Chapter 1. Duck Lord Rising.
Skies above Britain were troubled that night.
Towering black clouds swept up from the North Sea. A savage autumn tempest advanced along the coast from Hull to the Highlands. Gales scoured the moors and mountains; buffeting shores and streams. A dank chill descended into the Yorkshire Dales, bringing sheets of cold rain to turn post-harvest hillsides into wretched slurries of mud.
Further north, fierce winds bore down on Moray, thrashing amidst the pine boughs in the Caledonian Forest. Bracing sleet laced the high Grampian crags for hours until the storm's rearguard finally closed on a hidden glen, venting its rawest fury around an uncharted loch, assaulting the waterside battlements of a mysterious ancient castle.
Conditions there were brutal. Large bundles of thatch tore from the gamekeeper's hut, unleashing non-stop trickles to spatter the head and feet of a slumbering giant within.
Yet, despite clammy toes and sodden pillow, the large man slept on, oblivious to the strange storm's powers. Branches snapped and his woodpiles toppled, but the gamekeeper barely stirred. He did finally grunt at one low rumbling some ways up the path (the collapse of a cairn of Rock Cakes; the demise of a venerable, reputedly indestructible, monument laid over the years by countless of the gamekeeper's chip-toothed teatime guests) but he merely rolled over without opening his eyes.
Apparently the man was a better sleeper than baker.
As the giant slept, so too did the looming towers of the nearby Castle. The veritable terra firma did not fear the wicked gales screeching about its turrets and parapets. Centuries of magical reinforcement had secured the bastion against perils far worse than even a full bore hurricane.
Comforted in this knowledge, residents of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — scores of studious young witches and wizards — passed the dreadful night with little concern. Citizens of Hufflepuff Basement slept with a blissful serenity to befit their clear consciences and modest aspirations. Some distance away, across a depth of bedrock and darkness, the students of Slytherin House rested equally peacefu...
Okay, skepticism duly noted. To be honest, some sleeping faces did sport the accustomed sly smirks, and the occasional breathy cackle did punctuate the snores. But at least all were in bed. At least a relative quiet prevailed, and nobody was actively tormenting anyone. That should count as 'peaceful' enough, right?
Higher up, beneath the peaks and spires of the Gryffindor Lion, rumpled heads were nestled deep within feather pillows. Most were totally knackered from Halloween merriment that had kept them hopping until well past curfew. Occupied with such strenuous fun, few had even noticed the storm. Thus, after weary Prefects had finally herded students off to bed, the Gryffindors had dropped like stones, destined to sleep soundly until well into the next morning.
Except, of course, for our two protagonists.
Sometime past midnight, a dark haired boy startled from sleep. Simultaneously, in the darkness of another room several floors below, a pair of pretty brown eyes flashed open.
Taut with undefined foreboding, the twelve year old wizard named Harry Potter winced and rubbed his forehead. After a moment, he released a single taut breath, pulled his covers straight, and rolled over to resume his rest.
In the girls' dorm, a young witch named Ginny Weasley spent several moments staring at a dark wooden ceiling. She watched. She listened. Finally, sensing no dire threat to friend or self, she willed her lids shut again, and drifted off to the soft chorus of dormitory snores.
No strangers to restless nights, our hero and heroine slept away the rest of this one as if they were not in danger. And thankfully, they were not.
Not yet, anyway.
But was the storm an omen? Were troubling new devilments brewing in the night's tumultuous clouds?
At least one resident of the castle would come to think so. One student was destined to rise, shaken by the dark weather and a series of strange troubling visions, convinced that some evil power was awakening. One girl would catch the first glimpse of a plot so bizarre, so mysterious, that it was nearly unfathomable.
Something was destined to call out across the dark moody skies, and tonight one person was destined hear and respond.
The pale, blonde-haired Ravenclaw first year witch spent the night, as always, in one of the loftiest dorms of the castle. The blue and bronze eagle standard above her roof whipped about, strained by the weather's worst fury. Cacophonous rain, banging shutters and unearthly moaning winds beset the tower, yet the founders' ancient magical protections held firm. Preternatural strength pushed back the blitz; unbowed by the wicked storm's frantic, dying throes.
Inside the stolid tower, the tempest's raging din sounded as a little more than a vague patter of clacks and rumbles, like the rattling of a gormless ghost. Thus sheltered, some of Hogwarts' sharpest, most dedicated scholars enjoyed their sanctuary through the darkest, earliest hours of that first November morning.
But not the blonde girl.
Shortly before two in the morning, Luna Lovegood jolted in her sleep. She muttered and moaned. A bottle cap necklace on her bedpost rattled with disquiet. The peacock sleep mask on her face wrenched askew as she tossed back and forth among twisted sheets.
It was odd that she alone should have been disquieted. After all, she was known (Famous? Notoriously exasperating?) for a bewilderingly placid demeanour. Furthermore, she had known many blustery nights of her childhood in the upper reaches of another weather-worn tower, and had breezed complacently through conditions worse than what most of her classmates had ever experienced.
