It had taken quite a few weeks and a lot of bottles of un-nameable strangeness before Neville had the courage to ask about the goats.
For the first few months after the battle, on evenings when he was feeling particularly morose, Neville would head over to the Hogs Head and spend an evening drinking strange brews and reminiscing with Aberforth. A few of Neville's special herbs started finding their way into Aberforth's experimental tinctures, and some were even palatable, if you saved them for that hour at the end of the night when the brain was numb and the tongue number. But after the first bottle, little else mattered. The lamplight swinging on the ceiling chain. The crackle of the fire. The bleating of Jemima, Aberforth's beloved Toggenburg, as she nestled into the straw outside.
"Why goats, Aberforth? What's the attraction?"
The older man scowled and poured the last few drops of purple spirit into his glass, the fumes rising and twirling with a life of their own. "You're too young to hear this."
"I'm of age and have been for ages. And besides, could the truth really be worse than the rumours?"
Aberforth grunted. The silence drifted between them for a while, then Aberforth pushed himself out of his seat and staggered over to the mantelpiece, picking up an old photograph with three smiling children in it. The two boys were in velvet suits with large lace collars, looking almost prettier than the young girl in her layered velvet frock. All three were smiling shyly at the camera, and waving occasionally. Aberforth wiped the accumulated soot and dust off the front, and passed it over to Neville.
"That's you? In that outfit? But … even old dress robes aren't as ..."
"Effeminate?" Aberforth sat back down, and started opening a bottle of bright pink liquid. "'twas some fool woman wrote some story about a boy who wore them suits, so all the mothers started dressing their boys up like it. Even wizarding mothers. Damned stupid idea." The cork flew out with a *pop*. Aberforth looked down the neck of the bottle, then shrugged and poured himself a glass. "And most of us spent the next few years either hiding, or getting into fights to prove we weren't sissies."
"Both. Ran for a while, then decided to fight. Besides, the more fights I got into, the more of those stupid outfits got ruined. Mother could only mend them for so long. What's this pink stuff?"
"Pink? It should have turned dark green, dammit. It's supposed to be peppermint plimpy-weed. Pour me a cup." Neville passed over his mug, and it was returned shortly afterwards brimming with the pink, viscous fluid. "You didn't fight forever though, did you?"
"Didn't need to." Aberforth stretched, the bones in his back popping with the strain. "Mr Ketterley taught me a few different things instead." He noticed Neville's questioning look, and continued. "Andrew Ketterley. London wizard on holidays up in Godric's Hollow. Although I think he was just avoiding his creditors at the time – the man wasn't the most reliable. Anyway, I was hiding beside his front gate one night, after a particularly nasty beating, and he took me in. Gave me sweets and let me stay until I could run home in the dark. Muggle-born, of course – he had a family back in London, but they weren't magic at all."
Neville could tell by the tone in Aberforth's voice that the elder wizard had hit a nice balance of inebriation and reminiscence, and let him go on, merely adding to the ambiance with the occasional refill of Aberforth's cup. A brief nod from the other, and the story continued.
"Didn't know that the first time, of course, but ended up spending most afternoons down at his rooms, helping him with his creations. He'd had a Hogwarts education, and was trying to see how it would help him ahead in the Muggle world. Not that he thought it out too much. Always full of brilliant ideas on how to make his fortune, get back at those who'd laughed at him. A man of words, not deeds. But he could work some minor enchantments."
Aberforth sighed, took a large swig and wiped his eyes. "And that summer was after Ariana was attacked. Mother had her hands full, what with trying to keep Ari under control and keep the family going. Albus was off at Hogwarts himself, and I was due to go in a year's time. Mr Ketterley realised I was a wizard when I mentioned Hogwarts, and let me help him with some of his experiments. Stuff with dust and guinea pigs – I had to go and buy them at the local market. Mind you, I made sure I got the money off him first. Wasn't going to pay for the poor animals myself. And I stopped after I saw what he was doing with them."
Neville was horrified. "What was he doing?"
"Trying to Apparate them. With magic dust."
"And it wasn't working?"
"Well, the first few just died. Or exploded. Which is a sort of dying."
"Ewwwww." Neville winced. "Did he stop?"
"No, but he changed the enchantment." Aberforth filled his mug again, and passed the bottle to Neville. "He started to make the dust into rings. Made out of brass, but rings all the same. And then he left to go back to his sister's place in London."
"But the goats?"
