The Sugar Quill
Author: Connor Coyne (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Shadows Over the Ceahlau massif  Chapter: default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Drip

Drip. Dropping. Drop.

 

Charlie snapped from sleep, and the first thing he felt was a dull churning, a low hum and rumble. I'm back! he thought. The Hogwarts Express-- ?'

 

It wasn't, and as he blinked and pulled himself up in his seat, mopping the thick lines of sweat from his face with the back of his hand, he struggled to remember his dream. There was a cry... distant... shrill. Like a banshee. Probably hearing the train whistle. And streams of white, trickles of mist floating by. Must have been the smoke out the window. Charlie glanced out the window and, sure enough, wisps of steam from the front of the train drifted along its side, tugging at each car before being chased away or suddenly left to hover alone above the empty tracks. But there was something else...

 

He strained, and dimly remembered falling. Falling from an unseen height, towards an unseen depth. Falling through darkness. Dripping water. Dropping depth. Drop. A distant cry. Clouds of white smoke. A fall. This was all he remembered.

 

Frowning at his situation, Charlie surveyed his surroundings. He was in a compartment of a CFR passenger line, the accelerat. The compartment was relatively narrow, a little dusty, and the springs creaked on the red, cushioned seats. He had only one travelling companion, a drunk miner on the opposite row of seats, reclined and resting with a worn, gray, wide-brimmed hat over his face. Out the window, past a stilled and serious red-headed reflection, the face of an enormous rock glided by. We're in the mountains again.

 

His assignment had begun quite unexpectedly. Charlie had only just finished pulling a rotten tooth from the maw of an ancient Ukrainian Ironbelly, when Ion, the supervisor, arrived.

 

"Read this," he had said, tossing Charlie a Romanian tabloid.

 

"STRANGE SHADOWS SEEN ABOVE THE CEAHLAU MASSIF" the headline translated, and recounted the testimony of several merchants who reported seeing a "large, scaly lizard," "monstrously huge," scurrying up the sheer rockface, followed by "mysterious explosions."

 

The Daily Prophet had been less forgiving:

 

"ROMANIAN LONGHORN ESCAPES RESERVATION; KEEPERS DISGRACED BY NEGLIGENCE" read the Rita Skeeter headline, and photographs showed Muggles screaming and pointing upward.

 

"Do you know how this makes us look?" soured Ion, with a grimace.

Charlie smiled.  "You knew it was bound to happen sooner or later."

 

The Palatele Neamt, the sprawling eastern branch of the Romanian Dragon Reservation served only one function: to encourage the breeding and growth of Romanian Longhorns, one of the most endangered species of dragons. As the creatures increased in number, however, the Keepers were more and more pressed to secure each dragon his own territory. Unfortunately, the most ideal nests lay in the center of a large tourist area known as the "Neck of Hell." This was where the "rogue dragon," as Ms. Skeeter had called it, had flown.

 

Charlie was glad he'd never been offered a post in Border Patrol. Dragons were notoriously unpredictable, and nowhere in the world did they live in such numbers and concentration as on these reservations. Border Patrolling meant constant and tedious observation, countless memory charms, and awkward Muggle politics.

 

Charlie, on the other hand, was a Dragon Keeper. After years of work with hatchlings, he had developed a rapport with the giant beasts. They let him feed them, treat their injuries, and even occasionally mount them to soar over the canyons and ravines.

 

He didn't, however, enjoy his present situation. If dragons eventually warmed up to humans, they were inherently mistrustful of strangers. This Longhorn had never seen him before, and rather than giving him time to plan a course of action, the long train ride only heightened his worries.

 

"Can't I use floo powder or fly?" Charlie had asked Ion.

 

"Where're you going to floo to?" replied the old man, impatiently. Ion was a small, wizened man, with a shrewd face and scars on his face and knots on his hands; the badges of many years working with dragons. "You think they keep hearths on the massif? Hah! And as for flying, or Apparition, out of the question. The Muggles are already suspicious, and the last thing we need is the Prophet tailing our Keepers."

 

"I wouldn't be seen."

 

"They would. You know how competent they are. Have some tea."

 

Charlie had taken a seat and winced. His arm was sore beneath gauze bandages... the Ironbelly with the bad tooth had hiccupped.

 

"Why am I doing this?" he asked.

 

Ion glanced up for a moment, his beetly eyes glinting from his deep brows.

 

"Why did I receive this assignment?" Charlie continued.

 

"You're the man for the job, Charles. We all warned you not to pull crazy stunts. Do you think we advised you for your safety, Charles? No. If you show willingness to be reckless, you will be asked to perform reckless tasks."

 

"Wouldn't one of this dragon's keepers be better suited to this task?"

 

"No."

 

"But the dragon would recognize him. This creature's just going to look at me as another meal --"

 

"Listen to me Charles," interrupted Ion, smiling. "This is your assignment. You have all the qualities we need to apprehend this dragon without... without making waves, as it were. We need someone a little foolhardy; yes, that is you, don't pretend it isn't. And someone with a drop of discretion. We cannot let the Muggles know what has happened. Which brings me to my next point, young Charles. You asked how you are getting to the massif. Well I will tell you:; you are taking the train."

 

"The train?!"

 

"No discussion." The smile had been dropped, if only for a moment. "No brooms to spot that way... no 'levitating boys' to go along with the massive lizards.  And best of all, no Daily Prophet.  Those fellows couldn't figure out a Muggle timetable for a key to Gringotts, I swear!"

 

Charlie had only barely finished his tea, when his aging supervisor shooed him from his office.

 

Less than an hour later, he was on the accelerat.

 

Even though Charlie was only traveling a few hundred miles, the trip took almost a full day. Because the route had to skirt around the crumbling mountain heights, Charlie found himself traveling in an enormous 'U' that ran along the edges of the Dragon Reservation. While his broomstick could have cut neatly northeast through mountains and plateaus, the train had headed south, and Charlie watched Sinaia roll by, immersed in a deep, dense wilderness. Soon, the land had flattened, and the sun set in summer haze behind distant rows of lime trees. They crept into Ploiesti, stopped for two hours, then resumed, cutting northeast, towards wrinkled horizons. Somehow, it took two hours to travel from from Focsani to Adjun, and as the landscape became rugged again, the sun rose, and Charlie, wondering if some peculiar magic wasn't perhaps slowing the journey to a standstill, had fallen into a restless sleep...

 

A particularly loud snore from the miner broke Charlie's reverie. On top of his strange dream, he was surprised at all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. But as Ion had suggested, "there is no rest for the reckless."

 

Charlie turned his attention more fully out the window. Pastures snaked their way upward, winding through the thick tendrils of conifers toward distant craggy peaks. Above all this stretched a plain, gray sky, not too plain, however, to discourage the sharp glints of light shining from aluminum-roofed houses.

