused and disoriented as someone shook his shoulder. Blinking, he rolled onto his back and saw Roman crouching beside his bed, a grim expression on his face. The dim light of early morning fell through the open window.
“What is it?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Nadja just woke me up. You’d better come into the living room. Two more eggs have been stolen.”
Suddenly wide awake, Charlie scrambled to his feet. “Where? When?” He stopped, his shirt unbuttoned and one leg in his trousers. “More importantly, how? The wards are locked down. None of us can open them anymore.”
Roman didn’t answer. Instead he waited patiently for Charlie to get dressed and led him into the living room.
The young tracker was pacing by the window, impatience and agitation radiating off her in waves.
“Tell him,” Roman commanded as soon as he and Charlie had entered the room.
Nadja stepped forward and squared her shoulders.
“As instructed, I patrolled between the Longhorn habitats along the river last night. I was...”
“Wait a minute, who told you to do that?” Charlie asked.
“I did,” Roman answered. At Charlie’s questioning gaze, he explained. “You said that judging from the information Katie overheard, it was likely that the smugglers hadn’t completed their assignment, yet. And I thought it couldn’t hurt to station a few extra guards, since it seems likely that one of us is involved.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you the one who berated me only a few days ago, that I should stop suspecting one of our own?”
Roman nodded and clenched his jaw. “I did, but it looks more and more as if the smuggling has been going on for a while, and there is only one person who’s responsible for the records listing the number of eggs and hatchlings that our dragons produce each year. Stefania must have known, Charlie. Eggs get trampled by accident every now and then. It would have been easy for her to falsify the records in order to account for any discrepancies. ”
Charlie buttoned his shirt, then looked at his friend. He found the same resignation and cold anger that he felt, reflected in Roman’s eyes. Turning towards Nadja, Charlie motioned for her to continue.
“I counted the eggs on every rotation. This morning, two of them were missing. I did not see or hear who stole them, but it must have happened shortly before sunrise.”
“You returned here immediately, after you discovered that the eggs were missing?”
Charlie and Roman exchanged a glance. “How many of your trackers are out on patrol?” Charlie asked.
“Seven, I only selected those I trusted implicitly.”
“Get them back, here. We need to find Stefania and the eggs.”
The trackers Apparated into the clearing within minutes after Roman had sent green sparks into the air. On Charlie’s instructions, they divided into two groups and marched to Stefania’s cottage and her office by the orphan nursery at the same time.
Both were empty.
Reconvening on the lawn, Charlie formulated how they would proceed. “Roman, take four of your trackers to the stadium and stake out the camp, the enclosure, and the stadium itself. See if she shows up. Nadja, I want you to inform the Ministry of what happened, and that we suspect Stefania is involved with the smugglers. The rest of you are going to search the public cottages, the nursery, the sheds, the Owlery, and the cellars.” He turned towards Roman. “I don’t believe that she could have manipulated the wards to get around the lock down. The eggs must still be here somewhere.”
Suddenly, a merry little tune started to play, and the roof of the Owlery glowed white for the space of a second, signifying that a post owl had arrived at the wards.
Hoping that his friend at the Ministry had written back to him, Charlie dismissed Roman with a companionable slap on his shoulder. “I’ll get that. It could be important.”
He stepped to the left and Diapparated.
A tiny, flecked owl sat on the window sill of the small hut outside the wards that served as a landing place for the reservation’s owls. It hooted a high-pitched greeting as soon as it saw him.
Charlie rushed over to the bird and retrieved the message tied to its leg. Fishing for some owl treats in his trouser pocket, he came, instead, upon the letter he had written to Bill before he had gone to sleep last night.
He put it down on the sill and tore open the letter which bore the seal of the Ministry. As he had hoped, it provided the information he had sought. It had been Darren’s father who had thrown a lot of money around in order to have the stadium built in its current location.
Madame Brecska’s image flickered through his brain, and he wondered if she had merely been a victim of her own suspicions; if she had known that Andrej was somehow involved with the crimes that had taken place and followed him into the forest to find proof of his duplicity.
Skimming over the lines, Charlie felt the last vestiges of doubt fall from his mind. Grim disappointment settled on his shoulders. His hand fisted around the parchment, and he stormed towards the stadium too upset to Apparate the rest of the distance.
