Chapter 4. Barn Brawl
Steadying himself, Shaun took a few quick glances around and nodded in recognition. He did seem to have been returned to the precise spot where, two nights earlier, he had led that risky attempt to expel the farm's strange invaders.
The sky was obviously much brighter now. The strange fire had long since gone out, and the large cauldron had mysteriously disappeared, but this was definitely the right place, which should mean that...
Shaun gazed to the southeast. His heart surged at the sight of some very familiar rooftops. Home! Finally.
The adventure, however, was not over. Most sheep generally shied away from wagers, but Shaun would have bet a week's worth of oats that the old lunatic and his rampaging snake weren't far off. Sure they had taken a beating the other night, but they didn't seem the sorts to go away easily. They might even be plotting more mischief at this very moment.
Suitably motivated, Shaun raced across the pasture toward Mossy Bottom Farm. But what would he find on the other side of the stone boundary wall? He'd been going spare worrying about that. Had the thieving reptile stolen anything else? Eaten anyone? Had the black-cloaked maniac started any new foul-smelling fires? Had the farmer made a complete mash of everything?
Shaun shivered, not knowing what to fear most.
Leaping over the stone fence, Shaun landed in the barnyard, and looked around. Much to his bewilderment, he found the entire farm to apparently be...
... in lock down?
"M'huh." Shaun scratched his ear as he assessed the situation.
Each door, window and hatch, from the lowliest coop to the largest barn, had been boarded up in the most eccentric ways possible, with planks jutting at every angle; bent, twisted nail heads sticking out randomly. It looked certifiably deranged.
Apparently the farmer had learned of the snake.
The farmer did not like snakes.
Shaun groaned. A bit of structural reinforcement was fine if it kept out weird predators and intruders, but the farmer had basically imprisoned all of the farm's occupants in their night quarters. Depending on how long they'd been trapped, Shaun's friends were likely getting more than a mite peckish.
For a moment Shaun looked around, wondering what to do, then cast his eyes on the place where he’d expect to find the dog house. What he saw resembled more of a wooden hedgehog than a small kennel.
Shaun shrugged and put his mouth up to a space between the boards. "Mehh'h'h?"
Hearing farm sheep dog's tentative reply, Shaun poked and prodded at the nailed boards. "BAHh'hhh?"
"Wrowwwwww!" Bitzer confirmed plaintively.
Shaun shook his head in exasperation at the farmer's handiwork. Nobody, likely not even the farmer himself, could penetrate this abomination.
Nobody...? Shaun closed one eye in deliberation. No, not strictly true. It all came down to how one defined the word 'penetrate'.
Or might the word 'obliterate' be a better word?
Some problems on Mossy Bottom Farm were best handled with care and subtlety, but this was not one of them. Rather, it was beautifully suited to a very primitive solution.
Shaun turned away from the dog house and approached the sheep barn, calling out, "Bahhhh-hh'h!"
A deep rumble issued from within. "Mmowwwr?"
Gauging the strength of the ramshackle jumble of planks covering the barn door, Shaun nodded to himself. "Bahhh-Hhh'h!"
"Mowwrrr!" From somewhere inside the building, the deep rumble was followed by a host of bleats and one deep snort of recognition. A confused clatter of hooves began to build...
"M'uh-oh!" Suddenly remembering that he was right in the line of fire, Shaun leaped wildly to the side as...
Crickle. Pock. TING!
Confronted with a somewhat dazed, goggle-eyed Shirley, and a monumental pile of kindling... Shaun grinned.
Bleating excitedly, the rest of the herd emerged from behind their living, sentient (if somewhat woolly-headed) battering ram, and blinked in the early evening sunlight.
"BAHhh'hhh!" Shaun proclaimed bullishly above the clamour. However, it was not yet the time to celebrate. The hardest work was still to come!
As soon as his feet had settled onto solid ground, Lucius Malfoy jerked his arm back from the scruffy little wizard who had just side-along Apparated him. Wand out, he scanned the early evening agrarian setting, looking for signs of Rosier.
Taking in the lay of the land, Malfoy couldn't help wondering where on Earth he was. By the crisp bite to the air, he guessed it be somewhere in the northeast. Yorkshire? The Humber?
No matter. He turned his disdain toward a spot in the air about four inches above Pettigrew's scraggly head. "Did you search the place for signs of magic, Rat?"
"Dolt." Malfoy scowled at the man, noting him to be sweatier, twitchier and more distracted than usual. He smirked. "You look shattered, Pettigrew. What's the matter? Potter and his obnoxious little brigands terrorize you at Hogwarts?"
"Ehhm..." Pettrigrew appeared for a moment to be on the verge of answering, but instead turned nervously away.
Malfoy didn't notice. Frowning in concentration, he had already lowered his wand to scan for magic. The first and most obvious magical signatures in their immediate vicinity were Muggle repelling wards covering most of the orchard. Unsurprisingly, the spells must have had no effect on lower lifeforms — Malfoy spied a large number of animal prints dotting the dried mud. Mostly sheep, obviously, except for... Aha!
Malfoy crouched to examine a strange set of tracks — boot indentations here and here; a progression of hand prints; strange scraping marks.
Grasping his boss's interest, Pettigrew stared at the ground. "Eh? Some bloke was crawlin' on the ground?"
"So it seems." Malfoy stood up. "Rosier, perhaps? Should make it easy to track him over this muck, then."
Malfoy strode past a spot of tall grass near the edge of the orchard and stared out across a ploughed field. Lo and behold there was, indeed, a distinct crawl-path, leading toward what seemed to be an old cattle barn.
Making his way toward the building, Malfoy pointed his wand. "Homenum Revelio."
A faint glowing silhouette of a hunched human form seemed to project on the stable wall for a moment. Malfoy nodded to himself and approached closer. With Pettigrew cowering behind him, Malfoy turned his wand on the door. "Alohamora."
Malfoy entered cautiously, his wand flicking back and forth like the tail of an agitated cat. "There!" He strode briskly toward the haymow. Swiping an armful of straw to the side, he uncovered exactly what he was looking for.
"Lucius." The cracked voice was pathetic. So was most everything about the bedraggled old wizard who'd been hiding in the straw. Covered in dust, pale from loss of blood and a lack of food, and clutching a broken wand, Cecil Rosier had certainly seen better days.
