The Sugar Quill
Author: Seldes Katne (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: If It Hadn't Been for the Owl  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

***

 “Are - are you a wizard, or something?”

Interesting observation, coming from a Muggle, but hardly surprising.  Alastor Moody stared unmoving at the solemn brown-haired boy sitting across the table from him.  Finally, the side of the older man’s mouth twitched into what might be a smile.  “Yes.”

“Oh.”  The boy exchanged glances with the two other children in the room.  When he turned back to Moody, his eyes were excited behind his glasses.  “Like - like Merlin?”

That brought a dry laugh from the old man.  “No. No, no one’s ever been like Merlin, before or after.  But yes, I'm a wizard.  A wizard who wants to know what you three were doing on my property with the likes of Ms. Rosier and her - associate.”  His smile had disappeared.  “Let’s start with names, then.”

The boy sat up a little straighter.  “I - my name’s Dennis Ackerly.”  He turned to indicate the lean girl with straight sandy-blond hair who was sitting in the chair to his right.  She appeared to be the same age as Dennis, around ten.  “This is Lisa.  She’s my cousin.  And that’s Jeremy-” the tousle-haired boy of about seven years of age sitting next to Lisa and holding her hand, “-he’s my cousin, too.”

“We're Thurbers,” Lisa added.  “Our mums are sisters.”

“All right,” said Moody quietly, in a tone meant to be, if not friendly, at least non-threatening.  He kept one eye, the normal eye, trained on Dennis.  The magical eye (hidden for the moment behind a leather covering) alternated between scanning the yard outside for signs of anyone approaching, and watching the various Dark-detecting equipment around the house.  “Start at the beginning.  What’s going on, and how did you kids get mixed up in it?”

“Erm, well,” said Dennis, glancing at Lisa and Jeremy and then back to Moody, “I guess it was yesterday when it all really started...."

 

***

 

“I don’t know; it looks awfully dark over there,” Dennis remarked, looking over Lisa’s shoulder out the window.  “If it rains, we’ll be stuck indoors all afternoon.”  Dennis, Lisa and Jeremy were sitting on the floor of a rough wooden tree house that had been built in a very large, sprawling oak in Dennis's back yard.  It wasn’t really a proper house; there was no glass in the windows, and the wallboards didn’t quite meet at two of the corners.  Part of the roof sometimes leaked when it rained, although a pair of blue plastic tablecloths kept everything inside (mostly) dry.

But it was hidden by tree braches for privacy, and it belonged to just the children; they had built most of it themselves, with some help from Dennis’s dad.

“D’you think we should pack up and go in now?” asked Lisa.  “I don’t want to have to run in in the rain.”

Dennis thought for a moment; as the oldest, he was usually considered the leader (except when Lisa was being particularly stubborn).  “No.  Let’s wait.  I don’t want to have to go in any sooner than we have to, or we’ll probably end up helping Mum clean.”  All three of the children grimaced at that.  “We can finish the game, and then go in through the back and into the basement.  We can - we can pretend that we’re exploring for buried treasure in the ruins of Egypt.”

The other two agreed.  And things might well have worked out that way, too, if it hadn’t been for the owl.

 

***

 

“Lisa, look.”  Jeremy climbed to his knees and swayed back and forth a little, trying to look out one of the windows.  “There’s two people going through the woods, and one of them’s got an owl.”

All three children scrambled to their feet and rushed to the window, peering through branches at the woods behind Dennis’s house.  Two people were indeed moving through the brush, now visible, now lost from view.  On one person’s arm was a small owl with tufted ear-like feathers; every so often the children could see it stretching its wings to keep its balance.

“Are they supposed to be there?” asked Lisa.  “I thought the woods were yours.”

“They’re sort of everyone’s,” Dennis answered.  “A bunch of us play out there.  But it’s usually kids.”  He glanced over his shoulder at the darkening sky visible through the other window.  “C’mon,” he said suddenly.  “Let’s see if we can keep up with them without them seeing us.”  Dennis rather wanted to be an explorer when he grew up.

Game and approaching storm forgotten, the three children dropped down out of the tree house and slipped across the stream and into the woods.

 

***

 

“Don’t complain, Harris,” Rosier muttered.  “It’s not that dangerous.  All we need to do is make sure the old man’s there, and see if anyone goes in or out.  Then we contact the others, and we can all go in and give him what-for.  If he’s using the usual set of Warding Spells, we won’t get close enough to set off any alarms.”

“I don’t care,” her companion replied.  “That ‘old man’ is dangerous.  I don’t care if everyone thinks he’s crazy.  You know what he did to Wilkes.  And to Karkaroff.  And your father.”  The owl on his arm stirred again as he waved his hands to emphasize his point.

