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Play the Devil by Lululuna
Chapter 8 : Hedgewitch
 
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Chapter Eight
Hedgewitch



amazing image by Ande at tda




After Apparating away from Devonshire into an uncertain future – or past, come to think of it – I had found myself lying in the dirt. I had lain there, still clutching my purse and broom, dressed in clothing from the twenty-first century, and I had looked around me. And I did not know what I saw.

I was out of breath: I lifted my head up and gently the rest of my body followed, so I was a girl holding a purse and a broom in dusty, pretty clothes. I looked around: nothing was familiar. Was this England? In front of me, a dirt road, hardly large enough for an automobile to pass through, stretched into the woods to the left: on my right, fields of crops and creatures grazed quietly. In the distance there were thatched roofs of a small village and the steeple of a small church: and a little farther still, a most glorious sight.

It was a great castle, high stone walls and fortifications rising high above the nearer roofs of the cottages. I could see the high walls of the castle keep rising against the skyline. It was dusk, but a lighter, brighter dusk than I had ever seen. I wondered if I was perhaps in the north, and if the potion had transported me back at the same hour of the day as my departure in 2023. This was a mystical world out of a history book, out of one of the Muggle period films Mum liked to watch when she had a spare evening. This was adventure at its finest.

I stood still for a moment: there was no soul in sight, and I wondered if Richard was even close by: I had thought of him when I had Apparated, not knowing what else to do or where to go, though I supposed in hindsight I could have returned to Barnard Castle and just went to visit Maude if nothing happened and I stayed in my own time. But here I was, with no plan and no friends, only a wand, a broom, and the unexciting contents of my purse.

So slowly, dusting myself off with my free hand, I walked slowly towards the village, wand at the ready should someone jump out at me. The air was warm and quiet, and from the closest cottage I could smell something cooking, which repulsed me slightly as I was still stuffed from the supper at the Burrow. I looked around: nobody had appeared, nor noticed me yet, until I suddenly felt a dry hand on my bare arm.

“’lo, wench, what ye think yer doing, pointing that there stick aboot! Do ye want to get yerself taken?” A voice hissed, and I turned to see a small, stooped middle-aged woman. Initially, I recoiled from her: she had a gnarled and scarred face with several pockmarks and small red scabs covering her arms. Her hair was thin and tied tightly back beneath a mottled bit of cloth. She wore a dress – if it could be called that- which covered her wrists and hovered just the lightest, thinnest inch above the floor. She was missing several teeth, and her gums were swollen and blackened when she grinned up at me. Despite these things, she seemed tidy enough, and her eyes glimmered with something I thought might be kindness.

“I’m sorry, I’m new, I’m a new traveler in these parts,” I blabbered out, but I tucked my wand into my purse so it was out of sight. I lowered my voice. “Listen, ma’am, can you help me? I’m looking for a man called Richard, I, I don’t know his last name. Can you help me find him? He’s the only one I know here.”

The woman cackled. “Does auld Agnes know of a Richard? Well girl, we have got four Richards here in the village alone: there’s auld Richard MacWhite, the blacksmith, ‘n wee Dickon his bonny son, ‘n the priest, why his name’s Richard too!” She laughed at my confused expression, then squinted her eyes up at me shrewdly. “But yer looking for different Richard, aren’t ye?” She looked me up and down. “Yes, we’ve been awaiting fer ye to show yer pretty face fer quite some years now. Come along, then girl, if the rumors from the big house are true yer good Richard should be coming along this very eve.”

She beckoned for me to follow her: warily, I walked along to one of the cottages in the shadow of the church. Closer to the houses, I could smell the wafting odors of cooking meat over a fire, of animal stench from the pigs and sheep tethered in some of the tiny yards, of animal dung and something more pungent. Trying not to wrinkle my nose, I followed Agnes, as she had called herself, into what must be her cottage, smacking my forehead on the low doorframe and swearing under my breath.

