Worried that we were exposed, we slithered backwards over the stone, away from the prying eyes of the mysterious stranger. Once we'd clambered down from our eyrie, safely out of sight, we began to discuss our next move. We'd barely started our discussions when Hugo pointed out that Mrs Peculiar-Pink-Person might be sneaking away. Although we'd made certain she couldn't see us, that meant we couldn't see her, either.
Lily, who had begun to fidget the moment we started planning, volunteered to sneak around the stone and keep watch on triple-p. James immediately promoted his sister to "chief lookout" and entrusted her with that important job. Knowing that we didn't have long before Lily got bored, the rest of us rapidly worked on our scheme.
James and Henry came up with the idea. I thought it was brilliant, as did Hugo. Rosie and Al were less enthusiastic about their part in it. Rosie silently made it clear that she didn't want the implied babysitting duties, but she didn't verbalise her objections. If she had, Hugo would have gone crazy.
Al had a more practical complaint. 'Never split up,' he observed seriously. 'We should stick together.'
'We're not really splitting up,' James told his brother. 'It's a pincer movement. A team of four, and a team of three. Aurors work in teams of three, remember. And you can't be part of the frontal assault group, Al. You look too much like Dad. We know she's a witch, so it's too risky.'
'There's nothing wrong with looking like Dad!' Al's muttered protest was now more about his appearance than the plan.
'I didn't say there was! But he's famous. His picture's always in the papers, and you've got his eyes, and his hair used to be the same colour as yours. She's watching our house. That must mean she knows who we are; she's certain to recognise you,' James pointed out. 'I'm worried that she might recognise me, too, which is why I'll make certain she doesn't see me.'
'I could…' Al began.
'Yeah, you could, but we're not little any more, it would be risky. I need you both to keep an eye on Lily-loo, too. You know what she's like, and she's much more likely to listen to you than me! Try to make sure she doesn't do anything stupid.'
'She won't,' I protested.
'She might, Annie,' Al reminded me. 'Especially if she loses her temper.'
I couldn't argue with that.
Our discussions over, we recalled our chief lookout. Lily reported that triple-p had moved, but not very far. She had unfolded a seat and was now sitting the shadowy edge of the trees, her Omnioculars still trained on Drakeshaugh.
Henry quickly explained our plan, and Lily was happy to go along with it. Then it was James' turn to speak. Hunkering down in front of his sister, he looked up into her face. 'Be careful, Lily, you too, Hugo. Rosie and Al are in charge, but keep an eye on them, for me, okay?'
'Of course,' Lily assured him seriously. Hugo nodded.
Standing, James turned his attention to Rose. 'I don't think there'll be any trouble, Rosie. Triple-p doesn't look very dangerous, does she?'
'No,' Rose agreed. 'But neither do my mum and dad, especially Dad! And you know what they did.'
'I hadn't thought of that,' James admitted. 'You'd better be careful.'
'You don't really think she'll attack us, do you?' Rose asked.
James shook his head. 'No, there are too many of us,' he assured her. 'But even if she does, we all have the trace on us. If we cast any spells to defend ourselves, the Improper Use of Magic Office will notify our folks pretty quick.'
'True,' Rose agreed. 'And we can call for help on our Mirrorphones, too.' She turned to her team. 'Let's go.'
Keeping her head down, and staying well back from the ridge, Rose led Al, Lily and Hugo toward West Wood. I remained behind the Drakestone, keeping an eye on them, while Henry and James crept around the corner to watch triple-p.
I watched the flanking party sneak through the undergrowth all the way to the wood. When they got there, Lily raised her hand. That was the sign I'd been waiting for. As they headed deeper into the trees, I gave Lily two thumbs up, and headed back to James and Henry. When I walked around the stone, my brother was crouching down behind a boulder. James, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Looking around suspiciously, I listened carefully. Hearing nothing but birdsong, the breeze blowing through the bracken, and the faint bleating of distant sheep, I spoke. 'They've made it into the forest,' I told my brother quietly. 'Where's James? Is he still here?'
Henry shook his head. 'No. He thought it would be better if he was in front of us, not behind. Are you ready?'