“Yeah, well, he’s not going to do it to us.  Now, quit griping and let’s move; I want to be set up under cover before it rains.  Once we’re in place, we’ll be hidden so well that no one’ll find us.”  The two moved carefully through the bushes toward their target.

 

***

 

“I hate rain,” Jeremy grumbled, staring out the bedroom window.  Before the children had gotten anywhere near the mysterious strangers, the sky had opened up, soaking everything.  Dennis's mother had scolded them for being out in the rain and then for dripping water all over everything.  Now Dennis and Jeremy were in Dennis’s room changing into dry clothes.  Lisa was down the hall doing the same in the guest room.

“We almost had them,” Dennis said, ignoring his cousin's comments.  Rain was something that just happened.

“They probably just went home,” Jeremy reasoned.

Dennis shook his head.  “I don’t think they live around here.  I’ve never heard of anyone around here who had an owl.  I wonder where they were going?”

The storm lasted well into the night, wind howling and rain pouring down. 

               Somewhere around three in the morning, Dennis awoke to someone tapping on the door.

“Dennis!  Jeremy!  Come quick,” Lisa urged in a whisper, pushing the bedroom door open.  “I think something’s hit my window!”

The children slipped down the stairs and into the playroom on the first floor, which was directly under the guest room.  Dennis switched on the light, and the children peered out the window.  Sure enough, lying outside was a grey lump.  As they watched, the lump stirred and a wing rose and fell.

“Watch the door,” Dennis whispered.  He lifted the window open and slid one leg over the sill, landing in the wet grass outside.  “It’s an owl,” he told his cousins, both of whom were watching him rather than the door.  “I think it’s knocked itself out.”  He carefully slid his hands under the owl and lifted it up to the windowsill.  “Here - let’s see if it’s hurt.”

As Jeremy helped Dennis back in through the window, Lisa took the wet bundle of feathers and laid it on the rug.  About a month ago she had declared her intention to become a veterinarian.  (That had been about a month after she had declared her intention of becoming a policewoman, and about two months after deciding she had wanted to be an actress.)  By now the owl was beginning to open its eyes and feebly move its wings.

“This looks like the owl we saw those two people carrying this afternoon,” she said softly.  “That would make it tame, wouldn't it?”

"It's got something on its leg," Dennis added, pointing to two pieces of twine that held a roll of paper.

“Maybe it’s the owner’s name and address,” Lisa suggested as Dennis untied the twine.  “You know, like having a tag on a dog’s collar?”

But instead of a name and address, the roll of paper revealed a note written in scrawling script.  Dennis squinted at it.  “I’m not really sure,” he said finally.  “I think it says something like ‘in place’, and there's a bit I can’t read, and something about ‘well back’?  Oh, wait, there's something about ‘bushes’ and ‘Woody’s house”?  No, that's not right --"

Lisa and Jeremy studied the note.  Suddenly Lisa suggested, “Wait, could that be a capital ‘M’?  Like ‘Moody’s house’?”

The children exchanged glances.  Everyone in the area had heard about Mad Moody, the old man who lived up the road.  There were all sorts of rumors about him; Dennis remembered a group of teens who had decided that they were going to spring some sort of unpleasant surprise on him one moonless night.

The whole affair had lasted less than five minutes.  The teens had fled the property in all directions, shouting, prank forgotten, and reported some sort of horrifying experience, although strangely enough none of them could seem to remember what the experience actually had been.  Other neighbors claimed to have heard strange noises, seen lights, or caught glimpses of the old man at odd times.  Nobody in his or her right mind (or otherwise) went near Moody’s house.

“We should tell Aunt Vicky,” Jeremy suggested.

“Tell her what?” Dennis asked.  “She’ll be angry enough if she finds out that we’ve brought an owl in the house.”  The owl had begun to flap its wings more vigorously, and a moment later was standing on the rug.  Then it took off, soared across the room, and narrowly missed crashing into the bookshelf.  It ended up on its back on the small playroom table, legs waving.  The children rushed over and, with much maneuvering to avoid its talons, managed to pick it up and hold it upright until it could perch on the back of a chair.  It folded its wings and blinked at them.

Lisa studied it.  “It looks like its wings and everything are all right,” she said.  “But it doesn't seem to be able to steer very well.  D’you think maybe he'd know about the owl?  Moody, I mean.”

“He might.”  The idea of approaching Moody’s house without an escort of adults didn't have much appeal for Dennis - or Jeremy, either, judging by the look on his face.  Lisa, however, seemed to have other plans.  She and Jeremy were only visiting for part of the summer, and she put a lot less faith in the rumors than her cousin.

“We could pack the owl in the laundry basket,” she said.  “Then we could go over this morning.  All those things people say about the place, they’re usually talking about after dark, right?  How bad could the place be in the daytime?”  She looked at Dennis.  “You’d get the chance to really explore a place no one’s ever been to before.  Maybe - maybe he’s got some secret hidden there that he doesn’t want anyone to find.”

