Chapter 9: Tuesday Night and Wednesday Morning - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
Innogen, in her thin silk top, shivered in the icy draught that blew down the nave. Imposing as the West Door to the church was, it offered little protection against the cold of the storm outside, even though it kept out the rain. Under her bare, supplicant’s feet, the time-smoothed Purbeck stone of the graves which formed the floor of the nave struck up with a profound chill.
She could see little in the darkened church, except for a single patch of light: a dull amber glow behind and a little above the altar. Outlined by its radiance, a robed and hooded figure holding something in its arms hovered in mid air, and awaited their approach in silence.
They bowed their heads reverently and walked onwards.
Before they reached the altar rail there was an upraised arm, and an abrupt, slashing, downwards movement. The blood from the throat of the new-born lamb spurted out, most being caught in the chalice and the rest falling to clot awkwardly over the purple drapings of the altar. Innogen’s breath choked in her throat.
The wail of triumph rang out to the clerestory and beyond.
“It is accomplished! Draw near and drink of that which has been prepared for you!”
She had expected Hugo’s hand in the small of her back, and was already moving forward before the unnecessarily violent prod landed. Her momentum robbed the blow of much of its force. She sensed, somehow, that Hugo had been frustrated, and tensed, knowing that she would have to pay for her unexpected perceptiveness later.
Nevertheless, before he recovered himself enough to join her she was in her accustomed place at the altar rail, tipping her head back and opening her mouth to receive the benediction. The black robed figure dipped his fingers into the blood in the chalice, painting a runic sign on her tongue. Incongruously, she recollected that tomorrow - today, if it was already past midnight ( she had lost track of time, it seemed) - was Ash Wednesday, and that her kneeling here, now, might be counted part of a pattern.
I used to trace patterns in the steam on windows with my finger-tip. I was good at finding patterns in things, once.
The blood was unexpectedly - disgustingly - warm on her tongue and its metallic taste was mixed with something strange and aromatic. Dully, she thought that there must have been some sort of paste on the blade of the knife. With an effort she swallowed without gagging, and, sliding her eyes sideways without turning her head (she had learned some tricks on the chorus lines of her youth) she felt a small, mean satisfaction in seeing that Hugo, for all his posturing, was less equipped to deal with this perverted Communion than she was.
“From now on comes your testing time. Remember this: power is only gained through trial and suffering. Now you have endured the initiation ritual, you cannot turn back. Any faltering, and you will fall. And the pain and terror of that fall will swallow up the pain and terror you offer as the price of power as the light of the full noon sun devours a candle flame. Now you have set your foot to the path you dare not fail.”
Innogen shivered again. The light above the altar suddenly went out, and the church was left in total darkness. Beside her Hugo stirred sluggishly, moving like a sleepwalker. Her own limbs weighed her down; she felt as though the cold of the church floor was seeping up to numb her body entirely. Somehow they made it out of the little side door that they had found unlocked when they arrived at the church earlier that night, true to the promise in the parchment note they had received that afternoon.
Outside the storm was rising. It seemed, somehow, appropriate. They turned left, away from the lights of the street, and made their way home along the river path. Dully - everything, since that moment in the church, seemed dulled, and the world was becoming ever fainter around her - she noted that the river was running very high. It slopped over onto the path and across her feet, soaking the hem of her long skirts. The sudden iciness of the water roused her momentarily to sensation, and that sensation was pain. A voice sounded in the back of her mind.
It will be pain from now on. But that is the price of power. We will emerge changed - stronger. From the chrysalis emerges the butterfly. And we are committed now. We dare not fail.
Peter got up awkwardly as the train pulled to an arthritic stop at what he regarded as his local station, laughable as the concept was. It was a good nine miles from the village. It had been a painful journey - the line from Waterloo always was, but, at this time of night it was the only one that actually stopped at his destination, as opposed to screaming onwards down the main line towards Exeter, Totnes, and all points west. The price, of course, was that it had also stopped at every other station between Woking and his destination, to say nothing (he could have sworn) of at least five other inexplicable breaks in the back of beyond, several of prolonged duration. He toyed with the idea of the guard’s cherishing an elderly and incontinent poodle in his van, which had to be let out whenever the side of an appropriate cutting presented itself.
The only other passenger still left in the carriage got up at the same time, but it was not until they were on the rain-lashed and deserted platform, and the rear-light of the train was blinking off into the distance, that he spoke to Peter: hesitantly, in the tones of one who is aware that an introduction has not taken place, but who hopes that common peril will be a sufficient excuse for the solecism.
“Excuse me, but would you happen to know how to get to Malfoy Intrinsica from here?”
He turned. “I hope so. I’m heading there myself.” He extended a hand. “Peter Blakeney. I’m the Rector there. And -?”
The other’s voice was rather muffled, since his coat was wrapped high against the wind and driving rain.
“Ambrose James. Environmental Protection Agency.”
He sneezed, hugely.
“Bless you,” Peter muttered automatically.
“I am so sorry. Dragged me out of bed, they did. I asked them, wasn’t there a younger man, or one nearer the spot, or one without a streaming cold, at least, whom they could send but they said no. So here I am. I take it this is the nearest station? Beechinged, the old one, was it?”
He sneezed again
Peter was aware he was probably looking faintly astounded, but reflected that given the darkness and the weather it hardly signified. He collected his thoughts.
“Do I take it you’re a railway buff -?”
The stranger shuddered. “No. Merely an inveterate loather of the automobile. Which is why I prefer to stay within Zone One, wherever possible. But my masters tell me that we, at least, aren’t going to be tarred with MAFF’s brush. As Government agencies go, you understand. Which, I gather, means being visibly on the spot at times of crisis. Whatever the cost in human suffering.”
James sneezed yet again. Peter, suddenly realising he was being slow on the uptake, said hastily:
“So - why is it that the EPA need to send someone to the village anyway?”
The civil servant’s voice sounded rather surprised. “You mean you haven’t been following the news? With the snow melting so fast, and this storm system whipping through - and another hard on its heels - we’ve got the best part of a hundred flood warnings out in the South Western Counties alone - the Avon’s burst in several places - Bradford’s two feet under already - god help them at Bridport with a spring tide driving into the harbour at West Bay - and the Ebble was going in several places even before I caught the train. Actually, I looked at the records before I had to run, and it never does seem to have burst precisely at Malfoy Intrinsica before. God alone knows why not, with the chalk escarpment just above it, and no flood plain to absorb the overflow, but it must go tonight, given what they’ve had to divert into it to save the lands further up, and what’s still coming down - “
“Want to bet?” Peter said, but apparently it went unheard: at least, the civil servant continued on without acknowledgment.
“I hope whatever ideas you had for getting to the village didn’t involve approaching it from the other side of the river. Or, if they did, that they were amphibious.”
Peter’s eyes widened. At the bottom of the hill leading down from the station he could see the bright white sign outside the mini-cab firm who he hoped would get them home. He had, after that, been planning to flop into bed, and tell his whirling thoughts and conflicting emotions to give him some peace until he could drag them out in daylight and look at them properly. It seemed, however, fate had different plans.
“We can share a cab?” he suggested. “Where were you planning on staying?”
James’s nose wrinkled. “I gather they’ve booked me into the local pub. Though I expect they’ve gone to bed by now.”
Peter’s lips crinkled. “I’d be very surprised. Lend me your mobile, and I’ll give Jack a call. I’m sure he’ll sit up for you if I ask him. And I expect I ought to come round and talk to him about how we’re going to co-ordinate the salvage efforts anyway. Oh, and would you mind if I called a friend who organises the local Sea Scouts while we’re at it? From what you’re saying, I expect we’ll be needing to borrow a few canoes.”
They walked together down the hill, leaning defiantly into the devastating buffets of the storm.
“An amusing little charade,” Ken sneered. “Quite the conjuror, aren’t you - Mr Riddle?”
The black robed figure did not turn round, but he came to a halt on the gravelled path on the village side of the street. Ken stepped out from the shadow of the flying buttress.
He deliberately made his voice slow and scornful.