I nodded, but remained on guard. I knew that, when it came to James, I couldn't trust my brother to be honest with me. James was probably in front of us, like Hen said, but I knew he could be anywhere. Thrusting my arms out in front of me, I swung them round to the sides, and then pirouetted.
'Happy?' Henry asked, shaking his head.
'Hell, yeah,' I grinned, and deliberately misunderstood his question. 'I've got permission to be cheeky!'
Henry and I set off down the boulder-strewn slope. We were heading towards the gravel track that ran past Drakeshaugh, a route that would take us very close to triple-p. I wasn't worried. Four of our number were in the woods, trying to get behind her, and our secret weapon was somewhere unseen ahead of us. Henry and I made no attempt to conceal ourselves. That would have looked suspicious.
'We should look like we're talking to each other,' Henry told me.
'We are, now,' I pointed out sarcastically. 'And don't look straight at her, Hen!' I pointed at the hills on the horizon. 'If you point your head towards Cold Law and Gills Law, you should be able to see her out of the corner of your eyes without making it bloody obvious.'
'She's still got her binoculars glued to her face and, like Lily said, they're trained on Drakeshaugh,' he observed dismissively. 'We should be able to get a lot closer before she notices us.'
'Even so, we shouldn't make it obvious that we know she's there.' I argued. 'We should look, without looking like we're looking.' I was tingling with excitement, and my heart was hammering in my chest. This wasn't a game. It was a real adventure, like in the stories. It was a chance for my brother and I to confront a real, and hopefully unsuspecting, witch. It could be dangerous.
'Okay,' Henry agreed.
'So, if we're going to talk, what're we going to talk about? I think Scorpius Malfoy and Rosie fancy each other, what d'you reckon?' I asked, trying to take my mind off my increasing doubts about the wisdom of our actions.
Henry ignored my suggested subject. 'Never mind Scorpius, what about you! What did you mean, when you were talking about James? D'you fancy him, Annie?'
'Personally, I think Scorpius is a bit weird,' I tried to divert Henry. 'Even for a wizard.'
'James'll be sixteen in October, and you're only just thirteen,' Henry ignored my comment, and continued to press me. 'He's two-and-a-half years older than you, Annie. That's way too old. Imagine what you'd say if I tried chasing after one of your classmates.'
'Which one do you fancy?' I asked. 'Is it Sheera?'
'Sheera? Who the hell is Sheera?' he said. 'Stop changing the subject, Annabel May.'
'You know who she is!' I protested, annoyed by his use of my full name. 'And you do fancy her, Henry John, I'm sure of it. You defended her.'
'I did? When? Oh,' he finally made the connection. 'Chunky lass, bad acne, a bit goofy, braces in her teeth. That's her?'
'Yeah,' I said. 'And now she fancies you!'
'All I did was tell them other two lasses to leave her alone!'
'That's enough!' I told him.
'More than enough, apparently,' replied Henry derisively. 'After all, James almost killed you, and you still fancy him.'
'James didn't do that. It was that arse Craig!' I protested. Henry's upraised eyebrow was enough to make me realise that, for the first time ever, defending his best friend wasn't the wisest thing for me to do. I amended my argument.
'I was simply trying to get at Lily!' I complained. 'She said, "No one that good-looking can be all bad," and she was talking about Craig! Like I said, it was Craig who almost killed me. And anyway, looks and personality aren't the same thing, so what Lily said is utter bollocks, isn't it?'
'I probably shouldn't've used James as an example,' I protested. 'But who else was I supposed to choose?'
'Well, I always thought you and Al were close,' observed Henry quietly.
'We are,' I said. 'But Al's my friend, Hen. I don't fancy him!'
'Aha. "I don't fancy him!" That's a straightforward denial sis,' Henry leapt on my words. 'And you know what's really interesting about that? You haven't said the same about James. When I mention James, all you do is vacillate.'
'Vacillate!' I said scornfully. 'Sometimes I think you just sit and read the dictionary.'
'And that's another non-answer,' he told me gleefully. 'I'm not a complete nincompoop, you know. Do you fancy James, yes or no?'
'Your friend James can be a complete pain in the arse,' I said.
'As can you, Annabel. Especially when I ask you a simple yes or no question and you refuse to give me a straight answer. Like I said… Vacillate, Vacillate!' He put on a Dalek-voice.