Dennis was beginning to warm to the idea.  “Treasure, maybe.  Or - or the door to a different world, like Avalon!”

“Or monsters,” Jeremy added gloomily.

The owl hooted softly for the first time.

 

***

 

Alastor Moody sipped his morning tea and divided his attention between the view out his front window and the large mirror across the room.  Living in a Muggle neighborhood had its advantages; the neighbors respected his privacy and left him alone (well, all right, except for the incident with the teens); almost anyone coming after him from the wizarding world would stand out like a sore thumb; and as for those who didn't, well, he had defenses up against them.

One could never be too careful.

A ripple of light ran across the mirror’s surface, indicating that someone was approaching along the road.  It did that from time to time; usually it was set off by one of the neighbors going about his or her business.  Sure enough, the mirror stopped reflecting the room and began displaying a view of three of the local youngsters walking up the road, carrying a large basket with someone's jacket draped over it.  Picnic, maybe, although it seemed a bit early in the day for that.

Under normal circumstances, the children would have kept right on going up the road and ignored the half-visible path completely.  This time, however, the children halted at the bottom of the path and stood peering into the woods.  They had a hurried discussion, and started up the path.

Over the course of a long and (according to some) distinguished career as an Auror, Moody had experienced more than his share of duels, battles, and ambushes.  One of them had resulted in the loss of an eye; but thanks to what had then been advanced magic, he'd been given an artificial replacement that in many respects was superior to the original.  The magical prosthesis allowed him to look through solid objects and a number of concealments, including invisibility cloaks.  It had taken months to get used to having two separate sources of visual input, but like Muggle scientists who learn to use both eyes when looking through a microscope, he'd trained himself to use the situation to his best advantage.

The normal eye still trained on the mirror, Moody glanced over his shoulder (and through the dining room wall) with the magical eye at the squiggly golden wire and base sitting in the living room.  The Secrecy Sensor sat in silence -- not so much as a hum.

In the mirror picture, something moved in the basket the children were carrying, and Moody focused on it.  The wicker forming the basket was thick and all he could see was a dark shape, but that was enough to tell him that whatever it was, it wasn’t very large.

 

***

 

“How long is this path?” Lisa grumbled.  “We should have been there by now.”  The trail, difficult to follow because it was overgrown with weeds and bushes, wound around rocks and large trees and had to be watched carefully, lest it disappear.

The first part of the children’s plan had gone reasonably well.  Dennis had been chosen to distract the owl (“Nice owl.  Stay… stay….”) while Lisa crept up behind it with a jacket.  The owl had cocked its head at Dennis, and then taken off - to fly across the room and land on a chair next to Jeremy, who had jumped back with a yelp.  The owl had ruffled its feathers and hooted softly.  “Stand still, Jeremy!” Lisa had hissed, and both Jeremy and the owl had stayed still long enough for Lisa to throw the jacket over the bird.

Now the owl peered through the wicker openings, the jacket draped over the laundry basket to keep its passenger inside.  Dennis, Lisa and Jeremy (who had insisted on bringing a backpack with Biffins, the teddy bear - strictly as a security precaution, of course) had found the path across the road from the mailbox and had started into the woods.

They had been walking, and walking, and walking.  There were no breaks in the forest around them, and no sign of the trail ending.  Dennis turned to look at Lisa.  “We haven’t been walking long at all, we’ve - oof!”  He had walked into a tree.  The basket, propelled by Lisa’s momentum, bumped him in the back.

“Where are we?” Lisa had stopped and was staring around at the trees and brush.  “It was different a minute ago.”

The path had vanished.  The trees hemmed them in on all sides.  Both Lisa and Jeremy turned to Dennis.  “Erm….” Dennis was trying hard not to think about the chapter in Wind in the Willows, when Mole had gotten lost in the forest.  At least nothing sounded like something was coming after them.

“D’you know where we are?” asked Lisa, taking a step closer and pulling Jeremy and the basket with her.  Jeremy was clutching the basket handle with white knuckles.

This part of the woods didn’t look the least bit familiar to Dennis.  The land rose gently on their left, and ran downhill on their right.  There were no breaks in the bushes, and he could only see a few feet through the trees.

“No.  Look, the best thing to do is come back the way we came, right?  So we go that way until we pick up the trail, and then we’ll know where we are.”

Lisa and Jeremy exchanged puzzled glances, and then fell in behind him.

 

***

 

“Rosier!”  A hoarse whisper.  “Rosier!”

Rosier had a pair of Omnioculars trained on the house.  Since they’d settled in last evening, there hadn’t been the slightest indication that the old man knew she and Harris were there.  No one had come out of the house, and no one had gone in.  If it had been anyone but Harris, she would have welcomed the distraction.  “What now?” she muttered.

Harris gripped the sleeve of her robe.  “Someone’s coming.”

