They stood in a line of four. Four Muggles watching the boundary to District One with a rather pleasant aloofness, the kind of interest one may devote to an unexpected rash. Clearly the Disillusionment spells were yet to be reestablished, their depleting power were a matter of life and death. Well… for the Muggles, at least.
“What do you reckon they can see?” Ginny asked, picking at the small rocks by her feet and throwing them into the charmed boundary where they disintegrated with a small hiss.
“According to The Standard Book of Spells, a Disillusionment Charm of this nature evokes images of abandoned infrastructure, generally conveying the message of danger and —”
“Then why the bloody hell are they still standing there like that?” Ron remarked.
“Honestly, Ronald, have you ever even picked that poor book up? Opened the first page? A Disillusionment Charm is known to cause severe bouts of confusion. If one is unaccustomed to magic and given too much exposure… These people fell asleep here last night while hiking,” sighed Hermione.
“At least they can sleep. Don’t remember the last time I did that, do you?”
They stood in tandem with the stupefied Muggles, only standing a few feet away but for all the good they did, they could have been standing a few millimetres away and the Muggles would not have known the difference.
The oldest seemed to be in his mid fifties, and was staring at the exact spot where Ron was standing, almost as if he could see him. The next three, women, maybe his daughters, were all staring into the sky with smug expectancy. One of them was absentmindedly caressing a baby bump that strained against her too-tight shirt.
“Don’t you think we should tell someone about this?” Ginny asked, gesturing the youngest, who was approximately their age. “I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re stuck in here, but it’ll be worse if these people have to die too…”
“We could just wait for this spell to fully wear off, you know. And then we make a run for it,” Ron said, his eyes harbouring their frequent look of demented determination. Hermione and Ginny sighed in unison at his words; both had agreed that he had recently been doing a rather convincing impression of a broken record, spewing the same words over and over, regurgitating the same rage-fuelled plan.
“They’d know, Ron. The grounds around the District have been hexed with some extremely nasty bits of magic that even I have never heard of, you know that well enough. Remember what happened when Neville tried to climb over?” Hermione grimaced.
“Is he still being treated for those burns on his feet?” Ginny said.
“Last I heard he was trying to break out of the hospital tent and reach the rest of the Order. Apparently, they know where V-Voldemort is keeping everyones wands. There’s been some rumours that maybe… maybe Harry’s wand is there too…”
“He’s not dead, alright Hermione?” Ron snapped.
“He went into the Forbidden Forest that night and never came out, Ron. If he were alive, he would have come back. Harry wouldn’t have left us here like this,” cried Hermione. “We were the ones who told him to run away. You and I told him to go and save himself —”
“Because we knew that he would never have done that. We were just saying that, Hermione, so he wouldn’t feel obligated to lay down his life for us!” Ron retorted. “Don’t act like you didn’t know that. Harry wouldn’t just leave like this. He’s safe somewhere thinking of a plan.”
“Oh, Ron…” Ginny sighed.
One by one, the dazed Muggles trailed away into the foliage, dragging their hiking gear through the dirt, almost as an afterthought. Ron, Hermione and Ginny watched them leave with an ache in the pit of their stomachs that was half hunger and half envy.
For the umpteenth time that day, a collective thought reverberated through District One.
Where was Harry Potter?
Hermione observed the cacophony of students before her with mounting dismay. It had happened again and this time with an alarming discretion. The houses had drawn divides straight into the dirt allocating each other sides and territories. The Gryffindors stood at the very front, mostly compromising of members of the DA, the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws were mashed into an incongruous group by the dominating surge of Slytherins.
A few students opted out of the skirmish and were dotted around the trees, lost in their own solitary tragedy. Draco Malfoy was among this smaller group, perched on a tree with Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson, he cast out a pitiful glance at the students below him before redirecting his attention to his friends.
“Excuse me… excuse me. Could I possibly get your attention please —”
It was futile. The students struggled to the front of the congregation, each desperate to voice their individual concerns and
“Some idiot has knocked my tooth loose —”
“My tent has flooded —”
“We’re hungry —”
“There is a blast-ended Skrewt infestation in the Ravenclaw territory —”
“Belby threw up in the pond and —”
“Quiet!” Ginny screamed.
Silence slammed into the cramped makeshift agora that made up the centre of District One. A sea of grubby faces looked up in alarm, each bloodshot stare fixed upon Ron, Hermione and Ginny with a mixture of contempt, desperation and slight awe.
Just beyond the boundary, the Hogwarts castle loomed into view from behind a veil of fog. It was a painfully tantalising sight, evoking memories of warm fires, comfortable beds, and magnificent feasts. Hermione had always thought that the Death Eaters had allocated them this particular District out of pure malice.