“You set up your stage beautifully in advance - plenty of atmosphere - a bit of the old Gothick horror - a touch of the Grand Guignol - that hoary old floating trick using selective lighting in a dim room - an impressive deep voice - tell me: was that a microphone - ?”
The other’s voice was unemotional and uninflected.
“People see what they expect to see, Mr Hemsworth. And everyone seeks power, but not all of them seek it the same way. Those two have had as much access to worldly power as they can readily achieve. They now think real power can only be found by drawing on other worlds. You, I suspect, have simpler needs. But no less of a desire for power.”
Ken’s lips were suddenly very dry. “I’m interested in the success of the Centre. Since I’ve got a significant investment in it. And since I’ve been promised the directorship. I’m not sure I’d call it a desire for power.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Mr Riddle’s voice was indifferent.
Ken choked back his rage and made his voice dry in turn.
“Though the success of the Centre is at present invested in the Somerville connection. And I’m sure his stock even with the gullible drongos we’re touting to would be likely to drop sharply if they’d witnessed that little demonstration. Mr Riddle. And I imagine that the BBC would be interested to know of it. To say nothing of horrified.”
For the first time Mr Riddle turned round. For the first time, in the reflected light from the village street his eyes showed: grey, heavy lidded, and reptilian.
“There are many ways of seeking power. But that way is one I advise you to avoid. In your own very best interests.”
Ken stirred, suddenly irresolute. “I see you understand me.”
Mr Riddle surveyed him. “I expect so. It isn’t difficult. You’re ambitious. That’s good. Ambition - can be useful. But in the case of the Centre , it would undoubtedly be best if you said nothing of what you saw this evening. There are other ways to use knowledge, rather than the immediately obvious ones.”
Ken smiled. “But knowledge - once you have it - can’t be unlearned.”
That was clearly a hit. Mr Riddle paused, momentarily, as though taken aback, and then his smile returned, with a warmth it had not held before.
“You don’t think so? Well, I’m not planning to argue with you. You have plans, I understand, for how you wish to develop the Centre? I’m staying close by here. Why don’t we go back - have a drink - and you can tell me all about them?”
Kivren shivered in her bedroom. It was late; the others had gone to bed hours ago. Even Ken, who had been out since after supper on some errand of his own, had apparently returned: she had heard footsteps in the passage, the opening and closing of the door next to hers, and, some time after the sounds of him moving about in the room had ceased, she had taken the precaution of tiptoeing out into the corridor and putting her ear to his door. The even sound of snoring from within had reassured her.
An array of items was set out on the bed. A crystal (ironically, the one she had bought at Glastonbury), a saucer containing salt, a glass of spring water and a candle, currently unlit, were deployed at the four cardinal points of the compass. The herbal, open at the appropriate page, lay on the bed next to them. She picked up the knife together with the bunch of caladium leaves she had surreptitiously plucked earlier that evening in the conservatory, and drew a deep breath.
Simon, she reflected (not without bitterness) had always amused himself over her private little rituals and ceremonies, scoffing at her magpie habit of borrowing any bits for her personal faith that seemed to her to feel “right” out of the vast spectrum of human spirituality and observances. If what Cathy had said in Glastonbury had been true, that hadn’t been the only thing he’d scoffed at her about.
If Cathy was telling the truth.
She re-read the herbal again.
“Causes swelling and burning sensation in the mouth and throat if ingested. In rare cases has been known to cause death if the swelling is sufficiently acute to cause blockage of the trachea.”
She took a match and lit the candle, then extinguished the other light in the room. She placed the caladium at the centre of the diamond made by the other four objects, and knelt by the bed.
“Let the spirit of justice enter into these bitter herbs,” she prayed. “Let her lips and tongue be proof against their power if her words are true. And if she lies, may her own tongue swell in her mouth and avenge me.”
Earl Godwin. Proof positive my curse can work. So work now. I pray you. Lady.
She repeated the prayer seven times - seven was a number which had great symbolism - before getting to her feet and walking counter-clockwise round the bed. She repeated the process twice more.
That done, she extended a hand and gave a quick, reassuring pat to the item she had also acquired that day, but which had formed no part of the ritual. It would be needed in the morning, though, when she put the next part of her plan into action.
After Áine ‘s experience, the room keys were no longer hung behind the reception desks. They all carried them with them. But it had taken little effort to abstract Cathy’s from her handbag, and get a duplicate cut.
Tomorrow, the test would begin.
She sat for a long time looking out through the window, her eyes witnessing but failing to take in the storm-lashed garden.
Peter knew that there was something wrong the instant he unlocked the cabinet which formed the safe for the sacramental vessels. Out of it breathed a faint hint of something spoiled - like a kitchen bin overdue for emptying - mixed with a muskier, even more unpleasant scent. He checked his automatic reaching out for chalice and paten, and sniffed again. The unpleasant aroma was definitely coming from inside the cabinet. He eyed the vessels dubiously. Now that he thought about it, the chalice had apparently been rotated - very fractionally - from the position in which he had left it.
It was inconceivable that anyone else would have had a legitimate reason to enter the cabinet. And - he gulped as he considered the implications - not much by way of opportunity, either. The sacristy had been locked; the outer skin of the cabinet, also, with keys that he had been carrying with him since the vessels had been put away after last use. And so far as he knew, he was the only one who knew the combination for the inner skin of the safe. And all of them had been properly locked until he had arrived that morning.
And yet the vessels had been tampered with. He knew it, and his underlying unease became something sharper, more like fear, as he caught the implications of that.
A mere thief would have taken them away.
With sudden decision he turned away. The cabinet was merely the most obvious secure place in the room. It would be bad if it were broken into, but the late Victorian vessels used for the most part to celebrate Communion in St Sebastian’s could be replaced without exceptional difficulty.
The Armitage Bequest, now, that was a wholly different matter.
He bit his lip even as he moved aside the bit of panelling that concealed the specially designed secure resting place for the bequest. Mrs Armitage would, he knew, be at Early Service, and would undoubtedly have something to say to him afterwards. By convention, the vessels her husband’s grandfather had crafted in gold and willed to St Sebastian’s only saw the light of day on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, and on the Induction of a new Rector. Using them on Ash Wednesday was almost as wrong as it could possibly be.
He turned to look at the other cabinet again. In his fancy, the reek from it was becoming stronger, not fading away.
But not as wrong as I would be to allow those to be used in the Celebration.
He took up the Armitage Bequest, his fingers tracing with automatic delight its Art Nouveau fragility (the late Mr Armitage had studied at the Glasgow School of Art in its glory days) and turned towards the door with sudden decision.
Time to start unravelling the mystery after the service. And it is a mystery, too. If I could only work out how someone could magically get themselves through three sets of locks -
He stopped, abruptly.
He gulped, but was not going to flinch away from where logic took him.
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Peter set his face in determinedly impassive lines. After the service, he was planning to do some serious investigation. And he knew exactly where he was going to start.
“Yes, yes , yes. Yes!!”
Peter paused. Possibly, he reflected in a distracted way, his phone mannerisms were getting a trifle emphatic under the stresses of the day. In the gap while he considered that one, the voice on the other end of the phone came through all too clearly.
“But, my dear boy, why on earth didn’t you get on to the Bishop’s Office the instant you spotted something amiss? Especially once you suspected it might be the real thing, as it were?”
Peter knew that his voice was sounding thin and defensive in his throat and he coughed resentfully even though (as he knew) the hardships he had been struggling against could not possibly excuse the mistake that, he seemed, he’d made.
“Look - there are things you just can’t understand about this parish - and anyway, it was half-past eight in the morning. I’d been up all night helping the locals salvage their belongings from a flood. It was Ash Wednesday. There’d have been a major scandal in the parish if I’d refused to Celebrate at all - and it’s hardly as if I could explain - anything - to anyone - “
There was a somewhat caustic comment on the other end of the line. He snorted.
“Yes, well, there may be standard operating procedures, and well - put it this way, I do know there are - but just think that I forgot, ok? In the stress of the moment, understand that? And anyway, I, look, when I finally managed to get through to the Bishop’s Office, all they could give me was a voicemail message! You think if I’d got through an hour and a quarter earlier, I’d have heard something different?”