'And you're still in lurve with the Doctor!' I retorted. 'You like blondes, don't you? You're a pathetic nerd!'
'Is that the best you've got?' asked Henry, scornfully. 'I'm still waiting, and you still haven't denied it!'
'Maybe I'm just winding you up, Hen,' I told him. 'Or maybe I'm simply worried that James is actually right next to us, and I don't want to give the arrogant arsehole any opportunity to take the piss out of me.'
'Bugger! We've been talking so loudly that she's heard us,' Henry said. 'She's watching us. Don't mention Jamie.'
'I'm not that daft,' I told him huffily.
I looked across at triple-p, who was now little more than fifty yards from us. She'd dropped her binoculars, and was staring at us. Smiling, I nodded politely, and took the opportunity to take a good look at her. The pink tweed suit she wore was ill-fitting, and her bright red Alice band would have looked out of place even if she were thirty years younger. She was a big woman who'd seen hard times. Her flaccid jowls, flabby chins and pallid face gave the impression of someone who hadn't seen much sun, or exercise, for many years.
As we got closer she smiled, or at least her thin lips attempted to curl up at the edges. It was a wasted effort, her piggy little eyes showed how much she despised us. From her expression, you'd think she was examining dog-shite on her shoe, not two smiling teenagers. It was obvious that her only concern was how to remove us without sullying herself in the process. As I stared, I wondered whether her expression was reserved for us as interlopers, whether it was because we were Muggles, or if it was a general hatred of all young people.
At fifteen yards, we were the closest we'd get to her, unless we turned off our path and walked into the woods, a direct approach. 'This is ganna be fun,' I said quietly to my brother. I waved at her. She looked horrified, but managed to force the world's falsest smile onto her face. It was obvious she didn't get much practice at smiling. 'Full on Geordie, you reckon?'
'Go and work yer ticket, Annie,' Henry encouraged me.
I ran on ahead splashing through a couple of muddy puddles.
'Hello, little girl,' her voice was high pitched and girlish. 'You must be a long way from home.'
'Nah,' I shook my head, and went in full-throttle. 'Ah live just up the road. Canny clarty round here, like. Wat ye' deein, missus? Them's reet funny-lookin' binoclears. Wat yer lookin' at?' As I expected, she had no idea what I'd said.
'Speak English, child,' she ordered.
'Ah yam,' I told her, laying the accent on thickly. 'Looks like yer watchin' Drakeshaugh? Why's yer watchin Drakeshaugh?'
'Drakeshaugh?' triple-p said. 'I don't know what you're talking about.' Her voice had increased in pitch, and she was trying to laugh off my enquiry. It didn't work. She looked even less comfortable in the great outdoors than my Uncle Richard, and he was the sort who got twitchy in Regent's Park.
'That hoose ower there.' I spoke knowledgeably, and pointed. 'That's Drakeshaugh, that is. So what are yer lookin' at missus? I'm Annie by the way.'
'I'm a bird watcher, Annie,' the woman replied through clenched teeth. 'And you're making such a lot of noise. You're frightening the birds away. Please be quiet, and leave me in peace.'
I should probably have expected her reply, after all there are very few innocent explanations for sitting in a woodland staring through a pair of binoculars. Although I'd been trying to complete my part of the mission, which was to get her name, her response was a gift I grabbed with both hands.
'It's okay Henry,' I called back to my brother. He was carefully edging around the puddle I'd run through. 'She's not spying on the Potters, she's a bird-watcher.'
Henry's face lit up. 'What've you seen so far?' he asked her.
'The Potters?' she asked.
'The people whose house you're watching,' I said, certain that her surprise was due to the fact I knew the name of the residents of Drakeshaugh.
'I've already told you, I'm not watching the house,' she was trying very hard to keep her temper in check. Her mouth was no more than a narrow slash in her face. She kept it straight and firm, but her chins and jowls trembled with suppressed rage.
'So, what birds have you seen so far?' Henry asked again.
It was obvious that it was a question she didn't want to answer.
'Nothing much... Robins,' she suggested hesitantly. 'But not much else.'