 

Cheered a little by the beauty of his surroundings, Charlie pulled out his notebook and, after a cautious look at the snoring miner, a honey-colored Quick Notes Quill ™. Sucking on the tip of the quill for a moment, he set it upright on his pad of paper, concentrating.

 

"The Romanian Longhorn," the quill began to write, frantically, "hunted for its horns to near extinction, is one of the oldest observed pure breeds of dragons. To catch one --" In the next hour, Charlie had taken seven pages of notes. The miner stirred, Charlie packed away his quill, and the train pulled into the concrete block station of Piatra Neamt.

 

*          *          *

 

While Piatra Neamt was a city of considerable size, the mountains dwarfed it, stretching heavenward on all sides.  Even though a quick glance at the station clock confirmed it was only just after noon, Charlie knew the sun would be setting much earlier here than on the plains. Eager to stretch his legs, he leapt off the train the moment it stopped, walked briskly through the station, and into the streets of the city. All around him loomed concrete residential blocks, and a few hotels. Charlie strolled briskly toward the old town, breathing in the cool, fresh mountain air and leaving the clangs of the train station behind.

 

It must be at least ten or fifteen minutes before the train leaves, he thought.  While Charlie was more adept than most of his family at adopting Muggle practices, he admitted that the trains, with their strange timetables and unusual routes, slightly confused him. He shook the thought from his head and took a second look about him. The city appeared to be split into several parts, ahead of him, by two low mountains, crawling up and away from the clinging grips of houses and apartments. The city center appeared to nest between these two peaks, and into this valley rushed a cool and humid wind, pulling through Charlie's hair and scattering it. Merchants sold their wares from small kiosks lining the street, and a cluster of children bought sugar-coated pastries, shaped like enormous gloves. Charlie heard a brazen clanging from behind him.  A young gypsy boy rang as he led a horse down the street.

 

Reaching the end of the street, Charlie turned right, towards the valley between the mountains, and found the hotels and apartment blocks replaced by rows of older, stone faced buildings, several boasting ornate carved wooden doors. Finally, the street deposited him in a small square at the foot of the two peaks. A small group of children clustered around a shallow puddle, tossing a ragged doll between them.

 

The wind picked up, and with the echo of the children's laughter ringing off the stone walls and cascading along the pavement, all sound reverberated through the space, leaving a hollow ring in Charlie's ears, a cool breeze against his face.

 

He suddenly felt nervous.

 

He turned a little, and his gaze fell upon one of the many churches. The church itself was comprised of several simple stone structures, with clean rows of granite rising three stories to a neat red roof tapering pyramid-like to a perfect point, and decorated at the upper stories by rows of brightly colored stones. The adjacent tower, however, dwarfed the other buildings. Seeming to tilt ever so slightly toward the church, the tower was made of much older and plainer stone, octagonal in shape, and rising an easy sixty feet to a narrow balcony and a clock, which wore a huge, circular steeple, soot black, like an oversized sorting hat.

 

Charlie absorbed this in an instant, but, prompted by the shrieks and shrill laughs of children behind him to why he had stopped in the first place, he saw a figure standing in the doorway at the base of the tower. This figure watched Charlie intently. From fifty or sixty feet away, Charlie couldn't make out any features. The hat that tipped him off... the worn, wide-brimmed hat of the miner he had sat with in the train.

 

The clock chimed once. Involuntarily, Charlie glanced upward.

 

12:30? Have I really been gone so long? he thought.

 

His eyes flitted back down, but the miner was gone.

 

Perplexed and a little frustrated with himself, Charlie hurried back toward the train station. The train, of course, had already left, and a quick glance at the schedule revealed that another train would not be leaving until after six. The station attendant told him she couldn't sell him a ticket until after five. Still frustrated, but chuckling to himself, Charlie set out from the station.  I've got time... time to think, he thought.  And time to grab a bite to eat.

 

*          *          *

 

After wandering the streets of Piatra Neamt for over an hour, Charlie found himself standing outside the Colibele Haiducilor restaurant. A striking building, shaped and pointed like the mountains, but built entirely of interwoven thatch and carefully set stone, he wasn't surprised that this would be heart of the area's wizarding community. Struggling to remember the password Ion had supplied in descriptions of his travels, Charlie stepped inside. He was met at the door by a slight waitress with sparkling brown eyes and blonde hair that glimmed as though under a sliver-thin glaze of ice.

 

"Buna seara, domnul," she said, cheerfully.

 

"Buna seara," replied Charlie. "Unde e, va rog, unde e baie? Am carti cu cuvinti!"

 

"Ah!" she said, and left.

 

He thought he had remembered correctly... he had asked for the bathroom, and mentioned he "had books with words." It occurred to him that this behavior here was at least as conspicuous as Apparition would've been. After a couple moments the waitress returned.

 

"Follow me, please," she said with a slight accent, and Charlie, blushing until his face matched his hair, followed.

 

She led him through the restaurant to a small bathroom, and before leaving him said, "It is a good bathroom. It has superb pictures!"

 

After watching her flounce off and cursing himself for not having a better command of Romanian, Charlie stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.

 

The room was miniscule, decorated with what appeared to be a bathmat, a toilet, and on the wall, a picture. The picture, which was actually a doctored photograph, depicted a bearded man in an angel outfit, topped with a yellow halo. He held his right foot up over a trap door, pressing down against a horned, goateed devil, struggling to crawl through.

 

Following the cue of the picture, Charlie stamped his foot on the bathmat. Nothing happened. He waited a couple moments, and stamped again. Again nothing. One more time.

 

He had barely brought his foot down the third time, when he felt a slight prickling pain around his ankles, quickly moving up his legs. He glanced down and found himself sinking through the bathmat as if it were quicksand. Here goes nothing, he thought, closed his eyes, and held his breath.

 

A moment later, he found himself standing in a bathroom identical to that he had left, except, instead of the angel picture, there was a photograph of the man in the devil outfit, waving and smiling good-naturedly. This photo, unlike the other, moved.

 

Charlie passed through the door and found himself in a dimly lit, smoky room. The heavy air filled with laughter, and Charlie breathed in the scent of cornmeal and roasted pork.  At the back of the room roared a massive fire, and four grinning heads sat in the coals and told jokes to a boisterous audience. Feeling as though he hadn't eaten in days, Charlie stepped up to the nearest table, a couple seats away from the bar, and sat down. A moment later a waitress, the same waitress he had seen in the restaurant, although now she wore a wand behind her ear, approached his table, and asked him what he'd like to order.

 

"Ursus!" he said. "And cotlet de porc!"

 

Smiling, the waitress left.

 

Within minutes, Charlie sat, half-facing the fire, and enjoyed the best pork cutlet of his life. The beer was cold, the air warm, and the scent of spice that hung around him even more intoxicating. I shouldn't be so worried, he thought.  I'm not that far behind, after all.  So what I missed my train? I'll take the next one to Bicaz later tonight, and then I can just hitchhike the rest of the way to the massif. Tonight I'll capture the dragon, and Ion will be so happy, he'll give me the rest of the week off. His mood was only slightly affected by the fact that he still hadn't any idea how he would confront the dragon, and he hadn't even begun to think about how he was going to take it back south.