"Well, well, well." Malfoy sneered with immense pleasure. "I'm not sure which I would enjoy more right now — killing you, or watching you suffer prolonged Cruciatus." He cocked his head in thought. "Though in your state, those would likely amount to the same thing."
Rosier closed his eyes. "You shan't kill me, Lucius."
Malfoy sniggered. "Why not?"
"Beca..." The old wizard coughed slightly, and tried swallowing with his parched throat. "Because I alone know how to bring back the Dark Lord."
Malfoy laughed. "Nice try, old man — I already know your plans. Our little lackey back there has been ratting on you ever since you returned to Britain." Malfoy smirked as Pettigrew whinged pathetically, betraying his own attempt to skulk unnoticed through the barn door.
Malfoy redirected his grin toward Rosier. "Yes, the little snitch told me how you'd brought the Eminence back to our shores under cover of the storm. He also shared that you've been searching for animal hosts to carry the Dark Lord's spirit while you explored ways to restore his strength. Not a bad notion, but I see no evidence of you having the skills or successes to atone for your many blunders. You made a shambolic mess with the diary, and have obviously bollixed whatever it was you've attempted here."
Rosier croaked, then found a semblance of voice. "No, there's..."
"Tut tut. Spare the excuses, Cecil." Malfoy swept back his long hair with a contemptuous flourish. Not seeing a very quiet bundle of wool slide in through the open door, Malfoy pointed his wand imperiously at the wounded wizard. "We both know how our master frowns upon failure. I can't imagine how he or I could have any further use of you, Rosier. You've made yourself expendable, and thus you shall now d-"
"No!" Rosier somehow summoned the strength to raise his hand and fix Malfoy with a steady glare. "Lucius, I know how to bring back our Lord. Not just as a spirit possessing lower beings, but in the fullness of his might and magnificence!"
"Oh?" Malfoy raised an eyebrow, caught more by the unexpected show of strength and conviction than by the words themselves. "Tell more more, old goat."
Rosier shook his head. "Not before you mend my shoulder and give me water."
Malfoy stared coldly at the elder wizard for a moment, then nodded. Retrieving a flagon from his mokeskin pouch, Malfoy handed it to him and crouched down to magically reset the dislocated joint and reduce the deep purple swelling. Malfoy's courtesy did not extend to numbing the wizard's pain, however. His spell was none too gentle, and he semi-intentionally jostled Rosier, sending the old man into anguished tremors, at which he merely sneered.
Nonetheless, the healing spell and water proved restorative. After a minute, Rosier was able to raise himself to a full sitting position, brush the straw and dust from his face, and concentrate on his argument. "I've work out a two step process to bring him back, Lucius," he explained. "To amend our failure with the diary, I..."
"Our failure?!" Malfoy glared at him. "It’s YOUR failure, imbecile!"
"Our shared failure, Malfoy." Rosier managed a smile — weak but infuriating. "If not for my intervention in Devon, your botched invasion of the Weasley property would have sent the diary straight into Auror hands."
"That's... that's...!!" Malfoy trembled in fury but, lacking a good rebuttal, he took a deep breath. "Continue."
"After leaving Hogwarts, I spent several weeks at Durmstrang exploring their collection of ancient and forbidden scrolls. In my research, I determined that there is a potion that can restore full human form to a disembodied soul whose original body had been lost. However, the procedure is fiendishly complex, and poses an obstacle." Rosier met Malfoy's eye with the peculiar glint like a sage instructing a disciple. "You need a human form to restore a human being."
"Eh?" Malfoy's brow furrowed in confusion. "How can you make him human if you need him to already be human?"
"You don't listen very well, do you Lucius? A 'human form' is adequate, and that gives us a way around the paradox." Rosier's face adopted a half-deranged grin. "Recalling my old studies, I had once read of another, simpler potion, made only of steeped blood of unicorn and venom of the green mamba, which can produce a homunculus body. Interestingly, the unicorn’s blood also attracts wayward souls, so if the potion is administered to a body that is already possessed by a spirit, the created homunculus will adopt it."
"What do you mean by 'administered to a body'? You still need a body to make a body?"
"An animal familiar will suffice, simpleton." Rosier rolled his eyes. "The animal host Pettigrew informed you of is not just a vessel to store the spirit while one builds strength. The animal provides life force required to power the first step of corporeal reconstitution."
"Gah!" Malfoy scrunched his face. "Must we contaminate his noble spirit with animal life force? Seems in bloody poor taste, and I'd assume it's risky too."
"There's no other way, Malfoy." Rosier struggled to his feet. "And no, it's not particularly risky if done properly. And I do know how to do it properly. Trust me — in matters of magical esoterica, I am far your superior."
"Not particularly risky, you say?" Malfoy regarded him skeptically.
"Well..." Rosier pursed his lips. "I suppose the final corporeal form may adopt a few minor physical aspects of the transitional familiar host but... our Master has always had an affinity for snakes."
"You'll use a snake?" Malfoy equivocated; his face still skewed. "I suppose that may be acceptable."
Ignoring Malfoy's scowl, Rosier finished dusting himself off. "I assure you, this will work, and not much more need be done for the first transition. As Pettigrew informed you, I successfully summoned the Lord Voldemort's soul from his exile in the Brozh-Bardhetit woods of Albania. I have also procured a suitable snake from an acquaintance of mine in Nocturn Alley, and set about achieving the preliminary soul-to-snake bonding two nights ago. The potion had almost finished steeping and l was mere moments from deliverance but..." His face twitched perceptibly. "Well, several circumstances intervened."
"Circumstances?" Malfoy raised a smug eyebrow. "Complete cock-up, eh?"
"It was hardly my fault." Rosier glared as he pulled out another straw that had gotten stuck someplace awkward. "The snake was being reckless and toppled over the cauldron. In the ensuing chaos, the spirit ended in the wrong familiar. Then some animals, er, fell on me."
"Fell on you? Complete cock-up indeed." It was Malfoy's turn to sport an insufferable smirk.