But after a few steps he stopped and turned around. Gritting his teeth, he buried his hands deep in his pockets and, upon retrieving them, offered the crumbled remains of owl treats to the messenger bird. While the owl picked the crumbs from the window sill, Charlie tied his letter to Bill to her leg.
“Off you go,” he said encouragingly. Then, having calmed down a little, he focussed his mind and Disapparated.
Seconds later, he startled Ekaterina with his sudden appearance on the stands of the practice pitch.
“Where is Darren?” he asked without preamble.
Ekaterina raised her eyebrows, but answered succinctly. “I haven’t seen him since his guard duty ended last night, but he mentioned wanting to sleep in his own bed instead of the tent.”
Not spearing any time on common courtesy, Charlie Apparated back to the keeper’s compound. The sun was just sneaking above the tree tops, when Charlie reached the empty clearing. He strode purposefully towards the cottage Darren shared with five other junior assistants and raised his wand. “Alohomora.”
The front door sprung open, and Charlie entered. He marched straight to the last door on the right and repeated the previous charm. The door didn’t open.
Having lost the advantage of surprise, Charlie threw caution to the wind and knocked furiously on the wooden barrier. “Darren, open up.”
He could hear a thud on the other side, followed by frantic scrambling.
“Darren!” Stepping back, Charlie flicked his wrist. “Confringo!”
The door exploded into ashes and cinder; splinters shot through the air, and only rapidly cast Protection Charms prevented potentially fatal injuries to both Charlie and Darren, who stood wide eyed on the other side of the door.
Staring at Charlie with sleep tussled hair, and clad only in his pyjama bottoms, Darren looked like a twelve year old boy, who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Where are they?” Charlie asked, his manner deceptively calm.
“Where... where are what?” Darren stammered, his wand held defensively in front of him.
“The eggs, Darren. I know you, your father, and Stefania are behind the smuggling ring. But you couldn’t have gotten the last couple of eggs out of here. Not with the wards locked down. So, where are they?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not a smuggler. And neither is my dad. He was the one who suggested that the wards be locked down. How would that make sense, if he wanted to smuggle more eggs out of here?”
“After everything Katie overhead, he had to cover his tracks.” He decided to take a chance. “I know about the stadium, Darren. It’s no use to keep lying.”
Darren blanched considerably, but he would not be so easily caught in a trap. “What about the stadium?” he asked.
Charlie threateningly approached, when, suddenly, a female voice shouted out behind him. “Stupefy!”
He tried to whirl around and protect himself, but before he could face his attacker, the spell impacted with his back, and he crumbled to the ground, unconscious.
* * * * *
They were neck to neck as they dove for the Quaffle. Katie stretched her arms, but Goran pulled ahead of her and caught the bright, red ball. He veered to the left and pulled upwards, throwing the Quaffle to his teammate. A second later, Thomas caught it in front of the left goal hoop.
The Arrow’s Keeper tossed the ball to Penelope, who had to dodge a Bludger but caught it nonetheless. In turn, the Quaffle passed through the hands of the Arrow’s Chasers until a well aimed Bludger knocked it out of Penelope’s hands, only a few feet from the Dragon’s goal hoops.
Pulling into a steep dive, Goran was again the first who reached the ball. He turned in mid-air and sped upwards, where the remaining two Chasers waited for him. He was about to throw the ball, when something in his line of vision made him freeze.
Katie had been close behind him, and now rolled underneath his broom and up in front of him. She reached for the Quaffle in his hands, too intent on the game to notice that something was wrong. The ball left his unresisting grasp, and Katie was about to speed off, when his voice halted her.
“No. No, stop. Katie, look!” He pointed eastwards, and Katie automatically turned. They were hovering high above the stadium, the forest stretching out around them for miles. Blinking, Katie leaned forward, while Goran irritably dodged a Bludger. “Stop it, you two. Keep those damn things away from us.”
Having finally caught on to the fact that neither Goran nor Katie were playing anymore, the rest of the team left their positions and flew upwards to meet them.
“What is going on?” Penelope demanded.
“There are two people flying above the forest where the Acromantulas live.” Goran pointed again.
