1. The Visitors
The trees stood still, silent and unmoving, as did the fine feathers of cloud in the azure sky above. No wind blew and Drakeshaugh Wood was unusually quiet. No leaves rustled, no creatures stirred. The only noise was the occasional snatch of birdsong.
Albus Potter crept cautiously through the undergrowth, slipping slowly across the sun-dappled floor of the forest. He was, he thought to himself, being as stealthy and silent as a shadow.
Al had almost reached the large conker tree when he heard the car approaching. The proud old horse chestnut stood straight and tall; it was close to the thick hedge which formed an impassable barrier between the track and Drakeshaugh The crackle of tyres on gravel and the purr of the engine were increasing in volume. Al rapidly clambered up the rough ladder and stepped onto the platform of planks.
Curling his hands into Omnioculars, Al watched the car as it flickered past on the other side of the hedge. This was it, they had arrived! A carload of Muggles were entering a magical area. They were entirely unaware of the dangers they faced. They must be protected, and who better to do it than the famous Auror, Al Potter.
Al turned and, ignoring the ladder he bravely jumped the four feet down from the tree house. He jumped sideways, falling into soft leaf mulch under the tree and rolling into the prickly undergrowth spewing from the unkempt hedge. As he pulled himself out from the brambles, he scratched himself on the thorns. He ignored these minor injuries, and reached into the waistband of his shorts for his wand.
It was broken in half! He must have snapped it when he had jumped and rolled into cover. Fortunately, he soon found another wand lying under the trees. Holding his new wand tightly he sprinted alongside the track, following the car to its destination.
The fearless Auror kept close to the dry stone wall as it curled around into the gravel courtyard. There was a narrow gap in the coping stones and, standing on tiptoe he peered through it. Al gazed out into the open area in front of his home, Drakeshaugh. The car had stopped and the unsuspecting occupants were already getting out. Al pressed closer to the wall and tried to listen to the conversation.
'Thank you so much for offering to look after the kids, Ginny. I've given them a lecture and told them to be on their very best behaviour,' Mrs Charlton said. She opened the hatchback and was reaching inside when Mr Charlton intervened.
'I'll take those, Jacqui,' Mike Charlton told his wife. 'I've no idea what you've packed, but it feels like Henry's overnight bag is full of bricks.'
'Henry!' Al heard his brother's shout echo across the courtyard. 'Come with me, I've been making a secret den, I'll show you! It's this way! Come on!'
Through the gap in the wall Al saw Henry look questioningly at his mummy. Mrs Charlton smiled and nodded. Henry dashed off after James.
'Oi!' Henry's dad shouted. 'Hold on a minute, sunshine … haven't you got anything else to say to your beloved parents before you go dashing off with James Potter?'
'ByeMamunDad. Seeyertermorra,' Henry shouted over his shoulder as he sprinted into the trees after James.
'Well!' Mr Charlton said. 'He's obviously going to miss us.'
Al continued to watch as Mrs Charlton picked up Annie and followed both Mr Charlton and his Mum into the house. Al was wondering where his Daddy was when a twig broke behind him. Auror Al Potter whirled around and raised his wand.
'Stupefy,' he shouted. His father staggered back against the tall old oak next to the wall and slid down it, head bend forwards.
'You got me, Al,' his dad told him, lifting his head and smiling. 'Fast reactions, well done, but we have visitors, we should go and say hello to them.'
Harry Potter held out his hand and smiled at his younger son. Al said nothing. He simply watched his father.
'What's the matter, Al? You wouldn't tell me at bath time last night. Was that because James was there, too?'
Al Potter nodded.
'James and Henry are a bit much for you when they get together, aren't they?' Daddy asked. Al nodded again, and his dad sighed sadly.
Al did not like Henry Charlton much, because whenever James was with Henry, James was horrible. Daddy said that James was just showing off, that he was trying to be clever in front of his Muggle friend. Daddy said that, really, James was being silly and not being clever at all. But all Al knew was that James was not nice when Henry was around. And Henry was going to be spending the night here.
'You've been crawling in the brambles again too, haven't you?' Harry asked.