It was a very small, one-room home, with the embers of a fire glowing softly in the fireplace and a large metal pot hanging over them. The room was clean, the wooden floors having that recently swept look, and the whole place had a smell of the thick straw thatching, sweetly scented, which was the roof, and several bunches of herbs and plants hung from the thin wooden boards which hung across the top of the cottage. A small wooden table with two chairs stood at one end of the cottage, while the other side was host to a humble bed with piles of blankets and rags upon it: four posts framed it, and there was a modest canopy hung above it.

Agnes seized the old Cleansweep Seven from my hands and placed it gently next to her own broom, which I guessed was a regular sweeping broom and not enchanted to fly. She gestured that I should sit down at one of the rickety chairs: I stretched my legs out in front of me and crossed one over the other, trying to get comfortable. Agnes turned back to me.

“Ye are Rose, aren’t ye?” she asked, with a slightly wondering look and a whimsical tone in her voice. I hesitated then nodded.

“Did Richard speak about me? We’ve met before, though I’m not sure when it was…”

“’ush, child,” Agnes said. She stuck a finger in her mouth and sucked it thoughtfully. “Aye, me I’m just a lowly peasant, a former servant in that castle, but I loved that wee boy and raised ‘im to be a good man.” She looked at me again, I raised my eyebrows but told myself to keep calm. I suspected she was must more intelligent than her appearance suggested. As I watched, Agnes carefully closed each of the wooden shutters that opened up onto the village, securing them with a metal clasp. She reached into the folds of her dress and pulled out something familiar and comforting: a long stick of wood: a witch’s wand.

I gasped, and a warm feeling of calm and warmth spread over me. There were witches here: this must be someone I could trust, unless she turned out to be an early ancestress of Voldemort or something.

“You’re a witch! Thank Merlin! Is that how you know who I am?”

Agnes shook her head, and put a finger to her lips. “We do not speak of it,” she said quietly, eyes glancing down at her wand. As I watched she gently placed it back within the folds of her dress, patting it to ensure it was securely hidden. “In this country, in this very county, folk like us are ‘unted down ‘n tortured ‘n killed.” She looked at me intently. “You must not speak of it to any folk unless you are sure they are true. I use my skills only to help them ones I care for.” Her eyes darted around the cottage, and I thought that perhaps the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling were something more than what might be found in a typical village woman’s garden.

“Who are you?” I asked wonderingly. The woman had taken a new respect, a new power in my mind.

Agnes smiled crookedly. “On’y an auld village wise woman, my child. Like me mother was before me, ‘n her mother before ‘er. The crops always grew well for me papa: ‘e ‘ad the gift, we are all born with it. I went to school for a few years te learn the arts and skills, ‘n when I came back ‘ere I was the nurse to the young duke when ‘e was just a wee laddie.”

“The school,” I asked, head spinning, “was it… Hogwarts?”

Agnes nodded, her eyes somewhere faraway. “Aye, lass, ‘n I know ye do not know how tings are ‘ere, but ye must keep yer pritty mouth shut about the school. A ‘andful of nobles send them chillun there for the educating: we ‘umble folk can only ‘ave a few years at the most.” Her voice felt a little heavy in the smoky air. “They keep our classes separate and ‘ave us swear under holy oath that we will not speak the name ‘o a single wight there: t’would be great trouble for a student to get found out in the England beyond.”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I suppose that makes sense.” The segregation of the rich wizards from the poor hadn’t been something I had read about in Mum’s well loved copy of Hogwarts: A History, though I supposed to have a humble person like Agnes in the same vicinity as a noble wizard would be quite improper. “Do the wiz-sorry, the folk like us travel in Mug- er, regular society? Or is there a separate class for them?”

“Some do, some don’t,” Agnes said indifferently. She stuck her head out the front door. “I’s a thinking they’ll be comin’ soon.”

“Who, ma’am?”

She turned and let out a sharp laugh. “Why, the one yer come ‘ere to see, o’course. ‘E might not remember ye, poor little lad that he was- ye don’t remember yerself, but auld Agnes knows what you told ‘er that day and will see it carried through.”

