Title: Future’s Past – Chapters One – Six
Series: The Future Is My Past; The Past Is My Future
Fuck Knows Where
“You’ve always been terribly dramatic.”
The dark-haired stranger’s tone was dryly amused.
He was tall and dressed in archaic war robes. The silver in his hair and modest beard matched the unadorned hilt of his sword. Clearly a wizard, he carried neither wand nor staff, but a three-foot length of entwined wood and metal that looked heavy enough to crack a skull and fairly sang with magic.
“Your ears are bigger than in your portraits.”
He huffed, touching the offending appendages, which not even his long hair could hide. His eyes laughed at her. “Shouldn’t you be suitably reverent?”
“I think that refraining from curses like ‘Merlin’s bollox’ all my life is all the reverence a man might wish,” Ianthe informed history’s most famous mage. “Besides, I’ve had a long week!”
“You get that keen mastery of the understatement from your mother. The dramatics, however, is all Potter.”
“Surely you have better things to do than spy on people? It’s rather crass.”
Merlin laughed. “By the Dagda, I do have much better things to do. Imagine if the afterlife really was just watching the living for eternity.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Might as well watch soap operas and read the gossip rags until the end of time.”
“Exactly. I’ll never understand people who think death is some pastoral bliss either. Haven’t they ever spent a day doing nothing? What a wretched existence.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m terrible at doing nothing. Always have been.”
“Then what do you do? And where do you do it? Not here, I hope,” she indicated the misty, bright expanse of nothing surrounding them.
“Here? No, no, this is… well, I suppose it’s a loading screen.”
Ianthe blinked. “A loading screen? Really?” Merlin grinned at her. “That sound you just heard is twenty generations of pureblood bigots spinning in their crypts over the greatest wizard in history using a computer reference.”
Merlin shrugged that off. “Just because they like to wallow in ignorance is no reason for the rest of us to do so. Stagnation is a death sentence — and bloody boring besides. Regardless, this isn’t a place, or even a time; it’s a moment. One single moment between then and now, here and there. As for what I do?” He hmmed. “Hard to explain to someone still living.”
“Wait, I’m still alive?”
“If you weren’t, you’d be dead.”
“How often did Arthur threaten to behead you?” she wondered aloud.
“Oh, he prefered to use the stocks, actually.”
His severe look was ruined by twitching lips. “Cheeky girl.”
“I’m a Marauder,” Ianthe reminded him cheerily.
“You’re an instrument of destiny, actually — or ‘as well as’, I suppose.”
Ianthe groaned. “Gods damn destiny, prophecy, and the Fates — as well as their sisters, brothers, cousins and fuck buddies!” She glared at Merlin, who had the audacity to laugh at her curse. “If you tell me there’s another prophecy — “
“Goddess, no, none of that nonsense.” He sighed. “Mortals always get it wrong. Wizards are the worst, thinking magic gives them some grand insight when all it does is confuse things. Basing actions on prophecy is like listening to an out-of-tune radio full of static, and using the one in five words you hear to dress for the weather. The most logical thing to do is to ignore the muddle and look out the window.” He huffed. “Not that wixen are terribly logical. No, Ianthe, destiny is not a grand plan, and fate is not set path to a single goal. Being an instrument of fate isn’t fun, but it’s not the gods using marionette strings to guide your every act and deed to meet some final purpose.”
“Just barmy old codgers.”
“Don’t get me bloody started!” He exclaimed, throwing out his hands in exasperation. “That idiot wizard! I nearly took up rebirth just for a chance to kick his arse a dozen times! And that foolish prophecy? The damned man missed more than a dozen paths to ending Riddle while he obsessed over it! Grindelwald’s downfall convinced him such things always end in grand, final confrontations. Between him and Riddle, that wretched prophecy was bound to be self-fulfilling.”
“Then, Trelawney’s prophecy wasn’t about me?”
Once again calm, the mage shrugged. “Remember the static radio? You and Tom Riddle were both keystones; instruments of fate, anchors, chosen, fixed points, or any number of descriptions depending on circumstance. The flaw is in thinking destiny is scripted, instead of what it is: an endless supply of stones being tossed in a pond, causing ripples. How the stone lands, where the ripples go, what they change and cause — none of that is directed. Just that stone. Well, it’s a little more complicated, but a mortal and linear mind can’t process it.” His eyes went gold, and the mists around him swirled and shifted in the invisible current of magic. “Tom Riddle was to be a portent of change for Magical Britain, a transformative influence, and that’s exactly what he was. That the change he wrought was chaotic and destructive was a matter of choice. He might have brought about a new Renaissance of Magic, but instead… ” The gold faded, and Merlin look weary. “Instead he brought about the fall of Magic in Britain.”
Ianthe closed her eyes. “We were too late to undo the damage, weren’t we? The cleansing of the Ministry wasn’t enough to save Britain.”
Merlin sighed. “By the time Sirius came into play it was too late. Between the first war, decades of corruption, the loss of so many magical places and potential future wixen — a second outright war with Voldemort would have brought it about more quickly, but the end of magic in Britain is coming. Inside of ten years there will be signs of magic fleeing the Isles. In one hundred, there will be none left.”
“The rest of the world?” she asked, horrified.
“There’s no way to tell. Magic is stable in most places, but if the balance shifts too much or too quickly in enough places, it could cause a cascade.” He gazed at her calmly. “That’s where you come in.”
“Oh, bloody fucking hell.”
He smirked. “It could be worse — you could be getting a lecture on meeting your destiny from a dragon.”
“Well, in that case; please, continue,” was her dry response. “And for Mer — Morgana’s sake, don’t ever say ‘it could be worse’ around me.”
He smirked a little at her stumbled oath. “I have wondered which trickster cursed your line. You Potters do have the most wretchedly good luck. Or, perhaps, it’s extraordinarily bad luck.”
“Why don’t the histories mention how hilarious you are?”
“Oh, gods, don’t get me started on the stories of my life — or Arthur’s! We’ll be here for weeks. Bloody bards,” he grumbled.
“They can’t be worse than hack journalists.”
“Hack reporters don’t use verse, and they don’t sing.”
Merlin eyed her sharply, before deciding she’d conceded in truth. “Back to the potential death of magic.” He pointed a finger at her, and she closed her mouth without a word. “You chose well in the change you made; it will create many possibilities. Orion Black was in a position of influence and power. His death began the downfall of his House, and the loss of a powerful member of the Wizard’s Council contributed to the shifting of power from the Council to the Ministry. He could have limited Dumbledore’s growing influence, and prevented many families from siding with Voldemort. Many who joined him in the early years of his rise did so because of the Noble Houses diminishing power, which they blamed on muggle influences. But it was actually — “
” — the Ministry,” she sighed. “Whose authority grew during and after the war, especially with the loss of so many Houses and the decimated Guilds.”
“So Orion Black’s survival can keep the Ministry from overreaching.”
“No, his actions can. Surviving isn’t enough. Whether he acts — well, ripples in a pond.”
“Why do I think I’m not going to like what’s next.”
— — —
July 29, 1969
Ballymore, North Glasgow
Tom Riddle was a force for change, but far from the only one.
She woke amid smoke and heat.
Sirius Black was key to exposing the level of corruption in the Ministry. He forced the Wizard’s Council to act in a way they hadn’t since before Voldemort’s first rise to power. He destroyed Voldemort, first by protecting you from being weakened by Dumbledore’s manipulations and being used in Voldemort’s various plans; then by attacking his power base and horcruxes and, finally, by killing his wraith.
The stone floor was blessedly cool, the air clearer.
All that talent and cleverness, mischief and loyalty, ruthlessness and skill. All in the hands of a man who loved fiercely, in possession of a progressive mind and the political power to create visionary changes.
Fire. The house was on fire. And she (Ophelia? Ianthe?) was inside, in the attic room.
Just imagine if he’d had more time than the few years. The time in Azkaban, the century more he might have lived. Imagine if he’d taken his father’s title at seventeen instead of putting the war first.
Her Apparition failed (Focus. Destination. Determination. Deliberation). The pressure of the wards pushing back stole precious breathe.
If Sirius was a force for change, an instrument, why no prophecy about him? Why was it about me?
The wards were blocking Apparition. The wards were keeping her trapped.
Who says there was no prophecy about him? There are thousands made every year, all over the world. Most are vague, useless things and some cannot even be linked to their events even in hindsight. Some are about things so mundane they never matter at all. A prophet in Fiji might See events in Russia. Using prophecy to guide events is like playing poker in the dark, against an opponent playing a different game.
Her relatives (Not family, never family. Family was Sirius, was Uncle Paddy. Family was her dead parents and the friends she made. The Dursleys — the Crums — two families alike but different — they were never anything but unwanted relations) had changed the wards. When?
Besides, you were Riddle’s downfall.
How long had they been planning to murder her? Why? She was seventeen within days (she turned seventeen the day before her godfather died) and would leave the moment she could. They had been the ones who filed for custody when her godfather (Uncle Paddy) had died a month ago. Why do so if they wanted her dead?
Sirius killed him!
Was it for the money? Did they think if she died underage, they would get her vaults, the Manus family’s gold and her inheritance from Uncle Paddy? (Patrick Grimm, french wizard who attended Hogwarts during the height of Grindelwald’s power; best friend of Jamison Manus, alchemist) Did they think that Uncle Paddy would have left anything to chance, considering how furious he’d been at how they’d taken her in as a child only so they could live in the grand Manus house and access the family vaults?
Forget the words of the prophecy — pretend all you know is that Tom Riddle and you were the subjects of a shared prophecy. All that means is that you were linked. You were the instrument of his defeat. He was weakened by your family when he chose to attack you. He fixated on you, making him predictable and distracted. He was so obsessed that he couldn’t see his way to any method of resurrection but one that included you, which was stopped by Sirius’s protective measures. Sirius defeated — killed — Riddle to protect you.
(Ophelia) shivered despite the heat (grey eyes in a beloved face giving way to Fiendfyre), afraid. (Ianthe) twitched her hand, calling her wand (holly and phoenix feather) and it (cedar and dragon heartstring) slapped into her palm.
Sirius is an instrument of fate, a harbinger of change in the world — fine. He already lives in the altered timeline. His life will be different with his father living. Why do I need to be there?
A bubblehead charm (taught to her by Sirius while vacationing in the Mediterranean; by Paddy in Fiji) bought her time. The stairs were surely impossible; why try to kill someone but leave them an easy escape route?
Because you are still the instrument of Riddle’s defeat. Your presence causes the ripples.
The windows were too small, and she was on the third floor (the attic room; the cupboard under the stairs and Dudley’s second bedroom).
Am I ‘change’ as well?
Her (Ianthe was Ophelia who was Ianthe) wand glowed with blue light, tracing runes in the air before her. No time for finesse.