'That's because you're here,' Henry told her knowledgeably. 'You don't want to sit here.'
I saw anxiety in her expression, and pressed the attack. 'Henry's really clever, he knows lots and lots about birds,' I told her proudly. It was true, but his interest in birds was something I usually teased him about. I'd never before praised him for it. The snort behind me was, I knew, his attempt to disguise his surprise at my compliment.
'You should listen to him, Missus…' I continued, pausing to give her another opportunity to tell me her name. She didn't take it. I looked down at the plump fingers of her left hand. There were no rings on her third finger, so I stuck the knife in. 'Oh, sorry, Miss…' I added. 'No offence meant. Mum once told me that some elderly spinsters don't like to be called missus.' She managed to remain silent under my onslaught, but her left eye was beginning to twitch.
'There's starlings everywhere, and at least one nest of Magpies in Drakeshaugh Wood, but you won't see much more from here,' Henry continued to be annoyingly helpful. 'You'd be better off turning 'round. There are tits nesting in the woods behind you, and I've heard a woodpecker. I saw it a couple of times, too, but it's difficult to spot.' It was fortunate that she didn't look around, as he suggested, because Rosie and the others were stealthily approaching her from behind.
'Tits!' I sniggered. 'Henry's always looking at tits, aren't you?'
'Don't be so childish, Annie.' Henry scolded. 'I'm sorry about my sister,' he apologised to the woman. 'She's not really interested in birds. But this isn't a good spot, honest.'
'It's good enough for me, young man,' she said firmly. 'But I'd like to be left in peace, please.'
It was Henry's turn to divert her. He grabbed the opportunity she'd presented him with.
'You should come with me,' Henry suggested, pointing back up towards the stone. 'If we go up onto the ridge you'll get a good view over the moors, too. I've seen a merlin… and lapwings, and sparrowhawks up there; I even saw a chough, once.'
'I'm quite happy here, thank you,' she said firmly. Her lips barely moved as she spoke.
Triple-p had been unable to mask her concern when Henry said "merlin", her relief when he continued his list, or her complete lack of knowledge when he mentioned the chough. I could still remember how excited he'd been the day he saw the chough; I knew triple-p should have been as impressed as Mum had been. Instead, she was approaching boiling point. Best of all, because she was fixated on us, she hadn't noticed how close Rosie and the others were getting. They were moving very quietly through the trees, and soon they'd be close enough to get a good look at her face.
'Dad said he saw a great auk last weekend,' Henry tried again. I knew that Dad knew almost as little about birds as I did. Mum was the country girl, and the expert. As Henry spoke, some half-remembered conversation about dodos made me think that great auks were extinct. Triple-p didn't even blink when he mentioned them. I was left in no doubt that she, like Dad, was a city-dweller. Unlike Dad, however, it seemed she was completely ignorant of her ignorance.
'Just go away!' she snapped. 'How can I watch the birds if you silly children are chattering and scaring them away!'
'We'll go, in a minute,' I assured her. 'But my friends Lily and Al Potter are 'sploring the woods with their cousins. They're just behind you.'
The woman's pallid face turned grey. In her haste to stand, turn, and face them, she knocked over her folding chair, stumbled over its legs, and ended up on her hands and knees on the ground. Henry went to help her up, but she angrily waved him away.
'That was your fault!' she told me. 'You startled me, you wretched child!'
'Hi, Annie, hello, Henry' Lily called. 'Long time no see. Who's your new friend?'
'I thought she was spying on your house, Lily, but she says she's just a birdwatcher,' I replied. 'But she won't us her name, so p'rhaps she is a spy.'
Triple-p's mouth opened and closed like a feeding goldfish and, like a feeding goldfish, no words came out.
'Maybe I should tell Mum,' said Al quietly.
'There's no need for that, Al,' triple-p said, struggling to her feet. 'I'm simply here to watch the birds, I'm not spying on anyone.'
'How d'you know that he's Al?' Rosie asked sharply.
'This girl just told me!' Triple-p blustered, trying to dismiss the question.
'No, she said "Lily and Al and their cousins",' Al pointed out.
'How d'you know I'm not Al?' enquired Hugo politely.
'It might even be me,' suggested Lily. 'Perhaps my name's Alison!' She rather spoiled the statement by winking at me.
