Counting to 5000, Ch. 2 -- "Strangers' House"
Here is the central chapter of Counting to Five Thousand, the title of which is "Strangers' House". This was the original idea for the story -- or rather, part of it was. The thing that worried me most about this chapter was getting Ginevra's voice right -- you can see the two-part problem presented by her voice in this chapter. I like coming up with original characters, like Ned Mason in this chapter.
Link to Prologue: Before a Storm: http://rhetoretician.livejournal.com/3202.html#cutid1
Counting to Five Thousand
This story is still for Christine.
For a moment he had trouble remembering where he was or what he was supposed to do.
Apparation always gave Ned a headache and vertigo. Upon his arrival he nearly fell into a row of rubbish bins, just managing to catch himself in time. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, waiting for the episode to pass. Then he looked around him.
Under the hopelessly overcast skies and uniform mist of rain, the street was dark and badly maintained; stray bits of rubbish were creeping on the pavement in the light breeze. The wind was cold, and Ned wished that he had made some thicker and more waterproof clothing choices before beginning the day’s assignments. He shivered and fished out the bit of parchment on which the address was written. He took a moment to orient himself – it was hard to tell north from south in this light, and he didn’t want to risk a “four points” charm where a Muggle might see it – and reckoned that he was about a quarter-mile from his destination. Ned started down the street to his left.
All around him as he walked were signs of neglect and outright abuse: graffiti slashed onto walls, paper and plastic in the gutters, and in many places the smell of refuse. The Muggles walking along the street were hunched against the cold. Many appeared to be underdressed for the weather, some were wheeling carts containing what could be all their worldly possessions, and not a few were talking to themselves. At one point he passed a gang of young men wearing identical knitted hats who somehow conveyed a sense of violence and anger – the tallest of them was looking right at Ned as a hungry man might look at a questionable bit of food. Clutching the wand hidden in the pocket of his clothes, Ned quickened his pace as he continued through what, long ago, had been called the Moss Side area of the proud city of Manchester.
To his relief, Ned came to his destination without damage. Rounding a corner, he found himself facing a large, red brick building that had once been a mansion, or a row of flats, or some sort of commercial establishment. Now, however, it bore a wide, hopeful sign that was a bit chipped and faded, despite its having obviously been repainted more than once over the years:
None are strangers here.
Ned walked up the steps and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but he could hear activity within. Knocking again and receiving no response, he cautiously opened the door, which was not locked, and stepped inside.
The room in which he found himself – a small entrance hall or foyer of some kind – was reasonably well lit from a small fixture above; the paint was not peeling although it was clearly not new. The room had no furniture except a table on which were many pamphlets containing advice about obtaining government benefits, locating food and shelter, and preventing disease. A large sign saying Infirmary pointed to the left, while two signs saying Refectory and Dormitories pointed to the right. He could hear something like people moving or talking from both directions. Ned wasn’t sure what to do next, or in which direction to go to find the person he sought. He couldn’t guess the part of the building in which she was most likely to be found.
He was saved further deliberations by a girl of about ten rushing through the little foyer from right to left. She nearly knocked him over and would have continued with a muttered apology if he had not said, “Hello there, can you help me?”
The girl stopped and stared at him. She was wearing a green, secondhand dress and looked reasonably well-nourished, which made her stand out from the people he had seen on the street. Her dirty-blonde hair was cut in an even line around her head, as if someone had used a bowl or other simple guide to cut it quickly and cheaply. Her face was watchful and a bit suspicious.
“Who are you, then?” she demanded.
“I’m Ned, Ned Mason,” he said. “I’m trying to find someone.”
“Yeah? Who’re you trying to find?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Miss Weasley,” he said.
“Who?” replied the girl, to whom the name appeared to mean nothing.
Double-checking the parchment he’d brought, he read, “Ginevra Weasley.”
“Oh, you mean Mother Ginevra. Why didn’t you say so? She’s here.” The girl turned her head slightly in the apparent direction of the Refectory and shrieked, “Mother Gin!”
Ned heard footsteps coming from the right-hand doorway, and a calm, tired voice saying, “Don’t call me ‘Mother Gin,’ child; it makes me sound like an advertisement for spirits.”