No, dear one. You are the spark to tinder. The converging storm. The shifting tides and currents. The unexpected moment.
Rune after rune fell from her wand, forming long threads that wound around her body in a ribbon of light.
You are chaos.
Pressure as the wards and her runes battled. For one moment she was neither here nor there.
What happens to Ophelia Manus? Does she die? Cease to exist? How can I take her place?
The cold, dark night air was a desperate relief. The sound of voices replaced the crackling of flames.
As you are Ophelia, she is Ianthe. Without your choice to change the past, she would die this night. Her soul would be reborn into another red-haired girl born as July dies.
Before, Ophelia might have stayed, letting the neighbours help her; relying on their presence to protect her from her aunt and uncle until the Aurors arrived.
You will not replace her, Ianthe. You are her. And she is you.
Her doubled memories ensured she knew better.
Your lives are shaped by the same events.
She Apparated away from the chaos, and appeared before the white marble columns of Gringott.
What do I do there? Then?
“Can I help you, witch?”
You do nothing at all, but go about the business of living. No plans, no designs. Your existence causes the ripples.
She met the dark, sneering gaze of the goblin warrior. “I seek Sanctuary from the Horde.”
Even Goblin faces can show shock, but it didn’t stop this one from slamming his spear butt on the stone floor. The doors, open twenty-four hours a day, slammed closed behind her. Deep in the caverns beneath her feet, a drum beat began.
What you do is up to you.
— — —
THE SEER Sunday Edition
Sunday July 29, 1969
FIRE DESTROYS SCOTTISH FAMILY HOME
Investigation Links Flawed Wards To Fire
by Bhric Wallace
An uncontrolled fire burned in a local magical enclave last night. Neighbors of the Crum family report seeing flames in the family home in the early a.m. By the time members of the Accidents and Catastrophes Squad arrived, the fire was fully involved.
Angus Crum, his wife Moira, and their daughter Rhona managed to escape out of the kitchen door before the fire blocked the exits. Mrs. Crum’s niece, Ophelia Manus, was sleeping on the third floor and had no escape route. Fortunately the seventeen-year-old witch kept her head and displayed a knowledge of Runes beyond NEWTs level, as she was required to break through the wards before being able to Apparate to safety.
“We see this too often,” Auror Collum MacGregor stated at the scene. “Ward schemes conflict or clash, become misaligned, and cause failures or cascade. Worse, people leave out safety features and failsafes. The wards here blocked Apparition out of the house, instead of just into it.”
While the cause of the fire is yet to be determined, investigators have already concluded that the fire prevention ward was improperly placed, leaving weak points. This is in addition to the flawed Apparition ward. Further investigation is needed but the warder, likely either the homeowner or an off-book amateur, faces hefty fines and possible jail time.
“Warding is not for the inexperienced,” explains Michael Wachter of the Warders Guild. “People think that warding packages are expensive because ward masters or Gringotts are trying to screw them over, but even a standard residential ward scheme involves as many as thirty layers of wards and runic patterns. It’s detailed, exacting work that requires training, experience, and time.”
In Scotland alone, some thirty serious injuries attributed to flawed wards have been reported in the last eighteen months. All but one involved amateur warding.
Further Stories of Ward Accidents, pg 4
Interview with Gringotts Edinburgh Master Warder, pg 9
Affordable Magical Security Options, pg 11
— — —
Thursday August 2, 1969
MAN CHARGED WITH ENDANGERMENT
Local Set Heavy Fines, Arrested For Role in Home Fire
by Bhric Wallace
Scottish wizard Angus Crum faces charges of reckless endangerment after a fire in his home last week. A house fire nearly turned deadly when the Crum family and a relative were unable to Apparate from the house due to flawed wards.
Crum, age 54, altered the household wards only a month earlier. As he has no warding qualifications and only OWL-level runic knowledge, he created several errors in the ward scheme, including a breakdown of the Fire Ward. More seriously, he reversed the Apparition ward, preventing anyone from Apparating out the house instead of blocking outsiders from Apparating into the home.
By law, all household and public buildings must permit emergency Apparition in case of fire or other dangers. All commercially available ward packages include this safety feature. Angus Crum, and anyone else found to lack this feature, face fines of up to 15 000 Galleons. A flawed or absent Fire Ward — required on any building with a fireplace, thatch roof, or kitchen facilities — can be fined up to 10 000 Galleons. Authorities have levied both fines against Crum.
Additionally, as the fire resulting from the flawed wards threatened the lives of several people, reckless endangerment charges have been filed. One member of the household was underage at the time of the fire, adding special circumstances. If convicted, Crum faces a minimum sentence of two years in The Rattle, Magical Britain’s minimum security facility.
While there have been allegations the fire and flawed wards were deliberate, no cause for the fire has been found. Crum’s wife and daughter are not facing fines, as investigators have found no evidence of their magical signatures in the ward matrix.
— — —
November 9, 1974
Orion Black had more than a few regrets. No man lived forty-five years without them, not even a Peer. His greatest regret was in following pureblood tradition in the upbringing of his sons; leaving them to the care of their mother until age seven, when they left the nursery and came under the tutelage of their father. It was how he had been raised, and Orion had never had reason to complain about his upbringing. Not until he considered how much he had missed whenever he looked at his eldest son.
His third greatest regret was that his grandfather, Sirius Phineas, was dead and couldn’t see how terribly he’s erred in the marriage contract forced on his grandson. No one but old man, his brother, and Walburga had wanted Orion married to his own cousin; Arcturus had put off the marriage as long as possible, hoping the elder Lord Black would die and the contract be negated. Unfortunately, Blacks were notoriously difficult to maneuver.
The second greatest was not killing his bitch of a wife years ago.
He ignored the healer hovering over his shoulder in favor of watching his son sleep. The Chief Healer of St Mungo’s was casting diagnostic charms over Sirius, checking the progress of the potions they’d poured down him.
Orion grimaced as yet another potion was pressed on him, but drank it obediently. Poisoning was tricky to recover from, and he wouldn’t risk permanent damage.
“Well?” he finally demanded.
The Chief lowered his wand. At his signal the many assistants vacated the private room. Orion went to stand, fearing bad news, and was firmly pushed back in his chair. Not even to himself would he admit that he permitted it because he was too weak to resist a healer three times his age. “My son?”
“Will recover — as will you, as long as you both behave and take the potions regime we proscribe.” Orion was glared at sternly. “Stay where we’ve put you, boy. The only reason you aren’t in a hospital bed of your own is because of your son.”
Orion hadn’t been called any variation of ‘boy’ in at least two decades, which made this a novel moment. He respected the old Healer, but that wouldn’t stop him from dropping the man if he tried to separate him from Sirius.
Probably best not to say that aloud.
“There’s no permanent damage?” Men of his station were expected to show no weakness and few emotions. He ignored a lifetime of training and held his son’s hand, squeezing gently. “You’re certain?”
“Though he’s very young and reacted to the poison quickly, he received a far smaller dose than you did. His rapid symptoms were from a strong sensitivity to Murtlap, rather than the potion as a whole.”
Rapid symptoms was a rather bland way to describe a little boy fighting for air while his lips began to turn blue.
“The poison was in my tea, correct?” The healer nodded. “Sirius had more milk than tea in his cup. He’s just started to share afternoon tea with me, but he’s a little boy despite wanting to be all grown up.” Orion couldn’t grasp that it was an allergy that saved both their lives. “I wear a ring that should protect me from all poisons, Healer Vervain, but it didn’t warm in the slightest.”
“Ah, yes,” the old healer mused, absently straightening the blanket covering Sirius’s small form. His son continued sleeping, little huffs of breath barely audible. The sound was reassuring. “You are aware that some things that are beneficial in small doses can be fatal in large ones?”
“I believe there is a loophole in the warding on your ring, one that many such objects share. The spells are designed to warn the wearer when ingesting or contacting poisons and toxic components — but they rarely react to beneficial potions. Not even ones that, in too large doses, can kill.”
“My wife tried to poison us with a healing potion?” He demanded.
“Specifically, a concentrated Wiggenweld Potion, which is a healing draught. However, any dose more than a quarter ounce many be fatal. We found more than twice that in the tea we tested.”
If he wasn’t so furious, he might have admired Walburga’s cunning. Her attempt to murder him was sloppy, and she evidently hadn’t cared that Sirius would have died as well, but the method itself was rather elegant. Orion made a note to commision a new piece without that particular work around — for both himself, and his sons.
“What about this Murtlap sensitivity? Will it be dangerous?”
“You certainly need to warn any healer who treats him; I’ve already notified your family healer. There are a number of potions that use Murtlap, but there are alternatives available. It’s not an unheard of reaction.”
Vervain warned him once more to stay put and rest, before leaving Orion alone with his heir. His son. Whose own mother had known he would be sharing tea with his father, and still brought poisoned tea to Orion’s study.
The Auror’s had best arrest her quickly, or he would remove any need to.
The door opened, and Orion’s wand snapped into his hand. Fortunately, it was Alphard, his brother-in-law and the only decent child of Pollux and Irma Black. Cygnus, the youngest sibling, was nearly worse than Walburga.
“A little paranoid, are we?” Alphard remarked.
“What is it that the Muggles say? Just because you’re paranoid — “
” — doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. I’m so proud, Orion, you actually read a Muggle book.”
“Piss off, Alphard.”
“Nothing doing, my lord,” the younger wizard cheeked, dropping into a nearby chair. “The old man and Lady Melania have Regulus at the Castle.”
“Good.” Nowhere in Britain was safer than the Castle of Ravensmoor, often called Black Castle or the Castle. The wards were goblin-made war wards, updated and maintained religiously, and Grindelwald himself wouldn’t be able to get past Melania MacMillan Black to a child in her care. His father was no slouch either.
“I can’t believe the vicious witch actually tried to off you.” Alphard shook his head, baffled. “Why? You’ve let her to her business all these years, let her run the house and spend as she wished. She loves being the Duchess of Ravensmoor. Why risk it all?”
“Morgana only knows. She’s been getting odder lately, especially this last month.”
“You mean since you returned from Paris early and took over your oldest son’s lessons and started training him to follow you, even though he’s only just turned six? Am I the only one who is a little worried about why showing early interest in your heir might be a trigger for my sister’s murderous impulses?”
Alphard always had a knack for seeing through to the heart of the matter. “Well, when you put it that way.”
Sirius shifted a little, drawing the attention of both Blacks, but the boy didn’t wake. Carefully, Orion smoothed back his hair. It was getting a little long, forming unruly curls.
“You didn’t tell the Aurors that she poisoned you,” Arcturus murmured. “You just reported being dosed. You had to have known it was her.”
“However unlikely, it is possible it was an outsider. This way, they investigate all my enemies. Who knows — maybe someone is planning to kill me, and this investigation will foil them.”