Luna was not prepared for visions, however. What wrenched her bedding this night into tortuous tangles was neither wind, nor rain, nor fever or malady. Rather, it was dreams of rare, unsettling clairvoyance — bizarre images that seemed more real, more grave and tempestuous, than the night's wild weather.
In Luna's dreamscape, the ponderous billowing front crashed upon a stony shore. Amidst the stinging spray, a ghastly vapour arose like the acrid reek of quenched sulphurous flames. Two distant points of pale reddish light appeared in the tormented sky. From dim, wavery beginnings, they expanded and swelled, faster and faster like the verging headlamps of some infernal lorry bearing down the hellacious motorway of night.
Skin prickling, Luna's ears filled with a buzz, a hiss, a seething feral whine, then...
No more sea. No spray or stones, nor raging eyes of the night.
A different scene formed around her. She felt cold, forlorn winds – dream-gales thrusting back the final tendrils of rain; clearing away the quivering strips of tormented clouds. Writhing trees strained their roots upon the hedges. A half-moon emerged over hills and sodden fields.
Under a chilled cobalt glow, Luna glimpsed the outline of an old homestead. She heard the dream-clattering of a hand-painted sign, hung from a shuddering gate. Squinting in the low dream-light to study the watery letters, she mouthed the words as her finger traced over them.
'Mossy Bottom Farm'.
Shivering, she raised a hand to her ear against the howling winds; against the scraping of cold winter-brittle elm twigs across the nearby barn roof.
She was just in time to hear the faint sound of a plaintive cry.
"Bweehhhh ehhhhh hehhhh!!"
Jolting awake at the piercing sound of a lamb's disconsolate bleat, Shaun the Sheep blinked furiously, clearing the sleep from his eyes as he adjusted to the low flickery gloom of the nocturnal barn. All around him, bedlam was erupting as a dozen large, garrulous and panicky balls of wool clambered over each other in alarm at the unexpected cry.
Shaun stared... then sighed. Another night's sleep was clearly about to get blown out the window.
In a moment of exasperated weariness, he covered his face with two petulant trotters... then caught himself, recognising his mistake.
Leader's Guide; Rule #4: Never look disheartened in front of the flock.
Shaun lowered his trotters and steeled his expression. There was little reason to assume that this latest uproar would prove any more urgent than last Tuesday's alleged wolf attack (which actually turned out to be nothing worse than the farmer singing in the bath), but as a leader Shaun understood the importance of a calm, composed and concerned demeanour. Just in case.
He rose to his full height. "Baaahh!"
Twelve pairs of wide ovine eyes swiveled in his direction. Timmy's mum quickly plugged a pacifier into the little lamb's mouth to curtail further wailing. The random expressions of sheepish whinging, thumping and jostling clattered to a halt.
Shaun surveyed the suddenly semi-ruly assembly and nodded in satisfaction, pleased to have averted full blown panic. Whew!
He wasn't quite sure why the farmer's copy of 'How to be a Leader and Impress the Birds' had ended up in the rubbish bin behind the house, but Shaun was pleased to have found it. The book had a wealth of ideas for taming an untameable barnyard, for dealing with intransigent animals, and projecting the right voice to build consensus.
Some parts of the book didn't seem very helpful (it was difficult to imagine how being sensitive and sharing 'feelings' would inspire the ducks, the chickens or any other feathered friends he knew) but Shaun knew how to read selectively, and the leadership advice he'd gleaned had gotten him through a few unpleasant messes.
Hopefully the book would steer him through whatever fuss was festering tonight.
Shaun turned his attention to the ewe struggling to contain a snuffling, squirming, disconsolate Timmy. He extended a comforting hoof to the lamb. "Baaa-a-ah?"
"MwwwMMMPHH..." Timmy spat out the pacifier. "Mweeeeehh! Eeehhh!"
Shaun blinked incredulously. "Mweh Eh?"
By a snake??
Wide-eyed, Shaun nodded slowly as he processed the lamb's hysterical claim.
Was it possible, in the middle of the night, during a freak storm in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, that the lamb's teddy bear had... been stolen?
By a twelve foot snake??
Shaun frowned. The lamb had either had a nightmare, or else they were about to confront Mossy Bottom Farm's strangest plot twist in, oh, roughly three weeks.
Shaun turned to Timmy's mum as she hastily replaced the pacifier. With a raised eyebrow, Shaun gestured subtly toward Timmy. "Mweh eh?"
"Mweeeh Eehh!" Anxiously wringing her trotters; her curlers in wild disarray, the motherly ewe gestured toward the rafters. "Mehh mweeh eh!"
Shaun gazed upwards. He pursed his lips, processing the evidence.
A deep linear depression seemed to track across the full width of the hay loft. The hay-bay door, having apparently been forced open, was now clattering loose in the raucous wind.