 

The other patrons of the bar, which must have numbered at least forty, were in even merrier spirits, and one raunchy wizard song led straight into another. As time went by, however, Charlie became gradually distracted by what seemed to be the only quiet couple in the restaurant. There was a man and a woman, and they sat at the bar, only a few feet away, and had been nursing their drinks ever since Charlie had arrived several hours earlier.

 

The man, who sat with his back to Charlie, was very short and a little stout. He wore a frayed black robe, and a small white canvas backpack, probably packed with hiking gear, rested at the foot of his stool. This man couldn't have been older than thirty-five, but he had a worn, weary cast to him, and the hair had already fallen from his head in large patches, leaving a bare scalp to glint in the orange glow of the fire. His voice was nasal and cracked often, sending visible shivers through the woman who sat opposite him.

 

The woman, talking in a hushed voice, sat beside the small man, and was equally stout, though considerably taller. She wore a perpetual frown and her voice was firm, even commanding at times, yet her tone quavered nervously, giving  Charlie had the distinct impression she was not in control. Her eyes darted nervously about the room, falling on Charlie every couple minutes.

 

Two things struck Charlie as odd about this conversation.

 

First, both of the participants looked familiar, though not well enough that he could be certain. He knew they had nothing to do with the reservation. Besides lacking the physical strength to do any direct work with dragons, they spoke with London accents and seemed unable to pronounce the names of their drinks. He had a dim feeling that perhaps he knew the woman through some of his father's work, as though she was an associate of his, or maybe even working for The Daily Prophet. The man, however, was even more perplexing. Charlie had no idea where he could have possibly met this man, and yet he couldn't shake the feeling that they had met many times.

 

Second, both of the figures seemed anxious and wary. The woman, who yelled at the man to buy her more drinks, and made several unflattering comments about the inn's other patrons, nevertheless looked petrified. She played with her hair continually, and several times muttered under her breath, seeming to stare into the bar as though trying to find a way to escape through the counter into the earth. The man, on the other hand, who was quite assertive with the woman, occasionally made lowered his voice, making furtive suggestions to the side, as if an imaginary friend waited to answer his queries. He made these to his other side, as though to an invisible friend who listened and occasionally solicited.

 

His curiosity piqued, Charlie forgot momentarily about all of his trouble with the train, and anxieties about catching the dragon. He now devoured his cutlet in a frenzy, thinking of excuses to approach the couple, and straining to hear their every word.

 

"Isn't it enough," the woman was saying. "Isn't it enough? I can't say anything. You can see to that. And I've told you things. I've told you, there are things I don't know, but what I know you know, and now you and... can do what you will."

 

"Can we?" said the man. "But we want more." He muttered into his drink for a moment, and continued. "No, d-dear. I'm afraid we will continue. We've procured goods, you see. We have allies, always had, and they are helping us with our travels. Soon, we will have the ultimate... tool... for our conquest. Getting who, and what, we need will be easy. And you can come with us for awhile."

 

"When am I going to be able to leave?" asked the woman.

 

The man hesitated, as though listening, before answering.

 

"Soon. Your contract will soon be fulfilled, and you can go on your way."

 

"Thank you."

 

"Don't thank me yet. Just do what I ask of you."

 

Charlie was surprised to feel a strong dislike for the balding man... he never made eye contact with the woman, and his eyes glanced up to the ceiling or to the empty seat beside him. It was as though he was telling several lies at once.

 

"At least tell me what we're here for," said the woman, exasperated and seemingly upset.

 

"I can't."

 

"I don't like it here. It's too cold for the summer. I just want to go back to work, see my friends, my family. I just want to have my old life back again."

 

"Very soon, my dear, very soon," said the man, absently.

 

He paused.

 

Charlie felt the pause weigh heavy between the two, and for a moment he wondered if they had caught him listening. He furtively glanced up, but found the couple sitting with their backs to him, staring at the bar. Charlie hurredly gulped down his last bite of cutlet. He heard mumbling, and realized the man was speaking.

 

"-- about a day away," he was saying. "No, I don't know when, I'm sorry, very sorry. The trains've been in error these last several days. If master would permit his humble slave use of a broomstick -- sorry! Sorry!"

 

Charlie noisily pushed his plate back from his chest, stood clumsily, and stumbled over to the couple, feigning slight drunkenness.

 

They watched with an expression of utter shock as he sat down to the man's right, on the same stool to which the man seemed to speak. No invisibility here, thought Charlie, but the fact didn't comfort him. The woman's expression of horror and the man's nervous smile were no comfort at all.

 

"G'day," said Charlie. "Pardon my interruption, but I couldn't help but just overhear --" the couple leaned forward, anxious, "-- that you were British like I am. I've been working in the Reservation for a year now... er, Administrative work. So I haven't been to London in months. Hearing your own language in a place like this is a real comfort. I'm Charles Beesley"

 

The woman's jaw dropped open, but the man shot her a glare, and she remained quiet. The man, however, his expression becoming one of strained joviality, extended his hand and leaned toward Charlie.  They shook hands.  The man's palm was cold and clammy, his handshake soft and week.

 

"Pleased to meet you," he said, "my name is Peter Portage, and this is my traveling companion... Angela Jenkins."

 

"Pleased to meet you," said Charlie.

 

"We're new to Romania, ourselves," said Peter. "We've been in Tajikistan, negotiating the exchange value of broomsticks and magic carpets. Hagglers, really, they want the best of both worlds. The newest invention is Busquidditch.  It's just like Quidditch only with carpets and goats. So now they want Nimbus to start putting out carpets. Quite difficult, really."

 

"Yes, I imagine so," said Charlie, more sure than ever that Peter was lying... if Peter was even his name. "Angela," he said. The words seem to jolt the woman awake. "What do you think of Romania?"

 

"Well," she said, her face contorting, as though this conversation with him took a supreme effort. "The mountains, I must say, they are very lovely. But I don't know about this weather. It is, after all, July. And I expected it to be warmer."

 

"It isn't always this cold," said Charlie. "That, and we're in the mountains. You head east, even an hour, and it'll be a lot warmer."

 

"Yes, well," and a false smile played about her lips, somehow proud of the story she was inventing, "Peter and I were hoping to catch a little sun before returning to England. Guess we stopped in the wrong place!" Her voice was jarring. "We should've stopped at the Black Sea," she added quietly.

 

"So are you two married?"

 

"Oh no, oh no," said Peter. "Just work partners. Travelling companions. This is actually the first time we've been sent out of the country."

 

"Do you like the travel?"

 

"Why yes," answered Peter, pensive. "Yes, I'd say, very much."