“You slick bastard,” Alphard said admiringly.
“Besides,” Orion ignored his relative’s slightly crass manner of speaking, as he had done for years, “she was surely ready to defend herself from an accusation, and went into the interview with that mindset. That will make them suspicious — why else would someone act so defensively without cause, unless they have something to hide.” He was pleased with that particular ploy, which had occurred to him only moments before Head Auror Moody had shown up at St Mungo’s to speak to him and bring samples of the tea for the healers to test. “Also, Alastor Moody has known Walburga since Hogwarts and hated her nearly as long. He wouldn’t put anything past her.”
“You are a scary fellow, cousin. I’m glad I’m on your side.”
— — —
The DAILY PROPHET
Monday, November 11, 1974
LADY BLACK ARRESTED FOR ATTEMPTED MURDER!
Duchess of Ravensmoor Charged With Crimes Against Son, Husband
IN a shocking turn of events, the Duchess of Ravensmoor was arrested by Ministry Aurors yesterday for attempted murder of her husband, Orion Black, Duke of Ravensmoor, and their heir, Sirius, Earl of Blackmer.
Sources claim that The Duke and his son remain in St. Mungo’s Hospital after admittance yesterday, where they are undergoing treatment for poisoning. One wonders at the circumstances that might lead a pureblood witch of the highest standing to attempt such a thing, if, indeed, Walburga, Duchess of Ravensmoor, did so. This reporter will certainly be keeping watch for the reaction of the House of Black, Most Ancient and Most Noble. Will they rally around their besieged member? Or will they leave her to her fate at the hands of the Ministry and the courts?
Presumably, His Grace will defend his wife of nine years from these accusations when he is recovered. Did the Aurors, who only had the investigation for a few hours before the arrest, take the easiest path and arrest the closest potential suspect? Or is there some kind of resentment at work, targeting one of the highest ranking purebloods of our society in a smear campaign? Rest assured, readers, this paper will not hesitate to shine a light on any potential scandal or malfease. (byline: Rick Skeeter)
— — —
The DAILY PROPHET
Tuesday November 19, 1974
LORD Black, Duke of Ravensmoor, petitioned for and was granted divorce yesterday. His Grace and his former wife were married by binding contract in 1966, which requires a Wizengamot ruling to sever. As Walburga Black was recently arrested and tried for attempted murder of both the Duke and his six-year-old heir. Though sentencing is pending, the former Lady Black was convicted Monday. Her actions were a breach of the marriage contract, leaving Ravensmoor grounds to end the contract. His petition was uncontested. Orion Arcturus Black, alumni of Slytherin House, is the Lord of the House of Black, Most Ancient and Most Noble and a member of the Wizard’s Council.
— — —
May 20, 1975
Fara Island, Hidden Hebrides
Orion laughed softly as Sirius darted off to find another curiosity to show him. The most recent, a bird’s egg split in two perfect halves, was tucked into the spelled bag Orion carried. The egg joined a shed snake skin, an enormous pinecone, an oddly-shaped stone, and a piece of unicorn horn. It was an impressive collection of boyish treasures, especially since they’d left the house an hour ago.
He’d know perfectly well that a walk with Sirius didn’t mean a ‘walk’ or ‘with’ Sirius. Orion had learned over the last six months that Sirius was tremendously curious and, like many young boys, a bit of a magpie. A walk in the woods, or along the beach, or even the garden usually became an expedition complete with treasure hunting. There was nothing Sirius enjoyed more than a few hours outside exploring, unless it was showing off his finds to his father and brother.
Orion had once had a wooden box full of a boy’s treasures; things an adult would consider junk but were objects of wonder to a child. Eventually the things he collected had changed from rocks to correspondence; toys gave way to tools. Now he had a dressing case full of cufflinks, pins and other jewelry; a desk full of heirloom pens and seals, valuable correspondence and ledgers of business. His old ‘treasure’ box contained personal letters and ephemera as well as pictures of his sons. The things a man collected changed, but the urge to collect and keep them didn’t.
His smile faded. Sirius’ cheerful behaviour was pleasure to behold and, fortunately, grew more common every day. A winter spent in the Mediterranean, exploring the family villa and its hills and seashore had done much to restore the boy’s laughter and fearlessness. Hopefully a summer amid the rocky cliffs and coasts and woods of the Scottish islands would continue that healing. There were still nightmares, moments of wariness and fear of doing wrong. Months ago, Sirius had found a scattering of sea glass on the shore, and had refused to bring it home with him for fear of being punished. Walburga had burned his first horde of objects because, apparently, Blacks didn’t do anything so common.
May the gods damn her black soul to the depths.
But he wasn’t bitter. It wasn’t like he’d spent ten years married to a woman he didn’t like because his grandfather, egged on by his own brother and nephew, wanted to ‘ensure the line’. Cygnus had always coveted the Black title, and seen Walburga as a way to the duchy in the hands of his own blood. Pollux and later, Walburga, had been raised with that thought in mind. They’d managed to trap Orion in a strictly-worded marriage contract thanks to the old Lord Black, but hadn’t been pleased with Orion’s refusal to fall in line.
Orion had hated Walburga from the first, and she hated him in turn for refusing to bend to her will. By the time Sirius was born, Orion had ascended the Ravensmoor title due to his father’s ill health. His wife and her father had been furious to learn that he rejected outright any ideas they presented on politics and business, and laughed at the suggestion that Pollux sit on the Wizengamot as his proxy. He had left his children to their mother’s care while he managed the estates, family finances, and political duties. HIs only real concern was that Walburga would do her best to raise the boys with her family’s beliefs and loyalties, but that could be countered when they were old enough for formal lessons with him. His sons were wealthy scions of an ancient and noble House that stretched back, unbroken, to the reign of the High King. Sirius was the heir of that ancient legacy and should have had an idyllic childhood. Nothing he’d learned about Walburga’s treatment of him made sense, and Orion had stopped trying to find the logic in it.
He just wished her dead twice daily. That was a vast improvement over doing so hourly. And it had been at least a week since he plotted how to break her out of prison just so he could kill her.
“Father!” Sirius dashed out the trees towards him. “Father, you have to come!”
All musing forgotten, Orion quickened his pace. He had forgone robes, as he always did on these rambles with his son, and didn’t need to worry about the shrub and bramble of the undergrowth tangling him up as he left the path. Sirius didn’t seem injured or distressed, but Orion was a father and always worried. “What’s wrong, Sirius?”
Small, strong hands gripped one of his and tugged. Orion humored him, and allowed himself to be drawn along. “There’s a kneazle in a tree! I think it’s stuck! Father, you have to get him down!”
Worry turned to amusement. “And you came to get me instead of climbing up after it?”
“The branches are too thin and skinny to climb.”
Undoubtedly the only reason Orion didn’t have to fetch both boy and beast from the tree. Sirius was a dedicated climber and all but fearless, tackling trees far taller than Orion would have dared at his age. Fortunately, he was sensible enough to recognize trees and branches that wouldn’t hold his weight and could recognize dead and rotting ones.
“Maybe it’s lost — or ran away! What’ll we do if we can’t find his home?”
Oh, he could see straight through that question to the hidden one: can we keep it? Sirius had never inquired directly about a pet, but over the last months Orion had noticed his son was fascinated by animals, magical and mundane, whether they were as common as post owls or as fierce as the wild unicorns of Fara. No doubt any possibility of a pet had been quashed by his mother and he was now working up to the topic with Orion. Clever boy, using this situation to explore the idea.
“Perhaps we should fetch it down before we worry about where it belongs.”
Orion’s playful tone made Sirius grin and eye his father slyly. “You told me that it’s best to plan ahead when you can.”
He laughed, and Sirius’ grin widened. “Clever lad. Cheeky, but clever.”
Sirius giggled, pleased he’s made his father laugh. Even better, he’d used Father’s own words against him to do it! The exchange eased the little knot in his belly that had formed when he brought up the kneazle. His father was laughing and teasing him, and wasn’t at all reluctant to follow him to the stranded animal which proved that the whole topic was a safe one. Though, most topics seemed to be safe with Father. He wasn’t her or anything like her. Every day that thought was a little stronger and more real, along with the belief that she was really gone.
He knew he couldn’t keep this kneazle; he was short not dumb. It certainly belong to someone in the nearby village, or one of the large houses he’d seen on their walks. But, maybe there was a kneazle in his future, if he worked up the courage to ask. It was much easier to be brave now, especially when he tried hard to forget the things from before.
“There’s the tree!” He pointed to the spindly thing. It might be tall, but it hardly counted as tree in Sirius’s book. Near the top, amid the sparse branches and leaves, golden eyes peered down. “See!”
“Hmm.” Father eyed the almost-tree and the kneazle.
“So that’s where you’ve gotten to!”
Sirius twitched at the lady’s voice — not her, it was nothing like her — and peered through the branches. On the other side, he could see someone in purple. His grip in Father’s hand tightened.
Father squeezed back, and looked him questioningly. Sirius took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and bravely rounded the tree. He kept a firm hold on his father.
“Why do you always get into places you can’t get out of, Loki?”
They found a witch in short purple robes, with pretty red hair, standing with her hands on her hips and staring up at the kneazle. The cat replied to her question with a loud “merp.”
“Excuse me, d’you need help getting him down?”
— — —
Ophelia turned, expecting a child. She found a boy, and a man. Definitely a man.
Without layers of robes and fabric typical of wixen fashions there was nothing to distract from broad shoulders, narrow hips and long legs. Thick black hair was tied back simply and exposed a face that an artist might have been chiseled from stone for a lustful goddess to bring to life and, well. An unbuttoned collar and rolled up sleeves revealed throat, lean forearms, and a kink for both that Ophelia didn’t even know she’d had.
None of that distracted her from the fact that she knew that face.
Fortunately, she had a ready-made excuse to look away from the handsome older man whose life she had altered. An excuse in the form of a little boy who had asked her a question. A little boy who had been the man who half-raised her.
“Well, while I have far too much experience in retrieving kneazles — particularly this one — from places they don’t belong, I would never turn down such charming help.”
His giggle both broke her heart and lifted it. Sirius, a little boy who looked so much like his father. Alive. Laughing and, presumably, causing mischief.
Ophelia decided to forgive destiny and fate. Just this once. She’d probably stop referring to them as the bitch sisters. Maybe.
He ventured from his father’s side. “Does he climb trees a lot?”
“Trees, rooftops, curtains and assorted drapery, furniture, window ledges and, on one very memorable occasion, a person. Though, I forgave him for the last one because the man wearing the trousers he climbed was very annoying and wouldn’t go away until Loki used him as a climbing post.”
“I suppose that’s one way to be rid of an unwanted suitor,” Orion murmured while Sirius laughed.
She blinked in surprise. “How do you know he wasn’t an irritating neighbour, or a tax man?”
