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The Road to Roundabout

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Dudley nowadays took up a good deal less space than he had done – his wife Elspeth, Millie’s Squib cousin and a born Matron, saw to that – but however much or little space he occupied, it had been his determination for some years to make certain it wasn’t wasted space.

Dudley was, simply, a safe pair of hands. Literally so: he’d no touch as a bowler, and, as a batsman, had earnt his Primary Club tie so many times over that it was jocularly suggested he ought to have removed to and played for Aylesbury, notable for ducks; but a succession of captains in the Elstead village Second XI had felt a satisfactory sense of security with Dudley keeping wicket (‘he’s not quick, but not much gets past him – well, around him: and when he’s not keeping, we can always use him for the screen’). And he was metaphorically a safe pair of hands, as well. When the incumbent wanted aid with the church accounts, when the Tithe Wall wanted a new warden, when the Foundation of the Voluntary Aided School – St James’s – wanted a governor, and, more recently, when Elstead wanted a Conservative councillor, it was to Dudley, already a Parish Councillor of long standing (Finance and Playgrounds committees), that his neighbours turned.

And that safe pair of hands was a pair of surprisingly gentle hands as well. The scarred hands with their battered, boxer’s knuckles were trained now to the confiding hands of children, his Harriet’s (named for her godfather and cousin) and those of successive generations of village children and schoolchildren; trained, also, to old roses, for which he was locally famous, and to the gentleness of cat and dog and pony as well. Yet they could turn to, could Dudley’s hands, when a neighbour was in want of an extra pair of hands for a garden wall or some brickwork or building in the Wealden ironstone, Horsham slab, Bargate stone, and flint: hands at once strong of grip and surprisingly delicate of touch, apt to galleting, sure of touch in building a surprisingly delicate pergola, and accustomed now also to carrying trays for Meals on Wheels without ever alarming – or bowling over – old ladies. And Dudley’s hands had in their time, for a good five years, assisted gently and soothingly in his widowed mother’s care, her wits gone with drear age and Vernon’s loss, and had closed her eyes for the last time when she had at last slipped querulously away, still protesting though intelligent speech had long left her.

Dudley was a safe pair of hands.

And he was a safe ear and a seeing eye and a still tongue, and his neighbours knew it. Although a foreigner and an incomer – from a place beyond even Farnham or Peper Harow, away and away North of the Thames, and not rightly in proper Surrey at all – Dudley had earnt the acceptance of his neighbours, from Pharo the poacher to Wing Commander Callingham, from Lovern the hedger to Cllr Hedger, from Smith the poulterer to Pullet the ironmonger-cum-smith. They knew him down the local and at vestry meetings alike, from appeals in behalf of Somerset Bridge to whist-drives in aid of the paper boats race; and they knew he spoke less than he knew, and heard more than ever he’d say. He was a safe and trusty man, and trusted the more.

Dudley moved, slow and sure as the sun in its diurnal course, as massive and as steady and as warm: from Milford Station whence he and his lady wife the formidable Elspeth took the up train to London (she at Great Ormond Street Hospital, he at its Foundation Trust) and returned, duty done; to the farm he’d bought out Tilford way, just within the parish boundaries, past Charleshill and Normanswood, Westwards of Thundry Meadows and the Three Barrows; and from Elstead Bridge and Somerset Bridge, to Monks Hill and clear across to Ockley Common, anywhere between Pot Common and Britty Wood. And day followed day in his diurnal course, the slow days of the River Wey by Mother Ludlam’s Cave; and Harriet went off to Hogwarts to give Hufflepuff House a sharp shake and some bracing tonic, and Dudley went his placid way.

Surely it had all been only yesterday, or the day prior.

Arthur and Ernie and Nev – Aberforth, as well, in his day – popped by, now and again, as everyone in Wizardom seemed to do (and fond as he and Elspeth were of Millie and of Millie’s Su, who was a Very Senior Healer Indeed at Mungo’s for all her deceptive fluffiness, Su, and thus Millie, did tend rather to make their visits a busman’s holiday: there was only so much shop and so many discussions of Muggle and Magical comparative medicine he, or indeed Elspeth, could bear, really); and Harriet’s namesake godfather, Cousin Harry, was a frequent visitor. Despite these irruptions of the Wizarding, Dudley’s and his family’s existence remained sane and placid. Even the pub-crawls, once in a way, with George and Nev, Arthur and Aberforth and Ernie, and Harry when he could he spared. (Wizarding rail and the Knight Bus were remarkable things, Dudley reflected, if queasy enough even were one sober; still and all, it meant there was never any drink-driving in Wizardom. And even the Knight Bus was to be preferred to Sobering Spells, as Dudley had learnt very early on indeed.) Thus Dudley moved with massive, stolid reliability through the years.

A further spasm of intestine violence shook Wizardom; crises upended all the old Muggle certainties as the years passed. Arthur died in sere age, as all men must; Harry’s Ginny died untimely. Al and Scorpius contracted a civil union that was a marvel of stability – it seemed only yesterday, to Dudley, that he’d nipped in the bud (he was always a careful pruner) any tendency of Jamie’s to bully, by teaching Al and Scorp alike, two summers before Hogwarts, to box – and Harry, like many of the widowers and widows who had survived the shock of war and the aftershocks that followed, also found a second love. Harriet’s forever-bestie, her cousin Lily, rampaged on, agelessly, flourishingly; Harriet married, and her son with Simon (a very worthy fellow, whom Dudley approved: Harriet had seen far too much of the eligible Wizards of her generation who were her connexions, growing up, to consider any of them in the light of suitors without breaking down in gales of laughter) – her son, then, had been inevitably named for his surrogate all-but-grandfather, Arthur: young Artful, as the family could not but call him, was himself now a pink-and-white one-pipper, a subaltern of Aurors.

Dudley, remembering, smiled. It seemed only last week that the lad was larking happily, muddy and damp amidst the ducks.

Then again, it seemed only yesterday that Hermione Weasley, with hardly any grey in her untameable mane, had turned up on Harry’s doorstep, by all accounts, afire with zeal and certain that Something Must Be Done….

To the timeless sounds of TMS upon the wireless (Test sides come and go, good men die, but cricket and Lord’s – and cakes for the TMS commentators – go on forever), Dudley dozed.

_______________________________

Harry’s face was, to one who had known him as long and well as had Dudley: had known him before he had been the Chosen One, the Hero in Training, the Hero Conquerant; had known him when he was small and ragged and bullied and ill-treated, and had had a hand in the bullying and unkindness, for which, Dudley had resolved, he should spend his life atoning: Harry’s face, to one who knew him as Dudley knew his cousin, was an open book, wherein men might read strange matters, for all his military, Auroral imperturbability in his maturity.

And just now, to Dudley’s keen familial eye, Harry’s face was the face he wore when Hermione Weasley was chivvying him: indeed, harrying and harassing him.

‘Tea? And you may have biscuits.’ It was one of Dudley’s crosses to bear that Elspeth, as well as being a stern Matron devoted to her family’s health, was also a dab hand at baking. She’d made Viennese whirls just the day prior, pastry that might have come from a Strauss score, and the damned things were mocking him, smugly, from the kitchen. Elspeth always wished to feed Harry – most people did, women and Witches alike, and a few old sybarites such as Horry Slughorn as well – and Dudley, for his part, should be best pleased did Harry eat the lot, rather than leave them to taunt Dudley.

Harry settled into a sturdy chair, as comfortable as any laid on by Cardinals Fang and Biggles, and sighed. ‘Thank you, D. A cuppa and some biscuits; and possibly a pint down the Woolpack, before we’re done.’ Even thus relaxing, Harry was evidently taut as a bowstring, and as ready to be loosed against any threat.

‘Ah. Hermione must be in rarer tear than ever. Oh, don’t look at me, I know when your academic sister-in-law’s been at you.’

He poured out as Harry summoned the biscuits.

‘What threat to the security of the realm has she spotted this time?’

Harry slanted half a grin his way, swiftly disposed of a biscuit, got stuck in to his cuppa, and then sat back.

‘She’s been looking at maps again.’

Dudley shook his head. ‘You and Millie go another round over ley lines, did you?’

Harry and Millicent had sparred for years over the whole theory of ley lines: an intellectual dispute – Harry had, after all, been considered by the Hat for Ravenclaw as much as for the other Houses, and he did, after all, have his MMA and DMag in Wizarding Military History from Domdaniel – in which Elspeth and Dudley had wisely remained neutral, pleading Squib-cum-Muggle disinterest (and uninterest, come to that). It was, actually, Dudley considered, an interesting issue; but not when it pitted his cousin and his wife’s cousin against one another in friendly but brutal academic debate. Millie believed in leys; Harry’s opinion was, robustly (and robustly expressed), that, Damn It All, It Was All Utter Balls, and ‘it’s the Roman Floo network, damn it all, that’s all. Based wholly on earlier military surveying, pre-Roman – Christ, the sappers and signallers never get any credit, do they’: an argument in which the wise did not involve themselves.

‘Worse than that,’ said Harry. ‘Dearly as I love Hermione, she’s a ruddy menace, half the time. She’s convinced herself that there’s a thurs hereabouts.’

Dudley, naturally, neither knew nor cared about Anglo-Saxon demonology; but Dudley, naturally, Knew His Country.

‘What – oh, because of Thursley?’

‘Got it in one.’

‘And what’s a “thurs”, then, when it’s at home?’

‘A demon, Norse or Saxon variety, common or garden devil.’

‘Rubbish,’ said Dudley, roundly. ‘We’ve a Thursley – not a bad pub there, by the way – and a Thursley Reserve, and a Thursley Common, for the same reason we’ve a Tuesley, the far side of Milford, Thor and Tiw and all that lot.’

Harry smiled, fondly. ‘You’re not as thick as you once liked to pretend.’

‘A man wants to be sharp to keep up in this family. Never mind Elspeth – or you – Harriet’s a rare terror. I’ve wanted to get up to speed, sharpish, just as much as not being thick ’round the waist any longer.’

‘Mm. You were always sharper than you seemed, though. And I’m glad to call you kinsman – now. You don’t take up half the space you did, but you’re not a waste of space, you know, and I’m happy to attest to that.’

Dudley made an indeterminate sort of noise in his throat, and poured out a second cuppa.

‘The real point, D, is this. You – like me – have become, in some sort, what we weren’t in Little Whinging: countrymen. I know my country. You know yours. That’s why you were my first resort: you may or mayn’t know the very oldest lore hereabouts, but I make damned sure you know all that wants knowing over the past few generations. No: I know you, and I’ve seen you with your neighbours. They talk to you – damn it, they like you, and trust you, as well they sodding ought to do. I’d go bail you know more of your parish than a few folks who’ve been here-’round since the Year Dot. Possibly more even than I know of Griffin Priors, or Pottersfield, or ETS: you’ve the merit of not, quite, being also the local squire, for your sins. So: any chance of a thurs in your manor, then?’

Harry flicked a negligent wand, and a map appeared, spectral, before them: an OS map, overlain with the Auroral Survey map of the same area. Dudley saw nothing on it that was alarming, and little enough that was new, even to Muggle eyes. (Elspeth, had matters been left to her, had made country rambles a brisk, Matron’s walk from point to point; it was Dudley, who, with other RSPB members and all sorts, rambled, although briskly enough that his one caloric indulgence – down the pub – was permitted by his wife.)

