Chapter 4 : Hunt
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That night, in the sanctity of my bedroom, listening to Hugo play his melodious, instrumental music from his room across the hall, I examined the potion more closely. It was a dark, rusty red now: almost like powder. I turned it over and over in my hands. Stealing was not exactly a new vice for me; I had smuggled several books out of the Restricted Section in the library just for the hell of it during my sixth year at Hogwarts. Besides, I was friends with Cecelia; when I visited her at her Oxfordshire home last summer she had dragged me around the various boutiques and taught me how to pocket something without anyone noticing. We had come home giggling, with cheap lipsticks and nail polishes hidden in our sleeves, clothes tucked into the hems of our trousers, and a stolen pair of sunglasses casually perched on her head. This summer, I had solemnly informed Cecelia that we were too old for such nonsense, and I had felt slightly ashamed; yet clearly those skills she had taught me had come into use. How ironic it was, that Cecelia was now working in the department of the law and sitting in on some of the most notorious wizarding trials in Britain!
No matter. There I was, with the potion and no idea of its potencies or powers, and no idea of how it could be used. I thought to myself that I should have asked Archie about how exactly the process worked- he’d said no wizard had yet tried it, and by the sounds of it, there weren’t any plans to administer it to wizards in the near future. It was a pet project costing the Ministry hundreds of galleons, no doubt. And for what? If the past was impossible to change, if nobody would ever use the device, for what purpose were they building it?
Before my mind could float away to ridiculous ideas of conspiracy among the Unspeakables (such malarkey!) there was a tapping at the window. I recognized the owl immediately; a great silver creature, with a regal head and an indisputable pedigree. I opened the screen so he could hop into my room, cooing softly.
“Yes, yes, Tempest, I’ll fetch you some treats,” I grumbled. Leaving the door to my room open and hoping Tempest wouldn’t relieve himself on my bed – I wouldn’t put it past his owner to command the owl to do so – I ran down to the kitchen, where my parents kept a large pottery tub of owl treats from the emporium in Diagon Alley. Dad heard me and called from the living room for me to bring him a biscuit.
“In a minute Dad, I’ve got an owl in my room,” I bellowed back, trotting back up the stairs. I fed Tempest and gingerly detached the letter tied to his left leg, earning myself a swift scratch on the back of my hand. “Ouch!” I glared at the beast and secured the letter. “You can go, you mad old owl. There won’t be a reply. Go fly home and claw your daddy’s eyes out. Poop on his stupid blond head, while you’re at it.”
Tempest hooted reproachfully, and for a moment even I felt a little guilty. I quickly scoured my bed for owl droppings, and, assured that Tempest had not defouled my duvet, flopped back down onto it and began to open the letter with fingers that were only a little nervous. I cursed to myself as the letter proved stubborn.
“Are you a witch or not?” A snide voice commented from the doorway. I lowered the letter and raised my eyebrows.
My brother Hugo was newly sixteen, having celebrated his birthday a week ago. His birthday was exactly a month before my own. Doubtlessly Mum had planned out exactly when she wanted to give birth for both children; in the summer months when work took a short reprieve, so she wouldn’t miss much. Born so we were the youngest of all our classmates, and therefore couldn’t start drinking or come of age when all our friends would. Around the same time as Victoire’s, Uncle Percy’s, Uncle Harry’s, Louis’ and Grandad’s birthdays, so we could all have one big get-together in August. When we were young, Mum had even held joint birthday parties for Hugo and I, though we had put a stop to that as soon as we were old enough to figure out that uniting against a common enemy was much easier than bickering amongst ourselves.
My brother and I were alike, in that we were both tall and lanky, with long thin arms and legs and thin, fine-boned faces. While my hair was redder and brighter, his was a tuft of thick sandy curls that grew quickly and unapologetically. A constellation of freckles danced across his long nose and he had thin, pale lips, which were currently turned up in a mild sneer.
“I said, are you a witch or not? Why didn’t you just summon the owl treats instead of thundering up and down the stairs like a loon… When I come of age, I’m never going to leave my bed.” He sniffed proudly, clearly anticipating that glorious day. I scowled.
“I can use my wand for this, twerp.” With a lazy wave of my wand the door to my bedroom slammed and locked itself in Hugo’s face, narrowly missing his nosehairs. Laughing at his outraged cry, though not entirely ungrateful for the distraction, I turned back to the letter.
Should I open it? Maude and Albus would say proceed with caution, though Cecelia would have had it long opened and read and quite possibly fed it to her ancient pet tortoise, Don Juan, whom had been alive since her great-grandfather fought in the Great War. Don Juan was so blind he would eat anything. I turned the letter over in my hands and carefully slit the top with my finger, half-expecting the contaminated thing to give me a papercut.