There was a dry sniff on the other end of the line. Under its influence Peter felt both sicker, and strangely reassured. His transgression was no less grave, he understood, but his attempts to deal with it, in all the circumstances of the case, had been recognised. By someone he respected. And, those things being so (quae cum ita essent, indeed) he could handle the rest.
“Dear boy - I may be the only person in this diocese licensed to undertake a Deliverance Ministry. And I may be elderly and extremely ill-favoured. But that doesn’t mean I’m prepared completely to disregard the Bishop. However much - strictly between ourselves, dear boy, of course - of a plonker he may appear to be.”
Peter snorted, knowingly. Then he recovered himself, slightly, at least enough as to be able to talk. Freely. And then to realise how far - and how indiscreetly - sleep deprivation and stress had led him to be so frank, no matter what the provocation.
“Look - there’s one other thing you don’t know. Veronica. She’s here. In the village. On a so-called Creative Writing Course. But that’s just a front. She’s here because she’s stalking me. I think. And, what’s more, she’s still taking a whole heap of junk. Or so I’m led to believe. How do you think - in those circumstances - the Bishop’s going to interpret things? In the round? As it were?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. Once he felt things had gone on long enough, he added harshly:
There was a further pause. At the other end of the line - in the kitchen of the small flat in the Cathedral Close where the phone lived - he imagined Canon Bowles pursuing his lips. Suddenly, there was a change of tone. And a resigned note in the elderly cleric’s voice.
“Put the kettle on, I’ll be right over.”
Peter heaved a huge sigh of relief.
He had, by now, a fairly good grasp of exactly how long he had before he could expect Canon Bowles to appear. Time enough to go down to the end of the village street (the end, at least for the time being, given the current state of the bridge) and see how the salvage efforts were progressing.
The majority of the rescuers were engaged in a concerted effort to extricate Mrs Gunn - whose absence from Early Service had been bothering him - from the first floor of her brother-in-law’s riverside cottage. A couple of television crews recorded their every move as they did so. A familiar figure - wearing a pair of fisherman’s waders - waved at him from where he was standing thigh deep in the swirling waters, waiting as one link in a human chain to receive the elderly widow.
That task concluded, and Mrs Gunn standing safe on the bank amid a pathetic muddle of her rescued possessions, Neville waded out of the river to join him.
“They reckon she’s the last one,” he reported without preamble. “At least - apart from Hugo whatsisface and his wife - everyone else in the low-lying properties is accounted for.”
Peter felt his brow crease with concern. “Has anyone managed to get through to the Mill House yet? Presumably it’s cut off in both directions?”
Neville nodded. “Yes, but Chris and me took one of those canoe things you borrowed downstream to see what was happening to the outlying properties as soon as it got light enough to see anything - tippy little buggers, aren’t they -?”
Peter covertly surveyed him, noting that notwithstanding the waders, he looked pretty generally sodden from the chest downwards. Neville caught the direction of his glance, and shrugged ruefully.
“Anyway, the Mill House is flooded out lower storey, but the upper floors looked all right,” he said. “The Aston was still parked up-slope - up to its wheel-arches, I wouldn’t fancy his garage bill when this lot goes down - but we hollered like nobody’s business and not a cheep out of them, so we reckoned they had to be away. She’s presumably got a car of her own: I expect they went in that.”
There was a sneeze behind Peter’s head. He turned to see James looking at him with an air that veered between smug and suffering untold tortures for the common weal.
“Just dealt with BBC South-West,” the civil servant said. “Told them that absent a miracle, this was the merest taster. Good lord, can none of them even read their own synoptic charts? There’s a secondary spinning off the Atlantic frontal system which will be simply screaming through here by this evening. You’d better assume that lot - ” he nodded towards the river, “will have risen another few feet by this time tomorrow. And don’t go standing under any trees.”
He turned towards Peter. “Anyway, I hope that’s demonstrated I was right last night. I told you nothing could stop the Ebble going at Malfoy Instrinsica, didn’t I? How much more proof do you need?”
“Well,” Neville murmured, “As a matter of fact, all this proves is that nothing did stop it, surely?”
James eyed him for a moment as though he were on the point of saying something cutting, but Neville’s polite expression was, somehow, impenetrable. As another microphone was thrust in his direction, the civil servant turned away, caught up in the gaggle of reporters, leaving Neville and Peter looking at each other with some amusement. Peter broke the silence first.
“I take it, from that, that the flood wasn’t entirely inevitable?”
Neville turned, looking up and down the swollen river, the rushing brown-grey waters carrying wreckage and debris - Peter caught sight of a drowned sheep swirling past what had once been the further bank, but which was now the approximate mid-point of the river.
“Hard to say, actually. But as you know, the riverbanks have never gone here before. Oh, nothing to do with Draco’s family, as a matter of fact. Not in recent years, anyway. Far too far up the hill to care. But before the Somervilles moved in, the Mill House had always had a wizard family in it, I gather. Big surprise when they sold. And while they were living there, I don’t suppose they wanted the water to get into the wine-cellar.”
He looked at the floods again. “We did think about it a bit, actually, while we were driving back from London. But by the time we got home, it was clear the Ministry had been thinking too. There was an owl waiting for us, with a very pointed message about what they’d do to us if they detected any supernatural interventions in the area.”
Peter tried to keep his voice nonchalant.
“You mean - they’d have been able to tell? If you’d - ah - intervened?”
Neville nodded. “Oh, no way not, if they really were watching. Weather-working takes a bloody enormous load of power. Stands to reason, given the level of force you’re trying to oppose. Even when it doesn’t work. I once tried to hold up an underground flash flood for half a minute to give someone time to get clear, and practically killed myself with the recoil. In hospital for a week. Luckier than the guy underground, even so. Fortunately the Ministry took the ghastly cock-up explanation at face value, and didn’t bother to enquire what I thought I was trying to do in the first place.”
He took a deep breath. “So, yes. If the Ministry had even a basic thaumatalurgical detector in the neighbourhood, our trying anything like that would have lit it up like a Christmas tree.”
Peter felt his heart thudding. He made his next words very casual. “And could you? Tell, I mean? If magic had been used - recently - in a particular place?”
Neville’s eyes narrowed.
“I take it that isn’t a hypothetical question?”
Peter shook his head. “Far from it. About as far from hypothetical as it could possibly get.”
“And - might it have something to do with that earlier matter -? With the bones, you know-?”
He’s quicker than he looks.
He nodded. Neville looked grim.
“In that case, here isn’t the place to talk about it.”
“Want to come back to the vicarage? I ought to be getting back, anyway. I’ve a visitor who’ll be arriving any minute. I can offer you breakfast - I take it you’ve not had a chance to grab anything -“
“No. Quite literally not a sausage. Mrs P.’s currently helping out Caitlin on the getting-hot-food-into-cold-soaked people-who-have-faced-the-loss-of-all-their-possessions-before-breakfast project and most certainly doesn’t have any time to spare to feed me. So thanks, yes, I’d like to.”
They were sitting around the kitchen table when the low buzz of the Ducatti, rising to a roar, heralded the arrival of Canon Bowles. The older man looked surprised not to see Peter alone. Forestalling any question, Peter gestured towards Neville and said, “Can I introduce you to Neville? Neville Longbottom, Canon Bowles.”
The Canon’s eyes widened. ” Neville Longbottom?” There was a pause, and then he snapped his fingers in recollection. “Oh, of course. You’re the one who -“
Peter’s heart sank. Neville’s face had set into a tight, closed smile, which somehow managed to make him look a good ten years older - and ill. He moved, irresolutely, but the Canon continued obliviously on.
“Had to deal with that frightful desecrated graveyard problem last month, wasn’t it?”
Neville, caught off-balance, gave a brief, choppy nod.
“Yes. That was me. But it’s not usu - “
“Excellent! Now I understand perfectly. How good of you to join us at such short notice. I gather from this, Peter, that you’re working on the theory that and this current - outbreak, are the work of the same people?”
In the pause while he groped for words - he was obviously not thinking straight this morning, because it had not occurred to him to make that particular connection, consciously, anyway - Neville’s voice sounded with calm reasonableness.