“Just a guess.” The faint curve of his lips told her he was amused, but whether it was over the image of Loki shredding the trousers and skin of a faceless man, like his son, or because of something else he saw was hard to tell. Ophelia was better at hiding her thoughts than she once was — doubled memories, years of Occlumency, and embracing her inner Slytherin had all helped — but she was no match for a consumate snake with years of political experience. The man might be handsome, and she was glad he’d lived, but he was a tall, powerful stranger whose magic she could feel from ten feet away, whose motivations were unknown and whose face she couldn’t read. Whatever amused him at her expense, it was probably better and safer to focus on his son and her wayward pet.
Grey eyes brightened as she asked, “Would you like to help me fetch him down?”
“Yes, please!” He looked to his father. “That’s alright, isn’t it?”
“Of course. You should always offer your help to a lady if you can.”
— — —
Orion watched as Sirius and his new friend set about retrieving the very aptly named kneazle, the lady by way of her wand and Sirius by calming the animal after his forced relocation. Bribery seemed to work as well on cats as children, because the treats Sirius offered the kneazle settled any hard feelings quickly.
He stayed back and was careful to remain unobtrusive, well aware of the lady’s wariness. He had no wish to make a lovely young witch any more cautious of him than she might be of any strange man.
He was very amused but careful not to show it. That she hadn’t recognized why he was so amused told him everything he needed to know about her awareness of her own appeal. Such a witch was sure to be plagued by men of only one variety. He had the distinct impression that the male attention she garnered baffled more than flattered her. Half the local men must be ready to line up at her door at the slightest hint she might welcome their attention.
Riotous red curls barely contained by braids and pins, pale skin dusted with freckles and a neat slim figure draped in very modern plum robes — which didn’t even account for her face, which was only saved from doll-like beauty by a mobile mouth seemingly on the verge of smiling.
How she got anything done without tripping over a man was a question he was curious to answer.
It wasn’t her face, as beautiful as it was, that drew his eye though. It was her eyes — true emerald and almost luminescent. Wixen tended towards intense eye colours thanks to magic; his own family’s infamous grey eyes were just one example. Wix eyes could even seemed to glow, but only when casting or using powerful magic. Just smiling seemed to make this woman’s eyes light up from inside.
Sirius had settled on the ground with the kneazle in his lap, laughing at the rhythmic purring his petting produced. He looked up at the witch, wistfully. “I guess you need to take him home now.”
Her face was full of gentle humour as she crouched next to his son. “I doubt he’ll thank me for it, since he’s found a willing pair of hands.”
“He’s a very nice kneazle.”
“He’s trouble on four legs.” Sirius giggled. “Still, he’s quite young, so he might outgrow it. But I shan’t hold my breath.”
“One might mention that you did choose to name his after a trickster god,” Orion said politely.
The look she shot him was so aggrieved he couldn’t hide his smile. “It seemed appropriate at the time, but I think all I did was tempt the gods — or a mischievous spirit.”
“I like his name,” Sirius pipped.
“A statement which in no way fills me with a sense of foreboding,” Orion said dryly. His son pouted exaggeratedly, making the witch hide a grin. “Pity that, unlike kneazles, boys grow into trouble, not out of it.”
Loki’s mistress examined boy and feline, who were very pleased with each other. “I could use your help getting him home.”
“Well, he’s quite happy with you, so if you carry him he might actually make it all the way home without wandering off again. Also, you should probably know where he belongs if you happen to find him again. Which you will,” she sighed. “Hopefully not someplace worse.”
“There’s worse places for him to get stuck?” Sirius asked with unseemly enthusiasm.
“I sincerely hope not,” she said, pertly, as she helped Sirius stand up with his burden. Loki promptly wriggled, tail flicking and making Sirius laugh as he arranged himself across the boy’s shoulders like a stole. Sirius grinned up at them. “Brilliant!”
“Now that you and Loki have been thoroughly introduced, son, you night do the same with his owner,” Orion said gently, careful to keep his tone amused, Sirius could find criticism in nearly anything, thanks to a mother who found fault in perfection itself. Sirius blushed a little and looked sideways at him, checking Orion wasn’t upset with his accidental lapse in manners.
Since it was safe, he straightened his back and spoke to the witch who belonged to his purring scarf. “How do you do, ma’am. My name is Sirius Orion Black, and this is my father, Lord Orion Black, Duke of Ravensmoor. May I have your name?”
Her lips twitched, but she was gentle with Sirius’s dignity and replied with equal solemness. She curtsied, deeply to Orion and more playfully to Sirius. “Good day, Lord Sirius, Your Grace. I am Ophelia Ianthe Manus, and I thank you for your assistance.” Sirius nodded solemnly in response, and then broke out in laughter. “Now that the formalities are observed, may I have you aid in returning my incorrigible feline to his home?”
— — —
It didn’t take Sirius long to return to his previous explorations. Only minutes down the path Miss Manus directed them down, he wandered off into the trees again, his furry companion along for the ride.
The lady made to follow, looking worried, but Orion caught her elbow. “He’ll be back shortly.”
“What is he doing?”
“What all little boys do; look for things to poke at, examine and, frequently, bring home in their pockets.” He drew her arm through his and kept walking. After a moment’s hesitation, she settled her hand on his arm in exactly the correct manner.
“Shouldn’t we be concerned?
“Perhaps, if I didn’t have two different tracking spells and a magical tether on Sirius.” He smiled at her incredulous expression. “It might seem like overkill, but last week he managed to find a ley line and cross it at exactly the right point so that the magical flow acted as a cleansing rite and disrupted every spell on him — including the waterproofing charm on his coat,” Orion told her.
She bit down on her lower lip, trying to hide a grin. “It takes a divining spell and three arithmancy equations to locate an overflow conjunction on a natural ley line.”
“So you’re saying that little boys and kneazles — “
“Are exactly as bad as the other, yes.”
She laughed. “I thought it was bad enough that kneazles can slough off foreign magic — I’m forever looking for Loki because he disperses any Trace I put on him. I had no idea children could manage the same.”
“Not all of them, but Sirius is an ambitious mischief maker.”
Conversation was halted by Sirius’ reappearance, proudly carrying his latest finds; a gleaming raven feather went to Orion — who cast a wandless cleaning charm — while the stem of bluebells was shyly offered to Ms Manus.
She accepted it carefully and smiled so sweetly at Sirius that he blushed and looked away. The resilience of youth won out quickly, though, and soon he was darting forward on the path, half skipping and chatting away with Loki.
She twirled the stem between her fingertips, then brushed the flower against her cheek. Orion discreetly watched the petals slide against delicate skin. “That’s one advantage of boys over kneazles — my cats only bring me dead mice and gnomes.”
“I’ll bear that in mind for when the question inevitably arises. I’ve been expecting the pet conversation for some time, but I imagine today’s adventure makes it imminent.”
“I would have thought little boys want snakes or frogs or the like.”
“Not Sirius.” No, he would want something companionable, that could be held and petted and would curl up in his lap or bed.
“Well, if it’s any help, they make lovely companions and are almost too clever. A full-blooded kneazle is at least as protective as a crup and twice as smart, and would probably come fetch you if Sirius found trouble.”
He’d heard plenty of stories, particularly about how dangerous the animals could be if you crossed them. Orion had been thinking of a crup puppy for Sirius, but… “Truly?”
“Oh, yes. You already heard about Loki running off an persistent admirer, and I have three more at home; Bastet, Sekhmet and Neith. They growl at people who overstay their welcome, kill gnomes and doxys that try to bite me, and even wake me from nightmares.”
While he was curious as to why a young, well-bred witch — one of means, judging by the quality of her robes — might have nightmares, it wasn’t his business. However, his son’s curiosity came from him, so he had to ask: “You named three female kneazles after Egyptian war goddesses? Two of which have cats as sacred animals?”
“Shut up,” she laughed. “I lived in Egypt for a year. It made an impression. At least they aren’t all named for tricksters.”
— — —
By the time Ophelia led the Black men to her home, she’d learned a great deal about recent events. Orion made no mention of his former wife, but did say that they had only arrived recently at the Black summer house on Fara after a winter on the Italian coast. It was just Orion, his sons and their nanny, plus several house elves; they hadn’t spent any time in the village yet, but had begun to explore the houses’ gardens and the surrounding land. Sirius wandered off and back twice more, and chatted away to both Loki and humans equally.
Her nerves were both easier and raw; she now had proof that her actions had changed things, but Orion Black had an intense presence, watchful and canny, and Sirius was so painfully alive. Fortunately, her blended memories of two godfathers, so alike but very different, gave her a little distance. Sirius the boy was not her godfather, Padfoot. Ophelia shared no blood with the Blacks, though Ianthe had been distantly related to them.
She was not Ianthe Potter, nor was she Ophelia Manus from before the fire that would have killed her. A person was a sum of their experiences and that meant she was both women. She had spent her first year in the past coming to terms with that. Meeting the Blacks, however significant, didn’t change the truth of her existence.
Marauders always prevail.
“Can you really see dragons here?” Sirius questioned.
“Well, the Preserve tries to keep them on Arach Island, so it’s been at least a few years since any landed on Fara. Sometimes they get past the keepers and the wards and you can see them fly overhead, but that’s rare. But, there’s a great spot on the southern cliffs that looks toward Arach. It’s only a few miles, so on a clear day you can see the dragons flying over the preserve.”
“Really! Father, can we, please?”
Orion smiled. “We’ll find out where to go and try on the next nice day.”
Sirius cheered, as enthused as only a child could be at the thought of five tonnes of deadly, and asked, “Will you come, Ms Manus, please? You can show us the best spot, and see the dragons with us!”
“Sirius… ” his father cautioned. Ophelia couldn’t bear to see him disappointed and spoke before thinking. “Of course.”
“Yay!” Sirius danced off along the lane. “We’re going to see the dragons!”
“You don’t have to,” Orion murmured. “If you give me directions, we can find the place ourselves and save you the experience of two dragon-mad boys.”
“Oddly, I think I’m looking forward to it.” She really was. “Unless you’d prefer I not go with you.”
He smiled faintly, and she wasn’t quite sure what was so amusing. “As long as it’s not inconvenient for you, you are very welcome. I’ll send you a note when the weather looks good.”
“Is this your house, Ms Manus?” Sirius pointed to a modest stone manor house, just visible over the stone wall along the lane.
“Yes, it is. Though, I think anyone I watch dragons with should call me Ophelia, or Phee.”
Sirius looked to his father for approval, and grinned when he got it. “Alright, Ms Phee.”
“Lady Phee, I think, Sirius.” He glanced at the ring she wore, displayed on the first finger of the hand laid on his sleeve. “She’s the Baroness of Fara, I believe.”
