At the last house of the village, a pair of women in dowdy grey Muggle suits and sensible shoes, clutching wads of cheaply printed pamphlets, were standing outside the porch of a tumbledown cottage, talking to a harassed, red-haired woman in a long green frock. Behind her, the door was open to an old-fashioned kitchen, from which were wafting the most wonderful smells of newly baked bread.

"No, really," the woman in the doorway was saying. "No, thank you so much, but it won't do at all, you know – we're… what's the word you people use? Quakers? Communists? Vivisectionists? Christadelphians? Hermaphrodites… oh if only my husband was here, he'd know… Ginny, love, do you remember?"

"Satanists," replied a bored little voice from the kitchen.

"That's it!" exclaimed the woman, relief plainly written on her broad, kindly features. "Satanists! We're all Satanists here, the whole family, so it's no use you staying, not even to tell us about the end of the world – even if it is happening in May, which my tealeaves reliably inform me is not the case – no, you'd better get underway, before you see something that upsets you..."

Her words seemed to have had the desired effect: the women in grey blanched, shoved a generous double fistful of pamphlets into her hands and hurried off. As the garden gate clicked shut behind them, Molly Weasley distinctly heard one of them mutter: "Strange woman!"

"Who was that, Mum?" came the voice from the kitchen.

"Nothing to worry about, dear," she replied. "Just some crazy Muggle priestesses. They think the end of the world's coming on June the 26th, they insisted on leaving all these pamphlets – look, such pretty colours – what were they thinking, wasting all that good paper and ink? Still, waste not want not… we can use them to paper the henhouse – make it really snug for the winter…"

"End of the world?" said Ginny crossly, pushing stewed fruit about with a long wooden spoon. "I wish it would end – at least it'd be something to do – I'm so bored!"

Molly looked hard at her daughter and sighed.

Like Ginny, Molly Prewett had been the youngest of seven children. The next youngest, Bessie, had gone off to Hogwarts when Molly was nine, and the two years before her turn to go to school came were two of the happiest of her life. With no siblings to keep her company, Molly had spent her days pottering happily in the kitchen with her mother, learning how to bake bread and cakes, pluck chickens, roast meat and prepare vegetables, mend the fires, sew, knit, embroider and clean – all the womanly arts that had made a happy home for her brothers and sisters – things she had taken for granted when she was small, but were actually the product of great skill and intelligence. It was in those two years that her idea of the perfect family had been formed, the inspiration which had been her life's great work and her heart's delight.

Molly Weasley had almost given up hope of a daughter by the time Ginny came along. Although she had always secretly felt closer to her elder sons, she had always looked forward to the day when she would be left alone with her daughter, and could begin to pass on her life's accumulated knowledge of domestic arts, some passed down over many generations of Prewett girls.

But Ginny was made of very different stuff. Perhaps it was all those brothers, or maybe there was just not enough of her mother in her, but none of the skills that had delighted Molly meant a thing to her daughter. Instead, she had pined for her brothers, crying herself to sleep the night after Ron left, and then fallen into a fit of the sulks from which no amount of cajoling or treats had roused her. Her first attempt at knitting a scarf had been abandoned before it was long enough for a kettle holder; the only fires she cared about were the explosive kind; she was far more interested in making messes than clearing them up. She dismissed bread baking as "boring", oblivious to the marvellous smells and textures – and while cake-making had been more of a success, Ginny usually ate half the ingredients before they got to the cake-tins, and ended up bad-tempered and queasy. True, she quite liked caring for the chickens, but she was more interested in the personalities of the birds than the size of their eggs. Really, if it hadn't been for the red hair, there were days when Molly would have been prepared to swear that Ginny was no flesh and blood of hers.

Suddenly, Molly had had enough.

"Get on with you, then!" she snapped. "Find someone your own age, and leave your boring old mother in peace to make your boring dinner!"

"There's no-one," Ginny said equally crossly. "No-one in the whole village except Muggles. Just that stupid Luna girl, and she's scary."

"Oh no you don't," her mother said. "I've had enough. I want the house to myself for a bit, and you need some fresh air. Besides, if you don't learn to get on with girls your own age a bit better than you've been managing recently, you'll make no friends when you do go to your precious Hogwarts. You're going to Luna's, and you'll play nicely or I'll know the reason why! I've already had a word with Erasmus Lovegood, so they won't be surprised to see you coming."

Ten minutes later, Ginny was walking apprehensively down the dirt track that led to the Lovegood house at the other end of Ottery St Catchpole, a doll in one hand and a battered broomstick in the other. Random House was much larger than the Burrow, and built on a more regular plan, but it was even shabbier, with crumbling brickwork and ivy that seemed on the point of pulling down half the house. The plants in the garden were flourishing, but no effort had been made to tame the rampant vegetation, or to segregate flowers from vegetables, and the lawn was a waist-high jungle, now starting to turn yellow and fade with the shorter days. And her mother would be horrified by the clutter of mouldering newspapers, ropes, oil cans, rusty machine parts, dead house plants and sacks of compost in the front porch, Ginny reflected with satisfaction as she knocked on the door.