He rubbed his ear perplexedly. "Meh huh."
Floating wraith-like among the barn's rafters, the dreaming Luna found herself gripped by the sheeply dynamic. Studying the plucky young chap at the fore, she detected in him some distinctly un-sheepish qualities — a quiet leader; an odd blend of wary reticence and resolute determination which reminded her of that dark-haired Potter boy whom Ginevra had introduced her to several weeks ago.
Wondering if she could even discern a bit of a physical resemblance, Luna squinted at the sheep... but then the flock jostled about, blocking her line of sight to the leader.
Matters in the stable were unfolding too rapidly for thoughtful reflection, so Luna shelved the analogy and did her best to eavesdrop on the dream's disjointed sheepalog.
Luna listened intently as the young leader outlined his plan for a barnyard sweep. The flock erupted into bleats of protest and garrulous negotiations, but she noted with fascination how the leader's calm tone once again drew the chaos back to order.
Suddenly, the whole herd dropped all dissent and composed itself into a resolute, disciplined expression of the Shaun's will. Taking quick measure of the unanimity, the young leader strode purposefully toward the door. His mop-like colleagues fell in step, ready for action.
And action there was. Crazy, frenzied action!
The instant the barn door swung wide to the storm, a dozen large puff-balls charged out into the night, heading directly toward the...??
In her dream, Luna found herself staring across a storm-drenched field to the edge of an orchard within which a cauldron was simmering over strange purplish flames. Bathed in this unearthly firelight, she saw a gaunt, white-bearded wizard wearing a glistening black cloak.
Concentrating solely on his eerie incantations, the dark sorcerer seemed oblivious to the bizarre happenstance beginning to unfold around him — a monstrous snake chasing the hapless duck... a stuffed toy tossed up by a fierce gust and...
Luna abandoned all hope of making sense of the drama. Her dream degenerating into little more than a wildly irrational mess of confused images, she threw up her hands, and simply let her senses be swept along with the chaos.
She had no clue how a half dozen sheep could have found their way up into the branches of an apple tree, and she wouldn't speculate if their sudden subsequent descent was accidental (six sheep in a tree being a very tenuous state) or deliberate (six kamikaze sheep falling out of a tree being remarkably disruptive), but the outcome was clear.
A wizard caught at complete unawares by largish animals pelting down onto him at precisely the wrong moment is not a happy wizard.
His cackle of anticipated triumph wrenched and garbled beneath a cascade of fluffy limbs, pointy hooves, panicked bleats, and a 21 stone woolly monster named Shirley...
The old wizard's agonised shriek (a bit muffled beneath all the wool) searing her ears, Luna tried to marshal her focus onto several final bits of commotion unfolding — a broken wand; a tipped cauldron spattering green goo onto an outraged duck, and... Shaun wresting the lamb's toy from the writhing fingers of the crippled wizard, just in time to...
Luna burst upright in her Hogwarts dormitory bed, gasping, scattering her pillows, sleep mask and bottle caps!
Impossibly wide eyes gaping blankly into the sleep-blurred gloom, Luna's mouth opened wide and loud, proclaiming...
"THE DUCK LORD IS RISEN!"
As declarations go, this one was crisp, concise and clearly enunciated. Unfortunately, it was also rather too loud, too crisp and insufficiently contextual to suit her (no longer) sleeping dorm-mates.
Bed springs squawked and clanged. Eyes flashed wide; breaths hissed in sharp alarm. A room full of blinking Ravenclaw witches stared at Luna for two seconds that thrummed with the tension of a snare drum...
Then came the tetchy groans.
From a far corner of the room, one of the dorm-mates hoisted herself onto a pair of blatantly annoyed elbows to unleash a perfectly-honed tweenaged glower of scathing disdain, but Luna merely fixed her neighbour with a gaze both earnest and irritatingly calm. She raised a rhetorical finger. "The Duck Lord is risen... and a young sheep shall lead us."
Several moments passed in which nobody in the room knew quite what to say.
Finally, several giggles escaped. Then another person growled irritably. "Stuff it, Loonie!"
Glower girl in the corner pummeled her pillow and flumped heavily down onto the bed, grousing what sounded like, "Bugger your bloody ducks and go to sleep!'
Harry Potter let his friends drift ahead, almost out of earshot, as they walked through the scrubby woodlands near the edge of the Forbidden Forest. In general, he wouldn't have minded the company, but this morning he was feeling a bit distracted.
Last night he had awoken in a sweat; his scar tingling. This was a troubling displeasure he had not experienced since last spring when the spirit of Voldemort had been skulking about Hogwarts in the back of Professor Quirrell's head, seeking to capture the Philosopher's Stone.
The more Harry pondered his night's experience, the more he reflected that the scar sensation had been mild. It had been more unusual than painful. Stewing over this, he had resigned himself to complete cluelessness about what it might mean, or even whether he should be worried.