Without taking the Omnioculars away from her face, Rosier replied, “It’s probably just some local out for a walk.  Just keep the wards up, and ignore them.”

“Are you sure?”

She sighed in exasperation.  “Yes, I’m sure.  That’s what Invisibility Wards and Muggle Repellent Charms are for.”

Harris let go of her sleeve.  She could hear him moving through the bushes to edge of the ward’s boundaries.  A moment later he called back, “Rosier!  It’s a bunch of kids!”

“So?”

They’re still heading this way.  And I think - I think they’ve got our owl!”

“What?!”  Rosier almost dropped the Omnioculars.  “If they’ve got our owl and they’re heading for Moody’s house….”She drew her wand and strode into the bushes, Harris scrambling after her.  “Grab ‘em before they get away!”

 

***

 

The three children jumped, startled, as a branch snapped somewhere nearby.  “Th-the path has got to be here somewhere,” Dennis said in a somewhat less-than-certain voice.  They had been trying to retrace their steps, searching first this way, then that.  Nothing resembling a path had been found.

Lisa, still holding one handle of the basket, stopped walking.  “Maybe we should forget the path, and figure out where we are.  If we can get back to the road, we can find our way home again.”  Jeremy stood looking nervously around at the surrounding trees.  Something crackled again, much closer this time.

“I don’t know,” Dennis admitted finally.  “I don’t know where we are.  N-None of this looks familiar at all.”

The brush to their right began to thrash back and forth.  Dennis, Lisa and Jeremy turned toward the sound and began edging away, just in time to see a woman, wearing a long gown of some sort, emerge from the bushes.  “Hey!  You kids!  Hold it right there!”  She was waving a long stick at them.

Nerves already shaken at being lost in a strange part of the woods, Dennis cried, “Run!” and bolted straight ahead.  Lisa and Jeremy, hampered by the basket, scrambled after him.  Behind them, Dennis could hear the woman shouting, “Harris!  Get the boy!”

Ducking branches, scrambling through brush, Dennis fled in what he hoped was the direction of the road.  He could hear someone crashing through the woods almost directly behind him.

 

***

 

The Sneakoscope on Moody’s bookcase erupted in a series of shrill wailings, joined a moment later by a similar noise from the bedroom.  Moody jumped, both eyes turning to the mirror.  The images this time were indistinct - whoever it was out there was on the edge of his Detection Spells, but now there were five of them, and two seemed too large to be children. 

This was no longer a case of neighborhood youngsters wandering around; something else was going on out there.

Moody rose heavily and slapped his mug of tea on the table.  Two quick commands Summoned first his cloak, then his walking staff, and a moment later he was limping quickly out the front door.

 

***

 

Dennis threw a frightened glance over his shoulder at the man pounding after him.  Like the woman, the man was wearing a long robe that he held up with one hand as he ran; in the other hand was clutched a stick.  Dennis could hear him shouting, “Stop!  Stop!”, but Dennis was having none of it.

Then the man shouted something Dennis didn’t understand, and suddenly the bushes to Dennis’s right exploded into flames.  Startled, Dennis stumbled to one side, lost his balance, and fell headlong onto the ground.  The man thudded to a halt an arm’s length away, panting.

“Now, that’s it,” the man gasped, pointing the stick at Dennis.  “On your feet, boy.”  He jerked his head in the direction from which they had come.  “Let’s go.”

In a few minutes, they had found the others.  Lisa and Jeremy, both pale and clinging to each other, were backed up against a tree, staring wide-eyed at the woman in front of them.  Like the man who had caught Dennis, she was pointing her stick at her captives.  The wicker basket, now empty, was rolled on its side.  The owl was nowhere to be seen.

“Harris,” the woman said over her shoulder without looking at either the man or his prisoner.  “How close to the house did the boy get?”

“Well, not close enough that anyone would have seen him….”

“Close enough to set off alarms?”

The man hesitated.  “Uh, maybe.”

“Then we need to move further away.”  The woman gestured with her stick at Lisa and Jeremy.  “You two, get away from the tree.  We’re going down the hill.  No tricks or-”  She casually waved her stick in their general direction, muttered a strange word - and a handful of leaves at the tip of one of the overhanging branches burst aflame.  All three of the children jumped, and Jeremy let out a squeak.  “Harris, bring the boy and walk ahead of us.  March, all of you.”

Jeremy clung to Lisa’s hand as they walked ahead of the woman.  Harris nodded to Dennis, who carefully circled both the woman and his cousins.  As Harris passed the woman, something large and dark suddenly rose from the bushes to one side.  Dennis spun to face it, Harris just behind him - and the dark form suddenly became a man, who pointed something at Harris and shouted, “Stupefy!”

