Chapter 2 : In the Nest of Shrikes
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Mornings where hardly Ifan Goodwin’s favourite time of the day. In fact, he despised them with all his might. So really, he couldn’t be blamed for going overboard with the matter. It should be blamed entirely on the morning.
He had been woken up, far earlier than he considered to be natural, by the family cat. How the wretched thing had even got into his room was a mystery; he always made a point to lock his door. Sometimes he wondered if it had somehow learned to apparate because nothing else made sense. With a sigh he sat up on his bed and shot the cat a foul look.
“I hope you’re satisfied now.”
Judging by its smug look, it was. It padded over to him and jumped on the bed, nestling between the covers. He glared at it for a moment before getting up and starting to look for his clothes. He was tempted to push the cat off of his bed (after all, who had said it could sleep while he had to get up?) but decided against it. The damned thing would only come up with something to pay him back, he was certain of it. No, he thought as he left the room and made his way to the kitchen, it was best to leave it be.
On arriving there, he discovered that he wasn’t the only one awake at this hour. Lounging by the great kitchen table reading a book that had clearly seen better days was one of the younger generation of the Prendergast assassin clan, Menna. She was dressed in a worn t-shirt and sweatpants at least two sizes too big (Ifan suspected that they had at some point belonged to one of her older male cousins and she had decided to “borrow” them). Her light brown hair had been pulled away from her face into a ponytail which made her sharp features look even sharper. Beside her on the table was bundle of black cloth and between its folds something silvery was poking out.
“I see you’ve returned”, Ifan commented to the young woman.
“And good morning to you too”, she replied, never looking up from her book. “How are we today?”
“Hilarious”, he said, not in the mood to play games with her. “I take everything went well?”
“Like a dream”, she said. “He never saw it coming.”
“And that’s how we like it”, Ifan replied as he took a seat across the table from her. “No extra fuss and nothing”, he looked at the other (or rather, the back of her book) sternly, “to tie it back to us.”
Menna sighed and closed the book with a snap as she turned to regard him with a cold look. Out of her generation, only she had inherited the greenish grey eyes possessed also by her grandmother, father and uncle. Right now, they were narrowed angrily at him.
“I’ll have you know, Uncle”, she said slowly, pronouncing each syllable clearly, “that I left behind not a single piece of evidence they could use against us.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“I’m good at what I do”, Menna cut across him with an air of finality, returning to her book. “And I don’t like it when my abilities are questioned.”
Ifan sighed mentally and rose to fix himself breakfast. It was no use arguing with her; Menna had a difficult nature, had always had, and initiating an argument would only serve as a fuel for that nature. As he reached for the cabinet for some eggs, he wondered how his brother, who was practically the nicest person in the world, had managed to raise a daughter so vastly different from himself.
“Are you hungry?” he asked her idly while looking for a pan.
“Not really, no.”
Ifan sighed again and turned to look at her tense profile. Another thing to remember when you were dealing with Menna was that she had a tendency to take everything personally. In particular, any mention of her ability to carry on her duties as the member of their clan was bound to get a reaction out of her. He was going to have to settle this quickly, or else she would continue to give him the silent treatment until next spring. He abandoned his cooking and moved to stand in front of her, placing his hands on her shoulders.
“Look”, he said softly, looking her directly in the eyes. “I’m merely concerned about the safety of our family. I didn’t mean to imply that you were not good at your job because you are. And you should be. After all”, he smiled at her slightly, “you are undoubtedly my best pupil.”
He squeezed her shoulders. “So how about you and I have some breakfast now?”
Menna didn’t look completely mollified at this but at least her shoulders relaxed slightly. “Make sure you don’t burn my eggs.”
He grinned. “I make no promises.”
They ate their breakfast in silence. Ifan had managed to slightly singe Menna’s eggs for which she had given him a long hard look before accepting her plate with murmured thanks. Ifan had elected to ignore the look; if she wanted unburned eggs, she should have cooked them herself. It was common knowledge that eggs and bacon were the extent of his cooking skill and even then he didn’t manage to do them properly. True, he could have used magic to cook them but Ifan disliked using it for every mundane task. If nature had wanted magic to be the solution to everything, he reasoned, it wouldn’t have given them hands.
