‘You’ve wetted me, Daddy,’ James complained.
‘You are already wetted, James,’ his father said. ‘In fact, you are soaked to the skin.’ Harry lifted another palm-sized pebble from the bank of the stream. ‘Watch out, Al,’ he called as he prepared to throw the stone into the water.
Ginny sat cross-legged on the grass and watched her husband. Harry looked over his shoulder and grinned mischievously at her. Once again, he managed to deliberately splash James, who was busy on the opposite bank. James simply laughed; he had already fallen into the water twice. It was impossible for Harry to make him any wetter than he was. Al paddled forwards and carefully relocated the stone his father had thrown.
Harry wore dark brown shorts, a pair of sandals and nothing else. He was busily helping five small children to move stones. They were attempting to dam Drakestone Burn. Despite almost an hour’s work, they were having only limited success.
Before they started work, Harry had stuck a couple of twigs into the gravel right at the water’s edge, one upstream and one downstream of the proposed dam. Al, Lily and Rosie, unable to see any real difference in the water levels despite their labours, had all been back to check the sticks. The upstream stick was now slightly underwater and the water had receded from the downstream stick. Rosie was happy that they were making a difference, but wisely observed that stopping water wasn’t easy. After a huge amount of effort, they had succeeded in raising the water level upstream of the stone and pebble dam by a little over an inch.
Ginny glanced at her three young children, and at Rose and Hugo, as they busily piled stone upon stone and pushed gravel into the gaps. She then returned her attention to her husband. She watched the movement of the muscles on his back and shoulders as Harry toiled in the bright mid-September sunshine. Ginny fought back her desire to wade into the water and hug her husband. She knew that such an act would result in complaints from the kids. Later, she promised herself. Hopefully, just like last Saturday, the kids would be really tired tonight. And, equally hopefully, Harry wouldn’t be.
Autumn was approaching rapidly; its inevitable arrival preceded by cooling nights, fields being harvested, and the honking early arrival of Russian geese. The sun was giving up the last of its late summer warmth as the equinox approached. With October less than two weeks away, it was unlikely that there would be many more days as bright and warm as this.
Today, possibly for the final time of the year, the clearing behind their new home, Drakeshaugh, was warm and sheltered. Ginny soaked up the idyllic scene like a sponge, trying to imprint it forever on her memory.
White clouds were scudding across the sky. The treetops danced teasingly with a wind, which – within weeks – would begin viciously blowing the leaves from them. The dell beside the Drakestone Burn was surrounded by large mature trees, making this little hollow almost wind-free. The only noise was the faint rustle of the wind in the treetops and the splashing, clattering and chattering of five children playing.
Lily sat down in the stream with a splash and began to move several small pebbles.
‘Now I is wetted and sorking too, Daddy,’ she announced proudly.
Ginny smiled indulgently at her daughter. Lily refused to be left out. If James and Al were wet, then Lily would be wet too.
‘You are, Lily.’ Harry laughed. He bent down, kissed his daughter on the top of her head and hauled her back onto her feet.
Pleasure welled up inside Ginny. Harry was happy and the kids were happy. Drakeshaugh was perfect. It had only been a few short weeks since their move, but she was surprised to realise that she did not miss their old home. Twelve Grimmauld Place was close to the shops of central London and to the Ministry and Diagon Alley, but there were no other benefits.
Their house in Grimmauld Place was big, bright and comfortable, but it had no garden. There was no outside space at all. Three young kids stuck indoors had proved to be something of a strain on poor old Kreacher, especially when James had discovered that the elderly house elf would obey “the little master”. Ginny and her children had spent a lot of time at The Burrow simply to spare Kreacher.
Grimmauld Place had been their home for the seven years since they married. Really, it had been their home since long before then. Almost from the day she’d left school, she’d spent at least as much time in London as she had at the several flats that she’d shared with various team-mates on Ynys Mon, the Isle of Anglesea.
Early in the New Year, she and Harry had discussed the problems their London home presented. Often, after they had discussed and rambled and sidetracked their way through one of their problems, they were unable to remember who had finally come up with the solution. This had been one of those occasions. Moving into the countryside had been Harry’s idea, she was certain of that. Harry disagreed; he claimed that the idea had been hers. She’d started to argue, very vociferously, but Harry had merely laughed. He’d told her that he’d take the credit, if she insisted, but he didn’t care whose idea it was, so long as they were both in agreement.
Kreacher had remained behind at Grimmauld Place. It had always been his home, and it was the home of the still-revered Regulus Black. Their ancient house elf would have moved, had they insisted, but he would not retire, and despite their best efforts, he refused to be freed. Kreacher considered freedom to be a punishment. Grimmauld Place was now a lodging house, let to a variety of junior-grade Ministry trainees. Harry and Ginny were landlords, and Kreacher was the happy, and very protective, concierge.
