The fuzziness had descended fully. Everything—the air, the walls, her memory—seemed a bit vague and shifting. But she put one foot in front of the other, breathed, and thought of nothing as, light-footed, she skidded down the stairs and through the black-and-silver moonlit entrance hall. The big doors opened for her at a touch, and she was through and away in no time.
Outside the gray-silver-black grass whispered, rustling in the breeze and brushing against her robes. Far off in the distance stood the great dark spans of trees—she checked her pace, remembering something about the trees…but it didn’t matter. To her right glimmered the moonlight on the greenhouses, and to her left and in the distance reared the Quidditch stands—all was well. And dead ahead crouched the little shack, looking oddly like a house, a little cabin at the base of the trees…but no, Tom hadn’t said anyone lived there…
She stopped flat-out then, arrested by the name twisting through her brain. Tom? She didn’t know anyone named…
Something clicked off in her mind, as firmly as if someone had walked through and shut a door. Whoever Tom was, he was right. Besides, she didn’t have to worry about the cabin—by which she meant shack. It was the rundown little thing next to the shack—cabin—whatever—that mattered. Adjusting her course slightly, she began walking again, short legs working quickly. The distance between her and the little building shrank down to nothing.
Without hesitation, she stepped through the small doorway—then stood still, head back, nostrils flared as she sniffed the air. The scent was disgusting—no, it wasn’t—damp hay and old droppings and the rank smell of chicken sweat. She knew the smell—it brought a shifty, hazy vision of a tall, rickety-looking house, which she met with a great stir of joy—
—before that, too, disappeared behind a very firmly closed door. She had to stay on task or risk very, very great displeasure from this Tom person. Worse, she could risk being discovered. Suddenly she was shaking all over, although she wasn’t in the least bit disturbed…like some part of her mind was telling her body she was scared, but the rest of her brain didn’t quite agree…
Her head ached.
Well, that could be dealt with later. Now, though, she relaxed and looked around the little structure.
Chickens—dozens of them—sat in nesting boxes stacked along the walls. Most of the hens were asleep, though a few just sat glancing around, their tiny black eyes catching moonlight from the doorway and the three or four unglazed windows, all close to the ceiling. She didn’t have to worry about the hens, though…
There. A rooster, black and unconcerned, scratched around in the straw littering the dirt floor, not paying the least amount of attention to her.
That was fine, that was good…if it ignored her, then it wouldn’t fuss…she started talking quietly, murmuring nonsense at the rooster, as she edged closer, hands out. Swiftly she knelt and held her hands toward the bird, making a soft clucking noise and keeping one hand cupped.
The chicken stopped and looked at her, and inched over, interested in the air she held in her cupped hand. As soon as it was within reach, she eased her hands around the rooster and stood.
It was dumb, rather pleased with being picked up. Only glad that the stupid creature stayed quiet, she walked out of the chicken house and across the grass between the building and the forest. She could do this in the trees—though what this was, she realized, stopping in her tracks, was beyond her. The rooster glanced at her and made a concerned little noise, and she started moving again.
The forest was dark, but not pitch-black—probably because she wasn’t far enough into the trees. Remembering something again—a great, respected person, a teacher, saying not to go in the forest—she stilled for half a second…and found her feet moving without her wanting them to, propelling her past the half-lit trees and into the deeper black.
The bird in her hands seemed to think something was wrong—no, something was wrong, with her—her fingers had gone wrong, somehow, stiff and moving mechanically on their own, like they were possessed. Quickly now, her hands moved and grasped the rooster by its neck, fingers digging down into the warm feathers—moved to exactly the right places—and twisted, with the perfect amount of force. A weak, clear, dead little snap cut the air like a thunderbolt, and the bird went limp.
She stared, knowing that she’d just done something completely wrong, and not caring in the least. Robbed of the precise knowing of the moment before, her hands went numb and the rooster corpse dropped to the leaves, sending up a flurry of black feathers that settled on her robes.
She looked up, and around the trees, hoping—praying—no one had seen.
There was a creature standing, ten…no, closer…five feet away, close enough to touch. It was white, pure white, glowing against the dark spaces, a graceful small horse form with one foot-long luminescent horn protruding from its forehead, above the eyes—
Quietly, sadly, the huge silver orbs examined her, full of something like hurt, betrayal—a deep, righteous anger—and pity. And, further back, a sense that it wasn’t looking at her, was seeing something behind her—or in her, just beyond her own eyes.
The unicorn turned and walked away, sorrow in every line of its form.
Staring until her eyes watered, she watched until the whiteness disappeared.
Ginny—she was Ginny now, clear-minded (she didn’t know why she was standing halfway into the Forbidden Forest, especially at a full moon when a werewolf could have killed her!) and out past curfew—turned and ran all the way back to the castle, tears splintering the black-and-silver night into one long blur.