Chapter 14: Friday continued - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
Jacqueline looked with deep scepticism at the tea-urn.
“I know - in times like this - there’s a pressure to fall for anything in the hope it might help. But if I find out that you’re handing out some untried, folksy, quack remedy -“
The hard-faced, grey-haired country woman from behind the urn seemed on the point of saying something, but decisive, educated tones cut in before she could do so.
“Nothing at all like that.”
Jacqueline turned. The strong-featured brunette (“graduate-student,” Jacqueline’s mind told her, before she retorted, robustly, that pigeon-holing on sight was a rotten idea and, anyway, this one looked far more justifiably assertive than even the most confident PhD candidate she had come across in her life to date) made a decisive gesture with her hand. The woman behind the urn relapsed into silence.
The girl smiled disarmingly.
“I understand what you’re worrying about, but there isn’t a problem here. It’s simply herb tea. It seemed like common sense for everyone to get something warm inside them before the rat hunt. So we brought this down. From the Manor.”
The young woman’s bony face was dominant, alive with meaning. Her voice, plainly, had been intended to carry.
A hush fell over the crowd in the packed pub car park. Previously, the rat-catchers had had almost a holiday atmosphere, despite the grim circumstances. They had gathered for the off, with their dogs on short leashes; terriers, whippets, lurchers. Among the crowd here and there Jacqueline spotted people holding cages shrouded in blankets, which they seemed to handle uneasily, as though afraid of being seen.
From behind a stack of empty casks a ginger cat emerged and stalked, stiff-legged, over to the girl, rubbing itself against her legs.
There was a not-quite-gasp from the assembled villagers, who looked somehow diminished.
If this were the seventeenth century, I’d be calling that her familiar.
Jacqueline gulped, bringing herself back to everyday life with an effort.
The young woman smiled determinedly at her. She had excellent teeth - if a trifle horsy - and an air of resolute normalcy.
“Yes. Nothing more than that. A Chinese brew, I think. Excellent for the nerves. Can I pour you a cup?”
The country woman behind the urn was holding out a half-filled mug even as she spoke. With an odd impression that she was being subjected to some sort of test, Jacqueline took a sniff. Despite its repellent colour, the brew did not smell half bad, actually. Camomile-cum-jasmine, with elderflower high notes. She’d bought nastier-smelling fruit teas from Sainsbury’s, actually.
Acutely conscious that the eyes of the assembled crowd were watching her every move, she grasped the mug firmly and downed the contents. There was a collective and, she hoped, faintly impressed exhalation from the gathered villagers.
Provided the drink was not allowed to linger on the taste buds, the flavour was even tolerable, too.
She made her voice firm.
“Well, I’ve drunk it. And it was warm and wet, at least. But - good for the nerves? And why -?”
The brunette smiled again.
“People must be feeling stressed out of their minds, worrying about catching plague, you know.”
The country woman behind the urn interjected for the first time.
“Splendid for the nerves. The master swears by it.”
At the back of the motley gathering a voice piped up,
“Your master’s got nerves?”
A sudden hush fell, as on a school assembly when some bright spark has decided to go a lot too far, and his fellows, abruptly, know it. The grey-haired woman’s eye swept dispassionately across the crowd.
“At least one, Mr Winzar, as I think you’ll find. Anyway, I take it you’d all prefer to get it while it’s hot?”
They began to press forward towards the tea-urn. Jacqueline shook her head at the idiotic credulity of human nature, and turned her attention towards the more pressing issues of the day.
Peter followed Draco into the dim interior of the Rose and Crown the moment it was, nominally, open. Jack, who was polishing glasses, straightened up abruptly.
“Sir! Reverend! What can I get both you gentlemen?”
“Nothing at the moment, Jack, thanks,” Peter interposed smoothly, although Draco was looking faintly wistfully towards the bottle of Talisker on the top shelf. “We just wanted - ah, I mean, Draco wanted - that is - “
Suddenly, even with all the practice he’d been having lately, he found himself unable to finish the sentence. It was just too bloody ridiculous.
I’m not saying it. So there.
Draco cut smoothly in.
“I wanted to know how your guinea-pig was doing, Jack.”
The glass Jack had been holding shattered abruptly on the flagged floor behind the bar. He stooped to pick up the fragments. Peter got the distinct impression that it was so as to keep his head safely out of range. His voice emerged curiously muffled from behind the bar.
“Er - that is - I mean it - ah - it died. I’m very -“
The intensity in Draco’s voice was almost enough to shatter the remaining glasses on the bar. Warily Jack raised his head high enough to look him in the eyes.
“Yes - look, I’m really sorry, mate - ah, I mean - look, I told Simon you’d take it badly, but he just didn’t seem to get it - well, he is from Shepton Mallett.”
From Draco’s expression, he did not appear to regard being from Shepton Mallett as a mitigating circumstance. His face the colour of goats cheese, Jack stumbled on.
“And he said - and, fair does, he did have a point - anyway, he pointed out it was a complete accident - well, at least, that Lucy’d never done anything like that before - and she does have a very sweet disposition - at least, for a Rottie -“
His voice tailed off. Draco’s voice dropped to a near whisper.
“Jack - how about we go back to the beginning and do this conversation properly?”
Transfixed, the landlord nodded. Draco inhaled.
“Right. Well then. Tell me. Slowly. In words of one syllable. How the fuck did the guinea-pig die?”
Jack gulped. “My brother-in-law’s dog ate it.”
And was deeply surprised when, a second later, Draco’s face broke into a broad grin, and he reached across the bar counter to clap Jack heartily on the back.
“Is that all? Well, thank god for that. And how’s the dog doing?”
The landlord, looking still wary, albeit somewhat relieved, shrugged.
“Er, fine. Last time we saw her. And I’d have heard if there was anything wrong with her. She’s valuable. Pedigree, you know.”
Abruptly, the tension had left the room. It almost looked as though Draco were about to giggle. Responding to the change in mood, Jack’s face was wreathed in smiles. He gestured expansively.
“Anyway, would you like to change your mind about those drinks? On the house?”
Draco propped himself easily against the bar.
“Well, if that’s the case -“
Firmly, Peter produced the thermos flask from his shoulder-bag.
“Later, possibly, Jack. But you need to drink some of this, first. Herb tea. For the nerves. Do you good. Especially in the current state of affairs in the village.”
He poured the strange concoction Hermione had produced into the lid of the flask. Jack sniffed at it. And wrinkled his nose.
“Look - don’t take this the wrong way, but - do you reckon a drop of gin’d do it any harm?”
Draco shrugged. “Wouldn’t affect the p - tea . At least so far as I know. But I can assure you; it’s going to do nothing for the gin. We’ve tried.”
“Ah. Fair point. I’ll make it vodka, then, shall I?”
“Makes sense. Actually, Jack, we were wondering if you could offer it as a cocktail mixer. Just as a special for today, you understand.”
The landlord looked pained. “All right if I let the punters know you’re recommending it, like? Because, frankly, with a flavour like that, I can’t see us shifting much of it on its own merits.”
Draco put his head on one side.
“Oh I don’t know. After all, people drink absinthe, don’t they?”
“In a remarkable range of locations and walks of life, actually,” Peter added.
Jack was evidently having difficulty concealing his scepticism. However, at length he gave an assenting grunt.
“I’ll do my best. Sir.”
