Behind All These Windows/A Beautiful World
A twoshot in sixteen pictures
Disclaimer: The world is Rowling's, I just play with ideas.
A/N: Finally got around to cleaning this up. Part B will be posted tomorrow. Happy Walpurgis!
Part A: Behind All These Windows
And so we watch the happenings within;
Behind the walls, behind all these windows.
"Yesterday, I took a stroll down Diagon Alley. I had to collect my new robes for the Walpurgis celebrations at Larina's, the seamstress having finished her work, and I had a few other errands to run besides, looking forward to tonight's – stop. Remove last word, replace with that night's, continue – festivities. My good mood, however, soon took a sharp downturn. New paragraph, continue.
"On the way, I was accosted no less than three times by a begging Wandless – asking for money, asking me to plead their cases, and finally proving bothersome enough to force the Aurors into action. Similar scenes, I am told, are not an exception; in fact, they occur with increasing frequency every day. In the light of this unacceptable development, a new approach is needed. Clearly, the policy of lenience thus far taken, the pro tempore resolution allowing the Wandless to live on our streets, is not working out. The Ministry, either unable or unwilling to remove them permanently – a position which my readers will recall I have argued for on many occasions – has to come up with a better solution. One such solution might be to get them to make themselves useful. New paragraph, continue.
"The idea behind this is simple. House-Elves are valuable and rare. Magical contraptions are complicated and expensive. So why not put the Mudbloods to work – even as a way to make them pay back, spell by spell, the magic they so impudently stole? The Imperius Spell –"
There was a knock on the door.
Cecilia Selwyn sighed, displeased, and examined her nails and the smooth skin on the back of her hands in exasperation. She was sitting in a large, comfortable armchair, leant back, her dainty, stockinged feet on the large oaken desk, and wanted to finish her column for tomorrow's Prophet, but apparently, that was not to be.
The steady swishing of the quill that had been the only sound filling the room, besides her clear voice, stopped. A questioning sound was made at her. She nodded to the halfblood who was taking her notes.
"Go on and see you type it up to where we have halted. We shall recommence our session later. Yes!"
The last was directed at the apparent visitor without. The handle moved and the door opened. The editor and owner of the Daily Prophet himself, Barnabas Cuffe, poked inside his seasoned face, while the girl with the quill obediently bowed her head in response to words thus spoken.
"Yes, Miss Selwyn. What is the title going to be?"
Cecilia supposed she could have used an auto-dict quill, or even written it herself – her writing charm was neat and very tidy – but at any event, she liked seeing the halfblood work for her. The girl certainly knew her place and was an eager servant. She waited for her reply patiently, the eyes dutifully lowered to the carpet.
"Title it 'A pragmatist's approach to the Mudblood quandary'." Her impatient hand waved her out. Important company was waiting. "How may I be of service, Mr. Cuffe?" Behind him, the door clicked shut again and they were alone. Her smile widened in the thus gained intimacy. "A pleasure to see you, Barny."
When she had been new in the company, a year prior, she had stood in awe of the editor and owner of the newspaper, but soon enough, it became apparent that he had a special interest in her. His straying gaze was hard to miss, and she had quickly decided she quite liked it. And small blame to him! – how could he not notice? She was young, twenty-five, and her modern, fashionably-cut robes looked good on her, just like her honey blonde hair, cropped short in a bob, did. The old crones scrunched up their noses whenever they laid eyes on her; she hardly cared. Cecilia was a modern witch, and long hair was always such a hassle to deal with. Spells every morning! And really, looking at the editor-in-chief, here was one who certainly hadn't minded.
His mouth nowshowed the faintest hint of a smile.
"Don't presume, Miss Selwyn."
His tone was slightly mocking, though not in a malicious way, rather in a manner that never failed to get her excited, ever since he had invited her to their first outing a month ago. Since then, she had gladly played what role was appropriately hers in something other people might have called an affair; entertaining herself, and, so she hoped, him as well. She was witty, quick-minded, and well-educated. It was the least she could do.
Yes, she was quite thankful indeed for the opportunity he had given her, since after Frank Montgomery's sudden disappearance some months past, she was by no means the first choice for his position given her age, and had always expected – and never minded – that there was more to come. As though he had read her mind, he continued: "I gave you the column as I always knew Frank's work to be yours in truth, and I took a liking to your style. You are good. Other … considerations were not included."
She tilted her head and tried to determine whether she believed him. Were the two connected or were they not? She was good, naturally, but her appointment had drawn the ire and jealousy of not a few more senior writers that had been disregarded in her favour and had felt entitled to a promotion. He certainly had gotten more than one earful in bitter complaints. Featuring as prominently every day as she did was every writer's dream. Cuffe hadn't been at all obliged to give the spot to her.
It was probably well either way, she finally decided. Glancing at him, his somewhat portly form, but with a well-defined, sharply angled face and the clever dark eyes that hinted at a certain shrewdness she had come to understand quite well, she knew that she liked her work and she liked their relationship, as a way to pay back a favour or no. He was thirty years older, married, but so what? Getting closer to him could only be advantageous for her career. He was an important figure in even the highest pureblood circles.
"I separate business matters and private matters most strictly, as you well know."
His words dragged her out of her reverie. There was a pause. He cleared his throat. "As it happens, I was about to leave for the club. Would you give me the honour of being my companion for lunch?"
Inside, she started to giggle at his manner of separating their professional interaction and private relationship – he always found ways to get her off work, so they could spend some leisure time together! – but that quickly turned into excitement. A lunch at the Sorcerer's Club? You bet she wanted to! She offered him a beaming smile, and was on her feet in an instant.
"Rather, thank you kindly for the invitation, Barnabas."
She slipped into her shoes, summoned her coat – a nice, expensive niffler fur – and her purse and walked out into the anteroom, next to Cuffe, where she received curious and jealous looks in equal measure. By Merlin, it was good to be a young, attractive pureblood-witch!