Martha pulled her broom alongside his. “They’re probably from the delegation.” Then, she stopped short. “Hold on; is there someone tied to those broomsticks?”
Katie’s heart dropped into her stomach. The figures were too far away to identify, and yet, her thoughts instantly turned to Charlie.
Suddenly, the motionless figure suspended below the brooms dropped towards the canopy.
“What the hell?” Thomas exclaimed, but Katie had already flattened herself against her broom and sped off towards the forest. The Quaffle fell unheeded towards the pitch below. The referee’s whistle sounded ever shriller as he tried to call her back. An uproar spilled through the masses on the stands.
As one, the Appleby Arrows and the Vatra Dornei Dragons followed Katie. She didn’t see Roman and his trackers arrive at the enclosure below; didn’t realize that they took one look at the runaway teams and made a fast decision. A second later, five more broomsticks joined the pursuit.
Katie knew that it didn’t really matter, if it was Charlie that had been dropped into the forest. Whoever the victim was, he would not get out of the arachnid colony alive after having been disposed in its midst. And although she had sworn to herself never to set foot among the Acromantulas again, she ignored the sick feeling in her stomach, intent only on saving a life.
The two brooms that had discarded their load veered towards the dragon enclosure. But then, they both jerked to a halt, having spotted the small army of outraged Quidditch players heading their way. They fled, branching off into different directions. Without hesitation, Thomas, Nadja, and two of the Romanian Chasers, went after them.
The rest pulled out their wands and blasted their way through the canopy to the ground below.
The morning light was muted beneath the tall trees, and Katie noted with relief that the undergrowth was sparse in this area. She had dreaded being slowed down or trapped in thorny bushes.
“Spread out. This is where he fell; he can’t be far.”
Reasoning that their arrival had been noisy enough to alert any predators nearby, they abandoned caution and called out after the fallen wizard.
“Katie, look here.” Penelope hurried over to her, her broom still in her hand. “I found this hanging from an upper branch when we came down.”
She opened her hand, and nestled in its palm glinted a thin silver bracelet. Katie suppressed an involuntary sob. Her knees felt weak. “That’s Charlie’s,” she choked out.
Roman pocketed the bracelet and looked up at the canopy. “I don’t understand. If he fell down over here, then where is he?”
Pulling herself together, Katie’s hand clenched around her wand. “From what he told me, the colony is hidden by some sort of illusion spell.”
Martha pursed her lips and regarded the circle of people, who had assumed position around them in order to keep an eye on their surroundings. “That’s a pretty big illusion.”
“That means we could be right on top of Charlie and the Acromantulas. We just can’t see or hear them.” Goran shook himself as a shiver passed along his spine. “What do we do?”
“We don’t have time to figure out what spell is hiding the colony. We need to draw them out somehow.”
Suddenly, a scream tore through the small group, and everybody jumped.
“Over there,” Penelope shouted. “I saw a shadow move behind those trees. A big one.”
They ran through the forest, counting on the advantage of their numbers to overwhelm any Acromantulas that would cross their path. After three hundred yards, they stopped beneath a crop of birches. “It was right here.” Penelope said.
* * * * *
Charlie awoke to a throbbing headache and confused memories. He didn’t know where he was and wondered why green leaves and small twigs scratched against his face. Groaning, he batted the foliage away and tried to sit up.
“Over there,” someone shouted. “I saw a shadow move behind those trees.”
Startled, he lost his balance and fell backwards, his breath leaving his lungs in a loud groan. The broad branch of an oak tree passed his vision, and then something soft wrapped around his back and bounced with his weight.
Turning to the left, he saw people running away from him. He wanted to shout; to call them back, but his befuddled brain would not transmit his wishes to his vocal cords.
Charlie tried to turn, but the soft material stuck to him and pulled him back. Turning his face, he beheld the silver, sticky strands of spider silk. He craned his head back as far as he could, and saw the domed web arch behind him, its structure deceptively fragile in the soft light of morning.
* * * * *
“There is nothing here,” Roman said, stating the obvious.
“I swear, I saw it.” Penelope had wandered off into the ferns and turned in a circle. “It was right here.”
“Well, it isn’t anymore. We have to keep looking. Everybody spread out.” Katie walked in the opposite direction and tried to look for the minute discrepancies that sometimes occurred when illusion spells were cast to hide a large object or area.
