Scratch, scratch, scratch. Nose practically touching the giant, rune-covered stone in front of her, Hermione was fastidiously scribbling away at her parchment, eyes barely looking at what she was writing. It was not until her quill punctured right through the page that she stopped and glanced over, only to realize that her translations had been written with a definite slant. They now formed an inky slope across the page, narrowly missing the edges. A bit of grass from the hillside had also smudged some of the fresh ink, smearing it and making it somewhat less legible.
"Bother," she muttered under her breath. Setting her quill down, she flapped the parchment through the air a few times to dry the ink before shuffling the page to the bottom of her stack. She did not have time for setbacks when the sun would only be out for another hour or so; she would fix it later.
A crisp, no-nonsense voice wafted toward her from the nearby research site: "Is there some reason you're manhandling my instruments, Weasley?"
Her head swiveled toward the sound. A short distance away, her colleague, Oona Bayless, had her back to her - but it did not matter, because the older witch's ire could be sensed even from where Hermione sat atop the enormous slab of stone she was deciphering. Oona's hands were on her hips and Hermione could almost visualize her huffing in annoyance.
"Ah, Oona, darling," Bill Weasley was laughing good-naturedly, "you know I would never do such a thing!"
"A likely story. You're a brute with my telescopes and you know it!"
"You wound me," Bill insisted, pressing a hand to his chest in mock-anguish.
Hermione smiled to herself as she looked fondly over at her colleagues' silhouettes in the waning September sunlight. Oona was short and thin enough that it appeared as if a strong wind might carry her away - if it would dare to do such a thing to such a witch - and she sported a long, gray plait that hung well past her waist. Bill, tall and muscular, had red hair nearly as long as Oona's, which he had pulled back into a ponytail. The way the setting sun's pale rays were falling on him threw the unfortunate scarring on his face and neck into greater relief.
The research site consisted mainly of a mid-sized, canvas canopy they had erected five days ago with two long tables and a pile of trunks stored beneath. There was also an overbuilt, claw-footed writing desk of Oona's, definitely an antique, that sat in the center, looking significantly out-of-place in an outdoor setting. A short way away, was a simmering cauldron hanging from a wrought iron tripod over a low flame, while a few steps from there, Bill was attempting to set up Oona's telescopes... and getting an earful.
"Mind the refractor lenses!"
But Bill only laughed, "I have been."
"You're going to break something, I just know it!"
Though Oona might complain to - and about - Bill with near-scheduled regularity, Hermione had heard the magi-historian say (in unguarded moments), that he really was one of the best colleagues she could ask for. They might not, strictly speaking, be peers - but they bickered like a married couple, despite the nearly sixty years' difference in their ages. As for Bill, he enjoyed goading Oona, mainly because her fiery temper made sure that she would always rise to his teasing.
Turning back to the work at hand, Hermione sighed audibly when she realized that she had lost her place in the translations. Glancing downward, she took in the sight of the huge stone, the top of which faced the sun and was covered in a veritable novella of runes. The enormous monolith protruded from the grassy hillside as if it had been stuck there by accident, but was supported by two smaller granite obelisks. The entire structure resembled something like a doorframe... and there was a good chance that it was one. The Ministry had sent Oona, Bill, and Hermione as a team of representatives from the Department for the Preservation of Magical History, to see what they could discover. So far, the main issue was that instead of leading somewhere, the alleged passage only contained grass and dirt and rock, ending at the side of the hill that supported it. Undeterred, especially where magic was concerned, Hermione had been eager to study what appeared to be a place of ancient magical importance.
At the moment, however, her back was aching, her neck was stiff, and her wrist was cramping. Now, all she really wanted, was to sit down somewhere comfortably and enjoy a cup of tea. Or maybe a glass of wine. Or several glasses of wine.
Instead of coming to conclusions and making fascinating discoveries, here she was, practically sprawled across an enormous slab of granite for the fifth day in a row, trying to decipher the runes of times long past. Her mind craved something else to obsess over, almost anything else. But this was her task, why she had been hired on with this group - and she was nearly finished… nearly there.
Closing her eyes, she tried to find her focus.