A sound of something rapping against the window broke the silence. Menna looked up from her book.
“That’s probably Mem coming with the post”, she said and stood up to let the owl in. Mem, or Agamemnon, as he was officially called, soared in and landed in the middle of the table, offering his leg to Ifan so that he could remove the Daily Prophet tied to it.
“I don’t understand why we keep ordering this paper”, Ifan grumbled as he spread the newspaper in front of him. “They never report anything worthwhile and besides, they are highly biased against…”
He stopped himself in mid-sentence as his eyes landed on the headline on the front page:
Man found murdered, circumstances suspicious.
Ifan looked over at Menna, who was innocently feeding bits of bacon to Mem. Feeling his gaze, she cocked her head and asked, “What?”
“You said you left behind not a single piece of evidence!”
From there on, it was pure chaos. Ifan sent the indignantly bristling Menna upstairs to wake the rest of the family while he practically threw Mem out of the window to send a message to the other members of the clan. A few moments later, Nia Sayer and Rhys Iorwerth apparated into the kitchen, him still clutching a piece of toast and both of them looking bewildered and worried. As Ifan’s mother and brother joined them, Menna was unceremoniously told to sit down as the clan gathered around her.
Aled, naturally, took his daughter’s side.
“How was she supposed to know someone would go sniffing about after she left?” he argued, waving his hand to emphasize his point. “Knowing something like that in advance would require a gift of foresight, which we unfortunately do not possess!”
“It does not require foresight, it requires being thorough”, Ifan snapped. “Which she obviously was not!”
“She said she left no evidence”, Nia, Ifan and Aled’s cousin, said mildly. “I’m inclined to believe her, Ifan. She has not made a mistake like this before.”
“But what are the chances someone would accidentally stumble across something like this?” her brother Rhys asked. “Whoever it was must have worked pretty hard to find discriminating evidence. Menna must have missed something.”
“I did not miss anything”, she defended herself sullenly. “I’m sure of it.”
Aled made a gesture that clearly meant: There, see? Ifan was not convinced, however.
“I accept that she has not made a mistake of this calibre before”, he said, looking directly at his brother. “But she must have done something for this to be discovered like this!”
“She just said…”
“I know what she said! And I say she’s not taking this seriously enough! I…”
“A matter this serious is not solved by shouting, Ifan.”
Ifan shut his mouth with an audible snap. Aled recoiled as if burned by something. Menna blinked and said, “Nain?”
Rhian, the veritable matriarch of the clan, eyed her two sons and granddaughter disapprovingly. Although her hair was turning grey, she was still agile and nimble in her movements and, like Artemisia Morton, the ancestor of the family and the deadliest Shrike ever born, she was someone who not even her own family dared to question.
She continued to stare at Ifan and Aled for a while longer before turning her attention fully to Menna.
“You’re certain you got rid of the evidence?” she asked softly. “Every last one?”
“Yes”, she replied. “I’m certain. There was no one about. Only…”
She stopped abruptly and the little colour there was on her face drained away.
“Yes?” Rhian prompted. Although her tone was gentle, there was a steely glint in her eyes.
“I thought it was just an animal”, Menna whispered. “A stray cat or something like that. But now that I think about it…”
She trailed of and looked helplessly at her father who slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders.
Ifan ran his hand through his dark hair. “Brilliant”, he muttered darkly. “Absolutely brilliant. My niece and she can’t tell the difference between a stray cat and a wizard in hiding. I thought I taught you better!” he snapped to Menna who, to her credit, looked a little guilty. “How many times did I tell you not to move if there was even the slightest of chances that someone might be watching? How many times?”
She hung her head and didn’t answer.
“What is done is done”, Rhian said with a sigh, although the look in her eyes told that she, too, was disappointed. “Now all we can do is to hope that they won’t find us.”
“And if they do?” Aled asked softly. “Then what?”
“Then we do what we have always done.” Rhian stood up and looked at each member of her family. “We kill those who witness anything and disappear from sight once again.”
She looked at Menna again.
“I do hope you realise what danger you’ve placed your family in with your carelessness”, she said sternly. “I will not, however, punish you for it.”
Menna’s head shot up and she looked at her grandmother incredulously. Rhian smiled thinly. “I believe that living with this knowledge is a punishment enough.”
