Harry skulked about in a murky corner of the park, where a large oak tree with enormous, drooping limbs formed a makeshift tunnel. It was his secret base, safe from his corpulent cousin Dudley, who couldn't even fit halfway inside. Not that there was any threat of pursuit this evening; Dudley was probably sunk into a couch in front of the telly right now, buried in greasy crisp packets and whinging for Aunt Petunia to go away as she fussed over him and tried in vain to interest him in fruitcake.
Harry, nursing a shallow cut on his cheek and shivering in the crisp autumn air, reminded himself that the fruitcake was always too dry and packed full of hard raisins, and he had no desire to sneak inside and slip it into his pocket after Dudley inevitably knocked it to the floor. No desire at all. His stomach grumbled.
It had been a few hours since Aunt Petunia had thrown him out of the house for 'ruining her precious Diddlydum's day', and the sun was creeping ever lower on the horizon. The embrace of the oak tree grew less comforting and more depressing as the surrounding illumination receded. Harry, seeing that the park was now deserted, cautiously ventured out of his secret base and stepped toward the swings. One of them was vandalised and completely unusable, the seat hanging at an awkward angle inches under the top bar, but the others were reasonably functional.
Harry winced as his too-large trainers crunched loudly on the wood chips. The sound shattered the evening silence and seemed so much bigger than it actually was. He took another step, and there was a sharp crack, like breaking glass. He looked down wildly to see what he had stepped on, except he could not find anything different. When he looked up again, he gave a yell and scrambled back quickly as he was met with the sight of the Grim Reaper.
Breathing in and out harshly, Harry regained his wits and noticed that the Grim Reaper was actually a man in a thick black cloak, and the hand that was poking out from under the rim was thin and pale but not exactly skeletal. He concluded, a little ashamed of his earlier reaction, that this was not the Grim Reaper, but just one of those 'strange freaks' who sometimes bowed to him on the street and whom Uncle Vernon loudly disapproved of.
Then the Not Grim Reaper reached out and grabbed his arm. Harry was so surprised that he just stood there and let it happen, except his arm apparently did not agree with that, because there was a flash of golden light and the cloaked man recoiled sharply like he had been burned, his hand disappearing into the folds of his cloak
"Excuse me," Harry tried saying, but his throat had clenched up some from the excitement and it came out a little more high-pitched than he would have preferred.
"Schlammblut!" the cloaked man hissed out in a surprisingly normal voice, except that the word he had said was complete nonsense. Harry got the idea that it was unflattering, however, just from the tone of voice.
"Excuse me?" Harry said again, this time managing to keep his voice steady. He felt his courage coming back to him every second that the man just stood there, though he wished that he could see the face under the hood. It was silly, because he doubted he would recognise the person anyway. The adult men Harry knew consisted of Uncle Vernon and the school headmaster. Obviously, this person could not possibly be Uncle Vernon, and the thought of the uptight, moustached headmaster wearing such a freaky cloak was just too laughable.
"Are you a mudblood?" the man asked, thankfully in comprehensible English this time, except Harry still had no idea what a 'mudblood' was other than that it was clearly not a good thing.
"No?" Harry tried, because agreeing that he was some kind of bad thing was just dumb.
The man seemed surprised, though, and said, "Oh, my apologies. Why are you in this type of place, then? Where are your parents?"
Now that he spoke a longer sentence, Harry could hear a strange accent to the slow words. For one, the man seemed to have trouble pronouncing the letter 'w,' which was odd, because it was a very essential sort of letter. Harry supposed that this was the type of 'no-good foreigner' Uncle Vernon was always complaining about. And of course the man was also wearing a freaky cloak, which made it even worse. Harry decided that anyone Uncle Vernon would definitely hate couldn't be that bad, and so figured he could answer his questions.
"They're dead. I live here, with my aunt and uncle," he explained.
"They are our kind, and they live here?" the man demanded, sounding very incredulous. Harry looked the man up and down again, and wondered what he meant by 'our kind.' Finally he concluded that since both the man and himself were favourite sorts of things for Uncle Vernon to complain about, it must be that there was a fundamental difference involved.
So he shook his head and said, "Well no, they're not like us, they're—" he stopped, searching for a word, and could think of only one, "—normal."
"Muggles," the man repeated, as if for clarification, except he said it with such revulsion that again, Harry could tell that this new word was some kind of swear word, an adult one that he probably didn't know because he was too young. He shrugged, not going to disagree that the Dursleys deserved to be called by a swear word or two.
"And you can stand it, to live with them?" the man asked him. Harry was beginning to get a little concerned, because no one had ever been that interested in his life with Dursleys before. But the lack of attention he always got only meant that his relatives could do whatever they wanted. Wasn't it good that someone seemed to care, for once?
"Well, they don't like me much," Harry answered cautiously, but truthfully. The cloaked man snorted.
"It's horrible, a joke, that our kind could be raised by muggles," he said. "Why don't you come with me? We must take you from that rubbish at once. How old are you, seven?"
"Nine," Harry corrected, a little annoyed at the man's low estimate. The man seemed unruffled by his mistake.
"Nine. You can become my apprentice. I have just lost the last," he offered. Harry blinked.
"Apprentice?" he asked, finding the word unfamiliar.
The man seemed to misinterpret his question, however, because he answered, "I am an enchanter. A good profession. And there's the other thing too, but we can discuss that later." The last bit was almost muttered, as if the man were talking to himself.
Harry stared at him, more confused than before. What other thing? What was an enchanter? But he did not voice any of his questions, because there was one thing that stood out, and it was that this man, who had been nicer to him than he ever remembered any adult being, had just offered to take him away from the Dursleys. Forever, by the sound of it.
"Okay," Harry said, mind racing with wonderful thoughts of leaving Privet Drive. No more Dudley or Dudley's friends, no more cooking delicious-smelling food that he wasn't even allowed to eat, no more living inside a cupboard. Because Harry wasn't dumb; he knew that other kids did not live in cupboards. Dudley was a prime example of that.
"Very good. May I hold your hand? We need it to apparate," the man said. Just like that, he extended his hand, and Harry grasped it happily. This time, there was no weird flash of light or anything. "Yes, very good," the man repeated.