“We believe that Seamus and Dean are on their way with the food they’ve managed to find,” Hermione said, struggling to be heard over the boisterous gust of wind that had sprung into existence. “And then we will try and tend to the other problems mentioned —”
“Why do the Slytherins get such a large space for their tents?” called out a short fourth year boy. His words resurrected a louder bout of clamouring.
His existence in the District alone was enough to irk Hermione beyond belief. Professor McGonagall had specifically stated that all underage witches and wizards were to be evacuated before the battle. Hermione was astounded by the sheer number of underage students that stood in the congregation.
Once more, Hermione lamented the absence of Neville. She noticed how capable he was when it came to getting the crowd under control and injecting hope into the District when nothing was worth hoping for.
“Oi!” Ron snapped. “We’re trying, alright mate? You’re not even supposed to be here. If you’d listened to orders, you could’ve been someplace safe —”
“Where’s Harry? Is he really dead?” Luna asked innocently.
At those words, all hell broke loose once more, and no amount of screaming from Ginny could get the students to listen. The static noise of their collective voices reached an unbearable crescendo, Harry’s name being tossed around with casual accusation as if it were a fanged frisbee. Harry Potter who had gone into the Forbidden Forest at the request of Voldemort. Harry Potter who had willingly walked to his own death to stop people dying in the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry Potter who never came back out of the Forbidden Forest. Hermione swatted away Ron’s concern, feeling horribly overwhelmed, and strode towards the silence of the trees. To her tree.
The closer she got, the calmer she became, until finally she could make out the edges of the dog-eared corners of a battered book hidden in a nook of the gnarled oak. Crisp autumn leaves crunched beneath her hasty footsteps, testament to how long they had been in District One. Peppered amongst the rubble was the debris from the battle itself; a terrifying reminder that it was not over.
Ron and Ginny’s protests had faded into the other voices and all Hermione had eyes for was the hidden copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Freeing the fragile book from the nook, Hermione delicately flipped to the first page; the page that harboured a hastily scribbled transcription of the Deathly Hallows symbol. At the sight of the drawing, she felt an overwhelming surge of thoughts and memories flood her mind. The year that they had been trapped in the District was not enough time to erase the memories of the things that she had endured with Harry and Ron, only to fail.
You called him The Boy Who Lived… but he did a rather impressive job of getting himself killed. Voldemort’s words had been a painful static, penetrating the darkest recesses of Hogwarts, the quietest nooks of every mind. Harry Potter is dead. From this day forth… you put your faith in me. Harry Potter is DEAD! And now, it is the time to declare yourself. Come forward and join us… or die.
But Harry had never come out of the forest.
He tried to run, you know. He begged for his life. He tried to run away.
Harry had never come out of the forest—
“Even now, even while we’re all stuck in this blasted place, she can’t help but read!”
Hermione’s head snapped up, and before she knew what was happening, Blaise Zabini snatched the book from her grasp, tearing the symbolised page in the process. With a cry of outrage, she launched herself at him, hands scrabbling for the book. The book that Professor Dumbledore had personally left her. The book that had helped them find out the true nature of Voldemort’s deepest desires.
“Give that back!”
Zabini held the book out of her grasp, laughing crudely at her distress. The small gathering of Slytherins in his wake watched the debacle with mild interest, their horrible antics masked by the cacophony of students in the agora. On impulse, Hermione’s hand flew to her pocket, searching for her wand before she realised she did not have it. She had not touched her wand, or any wand, in over a year.
“The Tales of Beedle the Bard, eh? Isn’t that stories for children?” Zabini scoffed.
“Give it back!”
“Is this all you could find to read? Stupid Mudblood!”
Hermione froze for a moment, stupefied by the insult. In her mind, an image bloomed into view. The Room of Requirement under the siege of scorching Fiendfyre. Malfoy and Zabini screaming for help at the top of a rickety mountain of forgotten furniture, having already witnessed the death of Crabbe. Harry, Ron and herself swooping down on brooms and flying them to safety.
At the very back of the group, Draco Malfoy stood looking slightly cowed, gazing at the floor moodily. He had trailed behind the Slytherins, as if he could not be sure exactly where he stood after all they had been through. Their eyes locked for a moment, a single accusatory look was all it took for him to quail again, and the scars on Hermione’s arm tingled.
Zabini faltered for a second, thrown off by her unresponsiveness. Hermione jumped at the opportunity and lunged for the book.
