Sue's 53rd birthday passes peacefully. Later, she remembers it more for the peace than the birthday.
Sue and Peg live together, quietly, in a house in a boring suburb of London. They don't celebrate birthdays, much. Peg's 60th passed a few months back without fanfare, and this morning Peg only says, "Happy birthday," before they get out of bed and go about their day. Peg makes tea, the horrible strong stuff that she learned to love in the war. Sue put up with it for five years, tolerated it for another seven. Now, if she's honest, she doesn't know what her morning would be without it. Peg puts two spoons of sugar in Sue's cup without needing to ask. They don't need to do much talking anymore.
Sue met Peg back in 1964, when Sue was working as a typist for a firm in the city. There was a whole room full of sleek brunettes in sharp suit dresses tak-takking out words for men with mustaches and trilby hats. Smoke and chalk dust hung heavy in the air. Sue loaned Peg her lipstick and they moved into an apartment together the next week. They stayed up all night most nights, talking to begin with. Sue's still not sure which of them got up the courage first.
It's chilly. Fall is settling in with a vengeance. "Full moon tonight," Peg notes, reading the newspaper.
"Yes, I remember. Meeting tonight, then."
The two of them have been attending the midnight moon meetings for so long that some of the newer members think they're founders. They're not; Greta Scot and Mary James started the MMM back in the late sixties. Peg and Sue got invited shortly afterward.
"Bunch of magic mumbo-jumbo," Peg mutters.
"You've never missed a meeting."
Peg subsides, turning her face up for a kiss.
"See you after work, Peg." Sue puts on her blazer and grabs her handbag, then walks out to the car. They just have the one, but Peg mainly putters about in the back garden these days. Sue drives into Woking, the long way round to avoid the railway crossing—the scenic route, Peg calls it—and parks. These days she works at a cheerful shop that sells children's toys, called the White Rabbit. The picture on the sign looks a lot more like a mouse in a uniform than a rabbit, but that's part of its charm.
It's an unremarkable day, except for selling an actual white rabbit to a little girl who's come in with her grandmother. They also leave with a toy garden that has felt carrots to pull out of the corduroy ground. Sue calls home during her lunch hour.
"Sold a white rabbit," she tells Peg.
"You've sold the shop? Are you owner, then?"
"No, goose, a toy rabbit. And a garden."
"I know, I felt extraordinarily accomplished. How was your morning?"
"Saw an owl in our garden," says Peg.
"What, during the day?"
"Not a cloud. Bright as anything. It didn't look sick, but I've left out some water in case it comes back."
"I didn't think we got owls."
"All the white rabbits had better be on the lookout, hadn't they?"
After work, Sue locks up. She walks down the street to the market on the corner to get some apples for the meeting. They've got the radio on inside.
"Just the apples, ma'am?" The clerk is a lanky, spotty young man.
"…flying over St Albans," says his radio. "Although it's unusual to see them out during the day, nearby Chiltern Hills could be the source…"
"And cod, please. Twelve ounces." Sue pays and drives home.
They eat the cod with a bit of thyme and garlic from the garden, and some peas from the icebox. Peg takes a nap. Sue tugs the paper over to work on the crossword. After a while, she gives up on that and reads a little. She falls asleep in the chair and wakes to Peg's hand on her cheek.
"Did you buy the apples?"
Sue fetches them.
The meetings aren't far. Back when they first started, they used to get dressed up every full moon. A lot of young ninnies in ridiculous black dresses swanning about chanting things, as Sue recalls. These days they mostly go in what they've got on already. Peg wears a clean pair of trousers without dirt stains at the knees. Sue leaves her blazer at home.
Their neighborhood is turning over. Young couples looking to start families are moving in as the older folks move out. Almost all the houses are full of new faces now. Some of them are delightful young folks. Some of them, like the house at the end of the block, are downright miserable. The woman stays at home with the baby, and the man rolls out every morning in the world's ugliest suit and tie. The woman spoke unkindly to Peg within the first month. They moved in a year and a half ago, and they haven't improved with age.
There's a cat just down the block. Sue stops to scratch its ears. "We should get a cat."
"A black cat," Sue continues, just to tease her.