“Splendid! I’ll let Mrs P. know to come round with a couple of jugs. And now, about that whisky - “
But at that moment Hermione came in through the door from the car-park.
“Oh, there you both are! Good. We’ve just got the first party on the move towards the Mill House. And the other’s are going to work eastwards through the lower half of the village. And I’ve scheduled the two sites on the Manor for this afternoon, when you can oversee them properly. Should we be getting back to the Vicarage? We can grab a quick bite to eat, and work out what’s next on the agenda.”
Obediently, they followed her out of the pub.
Neville circled back, warily. The shock as the stranger had turned round, showing his face for the first time, had been succeeded first by a wave of relief that it was not Lucius - that Draco would, whatever the outcome of this fight, not after all have to face his greatest fear. But then the stranger, without wasting words, had attacked.
Since then survival had been his only priority. He had not even had leisure to speculate about who he was, in fact, fighting. The bone structure, the hair, and the cold, heavy-lidded grey eyes meant it had to be a Malfoy, of course. If his presence on Manor land at that time had not been proof enough of that, anyway. More details could wait.
Now what mattered was that he was facing a dirty, infinitely experienced fighter. But - Neville smiled grimly - one who had not expected Neville to have the skill he had. After the initial onslaught, through which he had scrambled more by luck than judgment, Neville had settled into a rhythm. He had been more than holding his own for the last fifteen minutes. The skills he had learned in Recent Events and honed over the last two years were paying off.
We’ve got to face facts, Draco had said on that hazy August morning, after he’d been pulled out of hell and then had to fight the Dark Lord’s Doomsday weapon even before they had had time to put sticking plaster on his wounds. No-one’s going to let us forget the past, ever. We’ve just got to practice so we’re ready for it. And anyway, it’ll do you good. Keep your mind off things.
And indeed, in the dark months that had followed, the discipline of hurling hexes for hours at a time down the long Gallery at the Manor at enemies only he could see, until the moves and combinations flowed faster than conscious thought, had been a spar to which sanity and shattered self-belief could cling, and begin to rebuild themselves.
And isn’t it keeping you on your toes, you bastard, he thought grimly, as a jet of red light exploded where his enemy’s foot had been a second ago, and the follow-up, bracketing jinx swayed him with the speed of its passing. And the stranger was middle-aged - Neville had the legs on him - he was already tiring, he could see, his wand-work becoming ragged -
Though no less deadly, he reminded himself, as his slightly too-slow head movement allowed a stray hex just to clip his ear. Maddeningly, a ticklish trickle of blood started to make its way down his neck.
No chance of wiping that away at the moment.
Neville raised his own wand and pressed forward. They were out of the shadow of the ilex hedges now, moving swiftly across the close-cropped turf towards the Temple of the Winds. If he could keep up the impetus, any moment now they would cross the second ring of defences. At which point this would be no longer his fight alone.
Hopefully his opponent was not close enough to the heart of the family to be aware of the precise line of the Manor’s concentric circles of defence, and he would not realise his danger until it was too late.
Come on - just a couple of metres further -
The stranger, breathing heavily, hurled a complex combination of hexes that buzzed in a cloud like enraged bees around Neville’s face and neck.
In the pause that ensued while Neville fought them off, his opponent scrambled up onto the raised dais of the Temple. He was plainly too desperate to be able to take advantage of his momentary command of the higher ground, because he crossed the little structure and dropped out of sight on the far side, clearly in need of a breathing space, however slight.
Deep within his skull Neville felt a faint twinge as the Manor’s defences gathered themselves together.
Well! Isn’t our friend going to be surprised when he learns that he’s just rung the front door bell?
With new hope he pressed forwards, round the circumference of the little temple. And, after so long fighting merely to survive, at the back of his mind a thought arose, unbidden.
Of course, suppose if when Draco arrived the duel is over and there was nothing left for him to do -
He spotted his opponent, round the curve of the Temple, propping himself against the marble balustrade and breathing heavily.
The last effort to reach the sanctuary of the Temple had, indeed, taken it out of the older man. His arm, as he raised his wand against Neville’s new onslaught, seemed to be dragged down with weights; his face was grey and sweat dripped down his brow.
One well-placed hex will win this, Neville thought incredulously, pressing forward.
And a heavy body rose up from concealment in the Temple, rugby tackling him from behind and throwing him to the ground. Neville’s wand flew wide, he felt two vicious punches from his second assailant drive the breath from his body, and he collapsed, retching, on the smooth cold green turf.
The black-clad stranger was suddenly standing over him as he lay on the ground, a familiar, hateful smile on his lips, and his wand aimed straight at Neville’s heart.
Caitlin turned fretfully in the high, tubular-framed, hospital bed. She had been here less than forty-eight hours and already boredom was gnawing at her like a swarm of soldier ants. It hardly helped that she felt, now, perfectly well, and it was clear from the jotted notes in her medical file - which she captured and perused at intervals whenever the nursing staff took their eyes off her - that she was being kept here more because the doctors had no clue why she was not considerably more ill than she was, rather than for any valid therapeutic reason.
There was a rumble of trolleys in the distance.
The smell of apricot crumble and tinned custard breathed through the ward, and she turned fretfully away. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the staff nurse look hopefully in her direction, and turn to the ward junior with a low-voiced comment.
Caitlin supplied the dialogue in her head.
“Thank god! At least the patient in bed six has had the decency to look ill, at last. With the NHS bed shortage what it is, I was wondering how she had the neck to come over so healthy.”
“Well, chief, we’ve seen them swagger in all tough and defiant before. But however much they try to buck the system, when it comes down to crunch time it doesn’t take too many steamed desserts to have them whimpering like little children, and begging for mercy.”
She set her teeth, shut her eyes, and tried to inhale as shallowly as humanly feasible. Nevertheless, drifting on the draught from the hygienically open window at the end of the ward, above the smell of tinned steak and artificial pie-filling, somehow penetrating past the pungent reek of a bed-pan overdue for emptying, and even dominating the metallic chemical aroma of disinfectant and saline, came a new scent.
That curious blend of mothballs and lily-of-the-valley could belong only to one person. She rolled over onto her back, and struggled up into a sitting position. The imposing outline of a stuffed vulture was making its stately progress down the ward.
She grasped, frantically, at her locker, cursing as it spun away on its castors across the high-gloss linoleum floor. Nevertheless, she had retrieved her black cashmere cardigan and was wearing it slung Forties-style across her shoulders, concealing the worse excesses of the hospital nightgown, before her visitor reached her bedside.
“Eh,” said Mrs Longbottom, “You’re looking a bit less like a ninepenny rabbit than when I saw you last.”
With difficulty, she suppressed a retort. Mrs Longbottom snapped her fingers imperiously. As though he wanted to spit, the staff nurse approached the bed.
“If what they tell me about Malfoy Instrinsica is true, you’re going to be needing all the beds you’ve got, shortly. And I can’t say that a hospital’s going to be the healthiest place for anyone to be, either. So I’ve decided to lessen your problems. I’m taking my granddaughter home. She looks as though she needs feeding up, anyway.”
Mrs Longbottom’s beak went up in the air.
“And I don’t suppose any of that’s going to give her an appetite. Eh, I dunno. You’d have difficulty mustering enthusiasm if you’d come in off a ten mile walk and were in the pink of health. No wonder folk don’t thrive on it.”
