Chapter 13: Thursday Night and Friday - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
It was surprising, when she came to think about it, just how little sleep she seemed to need these days.
It was well past eleven when Emily Longbottom stepped softly out of her bedroom, took a precautionary look up and down the corridor, and, having satisfied herself that she was unobserved, transformed herself into a bat and fluttered into the dark shadows which hung about the ceiling cornices.
Keeping the guests corralled in the residents’ sitting room during the evening, playing a succession of unexpectedly convivial parlour games, had taken it out of her, though, there was no denying it. And thank heavens she had had the wit to dredge up Nebuchadnezzar from the Edwardian house-parties of her distant girlhood; she had supposed the long-forgotten game would be a hit with these exhibitionist literary types, and so it had proved. She’d almost feared that her control over the group was lapsing towards the end of the evening, and the siren song of last orders at the Rose and Crown would prove too strong for her, but her forethought in arranging for Elise to come in with a tray of complementary liqueurs and Irish coffees at the crucial moment had deterred the impulse towards inconvenient mobility. She paused, momentarily. She would have to straighten that out in the books with young Caitlin once she got out of hospital, but, on the other hand, given it was all in the good cause of trying to find out who’d poisoned her, it was hardly likely Caitlin would be unreasonable about it.
In terms of what she was expecting the guests to get up to now the formal part of the evening was over - now, that was a different story. And as she had taken the precaution of placing locking charms over all the bedroom windows, they would have to use the rather more formal means of leaving the building. And from her position against the ceiling, she had command of the head of the stairs, and, indeed, of the fire escape which led down from outside a reinforced glass door at the end of the landing.
Emily Longbottom waited.
It was with a satisfied snort (which, fortunately, her current vocal cords transmuted to a high pitched squeak beyond the range of human hearing before it could betray her) that the first door she spotted being pushed carefully open was the one her carefully memorised plan of the bedroom floor had assigned to young Miss Flibbertigibbet.
Nicci poked her nose cautiously round the crack in the door, looking up and down the corridor. She was, Emily Longbottom noted with interest, dressed for the outdoors, in a close-fitting fleece top with a hood, and black pants ending in surprisingly practical ankle boots. However (and again, interestingly) she did not head towards the stairwell, but instead sidled rapidly and noiselessly - Emily acknowledged her stealth with a grudging respect (boarding school, obviously, a chime of memory reminded her) - towards the glass door outside which was the fire-escape.
She opened the door, somehow managing to avoid setting off the fire alarm as she did so. Emily poised to flutter after her in case she showed any signs of decamping via the fire escape, but instead she leaned out, giving a little girlish giggle, and a surprisingly piercing, vulgar whistle. And then -
Emily Longbottom literally hit the roof, pressing herself against the darkest, dustiest remote reaches of the elaborate plasterwork. A profound chill spread down the corridor. It was a cold night, true, but this was more than weather; it was a bone-deep, grave-deep herald of what had waited on the fire-escape outside.
Of what Nicci had just invited across the threshold.
Invited into my granddaughter’s house.
The house of which she has left me custodian.
With a tremendous effort Emily Longbottom stifled a protesting gasp.
Given what is in the corridor now, it would not be safe even to utter a bat-squeak.
She paused for a second’s thought.
Especially not a bat squeak. Given what is in the corridor now.
There were sounds from the darkness of the corridor. Recognisable, repellent sounds of sucking. And then, footsteps retreating rapidly back to the fire escape, and echoing on its metal treads.
As soon as she could be sure that the coast was clear Emily fluttered down into the corridor. She allowed herself, now, a little snort of satisfaction. In her haste to depart Nicci had - as she had hoped - not allowed the latch to re-engage properly. The fire door was still open a fraction. The pipistrelle is the smallest native British bat. Within seconds, Emily Longbottom was out into the night, and in pursuit of her quarry.
“Bugger,” Draco whispered hoarsely, and came to an abrupt stop. Peter, who had been following hard on his heels (Draco could certainly see in the dark, he had concluded), bumped straight into him.
“What?” His own whisper was rather sharper than he had originally intended. Draco gestured impatiently - the small quantity of available light reflected off his signet ring as he did so. A patch of darkness that was blacker than the surrounding night had begun to ooze from under the vestry door a few paces ahead of them, growing in size and density quicker than thought. It reached a height of perhaps seven feet, and a breadth of three across, and then, even as Draco pointed, it gathered together (Peter thought of spilt liquid evaporating under a fierce blast of heat) coalesced into a concentrated, infinitely dark point no bigger that a baby’s hand, and - was not.
Draco gave a hiss of sheer frustration.
“Our - target - looks like it’s remembered an appointment elsewhere.”
“There’s still a light in the church,” Peter said. Draco nodded.
“Yes. How very - handy. Almost as if it was an invitation.”
Draco’s tone reflected his own inner disquiet. But notwithstanding his fear, and an unnatural chill which had spread over Peter since he had seen the dark shape, he was not going to leave matters unresolved, if there was anything he could humanly do about them.
“Come on,” he said grimly. “We’re going in there. I want to see what we’re being invited to. And I’d like to know who’s doing the inviting.”
“I could give you two suggestions. And you won’t like either of them,” Draco muttered, but nevertheless strode forward towards the church door. Peter gulped, and followed.
The time-smoothed iron of the door-handle turned easily and the door opened inwards without resistance. That, in itself was wrong: Peter had locked up that evening with more than usual care. He passed in behind Draco, passing through the ante-chamber, feeling through the thin soles of his shoes the worn flags, over which he and his predecessors as incumbents had passed in unbroken succession for six and a half hundred years. He should feel that tradition as preserving and strengthening his will, as he had always done since arriving in the parish, but tonight he had no access to it.
As he took in the scene his automatic rebuke to Draco died on his lips. Veronica’s slight, fragile figure lay splayed across the three shallow steps that lead up to the altar. At first sight she did not appear to be moving. Her thrown-back head was lower than her feet, revealing the entire white length of her throat. And the ugly red wound that blemished it.
He dropped to his knees beside her, feeling frantically for a pulse. Draco, meanwhile, in a few brief strides had crossed the church, apparently engaged in recceing the side chapels, to ensure that they had, in truth, been left alone with the still figure of the girl.
He returned just as Peter’s fingers had - to his shuddering relief - managed to locate the faintest thread of pulse in Veronica’s neck. He looked up at the sound of booted feet.
“Unless they’re lurking in the bell-tower, seems as if we are alone, yes.” Draco looked down at Veronica. “Left to pick up the pieces, it seems.”
“Are we - is she - was that really a - um - ?” Even with all he had seen today, the question he wanted to ask stuck in his throat. His mind howled in a protest of frustrated rationality.
This is all so absurdly melodramatic.
The Bishop should have bloody well appointed M.R. James to this parish in the first place, and had done with it.
And yes - I do know M.R. James has been dead for about 80 years.
Do you imagine, knowing what I now know about this parish, that they’d even notice?
As though sensing his difficulty, Draco, looking for once faintly abashed, said, “Well, I did tell you she was looking very anaemic, you know.”
He gulped. “How long - how long do you think it’s been going on?”
Draco shrugged. “Since shortly after she arrived in the village? How would I know? But I hadn’t heard of any other - cases. And, believe me, I would have. So if she’s his first, this time around - well, that would explain how she got to that bad a state, that quickly. Hungry. Making up for lost time. I wonder if we interrupted him, or if we were - meant - to find her.”
He looked down at Veronica. “After all, she must be pretty close to the end of her interest for him.”
Peter gulped. “And if she dies - will she - ah -?”
Thankfully, his circumlocutions were being understood. Draco nodded.
“Unless we get him first, that is. Oh, god. Times like this, I really wish school had taken Defence Against The Dark Arts seriously.”
Peter looked at him.
“Well, judging by this morning, you don’t seem to have done too badly, notwithstanding.”