"No, not at all. Everything can still be fixed. I... Oh blast, do I still have...??" Rosier frantically felt about his bedraggled cloak, then sighed in relief, pulling out a small vial of silvery substance that had survived the tumult. "Yes, I still have enough unicorn's blood for a second batch of potion. I would value your assistance though."
"How so?" Malfoy looked at him skeptically.
Rosier gestured to a listless snake draped over the rafters. "The snake has been unsuccessful in her hunts, and I believe she was maltreated in Nocturn Alley. As a result, she is weak and ravenous. In order to harvest enough venom for another batch of serum, we must provide her a proper meal."
"We're on a farm, Rosier." Malfoy gazed around the barn. "There ought to be some decent snake food around here somewhere."
Rosier shook his head. "This particular property seems to have been left vacant. It's a fine place to hide, but has no livestock. Fortunately, I know for a fact that there is ample meat to be garnered from the farm just to the east."
Malfoy straightened his cape and tapped his wand. "Very well then. A proper disciple of Salazar Slytherin shall not abide a starving snake. Give me a few minutes to nip out and find a chicken or two."
"Sheep. Bring us some mutton, Lucius." A demented gleam returned to Rosier's eyes. "Lots and lots of mutton."
Eyebrow quirked and a bemused question on his lips, Malfoy turned to the old wizard, but all he ended up saying was...
Clubbed to the floor by a hay bale pitched from a high loft, Malfoy banged his chin hard on the heavy planks. He struggled for a second, then slumped unconscious, his wand clattering to the side.
In the bale's wake, Shaun seized a heavy rope hanging from the rafters and leapt from on high. Not willing to let his woolly friends become 'mutton' for a snake, he plunged courageously down, aiming for the polished stick that silver-headed wizard had dropped. Wind racing through the woolly tuft atop his head, nearly to the lowest point on the arc, he reached out to seize...
Astonishingly dextrous for an old wizard suffering from pain and near starvation, Rosier pinned Malfoy's wand beneath his filthy boot. Raising the wand, Rosier’s eyes followed Shaun’s upward arc, gleaming in hatred. "Immobulus!"
Every limb in Shaun's body suddenly locked. Still clutching the end of his rope, Shaun swung smoothly up to complete the apex, paused for a moment, then obeyed the tenets of gravity, returning straight back down toward the waiting clutches of a very gleeful wizard.
"Well, well." Using the wand to slow Shaun's descent, Rosier tittered. "I do believe we've located some mutton, Nagini."
Nearly everyone in the Great Hall seemed to be on the alert for... something.
Normally one would expect the evening meal at Hogwarts to blend casual socialising and standard teenaged gluttony, but tonight everyone appeared to be unduly watchful.
From his place at the end of the Slytherin table, a squat first-year ruffian named Thaddeus Flint leered at Colin Creevey with salacious fascination.
For some reason Colin didn't much care. Camera at the ready, the small Gryffindor was busy scanning the entire hall, with all the hungry instincts of an expectant paparazzo.
At the opposite end of the Gryffindor table, Ginny's vigilance darted back and forth between Creevey and Flint, as if she was waiting for some kind of a sign.
Meanwhile, Harry glanced up at the staff table in time to see Sybill Trelawney make a very rare mealtime appearance, accidentally bumping Professor Flitwick off his chair as she claimed a seat beside Professor Lupin.
Harry frowned at the vaguely odd behaviour, then shrugged. He turned briefly to see what Ginny was looking at but, not being able to discern anything of note, gazed back toward Trelawney and Lupin. "Oi!" He winced and quickly averted his eyes. "What in Merlin's name did the poor bloke do to deserve that?"
"Huh? Who deserved what?" Ginny didn’t break her vigil on the Slytherin table.
"Professor Lupin. Trelawney decided to come sit with him." Harry chanced another quick glimpse of the staff table, then averted his eyes faster than ever. "Ugh. It looks like she's polishing her glasses."
"No no, Gin'. She's polishing her glasses on Professor Lupin's shoulder!"
"Huh?" Ginny frowned, but her attention was now locked onto Colin as the little Gryffindor fitted a camera lens. "Sounds naff, but this is Trelawney we're talking about, yeah?"
"But... but..." Harry jabbed with his thumb. "But Gin', her glasses are still on her face."
With arched brow, Ginny finally gave up and eyed Harry inquiringly. Finding his expression irreproachably earnest, she twisted around in her seat to see for herself.
"Ugh! Harry, she's not polishing her glasses; she's uh..." Ginny paused to tap her lower lip. "Do you suppose she's head-butting him? Like that billy goat dominance thing... You know, if one introduces a new goat into the herd?"
"Oh? Is there maybe some kind of initiation rite for new Hogwarts faculty?" Harry scratched his head. "Or perhaps she's trying to cop some sympathy?"
"Oh, that's probably it — she's trying to cry on his shoulder but keeps missing!"
His grimace twisting a bit in recognition, Harry nodded.
Ginny scrunched her face. "Wonder what she's on about? Do you suppose she's upset about the sheep? Maybe we should... Ack!"
"What the...??" All other bizarre quandaries and spectacles in the room forgotten, Harry and Ginny gaped in shock at Ginny's glass of pumpkin juice.
On an evening in which everyone at supper seemed to to watching somebody, Ginny's drink was... watching her!
Immersed within the cloudy juice, about half-way down, was a pair of wide watchful eyes. The bizarre greenish orbs flicked from Ginny to Harry, then swept demonstratively in the direction of the exit.
Harry and Ginny both blinked in confusion.
The eyes repeated the gesture.
"Oh." Harry put a hand to his mouth. "I think I know what... er, who, it might be."
Ginny looked at Harry expectantly, but he shook his head. "We need to get out of here." Trying to not draw too much attention, Harry stood up, took Ginny's hand, and drew her up from the table.
Ginny gave a final conflicted glance at Thaddeus Flint who was now just rising from the Slytherin table with a definite swagger. Then she peeked at the highly agitated pair of eyes in her juice (blinking in some urgent code), and resignedly followed Harry.
With nearly everyone's attention fixed either on the awkward drama unfolding at the staff table, or on the Slytherin strutting brazenly toward the Gryffindor seats, nobody gave our two exiting protagonists more than a passing glance.