‘Well, what ought I to have seen, if there were a thurs, then?’

‘Buggered if I know. Don’t forget, it was Hermione put this up, and even after all these years in OSC, she’s not and never shall be a countrywoman: there are no books in the out of doors, after all. And – well, you know Hermione. The countryside’s a threatening place to her, even in this age. She has no choice, being a Witch, but to believe in ghosts, and Beings, and, if ghosts, the immortality of the soul; but she won’t believe that the countryside has ever been lustrated, exorcised, or baptised. She’s the sort of woman who can believe in the Devil, but in neither Creed and none of the Thirty-Nine Articles.’

‘So she is, poor old thing. Well.’ Dudley peered intently at the map that floated between them, translucently. ‘South of Thursley, there’s Highcombe Bottom, Beacon Hill, Gibbet Hill, Hindhead Common, and the Devil’s Punchbowl; but there’s nothing in that. Jimmy Hillyer’s granddad always believed he’d seen a ghost swinging from a gibbet on Gibbet Hill, but it wasn’t, it was smugglers and their tricks: the more people thought the place haunted, the better, was their way of thinking. It always preyed a bit on Jimmy’s old dad’s mind, that his father’d got a shock that way, but George Hillyer was the one doing the smuggling – and it wasn’t drugs, I’ll have you know, not with George: he was one of our bloody sidesmen, after all: it was fags and bulk baccy, and French booze, up the same old route from the Sussex coast as they’d used for centuries for the same ruddy stock in trade: damn nearly the old Roman Road from Chichester that parallels the B2141, through the Mardens, and then back through wooded country to Black Down and sneaking past Haslemere – and, well, a man doesn’t like to leave his old father in mortal fear, but, damn it, if Francis Hillyer hadn’t been out poaching to begin with….’

Dudley sighed at the folly of mankind.

‘And if Frank Hillyer’d not’ve wished his son to be a smuggler, he oughtn’t’ve married a Russell from down Sussex way, really. In the blood, after all. Nearer Thursley … no, I can’t see it. Worst that’s ever happened in Wormley – dragons or no dragons in the old days – is the train’s always bloody late: Witley Station, good God, there’s a reason there’s a donkey sanctuary in Sandhills, honestly - they’re simply chronic; and if Bowlhead Green’s haunted, I’m a Wizard. There are tumuli in the Witley Common wood, t’other side of French Hill, and I know there are people’d swear that there are – well, Good Folk: you know – there, who’ll loan you things if you ask in the right fashion, but that’s all rubbish, at least nowadays, and it wouldn’t be what you were after in any event. No, the only thing I know against Millhanger, French Hill, and the Pond Bays, is, old Tilson used to get up to shocking things thereabouts at certain phases of the moon –’

‘Werewolf? Or – serial killer?’ Harry’s tone was rather sharp.

‘Don’t you believe it. Rabbits. Pheasants, too, I shouldn’t wonder. Bless you, I don’t mind some reasonable poaching, but the man was immoderate with it; damned nearly did the District ’round out of bunnies, and amidst Reserves and AONBs and SSSIs and all. And. Lord, did his old cottage pong with it. No … if anyone’d heard voices in the wood, it’d’ve been old Tilson – unless he was the voice, to drive some fools away when he was pegging snares for the stewpot – and as for the People of the Hills, he’d have shot at them if ever he’d seen them, so that no one’d be tramping up to ask the loan of a kettle or some damn thing on nights he was out poaching.

‘And as for Foldsdown, Wheeler’s Farm, Smallbrook, and Dye House, the only thing I know of, really, that happened thereabouts that left everyone unsettled and uncomfortable, was when they found the youngest Bagget girl dead in the wood. Very nasty, that: the stoats had been at her. Now, I know what you’re going to say –’

Harry smiled, and settled himself more comfortably in his chair. If Dudley knew that, he knew more than Harry did; but it was a pleasure, even in speaking of old tragedies and mischances, to see Dud so informed and passionate.

‘– but she’d have grown out of that foolishness soon enough: sooner, if her parents hadn’t been such bloody fools. Some strict Dissenting sect or other: well, of course she was as Muggle as I am – alright, more so, as you insist I’m a Squib like Elspeth – and, if you and I know there are Witches and Wizards even in the Home Counties, she, and her parents, had no more idea … I mean, it’s steep enough for me to credit that there are magical folk who can take a Green Line bus or the Southern up train to Town. Well, we all of us rebel when we’re young, don’t we, and for all her silliness, she didn’t work evil or try to do, and she was a Muggle, she could never have become a Witch no matter what balls she chanted. And –’

‘Had she run away from the strict parents?’

‘As far as one can do. I mean, it wasn’t a flight followed by murder or misadventure, it was a suicide right enough. But I don’t see that it wants a haunting to push a rather silly and unhappy young woman to that, even if her damn-fool parents hadn’t been tin-chapel sorts, narrow as two pins. And it was certain that poor Will Hack hadn’t any more to do with it than his stumbling across the body. Mind, he was banged up all the same.’

‘Why was that?’

‘Well … he did the right thing, ringing up PC Plod, did Will, but he really hadn’t a good reason for being where he was, when he was. He’s at HMP Spring Hill now, unless they’ve been more careless than commonly.’

‘Poaching again?’

‘Hack? Oh, no. He had his own little game. Stole cats. Ordinary, household moggies. Not a word of a lie – and don’t you sit there sniggering over your Oolong. He. Stole. Cats. And then, of course, people will pay to get their cats back, nine times in ten. He’d been at it for years, and never been nicked – or shopped. Why, folk thought he was a Good Samaritan with a way with lost animals – they did, really. I expect he’d’ve got away with it this time, bar that he was so nervous when he rang up the cozzer-shop, he gave a false name, and it rather grew from there…. So they ended up charging him: no one thought he’d anything to do with the death, and the cat-stealing hadn’t come to light, not then, but you can still get done for perverting the course of justice in this country, and quite right, too. A false name is one thing – well, it’s wasting police time – but trying to pass yourself off as the landowner … I ask you. The girl’s body was actually found within the National Nature Reserve. But Hack – although very good at stealing cats, which I imagine is more difficult than you’d think – is fairly daft, otherwise. His uncle was definitely a bit off: went about biting trees. Only willows, mind: he was a bit odd, but he wasn’t barking.

‘I expect he’ll be out soon, though, Hack, and that’s as well: daft he may be, and not to be trusted with cats, but he’s the best man in three parishes for galleting work, and there’re any number of half-finished walls and what not, waiting on him. They do have vocational things at Spring Hill, I hear, so perhaps he’s profited by it all.’

Harry carefully didn’t smile. He understood. ‘And coming further Northwards?’

‘Well, I can’t see any difficulties there. Managed access land, much of it – we mayn’t have any Army to speak of nowadays, but the MoD do insist on keeping all the land they’ve snaffled up over a few millennia. Houndown, of course, has a bit of a reputation: that’s where Old Mother Wisdom shot the Methodist parson in the leg.’

‘Poor shooting for a poacher-wife.’

‘Not at all, she meant to pink him. She’d always taken theology seriously, had Annie Wisdom. Now, I don’t say Yagden Hill’s not a queer place, and some of our folk are decidedly odd, but –’

Harry relaxed yet further, letting Dud’s survey of the country ’round wash over him like the balm of a Summer day’s TMS commentary. Hermione’s reason maintained, and her heart of hearts never acknowledged, that people were redeemable; Ron believed that people could change and grow – Percy, for one – but never would admit it until cornered; yet for Harry – doing the job of work that he did do for the Crown-in-Moot, and with all his past behind him – it was a delight to acknowledge that his cousin, at least, had become a decent chap, who was not only not a waste of space, but a positively good man. Like Dumbledore before him, Harry felt it was this potential in humanity that made the fights worth fighting and the wars worth waging – and winning.

‘– Gammer Gatcum. Simply shrieking at them for a gate left open – which, fair enough, the Countryside Code. And I don’t mind someone’s shouting at ministers and MPs: ought to be more of it, frankly. But not in front of foreigners. The old besom wasn’t daunted, mind, and deaf as a post, to boot: you couldn’t convince her that the visiting Italian Ag-Food-and-Forestry Minister wasn’t an ice-cream man from Farnham or Guildford or London Town, “mucking about the countryside with his flash pals and not sense enough to close a gate, even if he were a bleeding townie”: rather embarrassing. But not out of character, and she’d the right of it, far as the opened gate went: I don’t think it wanted demonic possession to get her screeching at the silly buggers.

‘Thursley itself – well, Saxon demons or no Saxon demons, St Michael’s is a Saxon church, with a preserved Saxon window. And as for the Standing Stone on Thursley Common, all I can say is, it’s always been Thor’s stone in legend.’

‘And?’

‘Well, it would be, wouldn’t it. Hammer Pond, after all. And all the ramblers seem to come to no harm – which is more than I can say for Pot Common, nearer home, and the wood near Red House Farm. Tich – well, he’s put away safe now. Still writing letters to the Lord Chancellor claiming the throne, but of course, they don’t post them for him, not where he is. And it wasn’t any old Saxon devil drove him ’round the twist: Tich’d never been quite right in the head since he came upon his mum hanging in the wood by Guinea Common, when he was just about twelve or so. That was a bad business. The coroner would have it that it was suicide, and Detective Superintendent Croucher ran everyone ragged from Haslemere to Farnham trying to find the ex-husband – Tich’s dad, for a marvel: his mum, poor thing, had a full tale of children, but most of ’em out of wedlock – D/Supt Croucher was certain it was a murder, which it was, and that Jack Lamport had done it, which he had not: it was her last-but-one gentleman friend had done it, a young bugger – then: younger’n Betty Lamport, certainly – from away off in Woking. Betty did spread her favours widely. Iqbal Something-or-Other. By the time they’d caught up with him, mind, there was nothing to collar: he’d got religion after he’d broken it off with her, which is one thing, but the religion he’d got … well. Hanged her to appease his own conscience, which strikes me as odd, but, there, I’m C of E so far as I’m anything; then set out to become a martyr. Did do, too, if you count a martyr as someone so cack-handed he blows himself up, trying to build a bomb. Khan, that was it: Iqbal Khan. Oh, our best opener was furious: Umair Butt – lovely batsman, he was, splendid action: play a scoop shot as easy as kiss your hand – he was livid. Felt the bugger’d let the side down. If Khan hadn’t been either caught or blown up first, I think Umair’d’ve gladly beaten him to death with his bat.’

‘Not, you’d say, the instigation of the Devil, for Chummy Khan?’

‘Not any Saxon devil, at any rate. And as for Elstead proper, I’d pity the thurs that tried anything on within Elspeth’s reach, let alone Harriet’s. Or Rector, for that matter. Do you know, we once had a clergyman on strength named “Tuck”? No word of a lie: Andrew Simon Charles Tuck, DD (Cantab). Jolly bugger, too: laughed harder about his name than anyone. We were all of us relieved, all the same, he’d a doctorate; our Rural Dean in those days had a terrible habit of spoonerism (the Archdeacon was once so exasperated he called him the Dean of God-damning), and whilst that’s all right with “Doctor Tuck”, it was fraught with danger whether you called him, jesting, as “Friar”, or called him as “Father” like the little old women whiffy on incense insisted on doing.