 

Charlie kept trying to make eye-contact, but they both insistantly avoided his gaze.

 

"Angela," he said, pursuing a hunch, "have you ever written for The Daily Prophet? "

 

"The Daily Prophet? No," she answered, but Charlie was grimly pleased to note the look of alarm on Peter's face.

 

"How about M.O.M.?"

 

Peter glared at Angela, and her face screwed up.

 

"M.O.M.? What is M.O.M.?"

 

"It's the Ministry of Magic. I ask because my father works there, and you look very familiar to me. I wondered if I might have seen you somewhere."

 

He was onto something. He knew it.

 

"Oh. You mean... the Ministry. Uh. Well."  Her jaw tightened.  Charlie thought he saw a tear in her pale face.  "I may have, at one time, worked for the Ministry of Magic. A little. A long time ago..."

 

"And you look familiar too," said Charlie, turning his attention on Peter.

 

But Peter was more prepared.

 

"Yes, well, I meet many people. As I'm sure you do as well. So it is not at all unlikely, that, in our various travels, we have met each other before."

 

In our various travels! Charlie thought.

 

"Oh, Peter," laughed Charlie. "You just told me that this was your first time --"

 

But something new caught his attention.

 

For a moment, Charlie thought he was dreaming, but a second glance confirmed his fears. Someone stood by the fire and watched him: a man wearing an old hat. It was, in fact, the same drunk miner who had shared the train compartment with him, and watched him from across the plaza in Piatra Neamt.

 

The figure vanished into the throng, but Charlie saw the hat floating, as if by magic, above the crowd, towards Peter and Angela who didn't seem to notice.

 

"Please excuse me," said Charlie and, with a panic he didn't understand, slipped off the stool and retreated to the bathroom, not even shutting the door before he began stamping his foot on the bathmat.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Charlie was back at the station, purchasing his ticket, and watching all doors, nervously. The train to Bicaz arrived, and with a shudder of fear, Charlie boarded.

 

His compartment was empty this time.

 

*          *          *

 

Almost the moment the train pulled out of the station, Charlie wanted, more than anything else, to simply sleep. He hadn't rested comfortably in two days, his journey had been interrupted by too many worries to count, and the more he neared the Ceahlau massif, the more his anxieties grew.

 

"Think," he said to himself in the twilight of the empty compartment. "Don't sleep, think."

 

If I can work a little of this out, then I can rest, but if I go to sleep now, I'll forget something.

 

Charlie spent several moments in still meditation, while the conductor walked back and forth, and a screaming baby from the next compartment down finally settled into sleep. In less than an hour, the train would arrive at Bicaz, its final stop, and Charlie would have to decide how to continue on his own.

 

What have I learned? he wondered.

 

He wasn't impressed.

 

I know that I met a man who calls himself Peter and a woman who calls herself Angela. Or is that so?' He scratched his head, trying to stay awake. Peter called her Angela. She played along. I think they're lying about their names. They also claim to be from England. That could be a lie too, but I don't think so. Why would I have noticed their speech when I overheard them?'

 

I do believe that they're passing through... they couldn't speak any Romanian at all. But they're here for a reason. Come to Peatra Neamt for the sun?!  Right, sure that, might as well go to London for the fine beaches. Why didn't Peter want me to know that Angela worked for M.O.M.? And what is the tool they are after? And who was the 'master' Peter addressed?'

 

The number of questions multiplied, and where Charlie thought he has stumbled upon answers, he found only empty speculation.  As his uncertainties mounted, his head began to throb, so Charlie turned his thoughts in another direction, one in which he had more confidence.

 

Who was the man in the hat? I was obviously mistaken, to think that he was a miner. He was a wizard, or how did he get into the restaurant? He must've been a wizard. And now he knows I'm a wizard, because he saw me there. He probably knew I was a wizard ever since we shared the compartment... he probably saw me using the Quick Notes ™. Damn it!'

 

Ion had warned him to avoid doing anything remotely suspicious, and while it would have been tedious to have written the notes by hand, Charlie now felt certain he was being trailed by a Daily Prophet reporter.

 

Now he'll be following me up the mountain, and taking pictures.  He'll bungle the recapturing effort, or at least catch some of our dragon-catching tricks on film.

 

If that was the case, he could expect a severe reprimand, or worse, from Ion when he returned.

 

With images of dragons chasing reporters chasing himself in pursuit of more dragons, Charlie drifted into dizzy sleep.

 

*          *          *

 

A jolt.

 

A crack of lightning.

 

The world was dark, but it was not night.

 

Charlie struggled through clouds, white mist, a steam fog. He couldn't see far in front of his face, but every couple seconds, he heard a deafening crash, and a flicker of light from somewhere around him.

 

"Hello?" he called out, but his voice sounded alone, wet, muffled.

 

He heard dripping to his side.

 

"Who's there?" he called out.

 

Another crash.

 

Another drip of water.

 

"AVADA!" screamed a voice in his head. Charlie flung himself to the ground.

 

A low rumble.

 

A groan.

 

He got up and began to run.

 

He felt panting on his heels. He was being chased, but he saw nothing. Nobody.

 

No. Right in front of him.

 

Drip.

 

Dropping.

 

Drop.

 

In his panic, Charlie had stepped off a ledge.

 

Now he fell, fell fast through mist, from the Ceahlau massif, thousands of feet.

 

Somewhere through the whiteness below, the ground rushed up to meet him.

 

And as he fell, he heard a moaning cry. Like mourning.

 

*          *          *

 

The sound of the train whistle woke Charlie.

 

Darkness was complete inside the train compartment, but the damp weight on his chest told him he had sweat through his shirt. Struggling to sit up, he suddenly became aware of where he was. His head throbbed in pain, and the child one compartment over was screaming louder than ever. Outside the window, a dull roar.  The misty haze had become a torrential downpour. Through the deluge burned five garish letters:

 

"B" "I" "C" "A" "Z"

 

*          *          *

 

Charlie's spirits were lower than ever as he stepped into the rain.

 

He swore violently. I hate politics! And I hate intrigue, and lies, and... nightmares! This is why I left England. This is why I am a Dragon Keeper. Bill doesn't have to deal with this at Gringott's, nor dad at Muggle relations!  But it's the one thing I care about, so why am I in this mess?!

 

After standing miserably in the station for minutes, his coat dripping on the pale flagstones, Charlie realized there was no point to heading up to Ceahlau massif that night.

 

It's already dark, and I couldn't find a great Ukrainian Ironbelly in this downpour.

 

A glance at a map confirmed what he had thought beforehand.

 

Bicaz isn't near enough the massif to safely use magic to climb. I'll have to get closer.

 

Only one town was closer: Durau.

 

But Durau was a tourist town with a couple hundred permanent inhabitants, and no train route. At nine o'clock at night in a downpour, that left only one option: hitchhiking.

