Chapter 1 - Last Rites by A.J. Hall
After the funeral he walked.
He supposed, dully, that it had all been done very properly. Everyone had been there – McGonagall moving among the mourners with a severe, black-clad dignity, dropping a hand on a shoulder here, offering a handkerchief there: every inch what a headteacher in time of grief ought to be. House-elves bobbed in her wake offering sherry and biscuits.
Mam and Dad – they’d been a little overawed by it. He could see that, even while he baulked at interpreting the brave new world into which they’d been so abruptly plunged. Colin – Colin had always been much better at that. They’d hung on his every word during holidays, longed to see Hogwarts itself, hoped there might be an Open Day or some such occasion where they could see its glories for themselves, wondered why there wasn’t, when other schools plainly managed —
They had their Open Day now. They had stood on the Hogwarts grounds, standing amid the crowd as the headstones – fifty or more - raised themselves at the command of McGonagall’s wand over the new-dug graves and every statue and gargoyle on the Castle opened its mouth to sing the requiem.
It had been piercingly beautiful, unearthly in its beauty. No-one who knew anything could fail to realise that the wizarding world was saying farewell to its fallen, with all proper honours.
As the last note died away his parents turned blind, bewildered faces towards him. This was a step too far; they’d thought they knew what their sons had become, but they had never had to confront its reality. Which, of course had suited the Powers That Be down to the ground. All the Powers, whether the Ministry or – You-Know-Who.
Habit of years held him back, while his parents stood, islanded and irresolute, in the midst of the vivid crowd.
They’re your Mam and Dad. Stop behaving like you’re ashamed of them.
Unexpectedly, a tall, blonde woman broke out of the group of mourners. He thought, perhaps, he should have recognised her; certainly she reminded him of someone. Memory, however, did not come.
Whoever she was, she dropped a hand on Mam’s arm, muttering, “I’m so sorry – so very sorry – how dreadful — to lose a son — “ Tears stood in her eyes. And Mam – his heart swelled with pride at her understanding and courage even as he shrank back into the crowd to avoid being recognised as any relation of hers – turned to her, swept her glance along the line of headstones, and said, “And which of those is yours, then?”
The blonde woman gulped. “The – the seventh row. The third one in.” She paused. “My sister.”
Mam took her arm in hers. “My son’s in just the next row back. Maybe they’ll be company for each other, eh? Lets pay our respects to both of them, and then, perhaps, you’ll do me the favour of showing me round? I’ve not been here before. You’ll have been at school here yourself, no doubt, and I’d like to see the places Colin loved so much.”
They had moved off, out of sight and earshot, Dad trailing in their wake, before he found the energy to move at all.
After that, he walked.
He walked along the edge of the lake, his feet sinking deep into boggy patches where little burns rippled their way down from the high moors above. He fought his way through deep thickets of bracken, grown chest-high with the onset of summer. (They always seemed to die in summer. Cedric – Professor Dumbledore – Colin —). Rhododendrons caught at his arms and legs. Some he blasted into infinity with his wand, but still they grabbed at him. Neville should have been here – Neville would have known —
Abruptly, he came out of the undergrowth into a quiet place, a river valley leading down to the lake. He had never walked so far this way before. The Muggle village at the lake’s end was out of bounds, and anyway no-one would wander that way when Hogsmeade was so much closer in the other direction. From here the lake looked different: Hogwarts completely concealed behind multiple headlands, little settlements he had never dreamt existed running down to the lakeshore. Up on a bluff above him was a tumbledown mass of stone that seemed to be a burned-out ruined castle, and beyond that was a sprawling ultra-modern mansion. Its owners had surely spent a small fortune in bribes to the planning authorities to let them build such a glorious incongruity in this wilderness.
On the slope below the mansion there was a walled garden – no, Dennis corrected himself, not a garden. Not with those tumbled headstones. There was a man there, white haired and bent with age, feet deep in a rectangular hole and scraping out soil with a poor trowel affair one would have scorned to give a house elf.
Dennis reached for his wand. “ I can —“
The old man digging raised his weary head. “Don’t – say it.” He scrambled out of the hole and perched himself on a convenient rock. “It will be dug, come what may. Come the funeral tomorrow. She would have wished it. If she isn’t laughing about it.”
He turned his head, fixing his glance on Dennis. “This was not the order, you understand, in which anyone expected matters to turn out. Still less Herself. Betans always expect a treble portion of life.”
He looked down at the half-dug grave at his feet. His voice turned conversational. “So stupid, isn’t it? To survive war and revolution, and yet to be cut down by a ground-car jumping the traffic signals. And yet – she and I created the world in which one might walk the city streets, rather than be cocooned in armour-plated vehicles. We planned to avoid assassination when we should have —”
He broke down, dropping his head into his hands. Dennis shuffled closer, touching his arm.
“Please could you let me dig? For a little time? They – they meant well, but the War Commission dug my brother’s grave for me, before I could —”
There was a moment’s pause. The old man raised his head. Scrutinised him from head to toe. Surrendered the trowel.
“Go on, boy.” It was barely a whisper.
He had not realised quite how earth felt, before. How it pulled on one’s skin as it dried. Or how it changed, the further down one went; became moister and darker. How the loam smell changed with infinite subtlety as one dug deeper. How it filled one’s nostrils so it seemed impossible ever to smell anything different again.