Draco shrugged. “Well, my parents weren’t exactly the types to consider it unsporting for me to get extra tuition in the holidays - of all sorts, actually. “
He looked down at the unmoving body of the girl.
“Anyway, we’d better shift her. Otherwise you’ll never get another caretaker, or whoever it is you’re expecting to open the church up tomorrow. They really hate finding things like this, you know, cleaners.”
Peter gulped. Before, however, he could say anything, Draco put his head on one side, and enquired,
“OK if we take her back to the Vicarage?”
A rapid series of considerations cycled through Peter’s brain, not all of them, to be truthful, wholly creditable. All he said, was,
“You are bearing in mind that we’re still in quarantine?”
Draco shrugged. “Frankly, bubonic plague is the least of Nicci’s problems at the moment.”
Peter gulped, but was hardly likely to quarrel with that interpretation. He nodded.
Draco bent down. “Levo!”
He swung Veronica up into his arms, still, by some sleight of hand, managing to hold his wand at the ready.
“I think we’d better go out of the main door,” Draco said. “Just in case someone’s planning on springing a surprise from the vestry side.”
They had just passed out through the lych gate onto the High Street - Draco a few yards in front of him - when a slow, firm, West-Country voice from behind his left ear said,
“Good evening, vicar. You’re at the church a bit late tonight, aren’t you?”
A large blue-uniformed shape was standing foursquare in the pool of light formed by the nearest streetlamp. Peter gulped - hesitated - thought of a response -
And was forestalled by the cool, cut-glass tones coming out of the darkness.
“Well, then it’s fortunate that he won’t be expecting to be paid overtime, isn’t it?”
The village bobby (Peter still found his given name of Elvis too troublesome to use, particularly on formal occasions) braced back so abruptly that Peter feared for his spine. Draco, the limp figure of Veronica dangling from his arms, stepped into the light, which reflected off his white-blond hair, giving a - wholly misleading - halo effect.
“Very mild night for the time of year,” he added conversationally. “You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’d seen the last of the storms for another winter.”
The policeman looked, momentarily, not dissimilar to a uniformed goldfish. Then he gulped, nodded, and said, “You know, sir, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had.”
Draco nodded graciously.
“Anyway, don’t let us keep you from your duties. I’m sure you’ve lots to be getting on with.”
His eyes narrowed and he looked across the road towards the Rose and Crown, from whose windows light was spilling out onto the pavement.
“You know, officer, I’m shocked to suspect this, but I really think out of hours drinking may be going on over there.”
There was an unmistakable note of command in Draco’s tone.
Be a good chap and go off and round up the usual suspects. Well away from here.
“Really?” The village bobby’s voice sounded as though it was coming from some remote place. With an effort at pulling himself together, he added,
“Well, then, sir, I suppose I’d better go and look into it.”
“Good man. Well, we’d better not keep you. Goodnight!”
Moving rather like a sleepwalker, the policeman crossed the road. When he was out of earshot, Peter turned to Draco.
“What the -?”
He shrugged. “Neville told me some Muggle once said, “Never explain, never apologise”. Seemed like quite a cunning plan, to me.”
Peter set his teeth. “I’m sure Winston Churchill didn’t actually contemplate applying that aphorism to suspiciously unconscious women and the fuzz, you know. What are they going to think of me in this village?”
Draco paused. “That you’re not someone to be messed with lightly?”
Peter coughed reprovingly. “That - was hardly my principal objective when I started on my Ministry in this parish.” He narrowed his eyes and looked straight at Draco. “And, in case you’re getting any ideas along that line, I’ve absolutely no intention of being seen as the private chaplain to your personal fiefdom, either.”
Draco, despite the burden of Veronica in his arms, somehow managed an airy, perish-the-thought, gesture.
“I only wanted to spare you the - inconvenience - of that bloke hauling you off to question you about her with a cat-o-nine-tails while you dangled by your thumbs from his dungeon wall - “
“Draco! I don’t know what wild ideas you’ve got about law enforcement in our world, but I can assure you that physical coercion to extract information is rigorously banned and has been for very many years -“
Draco snorted. “Yes, and our Ministry says exactly the same thing - I gather all the old hands bitch on endlessly that with all the post-War restrictions they haven’t a hope of getting a conviction these days - Actually, they really must have been quite something back when, you know. One of my father’s friends who was in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement used to say that one of their very finest inquisitors when he first joined was a Muggle-born, and they knew he was only playing until he put on the “Everything I Know, I Learned From The West Midlands Serious Crime Squad” T-shirt. Once he did that, you couldn’t get odds better than evens against any time to confession under ten minutes.”
Peter gulped, but made his voice bland. “And what happened to him in the end?”
“I’m relieved to hear it, ” he said. “Brutality, I suppose?”
Draco shook his head. “Inappropriate political sympathies.” He paused. “And choosing the wrong parents, of course.”
And then they were at the Vicarage gate. In a voice barely above a whisper, Draco said,
“Back door, I suggest. And - very quietly.”
They followed the gravel path round to the door to the lean-to conservatory.
The kitchen was dark and cold. Draco did not pause, but passed straight on through. However, Peter, spotting the thin line of lamplight under the door to the study, pushed past him in the corridor.
“No,” he said, “It’s my house. And it’s my church, too. I go first.”
Draco hesitated, as though about say something, and then drew back with a surprisingly graceful gesture to allow Peter to enter the room first.
For one bizarre split second, as he took in the snowy-haired figure in clerical collar and formal black clothing, seated in the most comfortable armchair by the fire, the soft lamplight striking a warm ruby glow from the cut-crystal glass of - port -? on the little table by his elbow, Peter thought that Canon Bowles had come back down from the Manor to support him, and hang the risk of infection.
And then his visitor turned his head, revealing the face of a stranger, which was nonetheless entirely recognisable. Peter’s eyes flicked across to the darkened oil painting on the wall, and then back at his visitor, who looked back at him through dark eyes that had centuries of cold malignity in their depths. The fine, patrician face curved into a smile of cold, unquestioned, unapologetic evil. Peter realised without possibility of error who - what - this had to be.
“Canon Rawkins, I presume,” he said coldly. “I wasn’t aware I’d invited you to the Vicarage. And although I’m aware that the Cloth stands outside the normal ranks of formal precedence, simple manners still apply. Or at least so I was taught. And I understood, too, that in your particular case waiting for an invitation across a threshold was more than simply a matter of - how would you have expressed it, in your time? Ah yes. Good breeding.”
Canon Rawkins inclined his head slightly. He smiled, curving his surprisingly full, moist red lips disconcertingly back from his very white, very sharp teeth as he did so.
“In general terms, it may be so, it may be so,” he drawled, in an accent that seemed heavy with the aura of musty leather bindings of old leather volumes in huge, half-ruined libraries filled with forbidden knowledge. “But, you young pup, you yap at the wrong door. It should have been me, reminding you of your manners. For after all, I am the Incumbent here. No-one who has come after has in truth had the cure of souls in this parish. The Bishop could not validly present to a living already filled. I have, you see, the entrée here as of right. And you are here on sufferance.”
Peter paused, unsure of what to say next. From behind him there was a slight bump as Draco released Veronica from his grasp and allowed her to slide to the carpet.
Canon Rawkins smiled again.
“Though - since it suits me to have someone carrying out the - more trying duties of my office at my - advanced time of life, I may say that you seem as like to prove a fair curate once put to it as the many I’ve seen sitting in your place.”
He extended his hand to Peter, who pointedly refused to take it. A sneer - not, Peter was glad to note, unmixed with naked rage - spread across Canon Rawkins lips.
“So. You puling slubberdegullion - you bastard son of a fish-fag - you presume to give me the cut direct?”
“Just like Great-Uncle Roger,” Draco murmured. “Only on that occasion, if I recollect, you told him that it would soil the dignity of the Cloth were you to give him the meeting.”