The old woman who followed the voice into the room was short and slightly built, but showed the marks of toughening by long, arduous work. Probably closer to eighty than seventy, her back was perfectly straight and her gaze was steady. Her contemplative, weary eyes were that worn shade of tan that dark brown eyes sometimes take in later years, and had an echo of softness almost completely hidden behind a wall of practicality, decisiveness and endurance. There were lines of worry around her eyes and mouth, with branching rivers of tinier lines extending across her cheeks and forehead; but Ned fancied that he saw, in her cheekbones and the planes of her face, the afterimage of great youthful beauty. There was beauty to her now, but of a different sort – the ascetic beauty of a bare branch in winter as opposed to the florid beauty of a rose bush in June. Her hair, tied back in a no-nonsense silver-white braid that reached four inches past her shoulders, had a few faint threads of copper in it, leading Ned to believe she had once been a fiery redhead. Her hands were small but calloused and strong. She wore a plain, cheap, durable, blue work dress and shoes that had seen a lot of walking.
She looked at Ned appraisingly for a long moment. Then she turned to the girl and said, “See to the Infirmary, please, Rebecca; Rodney will need his salve again and Emily might be a bit worse.”
After the child left, the white-haired woman turned again to Ned and said flatly, “You’re wearing lederhosen with an Aloha shirt; you must be from the Ministry of Magic.” Her voice was tough too, though here was a hint of disused mirth behind it.
“Yes, Ma’am,” answered Ned. He didn’t see what his clothing had to do with it.
“I’m Ginevra,” she said. “Not Gin,” she remarked again in the direction the girl had gone. She turned back to Ned. “And who are you?”
“Edward Mason, Ma’am; my friends call me Ned.”
“Are you saying that we’re to be friends?” she asked, her eyes widening slightly.
“Perhaps not,” he admitted. “You could simply call me ‘Mason,’ if that makes you more comfortable.”
“I think I’ll call you Ned, at least for the time being. You can call me Ginevra.”
“I heard the girl call you ‘Mother Ginevra.’”
“Yes, some people here call me that, but I’m not anyone’s mother and it’s not necessary. So, Ned Mason of the Ministry of Magic, why have you come?”
“I’m following up on Ministry business,” he explained. “You should have received our owl about two weeks ago.”
“Young man, I haven’t opened owl-post in over fifty years,” she said.
“But why not?”
“Because owl-post comes from wizards, and there are no wizards whose letters I want to read. But you’re here now, and you can tell me yourself. No, wait,” she added as he began to speak. “Come into the kitchen and we’ll have a cup of tea. You can tell me there.” Although her words had the form of an invitation, Mother Ginevra did not smile.
He followed her through a long Refectory to get to the kitchen, in which she apparently had been working before the girl called her. The kitchen was not very large, considering the size of the building and the number of people he imagined it served. Over the flames on the stove there were several enormous pots that appeared to contain the beginnings of soups or stews that would feed a few dozen. There was also a steaming kettle from which Ginevra poured boiling water into a large teapot on the big work table in the center of the room. She covered the pot with a cloth and sat down on a stool at one corner of the table, motioning for Ned to do likewise.
She looked at him shrewdly for a few moments, then occupied herself with readying the chipped teacups. Clearly she was waiting for him to speak.
Ned cleared his throat and said what he had come to say. “We have information that you performed a healing charm in front of a Muggle at approximately 2:45 a.m. on Sunday, November 5th.”
She looked into space for a moment, then nodded. “That would be when Archie Felton was brought in off the street with a gunshot wound. Yes, I think that’s correct,” she confirmed.
“You admit that you did this?” he asked carefully.
“Admit? Why yes, I suppose I do ‘admit’ it.” She said with some irony in her voice.
“I must remind you,” he said formally, “that performing magic in the presence of Muggles violates the Statute of Secrecy. Even accidental spells require the subsequent intervention of an Obliviation Squad. If you can give me the names of all the Muggles who saw you perform the charm, we can have their memories modified and allow this incident to pass with a warning.”
She stood up, unwrapped the teapot, lifted the lid, peered inside and stirred it for a moment with a spoon stamped out of thin metal, before re-wrapping it and sitting down again.
“No,” she said.
“Failure to cooperate with the Magical Law Enforcement branch will compound the offense,” Ned recited.
“If you say so,” she answered, her calm demeanor unchanged. “But I won’t help to remove or alter anyone’s memories. A person’s memories are his own, no matter how terrible they may be.” This struck Ned as a rather stark and melodramatic way to put it.