The staff nurse looked at her, clearly wondering if she was real. Mrs Longbottom tapped one elastic sided ankle boot impatiently on the polished floor.
“I’m waiting. But I can’t say I’m prepared to wait all that long, either. You might not think so, young man, but some of us have got more to do with our lives than write folks’ personal details down in little boxes, every hour, on the hour.”
“Look, I don’t really think -“
Caitlin’s gesture forestalled him. “Look, I know what a fantastic job you and your team have done since I arrived here. But - you know - I am feeling perfectly fit - well, perhaps not perfectly, but certainly far too well to be taking up a bed when someone else could make far better use of it.”
The staff nurse wavered, his eye straying towards the red ring-binder which sat demurely in its rack at the end of the bed.
“Well, it’s hardly for me to say - and anyway, it’s not as if you could go home. In the - ah - circumstances. Given where you in fact live.”
Caitlin opened her mouth. Mrs Longbottom, however, leapt in without allowing her the opportunity.
“A good point, young man. Fortunately, as it happens, I live in Lancashire. And I can assure you I have both the space and - ah - the staff to look after young Caitlin properly up there.”
“That’s a very long way - “
“There’s nothing to stop us taking the journey in easy stages,” Mrs Longbottom countered. “Where my grand-daughter’s concerned, I’m prepared to pay for the best. And I don’t doubt we can find a few decent hotels between here and Pendle, where they’ll look after her - and maybe better than you can, at that.”
Her sweeping glance, rather obviously, took in the lunch trolleys that were currently being deployed about the wards.
The staff nurse, defeated, backed off.
“I’d need the endorsement of the consultant -“
Mrs Longbottom looked magisterially at her watch.
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I expect I could spare 15 minutes or so, if you wanted to go and look for him.”
“Look for him? He’s the consultant. And it’s lunch-time.”
Mrs Longbottom sniffed. “In that case, odds are you shouldn’t have problems tracking him down. I suggest you start looking somewhere nearby, expensive, and where they do a good steak with cream desserts to follow. Very much the same, healers, in my experience. You’ll always spot them stuffing their faces with whatever it is they’ve just told you is next door to prussic acid.”
The doctor they found was not, as it happened, the consultant, though to Caitlin’s secret amusement she was at her bedside within the quarter hour. And, notwithstanding sundry caveats to the effect of its all being on Caitlin’s own responsibility and writing of numerous case notes containing the mantra, discharged on patient’s own request, against medical advice within half an hour after that they were standing in the car park next to her Golf, which, it seemed, Mrs Longbottom had borrowed to spring her from the custody of the NHS.
“Right,” Mrs Longbottom said, “You’d better hold on tight. I’m sorry to break it to you, but I wasn’t quite as frank as I might have been with the hospital staff.”
“You don’t say.”
Mrs Longbottom nodded, vigorously, bringing the stuffed vulture down to eyeball Caitlin beadily and in a thoroughly disconcerting way.
“Aye, well, what folks don’t know can’t hurt them.”
Caitlin’s voice was coolly sardonic. “Are you quite sure about that, Mrs Longbottom? In my experience - and especially since becoming better acquainted with Draco and Neville, I might add - my motto has been It’s not what you don’t know that can hurt you - it’s what you do know that isn’t so.”
The older woman digested that for a bit. Then she nodded.
“Am I to take that as a request for enlightenment about what this is all about?”
Mrs Longbottom held the passenger-side door open for Caitlin, and then settled down, creakily yet majestically into the driving seat.
“Well,” she said, as the car shot out of the hospital car park, “When you left the guest house you might have thought matters were somewhat approaching a crisis point.”
“I could say that. I suppose.”
Mrs Longbottom nodded. “Aye, well, they’ve deteriorated since then. You’ll be wondering, I daresay, who poisoned young Cathy Jackson - I took the opportunity to put my head round her ward being as I was here, by the way. She’s on the mend, you’ll be glad to know.”
“I’d be gladder to know she wasn’t planning on suing,” Caitlin muttered. “It’s bad for a catering establishment, you know, to have people poisoned on the premises.”
Mrs Longbottom swung out into the path of an oncoming lorry in order to overtake a tractor, and slid back to her side of the road with only a few metres to spare. The lorry driver put his hand out of his window, and gesticulated eloquently. Even with their own windows wound fully up a few faint sounds reached them, enough to convince that he was not taking it quietly, either.
“Eh, there’s some places I’d like to put a scourgify charm,” she observed. “But, well, about the poisoning, I suggest we cross that bridge when we come to it. The local police were getting very interested in that little Scottish girl’s story. Once she decided to confess, that is. Kirsty, is that her name? Admittedly, she was insisting she was only responsible for one poisoning, but they weren’t going to take that for an answer, now they’d got the reports back from the lab. Not the sort to make their lives any more complicated than necessary, coppers.”
Mrs Longbottom took an accomplished racing line through a succession of hairpin bends. Caitlin reflected that at least with its being winter, there was a possibility she could see through or over the hedges to determine what might be coming in the opposite direction.
“Mind you,” she added, taking a hand off the wheel in order to gesticulate more effectively. Caitlin gulped.
“Mind you,” Mrs Longbottom repeated firmly, “Given Kirsty insisted on telling me some rigmarole about having done wrong, and how it was going to rebound on her three-fold, it seemed like she couldn’t exactly complain about being on the hook for all three poisonings rather than simply the one she’d actually done. Though maybe I’ve misunderstood the theory. She wasn’t at her best when she was explaining it to me.”
They started to gain ground on a Saab ahead of them. Its driver, evidently piqued, put his foot down. The Golf accepted the challenge with enthusiasm.
“Well, when you left we may have been on the brink of a crisis.”
The thin old lips were tightly compressed.
“But if we don’t do something soon, we’re going to have a full scale catastrophe on our hands. And we’re the only two who can stop it. Me, because I’ve got the power, and you because you’ve got the knowledge. There’s at least one Dark magician - to say nothing of other forces I don’t care to mention - involved in what’s been going on. And it looks like at least two of your Creative Writing loonies were in it up to their necks.”
Caitlin, still bemused, nodded slowly. The Golf leapt forward and left the Saab for dead.
They raced onwards across the countryside.
Hermione, after a brief rummage through the Vicarage pantry, accompanied by an audible and not entirely complimentary running commentary on what she had found, had eventually elected to make omelettes. Draco, comfortably settled in the warmer of the chairs near the Raeburn, had managed an almost indecent counterpoint to her observations merely by flicking his brows suggestively throughout the whole experience. It was a relief for Peter when they were finally sitting around the table eating the simple but admittedly excellent meal.
The meal was over and the three of them were drinking coffee and speculating about the progress of the rat-hunt, when Draco pushed back his chair abruptly. They both looked at him, speaking at once.
“What’s the matter-“
His teeth were gritted, as though he was in considerable pain.
Peter’s stomach turned over. It was what he had been dreading since yesterday, but Hermione’s confidence, and the fact that they had actually been doing something to fight back had allowed him to push the fear to the very back of his mind. Not any longer, though.
“Headache? Look, we’ve got to get you to a doctor, now -“
He felt a cool, reassuring weight on his forearm. Hermione’s hand. It occurred to him, with a small, incongruous part of his brain, that it was highly - improper - and, indeed, quite irrelevant - for him even to notice at such a crisis how soothing and natural it felt to have it rest there.