It was opened by a very tall, thin girl in a plain grey robe, brandishing a rolling pin, which have been much more alarming if the girl had not been so insubstantial-looking.

"You're Ginevra Weasley, aren't you?" she said. "Daddy said you would come and show me how to play with other girls. I don't know that I'll be any good at it – I don't suppose I will – but it's very nice of you to come all the same. Of course, that's only if you're the real Ginevra – I just have to run a few tests to check you're not one of the Insidious Infant Inferi of Inverkeithing… my Uncle Alastor says it's always better to be safe than sorry, don't you agree? Now this won't hurt a bit…"

Luna led Ginny into a dingy side room, and the spent the next ten minutes testing her reflexes with a rubber mallet, checking a mirror for reflection and breath and looking down her throat with a Muggle torch. Once Ginny had received a clean bill of health, they sat down in a dusty room with a table at the centre, surrounded on all sides by teetering piles of newspaper. Luna propped her elbows on the table and goggled expectantly at Ginny with her large, pale eyes.

"Well?" she said. "I suppose we should start playing while there's still some light. What happens now? Do we do the doll first, or the broomstick?"

"I don't know," Ginny replied, "what do you like to play?"

Luna led her up three flights of increasingly rickety stairs to a triangular room under the eaves. She waved a vague hand in the direction of the groaning bookshelves, stacks of books under the windows and books half-open on the desk.

"Those are my colouring books and adventure stories," she said, " and these are my puzzles and Junior Arithmancy magazines. Over there I've got my Speculative Fiction books – and there's a lot more to them than meets the eye, believe me – that shelf over the bed is for my Bestiaries, and my Ancient Runes collection is in the boxes by the window. The pile on the desk are my watercolour albums, and that's my Rune diary next to them."

"Yes, but what do you do for fun?" Ginny enquired tentatively.

Luna looked nonplussed.

"Why, this of course," she said. "Daddy is very clear that Learning should be Fun."

She caught sight of Ginny's stunned expression.

"But don't worry," she continued. "I know I'm not like normal little girls – that's why I want to learn to play from you… so, shall we play with the doll first, or the broom?

Ginny looked down at the boring doll and the shabby old broom. She realised she had only the haziest idea of what games girls were supposed to play. Apart from soppy bread-making and talking about babies like her mother wanted, of course.

"I don't know really either," she said. "Perhaps we could improvise?"

At this, Luna relaxed visibly, and beamed at her.

"Improvise!" she said. "I like that idea very much. Daddy says all the best games stimulate a child's imagination."

It took a while to get going, but in the end they managed a breathless and enjoyable if rather odd forty-five minutes before dusk. It was with some reluctance that Ginny picked the doll from the water butt, its legs kicking wildly, brushed Virginia creeper from her hair, shook her broom out of the branches of a choke-cherry tree and trudged off home for tea. It had been a very odd afternoon, and she was still not quite sure what to make of Luna, but they had a tentative agreement to meet later that week for blackberry picking in the Weaselby Woods.

Blackberry picking went well enough, though Ginny's basket was less full than usual, thanks to Luna's tendency to fall into reveries, get distracted by unusually shaped leaves or wander off the path in pursuit of mythical creatures or the small, shrivelled, dark mushrooms which her father ate as inspiration for his magazine articles. Ginny's approach to blackberrying was far more focussed and businesslike, and it took her a while to get used to Luna's style, but she rather thought she liked it – they had found a dormouse curled up in its burrow, disturbed a Lesser Spotted Humdinger in the undergrowth (it looked a lot like a hen blackbird to Ginny) and spied on the children of the village Muggles at their Harvest Festival, trying to work out what they were doing. Luna told her it was a Muggle fertility rite, but neither of them really knew what that meant.

Despite Ginny and Luna's unimpressive haul, her mother made a huge, fragrant blackberry and apple pie for lunch the following day, and invited Luna round to share it.

To Ginny's surprise, Luna made quite a hit with Mrs Weasley. She sat happily at the Weasleys' old wooden table in her best pinafore, forking mouthfuls of food into her mouth with obvious pleasure, while displaying the most exquisite table manners (albeit two hundred or so years or so out of date) and chattering happily about a special women's writing system from central China, preserved by women who embroidered the script onto cloth shoes. Instead of making Ginny clear the table and dry the dishes, along with a lecture on the duties of a good wife, Mrs Weasley gave them each a gingerbread man and sent Ginny off to give Luna a tour of the house.

Luna was gawky, socially awkward, an unsatisfactory blackberry picker and had never played Quidditch in her life, but Ginny found her an excellent listener. Wide-eyed, she followed Ginny as showed her round her brothers' bedrooms, drinking in Ginny's tales of Bill's cursed artefacts, Charlie's monsters, Percy's endless lists and Ron's famous new friend who dressed even more shabbily than her brothers, but was so handsome in spite of all. Last of all, they came to the twins' room.