“But see here – ” Ned was momentarily at a loss for words; this was not the reaction he had expected. “You can’t go around performing magic in front of Muggles!”
Mother Ginevra stood up and, without re-checking the teapot, began to pour out into the cups. “Milk or sugar?” she asked. He nodded; when she had fixed his cup and handed it to him, she took her own tea, which she drank with neither milk nor sugar. She offered him biscuits from a tin he recognized as an inexpensive Muggle brand. “My mother used to like these,” she said. When he had taken a biscuit, she bit into one herself.
“First of all, young Ned, I don’t ‘go around’ performing magic in front of anyone. I have performed very little magic over the last five decades, and nearly all of it when I am alone. Secondly, the incident of the Fifth of November –” She smiled slightly at the reference. “– was an emergency. A man was brought here in the middle of the night between Saturday and Sunday, in danger of bleeding to death from having been shot. There was no time to get him to a doctor or a hospital, and anyway I wasn’t sure that any doctor or hospital would take him. I performed the Episkey charm and some rudimentary fluid replacement spells in order to save his life. He spent a few days here and we managed to get Doctor Eldridge to take a look at him. Thirdly, Archie Felton was unconscious and never saw the spell performed, and the others helping me with him were far too busy to notice what I was doing.”
“Are you a licensed Healer?” Ned asked.
She looked at him sharply. “I will be very surprised if you haven’t researched the answer to that question before coming here. Am I a licensed Healer?”
“No,” he said. “You’re not. Consequently you should not be undertaking medical treatment, even of Muggles, without the supervision of a Healer. That constitutes a violation of a different variety.”
“ ‘Even of Muggles,’ ” Ginevra mused. “But you didn’t come here to cite me for violation of that particular ordinance, did you? Why threaten me with it now?”
“I am trying to use whatever means I have to persuade you to cooperate,” he said somewhat stiffly. “I don’t wish to arrest you.”
“Are you sure about that?” she asked. “Are you sure that you don’t want to arrest me?”
There was a long pause in which Ned considered this question. He didn’t like its implications and may even have felt slightly ashamed of himself. Nonetheless he had an assignment to fulfill.
“Ginevra, I was sent by the Division of Magical Law Enforcement to investigate this violation of the law and either to secure your cooperation or to arrest you for trial and punishment. I don’t have very many options.”
“But you’ve learned the circumstances under which the incident occurred,” she reminded him, getting up to stir one of the pots of soup or stew.
“True, but saving the life of a Muggle is not a recognized defense for a violation of the Statute of Secrecy.”
“That’s a problem right there, isn’t it? That Statute of Secrecy,” she retorted from the stove, “has been a bad idea for a long time.”
“Has it?” he asked coldly.
“Yes,” she said in the same tone. “Think of all the lives that could have been saved, all the misery that could have been avoided, if we didn’t always feel the need to keep ourselves secret.”
“But you know the reasons for the Statute,” he answered almost automatically. “Muggles aware of magic would want all their problems solved that way; they would cease working and striving – ”
She strode from the stove back to the table and leaned forward towards him. He flinched involuntarily. “The wealthy members of every society in history have made exactly the same argument against helping the poor. ‘If we help them, they’ll never learn to help themselves.’ Such rubbish. Hold the hand of a man dying from an illness one flick of the wand would cure, and say that. Try to stretch a pot of stew to fill the bellies of too many hungry children, and say that. Do you know what I think?” She was clearly starting to get angry, but she caught herself and took two long breaths. “I think we just don’t want to share our wealth with others.”
“This is all beside the point, isn’t it?” he asked, trying to take control of the conversation. “You appear, from all I can tell, to have placed yourself in circumstances in which you are in contact with needy Muggles every day. You both live and work here, don’t you?”
“I run this place, Ned. I started Strangers’ House more than fifty years ago.”
“Well, you see? You put yourself in a position where you are in constant danger of violating the Statute. If you want to save lives,” asked Ned, “why not become a Healer at St. Mungo’s? You could have saved many lives, there; wizard lives, too.”
“Wizard lives?” asked Ginevra with raised eyebrows. “Are wizard lives worth more than Muggle lives?”
“No, of course not, I just meant…” said Ned quickly, but trailed off.