Drakeshaugh was a much better home for a growing family, although the house itself was a lot smaller than Grimmauld Place. Drakeshaugh lacked a formal dining room and had fewer bedrooms, but the living room was huge, and there were enough bedrooms for the kids. The kitchen was large enough to invite the whole family around for a meal. And the master bedroom had an en-suite bathroom. Not only that; the en-suite had a bath big enough for two.
The main benefit of Drakeshaugh, however, was the extensive grounds. They had thirty acres, most of which was overgrown woodland. That was more than enough land for the kids to play in. It was secluded and hidden from prying Muggle eyes, too. The only drawback was that they were not physically close to The Burrow.
‘He could do that by magic in seconds,’ Ron observed, pulling Ginny out from her thoughts.
Ginny turned. Her brother was watching Harry as he helped Lily and Hugo fill the gaps in the dam with pebbles. Ron was sitting on the roots of an old oak tree, his back against the trunk. As usual, he was keeping in the shade. Hermione, in shorts and a t-shirt, lay on a blanket on the grass, enjoying the sunshine, and reading. She, like Harry, was still tanned from their summer holiday.
‘The kids can’t, and they are happy that their daddy – or Uncle Harry – is helping. He’s happy too, Ron. Just look at him,’ Ginny told her brother.
‘Yeah, he really loves playing with the little ones, doesn’t he?’ said Ron with grudging admiration.
‘Yes,’ said Ginny simply.
He does, she thought, because he always wanted to play in streams and kick balls and do what little children should do. And when he was their age, he wasn’t allowed to do anything like that. Now, he can. He’s not just being a good dad; he’s having the childhood he missed. Even after all these years, there were occasions when Ginny felt like hexing Vernon and Petunia Dursley.
‘Has James settled in at school?’ asked Hermione, closing the book she’d been reading and rolling onto her side to face Ginny.
‘Yes, he loves it. He’s had two weeks of Muggle school now, and he’s made friends with a few more of the children, but he and Henry Charlton are still inseparable,’ said Ginny.
‘This Henry kid, his mum’s been here, hasn’t she?’ Ron asked.
‘Yes,’ Ginny admitted. ‘She gave me quite a surprise, but not as big a surprise as she gave Terry and Amber. They almost hexed her!’ Ginny rolled her eyes as she relived the scene. ‘You know that we decided not to hide the house from the Muggles, but we did put a Suggestion spell on the entrance from the main road. It makes the Muggles realise that it would be very rude of them to arrive here unannounced. We can tell who has tried, because the next time we see them, they ask us if they can visit. There’s a woman called Amanda who is becoming a bit of a pest. Hopefully, that will stop after she’s been to the party.’
‘I think that you’re crazy to invite your Muggle neighbours to a house-warming party,’ said Ron. ‘We’ll be able to act normally, but you’ve invited Luna!’
‘Luna will blend in by not blending in at all,’ replied Ginny. ‘She can’t even blend in with other witches, you know that! We meet these people regularly at the school gates, Ron. If we’re going to stay here, we need to get to know them, to establish ourselves.’
‘How did this Jacqui woman get past the Suggestion spell?’ asked Hermione curiously.
‘We’re not sure. But Jacqui simply ignored the spell and drove through the gate. We think that she’s got some wizard blood, though we can’t be certain, because it seems to be through the female line. We checked up on the Charltons when it was obvious that James and Henry were getting close. Jacqui’s maiden name was Wake. Harry met her mum years ago, when he was hunting Lestrange. We haven’t told Jacqui, of course, because we don’t want her to know we’ve been checking up on her, but Mrs Wake, Jacqui’s mother, once told Harry that she’d caught a glimpse of the Shivering Stone. We think that a combination of a small amount of wizard blood and the fact that she thought her news was urgent – which it was – allowed Jacqui to ignore the spell.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said Hermione. ‘Is Harry’s cover story working?’
‘Yes.’ Ginny nodded.
‘It’s worked for years, Hermione,’ said Ron. ‘The Muggle Interface Team uses it all the time. These days, most of the Muggle police forces know that if they get a weird murder or inexplicable death, the “Home Office” send a team from the Auror Office to investigate. The Muggles think that they are a “Major Incident Team”, of course. We walked in on a police investigation ourselves once, Hermione. That was years ago, do you remember?’ Ron stared out into the distance, lost in thought. ‘Sometimes, I miss the old days,’ he said.
‘I don’t,’ said Hermione forcefully. ‘You remember the victories and the arrests, Ron. I remember the bodies, the danger and the hatred.’