“Yes, I am, but it’s a Scottish Barony, not a noble one. I’m not a Peer, or a member of the Wixmote. I have land and some tenants, but it’s nothing like the prestige of Noble House.”
“How long has your family held the house and land?”
She huffed. “Since Robert the Bruce.”
He smiled. “Lady Phee, Sirius.”
Ophelia huffed again. “I’m not even a pureblood, you know — not by your English reckoning, and my grandfather and father tainted my family line with French blood, so I’m not even all Scot either.”
Orion hmmmed and said nothing. She gave up, and led them to the gate. Sometimes a witch needed to cut her losses.
As they reached the gate, Sirius’ steps slowed. Reluctantly, he extracted Loki from his person to return him to Ophelia. She bit her lip at the mournful expression on both boy and kneazle. Loki made a pathetic noise from Ophelia’s arms.
“Thank you for letting me carry him home.”
“Thank you for carrying him home for me.”
Orion laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, and Sirius leaned into him. “We’ll send a note in a few days.” The boy brightened a little at the thought of dragons. Ophelia smiled and watched them leave, waiting until she lost sight of them before turning towards her home.
— — —
Hours later, after his sons had been fed and bathed and slept under the care of their nanny and a nursery elf, Orion settled in the library with a nightcap. The collection wasn’t as large as Grimmauld, and only a fraction the size of the Ravensmoor Library, but it wasn’t lacking. The Fara house was a summer home, meant for vacations and house parties, so the books here ran more to a general section; novels and history and interesting magical works, as well as local interest.
He recognized the Manus name, and not just because it belonged to one of the local landholders. He found what he was looking for in Modern Magical History.
Aftermath of Grindelwald: The Lingering War
The fall of Grindelwald did not, however, end the war swiftly. While British magical society no longer faced a threat, this was not true of much of Europe. Grindelwald’s highest ranking followers, the Twelve Generals, remained alive. Several were captured or killed immediately, either by resistance forces or their own fleeing troops, while Wilhelm Strausse, the Deathhead, was killed by the Muggle bombing of Dresden. Three fled the Continent, hoping to avoid the manhunt. Three, however, chose to continue Grindelwald’s attempt to dominate Magical Europe.
Mahler Franz-Krampen, the Butcher of Lyon, was Grindelwald’s general in France, and after the Dark Lord’s fall, he maintained control of the majority of the forces under his command. Using the chaos of the Muggle war as cover, he established a fortified command center hidden behind extensive wards. For the next seven years, he fought to seize control of the magical communities of France and establish himself as a new Mage King.
While French forces and their allies managed to drive Franz-Krampen back each time he attacked a magical settlement, loss of life was common. Several attempted assassination where nearly successful, but each time he escaped to his secured compound. Two attempts were made to breach the wards of the compound, hidden in the Pyrenees, but were unsuccessful.
In September 1952, Franz-Krampen led an assault on Beauxbaton and the surrounding settlement of the same name. French Ministry forces and volunteer forces pressed back the attack, and a team of wix engaged Franz-Krampen and his elite guard directly. Anti-Apparition wards prevented the would-be king from fleeing, and a prolonged battle occurred. on September 12, Franz-Krampen was killed in a duel with Jamison Manus, a volunteer Auror from Britain. The son of a French witch and a Scottish baron, Manus lost several members of his family in the Grindelwald war, and lost most of his mother’s family when the Battle of Quiberon decimated the magical community. Franz-Krampen was instrumental in the assault.
All of Franz-Krampen’s personal guard were captured or killed, and the rest of the attacking force surrendered. Ministry forces used the information they provided to breach the wards of the compound, ending the threat of the remaining Dark Army in France. All the members of the team who confronted Franz-Krampen received the Grand’Croix Baton from France, as well as similar orders from their own homelands, either in person or posthumously. Jamison Manus, who died of his wounds the night of his duel with Franz-Krampen, received the Order of Merlin 1st Class from Britain, France’s Dueling Valor honor, and was made a Chevalier posthumously. A plaque with his and all the fallen defenders adorns Beauxbaton, and his name is recorded in the Hall of Valours in Paris.
Grindelwald’s Russian general — —
Orion lowered the book, not interested in anything further. A Baroness who had lost an unknown number of kin fighting Grindelwald, with the face of a Celtic Goddess.
He looked out the window and saw only his own reflection in darkened glass. And told himself not to be a fool.
— — —
May 21, 1975
Black House of Fara
“Here it is!”
Orion watched his sons, sprawled out on the library floor, paging through a huge bestiary. Twin dark heads bent over the pages of a book nearly as big as his youngest child.
“See, Reggie, this is a kneazle. Loki looks like this one, only his tail is longer and poofier.”
“They’re even better for real.”
“Siri, why don’t we got a pet?”
“‘Have a pet’,” Sirius corrected, and Orion grinned. “Because… she didn’t like animals.”
He shuddered. “Yes.”
“Is Mother ever coming back?”
“No!” Orion straightened, ready to intervene. Sirius could hardly bear to hear his mother mentioned, much less talk about her directly.
Regulus sniffed loudly. “Sorry, Siri.”
“It’s alright, Reggie,” Sirius said softly. “Sorry I yelled. But — she won’t be back. Father promised. Look, there are dragons in this book.”
“Dragons!” Thoroughly distracted, Reg abandoned all thought of his mother for the fire breathing predators. Orion was frequently surprised at Sirius’ cunning. “Look, Siri, Welsh Greens!”
“Trust the two of you to find any book that mentions dragons.” Sirius started as Orion crouched down. Examining the moving illustration, he declared, “Impressive.”
“They’re great, but Horntails are the best!” Reg enthused.
“Really? I always liked the Longhorn. What about you, Sirius?”
He huffed. “The Opaleye is the best.”
“It’s shiny,” Reg distained. “It’s a girly dragon.”
“It’s not! It’s the most beautiful dragon — everyone says — and it’s fire is as hot as a Fireball’s. And its talons are almost unbreakable, and they live in families and hunt together. A group of Opals can even take down an Ironbelly! One Horntail might be more dangerous, but Opals work together.”
Before a fight could erupt, Orion made an effort to deflect. “So, one of my sons loves fierce and dangerous things, and the other loves things that are as beautiful as they are deadly.” Orion eyed Sirius. “I look forward to meeting your future spouse.”
He made a face and Reg proclaimed that girls were ‘yucky’. “If only that sentiment would last until you’re twenty.”
“I don’t want to get married until I have to,” Sirius grumbled. “You’ll pick someone nice, right?”
Hmmm. “Excuse me?”
“Great grandfather Sirius picked her,” he explained patiently. “So that means you or grandfather will pick who I marry, right?”
“Why do you have to marry a girl, Siri,” Reg demanded, face screwing up.
“‘Cause I’m the heir and I have to. Heirs become Lords and need their own heirs, and you get them when you marry a girl.”
“Concise and not inaccurate,” Orion decided, still following Sirius’ logic about his future. “That’s long in the future, Regulus, and I doubt you’ll find it such a trial then.” He looked unconvinced, but was persuaded to return to his dragons easily enough. Orion drew Sirius away so he correct his son’s misconception without a running commentary.
“Sirius, I’m not going to make you marry anyone, and neither is your grandfather.”
“But — “
“No, Siri, listen to me.” Solemn grey eyes stared up at him. “This isn’t something for you to worry about yet, but you will chose your wife.” Mentioning the possibility of a male consort would just distract away from his point. “Your grandfather Arcturus made sure of it. Not even the Patriarch can make a marriage contract for anyone in the family, not any more.”
He bit his lip. “You promise?”
Sirius buried his face in Orion’s robe, wrapping thin arms around his waist. He clung for several minutes, Orion rubbing circles on his back and smoothing his curls. No doubt this was yet another topic his son had been lectured to on the ‘proper’ Black way.
“I don’t want to marry my cousin.”
It was muffled, by Orion heard it clearly. “Good, I’d rather you didn’t.”
“I would prefer you look outside our family tree for a wife, yes,” Orion said dryly.
Bright eyes appeared again. “Grandfather Pollux said I should marry Cissy or Andi.”
“Andromeda is eight years older than you, and Narcissa cries at the sight of a doxy. Even if they weren’t your cousins, I’d hope you have better options that that.” He couldn’t help but ask, “Why not Bella?”
“‘Cause he has plans for her.”
“Does he indeed? I’ll speak to him about his plans. I think we should make a point of politely ignoring Grandfather Pollux whenever possible.”
“Politely?” he asked slyly.
“What if it’s not?”
“Then we’ll impolitely ignore him.”
Giggling, Sirius detached himself. Such moments of insecurity had grown less common in the last months, and were easier to calm when they did occur. Perhaps one day his boy wouldn’t go pale and tremble at any reminder of his mother. Until then, Orion reserved the right to curse her daily.
“Could we… can I — ” he struggled to continue, and Orion rubbed his back reassuringly. “Can I have a pet?” he finally managed.
He hid his own amusement when his son turned pleading eyes on him. So much effort for so simple a request. “I don’t think we have room in the garden for an Opaleye.”
“Father!” Sirius huffed, then giggled. “Would a Welsh Green fit?”
“Unlikely.” He smiled. “But we might find room for something smaller. Maybe.”
“A doxy might fit.”
“The pond is big enough for a grindylow.” Sirius huffed, crossing his arms and struggling to frown instead of grin. It was adorable. “You’re right, there’s no pond at Grimmauld. An ashwinder?”
“They set things on fire!” he giggled.
“True, that would be a waste of all the redecorating we’re doing.”
“How about… a unicorn!”
“Hmm, I think the ceilings are too low for their horn.”
“Think of the cobwebs.”
“Too much sand, and I’m terrible at riddles.”
“You are not! You always answer the riddle in the paper, and the runic puzzle, and you finish the crossword too.”
Orion hadn’t even realized Sirius had noticed his routine. “How about a leprechaun?”
“No way, he’d steal all our gold!”
“We can’t have that — how would I afford all the apple jelly you go through.”
“You can’t have toast without jam,” Sirius said firmly and pointed a finger at his father. “And you hog the bilberry jam!”
“Then a leprechaun is definitely out. A troll?”
“We already have Reggie.”
Orion laughed. “What does that make you?”
“Trouble!” he said proudly. Orion laughed harder and hugged him. Sirius leaned in happily.
“Then perhaps something smaller and less dangerous might be in order.” A nod. “And this pet should perhaps be able to climb trees, since you spend so much time in them.” A bright grin. “And it might be something that could sleep in a little boy’s bed instead of out in the garden.”
Wide grey eyes widened hopefully. “That sound pretty good. But it should be something that likes to be petted.”
“And that purrs?”
“Well… ” When Orion chuckled, Sirius smiled shyly. “A kneazle might be best, at least until we can get a dragon.”
“Fortunately, kneazles are long lived.” Sirius giggled even as Regulus clambered up to join them, demanding to know what was so funny about dragons.