As soon as they had passed through the arch separating the Great Hall from the Entrance Hall, Ginny looked up at her friend. "What's going on, Harry? What were those eyes?"
Harry put a finger to his lips and led her out the main doorway into a rosy spreading sunset. The moment they reached the front steps, a small figure leaped out of the shrubs.
"Dobby!" Ginny clasped a hand to her mouth, muffling her inadvertently gasp.
"Being very quickly!" The diminutive elf hissed, hopping in agitation. "Kind and Good Harry Potter and Powerful Witch Wheezy must come help doggie in troubling!"
"Shaun?" Harry's eyes widened. "What's happened to him?"
Dobby merely shook his head, and thrust his hands upwards toward the pair.
Unquestioning, Harry and Ginny both accepted the elf's hands, and...
Spinning wildly through the void, they suddenly hit an uneven patch of ground with a strong sideways shear. Harry teetered on the brink for a moment, then toppled onto his back into a cold, earthy furrow, with Ginny landing — oooff — on top of him.
In the ensuing confusion, despite several sizable stones poking into his back, Harry found himself very acutely aware of a... feminine... presence in very very close prox-
"Great Potter, Powerful Wheezy! Is no time for lovey kissy — must getting up!" Dobby reached down frantically to lift them to their feet and tug them toward a nearby barn. "This way to old scraggle wizard. He is having doggie freezing."
"Huh?" Not expecting much clarification, Harry and Ginny hurried across the field to see for themselves. Following Dobby to a window, they peered though and...
Harry gaped. Ginny gasped.
Seemingly paralysed, Shaun was clinging to a rope in the middle of the barn, while the diary-thief Wizard (vile scum!) was summoning a large, bare-fanged green snake whose every mannerism conveyed only one thing. Extreme hunger.
Harry and Ginny raced for the still-open door.
"Expulso!" Ginny's hex whipped the snake hard against the far wall.
"Expelliarmus!" Harry's spell lashed across the barn, but Rosier's lightning reflexes had already assembled a shield. The elderly wizard winced from the sheer power of Harry's spell. He staggered back a step... but then he grinned.
"Well, well, well. Harry Potter and Ginevra Weasley. You must be desperately fond of me to forever dog my heels like pathetic puppies."
Ginny rolled her eyes at Rosier's prattle. "Relashio." She freed Shaun from his paralysis and stepped over to join Harry in training wands on the dangerous dark wizard.
"It's over, old sod." Ginny hand and voice were both surprisingly steady. "Hands down at your sides."
Harry nodded. "You heard her. And drop the wand, mate."
"I admire your pluck, my little pumpkins, but you'll never break through my defences." His shield still flickering on the edge of visibility, Rosier chuckled. "You really haven't the faintest idea how to take down a powerful, skilled wizard, have you?"
Ginny chanced a hopeful glance at Harry.
"Sure we do." Harry's brow hardened. "We have you outnumbered. All we need to do is get around your shield. We'll keep angling about; if you make one false step, you're done."
Taking the cue, Ginny skipped nimbly to her right... but Rosier took an impossibly agile leap to perfectly triangulate. He leered smugly. "Old man's not so lame as you thought, eh? Even with two on one, this is hardly a fair fight, luvs. If you try scarpering around the barn, you'd best watch your feet, because the instant one of you stumbles, then — bam — stupefied! First one then the other."
His wand steady, Harry took a step to the left. "Wishful thinking, gaffer, but it's not just the two of us."
"Oh? Who else do you have?" Rosier smirked. "You're having me on, Potter."
"No he's not." Ginny shook her head.
Huh? Painfully aware of his own sketchy bluffing, Harry blinked at his friend's brash confidence.
Eyeing Ginny, Rosier failed to notice Harry's hesitation. The old wizard glared for a moment, then grinned. "Ha! Pretty little liar, eh? If I learned one thing teaching at Hogwarts, it's that Weasleys are perpetual posers."
Ginny glared. "This is no pose, prat! Five minutes, and you're done for."
"Oh really?" Rosier chuckled, glancing at Shaun who was edging toward the barn door. "So who exactly plans to bail you out? Some of your sheepish little friends?"
Unfortunately, Ginny's perfect retort died on the vine, because...
WHAMMM!!! Shards and splinters of wood sprayed across the barn.
Led by the dazed looking head of a monstrously huge ewe, the entire flock of Shaun's woolly friends came crashing through the barn's far wall near a block of stables.
Spinning around in alarm, white sparks flashed as Rosier reacted. "Colloshoo!"
Several dozen hooves fused instantly to the floor, sending the flock scrunching together into a raucously bleating mass of tangled wool.
Yet Rosier's fast instincts proved his own undoing. Before the huge sheep pile had even stopped skidding, Harry's wand had lashed out. "Stupefy!"
Out of position, Rosier almost restored his shield, but it was less than half strength when Harry's blast caught him. Staggering back, Rosier dropped a small vial of silvery liquid that shattered across the floor. Skidding in the mess, the old man thudded down, dropping Malfoy's wand.
Forgetting his magic, Harry lunged for the stick. Although tactically daft, the move proved incredibly lucky, because...
"Bombarda!" A powerful percussive curse from the north corner of the barn pounded the space where Harry had stood a half-second earlier, exploding the hay stack into billowing clouds of dust and fibre that showered down onto Harry and Rosier.
"Protego!" Her shield in place, Ginny whipped around to assess the new threat. Three thugs, none too bright looking, had Apparated into the barn. Still wobbling, they nonetheless had wands trained, ready for a fight.
Quickly dismissing the first two (one chunky oaf sweating profusely, and one tall troll-like lug with facial features all crammed together) as useless plonkers, Ginny locked eyes with the apparent leader — a short, scruffy wizard with beady eyes, and a...
Shifty, shrewish face... Who does that remind me of??
Ginny shook off an uneasy sense of familiarity. She stepped closer to Harry, overlapping her shield with his.
Wrenching his eyes off Ginny, the short, scruffy leader took a moment to survey the barn, gaping noticeably at the sight of his employer (Lucius Malfoy) lying face down beneath a hay bale, and Rosier sprawled on the floor, groaning amidst a silvery puddle.