“Well, it makes sense, wouldn’t you think? I mean, would you expect there to be more than one lot of people up to that sort of thing in the same small village?”
The Canon’s blue eyes were, somehow, rendered even more intense by the contrast with his white hair.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said pointedly. “It’s your village. You tell me.”
There was a charged silence in the kitchen.
Broken by precise, cut-glass, very English tones, which were only an infinitesimal fraction of a degree less archaically upper-class than those of Canon Bowles himself.
“Well, at least since my father died, no. Actually.”
They all turned - Neville, Peter noted, with an apparent air of resigned amusement - towards the speaker. Draco was leaning against the frame of the door between the conservatory and the kitchen.
“Would you care to join us for breakfast?” Peter enquired before anyone else could speak.
The new arrival nodded. “I would. Thank you. Very much. Especially since breakfast for me this morning consisted of getting up and discovering a package of ground coffee in the kitchen with a label taped to it which read: “You figure this one out.” “
His eye rested momentarily on Neville, who looked not in the least abashed, but who merely said, “And?”
Draco snorted. “I brought every iota of talent, imagination and ingenuity I could dredge up to bear on the task.”
Peter fancied he spotted an expression of faint alarm flit across Neville’s face, but he merely said, “Ah? And, er, um?”
Draco’s face was absolutely deadpan.
“We now have a springer spaniel who can operate a coffee percolator.”
Ignoring Neville’s response, he turned gracefully towards Peter.
“Speaking of which, do you mind if they come in too? They’re a good deal drier now than they were.”
Peter nodded, and the two bedraggled and somehow subdued-looking dogs followed their owner into the vicarage, subsiding into an unobtrusive heap under the table.
Peter poured coffee and Neville, snagging himself another piece of toast in the process, pushed the toast-rack across to Draco. The latter’s elegantly arched brow rose.
“What on earth is that extraordinary-looking gunk you’re spreading on there?” he demanded.
Neville sounded rather resigned.
“Draco - I’ve explained about Marmite before.”
Draco looked down at the jar on the table rather, Peter thought, as though it were a hand grenade with the pin out. His voice was heavy with suspicion.
“Well. I suppose. All I can say is that it seems deeply unnatural. And just plain wrong.”
The Canon, meanwhile, had been surveying Draco with all the absorbed fascination of a man who comes down to breakfast and discovers that his great-aunt’s budgerigar has somehow transformed itself into a phoenix overnight.
“So,” he observed dryly, “Is what appears to have happened in the church yesterday evening. And since it would appear that you know about such things, Mr - ah -?”
“Malfoy. Draco Malfoy.”
The Canon’s eyes widened. “I see. From the Manor? Then your father, I take it, would have been Lucius Malfoy.”
Draco looked surprised. “Yes. You’ve heard of him?”
The Canon nodded. “I used to visit Miranda Franklin. I understand you know her niece, Caitlin. Miss Franklin - ah - mentioned your father’s name.”
The glance that Draco cast over him was impassive, but Peter spotted Neville wince.
“Well, since you appear to be in reasonably good health, I presume she also included some phrase along the lines of avoid at all costs.”
The Canon’s tone was as uninflected as Draco’s own. “Something like that, indeed. But you were observing that he might - when alive - have known something about the sort of things we suspect may have been going on in the church last night?”
Draco paused, buttering himself another slice of toast as though to gain time for thought. “Well, about Dark magic, certainly. Necromancy, demon summoning, hex-casting - all that sort of thing. Not in church, though. None of his crowd would have bothered. What on earth would be the point?”
The Canon raised his eyebrows. “The point?”
Draco shrugged. “Witches and wizards - well, with one or two unfortunate exceptions -“
His glance flickered over Neville.
“Don’t tend, on the whole, to go in for religion much. Hence no interest in doing magic in churches. Why bother playing around with the symbolism of something that has no resonances for you? To say nothing of the risk to your reputation of associating yourself with the sort of deeply sad Muggle losers who you’re probably thinking of when you hear the phrase “Dark Magician.” “
“I see.” The Canon caught his gaze and held it for a long moment. “Tell me - how did your father die?”
There was a slight sound - like a caught breath - in the kitchen. Peter thought it came from Neville. Draco put his head on one side, and smiled, though his eyes remained cool.
“Well, there you have me. I suppose you could say he came to a fairly traditional end for a Dark wizard. Your idea of a Dark wizard, at any rate. That is: he meddled with a Power that he thought he could control, but which ended up destroying him.”
“I see.” The Canon’s voice was calm, reflective. “And the name of that Power was?”
Peter was conscious of a flicker of something new and mischievous dancing in the depths of Draco’s grey eyes. He paused before responding.
“Well, I call her ma,” Draco said.
Neville pulled himself to his feet abruptly. “Should I put the kettle on again?” he enquired.
When they were sitting with fresh cups of coffee in front of them Peter reverted to the original subject.
“So - if they are the same bunch who were involved in the mausoleum desecration, your betting would be that whoever’s driving them - whoever’s actually got the real power -“
He could see Neville looking alarmed, and made an impatient gesture with the edge of his hand.
“Look, we simply don’t have time for any of this nonsense. You two - you’d better understand that as far as the Church authorities are concerned, the Canon and I have already gone out on something of a limb as it is - “
“And are apparently inching ever closer to the twiggy end by the second, it would appear, dear boy,” the Canon murmured, his face alive with curiosity. Draco and Neville exchanged a quick glance, and, it appeared to Peter, reached some sort of unspoken accord. He pressed home what he hoped was his advantage.
“I know you two have got your own constraints, but really, this has got to be cards on the table time. At least between the four of us.”
“And Caitlin,” Draco put in. The Canon raised his eyebrows.
“Caitlin? Miss Franklin’s niece? But why? Must we? I know no harm of her, but it does seem to be extending the whole business undesirably.”
Draco nodded. “Yes. We have to. She - or at least some of her guests - seem to be involved in what’s going on. And, if we’re talking cards on the table, there’s another reason why we need to bring her in on this. Brooke - you know, Peter, the bride who got herself killed? Well, when I saw her on Saturday she was all cockahoop about having organised the funding for a new EP centre - and it was going to be here. In this village. And I honestly can’t think - given the size and description - of anywhere other than Gaia’s Place where she could have been planning to put it.”
A connection suddenly clicked into place in Peter’s brain and his stomach turned over within him.
“Oh, heavens, that’s why her face looked so familiar. I’ve been trying to place it since yesterday. They’d got a photo of Brooke in the Evening Standard - Hermione bought a copy since they were running the story in a lot more depth as more of the facts came in - “
“Oh, yes, I forgot to ask. How did that go? How did you get - ouch!”
Draco shut up abruptly. Peter shot a quick grateful glance at Neville, who maintained a perfect poker face. Canon Bowles, blast him, managed to look both interested and knowing. Peter coughed and carried on.
“It turns out she’s left all her money to a whole bunch of rather dodgy sounding charities, and her father is causing a tremendous fuss. As soon as that came out he decided that there had to be something fishy going on, and is demanding a full enquiry - apparently he never liked her being involved with EP, and suspects they’re behind her odd will -“
“Too bloody right,” Draco observed, “Though a fat lot of good it’s likely to do him. But I don’t see where that comes in -“
“No? But you see, I knew - vaguely - that I’d recognised her from somewhere, and I’ve just remembered where. It was right here - well, in the church. It must have been Twelfth Night, actually, because I was thinking about having to change the altar cloths over, and so forth. Anyway, I’d assumed at the time she must be Nelcorp, because why else would an American be in the village at that time of year? But presumably she was doing the ground work to find the place for this centre.”
“Did she say anything about it?”
Peter shook his head.
“It was just a brief conversation. I remember now, though, she asked me to point out to her some rather obscure carvings she said a friend of hers had specially told her to look out for -“
The expression on Draco’s face was suddenly comprehending, and not at all pleasant.
“I see,” he breathed. “Much does become clear. Those would have been the ones high up, towards the front on the left hand side, I take it?”
