Hannah could not focus on any of the departing faces. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy and a film of tears distorted her vision.
'You have my sympathy, you poor girl.'
'She was a fine woman.'
'It's a terrible loss.'
'We're thinking of you.'
'If you need anything, anything at all…'
'Your Uncle Peter and I are so sorry.'
The commiserating voices were as endless as the handshakes, hugs, kisses—and lies.
Uncle Peter had hated Geraldine Abbott; he'd called Hannah's mother an interfering busybody, and one Christmas, when Hannah was nine, Peter Abbott had called his sister-in-law a Mudblood. Hannah still remembered the embarrassing silence which had followed that outburst. Her Uncle Peter and his wife had never again made a Christmas visit. Her father had hardly spoken to his brother since the incident; this was the first time Peter Abbott and his wife had visited the farm in eight years. Could their sympathy be genuine?
As she watched her aunt and uncle leave, Hannah felt as though she too was two people. The Hannah inhabiting her body was a wreck. That girl was tear-stained and emotional; she had a slavering beast of grief feasting on her innards, tearing them out and leaving her empty and in agony. The other Hannah hovered above the scene, watching with serene detachment. That Hannah was calmly assessing the best and worst aspects of Mam and Dad's relatives and friends. Uncle Peter was a … was a …
How could she be so uncharitable at a funeral?
Hannah's father was squeezing her shoulder so tightly that it hurt. She didn't protest. She was worried that if he released her, he would fall to the floor.
Geraldine Abbott's husband and daughter were like two playing cards: while they were leaning against each other, they could stand, but move one even slightly, and both would fall. They had been like this since she'd returned home from Hogwarts. It seemed to Hannah that she had been crying from the moment she'd been summoned to the Headmaster's office and told the dreadful news.
'She was a credit to Hufflepuff House, as are you, Miss Abbott,' the Headmaster had said softly, and it seemed to Hannah that he did so with genuine sorrow. 'She was just, and loyal to the cause she espoused, the cause your friend Mr Potter espouses. I am certain that the girl I knew, little Geraldine Nelson—the coal-man's daughter—would have been very proud of you.'
Hannah became aware that the procession of relatives had finally come to an end. The departure of Uncle Peter and Aunty Mary meant that for the first time since the funeral four hours earlier, Hannah and her father were alone.
'I'll see if there's any tea left in the pot, shall I?' Hannah's father said after Peter and Mary Abbott Disapparated.
'Let's just sit in the yard, Dad,' Hannah suggested, unable to face any more tea. She loudly blew her nose on the large handkerchief her father had given her.
Arms around each other, Hannah and her father stepped outside and into the farmyard. The autumnal wind was cold and it slapped Hannah's black robes against her legs as it swirled around the yard. She shivered, but revelled in the sensation. Any feeling, any discomfort, was a distraction from the ache inside. Perhaps the chill wind could blow the pain from her.
Hannah looked out across the farmyard. Hangingrigg Flatt was her home; it had always been her home. But now, without her mother's bright and cheerful presence, it was different.
The isolated farmhouse sat high up on the western side of the Pennines. It was built, like most properties in the area, from the local red sandstone. Hangingrigg Flatt was a squat building whose ponderous bulk rested solidly on the landscape it inhabited. The house lay in the flat bottom of a narrow valley. To the east, almost close enough to touch, the disconcertingly regular conical mound of Morton Pike thrust up almost unnaturally. Beyond the Pike lay undulating Morton fell, where her father's sheep grazed. To the north, the otherwise unblemished green of the rolling hills was disfigured by Tongue Scar, a bleak rocky cliff.
Hannah dried her eyes, blinked the final few tears from them, sat down on the weatherworn wooden bench next to the front door and gazed in the other direction. Downhill to the west, the town of Appleby nestled somnolently the Eden valley. Further west, beyond the town, the Cumbrian hills thrust themselves into the sky; Shap and Bampton dominated the foreground and beyond stood Helvellyn, shrouded in clouds.
'Your mam loved this seat, this view,' her father observed. 'She used to say, "We live in a beautiful world".'