The air was cool and dry, and an occasional breeze pushed some of her stray curls loose from the bun at the back of her head. If she strained her ears, she could hear a church bell from the nearest town tolling in the far-off distance: one, two, three, four, five, six times. Yes, it was long past time for a cup of tea…
Opening her eyes again, she took in the landscape spreading out before her. Grasses, sedges, and sorrel made for relatively immutable scenery, but the alternative was to slog through the collection of centuries-old runes that had been partially - or in some places, almost completely - obliterated by time. The Hermione of years ago would likely have relished the task... and some part of her still did, she supposed.
"You find anything noteworthy in that jumble?"
Looking up, she found that Bill had joined her - and that he had brought her both her sweatshirt and a cup of tea. The china cup seemed nearly a novelty in this setting, but that did not bother her in the slightest.
"You're a lifesaver, Bill," Hermione proclaimed, taking the sweatshirt first and yanking it over her head. She then had to fix her bun, which she had mussed with the action, before accepting the teacup.
"Take a break," he suggested.
"Oh, but I wanted to finish this tonight…" she glanced downward at her haphazard stack of untidy parchments, so unlike the neatly prepared documents she had used to produce with zealous efficiency.
"Finish it tomorrow. What are you in such a hurry for?"
"Well… I only have two lines of runes left to translate."
"And how long is that going to take?"
She glanced guiltily up at the sky, knowing he had a point. "About… two hours. Maybe three."
"So, finish tomorrow!"
Wrapping her hands around her teacup before taking a long sip, she made a contented sigh. Pacified, she finally responded, "To answer your question, I'm not sure if I've found anything… there's certainly a lot written here, but it's all in Irish. I'm doing my best, but I can't tell if I've made a mistake because I don't even know what I'm writing. Did Oona ever manage to contact a translator?"
"Sure did," Bill grinned, taking a seat on the grassy hillside beside her. "You want to try guessing who she got?"
"You know I hate guessing. Who?"
"Seamus Finnegan. Wasn't he in your year?"
"No kidding!" Hermione exclaimed in surprise. "I've barely seen him since we left school. I had no idea he had become a translator..."
She thought back to the numerous times she had given a scolding to both Seamus and Dean for making too much noise in the Gryffindor common room. But while Dean had generally been sympathetic to Hermione's studying needs, Seamus had often responded with a cheeky wink and suggested, in his broad Irish lilt, that she could use a Cheering Charm and a break from having her nose in her books. Looking back on it now, Hermione thought he had probably been right.
"Heard he's still single. Maybe you should ask him out for a pint?"
Hermione snorted and gave Bill a small shove; he barely budged. "Don't be ridiculous. I haven't got the time for any sort of relationship. As you well know, I'm dating my job. Besides… it's Seamus."
"Ten years can change a person, Hermione," he insisted, looking at her meaningfully.
"It hasn't changed how meddling you are," she retorted, this time only in partial playfulness.
"Hey," he said softly, looking half-apologetic. "I'm only saying because I care, you know?"
She took another sip of her tea, this time mostly to give her a few extra seconds to think of an appropriate response. "Not everyone can balance a loving spouse, a few children, and being a curse-breaker. We aren't all you."
He laughed, though it did not entirely reach his eyes; Hermione knew he worried about her. He was always asking questions - far more personal ones than any regular colleague might. Some of that could simply be attributed to Bill's natural warmth, but Hermione also knew that he looked on her nearly as a sister.
It had been Bill that had given Hermione the itch for magical history in the first place. He had got a more localized job in England after the war, in order to spend more time at home with Fleur and their growing family.
Dissatisfied as Hermione had been at her post-Hogwarts job, coupled with her internal battle against a swiftly growing depressive malaise, Bill's exciting stories of his curse-breaking adventures and historical discoveries had saved her from the continuous downward spiral. He had scooped her up for his research team with little more than a, "Well, Hermione, how are you with runes? Oona and I have been looking for a new translator."
It was unclear if Bill was aware, in taking her on, how much of a hand he'd had in helping Hermione turn her life back around. Sometimes she thought he knew - other times, not.
That had been three years ago.
Three years since…
To make it clear she did not want to discuss her personal life, Hermione abruptly changed the subject, "What new things have the two of you found out today?"