Diagon Alley rested in peaceful sunshine, but a chilly wind reminded everyone that it was only just May, and she was glad for the self-regulating warmth of her cloak. There was talk about adding meteolojinxes to the entire area, to keep the worst of weather away, but that was expensive and complicated. The Community Development Bureau was still looking into it. Until then, cloaks like hers were a must in the chilly seasons. Cuffe's indigo robe billowed behind him in the wind, and she suspected he had a warming charm as well.
In all fairness, the lack of decisiveness in typical bureaucracy fashion she did not particularly mind. It allowed her, after all, to take her coat for a walk – she pulled it closer around her, admiring the way the gold the nifflers had been fed made the black fur shimmer in the light, relishing how she walking down the street, elegant and beautiful, at the side of an important wizard.
There were other purebloods out and about too, notable figures, distinguished from the rest by their rich clothing, true enough, but more than that by their bearing – nobility begetting noble conduct, and to which degree one could see it here, on a day out at Diagon Alley! A grace and an obligation, demanding of her and of each the utmost of that which they could give, and expecting in turn to be given the reverence that was their due. And thus she walked, out on a stroll at lunch time, to see and be seen; amiably greeted by those that were her peers, and reverently so by the others, the looks admiring and the hats tipped. Some even bowed – to their – her – station, to their blood, as a tribute to magic, as a pledge to the best within them. She wanted the world and she was given it, because she was young and beautiful, because her blood was pure, because it was her heritage and birthright. This was how life was meant to be.
They walked slowly, leaving her time enough to take in the displays and people and Cuffe room to greet acquaintances. She nodded and shook a few important hands, pleased, while otherwise happily watching the hustle and bustle of Diagon Alley.
Down to her left, a wizard just levitated a new sign up to the front above his store. The Dark Night, she read, and shook her head, amused. Anything labelled Dark had experienced an astonishing demand, as though everyone had been roused from a deep slumber, tried to make up for years of repression, for all the time where Dark had been nothing else than a curse word. How far they had come!
At the start, directly after the Dark Lord's reforms, many shops had closed and, vacated by their owners, left behind the drab feeling of empty buildings and boarded up storefronts. But soon, sooner than she would have thought, other, new shops sprang up and took over the vacancies, liberated by the new laws; and by now, only a few odd places weren't open, and the street had returned to its former liveliness. The addition of Magic Alley, where many of the most notable wizards and witches had built beautiful townhouses or created porches to their manors elsewhere in the country really had done wonders.
It was this that had turned Diagon Alley into the boulevard of displays, the pageant that she right this moment was part of herself. It was now truly the heart of Britain, the beating, pulsing centre of magic, a gift to all wizards and witches, peaceful and prosperous.
At the corner, a gaggle of small children ran into Diagon Alley, passing the statue with the fountain that mirrored the one at the Ministry, and pressing their noses against the shop windows; free to venture wherever they wanted, unhindered by Muggles, protected by the Aurors that kept up the Ministry's order, the two crossed wands on their wine-red robes a prompt for the present and a promise for the future: Magic is Might.
She said farewell to a member of the Wizengamot, and continued with Cuffe down the street. A boy in front of one of the new shops loudly praised what was the newest attraction: Licensed Mugglehunting. The windows behind him were the one of a travel agency, offering day outings to a special kind of Muggle park and help with the three Powerfuls. It was surprising how many wizards and witches considered it beyond their ability to perform a simple Imperius Spell to defend against Muggle attacks. At least it was now taught at Hogwarts. The 'liberation of magic'-campaign the Ministry had started was bearing fruits.
Colourful pictures in the store displays showed impressions from the park. She looked at the poster, curious. The Muggles looked rather like apes, she thought. No wonder they were inferior. They couldn't exactly help it.
Cuffe greeted the owner with a smile, and moved onwards to the sedate-looking building at the end of the street, quicker now, probably because he was hungry. The other wizards respectfully went out of their way, and she noticed it, pleased. There were only two things that marred the picture of a perfect noon.
The twisted and torn bronze doors of Gringotts bore witness to the attack that had taken place earlier in the day. The news had hit the office this morning like tidal wave. Barnabas himself had written the front-page article for the Evening Prophet.
Cecilia shivered involuntarily. To think that Harry Potter was still out there, after almost a year! And the other Undesirables! Who knew what else they might be planning? Perhaps plotting even bigger, deadlier attacks on their world? She did not understand these people. How could they not see how wonderful their world had become, finally, after all that uncertainty and fear? What did they hope to gain? Why would anyone attack Gringotts, especially now, when relations with the goblins were strained anyway? Was it a calculated attempt to spread discord?
The other unpleasantness were the begging Wandless. There – another one darted away from a witch who was shouting and shaking her fist, and vanished into the dark mouth of a back alley, chased by an Auror. Even here, directly in front of the Sorcerer's Club!
At least the Aurors were acting now.
"Hey! You! Stop right there!"
Nigel Cresswell ducked behind a dustbin, and looked around quickly, trying to spot the pursuing Aurors. From his hiding spot, through the gap between wall and metal, he had a good view of the Alley, where most passers-by did their best to look away and disapparate quickly. The pureblood couple moved on as if nothing had happened, and entered the Sorcerer's Club; but not before having a little chat and wager in passing. A thousand Galleons – enough in a year's span for a family to get by, if need be, enough so that nowadays, too many found it out of their reach. The times where even a dragon feeder could make thirty galleons in a month were past.
A mere thirty Galleons, not even the wager's amount in a year! A fraction of what his father had made as Head of a decent Ministry office, which he knew for well above seven thousand, his disinterest for money, bred by the unquestioning complacency of the comfortably-well-off, notwithstanding; a fraction far from what was his wont, for a task equally beneath his ambitions, and, he resumed with a bitter smile, certainly something he would take now for work gladly, if he could but have it.
Of course, that was quite an impossibility. Wandless were not allowed to work, steal the work of wizards, as they said, the work that was due those with better blood; and each was to do as he was bidden, each according to his station.