'She was wrong, Dad,' said Hannah sharply. 'In a beautiful world, she'd be here to enjoy the view with us!'
'Oh, my poor little Hannah,' was all her father said. He pointed at clouds, at a honking flight of geese, at the woods west of Appleby where the Arrows' Quidditch stadium lay hidden from Muggle view, and he hugged her. They sat in sorrowful silence and Hannah remembered a life now lost, a presence no longer present.
There was a hole in her life.
Hannah sat silently alongside her father and thought about her mother. Susan Bones had sympathised. Susan had lost her aunt, and she had, apparently, been very close to Amelia Bones. But it wasn't only the loss which hurt Hannah; there was the question of why?
Amelia Bones was Head of Magical Law Enforcement; she was a member of the Wizengamot; she was powerful and important. Geraldine Abbott was a farmer's wife who wrote the occasional article for iWitch Weekly./i She wasn't rich or powerful; she was, however, Muggleborn. Was that it; was this simply a hate crime? Had some prejudiced pureblood committed this dreadful act simply because he (or she) hated Mudbloods? Whoever had committed the murder had used the Killing Curse, and left the Dark Mark at the scene.
It had happened in a small square at the end of Knockturn Alley, of all places. What on earth had her mam been doing in Knockturn Alley? Uncle Peter had whispered that she must have been up to something and that if she'd been a pureblood, she'd have known better.
The Aurors were investigating. Auror Webb had visited, and assured Hannah and her father that he was doing everything that he could.
'But we're very stretched at the moment,' Webb had admitted, his soft voice tinged with sadness. 'We've never been popular in Knockturn Alley, and no one we've interviewed has seen anything. They're lying, of course, but they are more scared of the killer than they are of us. We won't give up. I promise that we won't give up.'
But if the Aurors couldn't find out what had happened, could anyone? Hannah looked out over the countryside and wondered what to do. The autumn sky was a dark blue, and the clouds were white and unthreatening, but for the wizarding world, a storm was coming. The darkness was rising again, but no one seemed to want to do anything about it. No one, that is, except Harry Potter.
Last year, for the first time in her life, Hannah had broken school rules. True, most of them had been ridiculous "Educational Decrees", but even so, being a member of Dumbledore's Army had been exciting and educational. She had been a little disappointed when there was no mention of continuing the organisation this year.
Ernie hadn't been surprised. On the first day of term, he'd assured her that everything would soon return to normal. "Minister Scrimgeour is already beginning to get everything under control," he'd said, but less than three weeks later, Hannah's mother had been murdered. Ernie was a nice boy, but he could be so gullible sometimes.
'When do you need to go back to school?' Richard Abbott asked his daughter, finally breaking his silence and interrupting her musings.
'I'm not going back, Dad. I only went back because Mam insisted,' said Hannah. 'I only got five OWLs, remember: Acceptables in Charms, Potions and Astronomy; and Exceeds Expectations in Herbology and Defence against the Dark Arts. I was going to re-take my Transfiguration OWL, but honestly, I might as well look for a job. You need me! You need the extra money. You always said that we couldn't survive without the money Mam made from her writing. And who will do your cooking, and the laundry? You're useless at household spells; you know that you are. You can't cook and you break plates when you're supposed to be washing them.'
'Transfiguration...' her father began.
'…is a very useful subject. I know, Dad. I can do it. I just panicked during the exam; I'm not really that bad, and Professor McGonagall was happy to take me back. But you need me here, and so long as I can do the spells, it doesn't matter whether or not I have passed an exam.'
'You won't get a good job if you don't do well in your NEWTs, Hannah.' Her father made a vague attempt to persuade her, but his heart wasn't in it.
'I'll get experience, Dad, and money. Maybe not much, but I'm not afraid of hard work.'
'What will that boyfriend of yours think?'
'Boyfriend?' Hannah spluttered.
'That boy … Ernie,' her father said.
For the first time since she'd left school, Hannah laughed. Then, when she realised what she was doing, she fell silent, embarrassed. 'Sorry, Dad,' she mumbled. 'But Ernie isn't my boyfriend; he's just a boy who's my friend.'