They looked at each other for a moment. Then she sat back down in her chair and picked up her cup.
“In any case,” Mother Ginevra continued, “you’ve answered your own question. There are already Healers at St. Mungo’s; the best in the world. One more or less won’t make much difference. These people – ” she gestured past the walls to the multitudes in the city around her “– have no one but me and those I can convince to work with me.”
“But there are Muggle doctors, and the Muggle government takes care of the poor – ” Ned began.
“Does it? Does it really?” She asked with pain in her voice. “Once upon a time the government took care of the poor, somewhat; once upon a time healthcare of a sort was available to all. Don’t you understand the history of the Muggle world over the last half-century?”
Ned shook his head; Muggle Studies had never been his subject, and the job he currently held probably required a firmer grasp of the Muggle world than he had at his command.
She began, “Not too long after Voldemort fell, Muggle science made a rapid series of leaps forward that eventually made it possible to extend human life almost without limit. Blood replacement, cloned organs, molecular surgery, genetic reconstruction, nanotechnology in the brain and elsewhere in the body – with all these things a person could be ‘upgraded’ and ‘rejuvenated’ for centuries. Voldemort’s dream come true, and brought about by Muggles! How he would have hated that.” Ned was having trouble following the details of all this, but he caught the gist. “The only problem was that this life-extension was – is! – obscenely expensive. Only the wealthiest, most powerful people could afford it, and not as many of them as wanted to. Slowly, by very small steps, more and more resources of the state and industry began to be funneled into this window of immortality for the very few; money for the poor dried up; medical personnel and devices were diverted to the Rejuvenated.”
“But,” Ned objected, remembering what little he had retained about Muggle society, “Muggles have representative government! Surely the majority who were being abused would have voted the government out and replaced it!”
Ginevra spoke as to a precocious but naïve child. “Muggle government is representative democracy in theory. But the rich and the powerful have always been able to manipulate things to their advantage, and here it was a matter of life and death for them. They gave no quarter.”
Ned was silent. He was not used to having so many assumptions turned on their heads at one time. He finished his cup of tea. Without asking, Mother Ginevra refilled it and added the milk and sugar.
“I feed who I can,” she continued, offering the biscuits again; Ned didn’t take one. “I give people a roof over their heads until they can find one of their own; some stay here quite a long time. I use what rudimentary skills I have and the pitiful resources available to heal injuries and treat illness. I comfort the dying. We get donations from those few of the wealthy who still seem to have a conscience, or from those large enterprises that see a tax advantage. We can get a few doctors, nurses, chemists and nutritionists to help out. We don’t have the licenses or permits to do half of the things that we do, but we keep doing it anyway; if the government inspectors’ offices that track such things were not now ridiculously under-funded themselves, we’d probably have been shut down long ago. Once in a while a reporter writes a news story about Strangers’ House. It doesn’t help. I do what I can.”
Mother Ginevra stared at her teacup for a few moments; then she poured herself another cup and sipped at it, not looking at Ned, but straight ahead of her at the kitchen wall.
“I don’t understand,” Ned pondered, “how you came to choose this. I can understand a Muggle, you know, seeing it every day. But how does a witch wind up here, isolated from wizardkind, giving her whole life to the Muggle poor? You don’t even use magic any more! Who are you?”
“You really don’t know, do you?” Ginevra asked. Ned shook his head. “I used to imagine that everyone who ever looked at me knew the story and was thinking about it until I left their sight.” She sighed. “Have you ever visited Burrow Park?”
“Why, yes,” he answered, taken completely off guard by the sudden change of topic. “It’s the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen – all those wonderful trees and gardens. My Division has an annual ceremony there to honor the victorious dead.”
“It is, beautiful, isn’t it?” She agreed with a faint smile. “Burrow Park used to be my home, before it was destroyed by the Death Eaters. I have a grave site picked out for myself there.” She seemed almost wistful about the idea.
Ned knitted his eyebrows in perplexity. “But how can you be buried there? I thought it was reserved for the heroes of the – ” He stopped with his mouth open. “Wait a moment – Weasley – Ginevra – no, Ginny Weasley.” He stared at her with incredulity. “You’re one of The Seventeen, aren’t you?”