Dennis jumped forward a few paces and whirled to face his cousins; Harris collapsed, his stick tumbling to the ground and rolling to stop at Jeremy’s feet.  The woman staggered, and for a moment Dennis thought she’d drop too, but she stumbled forward to grab a handful of Lisa’s hair and pull her back, placing the tip of her stick at the girl’s temple.  “No closer, Moody!”

The man muttered a curse.  Dennis, who was close enough to get a good look at the man who had to be Mad Moody, gasped in surprise.  The old man, clad in a dark cloak, with a covering over one eye, and a face that was lined and scarred, was even more frightening than Harris and mysterious woman.

The woman was backing slowly away, dragging Lisa with her.  Jeremy was crouched down, watching them with frightened eyes.  Moody moved a step forward, leaning on his waking staff, and the woman jerked Lisa to a halt.  “I mean it.  You know what I can do to her.”

“No,” whispered Jeremy in a tiny voice that barely reached Dennis’s ears.

“Don’t be stupid,” Moody retorted in a rumbling voice.  “You know what will happen if the Ministry finds out that you’ve injured a Muggle child, especially in front of witnesses.”  Jeremy was turning his head back and forth between the woman and the old man.

“The Ministry won’t find out,” the woman replied with a sneer.  “Who’s going to tell them?  You?  With your reputation?  The Ministry will just put it down to paranoia.  And a Memory Charm will take care of these kids.  Or maybe they’ll just disappear.”  She smiled coldly.  “You know, there are all kinds of strange people around these days.  You just never know….”

“Leave her alone,” came Jeremy’s small voice from the ground.  Dennis glanced at his cousin; Jeremy had picked up Harris’s stick on one trembling hand.  Now he straightened up and pointed it at her.

The woman laughed.  “That wand won't work for you, boy - you’re a Muggle.  Now, you get up and go stand with your brother while Moody and I finish this.”

Jeremy stood his ground.  “Let her go,” he said in a stronger voice.

“Back up, son,” Moody said softly.

The woman scowled.  “Get back with your brother, unless you want to see her get hurt.”  She jerked the stick against Lisa’s face, and Lisa whimpered.

“No.  Leave her alone!”  Jeremy held the stick with both hands and pointed it at the woman.  “LEAVE HER ALONE!”

A brilliant flash of light erupted from the stick in Jeremy’s hands and enveloped both the woman and Lisa.  Dennis ducked his head and flung his hands up to protect his face.  When he lowered them, the light was gone and both Lisa and the woman were lying on the ground.

Jeremy dropped the stick.  “No!”  He scrambled forward to fling himself at this sister's body.  “Lisa?”

Dennis was a couple of paces behind him.  They heard Moody move up beside them.  The old man awkwardly knelt beside Lisa and carefully touched the girl’s throat.  “She’s alive.  She just seems to be stunned.”  The one good eye turned to Jeremy.  “I don’t think you're strong enough to do much more than that.  Let's see....”  He pointed his stick at Lisa.  Dennis tensed, but Moody merely said, “Ennervate,” and Lisa's eyes fluttered open.  Finding Moody hovering over her, she let out a yelp and scrambled backward, nearly colliding with her brother.  Moody’s mouth twisted in what seemed to be a dry smile.

“Right.  Here's what’s going to happen.”  Using the walking staff, he pulled himself back to his feet.  “You kids go straight up the hill from here.  You won’t have any trouble finding the house this time.”  Seeing the look on all three children’s faces, he added, “It’s all right.  Nothing’s going to hurt you.  I’m just going to finish up here.  Go on, off with you.”

Dennis, Lisa and Jeremy exchanged glances; then Dennis quavered, “Yes, sir,” and they moved off, Lisa clutching both their hands.

The woods around them had changed again.  A walk of less than a minute brought them to the top of the hill and the tall old house standing there in the midst of a small clearing in the trees.  The place wasn’t very big, but it seemed to have two or three stories; it was hard to tell because none of the windows seemed to be on the same floor.  From the front porch they could see a dim grey ribbon of the road they had come up earlier that morning.

“I want to go home,” Jeremy said softly.

Dennis shook his head. “I don't know if we can yet.  We should have been able to get to this house from the road, but we got lost in the woods instead.  Maybe the same thing will happen if we try to get out.”

Lisa glanced nervously over her shoulder.  “W-What do you think he’s g-going to do to us?”

“Just talk.”  All three children jumped as Moody’s voice came from directly beside them.  He’d appeared literally from nowhere.  “There's nothing to be afraid of.  I don’t hurt children, Muggle or otherwise.  I just want to find out what happened.  Come on in.”

A few minutes later the three children were sitting in what appeared to be a small dining room.  No two chairs were alike; Dennis perched on a plain chair with a wicker back panel.  Lisa and Jeremy each sat on chairs with carved wooden backs and small arms.  The rest of the room was a jumble of shelves, a round dining room table, an elaborately carved storage chest, a mirror, several houseplants, and a handful of strange objects that Dennis didn’t recognize.