Again, Al nodded.
'Don't worry, Al. You aren't in trouble.' His father smiled kindly, pulled out his wand and proceeded to heal Al's scratched arms and clean up his muddy t-shirt.
'There you are, all better,' Daddy said. 'Let's go and see Mr and Mrs Charlton, and Annie. Annie looked a little nervous. She's never been away from her mummy and daddy before; we'll need to be especially nice to her. Will you help me up, please?'
His father held out his hands and Al took them and pulled. It was sort of a game, Al knew. His Daddy could really get up by himself, but he often pretended to need Al's help. Daddy kept hold of Al's left hand and together they walked around the wall and towards the house.
'By the way,' Harry told Al in a whisper. 'Statute of Secrecy, remember! Do you want me to hide your wand for you?'
Al looked at the mud encrusted oak twig in his hand and threw it onto the ground.
'No, thanks, Daddy, I can easily find another one, the woods are full of them. I won't say nothing to the Muggles, I promise,' said Al earnestly.
'I know, Al, thank you,' Harry told his younger son. 'But, remember…'
'Don't call them Muggles,' said Al. 'I know, Daddy.'
'Good boy, and it's "I won't say anything", not "I won't say nothing". Don't pick up your brother's bad habits.'
Harry Potter looked down at his younger son thoughtfully. Al was nowhere near as outgoing as his brother, which was a blessing in many ways. When Al found himself in trouble, it was usually because he'd been following James.
James was certainly more adventurous and disruptive than Harry had ever been. Harry had worried that James was naughty and unruly, and Al well-behaved, but Ginny had assured him that James was normal and well behaved, and that Al was shy and quiet.
James had become firm friends with Henry Charlton on his first day at school. But Al's first term at a Muggle school had not been a great success. Al had not been going to school for long. He had started after Easter, attending for mornings only, but he still had no "best friend" and not even any close friends. Ginny worried about him.
Harry and Ginny discussed their children daily, or more accurately, nightly. The only time they had for private conversation was after the kids were in bed, when they were relaxing in each other's arms. Ginny was very worried about Al's lack of friends. Harry, who'd had no real friends until he was eleven, was less concerned than his wife. Al seemed happy enough in his own company and Harry recognised the make-believe games of a lonely little boy. He knew that he could do no more than encourage his son to make friends. Harry was, however, concerned that it was James who was preventing Al from making new friends. Harry knew all about that, too.
'He was playing in the woods, Ginny,' Harry told his wife as he walked into the kitchen of Drakeshaugh, still hand-in-hand with Al. He released his younger son and watched him stare silently at the new arrivals. Mike Charlton was placing two overnight bags on the large kitchen table.
The Charlton's were frequent visitors and the Potters were used to keeping various things (like the kids' toy broomsticks) hidden during their visits. Harry smiled to himself as Jacqui Charlton looked curiously around the kitchen. She always did, she did not understand how they could survive without electricity.
'Hello, Harry, hi, Al' said Mike Charlton. He pulled a silly face and waved to Al.
'Hello, Henry's dad,' Al said, waving back. Harry noticed Annie's face fall, and so, apparently, did Mike.
'Henry's dad?' said Mike slowly and carefully. 'If you want, Al, you can call me by my real name.' He lowered his voice to a mock whisper, making certain that he was speaking loudly enough for his daughter to hear. 'You can call me Annie's dad! Okay?'
'Okay, Annie's dad,' said Al smiling. Annie smiled too. Harry noted the effect on the little girl. That was a trick he would remember.
Harry watched as Al thrust his hands in his pockets and wandered over to talk to Annie and Lily. Mike Charlton followed, hunkered down, and made a fuss of his daughter and the two younger Potter children. Jacqui, meanwhile, was talking to Ginny. They were organising. Harry listened to their conversation, but simply let them get on with it.
'This is all of Henry's stuff, and this is Annie's, obviously,' said Jacqui. It was obvious. Henry's bag was camouflage greens and military-looking, Annies was pink and flowery.