I was already scoffing at the formality of the opening.
I have just gotten back from holiday in Rome with Mum – or the old ball and chain, as Dad so kindly greeted her when we got in this afternoon. Rome was unreal: we stayed in a beautiful hotel with a rooftop garden quite close to the Coliseum, and took a special wizarding ghost tour at night where we got to visit some of the old burial grounds which are concealed from the Muggles. I met the ghost of an old Roman Senator, or so he claimed- I know you have your irrational fear of all things dead, but it was wicked cool. The food was brilliant – I ordered pasta and pizza nearly ever night, and the wine is simply to die for, as Cecelia would say. It was all on Mum’s bill, of course, so we had the best of everything.
This was so typical that it almost made me laugh despite myself.
Anyway, I’ve got loads of pictures and stories that I know you’d adore, Rose. I wish you could have come with us like we talked about back in April.
And so it began. Something was messily scribbled out, and then;
I’m really sorry for what happened, and I know my name is dirt with you right now but I really miss talking to you. You’re my best friend first, and I’d love to get that back and maybe we could see where it would go from there. Come on, Rosie, you can’t ignore me forever, and if you keep it up I’m going to totally abuse any mis-conceptions about privacy and show up at your office at the Ministry. Yes, I would stoop that low, you had better believe it.
He had always known how hilarious I found his self-derogatory comments which succeeded in being obnoxious and humble at the same time.
I miss those days when you were mine, running around the Black Lake – obviously I was always destined to lose, sneaking you into the common room, being partners in Potions and teasing you when you blew up everything – please, Rose, we can’t be anything without each other. I’m sorry, I know you don’t do cheesy. I’m sorry about everything. I’m sorry about what happened, you know I am, and even though I’m jet-lagged from the most brutal and longest Portkey ride ever and interrogation by the Ministry customs officers I know this is what I want from this summer. I want you to forgive me.
Please write back,
I frowned and crumpled the letter into a little ball, wishing that one of my friends was here to share its ridiculous contents with. They understood why I could never take Scorpius back, and it went beyond the incident in May. It was worse than that. Being with Scorpius, as exciting and carefree and fun as it was, had taken something out of me, something I hadn’t realized I’d lost until that day I sobbed a galleon of tears into my first of several Butterbeers at the Three Broomsticks. Perhaps it was independence, or self-confidence in myself that I had lost. Perhaps I’d realized that the dislike between our fathers had not been an exciting convention to break, but that our relationship had drawn a line in my relationship with Dad which was finally coming down.
I had been with Scorpius for decent reasons; I had liked him well enough. But it simply hadn’t been enough anymore. And despite everything, I was still furious. The mere fact of him having the nerve to send me letters such as this, to expect me to heed to his pleadings and pretty apologies and exotic presents brought back from Italy was unbearably typical. I had resolved when we broke up to never be the sort of predictable girl who bent over backwards like a circus freak with her boyfriend as ringmaster. I wasn’t about to fall back into that pattern now.
Perhaps it was my frustration at Scorpius that made me do it, or my desire to escape the repetitive world of misgivings and submission. But that’s when I did it. I took the potion I had stolen from the Department of Mysteries. And I swallowed a tiny little sip, less than a mouthful.
And I waited impatiently for my life to change.
But nothing did happen, for three full days. Life proceeded as usual. I took the Floo network (recently repaired by Hazlehurst and Creevey, though it smelled a little dodgy inside the Ministry fireplaces) back and forth from the Ministry. I had lunch with Albus one day, and another time with Mum. She was exhausted from the major case that week; the trial of a known centaur-killer who had been on the run for years, finally getting caught and pleading insanity as excuse for all her crimes.
Though she didn’t admit it, I suspected Mum was peeved because the criminal also carried old blood purity prejudices, and I’d heard from Cecelia that some insults had flown towards Mum and some of the other well-known Muggleborns in the courtroom. Entirely redundant, in my opinion. How trying to demean the people who were going to lock the woman up anyway worked for her as a defense, I would never quite understand. It was hard to stomach that there were still people out there who hated others for their blood status: it was on a level of ridiculous bigotry like that which kept ignorant people argueing that two women shouldn’t adopt a child together or that two men shouldn’t be making love.
Cecelia Hale and I had met in our first year, though we never got on until fifth year. Physically, we were opposites; I was tall, red-headed, pale and spindly, while she was curvy with tanned skin; her grandmother had been born in Mexico, her grandfather in America. Cecelia’s Mum had moved to Britain for her work as a television producer and had met her Dad, a comical man with a bushy gray mustache and a booming laugh. Cecelia pretended to speech Spanish and played up her Latino roots. She was very beautiful, sure, but had something more than that; confidence, perhaps, or a disdain for anybody else’s negative opinion.