The merits of that resolution reflected in his dark eyes. Anger glowed in a deep-set fire there, imparting a fierce, driven manner on his person, otherwise unremarkable. The soft curves of a sheltered boy's face had hardened into sharply defined lines, an energetically jutting chin, a resolute mouth; features bold enough to be memorable, handsome, even, in good times, even if he himself had never realised such, but now on the thin, somewhat gaunt side, as much from worry as from hunger. Further a medium build, neither stocky nor lanky, a shock of brown hair, finally plain black robes that had seen better days. That was all of him.
And thus, that smouldering resentment within was now directed at the pureblood couple just entering the building yonder. Purebloods, of course they were purebloods! Even without their destination, it was obvious. One look at their rich clothes, at their arrogant gait, the carriage of their heads, their unconcerned countenance, as if the street was theirs to own and they had not a care in the world, told him all. They were here every day. Taking a walk, enjoying the sunshine or complaining about rain, eating nice lunches and dinners in nice restaurants for month's worths of pay, celebrating life as if their name wasn't synonymous for death, as if their henchmen – Snatchers – weren't hunting him and every other Muggleborn in the country, as if wizards and witches weren't killed or orphaned or cast out of their homes in rags, starved, beaten, tortured or worse.
But for them, they did not count as such. They took their wands, claimed their magic was stolen, and left them out on the streets if they were lucky or in Azkaban's clutches if they were not.
This was their idea of a perfect world. He wanted to smash it to pieces, to shout out the injustice and shove it into their ignorant faces – didn't anyone care! – not the purebloods, but, at least, the rest? – though he knew it was useless. The bitter answer was that no, they did not care, had no desire to look, as he did, through the windows at the world from without, to see the injustice within; not as long as they – the halfbloods, the majority – thought their own lives safe.
Nigel was making ready to leave, cautiously peeking out from out of his hiding place, when screams reached his ears. They had caught Justin.
He jumped up and rounded the corner, back into the Alley, which now lay silent and deserted, as though even the buildings were holding their breath. Justin was in the middle of the street with one of the Aurors bent over him. With a yell, he ran up to push the man aside, but only got as far as the mouth of the passage, before he was slammed into the wall himself. The second Auror had caught him.
For a second, Nigel desperately tried to escape. Then he took a closer look at the person that was apprehending him, and stopped short in amazement.
"Frederick? Frederick Jones?"
His eyes beheld the answer clearly, but his mind could not conceive of it. It was Frederick Jones, an old friend of his father at the Ministry. He had been over for the evening often enough.
"Get me out of here and stop him," Nigel barked at him, meaning the first Auror. There was a flash of something in Jones' eyes, before his face hardened.
"No can do, son."
To Nigel's horror, he raised his wand and pointed it at him.
"What are you doing, Frederick? What – "
"I'm sorry, Nigel."
At once, Nigel realised what the Auror was implying, but it made no sense. Frederick Jones, the middle-aged man with the pleasant, round face, the old friend of his father's –
"You are a Muggleborn yourself!" he shouted, kicking out as hard as he could. "Traitor!"
"Shut up, shut up!"
A jab with his wand quenched Nigel's voice. Jones pressed him hard against the brick wall and jabbed his thump over his shoulder at the screaming boy.
"Do you think I want to end up like him? Or your father? Why do you suppose I'm doing this?" The round face loomed over him as he hissed it at Nigel, his eyes wavering. It was pure fear that was in his look. "I paid a fortune to get my family tree forged and joined the patrols to get away from the Ministry as often as possible. So you keep your mouth well shut – in fact …"
He turned his head out to the street.
"Hey, Travers. I got another one. If you're done, I could use a hand. He is being unhelpful."
On Diagon Alley, Justin was moaning feebly, bleeding from countless cuts and twitching slightly.
Traitor, shouted Nigel in his mind, his mouth still firmly locked, wriggling harder against the grasp pinning him to the wall. For a moment, he felt the pressure ease, as Jones was distracted by the other Auror coming over. Nigel seized his chance, throwing his entire weight against the body of Jones, and causing the older man to stumble. He was away and back in the alleyway in seconds.
The angry shouts of the two men followed him while he ran, his heart beating rapidly. That had been close, but at least he had the money. Justin had been the one on the lookout. Desperately, he looked back, but the Aurors had stopped chasing him. The immediate danger was over.
"Ah, let 'im run. This one here ain't going anywhere."
An unpleasant laugher filled the alleyway, and the heavy thump told him Justin's body had just been dumped there like a piece of cattle.
His howls echoed in Nigel's ears, filling him with the same, helpless rage from earlier. What was there to do? How could he fight against wizards without a wand? There was only the option of escape. He could escape. The other boy wasn't so lucky.
He hadn't even known the other boy that well. He was younger than him by a couple of years, maybe seventeen of age, from Hogwarts – he should have been at Hogwarts, anyway, but of course he had been kicked out, Hogwarts no longer accepted Mudbloods. Nigel spat out bitterly. Well, he wouldn't let his sacrifice be in vain. And then, the fate of the other boy fled his mind, because he other, more important things to do.–
Nigel weaved through the narrow back alleys and between boarded-up window fronts, past run-down buildings, dreary, dust-caked brick walls, displaying, for all the world to see, for everyone that only cared to look, a faithful mirror of true life, here, today, the world of the forgotten, the unwanted, the outcasts. This was his world, and here he lived – in nothing more than a wooden shed, glued into a corner of a dirty backyard, against the back wall of a shop that never showed this side of it to its customers.
The owner was already waiting.
"Hurry up, boy!"
Nigel stared at Edric Borgin in searing hate, yet held his tongue. Borgin was a pureblood like the rest of them, nasty, arrogant and racist – and maybe even worse besides, not merely because he was violent and altogether unpleasant, but because here was one who could not plead ignorance, one who saw what life was like every day for those not privileged with the right birth, and was fine with it.
Nigel seemingly hadn't been good enough, however, as the short, stooped wizard with the oily hair narrowed his eyes.
"Be grateful that I allow filth such as you to stay here. Where is the gold?"
Certainly Borgin was too fine to ever be mentioned in company of the likes of Nigel, but he was hardly too fine to take an extortionate rent for letting out a shack.
"Here," Nigel spat, flinging the purse at the wizard.