'Henry will probably tell you that he's allowed to stay up until nine o'clock. He isn't. Bedtime is eight, and Annie goes half an hour before he does,' explained Jacqui. She looked around and made certain that Annie was not listening. 'Actually, you can get him to bed earlier, if you want. All that really matters to Henry is that he stays up later than his sister.'
'James is exactly the same,' Ginny said. 'Don't worry, Jacqui. They will be fine. It's only for one night. You and Mike go and enjoy yourselves at this wedding.'
Jacqui frowned, 'I'll do my best, but to be honest, I've never really got on with Mike's sister. At our wedding she got drunk and told me that Mike could have done a lot better. I don't think that she wanted me at her wedding. That's why she said "no children" on the invitation.'
Ginny nodded sympathetically.
'She probably thought that I would stay here to look after Henry and Annie while Mike drove down to York alone. I bet she was surprised when she got our RSVP. She knew that Mum and Dad are visiting my sister in New Zealand. She probably thought that I had no one else to ask. Anyway, thank you so much for looking after the kids, Ginny. You should have everything you need for the kids, I hope. There are three complete changes of clothes in Henry's bag and two in Annie's, just in case.'
'Thanks Jacqui. We'll probably need them for Henry, I'm afraid,' Ginny told her. 'James' "secret den" is in some tree roots next to Drakestone Burn. It's a little way downstream of the clearing where we had our picnic last month. I expect that they'll both come back wet and dirty, but they won't come to any harm. But it's a ireally/i secret den. It's so secret that I "really truly do not know" where it is, so I can't possibly have told you, okay?'
Jacqui smiled and nodded. 'If they come back wet and dirty it won't be a surprise. Henry will be fine with James, I know that.' She caught Ginny's eye and nodded towards her daughter, who was whispering to her father with trembling-lipped uncertainty. 'But, Annie is rather worried. She'll be sharing with Lily, won't she?'
'Yes,' Ginny confirmed. 'And Henry will be in with James. Unless they make too much noise, in which case we'll move James in with Al.'
'Does Lily have many soft toys? I restricted Annie to six, she'd have brought her entire collection of teddy bears if I'd let her.'
'Lily has dozens. She has five doting uncles, remember?' Ginny smiled. 'She will be fine, we'll look after her. Harry and I have decided to take the kids up to the Drake Stone for a picnic and then on to Harbottle Lough, if that's okay?'
'That's a good idea,' Jacqui smiled. 'Tire them out. It looks like you'll have a good day for it.'
'Come on Jacqui, it's time we were leaving,' Mike Charlton announced. 'Will you come and wave us off, little Annie?'
Annie's lower lip began to quiver and her eyes filled with tears.
'We can go an' wave at them from a tree house if you want Annie,' Al offered. 'We can wave here anrunanrun an get to a tree house 'fore they get there.'
'Bet you can't,' Mike said. 'Little girls can't run faster than a car.' Annie looked at Al, who nodded.
'Can!' Annie announced excitedly.
Mike Charlton looked to Harry for advice.
'Enjoy the wedding, Mike,' Harry said. 'And don't drive too fast.' He winked at Mike.
'If you can run faster than the car, I'll bring you a present back,' Mike told his daughter.
'Yaay!' said Annie, smiling excitedly. 'Bye, Mummy, Bye Daddy, see you tomorrow.'
Mike and Jacqui Charlton kissed their daughter, shouted 'Bye Henry,' into the woods and climbed into their car. Mike had just finished turning the car when James and Henry dashed into the gravel yard, just in time to join the others in waving to Mike and Jacqui.
As Mike drove through the gate and turned onto the track which led to the road, Harry said, 'Go.'
Al and Annie ran around the gable of the house and into the woods. As Harry scooped up Lily and followed he noticed that Mike had slowed his car to walking pace.
'What's happening,' James demanded.
'We're going to wave from the tree house,' said Ginny.
'This way,' James yelled, and Harry heard James and Henry approaching rapidly from behind. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Ginny striding along at the rear.
Thanks to Mike's slow driving they made it in plenty of time and, standing on the platform outside the tree house they all waved as Mike and Jacqui drove past and began their long journey south to York.