Several times during the walk, Harry had cast surreptitious glances at his best friend, Ginny Weasley, vaguely curious whether she might have noticed that he was a bit out of sorts. Normally she would have been right on top of anything like this — she seemed to read him like an open book — but this morning, well, Harry could tell that Ginny, too, was a bit out of sorts.
Or, to put it bluntly, Ginny was battling a nearly irresistible urge to throttle someone.
Throttle who, perchance?
Ron or Hermione — either one seemed fair game at the moment. Anything to stop the endless bloody bickering!
"Ron! If you keep making such a ruckus with all that tromping and twig snapping, we'll never find your rat!"
"It's not my fault, Hermione — I tripped! Besides that was only the second."
"Second?? That was the sixth!"
"Six? No way, Bossy-Boots! No, that's how many of your naff spells it took to scare Scabbers away!"
"How was I to know he'd leap out the window? And those were NOT naff spells, Ronald. Someday when you're dying from leptospirosis, chromiomeningitis, or the bubonic plague, you'll wish I'd been able to complete those simple diagnoses on your sweet little disease-ridden vermin. For all we know... blah blah blah blah blah..."
"Urgh!" Ginny stamped both feet down into the mud and thrust fingers in both of her ears. Gritting her teeth, she threw her head back and mouthed a silent oath, calling on Merlin for strength, and pledging to not follow the squabblers a single step further until they shut their whinging little traps.
Predictably, Ron and Hermione continued yammering heedlessly on down the path, failing to notice that Ginny had paused.
Fine. Ginny took a deep breath and (ears still plugged) absorbed the pleasing sound of silence. Then a slight rustling (felt, not heard) alerted her to the fourth member of their little troop. Having come up from behind, Harry stood gazing off into the misty thicket, standing at her side in quiet companionship.
Releasing her ears, Ginny turned to him. Her eyes slid over the gentle face; watched as he brushed a lock of that fine, dark, perpetually windswept hair from around his eyes.
The corners of Ginny's mouth twitched. It never ceased to baffle her how Harry could manage to look windswept in the midst of nonstop drizzle, without the faintest stirring of breeze, but this was a happy bafflement — one of life's wonderful little mysteries, never to be solved, always to be appreciated.
Ginny winked playfully to attract his attention. "Ten minutes before they notice we're missing?"
"Uhh..." Harry narrowed his eyes, glancing analytically down the path in the direction of the now distant bickering. He consulted his watch, then shook his head. "Put me down for eight and a half."
Ginny grinned. "Easy money!"
"We'll see." Harry flashed her a quick smile. "But either way, it's probably not enough time to, uhhh...?" His deep green eyes traced a path down her cheek.
"Nah, too risky." Ginny's face subsided into a plaintive pout for a moment. "But at least we could have a calm, intelligent conversation."
Harry chuckled. "I'd hardly know where to begin. Opportunities for intelligent conversation around this place seem as rare as Blibbering Humdingers."
"Blib...?!" Wide-eyed, Ginny clapped a hand over her mouth, then unclasped it to reveal a broad grin. "Harry, you actually listen to what Luna Lovegood says?"
"I, er... Shouldn't I?" Harry blinked. "She is your friend, isn't she?"
"Of course she is — we've been friends for as long as I can remember." Ginny grabbed his hand happily. "It's just that I don't recall meeting anyone else who actually listens to her."
Harry frowned. "Well, I have to admit she seems a bit odd at times, but she's no worse than dozens of other people I've met since I first learned I was a wizard. I mean, every time she sweeps her wand above a classroom doorway, for all I know there might truly be an infestation of Nargles up there to clear away, right? And whenever she speaks to a hare out on the grounds, or to one of Hagrid's chickens, I dunno... I guess I half expect them to talk back to her."
"Oh." Ginny studied her friend, then nodded in growing recognition. "I see what you mean — or maybe I can't see it perfectly, but that would only make your point stronger, yeah?"
"Ermm..." Harry looked at her uncertainly.
"Let me explain what I think you're saying." Ginny tapped her chin thoughtfully. "I believe that your point, which would then also be my point, is how incredibly bewildering it must be to have discovered the Magical world after all those years with the Muggles, right?"
"Exactly." Harry bobbed his head. "Half your world is made up of things that I'd always been taught were impossible. So, now I have a hard time deciding which of the many impossibilities I should really recognise as plainly possible, versus those impossibilities that are still completely impossible, even to you. I used to think I had a healthy sense of skepticism, but now I'm just confused."
"I understand." Ginny squeezed his hand sympathetically. "Well, if it's any comfort, you can be sure that Luna will never really lead you too terribly far astray. You'd best not to repeat everything that she tells you, but on the other hand if you take what she says as metaphor, then at the very least you'll get a different perspective on the world, and you might even learn surprising truths that most witches and wizards might never have guessed."
"Such as?" Harry cocked his head.
"Well..." Ginny gazed off into the mist. "I'm not much of a believer in Nargles or Humdingers, but if she talks about your aura, I'd advise you to listen. And, to be honest, I'll bet that when Luna speaks to birds or animals, a good number of them probably do listen and answer."
