The invisible wizard called Merlin shifted audibly in his seat, then began his tale...
"It all started back in the days when You-Know-Who was on the rise. The Hogsmeade Owlympics had just ended, and a dueling craze took hold of the wizarding public. A lot of the shops in Knockturn Alley broke sales records in those days. And Knockturn Alley is where I found myself on an ill-starred, August day.
"I had been hired by a certain party to keep tabs on his younger son, who could be charitably described as a 'problem child.' He kept lousy company, had rotten habits, and spent untold galleons in ways that tended to bring shame to his parents. Well, the old wizard paid me handsomely to see just what his whipper-snapper was up to, and to see whether I could stave him off from real trouble--Death Eater stuff.
"So I was trailing the lad--let's call him Rigel--and that day, as on several earlier occasions, he joined up with friends and took Floo powder to Knockturn Alley. I followed discreetly, taking care to come out in the hearth next after the one where Rigel got off. I excused myself hastily from the Hag Hairdresser's shop I turned up in and spent a few minutes tracking down Rigel and his mates. When I found them, they had just been approached by a stooped, greasy-looking peddler who was handing Rigel a tattered slip of parchment. I listened from a distance, using a handy eavesdropping spell. The old man was telling Rigel to memorize the address on the parchment, then destroy it.
"Rigel pocketed the parchment and began pushing his way through the crowd outside the Jinx Emporium, followed by a couple of his mates. He appeared to be looking for a private spot, but Knockturn Alley was crowded that day. I pushed after him, trying to keep a low profile, but somehow in the scrum I caught up with the lad unexpectedly. He looked straight at me for a moment--my heart almost stood still, I thought he had twigged to my tailing job--but he kept looking around, as if trying to find a particular person. While he was looking away, I did a quiet summoning charm and found myself clutching the slip of parchment the old peddler had given him. While Rigel was still looking around for who-knows-what, I flash-memorized the slip and banished it back into the lad's pocket.
"Later, when I had put in a long day of watching Rigel and his mates at play, I retired to my garret and thought over the instructions on that little slip of parchment. 'Between sunset and moonrise of the first Tuesday after the full moon, go to the second stile past the churchyard on the road that goes southeastward out of Little Hangleton,' they said. 'Follow the black ewe with the white streak on her head. Remember the way she shows you, because she will not appear another time, and the way can neither be described nor charted. Fidelius and Unplottable Charms, dontcha know.'
"Well, I didn't know what all this was about, but I intended to find out. It sounded like serious trouble to me. Death-Eater stuff. And if Rigel was going there, I certainly must follow.
"I stood at that stile, on the night in question, covered in my trusty invisibility cloak. A short time after sunset, Rigel appeared alone, looking scared and excited. A black ewe with a white streak on its head ambled out of the shadows of the nearby woods, and Rigel followed it over a hill, under the deep shadows of the wood, through twisting and forked paths, across a chuckling stream, around the base of another hill, and into a hidden valley where the air bristled with anti-Muggle spells, anti-apparition enchantments, and concealment charms. And at the very end of the valley, sheltered under an overhang of rock so that it almost became a cave, stood a huge structure of earth-colored brick. It was covered in moss with windows few and tiny and a vast wooden door behind an iron portcullis, a drawbridge and a moat. From within, or from the ground beneath my feet, came eerie sounds or vibrations: deep humming, a muffled throb, what might have been the shrieks of animals or humans or mechanical things.
"At the end of the path before the moat stood a squat tower with a bell in it, and a long rope dangling down. The ewe went up to the tower, nudged it with her nose, then wandered off along the edge of the moat, nibbling on the grass. Rigel looked around anxiously before pulling the rope. The sound of the bell ringing split the silence of the valley, and almost at once, things started to happen. Lights flared in the slit windows, a trumpet blared, and the drawbridge thunderously lowered itself toward us over the moat. As it did so, I stepped up close to the tower and read an inscription fixed to it at eye level. It said:
VOLD-MART"As I took in the end of the inscription, the drawbridge went bump against the curb before us, and the massive portcullis began to rise amid the clanking of chains and the scrape of machinery. With a shiver, as if mastering himself to do something terrible but necessary, Rigel stepped forward.
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"I should have run the other way, and I knew it. But I had to stop Rigel from doing something he would never be able to undo. I could have grabbed him right there and set a portkey back to his father's mansion, and perhaps it would have been better to have done so. But I also had to find out what Rigel was getting up to and what could be done to make him leave under his own power. Otherwise, he would just come back another time, when no one was following him. There was nothing for it but to follow Rigel across that drawbridge, into what looked like the most sinister fortress this side of Azkaban..."
[Originally posted 12/3/04]