"… and this is the secret hole behind the skirting board where they hide all their notes and supplies," she said, one hand reaching longingly out towards it. "I've always wondered what's in there… but I'd never look – it's private. We don't have enough secrets in this family as it is."

She paused, about to add that the twins would probably turn her into a toilet seat like what happened to Percy last year, when she saw that Luna was staring at her with even more intensity than before.

The pause lengthened. Finally, with great formality, Luna stuck out her hand.

"Now I see," she said. "You are a girl of honour – you protect your sources! I would count it a great honour to be your friend. May I shake your hand?"

Tentatively, Ginny took the proffered hand in her own, strangely touched. Luna's grip was firm and cool, but they shook a little longer than seemed quite right, neither sure when was the right moment to let go.

There was another long silence. Although she felt obscurely flattered, Ginny was starting to feel uncomfortable.

"Come on," she said. "Let's go and have a look at the chicken house."

The funny thing was, Luna somehow recognised the honour for what it was.

There was only one key to the chicken run, and the chickens were the jealously guarded province of the eldest Weasley child at home. Even in the two years when it had been just the two of them and Ron had played with her as an equal, he had never let Ginny set foot inside.

They paused inside the hut where the chickens roosted, which was just large enough for Luna to stand upright. Ginny looked around with a proprietary air.

The older rooster, Merlin, was pecking about at their feet, glaring up at them with one mad little yellow eye. The crowing of the younger, Heathcliff, could be heard plainly from outside, where he was no doubt strutting about and showing off in front of his harem. Various hens were sitting, crooning in their nest boxes, or striding up and down the little ramp that led outside. Ginny had scattered fresh straw on the floor only the day before, and the walls with their new layers of brightly printed paper looked colourful and snug.

Luna clapped her hands in delight.

"The darling biddies!" she cried. "They're just like the hens from the Bellatrix Potter story books Mummy used to read to me before she… I mean, when I was small. Can you tell them apart? Do they all have names?"

Ginny launched into a long account of the chickens' habits, cliques and rivalries. Halfway through an account of the bitter – and occasionally bloodthirsty – struggle for supremacy between Merlin and Heathcliff, she stopped, glancing apologetically at Luna as she remembered belatedly that her friend had already made very clear her Views on how it was bad for the soul and possibly carcinogenic to dwell on negative issues. But Luna was all ears.

"It's fascinating!" she said. "Just like Daddy taught me, about Bodrod the Bearded and Urg the Unready fighting for supremacy in the Fens in the Goblin War of Independence…" Then her mind wandered, as Luna's mind often seemed to do, and her eyes lit on the walls of the little hut. "But what's this? Can your chickens read English?"

"No, of course not!" said Ginny, laughing. "They're chickens!"

Luna wagged a reproving finger at her.

"Now now Ginny!" she said solemnly. "Don't you know that all living things are our brothers and sisters? How would you like to sit in the dark all day pushing eggs out of your bottom with nothing to read? Besides, Daddy always says a healthy mind leads to a healthy body! Now there's a spell I read in last week's issue of Experimental Magic… let's see…"

To Ginny's surprise, Luna pulled a wand out of her sleeve, muttered something incomprehensible and tapped the wall with the tip. There was a faint, high-pitched chime, the printing shimmered, and the printed letters and cosy pictures of squeaky-clean Muggle families discussing theology and lions lying down with lambs twisted and shifted, transforming into shifting footprints and families of soft, healthy looking chickens.

"Yes, I know I'm not supposed to use a wand," said Luna, catching Ginny's stare. "But Daddy says a responsible citizen should temper obedience with his or her own judgement… besides, don't the chickens look interested?"

Indeed they did: already several little clusters had formed round the larger pictures, and their crooning and clucking seemed to be growing in intensity.

Ginny really didn't like the way Luna had just walked in and interfered with her walls, and was quite ready to resent this intrusion. But fortunately for their friendship, at that moment they heard her mother's voice calling them in for supper.

Later that week, an invitation to tea at Random House, folded into an origami cuckoo and charmed to really fly, arrived outside Ginny's window, where it fluttered, cuckooing noisily, into the small hours. As she opened the window and swatted the invitation into silence with her copy of Domestic Economy for Young Ladies, Ginny noticed odd noises of dissent coming from the chicken coop, which seemed to be shaking slightly. Still, strange things often happened in mixed Muggle-wizard villages, and she went back to bed, dismissing the matter with a shrug.

The next day, punctual to the minute, dressed in her smartest robes with the itchy lace collar and matching cape, Ginny arrived at Random House with a big jar of her mother's ginger and rhubarb marmalade as a thank you gift. Luna led her to the dusty, cavernous back kitchen where Mr Lovegood – a tall, spindly man with brittle-looking flaxen curly hair, and ink all over his fingers and face – was frying sausages, potato cakes and tomatoes over the kitchen range for her, Luna and half a dozen Goblins from the printing press.