“Peter, I don’t think it’s - Draco, you did drink your potion, didn’t you?”
“Yes. And of course it’s not plague. It’s - shit ! Oh shit!”
He reeled. His lips were totally bloodless.
“Should never have let them draw me out from the Manor. You said - Canon Bowles said - expect an attack. Logical place. Now. Neville’s in there - fighting this alone - need to get to him -“
He stumbled to his feet.
Hermione stood up at the same time, catching him by the shoulders and turning her to face him.
The impact of her shout from that range must have hit Draco as a physical blow. Peter winced, inwardly, in sympathy. Draco raised strained grey eyes to meet hers.
“East side of the estate - somewhere. Middle perimeter defences. I -“
A wave of pain shook him visibly. “Got to go.”
The cork popping noise sounded. He blinked out, and then, to Peter’s horror, half reappeared, wavering as though his body was made of smoke, caught between illusion and solidity over the kitchen table.
“Oh, fuck,” the apparition-Draco said distinctly. And vanished, this time completely.
His expression must have conveyed his shock, bafflement, and frantic request for enlightenment. Hermione, who was already reaching for her outdoors things, was obviously making a heroic effort to sound calm.
“In case you’re wondering, you just nearly witnessed a splinching. Which, given Draco got his Apparation Licence with honours on his seventeenth birthday shows just what sort of a state he must be in.”
She paused, impatiently. “Well, come on. What are you waiting for?”
“Go? Go where?”
“Up to the Manor, of course. See what we can do to help.”
Peter gestured towards the spot from which Draco had vanished. “But how did he know -?”
But he was already reaching up to the shelf for the battered pair of 8x30s he had been given on his eighth birthday (the carefully printed inscription in the red-velvet lining of the lid still included “Solar System” as the last line of his address, for the better information of those minded to return a lost pair of binoculars to their proper home). He nodded towards her.
“OK. But I’m not going to rush in until we get a decent view of what’s going on. From a distance. And I need all the information you’ve got about this. Now. What’s Draco responded to?”
To his experienced eye Hermione looked, suddenly, flustered.
“That’s - um - that looked like the alarm system at the Manor. Going off. I’ve discussed it with Viktor, and we’ve done research, and it seems fairly definitely the only one of its kind in Europe - the only one still left, that is.”
Peter frowned furiously at her.
“Well, you’ve got to understand that the original member of the family who rebuilt the Manor was really paranoid -“
Peter sighed. “Hermione, I’ve read local history. And I’ve got to say that I, for one, do not consider it paranoid to be twitchy about returning to live in a community which has just interpreted “Doing the will of the Lord” to include burning alive your brother and his entire household under their own roof. And, in case you’re wondering, if I thought that or anything like it did represent the will of the Lord, not only wouldn’t I be in this living, but I wouldn’t be in any other one either. Because, frankly, that Lord whose will they thought they were doing sounds like someone who I, personally, would cross the street to avoid. So? What did he do?”
She gulped. “Well, that’s what we aren’t quite sure. I mean - we know what the effects were - but how he did it - it’s one of those craftsmen things, you know, where no-one knows now how they did it then, especially with the tools they must have had - and they were always very careful, especially given James the First and so on, not to write too much down about their techniques -“
“Especially if they happened to include mixing the mortar with human blood, or anything of that kind,” Peter observed sardonically.
To her credit, Hermione took the implication on the chin. She nodded. “I’m afraid I can’t exactly rule it out. Not knowing what I do about Jabez Malfoy. Even the Newgate Calendar says that when he was to be hanged in chains in Execution Dock on the next tide he made the chains that were to bind him dissolve in molten iron over the hands of his executioners till they were withered and scarched by the melted metall to the bare bone. So no: I wouldn’t give points for his ability to turn the other cheek, either.”
She took a deep breath, and, once again as though she was, reluctantly, allowing him points for perception against the odds, added,
“And - um - your suggestion’s not so unlikely about Dark protection techniques in general, actually. Though - given how the Manor defences work - Viktor always thought that the odds were it would have to have been family blood, too.”
Peter exhaled. Pieces were slotting into place now, and with a vengeance.
“Jabez? The - um - deeply respectable 17th century one in the family group? In the gallery? Over the fireplace?”
She nodded. Peter reached for his coat.
“Ah. That one. Sounds likely. I’ve met his daughter. At least, in a manner of speaking. So, tell me, how do the defences work?”
“Well, they’re sort of tied to the owner and his next heir. Physically. If there’s an attack on the Manor then - well, you saw Draco, just now.”
He set his teeth as he took her meaning.
How can these people stand for these assaults on mind, spirit, and even basic bodily integrity, and not even notice anything is wrong?
“Good grief! You mean that Draco’s wandering around effectively with the whole of the estate’s intruder alarms hard-wired into his central nervous system?”
She paused. Thought. Apparently, it seemed, considered the facts in the context of the revisionist world-picture he had presented to her. And then nodded.
“Well, the - um - science is different, but, at least, that represents a pretty good analogy - “
His voice, he hoped, expressed his complete sincerity.
“I’m amazed that he’s still as sane as he is.”
They were at the door by now. He looked at her.
“Given I can’t - teleport, or whatever you call it - I hope we can get where we’re going by car?”
“If Draco’s right, yes. Practically all the way. With a bit of luck.”
“In that case,” he murmured, “I suggest we start praying for a minor miracle, and hope Ermintrude starts first cough. But I wouldn’t give it better than evens, you know.”
Hermione’s eyes glittered. Her voice had a note of total confidence. She had drawn a wand from her handbag.
“Oh, she’ll start,” she said. “Trust me.”
From the shadow of the yew trees that surrounded the Malfoy mausoleum Hermione and Peter looked up slope. He focused the binoculars upon the little group by the Temple of the Winds for some minutes, and then turned to Hermione, in a shallow, self-deceiving hope that her magically-enhanced vision might have seen truer - and less unequivocally disastrously.
She shook her head.
“Peter; that doesn’t look good.”
He forced down the part of his mind that was telling him, inappropriately, that she used my name! She actually addressed me by my first name. He made his face appropriately grave.
“No. In fact - uncommonly like a Mexican standoff.”
Suddenly embarrassed, he looked closely at her.
“That is - I hope you understand the term -“
Unexpectedly, she giggled.
“Peter, where do you think I’ve been all my life?”
Er - make that Fair Elfland, or some tedious refrain of that nature?
“Sorry,” he mumbled apologetically. Her face reverted to seriousness as she surveyed the little group.
“I wonder who that is - I mean, I know who it looks like - but that’s impossible - at least, I hope it is -“
“Is there’s anything you can do to help? I mean - they won’t know you’re here -“
Hermione’s face was cynical. “They would if I started using magic. I mean, whoever that is obviously got a good way into Manor land before he tripped the alarms - and I’d give a lot to know how he brought that one off - but they’ll be on full alert now. And I can’t afford to risk distracting Draco at this stage. Now if we had a gun - and knew how to use it - we could do that thing they do in the films, and shoot the wand out of that guy’s hand -“
“The bit they carefully don’t show you in the films, Hermione, is that that particular stunt almost invariably ends in blowing the target’s hand off.”
He had startled her, he could tell. The thought gave him a faint sense of satisfaction. After all, these people had disconcerted him to their heart’s content over the last week or so. Let them have a taste of their own medicine.