‘And after Elstead, well, you’re into Peper Harow to our Eastwards, and Gatwick North’ards, and Farnham and all sorts away beyond the old Abbey, West of here. And before you get to that, just you tell Hermione Clever-clogs, there’s Thundry Farm and Thundry Meadows and the alder carr and the mere.’

Ah.

‘Yes. I can’t do magic to save my life, as well you know, but – so long as I kept a chapter ahead – I could at least help Our Harriet with her Runes, in the long vac. between First and Second Year, and I did do. Call him Thor or call him Thunor, it’s the Thunderer the old pagan buggers named the landscape for, not any damned thurs. She’s clever as a sack of weasels, is Hermione –’

Harry manfully stifled a whoop of laughter at Dud’s unconscious pun – if it were unconscious – and privately resolved never to mention it to Hermione. Or Ron.

‘– but she’s not to be let out without a keeper outside a library, if a man as thick as I am can see that and she can’t.’

_______________________________

‘… really a lovely cake, and – I don’t think we’ve ever had a cake from the wife of a Rural Dean before? The statisticians would know. And the drinks interval is over, now, and England resume on 398 for four….’

_______________________________

Harry had made his way home, assured; and even the discovery, upon reaching home, that Hermione had completely changed her mind, had not unduly exasperated him. (She had decided, whilst he was taking tea with Dud, that the place-names of Waverley Borough indicated neither a thurs nor Thor, after all, but rather an early, Romano-British dedication to Dionysus (and his thyrsus as his attribute) and whatever di indigetes corresponded to poor old Fufluns-Bacchus-Dionysius in an interpretatio celtica … Harry had deduced, correctly, the imminence of yet another thumping great volume from Hermione’s quill, which he should feel compelled to praise, and, worse far, to have first read.)

Even so, the time, he had felt, had not been wasted. Dud was not a bad sort, nowadays, was even a good sort, and Harry was – nowadays – always glad to see his cousin. More than that, however, it had occurred to Harry that Dud – and others of his sort: Squibs and Muggles who knew of the Wizarding world and knew, also, all there was to know of their neighbours and their own bits of country – could be a very useful resource, a network to cultivate. (Justin’s father, for example: the Old Major very much met the specifications, Harry had confided.)

From this, much was to follow.


_______________________________

‘… very flat, lifeless, really. The spirit seems to have gone out of the visitors.’

_______________________________

Not even Elspeth had demurred, over the course of their married life, when Dudley went down the pub: not even when he was as friendly and kindly with farmers and poachers and labourers as with GPs and solicitors and highly respectable greengrocers. (After all, as she well knew, poachers had the same rights as the Rector to vote for the PCC and the Borough councillors.) Elspeth was no fool: she knew that this one caloric indulgence did Dud no harm, as he walked it off, commonly in rambling with the same neat, spry, wary countrymen with whom he drank his pints; and, as she well knew, he learnt a good deal through it all, not least for the garden and, later, the farm, and was a far more satisfied man, as he dug himself badger-like into the country and the life of the land, than ever had been his ghastly father, poor old bugger. When it came to it, Elspeth’s entire approach to their married life was to keep Dudders from becoming another Vernon without herself becoming a second edition of her perfectly horrid mother-in-law; and all was grist to her mill in that particular cause.

Nor had Dud restricted himself to trenching in to the lore of Elstead CP and its adjoining parishes; he’d done the same in the Forest of Eversley, around Hartley Wintney and Phoenix Green, West Green, Dipley, and Hazeley Bottom, where her own people dwelt. Particularly as regarded his reputation for roses and soft fruit, he was welcomed gladly by all sorts and conditions, there, from Gatfields to Cornishes, Silvers to Souths, Appletons to Treachers; and at the other end of the county, down Boorley Green and Curdridge way, nigh to Southampton, old Colonel Fubster, in his last years, had always quite liked to see Dud and Elspeth and Harriet: the Colonel felt that he and Dudley had this in common, that they both had suffered the unpleasantness of knowing Dudley’s ghastly Aunt Marge.

And, of course, with Harry taking an interest in Dudley’s making a countryman of himself, there was, Elspeth knew, nothing else to be done than to encourage it, in any case.

_______________________________

Dudley and Elspeth had long put the cottage garden forward for the National Gardens Scheme (they were both well aware that its origins were in an appeal in aid of district nurses, well before ever the National Health had been thought of); when they acquired Cross Mead Farm as well, it, also, threw itself open to the punters for the NGS show-days. There was a great deal of good fellowship in it – and a goodish amount of naked, cutthroat competition as well. Elstead, Milford, Thursley, and Tilford were very much stuffing with NGS participants, which was all very well; but there were a few New Age types whom Dudley suggested Harry keep an eye on.

‘Bless, I don’t care if they like to build Native American sweat-lodges and worry about their bloody chakras and what not, bloody un-British though it is,’ had said Dudley, ‘but when it comes to re-apparitions of Dodman’s Fair, well, I do wonder what, precisely, is growing in some of their raised beds.’

‘“Dodman’s Fair?”’ Harry had been amused, but inquisitive all the same. From Elstead in Surrey to Dipley, Hants, Dud did know his onions (and his agapanthus, and his calendulas, his dahlias, and his salvia); and Harry knew as well as did Dud, that any manner of thing might lurk behind an early Lutyens façade, and any follower of Gertrude Jekyll turn into Hyde.

‘Dead Man’s Fair, it was, until people felt it unlucky to say so quite that clearly. Waterloo year, they say it was, when it was first seen; over Tilford way, nigh to Sheephatch. Gully Daborne’s great-grand-aunt saw it, once; but I say it was smugglers, or Romany, or both together. Hadn’t been seen since Mafeking Night, or – if you’re fool enough to believe Bernard Blackman, which I’m not: greatest liar in the parish – since the Berlin Wall fell … until now.’

And Harry had had it quietly looked into, and found that there were a few things being grown that oughtn’t to have been, some scheduled by the Muggle police and others dangerous if an unscrupulous Simpler or Potions-maker were to get them in his hands; and Harry had considered, rightly, that his cultivation of Dud, and others situated as Dud was, was paying off nicely – as well as being, in Dud’s case, a positive familial pleasure.

Besides which: he liked Dud, as Dud now was, and he liked having family who weren’t his own in-laws and his own getting, and, what was more, he liked the taciturn fellows Dud knew and liked, with their weathered faces and knack of hand: they were the sort of folk he knew and liked in his own country; and if he was always at a remove from them, a trifle, here in Dud’s country, even with Dud vouching for him, outsider as he was, he was no less at one irreducible remove from their counterparts in his own country: for there, at the end of the day, they were the men, and some of them not above a bit of poaching (not that Harry gave a damn, but it had spoilt their fun had he acknowledged it: poaching nowadays was less about food or even sport than it was and had long been about the pleasure of outwitting the Landed Gentry), and he, inevitably, an officer, a gentleman, a magistrate, and one of the principal persons of consequence in the County. And what they, and Dud, didn’t know about real ale, real cider, and what pub had the best grub, wasn’t worth knowing, which was another and very material reason to hold in with them.

That last consideration, naturally, did not inhibit Harry in the least from jovially barracking the local real ale, and still more the local real cider, from his West Countryman’s plane of superiority: in which he got as good as he gave. (Harry was never to forget the slow, solemn fashion in which old Bert Glasspool had mused, to no one in particular, ‘Aye. I been into the West Country oncet, far as Somerset. Cheated me proper over a pair of wellies, they did. I ’spect as how the bugger as sold ’em to me were one o’ they small cider-makers as a sideline.’ It had been all Harry and Dud could do not to laugh, hearing what might so easily have been a line from Aunt Andromeda’s revered Kipling come out pat in conversation down the Bells.)

And Harry remembered, also, how dear old Wg Cdr Callingham, a very honest angler, now with God, had kept his countenance as long as he might do, when he had chanced to hear that Al and Scorp had announced their impending civil union.

Harry was by that time a shockingly youthful brigadier so far as the Muggles were concerned – Wg Cdr Callingham had ascribed this to the usual inwardness of Int Corps, to which mob the Muggles universally ascribed Harry – and Callingham quite liked Harry, and Dud still more, and Harriet best of all, so he was in any case going to be polite. By now, Draco had stopped in Elstead often enough for everyone to be used to him (and, as Harry was understood to be Int Corps and Draco to work for ‘the Ministry’, he was universally regarded as precisely what one should suspect of ‘some damned paper-pushing, never-at-the-sharp-end MoD senior civil servant’, which sufficed, to the Muggle mind generally and to Wg Cdr Callingham’s in particular, to explain the mutual needling in which Harry and Draco should never cease to engage).

‘Ah. Harry. Dudley. And – Malford, isn’t it.’ They were all used to the natural Muffliato that obscured the odder Wizarding names to Muggle ears: Callingham was to go to his grave believing that Arthur, and Harry’s late wife, and Ron, were all of them Wellesleys. ‘We’ve not seen much of you of late, Harry – nor of Malford, here: rather less. Ministry keeping you on the hop? They generally do: saving Malford’s presence, the file-wallahs couldn’t find the bog-roll to wipe their arses without calling in help from the Services in the field, as a rule.’

‘Oh, far worse than that, Nigel,’ said Harry, efficiently getting the next round for all four of them. ‘Malford here’s on the verge of becoming my in-law.’

‘Good Lord: congratulations all ’round. My shout, next round – I insist. Well, here’s to the happy couple. Lily’ll make a smashing bride.’

‘So she shall,’ said Harry, with a wry smile, ‘when she marries. It’s Al who’s for the high jump, actually.’

‘I’m sorry, Malford, I didn’t realise you’d a daughter.’

‘I haven’t.’ Draco smiled, equally wryly. ‘I’ve the one son, full stop.’

‘Ah. A health then to both the lads.’ Wg Cdr Callingham was as imperturbable as the best traditions of the RAF prescribed. ‘May they be very happy.’

‘Positively gay, in fact,’ said Draco, wickedly. ‘I imagine Potter’s rejoicing: it’s his spare, not his heir, after all, and I make quite certain he’s happy enough to get my only child – and his expectations – into his fold. And his property portfolio, the mercenary bugger. You always were a warm man, Potter.’

Harry chortled, and made it clear in his reply (as Wg Cdr Callingham was by now looking a trifle perturbed for all his RAF training) that this was badinage. ‘Good thing for you I’m not: as prices go, having you as my second son’s father-in-law is too steep for anything.’

‘Piffle,’ said Draco. ‘You’ll be shoving Lils at me next, for my second.’

‘Oh, really, Malford, I don’t bear you that amount of ill will.’

Dud took pity on his friend and neighbour. ‘I’d not say it save amongst us four, but there’s but one thing more frightening than my goddaughter, and that’s yours, Cousin Harry. Harriet’s her mum all over again. And thank Heaven for that – imagine had she taken after me.’

Draco, who shared with Dud the character of a reformed bully dedicated to quiet penance, laughed. ‘Either had done my boy a power, as they say, of good, but I expect young Al shall keep him up to the mark as well. When I think of the colours my father should have turned had he been alive to hear of it….’

‘And Dad – well, we’d’ve heard him from here,’ said Dud. ‘Which tells me one thing.’

And he and Draco, in unplanned unison, said as much: ‘The boys must be making the right choice.’

‘Snap.’ Harry turned confidingly to Nigel Callingham. ‘My uncle and Malford’s father were both of them bad, mad, and dangerous to know.’