Moody returned from the kitchen, a tray floating in the air behind him.  On the tray was a set of mugs and tea items that were as mismatched as the furniture.  Ignoring the startled looks the children were giving the tea tray, the old man scooped a pile of books off the table and held them out to Dennis.  “Here - put these up on the bookshelf for me, please.”

Dennis stood up to take the books, and the top volume began to growl at him.  “Quiet, you,” Moody rumbled at it, and the book fell silent.  “It’s all right, it just sounds dangerous,” he told Dennis, who finally took the pile gingerly and laid it up on a shelf - then jumped back as the books stood themselves up one by one and began shuffling in among the other books already in place.  The bookend obligingly made room for them.

“Wow,” breathed Dennis as he turned back to the table.  Moody drew his wand and tapped the teakettle with it.  A few moments later steam began to roll out of the spout.

“You kids help yourselves,” he told them.  There were packets of tea, and some powdered cocoa.  Dennis began handing out mugs and cocoa, but Lisa hesitated.

“M-Maybe we shouldn’t drink anything here,” she suggested timidly, looking around her cousin at Moody.

Moody settled himself in an empty chair and nodded at her.  “Very intelligent of you,” he remarked, and Dennis and Jeremy froze in the midst of putting cocoa in their cups.  “For all you know, I’ve put something in the water.”  He picked up the mug he’d abandoned earlier, eyed the (now) cold contents for a moment, then poured the liquid into one of the plants on the windowsill.  He spooned fresh tealeaves into the mug and poured hot water over them.  “But in this case, it’s just plain water.”  He carefully took a sip, and the children finished preparing their own cups.

“Now,” Moody suggested, when everyone was finally settled, “let’s see if we can sort out what’s happened here.”

 

***

 

The mirror flashed again as Dennis finished relating his story.  Moody scowled at it, then muttered a curse under his breath.  “Ministry must be watching this place,” he remarked to the children.  “They’ve gotten wind of the duel Rosier and I just had.  We must have been right on the border of my property, and someone’s coming to warn me about doing magic in front of Muggles.”  He rose.  “I need to deal with this.  You kids sit here and finish your drinks.  Whatever you do, don’t leave the room.”  He limped back into the kitchen.

“What do you think-”  Lisa began, but at that moment two people appeared at the edge of the front lawn.  Both men were dressed in the same types of robes Moody was wearing.  The three children watched as one, a thin young man, approached the house and began talking with Moody, who had stepped out his front door.  Whatever Moody was saying seemed to displease the man, but he finally motioned to his companion, who moved off toward the woods.

A moment later Moody came limping back into the dining room, the young man just behind him.  “This is Agent Edsel,” Moody told them dryly.  “He’s a Ministry investigator - a detective, of sorts.”

“You mean like Sherlock Holmes?” asked Dennis eagerly.  Edsel gave him a confused look.

Moody chuckled.  “Yeah, like Sherlock Holmes,” he replied, then added in an undertone that only Dennis could hear, “except without the brains.”

After conjuring a note pad and a quill pen, Agent Edsel had Dennis repeat his story.  The quill scratched lightly over the paper as Dennis spoke.  The man shook his head.  “Kidnapping is, of course, a very serious offense,” he intoned.  “Rest assured, we will deal with Ms. Rosier and Mrs. Harris.  Thank you for your assistance.”  Edsel glanced around at the children and drew his wand.  “Now, there is one small matter to attend to… a Memory Charm.”

“Hold it,” Moody growled.  “No Memory Charm.”

“But Mr. Moody, you of all people should know it’s standard procedure with Muggles-”

“They’re not Muggles,” Moody shot back.

Edsel made a polite sound of disagreement.  “They don’t come from wizarding families-”

“Doesn’t matter.”  Moody gestured to Jeremy.  “Mr. Thurber.  Come here.”  Jeremy stood, a little shakily, and managed to walk three steps forward.  Moody drew Harris’s wand and held it out to him.  “Take hold of this.”

The boy glanced at his sister, then back at Moody.  “Is - is this going to hurt?”

“Not a bit,” the old man assured him.  Jeremy carefully reached out and took the wand.  The tip glowed for a moment.  Moody nodded.  “Just what I thought.”

“What is it?” asked Lisa.

“It means, Miss Thurber, that your brother is a wizard - or will be, when he’s been properly trained.”  Moody retrieved the wand and studied it.   “Mmm.  Oak wood, but I can’t tell what the core is.  Basically, when the time comes for him to choose his wand, it will be similar to this one.  That’s why he could use this one to stun Ms. Rosier.  A wizard’s own wand works best, but he can get reasonable results from a wand of similar materials and dimensions.”

