Friday, December 26, 2008

115. The Day of Five Puzzles

Contest winners: i6uuaq and greyniffler

Spanky’s tale continued...

“The day after Silver Conkling saw the Potters off, I found myself spread very thin. A trainee agent woke me with urgent news that Silver’s party had not returned, and there weren’t enough agents left to change the watch. I went up to Sir Lionel’s owlery at once and sent an owl to the RMB office in Blokebury, reporting on the situation, and another to Godric’s Hollow with a note asking if the Potters were all right.

“The return owls arrived almost at once. Blokebury promised to send reinforcements to relieve the watch and ordered me to begin investigating the disappearance of Silver’s party as soon as they arrived. While I was still reading this, the Potters’ owl arrived, assuring me that they had made it home safely and without incident, and when last seen, Silver, her team, and the elf-driven carriage were headed straight back to Mangeford. James had the foresight and kindness to send a little extra with his message: a rolled-up invisibility cloak, shrunk down to the size of a handkerchief.

“Ilona and I were the only agents who had not been on watch all night, so when the relief agents arrived I sent the night watch to bed and went off in search of answers, backed up only by my undetectible wife.

“I put on James Potter’s invisibilty cloak, and Ilona and I hopped on our brooms. We quickly retraced the route to Godric’s Hollow, where Lily forced on me a tied-up napkin full of biscuits, then slowly searched the fields and woods back in the direction of Mangeford. We were flying grid patterns over a wide, dense wood when I spotted movement below. I signaled to Ilona and swooped down for a closer look, expecting Ilona to meet me on the ground.

“I landed silently behind a tall, dark, figure that appeared to be prowling through the woods. As I drew out the knife Zophar Goode had given me, the figure seemed to be sniffing the air. I was just looking round to see where Ilona had got to when the prowler turned on me and swiftly aimed a long, silvery blade at my throat. With his other hand he whipped the invisibility cloak off me – a detail that added a whole scary dimension to the accuracy of my attacker’s aim. I swallowed slowly, my Adam’s apple nearly touching the tip of his knife, and forced myself not to blink.

“I found myself looking into an oddly familiar face – worried blue eyes, a firm unshaven jaw, lined and leathery skin, and a wild wavy tangle of salt-and-pepper hair retreating from the top of a sunburnt forhead. Though he was built entirely differently from his brother, I immediately realized that I was looking at Zichri Goode.

“’Drop the knife,’ he growled. I did as told. He didn’t even seem to look down, but his face darkened as the knife sank halfway up its blade into the ground. ‘That belonged to my brother,’ he said, in a whisper even more terrifying than his growl. ‘How did you come by it?’

“’I visited him yesterday,’ I said as Goode patted my right-hand pocket and took away my wand. ‘He gave it to me.’ I watched his face, thankful that he hadn’t thought of looking for the other wand in my left-hand pocket, and wondering if I would have a chance to draw it. He watched my face, searching for any sign that I was lying.

“’What were you doing there?’ he asked after we had studied each other for a while.

“’Rogue Magic Bureau business,’ I said. I waited until he had fished my credentials out of the inside pocket of my cloak before adding, ‘I was following up on a tip. It turned out to be nothing.’

“’Aren’t there rules against RMB agents accepting gifts from a suspect?’ Zichri Goode asked, with just a hint of wry humor added to his menacing tone. I didn’t answer. I guessed he had already worked out the way Zophar had bound me to keep Full Moon Kennel a secret.

“’What are you doing here?’ I asked, breathing a bit more freely as I pushed the point of Zichri Goode’s knife away from my neck.

“’Searching,’ Goode grunted.

“’So am I,’ I said. ‘Have you seen anyone in this area? Abraxan horses, maybe? A carriage? Or a house-elf?’

“’No,’ said Goode. ‘Have you seen a short, fat man with a lame leg?’

“’No,’ I said. ‘Why are you looking for him in here?’

“’He was expected at the Kennel yesterday. He always shows up three or four days ahead of the full moon, so he can settle his nerves before the place fills up with guests. His clotheshorse showed up this morning without him – ‘

“’Sorry?’ I asked. ‘Clothes-what?’

“’Clotheshorse,’ said Zichri Goode, impatiently. ‘Trunk with legs. Old-fashioned like, so I suppose a modern government wizard like you wouldn’t be interested, but very practical for a gimpy old werewolf like Mr. Nivol. It could only have walked out of these woods without him, if it had walked into these woods with him. He might have fallen down or...’

“’Or been attacked,’ I added grimly. ‘I think whatever happened to my people may have happened to your werewolf friend.’

“’And you suspect an attack?’ Goode said, somehow managing to look twice as intense as before. He handed my wand back to me and stooped to retrieve my knife from the ground. While he was looking down, I chanced to look up and saw a fountain of red sparks rising above the treetops from a way off.

“’There’s something going on over there,’ I said as he handed me my knife. ‘I’ll fly ahead on this broom and leave a trail of smoke; you follow it and catch up as quickly as you can.’