Canon Rawkins looked across at Draco; it was plain he needed no introduction to work out precisely who he was. He raised his eyebrows.
“And did your uncle likewise tell you I stood in the main street of this village - yes, at the spot where the old butter market used to stand - and proclaimed your family to the world as the degenerate spawn of a degraded squirachy, steeped in unclean learning and with a stiff-backed pride to equal that of Lucifer himself?”
Draco shrugged. ” Well, I always guessed there had to be something more than just your ducking out of the duel to provoke him to horsewhip you all the way from here to Fontwell Abbas. But he didn’t go into details, no.”
The Canon’s smile got broader.
“Ah. And there he underestimated me. Those trips I had taken to the Baltic shores, to study, as they thought, the errors of the Lutheran pastors, were more than he ever dreamt. I continued my studies even while I recovered from my injuries at his hands. The weals on my back had scarcely scabbed over before I knew what power I needed to invoke to have my revenge, for ever and ever, world without end. My earlier sojourns here were mere - as it were - experiments in natural philosophy. And now it all comes to fruition. And what a harvest shall ye reap!”
Peter had been conscious of a faint sound - one he thought he ought to recognise - on the very edge of his hearing for some moments. And then a slightly breathless but oh, so deeply reassuring voice from just behind him said,
“I’m really sorry to drop in on you so late, Peter, but I came as soon as I heard about the plague, to see what I could do to help. And at least you haven’t gone to bed yet. Oh, and is that man who’s talking like a cross between Georgette Heyer and something scripted by Joss Whedon really a vampire? I haven’t met one before. Well, not close to. It just shows how shockingly inaccurate the pictures in the text-books are, you know.”
Peter turned to find Hermione perched on the computer stool.
“Granger, do keep back,” Draco said, in a voice that was trying a little too elaborately to be nonchalant. “I mean, he seems to think Peter might have a role deputising for him (so annoying, isn’t it, Canon? the parishioners will insist on being married and buried in daylight, and that’s without the added problem of the holy water when it’s a baptism). And I don’t suppose I’d be the first choice, this close to Malfoy ground. But do watch your neck in case he decides he’s still peckish.”
Hermione’s glance fell to the carpet, where the slight, unconscious figure looked somehow heartbreakingly pathetic against the threadbare swirling flowers.
“Er - who’s that?”
Peter was on the point of saying something, but Draco got in first.
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “Peter knows her as Veronica; I know her as Nicci and he -“
He indicated Canon Rawkins -
”- I suspect, knows her as lunch.”
The vampire looked pained.
“Please. Although our association has been - brief - and our introduction more informal than I might have wished, she is a lady by birth, and, I understand, even born within the shadow of the Close. I would not dream of dismissing her merely as nuncheon. Though - I confess it - the experience has been - somewhat unusual. One hesitates to suggest this of a Bishop’s daughter, but might the young lady be an opium eater? Or, worse, and I hardly dare hint it - inclined to the gin bottle?”
It was true, his eyes did look somewhat strange about the pupils, though Peter had to concede his frame of reference for normal was hardly comprehensive.
The vampire was speaking again.
“Unusual, true. Though not - quite - unparalled.”
“Remind you of your sojourns with the Lake Poets, did she?” Peter said, with reflexive, instantly regretted sarcasm.
Hermione stifled a giggle, not wholly successfully.
“Well, I suppose some people can handle those daffodils, and some of them just don’t know when to stop.”
“Well,” the vampire said, “It has been an interesting evening. And I shall be seeing you all shortly. But for now - I bid you goodnight.”
He bowed, without rising, and then the chair was abruptly empty. Peter raised his eyebrows questioningly. Draco shrugged.
“Goodness knows. Didn’t want to risk it with two of us here who had magical powers - hasn’t yet finalised his plans - was feeling all woozy and had to go and lie down unexpectedly-?”
As soon as the vampire had gone Hermione had knelt down by Veronica, undoing the top buttons of her blouse, and trying to revive her. Although Veronica was now breathing stertorously, any attempt to bring her back to consciousness seemed doomed to failure. She sat back on her heels and looked up at the others earnestly.
“You know,” she said, “I don’t think that - um - thing was entirely off the mark. I mean - she’s very run-down and anaemic, as you’d expect, but it does seem, also - could she really have taken something, do you think?”
Draco’s face was a deeply cynical mask. “In Nicci’s case, I’d say it wasn’t so much a case as if, but which. Though, come to think of it, if she’s still breathing after what she’s been through, she must have the constitution of an army mule. To say nothing of having built up an amazing tolerance by now. Anyway, if you’re worried you can mix up one of the standard Contra Venificium potions at the Manor in the morning. If you owl it down here, I’ll get a dose down her, and she can sleep off whatever she’s taken for the next day or so.”
“The Manor?” She set her face mulishly. Peter turned to look her full in the face.
“Yes, Hermione. Draco’s right. You shouldn’t be here at all. We’re in quarantine. We - the two of us - well, I broke into the Mill House and found the Somervilles - Draco came down to the Mill House as soon as I found out that they’d been behind the Necromancy - Innogen was very distressed, she was anxious to restore the remains to their proper custodian as quick as she could. Anyway, what all that means for us two is that, apart from the casualties themselves -“
“The grave-robbing scum-bags,” Draco observed parenthetically.
Her mouth dropped open in shock.
“You can’t mean that - the couple at the Mill House took the bones?”
“Well, it looks that way, unless you can come up with another simple explanation for why they’ve both come down with bubonic plague and Cousin Sarah’s arm-bone has just been found in their Welsh dresser.”
Hermione audibly took a deep breath. “But - Draco - Hugo Somerville can’t be a Satanist!”
Draco frowned intensely at her.
“He - he works for the BBC!”
Peter suspected his own features must be mirroring Draco’s And-your-point-is? expression. Hermione blushed. Peter’s lips quirked up.
“Well, I admit Sir John Reith is probably turning in his grave.”
“Always assuming he’s still in his grave,” Draco muttered with a pardonable touch of bitterness.
“Well, that isn’t really the point. The point is, apart from them we’ve been the closest to the source of infection - in fact we’ve - I’ve - actually handled the bones - It turned out that the skeleton - Draco’s Cousin Sarah - died of the plague - anyway, you’ve been here too long already. It’s wonderful to see you, and I really appreciate you coming down, but in your own best interests you really mustn’t stay any longer -“
“Bollocks,” Hermione said distinctly.
Peter’s eyes widened with shock. In the sudden silence (Draco quite clearly had no intention of interrupting, lest he missed something entertaining) she picked up the shoulder bag she had brought with her, but had dropped to the carpet in order to minister to Veronica.
” I might have guessed that with something this unusual the authorities would have panicked and got the epidemiology all wrong,” she said, dealing out a pile of heavy volumes onto the desk. “But I did think better of Richard. Though I suppose these days GPs think they can’t put a finger out of place or someone will sue them. But it’s all in here. I’ve bookmarked the right bits.”
Draco raised an eyebrow.
“What the fuck did you do?” he drawled. “Stage a smash-and-grab on the Bodleian?”
Hermione’s tones were indignant. “They’ve all got proper inter-library loan documentation -“
His smile grew insufferable. “I’m sure. Thoroughness itself. All the Dark Lord’s intelligence reports said as much. Anyway, tell us what we’ve been getting wrong, then.”
Hermione, looking rather as though she was biting back a sharp retort to Draco, flicked open the top volume. “Well, this is bubonic plague, yes?”
Peter nodded. “No doubt at all. We saw the - er - well, symptoms.”
Hermione cleared her throat. “Well, then, anyone with half a brain should have worked out that given how the bacterium is hosted, direct person-to-person infection is incredibly rare. And just happening upon two victims - well, it’d be a million to one shot for you to catch it from that. Still less to pass it on to anyone else.”