How quickly one’s shoulders became one mass of cramped ache. How it became a struggle to lift even the trivial spoonfuls of earth which the trowel brought up.
If those who started wars were forced to bury every one of the dead with their own hands, peace would be an easy matter to contrive.
His blistered hands were bleeding and the sun dipping into the western sky over the loch when he judged the grave deep enough, and emerged. Part of him acknowledged he should go back, join the funeral feast. Mam and Dad would be wondering —
The old man, looking across the water at the sinking sun, passed him the flask without looking at him. The contents – rawly sweet, like the over-proof rum Clive had brought back from a family holiday in Guyana and passed around the Gryffindor dorm – burnt an unfamiliar, welcome track down his throat. They sat together in silence, watching the dark sky and the cool, calm lapping waves against the lake shore.
“So, boy.” They had been silent so long speech felt like a blow. “Did he win, your brother?”
“I – ah —” The unexpected question had taken him aback, like a dinghy caught in a lake squall.
The old man gestured impatiently. “You mentioned a War Commission. So, by inference, a war. They commonly have winners and losers – at least, so one hopes. One hopes for the success of the better party.” The breath of something — a well-worn argument? — caught the grasses in the graveyard. The old man looked up. “Did I hear your laughter, dear Captain? But there were wars even you thought were worth winning. Admit it, damn you!”
The night breezes kept their own counsel.
“Colin knew that,” Dennis said. The tears pricked behind his lids; he kept them back with an effort. “He won. Fuck him, the silly bastard should have ducked; he was always looking in the wrong place.”
He coughed. his voice grew louder. “But he won. Despite it all, he won!”
The echoes resounded from the cliffs across the lake.
The old man nodded; passed him the flask. “Hold on to that, then.” He looked down into the black hole they had dug between them. It lay open, sinister, empty in the gathering dusk. They sat, watched, waited in silence as the sky darkened and stars came out over the lake. Incongruously, Denis thought he should have paid more attention to Professor Trelawny when he’d had the chance. Nothing about these constellations seemed familiar, and yet doubtless they’d been pointed out to him from the top of the Astronomy Tower for the last five years.
When, at last, the old man decided to rise from the rocky seat he leaned onto his arm, seemingly stiffened by their long vigil. He guided Dennis to the very edge of the grave and tipped, in solemn libation, the last contents of his flask down into the moist earth. The old man’s words, Dennis guessed, were not meant to be overheard; he wondered for a moment whether he should stop his ears.
“Better than blue cheese dressing, dear Captain. Did I ever tell you what Bothari said, the first time a Dendarii hill-man gave him maple mead? ‘Fierier than a woman’s spirit; sweeter than my enemy’s death,’ “ He put his head on one side. “He lies at your feet, Captain, as you promised. The faithful dog, guardian to the last.”
He looked up and across at Dennis, frowning at him beneath bushy white brows in the gloom. “Isn’t there another grave you should be standing by? Aren’t there others gathering there? God forbid you should be left sole mourner for your brother. Even Mad Yuri did not give me that distinction. Eh, boy?”
A picture of Hogwarts’ Great Hall with the candles lit and the starry sky above forced itself into Dennis’ mind. Mam and Dad – they would need to have him beside them. The house-elves too – some-one – Hermione, he thought – had told them all about that last, desperate, decisive charge. It would be rude to the house-elves to be late for what – no doubt – they had planned as the Feast to surpass all Feasts.
He turned — touched the old man’s arm in a fleeting gesture of farewell – and turned back along the lake shore. Somehow, he knew between his shoulder-blades that he had been understood, was doing the right thing.
Dennis walked. But this time – however long it was, however the rhododendrons clutched at his limbs, or the boggy patches sucked down on his feet – he walked in the right direction.
He walked towards, rather than away.
And the candles of Hogwarts grew brighter as he walked towards them; so, too, the firelight spilling its reflections from the windows out along the waters. By the time Dennis entered through the lower gate into the courtyard the Nereids were bursting into flashes of brilliance in the clear summer sky above.
That was not his primary concern. Nor was he alone. Or would ever be alone.
At his back crowded Colin, Cedric, Professor Lupin – even the old man’s Captain was, no doubt, somewhere in the host.
All of those pressing, eager, vibrant spirits were with him, hustling him along – he could, if he tilted his head, hear them singing —
All of us suddenly burst out singing, and the air was filled with such delight —
He strode into the Great Hall at Hogwarts – the massive oak doors opened before him without a murmur – he could see McGonagall rise from her seat at the High Table, his parents, down in the body of the hall, Neville, at the head of the Gryffindor table —
“We won!” He yelled the words up into the rafters. The counterfeit stars of the ceiling quailed visibly before his onslaught. “We won!”
The room became pandemonium. He could see his Mam and Dad turning to him from the body of the hall, bewildered and accusing; could see McGonagall rising from her seat at the High Table.
Everyone was laughing and crying. Rose-petals blended with snowflakes and strawberries on the floor of the Great Hall. And behind him and and around him swirled the invisible joyous mass of the numberless, victorious dead, led in by him to join in the celebration that was theirs by right.