Roman was walking next to her, his wand at his side. Every now and then, he stopped and closed his eyes, and Katie spared a brief moment of admiration for his ability to feel enchantments. It was a skill she had never mastered.
Catching her gaze, he threw her a quick smile. “It’s something you need to learn to do well, if you want to become qualified as a tracker,” he said by way of explanation. “But I can sense nothing here.”
He turned towards her. “You know, if I wanted to hide a location so no one could find it, I’d use the Fidelius Charm.”
Katie swallowed. “If that’s the case, then we wont find the colony without catching the Secret-Keeper first.” She stopped her search and considered the possibility. “Would that even be sensible? I mean, I doubt that the Acromantulas would just stay put.”
“Oh, I’m sure that they would venture out to go hunting, and station their sentinels, but if someone could make it worth their while...,” he trailed off.
“You can’t reason with them. They’re intelligent, but their instinct to kill is too strong.”
“But they do have a survival instinct. Maybe that’s enough to bribe them.”
Katie didn’t want to imagine what exactly Acromantulas would consider a suitable bribe. She turned back in order to resume her search when a horrified scream rang through the forest. Shouts followed from all sides as witches and wizards hurried back to their starting point.
A large shadow scuttled away from them, it’s eight-legged gait rapidly covering a two hundred yard distance.
“It got Penelope,” someone shouted, and the hunt began.
Brooms were mounted as they tore after the retreating spider. Penelope’s screams begged of them not to abandon her. Spells grazed the Acromantula’s black hide or exploded in the vegetation close to it. Finally, a few Stunners hit their mark, and the arachnid’s legs buckled. It rolled and skidded across the earth when it hit the ground, and Katie and the others had almost reached it, when, suddenly, the spider passed though an invisible wall; its body rapidly disappearing from sight. Penelope’s screams where cut off.
The Acromantula had vanished so quickly that no one had the chance to stop their brooms in time. Even as Katie jerked the handle upwards, she expected to collide with the invisible wall, certain, that it would not grant any intruder passage.
Instead she flew right through it as if it did not exist, and, her broom finally turning, she shot upwards, her head and arms breaking through the foliage of the trees.
Sputtering and spitting, she descended immediately, only to find herself in the exact same area of the forest she had assumed was no more than a projection on the wall.
Others had fared no better than her, their abrupt manoeuvres sending them into trees and undergrowth. Rejoining the group, she met Roman’s gaze. “Not an illusion spell then?”
The tracker shook his head. “I don’t feel anything. It must be a Fidelius Charm.”
* * * * *
Charlie heard the screaming. Struggling in the web, he managed to twist his head enough to see the Acromantula rush toward the clearing that held the web, a frightened witch clutched between its pincers. He saw the witches and wizards in pursuit, and how sudden chaos broke out between them. His heart missed a beat when he recognized Katie in her pale blue Quidditch robes.
He shouted her name; whether to warn her or to seek her help, he wasn’t sure, but even though she was merely twenty feet away from him, she did not hear him.
Instead, another female voice penetrated his mind.
“Stupefy. Stupefy!” Penelope shouted, but her spells bounced harmlessly of the spider’s legs; the only part of the beast that she could aim at with her broken arm.
“You need to use ‘Confringo’,” Charlie shouted, tearing furiously at the web that incarcerated him.
Penelope stilled and tried to twist around to look at him, but the spider shook her as it tried to get its legs back under it after its mad slide across the ground.
“Confringo!” Penelope shouted, half mad with fear.
The Acromantula screeched as one of its legs exploded into shrapnel and ichor. Immediately, Penelope recast her spell aiming for another leg.
The creature’s screams turned into an agonized wail as the second leg was torn out from under it. Its pincers opened, and Penelope smashed to the ground, the fall knocking her unconscious. The spider backpedalled in fear and pain.
* * * * *
They stood among the trees, helpless and losing hope. Someone was sobbing, but Katie could not find the energy within herself to find out who. Her muscles taunt, she stared at the space where the Acromantula had disappeared. Roman had sent one of his trackers away to see if either of the witches or wizards that had thrown Charlie into the forest had been caught.