'Aye, well, you won't be here forever; some young lad will steal you away from me, and then there'll just be me and the hills and the animals.' Her father shrugged. 'You do what you think best, Hannah. I'd best get up to the top pasture, check on the flock. You could check the coop for eggs for me, and feed the turkeys. The world won't stop, even if we think it should.'
'I'll do that, and I'll tidy the house up while you're gone, Dad,' said Hannah. 'We'll manage, won't we?'
'We'll have to,' her father said sadly, and with that, he strode over to the barn, grabbed his broom and flew up the valley.
After five weeks, the pain had become a dull ache in her heart and a flutter in her stomach with the occasional unexpected outburst of tears. Working hard helped, so Hannah and her father had found a new routine. Rising early was essential; there were cows to be milked, sheep to be tended, chickens and turkeys to be fed. Hannah dealt with the household chores, the fowl and the milking. When her chores were done, while her father was out tending the animals, Hannah would sit in the study reading her mother's articles.
She was looking through a bundle of notes marked "unpaid labour" when there was a knock on the door. Hannah picked up her wand from the desk and strode to the front door.
'Who's there?' she asked.
'It's Auror Webb,' a low voice said. 'I visited you several weeks ago.'
'What did you drink when you were here?' Hannah asked.
'Nothing,' the voice said. 'You offered me tea, Miss Abbott, but I declined your kind offer.'
Hannah opened the door. Auror Webb glanced at her apologetically. He slouched untidily, either unaware or unconcerned about the shabby and ineffectual air he presented. Auror Webb was a man in middle-age, thin-faced with untidy grey hair. His cool dark brown eyes, however, darted everywhere.
'Sorry, Auror Webb, you can't be too careful these days,' apologised Hannah. 'Please, come in.'
'Indeed not.' Webb nodded as he stepped over the threshold and followed Hannah into the farmhouse kitchen. 'It's a sensible precaution in these difficult times. Is your father here?'
'He's up on the north pasture,' said Hannah. 'Do you have news?'
Auror Webb somehow managed to look even more downcast. 'You're under-age, Miss Abbott. I can only tell your father; I'm sorry.'
Hannah nodded sadly. She put the kettle onto the stove. 'I swear Dad can hear a kettle boiling from anywhere on the farm. I'll make a pot of tea; would you like a cup?'
'No, thank you, Miss Abbott,' said Webb.
Hannah was pouring herself a cup when her father arrived.
'Auror Webb has something to tell us, Dad,' Hannah said as she poured tea into her father's large, blue and white striped mug.
'You've found out who did it?' said Richard Abbott. He stared hopefully at the Auror.
'I'm afraid not,' the Auror said sadly. 'I'm sorry, but I came here to tell you that I am being reassigned. I have no leads, and we've had two more deaths. I will keep the file open, but we are living in dark times, and…'
'…and the death of a farmer's wife isn't important enough for you,' shouted Hannah, and she burst into tears.
'Every unexplained death is important,' said Webb firmly. Suddenly, his apparent ineffectualness was replaced by a curtly professional attitude. 'You may not believe me, Miss Abbott, but I like this no more than you do. The Auror Office is stretched to capacity. I cannot overemphasise how serious things are. I've been ordered to other duties. I am truly sorry, Mr Abbott, Miss Abbott.'
Hannah glowered at the man through a veil of tears. There seemed to be tears in his eyes too.
'I came here to tell you in person,' Webb said. 'I thought it was only right to let you know, but I'm very busy; I really must leave.'
'I'll see you to the door,' Hannah said, drying her tears.
As he stepped out into the yard, Webb turned to Hannah. 'I am truly sorry for your loss,' he told her.
'Where was my mother found?' Hannah asked. 'All I know is that she was a square at the end of Knockturn Alley, but where?'
'She was discovered outside a little pub called "The Ducking Stool", in Knowe Place,' Webb said; he spelt out the first word for her. 'It's an unpleasant corner of an unpleasant street. Please don't go there, Miss Abbott.'
Hannah simply nodded. 'Thank you for letting us know,' she said.