Borgin weighed the leather pouch in his palm, considering, listening to the jingle of coins. Then he grunted and spun around, jabbing his thick thumb over his back. The money vanished in a pocket in his robes quickly.
"Shut the brat up. Got better things to do than to listen Mudblood spawn whinging – for that matter, I can get better tenants for the house. Waiting list's as long as my wand. Stop the noise or get the hell out."
Nigel stepped inside what Borgin had called "house" – a single dark, small room, with a table, a chair and a mattress. The candle on the table flickered as he moved by, sending the shadows scurrying over the walls, before they retreated back into the corners and the spidery web of beams under the roof where the candlelight never reached.
At the table, in the sole chair, his mother sat. The yellow glow of the candle near her face gave it some merciful warmth and colour in reality long gone, though it also revealed the glinting empty bottle and her eyes, glassy and unfocused. She was drunk again.
It was moments like these that were the worst. All his helplessness culminated here – where he was unable to do anything to fix things, to better their situation, to be of use, even for his own family. Sometimes, he thought his mother might be better off dead – died when his father had, when they had caught up with him after his escape. In the corner, on the mattress, the baby wailed.
"Shhh, Anne." He picked her up, rocking her back and forth in his arms, until she stopped crying and stared up at him with her big blue eyes, trusting and hopeful. Her tiny, dirty fist opened and closed, and suddenly, a tiny miniature broom made of twigs and strings floated over to her. She grabbed the toy, babbling happily. Nigel closed his eyes, unable to watch. So obviously magical. So obviously a witch. How could anyone claim the opposite?
He heard the door go. Jacob shuffled his broad frame into the door frame, blocking out again the light that for a short moment had fallen inside. Nigel turned around.
Jacob shook his head. "Nothing. Probably already on the way to Azkaban. Maybe dead, if he's lucky."
By now, the rest of his – well, was friends almost too strong a word? he wondered – they were outcasts like him, between twelve and twenty, banded together less by affection than by common histories, orphaned, escaped, hunted, as well as by common goals, arriving here short of any other place that wanted them, staying alive first and foremost on any of their minds – well, but friendly acquaintances, then, and for all he cared, indeed friends in want of any others that could conceivably lay hand on that particular claim–; they had arrived, in any case, returning from begging or stealing and whatever else they did, to earn money; sometimes alone, other times, such as this, together.
"Time for Potterwatch, innit?"
Fiona poked her red head around Jacob's bulky figure, glancing at the small wooden wireless sitting on the table near the bottles. Nigel shrugged.
"Might as well."
He cleared off the bottles, and tried to tune into the station with the password and lower half of a wand, a broken fragment of a different life, but sometimes just serviceable enough to catch the hidden reports. It took him many tries to get it right this time around. The broadcast had already started.
"– the big news today, of course, the appearance of Harry Potter early this morning at Diagon Alley. We can now confirm that it was indeed him. Rapier was in the area at the time. Rapier, what did you see? Is there any proof that it was really Potter?"
"Well, River, unless someone decided to disguise as Potter, which would be a rather peculiar idea, there won't be any doubt about it. But even that aside, no one but Potter would be mad enough to try and ride a dragon out of Gringotts –"
"A dragon?" Jacob asked, wide-eyed. "So that's why Gringotts is closed? Sweet Merlin! Potter on a dragon!"
"– and then flew right over my head – a full-grown, fire-breathing dragon. A Welsh Green, if I had to guess. Gringotts' entrance looks like a mob of angry trolls stopped by for tea. So we don't know what he wanted there, or how he got there, but we do know that he's alive and escaped yet again."
"I don't know why you insist on listening to this nonsense. What does it matter what Potter did or didn't do? He escaped? Great. So what?"
"He's our only hope, Nigel!"
He turned towards her, eyes dark and angry.
"Our hope? No, Fiona. We can only count on ourselves. On me, on you, on the people out there. Nothing will get done unless we do it. And we will. Tell everyone that I'll be out in a minute. I have a plan. I only need to put Anne to sleep, and make certain Mum doesn't flip."
The broadcast continued on, starting a talk with guests like Thompson, the founder of the Muggleborn Relief Network, and the mysterious Royal, but Nigel stopped listening.
"But what about all the people at the Ministry, who never got their hands dirty, but whose orders and actions got innocent people like Cresswell killed or imprisoned?" the former was asking. "What about people like Cecilia Selwyn at the Daily Prophet, who poison the minds of our children with their hatred and intolerance? She's at least as dangerous as any Death Eater. No, they need to go as well. And if they don't want to, we'll force them."
Arguments heard a hundred times, a mind long since made up, no room left for doubt or differing views.
"I would caution against too radical a cleansing," the deep voice of Royal said. "We need to have something left to rebuild our world from. What is the use of a new world if there is no one left to live in it? A strategy of ashes and flames, of death and revenge, is not what we – what I – want. How can we claim to be any better than they are, if we discriminate ourselves, once we are the ones in charge?"
"Bullshit," Nigel snorted and switched the wireless off with a poke of the wand stump. Jacob and Fiona head left. He would join them, now, them and the countless other Wandless of Diagon Alley, in the old storage building, and tell them what he had to tell. The goblins were enraged. His father had taught him a passable Gobbledegook. The wizards would never know what hit them.
He closed the door behind, standing in yard, and shivered. It was cold.
"Mr. Cuffe. And Miss Selwyn."
A group of wizards was leaving the Sorcerer's Club, a modest building on the far end of Diagon Alley. Timber-framed, the gable set towards the street, like so many of the old houses here, it stood wedged between a coiffeur and the holster-maker. Only a small brass plate next to the door, serving also as a means to beg entrance, gave the tiniest of hints that here was to be found the oldest and most exclusive of the wizard's clubs in Britain.
It needed no further advertisement, resting in comfortable understatement, secure in the knowledge that everyone who needed to know about it already did, and everyone who didn't, did not, and was unlikely to be wanted in any case.
Entrance was gained easy enough but for the need of a sponsor, which was hard to get. Small wonder Cecilia was so excited! At any day, one could be sure to find Britain's best here, political, economical, magical, the vocation was of no concern but for the merits they bestowed, and for her profession as sure as for her own person, she desired a piece of that, ambitious and demanding; beholding Cuffe's interest in her as her key to unlock that door.