Edsel was looking a little overwhelmed.  “Ah.  Yes.  Well, I guess that does shed a different light on things.”  He blinked and rubbed his forehead dazedly.  Moody eyed him thoughtfully.

“You been in this line of work long, son?”

“Er, no, not - not really.  It’s just that most of our senior operatives are busy getting ready for the Quidditch World Cup, and….”

“And they couldn’t be bothered wasting a senior agent on a disturbance involving a crazy old man,” Moody finished for him.  Edsel had the decency to look embarrassed.  Moody uttered an exasperated sigh.  “All right.”  He took a third wand out of his robes.   “This belongs to Ms. Rosier.”  He passed both confiscated wands to Edsel.  “You’ve got your statement here, now get out to where your partner is working and make sure your suspects are in custody.  Got that?”

“Yes, sir.”  Edsel stood up and gestured off-handedly; the note pad and quill vanished with a “pop”.  “Thank you.  I’ll, ah, be in touch.”  He looked questioningly at Moody, who nodded.  “Yes.  Right.”  Edsel turned on his heel and marched briskly out of the dining room.

Moody leaned on the table and peered after him.  “The Ministry must really be hard-up for good help these days,” he muttered.  “Hope he doesn’t get lost on the way to the door.”

“Could he do that?” Dennis asked.  “Get lost between here and the door, I mean.”

“Yep.  I’ve got the same kind of spell on the rooms in the house that I do on the woods - the same spell that dumped you kids on the far side of the property.”  Seeing the looks on their faces, he added, “I didn’t want to hurt anyone, just keep folks away from the house.  Now, where were we?  Mmm, yes, Mr. Thurber as a wizard,” Moody gazed at Lisa for a moment.  “There’s also the possibility that you have magical ability as well, Miss Thurber.  Magic does tend to run in families.”

Lisa’s expression was a mixture of nervousness and excitement.  “Really?  How can you tell?”

“I can’t,” Moody told her.  “But you’ll know for certain when you turn eleven; if you’re to be a witch, you’ll receive a letter by owl from one of the magical schools, probably Hogwarts.”

“We’ve already gotten a letter by owl,” Jeremy said.  He pointed to the window.  “That owl.”  A small grey-brown form was fluttering outside the glass.  Moody nodded.  “Short-eared owl.”  A few minutes later the bird was perched on Moody’s hand and the old man was turning away from the window.  Lisa was watching him enviously.

“This is the owl you kids brought up here?” he asked.  The children nodded.

Lisa added, “He wasn’t flying very well last night - it looked like he was going to bump into things.”

Moody carefully ran his fingers over the owl’s back, shoulders, wings, and neck.  The owl half roused, then settled again.  “Mmph.  Well, he’s young yet.  Almost too young to be a messenger owl.  He seems all right - was probably just confused by the storm.”  He motioned to Lisa.  “Here.  Put your hand behind him, like this….” And a moment later, the owl had stepped backward onto Lisa’s wrist and stood blinking at them.  Lisa stared at it, an awed expression on her face.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Moody told her dryly, and limped around her to settle himself back in his chair.  No sooner had he sat down than Agent Edsel reappeared outside the window and headed straight for the front door.  Moody stared at him, then rolled his eye toward the ceiling.  “Don’t tell me….”

“Mr. Moody,” Edsel began with preamble as soon as he was inside.  “I’m afraid I’ve got some, ah, bad news concerning the suspects.”

“You lost them.”

“Er, yes, um, yes, sir.”  Edsel’s face bore a look of mingled embarrassment and fear.  “The Binding Spell you had on them wasn’t Ministry-regulation, so my partner and I --”

“You took the Binding Spell off them?”

Edsel cringed at Moody’s scowl.  “Well, yes, but really, we couldn’t leave --”

“Mr. Edsel.”  Moody’s voice was a low growl.  “I have been catching and transporting Dark witches and wizards for over a century.  I don’t care what the Ministry regulations are on Binding Spells.  The spell I used was more than sufficient to keep your suspects captive until you got them back to the Ministry.”  Moody folded his arms on the table and leaned forward.  “You do still have her wand, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course.  I sent my partner to scout the grounds -”

“Why?  Rosier and Harris are long gone,” Moody snapped.  He stabbed forefinger at Edsel.  “You catch up with your partner, get yourself back to the Ministry, and get the paperwork filed that will get those two caught.  Understand?”

“Sir?”  Edsel took one look at the expression on Moody’s face and stammered, “Y-Yes, sir!”  A moment later he once again on his way out the front door.  Moody scowled after him.

“Send a boy to do a man’s job….”

Dennis, Lisa and Jeremy looked at each other.  “Mr. Moody,” Dennis said finally, “d’you think they’ll come back after you?  Rosier and Harris, I mean.”