Beside him, the chunky bloke rubbed his greasy pate. "Whut the blerdy 'ell mess is dis, Ratty?"
"The Hell if I know, Crabbe." His face twitching anxiously, Pettigrew turned to Ginny and gestured at the comatose Malfoy. "Listen Weasley, there's naught to concern you here. Step aside, let us grab a few of our things, and we'll not trouble you. A'right?"
Ginny glared. "I don't know how you lot know my name, but nobody blasts a hex at us without answering for it. What are you doing here?"
"Har!" Troll-faced wizard sniggered and snorted. "Little bitchy's shur tellin' ye, Rat!"
"Shut up, Goyle." Pettigrew wiped his nose irritably. "Listen, you ruddy little bint. I was trying to be nice, but we got you outgunned, so either step aside or..."
"Expelliarmus!" Harry leapt forward, snatching Pettigrew's wand as it sailed across the room. He glowered at the motley trio. "The lady asked you gents a question. What are you doing here? What do you want with Malfoy?"
"A Potter in the haystack, eh?" Vincent Crabbe Sr. sneered. "Yeh may think yeh'r so blerdy smart 'n what, but if we ain't back at Malfoy Man'r in two minnits, there'll be anoth'r dozen wiz'rds 'ere t' wipe yeh'r mingin' hides."
Ginny shook her head. "Another bluff."
Crabbe grinned. "Yeh wanna wager on't, Red?"
Ginny's jaw dropped.
Crabbe gaped. " Who the blerding 'ell is 'at?!"
Harry glanced through the open door toward the orchard, but it was too dark out to see much. Expressionless, he turned back to the attackers and shrugged. "One of you bobs order a pizza?"
To say the least, Remus Lupin's first supper at Hogwarts in more than a decade was rather memorable. But not in a good way.
Although he had his hands full with Trelawney, Lupin actually noticed Harry and Ginny beating a hasty retreat from the Great Hall, and that is what inspired him to attempt the same thing. Exit now. Before he dissolved in embarrassment.
Or dissolved in slobbery moisture, perhaps.
Normally, having a certifiably mental witch snuffling gobs of mucus all over his faculty robes in front of three hundred students on his first day as a new professor would have been an unmitigated disaster but today, by stroke of good fortune, another unfolding distraction seemed destined to let him escape without ridicule. Standing up, he took a step toward the door, whispering, "Sssh, Sybill. Let’s talk outside."
Semiconsciously, the Divination professor nodded and shuffled in step with Lupin's hurried retreat.
Amazingly, nobody laughed at them — not even when she stumbled, nearly disrobing him. A few people may have glanced over as Lupin hastily pulled his cloak back over himself, but all eyes immediately riveted straight back to the open space between the Gryffindor and Slytherin tables, where somebody's perfectly timed prank was about to unfold.
As laughter exploded from all corners, Lupin nearly wished that he could stop to watch, but the momentary wisp of nostalgia (memories of James and Sirius playing the crowd like a tin whistle) vanished as a soggy, half-convulsing Trelawney spattered him with another round of miserable ick.
Steeling himself, Lupin cast a weak levitation spell on the long, strange, gauzy, pink and green filaments that dangled from her robes so she wouldn't trip again, and resumed steering her out of sight.
Finally clearing the front door, Lupin heard the Great Hall burst into ribald song, but again he missed any hilarious details — this time because of a loud, wetly muffled monologue emanating from the face pressed into his armpit.
"... but you see, he was such a sweet little dawwwwgie. Pure fluffy love... SNORRRRT... and when he disappeared, all of the crystal balls stopped glowing, and the tea leaves turned bitter, and... [muffled]... HONNNK! So the only thing left to remember him by was a daaarling little stuffed bear, but then it was stolen... STOLEN! Stolen by a RAT!!"
Lupin froze, then pulled his armpit back from Trelawney's face. "Sorry, a-a stuffed bear, you said? Stolen by a rat?"
"Yes." Trelawney's sobbing stopped. She lifted her head to peer blearily through smudged spectacles toward Lupin's earlobe. "Don't you believe me, Remi?"
"I..." Lupin glanced down at the witch's face for a moment, then averted his eyes at the sight of tendrils creeping out of her nose. "Well, yes I do."
Goggle-amplified eyes blinking, Trelawney angled closer.
Trying desperately to avoid seeing a face that best resembled an indignant damselfly sprayed with runny custard, Lupin's discomfort was obvious — even to Trelawney. She studied him intently, then positioned herself unavoidably in his line of sight. "Why my dear Remi, you’ve seen my teddy bear! And my doggie?!"
"I, er..." Lupin coughed. "... yes."
"Tell me! Tell me!" Trelawney seized his lapels, accidentally treading on his feet and spattering more moisture down his chest. "I simply must know! Are they safe? Are they well? ARE THEY ALIVE??"
"Yes, of course." He coughed again. "I assure you, they're fine."
"Where are they?"
"They..." Lupin fixed his weary eyes up high on the spreading evening glow, as if seeking guidance or divine intervention. "They've gone to, uh... a better place."
"No no no!" Lupin's legs vibrated as if he wanted nothing more than to run like hell. Or evapourate. Or something. Summoning his strength, he shook his head as calmly as he could. "They're not dead. They-"
"Not DEAD?? WHERE ARE THEY??!"
Trying a maneuver he'd seen others employ with success, Lupin put an arm around the agitated witch, attempting to settle her. "They've gone home, Sybill. They're back where they belong."
"Home?! Where?" Trelawney pushed back against Lupin to stare directly into his right eyebrow. "Show me where."
"I can't." Lupin cringed. "It's a Muggle farm. I can't take-"
"Oh mercy." Lupin sighed. "You must promise me you won't... interfere... with them being safely and happily back with their rightful owner?"
"I promise! I promise I won't interfere. Now, show me!" she wailed. "PLEEASSE!! I simply must see my sweet little doggie... if but only for one final tear-stained farewell."
Lupin met her huge drippy eyes. She stared soulfully, pleadingly, through the thinning fringe of his sandy hair. With a stoic nod and sigh, he took her arm and began leading her down the front walkway, past the Hogwarts anti-Apparition wards.