And it was of little concern to her that inside, wizards were many and witches few. Entrance was not fundamentally barred, hers now within reach; the times were modern and otherwise holding to the one rule she believed in: what mattered was blood, and nothing else.
The wizards thus exiting and greeting the pair of them were therefore regarded with the special interest of the soon-to-be-possessed: The Head of the Wizengamot Administration Services, apparating away at once, these days perpetually busy, or, more at leisure, the famous Herbologist Tilden Toots, and, the tophat reaching high above his head, Devlin Whitehorn, founder of the Nimbus Racing Broom Company. He was a man of tall appearance, compounded by the choice of his headwear, with lean, almost ascetic features and a nose like a hawk's just above a well-tended goatee, and otherwise the picture of a man of wealth, who liked to display the selfsame. The robes he wore, easily recognisable to Cecilia's trained eye, were custom-tailored imports from Paris, bright and colourful and casual.
He stepped out of the doorway, lingering on the worn step to regard business conducted across the street. A boy of perhaps eleven or twelve, ragged, less than clean but nevertheless whistling gaily, darted back and forth, crosswise down Diagon Alley. His appearance was at clear odds with his presence, more fit for the back alleys where sunlight didn't reach and wasn't wanted, but for the wand in his hand and the black-and-white cap on his head, clean and new and worn with all the pride of being dressed in the finest livery.
This and the armful of posters explained his purpose here, for he was clearly one of the Quidditchboys, quick and energetic young folk, kept by the teams to rally their crowd before a match and prevent the opposing team from doing just that. The demands weren't high, mainly a good Bludgeoning curse was required, and some other basic spells, mostly Charms.
The Falmouth Falcons, she thought, regarding his striped cap, and a semi-final in the European tournament? She thought to recall something of the kind. True enough, the poster he just slammed on a wall read: Come to Bodmin Moor – See the Falcons hammer the Heidelberg Harriers – 34th EQA tournament series semi-finals.
Mr. Whitehorn tracked his movements and regarded the advertising in clear delight, turning towards her and Cuffe with the expression of one thoroughly satisfied wizard.
"See that, Barnabas? The semi-finals, indeed, indeed. And, of course, all on Nimbus brooms. I would place some good money on their victory. Firebolt got the short end, this time. A thousand Galleons, what say you?"
"That I should be in much surprise to find you putting own gold at risk, as opposed to another man's, so anything but declining would be a fool's errand. It will be no good trying to convince me otherwise, Devlin – take my commendations for the victory your brooms will doubtlessly have. For all I know, you sponsor both teams. But the particulars of what you are talking of are beyond me; as you well know, my interest in sports of any fashion is limited to attempts of reducing the necessity to write about it."
"Don't you read your own paper, Barnabas?" teased Cecilia. "One should think you would, at least for approval's sake, ere you sell it! For I am certain it must have been on the cover the other day. A British team has chances to win the tournament for the first time in thirty years. When the chances for a victory are such, everyone's a fan. A title is a title; and you won't hear anyone say otherwise."
"As it happens, I don't," he remarked in response, tone dry. "Proof-read, that is. Ever since I fell ill once and Mrs. Marchbanks told me afterwards my paper was better when I was not there."
Mr. Whitehorn's eyes followed from his face to hers and back, as the speech went, taking into account her hand on his arm as well as their destination.
"It really is a wonder to find your paper still profitable, considering all the care you seem to grant it – which is to say, rather the lack of it. But do you not want to introduce us?"
Cuffe did so, with the added remark: "She works for me."
Whitehorn drew up a brow.
"And beautiful, too! My compliments, Barnabas. And my most sincere condolences, Miss Selwyn. If you are only half as able as you are enchanting, I'll surely know how he keeps that paper of his."
The good-natured quip, however well-received by its recipient, had Cecilia coming to the latter's defence.
"Oh, don't presume, Mr. Whitehorn! Mr. Cuffe is very attentive, everywhere it matters. He just happens to detest Quidditch."
"I would be certain that you, at least, shall have nothing to complain about in way of attention."
A rosy blush coloured her cheeks while Mr. Whitehorn regarded her up and down. "But I am well-aware Barnabas lacks even the slightest sense for Quidditch, Miss Selwyn. Every other week he writes me, demanding to know it should be possible to turn a profit on something as useless as proletarian entertainment."
"Once, Devlin. That was one time. Though since we are talking about it, how can you possibly turn a profit –"
Cecilia covered her mouth with her hand, laughing.
"Stop, Barnabas, stop. If you start debating this now, we shall never get to eat. Write him another letter. There, Mr. Whitehorn already wants to respond." She lifted her finger playfully. "I shan't stand it. I was promised a lunch, and a lunch I will get. Another time, Mr. Whitehorn, another time. I will say, however, that I am not the least surprised at your latest figures. The sponsorship deals with the European Quidditch Association and the Vasa-Race was a truly inspired move."
"Ha! Did you hear that, Barnabas? Here is someone who understands! I say, Miss Selwyn, could I tempt you to leave the musty parchments and lend your competence to a business like mine? I certainly have need of a secretary with more than air inside her head, these days I hardly get home before midnight."
She shook her head, smiling.
"Hardly competence, sir, I am like all writers – familiar with every topic, and a master in none. I will be well served staying where I am, flattering though the offer is."
"Well! It seems be both are overruled, Barnabas. Your lunch it is – though take my commendations for your beautiful and clever assistant. Despite what she says, I have a feeling she could answer the topic to your satisfaction as well as I could. And as for my thousand galleons, it seems I will have to find someone else to tempt."
He lifted his hat, and was about to move on, when he was bumped into in a most rude manner by the same boy that had been littering the walls with his posters, by now whistling and walking backwards. Instead of an apology, he stared with wide, amazed eyes up at Mr. Whitehorn, who, but in want for the handrail along the stairs of the Sorcerer's Club that he now clung to, would have been bowled over.