His hand squeezed her shoulder, and she could hear his intake of breath as he searched for words.
Katie swore to herself, that she would not cry. She refused to give in to the feelings of futility and grief that nagged at the back of her mind, trying to overwhelm her. Her jaws clenched painfully, her shoulders were so tense that she felt something inside of her could snap at any second.
Then, she saw something move. It was right in front of her, a small spot of black hovering in the air. A second later it was gone, but Katie had already taken a step forward; eager, hopeful, and yet, disbelieving.
In an instant, Roman was right next to her. “What is it?”
“I saw something.”
Her breath catching in her throat, she willed the spot to reappear, and, miraculously, it did. Then, a pair of giant legs scratched at the ground, appearing slowly, inch by inch. The black spot above her grew, revealing the back end of the enormous spider as it retreated through the enchantment.
“Quickly,” Roman shouted amidst the gasps of the Quidditch players. “We have to stun her before she comes all the way through.”
Fourteen wands were raised, and fourteen voices merged into a single shout. “Stupefy!”
The spider didn’t wobble, it simply crashed to the ground, its body bridging the enchantment.
Roman threw her the vicious smile of a hunter on the prowl. “Let’s get them.”
He mounted his broom and flew up to land on the back end of the spider. From there he walked along her body and disappeared from sight.
Katie was the first to follow.
* * * * *
His attention wavered from the retreating Spider, when he felt the strands of the web move. Twisting around, he looked at the web spanning the clearing, and his heart stopped. Dozens of Acromantulas were swarming onto the clearing, their pincers clicking madly, their jet black bodies covering the ground with a sea of darkness.
And one of them sat in the middle of the web and regarded him with its multifaceted eyes.
Charlie could feel the vile intellect behind those eyes, and his body shivered. His mouth was dry, and his heart had taken up an impossible staccato beat.
The Acromantula moved forward, slowly; secure in the knowledge that its prey was trapped and helpless.
He heard shouts from below, but he hardly recognized them. His world had shrunk to the web and the approaching spider.
“Lots of soft flesh, this week,” the spider said. It prodded his stomach with one of its legs. “And a lot of trouble for my family, as well.” Briefly, it regarded whatever was happening on the ground.
“I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience,” Charlie croaked. “I’m sure, if you let me go, my friends will be more than happy to leave you and your family in peace.”
Charlie could here his name being called, but he did not dare to move his gaze from the arachnid.
Then, spells exploded around him. The Acromantula’s body jerked, and it clicked its pincers furiously. Charlie felt the ghostly touch of hope, but just as soon as it had appeared it was torn away from him.
“They will not get you back,” the spider said. “You’re ours now.” With a vicious screech, its fangs descended towards him, and pain exploded in his stomach as his skin was ruptured, and deadly venom spread throughout his body.
* * * * *
Katie screamed when she saw the spider’s attack on Charlie. Flinging curses left and right, she managed to mount her broom and shot towards the web above her.
“Diffindo!” she shouted, and the sticky strands fell away from one side of his body.
She cast the spell again, but her aim went wild, when an Acromantula on the ground reared and tried to catch her in its pincers. She dodged the attack, calling on all her experience evading Bludgers on the Quidditch pitch.
In another second she was out of its reach, and Roman appeared beside her. The Acromantula in the web was spinning Charlie into a cocoon, its large, black body blocking their view.
“Together,” Katie shouted over the sound of battle.
Their combined Stunning Spell hit the spider, causing it’s legs to fold beneath it. It was still moving, but could neither turn, nor attack.
Casting Severing Charms all around the web, Katie and Roman broke through the domed-shaped construction and pulled a motionless Charlie onto their brooms. Blood seeped between strands of the spider silk mingling with a thick, yellow liquid, which could only be the venom.
“Careful, don’t touch it,” Roman cautioned. Conjuring a net of ropes, he made sure that Charlie was safely suspended between them, while Katie pointed her wand at her own face.
Her magically amplified voice called for a retreat. The remaining Quidditch players took to the air, abandoning their own battles to rescue teammates who were in danger of being overwhelmed. Goran pulled the still unconscious Penelope across his broom.