“Goode agreed, and I flew off, landing next to Ilona just as she was about to fire off another fountain of sparks. She looked very relieved when she saw me flying toward her.

“’What is it?’ I asked. ‘Tell me quickly, because Zophar Goode’s brother will be here in a moment and – ‘

“’Didn’t you see it?’ Ilona said, smacking the back of my head. She pointed upward, toward a tree over which I had flown only moments before. From above it had looked like a typical oak tree, shrouded in green leaves. From below I saw that the limbs seemed to have seized up in a spasm of agony. Caught in the branches was the crushed wreckage of a carriage. The carriage. Sir Lionel’s fancy, Abraxan-drawn carriage: small enough on the outside to fit in a little shed, yet large enough on the inside to carry the entire student body of Mangeford’s Private School for Young Witches and Wizards on a field trip to Hogwarts without weighing an ounce more than an empty carriage. The Dark Mark was painted on the driver’s seat with what looked like dried blood.

“Just seeing the carriage, with so many fond memories attached to it, destroyed like that was almost enough to make me cry. But now I also noticed that the tree branches were sprinkled with tufts of animal fur, horsefeathers, and blood. There were scorch marks on the bark, clusters of withered leaves, and even a long shred of wool from somebody’s robe. But no bodies, alive or dead.

“’I’m going to look inside,’ I said, shaking Ilona’s hand off my elbow. I climbed on my broom, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Zichri Goode was approaching.

“There was one body inside the carriage: the house-elf driver named Mitsy. The interior, designed to look like the drawing room in Sir Lionel’s house, was full of smashed bottles and art works, singed draperies, torn cushions, and cracked plaster. The carpet looked as if a herd of swine had stampeded through it, straight out of a mud wallow. Everything was tilted at a crazy angle, and the floor felt like it might give out under my weight.

“Mitsy opened her eyes, as I knelt beside her to check for life signs. ‘I knew Young Master would come back,’ she said faintly.

“I held her tiny hand and didn’t correct her. She had me mistaken for Sir Lionel’s son, a squib who had gone into the Navy the year I got into Hogwarts. Lionel Junior had only been back once, for his mother’s funeral the following year. I realized that Mitsy was too badly injured to survive much longer, so I let her believe whatever she liked.

“’Can you tell me what happened?’ I asked instead.

“Mitsy trembled, coughed a few times, and whispered, ‘Tree attacked us.’

“’How could it?’ I asked, looking out the gaping doorway at the branches of a very ordinary, though twisted, oak.

“’Ambush,’ said Mitsy. ‘Spell. Lots of shadows closed in. Shadows with wands. Flashes of light, loud noises – bangs, screams – I tried to save the horses, but the shadows got them too...’

“That was all Mitsy was able to say before she passed out again. A moment later her breathing became labored, and then it stopped altogether. She died holding my hand.

“I broke the remaining legs off a small table and levitated Mitsy onto it, strapped her down, and floated the makeshift stretcher to the ground before coming down myself.

“’I don’t know who is alive and who is dead,’ I said to a very agitated Zichri Goode, and indirectly to Ilona, when I touched down. ‘Everyone but Mitsy seems to have been taken away by whoever did this. Even the horses! They must have been Death Eaters, trying to get at the...hem.’ I caught myself in time and didn’t say ‘the Potters’ in front of Zichri Goode.

“’We know one thing,’ said Goode, pointing up at the dark mark on the driver’s seat of the carriage. ‘Somebody didn’t survive.’

“The abomination on the carriage made me seethe with anger. I remembered riding in it, with other members of the village school, to formal dances at Madame Hunsicker’s Dance Studio. Ariadne Hunsicker was a large, severe woman with long spindly arms and a habit of wearing a bustle, so that she often looked like a giant spider – a look completed by her habit of knitting lace while watching the proceedings over the rim of her pince-nez. Unfortunately, she also ran a finishing school for young hags. I still blush to think of those awkward evenings, standing in a tight, nervous group of boys around a punchbowl filled with vinegar and cod liver oil, while a group of horrid little hags preened and beckoned to us from the other side of the dance floor. Only the girls from our village had any fun, dancing the hextrot and the tarantacula all evening and taking turns leading each other. Suddenly those nightmarish, pre-Hogwarts experiences seemed like a sacred treasure that had just been desecrated. Plus, some of the best RMB agents I knew were either dead or being tortured by the Death Eaters. Four good agents, plus probably an innocent werewolf with a crooked leg and two beautiful, winged horses...

“’I need to stop at your place,’ I told Goode, when I had ground my teeth long enough to make my jaws ache, ‘so I can send an owl to Blokebury about this.’ I prepared to mount my broom again. Zichri put his hand on my arm.

“’Don’t fly angry, son,’ he said. ‘Think about this. The Death Eaters may like to inflict death and terror, but even they don’t get into a battle this big without a reason. What did they hope to get out of those people?’