I didn’t particularly like Cecelia for years; she was a Ravenclaw, our main rivals in Quidditch, as the Slytherin team had fallen apart after Mattie Flint was expelled for trying to flush his brother down the toilet. Cecelia was effortlessly pretty, while I was awkward and gangly and pale, until fourth year when I suddenly sprouted some curves and learned to use makeup and fix my hair so it didn’t just resemble an enormous burning bush. She always made enjoying herself look so effortless, when she would throw back her head and laugh heartily and call her friends by little pet names like darling and boo.
In her turn, Cecelia distantly disliked me for being a Weasley, and therefore automatically raised to renown and relative popularity just because I had more cousins in school at the same time than any other family. In my first year, Victoire showed Al and I the ropes, and having the extremely pretty Gryffindor prefect looking out for us was a solid beginning. If anyone hurt my feelings, James and Fred would teach them a lesson without being asked, or Dominique would give them a talking to which I heard was even more frightening- she was a Slytherin, she knew some dirty tricks. I was lucky enough to have Albus in my year as a built-in friend, and being the closest companion of the second son of the Chosen one was nothing to sneeze at.
Then there was the fact that I was an utter know-it-all in my first and second years. Mum had drilled me earnestly in all the spells and lessons and facts she had known before setting off for Hogwarts. I was young then, and wanted to please her, and followed her instructions that I should talk in class as much as possible and make sure the professors knew who I was. I followed these instructions religiously for two years until the Christmas of second year Albus and Dad sat me down and told me that being an ‘insufferable know-it-all’ (Al’s words, not Dad’s) wasn’t going to earn me any favors in the friends department. Then Dad gave me a big hug and brought me back to the kitchen at the Burrow where Nan was serving freshly baked cookies to Hugo and Lily. I could tell he felt bad, but also that it was his duty as a father to prepare me for life as he best could. So I relaxed a little after that, tried to find out what I was good at instead of what I thought I should be good at, but the reputation had stuck.
Cecelia and I probably wouldn’t have ever begun liking each other – a terrible fate, when later contemplated! – if it hadn’t been for Maude. After Cecelia’s boyfriend in fifth year broke up with her in an extremely humiliating way which we were sworn to never speak of, Maude had found the poor girl huddled in an unhappy pile in the girls’ toilet outside the Great Hall (site of said humiliation). Being the kind, helpful Maude that she was, Maude gently helped Cecelia up and brought her to cry in Moaning Myrtle’s toilet instead. This was the perfect place for a good cry; first of all, since most girls were afraid of Myrtle and avoided her toilet for fear of getting their knickers soaked by toilet water, and also because poking fun at Myrtle and watching her get worked up about her own misery was quite entertaining and sure to cure anyone of a rotten mood, at least for a little.
My mother was quite skeptical when she heard about this method of perking up, saying that she and Dad and Uncle Harry had a history with that toilet and that she would tell me about it someday. She asked me to be kinder to Myrtle, a promise which I didn’t really care to keep. Sparing the feelings of the utterly ridiculous had never been my forte. But the moral of the story is that after this cry, Maude and Cecelia were immediately friends. Maude brought her to the Gryffindor common room that night to explain that Cecelia couldn’t sleep in her dorm that night (I pretended not to know why, though of course everyone knew the cause of the breakup) and could she please sleep in my roommate Fiona’s bed, since Fiona was in St. Mungo’s for an undetermined amount of time due to an unfortunate scalding with periwinkle potion. I had grudgingly agreed, but the three of us had spent the night curled up with blankets and biscuits chatting in the common room.
After that, Cecelia began to tentatively sit with me in our classes together. She started to wander over to the Gryffindor table at mealtimes. I learned to love her loud and wild sense of humour and drama, and she learned to love my smarminess and love for all things ridiculous, touched with a hint of snark. She spent half the nights sleeping over with us in Gryffindor; we shared clothes, makeup, secrets- even a boyfriend, for three ridiculous days. When Fiona returned from hospital, distinctly not blue, Cecelia slept over in my four-poster instead. She spent less and less time with her old Ravenclaw friends and I spent less and less time with my Gryffindor yearmates, with whom I had always harbored a cordial but slightly forced friendship. I worked hard to endear her to Albus, and him to her, though the comments she liked to make about how attractive she found my Uncle Harry did not necessarily appeal her to my poor, serious and self-conscious cousin.
Just as it was Maude who had introduced me to Cecelia, it was Louis who had brought Maude and I together. I needed both girls. I loved them equally, though often we had our little spats and occasionally there was one I needed or loved more.