Harry blinked. "Seriously?"
"Sure. Not with our words, of course — those are probably gibberish to them. If I was to walk up to a Kneazle and say, 'Hello dear; how are you today?', the Kneazle would probably roll its eyes and tune me out the way I do when Hermione prattles on about leptospirosis, but people like Luna and Hagrid really do seem to have a special connection with animals and I'd reckon that they can probably speak just as intelligibly with them as you or I might with, say, Gregory Goyle."
"Goyle? Heh. You're setting the bar really high, aren't you Gin'?" Harry chuckled. "But you sincerely believe that Luna can understand animals, and vice versa?"
"Some animals anyway." Ginny nodded. "But there are probably plenty of creatures out here that are every bit as thick as Goyle or Bulstrode."
"Er yes..." Harry pursed his lips. "So what about Scabbers?"
"Good question." Ginny frowned thoughtfully as she pushed a wet branch out of the way and began to pick a route obliquely off the path, leading southwards through the autumn-thinned undergrowth. "To be honest, I've spent some time wondering about ratty-kins recently; even before he decided to do a runner."
Ginny nodded. "I'm not certain quite why he bolted this morning, but I have this uneasy feeling he had more important things going through his beady little rat brain than single-minded escape from a rampaging Healer Granger."
"Uneasy? " Harry frowned. "As in, like, 'Scabbers is pushing some devious agenda' type of uneasy?"
Ginny shrugged. "Yes. Perhaps."
"Huhh..." Harry shook the drips from a head-high branch and raised it up for Ginny to pass beneath. Following his friend, the frown settled deeper on his brow. "Okay, I'll admit that I've wondered from time to time whether that poxy blighter is going to start chewing his way through the dorms, leaving little bubonic plague pellets in our clothes but... what more is there to fear from a rat?"
"I'm not sure." Ginny knotted her mouth. "I don't know precisely what bothers me about Scabbers, but..." She stopped and carefully lowered some brambles with her foot, motioning for Harry to step over them.
"But what?" Harry crossed carefully over the thorns and paused to gaze around at the overcast glade.
"Harry, I do know what bothers me about the bugger." Ginny stopped and turned back to him, reaching for his hand. "Have you ever noticed how fascinated that rat has gotten with, uh... with you?"
Ginny nodded earnestly. "Ever since that Chamber of Secrest thing, Scabbers has taken to eyeing you. Nearly every night in the Common Room, when Ron isn't paying attention, he'll skitter up carefully along the mantle or run along one of the book shelves to get a closer look at you. Whenever you're reading or writing something, it's always as if he needs to take a peek."
"No way!" Harry's eyes flashed wide. "You're having me on!"
"Harry James Potter, I assure you..." Ginny stepped forward, forward, until she was treading on his toes, chest pressed against him; eyes mere inches from his. Her voice dropped to a low whisper. "I'm not having you on."
"Not having me on." Harry pulled in a sharp breath. "Right. So what do you reckon the rat is up to, then?"
A fleeting frown crossed Ginny's face. She stepped back and rubbed her chin. "Well, that's what I'm not sure about. But, well, uhhh... can I confide in you?"
Harry nodded. "Always."
"Please don't tell Ron I said so but, now that Scabber's gotten himself lost, there's a part of me that wouldn't be so sad if he, you know, kind of stayed lost?"
Harry nodded seriously.
Ginny released his hand and scuffed about in the wet leaves with her trainer for a moment before resuming. "In the worst case, I'm afraid he'll turn out to have been some kind of spy. But even at best, I think he's a creepy little rotter who's not exactly chumming about with Ron for free cheese and shared body heat, yeah?"
Frowning, Harry hummed his assent.
For several minutes the pair walked through a pine grove in pensive silence. They paused atop a wooded knoll to survey what little scenery they could make out in the gloom. Harry had just raised his hand to point out Hagrid's hut (the damaged roof was now visible hazily through the branches, about a hundred feet below them) when they both froze at an unexpected noise — a warbling, tremulous voice coming from a bit below them.
"Who? Eh? Oh!" Out of sight on the far side of a large mossy boulder near the foot of the hill, someone was humming and hawing. "Now what have we here?"
Ginny frowned at the fawning voice. She took several tentative steps down toward the boulder, then stopped. Waiting for Harry to catch up with her, Ginny stretched up, hand cupped, to whisper to him. "It sounds like Professor Trelawney. The twins say she's completely crackers."
Harry nodded as he tuned his hearing to the distant chatter.
"Oh, now don't be shy. Let's get a look at you, wee scrap. Ah, that's better, and... oh my — what a sweet little doggie you are! Come here doggie dawwgieee."
Ginny raised an eyebrow as they listened in silent anticipation, then blinked as she heard...
Harry and Ginny stared at each other for a long moment; Ginny clapped a hand to her mouth and sputtered into it. "Mm-eh-h-h-h-h??" she whispered.