Katie and Roman shot upwards into the clear blue sky. As soon as they were clear of the woods, they saw a large party of witches and wizards approach from the stadium, their voices calling out to them. Upon joining with the group, Katie recognized several Aurors who had been stationed as guards throughout the length of the match. In their midst hovered the Malaysian experts.
It was one of them she addressed, her voice tight with fear. “He was bitten. Can you help him?”
The witch immediately turned her broom around and motioned to her colleagues.
“We have to hurry.”
Every fibre of his being felt as if it was submerged in a sea of molten rock; his skin itched, and his stomach and chest appeared charred and stiff. Charlie blinked. The light seared his retinas, and he groaned in pain.
A cool cloth was pressed to his forehead, and a familiar voice pulled him back from the brink of unconsciousness.
His throat parched, he coughed. The contracting muscles sent lightning bolts of agony through his body.
A cup was pressed to his lips, and he slowly sipped the tepid water. Then the cup was replaced by a small vial.
“‘I’ve been told that this tastes absolutely rotten, but you’ve been drinking it for the past two days, so maybe your taste buds have been sufficiently burned off by now.”
Listening to this not very assuring assessment, Charlie swallowed the vial’s contents in one gulp. Heat suffused his chest as the hot liquid burned its way down his throat.
Blinking, he looked up at his brother.
“What are you doing here?” he croaked.
Bill raised a sardonic eyebrow. The scars on his face stood out in the flickering glow of candle light.
“Well, it’s nice to see you, too.” he replied. “I got your letter, and instead of imparting sage advice through the written word, I decided to come myself. Fleur sends her regards. So do mum and dad.”
Charlie groaned. “Please tell me that you didn’t let mum know that I got injured.”
“Injured? You have a gift for understatement. And no, I didn’t tell anyone.”
“Promise, that you never will.” Charlie tried to fix his brother with a stern gaze, but the pain in his belly contorted his face.
Bill leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and stretched his legs onto the wire frame of Charlie’s bed. “That depends.”
“On what your plans are, once you feel well enough to stand on your feet again.”
Charlie stared at his brother. “That’s blackmail.”
Bill seemed unconcerned. “Is it?”
Silence stretched between them for only a moment, before Charlie gave in. Secretly, he had to admit that he had been about to accept Bill’s invitation anyway.
“I’ll come home with you,” he said. “For a few weeks, at least. Now promise that you won’t tell anyone back home that I got bitten by an Acromantula.”
Bill faked surprise. “You got bitten by an Acromantula? Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Then his expression turned unexpectedly serious. “Never scare the shit out of me like that again, do you hear me? Losing one brother is more than enough grief to last me a lifetime.”
Charlie managed a weak smile. “I’ll try to stay out of trouble.”
Ignoring Bill’s snort of disbelief, he slowly turned his head to look at his surroundings. A grey stone ceiling arched above him and stained glass windows threw multicoloured designs on the barren floor. “Where am I?”
“In the hospital, of course.” Bill leaned forward. “If it weren’t for the antidote that the Malaysians had brought with them, you’d be dead by now. It was touch and go for a while there.”
“How long was I out?”
“The better part of two days. And before you ask, a lot has happened in those two days, but I’ll let Katie explain most of it. She’s been sitting with you every day.”
A tender, quiet feeling spread through him. “Where is she?”
“Finishing the match. Norberta gave up the Snitch this morning.”
Charlie smiled. “She’s a good dragon.” He felt drowsy, but fought against the pull of sleep.
“You have no idea. I found the secret entrance you suspected at the stadium. It leads to an underground vault, complete with pens and an illegally set up, floo-networked fireplace. Your missing Ironbelly hatchling was down there, along with two of Norberta’s eggs. The rest had already been smuggled out.”
“But Norberta’s eggs were with her at the enclosure.”
“No, illusions, all of them. That’s why she flew off to the stadium. She wasn’t after a position on a Quidditch team, she wanted to get her eggs back.”
Charlie’s mind returned to the conversation Katie had overhead.
“Of course, Stefania stole them, while we were playing Quidditch. I’m such an idiot.”
Bill offered him more of the water, which Charlie accepted gratefully.
“Don’t feel bad. According to Darren, it was originally his task to steal the nest when Norberta was hunting, but she came back early and chased him away. Apparently, she kept an eye on him from that moment on, which is why she always showed up at your matches.”