Draco looked at her, and it was only then that Peter realised how tense he must have been earlier, and how rigidly he had been concealing it. His face had acquired an entirely new level of vitality at her words. His limbs looked suddenly relaxed, as if he had been a condemned man, and she the messenger handing over the Royal Pardon.
Hermione said, in the sort of voice that brought recollections of his school’s no-nonsense matron to Peter’s mind,
“After all, Draco, whatever else I may have accused you of in the past, I’ve never actually suggested you’ve got fleas.”
“Well,” he drawled, “Apart from in the aftermath of that somewhat unfortunate jinx you cast when -“
She coloured up in attractive confusion. “Well, yes, apart from that. But that’s not important right now. Anyway, it’s quite clear that the transmission has to go via rats - or rather, to be precise, rat fleas.”
She turned and looked up at Peter, rather nervously. “Which is why - look, I do hope you don’t mind but - can I bring my cat in?”
“Do I get a vote?” Draco enquired, looking nowhere in particular. She ignored him.
“You see - I thought one of the areas we could get a head start on would be clearing out rat infestations in the village, so as to remove reservoirs for potential re-infection. And the Ministry would have real difficulty objecting to that, because that would be the villagers doing it themselves. Even if we gave them some - guidance - about where the key infestations were likely to be. Using Crookshanks - he’s really intelligent, and also - Draco, you have got wild Kneazles up around the Manor, don’t you?”
“Some,” Draco conceded, holding his chin high and assuming a haughty expression. “They hang out around the outbuildings. Though I’ve got to confess, I’ve tended to look on them more as “pests” - or, OK, “local colour” if I’m feeling charitable - rather than “Crookshanks’ Private Army.” “
Peter smiled at her. “Of course you can bring him in. In fact - you needn’t have hesitated in the first place. I love cats.”
She smiled hesitantly back.
“Um. Well, that wasn’t - entirely my decision. When we - got to the porch - um - Crookshanks’ fur simply went vertical and he shot off - I don’t know whether he was planning to put in some advance work on the rat-clearing business, or - well, he really is such an intelligent cat, practically human, honestly - and maybe he wasn’t sure what sort of reception he’d get, given who he must have detected was here - “
“Honestly!” Draco said. “All that fuss over a simple misunderstanding. And anyway, I’ve got much more reason to be the injured party. Those claws were within millimetres of my eyeballs - “
She emitted a sharp hiss of annoyance.
“Honestly, Draco, I was meaning the vampire! I do wish you could stop assuming that any negative comments in your vicinity are addressed to you. Why do you do that?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve always found tradition an enormously comforting thing to fall back on.”
She sighed, but refrained from answering, instead going to the back door, opening it a fraction and making hopeful encouraging noises out into the night. Infuriatingly, after a moment or two, Crookshanks came strolling in, his tail erect and his fur sleek. Ignoring her outstretched hand he walked across to Draco, purring loudly, and rubbed himself against Draco’s legs.
“There,” Peter said encouragingly, “You underestimate yourself. Ah, look, he likes you really.”
“All that is, is proof positive that - whatever people say - my family’s long-standing preference for bribery over overt violence always did have its merits.”
Hermione spun on her heel. “Draco! You aren’t admitting that you’re responsible for that side of smoked salmon vanishing from my fridge on Saturday?”
He shook his head indignantly. “Certainly not! Crookshanks was totally to blame for that. All I was responsible for was opening the fridge door, and going, “Oh, here kitty, kitty”.”
Peter emitted a snort of laughter. Hermione swung round and given him the full benefit of her best affronted glare. He grinned up at her.
“A nice bit of ethics-chopping. I take it back, Draco. I’m sorry you aren’t on speaking terms with the Bishop.”
“What, do you think that compared to the Somervilles I’d raise the moral tone at the Palace? Anyway, Hermione, what were you suggesting we do with all these Kneazles, once Crookshanks has lined them up and put them through basic training?”
She glared at them both indiscriminately. Peter leaned back and pulled out a map of the village that had been lying on a shelf.
“I think, from how things looked - sorry to drag this up again, Draco - but the Somervilles must have made at least two visits to the mausoleum. The initial break in and then the grave robbing - from the patterns of water getting in and such - may have been as much as a few weeks apart. Presumably, the first time allowed for a rat colony to take up residence there, and that’s where they became infected. That area needs to be cleaned up first.”
“Mm.” One of Draco’s elegant fingers tapped down on the map, a little above the mausoleum. “Then we’d better get the First Kneazle Commando deployed around the Temple of the Winds, too. There’s a couple of underground storage chambers there; the musicians used to put their instruments there if it got showery during the concerts - they’re probably rat-infested to all hell now -“
He shrugged. “You know. Charity ones. With fireworks and such. Invited audiences only. People fighting for tickets. Best dress robes. Foie gras and champagne off cloths spread on the grass. Guest artistes from all over Europe. My parents used to host two or three a year, in the old days.”
Hermione looked up. “With the Manor as backdrop? And the hills behind ? That sounds lovely. Have you ever thought about reviving -“
His voice cut harshly across hers. “Consider exactly what charities my parents might have been supporting back then, and you’ll see why it would be a supremely bad idea to let the Ministry think I’m interested in reviving anything about those days. Anyway, Hermione, you’ll have to see about selectively pushing back the barrier perimeter so Muggles and cats can get through, if we’re going to have a proper clear out there. What about the rest of the village?”
She put her head on one side. “The Mill House, obviously. If the health types let us in there at all. Ideally, all the houses along the river after that. Oh but it’s an awful lot of ground to cover -“
“Worried Crookshanks is going to wear his paws off?” Draco suggested maliciously. “Stalking up and down his parade ground behind the Rose and Crown - ordering any of the Manor Kneazles who aren’t quite sharp enough to drop and give him fifty -“
Hermione was looking exasperate, and abruptly appeared to reach the end of her tether.
“Oh, do shut up! Of course it’s a big job. I never said it wasn’t. You should be jolly lucky I volunteered to come here at all, given I knew how I’d be treated, how you wouldn’t appreciate anything I -“
Abruptly, she ran out of steam. She sniffed, pathetically, tears starting uninvited to her eyes. Peter extended a hand to pat her on the shoulder.
“Honestly!” Draco said in an aggrieved tone. “I am being grateful. I should have thought you could tell. By now.”
Hermione managed a small, watery smile. “How do you convey ingratitude then?”
Responding - apparently - to the tone rather that the words Draco smiled back.
“Um - using edged weapons?” he suggested.
Hermione sniffed decisively, and let the subject drop.
“Oh, and I did have another idea about covering more territory. Did you know that Professor Grubbly-Plank and - ah - a friend of hers have a kennels over near Shepton Mallet where they breed Crup/Jack Russell crosses for the Muggle working dog market?”
Draco’s face was alive with interest. “A friend,” he mimicked. “Now who might that be? You aren’t going to tell me she and Hoochie are no longer an item?”
Hermione made her voice repressive. “Draco! That was just malicious school gossip -“
“S’not, you know. Sprout absent-mindedly outed them both to Neville when she was commizzing with him about that Prophet business. It’s amazing how much goss you end up picking up when people are trying to talk to you about anything other than the fact that you’re currently the hottest gossip in town. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, of course.”
Before she could get a word in edgeways, he continued,
“Sounds good, though. She might well be on to lending us a couple, if we ask nicely. Neville’s job. Not his best subject, but at least she never used to look at him as though she thought he ought to be confined to an Unplottable sanctuary somewhere in darkest Bechuanaland.”
Peter, who had been feeling increasingly baffled during the past few minutes, stirred into life.
“Actually,” he said, “If it’s rat-hunting that’s needed I gather Mrs Ellworthy’s brother breeds ferrets. I’m sure he’d be delighted to lend - “
His voice tailed off as he caught sight of the set, cold expression on Draco’s features.
Oops. Into yet another verbal minefield, apparently. I wonder if, next time we get a few minutes peace together, I could get Hermione to draw me a map -?