This was the first time Ginny had spoken to a Goblin. She had seen them, of course, at Ministry Yule parties, but her mother had always kept her well away from them, full of blood-curdling tales of children stolen away from their mothers and baked into pies. None of these seemed in the least inclined to bake her into a pie, however. Indeed, once she mentioned her elder brother Bill, she was treated with gratifying deference – it turned out that Bill had once saved the Great Goblin from a mummified crocodile, and his standing in the Goblin community was very high. The Goblin guests chucked Ginny under the chin with their long talons, and taught her to say "please", "thank you" and "tax deductible" in Goblin.

After supper, they went to see Luna's father's press at work: a huge mass of clanking, hissing wheels, rollers and cogs, capable of printing a hundred copies of the Quibbler every hour, or five Goblin notes of credit. When the Goblins' print run was over, Luna's father led the girls at a crouch under the belly of the great machine, where they could lie on their stomachs and look at where the paper came through and watch the cogs turning.

Ginny came home very late, tired but more happy than she had been for ages, with smears of indelible printer's ink all over her pretty pink frock, and a larger smudge on her nose.

After a morning spent futilely scrubbing indelible stains from Ginny's clothes, Molly Weasley went storming down the lane to Random House, wand in hand one hand, ruined party frock in the other, muttering that she was going to have it out with that man.

She arrived home several hours later in a much better temper, clutching a packet of home-dried herb tea, humming and giggling to herself as she prepared supper. Most unusually for her, she burned the bubble and squeak, and put sugar instead of salt in the toad in the hole. Mr Weasley took this in good part, as this finally gave him an opportunity to sample Muggle takeaway food, which turned out to be flat, round and covered in cheese, and come in an equally flat cardboard box. It was to this excess of cardboard that Ginny's mother attributed her headache, nausea and dehydration the following morning, as she clattered around the kitchen and swept the remaining herb tea into the dustbin, muttering darkly to herself.

Now that their parents seemed to have reached some sort of accord, the two girls became frequent visitors in each other's houses. On rainy days they tended to make for Random House, where they could go through Luna's stacks of books and board games in search of something not too educational to keep them amused. The best days were ones when Erasmus Lovegood was doing a print run and the whole house was filled with thuds, clanks, steam, the smell of printer's ink and the strangest clients. Ginny's favourites were the Goblins, with their croaky voices, old-fashioned manners and little boxes of odd-tasting lozenges, but there were also odd, twitchy people with spiral-backed notebooks, rolling eyes and nervous high-pitched voices; rock musicians come to collect their posters; academic types clutching thick manuscripts that they would sometimes only give up after a tussle; veiled creatures of subtly unhuman proportions; a blond man in turquoise robes and a cheesy grin; and an elderly, dispirited looking gentleman with a lorgnette and a goat on a string .

On fine days the girls headed for The Burrow, where Ginny would lead Luna on gnome-hunts through the yellowing vegetable garden (although she took care never to actually find any, as Luna refused point blank to accept that gnomes enjoyed being hurled over the fence, and could become quite vehement on the subject in her vague way), or attempt to teach her the rudiments of Quidditch. After a promising start with the broomstick, Luna was something of a disappointment: she was too easily diverted by pretty cloud formations or unusual insects, and generally finished up upside down in a tree, or drifting away over the fields, lost in thought. And of course there were the chickens, which continued to fascinate them both. Well, more to fascinate Luna, in truth – Ginny was starting to find their behaviour disconcerting.

The hens had changed over the autumn. And, in Ginny's opinion, not for the better.

It had all started when her mother papered the henhouse. At first the changes were small – a tendency for hens sitting on nest boxes to face the walls instead of the aisle; louder and more agitated clucking than was quite usual and a fall-off in laying – nothing out of the way at the change of seasons, as Ginny's mother pointed out in a cross and distracted manner, as she desperately fired off Rising Spell after Rising Spell at a rapidly deflating soufflé.

Perhaps she was spending too much time at Random House, but by the time the Muggles held their annual firework festival and Erasmus Lovegood was running off proofs for the Gilderoy Lockhart Christmas Annual, Ginny had become convinced that all was not well in the state of the hencoop.

The chickens had taken to acting oddly: crooning together in little groups, clustered by the walls of the henhouse and pointing to things with their wings, or squatting in orderly rows, listening in silence to a single bird making what seemed to be impassioned homilies, interspersed with strident clucks of jubilation from the congregation. Occasionally there would be a scuffle among various groups, but these quickly sorted themselves out – if not, one of the roosters would come strutting in, lashing out with his spurs and buffeting the hens with his wings.

After a week or so, the smaller groups of hens had coalesced or been forced into two definite sides. One, led by the rooster Heathcliff, favoured loud clucking and crowing, with much rhythmic strutting and flapping of wings. The other group seemed to spend more time clustered round the more text-filled areas of the papered walls in small groups, muttering to each other and gesticulating with wings and beak, all under the watchful eye of the older rooster Merlin, who would pace around the studying groups, pecking sharply at any bird whose attention seemed to be straying.