— — —
Black House of Fara
Fara Island, South Shore
Hidden Hebrides, Scotland
May 25, 1975
Madam Ophelia Manus, Baroness of Fara
Fara Island, South Shore
Hidden Hebrides, Scotland
Should today be convenient for you, we would like to invite you to attend an al fresco meal on the South Cliffs, accompanied by a viewing of dragons. We shall plan for one o’clock. Please send an owl if this is inconvenient, and we will reschedule.
Lord Orion Black, The Duke of Ravensmoor
Lord Sirius Black, Earl of Blackmer
Lord Regulus Black
— — —
Fara Island, South Shore
Hidden Hebrides, Scotland
May 31, 1975
My Lord Duke,
I hope you and your sons have recovered from our adventure with dragons. Since we witnessed the closest a Hebridean Black has come to Fara in ten years, I expect you were less enthused than your children. Fortunately, the dragon did not actually reach the island.
Are outings with your family always so exciting?
Please thank Sirius for returning Loki to me yesterday. I don’t know why he was hunting gnomes in your garden, and I certainly can’t promise he won’t repeat himself. However, you will have fewer gnomes, which must count for something.
Since you provided such a lovely lunch on our picnic, I am persuaded by the manners my godfather instilled in me through bribery to return the favour. I invite you and your children to lunch tomorrow at noon. Bring appetites; my elves rarely feed such willing audiences as two growing boys.
Ophelia Manus, Lady Fara
— — —
Orion knocked on Haven House gate, feeling the wards respond. Somewhere in the estate, the ward holder would feel the magic ‘ring’ like a bell.
The gate swung open. Ophelia wore gold and green today. “Your Grace?”
He stepped aside, revealing Sirius and Loki. Both were smudged, leaves and bark decorating hair and fur equally. They both looked sheepish and unrepentant. “I believe this is yours.”
“Fortunately, I’m only responsible for bathing the four legged nuisance.”
“We climbed all the way to the top of a huge oak tree!”
“Tea, Your Grace?”
— — —
Black House of Fara
Fara Island, South Shore
Hidden Hebrides, Scotland
June 12, 1975
Dear Lady Ophelia,
We would like to invite you to dinner at Black House tonight at six. I’d invite Loki, but he is already in the garden teaching Sirius how to catch gnomes and fairies. They are enjoying themselves immensely.
The fairies are not.
Thank you for the book recommendation. I have your copy of The Druid’s Path ready to return. I located the Book of Soyga for you to borrow.
We shall see you tonight.
Orion Black, The Duke of Ravensmoor
— — —
12 Grimmauld Place
June 19, 1975
Thank you for spending yesterday with the boys; Sirius told me about your quest for powerful magical ingredients when I returned home late last night. He insisted on staying up until he could tell me all about your adventures. I’ll remember to combine lessons is herbology and potion ingredients with a treasure hunt in the future.
This is the first time in months I’ve been away from the boys for more than a single day, and they are having trouble with my absence so many days in a row. I would prefer otherwise, but I’ve been putting off several meetings for too long and could not delay any longer. The opening of the new Wizengamot session is poor timing, though fortunately my cousin will continue to sit as my proxy as he did during the winter. He dislikes politics, but enjoys obstructing idiots and causing trouble for people who annoy him, so I can trust he’ll continue to act in my stead.
I am certain that I owe you a gift for spending all day distracting my sons, and I’m certain today will be spent much the same way. I would order my elves to prevent them from taking so much of your time, but I don’t have the heart to. Please tell me if I might be of service to you in any way; I would be happy to retrieve any items or run errands in London.
Orion Black, The Duke of Ravensmoor
— — —
Dear Lady Ophelia,
I know you said I can call you Phee, but Father said you should use your best manners in correspondence. Father helped me spell that because it’s a big word. I practiced twice to make sure the words were right and my writing was readable. Sometimes it looks like gnome scratch.
Thank you for spending lots of time with Reggie and me while Father spent all that time in London. I’m writing for Reggie too, because he can’t hold a quill right yey. It spills ink everywhere, so he uses a pencil to learn his letters. Father said I can be trusted with a proper quill. If I do all my writing practice, Father will get me a grownup quill for my birthday. Should I get a Phoenix feather, or a Hippogriff feather quill?
You might have had other things to do on the days you played with us, but we had lots of fun so I’m glad you decided to play with us instead. Thank you very much. We would like you to come to lunch on Friday to say thank you. The elves will make your favorite foods, and Father has a thank you present to give you.
Say hello to Loki and the Goddesses for us!
Lord Sirius Orion Black, Earl of Blackmer
Lord Regulus Arcturus Black
— — —
15 rue de Montmorency
July 3, 1975
Paris is as lovely as ever, and the weather is pleasant. Uncle Paddy’s mentor, Nicholas, and his wife Nelle are as flamboyant and generous as I remember. I’m enjoying myself tremendously.
Your letter of introduction worked wonders. Mssr. Rousseau was very gracious and already has a line on the codex I’ve been searching for. My usual sources for rare texts have been unable to reach the private collector last known to own the book, but Mssr. R has a contact in the same closed enclave the man lives in. Thank you for your help.
I found a pair of books on France’s magical creatures, both with beautiful illustrations, and included them for the boys. Please don’t demure; Sirius is doing me a great favour by caring for Loki, and I could hardly give him a gift without doing the same for Regulus. Please pass on the books and the notes included.
I should apologize again for Loki’s refusal to come with me on this trip; the Goddesses enjoy travelling and are always pleased to see their travel carrier. Loki has accompanied on several trips and never complained before, but this time he simply refused to tolerate the travel preparations. Kneazles are known escape artists for good reason; not even magic can keep them where they don’t wish to be. I would have left him with my elves, but he probably would have gone looking for Sirius anyway. Thank you for letting Loki stay with you. I know you and your staff are really doing the work, not Sirius. I’ll be sure to bring you a bottle of elf wine in thanks.
Hoping you are well,
— — —
July 7, 1975
Black House of Fara, Fara Island
“Father? What happens when we go home?”
Orion looked up from the pile of correspondence he was working through. “What do you mean, Sirius?”
His son looked up from where he was practicing his quillmanship. “When we go live in the London house again, what happens to Phee and Loki?”
Bleeding hell, he should have seen this coming. Sirius had very quickly become attached to Ophelia, and Regulus hardly less so. “Ophelia and Loki will still be your friends even if you don’t see them everyday, Sirius. You can write letters and even visit. London and Fara aren’t that far apart.”
“They’re my only friends.”
Gods damn Walburga for keeping Sirius so isolated. The only children she’s arranged for him to play with had been his Black cousins — girls all older than him — and a bare handful of children deemed ‘appropriate’. In other words, ones with parents who shared Walburga’s opinions and were unlikely to mention any oddities in Sirius’ behaviour or treatment to Orion himself.
He left his work and gathered his son up, settling them both on the chaise in his study. “You have your brother and me, and you can write to Ophelia when you like. You’ll be getting a pet as well, when we find the kneazle you like, and you’ll have a whole, redecorated house to explore.” Sirius curled closer to him. “And I’ll make sure to introduce you to other children for you to play with. I promise that I won’t work the way I did before, and when I am at work you’ll have your elf, Poppy, to take care of you. If I have to go away, you’ll go stay with your Grandmother Melania and Grandfather Arcturus. You won’t be lonely, Siri, I promise.”
“She said other children wouldn’t want to play with a nasty boy who isn’t a proper wizard and she was right. Other children don’t like me,” he whispered.
“She is a spiteful harpy who is locked up in a tower far away from here. We’ll ignore everything she ever said,” Orion said calmly, quietly seething. He shifted his bundle into his lap. “And you certainly didn’t have trouble making friends with that pair of boys in Italy. The ones you went looking for merfolk with, remember?” At the mention of that particular adventure, which involved stolen wands, gillyweed, and a makeshift raft, Sirius giggled. “What were their names?”
“Titus and Cicero.”
“And how often did the three of you find trouble together? Or can’t you count that high yet?” Sirius smirked. “And how many letters have you gotten from them?”
“Lots! I sent them a picture from when we went dragon watching. Titus was so jealous! Cicero said he was going to ask for a trip to the reserve on Meropis for his birthday.”
“So, even though you aren’t within walking distance, you’re still friends?” Sirius nodded. “Do you think Ophelia will forget you? Or that Loki won’t try to stow away in your trunk?” That won a giggle. “Exactly.”
Sirius cuddled closer, looking thoughtful. Orion left him to it, knowing something was brewing in that clever brain. It was no wonder his son was fast friends with a kneazle named for Loki; that deity had surely blessed his son.
“Father, you’re friends with Phee, right?”
Oh, hell. “Yes.”
“D’you like her?”
“I generally like my friends, yes.”
A huff. “No, d’you like her, like her?”
“Sirius, where are you going with this?” He was afraid to ask, honestly.
“Well, if you like her, then maybe… youcouldmarryphee.”
Woden and the Green Man grant him patience and the ability to keep a straight face. “Try again, please.”
He drew a deep breath. “You could marry Phee, and she could live with us.”
“Sirius, Ophelia deserves to marry someone who loves her, and I don’t want to marry simply because it’s convenient.”
“But Phee is nice, and you might marry someone in the future who isn’t. And you like her — you invite her to lunch, and take her arm on walks, and you brought her a present from London. You even give her flowers when we go exploring.”
“So do you — maybe you should marry her.”
He pouted. “I don’t want to leave Phee. If you marry her, we can keep her.”
Orion sighed and stroked Sirius’ hair. “This is very important, Sirius, so listen. You don’t keep witches. If you care about a woman, you treat her with respect and affection, accept her choices and support her goals and, if you are lucky and behave like a gentleman, she might choose to stay by your side. Phee has plans and dreams and friends of her own. She’s travelled all over the world with her godfather and worked hard to master runic magic. Loving someone doesn’t make them yours, it means you give them a little part of yourself, and hope they do the same.”
Sirius sighed. “Being grownup is dreadful.”
Orion laughed. His son had a long way to go before he was grown, but Orion knew he’d be good man. Provided he learned the difference between loving and ‘keeping’ someone.
“Father, you never said you didn’t like Phee.”
And provided his curiosity didn’t get him killed before his majority.
— — —
July 15, 1975
Forsaken Circle, Fara Island
“What is he doing?”
Orion appeared to ponder her question. “It looks like he’d burying rocks, then digging them up and and burying them somewhere else.”
She gave him a dry look, “I can see that, Orion. Why?“
He laughed. “Because he’s three years old, and that’s what little boys do; they make up games that make no sense and dig holes in the ground.”
Reggie was doing exactly that with all the focus of a potions master ata delicate brewing stage. She was too far to hear him but judging by his moving lips, he was either talking or singing to himself while he worked.