 

And now I'm hitchhiking across the Carpathians, when I was the one with the highest Apparation N.E.W.T. score my year, when I was the one who made the Comet look like the Nimbus!

 

Charlie bought a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the station before heading back out into the night.

 

All because some Minsitry hack or stooge reporter wants to drag blind ambition into the mountains?!

 

Some Romanian youths called after him as he walked through a huge puddle.

 

"Acolo! Englez! Doreste merge pe jos in ploaie!"

 

They were making fun of him.

 

Why can't it be two days ago again?

 

A half hour later Charlie stood forlornly at the edge of the road leading out of town. He didn't know whether he shivered more from the cold and the rain or the events of the day, though he felt they both contributed significantly. He was completely soaked, but stood in the rain for what felt like ages before a twin pair of headlights finally appeared from Bicaz and began creeping in his direction. Finally, a rusty, yellow Dacia pulled up alongside Charlie and a black-gloved hand pushed the door open.

 

Charlie leaned down and looked inside.

 

"Are you going to Durau?"

 

The driver turned. It was the man with the wide-brimmed hat.

 

He grinned and laughed. His teeth were made of gold, and gleamed.

 

"Accio Charles Vee-sley!" he called commandingly, and Charlie was thrown into the car, as though a great hand had simply tossed him. He sat up at once, but the door had been shut, and they were already careening through the rain, away from Bicaz.

*          *          *

 

"Who are you?" demanded Charlie, "and why have you been chasing me?"

 

"I'vf been try-ing to tell you all day," said the man, with a somewhat thick accent, "but ev-ry time I try, you rahn avay." He laughed again.

 

"Well, it was suspicious," said Charlie, not relaxing his guard. "So will you tell us now?"

 

"Vhy yais. My name is Mihai Codreanu, ant I am a vorker for tse Keepaers of se Roman Longhorn Dragons."

 

"So you are with the Reservation."

 

"That is correct."

 

"And not with The Daily Prophet."

 

"Goodness no!" said Mihai abruptly, and he glanced at Charlie out of the corner of his eye, as though insulted by this supposition.

 

"Why have you been following me all day?"

 

"This is not a simple sit-siuation, Mees-tair Vee-sley."

 

"I know. It never is when a dragon escapes boundaries and is sighted by Muggles."

 

"Ah, yais. You are right. So think how complicated this case must be, vhen it is all of that ant more."

 

"What more? I don't know what you are talking about."

 

"Do you know vhy you vere chosen for zis assignment?"

 

"Ion told me; because I am both reckless and discreet."

 

"Don't you seenk it is a bett-air choice to use tse dragon's keepairs to gait hair back?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Because tse dragon vill recognize her keepairs, and not attack zhem?"

 

"Yes. I told Ion that."

 

"Vell, ve cannot use the keepairs, because ve cannot trust zhem at zis time."

 

"What do you mean you can't trust them? Longhorns are rare, why would you leave them with someone untrustworthy?"

 

"Oh, these keepairs are among tse best and most reliable on tse reservation. Ve have complete faith in zhem. However, vhen zhey are acting undair coercion --"

 

"Coercion?"

 

"Listen to me, Charles Vee-sley.  Tse dragon did not escape on hair own. She vas released from her charms, deliberately, by her keepairs!"

 

"What?! Ion didn't tell me that."

 

"Ion didn't vant you to be af-raid of vhat you vere facing. I have a little more faith in you. Tse truth is tsat tse keepairs did laet tse dragon out. Vhen zhey did, zhey vere under tse influence of an Imperius curse."

 

Charlie was speechless.

 

Just when he thought his own situation couldn't get any worse, he had discovered that not only was he in pursuit of a dragon he did not know, being shadowed the entire time, but was also contending with a Dark Wizard his superior hadn't even thought to tell him about.

 

"You are not happy about zis sit-siuation."

 

Charlie found his voice. "No. No I am not. I'm tempted to go back."

 

Mihai was silent a moment.

 

When he spoke, his voice was grave and heavy, "If you laik I vill take you back to Bicaz. A train vill leave in tse morning."

 

"I'm not going back," said Charlie. "I said I was tempted, that's all."

 

Mihai laughed, roughly.

 

"I am proud to have mait you, Charles Vee-sley," he said. "Ve talk of you all the vay up at Durau, you know. You have kvite a reputat-sion. I know you vill be tse best man to gait back our Zamolxis."

 

"Zamolxis?"

 

"Zamolxis is tse dragon's name."

*          *          *

 

The rest of the car ride was passed in general silence, broken only by a simple rain-scattering enchantment Mihai uttered when his windshield wipers broke. He seemed to respect that Charlie had a lot to think about.

 

Charlie on the other hand, leaned back in his seat and strained towards the window to get a glimpse of the landscape as they passed. He kept trying to connect all of the events he had witnessed in the last day-and-a-half. In a sense, the assignment seemed simpler than before, for now he knew why Mihai had shadowed him, as well as why Ion had been so secretive. It was also, he thought, clear why a Dark Wizard would have attempted to take control of a Romanian Longhorn. True to their names, the dragons wear a golden horn which, ground into a fine powder, are essential ingredients in many potions. The powder was very rare and expensive. If someone got ahold of a dragon, either for breeding or outright sale, he could make a fortune. This explanation, however, didn't solve every problem. Although he had not substantial evidence, he couldn't shake the feeling that his dream was somehow related, as was the reason for Peter and Angela's trip to Romania.

 

Although Durau wasn't far, the entire trip was uphill, and as they circled the serpentine Lake Bicaz, the Ceahlau massif just beyond, the rain only fell harder. The road left the rivers and lakes, and began winding up through a narrow valley. Finally, the ascent steepened, and dozens of scattered lights came into focus. They had arrived in Durau, and it was after 2 AM.

 

Mihai lived in a small, three room dwelling with a thatched room and a vegetable garden out back, and when Mihai offered to sleep in the front room so that Charlie could have a bed, Charlie was too tired to refuse.

 

The last thing he remembered before drifting away was the gentle murmur of the lessening rain, and behind it all, a quiet hiss of wind.

 

*          *          *

 

Charlie felt as though he had only just closed his eyes when he woke to find Mihai leaning over him, shaking him gently.

 

"What? What?" Charlie mumbled, sleepily.

 

"It is time, Charles Vee-sley?"

 

"What?" said Charlie, sitting up in his bed.

 

"To get tse dragon. To get our Zamolxis."

 

"Oh, right," and then, wondering at the weak light that trickled through the window, "Mihai, what time is it? Surely it's not dawn yet."

 

"Open your vindow, Charles, and you vill see. It is tain o'clock in tse morning."

 

Charlie opened the window, and his stomach gave a lurch when he saw the source of the darkness. All about lay a damp pea-soup fog.  He couldn't even see Mihai's wire fence, twenty feet away.