Soon Christmas was almost upon them. Normally, Christmas at the Burrow was a time of great upheaval, involving a lot of the more pleasant type of domestic flurry that even Ginny quite enjoyed (especially if licking spoons or getting covered in glue and paint was involved), but this year her mother and father were going to spend Christmas with her brother Charlie in Rumania, Ron, Percy and the twins were staying at Hogwarts, and so Ginny was going to her Great Aunt Lucy in Torquay. Erasmus Lovegood had offered to take care of Ginny while her parents were away, but Molly Weasley refused point blank to allow her youngest child to eat her Christmas goose with vampires and hags, even though Erasmus assured them earnestly that vampires were very misunderstood creatures, and the hags would be thoroughly sterilised before they were allowed to set foot in the kitchen.

Even when they were about to go away, Luna did not forget the Weasleys. The day before they were due to set off, Luna arrived at the house with a wreath she had woven herself from tin foil, nuts, berries, glass baubles, holly branches and glossy paper. She had enchanted it to sing only the most obscure and authentic carols, rattling its extremities in time to the music whenever anyone came near.

Mrs Weasley tolerated the wreath for an afternoon, but as evening wore, the seemingly endless packing continued and their tempers wore down, she banished it – still piping away – to the henhouse.

As they were leaving, Ginny saw the hens clustered round the wreath, which they seemed to view with deep suspicion.

Ginny did not enjoy Torquay. Great Aunt Lucy was not a bad old soul, but she had been old for so long that she no longer understood what young people liked. In the mornings, they took what Great Aunt Lucy called "a nice, healthy constitutional" beside the beach, where she met elderly witches of a similar disposition and they complained about the weather, the Youth of Today and the shocking price of cream teas. In the afternoon, Great Aunt Lucy sent Ginny off to her room for a "nice, soothing nap", while she wrote letters in the parlour downstairs. The evening was for bridge parties, sewing circle and light opera group. Ginny was allowed to attend these functions, provided she dressed properly (lace, frills and stiff sausage curls) and sat quietly in the corner, with an antique doll that was too expensive to play with, or a yellowing photograph album. The most exciting thing that happened to Ginny in the whole two weeks was an owl from Luna, telling her that she had decoded the hidden meanings of five ancient paintings, and that her father had got a grant for both of them to go looking for the Ravenous Werepuffin of St Kilda that summer.

Still, the attics of Great Aunt Lucy's house had been truly amazing, with all sorts of dusty boxes, scrolls and chests to explore. Also, Great Aunt Lucy was rich enough to afford a house elf, so Ginny did not have to bother with any cooking or cleaning, neither of which Great Aunt Lucy considered fitting occupations for a young lady.

As soon as Ginny's parents brought her home, she rushed upstairs, tore off her frilly robes and pulled on her tatty, much loved everyday ones, rinsed out her sausage curls under the pump, pulled on her dirty old boots with a sigh of relief and went to check on the chickens.

Luna was leaning against the fence, waiting for her, an empty bucket by her feet.

"Oh, you're back," she said with a vague smile. "I've been wondering what you were going to make of their new idol."

Ginny didn't have to ask what she meant. There, perched on top of the chicken house, nodding in the wind, but not in the same direction as the wind, was a monstrous chicken, made of silver paper, dead leaves, feathers, dead branches and wires. Its mad, staring eyes were glass baubles from Luna's Christmas wreath; holly berries adorned its wattles and the rim of its comb; its feathers were strips of wrapping paper, feathers and dead leaves; its beak was glittering silver paper, with a forked, silver tongue, flapping with tinny, mangled scraps of archaic Christmas carols. Its claws clutched the roof of the chicken house, and it glared balefully down with mad, empty eyes at the chickens scratching and pecking uneasily in its shadow.

"Do you think the chickens believe in a vengeful or a benevolent god?" Luna asked.

Ginny shuddered.

"I don't like it," she said. "It's horrible. Let's go in – Mum's got some soup on the stove – I bet you can stay to tea if we ask nicely."

In the middle of the night, Ginny woke with a start, to hear an odd crooning and rustling coming from the garden. She tiptoed barefoot to the window, pushed back the curtain and looked out.

The moon was a bright, icy disc in the sky, and there, bathed in the moonlight, were the chickens, bending and swaying rhythmically before the baleful effigy that loomed above them.

Ginny shuddered, closed the curtains, rushed back to bed and curled up in a small ball under the covers. It took her a long time to get back to sleep.

By the time spring had come, and birds were beginning to build their nests, it was obvious that the garden birds were avoiding the chicken run, though in previous years the Weasley children had been constantly chasing them away from the chickens' food troughs. Any garden bird foolish enough to approach the chickens' enclosure these days was immediately accosted by a pair of spruce, well-preened birds with alarmingly bright eyes, which would croon and cluck incessantly until the wild bird flew off as fast as its wings would carry it, uttering frantic alarm calls. Even gnomes that had infested the Weasley garden for generations would have nothing to do with them.

