Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Note: This fic was written for FictionAlley's January, 2007 anagram challenge. The prompt was: "Ernie Prang and the Howdy Hall Tale". Beta read and Britpicked by the BeST team.

Ernie Prang and the Howdy Hall Tale

"What's wrong? Why have we stopped?" asked Hermione, looking around the Knight Bus anxiously. It was late, and the other passengers were sleeping.

"Dunno," replied Harry, rousing himself. "Maybe someone's getting off."

"The conductor always warns before the Bus stops," Hermione reminded him, biting her lip and peering out of the window.

Ron sat up. "No conductor now. See anything?"

"No, I--"

The Bus gave a great lurch and a mechanical groan.

The Trio stared at each other. "That wasn't good," Ron commented.

"Too right," Harry agreed. "Come on." He ran down the stairs, wand extended.

"Harry, wait--" Hermione hissed, but he was already halfway down.

Ron and Hermione rolled their eyes at their friend's impulsiveness and hurried to catch up.

They stepped out of the bus, joining a distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a three-piece suit and a fedora. They seemed to be in the middle of a country lane that extended into the darkness in both directions. The silhouette of a settlement was vaguely visible across the fields. The late summer night was clear, and a lone cricket chirped irregularly.

"Harry, what's going on?" Hermione asked.

"Probably trouble with the discombobulator, by the sound of it," declared the gentleman in plummy tones. He pulled out a timepiece and flipped it open with a flourish. "We'll never make it to Amesbury by dawn. Complete washout. "

"Looks like we'll be here for a bit, anyways." A squat figure, just a bit shorter than Hermione, emerged from the vicinity of the bonnet wiping his hands on a rag. It was the Knight Bus driver Ernie Prang.

"'nless you want to strike out on your own, that is," Ernie cackled, climbing back into the bus creakily. "Ye want some tea?" He pulled out a beaten-up silver flask and started pouring steaming hot water into several cups.

"What do you mean, 'for a bit'?" asked Hermione, alarmed.

"Indeed, sir?" inquired the gentleman, serenely sipping at his tea. "Discombobulator, was it?"

"That 'n' more. It's the Curse of Howdy Hall… again!" Ernie said darkly, lowering himself onto his seat.

"Merlin preserve us." The besuited wizard ran his finger inside his collar in mild discomfiture. "One would think the Ministry would have done something about that by now," he tutted. "A veritable nuisance, that is."

They all shivered and drew their robes closer. Despite the bucolic setting, there did seem to be something off kilter about the night.

Harry turned to Hermione. "Do you know anything about this Curse?"

"Well, I remember reading something about a Howdy Hall in A Wizard's Guide to Britain. It wasn't clear whether it was a real place, or just a legend. The story goes that it's a place that no witch or wizard can get close to, or even find."

"Why not? Is there a Fidelius Charm on it?" Harry asked immediately.

Hermione shook her head. "No, not like that. It's something like... Well, I suppose it'd be similar to a Muggle-repelling charm. There's supposed to be something about the place that makes witches and wizards forget they've seen it, or makes them think they're looking at something else."

"It's more'n that, Missy," interjected Ernie. "It's a magical black hole. Kills any magic that gets too close to it. Nothing to do but wait til the repair crew gets here 'n' re-enchants us."

"Then-- are we completely without magic?" Hermione panicked and shook her wand. "Lumos!" A bright light immediately shone from its tip, and she sighed in relief.

Ernie looked non-plussed. "We ain't, but we must've come too close back there. Took the SuperSpeeder and the Re-Integrator offline, knocked the discombobulator out of whack, pretty much scrambled ol' Bertha here beyond what me 'n' me emergency toolkit can fix," he acknowledged. "Last time it caught us was last March. Blasted Underhill let us sweat it out for two hours before he got anyone out here."

"But, Sir," began Hermione in her being-polite-to-adults-but-nevertheless-quite-sure-of-herself voice, "if this has happened before, why do you take this route? Surely there must be other ways to go?"

"Been driving this route since 1978," Ernie responded stubbornly. "Quickest connection between Wakefield and Barnsley without using the M1. Long as we get up enough speed coming out of Monk Bretton, we're fine. Can't predict traffic, though, can you? Had to go through the hedgerow." Ernie blinked at Hermione from behind his coke-bottle glasses, chin thrust forward belligerently.