“The Seventeen? Is that what they call us now?” She sounded slightly amused, but only slightly. “Well, yes, there were seventeen of us, at least for a while. I suppose that’s as good a name as any. You could as easily have called us The Twenty, or The Twelve,” A flicker of pain crossed over her face. “Or The Five Thousand. But I haven’t been called Ginny since that day, or shortly thereafter, anyway.”
“But you – ” Ned’s voice had become awed, realizing whom he was addressing. “You destroyed Voldemort! You and The Seventeen: You saved the Wizarding world! If you went back, there’d be hundreds, maybe thousands, who’d want to honor you.”
“That’s one of the reasons I don’t go back,” she said bitterly. “To be celebrated, when you deserve to be punished. If they understood the whole story, they’d rip me to pieces. Or they should.”
“I don’t understand.”
She looked tired. She got up again, walking to the one small window in the kitchen and looking out, although it was fogged from the cooking on the inside and covered with mist droplets on the outside. “Well, Ned, it’s a long story. At the start, there was only one who was going to destroy Voldemort, and his name was Harry Potter. You’ve heard of him?”
Ned nodded. “Yes; he was called ‘The Boy Who Lived,’ wasn’t he? He stopped the Dark Lord when he was only a baby.”
Ginevra smiled sadly, still looking through the translucent glass. “So he did. We thought he would finish Voldemort for good, too.” She took a deep breath. “Harry was the boy I thought I was going to marry. I loved him. And more’s the pity, he loved me.”
Ned was becoming uncomfortable with the direction the story was taking. He shifted in his seat. He wondered why he didn’t change the subject or get back to his assignment. “One boy, alone? How could he have thought he could win the war by himself?”
“You never knew him. He had powers and depths almost no one suspected. He faced the Dark Lord, alone or nearly alone, on five separate occasions and survived each one. He saved my life at least twice, maybe more. When he came of age, Harry and his two best friends determined to set out and finish the war. They told almost no one, but I knew what they were going to do.
“At first Harry was going to leave me behind; he even told me we had to break off our little romance. The bit about breaking off the romance didn’t last long.” She smiled sadly again. “I’d thought, at first, that he only wanted to protect me, but then I understood that he was worried that he’d be less effective in his war if I was with him; he thought – ” She looked off into the invisible distance for a moment and then resumed more quietly. “Harry thought that Voldemort would find out about us and use me against him. But after a very short time I realized that I wanted to go with him; I was afraid of Voldemort, but I didn’t want Harry to leave me and I wanted a chance to help. I had nearly as much experience and maybe more power than my brother Ron or his fiancée Hermione, who were already going to go along; I figured four were better than three. But it took me some time and effort to get him to let me accompany him on this dangerous mission.”
She turned from the window and looked at Ned.
“The way I finally convinced him was to tell him about the Sacred Band of Thebes.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ned. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Neither had he. I’d read about it in some Muggle novels, and looked it up in the library one day. The Sacred Band was a battalion in the Theban army about 2,400 years ago. It was composed entirely of couples, of sweethearts. The Thebans believed that no warrior would betray cowardice or weakness where his beloved could witness it. And they were right: the Sacred Band was undefeated until they met the cavalry regiment commanded by Alexander the Great, and then they fought to the death. The bodies of the lovers and beloveds were found together, where they had stood protecting each other.” She shook her head as though trying to convince her memory of something. “It was just the thing to stir the romantic heart of a teenage girl, and it stirred Harry’s heart too. I got him to believe that we’d be fiercer warriors if we could fight side-by-side.”
Ginevra sighed. “It was nonsense, of course. Neither of us was a warrior. We hadn’t been trained, didn’t have the discipline, we didn’t know how. We weren’t stupid; we could have figured this out. But neither of us wanted to figure it out; we wanted an excuse to stay together, because we knew that time might be short. And short it was.”
She looked sadder still, then visibly pushed that thought away from her and resumed her story. Now her back was against the wall, and she leaned on it, still looking at Ned. “At first, things worked very well. We couldn’t go after Voldemort at the beginning, because he had made – well, devices that made him harder to kill. We spent nearly a year tracking those things down and destroying them, and the whole time we worked very well together as a team. I was scared a great deal of the time, but I was with Harry so I was also beside myself with excitement and almost a kind of triumph, as if I’d proved he was mine.