In early May, when the hawthorn trees were coming into bloom and the Goblins were printing their end-of-year shareholders' bulletins, Hogwarts School held an Open Day for new pupils. Both the girls had been planning this day for months. With six elder brothers, Ginny was the well-informed one for a change, and Luna had been quizzing her endlessly on every detail. Both had already settled which Houses they were going to be in, and what they were going to be famous for (Ginny had decided that she was going to be Quidditch captain, while Luna's heart was set on becoming the youngest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in the history of Hogwarts).

The Open Day finally arrived, and Ginny and Luna, in their newest robes, passed safely through Ginny's fireplace and arrived in the hallway of a huge stone castle. There they were greeted by a plump woman with messy hair and dirty cuffs, who divided them into groups of half a dozen or so, and sent them off with older boys and girls, who were going to show them their new school.

Luna trailed off after a short-haired girl in Ravenclaw colours, and Ginny, to her dismay, was assigned to a squat, menacing-looking youth from Slytherin. In the event, their guide ("Just call me Montague – m'first name's stupid.") was a gruff but friendly individual, who led them up secret passages, through walls, past strange pictures and down moving staircases until their heads were spinning, regaling them with funny stories about the teachers all the while. He also turned out to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Quidditch: the grand finale of their tour was a trip to the Quidditch pitch, where he explained the rules, and then, one at a time, took his charges for a spin on his racing broom.

The open-day children met again in the Great Hall, where they ate a sumptuous lunch at their own special table. By this time, Montague had picked Ginny out as a kindred soul, and was giving her tips on broom control at higher speeds, together with advice on how to get by at Hogwarts ("Never joke about old Flitwick's height, don't ask Professor Snape about vampires and stay well clear o' them ginger twins in Gryffindor – hex you as soon as look at you, they will."), while the other open-day children looked on in admiration. She was having so much fun that it took her a while to notice that Luna seemed to have drifted away from the happy throng – if she had ever been there at all.

With the help of her brother Percy, Ginny located the library, and there she found her friend browsing through the Ancient Runes section, a little frown of concentration between her eyes. When Ginny tapped her on the shoulder, it took her a few minutes to focus.

"Isn't it fantastic?" said Ginny excitedly. "We've seen eight ghosts, and been on moving staircases and a secret passage that comes out in a toilet, and I had a ride on a Nimbus 1812! I can't remember when I've had so much fun! What about you?"

Luna pondered her question for several seconds.

"Well," she said. "It isn't quite what I expected. There seems to be a great deal about Quidditch and boys, and not so much about Mysteries of the Ancients or Monsters of the Deep. I tried to discuss my reservations about the core curriculum with the other girls, but I don't think they were impressed. One of them's even started calling me Loony. And…"

She broke off, looking thoughtful.

"Loony?" said Ginny. "No harm in that – it's quite sweet. I'd much rather be Ginny than Ginevra."

Can she possibly not know what that means to a Muggle? Luna wondered. Perhaps she really doesn't – her father loves Muggles, but he doesn't know nearly as much about them as my Daddy… better give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps.

"Well, anyway," Luna continued out loud, "it's good I could practice being a normal girl with you. Otherwise things would have been a lot worse, I'm sure. Of course, Daddy's always warned me at Those Who Go Against the Mainstream are Condemned to a Life of Suffering and Intolerance – I always thought he just meant it about grown-ups, though."

They looked at each other uneasily. Then Ginny reached over and plucked at Luna's sleeve.

"Come on!" she said. "There's an inter-House Quidditch match at two – you don't want to miss that, do you? I thought no-one would like me too at first, but as soon as I started talking about Quidditch I was fine. Perhaps you should try it."

"I don't think so," Luna said sadly. "I'm not really cut out for team sports."

"Well, maybe you could be a referee or a commentator or something," Ginny replied in a comforting tone. "I bet you'd be really good."

Luna looked thoughtful.

"A commentator?" she said. "Now there's an idea. I've always found the WWN broadcasts annoyingly linear, haven't you?"

Even a novice like Luna had to admit that the game was exciting, and the capture of the Snitch by the Hufflepuff Seeker nothing short of spectacular – though Ginny, for all her talk about the benefits of Quidditch, seemed to spend most of the match looking over the Gryffindor stands for her brother's friend.

Luna was almost sure she had seen a Venomous Throstle perched on top of the staff pavilion. But Ginny said she hadn't seen a thing.

It had been a long, tiring day.

On the way from Hogwarts to the pick-up point in the village a mile or so down the carriage drive, in carriages that Luna insisted were being drawn by winged horses even though no-one else could see them, the two girls sat in silence, slumped against the padded seats, lost in their own thoughts.

As they approached the outskirts of Hogsmeade, Luna cleared her throat. Ginny looked up.

