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Chapter 1: Prologue
A downpour of rain tends to be a fairly normal incident anywhere in the British Isles at any time of year. Even in the middle of summer, if all other places on Earth are bright and sunny and warm, there is a near-guarantee that every Brit who has been foolish enough to remain at home will be sopping wet.
Pleasant weather does occur from time to time, but it is so rare and random that the natives cherish it as if it is a gift from God himself, and suddenly develop all manner of outdoor habits that, normally, the climate does not permit them to partake in (with the sole exception of rugby, a sport which is not a true sport if the wind isn’t howling at the players’ legs and the rain lashing at their faces. It is a man’s game, after all, and men can be quite particular about such things).
Yet most of the time ideal rugby weather prevails in Britain, and apart from this single sport, Brits can’t really find all that many outdoor activities to enjoy unless they wish to participate in them soaked and freezing cold. As such, inhabitants of the British Isles have mastered the art of enjoying themselves indoors, devising a whole range of activities to suit this purpose.
Badminton is one such activity – a tennis which doesn’t destroy the decoration, as the fattest king of the English discovered. Cards would presumably be another (for truly, who but the insipidly royalist Brits would place kings and queens on them?). Tiddlywinks is probably one also – again, would any nation other than the Brits really come up with such a ridiculous name? And, finally, there is the most honoured tradition of all: drinking.
I do not refer solely to the consumption of alcohol, though that is indeed a big part of it. No, tea will do a Brit very nicely, as a leftover from their imperialistic ways and a habit it would be a crime to drop. But mostly, yes, it is alcohol. Though the Brits do not really produce much alcohol worth noting, save gin – their beer is most certainly an acquired taste, and the continent tends to do it better anyway – this does not usually stop them. Pubs are a unique invention upon this Earth, and not even the most modern or trendy of bars can really compare to a traditional British pub, a temple to one of the greatest British pastimes.
Ironically, a rainy evening in summer can be something of a mixed blessing for a pub owner. Yes, it chases people away from barbecues and other outdoors (and thus non-British) events, but going to a pub would, in itself, require braving the rain. Those who wish to go out are thus tempted to make use of the car, a device which, in the eyes of a British pub owner, is the creation of Satan himself, as it discourages drinking.
Terry Wilson, owner of the White Stag pub, was actually quite pleased with a spot of rain. The White Stag had the superb situating of being the only pub in the village of Kittering, a fairly small place which using a car to traverse would be the height of stupidity. As such, he had a decent collection of regulars who would abandon their summer barbecues and walk down to the Stag for the night.
Summer was quite good for these things. Despite the rain it was not terribly cold out there, and holidays meant that students – the greatest of drinkers – would be at home and quite inclined to spend the evening down the pub.
Kittering, Terry considered, really was a good place for his business to be. He had run the pub for ten years now, and thus was an accepted part of the local environment. There was a solid supply of regulars who kept his business afloat and made the job quite enjoyable, as it meant he could spend evenings sitting around with his friends and occasionally getting them drinks, and, above all, it wasn’t a dodgy area. The pub chain he had lately joined insisted on his taking a few management courses, and despite his initial disdain, Terry had learnt a thing or two from them. He had also discovered from colleagues who ran establishments in less savoury environments that he was beyond lucky in not having to replace a pool cue every week, or deal with broken tables, broken glasses, broken noses on a regular basis. No, Kittering was a good place, with good people.
There were a few slightly undesirable inhabitants in the small village. The old woman who lived by herself with her few billion teapots and got called a witch by small children. The new couple who had moved into the area because they deemed it ‘quaint’ – and although there wasn’t really anything too wrong with them, the people of Kittering really objected to their home being called quaint. The man who lived in the house in the next street from the White Stag who spent half of his time away from home and the other half in Kittering having weird things happen to him. And he had a son.
Well, actually, he didn’t. There was a considerable amount of discussion as to why someone as eccentric as William Rayner had adopted the equally odd boy Caldwyn Brynmor – or something equally excessively Welsh – and just what had happened to the boy’s parents in the first place, but nothing ever came of it beyond wild and entertaining rumours. The general consensus was that Rayner was merely the boy’s unsuitable godfather and had thus found himself with the spawn of now-deceased close friends thrust upon him.
Terry supposed that he couldn’t complain all that much, however. After all, Rayner spent most of his time away on whatever business he had, and Brynmor went to some boarding school, the both of them returning to Kittering only in the summer. And this summer, Brynmor had brought a bunch of friends with him, all of whom seemed to be quite fond of the White Stag. They were just as weird as Brynmor and Rayner, mind, but they drank enough for Terry to not be all that bothered.
Besides, from what he’d overheard of their earlier conversations, tonight was the last day of holidays and they’d all be leaving for whatever school it was they went to on the morrow. Rayner, too, would presumably flit off for whatever demanded his attention.