 

"This is very good for you," Mihai was saying. "tse dragon vill vant to be looking for prey in tse cloud covair. And you vill, on top of tse mountain, be above tse fog. You can look for all around, and see tse dragon's activity. Tracking a dragon... normally very difficult. But today it vill be easy."

 

Charlie felt no appetite, but forced himself to eat the bread and cheese dish Mihai prepared for him. After washing and dressing, it was close to noon. Mihai took him outside and made a couple of suggestions.

 

"She is not dangerous for a Roman Longhorn, compared to hair brozairs and sistairs. She is some-vhat docile, but you have to let her eat vhen she is hungry. And scratch hair cheeks, right vhere her jaws meet. She likes zhat a lot."

 

"Mihai," asked Charlie, "how is it you know so much about Zamolxis?"

 

Mihai drew very close to Charlie and looked him straight in the eye.

 

"Because I vas vone of hair keepairs. I vas the vone zhat let hair escape. So please, be careful Charles Vee-sley, and bring my Zamolxis back to me."

 

With the feeling that he was walking into a trap he couldn't possibly escape, Charlie stepped into the vegetable garden and prepared to Apparate. He checked himself. He had a bag of supplies, and an anti-burn potion strapped to his calves, some rope, a hammer and pegs, a backpack of supplies, and a knife. He was as ready as he could ever be.

 

He raised his wand, and swung it down, crying "Appareo!"

 

He was gone.

 

*          *          *

 

Charlie found himself standing on top of the Ceahlau massif. Sure enough, he was above the fog, and it took his breath away.

 

Above, blinding sunlight warmed his face. He stood on a craggy knoll, and to every side, the earth fell away in jagged slopes. His feet crunched dry lichen, and he was chilled by an icy breeze that seemed to swoop straight down from the blinding light.

 

Below, only two or three hundred feet, swirled the mist. He knew the height was deceptive... somewhere, out in that moony sea lay trenches and cliffs.

 

"And dragons."

 

He caught his breath and set to work.

 

Over the next hour, Charlie went back and forth with his hammer, pegs, and rope. He made twenty loops of rope, tied together by knots, and doubled them back into a loose net. Then, stumbling slightly on the crumbling limestone, he pegged half of the rope loops into the rock, leaving the rest loose. After casting every charm he could remember for strength and elasticity upon the net, Charlie sat down on the summit, and closed his eyes. The chilly wind was a little softer now, though his fingers were numb from the cold. He cleared his mind of all distraction, except the playful tug of the breeze and the crisp smell of frost in the air. The warmth of the sun beat down on his back. Charlie lifted his wand to his lips, and whistled.

 

The sound he produced, however, was far from a whistle. Ringing over the surface of his wand, the sound expanded and took on a deeper, more mellow quality. Soon the peaks echoed with a heavy groan, underscored by a low hum. Charlie had performed this trick many times. Today, however, he felt like a piece of machinery in the hands of a much more capable performer. The sun fueled him, and the icy breath that supplied his voice made the soft and deep rising of his chest constant and steady.

 

The sound was full and continued for many seconds. Finally, out of breath, dizzy but exhilarated, Charlie lowered his wand. The moment he did so, the cry was returned from the depths of the fog.

 

Charlie stood and faced the response. He lifted his wand, inhaled, and breathed out again. The wand shook gently, and he tightened his grip on it. The groan floated out over the mountains and sank into the fog, and soon, he heard another reply. This time, he didn't let his voice falter. The two roaring melodies joined and intertwined, and soon the whole mountainscape was filled with the low rumble and harmonic buzzing sounds. For the first time, Charlie could see something out in the mist... a glimpse of gold here and there. It was the glint of sun off something deep in the fog, and whatever it was swam slowly towards Charlie through languid curls of mist.

 

Stopping this time only for a quick breath, Charlie lifted his wand a third time, and sent out a third cry, heavier and louder than ever. Again, the cry returned, and Charlie knew he couldn't be mistaken. The creature crested on a wave of fog, and her horn was long and flashing gold all about the summits. Her green scales were as dark and small as rows of conifers viewed from on high, but like her horn, her skin had a strange luster to it, a vague sheen in the sun. Charlie stopped humming for a moment to watch in admiration, and the powerful, well-defined muscles pumped wings that blew the cool wind back toward him, even from a mile away.

 

The dragon turned her head upward and released a jet of flame, burning a path through the fog that separated her from the mountaintop. Charlie laughed, even as he hopped from rock to rock in anticipation of the next blast.

 

This is what I live for! he thought, ecstatic. This is why I am a dragon keeper! This is why!

 

He raised his wand a fourth time and hummed, and straight as an arrow, the dragon bolted for him, her black eyes reflecting sunlight onto his chest, jaws open, yellow teeth flashing, her green skin rippling as she stridently kicked herself off a stony slope.

 

Charlie did not tremble.

 

He did not stir, or breathe, or blink.

 

In the seconds that brought the dragon to his side, he didn't flinch or shake, but stood as still as a shadow. Only his head lifted ever so slightly, to keep his gaze level with the dragon's eyes.

 

Before he knew it, she was there.  She crouched on the rock face just before him, her head floating, serpentlike a foot away.

 

"Let not play games, okay girl?"

 

She stopped, eyes even with his.

 

"You are Zamolxis, are you not?"

 

The head began bobbing slightly. Charlie's heart contracted momentarily.

 

This is what she does before she impales me with her horn, he thought.

 

"Zamolxis," he said slowly. "Zamolxis."

 

The bobbing stopped.

 

"My name is Charlie. Charlie Weasley, and I am pleased to meet you. So please; you are one of the most beautiful of your kind I have ever seen."

 

She began bobbing her head again. Charlie held himself still, calm, maintaining eye contact.

 

"Zamolxis. Zamolxis. Zamolxis."

 

He repeated her name, softly, clearly, over and over. As he did so, she gradually became less agitated, bobbing her head less often and watching him more and more intently.

 

"Zamolxis. So lovely. Zamolxis. A lovely girl. A lovely. Zamolxis."

 

And then her head was still. She was an inch from his face, and the gold-colored horn, projecting from her forehead, poked through the mass of his tangled red hair.

 

She hissed slightly, and Charles smiled. It was the most he had moved during the whole encounter.

 

Suddenly, Zamolxis twisted her head and bent in towards him. It took all of Charlie's training and will not to flinch, since this was how she would spear him. Instead, however, she rested the flat part of her nose on his stomach, the horn thrusting harmlessly off to his right. Her eyes were closed and she let out a soft growl that sounded unmistakably like the purring of a giant cat. Unable to restrain himself, Charlie spasmed with laugher, but kept himself standing upright. The dragon didn't seem to notice.

 

Never, he thought, not even with the dragons I've raised from birth, have I felt so close or trusted.

 

Charlie carefully brought his hand down about her neck, and began stroking her scaly maw.