"Ginny," Luna said hesitantly, "I… I was thinking… I just want to… what I mean to say is, I know you're going to be very popular at Hogwarts. And I don't think I'm going to be popular at all."

Ginny opened her mouth to speak, but Luna ploughed on:

"So… well, all I wanted to say is that I'll understand when you decide you don't want to spend much time with me any more. I've really enjoyed being friends, and I'm grateful for all your help with normal people, but I can see… well, it's just that I won't mind. And we can always be friends when there's no-one else about."

"Luna!" cried Ginny indignantly. "That's a horrible thing to say!"

And no doubt she would have gone to deny every word of what she had just heard, and make all kinds of promises too, had their carriage not at that moment drawn up outside the station, and Ginny's mother dragged them out of the carriage, with hugs, kisses and endless questions about their day.

The cock crowed, and the hens lined up for their morning adoration of the idol, prostrating themselves around it in neat rows of fluffy fawn, red, grey and brown, and crying out rapturous Egg Songs of adoration, completely ignoring the steaming mash that Ginny and Luna had just poured into their feeders.

Only old Merlin and a few of the older hens remained outside the grovelling ranks now, scavenging round the perimeter of their pen in a furtive sort of way. All were thin and scruffy, several had raw, bald patches that Ginny's mother said came from pecking, and Merlin appeared to have lost an eye. The rest of Merlin's flock had gone – escaped or pecked to death by the others, it was difficult to be sure.

Ginny and Luna were leaning on the fence, watching them.

"I don't like it," Ginny said for the hundredth time. "It's creepy. Wizards shouldn't have anything to do with this stuff – even a lot of Muggles have more sense nowadays."

"I don't know," said Luna thoughtfully. "Daddy has always been very keen on the Importance of Freedom of Religion – look at all the good work the Sisters of Avalon and the Knights of Walpurgis have done among the poor and needy, for instance. And then consider of the work of St. Mungo…"

She maundered on for a few more minutes, then trailed off. They stood there in companionable silence.

"You know," said Luna after a while, "if your chickens really are taking those Muggle pamphlets as texts for their new religion, they probably think the world's going to end the day after tomorrow. Daddy got one of those monographs as well, though the ladies wouldn't stay for long – I think he made them nervous…"

"It can't!" Ginny cried indignantly. "That's my dad's birthday! Mum won't let it!"

"I hope the world knows that," said Luna with her vague smile.

It took Ginny a long time to fall asleep that night. Not that she really believed that the world was going to end while she slept and she would never wake again – but it was surprisingly hard to be sure. Finally, when the hands of her alarm clock pointed to 3am, she decided that they were far enough into the 26th for her to doze off in safety.

Even in the South of England, dawn comes early in June. But that morning, no rooster crowed to welcome the new day.

When Ginny finally awoke, the sun was already high in the sky, and odd noises were coming from the chickens' enclosure. Ginny pulled on a dressing gown and Ron's ratty old slippers, and went down to take a closer look.

The whole enclosure was in an uproar. The huge idol with its glittering talons and glaring eyes had been thrown down, and a dozen beefy and very angry-looking chickens were pecking viciously at the remains, or trampling them into the dust with their feet. Some of the more enterprising birds had plainly found a way out of the enclosure, for Ginny could see the idol's head on the compost heap, impaled on a stick.

As she wandered over to the chickens' run, rubbing the last traces of sleep out of her eyes, Ginny saw a mad scuffle in a far corner of the chicken run: half the hens in the pen were pecking at something. With a cackle and a flurry of feathers, Heathcliff the rooster fought his way away from them through a gap in the wire netting, bleeding from many wounds, and rushed away down the lane in the direction of the village, yammering piteously and shedding tail feathers as he ran. He was never seen or heard of in Ottery St Catchpole again.

"You're going to have to mend the chicken run today," said Molly Weasley to her husband over his special birthday breakfast of Muggle delicacies (Cocoa Pops and Pop Tarts). "Such a racket during the night! It wouldn't surprise me if a fox hadn't got in."

Arthur Weasley beamed at his wife.

"It'll be a pleasure, my dear," he said with a flourish of his new birthday pair of Muggle wire-cutters, accidentally severing the head of Molly's prize amaryllis.

Ginny spent the rest of her day grubbing around in the dirt, looking for gaps in the fence while her father tried to find an exit by what he called "Eclectic" means. Luna turned up to help around midday, and she and Mr Weasley got in a long, maundering conversation about the Geiger counter he had received for his birthday, and the various uses to which it could be put.

Despite their best efforts, neither he nor Luna discovered any Invisible Exhalations, but by the time they got bored of looking Ginny had found the gap in the fence and mended it, and in any case it was time for supper.

After supper, the four of them played with Mr Weasley's other birthday present – a Muggle game called Mousetrap, which seemed to involve a board, counters, a rickety plastic structure which was prone to collapse and a marble.

"This is how Muggles organise half their machines, you know!" Mr Weasley said enthusiastically, as the marble fell off its precarious perch and rolled under the dresser. "And they make it work! They really are the most wonderful people – so inventive, so ingenious, so good at making the best of what they have, poor things!"

