The Circle Around the Fire

Chapter 16 – The Rat

Disclaimer: See Chapter One

Warning: A little bit of bad language. Nothing major.

"Quickly, Poppy, the root!" Severus Snape hissed anxiously from his position hunched over the cauldron. Thick blue fumes engulfed his narrow form, almost completely obscuring him from Madame Pomfrey's sight. Gingerly, she carried the silent mandrake root across to him, peering her way through the smoke. She held it out to him, and he snatched it from her hand, plunging it directly into the brilliant blue liquid filling the cauldron. The potion roiled, engulfing the root with a blinding light, which quickly faded to a dull green glow.

"Another, quickly!"

They were in the final stages of brewing the Mandrake Draught which would save those who had been petrified by the stare of the Basilisk. The difficult potion had so far taken an entire week to concoct, and would turn out disastrous were anything to go wrong. Poppy and Severus had been working shifts to keep the cauldron under constant surveillance, but this toughest last stage required that they both be present. There was no way a person could accomplish what needed doing alone.

xxx

The remainder of the year seemed relatively uneventful, if one didn't count Lockhart's fleeing halfway through the spring term, being unable to handle the pressure of teaching. Professor McGonagall had had to fetch him back, about which she had not been best pleased, and the whole school had watched while she half dragged him back up the steps into the school as he trembled violently. Of course, Harry hadn't had much experience of Hogwarts being uneventful, so only having to worry about homework and lessons was a welcome break from worrying for his own and other people's lives.

He was reflecting on this as he basked in the first really warm sunlight of the year, while waiting for the Quidditch teams to traipse onto the pitch. He leaned back against the wooden bench, throwing his head backwards. A sudden jab to his side pulled him out of his reverie.

"Harry," hissed Hermione, "people are staring."

"Sorry," Harry yawned as he stretched. "I just like it when the Sun is warm, that's all." Hermione rolled her eyes.

"You know who Slytherin's new seeker is, right?"

"Er… no." While Harry didn't mind watching Quidditch, following it avidly was something he could never bring himself to do. Just wasn't his thing.

"Malfoy." Hermione sighed. "As if that dick needs his ego inflating any more than it already is."

"Hermione! I am shocked!" Harry's head snapped round to look at his friend. "Such language."

Hermione chuckled and nudged against him gently.

"He deserves it. It's people like him who give Slytherin a bad name." Hermione was all for inter-house co-operation. And Ravenclaws actually got on reasonably well with Slytherins most of the time.

"I suppose he does." Harry grinned. "Oh look, they're coming out."

The two teams, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, tramped out onto the field, and the crowd cheered.

xxx

A bolt of fire streaked across the clearing, burning blindingly, before shattering against an invisible barrier. The air pulsed with light briefly, as the shock of the fire was absorbed. Fizzling sparks scattered across the ground, burning small holes in the grass.

"Yes, well done Harry!" Taqqiq approached out from under the trees at the side of the clearing. "I didn't feel that at all in my secondary barrier. Try to exert a more firm will upon the magic, though. It'd be even better if there were no visible aftershock." Harry nodded, breathing heavily. Taqqiq turned then to the other side of the clearing and addressed the tall young man stood there.

"Well done to you too, Vincent. Votre modération était parfaite." Vincent Auclair, Taqqiq's new apprentice, nodded in return.

"Merci, Taqqiq." While Harry was being trained in preparation to take up the role of Mamanti of the British Isles, Taqqiq was also required to train a suitable replacement for herself, as Mamanti of the Western Taiga. After much magical Searching, and considerable testing of magical power and strength of character, Taqqiq had decided on Vincent as a suitable apprentice. Vincent Auclair, fresh from studying Healing at the Université de la Haute Magie in Quebec, was an excellent learner, and Taqqiq was very pleased with his progress. He and Harry also got on well, although Harry had only met him for the first time returning from Hogwarts for the summer holidays. Taqqiq worked them both very hard, but when they were both had time free, Vincent was teaching Harry French. Or at least trying, for while Harry had a gift for learning the languages of animals, other human languages seemed to elude him slightly.

"Now, Harry, when Vincent attacks this time, attempt to bind the energy before it hits, like I demonstrated yesterday. You remember?" Harry nodded and turned back to face the older apprentice.

"Tu es prêt?" called Vincent from the other side of the clearing, cocking his head to one side.

"Er… oui, I think." I hope I understood that right, thought Harry.

Vincent chuckled, amused, before gesturing almost carelessly with his left hand. A bolt of lightning exploded towards Harry, who reacted as quickly as the electricity itself. He threw his hands outwards, exerting is will. Time seemed to slow, and he felt the lightning broiling in the air before him. With a flex of his will, he placed his control upon the living energy. "Be bound," he hissed, his speech resounding with the Vox Praecantator.

The leading edge of the bolt of lightning froze half way across the clearing. The rest caught up in less than an instant, forming a small glowing sphere between Harry and Vincent.