Menna lowered her head again and nodded mutedly.
“Now”, Rhian said, clapping her hands together. “We shall let this matter drop but be on guard, all of you. No more fooling around. Nia, Rhys, make sure the youngsters know this as well.”
The siblings murmured affirmatively and disappareted with two loud cracks. Ifan shot one last disappointed look at his niece before heading upstairs. He didn’t think he could control himself if he remained in the same room with her. As he reached the top of the stairs he could hear her soft voice saying, “I’m sorry, tad.” She sounded close to tears, but Ifan thought was just him hearing things. She hadn’t cried in years.
“It’s all right, cariad”, Aled’s voice replied soothingly. “We’ll figure something out, don’t worry.”
Despite himself, Ifan felt a bang of guilt. She was young still, and young people were prone to making mistakes.
Besides, hadn’t he himself been a long time ago in almost exact same position as she was now? He grimaced to himself. “I hate mornings.”
Harry Potter stared at the owl.
The owl stared back, clearly bored.
As to why he was having a staring contest with the predatory bird, well, there was a perfectly good reason for it. Yesterday, he and his partner and best friend Ron Weasley had received an order to apprehend an old wizard suspected for the possession of dangerous dark artefacts. Normally, such a job would have belonged to an ordinary magical law enforcement unit, but after three hit-wizards had been sent to St. Mungo’s cursed, Gawain Robards, the head of the Aurors, had decided to sent someone more qualified with dealing dangerous curses. Thus, Harry and Ron had landed with the job. They had managed to arrest the old wizard Merrick after a brief exchange of curses and hexes, but it turned out later that they could not prosecute him, for Merrick’s owl had stolen their key evidence and refused to release it. That was why Harry was currently staring at the said owl, trying to lure it, for the umpteenth time it seemed, to give back the artefact.
He inched his hand slightly closer to the bird and the flat disc it was clutching in its talons. It continued to stare at him.
“Nice owl”, Harry tried.
The owl didn’t even blink.
“Why don’t you let Uncle Harry remove that icky dark artefact from your pretty little toes?” he continued, using the same tone of voice he had heard Ginny use when she had cooed at a litter of newborn kittens (although he sincerely hoped he wouldn’t have to use it ever again). “It can’t be comfortable standing on a cold, hard piece of metal all day, can it?”
It snapped its beak and glared at him, clearly saying that it would much prefer to continue standing on the cold, hard piece of metal, thank you very much. Harry gritted his teeth as he moved his hand even closer. He wasn’t about to give up now when he was so close to succeeding.
“There’s a nice girl… Ouch!”
The owl had finally grown tired of him and pecked at his hand, hard enough to draw blood. Harry withdrew his hand from the cage and slammed the door shut, seething. Under any other circumstances, he liked owls very much, but this one was trying his patience. Gloomily, he inspected the bleeding cut in his hand before poking at it with his wand. The cut closed up immediately.
“Oh, love, you’ll never get her to release the disc that way.”
Startled, Harry whipped around and pointed his wand at a tall, lean witch leaning on the table behind him. She let out a peal of laughter at his reaction.
“Jumpy already?” She tut-tuted. “And at your age, too. Harry, I know you looked up to Mad-Eye Moody, but I still wouldn’t recommend following in his footsteps. It’s not good for you.”
Harry bit back his impatience. She was like this with everyone she met. “What can I do for you, Proudfoot?”
Berenice Proudfoot was, along with Mavis Dedrick, the oldest female auror currently serving in the force. Known to some as simply as Bea, she was a greying woman in her mid-fifties who not only managed to beat the younger members in every test but was also a deadly duellist, having grabbled with and defeated such notorious Death Eaters as Dolohov, Yaxley and the Lestrange brothers. The Aurors dealt with the darkest and most dangerous tasks in the wizarding world, yet Proudfoot had an outgoing, sunny disposition, and she loved teasing her colleagues. Rumour had it that she had driven Scrimgeour up the wall on more than one occasion. Harry had joined the Aurors much later but he suspected it to be true; she drove Robards up the wall on a regular basis. Why couldn’t she have done the same with his predecessor? Harry had nothing but the utmost respect for her, but sometimes he wished she would take things as seriously in the office as she took them on the field.