"Oona thinks the entrance might be a moon door," Bill told her, taking the hint. His eyes flickered upward to the sky, where the sun was continuing its fairly uninspiring exit, then back down to the enormous stone Hermione was translating. His gaze trailed off the edge of it and fell over the side. "She thinks it looks similar to some druid temple she studied in Pyrenees forty years ago, I guess."
"Fascinating," Hermione remarked, leaning in closer. "Have the two of you decided this is a temple, then? Like the one we found on the edge of that cliff in Scotland?"
"Or that one we found right in-between those two Muggle houses in the center of that little village, remember?" Bill chuckled, leaning over her notes to see what had been written there so far. "I think it's a crypt. Judging from the echolocation spells I've done so far, it seems as if there's a kind of underground labyrinth. Possibly it contains chambered passages like what the Egyptians constructed, though perhaps not so elaborate."
Laying her hand on the cool stone with a measure of reverence, Hermione murmured, "Whatever secrets this place holds, it's been keeping them for 6000 years, at least. Oona definitely thinks the front structure is a gate of some kind?"
"Almost certainly." Bill shifted where he sat, then stood, his blue eyes taking in the entirety of the mounded hill with the monolith.
Instinctually following his gaze, Hermione set her teacup down on top of the stone. When she stood, she could feel her spine protesting how she had been bent over her work for so many hours, and she took a moment to stretch it out.
Despite the interesting potential for what the runes on the top of the suspended dolmen might say, the real eye-grabbing structure was the tree that stretched from the top of the hill. It was so weathered, so gnarled, it had to be older than a millennia; it no longer flowered or produced leaves, and yet, it was inexplicably alive. The roots of it were enormous, curling around the monolithic slab Hermione had been obsessing over, before they disappeared into the earth. Diagnostic spells on the site had revealed that the hilltop and surrounding area were heavily cloaked with layers of some kind of ancient magic, while the tree on top emanated something else. Something that was distinctly Dark.
"It's really something, isn't it?" Oona had joined them.
"Yes," Hermione nodded in agreement. "Though… I wish I were getting somewhere with these translations. Maybe we could know more."
"Don't be ridiculous, Granger," Oona replied. The words themselves were harsh, but the manner in which they were said was soothing. "It's not your responsibility to also speak Irish on top of everything else you do… and you're still doing the bulk of the translating. Getting the runes into a Latin alphabet is no small task."
Appreciating this reminder, a small smile curled at the corners of Hermione's mouth. She had only learned how to smile again a little over a year ago. Since…
"I just hope they mean something, in the end."
"Oh, I've no doubt they will," the other witch assured her.
"I think it's a crypt," Bill reiterated, "and I suspect the runes will tell us that, once they're fully translated."
"There hasn't been a magical crypt like this one found in Ireland, to my knowledge, ever," Oona protested, her beady eyes fixed on the tree atop the dolmen. "Especially not one that is partially living."
"Another discovery you can add to your résumé, eh?" Bill teased, slyly giving his older colleague a side-eye.
The little witch waved a hand at him dismissively, ignoring him. To Hermione, she continued, "You find anything of interest up there today?"
Hermione shook her head. "I was just telling Bill, the only ones I've recognized continue to be the two right over the entryway, on either side of that single Irish word etched into the center."
"Othala and wunjo," Oona repeated, less to confirm the fact and more to review it. Her eyes darted to the suspended dolmen protruding from the hill, where the two runes in question were deeply prominent right on the front.
"Right. Othala for ancestral power, plus wunjo for harmony and perfection." Hermione had repeated this many times by now - but at least it made her feel useful, having uncovered nothing else of import until they could get Seamus to translate the Irish to English.
"Seems like we're probably dealing with a narcissist," remarked Bill.
"Or some evocation for the future keepers of the temple," Oona swiftly cut in, always eager to contradict him. "Or even as a devotional gift to a god or goddess."
"Unless it is a crypt, like I think," he countered, grinning, "and not a temple, like you think."
Hermione secretly agreed with Oona, though she had learned long ago not to get herself involved with sides when it came to the two of them. Still, Bill knew what he was talking about, too. She would just have to wait and see.