"If it's a known hazard, why doesn't the Ministry do something?"

Harry snorted. "Hermione, they've still got Stan Shunpike in Azkaban for being a Death Eater, why would you expect them to do anything about a traffic hazard?"

The gentleman in the suit chuckled quietly. "Well said, young man."

"Thanks," Harry said with a slightly embarrassed smile. "Look," he said to Ernie, "is there anything we can do? Anyone we can contact?"

"Harry!" Hermione hissed at him, elbowing him in the side.

"What? Maybe Ron's dad--"

Hermione spoke as quietly as she could. "Harry, if you make a fuss, you defeat the purpose of keeping a low profile."

"Oh. Right." He turned back the others. "Never mind, then... We'll just sit it out. Upstairs."

A sound from outside caused them to point their wands at the open door, but it was only the elderly bus driver returning to whatever he had been doing to the engine.

Hermione, Harry, and Ron squeezed into the seat right beside the door.

"Harry, I don't like this," Hermione whispered, her brow furrowed. "Why aren't they telling us what's going on? This could be a Death Eater trap, never mind this Howdy Hall Curse!" She clutched her wand, even more tightly.

"I don't like it either," he agreed. "It's like someone knows where we're going and doesn't want us to get there."

"But no one knew..." Hermione said.

The three of them exchanged wary looks. "Oh, this is silly," Hermione scoffed. "None of us--"

Ron cleared his throat in an embarrassed way.

"Well, I might have... you know... sort of mentioned that we might be taking the Knight Bus tonight..."

"Oh, Ron, you didn't," Hermione moaned. "Who'd you tell?"

Ron looked miserable. "Ginny," he admitted. "It was the only way I could get her to stop begging to come along." He looked pleadingly at Harry. "I'm sorry, mate."

"That's all right, Ron." He started fumbling with his wand. "I... actually, I told her, too," he said, not daring to look at Hermione.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Oh, honestly. Well, I hardly think Ginny would be setting a trap--"

She made to get up, when an unmistakeable report of Apparation sounded outside.

Immediately, the Trio crouched and held their wands out in the direction of the door.

The others regarded them curiously, and the wizard in the suit stuck his head out of the doorway. "Oh, hello, there. You must be the mechanic?" he asked hopefully.

"Mechanic?" a familiar voice chortled. "Afraid not. What's going on? Spot of engine trouble?"

Harry and Hermione whipped around to look at Ron. "It can't be," he whispered, aghast.

"It is," Hermione whispered furiously. "So much for keeping them in the dark." She stood up as a ginger head appeared in the doorway.

"Hullo, son," said Arthur goodnaturedly. "Nice to see you're doing well. When Ginny told us you were taking the Knight Bus, your mother had me track it, just wanted to be sure you are safe." He glanced at Ernie. "Not that we expected trouble, of course."

"Ar," said Ernie.

"Well," Arthur continued hastily, "when you stopped for such a long time, we thought something might have happened. Glad to know it was just engine trouble. Not," he hurriedly assured Ernie, "that a breakdown's a good thing, just glad it wasn't an accident. Or something." He gave Harry a meaningful look.

"That's... very kind of you, Mr Weasley," Harry said politely.

"Not at all," Arthur replied, suddenly abashed by the attention he was drawing. "Well, then, unless there's something I can do..." He turned dutifully to Ernie. "I'm afraid I'm not much use with magical motors..."

"Expect Central'll have a crew out sometime today... or tomorrow."

Arthur bobbed his head at the driver. "Right. Well, then," he said, turning back to the teens, "I'll be off. And... well, we just wanted you to know we're here if anything should happen."

"Thanks, Mr Weasley," said Harry, this time really meaning it.

"Yes, then, good evening, all." He stepped outside, where they heard the telltale crack a moment later.

The three friends let out a collective sigh. "Looks like that's the end of keeping things quiet," said Ron despondently.

"Oh, Ron, they're your family. They love you, and they're watching out for you. I think it's nice," Hermione comforted him.

"Come on," Harry said after a moment. "We've got some re-planning to do before morning." And the three of them went back up the stairs, the weight of their quest just a little lighter.