“I was looking for you, actually”, she was saying. “Gawain wants a word with the whole team.”
That was the other thing Harry occasionally wished she’d stop, although not as fervently as he wished she’d stop the first thing. No matter how important or high-ranking the other person was, she always referred to them by their given name, even to their faces. The younger members generally didn’t mind this but she had been in trouble previously for disrespecting an important member of the ministry. In fact, the only one who continuously overlooked it (besides Robards, but he had no choice if he wanted to keep peace in the office) was Kingsley Shacklebolt, the Minister for Magic, but he had worked with her for years and was used to it.
Harry shot one last irritated look at the owl which was now innocently preening herself as if nothing remarkable had happened and rose from his chair. “What do you reckon he might want to talk about?” he asked Proudfoot.
“I’d imagine it’s got to do with yesterday’s body”, she answered. “The one Robards and I went to check while you and Ron were chasing Merrick and his owl.”
Harry shot a sideways look at her as they were walking along the corridor towards the meeting room. Proudfoot’s words had been light-hearted enough, but there was a worried look in her eyes that Harry was not used to seeing. That alone was enough to make him dread for this meeting.
When he and Proudfoot reached the meeting room, a small, poorly lit space Harry suspected had been previously two broom cupboards and someone had simply knocked the dividing wall down, everyone else save for Robards had already arrived. He sat down next to Ron, who was absent-mindedly twirling a quill in his fingers. Judging by the wrinkles on his forehead, he, too, was worried about what was about to come.
“Do you know something I don’t?” Harry whispered to him.
Ron shook his head. “I don’t know anything”, he whispered back. “I’ve just heard rumours.”
“What kind of rumours?”
“Well, I heard Gilbert talking that it – the killing, I mean – might not have been done by magic. That it was with ordinary weapons. Gilbert reckons it was a Muggle, only I don’t…”
“Well, then, shall we get this underway?”
At that moment, Gawain Robards entered the room and Ron shot a guilty look at Harry as he closed his mouth. Robards was a lean wizard with a black hair even messier than Harry’s and clever amber eyes; Harry had always thought him to be rather feline-like. He had once likened his predecessor Scrimgeour to an aged lion, while Robards reminded him of a panther, readying itself to a leap. Unlike Scrimgeour, however, Robards didn’t have a single political bone in his body and would not, under any circumstances, consider leaving the Aurors for a considerably higher position. Harry was secretly relieved about this; he liked working for Robards, who was strict but fair and always took into consideration the opinions of those working for him.
Robards moved to stand at the end of the table and placed his hands on top of it.
“Right, folks”, he said, looking at each of the Aurors in turn. “I’m certain you are all aware what has happened yesterday, but in case you have spent the last 24 hours underneath one rock or the other, I shall recap it briefly for you.”
He paused for a moment, and then continued. “Yesterday, a body suspected of having died in suspicious circumstances was brought in to the morgue of St. Mungo’s Magical Maladies and Injuries. The head pathologist contacted us and Auror Proudfoot and I went to investigate. As it turned out, the circumstances of the death were indeed suspicious.”
“Is the cause of death unclear, sir?” asked Mavis Dedrick, the most senior female Auror currently deployed in the force.
Robards shook his head. “The cause of death is clear”, he replied. “The victim’s neck artillery was severed and he consequently bled to death. Nor do we have any doubt about the murder weapon. In fact, it is the fact that we do know the weapon in question that makes this death so suspicious.”
“What kind of weapon was it, sir?” someone asked.
“The head pathologist believes that the attacker used a thin, double-edged knife with a long blade”, Robards said. “One that was very similar to this one.”
He pulled out a long box from underneath his robe and placed it on the desk. Very slowly, as if afraid something might spring out of the box, he pulled the lid open. Harry craned his neck to see what was inside better. Lying in the box lined with red satin was a thin-bladed silver knife with an intricately carved leather-bound handle. All around him, people were murmuring nervously to their neighbours and Ron had suddenly gone very pale. Harry didn’t fully understand what had caused the sudden unrest, but he had a feeling it had something to do with the knife.
Robards looked grim. “I know what you are all thinking”, he said quietly, “and you are right. There is no doubt about it. The victim was murdered by a Shrike.”