‘Ah,’ said Wg Cdr Callingham, stoutly. ‘It’s through your mothers, isn’t it, that you and Dudley are cousins: clearly an excellent family, as you’ve both, if I may say so, shaped damned well. Malford, your son’s landed on his feet with these Evans descendants – I knew an Evans myself, Group Captain when I was a fledgling, you know: one of The Few in his youth; a damned sound man. Your boy’s, um, marrying well, whatever people’s grandfathers should have thought.’

‘Do you know,’ said Draco, with a smile, ‘I rather think he is, at that. Same again all ’round?’

Naturally, news of this magnitude could hardly help but run through the countryside, in Dudley’s Elstead and Elspeth’s bit of Hants as in Harry’s West Country holdings; and it was not a surprise, but no less a pleasure for all that, that Dud’s humbler friends – and, by extension, Harry’s – took it as much in stride, if not more so, than had the conscientiously supportive Wing Commander.

Indeed, from the Bells to the Horseshoes to the Old Duke, everyone seemed to have heard and everyone took time to express to Harry, or to Dud in Harry’s absence, their best wishes for Al and The Malford Boy; and when Harry and Dud were arguing over the merits of the local real cider in the best pub in Churt – they’d been rambling the Devil’s Jumps, ostensibly birding and in fact verifying for the Ministry that Kettlebury Hill was quiescent – the Parish Clerk; Tilbury the machine-smith; and Fullacre the hire-car chap, were all quietly congratulatory, without fuss. After the three had taken their leave of Dud and Harry and moved on to the darts, the elderly man at the bar, few paces away, had tottered over.

‘Evening, Mr Oakford.’

‘Ah, Mr Dursley. And this be your cousin, ain’t he, whose son’s getting married.’

‘Indeed, yes. Harry, this is Mr Oakford, and what he doesn’t know about things hereabouts, isn’t worth knowing.’

The old man smiled, faintly.

‘How do you do, Mr Oakford. I’m Harry Potter. What’s yours? A pint of mild for my friend Mr Oakford, Sally, if you will. Thank you. Yes, Mr Oakford, Al’s saying the hard word in month’s time.’

‘Good luck to him, sir, and your very good health.’

As he drained his pint slowly, Dudley remarked, ‘Mr Oakford’s people have farmed hereabout since, oh, King Alfred’s time, I should think, isn’t that so, Mr Oakford?’

‘A mort of years, Mr Dursley, a mort of years. And we’ve seen a lot, staying nigh to where we were borned. Not but a few of us over the years has gone a far bit in foreign parts, as sodgers – like you, Brigadier – and sailormen and all sorts. No smugglers as I know on, but them as know don’t rightly tend to say, do they? I been as far as Chichester once myself, and that were enough for me, bar my Terrier days. A farm don’t look after itself without you be there to look after en.’

‘That’s so, Mr Oakford,’ said Harry, ruefully. ‘Not that the Ministry ever leave me in peace to tend my own.’

‘Ah. That’s Lunnon for ’ee: allus interfering. I hears as you was out on the heath, today, and over the Jumps.’

‘So we were, Mr Oakford.’

‘Ah. Well, I’m none so young as I were, but I’ve kept spry for all that. And there’s a bit of moon tonight. If so be as you don’t mind, there’s summat on our heath I’d like main well to shows ’ee.’

‘That’s very obliging of you, Mr Oakford. We await your commands.’

The old farmer chuckled. ‘Ah, now, I were never one to command, Brigadier – weren’t but a private when I were a Terrier.’

‘Queen’s?’

‘Yes, sir, that I were. Tigers, now, PWRR, but it were Queen’s in my day, all proper Surrey and Hampshire lads we were.’

‘Damned fine regiment. Let me see, in your day the TAVR II component would have been – what, the 6th/7th (Volunteer) Battalions?’

‘Yes, sir. That we were.’

‘Then I have even less reason not to put us wholly in your hands, Mr Oakford. Lead and we shall follow.’

He did, and they did, through Crossways, with their backs to Frensham Great Pond, in the twilight, past the Mill and into Flat Wood above the Whitmoor Vale, and the springs that fed the infant South Branch of the River Wey. Mr Oakford, for all his years, had the strength of the oak in him, and the sure step and quiet inwardness and subtle motion of a man who spends his days in the open, if not his nights in wood and covert.

‘Ah,’ said Mr Oakford, at last. ‘Here we be.’

In a small glade, hidden alike from road and path, and surrounded largely by conifer plantations in this part of the otherwise mixed wood, stood a hornbeam and a beech, their trunks entwined as if sprung from a single root, and both ancient beyond measure and belief.

Dudley spoke first. ‘Mr Oakford, I’ve heard of this, but no one has ever seemed to know where to find it.’

‘Not many does, Mr Dursley. Not many does. You’ll ha’ heard the story, no doubt, of the Caistors and the Pollockses, and how their eldest sons, as was to have the farms, run away – to sea, everyone thought. But my mum, she were a Caistor. And I talked it over, years agone, with Old Rector – he were a very learned man: they did say he never could get drunk but on Greek wine at Squire Maidman’s – and I knows better. Mebbe it’s why as I found it when other folks didn’t. There wasn’t never no Caistor lad nor yet any Pollock as runned away to sea, no, nor vanished at all: they was allus ones for sticking nigh to their farms. And Old Rector, he said that the country folk come up with that tale to account for the trees, and, what’s more, that they took the name from they old books the antiquaries were allus rabbiting about in. But – Old Rector, he thought – it weren’t Castor and Pollux, neither, as these trees do commemorate: yes, they’re mortal old, as you can see.

‘Old Rector, he said as I seemed level-headed enough, and I’d outlived two wives and had five childer, so there was no reason I shouldn’t know; and he got his wife – she were a very learned lady, was Mrs Batchelor: her family were Welsh, I know that – Evans, ah. Evans it were (I knowed as I’d recollect it), that were her name afore she married –’

Dud and Harry carefully did not catch one another’s eye.

‘– Any gates, she said that, afore the Saxons nor yet the Romans, all this country were Welsh (Celtic, her called it). And she reckoned as how this were here since their day, the Welsh and all, on account of the Saxons and the Romans had their own notions about things. She said … oh, I never can remember that dratted name of the other ’un, but one on ’em were called Widgeon or Gudgeon or summat like it: any gates, she said as the Welsh, or them as become Welsh after the Saxons come here and pushed ’em West’ards, had two heroes in their my-thol-o-gy’ (Mr Oakford negotiated the word with the respect its complexity demanded) ‘as they allus remembered, as were mated together by a spell, although they was brothers, which don’t seem a nice thing at all, but, then, they was all heathens in them days and didn’t know no better, I suppose. She reckoned as this were summat like that. A grove, her called it.’

Mr Oakford fell silent. Dud nor Harry broke the silence.

‘Well. After a whiles, Old Rector, he died, and his good lady after. And I did wonder why it was, her to tell me more’n I set out to know. But there were them as said she saw further’n most. And mebbe she did do. A few years after she died, and went to Heaven, I’m very sure, for whatever else she were, she were a good Christian lady – well, now, a few years after…. My oldest boy’s youngest boy, he up and fell in love, just like yours, sir, with a young fellow his age as he’d gone to the school with.

‘And my oldest boy, he were a bit put out, like, but he tried to see their side on it; and my daughter-in-law, she took their part all over against everybody as stood against it. I were a widower again by that time, and there weren’t any question but that I were firm behind my grandson, and the parish knowed it. But the other boy’s mother – his dad were dead; they was townies, not farmers – her cut up rough; and there was folks as made a fuss, though you’d not believe it in this day and age, and with the telly and the parliament-acts and all.

‘Well, first they was for seeing it out; and then they was for going up Lunnon, where people’d’nt look at ’em side-goggling; and it was one thing and then another; and there was a parcel of lads as made life difficult for ’em, though Our Alf, gentle as he were with animals and childer, were prop for town, all eighteen stone on him, and nobody said much to him but from a safe distance. But they got at young Wilf – that were his love, Wilf, Alf’s boyfriend. He weren’t weak in any way – don’t you think that – but with his mum standing against him…. And it weren’t even as if she were Chapel or any of that; she were, well, not to speak ill, but she were a slattern herself. Wilf were a better lad than she deserved to have pupped. But her got at him, and she were his mum.

‘Alf had to go away – no getting out of it – one weekend. I don’t think it’d’ve happened, else. They’d’ve got away to Lunnon or someplace and been happy. But Alf were allus a responsible lad, and his dad were took ill, and I’m too old to have gone so far as to drive a load of pigs back in a lorry: my eyes ain’t what they was. When he come back, he went to see his Wilf, and that – I’m sorry, sir, but that damned bitch of a woman –’

‘Carry on, Mr Oakford. I quite agree.’

‘She were happy, is the thing. She’d tossed him out, and she were happy. Pleased, like. Why Wilf didn’t come to us … well, we’ll never know, this side of Judgement. He never did like to presume, did Wilf. And he knowed Alf’s dad were feeling seedy. Maybe that was it. Any gates, Alf found him here, finally, after three days’ search, or so we took it, after. Well, we all on us has our breaking point – even Our Alf…. I comes here, once in a way, and thinks of my lads.’

Dudley, with some difficulty, cleared his throat. ‘I remember I heard something about it – not enough, obviously. It was – was it four years ago, Mr Oakford?’

‘Five, now, Mr Dursley, nigh on about.’

‘Wilf’s mother died, did she?’

‘Yes. If as you was to ask me, I’d’ve said it were a judgement. But her did, and never doubted she’d done right and well.’

‘The youths who drove Wilf to take his own life. And thus Alf, after. They remain, I suppose – and at large.’

‘They does.’

‘Speaking as a magistrate, I am appalled. I’ll have a word with the bench here-’round: five years is five years, Mr Oakford, but – if you’ll pardon some plain speaking – little shits of that sort’ll put another foot wrong, sooner than later at that, and I intend that your local JPs shall be ready when they do.’

‘And that’s a kind thought, Mr Dursley, but I don’t mind leaving it to Providence. No, why I brought you here … well. Brigadier, I ain’t getting any younger, and there ain’t so many as know wheres to find this-yere grove. I thought, it might be, your son and his young man could stop by, once in a while, and see that all be kept as it be; and look after it, like.’

‘They shall,’ said Harry, and his voice was grim in the gathering night. ‘So long as my line shall last, and my cousin’s, this place shall be kept as it was and is, and these trees looked after.’

‘Thank ’ee, sir. When as I heard, I considered as you – and Mr Dursley, here – was the man to ask. I’ll rest the better, when as I be gone, knowing.’

‘I trust it shall be many years yet, before that day, Mr Oakford. But soon or late, you shall leave this in good hands.’

They had walked all three in companionable silence back to the local, in Crossways, a trifle Eastwards of Hearne and the Land of Nod; and although they saw and had a pint with Mr Oakford on no few occasions in the years left to him, which had been scant enough, there had been no need to say anything more about the matter. Harry, and Al and Scorp, and Dud and Elspeth and Harriet (and Simon and young Artful), had all looked in upon and looked after the grove that had once, perhaps, been dedicated to Gwydion and Gilfaethwy the sons of Dôn, and was sacred now to the memory of Wilf and Alf; and it can have surprised no one that, when Mr Oakford had at last died, the grove itself was removed from Muggle ken and memory – and that a sinister fate followed the youths of Churt, Crossways, and Barford who had once so rashly tormented Alf Oakford’s Wilf. Harry was something of a law unto himself, as heroes and Field-Auror Marshals will be; and he was not commonly content to leave the correction of injustice and the chastisement of sin to the slow workings of Providence.