“Anyway,” she said, “Moving hastily on, that’s the rat part of the problem dealt with. Thank goodness. On the cure side - Justin gave me this potion recipe - will there be anywhere at the Manor I can brew it, Draco?”
His lips curled back arrogantly. “Will there be anywhere -? What do you think I’m living in, Granger? A suburban semi - that is what the Muggles call it, isn’t it? There’s a fully stocked underground Potions lab at the back of the East Wing - just ask Mrs P. to show you the way in. And if you can’t find an ingredient on the shelves, tell Neville to give you the grand tour of the greenhouses. He brought half China back with him this time.”
She gave a small sigh of relief. “Oh, good. And underground, too, how lucky. That ought to help a bit, in case the Ministry were to start getting curious about why we’re making potions in catering quantities -“
“You don’t say.” Draco’s expression was deeply sardonic. At that moment there came a soft thudding impact against the window, and all three of them looked up sharply.
There was a pause.
“It was probably just a bat,” Peter proffered helpfully. “There’s a small colony of them in the bell-tower - protected species, you know. I get them hitting the windows from time to time - I don’t think that sonar business is as good as they crack on it is - ” His voice tailed off. There was a pause. In the interval, he rearranged his thought processes.
“A bat,” he said bleakly. “You wouldn’t think -“
Draco shook his head decisively.
“No. I don’t. It’s much more serious than that.”
Hermione’s head snapped up sharply at the note of utter conviction in Draco’s voice. Her eyes betrayed her question. It was to her Draco turned as he replied.
“There’s one thing you don’t know,” he said. “I suppose we sort of overlooked it, what with the Black Death and the vampire vicar and everything.”
Her voice was very low.
He coughed, nervously, avoiding her eyes and also, Peter noted, avoiding looking towards the window.
“Um - ah. Neville’s grandmother. She’s in the village. Now.”
She blinked in sheer surprise. But then, he noted, she shot a glance at the top left hand corner of the Vicarage study window where the small, warm-bodied, winged creature had made its impact.
“Well,” she said slowly, “Then I’ll try and find the time to go round later this morning, and tell her what we’ve decided.”
Hermione turned and looked at Draco.
“After all,” she said sweetly, “It would be hardly fair to leave her in the dark, now, would it? And I’m sure she’d be delighted to help.”
Having seen all she needed, and leaving them bent in thought over maps and plans, a small, unnoticed and weary bat made her way back to Gaia’s Place.
Emily Longbottom had, however, scarcely got back to the first floor corridor when she spotted another door being pushed cautiously open.
Despite the limitations imposed by her current shape, she swore fluently.
What is the problem with this lot? Bloody hell! Up and down all night like a bride’s nightie. Will they never stop?
Wearily, she registered that Ken - Hemsworth - yes, that was indeed the idiotic name - was tiptoeing down the stairs dressed (she groaned inwardly) for the outdoors. Defiantly, she fluttered after him in hot pursuit.
Dawn had broken by the time the exhausted bat returned. The night’s journey had taken her into strange places, and she was in a disturbed frame of mind. From one perspective she should, she supposed, feel gratified: her initial suspicion about the dissonance between Ken’s untroubled eyes and his combative features had been amply justified. But nothing she had seen or heard during the night had been calculated to reassure.
Emily sighed. She had no illusions about the difficulties of the struggle ahead.
“And only those two scatter-brained lads to help,” she said aloud. She sighed again. The news that Draco’s mother was away and unreachable had been a blow, she could not deny it. And although she would rather die than admit it to anyone, the shocks of the night had left her longing profoundly for a reliable ally. Preferably one with a good, level, witch’s head on her shoulders.
She was almost at the end of the passage that led to her room when her hyper-sensitive ears picked up the muffled sounds of helpless sobbing. She paused, summoning up that invaluable plan of whose room was which.
Oh. The little Scot. Interesting.
Emily Longbottom paused, irresolutely. There was a tiny line of light at the bottom of the door. The gap would - she judged - be just wide enough to permit the passage through of a very small bat. That didn’t mind creeping around completely flat to the floor. And was an expert limbo dancer.
Abruptly, Emily Longbottom’s sleuthing spirit left her. She was stiff, weary and had a bad taste in her mouth. Also, though she would never have dreamed of admitting it to anyone, the scale of the opposition facing her - which the night’s revelations had made apparent for the first time - was daunting. She desperately needed to rest and regroup.
Nevertheless - there was something almost frantically uninhibited in the noise of grief coming through the door. Odd. And certainly she needed to investigate anything unusual that came to her attention.
Just not at the moment.
Emily Longbottom retired to bed.
She had been expecting the tap on the sitting room door for nearly half an hour before it occurred; indeed, she had kidnapped a cafetière from the breakfast buffet and stalked pointedly to Caitlin’s domain with it in the hope of provoking some such visitation.
“Well, come in, then,” she snapped, after she had judged a suitable interval had elapsed. The door opened part way, and Alan poked his head around.
“Mrs Longbottom? You may not be aware of this, but we are facing a catastrophe!”
“Well, we won’t face it any better if you’re half in here and half in the passage,” she observed dryly. “Get the rest of yourself in here, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and sit yourself down like a sensible human being and we can discuss it properly.”
He looked taken aback; fortunately, too much so to raise objections. He sidled in. Without moving her lips, Emily cast an anti-Interruption hex on the door.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the morning news -“
Alan gulped. “Then you must - I mean, they said - that is, why aren’t you -?”
“If you could manage to finish a sentence, Mr Bletchley, I might be able to answer your questions.”
He eyed her nervously, and coughed. “I mean, did you actually hear all the news?”
She considered. “So far as I’m aware. I mean, they started with “Good morning; here are the news headlines” and ended with a story about a burglar who thought he was hijacking a consignment of cocaine that turned out to be a rush order of itching powder for some joke-shop, so yes; I’d say I’d heard everything. Eh, I’d have loved to see the expression on the faces of his customers. Fancy putting itching powder up their noses! Talk about places where you can’t reach to scratch. I can’t say I’d want this television thing all the time, but I won’t deny it makes a nice change.”
Alan goggled again, evidently wondering how senile she was, and whether she was actually dangerous. She smiled at him, showing just enough of her teeth to keep him guessing. He shuddered, but kept to the point with determination.
“So - you’ll have heard about the - ah - illness, in the village then?”
Emily Longbottom opened her eyes wide. “That poor chap from Mill House and his wife? The ones who seem to have caught plague? Oh yes, they did mention that. Bet they don’t see that down at the hospital every day. Still, they do say variety is the spice of life, don’t they?”
She had enough experience of the effects of her own idiosyncratic conversational style to gauge just how close to apoplexy Alan must be by now. Reluctantly, she had to concede that he must have more about him than she had been disposed to credit, as he continued with what he had obviously been intending to say with little more than a convulsive gulp.
“Anyway - if you know about it - what I mean is - what the hell - oh, sorry - but WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?”
She blinked at the sudden intensity in his voice. And took a deep breath before responding.
“Well, Mr Bletchley, that’s a remarkably public spirited attitude to take. And with everyone on their holidays too. Now, young Doctor Hawkins, she was on to me first thing, but then I’d have expected it of her - part of their training, isn’t it, all that hypocritical oath business ? - but I’m very pleasantly surprised about the rest of you, make no mistake. Well, the last I heard, the Vicar was organising the volunteers - eh, and he’s got a great deal of practical common sense, for a sky pilot. Could have done with more like him in the Blitz.”
It really was gratifying how - sandbagged - he looked, suddenly. She smiled again, and waited for him to respond.
“Look - I - I mean, yes of course. Whatever one can do to help, naturally.”
“Naturally,” she echoed, nodding sagely.
He spread his hands helplessly.
“But - you may not quite have appreciated this - but - my course. The company. Our risk management policies - “
She looked across at him with a sudden glance of understanding.
“Oh, I see. You reckon you’re going to get in trouble from students if they think they might’ve caught bubonic plague on one of your courses, is that it?”