"Crikey, sir! A thousand Galleons? Never seen that much in me life. Yer wouldn't have one to spare for me and me mum, would yer?"
The sheer audaciousness had the wizard even forgetting the sharp rebuke he had been about to utter.
"Most certainly not! Do your work like you are supposed to, and you won't have need to ask for other people's money, boy. Now move along. You nearly tripped me up."
The only reaction was a stretched-out tongue. Mr. Whitehorn fingered for his wand, to cuff his ears but good, but the spell missed the boy by lengths, his quick senses prompting him to dart out of reach as quickly as he had come. He was off and about the far side of street again, ere the wizard had but the chance to try again, with better luck.
Mr. Whitehorn shook his head, replacing his wand within his breast pocket. "A warm behind is what he wants. Children these days. – Mr. Cuffe, Ms. Selwyn." Another nod and he left for good.
As soon as he was away, the boy returned, resuming where he left off to plaster his posters all over the walls. Shoddily-cast sticking charms first, then the posters without any regard for neatness or designated places. One at the lamppost, the next on a store window, the other blithely straight across a 'no advertising here'-notice.
His shrill whistles stayed with her, while he was working, clearly to be heard along the entire street. When he saw Cecilia was watching, he changed his tune and started singing out loud.
"Mudbloods here, Mudbloods there, Mudbloods almost everywhere – filling up the darkest places, evil looks upon their faces … "
Cecilia turned up her eyebrow. That one was new. Had he just made it up?
"Magic's stolen, wands are knocked off, so make sure their hands are cut off …"
She had to laugh. Grabbing into her pouch, she took out a coin and flicked it over to the boy, who snatched it deftly out of the air.
"A sickle for your clever little verse, boy."
A grin appeared on his rugged face.
"And many thanks, m'lady."
Whistling the gay tune now, he darted away through the people, running to the next spot to paper with his poster.
Mudbloods here, Mudbloods there …
The Sorcerer's Club was designed to appear plain from the outside, but just as well could the first impression of the interior to be said to adhere to the same standard, should any one curious passer-by have managed to steal a glimpse through open door and veiling charms.
The entrance indeed was as unremarkable as the façade, a narrow hallway that lay beyond the charms, with a single wardrobe door to the right, and double-doors with frosted glass bearing the name of the house, just ahead. There was no decoration, no embellishments; the walls covered with wooden panels with simple flambeaux carrying candles, giving the hall a gloomy shine, and on the floor the famous faded red runner that was said to turn out any unwanted visitor, and be as old as the building – over two hundred years. The porter stood on it, a slim, short figure, he, at least, unlikely to stop even the barely most competent wizard or so Cecilia thought, and yet insurmountable despite; not due to any sort of magical prowess, but to the heavy weight of hundreds of years worth of tradition behind him, expressed by way of his old-fashioned robe, the hat, the gloves. His eyes took in their attire, then their faces, and then a polite smile appeared on his face, as he greeted them: "Good afternoon, Mr. Cuffe. Miss?"
Cecilia was reasonably sure of his recognising her, but as the Sorcerer's Club was for members and their guests only, and as she had not yet been granted the privilege of being the former, the porter would wait to hear Barnabas pronounce her the latter.
"Miss Selwyn is my guest today, Daniel."
She beamed up at him, and the porter bowed, moving just a half-step sideways in the process, not really appearing much different as before by any measure, and yet the doors had just opened.
"Of course. Your cloaks?"
With a touch of his wand, the wardrobe had opened, revealing a single compartment bearing Cuffe's name. While he levitated the thick cloaks over, he remarked: "Fine bit of weather, isn't it, sir? Spring can't seem to let go."
Cuffe made a disagreeable expression.
"One would think it for March, if the calender wasn't telling a different story. And the committee can't seem to decide whether extending the meteolojinxes is too expensive or not. Could be rid of such weather by next week, if only they stopped delaying the decision."
With a complaisant smile, the porter closed the wardrobe again and opened the double door.
"Ah, but then what would we be talking about? Enjoy your stay, sir. Miss Selwyn."
Cecilia stepped past him without another word, and had forgotten all about him moments later. Her attention was captivated by the room in front of her. How exciting this was! And how exciting the magic!
The large, hall-sized dining room that was the heart of the club was sheer overflowing with it. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, things as simple as lights – all of it radiated magic in sheer abundance.
And the tables! While there were certainly some fairly normal of their kind, there were enough special ones, showing beyond doubt that it was a Charms master who had founded the club. He was still there, in the portrait on the wall, mounting guard over the comings and goings with stern perseverance, and for as long as he did, nothing would change, nothing would happen in a different manner than the one he had established.
That much tradition was almost overwhelming. She felt his gaze at her back, watching and judging her, serving as a constant reminder of her place; and his silence filled her with pride, as it meant he had not found fault with her.
One corner held an oasis – one complete with green palm trees, water and sand, beneath a brilliantly blue sky, just like one might find it in Africa. Another table was apparently floating weightlessly through the universe; as though through a veil one stepped across a frontier and walked among the stars, the light dimmed and the vast nothingness of space all around; with just tiny lights blinking below. In yet another area, a swamp extended into the sea, the horizon far, the smell of salt drifting over.
And once she had taken a step into any of their directions, the others faded to the back of her consciousness, leaving space only for the one chosen. As far as the corners were considered – and the dining hall seemed to have a great many of them, certainly more than four! – it was not one room, but many, ensuring the themes did not clash, but each became a sole, well-rounded whole. Only from the place with the doors directly at her back did it seem possible to see them all at once. So she spent minutes moving back and forth, sideways and up, to catch a glimpse of all.
Barnabas regarded her antics with a smile.
"Make the most of it, Cecilia, for you will only be able to see it thus once. Once chosen, the hall will fit your table, until you chose another one. To tell the truth, most prefer the simple ones unless on special occasions. Elliot Smethwyck did go a bit overboard. Having swamp flies in your dinner is not quite as entertaining as it sounds."
He took her arm, which she left him gladly, the happy glow afresh on her face by this gesture as much as him calling her given name in public, and walked across the hall, past the ordinary tables in the centre.