_______________________________

‘… I do think – yes, they are taking the covers off the pitch, now, as we just see some sun breaking through here at Edgbaston….’

Contentedly, Dudley dozed.

_______________________________

Dud, as Harry well knew, knew his onions, and the country ’round, and the countrymen in it; and no one who knew Elspeth – or indeed Millie, a ‘half-blood’ in Slytherin who’d no time for Dark Lords and had dealt out thumpings when wanted and sometimes when not – could be at all surprised that the Bulstrodes of Elspeth’s branch dwelt near Hartley Wintney, between White Knights Farm and Phoenix Green: hardly the ground in which Dark Wizards were likely to take root and flourish – for all that the White Knights these days were a prized and prize-winning herd of British White cattle. And Dud was, after all, increasingly a fixture and indeed an Ancient Monument in NGS gardening circles.

It was the most natural thing in the world that Harry, in his official capacity, should be lecturing to the Muggle police liaisons at Bramshill, quite nearby, with regards to Major Incidents and Military Aid to the Civil Power, and Dud and Elspeth, Harriet, Simon, and Artful (who was on leave), stopping with the Bulstrodes, when Kitty Coker, the celebrated gardening expert who was so appallingly persistently perky on the telly, was found dead in a copse.

And it was the most natural thing in the world that Dud, Harry, Draco, and Artful, with a bit of help from Al and Scorp and Harriet, should be the ones to see the matter through.

Harry, Dud, and Artful had just returned from a pub crawl by Knight Bus – Dud by now no longer much surprised Harry when he waxed insightful or revealed having actually read a book, once in a way; and Harry’s complaints that ‘it was getting so sodding difficult to get a decent pint nowadays, it was like something out of Chesterton’, had caused Dud to suggest that the Knight Bus itself followed the ‘Rolling English Road’, in its way of going to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head, or Glasto via the Goodwin Sands – when they found a rather sombre Draco awaiting them, Unspeakably, with a Hants Constabulary CID man who was cleared to know just who Harry was, and two rather younger DoM sorts who answered to ‘Albus’ and ‘Scorpius’. Artful was hovering in mufti, consumed – as he had been since the cradle: he was an infuriating lad – with ‘’satiable curtiosity’ as per usual.

Harry simply looked at them. ‘If this were properly a matter for aid to the civil power,’ said he, warningly, ‘I should already have been informed. I’ve not been, which means it isn’t.’

‘Harry –’

‘We’ve an MLE for crime. It’s not been Auror business for decades – which Artful at least should recall, it’s certainly been drilled into him.’

‘No. But….’

‘Of course,’ said Harry, before Draco or Al-and-Scorp could advance their arguments, ‘in a purely unofficial capacity, I’m quite happy to assist.’

Harry was proud of his family. Dud’s exasperated glare, and Al’s, and Artful’s, could not have been bettered by either Malfoy. DCI Shipton was rather obviously not chortling: Harry awarded him points for that, silently.

‘Right. Let’s all go calmly withindoors, sit down, and have a drink whilst you put me in the picture, shall we?’

None demurred. When they were all duly provided, Harry, whose mood of devilment seemed to be growing upon him – everyone present save DCI Shipton, who in any case recognised the trait from his own years at the sharp end, was aware that this wasn’t callousness on Harry’s part, but rather a means of distancing himself from whatever horror was to be unfolded before him – inevitably asked, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.’

At that, DCI Shipton did allow himself a smile. ‘And that’s apt enough – although when the cameras were off her, she was more Old Fanny Cradock, if you remember her, with a touch of Harriet Harman, than she was Pippa Greenwood.’

‘Sounds like Cherie Blair. Or Bellatrix, as if there were ever any difference.’

Draco glared at Harry even more forcibly.

‘What it is, sir,’ said DCI Shipton, imperturbably, ‘is, this Kitty Coker, then, who’s always gardening away merrily on the telly, has turned up dead. Which is one thing; but when we hadn’t even known she was missing….’

‘We’ll come back to that. Cause of death?’

‘Not established – and we’ve certainly tried.’

The Wizards exchanged glances.

‘And she was found where?’

DCI Shipton gave Harry a very level look indeed. ‘Well, now…. I’d say between a third to a half of her was found in a disused pit, Warren Heath – not a million miles from Bramshill where you’ve been lecturing – and then there were a few bits in the tumulus nigh to it – inside the tumulus, if you please, and no sign of entry or exit by anyone –’

‘Then how did you find them?’

‘– Just a moment, sir – and the rest of her, in one of the copses. Now, I know I’m only a Squib, sir, but when I find a woman’s body strewn about and no sign but it was a natural death, well. It wasn’t a splinching – she was a Muggle through and through. And all this putting about of body parts: not only was it post-mortem, it hadn’t anything to do with any cause of death we can find, and so far as anyone can tell, including your Ministry, she might as well have died a natural death.’

Harry had played himself in with his usual rapidity. ‘After a certain period of time, an AK is impossible to ascertain with certainty. The magical signature degrades.’

‘Yes, sir, I do know that. But there’s the time factor, you see. She was last seen in Heckfield – by a good few reputable witnesses, including her poor, downtrodden production crew, who’d not likely be mistaken, and by His Grace, who was, fortunately, hacking through (he’d a new hunter he was getting to know, lovely bay mare, she is, 16.2 hands, oh, she’s lovely, sir) –’

Harry raised an eyebrow. ‘I shall want to hear about that fully – you might just look out her breeding, and which stud sold her – but not just now.’

‘No, sir, I suppose not.’ DCI Shipton was careful not to show how pleased he was with himself that he’d read the legendary Harry Potter aright.

‘His Grace, then, also saw her – he knew her on account of her having done a gardening programme at Stratfield Saye – alive and well, about twenty minutes after ramblers discovered the top half of her in the copse, and rang up our uniformed branch on their mobile phones. And magic or no magic, there’s no jiggery-pokery that can be faked with those calls, nor yet with the digital snaps, with timestamps, they’d the sense to take while waiting for the local bobbies and the SOCOs to respond.’

‘And so we come to the body parts in the tumulus.’

‘So we do. We’re not so green down here, you know, sir, and one of the uniformed branch – Sergeant Attwater – is a keen birder to boot. He wasn’t best pleased to notice, in the copse, a red-backed shrike – which is a Red List species, as you’ll know, sir – dead and impaled on a thorn, just the way they do to their own prey.’

‘We’re very nearly at the edge of their grounds, as a passage species, in any case.’

DCI Shipton was certain now that he’d read the legendary Harry aright: he and his cousin have a deal more in common than you’d think. Countrymen both, if in something of a lordly way for the Great and Fabled Harry. I can deal with him: sound as Mr Dursley, he is.

‘Yes: that’s what struck him the most, at first. Well, of course, when you’re working a Scene of Crime, you cast around. And the SOCOs knew Tony Attwater was pretty nigh an expert twitcher. Sure enough, they found another shrike, mistreated the same way – and then another –’

‘You’re telling me, in fact, there was a line of them signposting the way to the tumulus.’

‘No, sir: to the old pit, first. Then from there to the tumulus.’

‘There aren’t that many shrikes in the country, as a rule.’

‘Yes. That struck us also.’

Harry cast the spell that conjured a map. ‘Plot them for me, if you will, please. Thank you. Draco?’

Draco shook his head. ‘No, it doesn’t draw any figure of significance.’

Dudley made a noise in his throat, but said nothing. Harry let it pass.

‘In essence, then, Shipton – have you a forename? Because it’ll be a damned sight simpler if I use it.’

‘It’s “Jack”, sir.’

‘Then it’s “Harry” in return. There’s no point in standing upon ceremony when I’m not officially involved in the first buggering place. Right. In essence, Jack, what you have is a Muggle, probably killed by an AK, strewn about the countryside by a Severing Hex, with parts Banished to inconvenient spots, by someone who’s being clever with Polyjuice. Not pretty. And I notice you’ve the air of a man whose sleeves conceal a very present help in time of trouble. Out with it: I suppose you’re going to tell me the dead shrikes have dissipated, vanished, and generally ceased to be tangible?’

‘Yes, sir – Harry.’

‘Mm. Conjuration was precisely what I should have expected of Chummy after all that. Well, Jack, I wish you – and Draco, Scorp, and Albus – joy of your little problem.’

‘Do you – Harry? And you’ll be doing something else entirely, sir?’

‘Oh, yes. Cousin Dud and I are going to give you the best help we may. We’re sloping off down the pub. Artful, tell your grandmother and your parents, won’t you? I make quite certain they’d very much like to make their own rounds for the local gossip, and you, no doubt, have your own friends to have a natter with at your own preferred common or garden local. Some tied house all tarted up with disco lights and fruit machines and ghastly lager, no doubt. I’ll no doubt see you tomorrow, Jack. Shall we say, for tea? Excellent. Dud? The Haywain for us, I think? Right. Night, all.’

As Harry and Dudley strolled imperturbably down the yew alley towards the gates and the lane to the pub, Harry accepted his matches back from Dud, lit his own pipe with a spell, and said, ‘D’you know, if that plot on the map made a rune you recognised and Draco didn’t, he’ll never live it down.’

‘No,’ said Dudley, with a rich chuckle. ‘Wasn’t that. It’s not the shape; it’s the places it connected. But it’s best I let old Ben Parker tell you about it. He’ll be down the Haywain, sure as sure.’

He was. An old, bowed, gnarled man, with a face like a wrinkled crab-apple, and blithe as a bird: a man clearly rural and autochthonous of his district, and one who knew all that there was to know of the Forest of Eversley and the valleys of the Rivers Whitewater and Hart – and willing to speak of it, calmly, quietly, and discreetly, to ‘Mr Dursley as had married the Bulstrode girl and understood his roses’ and to ‘Mr Dursley’s cousin, bain’t it? And if his memory weren’t a-going back on him – which he hoped it weren’t: he’d be ninety come Michaelmas, but it seemed as Providence had preserved him wonderful well, and he hoped as he were proper thankful for it – and if as he did recall aright, the gentleman’d a great handle to his name now, hadn’t he’: to which Harry, with natural ease, had said that, if Mr Parker didn’t mind, he’d much prefer a simple “Harry”, really. They’d had several pints and some desultory conversation on the strength of that before the topic wended ’round to the sites Harry and Dud were interested in. Harry knew better than to hurry it.

‘Well, then, Mr Harry, I tell ’ee, folk as has their eddication be wonderful clever folk, and I don’t say a word against they, but they don’t allus knows as much as they thinks. Ah: and that’s why you was clever enough to ask me, and I’m obliged for it, and takes it kindly, as meant. No, that weren’t ever knowed as Arlott’s Copse until as they took in to a-making of maps of the place – and even that weren’t right: it were “Harlot’s Copse” they’d heard it called as, but that’s not rightly so far in the wood of the heath as this be. O’ course, when they was first plotting out the Ordnance maps, they knowed as Arlot’s Farm were nigh-to, and they thought as that sounded better’n Harlot’s Copse, and then, they wasn’t all that fussed about spelling in them days, so Arlott’s Copse, A-r-l-o-double-t, they writ it down.’