“In a word - oh, I know this sounds terribly self-centred but - well, yes. That, I’m sorry to say, is the way the cookie crumbles.”
Emily gave him the benefit of her best disconcerting grin.
“Eh, if that’s your notion of in a word I’m glad I didn’t ask you for in a paragraph. Life’s too short.”
He flushed. She ruthlessly pressed home her advantage.
“Well, they call you the duckent on this course, don’t they? Time for you to do some ducking.”
His face was honestly baffled. She shrugged.
“Latin, Mr Bletchley. Duco, ducere, duxi, ductum. To lead. I think, the theory part of this course is over. Your students are over there, waiting for the practical.”
He spluttered coffee violently over himself, a finely polished walnut side-table, and the sofa. Emily raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, Mr Bletchley?”
“Look: you’ve got that wrong. My title is docent. As in: Doceo, docere, doci, doctum. Meaning “to teach”.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Well, it seems a lot of fuss to go to, turning it into Latin, then. Seems pretty self-evident to me. Though it does clear up one point. I was a bit surprised, from what I could gather about your politics, that you’d have wanted to call yourself after Mussolini. Anyway, it’s writing they reckon they’ve come here to learn, isn’t it?”
Alan gulped blankly at her, his eyes wide. She wondered, with a moment’s irritation, whether he was married and, if so, what could have prevented his wife from deep-frying him in a beer batter and serving him up with chips and a side order of mushy peas long before now. She made her voice deliberately slow.
“You know, creative writing?”
“Yes, well, what about it?”
“Write what you know. That’ll be what you tell them, isn’t it?”
His lip curled. “Oh, of course. That explains why we’re three quarters of the way through a novel featuring an evil, super-human, practically indestructible magick-wielder, a power-crazed Duke, assorted elves, a mythic Earth-mother cult whose priestesses regularly plunge knives into their bodies and withdraw them bloodlessly when they’re in the sacred trance -“
Emily nodded in a satisfied way. “That’s the sort of thing I meant. Realism. Anyway, your pupils can’t claim they haven’t had value for money this time around, can they?”
“You know what I mean. Blizzards - tempests - floods - pestilence - mysterious poisonings - If your company had an ounce of nous you’d be charging them extra for the experience. I mean, quite apart from the writing business, they can dine out on this lot for the rest of their lives. If they’ve any brains. Which, having met them, I might, frankly, doubt. Still, that would be the line I’d take. If I were you.”
Alan paused. He blinked.
“Thank you,” he said in a suffused voice. And was gone from the room.
In the stillness, Emily Longbottom smiled to herself.
Kivren, aware that the amount of mascara she had put on in the hope of disguising her swollen eyelids was probably giving her the air of a panda who’d been in a punch-up, but too physically and emotionally exhausted to care, joined the little knot of indignation centred upon Alan.
“No, people,” he said with unaccustomed firmness. “This is an appalling situation, true, but after all we are writers. Everything we experience is - or should be - the raw material from which we distil imaginative literature. Some of the world’s greatest works have come out of the most appalling situations. Could Tolkien have written the Pelennor fields so - stirringly - if he had not seen the Somme?”
“Or could Lewis have come up with a line like “war is ugly when women fight” if he hadn’t been at such a fantastically enjoyable stag party in Passchendaele?” Áine added, and winked at Kivren. Alan glared at her.
“That sort of comment isn’t helpful. But if you look at Remarque - Camus - Hemingway - Sassoon - Roy Campbell -“
“Falangist alcoholic buffoon,” Julian muttered disdainfully. Alan skewered him with a glance.
Kivren realised, rather to her surprise ,that the mood of the group was changing, becoming calmer, as Alan grew in confidence before them.
“All of them not merely went through appalling situations but turned them to great art. We can learn from all of them.”
“Personally,” Ken said, “I reckon the one we ought to be learning from is Pliny the Elder.”
Alan’s glance was deeply bored. “Well, if you feel you have to leave us, then you must. And the same goes for any of you. I’m not proposing to keep you here against your will. But I’ve been requested to pass full contact details for all of you for the next fortnight after the course ends onto the volunteers who are monitoring the situation. And to advise everyone that any symptoms - no matter how apparently trivial - appearing over the next few days ought to be seen by a doctor.”
“Pity Nicci seems to have departed without getting the benefit of that sound advice, isn’t it?”
“She’s what?” Alan demanded sharply. Ken shrugged. “Weren’t you listening to our lovely serving lasses at breakfast? They were full of it. She’s done a moonlight, looks like. Bed not slept in last night, apparently - “
Áine turned to look at him. “Are you completely mad? Her car’s still here, noticed that? - and anyway - look this was the goss I got late last night, and maybe, if it hadn’t been for the plague and all driving it out of my mind, I’d have said earlier, but - it’s certainly more complicated than her hearing the 10 o’clock news last night and running for the hills - I mean, this is what I know about it all -“
Confidentially she bent forward to say what she knew. At the end of her elucidation Alan started back.
Emily Longbottom was suddenly in the doorway, wearing something improbably archaic in calf-length black crepe with a high neck and a pearl collar emphasizing the blackness of the fabric beneath.
“What?” she enquired disapprovingly. Alan pressed forward.
“We seriously need to find out what’s become of Nicci. According to what we’ve heard - “
“Heard, Mr Bletchley?”
The North Country accent was uncompromising. Undeterred, Alan turned towards her. “She wasn’t back last night. According to Sue and Rose her bed hadn’t been slept in - “
“Indiscreet, those lasses, to tell you owt of the sort. It seems I’ll have to have words. People value their privacy when they’re on holiday, in my experience. And, Mr Bletchley, I gather she’s old enough for it to be legal for her to be a dirty stop-out, even if she mightn’t look it. And you aren’t her mother, who I grant you might have good reason to comment on the situation. So?”
He quailed away before her stony glare. Julian, by contrast, pressed forward.
“Look, someone told us- “
“Someone being one of them rackety Winzar lads I take it?”
“Someone told us,” Julian persisted. To Kivren’s ear his voice sound weak and wavering. He gulped, glanced away, and somehow gathered together some shreds of defiance. His tone strengthened.
“Nicci could well have been murdered, she could even have been raped. After all, we were told she’d been seen late last night, carried unconscious down the main street of the village by the Lord of the Manor, with the vicar at his right hand side - and the local bobby stood by, and did nothing, just nothing -“
Mrs Longbottom sniffed. “Well, doesn’t sound like there was much for him to do. Looks as though the situation was well in hand, and if they were managing to carry her, then maybe he thought he’d got better things to do. After all, it isn’t as though this village doesn’t have enough problems without local police going looking for trouble.”
Julian hissed his breath out in an exhalation of sheer exasperation.
“You aren’t treating this with anything like the seriousness it deserves!”
She sniffed again. “What do you expect me to do? Sounds like last time she was seen she was in respectable company. At least, what passes for it round here.”
Julian shuddered exaggeratedly. “Respectable? An Anglican vicar? How many choir boys have made that mistake, eh ? No - let’s not even go there. Anyway, if we leave the vicar out of it entirely (I admit I know nothing personally against him), what about the Lord of the Manor? From everything I’ve worked out since getting here, it seems he’s no angel.”
Mrs Longbottom leaned over to peer at him. He wriggled, but stood his ground.
“You’ll be referring to young Mr Malfoy, I take it?”
Julian nodded, transfixed.
Mrs Longbottom exhaled, and said, “Well, I’d certainly not suppose Nicci would get into much of that sort of trouble if he’s got anything to do with it.”
Julian waved an expressive hand. “Well, it might not have occurred to you how times might have changed - what ostensibly respectable people might be prepared to get up to - sorry to shock you - “
The depths of the scepticism on Mrs Longbottom’s face would have needed a bathysphere to plumb properly.
“I wasn’t presuming to comment on young Draco’s morals.”