Harry's eyes danced with amused incredulity. "Dawwgieee?" He twitched his thumb downwards, silently suggesting that they sneak a bit closer. Biting down hard on their tickled tongues, they quietly crept the final distance to the boulder, which they had just begun to stealthily scale when...
"Harry! Ginny! What in Merlin's name are you doing down there?!"
Harry and Ginny both groaned as they turned to see Hermione descending through the bushes, tugging a bewildered Ron. "What were you two thinking?" Hermione continued to shake her head and cluck disparagingly. "Ron and I have been searching for you EVERYWHERE! "
It took a bit longer than either Harry or Ginny would have expected, but all four students soon heard the inevitable sharp intake of breath from the far side of the boulder.
"What?? Oh dear! There must be... students... out here! What in Circe's name are students doing out on the grounds in this weather?!"
A tall, gangly witch with a battered chartreuse hat emerged from around the rock, hauling a small black-faced sheep who had been inelegantly ensnared in the straps of what was probably a canvas handbag that had been transfigured (rather poorly — its contents were now scattering haphazardly onto the forest floor) into a make-shift collar and leash.
Sybill Trelawney pushed a pair of rain-spattered coke-bottle spectacles up her forehead and squinted first toward Hermione and Ron who were rushing down the hillside and then toward Ginny and Harry who were resignedly descending the boulder.
"Ahem!" Apparently finding her vision neither better nor worse with misted goggles on her face, the gangly witch let her spectacles slide (crookedly) back onto her nose. "Children, is this your dog?"
Gazing at the bewildered animal (who seemed to be clutching small teddy bear in its teeth) Ginny chewed her lip. "Er, Professor Trelawney, that's not a-"
"Oh, it's not? I-I mean, yes, of course it's not your dog!" Trelawney's gaze snapped sharply in a direction a bit to the left of Ginny. "This could not possibly be your dog, because she belongs to me. Her name is... erm, Sybylina. Isn't that right, dearie?"
The professor crouched, snagging the tail of her cloak on a low branch, and lurched forward, thrusting her bug-like eyes far too close to the sheep's horrified face, prompting a panicked recoil in which it struggled vainly to escape from the hand-bag leash around its neck.
"Professor..." Hermione leveled a corrective finger toward the discomfited animal. "That isn't a dog, that's a juvenile sheep."
"Don't get saucy with me, young lady!" Trelawney directed a sharp scowl toward a sapling some distance up the hill. "Celestina is my sweet little pet doggie. If there's any sheepish juvenile around here, it is most likely you."
"But...!" Hermione's finger waggled ineffectually toward the poor animal. "But...?"
"Now children!" Trelawney burst up snappishly. "Hurry back to the castle immediately, or else I shall be forced to subtract house points from your, emmm, respective houses for, hemmm, being outside of the castle... on a rainy day."
"B-but Professor..." Hermione paled. "It's Sunday. There's no rule stating that we ca-"
"Tut tut! Back to the castle!" Trelawney's knobbly hand shot out, directing them toward the lake. "Santorina and I must finish collecting elf-eared fungus for spore divination. It's frightfully important work and we must not be distracted any further in our labours by your tedious childish prattle! If you urchins depart immediately and without further disputation, I shall not inform your head of house, Professor... erm, Sprout? Regarding your infractions?"
"Hhnng!" Chewing several of her fingers, Hermione stood frozen in helpless vexation.
Ron tugged anxiously on Hermione's cloak, finally budging her from agitated paralysis. Practically trembling, she followed Ron, and they fell in step behind Harry and Ginny who were equally (if less dramatically) irritated by the brusque dismissal.
"Poor little tyke." Harry gazed back regretfully. "I wouldn't wish a fate like that on anything."
Hearing the plaintive call, Ginny also gave a rueful glance back, her heart aching at the final wistful look that the sheep had cast toward the parting children. Ginny winced as Shaun stumbled helplessly away into the brambles at the Divination professor's indelicate tug.
"Pity the plonking old hag didn't kidnap Scabbers instead," Ginny grumbled under her breath, kicking a loose cobble fiercely enough to bruise her toes.
Harry nodded in quiet agreement; he almost reached for his friend's hand to calm her pique, but stopped himself because that would be, well... a bit awkward.
Oddly enough, the awkwardness between Harry and Ginny had arisen because of inclinations that, to them, seemed natural. Desirable.
Unfortunately, just because something felt natural to the two of them, and just because it was an accepted part of life for many of the older Hogwarts students, did not mean that it would be readily tolerated by Harry's and Ginny's own close friends and classmates.
We are referring, of course, to 'affection'.
The awkward spectre of affection reared its head fairly often these days. Inarticulate visceral debates would flare up just about every pleasant weekend afternoon when various of Hogwarts' young paramours were inclined to pair off for moon-eyed strolls around the lake. People tended to notice the phenomenon, and they tended to react.