How Cecelia, borderline criminal and irrational hothead who functioned on her own plane of morality, had scored a prime internship for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement was a mystery worthy of the Unspeakables, and I was extremely confused and impressed at the irony. But Cecelia was always surprising me. She had surprised me that time in fifth year when she suddenly crept her way into my life to become one of my best friends. She had shocked me when she achieved a higher result on every single NEWT exam we took together, despite seeming to have studied even less. Perhaps that was the natural Ravenclaw cleverness coming out.
Mum, who disapproved of Cecelia and some of my other more flamboyant friends as a general rule, had told me shortly after Cecelia began her work term that my friend was punctual, well-spoken, and didn’t fall asleep during the particularly monotonous trials like so many of the other interns apparently did. Mum attributed this recurring event to there being something in the air down in the hearing rooms that exuded an air of calm and relaxation. Back in the day they’d used Dementors to terrify confessions out of suspects; now, they simply oozed the trust and guilt right out of them.
On that fateful Friday Cecelia came stalking towards me in the atrium after work. I was perched in my typical scouting position, waiting for Al or Louis or Cecelia or even Archie (though I was slightly terrified of him accusing me of stealing the potion) coming forwards to talk to me. I would usually also settle for Dad or Uncle Harry- Uncle Percy and Mum were completely unreachable once they stepped their finely-shod feet into Ministry headquarters. As for Victoire, well, after the last time we talked I preferred not to deal with her perfect little carrot-topped head either.
“Cece!” We hugged. It had been a few days.
“I’ve missed you so much, doll,” Cecelia drawled, glancing around furtively. “But listen, we need to get out of here. I have a stalker.”
I giggled, linking my arm with hers and bending my bright head close to her dark one. Her heels made snapping sounds on the rich marble floor. “Do tell? And afterwards, I need to tell you about the most irritating owl I got from Malfoy.”
Cecelia gasped dramatically, drawing the attention of the white-headed witch hobbling by, carrying a large stack of rolled parchments. The woman resembled a keen little sparrow with evil glinting eyes. “Sacre bleu! That twit still thinks he has a chance with you? After what he did!”
I glanced around me, almost expecting to see Scorpius Malfoy emerging from one of the recently-repaired fireplaces in an attempt to ambush me as I left for home. “Listen, we shouldn’t talk about these things here. Who’s your stalker, exactly?”
Cecelia looked dramatically behind her and whispered, “Atticus Voltaire.”
I frowned. “That scrawny, specky bloke in Lou’s year? Head boy, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, yes,” Cecelia hissed impatiently. She tugged on my arm. “But it’s worse than that. I hardly cared about him when he was just another twatty prefect trying to give me detention when he was looking down my shirt. I mean, whatever, boys will be boys. But he’s assisting on the case I’m working on right now and he won’t leave me alone.”
“Like… he fancies you?”
Cecelia shrugged, throwing her thin, proud shoulders back. “Possibly. It’s worse than that, though. He’s always chasing after me, trying to get me to fill out some paperwork and do some research and file his bollocks notes in alphabetical order or some other nonsense. I mean, it’s my job, but nobody else is so forceful.”
I thought hard. “Maybe he’s just trying to get closer to you through work? I think awkward boys do things like that.”
Cecelia shrugged, looking behind her again. Suddenly, her face blanched. “Bloody hell, Rose! It’s him! He’s at the lifts! Run!”
I raised an eyebrow at her- so pleased I perfected that skill! “Run where?”
“To the Apparating section,” she decided, tugging me along. “We’ll go to Maude’s. The field outside, yeah? I already told her to expect me, and she misses you too. Come on, run!”
Running turned out to be more like gliding, especially in the case of Cecelia’s high heels. I scurried after her, glancing behind me to see a thin boy with high cheekbones and a pinched face run straight into the old lady who had frowned at Cecelia earlier, causing her rolls of parchment to spill out all over the atrium. I wondered guiltily for a moment whether I should go back and help her, but we had already reached the room off the atrium designated for Apparating. Cecelia dragged me through the large archway.
“See you at Maude’s,” she said, a dimple shining in her cheek. Then she spun gracefully on the spot and was gone with a loud Crack! I paused, concentrated on the field behind Maude’s house in the village of Barnard Castle. Picturing it in my head: the backs of the cottages in the distance, the flowing of the river, the tree which would shield us from the curious stares of Muggles, I turned on my heel. All I thought of was Apparating into Barnard Castle.
Maude’s village was in County Durham in the mid-north of England, a pretty part of the country where people spoke with lilting, harmonious accents and everyone on the road knew one another’s names and even the names of their cats. It was a small, comfortable village, and though significantly more private than the London suburb where I had grown up, it was still a Muggle village, and a place where we visiting witches had to be careful.