“I was referring to his inclinations. And believe you me, I know more than I’d care to know about those.”
Julian was unconvinced. “He could always - ah - bat for both sides. If you’ll excuse my making such a suggestion. Anyway, I’d rather hear it from her own lips. After all, as I said, she’s missing and for all we know she could have been raped and murdered - “
Mrs Longbottom snorted emphatically.
“Well, it seems unlikely. Though I agree there’s a good deal more rape around then there was when I was a girl. Mind you, I think that’s down to the way the lasses dress these days.”
“That’s an outrageous thing to say!” Julian’s voice was high with his sense of impropriety. Mrs Longbottom looked up at him.
“Is that so, Mr Garrowby? Well, I’ll tell you one thing.”
She leaned forward emphatically.
“In the days when lasses wore hats, any lad who got unwarrantably fresh knew he was running the risk of ending up with two inches of steel hat pin jabbed into his crown jewels. Stands to reason they were a bit more reluctant to deploy their hands or anything else where they weren’t satisfied it was wanted. Eh, it was wonderful how much practical morality you could enforce with a hat-pin. Modern girls would do well to remember it. Fashion or no fashion.”
As he staggered back against the sideboard trying to digest this, she smiled a slow, satisfied, saurian smile.
“So I take it that’s settled? If any of you need me, I’ll be in the sitting room.”
She turned away. The little group around Alan dissipated: almost, Kivren thought, in spite of itself. Lucy, muttering something about, “Decent thing; do what one can. Never thought Jackie had the spirit,” vanished towards the main doors. Kivren, temporarily left alone in the hall, tried to stop herself dissolving back into tears. She had thought she had succeeded.
Mrs Longbottom’s ancient, hook-nosed, formidable face had craned its way round the door of the sitting room.
She turned. The grey haired crone was, it seemed, calling to her.
“A moment, please, if you can spare it.”
She had been trained, carefully, that manners mattered. Perhaps that - the insidious, bone-deep sense that it was bad-mannered to ask questions - had proved her downfall with Simon. No matter. She was what they had made of her. She turned.
“Yes, of course. What can I do for you?”
Mrs Longbottom smiled. “Well, I’d be deeply grateful if you could tell me precisely what the herbs were that you poisoned Cathy Jackson with.”
Her howl of rage was anguished, and rightly so. Nevertheless, behind the fury there was a sense of deep, deep relief. She no longer had to pretend. The clawing black fangs of guilt and fear might retreat a little. She had been unmasked. She no longer had to pretend. She had been found out, must pay the price, but at least - thank god - she was spared the burden of pretence.
Kivren dropped her head on her arms on the nearest table and wept.
Mrs Longbottom put her head on one side.
“Oh, and also - as a matter of interest - what did you use on my granddaughter? Caitlin Naismith, that is.”
Sanity whirled dubiously around her. And then Mrs Longbottom leaned over, as though prepared to extract the knowledge by force.
Indignant virtue spluttered out of her.
“I never touched Caitlin.”
Mrs Longbottom withdrew from her with an unreadable expression.
“And is that so?”
Mrs Longbottom’s creaky old voice had suddenly become almost teasing: soft, demanding, certainly not deceivable.
“Well, tell me, then, what did you do to Cathy Jackson?”
“I - ah - oh -“
Suddenly, it was the greatest possible relief to confess. Everything.
Neville had had a disturbed night. At first, the strange emptiness of the huge bed was too disconcerting to allow him to get comfortable. He had travelled half-way across Asia, sleeping soundly on almost any flat surface that presented itself, oblivious to heat, noise or the smells of inadequate drainage, but in his own bedroom the absence of the familiar warm fidgety presence next to him was a constant nagging wrongness that, weary as he was, intruded between him and any hope of sleep. As the night wore on he had tried various expedients, ranging from getting up and making himself cocoa (the dogs stirred in their baskets as he crossed the dark kitchen, and then flopped back down again with - he fancied - an air of disappointment on realising who it was) to reciting in his head all the distinguishing characteristics of enchanter’s nightshade, and each of the points which distinguished it from the hairy, black or heartleaf varieties.
When he finally dropped off his dreams were a vague, dread-filled hunt through a maze of featureless corridors, always ending in locked doors with bloody crosses painted on them, or against tall barred windows which looked out on darkened, unfamiliar streets, traversed only by carts with hooded, furtive drivers, the heavy rumble of whose iron-shod wheels over the cobbled streets being the only sound in the fearful, unsleeping city.
He woke late, by his standards, cocooned in the midst of a tangle of duvet (part of his mind reflected, dimly, that it seemed his nightly territorial struggle for a fair share of the bedclothes appeared to continue, reflexively, even when he had no-one to contend with).
There was a half-sheet of parchment by the bedroom door, which had apparently been pushed under it while he was sleeping. He yawned, screwing his eyes up, trying to make out the angular, hasty script in the dimly lit bedroom.
I will either be in the potions room or down in the village organising distribution. So far ingredients are holding up well - where did Draco find the Chimaera eggshell? - but I used the last “Jew’s ear” fungus in the Contra Veneficium for Nicci. (By the way, do you think you could persuade Draco to get the updated edition of Most Potente Potions with the modern ingredient names? I suppose it’s not so bad if you grow your own, but imagine having to ask for them in Diagon Alley!). And I’ll need your help on identifying which are the Asiatic plants we need to add at the final stages of Justin’s remedy, though according to your greenhouse records you do seem to have all of them. Fortunately.
Please could you look out the necessary and I’ll see you soon. List overleaf.
P.S You shouldn’t encourage Draco to be such a hypochondriac, honestly. I’ve tried convincing him that the chances of his getting bubonic plague from exposure that limited are virtually nil (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be responsible about making sure that it doesn’t go pneumonic, of course) but he says he won’t be along to the Manor until Richard’s passed his blood OK. Even though the blood test is highly unreliable (but don’t say I said so) unless you take the sample from a real swelling.
P.P.S I’m awfully sorry, but I couldn’t find any semi-skinned for my muesli so I ended up accidentally transfiguring the lot, and didn’t have time to reverse it. But I’m sure you can manage for one morning. And anyway, you might even find you like the taste. Try it.
He read it, yawned, and read it again. And smiled.
He flung back the heavy green velvet curtains, and the thin winter sunlight filled the bedroom. With the coming of dawn the sweaty terror of the night had retreated to a place almost out of reach even of memory. The misty sunlight now making its way through the thrown back curtains bathed the Manor grounds in a pearlescent glow through which figures (he spotted Mrs P. taking the dogs for their no-doubt second constitutional of the morning) moved like dreamlike shapes half-remembered from a past before the Flood.
As the pale gold light highlighted the gilt on her frame, the new acquisition on the wall opposite the bed winked at him, and he sighed. The flood of rare wizarding artefacts which had hit the market from newly impoverished pure-blood families in the wake of Recent Events was slowing to a trickle, but Draco had been unable to resist the opportunity three months back of picking up the portrait of his most notorious - albeit distant - ancestress at a bargain price, and, having acquired her, of putting her on the bedroom wall to let him gloat more efficiently.
The portrait - so vibrant compared to its flat Muggle equivalent in the National Portrait Gallery - slid her almond eyes sideways at him with an air of unmistakable invitation.
“As soon as he gets back home, I’ll be asking him to shift you out of here,” Neville muttered at her.
A wisp of the famous silver-gilt hair had escaped from beneath the tall white fifteenth century head-dress. She wound it around her forefinger, touched the finger and lock together to her full, lascivious lips, and treated him to a smile of dazzling flirtatiousness.
“And just how long have you been hanging around in this bedroom? And given that, how far do you think that’s going to get you?”
She looked at him. It had been, in those days, a fashion to pluck eyebrows to virtual invisibility, but the sardonic movement was, nevertheless, unmistakable.
“You’d be surprised where my smile has got me before now,” she purred.