He continued before Hermione could interrupt.
“And anyway, I left my gun back in Canada. Being the last line of defence between my class and a charging Kodiak bear no longer forming part of my job description, you understand.”
He paused, taking in the scene up-slope.
“Mind you, if I’m planning to continue as an incumbent in quiet English rural parishes, maybe I ought to send for it.”
Hermione’s eyes sparkled; she seemed on the point of saying something, but visibly changed her mind.
“One of these days, Peter, I’ll cook you dinner, and you can tell me all about your teaching experiences in rural Canada. I’m sure I’ll find them enlightening.”
Enticing as the mental picture was, this was neither the time nor the place. He jerked his head towards the tableau up the hill.
“Resolve that, or there isn’t going to be a one of these days.”
It was clear from her tense expression that Hermione shared his assessment of the situation. She nodded.
“I need to - go and get help. Will you be all right here? I shouldn’t think they’ll notice you if you keep your head down -“
“I’ll be fine. They’re much too wrapped up in what’s happening up there to notice anything down here. Now get weaving.”
With only one half-turn to look behind her, she scrambled off down the slope and shinned the wall, dropping into the lane which ran between Manor lands and the Fontwell property. He waited a few moments to be sure she was well on her way.
It was odd, he reflected, that even someone like Hermione - highly intelligently, well-educated (albeit unconventionally), not inexperienced in life - still missed out on something which had been so thoroughly drummed into him in his clerical training that by now it was second nature.
Until they’re shown how to do it, people never work out for themselves that they need to be listening for what carefully isn’t being said.
Unhurriedly, and making no attempt to conceal himself, Peter began to stroll up the hill towards the Temple of the Winds.
“So. Augustus Bartlemass. I ought to have realised when they told me that a middle-aged dickhead with a hair cut like a badger’s nadgers was wandering around in black velvet making out that he was my father that we’d be meeting each other soon.”
The hissing, venomous drawl filled Neville’s entire consciousness.
“I suggest, Bartlemass, that you consider your next move very carefully.”
Neville’s whole body was throbbing from that last, sickening blow, but he managed to open his eyes a fraction. They watered and it was difficult to focus, but he could make out Draco standing on the other side of the duelling ground.
His blood sang exultantly. He had few illusions that he was safe - Bartlemass still had him covered with his wand, and he knew, now, how lethally quick Bartlemass’s responses were, and how unforgiving of the slightest mistake in his opponent.
So, he might - probably would - still die within the next few minutes. But he would not die unavenged. And he would have the chance to say goodbye.
Cautiously, unthreateningly, he began to roll onto his side. Ten feet or so away Ken pressed himself close to the ground, his body covering Neville’s wand utterly. He appeared still to be shaking from sheer fright; the impetus that had led him to intervene in the duel utterly spent.
Bartlemass followed the line of his gaze, while never dropping his aim. “Ah yes,” he said smoothly. “A poor tool, and one coming close to the end of its useful life. Though - his action was timely, a few seconds ago.”
Draco’s drawl was mocking. “You know, he doesn’t look very happy. When my father put someone under Imperius they looked as though they hadn’t a care in the world. Are you sure you’re doing it quite right?”
Bartlemass, clearly, was not going to allow himself to be irritated by such gnat-stings.
“You aren’t being too flattering to your boyfriend’s talent, are you? Of course, you are in the best position to know about that. But I, certainly, wouldn’t have set out to take him on with half my mind distracted by having to keep the arrogant Muggle under Imperius. It was unnecessary, anyway. They have a thing called finger-prints, the Muggles, did you know?”
“You’ve got a thing called finger-prints too, you insufferable pure-blood prat,” Neville breathed. The damage to his rib-cage made it a struggle for him to get the words out, but he had to let Draco know that he was still with him, conscious and snarling, ready for any cue he might be given.
Bartlemass’s tone was unruffled. “Indeed? It may be so. My finger-prints, however, aren’t all over the bottle of - aspirins, do they call them, Ken? - thrust carelessly to the back of a cupboard in the residents’ sitting room at the guesthouse. Nor are there traces of chopped up deadly nightshade root in the waste-paper basket in my bedroom. No, Ken’s voluntary co-operation was assured from the moment I pointed out that he’s right in the frame if the Muggle police do chose to investigate. And on that subject, although my friend the Chief Constable has been most accommodating to date (I believe he’s recommended introducing EP techniques throughout officer training courses at all levels) the time is indeed coming when he’ll have to be seen to be doing something -“
“Ah! Come next to each other in your Muggle Studies Encyclopaedia, did they, fingerprints and freemasonry?”
The breathing problem was definitely getting easier with practice. And if he could only keep Bartlemass on edge, then that might give Draco an opening -
“Shut up, blood-traitor scum,” Bartlemass observed pleasantly. Draco raised an eyebrow.
“Blood-traitor? From what I saw as I arrived if it hadn’t been for your little Muggle helper you’d have been well out of it. Oh, the shame of it! Relying on Muggle intervention to survive a wizard’s duel! If my father had been alive, he’d have seen you drummed out of the Thessaleum for that one.”
That appeared to have got home. Bartlemass flushed, though his hand on his wand, disappointingly, remained steady.
“Actually,” he drawled, “I’m not a member. Owing to your father having blackballed me when my candidacy came up in the first place.”
“Well, well, well. Something I could have congratulated my dear papa about, after all. What’s that tacky Muggle slogan, Neville? Even the hands on a painted clock are right twice a day? I’d certainly not care to belong to a club that would have you as a member.”
“How alike we all are, you know. Ready to a - ah - man to die with the family motto on our lips. Snobbery with violence, indeed.”
“A somewhat loose translation, Bartlemass. Of a motto to which you have no right, in any event. And when it comes to dying - well, my wand is on you, and not the other way round.”
Bartlemass flared his nostrils.
“Don’t do anything rash. Remember where my wand is pointing. And while I could hardly be expected to understand what you see in him, the Canon was right when he told me that a threat to him would be the quickest and most effective way of delivering you where I wanted you. Such a splendid position from which to observe the pervers- peculiarities of human nature, being a vampire, don’t you think?”
The realization hit him harder than the spell had, earlier.
Fool! Why didn’t it occur to you that you might be being used as bait? Oh, you utter, utter, arrogant fool!
Neville cast Draco a deeply apologetic glance.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Draco shrugged nonchalantly, all the while keeping his wand covering the white-blond, velvet-clad figure who, in turn, had his wand tip focused with an unwavering hand at Neville’s heart.
“No problem. Deeply touched, actually. The only thing I don’t understand is why you went off to fight someone you thought was my father on your own without telling anyone?”
“Well, I - ” Neville swallowed, suddenly aware of how hubristic he must be sounding.
“Yes-?” The raised eyebrow was, even in these circumstances, both heart-breakingly familiar and inconceivably endearing.
The words came out in a sudden rush. “I wasn’t sure you were - quite up to coping with your father returning.” There was a pause, which lengthened uncomfortably. “I’m sorry,” he added.
Draco, still without allowing his wand to move from covering their enemy’s vital organs, made a don’t-mention-it gesture. And smiled; a glittering, feral, smile that left his eyes cold, and was intended to make hairs rise on the back of one’s neck.
“Stop apologising.” He paused again. “It was just - well, given the number of people who’ve come up to me since my father snuffed it to tell me how sorry they were that they couldn’t claim any credit for it - once you thought he’d turned up again, it seems like a missed opportunity.”