Peter nodded. “Yes. Cantoris, above the choir stalls. Not at all easy to see properly without a step-ladder. And no-one’s worked out what they’re all about - the inscriptions look like a bastard mix of Ogham and Nordic which none of the experts have been able to puzzle out at all - But how do you -?”
The gesture Draco made - his fingers spread wide and an odd little twist at the end - reminded Peter of peasant superstitions in the High Tatras: evil avert, keep this thing from me and mine.
Except that whatever’s behind that, I’ll lay odds dismissing it as “just a superstition” would be a seriously bad move.
When he spoke, Draco’s voice was hesitant. “Well, you know there used to be a castle, on the hill behind the church? A lot of stone from the castle was used in building - or at least extending - the church.”
“Well, the story goes - how true it is, I don’t know, because all our records from the time got lost in the fire, and obviously there aren’t any Mug- I mean, the family from the Castle died out, and goodness only knows what became of their records - if they could even write -“
He swallowed, nervously, and continued. “Anyway, our place was just a hunting lodge in those days and it got obvious there was going to be conflict between my family and the lords at the Castle seriously soon - and it seems from what I’ve been told that the castle Steward of the day decided that if it came to open war that there was only one way it would go. So - ah - it seems that he decided that he needed a bit of - er, well, help. “
He paused, expressively, and then shrugged, making a finalistic, line-drawing gesture with one elegant hand.
“Bad mistake. And they say that carving used to be the capping stone for the well in which they sealed up the - ah - help that actually came when he called. When the castle got ruined and the villagers started to quarry the stone they rather carelessly unsealed the well again. And while they couldn’t do a lot about the contents (I think whichever ancestors of mine were around at the time had to sort that particular mess) but they thought the safest thing for the lid was to incorporate it into the church. Not all that bright an idea, I’d have thought, especially given this area, and I suppose it might account for one or two odd - experiments - the local vicars have gone in for from time to time, but there you are. I imagine they thought that way then. So Brooke had been told to look out for that, had she? Not good. Not good at all.”
The Canon coughed. “No indeed.”
Peter could feel anger building inside him. For once, whether because of his sleepless night, or the mistakes and fears that morning had brought, or last evening’s confusions, he lost his usual restraint and found himself almost shouting at Canon Bowles.
“Can’t you just see how pernicious this Empowerment Pathway nonsense has got? Why on earth doesn’t the Bishop realise? Why doesn’t someone have the guts to tell him?”
The Canon made a placating gesture. “I appreciate your sentiments, dear boy. And - hard as it may be for you to accept this - you are not alone. There have been several representations made - at the highest level -“
He caught sight of Draco’s sardonic eye and eloquently raised brow, and added, “I mean, at the highest diocesan governance level - I can hardly speak for any other, except to say that if there have been any such, the Bishop has undoubtedly ignored them -“
“But why?” Peter’s helpless frustration, once it had found an outlet, was not going to be dammed back in.
The Canon made a precise, almost pernickety gesture.
“In the first place, our predecessors only had to worry about the relation between Church and State. For Sarum, the Fourth Estate bulks significantly larger. He cannot bear the thought of the media thinking badly of him, and as you know, some of the most vocal disciples of Empowerment Pathway are figures of some note in the media world. If he backs off now that hyena pack will undoubtedly turn on him. And for him, you know, that would be unendurable.”
The Canon made a world-weary gesture; the expression on his face turned more cynical, yet somehow lighter.
“I may, of course, be over-emphasising the political side. There are, also, the personal issues to be considered. After all, the Bishop is sincerely convinced by now that it was only the skills Veronica picked up through attending Empowerment Pathway sessions that managed to avert her headlong plummet off the rails, as it were. And there, dear boy, any objections you in particular might choose to raise would get him on his best-defended side. And would do you no conceivable good whatsoever.”
Peter felt his jaw drop. “Veronica’s involved with EP too?”
A deeply cynical expression took possession of Draco’s features.
“My god!” he breathed. “If she’s one of their successes, I’d hardly like to see their failures.”
“How do you know this?” Peter demanded. The Canon shrugged, eloquently.
“Following our little talk last week I - ah - decided I should put my ear to the ground as it were, and find out if there were anything behind your - suspicions. And in the course of one or two interesting little discussions I learned that the Bishop seems to have developed guile in his old age. To - ah - an extent beyond that naturally required by the exigencies of his position, that is.”
Somehow, the feeling of growing sicker and older by the minute seemed to be his default state of being these days.
Naturally required by the exigencies of his position, no doubt . Fortunately for his take on humanity, the Canon’s tones - at least to one who knew him as well as Peter did - dripped an elegant distaste. He made a small wordless go on sound.
“Yes, indeed. I suppose, thinking of him for once as a father, he could be excused for being at his wits’ end when she came home from University. And, my sources tell me, since it was clear by then that the mere fact he’d suggested a course of therapy would be enough to convince Veronica to avoid it like the plague, that’s when he consulted with some of his friends in the EP movement, and it seems they decided that - in Veronica’s own best interests - a little subterfuge would be forgivable given the scale of the ultimate good.”
Peter happened to catch sight of Neville’s face. It was dead white and his eyes were staring out of it as though they were not looking at anything in the room. So far as Peter could tell, whatever he was seeing might not even be in that world. And whatever it was, judging solely by Neville’s expression, it was not something that Peter would care to face himself, even in broad daylight. He opened his mouth, but whatever he might have been planning to say was forestalled by a quick, negativing headshake from Draco, who, moving rather ostentatiously as though to defy any possible objection from either of the other two, came round to Neville’s side of the table, and took Neville’s right hand between both his own, chafing it to restore circulation.
When he spoke, Draco’s light tones were infused with an irony so acidic it could have etched copper.
“I think we’ve come across similar tactics before, yes. And just what subterfuge did this oh-so-paternally concerned cleric adopt in Veronica’s own best interests?”
The Canon flicked an inquisitive eyebrow in Draco’s direction.
“I’m not sure you’re familiar with the idea of the Internet? Well, no matter. The saying, I’m told, is: in cyberspace no-one knows you’re a dog. Veronica, unwisely, but not, I believe, entirely unpredictably, chose to confide more to faceless friends she met on-line than to her own real life friends and family. And to rely more on their advice and suggestions. And to believe that they were, indeed, who they said they were.”
“Excuse me,” Neville said in a choked voice, and got up, pushing blindly out of the kitchen and into the conservatory. Peter half moved to go after him, but Draco caught his elbow, pulling him back into his seat.
“No,” he said distinctly. “He needs fresh air. And space. And to be able to look at plants. He’s currently suffering from an acute case of dèja vu, and he needs a few moments to himself to recover. After which, I might add that if you feel your lives would be improved by having your Bishop eliminated, I imagine you’ve just got yourselves a volunteer.”
Peter choked back a shocked gasp, seeing that Canon Bowles had his phoenix-watching expression again.
“Well,” the Canon breathed, “What a refreshingly Renaissance view of church politics you appear to have. We are, however, no longer living in the days of Pope Alexander VI, regrettable as you might think it.”
Draco’s eyes sparkled.
“Now you come to mention it, I think that was about the last time the family dabbled in church politics. One of my ancestors about then decided to go off and see if there was anything new and useful he could pick up in Padua and thereabouts. Actually, he ended up making Italy too hot to hold him, and had to skip out before he’d quite finished his studies -“
“Assassinate the wrong Bishop, did he?” the Canon enquired sardonically. Draco shook his head.
“Oh, much worse than that. He accepted a whopping bribe from - let’s see, was it the Sforzas or the Malatestas? - anyway, whichever, he got a handsome commission to substitute a laxative draught for the Pecker-up Potion Cesare Borgia had actually requested from the court physician for his wedding night -“
“Goodness,” the Canon said mildly.
“It did, actually, work a treat on one level - Cesare spent far more time on the privy than he actually did in bed - but my ancestor decided that the prudent thing for him to do was to take the money and get out of there like ah - shit off a shovel - before anyone caught up with him.”
The Canon coughed.
“I see. Much. Anyway, returning to the original subject, we could hardly condone such action, but I confess to a certain guilty pleasure in imagining it.”