“Well, as long as he’d happy.”
“As happy as a bowtruckle.”
Once more pondering the complexity of the male mind, Phee returned to her notebooks. They were settled on the edge of one of Fara’s stone circles, though this one had been broken long ago. She’d been very entertained and impressed by the way Orion had used its existence for a lesson on the dangers of some magic. Sirius had been full of questions when he learned that the ancient Druid circle had been broken by dark magic, the very earth rejecting the space and the natural ley line convergence realigning to avoid the place. The space had long since been cleansed and was a safe and popular place to visit, but though nature had reclaimed the space magic continued to reject it.
Lunch was finished an hour ago, and while the boys ran off their meal, Orion settled against a standing stone with a book and she worked through runic array calculations for her current project. The day was pleasantly warm with a touch of sea breeze to combat the summer sun. Sirius and Regulus had discarded their shoes and played barefoot; Phee wore a robe of thin layers of linen that stopped at her knees and left her arms bare, while her thick hair was braided and coiled around her head. Orion was robeless, white shirt loose and open at the throat. Sekhmet, the only kneazle besides Loki to accompany them, had abandoned Phee to lie in a sunny patch of grass.
Twice Sirius darted over to her, each time bearing flowers. Reggie refused to be left out, and had presented her with a somewhat battered clutch of daisies. Thoroughly charmed, as ever, by this particular habit of the Black men, she’s conjured a vase to secure them in. Orion, not to be outdone by his sons, had offered a flower each time the boys did. If they kept it up, she’s have to call Tully to retrieve her floral gifts.
Her head snapped up from her arithmancy at Orion’s whispered curse. Her “What’s wrong?” was accompanied by her wand snapping into her hand.
Orion sat stiffly, staring at the cross stone Sirius and Loki were clambering over. She couldn’t see anything wrong. “Orion, what is it?”
“Lady Fara — “
“Gods damn, Orion, I got you stop calling me that a month ago. What’s wrong?”
He looked at her and, at the sight of her wand, blinked. “Nothing you need your wand for, I hope.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You started cursing and then went all formal on me. I may need my wand if only to hex your for scaring the life from me.”
He sighed. “Look at Sirius.”
“I don’t see anything wrong.”
“Look again — watch for a moment.” Huffing, she did. It took a moment, but then —
“Did they just share magic?” she demanded.
It was rhetorical, because it was obvious what had happened. The centre stone of the circle’s altar was three time Sirius’s height, but he was now near the top. As she watched, he climbed the last foot by pressing his bare hands and toes to the vertical stone and sticking, just like Loki could do with his innate magic. At one point, Sirius looked like he would slip; Loki’s tail brushed over his hands and a little spark of magic appeared, just before the boy managed the last few inches. Moments later, both boy and cat sat on the top of the stone, beaming.
“Lady Fara, I apologize on behalf of my son.” Orion’s voice was very formal, enough to draw her eyes from the shocking display. He looked stiff and wary. “He has no idea that he’s created a familiar bond with your companion, but — “
“Orion, stop being a stiffnecked arse; if you think I’m going to be upset because a little boy found his familiar in my pet, then you need a kick in the head — or maybe the arse.” She huffed. “What are you expecting? A rant about theft, or a demand for gold? Morgana’s sake, Orion, I adopted Loki from a wizard on the other end of the island who didn’t have a license for kneazles or any idea how to take care of one. I didn’t intend to get another pet; the goddesses and my post owl are plenty. I just couldn’t leave him in the hands of an idiot, or let the Ministry take him.”
The idiot man unbent a little, but looked uncomfortable. “It’s presumptuous.”
“It would be presumptuous for a grown man to deliberately cause or force a bond on an animal not his own; it’s a lovely and charming quirk of fate for a boy to find a companion and familiar in an animal he plays with often. The only thing you should kick yourself over, Your Grace, is that neither of us saw this coming. For heaven’s sake, we’ve both seen Sirius chatting at Loki like they were having a conversation. We never even considered that they actually understood each other, which should have been our first clue.” When he looked like he was about to say something else stupid, she reached over and poked him. Hard. “Shut up, take a photo of them up there, and then figure out how to get them down so they don’t break their heads. And apologize to me for being an idiot, and for calling be Lady Fara in that tone of voice.”
He laughed softly. “I never know what you’ll say next.”
“Good, predictable people are bloody bores. Fetch your son, Your Grace. I’ll get Tully to bring Loki’s things to your house. Should have know,” she muttered, “when the damned furry nuisance wouldn’t leave for Paris.”
He stood, then hesitated. “Loki is a valuable animal.”
“I will hex you mute and bald if you offer me money, Ravensmoor. I already told you, I didn’t pay for him, I wouldn’t want gold if I had, and you’ve used up your idiot moment of the day. Put down the shovel and stop digging,” she growled when he opened his mouth again.
Fortunately, the man could take directions shut up long enough to fetch his son down. By the time he returned, she was smirking.
He looked wary. “Ophelia?”
“I just realized, you’re responsible for fetching them both out of any trees they climb — and bathing both of them afterwards.”
His eye twitched. “Thank Hecate for spells.” She laughed at him. He deserved it.
— — —
Black House of Fara
Fara Island, South Shore
Hidden Hebrides, Scotland
July 17, 1975
Dear Uncle Alphard,
Guess what? You won’t, so I’ll tell you. I’ve got a familiar! Not just a pet, a real familiar. We can do magic and everything! Well, Father said we can do magic on purpose when we’re both older, but now we do it by accident. Did you know kneazles can use magic to climb things? Loki can, and I can too because we can share magic. It’s completely brilliant! But Father said I can’t climb like that without permission and someone to watch me in case I fall and break in half. I said that Loki was there to watch me, and that I’d break in at least three if I did fall.
Uncle Alphard, Reggie and I have a question (Reggie’s here too but he can’t write properly yet). How do you get a lady to marry you? Father said you can’t keep a witch, but if you’re nice and respectful she might stay with you. I know you court witches so they’ll marry you, but I don’t know how yet, Father said those protocol lessons come later.
Father likes Phee, he gives her flowers and walks beside her when we go see dragons and picnic on the hills or the cliffside. We saw dragons! You can see the Reserve from a spot on Fara, and we went twice! The first time, one of the Hebridean Blacks flew towards the island from Arach, but it didn’t come all the way or land. It didn’t happen again, but we’re going again next week so maybe this time.
Is giving flowers to a witch courting? Cause Reggie and I and Father do that all the time. Phee — Lady Phee — likes the purple ones best. Her middle name means purple flower. Will you write to us and tell us how to get Phee to like Father? If she does, maybe she’ll marry him and then we won’t have to visit her when we go back to London because she’ll come with us.
We sent pictures of Loki, and the dragon, and the house. There’s one of three kneazles, but they aren’t Loki, those are the Goddesses, and one of Phee, too. She’s really pretty, and very nice and smart, so please write back soon.
Sirius and Regulus
— — —
July 25, 1975
Emrys Cove, Fara Island
Ophelia’ first hint that today would be difficult came when Carys O’Cain entered the apothecary steps behind her. The older witch considered herself of the first consequence, being married to the mayor of the largest community of the most populous island of the Hidden Hebrides. She dressed in the finest fashions from Edinburgh, even when those fashions were far too elaborate for daytime in a bustling sea town, and felt that her duty to her husband and the people who looked up to her — and why wouldn’t they? — depended on her to know everything about what went on in Emrys Cove and the island, and to see that everyone else did as well. The appearance of the woman a third her age, who seriously outranked her, had upset her sense of her place in the world. She immediately set about trying to take Phee under her wing so that she would remain the centre of local society when it attempted to form around the young Baroness.
Phee had spent a considerable amount of time running her and all the other local matrons who saw her as ‘that poor motherless child’ or as an unfortunate witch who, thanks to years of wandering under the care of a wild bachelor, had been lost to all good society. Worst of all were the women who saw an opportunity for their sons and brothers to marry wealth. It had taken a combination of strict formality and deliberate rudeness to get rid of them, thus regaining the peace and privacy she had come to Fara for in the first place.
“Are you in the habit of entertaining strange men alone, young lady?” Mrs O’Cain demanded. “What will people think?”
“Whatever they like, and often not at all,” Ophelia said cheerfully, before speaking to the proprietor. “I need ten griffin feathers, a half ounce of phoenix ash, a dram of Night Tears, a bottle of Singing Rose oil, an ounce of doxy wings, a pound of shrivelfigs, a scoop of fairy eggs, two knots of fluxweed, a sachet of salt of the earth, nine chimera scales, and twenty-one deathbell flowers. Oh, and two ounces of Witches’ Hazel.”
The man, who had looked old enough to have been the owner who established the shop in 1666, went about his business, appearing deaf to Mrs O’Cain’s voice. Whether he was, or would share everything over a pint tonight didn’t really concern her.
“Now, my dear, you really must allow me to advise you in this.”
“Since I can’t seem to stop you, please, elucidate me.” Next time she wanted to get away from her research, she’d send Tully or Razzie to do the errands and just take a walk. Away from the town.
“A strange man appears — “
“Who introduced himself to anyone who asked.”
” — out of nowhere — “
“London, by way of Italy.”
” — for no reason anyone can see — “
“Other than the fact that he owns a summer home here and it’s summertime.”
” — and starts making up to a young witch who, you’ll forgive me, is far too naive to see what he’s about — “
“Making up? Naive?”
” — when those older and wiser can clearly see — “
“Older, yes. Wiser?”
” — that he’s after a bit of fun before he vanishes off again, likely to do the same somewhere else — “
“Sure, all practiced seducers go about with a pair of children in tow.”
” — he might claim to be a duke, but do we really know — “
“Because making false claims about being a Peer isn’t illegal at all.”
” — and if he is, well, that proves he’s only toying with you — “
“He’s lying about being a duke to seduce someone, but being a duke proves he’s seducing someone?”
” — not like a real duke would be interested in a simple village girl — “
“That’s not what you were calling me the last time we spoke.”
” — so it’s best you send him off and not entertain him again, certainly not in private— “
“I’ll get right on that.”
” — before he ruins you completely.”
“Because a woman’s only value is her chastity, just like in the Middle Ages.”
In the corner, two girls snickered and pretended to examine the display of unicorn horns. The proprietor continued to be mute a deaf as he piled her requests on the counter.
“Well, dear, I’m glad we had this chat. You’ll come round for my Saturday tea this week, of course. My husband — the mayor, you know — “
“Everyone knows, because you always tell them.”
” — has a nephew who’s come to visit from Hogsmeade; lovely boy just your age. Excellent prospects, his mother — “
“I beg you, please stop.”
” — tells me he’s quite the catch now that he’s gotten his mastery in Charms — “
” — and she’s very eager to see him married before one of the little floozies circling him makes him lose his head — “
” — I’m sure you’ll have plenty to talk about, he’s been as far as Paris twice!”