Peg elbows her.
The meeting is nice. It always is. Sue cuts up an apple for the table of offerings to the Mother, and takes a sip of the wine. There are candles. It's held outside, in Greta's garden. Greta's begun to make some noise in a rather pointed kind of way about getting too old to host anymore. In the next year or two, Sue suspects, she and Peg will start having the meetings at theirs.
A few excitable young women approach them, as usual. They've both got blond curls combed to look wind-swept. One of them has one of those silver crescent moon necklaces on.
"We're just so happy to be a part of this group," one of them is telling Peg. "We younger girls have so much to learn from you elders."
Sue pulls Peg away before she can reply. "We're delighted you're here. I'm Susan, this is Margaret. We do look forward to seeing you next month. We've got to be getting back."
"We were never that young," Peg complains, holding Sue's hand on the way back.
"Oh yes we were, and twice as silly."
Peg arches an eyebrow. "I was never silly a day in my life."
Sue, who has lived with Peg for almost twenty years, laughs in her face.
That's when they see the baby.
It's on the front stoop of the house down the street from their own, the one belonging to the unpleasant people. Sue wouldn't have even noticed if it hadn't been for the cat, who flicked around the side of the house just as they passed. The movement caught her eye, and there was the basket.
"Peg," she says, stopping.
Peg sees. "Sue—"
"They're awful people," Sue says.
"Sue, we're old women."
"They already have a baby," Sue says.
"So they know what to do with one."
"Yes, can you imagine?"
Peg sighs, and Sue has her.
"We'll take it to the fire station in the morning," says Peg.
"Of course," says Sue, and neither of them believes a word.
The letter is short, but troubling.
The letter is short, but troubling.
There is no salutation.
I am sorry for your loss, it says. Not only the monumental loss of your sister and brother-in-law, who, I regret to inform you, have fallen in the battle against evil. Not only for that loss, but for stealing Lily away ten years ago. It must have seemed terribly unfair, as must seem this letter. Know that Lily loved you to the last, and would doubtless have wanted you to care for her child as your own. His name is Harry. I suspect that he, and you, may be in grave danger. He must stay in your home until he comes of age at seventeen, at which point we will do our best for you. I hope that these are nothing but the troubled nightmares of a babbling old man, but I fear the worst.
It is signed, with a flourish in bizarre sparkling purple ink, Albus Dumbledore.
Sue reads it twice, then folds it up and stores it in the inside cover of her private sketchbook. The one with a lion emblazoned on the spine.
In which Sue and Peg take Harry to a Moon Meeting.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"You've got a baby," Greta says blankly at the next midnight moon meeting.
Sue and Peg talked about it, about one of them staying home with Harry while the other went to the meeting.
"But he's up at midnight anyway," Sue pointed out, "so it's no use pretending to keep him home for sleep's sake. Besides, he might learn something."
So they bring him along, wide awake and interested, wrapped up in one of Peg's old jumpers.
"There was a sale," Peg tells Greta.
"Abandoned, poor mite," says Sue, leaning in. She's not above this sort of thing herself, when the mood strikes her. "We thought perhaps he might be a changeling."
One of the younger girls overhears and jumps in. "Oh, such a blessing!"
"Oh, such a ninny," Mary James mutters over the table of offerings, just loud enough for Sue to hear. "Is she sleeping through the night yet? My great grand-son started sleeping through at six months, of course you can't expect all babies to be so accommodating. What's her name, then?"
"Harry," says Peg.
A few of the women stare. Dorothy Martin gets downright shirty. "You're never bringing a boy to the moon meetings, Margaret, I know you're not."
Mary shoulders her gently out of the way. "Shut your gob, Dot, he's only a wee baby. There's no harm. What did you lot bring for the table, Peg?"
Peg hands Harry over to Sue in exchange for the bananas from Leo's. Harry, uncharacteristically, doesn't even make a grab for them as they go by. He's too busy stuffing his fist into his mouth and staring at everyone else. He's been a quiet child, as far as Sue can tell, although she doesn't have much to compare him to. She has vague memories of Lu as a babbling, cheerful baby, and even fuzzier ones of Ed, but she could just as well be making them up. Harry is quiet, anyway, and always watching. A little over a year, the doctor says, with four teeth on the top and four on the bottom. Healthy, he says. Sue wonders, sometimes. Shouldn't he be talking by now, at least a little? So far he hasn't spoken a word. Even his crying is quieter than the babies she's heard in the shop.