He looked fixedly at her.
“Are you mad? Everyone knows how far your smile got you. Even the Muggles know it.”
Her expression changed, suddenly; the languorous eyes became narrow, serpentine slits, the elegant bone-structure of her face shifted into something reptilian and poisonous. Her voice dropped to a hiss.
“And it would have got me further if those little brats hadn’t turned out to be Squibs, the both of them.”
Involuntarily, Neville recoiled. He had known for years that those pure-blood parents who had got rid of their Squib children regarded it, on the whole, as no more than a distasteful social duty. But her case had resounded down the ages, mainly for the speed and efficiency with which she had eliminated two suddenly worthless pieces from history’s chessboard - that, and the ruthlessness with which she had passed all blame onto her Muggle brother-in-law.
He had, of course, been properly brought up, and knew it was the height of bad manners to insist on telling a portrait anything which had happened to its subject after he or she had sat down in front of a blank canvas, and assured the artist that no, indeed, this skin complaint was a purely temporary phenomenon and the painting would be much truer to life if the artist omitted it. Nevertheless, in her case -
He made his voice very cold.
“Instead, it - ah - got thee to a nunnery, wasn’t it? In the end.”
Her features suffused with anger. Before, however, she could say anything he added,
“Anyway, that’s your lot. When Draco gets back, I’m having you shifted to the gallery.”
Sulkily, she turned her back. He threw on jeans and a T-shirt and went swiftly downstairs. In the breakfast room there was the usual array of copper-lidded chafing dishes keeping warm over will-o-the-wisps. The first lid he lifted revealed a batch of plump black puddings.
Mrs P. must have had the pigs slaughtered yesterday, then. Good thinking; the job had been hanging fire till well overdue, and they weren’t going to sell the meat to the Muggles any time soon, so the household might as well get the benefit.
Neville made a mental note to check that Mrs P. had made sure to send those packages off to Remus Lupin. Almost single-handedly, Lupin had set out to instil self-belief in him when that had seemed like the most unattainable quality on earth, and he was sorry that pride, respect and delicacy on both sides forbade him doing more for Lupin now their positions, it seemed, had been reversed. But employing Lupin’s preternaturally sensitive nostrils and taste-buds in the undeniably crucial role as taste-tester for Intrinsically Organic Farm-Fresh Charcuterie both made sound commercial sense and at least allowed him to ensure a reasonable income and a well-filled freezer for his old teacher.
He inhaled the rich, herb-scented, deeply aromatic aroma and swore inwardly.
A “boudin noir de Bury” hors concours of anything the whole of sodding France could field against it, and those Frog slimeballs go and cite bloody “communitaire” Muggle rules about meat shipments just to stop us competing in Caen this Easter! Hypocritical bastards! I’ve seen a string vest with fewer holes in it than a French decree of the Bureau de Magique preventing their wizards doing what the fuck they bloody well like with their produce! And they fucking well know our pigs can’t have BSE! I mean, like, just think about it, OK?
Out of self-conscious national pride he slid one of the fat, black-skinned links onto his plate, before investigating the other possibilities of the breakfast table. The bacon he ignored, virtuously, although from the aroma it seemed that the authentic 18th century treacle cure Great-Uncle Joshua had put them on to looked as though it would be a winner, particularly with the better country-house hotels.
When it came to the next cover he paused. As he nudged it open a fraction, he saw raw egg yokes, demurely swimming on the surface of their whites. Almost before his unspoken, barely thought, preference had identified itself, they had coalesced, spinning quicker and quicker and binding the winter-pale butter from the Manor Farm dairy that poised itself mid-air and then dropped gently to join them into a fragile emulsion that, as the heat from the will-o-the-wisp urged, became a compound, and fell into perfectly wrought semi-liquid primrose-hued flakes.
With a half-guilty look over one shoulder, in case Hermione had returned early, he shovelled a helping of buttered eggs onto the plate next to the black pudding, scattered fresh coriander over the top, buttered a couple of slices of toast, and retreated to the end of the table in the breakfast room next to the incomparable Grinling Gibbons chimney piece. The carved oak harvest mouse, forever curled in an embrace about the carven wheat-stalk, looked beadily down at him.
He gulped. Its carven eye had suddenly blinked, and the tail flickered with sudden life.
You have lived off the fat of the estate. And what have you ever given back? Except - of course - for what you have given on your back. At least, in - ah - a manner of speaking.
The high, cheeping voice sounded shrilly in the back of his mind. He shivered in sudden chill. There was an uneasy stirring in his gut. He was not bound, blood and sinew, to the Manor’s protections in the way Draco was, but he had been shown enough of the inner mysteries to make him as safe within the Manor as anyone not of the Family by blood could ever be.
And everything he had learned told him that with the wards as reinforced as they had never been since the end of Recent Events no-one - no-one - should be able to send such a message into the Manor.
No-one, that is, save for the owner or his heir.
He suppressed a sudden sense of nausea. But he could hear the sound of pieces falling into place.
I wouldn’t necessarily assume they’re Lucius’s ashes in there, anyway.
“Maybe I didn’t want to give my father credit for being the nastiest thing in my head, all things considered?”
The mouse squeaked again, still at the back of his mind.
Well? Cat got your tongue? Or have you simply sprained it? Hardly surprising. After all, the whole of our world knows how you pay your - rent.
It was impossible - but it was also the only conceivable explanation. There was a curiously inevitable feeling about it, even. His thoughts raced. Too little time to leave a note - to explain what he had been up to, if he did not come back. And indeed, given what he knew he faced, it was more than likely that he would not come back.
Oh love. I only wanted to protect you from everything I could. And what I couldn’t protect you from was who I know you saw in your nightmares. Even the ones you wouldn’t tell me about. Because he was dead, and gone, and ashes on the wind. Until now, that is.
I’m not going to let him harm you, love. He’ll come at you only through me.
For this was, undoubtedly, a challenge.
The challenge, even.
His fist crashed down on the bare blackened oak of the table.
The carved mouse twitched its nose and whiskers mockingly.
You dare, little one?
“You aren’t going to hurt him again,” he said aloud. “I promise you, I’m not going to let you hurt him. And I mean it.”
There was an echo of mocking laughter, and then the cheeping voice again.
Then be prepared to redeem your pledge. Little one. I will show you where.
He was standing already, heading for the exit. A vague, fugitive instinct allowed him to grab his fleece from the hook beside the kitchen door before his feet took him out of the doorway, relentlessly heading south-eastwards.
He knew his undirected flight was taking him towards the Temple of the Winds, and thereafter to the mausoleum. It did not matter. He ran onwards, partly wondering why his body was not reacting to the punishment he was handing out, amazed that his chest was not tearing itself apart, nor his calves screaming in agony as he pounded grimly across the ground.
Neville only checked his pace when he came under the shadows of the tall ilex hedges of the Sheltered Gardens. He had always treated this part of the estate with respect, not, to be fair, unmixed with terror. The shallow, secluded amphitheatre with its tortuous gravel paths, sinister worn Italian stone statues, and strange beasts and figures clipped out of yew had been planned out with care, for some alien purpose; the patterns had once spelt something for which the secret had long been lost. And the tall hedges had been intended to shelter them from the curious for a reason about which he barely dare speculate.
At the end of the furthest walk - between the dark glossy leaves of the leaning hedges - Neville caught sight of a flash of silver in the opalescent sunlight. The pain he had not felt before clawed into his chest as he ran onwards.
And before the avenue of dark green-black glossy ilex leaves debouched into the smooth turf of the park, just in front of the Temple of the Winds, his quarry must have heard his panting, desperate breathing as he closed on him. For the black-velvet-clad figure he had spotted paused, and turned, and the sleek white-blond head began to swivel on the pale neck so as to face him at the last.
And with his heart bursting through his chest Neville ran onwards towards his quarry. And his wand was already drawn; for his cause was just, and this time he meant to kill.