“Thank you,” I said, quite confused. “Thank you for helping me. But I’m so lost right now: can you tell me what year it is? What is the date? Who exactly is this Richard, this boy I’m meant to meet?” I decided not to share the details of our first meeting: Agnes was from these old times and seemed quite old-fashioned, she likely wouldn’t approve of kissing on first encounters, or possibly pre-marital kissing at all, though I couldn’t be sure exactly how things worked beyond my own preconceptions. “Please, if you could just tell me what year it is, that would be… lovely.”

Agnes wiped her nose on the back of her hand, and glanced at me. She walked over and with her right hand plucked an insect out of my hair: a small beetle, by the looks of it. “They live in the roof: looks ter have fallen on yer head,” she said calmly. I resisted a shudder. This was her home, after all. She took a deep breath. “The year is fourteen six tens and eight of our Lord Christ,” she told me, tracing each number in the air in front of her. “In the seventh year of good king Edward, God keep his soul. ‘Ere we be in the humble village of Fotheringay, in North’amptonshire.”

Now this was a development. I pried my brain for information about English history. I had never heard of Fotheringay, hardly knew anything about the history of the area. All I could remember about any king Edward was that there had been eight of them in the entire span of English history, in the same way there had been six Georges and eight Henrys, though I had no idea how to place them in order with the timeline. Did William the Conqueror have something to do with Richard? Wasn’t Richard the Lionheart the name of the king during Robin Hood’s time? Would it be too strange to ask her if Henry the eighth had cut off his wife’s head yet? What was that old song: King Hery the Eighth, to six wives he was wedded. One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.

Agnes tossed me a blanket and told me none to gently to wrap it around myself, for I looked like a indecent in my current state. A little offended but wrapping the blanket around my arms and shoulders nonetheless, I looked at Agnes for answers but at that moment the ground seemed to shake a little beneath our feet. She peeked out the door again, and behind her small head I saw the passing by of horses, the loud chatter of men talking amongst themselves. Agnes put a finger out behind her, as if warning me to hold still, and slowly left the cottage, closing the door lightly behind her.

I crossed my legs and uncrossed them from my seat at the kitchen table, and stared at the fireplace, wishing that Agnes had thought to light a fire before leaving me here. The closed windows made the cottage damp and cool: the summer heat cooled in the evenings and the light chill reminded me that I was showing a lot of skin, skin that could be bitten by bugs or make me look very indecent to the people of 1468, whoever the bloody hell they were.

I sat in silence until Agnes returned, and I felt a flush rise to my cheeks as I realized who it was. It was him, my mysterious chevalier of the week before. I felt a grin split my face, feeling a little awkwardly excited for the moment of realization when he would recognize me, possibly kiss me again and whisper sweet things and sympathize on how confused I must be.

The almost-familiar dark figure framed the evening dusk trickling in through the open door. My eyes drank him in: the slight figure with strong, muscular arms; the sword and scabbard to which his hand drifted occasionally as if to ensure they were still there. The same lightly curled, dark, dark hair that framed the pale, pointed face: the same dark and heavy eyes with thick lids.

“Hello, Richard,” I said, a little more casually and comfortably than I intended. This seemed to startle him. But his face when he set eyes on me bore no recognition, no sense of that passionate, comfortable restraint of the scene near Barnard Castle.

I got to my feet carefully, noticing they were a little unsteady and my head felt quite empty and dizzy. I laid a hand on the table in front of me, between us, entreating for recognition.

“Richard?” My voice sounded unsteady, even to my own ears as I tested his name again. I smiled hesitantly. The man turned to his old nurse.

“Agnes, I have ne’er seen this creature before in me life. Now, me horse has had a long journey, and I must dine among the local lords tonight. I must go.”

Please don’t go, don’t leave me here, I wanted to say, but he had ducked out the door of the cottage before my thoughts could form themselves into coherent words.

He looked back at me, curiously, I thought. I realized in that moment that he looked a little different than when we had last met on that unlikely afternoon: his face a little thinner, a little less lined, perhaps more boyish. His body slimmer and straighter, his frame and gaze more powerful. Somehow it had not occurred to me that time would be so difficult as to transport me to a time before we had known each other: I had mulled the idea over in my head, that I must have gone back earlier and built enough of a relationship with him for him to want to kiss me at Barnard Castle, but I had not thought of that actual experience, that I would have to live it through so soon.