The field which Maude had established for Apparating in and out of was behind the row of cottages on a pretty country road called the Lendings. The field was home to several brown and white cows who were impressively indifferent to the occasional arrival of the visiting witch or wizard. The field was shaded in the corners by trees which hid it from the view of the small farm that owned the cows and from the view of the road. At this time of year, the field would be cultivated and green, trampled in some places from the greedily grazing mouths of the cows. This was what I expected to see as I felt the familiar squeezing sensation of Apparition and felt my body fly through space at impossible speeds.
Something about this Apparition felt longer, perhaps a little clumsier, and as I landed I tripped and fell to my knees, instilling untidy grass stains onto my dark trousers. Staring at the grassy ground to prevent dizziness, I slowly got to my feet, bracing myself for Cecelia to tease me on my clumsy Apparition skills- my rebuttal was to be that she was several months older and had many more months of practice with her Apparating license.
But Cecelia did not say anything; puzzled, I looked about me and frowned. My first thought was that I must have miscalculated and Apparated into a different area of Britain. Instead of the calm, cow-infested field off the Lendings, I was standing in a mild forest, great, gnarly trees shading me from the summer sun. The grass was long and wild, a blanket of wildflowers which I could not identify laying at my feet like a royal train. Whatever this place, I could not think why I had accidentally appeared here instead of at Barnard Castle; it had been my most frequent destination over the past month, other than my own home and the Ministry.
Yet looking behind me, I was suddenly certain that the mighty tree looming behind me was the same as the one which I usually Apparated under. The low, drooping branches were the same; the bough which Maude and I had once climbed upon and pretended we were walking a tightrope was still there, and I recognized the same hand and footholds. Carefully, I trod through the wildflowers and ran my fingers along the bark: surely this was the same tree. Perhaps there had been an explosion of greenery, yet that would not explain the great trees, far larger than this one, which had sprouted up unannounced.
Hesitantly, I reached forward with my hands and tucked my fingers around the knots and handholds. My body did the remembering; I quickly hoisted myself up onto the familiar bough, and then onto one higher, hoping to get a glimpse of my bearings.
Something else had changed: if this was indeed Barnard Castle, and the same tree, there was no sound of automobiles rushing by on the nearby freeway: only a natural, busy silence of birds chattering in the trees, insects moving in the grass, perhaps the low bray of an animal, a musical note on the rustling breeze that made the branches and leaves around me tremble and whistle.
From my heightened position, I could see a little farther. While the Lendings appeared to be completely non-existent, I could hear the gurgling and see the gap in the trees where the River Tees might be, if I was in fact in County Durham. There was no sign of Maude’s cottage and those of her neighbors, which I should have been able to see from here. But in the distance I could make out something large and looming on the horizon: perhaps a fortress or building of some sort.
Something was certainly unsettling. I realized I had been holding a pit of nerves deep inside my stomach; now, I tried to breathe and relax, curling my legs carefully around the bough of the tree and gripping it with sweaty, slightly shaky hands. I could feel sweat pooling at the nape of my neck, and closed my eyes for a moment, taking a large inhalation in an attempt to fill and soothe my lungs, which were still working a little too hard. I put a careful hand to my pocket and checked that my wand was still there, and drew it out; its comforting and familiar weight in my hand made me feel more at ease and reminded me who I was. I heard that sound again: the almost melodious echo of a muted cry echoing within the woods, and perhaps the bark of a neighboring dog.
My eyes were still closed when the ground seemed to begin to shake. I opened my eyes and looked at the small clearing around where I was perched in the tree; a few moments later there flew on spindly, graceful legs a deer- a doe, a female deer, her proud head raised high in flight and her hoofs pushing away the forest floor. She was in prey mode, I thought to myself, hardly acknowledging the fact: I had never been this close to a deer before, though I had seen them in specially preserved areas traveling in a large, grazing herd as our family drove by in the car. On the really distant back roads they sometimes caused traffic delays- they were silly, illogical beasts.
But the doe was fleeing from something, her eyes wild, and moments later the barking of the dog seemed to grow louder and louder until I realized it was a small pack of dogs, loping joyfully with shortly cropped ears and tails, galloping and braying through the clearing. I heard that strange, melodious sound again, and realized when the men appeared that it must have been the call of a hunting horn. My logical, unhelpful brain puzzled that deer hunting was illegal in most parts of England now.
And following the dogs came the hunters, and I gasped to see them.
They were like nothing I’ve ever seen. First of all, they rode horses, and such horses were these; great, enormous beasts with thick bits foaming at the mouths, with muscular necks and hindquarters that rose and fell with each stride of the canter. Their coats gleamed in the sunlight; their riders sat deeply in the saddle, more like centaurs than horses and riders. The riders looked like something out of a period drama: for a moment I thought to look about me as if to recognize the tell-tale sign of a camera crew. They wore thick, tight pants and tall leather boots which sunk into the stirrups, and long tunic-style shirts and vests. The man in the front carried the horn, which he brought to his lips again, laughing for the sheer joy of it. Beside him another man bent low over his horse, digging his heels into its sides. He seemed to whisper in the beast’s pricking ears, for it dug its hooves into the ground and seemed to spring forward with an eager joy. Two other light-headed men followed, laughing at their comrade. Instead of rifles, they had quivers of arrows slung over their leather-padded backs.