During the exchange Peter had been thinking furiously. “So that’s where the Bishop got his information about me!”
“Undoubtedly, my dear boy. But the implications, as I’m sure you’ve realised, must go wider than that. If I’m not very much mistaken, the EP group to which Veronica started prattling can have formed no good impression of your talents. Weak, self-important, emotionally-damaged, misogynist -“
“Thank you,” Peter interrupted firmly, as he detected a growing note of relish in the Canon’s voice. Draco yawned lazily.
“Such a bitch, isn’t it? All sorts of people gossiping about you behind your back, and they can’t even be arsed to accuse you of the right faults.”
The Canon coughed. “Indeed. Nor do I think they were acting as wisely as perhaps they could have done in placing any reliance at all on Veronica’s judgment. But, be that as it may, no-one with even a quarter of the faults she apparently was eager to lay at your door ought to have been considered as suitable incumbent material for any parish, even this one - “
“Thank you so much,” Draco breathed. The Canon nodded urbanely.
“You’re most welcome. The fact is, though - and I, personally, find this most suspicious, and, I assure you, Peter, I would certainly never have breathed a word of any of this were the circumstances any less serious - but the fact remains that from what I can tell they seem actively to have supported your promotion.”
He was aware that his forehead must be creased up in bewilderment.
The smile on Canon Bowles’ lips seemed to be one of grim satisfaction. “Indeed. And for my part, I find it exceptionally difficult to think of an innocent explanation for why a group of people would be instrumental in having someone appointed to a post whom they must know to be actively unsympathetic to their interests - your position on EP, Peter, has always been characterised by its forthright nature rather than its diplomacy, if you’ll allow me to make that observation - and of whose personal qualities they must have formed an intensely negative view.”
“Almost,” Peter observed tersely through dry lips, “As though they wanted to ensure that the Rector of the parish wouldn’t be able to offer any effective resistance to whatever they might be planning.”
The Canon’s eyes sparkled with his recognition of the point. “And, indeed, dear boy, in appointing you they could also be assured of having a Rector who - should he have need of it - could be expected to receive a very dusty answer if he called for support from the church hierarchy.” He turned towards Draco.
“Looked at in that light, I think we also have to assume that you may well also be a target, if we imagine that these people are proceeding by knocking out any possible focal points for resistance within the village. We must look out for an attack against the Manor.”
“There’s been an attack against the Manor. Or, I suppose, against me. Which in some respects comes down to the same thing.” Draco’s lips were compressed into bloodless lines and his eyes were narrowed in calculation. “Whatever the cover story may have been, the desecration at the mausoleum wasn’t just random nastiness. The bones that were stolen were stolen for use. Necromancy. And not by Muggle halfwits playing silly buggers in bad Latin, either. And they’re still missing. I think it’s safe for me to assume that we’re still on the target list. Which may be why Brooke got more of a hearing when she wanted me and Hermione eliminated than, I suspect she would ordinarily have got.”
There was a pause in the kitchen.
“Anyway,” the Canon continued briskly, “Even given that these people seem interested in buying her house, you still haven’t convinced me why Caitlin Naismith has to be told about all this extremely sensitive business?”
“Well, point number one, Nicci - Veronica - happens to be staying with her at the moment. Point number two, there’ve been a series of unpleasant tricks being played on her guests over the last week or so, at least two of which almost certainly couldn’t have been brought off without magic. Trust me on that one. Point three, Brooke was actually trying to buy Gaia’s Place to use as a residential EP centre - she more or less told me so herself, and that can’t be a coincidence -“
“And finally, point four,” a new voice broke in, “Has it ever occurred to any of you lot to look at a map?”
They looked up. Neville - still pale but looking defiantly composed - was standing in the doorway. He continued,
“I spent the morning checking the map of the village, to make sure we’d got everyone in all the lower properties sorted, with the flooding, and I’ve got the layout more or less imprinted on my brain by now. And it just hit me.”
He gestured with a hand that was not entirely steady. “I’ve known since we found the graveyard mess that if you take a straight line from the Seven Sisters through the Temple of the Winds you get to the mausoleum. Ever wondered what you get to if you take a straight line through the Manor from the Seven Sisters? And extend it?”
Wordlessly, Peter got up and went through to the study, rummaging briefly until he found what he wanted. He brought map and ruler back through into the kitchen, and, very deliberately, aligned the stone circle and the Manor. There was a low whistle.
“First Gaia’s Place and then right on St Sebastian’s. Making a lovely little triangle if you join the open ends with another straight line. And what, do you suppose, does whoever’s behind EP think is inside that triangle?”
“The potential for one unholy great magical fuck-up?” Draco suggested brightly. The group around the table barely reacted, except for Peter, who turned towards him.
“Look, Neville was saying that there’s a way of detecting magical traces, if magic’s been used recently?”
“Oh, several. Some of them even legal. The simplest would be to survey the areas with a thaumaturge. Hermione left a couple with us at the Manor, actually. Or, of course, if you wanted a professional job doing, I could always ask -“
Peter’s voice was firm.
“I’d be very grateful if you could bring one of your - thaumaturges - down to the church as soon as possible. Thank you.”
Draco’s expression was at once indefinably disappointed and faintly malicious. However, he did nothing more than nod, and then turn towards Neville.
“Well, I’ll be going up to the Manor then. Dry clothes, while I’m at it?”
Neville’s smile, it seemed to Peter, seemed to convey more than assent to the offer. His lips moved, silently: a message it appeared Draco was fully able to decode. His face lighting in response, Draco blinked out of the room with only the faintest sound of a cork popping to denote his departure.
Canon Bowles exhaled, slowly.
“Good heavens,” he said, “Does that sort of thing happen often in this parish?”
The small group approached the altar with some trepidation. Peter, as he passed the choir stalls, cast a fleeting glimpse upwards towards the carven stone. From that angle the inscriptions were worn and indistinct; the images blurred but still, somehow, sinister.
They paused close to the altar while Draco adjusted the delicate, somehow mediaeval-looking bronze and glass instrument he was carrying. A thick hush fell upon the church. They waited.
“Well?” Canon Bowles, it seemed, was not frightened of breaking the silence. It was Neville who spoke first.
“Yes,” he said. “Not much, but some. And certainly within the last twelve hours.”
With a sick sense, Peter approached closer to the altar. “Where?” he demanded. “Where exactly?”
The two wizards paused, and Draco positioned the thaumaturge at another angle, squinting thoughtfully down at it.
“Behind,” he reported. “Also in front. Both very close. Nothing spectacular, though. About as powerful as a housekeeping charm, if that.”
There was a deeply unamused snort from Canon Bowles. “Nevertheless, reason enough for us to do our own form of housekeeping. Pronto. And, Peter, you are changing those altar cloths today. And if I were you, I’d have the old ones burnt. I understand there’s only a service once a year in one of the churches for which you’re responsible. I suggest you have those cloths and vestments brought over as a priority. If you have to explain the absence of the originals - and, in your place, I wouldn’t (fortunately they seem to be Victoriana of indifferent quality) - blame some particularly destructive moths.”
Peter swallowed. Now, however, that the worst was known he was feeling curiously relaxed; it felt as though he were floating in a bubble above the ground, through which the outside world seemed fuzzy and strangely detached. Almost the only comparable experience in his life to date had involved his being first dug out of a snow-drift (within whose chill embrace he had already lost hope of rescue and commended himself to Eternity) and thereafter being given a hefty dose of bath-tub hooch. Neville shot him a sidelong glance infused, his bemused fancy told him, with fellow feeling and an attempt at a kind of self-deprecating reassurance.
“We’d better try the churchyard,” Neville said. “Just to be on the safe side.”
At the church door both Peter and Canon Bowles automatically turned left onto the gravelled path that led round to the vestry door. Draco coughed meaningfully. The sound was at once both a warning and an apology. Peter turned back towards them.
“Widdershins. Not such a stunningly good idea. Especially not today. Honestly. Trust me.”
The cut-glass tones were emphatic, but oddly uncertain with it nonetheless, rather like a child insisting to the grown-ups that yes: there really are bears in the wardrobe. For once, Peter was inclined to take the brown fur, big teeth and formidable claws on trust.