Fate had begun to toy with me, with my mind, even then, when I had hardly begun to play the devilish strings of time.

Agnes hurried out after him, closing the door behind her again and leaving me in darkness. I sighed, and shivered, pulling the light sleeves of the cardigan I had picked out for dinner around my arms. From outside I could hear murmuring voices in their strange language and tongue. Deciding the coast was clear, I pulled out my wand and pointed it at the fireplace: immediately, gentle flames sprung up. I lit a few candles in the same way, and, concentrating, carefully Transfigured my cardigan so that the sleeves were a little longer and thicker, and the bottom of my trousers lengthened to the floor. It was sloppy, but it would have to do, though I cringed if Cecelia or Molly could see me now.

Agnes returned, a troubled look upon her face. When she saw the fire I had created, she recoiled.

“’ow did ye do that, girl?” she asked, a warning tone to her voice. I patted my purse, where I had stowed my wand as I heard the door creak open. She sighed. “Ye ‘ave the strangest things about you, lass, but ye did the first time as well.” She saw the hopeful look on her face and shook her head sadly. “Aye, I talked with the good duke, lass, but ‘e will ‘ear none of it, no talk of faeries and happenings tonight. I’m mighty sorry, girl, but ye’ll stay ‘ere for te night until I can figure out what te do wit’ye.”

I was disappointed, but I hid it well. And I was truly thankful, though puzzled, at her help. “Thank you, Agnes, ma’am,” I said sincerely. “I truly appreciate that. But can you explain to me how you knew me so quickly, and why you’re so willing to help me?”

Agnes smiled. “It may sound strange to ye, girl, but I’ve a-known yous was comin’ for many years, since the boy duke was a child of seven. Ye came to us when we was playin’ in the thicket in te woods out yonder, ‘n ye told me, ye told ‘im, that someday ye would return and it would be my task to ‘ouse ye and ‘elp ye.”

“I… did these things?” I said wonderingly. So I would return to the past not once, not twice, but three times, once when Richard was a child, to tell him of my future arrival. Again I was stricken with the thought and idea of things already that existed in my past and future, of walking the path that fate laid out for me without agency of my own. Had it been of my own will after all that I swallowed the potion less than two hours ago, in the field beyond the Burrow? It was at this moment that I wished for Archie’s knowledge, for Mum’s wisdom, for Louis’ calm. I felt a sudden pang for my family. Somehow, I had expected to be whisked back to the present – to my present quickly, leaving this as a fleeting adventure. Why was I still here, and what would fate plan for me next?

Agnes beckoned me to the fire, where a pot was hanging over it. She pulled from her pockets several bits of vegetables, and threw them, without washing or chopping them, into the pot as well. A stick was protruding from the top of the pot: she stirred it a couple times then beckoned to me. Obligingly, I touched the top of the stir-stick and gave it a few clockwise spins, as if I were back at Hogwarts preparing a draft for the Potionsmaster.

Satisfied that I was stirring the stew to her satisfaction, Agnes disappeared behind a curtain then emerged, handing me a wooden-carved cup with a rough sketch of a boar hewn into it. I thanked her and took a sip, and had to restrain myself from spitting it back out into the cup: it was a bitter, rough alcohol, which tasted like cheap beer and wine had been mixed together in a dreadful concoction.

Watching me, Agnes chortled to herself again. This seemed to be one of her distinguishing habits. I forced a smile on my face.

“Erm, there isn’t any water I could have, is there?”

She cracked her knuckles. “Not if ye want ter avoid the sick, there’s not,” she said cheerfully. “This is fine ale, a special gift from the duke to myself in ‘onour of our long friendship. ‘Twill keep ye ‘ealthy ‘n strong.”

I was thirsty, so I drank more of the ale, forcing it down and pretending it was like taking shooters of Firewhiskey at a bar. I kept the shudder from my face.