‘By Star Hill – it was Star Hill where Abbot’s Ghost used to walk, wasn’t it, Mr Parker?’

‘So it were, Mr Dursley. Star Hill to Ivyhole to Mount Zion and back. But that stopped when as the old barn was brent, at St Stephen’s Green. Terrible hot fire, that were.’

‘St Stephen’s – oh, of course. It had been built up out of an old tithe barn’s bits and leavings, hadn’t it, that had been ruined and tumbledown.’

‘Ah, that’s the one, Mr Dursley. You recollect, it were the old tithe barn, the one as were haunted, folk did say, by the ghost of a rat-terrier. They did say as it were an old abbey barn, from when we was all papists, in them old days.’

Harry made a mental note to have that looked into: the ghost of a Wizard who’d been stuck in his Animagus form when killed could get up to all manner of mischief. No harm in it, really, but after so long, the more doggy instincts should have largely taken over, and Harry had known his share of actual ratting terriers, and they were worse nuisances than Crups when they became bored.

‘But that part on the wood never were rightly part of Harlot’s Copse at all, not proper. There be a few on us yet as calls it by its right name: “Mummer’s Holt” it be, if mostly called as “Mummer’s” when it were called rightly, at all.’

‘I seem to recall, Mr Parker,’ said Dudley, ‘hearing some of the older folk call it as “Mummer’s Hoard”, once in a way.’

‘That’d be they outlandish folk from Hexfield as called it thataways, Mr Dursley: the herb women and suchlike. Old Mother Digweed, she done: her allus called it as that; but that weren’t the name, like, it were just their word for it. Holt it were and “holt” it were proper called as. Ah: there be a few holts left in this part of the world, when you calls ’en proper. We was allus careful of our woods and coppices, you see, and, well, a holt bain’t a copse, be it.’

‘“Mummer’s Holt”,’ said Harry, musingly, and in a tone that positively invited further confidences.

‘Aye, Mr Harry, and you’re not the first proper gentleman nor yet the first man of l’arning to get that look to your face when as you heard that name. After all, a mummer do be a stage-player like, or a tramping juggler, as you’ll know, and it bain’t so very long ago, as old England go, as stage actresses was all thought harlots, though I ’spect as a good few on ’en wasn’t any worser’n most women be; but they old folk did be a mite over-pious in them days, all I hear. I takes my oath there weren’t never a mummer as had a hoard, any rate: they do be a poor-begging lot. And bar the old Templars as some folks think was hereabouts in the old days, I don’t believe as there was ever any buried treasure in the parish: us be a near-going folk here-nigh.’

Dudley wagged his head in profound agreement. ‘Safe and sound and steady, Mr Parker, I will grant you. What was that story they used to tell about Mr Thorpe – the Cunning Man, I mean, back in Queen Anne’s time?’

Mr Parker chuckled. ‘Dunno as I belieft it, but – I knows Thorpes, and they do be near-going. They did say, Mr Harry, as how Elias Thorpe in them days were thought to be a warlock or summat, and they went to hang hine, did the parish, and then thought better on it; and he says to they, Not cut him down, but take him down careful or hang hine then, for it’d be a mortal pity to waste good rope, a-cutting of it.’

‘That was on the Hazeley Heath side, wasn’t it, Mr Parker, on our side the Hart, opposite Hulford’s Copse: where the Path is now, East’ards of Hatts Cottage.’

‘It were, Mr Dursely, so it were indeed. You be passing fair at recollecting of they old tales, sir, for gentry – meaning nothing but respect when as I says that. Up and back of Hares Farm – or so as they calls it nowadays; it were “Three Hares Farm” in my granddad’s day, so he did tell. And it were from the bit of the wood between Hulford’s Copse and Mummer’s Holt as the Old Man and the Nag allus rode out, and down Hart towards Whitewater and Blackwater, and Broadwater to Lodden – some nights. Mind, he don’t ride no more, as I hear, but as far as Devil’s Highway – that be the old Roman Road, Mr Harry, up Cordery’s and Bulloway’s and Riseley Mill – on account, they do say, as they old tumble-us were digged up and scattered when they built up Wokingham after the Hitler War. Bad as Basingstoke, that were. They didn’t ought to’ve done it, and them as did were punished for it proper – ah: they l’arned gentlemen and archæologisers and councils and all were mortal angry. I knowed old Tommy’s dad as were one of the men as broke it up for the new road, and even when hine were old, hine were still like to flinch at the recollection: oh, they did get a rocket, they did, and all on account of they was doing as they was told by that damn foreman, awful man he were by all accounts, some outlandish feller from Lunnon Town, foreign as may be. But the Old Man and the Nag ain’t rode so often, since, nor so far.’

‘He was dressed in skins, wasn’t he, and rode without bit or bridle.’

‘Fancy you recollecting that, Mr Dursley. So he be, to be sure, and a-riding of that ragged hoss – titchy thing it be, nobbut a pony to us – all alfen-fashion, just about like the Good Folk theyselves, without he don’t have no saddle nor no reins, neither, not so much rope. I about half-seen hine oncet, myself. Looked as he might have a spear, like, in his hand, and his hair and beard – well, Mr Dursley, he were wilder-looking nor the hoss. Like to rid I down, were hine, at full gallop, but I stood my road and – that were that. And it weren’t Hulford’s Copse as he rided out on, when as I seen hine: it were what they folk as bain’t from hereabouts call Arlott’s Copse, meaning Mummer’s Holt. It do be a queer, odd-going place, be Mummer’s Holt.’

Old Mr Parker took a long pull of his pint of bitter. ‘And Mummer’s Holt it rightly do be,’ added he, with decision: insistently. ‘They proper names, right names, does matter.’

‘Indeed they do, Mr Parker,’ said Harry, with equal firmness. ‘I’m very much obliged to you that you can aid us with them.’

‘Ah, and welcome to any help as I can give, Mr Harry. It be an odd-gates place, and this poor young woman done to death there. Ah: there do be a few on us yet as remembers the old, right names of places here-’round – and I will say, Mr Dursley, that the Bulstrodes has allus been proper gentry, and taken a nint’rest in the country – but we be dying out, nowadays.

‘I be too old to gad about murdering women meself, even as I had a mind to do – and, Lord bless us, my own wife’s been gone these thirty years, and I never so much as wished to put a hand to her, and I tell ’ee, gentlemen, for all my Sal were a good worker, if there were any woman in the parish as folk thought on throttlin’, it were Sal: proper sharp tongue her had, and not shy to use it – and I doubt as there be too many old lads much younger’n I be as remembers the proper name of the place; but it do seem queer that her were killed up Mummer’s Holt and nigh Harlot’s Copse, and her on the telly and all: like as it were a judgement, like. The more so as she’d been one o’ they as was mucking and melling about with the heathland and the wood, with all these-yere notions about changing it ’round, grubbing here and planting there. Ah, there’ll be folk as sees it as a judgement, surely, for all that we knows it bain’t but a queer chance and all.’

‘I imagine poor old Jack Shipton wishes it weren’t so queer a chance,’ smiled Harry. ‘That’s the sort of coincidence that sends the public and the red-tops ’round the twist, and makes the policeman’s lot not a happy one.’

‘No more it be, Mr Harry. And Jack’s a good lad – I recollect his old dad, as were the parson over to All Saints, Dogmersfield. What he’d ha’ made of all these changes I’dn’t like to say.’

‘Yes, there are a shocking lot of incomers, aren’t there, Mr Parker.’

‘That there do be, Mr Harry, and all the more reason to reckon as it were nobbut a queer happenstance as the poor wench were found at Mummer’s Holt.’

‘Well, much of her,’ said Harry, insinuatingly, as he charmed another round out of the landlord’s daughter. Capital best bitter, Harry maintained, down the Haywain; always had been.

‘Ah.’ Mr Parker studied his new pint. ‘Him as done it’ll be one of they lunaticals. But it do be queerer yet, I grant ’ee, Mr Harry, as part on her were took and carried away to the pit.’ All three of them paused a moment at this unintended omen. ‘There do be a mortal lot of they pits, some on ’en proper ancient, I grant ’ee, but most on ’em digged recent, two-three hundred year agone. That part of the heath … aye, there be Yinning Gap, and Meems’s Well, and Yellhorn Pit, and all on ’en right together, or so folk did use to say. Bain’t likely as anybody knows right-like which be which, nowadays, and I dunno, but them do be the old names of the Three Pits. Yes, him as done it be a proper lunatical, it do seem to me, Mr Harry.’

‘I expect you’re right. And I heard something about the tumulus?’

‘Ah, that. I dunno, Mr Harry: there bain’t that lot on us’ll go melling about with ’en: they old barrows is mortal danger’us. Why, there be folk as has fallen in and been trapped and all, out walking – or so they said, though I ’spect as they was rabbitin’, or such-like. And – well. Old Bullthorn’s Grave, it be a queer place. When I were a lad, they old women as yet was herb-wise allus swore by it as the place on the heath for a-gathering of they simples: bet’ny and cockspur-grass specially. Most on ’en did dwell acrost the water, over Hexfield way, and they’d come over to our heath, and Bullthorn’s Grave, just to gather they herbs, simply. Old Mother Digweed, her done; and Old Mother Maunce, as her daughter did marry the butcher – the one as went off his head and took after her with his clefter; had to lock him up, they did, poor man. My old aunt, she were nobbut a nipper, and seen it when as it did happen: they said as the air-raids it were as turned his mind. Us being atween Reading and Pompey-and-S’uthhampton and all, and with all the bombing of Slough and Bucks and Windsor Castle as well, us did get a few raids, by accident: terrible poor navigators they Jerries must’ve been. Mebbe as that were what sent hine off his head. But – well, I dunno as I’d ha’ been easy in my wits, I’d married any of they Maunces nor Digweeds from over Hexfield. Herb-wise be one thing, and it’s as may be as they didn’t mean no harm nor do none neither, but…. Ah, well. The heath did allus be an odd-going place, certain sure.’

‘That’d be the Nine-Herbs Charm, would it, Mr Parker, that the herb-women were making?’

‘Ah, so it were, Mr Harry. Parcel of nonsense, but, there, they do say as believing be half the battle when folks be took ill, like, and I dunno but it didn’t work, oncet in a way. It weren’t anything as I’d be easy about having done on me, though, I tell you that.’

‘I suppose, Mr Parker, there’s a certain amount of opposition to the plans for the wood.’

‘That there be, Mr Harry, that there be. Now, I bain’t one to hold in with them as says it don’t do to mell with it, leastways not when they be set against it for odd-going notions: herbs and suchlike, and worser: heathen nonsense and a load of rubbish Vicar’d have their hides for. And I don’t say as them pines and such trash, as was plantations after the Hitler War, didn’t ought to be grubbed out. But there were a terrible l’arned old party, he come down-yere, and he showed everybody as how this were all heath oncet, showed it by a tidy hipe of charts and all sorts – and it seems to stand to reason, don’t it: it weren’t called as Warren Heath and Heath Warren but it were a heath, surely – and folks as had listened to hine took his side over-against the other ’un. But then comes another party, just as l’arned, and her tells everybody – her were a friend to the poor party as we was speaking off, the girl as got herself killed – and shows ’en by charts and charters and maps as how this were all wood and forest oncet, and what else for would it be called as the Forest of Eversley? And then one of the men, he asked, Why wouldn’t it be forest even as it were heath, and the old kings they had in them times was always a-foresting of places; but her had an answer to that, on account of as how “Eversley” meant the clearing of the wild boar, and when they went pig-sticking in them days they was allus in woods and suchlike when as they done it. So half the parish was for one side, and half, t’ other, and everyone rabbiting on as how the wood were a wood and how it weren’t, it were a heath….