'Don't be ridiculous, I know … what an impertinent question that is!' Her outburst, and her pathetic attempt to cover her mistake, was followed by silence. We all watched in silence as she hastily tried to think of an excuse, and saw the look of triumph as she worked it out. 'Al here said "Mum". And this Annie person said that the Potter's live in that house!' she said triumphantly. As she spoke to Hugo, she indicated Al, and tried to affix her faux-friendly smile back on her face. 'Obviously, this is Al. And who are you, young man?'
'I'm Hugo Granger-Weasley, and this is my sister, Rose,' Hugo told her. When she heard that name, triple-p's panic became obvious. She shuffled sideways in an attempt to keep an eye on all of us. We spread out and encircled her, making it impossible.
'Do I know you?' It was Rosie's turn to ask a question. 'You were watching Uncle Harry's house, and you look vaguely familiar. Have we met?' she looked meaningfully at us, and then back to the woman.
'I have no idea who you are, or what you are talking about,' she protested, shaking visibly. 'Just leave me alone, please.'
'Okay,' said Al abruptly. 'How's school, Annie?'
'Bore-ring,' I said dismissively. 'You home from your boarding school for the Easter holidays, Al?'
'Yeah,' he said. 'Shall we go up to the stone, like we used to when we were little?'
'I think we should probably go home and speak to Mum,' Lily said. She glared at triple-p. 'Why won't you tell us your name?'
'Because it's none of your business,' the woman snapped.
'Yeah, I think we should definitely go and tell Aunt Ginny,' advised Hugo.
'No need for that, young man,' she said desperately. 'If you must know, my name is… Cracknell,' she tried to retain her smile as she spoke, but she spat out the name as though she were ashamed of it. Taking a deep breath, she forced the smile to stay on her face. 'I'm Do…rothy Cracknell. Now, why don't you just go away and leave me to do my birdwatching in peace.' Her smile was desperate. She turned to me. 'You can go and play with your friends, little girl. Won't that be nice?'
'I'm thirteen, not six!' I told her scornfully. Looking past the woman, whose name certainly wasn't Dorothy Cracknell, I checked with Rosie. She nodded, and glanced meaningfully up at the Drakestone.
'Goodbye, Miss Cracknell,' I said politely. 'It's been so nice to meet you. I hope you see some puffins, or gannets, or cormorants, or whatever; and don't forget to count the magpies! One's for sorrow, two's for joy…'
'What did you say your name was, young lady?' she asked sharply, interrupting my song.
'Annie,' I said.
Her eyes narrowed. 'And what's your last name, Annie?' she asked sweetly.
'Hadaway man, woman,' I said cheekily. 'Ah've telt yer me name, but ye forgot it. Weird how you remembered Al's, in't it?' Turning, I ran, raised a fist, and shouted, 'Drakestone!'
'Drakestone,' Lily yelled as she followed. The others joined in our chorus.
I waited until we were halfway back to the stone before I slowed to a walk.
'Well?' Henry asked. 'What does everyone think about Miss Cracknell.'
'She totally, obviously, made that name up,' said Hugo. 'She's not triple-p any longer! She's Toad-face.'
'No, she's Miss Bum-crack, and she's a liar, liar, pants on fire,' said Lily.
'So, she's Miss Burnt-bum-crack!' I suggested.
'Annie!' Rosie protested. Al, Hugo, and Lily laughed. My brother groaned.
'She's definitely a witch, Rosie,' said Lily. 'She was watching Drakeshaugh through a brand-new pair of McClarity fifteen-times Super-Zoom Omniocculars. They're expensive! They've got both a replay, and a save sound and image, function. She's a witch, and she recognised us. I didn't believe anything she told us. And neither did you!'
'None of us did, Lils,' Al assured his sister. 'They were McClarity Super-Zooms, were they? That's what the Aurors use.'
'They're top of the range,' agreed Rosie.
'I thought they worked like binoculars. How can you record something on them?' Hen asked.
'Magic, you dope!' I gave him a playful nudge as I reminded him. Hen was always much more confused by magic than me. 'Just accept it! You've seen James's cloak often enough.'