Some nestled in their own booths, others arranged next to each other in an open space, she found perhaps three quarter of them occupied. Conversation was muted, where it even reached her ear and was not charmed; she recognised most people, knowing them by name at least, but Barnabas made no move to greet any of them, so she did not either.
It was not until they had crossed half the room and nearly reached the steward that more than nods were exchanged. At one of the centre tables, to their left, two men took their lunch; one a tall, fierce fellow, the other round and bespectacled.
It took her a second to put a name to that face, all the while the first was easy. Quentin Brown made it his questionable purpose to be known these days, and had he better kept silent indeed!, but the other … why, yes, that had to be Damocles Belby, inventor of the Wolfsbane potion, that was having lunch with him here.
As they were passing, the two wizards looked up. Belby received her with a frown, unsure as of yet of name and face, but Brown's, she was watching sharply, showed clear recognition, then a dark cloud of anger, to finally settle on a look of haughty disdain.
"You-Know-Who's mouthpiece in the Sorcerer's Club. I was aware of standards having become woefully low, but I did not believe it was quite that far."
This was such a shocking announcement that Cecilia stilled and felt quite unable to react for a full ten seconds. Only by way of her growing indignation did she feel capable to respond, and then she did so with all the fervour one could expect of someone who had just been mortified.
"Sir, I beg forbearance. I am certain I must have misheard."
"Of course, Miss Selwyn; I apologise. It was not my intention to speak so softly." He cleared his throat and raised his voice. "I meant to say that under no circumstances was You-Know-Who's resident poison pen to be admitted in this establishment."
The silverware ceased to clink, and the hush that fell over the entire room spoke clearly enough as to the range across which his voice had carried.
Into the spreading silence, Brown continued to carve up his meat zealously. Belby stared at him for a second, clearly – and who would blame him? – wishing himself far away, darting her nervous glances.
"Keep your voice down, Quentin, I urge you –"
"You cannot tell me you desire her being around, Damocles, and watch her behaving as no proper witch ought to behave. And while her thoughts are surely worse than her presence, at least one can have the former without the latter. Her company inevitably inflicts both upon the the wizard unfortunate enough to end up in the selfsame. I fear for my sanity, should I have to endure another tale of how our magic was stolen. The silliness of it all would make me go quite mad, I'm sure." He made to raise the fork to his mouth, but paused, and lowered it again, taking in Cuffe. "And that you, Barnabas, should keep the company of the likes of her, that you should even drag her here, it has been noted. If you want to do a man a favour, leave; your point has been made, I assure you."
As evenly as she could, she replied: "I cannot conceal my dismay at hearing those words. In fact, I must convey my surprise at your audacity. Considering the actions of your daughter at Hogwarts, one should think you would not dare to show your face in public as you have done now and before, much less address me in such manner and speak to me of how proper witches ought to behave. Traitors are committed to the Veil, student or no; you know this, Mr. Brown. Busy enough it has been already. One more or less makes hardly for a difference."
The silence now was even more pronounce than the one before; and Cecilia regarded it with satisfaction. Brown, however, threw the napkin onto the table.
"I believe my appetite just disappeared. Steward, my wand." And to his luncheon partner he said, by way of leave-taking: "I shall return in better times. Once this madness is over, even this stain will fade, although, by every measure, it has to be worst this august halls have had to endure."
While the steward came forward with a small, velvety cushion upon which a wand rested, Cecilia tracked his movements in indignant disbelieve.
"I wonder that you should even have been born a pureblood, Mr. Brown," she said scathingly. "You are more fit for a Mudblood. What a disgrace!"
The atmosphere in his wake was uneasy and restless, although Cecilia did not feel it as such. She was busy in her mind going over the impossibility of what just had happened.
Barnabas nodded to the steward. "A private room, I suppose."
"Quite, Mr. Cuffe, gladly. The Ravenclaw Room, if you would follow me …"
The steward put on a relived expression, almost tripping over himself in his haste to show them out of this and into a separate room, Cecilia thought, scornful. What a deplorable display – what impertinence, too, that someone as reactionist as Brown should be allowed in here! A rebuke was the least one could have expected; expelling him rather, if he had not left himself.
She hardly noticed the beauty of the room. All but careless she regarded the thick Axminster carpet that was hushing her steps athwart the room, the fine silver flambeaux on the table, the heavy bronze chandelier above; fitting the Ravenclaw theme in union with the blue damask at the walls. As soon as the doors has closed Cecilia threw herself onto the chesterfield, staring at the ceiling.
"You did not say a word."
She tried hard to keep the disappointment out of her voice. She resolved not to look at him until she was certain to at least regain control of her features, lest even more of it would show, but she felt certain he should have noticed already.
"My intervention was hardly needed. You were doing fine."
"I can take care of myself. It was not I who needed defending then! He impeached the entire progressive cause. Don't you believe in it? Do you think so little of it that you cannot muster the words to speak in its defence?"
"I believe in you."
"Don't tease me, Barny." She turned around after all, lifted her head, bracing her chin with her hand. "I shan't be able to bear it if you do. I am quite serious – do you not agree with our aims, our ideals? For I can hardly construe your silence to his shocking words to mean anything else."
"My status as a pureblood would hardly permit anything besides," replied he. "Disagreeing with what was to be to my own advantage would make me a fool of Quentin Brown's extent. I am not that, I assure you. And I let you write about it to your heart's content, don't I?"
"It doesn't answer my question."
A sigh left his lips as he took a seat at the table. Cecilia wondered that he should be so reluctant to reply. Of course he would believe in it – it was an impossible situation if he didn't. Yet why not speak up, then?
He folded his hands above the table plate, and regarded her.
"Do not expect a scholar's insight from me, Cecilia. I'm not clever enough by any means to rival our prime thinkers, but I am, quite frankly, too clever by half to acquiesce to everything everyone says from sunrise to sundown. The Ministry tells me Mudbloods steal our magic. If, on the other hand, I were to have listened to Dumbledore before he died, he would have had me believe they were just like us –"
"Yes, quite. My point is thus: Times change, and then they change again. I am a wizard of practical disposition, Cecilia, I like whatever suits me the most, and disputes that can safely be called academic mean little to me either way. And, admittedly, I sometimes fail to see the solemn importance put upon such matters. What does the how and the why matter, as long as the outcome is fine?"