“Then came the day we attacked Voldemort. We had an exquisite plan that was designed to force his hand. But when it happened, Voldemort focused all of his attention on attacking me – me and nobody else.” Her face took on a hard, aching look. “Harry had been right at the beginning; Voldemort knew exactly how Harry felt about me, and used every scrap of that information to his advantage. He went after me persistently, ignoring the other three; I dodged and ran and tried to bring him back to the place where we needed him to be, but he kept coming after me and after me. Eventually Harry couldn’t take it; he knew the plan, he knew what we had to do, but he couldn’t watch me be killed. He moved out of position to try to rescue me – and that’s when Voldemort killed him.”
Her face became immobile; she pressed her hands against the wall at her sides and began speaking in a monotone. “By the time the fight was over, Ron and Hermione were killed too. Only I survived. Voldemort could have killed me, but he didn’t. He looked at me, cowering in a corner, and laughed, and thanked me for making his work so easy. Then he Disapparated.”
“But – ” Ned interrupted. “But you did succeed in killing Voldemort; I know you did. You and The Seventeen. I’ve read about it.”
“Yes, we did, The Seventeen, as you call us. You see, there was a prophecy that foretold that a particular person would be able to kill Voldemort. It was rubbish, but we didn’t know that at the time. Harry and Voldemort both thought that the prophecy referred to Harry. But there was another man, Neville Longbottom, to whom the prophecy might also have referred. The seventeen of us – me, Neville, and fifteen others – set a trap for Voldemort, using Neville as bait. It took more than a year, but we managed to persuade Voldemort that the prophecy really referred to Neville, and arranged for him to come after Neville at a time of our choosing. Then, when he got there, there were sixteen of us casting every lethal spell we could think of directly at him. His attention was on Neville, and we had him in a crossfire; it was over within twenty seconds. With his protections gone, Voldemort proved far less hard to kill than we’d thought. But Neville was also killed, and my friend Luna, and three others. It’s a good thing that the prophecy turned out to be rubbish.”
Ned still was confused. “But I don’t understand; if you succeeded and won the war, why do you think you deserve punishment?”
She abandoned the support of the wall and began to pace back and forth as though it was uncomfortable to stay in one position for more than a few moments. “Because in the intervening year more than five thousand people were killed. The total number was actually 5,280 – the exact number of feet in a mile; isn’t that odd?”
“That estimate seems high,” Ned said.
“It would,” Ginevra answered in an agitated tone. “The records never seem to count the Muggles who died, nor the Death Eaters. But I have to count them – especially the Death Eaters; I killed some of them myself. By that time I was a soldier.” She stopped in her tracks, took a shuddering breath and looked him directly in the eyes. “But the number is exact; I’ve counted the names many times – starting with Harry and ending with Neville and Luna, five thousand, two hundred and eighty people died because of my stupidity, my arrogance, my pride. Five thousand, two hundred and eighty – including my parents, all my brothers, my sister-in-law and her sweet boy Phillipe whose body we never found, my teachers, every friend I had in the world.”
Ned was still confused; he didn’t see the connection. Ginevra saw his confusion and walked back to the table again; her voice took on a slightly frantic tone, the first real break in the calm she had displayed so far.
“Don’t you see? Once we destroyed those things he’d made, Voldemort wasn’t that hard to kill! We proved it. Had I allowed Harry and the others to proceed on the hunt without me, Voldemort would not have been able to distract Harry as he did; the original plan would have worked and Voldemort would have been destroyed a year earlier. But Harry wasn’t able to stop himself; it’s a deep, overwhelming animal instinct, to protect your mate – and whether we realized it or not, that’s who I was: Harry’s mate. He couldn’t stop himself from trying to save me.”
Her intensity had increased to the point where he feared she might perform accidental magic. She cried, “An entire year, and five thousand, two hundred and eighty people. The stupid Sacred Band of Thebes! I should have remembered that the bodies after their last battle were found lying where they had died protecting each other, not protecting their objective. Five thousand, two hundred and eighty lives!”
“You can’t put the blame all on yourself,” Ned said, smarting with the injustice of it. “You didn’t make Harry try to save you; you don’t know that the plan would have worked; most of those people were killed by the Death Eaters. How can you take the responsibility for yourself?”