'Yeah, it's only magic,' Al grinned at me, then turned to my brother. 'You'll just have to trust us, Henry. Like I trust you about birds. I don't know anything about them, but she doesn't either, does she?'
'Not a thing,' my brother told him confidently. 'She could probably tell an owl from a seagull, but I could easily have pulled her to bits about it. I could've asked her about her weird binoculars, too. I didn't see the point. You all got a good, close-up, look at her. Mission accomplished. Anyone recognise her?'
'We don't know every with and wizard in the country, Hen,' objected Rosie. Despite her protest, there was a thoughtful look on her face. 'But… I sort-of-recognised her.'
'Me too.' Al nodded.
'What do you mean, you sort of recognised her?' I asked.
'I'm not sure. It's more than just a feeling, but…' Rosie was deep in thought.
'It's like… It's like I've seen her before, but never met her,' Al tried to explain. 'Maybe I've seen her picture.'
'That's it!' Rosie nodded excitedly. 'I've seen her picture somewhere.'
'Well I didn't recognise her at all,' Lily observed thoughtfully. 'Perhaps she's in one of your third-year textbooks, Al.'
'No,' Hugo shook his head firmly. 'Because I'm sure I've seen her somewhere, too, Lils.'
'Perhaps she's been in the Prophet,' Al suggested. 'And if you didn't recognise her, Lily, at least we can be certain of one thing…'
'If she was in the Prophet, it wasn't in the Quidditch section,' Hugo jumped in with the punchline, as Al winked at us.
'True,' Lily agreed, grinning.
'So, what're we going to do?' Henry asked. 'She lied to us about being a birdwatcher, she's got magic binoculars, so she's a witch, and she's spying on Drakeshaugh. Do we try to figure out who she is by ourselves, or do we tell your folks, Al?'
'We wait for James to get here,' I interjected forcefully. 'With all that commotion we created, he probably managed to sneak up and stand right next to her. He might already know who she is.'
'She's pointing the Omniocculars at us,' warned Hugo. 'We'd better shut up.'
We all turned to look, but she'd moved to look away from us.
'How long?' Rosie asked.
'Dunno,' Hugo admitted. 'I turned around to check on her, and she was looking right at us.'
Lily pushed her glasses up her nose, and squinted at toad-face. 'Now she's looking to see if we're still watching her.' She waved.
'Best keep quiet until we get back to the stone,' Henry suggested.
We quickened our pace, and scrambled up the rock-strewn slope. Soon, we were safely back behind the stone. Henry turned to Rosie.
'Can she really hear us through those Onmioccular-things?' he asked her.
'Yes,' Rosie nodded. 'But only if she can see us. We should be safe here.'
'She's our enemy!' Lily declared. 'Ours! We need to watch her, to make sure she doesn't escape.' She caught my eye, and nodded at the stone. 'C'mon, Annie!'
Lily scampered up the stone. Despite Rosie's protests, I followed closely. Once at the top, Lily and I moved across the uneven surface, and stared back down the valley. The woman wasn't where we'd last seen her.
'So, where's Dotty Bumcrack, Lils?' I asked.
Lily pointed into the woods.
Behind me, I heard the others scrambling up the stone.
'She's moved further back into the woods,' Lily pointed. 'She's not looking at us, or at Drakeshaugh. I can't see what she's doing.'
'Never mind her, where the hell's Jamie?' Henry asked.
'James could be anywhere.' I said. 'He complains about others being unreliable, but he's no better. He should've let someone else go with him under his cloak.'
'If he doesn't get here soon, we should let Aunt Ginny know,' said Rosie worriedly.
'I am here,' James announced pulling off his cloak. 'And I know who she is!'
'Who?' we chorused.
'She's just got out of Azkaban, and she's been in prison for twenty years,' James began. 'Her name's…'
'Dolores Umbridge!' Rose, Al, and Hugo spoke as one.
There were three loud cracks, and Umbridge arrived at the foot of the stone. There were two rough-looking men with her.
She pointed her wand at James, who yelled, 'Down!' and dropped to the floor. The beam of scarlet light hit my brother squarely in the chest, knocking him backwards off the stone. The others obeyed, I simply stared down at the woman who'd attacked my brother.