“So, Darren was caught?” Charlie asked, feeling a grim pleasure rise inside him.
“We caught both him and Stefania. We also found the two Longhorn eggs he’d hidden in the cellar of the nursery. Only his father is still missing.”
Bill hesitated perceptively. “We also found Lore and Madame Brecska,” he continued quietly.
No further explanation was necessary. The expression on his face and the tone of his voice conveyed the truth and his regret more eloquently then words ever could.
Charlie swallowed convulsively. His throat felt raw, and the pain he felt was no longer merely physical.
“He took one look at Lore’s body and took off. Not before he tried to kill Darren, though. We got a letter from Lore’s parents, saying that he is helping them arrange a proper burial.”
“So it was Darren, with whom Lore went into the forest?”
Bill shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “Yes. He claims that her death was an accident. He says that he didn’t know that the sentinels had ventured so far from the colony, and that they would be attacked by an Acromantula. According to him, he only wanted to lead her on a wild goose chase until she’d give up. Apparently, he was a bit unnerved, when she saw him leave the stadium. He thought she might have glimpsed the entrance to the vault. He also admits that he turned tail and left Lore behind.”
Waves of fury rolling through him, Charlie closed his eyes. His brain felt as if it had been stuffed with wool. His thoughts floated sluggishly around his brain. “Pity Alexander didn’t get his hands on him,” he whispered. Then, he succumbed to sleep.
* * * * *
When he next awoke, it was to Katie’s soft smile and the sharp pain of tightening bandages.
A nurse bustled around him, checking the wound on his stomach.
“Hey, there,” Katie whispered, ignoring the annoyed look the nurse threw her way. “I’m not really supposed to be here,” she explained at his quizzical gaze. “Family members only.”
“But you are here,” he smiled and reached for her.
Katie entwined her fingers with his. “Well, I played the hero card.” She blushed. “I neglected to tell them that I had quite a bit of help, though. Roman sends his regards.”
The nurse left the room, and immediately, Katie pulled her chair closer. Her fingertips brushed a few strands of unruly hair from his forehead.
“How are you feeling?”
Having re-gained a little energy through his rest, he gave her a mischievous look. “I’d feel a lot better, if you abandoned that chair.” He underlined his words by patting the space on the mattress next to him.
Katie shook her head. “I am under strict orders not to disturb you, or your wound. They’ll throw me out of here, if I do.”
“No, they won’t.” He tugged at her hand, pulling her off balance.
Falling forward, Katie had to brace herself on the mattress in order not to land on top of him. With a resigned sigh, she stretched out next to him, careful not to let her body touch his waist or stomach. Nestling her head on his shoulder, she pressed a light kiss to his chin.
“I was so scared you wouldn’t make it,” she whispered.
Charlie tightened his arm around her. For the first time, he noticed that she had changed out of her robes and into Muggle clothing, suggesting that she had taken the visitor’s entrance to the hospital, rather than one of the fireplaces.
Taking advantage of the different clothes, he tugged her shirt out of her trousers to caress the exposed inches of skin at her waist.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to be as good as new in a few days,” he assured her. “And I’m visiting my family as soon as I can get out of here.” He craned his neck back to look into her eyes. “Would you like to go with me to Fleur’s birthday party?”
He saw her swallow hard and blink away the suspicious moisture in her eyes as she tore her mind away from her dark thoughts and considered his invitation. Her hand tenderly covered his chest above his heart. “I’d like that.”
He dropped his head at the same time that she lifted hers. Their lips met in a deep, slow kiss.
When they broke apart, she snuggled back into his shoulder, and he inhaled the clean, enticing scent of her hair. He drifted off to sleep again, his body still too drained by the efforts to heal his wound and purge the venom from his veins to allow for longer periods of awareness. Before oblivion claimed him, he asked: “So, who won the match?”
Katie groaned and buried her head deeper in the flannel of his hospital gown. “Let’s just not talk about that match ever again, all right?” Her voice sounded decidedly peevish.
“That means you lost,” he teased.
“Stop talking or I’ll leave,” she threatened, not at all amused.
He stifled a laugh, knowing that it would aggravate both Katie and his healing body.
Pressing a kiss to her hair, Charlie fell asleep.