Jason Gilbert laughed. As everyone’s eyes turned on him, he blushed slightly and said, “But… they’re not real, are they? No one has seen them in centuries, right?”
“Oh, they are real, all right”, Robards said darkly. “It is true that they have disappeared from public view but there have been a few unsolved cases where the victim was murdered much like our man was murdered now. It is also true that the last two cases are some fifty years apart. However, there are too many similarities for us to ignore them: both victims had their throats slashed and both bore a similar stab wound right in the middle of the wound. I believe this warrants an investigation.”
“So, where do we start?” Proudfoot asked. “We can’t just go from door to door asking if people saw anything. The Shrikes operate in absolute secrecy; that has always been their style. Besides, they are assassins - they only work for the highest bidder. That makes them difficult to trace because they have no connections to the victim.”
“We will go over the crime scene”, Robards said firmly. “They were careless enough to leave the body so that anyone could find it; perhaps they were careless about something else as well. Also, we will talk to the victim’s wife. Apparently, he was highly abusive, so she has the perfect motive. Weasley, Potter, you will question her. Be thorough, but there is no need to be rough with her. If she doesn’t know anything… well, we’ll have to find another line of inquiry. Hopefully she can give us something to work with. Is this understood?”
Harry nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Then I suggest you leave right away. The faster we can proceed with this, the better. I have left the address of the widow on your desk, Potter, you can collect it from there. As for the rest of you, you will head to the crime scene. See if you can find anything. I will be going over all of the unsolved cases from the last fifty years to see if there are any other similar cases. You are all dismissed.”
Harry and Ron glanced at each other briefly before standing and heading for the door. As soon as they were out of earshot, Harry turned to Ron and said, “Robards was really serious, wasn’t he?”
“For a good reason”, Ron replied. “The Shrikes are the worst. Not quite in Voldemort’s league, as far as dark wizards go, but not far from it either. You heard what Proudfoot said, didn’t you? They kill people for money. That’s the only thing that motivates them.”
Harry frowned slightly. “I’ve never heard anyone mention them before. If they are as bad as you say, then surely people would talk about them more and search for them?”
“But people don’t like talking about them”, Ron explained. “It’s as if they believe that talking about them would attract their attention. Besides, the last known Shrike died in the 19th century. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. No one has seen any of them after that - no one even knows what they are called these days.”
“If there even is a ‘they’. Perhaps no one has seen them because they are dying out?”
“That’s what we’ve got to find out, isn’t it? Come on, I’ll explain everything about the Shrikes on the way. We have to collect the address first, don’t we?”
“Providing that that ruddy owl hasn’t eaten it, of course.”
Rhian Goodwin stood silently by the open window, looking over the dark hills guarding their home. The lights of the nearest village were just about visible in the horizon. Rhian loved this place, the green Welsh countryside. This was where her family had always lived. It was where she had hoped they would always live.
“You should close the window, mam. You might catch a cold.”
She smiled softly as she turned to face her younger son. Aled regarded her with his usual gentle expression as he moved to stand beside her. As fair as his brother was dark, he took after his paternal grandmother in his kind, peace-loving temperament. If she was entirely truthful to herself, Rhian had never bothered to understand her mother-in-law until the birth of her second son. That woman had been everything she was not and would never be; peaceful, gentle and kind to everyone she met. Rhian, on the other hand, had been raised by her strict father who had wished for a son and got a daughter instead, and as such she was harsh and unforgiving towards most. Had Aled not been born when he did, she might have repeated her father’s every mistake with Ifan. Unlike most of his family, Aled despised violence and killed only as a last result; therefore it surprised Rhian that his daughter, her only grandchild, had turned out to be the exact opposite of her father. Indeed, Menna was just like Rhian when she had been her age and out of everyone in the family, the most adapted to their way of life. Rhian knew that Aled was sometimes saddened to know this and inwardly blamed himself for it - his separation with her mother had been anything but peaceful and that might have contributed to Menna being the way she was - but she also knew that he still loved her unconditionally and would stand by her come what may.
This was why Rhian knew that Aled was not merely concerned his mother’s health; he had come to talk about Menna. She said nothing about that, however, and instead replied, “You cheeky whelp! I do not recall raising you to talk that way to your poor old mother!”