Everyone's reaction was different. Harry couldn't help seeing the occasional discreet but wistful glances Ginny would cast toward the smiling, dazed pairs. Harry, himself, took to pondering what it would feel like to wear a silly expression like that. He rather suspected that he might enjoy finding out.
There was ample evidence, however, that Ron would not enjoy finding out. Indeed, few things in life could cut short a wistful glance, or quash a silly daydream, faster than the sound of one of your friends gagging.
And few things can knock one's flagging sentimentality to the ground and stomp it into full submission more effectively than Hermione chiding Ron for his immaturity, while proclaiming how 'none of us would even have been born if our parents didn't go off somewhere to snog each other from time to time.'
So, with the bushy haired girl and the red pated boy in near-constant proximity, Harry and Ginny kept their feelings to themselves... except for the occasional subtly coded signal. Such as right now, when Harry brushed almost imperceptibly up against Ginny.
For all the world, the contact (his hand casually grazing hers) could have been purely incidental, but Ginny's eyelids fluttered. She released a pent-up breath and flashed Harry a smile that, in a single fleeting instant, had the warmth of a dozen suns.
An inner grin swelled in Harry's chest. For a moment, he couldn't completely suppress that little extra bounce in his step, and it propelled him up over the final rise leading onto the smooth, gentle lawn that surrounded the castle's front gate.
Reaching the top with Ginny hurrying to keep pace, Harry was surprised to spot yet another wanderer out to defy the clammy weather. Trailing down from beneath a dark blue hood (pulled low against the steady drizzle) they both caught sight of familiar reams of long blonde hair.
Ginny waved. "Hey Luna!"
Harry smiled — in part he was pleased to see a friend, but he could also not suppress a small bit of amusement at Hermione's groan of ill-disguised dread as she trudged up the hill and recognised the first-year Ravenclaw.
Luna's chin rose, and she threw back her hood to reveal a pale, placid, almost angelic face. Glancing about in slight disorientation for a second, she eventually latched onto her friends' faces. "Oh, hello Ginevra! Hello Ronald! Hello Harry Potter! Hello Erigone!"
Hermione's jaw clenched as she took a short breath. "For the hundredth time, Luna, my name is 'Hermione'."
"Really?" Eyes widening, Luna took several quick steps forward, cocking her head to the side to gaze at Hermione. After a moment, the blonde girl angled her head the other way and shrugged. "Well, if you say so but, to be honest, you look far more Myceneaen than Spartan."
Luna also blinked, then a dawning smile of recognition spread across her face. "Actually, you look even more Anglo-Norman than Myceneaen. Is it possible you were switched at birth?"
Hermione was not in a good mood... and this was not helping. Sensing Hermione's rapidly eroding patience, Harry stepped swiftly between the two witches. "So Luna..." He gave the Ravenclaw witch a congenial smile, hoping he could divert the girl's ill-advised line of onomastic reasoning before any hexes started flying. "What brings you out onto the grounds on a messy day like this?"
"Ah yes, what indeed?" Luna studied him analytically. "The same reason as you, perhaps? Looking for a lost animal?"
Ron goggled at the girl. "You're looking to catch Scabbers?"
"No Ronald, I'd actually rather not." Luna gave him a vaguely worried look. "However if your skin condition persists, I can offer you some Calendula flower paste to speed the healing."
"Uh Luna..." Ginny snickered. "Scabbers isn't a skin problem — he's a rat."
"Ronald is a rat?" Luna's forehead creased in mounting alarm. She began backing away.
Ginny and Harry both turned quickly to the side, discreetly gnawing on their fists, while Ron looked from person to person in deepening confusion. Hermione, however, merely huffed. "No Luna. Scabbers is the name of Ron's pet rat. I was checking the creature this morning for common carrier diseases, and it ran off before I could finish. Might you have seen it?"
Luna shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. But if your rat came this way, he's likely been eaten by the nest of Jarveys down by the edge of the wood."
Ron turned pale and began whimpering slightly, but Luna appeared not to notice. She turned to him thoughtfully. "Actually Ronald, if you're in need of a new pet you might consider trying to catch one of the Jarvey pups before it grows too wild. They can be fiercely protective, endlessly entertaining, and they can wipe out a full scale rodent infestation in days."
"... eeeee?!" Ron declared in wide-eyed dismay.
"In any case, should you like assistance capturing one, I'd be happy to help. If you sing to them in the right way, they'll often come right up to you." Luna turned her face to the sky for a moment and let the heavy mist settle, bead-like, onto her brows and lashes. Then she sighed and straightened herself. "But not right now. I must return to my own search."
"Hey Luna..." Harry cocked his head curiously. "What actually was it that you're out looking for?"
Luna looked at him in surprise. "You don't know?"
Harry shook his head.
"Really?" Luna frowned. "I had a strange dream of black magic last night, Harry Potter, and I rather assumed it would also be of concern to you."
"Do tell?" Harry frowned.