Yet the rider who immediately drew my eye was the fifth one, the man in the back. He frowned as the horn master suddenly drew in his horse, the great animal bucking slightly.
“Looks like we ‘ave lost ‘er, sire,” he shouted as the others yanked upwards on the corners of their horses mouths, circling and panting right near of the bottom of the tree which I had climbed. He touched his hat with a slight bow to the young man who had brought up the rear.
I stared at the top of his head, confused at the itch of familiarity within me. He was slimmer than the other men, yet his shoulders were broad and his arms strong. Dark curls framed his careful face, dark as the black flank of his mount. He patted the horse’s sweating neck as I watched. He, unlike the other men, wore a tunic in a pretty dark blue: his eyes were dark, his face pale and thin and drawn. Yet as I watched his face split apart in a careful grin.
“Ah, I think the beast has played you for a bluff, Saddler,” the man in blue said. “What makes you so sure we would not have had her?”
Saddler – the horn-carrier who had first spoken – scowled. “I know them lands well, yer Grace,” he said with carefully concealed restraint. “I was a boy ‘ere- me father was master of the hunt before me, and ‘is father before ‘im. Aye, sire, that there doe was ‘arking for de river, we would ne’er ‘ave gotten ‘er beck again.” His accent resembled the rich burr of the Yorkshire folk, but richer, more pronounced somehow. I had to strain my ears, still curled around the branch, to make out the strange dialect.
“She would have run straight into the town had she survived the Tees, Saddler!” Laughed one of the merry-faced men, seated on a speckled gray horse who pawed at the ground impatiently. His voice was closer to the London-area accents I had grown up hearing: he sounded educated, eloquent, as if every word were carefully chosen to its greatest impact. “Pray tell why the deer would choose such a fate, to be chased down and gnawed at by the hungry louts living there?”
“Peace, Ratcliffe.” The blue-clad man put up a black-gloved hand, frowning. “We have lost her, and some soul among us must fetch the dogs. Saddler?” With a nod the unfortunate man who had called off the hunt spurred his horse, weaving nimbly around the trees in the direction in which the dogs had disappeared.
“By your leave, your Grace-“ began Ratcliffe, but the leader silenced him again with a stern look.
“Ratcliffe, you must not torture the poor lad so. For he is a good boy, and served the late earl well.”
“And rode out against York among turncoats and traitors at the battle of Barnet,” the third man muttered. Their leader turned to him with a furious look.
“Waverley, I ask that you do not speak of such things,” he said coldly. “England is at last at peace and all is happy and well. My brother has forgiven-”
But he did not conclude his lecture for at that moment my treacherous body failed me, and the tickling in my nose omitted an unexpected sneeze. I muffled it with my hand, yet could not hide the sound from the three men on their horses. They looked up in alarm; hand to my face I peered down through the thin foliage at them.
“Why, there is a girl in that old oak!” the man called Waverley cried out. He had a thick black moustache which covered half his face, and wore a rich hat with a large white feather set into it. He rode slightly closer. “Have you been listening to our talks o’ treason, wench? Are you a spy for the Lancastrians set into trees to await we happy hunters?”
“And what a strange girl she looks to be, your Grace,” the man called Ratcliffe said, a cruel smirk twisting his handsome face. “Perhaps she is a truly a he, with his long hair unbound about his shoulders, and dressed as a man. Oi!” He called up to me. “Do you have a weapon? A master, a name?”
I was utterly confused on what to do. I was no spy, no boy hiding a knife or a sword. I was simply confused and dizzy, my head thick from the allergies, my mind tired and puzzled as to how to best proceed. So I called out the only thing I could think of. “My name is Rose. Please don’t hurt me, er, please. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
Ratcliffe laughed again. I disliked something about him. “Nay, you shan’t harm a hair on the duke’s head, nor my own! Won’t you come down from your hiding place, little squirrel?”
“Ratcliffe, peace,” the unnamed man- the man in blue, who had caught my eye at once- said sharply. He sounded a little weary: I suspected he often had to reprimand his bold friends. “I will help the lass get back on her feet: you gentlemen may ride ahead, and recover the unfortunate Saddler and the dogs.” They looked doubtful, and he frowned. “Go!”
“Your Grace-” Waverley began, but a swift look from the man in blue sent him onwards. Ratcliffe, Waverley and the third man set off on their horses.