Draco’s teeth showed white.
“I mean, given that level of interest, we should have held a raffle.”
The velvet-clad figure snorted.
“How - amusing. Lucius - always said that your principal fault was that you would get distracted by side-issues from the point at hand.”
“Really?” Draco’s right eyebrow pointed ever more insolently skywards. “And he always said your principal fault, Bartlemass, was that you were so pathetically anxious to insist that you were one of us, when it was so patently obvious that you weren’t.” He turned his body infinitesimally towards Neville.
“You see,” he added, “He claims to be 31 parts Malfoy out of 32. But don’t bother yourself trying to work out the maths. It’ll only give you a headache. And he’s almost certain to be lying.”
“If I am, then it’s in the blood,” Bartlemass said.
Encouraged by the unruffled arrogance of Draco’s tone, Neville coughed dryly.
“Don’t worry. I gave up on trying to understand local genetics when Mick Winzar started to explain something similar.”
“Winzar? Ah, yes. You remind me. That was where the missing 32nd part came from, I believe.” Draco’s smile grew malicious. “Such a shame, isn’t it, Bartlemass? To be 31 parts Malfoy, and still not a pureblood? So near - and yet so far.”
Bartlemass’s thin lips compressed. “So near? I’ll show you what I’m near to. Two words from me, and you’ll need to go shopping for another fuck-buddy.”
Draco’s voice was utterly uninflected, though his face was paper-white.
“And where we are standing would be a crater half a mile across before the breath finished leaving your lungs.”
Bartlemass’s face grew purple, but his own voice was equally steady.
“How - romantic. If implausibly self-sacrificial. But even if you weren’t lying, all that gesture would do would be to hand the estate over to my wife, a little ahead of schedule. And I’m sure Ophelia could do something - creative - with the crater. Perhaps an ornamental pond edged with weeping willows. In memory of me, you understand. Lake Augustus. It would be a handsome addition to the estate.”
Draco inhaled. There was a glitter about his eyes that Neville could not quite decode.
“Offy? What’s Cousin Offy got to do with it?”
“This isn’t the time to mention it,” Neville murmured, “But if we do get out of this one I’m really going to have to have a word about your family and its names.”
Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly - he was, after all, dealing with experts here - this attempt at a diversion went unremarked.
“What has my wife got to do with it? She does have the honour of standing next in the entail, after all. Even you could hardly have forgotten that. Though you evidently have forgotten - much. Such as the respect due to your Heir. When have we ever been invited to the Manor since you inherited?”
Draco’s nostrils flared in icy hauteur.
“There are half a dozen reasons why I haven’t invited Cousin Offy to the Manor. And over 5 of them are spelt “Augustus Bartlemass”.”
Neville hoped his deep scepticism over whether Draco could, in fact, spell “Augustus Bartlemass” was not apparent. It hardly mattered, anyway; it was clear from his suddenly amused expression that the thought had already occurred to Bartlemass himself. Draco, moving swiftly over heavy ground, continued rapidly on before either of them could interrupt.
“But if I had invited Offy, it would have been for her own sake, not as the Heir.” He paused. “You see, she isn’t.”
Bartlemass exhaled disbelievingly. “Don’t be ridiculous, boy. I know the family tree as well as you do. Your father and grandfather were each only children.”
“Only legitimate children,” Draco murmured. Bartlemass acknowledged the point with a flick of his brows, and continued,
“Even your great-grandfather Carcharius had only the one legitimate sister. On your death, Ophelia must inherit under the White Devil’s Settlement, as the oldest of Clodia’s descendant’s in the senior line. Spare me, please, any fantasies about your having contracted a secret marriage and produced a Malfoy baby to cut her out. Frankly, I shan’t believe them.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“That’s just as well,” Neville murmured. “The dogs are hard enough work as it is. And they don’t share your bloodline.”
Draco flicked him a glance that was suddenly warming, even in the midst of the current crisis, before turning his attention back to Bartlemass.
“She isn’t my heir because there is no entail. Not any more.”
“But you can’t have broken it -“
Draco’s smile was truly chilling now; Neville had seen Lucius when he had been hell-bent on murder, and would not have cared to judge at that moment which of the two looked more intimidating.
“No indeed, I couldn’t.” He paused. “But my father could. And did. The day after my 17th birthday, actually.”
The grey eyes were calculating slits.
“Well, despite what we normally tried to project, Augustus - and I can assure you there wasn’t all that much confidence in the inevitable triumph of the pureblood cause back at Death Eater Central, at least once it became apparent just how many flobberworms short of a Adversus Potion the Dark Lord was becoming - anyway, when father suggested it, and told me it was so he had free rein to use the Manor as collateral to support fund-raising for the Dark Lord - well, I grant you a big part of my brain did chime in with, “Oh, yeah, and give at least a shadow of an argument for your heirs when - if - the Ministry decides to go expropriatory when we lose -” “
He coughed, suddenly self-conscious.
“Anyway, it’s not easy to spot someone else’s hidden agendas, is it? And I’ve got to say allowing me to resettle the estate on whoever I like when I divorce your mother and marry your girl-friend wasn’t the first one I’d have selected - which, I suppose, shows how dumb one can be - “
Momentarily Draco’s voice faltered. Then gathering strength, he fixed Bartlemass with his eyes, and added,
“Mind you, I wouldn’t have done it - and ma would never have allowed me to agree, anyway - if I hadn’t seen him leave the entire estate to me in his will - of course, he could always have changed it - no doubt he told poor Pansy he had - but fortunately, I suppose, he never actually got round to doing it. Especially when he assumed there were so many more direct ways of cutting me out of testamentary squabbles. And so -“
Draco spread his hands.
“When my father died I inherited everything. Just - not under the entail. And, of course, since then I’ve made my own will.”
Bartlemass regarded him thoughtfully.
“How interesting. And who, might I ask, inherits under that?”
He ought, of course to have been prepared. But it was still a shock - a slamming, boot-in-the-ribs sort of shock - to see Draco nod casually in his direction and drawl,
“You’re currently holding a wand at his heart, actually.”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, hot fury rose up in him. He glared at his lover.
“Draco, tell me you didn’t!”
The fine-drawn features were impassive.
“Of course I did. Be sensible. Who else was I going to leave it to? Ma? She’s got a fortune ten times bigger in her own right, and she can’t stand the place, anyway. Any of my other relatives - when you’ve always been on at me about how I ought to act responsibly and do more for the villagers? That would be doing for them, and no mistake. I mean, I’d understand it if you might not care much for this specimen, but among the pack of tiger sharks and vultures I’ve got by way of family, his wife Offy is about the best - at least, in these parts - and even he -“
He inclined his head.
“Would probably have to put some more intensive work in if he wants to be regarded as unequivocally the worst.”
Neville gritted his teeth.
“That is not the point. Draco, I don’t want the Manor without you in it.”
Bartlemass’s saurian, mirthless grin was the counter-part of Draco’s.
“How interesting,” he purred. “Yet another example of a position on which our respective points of view are polar opposites.”
Draco put his head on one side. His expression was the epitome of calm reasonableness.
“Well,” he said, “Given that’s the case, I take it you won’t be too offended if I disinherit you?”