“Ah, yes. I see. I think.”
Somehow, they found themselves moving towards Vicarage Lane, still holding the thaumaturge. They were almost at the High Street when Draco gave a sharp, cut-off exclamation.
“Yes?” Peter’s voice was sharp, accusing, and, he had to accept, sounded scared in his own ears. Nevertheless, he squared his shoulders and looked Draco straight in the eye. Neville leaned in past him to look at the thaumaturge, and gulped, audibly. That small sound turned the sense of apprehensive that had thrilled down Peter’s nerves and muscles to outright scared shitless.
“Yes? What have you found?”
The white-blond head and the brown were bent over the thaumaturge. Neville looked up at him.
“One hell of a Dark spike. Just here.”
He jabbed a stubby, workmanlike finger down onto the archaic craftsmanship of the bronze and crystal device. In the spirit of pure science, Peter bent over it - it was clear that in the world these people knew it was as basic a piece of technology as the barometer or the microwave oven. Somewhat ashamed, he withdrew a few moments later, shaking his head, aware he could make nothing of it.
Fussily, Canon Bowles took his turn to bend over the artefact.
“And you think this means - what?”
Abruptly the two wizards seemed to lose patience with their slowness. Draco spun round, his naked animosity visible in his bared teeth.
“There isn’t any think about it.”
He looked at the thaumaturge again.
“You can - and I expect you will - invent as many reasons for those results as you want.” He nodded his head in the direction of the church. “But however you slice it, there’s only one explanation for why that happened.”
He paused, as though thinking things through properly, and added:
“To be fair, what I mean is: one of three reasons. Want to disagree?”
Neville eyed the thaumaturge, his voice consciously matter of fact.
“Well, at least it proves one thing. The Ministry must have been bluffing when they warned us about the flood. If they’d really had a thaumaturgical sensor in the neighbourhood last night, they’d have been on our doorstep already, asking you what about this Unforgivable Curse that seems to have gone off in our vicinity.”
The note in Draco’s voice was that of pure indignation.
“Well, they’d have had to go away with their tail between their legs, then, wouldn’t they? Given I had an alibi for the whole time.”
Neville looked extremely resigned. “Draco, the day the Department of Magical Law Enforcement accepts being in bed with me as an alibi for you is the day they appoint your mother as Minister for Magic. It just wouldn’t wash. Even for a second. Though I grant you, once our wands checked out clean they’d have been in difficulties pinning anything on us.”
To Peter’s experienced eyes, Draco suddenly looked rather ill-at-ease, and faintly shifty. Neville had obviously had the same thought, because he turned to face him, his head on one side in a questioning expression and his right hand resting on the sleeve of his left arm.
“They wouldn’t have had any excuse even to look at our wands,” Draco muttered defensively. “I mean, what sort of proximate cause could they think of dredging up?”
A kind of weary sarcasm filled Neville’s voice.
“How about your surname, for starters? Oh, you fuckwitted bugger. Go on. When did you do it? And how bad is it?”
Draco, looking at nowhere in particular, but rather definitely not at Neville, muttered, “Saturday.”
Neville’s face lightened up. “Oh, I see. This was all part of murderous attackers baffled for time being, was it? Well, whatever it was, if it was self-defence that isn’t so bad. Especially not since you could plausibly claim to have been defending Hermione as well -“
Draco’s voice was now almost inaudible.
“It - er - wasn’t. I - ah - it was earlier. During the reception. The - ah - dance part.”
“And?” Neville’s voice was inexorable. “What did you cast?”
Draco’s eyes were firmly fixed on his boots.
“Imperius,” he whispered.
Neville recoiled, his face first white and then red with anger.
“Imperius? In Claridges? Are you an utter imbecile? Does the phrase “priori incantatem” mean bloody nothing to you?”
“Other than an apparent attempt at a Tacitaen construction, plainly.” The intervention from Canon Bowles, who had been watching the argument with lively interest, did nothing to deter Neville from continuing his rant.
“Look, I know you aren’t safe to be let out alone. But the whole point of that trip was that you weren’t being let out alone. I can’t imagine what Hermione could have been thinking about, allowing you to do anything as spectacularly dense as that -“
There was a pause. It lengthened. Then, with a palpable air of a cross-examiner putting a question, which he has grave fears may destroy his whole case, but which he dare not avoid asking, Neville took a deep breath and said, very quietly,
“So. Break the news gently if you must, but bloody well break it. It was Hermione you cast it on?”
Draco’s voice was barely a whisper. “That bitch Brooke’s fault. She’d really got to her. And it was so obvious that she wouldn’t have the nerve to do anything about it until it was too late, and then she’d hate herself for not having -“
Neville exhaled, and then looked up at the other two. “If I was hearing correctly from the conservatory, you two seem to have some problems involving your higher authorities in this. I can now formally say that if we ever were planning to involve the Ministry in this one -“
“Which we weren’t,” Draco muttered emphatically.
“Which, I agree, was on the outer fringes of things we might have remotely speculated about, well, anyway, take it from me, that idea’s now right out. Thanks to idiot features here.”
Draco drew himself up to his full height - which, Peter reflected with covert amusement, merely emphasised the point that even the age-shrunken Canon topped him by a couple of inches - and said with dignity:
“I think I’d better go on ahead and warn Caitlin we’re on our way. As she’s been up since the crack of dawn trying to convert people who’ve been softened up by rescue from a watery grave to the delights of vegetarianism, I understand.”
“She hasn’t. That’s why I sent down Mrs P. with a couple of sides of bacon. I thought today wasn’t the most tactful time to introduce the rest of the villagers to Quorn.”
Draco shrugged. Still, he was avoiding looking at Neville.
“Well, anyway. I’d better tell her to clear out the flood-soaked masses if we’re going to have a secret confab in the guest house.”
He turned on his heel, and walked briskly ahead onto the High Street. The dogs pattered after him. Neville sighed rather pointedly. Canon Bowles looked at Peter.
“I think, dear boy, that I would be better off making my preparations in the church than meeting Mrs Naismith. I’ll leave you to get on with that. Do let me know how you get on.”
He strode determinedly off back towards the church. With a sense of having been abandoned in the midst of savage natives, Peter caught at Neville’s arm.
“Tell me,” he said fiercely, “What’s Imperius?”
Neville’s eyes looked bleak.
“One of the three Unforgivable Curses. Very, very illegal. It allows you to control someone else’s will. Completely.”
He had thought that he had exhausted all the possibilities for feeling nausea that morning. It seemed he had been wrong.
“Free will? Taken away?”
Neville nodded. “Yup.” His mouth twisted in a wry grimace. “There’s a popular theory in our world that I’ve been under Imperius for the last three years, actually.”
Brushing that aside - it was plainly an obscure joke which he did not have the cultural reference frame to get the point of, since Neville was palpably one of the more independently minded people he’d ever come across - Peter concentrated on the main issue.
“And Draco did that to Hermione? Why - why on earth would he want to?”
Neville looked at him, and a faint, wintry smile touched his lips. “Would it help if I said I had literally no idea?”
Oddly, it did help. As did watching Neville’s slow head-shake at Draco’s retreating back, and hearing the soft Lancashire tones mutter, “Puddled. Completely puddled. Daft as a brush.”
Peter started feeling rather better. “Have you - has either of you - spoken to Hermione since?”
Neville grinned. “Well, yes, if being effectively told to get stuffed while she got over the worst hangover in recorded history counts as speaking - golly, it shows what a sheltered life the girl lives; even I can whip up a Hangover Potion by now after a bit of intensive tutoring from himself and Mrs P.. And she seemed more concerned about Draco having made her drink too much tequila than about any Unspeakable Curses he’d been hurling around. And I gather on the tequila front he was practically innocent - I would say, completely innocent, except that he’d probably regard it as a deadly insult to be considered completely innocent of anything, it’s not a concept his family does - so I’d expect anything he did do, he did with her full knowledge and consent. Otherwise she’d have taken him apart into very, very small pieces by now. Which I can assure you Draco is fully aware of and would have done his damnedest to avoid.”