 

"Well now, Zamolxis," he began. "We're at a bit of an impasse, it seems. Because I don't believe you're going to hurt me, but I don't believe you're going to wear my little net either, are you girl?"

 

Zamolxis purred contently.

 

Charlie lost track of how long he stood with the dragon, except he knew it must have been for many minutes, because his stomach tensed and his knees, bent slightly against the weight of the dragon's head, began to shake. He had only begun to contemplate the new problem this presented, when he realized something had changed.

 

For starters, the breeze had fallen. A smell hung in the air, like something burning, like saltpeter. Zamolxis noticed this as well. She lifted her head with a threatening hiss and swung her heavy head about, looking for the source of the change.

 

Everything happened at once.

 

Charlie heard a crunch. He glanced to his right, and found Angela standing feet away. Her face was a scowl but her eyes were sad. Then, beside her stood Peter, his face red and flushed, lifting his wand over his head.

 

"Avada Kedavra!" he cried, but Charlie had already sprung forward. With a flash of green, the spell bounded harmlessly down the slope. Charlie landed twelve feet down, but the ground beneath him gave way, and he slid onto his back as his wand flew out of his hand and disappeared down the mountainside. Rolling and tumbling down the crumbling slope, Charlie felt the temperature drop. He twisted onto his stomach, extended his hand and closed around a protruding root, his body jolted by the shock of stopping. He let go, slid another ten feet and caught himself again, tightly gripping the rocky surface.

 

A quick glance confirmed that Zamolxis had fled for safety. A hundred feet further down swirled the fog, which danced animatedly, almost in bated excitement, waiting to see the outcome of this new conflict. Looking up, Charlie saw Angela and Peter. They were two hundred feet above him, resembling tiny black figures dancing on a jagged surface. Peter hurried down the slope, trying to bring the Dragon Keeper within range of his wand. Charlie knew he had only a moment to decide what to do. Below lay a patchwork of stone and sheer drop. The mist was complete. He'd have to guess and trust his luck. Above?  Peter had already tried to kill him.  Swearing to himself, Charlie let go of his handhold and slid further down into the fog. As he slid against the limestone, his feet dredged up a huge cloud of dust and small stone shards shredded his shirt and cut into his skin. He caught his nose against a particularly large stone, and cried out, blood spilling onto the slope. But quickly, the carefully descending Peter began to recede, and Charlie felt himself fall into the fog.

 

When he could no longer see, he held out his hand to slow the descent and rolled to the side, into a stable crevice. What now? he thought.

 

They'll get down here eventually, and even if I hide the fog has to lift sooner or later.

 

As Charlie had slid, the slope had grown steeper.  Somewhere, he knew, below him, lay the Neck of Hell, a straight seven-hundred foot drop into a mountain stream. He heard the trickle, the steady drip of water falling into the depths. The trickles seemed to laugh and leap off of the rock face above, but never touch the bottom.

 

If I take one wrong step, I'll walk off of a cliff.  Where have my dreams come from?

 

A small cascade of stones slid down ten feet to Charlie's side.

 

"Oh, dragon keeper," echoed Peter's nervous voice, and Charlie realized with alarm it was closer than he'd expected. "Dragon keeper, you'll have to slow down for me. Eh-heh, you see, I'm a lot older... I can't keep up. But if you are in such a hurry, you'll probably take a wrong step and that'll be your end."

 

Charlie began edging to the side, casting nervous glances into the fog with every step.

 

To his right, the color changed, ever so slightly. Charlie stopped and peered into the milky gloom. Peter, stood, petrified, with his back to the slope, in the same crevice the Dragon Keeper had just left.

 

Good thing I moved.

 

"Oh, dragon keeper, you didn't fall from the sky already, did you?" said Peter with a nervous chuckle. He began edging, back to the slope, in Charlie's direction. Charlie sidled away. Peter stopped.

 

"Is that you I hear, dragon keeper? What was your name? Charles? Charles, was it?" he called.

 

Several feet away, Charlie made out a patch of more level ground. He gingerly hopped onto to it, and spun around, facing the fog in the direction of Peter's voice.

 

"Avada Kedavra!" screamed Peter, and the fog was illuminated for an instant by a violent burst of green.

 

"Dragon Keeper? Oh, Dragon Keeper? I know you heard that. If I keep casting this spell about, I'm bound to hit you sooner or later, am I not?

 

Avada Kedavra!"

 

Again a flash of green cut through the fog, but this time it was followed by a shrill, cackling laugh; a laugh, Charlie knew, belonged to neither Angela nor Peter.

 

Charlie took a step back, then another. He turned and began running as close to full-out as he could, jumping dangerously from rock to rock, recoiling from any hole or crevice that appeared too wide. Once, he dislodged a wedge of stone that fell into the darkness and vanished. His heart was sinking. The further he went, the steeper the slope became, and the number of handholds decreased sharply. One fact alone gave him hope; somewhere, high above, an angry, threatening growl told him the dragon hadn't left. She was cruising back and forth, sailing just above the very top of the fog, and every time she roared, he could sense Peter stiffen, mere feet away. At least there'll be a witness, he thought. Too bad she can't speak.

 

The pursuit seemed to last for hours. Eventually, though, the fog seemed to thin a little, and Charlie came to a point at which he knew he could go no further. He stepped onto a narrow ledge. To his right, and in front of him, a sheer cliff face rose out of the fog thirty or forty feet. To his left, the drop. He glanced down, and even though the mist thinned, there didn't seem to be a bottom. He backed into the corner, scrutinizing the rock surface for any sign of Peter.

 

Peter emerged. His robes were tattered, and his leg badly cut. He limped onto the ledge, and faced Charlie from ten feet away, wand extended.

 

"Ah! There you are," said Peter.

 

The fog was rent by the dragon's cry, high above.

 

"No, I am not killing you yet. I need your help. See, if you hadn't gotten away just then, we could've taken your dragon outright. I'm an Animagus, see, we could've had a chat, that dragon and I, made an arrangement."

 

Charlie doubted this.  Whatever this man can become, isn't going to persuade that dragon.  Still, Charlie stood silently, wanting to hear Peter out, to listen for any clue that might suggest a means of escape.

 

"Now," Peter continued. "You have earned the right to bargain. Your reflexes earned you that right. My master is a very powerful man. He is a generous man, easily persuaded to give gifts to his followers, and inclined to share his power."

 

Peter didn't seem to believe what he was saying but continued. Charlie held a hand out to grip the rock face behind him.

 

"We won't kill the dragon. We won't saw off its horn; you need not worry about that. We'll only use it for a little while... to visit some old friends in jolly old England. You can call the dragon... help put us on cooperative terms. You'd be well rewarded. I th-think I can promise you that... what do you say? Friends?"

 

Peter didn't lower his wand, however, and his eyes gleamed maliciously.  

 

Charlie knew that he'd certainly die if he agreed to this man's terms. 

 

Is there a choice?