Aled smiled slightly and reached past her to close the window. “You’re hardly old, mam. You are still the most fearsome witch I have ever encountered and that is saying a lot.”
“Thank you, but I would say that Menna gives me a good run for my money. She is plenty frightening when she gets truly angry.”
His smile faltered and he turned his head away. Resting his hand at the window pane, he looked out in the darkness. “Do you really think that your punishment was a just one?” he asked softly. “She’s only a child.”
Ah. So she had been right. Aled still wouldn’t look at her directly so she looked at his reflection in the glass instead.
“It may seem harsh to you”, she said slowly, “but it is the only kind of punishment that will make the reality really sink in. Menna is old enough to accept and understand the consequences, Aled, no matter what you tell yourself. If she really failed to notice the presence of another…”
“Not her”, Aled interrupted firmly, turning to face her. “Were we talking about anyone else, I would accept that logic, but not with my daughter. Not with Menna. She is the best we have and you know it! She does not make such elementary mistakes.”
“Have you not learnt already that interrupting someone is rude?”
Ashamed of his outburst, Aled closed his mouth. Rhian nodded approvingly.
“I’m glad you remember that”, she said. “As I was saying, she could have failed to notice the presence of another… but it could have very well been just a stray cat and the real culprit was hiding somewhere no one, not myself, not your brother and certainly not Menna, would have thought to look. Aled, I believe you when you say she could not have done such an elementary mistake because there was no elementary mistake to be made. I think she was framed.”
“Framed? But by who?” Alarm crossed Aled’s features. “Who could have done something like that?”
“Someone who knows our ways as well as we do”, Rhian answered. “Someone who has held a grudge against us since the time he was born. Someone who would love nothing better than to see us at the end of the stake for once.”
“…You mean the Magpie.” Aled sounded doubtful. “Are you sure? I’m certain that I killed the last one.”
“That you did.” Rhian smiled at her son. “That was the last time I saw you willingly take someone’s life. But if I am not mistaken, he had a son. One very bright, very clever son. He would be in his twenties now if I’m not thoroughly mistaken.”
“He did, didn’t he?” Aled’s mouth twisted into a frown. “The son could very well be looking for revenge, but it still does not prove that he had anything to do with this. It could very well be a coincidence.”
“I do not believe in coincidences”, Rhian said firmly. “Aled, you know as well as I do that shrikes and magpies have always been and will always be mortal enemies. I have no doubt in my heart that this would not be the work of the Magpie. After all”, she smiled darkly, “magpies are scavengers. They live by going after others’ wastes.”
“And shrikes impale their prey”, Aled returned neatly. “All right. I accept that this… this mess might have been caused by the Magpie. But we need more proof. There is no need to scare the entire flock with baseless speculation.”
“I agree”, Rhian nodded. “For the time being, this stays between us.”
Relief shone in Aled’s greenish grey gaze although he did his best to hide it. He turned to move away from the window before faltering and turning to look at her. “Mam, what about Menna?”
“What about her?”
“Shouldn’t we tell her?” Aled shifted his weight uncertainly from one foot to the other. “After all, the others blame this on her. If she knew that it was not her fault…”
“If she knew that, she would be out looking for the one that framed her and put her family in danger faster than you could blink”, Rhian said dryly. As Aled opened his mouth to protest, she held out her hand to stop him. “It is true and you know it. She does not take such things kindly and I would rather the Aurors did not catch a wind of us now when we’ve worked so much to remove all traces of us. No, Aled. For now, it is best that she does not know.”
He sighed in defeat. “I suppose you’re right. Fine, I won’t tell her anything but I don’t like it. I’m not used to keeping things from her.”
“I know, love, I know.” Rhian reached out a hand to touch her son’s cheek gently. “I’m sorry that I have to put you in such a position but it is for the best. And who knows?” She turned back to the window again. “Perhaps us keeping quiet lulls our enemy into false sense of security and he moves to strike again. Then, we can get our evidence and plan accordingly.”
“I should hope so, mam.”
A brief pronunciation guide for Welsh names and words:
Nain [naɪn] - grandmother
Tad [tɑːd] - father
Mam [mam] - mother
Cariad [ˈkarɪad] - love, darling
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