‘Yes, but…’ Ron began. Ginny interrupted them before they began to bicker.
‘Our new neighbours don’t ask too many questions about Harry’s job, fortunately. Now that they think he works in national security, they’ve stopped asking. There’s a sort of understanding that what they know is enough,’ said Ginny. ‘It would have been nice to be physically closer to Mum and Dad, but as Harry said when we found this place, The Burrow is only a fireplace away. Anyway, there aren’t many remote places near Ottery St Catchpole, you know that! Perce and Audrey got the last one on the market.’
‘So, do you think that sending James to a Muggle school is a good idea?’ Hermione asked.
‘Yes,’ said Ginny with certainty. ‘I wasn’t sure when Harry suggested it. Mum did such a good job with Victoire and the others, but James is happy; he’s learning a lot and he’s making Muggle friends. Harry was right…’
‘Living completely apart from Muggles is a bad thing,’ said Hermione, staring pointedly at her husband.
‘It didn’t do us any harm, Hermione,’ Ron protested. ‘Did it, Ginny?’
‘No, but it would have been nice to know a bit more about Muggles, Ron,’ said Ginny. ‘Even simple things like how to use a telephone were beyond us. Dad always told us that Muggles were just like us, but without magic. He was right, but we didn’t actually know that, because unlike Harry and Hermione, we didn’t meet any. They didn’t know anything other than Muggles when they were little, and that didn’t do them any harm, either, did it?’
Ron gave a grudging nod of agreement.
‘Hiding away and staying completely separate can lead to prejudice and distrust, Ron,’ argued Hermione. The Malfoys and Greengrasses and a lot of other pureblood families, even the Macmillans, still hide themselves away. You were allowed into Ottery St Catchpole; you even wore Muggle clothes, you’re different to most of them. I know that we can’t force everyone to change; a lot of wizards still know nothing about Muggles, and they don’t want to know. But I don’t want my great-grandchildren to turn out to be Muggle-haters like the Malfoys simply because they’ve never met a Muggle. Harry’s right, we need to interact more, understand more. It won’t be easy. I’m sure that there will be a few problems with little slips and accidental magic…’
‘Last Saturday, Harry had to stop James bouncing impossibly high on a trampoline,’ Ginny interrupted. ‘James has problems knowing what he can tell people too. He makes mistakes, but he’s not even five yet and he’s got a vivid imagination. People think that a lot of the things he says are nothing but silly stories. Henry Charlton’s dad tells his son all sorts of nonsense, and Henry believes some of it. Nearly every day we need an excuse for something James has said, but we are managing. So, are you going to send Rosie to a Muggle school next year, Hermione?’ Ginny asked.
‘Yes.’ Hermione nodded, Ron frowned and shrugged. Ginny exchanged a knowing glance with her friend. That silent shrug was enough. Ron’s definite and vociferous “no” of two weeks ago had already turned into uncertainty. Hermione had won this battle.
‘How’s the case going?’ Ron asked. He was obviously unwilling to continue any discussion about Rose and Hugo’s schooling.
‘Are they any closer to catching the werewolf?’ Hermione added. ‘Things are beginning to get – unpleasant – in several departments. DMLE and Magical Creatures are getting complaints from everyone. The werewolves are annoyed because of the increase in Auror raids; they claim that it’s discrimination. The old werewolf-haters and bigots—everyone who opposed the Sentient Entities Rights Act—are all saying “we told you so” and demanding a return to the old days. They want the old restrictions on werewolves and house elves and vampires reinstated. The Daily Prophet’s editorial today is calling for more action, even though “fortunately, so far, it’s only Muggles”.’ Hermione spat the quote contemptuously. ‘The public are worried and frightened, Ginny. A werewolf killer who wants Greyback released. Harry needs to do something, and quickly.’
‘Don’t you dare say that to him!’ snapped Ginny. ‘He knows what’s going on, Hermione; he reads the papers too. He’s had your boss pestering him, and Kingsley is taking a personal interest in the case! Harry is under a lot of pressure, and our house move hasn’t helped. On top of everything else, the Auror Office is short staffed. Both Lavender and Trudi are on maternity leave; Bobbie has six weeks before she’ll join them, and Susan is in Transylvania with Camelia on a vampire-hunter case. The most experienced members of the Muggle Interface Team are unavailable. Lavender has volunteered to come in to help, but Mark won’t let her.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought he could stop her,’ observed Ron.