‘Lord but you’d’ve been druv fair distracted like, what with heather and gorse and “NVC Community H2” here and ash and alder and yew and oak and “W7” and “W13” there: you’d’ve thought as they was arguing over postcodes. Anyway, it pretty much set the district by the ears, and it still weren’t settled, and bain’t yet, when the poor woman as was killed come along and stuck her nose in. There were a proper amount of bad feeling in the parish over it all, I can tell ’ee that. And be yet. A proper caddle, it be.’

As they walked back, in the soft night, from the Haywain, after further idle chat with Old Ben Parker, from whom they parted with many mutual and sincere expressions of esteem, Harry stayed silent. It was, they both realised, Dud’s turn to talk.

‘You know,’ he urged, ‘that Heckfield is named for the High Field.’

Harry nodded.

‘Doesn’t matter, though, does it,’ said Dud. ‘I mean, if people came to think of it as “Hexfield”….’

‘Oh, quite.’

‘If the bugger behind this is a “lunatical” – and I’ll be damned if he mustn’t be: the man’s mad as a March … manticore –’

Harry chortled.

‘– he’s at least a learned lunatic.’ As Runes, with some aspects of Astronomy and Herbology, had been the only school subjects at Hogwarts with which Dud could have at all hoped to, and did, assist Harriet in her school years, he had become mildly interested in them, or, rather, in the history and mythology of them; and he now knew more of them than the average Wizard, let alone the common or garden Muggle or Squib. ‘I must say I’m surprised it came down as “Bullthorn” rather than “Bale-thorn”, but it’s still bleeding obvious, even to me.’

‘No “even” about it, D. You’re capable of seeing more nearly through a millstone than most.’

‘Yes, just you persuade Elspeth of that, will you? But, honestly. Bölþorn, Mímir, Mímisbrunnr, Heimdallr’s Gjallarhorn….’

‘And his golden boar, no doubt. Oh, yes. And Hoddmímis-holt. The holt, not of Mímir only, but specifically of him in his aspect as the Hoarder, Hoard-Mímir. I shouldn’t be at all surprised had the “hoard” element, miscalled as “whored”, influenced the eggcorn, or folk etymology, or mondegreen, or what you will, of “Harlot’s Copse”, really.’

‘Yes, well, that may explain Bullthorn as well – we’re none so far from Bullsdown Camp; and Bulloway’s Farm, come to that, that Ben Parker mentioned. “Fork handles”, really. Even so….’ Dudley wagged his head, as a man disillusioned by an irrational world. ‘And the Three Pits – three, I ask you: it’s a bit much – at Ginnungagap.’

‘You know the woods and heaths around here better than most, D. Much in the way of ash?’

‘Yes – if you mean Fraxinus excelsior and not bloody Yggdrasil. Surprised they’ve not managed to keep that current, this lot.’

‘They do seem to have preserved a considerable substratum of lore.’

‘Yes, and you, Harry, seem a goodish bit more inclined to involve yourself in this damned mess.’

‘Yes. I think officially. Has Artful retained his youthful interest in flora and fauna?’

Dud snorted. ‘I’m simply grateful when my grandson is interested in something better than barmaids named “Florrie” – but I think he has done, yes. And Elspeth’s brother’s not a complete dolt, and has some knowledge of the country ’round.’

‘Good.’

The others were waiting for them when they returned to Green Grange: even DCI Shipton, whom Harry had not intended to see before tea the next day.

‘What now?’ Harry was discernibly annoyed. ‘If there’s been another damned outrage –’

‘No, sir – my fault, I’m afraid, I was over-persuaded to stay on and get what counsel I might from Mr Edmund, here, and Dame Elspeth.’

‘Were you indeed. You, Artful, did I trust at least execute your responsibilities?’

‘Sir.’

‘Excellent. And?’

‘Naturally it’s the one topic of conversation down the Plough – particularly as there had been some local opposition to the plans for the wood and the heath. But they were, as you foresaw, sir, a youngish crowd. Knew less of things than I did. I’ve put a Pensieve report together for your review, sir.’

Harry turned to his cousin. ‘He can be taught, your grandson. Well done, Artful. I don’t suppose our Unspeakable relations have learnt anything to add? No, of course not. I trust you’ve at least found me a senior MLE liaison.’

Scorpius took the question to himself. ‘Divinator-Superintendent Gobind Singh Pannu, Harry. He’ll be here after breakfast.’

‘Good. And, Scorpius? For the next few days, it’s not “Harry”, it’s “Sir”.’ Harry smiled affectionately at his son-in-law to take any sting out of the warning.

Draco slewed ’round and looked levelly at him. ‘Are we to take it, Field-Auror Marshal, that you are now giving aid to the civil power, officially?’

‘You are.’

‘May one know why we have been made thus fortunate?’

‘Dudley’s got very much to the bottom of it, of course, as I expected that he should do. Edmund –’ this to Edmund Bulstrode, Elspeth’s younger brother, who was now the senior Bulstrode in the district – ‘I hope you and Elspeth were able to … assist the police with their enquiries.’

Edmund laughed, his spectacles flashing in the light. ‘A less infrequent occurrence than you might think, Cousin Harry. I trust we did do; Jack, here, must say if we were of any use. Dudley’s solved it already, has he?’

‘Damned nearly, I think. It was fate, Elspeth: you and Dudley would settle near to Norney. Harriet; Simon: did you stop here feeding tea and cakes to a hard-working copper, or go out?’

‘Went out, of course … Uncle Harry.’ Harriet took no nonsense from anyone, least of all her cousin and godfather, of whom she was not in the least in awe. ‘We shouldn’t dream of disobeying an order from the Chosen One.’

‘Wise of you,’ smiled Harry, who damned well knew better, as did they all: Harriet was not unbiddable, but she was, and had been since birth, a Witch of strong and decided views, and had disregarded more parental and godparental injunctions than they’d all of them had hot dinners between them. ‘And?’

‘The Bowlers’ Arms had the usual crowd, older and rather more sophisticated no doubt than that lot Artful was with at the Plough, but not any better informed. Quite possibly less so.’

‘Yes, well, the attempt wanted to be made all the same. Thank you.’ Harry conjured once more his OS-cum-Auroral-Survey grid-map of the district. ‘Dudley, if you’ll fill them in on the local lore and nomenclature?’

Dud did do. The nature of the connexions was grasped immediately by all there. Only Draco, Al, and Scorp looked specially troubled, beyond the pity and distaste the others evidently felt.

‘Edmund; Elspeth; Artful. And Harriet and Simon, if you feel you’ve stopped here often enough and have been specially observant. I’ll thank you, and Dudley, to indicate also notable springs, wells, and trees.’

‘Particularly ash-trees?’ Draco’s question was sharp, and his tone was not that of a man who was altogether settled in his mind.

‘Yes. Well spotted.’

The three Unspeakables looked grim; of them, it was Draco alone who looked rattled as well. It wasn’t cowardice: not at all. Nor, even, was it lack of faith in Harry. Draco, however, had, with the exception of Harry himself, seen more of evil, and more intimately, than the others: even a hardened copper such as DCI Shipton.

As the others began pinning locations of natural interest upon the floating, lucent map, Draco gathered Harry with a glance and the two of them slipped out of the withdrawing room. Draco said nothing until they were safely in the library. And when the heavy door closed firmly behind them, he had Harry pinioned against it before he said a word.

This is why it’s an Auroral task, is it?’

Harry was wholly unperturbed. ‘Of course it is. Can’t leave this sort of thing to the MLE: not in their remit. Murder, yes; but not this.’

‘And obviously, Potter, this is also a job for my Department.’

‘Naturally. In assisting the Royal Corps of Aurors.’

‘Oh, there’s an entire corps, is there? I was under the impression from your earlier remarks that you were the whole damned show.’

‘Don’t be silly, Draco. I’ll have the Woolly-Backs here before breakfast if it leaves Firle Beacon Lines deserted bar one Elf-orderly.’

Even the prospect of having the entire strength of the Southern Regt, ‘Arthur’s Own’, on parade at dawn did not suffice to assuage an angry Draco.

‘Damn it, Harry. I wish I’d not sought you out, and that we’d treated this as a simple murder.’

‘You’re too dutiful for that,’ smiled Harry. ‘And a good thing, too: there should have been murderous losses had MLE gone in blind.’

Draco did not release Harry, who surreptitiously cast a wandless, non-verbal cushioning charm upon what was momently becoming a very hard and uncomfortable door, if handsome in its way. He could, naturally, have simply freed himself, but that was no way to handle a tightly-wound Draco: more trouble than it was worth, really, and tiresome, in its way.

‘What is it, Harry? What’s out there?’

‘Well, the Director of Public Denunciations shan’t be best pleased, but it’s rather clearly a case of possession, and whoever actually did the killing, the dismemberment, and the impersonation can’t be charged –’

‘Harry….’ Draco’s impatience was never terribly well concealed, and was, if anything, rather less so than commonly, just now.

‘It could be an ettin, I suppose; it could be a wight or a revenant; I suspect it may think itself a god. I’d damned well like to know who the sodding idiot was who disturbed Bölþorn’s barrow and loosed it, whatever it is: ruddy fool wants the strongest barracking it’s in my power to give. The point is to be ready for all chances.’

At last, and reluctantly, Draco stepped back a pace and released Harry.

‘You’ve not managed to get me killed yet – remarkably enough. And you’ll no doubt keep all of us, Scorp and Al particularly, safe once more. But just you listen to me, Potter. If you get yourself killed, I shall find a way to turn the tables, somehow, and haunt you.’

_______________________________

The next morning dawned bright and warm. So far as most people in the region were concerned, it remained so.

This was less so for the several Wizards and Witches, Squibs, and Knowing Muggles. It was by now generally conceded that Something had been disturbed that It Were Better Not to have disturbed. Some of the more boffiny mystery-mongers of the DoM, with the mysteriousness native to their eponymous department, rather thought it were best to lull it back to sleep and then surreptitiously study it. Of course, the Mysterians and the Unspeakables were no more O/C Operations than were the academics such as Hermione. This was Auror business, which meant, Harry’s business and Harry’s sole command. Over the years, regiments of the Royal Corps of Aurors, dissimulating as best they might their relief in seeing the back of him when he’d gone through them like of dose of salts, inspecting, had slyly played or piped him off with every tune from ‘The Parting Glass’ to ‘Begone, Dull Care’ to ‘Johnnie Cope’, amongst other sly backhanders; yet it had become so common as to have become an institution that he was now, and had long been, honoured with an arrangement of a Muggle tune from his parents’ time. And so far as he was concerned, it had been a very long time since he’d been young and his life an open book. He’d a job to do, and he did it well; and if it gave the other fellow hell, well: live and let die.