"I'm getting to that." He took back the bottle. "Anyway, I took a pair of the old codger's rings – one green, one yellow – wrapped in parchment and packed them away. And I never saw him again. Forgot about the rings for years, until I moved here, to the pub. Found them when I was clearing out some old boxes, few years before that last big Muggle War. And I didn't remember what they were. So I touched them."
Once more the room fell silent, the logs burnt down to brightly-glowing embers. Both men stared into the logs, pictures appearing fleetingly in the flames. Aberforth stirred them gently with a poker, then dropped a couple more logs on the grate.
"Ever thought there might be other worlds out there?"
"Like as in space?" Neville frowned in puzzlement. "I've heard the Muggles are looking for them."
"No, not space. A different space. Or place. Or time. Or something. Just … different. Slightly different ways to ours, but still there, like parallel paths running along and sometimes touching, then swerving away."
"You found one?"
"I went to one, yes. But I wasn't the one who had found it. I think someone else went there first, 'cause they knew where I was from. But it was cold. Colder than Hogsmeade in winter." Aberforth moved a little closer to the fire. "The yellow ring took me to a forest, full of ponds. It was lovely and green, and felt so peaceful. But I didn't want to stay, so I tried Apparating. Not a hope. Like I was so far away from here that my magic didn't know where to go.
So then I tried jumping in the puddles. But it wasn't until I worked out that the green ring would take me out. And by that time I was not next to our pond any more. I don't know what pond I was next to. But the ring took me through, and I ended up … somewhere. Snow everywhere. Cold. And that was when I met the goat man."
Neville shook his head, images of goodness-knows-what dancing through his brain. "A goat herder?"
"A goat man. Goat legs. Human body. Horns on his head. And he wasn't the weirdest of the lot. There were talking squirrels and trees that had people inside them and some big bad witch that would have given Mouldy-mort a run for his money. But the goat man found me shivering in the snow beside a dam, and took me back to his place. Kept me warm. Fed me tea and scones. And hid me from the White Witch-queen for long enough that I could find my way back.
"And he spoke gentle, and talked of pain and hurting like I'd had, and like he'd had. We talked. We talked of family betrayal and death, and of torn loyalties, and darkness that lives in the soul and eats you from within. And he told me he was supposed to be working for the White Witch, but he hated it. Hated the treachery, and hated that he was supposed to be giving her any Muggles that came by. But he knew I wasn't, knew I was different."
"How long were you there?"
"In whose time?" Aberforth grinned at Neville, and somehow his face seemed much younger and less troubled. "I stayed there a week, far as I could tell. There was day and night and dark and light, enough to cover seven days, but that was the weird thing. We finally realised that the yellow ring was the way back to the forest, but when I bade him goodbye and went home, only a few hours had passed.
Aberforth sat back in his chair, his drink forgotten beside him as his face glowed with a fey light that came from another place.
"And yet, in those hours, or days, we loved a lifetime. We talked until we kissed, kissed until we made love, and made love until the stars sang and the dark and the cold didn't exist any more. Seven glorious days and nights, our hands over each other. I had never truly loved another, and never like this. I didn't know two men could love each other. Or two males. But we did. He was gentle with me as a more experienced lover should be, but he was as nervous as a virgin himself. Holding back. Letting me find what I wanted, and showing me his own joys. And new joys such as I had never felt."
His smile twisted a little, a mischievous edge to it now. "And you know the expression randy old goat? I have to tell you, a young one is far better."
Neville fidgeted a little, and put his own drink down. There were, after all, limits to how much a man should listen to, especially of another man's secrets. "I have to go, Aberforth. I have a class of third years tomorrow, and have to make sure the puffapods are ripe." He stood, picking up his cloak ready for the walk down the passage back to Hogwarts.
Aberforth continued, unaware. "And when I left, I couldn't go back for a few years. And when I did go back, the pool was gone. Dried up. So I came back here and started talking to the goats. Just talking. But I wish I could find him again."
Then a thought struck Neville, and he turned back. "How did you know there had been Muggles there before, though?"
"Someone had installed a lamp post in the middle of the woods. Only a Muggle would be stupid enough to do that. Tumnus told me about it. Said it "grew", but who ever heard of a lamp post growing?"
"So the stories about you and the goats here, in Hogsmeade?"
"Nah, just stories."
"Course!" Aberforth laughed wryly. "None of the boy goats are pretty enough to interest me."
Neville shook his head in amusement and headed up the corridor back to Hogwarts, swearing never to drink the pink stuff again.