"Yes, that's it Harry," called Taqqiq. "Now, try to return it to its origin."

Harry gritted his teeth in concentration. This was most definitely the harder part. He focussed as intensely as he could upon the radiant sphere, willing the quicksilver energy to reverse its path. The lightning resisted; its natural tendency to earth itself was too potent to easily contend with.

"Return," intoned Harry. The ball of lightning flashed angrily as Harry's magic brushed against it, but otherwise nothing happened.

"Return!" He repeated, pouring more power into the command. For instant, the lightning complied. It burst from its sphere, burning blue and silver, spiralling across the clearing towards Vincent. But Harry's control wavered in his jubilation at having succeeded, and the lightning trembled, before shattering and hurtling directly downwards into the ground.

Harry dug his fist into his palm in annoyance.

"Never mind Harry," said Taqqiq, picking her way towards him over the scorched grass. "It's practically impossible the first time. You'll get it, don't worry. But bear in mind that it'll be harder to bind and reverse a curse or other enchantment than something physical like lightning."

"Eez everything ok?" Vincent was jogging across the clearing towards them.

"Of course," said Taqqiq, flapping her hand at him. "Now go back, it's your turn next."

Wearily Vincent let out a sigh and turned around again, jogging back to his place opposite Harry. He put his hands up, ready to create a barrier. Taqqiq constructed her own underneath his, and then nodded to Harry.

Harry grinned as he raised his arm, palm outwards and already beginning to glow with summoned fire. There was nothing like hurling flames at something to relieve stress.

xxx

"Oh Harry, it's lovely to see you!" Harry was buried under a mass of bushy brown hair the instant the door opened. "Have you had a good summer so far? My parents are so excited to meet you. I've told them all about you!"

"Great thanks, you?" replied Harry, after extricating himself out from underneath Hermione's tempestuous locks.

"Yep, lovely. Can't wait for school though. Why do we have to wait another week?" Harry frowned at her, doubting her sanity slightly, not for the first time. Even as a fellow Ravenclaw, Hermione was just a little school-obsessed.

"Oh, hello," she said, surprised, noticing the man standing by Harry for the first time.

"Bonjour, mademoiselle," said Vincent, giving her a little bow of the head.

"This is Vincent," explained Harry, gesturing with his thumb. "Taqqiq's sidekick." Vincent frowned in mock annoyance, and Hermione raised her eyebrows.

"Her side…"

"I am not her sidekick." Interrupted Vincent. "I am," he glared at Harry again, drawing himself up, "ze heir to ze Mamanti of ze Western Taiga. She is busy, so I was tasked wiz bringing 'arry 'ere."

"Thanks for the lift, Vince," Harry grinned innocently up at him.

Vincent tried to frown, but couldn't stop himself from sniggering.

"'ave a good time at zat school of yours. I must return now." Harry waved goodbye, and Vincent nodded a farewell, before turning on his heel and vanishing with a flash of brilliant light.

"What was that?" asked Hermione, wide eyed.

"Worldwalking," answered Harry. "Come on, I'll explain later."

Harry picked up his trunk and together they entered the Granger house.

"He's really cute, Harry," announced Hermione as she led him into the front hall.

"Hermione!" he admonished.

"And he's got a sexy accent."

"Hermione! He's far too old for you!"

Hermione just shrugged. "Don't you think so?"

Harry screwed his eyes up and tossed his head from side to side. "I refuse to have an opinion on the matter."

"Suit yourself," Hermione muttered, before leading him through into the living room, where her family were waiting.

Mr and Mrs Granger were very welcoming. They asked all sorts of questions about the wizarding world, Harry having grown up in it, sort of. Hermione's younger brother, Ben, was a very sweet and intelligent little boy. For the whole time that Harry was with the Grangers, he didn't see Ben once without a book, his fingers skating unceasingly across the Braille text. There must be a reading gene, mused Harry. But Harry did think that Ben's blindness did have one benefit to it – he couldn't see the distraught glances that his mother and father, and to some extent his sister as well, gave him whenever they were reminded of his predicament. Mrs Granger, for example, seemed hard pressed not to cry whenever she wheeled Ben in his wheelchair up to the dinner table at mealtimes.

xxx

"I think Ron and Seamus are going to be at Diagon Alley today, same as us," said Hermione on their second last morning before school. "I seem to remember reading it in a letter Ron sent."

"Yeah," said Harry. "Neville was complaining in his letter to me because his Gran wouldn't let him go on the same day."

They were sitting in a corner of Flourish and Blotts, each with a large book propped up against their knees. Mr Granger had dropped them off in London, so they could shop for school supplies, and as soon as they'd bought the necessities as fast as they could they'd immediately headed for the bookshop.

"You know," piped up Hermione, "I think I'll buy a cat."

"A cat? Why?"

"I'd like one. I mean, you have Hedwig and Anissu, and they seem happy with you." The little snake, who'd insisted on coming shopping with them, poked his head out of Harry's sleeve at the mention of his name.