They weren’t here yet, however. It was only seven o’ clock, and none other than the utterly devoted regulars were filtering into the Stag. This was the quiet time, just after the rush of the early dinners and before the even bigger rush of the excessive drinking. Terry tended to enjoy this time – it gave him the opportunity to look everything over, check the glasses, ensure that all the bottles were fully stocked, make a few orders to the bosses for a few more barrels of Guinness, and basically prepare for whatever would strike.
He wiped away at the counter in a suitably landlord-ish way, the way owners of traditional pubs were supposed to, then flicked the towel over his shoulder to survey the pub. Terry was particularly proud of the White Stag. It was one of those old establishments which had been here a century, and although he had done his best to keep it modern and in good nick, he’d also preserved as much of the old charm of the place as was possible – the polished wooden panelling, the old (fake) hunting trophies up for display on the walls, a few relics of the Edwardian period decorating the place… yes, it was a typical British pub. But it was his British pub, and it seemed he was very lucky for it to not be destroyed week after week.
That wasn’t to say that the place was always clear. Kittering lay on the route between the two nearest towns, so in the evenings it wasn’t uncommon to find groups passing through, and occasionally stopping in the White Stag for a drink or two. When you got the already drunken group of youths deciding they’d have one more round before disappearing off into the night, things could get… a little rowdy. All in all, however, fortunately, the regulars were quite alright.
The door laughed open at last to allow in the young Caldwyn Brynmor and his group of friends, as prompt in their arrival at the pub as ever, seeming to be missing one of their number but no less enthusiastic for it. Instead of taking their usual table in the corner of the pub, the three of them headed over to the bar, pulling up stools jovially and acknowledging the bartender with grins and nods.
“Evening, Mister Brynmor,” Terry greeted them a little vaguely as he picked up a pint glass to polish, quite sure he’d be needing to fill it in a few moments. “Glad you could grace us with your presence before flitting off on holiday, wherever you’re going. Will your friend be joining you later, or is it just you three again?”
“Doyle went off for one of his walks,” one of the boy’s friends, a girl of slender build, medium height and mildly disturbingly bright bleached, short, spiky hair, answered casually. “He should be with us in a short while.”
“Until then, it is, indeed, us three,” said the final member. He was tallest of the three, with irritatingly neat blonde hair at the top of his lofty, wiry frame and the sort of clear blueness in his eyes which had to, pretentiously, come from contact lenses or the like. “Just like old times.”
“For half an hour,” the shorter, more muscular and solidly built Caldwyn Brynmor grunted, running a hand through his closely-cropped, bristly dark hair. “Which is just as well, as old times were pretty bloody annoying.”
“You’ve got no nostalgia in your soul, Cal,” the other boy declared. Terry was a little relieved to realise that he wasn’t the only one who found pronouncing the Welshman’s name to be something of a challenge. “Surely you can reminisce a little with us? It is a memorable night, after all.”
Terry decided that it would probably be best that he intervened before they got too caught up in the conversation. “Drinks, people?” he asked jovially. He did know for a fact that the trio were only seventeen, and they knew he knew, but he… to tell the truth, he didn’t dare challenge these odd kids on anything. God knew how they might react. Besides, there were people who could legally drink who made a whole lot more problems than this group.
“I’ll have a Guinness,” Cal grunted, attempting to dismiss his friend’s tirade with a vague wave of the hand.
“Righto, mate. Mister Grey, Miss Cole?” Terry turned to the other two.
Tobias Grey and Tanith Cole – what was it with these people, they all had dodgy-sounding names – glanced at each other before the tall boy gestured vaguely to his companion, inviting her to order first. “Vodka and orange,” she said politely, leaning forwards slightly on her stool.
“And a Strongbow,” Tobias supplemented, brushing his hair back slightly. He paused, then cast Cal a glance. “Guinness? I thought we were going to have a shot at a top-shelfer tonight?” he added imploringly.
Terry pricked his ears as he set about pouring Cal’s pint. A top-shelfer – that was, a drink from every bottle on the top shelf behind the bar – usually offered a fairly fruitful night for a bartender. Of course, it had a tendency to wipe out his patrons, but, well, business was business.
“Wait until Doyle’s here,” Tanith scolded, hitting Tobias’s arm. “We can’t start without him. You know how he hates to have to carry us all back home.” She shrugged, shaking her head. “I don’t have a bloody clue how he manages it, tell the truth.”
“Stamina of an ox,” Cal murmured as he handed Terry some coins for the pint set before him. “I always told him that would come in handy on the Quid– ah, on the pitch,” he stammered, stumbling over whatever he was going to say. Terry ignored him as he set about getting the drinks for the other two.
“Ah yes. Montague’s become really rather addled; why do I have a feeling you’ll be trying to weasel your way onto the team?” Tobias asked with an amused look. “Sure you’re up for it? You haven’t played a game in years.”