The young man waited until the sound of their shouts and the hammering of the horses’ hooves had faded, and then turned to look up at me. To my surprise, a raw, uncontrolled grin spread across his stern, thin face, breaking it like ice on a pond. He held out his hand and beckoned to me.
“Will you not come down, sweetheart? I can help you much better from down here.”
I frowned. “Well that’s not creepy at all. I’m perfectly fine up here, thank you very much.” But I conceded to climbing down slowly and carefully to a lower branch and, straddling it, dangled my legs over the edge. They were long enough that if he rode towards the tree, he would probably hit his face against my knee.
The man laughed. “Oh, Rose, how I’ve longed for the unnatural wit you bring into my life. How long has it been, love? Will you not come down and present me with your hand to kiss?”
At this point, some of the realizations about my situation and what I had done to get myself here had sunk in. Yet there was still some stubborn part of me that refused to believe my suspicions were true and logical. That part of me stood firm, convinced that this was a delusion or prank, that there was no forest in Barnard Castle, that there hadn’t been for several centuries, that there were no men in strange costumes bellowing about on horseback and trying to murder deer and making rude and suggestive comments to little redhead witches stuck in trees.
The confusion must have shown on my face for something seemed to change in him: he let a little “oh,” escape his lips and wiped the cheeky smirk from his face. He sighed softly.
“I remember ye warning me a day such as this might come. How now, Rose, I am quite unsure of how I am meant to proceed.” He squinted, thinking. “Yer name is Rose Weasley”- he pronounced my name carefully, like it was a precious jewel upon his tongue. “Ye come from a land which is not so different from this one; I need not say more for fear of alarming you. You have a brother called Hugo and a father, Mr. Ronald Weasley, a great gentleman in your London, I am sure! And your lovely mother is Hermione, the honourable Hermione Weasley.” He pronounced Mum’s name Her-mee-owne. I giggled despite myself.
The man’s voice grew gentler. “And I am Richard, your Richard, and you shall come to know me very well. I’m sorry, I’m sure this must be confusing for you. Shall you not come down from your perch, oh fairy lady? Let me help and protect you, this one time, and I can explain matters in a more comfortable situation.” Again, he beckoned to me. “Shall I move Apollo so that he stands immediately below you, and you may step onto his hindquarters and ease yourself down from there.”
I raised an eyebrow, not trusting of the great beast. If I took out my wand, I could easily create a cushioning charm and hop down from this eternal tree. But I had no inkling whether this man was Muggle, wizard or demon.
Richard seemed to sense my apprehension, for he patted Apollo’s neck again. “Ah, this creature has seen me through battles which haunt the nightmares of gods, Rose. He has allowed me to fall asleep on his neck during long marches in the hours of midnight; he has cut down the Lancaster scum with a fell of his hooves with arrows sticking into his rump. He will not be spooked by you, Rose, nor disturbed by your touch.” The stranger, Richard, spoke in the most delightful, formal way. I had never heard speech quite like it; it was careful and rhythmetic, and carried traces of another time.
“Oh, fine, but I’m holding you responsible if I fall on my face,” I warned him, trying to keep my voice tough. Richard smiled and moved Apollo forward gently; with a softness that exemplified the bond between horse and rider, he moved him so the black rump was right under my perch.
Gingerly, I stretched one leg out, then the other, holding onto the branch with both hands. But Richard had no patience for this care, he seized me by the waist and deposited me into his lap, so that I was seated on the saddle in front of him, facing the side. I felt Apollo stir slightly at the extra weight, but he did not prance or spook.
“I think I’ll get off, now,” I said shakily. I pushed forward over Apollo’s neck, sliding towards the ground as I did so. But I had misjudged how my legs were weakened from sitting in the tree for so long, and how high Apollo’s back was from the grass, and so tumbled onto my behind in a bed of wildflowers.
Richard laughed, and dismounted gracefully, landing with a gentle swish. Letting go of Apollo’s reins and leaving the horse to stand still obediently, he reached down a gloved hand and helped me to my feet.
At last I got the chance to examine him a little more closely. He was about my height, perhaps a tiny bit taller due to the thick heels on his leather boots. He had a kind face when it smiled or softened, as it had when he noticed me, but I imagined many people upon first sight would assume he was a hardened, tough man. He looked perhaps in his mid-twenties, Teddy Lupin’s age or so, I thought to myself. His eyes were a very dark, piercing blue; almost black, his cheekbones high and hard, his skin pale against the dark scattering of curls. A long sword with a plain hilt was fastened around his waist by a belt. When he smiled, I noticed he was missing a tooth far back in his mouth, leaving his mouth decidedly lopsided and crooked. A faint shadow of a beard ghosted around the edges of his thin, angular jawline. A silver chain encircled his neck, its pendant disappearing into his shirt.