“Because I do have responsibility,” she said more quietly, but with finality. “Because I didn’t think about the consequences of my actions; because any person, at any time, has the power to turn evil away from the world if he just exercises his will. And I failed. I wanted to be a hero and I wanted to be with my boyfriend.” She spoke the last word in almost a snarl. “And Harry was right at the beginning, and I knew he was right, and I talked him out of it.” Her face became bleak. “We might have had a lifetime together. My parents might have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being incinerated when the Burrow was destroyed. My brothers might have begot dozens of Weasleys, instead of leaving me the last. I didn’t want to be left behind – and so my punishment is that I am left behind profoundly, by everyone, for half a century or more. I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to apologize.” She sat back down again, drained.
Ned was silent for a moment, then objected, “But if that’s your punishment, then why punish yourself further?”
“You mean, all this?” asked Ginevra, gesturing around the room. “This isn’t punishment, Ned; it’s atonement.”
“I don’t understand.”
Ginevra spoke very quietly. “When it was over, and Voldemort was gone, and the world wanted to celebrate us – those you now call The Seventeen, or the twelve who survived, anyway – and I realized all that I’d lost, I was going to kill myself. I was going to join Harry, and my family and my friends. But I realized that to do that would make it impossible to make up for what I’d done. I don’t know that you can ever atone for taking a life, but if you can, the only way would have to be by saving a life. It isn’t really atonement, how can it be? You can’t revive the person you destroyed. But at least there’s one person alive in the world who wouldn’t be but for you; that’s the best you can do. And so I decided that I could not leave the earth until I had atoned – until I had saved as many lives as I lost.”
The full meaning slowly dawned on Ned. “You mean that you’re trying – that you want to save – ”
“Five thousand, two hundred and eighty lives. That’s right.” She spoke as if he had only now understood a simple principle of arithmetic. “My work here isn’t directly about saving lives, and it’s hard to measure exactly under conditions like these – whose life you actually saved, who would have lived anyway, you know – but I think I’m up to three thousand and twenty-three.” She smiled grimly. “Do you think I’ll live to be 120?”
He didn’t know what to say. The way she was driving herself, he doubted that she’d make it to 100. She looked older than a witch of her age should.
The girl called Rebecca suddenly ran into the room. “Mother Gin!” she cried. “I think Emily is much worse! Please come quickly.”
Ginevra did not correct the girl’s words this time. She stood, then looked at Ned.
“Come along too, young Ned Mason. You should see this.”
The Infirmary was about thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide; there were windows at the top of the walls on either end of the room, bringing in the grey light and adding to the few electrical lights. There were eight beds, three of which were occupied. In the closest bed was a man in his fifties (Ned guessed that this was Rodney), with large red and white patches all over his skin, which was glistening with some sort of ointment. He was sleeping fitfully. A second patient in an adjacent bed was awake, but didn’t seem to be aware of her surroundings and was muttering to herself. Rebecca and Ginevra immediately proceeded to the third occupied bed, the far bed from Rodney’s, which was occupied by a thin woman who appeared to be asleep.
“She started breathing much faster, and gasping,” said Rebecca. “I think she woke up for a moment. Then she fell back.”
The woman was not breathing quickly now, nor was she awake. Her breath was coming in very slow, irregular gasps; her skin was the color of skim milk and her lips were nearly blue. Her face had a cold, clammy look to it; her eyes were sunken and her hair was slickly against her head; she was completely still, but for that breathing. A sour smell surrounded her.
Ned backed away in revulsion.
Ginevra picked up the woman’s hand. After staring at the face for a moment, she turned to Rebecca and said, “Thank you for telling me, child. When is Richard supposed to come to visit her?”
“Not until four o’clock,” said the girl.
Mother Ginevra thought for a few seconds. “Would you run along and try to find him, dear? It might be best if he came now.” Rebecca’s eyes widened and she bolted out of the room.
Ginevra looked down at the woman, still holding her hand, and said to the wasted face, “I don’t think he’s going to get here soon enough; it’s nearly time.”
Then she turned to Ned.
“This is Emily,” she said as if she were making formal introductions. “She has a husband and two small children. She’s been in and out of here for months, but has been here constantly for the last week or so. She is twenty-four years old.” Ned would have guessed the patient to be at least twenty years older.
Ginevra was looking at Ned as if she expected a response from him. He could think of none to give her.