‘You’d be surprised,’ said Ginny. ‘Just because you had no idea how to handle Lavender…’ Ginny left the sentence unfinished and simply watched Ron’s ears turn pink. ‘Harry’s got as many people on this case as he can spare. Polly and Dennis are both working undercover. The Auror Office is getting a lot of anonymous tip-offs, which doesn’t actually help. Harry thinks that most of the tips, possibly all of them, are simply mischief-making. Unfortunately, he can’t take the chance. The Aurors have raided seven werewolf homes on the basis of the anonymous tip-offs and found nothing. All they’ve done is…’
‘Annoy the witches and wizards who suffer from lycanthropy,’ Hermione supplied. ‘Perhaps, if the Auror Office would stop calling them werewolves…’
‘Lavender calls herself a werewolf and so does Amber’s mum. Because that’s what they are! Changing the name doesn’t reduce prejudice, Hermione; it simply gives the bigots another name to use. “Persons suffering from lycanthropy” is too long-winded anyway,’ argued Ginny. She waved her hand dismissively at Hermione’s suggestion. ‘But Polly has a new suspect. It’s another anonymous tip, but this one looks good. Doxine Gray is a werewolf, and she lives in Sheffield…’
‘We know who she is, Ginny, and so does Lavender,’ said Ron with feeling.
‘Yes, but now Harry’s been forced to run two separate operations. Terry knows nothing about Polly’s surveillance of Doxine…’
‘Why not?’ Ron asked.
‘Because Terry’s wife is Doxine’s niece, remember, Ron,’ said Hermione.
‘It is a werewolf, isn’t it?’ asked Ron. ‘I mean, everyone is sure, aren’t they?’
‘Who else would rip a victim to shreds on a full moon night, Ron?’ Ginny asked him.
‘Well, look at it this way, Ginny,’ said Ron. ‘There is no way that the Wizengamot would agree to release Greyback, especially as it’s “only Muggles” who are being killed.’ Ron looked sorrowfully at his wife as he spoke.
‘It will take years to remove the prejudice, Ron,’ said Hermione. ‘It will never go completely.’ Ron grumbled and thumped the grass.
‘Yes, but, the killer won’t get what they want,’ Ron continued. ‘They must know that, unless they are really thick. Just look at what’s actually happening, what if that is the real plan? The werewolves are getting hassle from the Auror Office. Hermione is starting to get requests to rescind the anti-discriminatory legislation, which took her years to get passed. The bigoted purebloods are being listened to for the first time in years…’
‘I’ve been wondering about that too, Ron. I was going to talk to you about it later,’ said Harry. He was carrying a dripping Lily in one arm and an equally wet Hugo in the other. ‘The Muggles are easy targets, but why attack them? The Wizengamot are “expressing concern” but they are not as worried as the Muggles. Kingsley is getting more pressure from the Muggle Prime Minister than he is from the magical community. If it is a werewolf committing these murders, why aren’t they targeting werewolf-haters, or even ordinary wizards? I’ve done a lot of checking. Both of the bodies have been carefully examined. The Muggle pathologist said “large dog or wolf” and the Healers agree. The bite marks, the claw marks, everything is consistent with a werewolf attack. Even so, Dacia Skoll is going to re-examine the bodies for us.’
‘Whatshoo talkin’ ‘bout, Daddy?’ Lily asked.
‘Work, Lily, I’m sorry. I’ve finished now; no more work-talk. It’s time for us to get these kids dried and changed. We have a very special birthday to celebrate.’
Harry carefully lowered the two soggy children to the ground.
‘Happy birfday, Mummy,’ Hugo squeaked.
‘Happy birfday, Antermine,’ Lily added.
‘Thanks,’ said Hermione rather offhandedly, her mind still elsewhere. ‘Werewolf, or simply conjured or enchanted wolf?’ she asked Harry.
‘Enough, Hermione!’ Ginny ordered. ‘It’s your birthday! Like Harry said, no more talk about murders.’ She turned towards the three older children, who were still in the water. ‘Come on, kids,’ she called. ‘It’s time to get changed. We need to leave soon to visit Granny and Granddad Granger. We’re going to have a big birthday party.’
The three older children screamed excitedly and splashed out from the stream.
‘Party!’ Rose shouted. Ron ruffled his daughter’s wet hair, and then dried her with a wave of his wand.
‘How old is you, Aunt Ermione?’ James asked.
‘She’s positively ancient, James,’ said Ron. ‘Hands up everyone who’s in their twenties.’ He lifted his hand, laughing; Harry and Ginny followed.
‘Guess,’ Hermione asked her nephew, pointing to the badge on her t-shirt which was flashing; the words “Birthday Girl” were alternating with “30 Today”.
‘Forty?’ suggested James. Harry, Ginny and Ron burst out laughing, but Ron was quickly quietened by his wife’s expression.