Ophelia prayed for patience, mercy, and a lightning bolt. The woman, apparently satisfied she’d made her point and won the day, nodded and left. As the bell run behind her, the girls started giggling loudly, and the old man gave her a sympathetic look. She paid and fled, swearing not to go anywhere near Carys O’Cain’s tea even if she had to find a dragon to maul her.
She made it ten steps.
“Just a minute, missy!”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” The old man and even more ancient goblin smoking outside The Rose and Wand croaked with laughter. She glared at them, making both laugh harder.
“What was that?” Mrs Frances Younge, who wasn’t, caught up with her, seizing her elbow with a bony hand. “You say something, girl?”
“Nothing you want to hear.”
“Humph.” She actually said the word, giving Phee a brief flashback to Umbridge. Note to self, poison that bitch before she did any damage in the future. “I’ve a word for you, miss.”
“Baroness.” She’d be damned if she listen to a this old crone lecture her while being forced to answer to ‘missy’. “Also Lady Fara, or Madam Manus. Not miss, missy, or girl.”
“Pshaw. You listen to me, girl, fancy English dukes don’t court upstart Scottish misses. You just send that man about his business before he makes a fool of you.” Phee started walking, hoping to shake to old witch. Pity she was more spry than she looked. “You just take one of the proper Scotsmen dangling after you before they find out you let an Englishman sniff around. You need good Scot blood to dilute that foreign blood of your mother’s.”
“Weren’t you born in Birmingham?” A passing witch laughed, scamping off when Younge turned a beady eye on her. “I think I’m more Scot than you are.”
“Humph. I’ve lived on Fara since before you father was born.”
“You’ve lived on Fara since before my thrice great-grandfather was born.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing! This is your house, isn’t it? Have a pleasant day,” she shook the woman off at the door of the local cauldron shop, unashamed of herself. That was the fastest she’d ever gotten away from the ancient witch.
As she reached the door of The Elder Scroll, a cheery voice called out, “Hallo! Ophelia, dear!” Ducking in the door, she pretended not to hear Fiona MacPhillip.
Behind her, the door opened. “Mister Colm have you seen — oh, there you are, dear! Didn’t you hear me call you?”
The widow of one of the two other Barons on Fara Island, Madam MacPhillip of Teith had been the highest ranking woman on the island. She fiercely resented that her husband’s barony was the youngest of the three, and was only slightly mollified by the fact that the Baron of Fearnan had married well and moved away fifty years ago. Ophelia’s family was the oldest of the three, hence the same name as the island rather than the nearest village, and was far wealthier to boot. The woman had attempted to correct this glaring oversight the best way she knew how — by seeing Phee married to her son, the current Baron Teith.
Since she would rather drink poison then marry anyone related to Widow MacPhillip, this put the two of them at an impasse.
“My dear, I heard the most shocking rumor, you will never credit it. Mrs Long, you know her, dear, that fussy creature who runs the inn in Teith village — well, she had from Mrs Dunn, who had it from Mr Payne who’s been paying calls to her — though why, I cannot figure — “
Phee calmly gathered the books she came for. None of them included poison recipes, unfortunately.
” — and she had it straight from Colin MacNeil, who has a little potion farm up on the south cliffs, that you’ve been out walking with that Sassenach from London.” She finished this rambling statement as if she’d uncovered a global conspiracy. Phee with still stuck on the phrase ‘out walking’. She’d come back forty years, not four hundred, hadn’t she?
“Hmm? Oh, terribly sorry, did you ask as question?”
The widow puffed up, looking nothing so much like a puffskein trying to look intimidating and failing dreadfully. “The Sassenach, dear child, the foreign duke.” Because, of course, London was a foreign land and there was only one person on this island who wasn’t Scottish. It wasn’t like the Hidden Hebrides were the most populous magical population in the Isles, or that there weren’t dozens of summer houses and cottages used by mainlanders.
“Orion? What about him?”
“Orion! Oh, dear girl, no! You can’t be familiar with him!”
“Oddly, I prefer to call him the name he asked me to, that to refer to him as Sassenach.”
“My dear, he’s foreign.“
“Madam, between my French mother, grandmother, and godfather, I’m more French than Scot some days. For example,” she said cheerfully over the woman’s agast look, “If this were a village in France, the first thing someone would ask me about the foreign duke out walking with me would be along the lines of ‘how good is he’ or ‘how big is he’.” Sadly, this is not France, and you are not a French widow. You might try it; there’s a great deal of wine and younger lovers involved.”
The only sound she made was a slightly wobbly gasp. Phee stepped around her and up to counter, hoping to escape before the woman started breathing — or worse, talking — again.
Pliny, the proprietor and his daughter, Livia, were laughing behind the counter. She made a face, but said nothing. If it was anyone but her, she’d likely find this whole farce hilarious.
She escaped before Madam Teith recovered. Thank the Gods.
“Ah, there you are, Madam!”
Fuck a diricawl.
— — —
Orion wandered along the lane, enjoying a moment of quiet to himself. Regulus and Sirius were both napping, and their nanny elf Poppy was perfectly capable of dealing with any issues that arose, to say nothing of the three other elves. He was idly considering whether to turn down the lane towards Ophelia’s home, or continue on to Emrys Cove, when a Gaelic Fury descended.
“What the bleeding hell is wrong with people?” Ophelia demanded, stalking towards him. “Why are they all stupid?”
“I have no earthly idea.” Calmly, as a man must be in the face of a natural disaster in order to avoid panic and death, he claimed her shopping basket and her arm, tucking each one over one of his own. “All of them?”
She huffed. “Fine, not all of them, but more than enough. Every matron on Fara has lost their damn minds. I nearly committed murder a dozen times, and half the village was laughing the whole time. A goblin was laughing, I swear. Granted, he was as old as Gringotts — but, still!”
She ranted for several more minutes as he guided her home. Finally, when she lost some of her head of steam, he managed to ask, “What happened?”
“I told you!”
“No, Ophelia, you gave a slightly disjointed explanation of why people are stupid, gossip is evil, and why you’re considering a cloistered existence. Which would be a feat, since you aren’t Catholic and nunneries don’t take witches.”
“I could join the Druids on the Blessed Isle.” She huffed, laughing. “Yes, fine, I might have been in a bit of a temper.”
Yes, like a dragon had a bit of an appetite. The woman’s temperament certainly matched her hair. Wisely, he said nothing.
“I can hear you thinking something snarky.”
“Developed telepathy, have you?”
“No, but I have a finely honed sense of sarcasm. It’s slightly less sensitive than my bullshit detector.” When he laughed, she continued, “I’d say this was unusual for me, but I tend to rant and rave when in a huff. Fortunately, I outgrew breaking things — well, most of the time.”
“Most of the time?”
“Sometime you need to smash something, preferably over an idiot’s head.”
“So, why is half the village laughing?”
Ophelia groaned. “Oh, gods, it’s the most ridiculous thing! Though, it is funny, if you aren’t the one who was being ambushed. Half a dozen of the matrons on the island managed to ‘have a chat’ with me — mostly them talking and me ignoring them or making fun — because the Sassenach duke is after one thing and I’ll be ruined if I go out walking with the foreigner who came out of nowhere to make up to me — or that’s what I took away from the whole thing.” She laughed. “I’ve never heard such old fashioned nonsense in my life! Worse? Every store or sidewalk, there was someone to overhear and laugh, so the whole village knows.”
She looked at him and, apparently, saw something of his own temper on his face. “Goddess’ sake, Orion, no one with sense believes any such nonsense! Every woman who accosted me has a son or family member to throw at me, or at least at my money. Everyone was laughing because it was like something out a farce or a Victorian novel! Two different women used the word ruin, like virginity is the only thing valued in a woman. They sounded like Muggles — medieval ones!”
She squeezed his arm a little, trying to cheer him. “It was just a bunch or self serving witches with nothing better to do than gossip or meddle. Most of them resent that I didn’t join their circle when I arrived, the rest think I displaced them, and all of them would marry someone to my vaults if they could manage. No one thinks you’re trying to ruin anyone. Only a fool would take a little bit of talk about the odd Baroness and the duke being seen together and make anything sordid out of it, or think that there’s anything but friendship involved.” She laughed, disbelieving. “As if you would — romance me!”
They reached the north gate to Ophelia’s estate and he returned her basket. “Of course not.” She blinked, looking a little surprised — and maybe a little hurt. “Why on earth would a man like me be interested in a brilliant, beautiful witch of rank and breeding, with mages and kings and heroes in her blood; a woman who’s well-travelled, well-read, whom my sons adore?”
Ophelia’s face was a blank, her eyes huge and shocked. “You… “
“What possible interest could a woman with magic to burn, a mastery in Runic Magic — “
“I haven’t completed my master work yet!”
” — the face of an siren, with a fiery temper and a heart as fierce as any dragon’s — “
“I do not!”
” — a sharp tongue and wit, canny and cunning and sarcastic, who made friends with a little boy and gave him a valuable gift out of kindness — “
“They have a magical bond!”
” — who I can speak to for hours and drives me half mad with lust and longing and things I have no business feeling for a witch twenty years younger than I am — “
“Twenty years is nothing to wix… wait, lust?”
” — who doesn’t even notice when someone is courting her even though he’s been doing it for weeks and is so obvious about it that his children are trying to help him!”
She went completely still. “You have not been courting me.”
He huffed. “Yes, I have.”
“No, you haven’t! I would have noticed!”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” He said wryly, suddenly aware of the humor in the whole thing. He’d just fought with a witch over whether he was attracted her. Alphard could never know.
“But — you — “
Gently, Orion caught her chin and tilted her face towards him. “I can quite assure you, Ophelia, that I am courting you, my feelings are romantic, and that in another time and place, the thoughts I have about you would be ruinous.” He offered her the gift he’d been carrying for days, waiting for the right moment. A flower, this one made of amethyst and moonstone and silver, to be pinned on her robe or cloak or in her hair. A declaration or interest.
Her fist closed around the gift. Wide eyed, she stared at him. Orion laughed softly. “For such a clever witch, Ophelia, you can be terribly obtuse.” He kissed her cheek softly, brushed his thumb over her bottom lip as he released her, and left her standing at her own gate.
— — —
Hours later, as he brooded over the possibility of being rejected, Izzy brought him a letter delivered by owl. He hesitated a moment before opening it; if she rejected his overture, protocol forbade him renewing or even speaking of the offer without her explicit permission.
When he did open the letter, he laughed joyously. She hadn’t sent a demure response, a polite acknowledgment and acceptance. The envelope contained a cloak pin in the style of a plaid brooch; a circle of silver set with jet and emerald. A gift for a gift.
Ophelia hadn’t just agreed to let him court her; she’d offered to court him in return.