"Well then," he hissed. "Let's find you a kitty!"

"Anissu, you won't be allowed to eat it."

"Oh." Annissu glumly withdrew.

xxx

Magical Menagerie was dark and smelled of animal droppings.

"The air tastes foul in here!" Complained Anissu, but Harry shushed him hastily when the owner bustled into the main shop area from the side room.

"I'm looking for a cat, please," said Hermione.

"One second please," answered the shopkeeper, not impolitely. "Let me just finish up with these gentlemen."

"Hermione, Harry!"

Two boys were following the shopkeeper from the side room.

"Oi! Fancy seeing you two here!" Ron and Seamus crossed the shop to greet them, and began to natter away about their summers before the shopkeeper cleared his throat from behind the counter.

"Oh, sorry," said Ron. He went up to hand some coins over. "Just buying some tonic for my rat." He explained when he'd returned, and Hermione had gone off, looking at cats. "He's not been looking very well recently." Ron looked rather upset.

Harry nodded in sympathy. "So Seamus," he said, changing the subject rather obviously, and turned to the sandy-haired boy. "Good summer?"

Seamus grinned broadly and launched into a swashbuckling tale about the adventures he'd had over the summer. Harry couldn't help feeling that he was exaggerating slightly with some of what he said. His was interrupted by Hermione's return.

"Look! Isn't he adorable?"

The three boys turned at Hermione's call. She was carrying what looked like a cross between a cat and a hairy carpet bag.

"His name's Crookshanks. I love him already!"

Crookshanks squirmed in her arms and purred in a slightly accented and rather bored form of Cat; "No need to be so enthusiastic."

xxx

A quarter of an hour or so later the four of them and Crookshanks were sitting outside Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour indulging in some frozen treats.

Crookshanks was sunning himself in a patch of warmth on the bench, and Harry surreptitiously sidled up to him, under the pretence of giving him a scratch behind the ears.

"So, Crookshanks," he said to him quietly in his own language. "If you don't mind my asking, where's your accent from. I can't place it."

Crookshanks stretched languidly, completely unperturbed by this human speaking to him in the feline language.

"It's not a regional accent, human. I am part kneazle."

Harry opened his mouth to speak, but a shrill squeal cut him off.

"Ron! Really, get the rat off the table!"

"But Hermione! I need to feed him his tonic!"

Hermione then launched into a lecture on proper hygiene, but Harry's attention was drawn by Crookshanks, who had leapt to his feet, and was hissing violently.

"Er… Crookshanks? Is everything ok?"

The cat's back arched. "That is not a rat!" he spat.

With that he hurled himself across Harry, landing sprawled across the table, Ron's rat clutched between his forepaws.

Ron and Hermione sprang back. Immediately Hermione began to scold the cat, and Ron desperately tried to tug him off the table.

"He's right," hissed Anissu, poking his head out from Harry's sleeve.

"Wait!" Harry cried.

"What! The beast's trying to murder Scabbers!"

"No, just give me a second." Harry came around to face Crookshanks from the front, where he was holding a terrified Scabbers down with his left forepaw.

"Crookshanks, let me see this creature," he meweled. Reluctantly the cat backed off, and Harry grabbed the rat before it could escape. As soon as he touched it, he knew that Crookshanks had been right. It was a human in the shape of a rat.

More curious than afraid, Harry took the squealing rat round the corner of the Ice Cream Parlour, into a small passage, to conceal them from prying eyes.

"What on earth do you think you're playing at?" Roared Ron, dashing in after him.

Harry held the rat as far away from him as he could, and reached out with his will. He soon found the enchantment which held the human in rat form, and with a flex of his will and a whispered, resonant command, destroyed it.

Immediately the rat began to grow and change. Elongating and twisting, with much cracking of bones and stretching of skin, a small, dirty man finally stood in the passage next to Harry.

Catching him off guard, Harry pushed him up against the wall by his neck, exerting his will against him to bind him in human form.

"Who are you!" he spat out at him. The man's wide eyes shifted insanely from side to side, looking for a way to escape. He was twitching and scuffling, rodent-like and disgusting. Ron, Hermione and Seamus were stood at the entrance to the passage, staring in open-mouthed shock. Ron's face in particular was twisted into a look of horror.

"Who are you?" Harry repeated, this time overlaying his voice with the resonances of the Vox Praecantator.

The man's eyes snapped to his in fear. Almost against his will, he began to speak.

"My name…" he broke off into a coughing fit. "My name is Peter Pettigrew."

Three gasps came from the entrance, and Harry almost lost his control over the magic keeping Pettigrew from transforming in his shock.

But his quick mind was already processing this information. This meant so many things! One of his earliest memories of his time with Taqqiq was of her telling him of his parents' deaths and of their betrayal by someone so close to them as for them to have trusted him to be Harry's godfather.

But this meant Sirius Black was innocent!

AN: Finally an update! Hoped you enjoyed it, and hopefully the next one won't take months to arrive.

As my mantra always goes: Please Review!