“Maybe.  It’s nothing for you to worry about.  I can take care of myself; I’ve been doing it for years.  I’m more concerned about you….” His voice trailed off.  Dennis and Jeremy silently sipped their drinks as he gazed out the window, lost in thought.  Finally he turned back to them.  “Did you tell either Rosier or Harris your names?”  He was looking at Dennis, who shook his head.  “All right, then, you and your families shouldn’t have any unwanted visitors.  But just to make sure-”  He drew his own wand, “-we’ll take some precautionary measures.”

“Now,” he said a few minutes later, “I want you kids to go straight home.  Don’t talk about this with anyone - not your parents, or your friends.  Don’t discuss it among yourselves unless you know for a fact that no one can hear you.  Understand?”  The children nodded.

“Um, Mr. Moody?” asked Dennis.  “Why were Rosier and Harris after you?”

Moody tucked his wand back into his robes.  “Ms. Rosier comes from a fairly famous wizarding family.  Or rather, a fairly infamous one.  She’s got a father and other relatives who’ve been on the shady side of the law for years.  I put a least a couple family members in jail.  She’s none too happy about it.  Harris’s name doesn’t ring a bell, but I suspect his story’s similar.  Judging from the note you brought, they’re obviously not working alone.”  He rose and reached for his walking staff.  “All right.  I’ll see you all out.”

At the front door, Dennis turned.  “Sir, after Lisa and Jeremy go home at the end of the summer, could - could I come back up here?  By myself?”

The old man stared down at him for a few heartbeats.  “We’ll have to see about that.  I need to get this business cleared up with the Ministry first.  You steer clear of this place until you hear from me.  After that….”  He shrugged and opened the door.

“Mr. Moody?” asked Lisa.  “Do you think Dennis will be a wizard, too?  Like Jeremy?”

“That I can’t say,” Moody replied, stepping out onto the porch with them.  “But if he’s meant to, he’ll getting an owl when he turns eleven, too.  Even if he isn’t, though, it’s not a bad thing for a witch or wizard to know a few people in the Muggle world - especially if that person knows how to keep his mouth shut about such things.”  He stared pointedly at Dennis, who nodded solemnly.  “You get on home, now.”  He turned his attention to the owl, now perched on Jeremy’s backpack.  “And you - you stick close to these kids, in case they need to send to me for help.”  The owl seemed to stand up a little straighter.  "He'll be able to take care of himself, for the most part," Moody told them.  "Just be careful about letting him near your house when someone else might see him."

“Yes, sir.  Thank you for tea,” Lisa called over her shoulder.  Jeremy peered at Moody as his sister led him down the path, Dennis herding them both before him.  At the point where the path entered the woods, Dennis paused, turned, and waved.  The old man raised a hand, and the boy disappeared into the woods.

Just inside the curtain of trees, the children encountered Edsel and his partner, standing just off the path and arguing about Moody’s order to return to the Ministry.  Dennis and his cousins froze, uncertain of what to do; but as the agents continued their debate, the three children walked past them on the path.  Both men ignored them, as though the children were invisible.

As they stepped out onto the road, Dennis muttered, “Weird,” and shook his head.  “I wonder if that’s got anything to do with what Mr. Moody did to us.”

 

***

 

The dining room mirror went blank as Edsel and his partner Disapparated.  Moody shook his head.  Ministry employees certainly weren’t what they used to be.  He carefully peeled the leather patch from his face and Banished it back to its place in the drawer of the bedroom dresser.  Well, at least the Fidelius Charm would keep the children safe from Rosier and Harris and their ilk.  In another year he could make arrangements to remove the Charm if it turned out that Dennis and Lisa were indeed going to be attending a magical school.  It would be easy enough to keep and eye on Dennis (both eyes, when he could spare them), who either way would probably have some knowledge of the magical world whether he became a wizard or not.  And if the Ministry didn’t like his decisions in this matter, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

A large brown bird soared through the trees, banked, and turned toward the house.  Moody tapped his mug with his wand to reheat his tea water.  Then he turned his attention to the Great Horned Owl that had just landed on his window ledge, bearing an envelope with the official Hogwarts seal that contained a request from an old friend for assistance in filling an open position as member of the school staff.

 

_______________________ 

“Even a paranoid man may have some real enemies.”

                        Henry A. Kissinger (U.S. Secretary of State, 1973-1977)

 

Author’s Note:  Alastor (“Mad-eye”) Moody, The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Ministry of Magic, and the idea of postal owls are borrowed from the Harry Potter stories written by J.K. Rowling.

Many thanks go to Zsenya, from the group at Sugar Quill (http://www.sugarquill.net).  The Sugar Quill folks not only archive a number of fanfiction stories, but also offer “gentle” editing suggestions. (“Think ‘Lupin’, not McGonagall”, as one section of the website states.  I graduated from the Syracuse University’s School of Journalism, so I’m actually used to the Severus Snape method of feedback; working with Zsenya’s editing style was a welcome change.)  

//
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