“Don’t you dare touch this book again,” Hermione said with a deathly calm. The Slytherins, with the exception of Malfoy brooding in the back, jeered at her words.
“Calm down, Mudblood. It’s only a book —”
A sudden, crackling frost slowly began to engulf the ground around their feet, halting Zabini in his tracks. It crawled up the trees, claiming the leaves for dead until the District was powdered with an eerie silver. A large onslaught of grey clouds capped the sky, darkening the dawn with an all too familiar misery.
Almost as an afterthought, Hermione gazed back at the silent congregation that had gathered around Ron and Ginny. All eyes were on the sky, starring at the insidious Dementors that were gliding through the frost. It took a herculean effort for Hermione to tear her eyes away and make her way towards Ron’s stricken form.
The veil of ice and misery parted at the section of the boundary that lay parallel to the Hogwarts castle, and a Patronus burst forth, gleaming a brilliant blue in the new, unnatural dark. The cat pranced merrily around the sickening pink shoes of its owner. A high-pitched, girly giggle broke the silence unabashedly.
“Children… Welcome, welcome, welcome!”
The mere sight of Dolores Umbridge was an assault to Hermione’s eyes. She donned an offensively bright pink coat, her hair coiled in its perfect curls over a toad like face. She beamed down at District One, drinking in the distress and fear as if she lived off it.
“The time has come to select one courageous young man and woman for the honour of representing District 1 in the 1st annual Blood Battles… because deep down, you all know that you deserve to be punished…”
Umbridge stood beneath a solid roof of Dementors, flanked by four Death Eaters, yet Hermione was visited by a strong desire to tackle the hideous woman and take her wand and—
Umbridge waved her wand in a delicate manner that gave the impression that she was relatively harmless, but every student standing before her was fully aware of the kind of atrocities that this witch was capable of. A large glass bowl appeared before her, filled with tiny pink papers. Each paper was carefully folded into quarters and stamped with a tiny mewling image of a cat.
She reached in, swirling her hands in amongst the names and snatched one out from the very bottom.
“Draco… Malfoy,” she beamed.
A deafening silence rained down among the congregation, there was a slight scuffle as people strained their necks, searching for Malfoy in the crowd. More silence, shady eyes darting left and right with fear and anticipation. Somebody coughed to mask a fit of nervous giggling.
Finally, after what felt like an age, Malfoy broke free from the small rank of Slytherins lounging by the tree and shuffled over to Umbridge looking utterly troubled. She placed a hand on his shoulder, smiling all the while and as he gazed out at the crowd, a few Gryffindors, namely Seamus and Ron, smirked at him mirthlessly. Umbridge dipped her hand back in the glass and pulled out a second paper.
“Eh, look Scabior. Ain’t that Ginger? Potter’s friend?” called out a thickly set Death Eater to Umbridge’s left. He leered at Ron, showing off his browning teeth behind a crude smirk. Ron was motionless, staring at the man before him with so much hatred that Hermione was surprised that the Death Eater had not been knocked on to his back.
“‘Ee called for you. For you and your girly before the Dark Lord killed ‘im —”
Hermione barely managed to snag Ron’s hand before he launched himself at the unsuspecting Death Eater. Before the fight could develop, before Ron could even get more than a few punches in, the second Death Eater dragged the first away, and a Dementor swooped down on to Ron as if it was waiting for this very moment.
“No!” Hermione screamed, fighting her way through the crowd to where Ron was being given the kiss. A pair of thick, dirty arms locked around her struggling frame, pulling her back with no effort whatsoever. Scabior. “LEAVE HIM ALONE! NO!”
“Shut up, Mudblood,” Scabior leered into her ear with his hot, foul breath.
“Leave him alone!” she sobbed, unable to watch Ron’s shuddering form any longer. “Leave him alone!”
With an almighty tug, she broke free of Scabior’s hold and shoved him into the Death Eater behind him, causing a bizarre domino effect.
Umbridge cleared her throat, scrunching up the paper she held aloft into a tiny ball; Hermione caught wind of the mad glint in her eye, and her heart sank further. The Dementor left Ron’s unconscious form with reluctance and took up its post in the sky.
“Her. I want the Mudlbood.”
Hermione did not process the witch’s words. Instead, she found herself being towed to stand beside Malfoy, eye to eye with a traumatised crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give your our tributes from District One, Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger! Happy Blood Battles… and may the odds be ever in your favour.”
The voices faded out; she could see Ginny, her mouth was moving but no words were coming out. Umbridge tossed aside the screwed up paper, and it landed by Hermione’s feet. She could just make out Luna’s name scrawled on to it through the haze of tears that blinded her eyes.