A minute later, landing in the Yorkshire orchard, Lupin suppressed from his mind the dozen reasons why it was a bad idea to bring an erratic, loose cannon to a Muggle farm. Instead he focused on preparing her. "Sybill, we're only here for ten minutes — no longer. Now, let's disillusion oursel-"
"What the hell was that?!" Lupin let go of Trelawney's hand, accidentally dropping her onto the hard, caked-mud ground as he spun about to stare at the old barn.
Heedless to Trelawney's sputtering indignation, Lupin frowned. "Merlin — those were hexes!"
Blessed with the instincts of a long-time Order of the Phoenix operative, the Dark Arts Defence professor tore off toward the old barn. After a mad dash across the field, he was just slowing to a discreet approach pace, when someone burst from the building, nearly skidding straight into him.
"I asked if one of you blokes ordered a pizza?" Harry repeated to the bewildered trio. He had no idea if that sound of Apparition outside was good news or bad, but it had certainly confused the crap out of the three thugs.
Predictably, Crabbe Senior took the bait, peering toward the door. “D’uh? A pizz-?”
Harry's wand flashed out. "Expelliarmus!"
Crabbe Senior leaped, trying to catch his wand, but tripped on a fallen hoe and landed hard, knocking himself silly.
“Ehh…?” Trying to remember a good spell, Goyle Senior jabbed his wand toward Harry. “Stupidfl-?”
Goyle pitched forward, hit by Ginny's much snappier stunner. Seeing the wand slip from his grimy fingers, she lunged. "Accio w-"
"Protego!" Pettigrew's three-fingered hand swept up the falling wand in mid air, somehow managing to use it to deflect Ginny's summoning spell.
"Stupefy! Stupefy!" Ginny lashed Pettigrew with hexes as he raced for the door.
"Protego! Protego!" Despite his wimpy squeaks, the scruffy wizard blocked Ginny's spells, and escaped to the open pasture.
He didn't get far, though. Skidding to an abrupt halt, Peter Pettigrew very nearly ploughed straight into... Remus Lupin.
When Shaun had sped back to Mossy Bottom Farm to enlist his canine friend Bitzer's help, he had hoped to not involve the farmer, who would presumably be dead weight (at best). Bitzer was a stickler for the chain of command, however, and insisted on dragging his poor stumbling, uncomprehending, half-blind master across the darkening field.
To their annoyance, the farmer insisted on expressing his bewilderment through loud, unhelpful commentary. "Hooo... Eh, uh whuh? Ohhhhh."
Growling, Bitzer nipped the man's sleeve, tugging him along, urging him to keep pace with Shaun. The farmer's feet had just began shuffling forward again, when...
Man, dog and sheep all whipped to the right, peering in bafflement as two figures lurched to the ground near the edge of the orchard.
Watching the two intruders confer for a moment, the farmer scratched his chin. "Yeh. Uh, oi thahh?"
Leaping sideways at the sharp sudden noises, the farmer tripped over a yelping Bitzer and plunged head first into the crumbly soil, lifting his face just in time to hear another round of muffled shouts and other clatter coming from the neighbouring barn.
Shaun stared at the barn, then glanced back toward the orchard's two newest arrivals, one of whom was now sprinting for the barn. Squinting, Shaun recognised the man who had brought him home from the castle (friendly fellow, yet tinged an odd animal scent), followed at a much more tentative pace, by...
Oi! Bug Lady!!
Even in the setting twilight, Shaun knew those huge eyes! Caught in an open field with nowhere to hide, he ducked behind Bitzer...
"Doggie dear! Seraphina, sweets!"
"B'ehhh!" With Bug Lady blocking his route back to Mossy Bottom, Shaun broke for the barn.
"Come here, Celerita!" Confused at Shaun's flight, Trelawney's approach slowed. "Here Doggie. Doggie...?"
"Er, uh, whuh?" Standing up and scratching his head, the farmer looked at Trelawney. "Huhh-Oh."
Trelawney turned toward the man's unexpected voice, and found her eyes appraising his denim-clad form; his wildly clumpy hair; sideburns and jaw that went on forever. Staring straight into the thickest, goggiest pair of outdated spectacles she had ever seen, her hand rose slowly to her mouth.
"Bugger!" Pettigrew's pinched-face response to Lupin hardly counted as a sweet reunion. Backing up quickly, the scruffy wizard prepared to bolt.
"Peter? It's me — Remus!" Lupin lowered his wand; extending his left palm in a gesture of peaceful supplication.
Pettigrew glanced at the beckoning hand. For the barest moment, a flicker of pain crossed his shrewish, unpleasant face... Then he scowled and looked away.
"Peter, don't you recog-?"
Lupin stared, in shock, at what was now just thin air.
Harry and Ginny raced out of the barn, wands drawn, then pulled up short. "Professor Lupin!"
"Professor, did you see where that man went? He's a..." Ginny paused, her eyes scouring the field. "Sir, he's a crook. He works for Lucius Malfoy."
Lupin seemed frozen, perhaps registering Ginny's words, but not yet quite able to respond.
Frowning in puzzlement, Harry opened his mouth to make a second entreaty, but startled at the sight of fast-approaching wool.
"Mehh!" Running straight for Harry, Shaun gestured urgently back toward the doorway. "Mehh! Mehhh!"
Wide-eyed, Harry and Ginny turned and rushed back to the barn. Wands out, they re-entered, their gaze skimming over Lucius Malfoy and his two henchmen, all still slumped on the floor. Seeing no threat from that angle, they realised that Shaun's frantic gestures were directed toward the haystack, where-
Teetering about with a large snake wrapped around his torso and a furious duck pinned beneath one arm, Cecil Rosier looked the perfect idiot, but neither Harry nor Ginny laughed.
"Stupefy!" Harry's spell was quick and strong, but the instant it sprang from his wand, he knew something was wrong.
A sensation of ice stabbed Harry’s forehead. Horrified, he found his vision swirling, tunneling straight toward... the duck.
Bizarre sensations and images coursed through him.
Hatred — hard and cold.
Magic. Powerful Magic!
Piercing red-ember eyes, pinning him.
A distant memory. Shrieking, pitched laughter... a woman’s scream...