He gulped. “Why does he see her as so dangerous? She - she doesn’t practise Dark magic, does she?”
Neville looked deeply surprised. “Hermione? Oh god no - sorry, I mean, no, of course not. Quite the reverse. Draco would be significantly less worried if she did. After all, for most of his life “Dark magician” more or less equalled “Friend of the family; good for 5 Galleons or so at Christmas and on birthdays.” The problem with Hermione is that you take a step out of line and you find yourself with five foot five of absolute rectitude heading in a dead straight line for your jugular.”
Contemplating the mental image summoned up by this brought Peter yet closer to peace of mind. Neville continued meditatively,
“Frankly, I blame Harry. Though I hate to admit it, Draco’s quite right; if Harry’d got himself over here in time to take Hermione to the wedding - which, given he’s her oldest friend, she could certainly have expected him to, though I gather from things she’s let slip that Bethany’s as jealous as all hell where anything even vaguely female’s concerned, even her own cousin, let alone being a complete fruitcake who panics endlessly about her weight - god, sorry, I mean golly, Yanks - “
Peter looked at him rather helplessly, and Neville tailed off, adding weakly, “Um, well, anyway I daresay it’d have avoided a lot of trouble if Harry had leapt into the breach.”
“Harry -?” Briefly, a recollection from the confused impressions of last night - was it really so recent? - intruded. “Oh yes. I think I know who you mean. Dark hair, glasses -?”
“Yes, that’s him - you’ve met?”
He made a vague, hand-in-air gesture. “Well, I’ve seen his head. In the - ah - fireplace.”
He nodded. Then coughed. “He’s her oldest friend? I suppose that’s why he seemed so - um - defensive.”
“Really?” Neville enquired. Peter nodded.
“Yes - well, I - ah - gather he thought, at first, I might be Draco. And he seemed rather put out about that. And then when he spotted I wasn’t, he pushed off in some confusion (understandable, really, given what he’d said before, I suppose), so I didn’t get to know him any better, unfortunately.”
Neville’s exhalation was close to a hiss. “Oh dear. That’s - not right. Look, I know they’ve never got on - hated each other’s guts at school, for instance, but at least Harry ought to appreciate that last time he saw Draco, Draco saved his life -“
The question was automatic, but, on reflection, Peter was unabashed by that reflex.
I seem to have strayed into a dangerous world.
No matter. I have inhabited the dangerous corners of the earth before. And nowhere else does the air smell so sweet.
Neville bobbed his head, looking at once both embarrassed and ashamed, and smiled an edgy, evasive, unconvincing smile.
“Me. I’m afraid.”
His eyes did widen at that. He had not thought of the tall, gentle, hefty Lancastrian as a deadly threat before. His voice, as ever in such moments, was wholly neutral.
Neville’s voice was very low. “You want to know? I - ah, well, the best way of describing it is that I was having a sort of nervous breakdown at the time. Look - you know you said about Nicci? About her relations doing things in her own best interests? Well, mine did that. Some of them, anyway. After I - started going out with Draco, some of them decided to question my sanity.”
He looked up the High Street, in the direction where Draco had vanished, with a fleeting, rueful, grin. “Possibly, with the benefit of hindsight and looked at strictly from the outside that attitude might not have been quite as batty as I considered it at the time - “
Peter, belatedly, smiled back in answer, but appreciated as he did so he had lost the moment: Neville’s fixed, wide eyes were already locking him out, the pace of his delivery becoming fast and his tone low.
“But, well, anyway, be that as it may, they decided they needed to get me into a clinic. In my own best interests, as they say. And they - ah - talked Harry into helping them. He’s quite famous, you know. And gob-smackingly innocent about what that sort of fame means, at least about what it means he can get away with in our world. Bending the rules. Anyway, even when Draco pulled me out of it, I don’t think I was able to see anything straight for months. It was like - well, you weren’t ever in Azkaban, so you won’t understand about Dementors - I was only in there for about 12 hours, you know, but you can’t ever forget how that feels -“
He gulped convulsively, and then shook his head as though dismissing the image forever. His voice was shaky as he continued.
“But the one thing that I did realise after the whole business was over was that before it happened, I’d thought Harry was my friend. But he’d gone along with it all. Without even bothering to ask me anything, as though he were so convinced nothing I could’ve said to him was worth hearing - so fucking convinced that if he was doing it, he must be saving the fucking universe, so fucking convinced it didn’t matter who got hurt, how much pain it meant, oh god, you have just no idea of the pain, they tried to make me - you know, oh, well, maybe not, but anyway - well, you won’t understand that part, but anyway it wasn’t his problem, oh god not, just so long as no-one stopped Mr I-Have-This-Destiny-To-Save-The-Universe on his god-given mission, and no hope of redemption if you wilfully sought your own salvation -“
Neville’s voice ran to a dry halt. He looked at Peter. “Oh god - gosh - I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to - I got carried away - look, I’ve been up most of the night - “
He reached out a hand, patting him gently, meaninglessly on the forearm. “Don’t worry about that. Go on. Talk. Anyone suggested you talk about it before?”
Once again, Neville slid that edgy smile past - at least - certainly not at him.
“Well - Draco.”
His voice was meditative, gentle, unthreatening.
“It would seem he does well. So? What happened?”
“About the duel?”
Peter nodded, although he did not understand. Eventually, experience had taught him, he would be given the information he needed to fill in the gaps. In the interim, his job was to listen. Neville’s voice sounded as though it came from a remote place.
“Well, he - didn’t realise I meant it. That really got to me, you know? All the time, when he came in, he shouldn’t have been able to let me get a touch on him, you know? He’d defeated the fucking Dark Lord, for god’s sake. And I couldn’t - shouldn’t have got anywhere near - But he came in so wide open - I think, you know, he came in trying to protect me from myself, and from himself too, and it never actually occurred to him even to think that I might be so bloody livid - or even if I were livid, able to do anything to him, whatever - you know, I don’t think he thought of me as enough of a person to be a threat - anyway, suddenly, I looked down and there he was, flat on his back, looking up so surprised but not able to move an inch -“
For a moment, Peter thought Neville might actually be going to be sick into the steeply cambered tarmac road. Then, Neville paused on the pavement, gathered himself together, and said abruptly,
“That was when I was going to kill him. For not even bothering to ask about why I wanted to do - what I do.”
Peter’s voice was - with the benefit of a considerable number of years of training - quite non-judgmental.
“And then what happened?”
Neville gulped - or spluttered - or however one was supposed to define that small, heart-broken, hopeless, choking noise.
“Draco. And Hermione. They Apparated in, unexpectedly.”
“Well - um - Draco did his best to convince me that he’d grown up with enough people who were murderers - and that’s true enough - that he knew the difference between the ones who could live with themselves afterwards and the ones who couldn’t, and that in his opinion I was definitely one who - couldn’t. And eventually, I believed him.”
Neville gulped again.
“I see. And Hermione?”
“Well, I suppose if Draco was there to stop me murdering Harry, I imagine Hermione turned up to make sure Draco wouldn’t, instead - but I don’t remember a lot, for a day or so after that. But I remember being looked after, though. He was looking after me. You have to understand, however hard the Ministry might decide to come in, I’m not planning on giving him up.”
His meaningless hand patted Neville’s forearm again. “Stop worrying. You changed your mind. That’s the thing that matters. Stay with that.”
They were at the gates of Gaia’s Place. And then the hard-faced housekeeper from the Manor was upon them, and things shifted, again. Irrevocably.
“Mr Neville? Do you know where the doctor is?”
“Richard? I’m not sure - I left him down by the river - Is something wrong?”
The Manor housekeeper nodded, once, emphatically. “The master told me to come and get you. There’s some herbs Mistress Caitlin needs you to look at, at once.”
And then, finally, the words that meant the day had fallen forever out of the sphere of the normal, or even the possible.
“One of the guests - she’s been took bad. Mistress Caitlin isn’t happy about it. Not happy at all. Can one of you get the doctor, because we aren’t sure she’s got long if you don’t. And I don’t think she’ll die natural, if she dies today. Not as we stand under the stars and the suns.”