Ginny really had meant to talk to Luna about what had happened on the night of the 26th. For all her obvious unworldliness, Luna was very astute in some ways, and Ginny was convinced she would be able to make something of it.

But there was no time: Luna and her father were due to leave for St Kilda the day after next. If Ginny had thought packing was a shambles in her family, that was only because she had never seen the Lovegoods in action. Though she would never have put it in so many words, Ginny found herself admiring her mother's ability to send four children off to school for a year without incident, all at the same time. The night before they were due to set off, Luna was still attempting to squeeze a portable loom into her rucksack, and Erasmus Lovegood was rushing about the house, clutching handfuls of his curly hair, groaning: "I'll never get it done in time! Luna! Where are my waders? Have you seen my Puffin Prod?"

"Don't worry," said Luna serenely. "It's like this every year. And we always do get away in the end. So long as we've got passports and our wands it really doesn't matter – if the worst comes to the worst we can Live off the Land, just like they did in the Odes."

In spite of everything, when Ginny got up at cockcrow to see the Lovegoods off (after a short period of stunned silence, Merlin the Rooster was proving more than equal to the task), they were already waiting at the end of the lane, packs on their backs and alpenstocks in their hands. Mr Lovegood shook her hand and wished her an educational holiday, Luna gave her a quick hug, and then they turned and walked briskly away into the white summer mist, their equipment jingling faintly as they went.

"I hope you find your Ravenous Werepuffin!" Ginny shouted after them. Luna turned round and waved. Then the mist swallowed them up, and Ginny trudged slowly home.

"I'm bored!" she complained to her mother over breakfast, pushing porridge around with her spoon.

"Don't worry, sweetheart," her mother said. "Your brothers are back from school next week – think of all the fun you'll all have! And look – the chickens are laying again! Would you like a nice egg for afters?"

Percy, Fred, George and Ron came back the following Tuesday. As their father's elderly Ford Anglia puttered up the drive and her brothers spilled out into the yard, Ginny came tearing down the stairs and hurled herself at each brother in turn, caught between tears and laughter.

Once the first flush of reunion was over, it took Ginny a little while to get used to her brothers. After a year of Luna's board games, nature rambles and odd silences, she found Fred and George's constant noise and japes and Ron's unpredictable outbreaks of affection and aggression rather overwhelming, and Percy's obsessions and constant pedantry stressful. But the habits of a lifetime soon took hold, and within a few days she was charging round the garden shrieking with the rest of them, hurling gnomes over the fence with her old gay abandon.

She loved Ron's stories of Hogwarts: the lessons, the food, the poltergeist, Quidditch, his hair-raising adventures – but best of all, his dearest friend, Harry Potter, the brave boy who had defeated you-know-who before she was even born, who she had seen at King's cross before hardly anyone else knew he was on the train. She couldn't wait to see him again. "Will he come here? Please make him come here! I want to see him!" she would beg Ron at least five times a day.

Luna came back from St Kilda towards the end of August, tanned, wind-burned and with a neat little triangular nick out of one ear.

"Don't worry," she said. "It wasn't the Ravenous Werepuffin, just an ordinary one. The Muggle Guide said Daddy shouldn't have poked him…"

Ginny grabbed her by the arm. "Come on!" she said excitedly. "Fred and George's friend Alicia's here – the one from the Quidditch team – and she's going to show me how to Keep! Come and have a look, it'll be great!"

She charged round to the back garden, dragging Luna in her wake.

A tall girl in red Quidditch robes was waiting, her broom tucked under one arm.

"Follow me!" she called cheerfully, mounted her broom and kicked off into the summer sky. Ginny rushed to the shed for her broom. Luna lowered herself to the back step, and sat thoughtfully with her chin in her hands, watching Alicia, Ginny and all her brothers zooming through the warm air, shrieking like swifts.

After a while, she got out her pocket edition of The Lay of Rh-kap-wah, and began to read.

The next morning, Ginny came down to breakfast to see a boy with a shock of black hair at the breakfast table. It took her a moment to realise that this was the famous Harry Potter. Her nerve broke and she shrieked and fled – but from that day on she followed him like a shadow. Sometimes she thought he noticed, but it was hard to be sure.

She kept meaning to go round Random House and tell Luna all about Harry – and of course to ask about her holidays, and the Ravenous Werepuffin – but somehow the time was never right, and before the right time came, Ginny and her brothers were climbing into her father's car on the way to Hogwarts.

"Never mind, lovey" said her mother on the way. "You can always sit with Luna on the Hogwarts Express."

"Sit with Loony Lovegood? No way! She's mental!" said Fred.

Ginny said nothing.

"She wants to sit with us, don't you, Ginny?" said George. "We're much more fun."

Ginny still didn't know what to say. Harry smiled encouragingly at her. Ginny took a deep breath.

"All right, then," she said. "You're on."