Caught up in the action, Ginny didn't notice Harry faltering. Instead, having seen his stunner somehow fly astray, she followed with a fierce Expulso, but it pinged away from Rosier as if deflected by a powerful, crisp shield. She stared in astonishment.
The duck's bizarre magic gave Rosier a split second reprieve to recover his wits. He glanced at his hand, blinked as he realised he had somehow recovered Malfoy’s wand, then hastily Disapparated.
"That filthy swine! How d-?!" Ginny suddenly realised that Harry had staggered to one knee. She reached for his arm. "Harry! Harry! Are you okay?!"
"Uh huh." Harry blinked and accepted Ginny's hand up.
Ginny glared at the empty hay stack. "Damn it, Harry — we had him! You saw his face — we’d caught him completely off guard! How could he possibly have gotten that bloody shield up so fast?!"
"I don't know." Harry rubbed his forehead. "I'm, er, kind of confused right now."
Ginny kicked an old plank in disgust. "That sod is slipperier than a greased Grindylow."
"He is. Greasy. Yeah." Harry shook the cobwebs out of his head and sighed. "Just Brilliant. We let a duck, a snake and one very greased geezer escape. Someone alert the Aurors."
"I just did, Harry." Lupin entered the barn, approaching his students. "They should be here momentarily. Now, what in the blazes is...?"
Lupin froze, gaping at the chaos — Messrs. Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle all lolled about on the floor; the cacophony of a dozen bleating sheep jumbled together in one wild, woolly heap. He shook his head "Merlin! You two work quickly, don't you?"
"Not fast enough, sir." Ginny bit her lip, dejectedly.
Harry exhaled wearily. "Too slow for that creep. He’s always a half step ahead."
It was late.
Exhausted from the wild action and the endless questions, Harry and Ginny were dutifully holding it together as they (once again) recited to Lupin their account of the strange confrontation. They paused as a tall, dark-complected Auror approached. He wore a very serious expression but, upon turning to face to the children, his eyes lit with a lively twinkle.
"Sorry to keep you waiting — I've actually been very eager to speak with you." Shacklebolt extended his hand to Harry and then to Ginny. "You've continued to generate rather a lot of work for me over the past while."
"Errr..." Harry shuffled his feet sheepishly but, when he looked up, Shacklebolt was grinning.
"It’s mighty good work, mates! If you keep me scurrying about on matters like this, we might finally expose some of the real dark plots lurking in the corners." The man beamed for a moment before a serious cast slid over his features again. "Unfortunately, tonight's incident has me baffled. Every instinct tells me something really foul was afoot here, but none of us can figure out what. At least we've collected some interesting clues, though."
"Oh?" Despite her fatigue, Ginny's eyes sparked with curiosity. "What sort of clues?"
"One moment, boss." Shacklebolt winked playfully, but became completely professional as he pulled out a scroll. "Clue number one — snake venom on the ground in the orchard, and a shattered vial of unicorn's blood in here. Residue suggests a very dark potion, quite unlike anything I've studied. I'll have to talk to an Unspeakable about it."
The children nodded, as Shacklebolt scrolled further down. "Clue number two — a strange wand." Glancing at Harry, he quirked his cheek curiously. "Son, one of the sticks you turned in has an odd history. Its last known owner was a wizard who was confirmed dead eleven years ago."
Frowning in puzzlement, Harry and Ginny waited for clarification.
"Eleven years ago yesterday, it was. I'm sure Remus remembers it vividly. As do I." Watching Lupin's face harden in torment, Shacklebolt shook his head. "Don't go leaping in the Horklumps, Remus. Pettigrew is dead. I should know — I personally conducted the autopsy on that sole finger they pulled from the crime scene."
"Finger...?" Harry's brow furrowed in thought, but neither adult noticed.
Shacklebolt turned away, thoughtful and subdued. "Let's think it through logically. It was Pettigrew's wand, and by all account the wizard who wielded it did look like him. So, what's the most likely explanation?"
"Errr..." Lupin pulled his thoughts back to task. "Perhaps somebody stole his wand years ago? Got ahold of an old hair sample, and is now polyjuicing him?"
Shacklebolt nodded, but Lupin scowled. "Why would anyone go to such trouble to impersonate Peter, though?"
"After all these years, why show his face on the very day you finally meet these two?” Shacklebolt raised an eyebrow, glancing at Harry and Ginny. “A distraction, maybe? Has it occurred to you that somebody might prefer that you not begin instructing the next generation? Perhaps someone who knows about your schoolboy days?"
"You mean, the Maraud-?" Lupin coughed. "I doubt it, Kingsley. You, Albus and Alastor are the only ones to know who was behind those exploits."
"Severus never figured it out?" Shacklebolt raised an eyebrow.
Lupin shook his head.
Shacklebolt's expression went stone serious. "What about Black, then?"
"Sirius?" Lupin paled. "Do... do you really think he’s somehow been contacting Malfoy?"
"I don't know." Shacklebolt glanced at the barn floor which was now devoid of stunned wizards. "I'd have given my big toe to interrogate Malfoy, but he's too tight with the Minister for me to grill."
"You let Malfoy go?" Ginny stared, aghast.
"I had to – he's too well connected. Sorry." Shacklebolt shrugged sheepishly. "I did question Crabbe and Goyle, but they know nothing. Literally. Maybe I’ll get something good off the Pettigrew wand, though. I'll run Prior Incantatem on it and let you, Harry and Professor Lupin know what I find."
The others nodded dispiritedly.
"Well, I'm knackered and there's little more to be done here, mates. Let's call it a night." Shacklebolt picked up his investigation portfolio, and was just taking his first step toward the door when Harry raised his hand. Shacklebolt stopped and smiled. "Yes Harry?"
Harry gazed back to the spot where Goyle had collapsed earlier. "What was it you said about doing an autopsy on a... 'finger'?"
"Finger?" Shacklebolt frowned. "Er, yes. That was the only part of Peter Pettigrew's remains large enough to identify. It was a horrific explosion."
"Finger!" Ginny gasped. "Harry, his hand!"
"Bingo!" Harry met her eye for a moment, then faced the two adults. "That short bloke who escaped — the one you thought might be someone polyjuiced as Pettigrew?"
The others nodded expectantly.
"He... he was missing a finger."