The three of them were shortly distracted by a 'pop' of Apparition near their worksite. A moment later, Hermione's face was breaking into a smile and she cried, "Seamus!"
"Well, I'll be hexed and left for the pixies! Hermione?"
She swiftly crossed the lawn toward the new arrival, warmly shaking her old school-fellow's hand. The wizard looked much the same as he always had, though there were a few lines around his eyes these days. It was otherwise the same pale face, the same sandy hair, same mischievous eyes. "It's good to see you."
"How you doing, Finnegan?" Bill greeted affably. "Allow me to introduce the she-dragon in charge of this rumpus: this is Oona Bayless."
"If I were a she-dragon, I'd have incinerated you long ago for your cheek, young man," Oona scoffed. She held out a wrinkled hand to Seamus, "Pleasure to meet you. I see you already are acquainted with Granger, here."
"We were in the same year at Hogwarts," Hermione explained.
Seamus added, "Gryffindor."
"I see. Well, your services as an Irish translator came highly recommended, Mr. Finnegan, I hope you won't let us down."
"I can start right away, ma'am," Seamus offered deferentially.
"Good. We need to break to get supper started. Granger can show you what she's translated and where."
Stomach grumbling at the mere mention of a hot meal, Hermione swallowed her disappointment that it was not quite yet time to stop working, and instead turned to Seamus again. "My notes are up by that stone there." And my tea. "Care to come and take a look?"
Bill accompanied the two of them back to the dolmen, where Hermione climbed up the side of the hill to perch on top and retrieve her notes. Her cup of tea, now cold, still sat at the top, resting on her stack of parchment. She took her translations in hand, setting the teacup back down on the stone with a clack, and rejoined the two wizards at the bottom. Bill was already explaining the inherent Dark magic emanating from the tree at the top of the hill.
"It is an impressive sight," Seamus was admitting as he eyed it speculatively.
"Yes," Hermione agreed, inserting herself back into the conversation as she shuffled through her notes, "as is that huge, granite slab beneath it, covered in runes…"
"And all your translations are coming up Irish, are they?"
"Yes," she said again, tucking a few flyaway strands of hair behind her ear. "As you can see, over the front there are those two runes on the outside, but then the one word in the middle."
She pointed to the word on the page: oscail. She had tried saying it aloud several times, both with and without her wand in hand. Nothing had happened.
"It means 'open'," Seamus told her, eyebrows raised as he glanced toward the stones arranged into the hillside. "Is that meant to be a doorframe?"
"We aren't sure," Bill answered. "It sure looks like one… but there appears to be an enchantment of sorts on the place and we haven't figured out how to un-gate it yet. Oona thinks it's got something to do with the phases of the moon, but she's still working on that theory."
Instinctively, Hermione glanced up toward the sky, looking for the first sight of the waning crescent moon that sometimes showed itself in the still-light sky; it had not yet made an appearance. As if in reminder of the season, a light chill brushed across her shoulders, making her thankful for the light sweatshirt she had donned earlier.
"Surely it can't be so simple as walking up to the door," Hermione went to the hillside, facing the door-like structure and raising her wand, "and saying the word oscail."
She had known it would not work, because she had already tried it a handful of times.
Seamus laughed. "The probability of that is more your expertise. What I can tell you, is that it's absolutely not going to work if you're pronouncing it like oss-cayl. That's English pronunciation, that is. You've got to say it like an Irishman, you know? Oscail."
For a split-second, Hermione registered that it had indeed sounded different when Seamus spoke it; he had almost entirely dropped the last two letters from the word. But her attention was swiftly diverted from Irish dialects into overwhelming surprise, when a cavernous hole materialized in front of her in the center of the stone doorframe of the structure.
For a moment, the three of them only stared into the yawning blackness… and then, Hermione's wand hand began to tingle with magic. She opened her mouth to say something - to perhaps issue a warning to the two wizards beside her - when a strong wind charged out from within the hillside and enveloped her. It pulled the air straight from her lungs; gasping did nothing for relief.
"Hermione!" Bill's terrified voice could distantly be heard. This was followed by a complete silence as she was sucked into the abyss and the hole swiftly closed itself back up behind her, engulfing her in darkness.