There was a tiny muscle twitching in the corner of his mouth: fortunately at the side away from Bartlemass. They had been through too much together for Neville not to recognise the importance that every word he spoke would have from now on. He shrugged.
“Do what the fuck you like. After all, like I told you, I’ve no interest in the Manor. There are times I wish I’d never seen the place.”
Something moved momentarily behind Draco’s bland expression.
Message understood, it seems. I only wish I know what I just told him.
“You see? No objection from the heir presumptive. You must be feeling something of an idiot, Bartlemass - going to all that trouble - and expense, too, since I don’t suppose taking control of this Empowerment Pathway business was cheap - when it turns out Offy’s expectations have been empty for years. I’d have told her if she’d asked. I know she’s always had this idiotically sentimental, rose-tinted view of the place, but honestly, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The roof alone -“
“They told me some gullible American Muggles had fixed the roof for you,” Bartlemass interjected harshly.
For a moment it seemed as though Draco had been thrown off his train of thought. Then he snapped his fingers.
“And so they did. How remiss of me to forget. Well, of course, one thing you and - er - your late half-brother had in common was your ability to appreciate the usefulness of Muggles. In my father’s case - well, I suppose he’d call them game - whereas in yours - tell me, did you intend the Somervilles to catch plague, or did you find that just a happy accident ?”
“Well, since, unlike you, I do have some family pride, I certainly wasn’t planning on letting them survive to boast about what they’d done with our family’s bones.”
“I see. Keep necromancy in the family, as well as - if you’ll forgive my mentioning it - incest.” Draco’s voice was unruffled. He gestured airily with his free hand.
“Well, family issues were what we were leading up to. You see - given Offy’s my least unfavourite relative - and that Neville’s not interested in the place anyway - I’m prepared to give you another chance, Bartlemass.”
“On what terms?”
Draco smiled again.
“On my terms. What else?”
Bartlemass made a small, curiously elegant gesture with the wand, notwithstanding the lethal precision with which he continued to aim it.
“You are hardly - if you’ll forgive my saying so - in the best position to dictate them.”
Draco assumed the reasonable expression again.
“Nor you to refuse them - look, Bartlemass, we’re standing where we stand. I’m prepared to make you an offer. I’ll will the Manor to Offy now, on the spot - properly witnessed and everything - and undertake to do nothing to prevent her claiming her inheritance, on a single condition.”
“What? Him?” Bartlemass described a complex figure in the air with the end of the wand, and Neville felt his blood run cold. “He must have exceptional talents. But you must realise, for that offer to be at all attractive to me, you won’t be around to enjoy them for very much longer.”
Words rose to Neville’s lips, but the shake of Draco’s head - imperceptible, to one who knew him less well than Neville did - made him swallow them unuttered.
“But are you prepared to consider my offer in principle?”
“Possibly. Depending on the condition.”
“Ah, yes. I’ll explain that in just a moment. But we’ll need another witness to make it legal.”
His eye fell on Ken, who was still lying prone. Bartlemass shook his head.
“Oh, no. I like him just the way he is. At least, for the time being. I don’t want to face your friend with his wand in his hand a second time this morning. I’m not as young as I was. You keep lying on it - ah - Ken.”
“Perhaps,” a new voice cut in, “I could be of assistance?”
They all turned. Peter, an air of grim determination on his face, was crossing the ground by the Temple. It occurred to Neville that Draco, alone of them, must have been able to spot his approach for some minutes.
“It isn’t something I get called on for much for these days,” he added, “But traditionally the Rector was always expected to help his parishioners with their testamentary dispositions. In default of other help. Draco?”
“I can’t think of anyone better,” Draco observed gravely. “I’m most glad you could come.”
Bartlemass blinked suspiciously.
“And the condition?”
Draco propped his shoulders against the raised dais of the temple, and stretched.
“I was coming to that. The bequest will be conditional on your winning a game of cards. My choice of game. If you win, the will stands; if you don’t, it’s torn up on the spot and you’d be well advised to get the hell out of here. Fast. Because both of us will certainly consider ourselves at liberty to cut your throat. Or - yes, all right Peter - turn you over to the appropriate authorities. Deal?”
Bartlemass looked suspiciously at him.
“And what’s to stop your next of kin challenging the Will, then?”
“Yes, what is there?” Neville broke in. “I don’t see why we should just let this bastard get away with it -“
Draco’s expression was frozen.
“Because it’d be against my express dying wishes?”
“But you aren’t -“
“I certainly will be if he - ” Draco nodded in Peter’s direction, “Doesn’t manage to turn up the right cards. You don’t expect Augustus will be planning to give me time to change my will, do you?”
“What?” The horrified shriek had come from Bartlemass, but it might, Neville thought, have just have come from any of the rest of them. Well, he corrected himself, anyone except Ken.
Like the Tar Baby, Ken continued to lay low and say nuffin.
Draco continued to project an air of reasonableness.
“Well, I’ve got my hands full. And in any event, appointing a champion is a perfectly acceptable magical strategy. You might, Bartlemass, want to have Ken hold your cards for you -? Tell him to throw Neville’s wand to Peter. If you ask him to swear not to give it to either of us, he won’t. He seems to be incorruptible, more’s the pity.”
“I’ll not believe that of anyone,” Bartlemass sneered. “Still less on your recommendation. But yes: I’ll play cards for the Manor. Though I’ll hold them myself. Two further conditions, though.”
Draco raised an eyebrow with pointed insolence.
“Yes? And when I only asked for one, too.”
Bartlemass ignored the tone.
“First, you make that all your estate. I’m not going to have Ophelia saddled with a house she can’t afford to maintain. Which is just the sort of thing you’d think was clever.”
“All my estate?” Draco’s tone was cool, considering. Then he nodded.
“Well, OK - subject, naturally, to all the existing tenancies and encumbrances.”
Bartlemass’s eyes glittered maliciously.
“All legal tenancies and encumbrances. Pure informal understandings won’t do.”
His glance flicked scornfully in Neville’s direction. Neville, with an effort, kept his face entirely expressionless. Bartlemass was not to know - no-one knew except him, Draco, and a partner at Ellenborough Jeffries Rich (who was fully aware that there was not gold enough in Gringotts to buy her indiscretion on the point) - about the outcome of that argument over a year ago, when, hypocritically citing his grandmother as the reason, he had suggested that the land upon which his greenhouses was to stand be formally leased to him. At, he had made clear, a full market rent.
And Draco had lifted his brows and conceded the point about a proper lease with suspicious ease.
But had reserved the right as landlord to fix the rent.
At which point the row had started.
And he had lost. So now fully five acres of the Manor’s best land (“You’ll need plenty of space for expansion”) fronting the Muggle main road (“I’ve never liked living next to that”) had been leased to him for 99 years.
At one dragonfly eye per annum.
And the last thing I want is for Bartlemass to be in a position where he ever finds that out.
“Quite so,” Draco breathed. “I take your point. Only legal encumbrances. Oh, and I’m not at all sure this is going to work under French law. You’ll have to take your chances on the chateau.”
Bartlemass nodded gravely.
“A thin, poor, bitter wine. I - we - Ophelia - deserve better. I can live without it.”
“And your second condition?”
Draco’s voice now had a snap in it.
Bartlemass shrugged. “I want to hear your fuck-buddy explicitly to confirm he accepts your dying wishes.”
There was a tenseness about Draco’s expression which led Neville to pause before responding, and to shrug helplessly.