Before the Quiddtich game at the Burrow, during dinner, my cousin Roxanne was talking about the feeling of being in a new city. She told me that there’s this moment between arriving at the train station and successfully finding the hotel, where everything feels foreign and alien and hopeless. She said she cried in the first three cities she visited: places which she had dreamed of her entire life, which she had worked and saved up for and dreamed about, yet in that precious time between arriving and belonging all she had wished for was her little bed at home and the sounds of her parents bustling about in the house instead of the movements of strangers. I thought of these words, and smiled a little sadly while thinking of Roxy, because that was exactly how I felt there in Agnes’ tiny cottage.

As Agnes tidied and I stirred the pot, I asked Agnes more questions. The town was called Fotheringay, a market town which had sprung up around the castle, where Richard himself had been born. Agnes knew little about politics and the comings and goings of the nobility, though she enthused over and over at how fine a man the ‘young duke’ had grown up to be: how chivalrous, how strong and good! And she told me about being a witch in 1468.

When Agnes was a girl of thirteen, she had been sent with her parents’ hard-earned savings to travel alone to Hogwarts. She described it to me: a castle unlike any she had ever seen, far mightier and grander than Fotheringay itself. Witches and wizards were scattered across England, integrating themselves into the villages and hamlets and providing use to the people living there. Many magical families, like Agnes’ own, had been in that place for generations, and earned reputations as being wise healers. They hid the true nature of their magic and the magical underworld as best possible, for being a witch was still feared by many of the masses and it would not do to flaunt one’s skills. Agnes told a sad story of a friend of hers in a neighboring village who had been drowned in the castle moat after failing a witch trial. Many witches and wizards, when tortured, would accidentally use wandless magic, similar to that which a pre-Hogwarts wizard might exhibit, to save themselves, but this would only lead those prosecuting them on a greater rampage. It was extremely dangerous to be magical, particularly a woman, for they were most suspect, Agnes explained in her simple dialect, but it was also very wonderful, for they saw and knew things that the common folk did not.

As Agnes had said earlier, at Hogwarts the social class divisions had been very apparent. She had been Sorted into Hufflepuff, by the same hat which had chosen me for Gryffindor, and it was a house greatly made up of the lower classes. The nobility often ended up in Slytherin, and some of the more generous ones (here, Agnes’ voice warmed) were chosen as Gryffindors. Ravenclaw was mostly populated by the ambitious and devious merchant and gentry classes who were educated nearly on par with the nobility.

The social classes were segregated by dormitories within the houses, and students attended certain courses depending on their social standing, gender and magical abilities. Those who were destined to be politicians and members of the court learned how to navigate both the magical and Muggle scenes of high society and the role of wizards in battle, though Agnes couldn’t tell me much more on the subject.

As for the poor wizards, they learned a medley of household charms, lessons on healing and instructing in the community, and the basic reading and writing skills in English and Latin which were usually restricted from those of the peasant class. When Agnes had left Hogwarts to find her own employment, she had been presented with a book of spells and a copy of Scripture, an extremely rare commodity for someone who was not a priest to own.

Agnes had loved being nurse to the infant Richard, who she explained was the youngest son of the greatest family in the land. Her eyes were like moons when she spoke of them. She had followed the boy and his brother into exile when he was only eight years old, and upon their return both boys had been sent away to learn the skills of gentleman knights and she had been sent back to Fotheringay village to be a hedgewitch and care for the Muggles she had grown up amongst. Her mother had died soon after.

It soon became clear to me that Agnes had not truly benefitted from a full Hogwarts education. She had only been there for three years until the grand sum she had paid to be a student had run out. She explained that while there were a handful of instructors there who had come from and cared for the education of the lower classes, the majority of the curriculum and care was directed towards those who would make an impact in the only society that mattered: the highest one in the land. Despite my age, I was sure that I knew far more than she did about the magical arts.

Agnes’ main gift was a sort of knowledge or convicted sureness in her principles: she had some sort of gift of foresight which I could not quite understand. Or perhaps she simply read people very well: perhaps she had known that distant spectre of Rose Weasley was sincere when she said she would return someday. And she proved this talent the next morning, when Richard returned to the cottage, straight-faced and leading his fully-saddled horse behind him, and asked me to take a walk with him.






I do not own the mnemonic device about King Henry VIII.


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