“You said you knew me,” I demanded, putting manners aside. “How long have you known me for? And why are you looking at me like that?”
Richard looked slightly taken aback; the thick black eyebrows crinkled thoughtfully. He took a small step away from me. “I am sorry, Rose, I cannot but help forget that this is all quite mysterious for you. May I just assure you not to be frightened, how though you are all wondering and beautiful and innocent now, all time will play itself out as it is meant to.” He looked slightly wistful. “There. I have told you what you told me to say- nay, what you commanded me to say.”
“I commanded you?”
He came closer to me again, a rueful smile passed through his features, illuminating them like a light. I was suddenly aware of my haggard appearance; the dark circles under my eyes from smudged makeup – it had been so long since that morning when I had gotten ready for the day, what a mess I must be! The grass stains on my trousers, my rumpled blouse and frizzy hair all over the place. Yet this strange boy- this man- looked at me as if he knew me, spoke as if we had a history together. Understand at that moment I had no reason to ponder the mysteries of time.
Apollo snorted, shaking his head and rattling the metal pieces on the reins, and I jumped.
“Rose,” Richard cut in, his voice serious and steady. “Listen, I fear I may be correct in thinking we do not have much time left. Ye were so cross with me, I… I could not bear it, if I did not act on this gracious moment, Lord be praised. So pray,” and I watched, puzzled, as he carefully removed his left glove from his hand and tucked the glove carefully into his belt. He reached out with his bare hand for my own, holding it between us like a couple pledging their vows. His hand was warm and rough, his fingertips dry and callused as he moved his thumb gently over the skin between my thumb and forefinger. “Pray tell, I ask that ye do not move away, for as my life has been a declining line in the progression of time, and I fear so dearly this shall be the final time I meet you. Though, if I be correct, tis the first time you have met me.”
Before I could reply, he took a quick step forward and pressed his lips gently to mine.
Being a reasonably attractive eighteen-year old girl, I had experienced my fair share of kisses, some of them sprung on me in a similarly unexpected manner. But those had mostly been at parties, at clubs, when alcohol had already dimmed my inhibitions and senses, when Cecelia was there goading me on and winking over the shoulder of her latest conquest. Some of them I was perfectly fine pushing away, especially if their breath tasted of sick or whiskey (indeed, the latter was likely to induce sickness on my own part). Some of the kisses I had quite enjoyed; as a general rule, I quite liked the art of being kissed.
Yet I had never quite been kissed like this.
The birds trilled among us; Apollo snorted again, and this wild stranger’s mouth was soft and sweet against my own. My reason informed me that it would be best to pull away; my instincts held reason at bay with angry glares. Above all there was an inkling, a memory that perhaps we had met before, as he said, that perhaps we had kissed before; my body remembered what my mind could not. My tentative free hand crept wondering up his left arm, over his strong shoulder, stroking a curl back from his ear. My eyes closed against the foreign world. My right hand he kept twined with his own, curled and firm at my side. My lips explored each corner of his own, tasted their crevices, though he kissed me with a familiar regularity. For a moment I thought of what a wonderful image we would make; two strangers in a field of blue and gold and green, a timeless meeting across generations. He sighed against my mouth. I felt a small bead of moisture land upon my cheek and wondered if it was not a sap tear from a tree, or a hint of rain from the unchanging heavens.
As he pulled back slightly I opened my eyes to see his darkling eyes looking into my face, into me as if he could know my heart and read my thoughts, and I realized he was farther from me but before I could ask why or pull him to me again against all rational sense, I felt the familiar jerk and pull in my gut and the rushing sensation in my ears. I wanted to cry out I’m not yet ready and Richard opened his mouth as if to say something and there is a terror in his eyes, an unreasonable fear that I cannot understand, cannot fathom and then he was smaller and the small clearing in the strange woods with Apollo and the trees and the call of the hunt had become smaller and smaller and I could no longer feel nor think and everything is spinning round and round and centuries were passing and my memory was muddled and for a moment I thought I saw a face, a terrible face neither man nor woman nor creature and has slits for eyes. But then the face spun and had disappeared as well and I was landing on my feet and in the clearing in Barnard Castle, Maude’s Barnard Castle, with the cows and the hedges and the cottages and Cecelia was standing beside me just as I had last seen her in the Ministry atrium, a laugh upon her face as if she were still running from Atticus Voltaire and his piles of paperwork.
My face was flushed, my body thick with sweat. I was exhilarated and puzzled, the taste of him still on my lips. It was the first time, for me, but for him, the last time he would touch my skin in that place. And so began the moments which would set into motion my new life.
AN: The line "are you a witch or not" parrots a line from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling. I hope everyone is enjoying the story- if you get the chance, reviews on this chapter would make my day as I'd love to know what you think of Richard and Rose. The next chapter will be up soon.
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