“I’m sorry: I got lost. What was it, exactly?”
Draco assumed an air of enormous restraint.
“I enjoin you - as my dying wish, if that happens to be the case - that you do not impede my Cousin Ophelia from inheriting anything she might be entitled to -“
“Not impeding ? I shall need more than that. If your mother insists on challenging your will - “
Neville caught a quick, flickering, cue from Draco’s eye. He gulped.
“How about; “Should Draco die, I agree I shall actively do what I can to promote Offy inheriting anything she may be entitled to as promptly and smoothly as practicable?” “
“That should do the trick.”
There was a faint sound; almost like a sharp exclamation as sharply suppressed. Neville thought it came from Peter.
Draco smiled. “Well,” he said, “Having got that straight, perhaps we should actually get ourselves into the Temple, in case it starts raining while we’re playing? And I’m sure, Augustus, you’d hate the ink to run while we were writing the Will.”
Carefully, given the dynamics of the situation, the party moved into the little structure. Peter took the opportunity to speak to Neville, although Bartlemass cocked a wary ear, and it was clear their conversation was being closely attended to.
“I want to make one thing clear,” Peter said. His expression was grim.
“I am not making myself a party to murder.”
“Well, you’ll just have to make sure you win, then, won’t you?”
Draco, it seemed, was keeping track of the conversation, too.
Peter glared at him.
“Well, I’m not happy about that aspect, either. And if I could dissuade your - um -“
“Uncle,” Draco supplemented helpfully. He paused for a moment, and added, “Twice. To say nothing of cousin - first and second, that is - and also removed - though unhappily not nearly far enough -“
“Yes, thank you,” Bartlemass said. He glared at Peter. “And I’m not letting any sanctimonious nonsense from this Muggle stop me - my wife - getting what she’s entitled to. Which I’m sure he wants to do.”
Peter raised his head and looked Bartlemass directly in the eye. “That’s true,” he said. “I would most sincerely hope that you don’t get what you’re entitled to. In fact, I can assure you I’ll be praying for it.”
Bartlemass looked bored. “And you expect me to be happy about having him as a witness, Draco?”
Draco bared his teeth in another feral grin.
“Absolutely. And anyway, he’s the only one you’re getting. So do we have an agreement?”
The tentative gold of the winter sunlight lit up the expensive imported marble of the Temple balustrade so its cold white austerity momentarily took on the honey shade of the Manor’s Cotswold stone façade behind it. Draco’s hair, as he leaned back over the balustrade, was caught in the same alchemical transmutation, so that Manor and owner were, briefly, linked by more than ties of parchment and wax.
Neville allowed his eyes to linger on his lover. Abruptly, Draco looked up and met his gaze. Neville’s mouth suddenly went dry.
If this all goes wrong, this will be the last time.
Draco’s lips moved, soundlessly, a message intended to be read by him alone. Neville willed his eyes to express his response.
Draco blinked, and turned away.
Bartlemass nodded abruptly. “Yes. We have an agreement.”
Warily, he and Draco shook hands. Abruptly (Neville did not see which of them had done it, but they were both bound by the terms of their wizard’s contract, and neither of them would lightly risk the consequences of breach) quills, parchment, and two sealed packs of playing cards were resting on the balustrade.
With a sense of unreality he went through the brief, empty formalities of witnessing Draco’s will - saw Peter sign his name as witness below his, below the assertive swirl of black ink that was Draco’s signature.
“Shuffle,” Draco said, pushing the two packs of cards towards Peter. Peter raised an eyebrow.
“You hadn’t said what game we’re playing.”
Draco smiled. “Canasta, of course. After all, from what I spotted last night, it’s the only card game for the sadistic and devious-minded.”
“Very suitable, then. For you. Or even me,” Bartlemass purred, cutting the pack which Peter proffered to him. “Which is why it baffles me that you’ve chosen the vicar as your champion.”
“That’s Rector, technically,” Peter observed pleasantly, and without looking down at his hands, performed a flawless waterfall shuffle. It might have been his imagination, but Neville thought Bartlemass looked a shade less confident than he had been.
Neville looked nervously at the piece of parchment on which the scores were being kept. It seemed to him that a deficit of nearly 800 points in a game that was won by the first person to pass 5000 was hardly a healthy margin. Bartlemass, clearly, thought so too; his eyes glittered. Draco appeared to be somewhere else; his gaze was fixed on the cards on the table, and he had neither spoken nor moved since the game had begun. Ken sat slumped against the balustrade, his eyes glazed. Neville wondered, briefly, what promises had been held out to him or what threats had brought him to this point, and how he saw his a future from here, or if he, like the rest of them, was unable to focus beyond the next few minutes.
Peter, with perfectly steady hands, dealt the cards. This time, following the opening, tense hands in which Peter’s early lead had, apparently, crucially handicapped him in his ability to pick up the pack, allowing Bartlemass to take the next two hands with ease, both players seemed to be taking matters cautiously. Neither was down on the table, and the pack mounted higher with each successive discard.
There now seemed to be something like two thirds of the available cards sitting in the discard pack. Whichever player collected that, would almost certainly win not only the hand, but the game.
Peter paused, thought, picked up a card and discarded. A seven.
Is that the second or third seven he’s got rid of?
Bartlemass paused in contemplation. His hand hovered. Draco’s rigid control flickered, momentarily: he looked up and across at Bartlemass. Neville’s guts clenched.
If he’s got two sevens - and a hundred and twenty points in his hand - and Peter’s been discarding sevens - so he can’t have them -
The pause lengthened. Then, Bartlemass gave a small shrug, picked a card from the top of the unused pile, and dropped a card onto the discard pack.
The seven of clubs.
With unhurried hand movements Peter put four aces, topped by a joker, down on the table. He paused, and then put down the seven of diamonds and the seven of spades.
And picked up the pack.
As though he had all the time in the world, Peter began to sort his loot into canastas. It was clear that it was going to take him some time.
“You fucking sneaky bastard,” Bartlemass hissed. Draco smiled sweetly.
“Please, Augustus. Not in front of the Rector.”
Bartlemass’s wand was in his hand; Draco’s out almost as quickly.
“We had a contract,” Draco hissed. “And you just lost.”
“Try reading the small print next time, baby cousin.” The sheer power of the accompanying hex blasted Draco back across the Temple, smashing him into one of the pillars supporting to roof. Neville made a frantic grab for his own wand, and found his hand paralysed. Bartlemass’s eyes glittered: it was clear that he was in two minds about which of them to kill first. He raised his wand, pointing it directly at Neville -
The Unforgivable Curse turned into a high shriek of unimaginable pain as, like magnesium tape held in a flame, Bartlemass’s wand tip suddenly incandesced into a blaze of white fire, which ran back up the wand and began to consume his arm before the fire sputtered and went out somewhere above his elbow. For one illusory moment the blackened hand and arm looked whole, before they disintegrated into flecks of ash, and blew away on the damp breeze.
Bartlemass grabbed at Ken’s shoulder, and screamed something in a terrible voice. Ken - suddenly looking like a broken tailor’s dummy, flopped forward onto the floor of the dais, and Peter moved to kneel besides him as Bartlemass blinked out of sight.
“Well,” said Mrs Longbottom, stepping up onto the Temple with an effort. “It’s as well I didn’t get kept longer at that hospital.”