 

He smiled, and his hand unclasped the stone. He stood freely, at the edge of the ledge, just before Peter.

 

"No," said Charlie, a smile breaking across his lips.

 

Peter was obviously flustered.

 

"Um, let me try to persuade you again --"

 

"Kill him," a voice rang out; a different voice, shrill, cracked and broken, the same voice that had laughed earlier, when Peter had spoken the killing curse, and for the first time, Charlie noticed Peter was wearing his strange, lumpy white backpack, strapped tightly on.

 

"Do you see what you've done?" said Peter sarcastically, with a tone of finality. "Now I have to --"

 

It was too late...

 

Charlie had stepped off the edge.

 

*          *          *

 

It only took a few moments for Charlie to fall through the fog, which by now was a cloud hanging perilously low over the Neck of Hell. He saw in an instant what he was falling toward: far below, hundreds of feet, snaked a stream and a serpentine road. He realized he had no options, no options at all.  His only comfort was to choose his own death... to not be murdered with a curse in the mist.

 

Then, he saw something, massive. It fell like a rock through the cloud above him and quickly accelerated.

 

It was Zamolxis.

 

Zamolxis was doing something Charlie had never seen before. He suspected it had never been seen before by human eyes. Zamolxis plummeted downward, upside down, her wings fanned out at the tips, but tucked tightly in to her sides. She sent a wide, angry jet of flame skyward, causing her to spin like a top while diving into the gorge at speeds that made Charlie's mind reel. He realized she was trying to save him, so he extended his arms and legs to slow his descent as much as possible.

 

Zamolxis was closing in, she was beside him, and now slightly passed. She stopped her jet of fire, so she wouldn't singe him, angling herself just into his fall. And now the ground was racing up, but she extended her wings, shrieked painfully under the hurt, the agony of rapid deceleration, and Charlie tumbled onto her back. They were still falling, both of them, but much slower. As soon as Charlie had absorbed the shock of impact, Zamolxis began beating her wings furiously, trying to slow down, to stop, to rise. But the ground kept rushing on and they still fell very fast. Only a moment before they touched down, Charlie realized they hadn't stopped in time, when he felt himself crushed with great force into the dragon's back as she touched down violently, the bones in her massive frame protesting with an angry creak. For a moment, he wondered if the fall had finished her, then, with a frantic burst, her crouching legs sprang forward, propelling them forward and up in an explosion of motion.

 

They were airborne. They were ascending.

 

They drifted forward like leaves on a cool breeze, and glided out of the gorge.

 

*          *          *

 

Two hours later, Charlie was covered in bandages and sipping Romanian coffee at Mihai's table. After much circling and cattle chasing, the dragon keeper had persuaded Zamolxis to return to her master. As soon as the dragon landed, Mihai appeared on a broomstick, and quickly cleared the summit of a nearby mountain of trees, and placed an assortment of enchantments on the site to keep the dragon from leaving. Only minutes later, Ion had appeared with eight other keepers, all armed with dragon prods in their hands and hexes on their lips.

 

They all Apparated, Charlie noted with irritation.

 

Zamolxis cooperated without need of prod or hex, until Charlie was asked to leave, when she began thrashing about angrily and setting trees aflame.  Ion hastened to ask Charlie to calm the dragon, and himself decided to stay the night in Durau before transporting her back to the Palatele Neamt. Wanting to hear "all the details" from Charlie, and give Ion his personal opinion on the matter, Mihai invited them both back to his cottage for coffee.

 

"I vill say, Ion, I have nevair heard of a case vhen an individual should have his own dragon more justified zhen Charles Vee-sley and my Zamolxis. He risked his life for zhis dragon, vhen I failed at hair protection. Please, considair vhat I say."

 

"Rules are rules, Mihai," said Ion, briskly, glowering at Charlie as though he'd committed a crime. "And while I've no doubt that we owe a great debt of gratitude to young Charles, we cannot allow ourselves to make exceptions. If we do, everyone will want a dragon."

 

But Mihai was unrelenting.

 

"Tse dragon saved his life, at a great risk to hair own. Does anybody evair see dragons doing zis? Only for zheir babies, and zhen, rare! And I say, if ve can give dragons to Ministairs of Magic, zhen we can give Zamolxis to zis young man."

 

"I'm sorry, Mihai. My word is final. And I shall not change my mind. Your lapse was not as great as you make it out to be. You were placed under a powerful curse, and performed actions you could not comprehend.  Furthermore, while Charles performed completely appropriately in the line of duty, it was, you must admit, a matter of luck that he survived at all. The same can be said for the dragon. That is, if we accept everything young Charles has said as true, which personally, I am inclined to do."

 

"My concern," interrupted Charles, "though I am very flattered by your wanting to give me Zamolxis, Mihai. But my concern is regarding this Peter and Angela. First, I don't think she was there of her own will. She didn't help him try to kill me at any point, and I think she wanted to leave. She was a prisoner. He said he was an Animagus. We know he used at least two of the Unforgivable Curses. And there was something with them. I don't know what... or who. But... but... it was small. And powerful. And weak at the same time. It gave them orders, and they were terrified of it."

 

An awkward silence filled the room.

 

The sun was setting behind the mountain, and the sheen of light off Mihai's brass kettle, somehow reminiscent of Zamolxis' horn, began to fade in the lengthening shadows. Charlie studied this for several long moments, until Ion spoke.

 

"Well," he said. "I have notified the Ministry of Magic of all you've told us, and if they feel there is any validity to this threat, I'm sure they will respond appropriately."

 

Charlie had no answer to this, so Ion continued.

 

"You do, however, deserve a reward for your service, and I have prepared a little something for you. It's not much, to be sure, and if times were more generous --"

 

"Tail him vhat you got him," snarled Mihai.

 

"Yes," said Ion. "I've spoken to Ludo Bagman and Cornelius Fudge and, like I said, it's not all I would like to reward you with, but you can take a month off, and go with your family to the Quidditch World cup. Balcony seats. Ireland versus Bulgaria."

 

Ordinarily, this would be ecstatic news to Charlie, but for some reason he felt subdued. Weary from the past two days, and in gloomy anticipation of leaving Zamolxis, there was little to be excited about.

 

I don't have anything to give to this conversation, thought Charlie, and excused himself from the table.

 

Passing through the garden without thinking, and ascending the ploughed, green slopes, Charlie reached the edge of the trees before he realized where he was going. An hour later, twilight had fallen and he stood before Zamolxis, who reclined in the clearing under the tight tether of magical cords. She looked up at him, and her eyes seemed wide with sorrow. 

 

"Zamolxis. Zamolxis. Hi girl. It's getting dark, and soon we'll both be going home."

 

He sat down in the gathering dark, and cupped her large head in his left hand while scratching her muzzle with his right. She growled and purred and stared into his eyes.

 

"That's right, girl. We're both going home. We're both going home. We're both going home soon."

//
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