"We both saw it plain as day." Ginny clasped Harry's arm eagerly. "The scruffbag nicked Goyle's wand right out of the air. I remember saying to myself, 'Wow! Nifty move for someone with a maimed hand!"
Shacklebolt nodded very slowly, then turned to face Lupin.
"Missing finger?!" Lupin's jaw trembled as he stared through the open door out into the deep darkness. "But to polyjuice a maimed Pettigrew, someone would have had to collect a hair after he'd lost his finger in the explos..."
"Exactly!" Harry and Ginny both nodded vigourously.
"Impossible!" Shacklebolt stared at Lupin. "A blaze like that would have completely-"
Lupin slowly shook his head.
“Merlin’s marigold muffins...” Shacklebolt cleared his throat. "Er, Harry, Ginny? Do you suppose I could have a private moment with Remus before we all disperse?"
Harry and Ginny looked at Lupin and Shacklebolt curiously for a moment. Harry wasn't quite sure what had spooked the men so profoundly, or why they couldn't discuss it further in his or Ginny's presence. However, he was far too tired to argue, so he nodded. "Yes sir. Perhaps Ginny and I will get a spot of fresh air?"
"Thank you!" Shacklebolt flashed them a grateful grin. "Have a nice stroll."
"Yes, thank you." Lupin still looked unsettled, but he too mustered a quick smile. "I'll find you in a few minutes, and we can return to Hogwarts together."
Stepping past the barn’s lanterns into the crisp, still night, Harry and Ginny let their weary feet wander, angling randomly toward a grassy knoll to the west. Gazing toward Mossy Bottom Farm, they noticed several small, unusual glints of reflected moonlight. Squinting slightly, they spotted the source — two remarkably thick pairs of eye glasses.
In the quiet Yorkshire evening, Sybill Trelawney was holding the farmer's hand up to the silvery glow. Listening carefully, Harry and Ginny could hear their voices.
"... and this is your line of strength, and see how — oh! It crosses your heart line above the lucky sworl. You do know what that means, don't you?"
"Huh? Eh, ah nuh whuh..."
"No silly. It means that you are destined to find true love!"
"Meh? Nuh nuh, heh heh. Oh... Ohhhh!"
Quickly changing course to veer away from the unlikely paramours, Ginny smiled. "That is so sweet."
Harry scowled, muttering something under his breath.
"Harry Potter!" Ginny smirked. "Did you just use the word 'sickening'?"
Harry blushed — deeply enough for Ginny to notice, even in the low light.
Ginny laughed. "Okay, I suppose we could call it 'sickeningly sweet'?
"How about 'sweetly sickening'?" Harry chuckled. "But, hey. If the woman is happy, then maybe she'll stop predicting my imminent demise."
"Pah." Ginny took his hand. "Doesn't matter what she says, yeah? They couldn't get you before, and they're not about to do it now either. Not on my watch!"
Harry was about to arch one eyebrow in bemusement, but a glimpse of Ginny’s face told the other brow that it had better spike too... for the moonlight in the girl's eyes had a spark. A searing spark!
Harry's hand reached across, finding its intended place near the small of her back. One of Ginny's tiny hands landed at the base of his neck, urging him downward.
For the second time today, every fibre of Harry's soul drew him in, down, breathing a sweet nectar until he could almost taste-
"Ack!" Harry and Ginny leapt apart, wands out, scouring the darkness... and saw twelve pairs of wide eyes staring right at them — unblinking, inquisitive, and very ovine.
"BAH-h-h!" Hurrying up the hill to reign in his woolly-brained herd mates was a thirteenth pair of eyes, rolling in Shaun-like contrition. "M'ehhh."
Harry and Ginny laughed.
And with that, the moment was over, for Lupin was already emerging from the barn to escort them back to Hogwarts.
Yet, somehow even this latest setback seemed more funny than frustrating. Perhaps it was because they were young. Maybe they knew they still had lots of time to find the right time. So, despite the relentlessly abysmal timing of every rat, sheep, and Ron / Hermione intrusion into their lives, they somehow sensed they were blessed by destiny. And destiny always finds a way.
Smiling, they took each other’s hands, exchanged a final fond gaze, and began ambling back down the hill.
After a minute of silence, Ginny looked over to see a little sparkle in Harry's eye. She squeezed his hand. "A Knut for your thoughts, Harry?"
"Ah?" Harry chuckled softly. "Just letting my mind wander."
"Uh uh." Ginny shook her head. "I know your 'just letting my mind wander' look, and that wasn't it."
"Hmmm..." Harry scratched his chin. "That phrase sounds familiar. Haven't I heard it somewhere before?"
"No, you haven't." Ginny smirked. "Now answer the question."
Harry laughed. "Okay. I was wondering what excitement we missed at supper tonight."
"Supper?" Ginny coughed. "Er, yes. I'll be interested to hear how that all came off."
"What came off??" Harry's eyebrows went up. "You were supposed to tell me earlier but we got, uh, distracted."
"Well, you'll find out soon enough." Ginny gave him a devilish grin. "There'll be lots of stories circulating at breakfast."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, lots of scrambled and wildly sensationalised stories."
"Yes, the details can get a bit sketchy," Ginny admitted, skipping lightly. "A pity that."
"Er yes. Rather a pity. I always prefer to get information straight from the source."
"Yes, me too." Ginny began humming one of Luna's atonal melodies.
Harry did not begin humming. "Ahem."
"Yes Harry? Oh! You wanted me to tell you what I think might have happened?"
Harry coughed. "Er, yes?"
"Seriously? You're curious what could befall a slimy little Slytherin prat who thought he could get away with pranking Ginny Weasley's friends?"
Ginny gave him a serious look. "In strictly hypothetically terms of course."
"Er, yes." Harry nodded seriously. "Hypothetically speaking."
"Then I suppose you'd wonder, hypothetically speaking, how the prat could have been persuaded to lead a starry-eyed choir of Slytherins in a romantic ballad to Professor Snape?"
"But I doubt you'd be interested in the epidemic of, er, wardrobe malfunctions..."
Harry's jaw dropped.
"I'll have to tell you later." Ginny winked. "I reckon Professor Lupin has good hearing, and he's coming our way."