“I’m betting that Montague, in his new and improved state of mind, will set aside all earlier prejudices and kick off one of those two brain-dead goons that currently hold the position that is mine by right,” Cal said loftily, waving a hand vaguely. “I can beat either of them on my worst day and their best. And we’re going to kick Gryffindor’s arse this year.”
“What’s this?” Terry asked cheerfully, setting the two glasses in front of Tanith and Tobias. “School rugby team?”
For some reason, the three looked vaguely amused as they sipped their drinks. “Something like that, yeah,” Tanith agreed, smirking slightly.
“The last two captains haven’t been particularly fond of me, even though I can out-play either of them. The current one has recently suffered a slight amount of… mental difficulties following a rather nasty prank, and if all goes well, I’ll be back on the house team.” Cal winked at his two companions. “That’ll show the ponces.”
Terry blinked, then shrugged and picked up another glass, polishing it expertly. The three obviously went to some fancy boarding school, and as a product of the local comprehensive, the bartender wasn’t quite sure that Cal could honestly use the term ‘ponces’ without achieving the height of hypocrisy. He had never been one for rugby himself, and the whole ‘house system’ of schools struck him as another one of those protocols of snobbish establishments. He decided maybe it would be best if he didn’t interfere in their conversation any more.
“But that’s what I mean,” Cal was saying as Terry, out of habit and curiosity, tuned in vaguely. “It’s not about the past anymore. It’s about looking forward. Big changes are coming, not to mention nasty times. We’ve got to all… focus on the future.” Again, he gave a vague gesture which seemed to be the hand equivalent of a ‘y’know’.
“Normally, you know I’d agree with you,” Tobias said dryly. “But this year it’s a little different. Just think, tomorrow will be the last time we depart on the Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross. Doesn’t that scare you at all?”
Cal seemed to consider this for a few moments. “A little,” he conceded at last.
“Still… whatever happens in the future, we’ve had a great six years. And I’m sure the time ahead of us promises to just be more entertaining. Besides, there’s one year left.” Tanith threw her arms over each of their shoulders in a companionable way, smirking. “And there are no two nutters I’d have rather spent my time with.”
“Hey, Tanith, don’t I get your love?” a fourth voice interrupted. “After all, aren’t I the greater magnet for trouble in the first place? And didn’t I introduce you to these two madmen? If it weren’t for me, they’d be sitting on their own in here, without our dazzling company, drinking themselves into stupors.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with that, Gabe,” Cal told the new arrival chirpily, raising his glass to him slightly.
Terry appeared hurriedly at the sight of another potential customer. Gabriel Doyle was the final member of the group of students who spent their holiday at Will Rayner’s house, and, to be fair, he didn’t look it. He looked older, with his dark hair in a longish style which was infinitely different to Tobias’s obsessively neat hair, or Cal’s short bristly crop, or Tanith’s boyish cut. Like Tobias, he had odd eyes, but they didn’t seem to be pretentiously from contact lenses – they were just naturally very, very disconcertingly dark.
Although Gabriel was obviously friends with the other three, the amount of time he spent alone doing whatever it was he did, and the way his companions easily accepted this without question or even comment, spoke of an interesting distance. Terry, having been a bartender for many years, was skilled enough at reading people to know that much at least.
“The usual, Mister Doyle?” he asked quickly, pointing to the bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Gabriel, more than the other three, gave him the creeps. It was probably the eyes. He couldn’t put his finger on what about the others made him edgy, but for Gabriel, a whole lot of it was in those dark orbs.
“Why not.” Gabriel said, clapping Cal on the shoulder as he nodded towards their normal table in the corner. “It’s time to celebrate. Someone’s got to be able to cope with these three delinquents, but it just won’t have to be me. I’ll just have your whiskey, but with that fizzy drink… erm, a…” His voice trailed off, and his eyes met Cal’s for a moment. The Welshman nodded encouragingly. “Coke?”
Terry frowned slightly, but didn’t comment. “Right you are.”
Tobias looked a little crestfallen. “I thought we were all going to do a top-shelfer tonight,” he reminded Gabriel almost sulkily.
Gabriel laughed. “For the uptight sod that you are, you’re certainly fond of your alcohol. Give me half a chance to catch my breath; I’m shattered after meandering around these bloody hills constantly.”
Tobias and Tanith exchanged glances. “I guess we’re going to have to wait a few minutes, then,” the girl declared, putting her glass down, giving him a wry look.
“You were able to start when I wasn’t here a few minutes ago,” Gabriel pointed out, nodding again towards the table in the corner. “Come on, let’s got sit somewhere I won’t need to get out a telescope to talk to Tanith.”
Terry watched them go with mixed feelings, picking up the dirty glass one of his other regulars had just finished off and refilling it wordlessly, easily anticipating the man’s request. He couldn’t say why, but he was really quite glad that those four had moved away from the bar. Truth be told, it took only the most determined of his customers to go up to order drinks when they sat there. And when he chatted to them about it, none of them could quite explain why.