Nev had arrived late on the night previous, and then Lils, at once donnish and brash, as archæologimancers will be; and they had taken in hand from their own expert knowledge the adjustments wanted to Harry’s purely military dispositions. DCI Shipton, Dud, Elspeth, Millie, Teddy, and Hermione had worked things out with D/Supt Singh Pannu and Draco; Harry didn’t particularly concern himself with plans for exorcising the unfortunate Witch who’d been used in the Polyjuiced personation of Kitty Coker and the scattering of her remains, nor yet with what Muggle-Worthy Excuse was to be evolved to satiate public interest in the murder (as the Muggles thought it) and its purported ‘solution’ – for one thing, he anticipated that, when he should have finished with the Great Evil Wotsit, no exorcism should be wanted.

Hermione, ably seconded by Lils, had fretted at him: do try not to damage any artefacts, remains, or inscriptions; Al and Scorp had plagued him about the balance of public safety as against research and Useful Further Intel; Nev had been solicitous for trees (Nev shouldn’t have given a damn had every Neolithic monument or rumoured subterranean Mithraic site turned buried Templar round church, been blasted to powder so long as the flora weren’t disturbed, but that was simply Nev). Not even to Draco or the various officers of Aurors maintaining a cordon, wards, anti-Apparition fields, and containment spells, had Harry at all opened his mind. The perimeter was manned as seemed best to him, with due deference to the views of Nev and Edmund Bulstrode as to Significant Ash Trees and whatnot, and Lils’ views on Ancient Monuments; Artful was being allowed to amuse himself by acting as ADC; Teddy was maintaining a detached and Lupin-like posture of amusement that put even his Black lineage to shame. Only to Dud, reliable, discreet, and, if possible, even more sensible than the head-shakingly resigned Ron, who had washed his hands of the business, and the professorial Nev, had Harry confided his plans.

It was time. The Sun’s limb was at the world’s edge. At Harry’s direction, a volley of spellfire struck and sparked upon the ancient ash deep within the wood, by the Three Pits.

All light dimmed; an icy chill saturated dankly the air. Whatever it was that rose formlessly from the Three Pits, it was ancient beyond imagination, dark as the formless void, and casually cruel; inhuman and beyond emotion and reason alike. Those gathered there, even the most hardened of Aurors, sensed its inconceivable, hopeless, despairing antiquity, older and more insatiate than the sea, hungrier than Death and Time. Harry – upon whose hand and shoulder, as ever in emergency, and without his willing it, the Ring, whole again and unmarred, and the Cloak, impermeable and stainless, rested – lifted the Elder Wand, which had appeared as ever unbidden in his hand from its far resting place. Dudley, magnificently imperturbable, lit his pipe and watched calmly. The others shuddered, each as his own vision, her own darkest fears, implacable and dissociate, different in kind to the fear of the now destroyed Dementors, darkened and seized upon their minds.

There was no help. There was no hope. There was no escape. There had never been. All joy had been illusion, a pleasant mask to hide the unformed visage of mere extinction, remote from and careless of life, waiting with a terrible patience through ages of stone and sea and bone and ash, for this, the final realisation of despair, the final, unbearable knowledge that all things were doomed and had ever been….

Harry, with a look of cold, fastidious distaste, did precisely what he had told Dud he should do. A double helix of emerald in incorruptible cold flame, and pure, blinding white, poured from the Elder Wand.

There was no hope. There never had been. This defiance was futile. It was feeble. It had not even the dignity of a gesture against Fate. Ragnarök was inescapable. It was aldar rök, the death of the world, the death of gods. It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men. It is axe age, sword age; all shields are riven, and this is the age of pitiless, flaying wind over a dead landscape that stirs not even as the wind howls, a wolf age without mercy or ending. The world goes headlong to destruction, and all that seems alive is but the last dust being blown away forever upon the unceasing wind, wolf-howling. The World Ash splinters; and the half-hope had always been a lie: none survives, not the gods, not the children of the gods. Thor’s sons, Móði and Magni, are dead even as their father; Váli and Víðarr are consumed by fire; even Hel is blasted and scoured away, and Baldr nor Höðr shall return from Hel’s howes to sit in Iðavöllr where once was Asgard. Líf and Lífþrasir were pretty lies to hide the death of hope, and the world shall not rise again; Hoddmímis-holt is dead and gone in splinter and in ash, and it is Fimbulvetr forever. It has always been Fimbulvetr, and ever shall be: the illusions of life and hope are whirled away upon the ceaseless, flaying wind. There are no Vanir: never were they; there are no Æsir: never did they rule bright heaven. Their golden game pieces were but dreams. Never had there been life or joy; it was mist, illusion, now blown away, and the horror had been always and should ever be.

The green and white light of the Elder Wand poured forth, and That Which Was absorbed it, fed upon it. It but grew stronger. It swelled, it burgeoned, it filled the space false dreams of hope had left. Axe age, sword age, as the world weakens; wind age, wolf age, as the gods die. Winter that is, beneath and in all, that is all and ever was all, grows the stronger as hearts falter. On fated blood it sates and battens, it grows and strengthens as it sups on this the world’s last, futile magic. From the Elder Wand’s despairing, last attempt at this world’s magic, That Which Was grows ever stronger.

And now that magic, that defiance, was no longer emerald as the Evans eyes and white as Dumbledore’s beard. There was never an Evans; there never was a mother or a mother’s love. There never was a wise man, teaching. The magic like a dying balefire was red now as the fires of Surtr, and gold was it as suns of Dead Gods, gold as Heimdallr’s blood ill-wasted, pouring forth in death unending.

That Which Was had ever been; all else had been tales children told to comfort the deaths they could not evade. It fed on the last, failing, futile magic, and grew; it swelled; it mounted. It was vaster than the worlds. The World Ash cracked and fell into flinders. That Which Was grew and strengthened as the magic fed it.

It expanded to fill the worlds and crack them and fill the Void beyond that it was and that was itself and had been all things always, beneath the comforting lies.

The Elder Wand flared. Green and silver and red and gold poured forth, and blue flame and jets of molten bronze, and glede-gold of the last sparks of fire’s death, and then jet-black seen only as it pulsed through the amber-gold. That Which Was mounted and grew and lowered over them all as it fed itself, exalted, not exulting only because it could not exult and joy was a falsehood.

Harry lowered the Elder Wand.

With a report too loud to be heard, felt only and known in the lurching heart as they reeled and fell, That Which Was exploded in shards of impenetrable night beyond the Void, and ceased to be, and had never truly been. The dawn chorus trilled and carolled. The sun shone. The parish bells called to Mattins.

‘Bloody thing was better earthed than you’d think,’ said Dud, casually. ‘Thought you’d never overload the bugger.’

Harry smiled. ‘Rather annoying. Still, Arthur’d have approved: I imagine he’s playing about with plugs even now, and causing the Host to hide their smiles. But that’s for the Church Triumphant,’ added Harry, and turned to address the Aurors, Unspeakables, and various supernumerary attachments, in crisply square-bashing, parade ground tones and volume. ‘Damn it all, you lot, we’re yet the Church Militant here below, leave off quaggling like jellies, get on your feet and clean the bloody area.’

He and Dud walked imperturbably back towards the Bulstrode place, from which destination they were delayed only for a few moments when a furious Draco, with the reactions of relief after intolerable worry, punched Harry on the jaw. (Dudley made a knot in his handkerchief to remind him to teach Malfoy how to box: poor sod did considerably less damage to Harry’s notoriously hard head than to his own hand, and was swearing fit to be tied as he cradled it.)

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‘… Oh, this is too bad. The light has been offered, and the visiting captain has accepted it. He’s leading his side to the pavilion, and that’s stumps for this third day of the Test. It’s quite likely that we’ll have an early start tomorrow, and England remain firmly in control on 523 for six.’

Dudley’s contented doze was interrupted by a poke in the belly, not that he’d much of one these days: Elspeth and Harriet and young Artful saw to that. Blinking, he looked up.

‘Harry. Draco. Lemonade? I don’t care what the weather is at Edgbaston, or, rather, I do, but at least it’s a beautiful day here – remarkable, really, the Met Office promised good weather, so you’d expect it to be pissing down, wouldn’t you.’

‘I think we’ve time for a glass,’ smiled Harry. ‘And after that, a ramble?’

‘Oh?’ Dud knew perfectly well that this was not a mere indulgence proposed. ‘If it’s bloody Berkshire this time, you’re well out of my catchment area –’

‘Tell me,’ said Harry, handing Draco a glass. ‘Did you ever hear anything odd about the tumuli down Trotton way, in West Sussex?’

Draco sighed, and put his lemonade down. ‘Don’t let him cozen you, Dudley. It’s actually very unlikely that the actual Thor is tossing menhirs at the actual Loki between Stedham and Iping Common – actually. I mean, really, Harry: Loki with a public-school accent?’

‘Of course I don’t wish to take you away from anything important,’ said Harry with his most suasive smile. ‘But, really, Dud, you’re the only one in whom I’ve the least confidence.’

Dudley simply sat back in his chair, and laughed. ‘That’s south the Rother, isn’t it? Well, it’s not country I know well – far too far away – but I do recall doddering about the various National Trust gardens nearby. Petworth, you know, and Woolbeding, by Titty Hill; Uppark’s a bit too like the Dower House at your place, Harry, always makes me feel dizzy; and of course, just in this district of mine own, there is Oakhurst Cottage – lovely little cottage garden they’ve kept up, there – and the Arboretum at Winkworth, just over in Godalming; and you can’t potter about those and not be bullied by the National Trust people into going down into Sussex as well and looking at everything else. So I have done, too, and been through Chithurst and Dumpford and all that – did you know, they’ve an Elsted and Elsted Marsh down that way? E-L-S-T-E-D, mind, but, really, you’d not credit the number of people who can’t be bothered to look out the spelling or the ruddy postcode…. But you were asking about Trotton, Iping, and Stedham Commons. Well, all I can say is, Thor or no Thor, the tributary that runs into the Rother between Chithurst and Ipping is the Hammer Brook….’

Harry sat back, with a fond smile, and prepared to listen. When it came to it, Dud was the only one he’d trust for this sort of thing.

‘…polo, I ask you. Midhurst and all that. Hasn’t ruined Pocock’s place – that’s the Three Pheasants – good nosh, cask ales (Bowman, and Ringwood), local cider: there’s a blackberry one, if I recall, you should try it, Harry: capital stuff, that. Old Wally Joyes, who’s the jobbing gardener in those parts, got me started on that ’un; he may be given to seeing phantom legionaries marching down the Roman road that crosses Fitzhall Heath, may Wally, but he knows his local ciders and his real ales. Last of a fading breed, though, I fear. It’s as I was saying: nowadays, all that country is trippers, incomers, townies, and people with too damned much money. Ruined the place, really, from Titty Hill to Didling, Cocking to Butser Hill – not that I know that country as well as some, mind. It’s not hard, though, to see how far it’s been ruined by all those incomers and flash rahs. Tapas for pub grub – no word of a lie: couldn’t find cheese and pickle or a Scotch egg to save your life – and sherry, if you please. Tarted up the pub at Trotton Bridge something shocking, and to no purpose: why, when it was a proper pub, and a free house, Queen Adelaide and Louis Napoleon’d both stopped there – separately, I mean: it had been a coaching inn – and, speaking of flash Frogs, Claude Duval, the Restoration gent-highwayman, once he’d made Hants and Berks too hot to hold him….’

Draco resigned himself to a long, if instructive, afternoon.


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FINITE
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