"Academic?" cried she. "But this is incomprehensible! You support the progressive agenda! You were at the Convent! The centuries old question of how Mudbloods became magical – we found the answer! The issue is at the heart of our entire agenda, it is cause and reason for everything we do! How can you ask where the importance is?"
"It promotes the likes of myself. Why wouldn't I support it?"
"I don't understand you, Barnabas."
A slightly mocking smile appeared in the corners of his mouth, as he rose and turned to ring for dinner.
"Does this inability compromise your ability to write for me or dine with me?"
"Certainly not! – yet I cannot conceal a certain dissatisfaction."
She was silent for a moment, beholding him as he stood, insouciant, in the room, waiting for the steward to arrive.
"Why do you even let me write, if you do not believe a word of it?"
"I never said the like. I said I were not sure – and that I wouldn't particularly care."
"About the answer, or to know the answer?"
Her only answer was a smile, and ere she could demand further explanations, the steward entered and took their orders. When he had left again, and Barnabas seated himself again, she made to repeat her question, but he preempted her and said: "Clever girl. You must see now why I'm partial to you. You're sharp, you have a way with words, and I admire your zeal. So have this answer then – ask me what I do care about."
"So what is it?"
Comfortably leant back, he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and replied: "This. Selling my paper. Earning money – a lot of money. Wielding a certain influence in places that matter. Living a comfortable life, without the hassle and bother of too many people's poking noses. Whatever is therein expedient is what is expedient to me. And you are very helpful with that indeed."
"So in truth, you believe in nothing and care about nothing – nothing that extends beyond yourself and the prospects of the paper. And my presence here is merely another means to that end, as Brown said."
Another fine smile shone on his face.
"Have I disappointed you? I'll confide to you a secret. What is for the good of me and my paper is in the surprising habit of aligning itself with the selfsame of the general populace. And so, we return to what I said at the start. For what does intention matter when compared to outcome? In any one cause, there are those with hot hearts, easily inflamed and just as easily doused. And then there are the like of me. I shan't rate one higher than the other, there are merits in both; but at any event, my type will be the most reliable allies you can find – for nothing else than on account of me living comfortably and having no desire to change what is to my own advantage."
Her monosyllabic answer was as much expression of her displeasure as of her inability to truly fault him for it. He remained silent for a while, before he asked: "Did you ever wonder what would happen if You-Know-Who was defeated?"
Now she was truly upset.
"That is treason, Cuffe. I cannot believe to hear those words from you; you must concede to me the favour of an explanation."
"Not treason, however very much an exercise in caution," observed he. "And born from the very desire I just described. You-Know-Who is strong, but even the strongest may fall. The most powerful wizards will create the most powerful enemies. May be he is the exception. May be he is to rule for another hundred years. But perhaps he is just another wizard, and in that case, we have to separate his government from his person, lest the changes he wrought, the ones in whose defence you so ardently spoke, disappear again just as quickly when he leaves."
"The changes," she said, sitting up straight, her anger forgotten. "Keeping his changes alive? And what is this – a plot – and you? You – !"
"My dear Cecilia! I should hope you not as fanciful as that. All I like is to be in the know, a want hardly surprising for a newsman, and you will not hear a word to the contrary."
His response left her in some confusion, when she found it impossible to reconcile with his expression the words he spoke, and, on the assumption that the former was to be regarded as being of greater significance than the latter, to reconcile with his earlier words the intention to protect the progressive cause; and she expressed her bemusement moments later.
"But – but why? When just now you admitted that you do not care?"
"I told you. I am partial to life as it currently is; I desire no change in it."
There was a knock on the door; lunch had arrived. While another stewart arranged plates, silverware, pans and pots with skilled, elegant flicks of his wand, she found time to think and re-arrange herself with the new knowledge and eventually found herself at peace. Barnabas would never see it quite as she did, but he would help her furthering her view. She could live with that.
"So no change? Nothing – whatever?" she asked slowly, when they were alone once more. Her nails traced the outline of her goblet idly, while she glanced at him from under her long lashes, taking in his by now familiar, slightly mocking smile, this time reserved for the same topic that had carried them here, and knew the answer before ever he responded.
Time, indeed, to move on to other topics.
Old Barry Caldwell had lived in Lancashire for his entire life. The modern times had crept into this spot of land like they had everywhere else; the busy trunk road ran through the countryside only a few miles away, and on the edge of the Pennies on the other side of the hill were the old industrial cities, which had darkened the sky with their chimneys already for years and years when he had been young. And yet, in this corner, in his small house, sometimes it felt like the time had stopped, though he never could quite say why.
He had heard the old tales, and everyone knew the story of the Pendle witches, of course, but that did not account for the feeling he sometimes got when he took a walk … but ah, he hadn't taken a walk in years.
Still, it had gotten worse this year. Or maybe it was the age.
He pushed himself out of the chair with a groan, shuffling over to the stove where the soup was bubbling and ready for at least thirty minutes. And Maggie still wasn't home.
He stirred the pot, and then moved slowly to the window, staring out into the evening. The sun had gone down, the thick clouds had sent night falling right after. Down the fields, the dark shadow of Pendle Hill towered over the land, resting like a stranded whale in the otherwise fairly flat area, bald and treeless. He had always thought it gave the hill something obscene, as though it was somehow naked.
A sudden light caught his eye. He started into darkness, trying to pinpoint the direction. His legs were nearly useless nowadays but his eyes were as good as they had been fifty years ago. There was no mistake possible.
A succession of glowing dots was moving over Downham Moor, towards the steep slope of the hill, a chain of silent, forbidding pinpricks of light, inspiring an unknown, nameless terror in his heart. Suddenly, a howling scream cut through the night and made his blood run cold. Barry Caldwell slammed the window shut, closed the lockers on the inside and hid in the darkest corner of the house.
Maggie did not return.
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