“’That’s one puzzle,’ I admitted, trying unsuccessfully to shake my arm free of his grip. ‘Though I think I have a good idea about the answer.’ The Potters had just survived one attack; perhaps this one was meant for them as well.

“’You sound as if you have a few more puzzles on your mind,’ Goode said gently. His eyes bored into me, unnerving in their sharpness of perception. ‘Why don’t you tell me about them?’

“’Because I don’t have time,’ I snapped, feeling foolish as I said it.

“’But you do have time to go tearing off in the wrong direction because you haven’t thought clearly about what you’re really searching for,’ Goode said, even more gently than before. ‘If any of those people are still alive, they are depending on you to find them quickly. So think first – and I’ve found that talking things out helps you think them out.’

“I tried to pull away. Goode gripped my arm even harder. I chanced a look at Ilona, hoping I could get some time alone with her before I owled the RMB, but saw her shaking her head at me. Goode then answered another objection of mine before I even voiced it: ‘I have to trust you to keep my secrets, don’t I? Why shouldn’t you trust me?’

“’Trust me?’ I snorted. ‘Trust has nothing to do with it. Your brother put a binding on me.’

“Goode shrugged. Then, with his free hand, he held out his knife. I looked at it, shocked. He nodded his head encouragingly. So I spat on his knife blade, and he did the same. Then he loosened his hold on my arm, and I spoke. I told him everything that had happened, beginning with the walking broom tree, going right through my duel with Shmedly, the Potters’ narrow escape, and Silver’s successful mission to escort them home safely.

“’So the first puzzle,’ I said, ‘is how Shmedly got through the Fidelius charm over Sir Lionel’s safehouse. The second puzzle is how he deflected all my jinxes...’

“’Assuming this attempt to assassinate Sir Lionel is connected with the attacks on the Potters,’ Goode said pointedly.

“’But of course they’re connected!’ I cried. ‘I don’t know how, but the Romanian plot against Sir Lionel fits together somehow with the Death Eaters’ plot against Lily and James. It has to. In fact, I think the first attack on the Potters was never meant to succeed; it was to lure them into taking refuge at Sir Lionel’s safehouse, which they had also taken over...’

“I paused, suddenly struck by the nauseating thought that all this made Sir Lionel a very strong suspect.

“’But since you had already cleared them out of the safehouse,’ Goode went on, ‘they had to change their plans, hence this second attack last night...’

“’Which didn’t actually target the Potters,’ Ilona put in.

“’That’s right!’ I shouted, eagerly grasping an idea that could clear Sir Lionel of suspicion. ‘They didn’t – or couldn’t – or maybe didn’t want to – get the Potters last night. They waited until their escort was on its way back...’

“’Which gives you your third puzzle,’ said Goode, showing no sign of being confused by my outburst when he couldn’t have heard what I was agreeing to.

“’Yes,’ I said. ‘What did they want with two Abraxan horses, four RMB agents and an elderly werewolf who was just passing by? Why were they taken?’

“’They are trying to learn how to get past whatever is protecting the Potters,’ Ilona said.

“’That’s puzzle four,’ I said. Then, to help Goode follow my thinking, I hurriedly added: ‘Why don’t they just attack the Potters directly, if that’s what they’re after? What’s protecting the Potters?’

“’And the fifth puzzle,’ said Goode, ‘is: What did they mean to tell us by leaving this poor house-elf here?’

“’That’s no mystery,’ I said, glancing bitterly at Mitsy’s body. ‘To the type of wizards who would do this, house-elves don’t count as people. They probably overlooked her. In a way, she was lucky. It would have hurt her a lot more to see the Death Eaters making sport of her horses.’ I sighed.

“’Has this helped?’ Zichri asked. ‘Do you know where to start looking now?’

“As he said this, I saw something poking out of Mitsy’s tiny fist. I bent down and pulled it out. As soon as I unfolded it, I knew what it was.

“’Shetland lace,’ Zichri Goode said, looking over my shoulder. ‘My mother-in-law used to knit the stuff.’

“’Did she make it out of thread spun from cobwebs?’ I asked, testing the strength of the lacework against the edge of my knife.

“’Er, not that I’m aware of,’ said Zichri Goode.

“’Then yes,’ I said. ‘I do know where to start looking.’ I straightened up and told him, ‘Madam Hunsicker’s Finishing Academy for Young Hags.’

“While Zichri Goode looked concerned for my mental health, I thought the real fifth puzzle was: How did I just happen to think about Ariadne Hunsicker, before I saw a scrap of her lacework in a dead house-elf’s hand?”


To help choose the direction of the next few chapters of The Magic Quill, visit the Discussion Forum, or send Robbie feedback. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest entry (or entries) Robbie likes best, will be featured in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]

SURVEY: How many of Silver’s team will Spanky save from the Death Eaters? (A) All of them. (B) All but Silver herself. (C) One or two. (D) Only Silver. (E) None

CONTEST: Describe something spooky (but not too graphically violent) that Death Eaters would do to a couple of Abraxan horses, while interrogating their prisoners.

[Originally posted 3/18/07]

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