"That's true. I do tell," Luna agreed. "Or I generally do. Unfortunately, in this case the details are rather hazy."
Harry nodded. "Er yes. Any vague recollections?"
"Yes." Luna nodded. "I dreamt of eyes over the sea. Then I saw a farm, and a strange dark ritual going quite awry. For some reason, a duck got splashed with a potion intended for a snake... and I'm almost certain that a young sheep was accidentally Portkeyed onto the castle grounds."
"Oh Merlin's Mum!" Ginny's glance swung back toward the woods behind Hagrid's hut, where all now appeared silent and still. "We met your sheep, Luna! Professor Trelawney's taken it into the woods to, uh, pick fungus."
"Oh bother!" Luna chewed on her lip in uncharacteristic consternation. "That dotty hag is liable to make a frightful mash of everything."
"Dotty hag??" Hermione stood by, blinking rapidly.
Luna ignored her, pulling her cloak up as if to hasten away. "Sorry, but I must be off, to-"
"Wait a minute!" Hermione leveled an incredulous finger at Luna. "Did you just call Professor Trelawney a... dotty hag? "
"That woman..." A scowl — nearly unprecedented — passed fleetingly over Luna's brow before the girl threw her hood tetchily back over her head. "That woman is a Fwooper-witted menace. She's an utter disgrace to the teaching and divination professions."
Harry and Ginny both shrugged, nodding in tacit agreement.
Ron's wide-eyed gaze flitted confusedly among his fellow students, finally settling on Hermione... who was twitching noticeably. Ron blinked. "Er... hey, are you okay?"
Her face starch-stiff, Hermione nodded slowly. Just as slowly, she turned her back on the others and... snorted. Loudly.
Ginny blinked. "'Mione, what's the matter? Are you...?"
Ginny let the query slide, and grinned. She, Harry and Ron watched bemusedly as Hermione doubled over... caught in the throes of a rare and long overdue giggle fit.
Cecil Rosier had dreamed of this many times — standing in supplication at the foot of a vast ebony dais; slowly, luxuriantly inhaling the heady scent of victory, in all its absoluteness and vindication. More than a decade of lonely, loyal servitude was finally to be rewarded. The moment had finally come. The towering figure of power was beckoning him up the steps so long denied to the true faithful. It was time for the Master to bestow great favours upon the one unwavering devout.
Rosier, as the sole Death Eater to earn his master's highest trust, knew he need never again lack for anything. He would not beg for fortune, because he knew that the new world order would grant all that and more. He would not request power, because he was certain that his wise master would offer it unasked — recognising the value of delegating great responsibility to a dedicated lieutenant of mighty prowess.
Indeed, Rosier had no interest in seeking such mundane favours. Rather, he would ask for something uniquely bold — a request of astonishing audacity; a petition reflecting remarkable sagacity.
"Your majestic eminence..." Rosier leaned forward, pressing his forehead down against the cold, smooth stone. He listened breathlessly as his lord turned to him.
Rosier resolved to press on, before he lost the nerve to ask the unthinkable. "Your eminence, I have brought you back to great power. I shall stand with you as you crush all of your enemies, once and forever. Your lordship, in return I ask only one favour of your wise magnaminity."
"Sir, I request that you spare the boy. Under my tutelage, he can be brought to see the righteousness of our way and the value our designs. He can be made great in your image, my lord. He has powers that may serve you as no other servant can — more splendid even than I, your most loyal of vassals."
Rosier trembled slightly. Ever so carefully, he raised his face several inches off the dais to gaze at the lowest shimmering fringe of the black cape of a Dark Lord reborn.
Rosier inhaled slowly. "Your honour... did you hear my request?"
"Your eminence, si-?"
The feverish dream splintering into a cascade of loose straw, Cecil Rosier's reflexive recoil shot a blast of excruciating pain from his dislocated shoulder, setting the entire right side of his body to burn and throb. Then he sneezed from the dust, unleashing a tsunami of fresh torment to course through his chest.
That is when the full horrific state of reality flashed before his eyes — a terrifying recollection of one monstrous (at least 20 stone weight!) old ewe falling from the sky, landing straight upon him, shattering his wand and Merlin knows how many of his body parts. Nightmarish flashes of another five rabid woolly horrors plummeting down from the heavens; of the entire remainder of the feral herd stampeding him across the whole length of a rain-slicked pasture...
If there was any consolation to the story, Rosier should have blessed the stars that he had actually escaped. He should have praised the miracle by which those hellacious sheep had not quite caught him — the fact that (despite his many injuries) he had managed to scramble through a narrow, half-open window into the sanctuary of an abandoned cattle barn.
Yet, this solace seemed lost on him. For not only was Rosier injured and powerless; not only had his cunning plan collapsed under a gargantuan pile of unharvested mutton... but now the most brilliant tactician from the first Wizarding War found himself face to face with a red-eyed, menacing and distinctly disgruntled... duck.