She explained, “Emily is suffering from drug-resistant tuberculosis. It’s epidemic in the city. When it first arose there were some hopes of finding a cure for it, but the realignment of medical resources toward life-extension and rejuvenation sucked the lifeblood out of those efforts. Now millions are dying from it, more than 150,000 in Britain alone, and no one does anything.”
Ned looked at the suffering woman in horror; he hated the sight but he could not tear his eyes away.
Ginevra moved closer to Ned and lowered her voice so that no one else in the room could hear. “As it happens,” she continued almost inaudibly, “there is a series of charms and transfigurations that does cure this malady. Both the tissues of the lungs and the bacterium that cause the illness are amenable to Healers’ charms. There are no magic-resistant strains of this disease. At least not yet,” she added darkly. “If this patient were in St. Mungo’s she would have been sent home, healthy and hugging her family, days ago.”
Ned continued to stare at the patient. Where was the family? A sick feeling of pity and terror began to rise in his throat.
“I learned the curative sequence some time ago,” Ginevra added in the same faint voice. “But of course it’s illegal for us to use it, and normally I wouldn’t. What do you say, Ned? There still may be time, although it also may be too late. Shall we break the law and save her? She’s only a Muggle.”
Ned could not speak. He could not move.
Ginevra shrugged and went back to the bed, picking up Emily’s hand and speaking to her softly. Ned could not hear the words, but he was pretty sure that she wasn’t invoking a spell. Ginevra pulled up a chair and continued to talk to Emily, holding her hand and occasionally stroking her hair.
Gradually the labored breathing slowed ever more. After about twenty minutes, it stopped altogether. Mother Ginevra was very still for a full four minutes – during part of which time Ned realized that he was holding his own breath. Then the older woman put her ear on the younger woman’s chest and listened for another long moment. Finally she straightened.
With the calm, sad expression of one who has seen death many times but has never become numb to it, she smoothed the victim’s hair and arranged the bedclothes around her, lightly kissing her on the forehead.
Mother Ginevra turned towards Ned and looked him steadily in the eyes. Her own eyes were dry. Ned suddenly had the thought that she had cried out every tear she had, years and years before.
Softly she said, “We should be proud of ourselves, Ned; we upheld the Statute of Secrecy. Should I add one more life to the debt that I owe? I suppose that one more won’t make much difference. Or is she one of yours?”
Ned looked at her in horror for a moment, then turned and fled the Infirmary, almost running through the small foyer and Refectory back into the kitchen, where the pots were still bubbling. He grabbed his half-empty cup and swallowed the cold tea that remained. Shakily he poured another cup from the pot and began to drink it, the liquid scalding his throat, his mind in turmoil.
Behind him he heard the front door of the place bang open and hurried footsteps pound towards the Infirmary. After only a few moments, from a greater distance there was the anguished, awful cry of a young man’s voice, and Ned guessed that Richard, the husband, had arrived.
Ned tried to think of a way to escape. He didn’t want to see Mother Ginevra, or Rebecca, or – please, no! – the husband. He didn’t want to see the grief and despair. He wanted to be elsewhere. He wanted to jettison his assignment and get as far away from Manchester and Strangers’ House as possible.
“Don’t worry, Ned,” came the calm voice behind him. “They won’t come in here.”
He realized that some time must have passed without his knowing it. He didn’t turn around. He looked at his hands.
“Ned, look at me.”
He slowly rotated his feet, then his shoulders, then his head in her direction. She was looking at him evenly; there was no anger or disdain in her face or voice.
“Don’t be ashamed, Ned; it was your first time. The first deaths I saw affected me much worse than that, believe me. I’m sorry I made you face that; you weren’t ready for it. Sometimes I get impatient with the rest of the world.”
“I can understand why,” he said.
There was a long pause.
“So, Ned Mason, are you going to arrest me?” She asked as if it were idle curiosity.
“No. I’m not going to do that.” He didn’t know when he’d come to that decision.
“How will you manage it?”
“I don’t know; I’ll find a way. It doesn’t make sense.”
“No,” she agreed. “Very little of it makes sense.” She regarded him silently for a moment. “Will you think about what I said before, Ned?”
“I will, Ginevra.” He replied.
Ned walked out of the kitchen and through the little foyer, leaving Mother Ginevra behind him; he knew that she would resume her labors before he got out of the building. He opened the door, stepping into the grey light, sniffed the air and turned towards his next destination, thinking hard all the time.