"Are you starting him on solid food?" The other Margaret is Peg's opposite in just about every way. Where Peg is straightforward and grumpy, Margaret is bashful and eager to please. She rarely speaks up at the monthly meetings except to volunteer her help to some community project.
Sue wracks her brains for the most recent."Margaret. How is the library project?"
Margaret smooths the front of her skirt twice. "We've had ever so much interest. And I wanted to thank you and Peg for the volumes you sent over. They'll be wonderful for the fifth-formers. But I wanted to ask you about your—about Harry. Is he eating solid foods?"
"We've got in some mushy peas, oatmeal, that sort of thing. He loves bananas." Sue taps Harry on the nose. He blinks at Margaret.
"I only-" says Margaret, shuffling. "Have you got some formula? There've been studies, you know, about babies and getting the right nutrition, and I thought, since the two of you are…older…" She falters to a stop, waving her hands.
"Well I'm certainly not giving him my tit," says Peg. If Sue weren't holding Harry, she'd give her a good smack.
Sue takes pity on her. "We're giving him formula, Maggie."
"All right, all right," Greta breaks in, clapping her hands. "Coo over the little man child later. We've got to do a welcoming ceremony tonight, my dears."
Sue looks around and spots the newcomer. She's a dowdy little thing with sagging stockings and a handbag that's nearly as big as herself. There's a grey tabby cat poking out of the bag.
"Ah min," says Harry suddenly, reaching toward the woman.
"Ah min?" Sue asks him. "Peg—"
"I heard," says Peg.
"Ah min," Harry says again, but then drops his hands and only stares.
"This is Miss Arabella Figg," Greta says, ignoring them. "She's just moved to the neighborhood. I invited her to come along, as she said she had an interest in the magical arts."
Miss Figg wiggles her fingers in a timorous wave, sniffing underneath enormous spectacles. "So nice to meet you all." Her voice is thin and rather nasally. The cat in her bag gazes round at everyone, then disappears into the depths of the bag again, unimpressed.
"Ah min," Harry says one more time.
Another snippet! I really like the idea of magic and MAGICK bumping into each other.
What do you do with a magic baby?
Two months in, the oddities begin.
"Am I going quite mad," Peg asks on Monday, "or are there eggs on the ceiling?"
"Yes, it seems Harry prefers porridge." Sue gets a step ladder from the cupboard under the stairs and scrapes egg off the ceiling. She's not entirely sure how it got there. She supposes that Harry flung it in his fury. "Amazing what feats of strength a person can perform when they're properly motivated."
"Never cared for porridge, myself," Peg tells Harry. "Wait until you have a proper breakfast, my lad. It'll put hair on your chest. So I'm told."
"She's downright swarthy," Sue whispers to Harry from the other side. He looks solemnly between the two of them, then sticks his porridge-covered finger in his ear.
She's sure she would have forgotten about it, but then Sue takes Harry with her to the Rabbit. It's Viola's day in, and Sue's been promising her boss she'll bring him round. Viola beams at Harry and offers him whatever he wants from the store. "Go on, lad, pick what you like. Set him down, Sue, see what he chooses."
Harry chooses a black teddy bear.
Viola coos over it and refuses Sue's money. "What will you name the bear, darling?"
Harry hugs the bear to his tiny chest and sticks one hand in his mouth. Then he removes his hand. "Dog," he says clearly, waving the bear.
"Dog the Bear it is," says Sue.
"Dog," says Harry.
That isn't the odd bit. The odd bit is later, when Dog the Bear doesn't seem to leave Harry's crib. They've bought him one second-hand but sturdy, and they like to keep toys out of it. But when Sue takes Dog the Bear out of the crib, she gets to the door and finds her hands empty. She picks it up again, holding it firmly between both hands. Before she takes two steps, it's back in the crib.
Sue tries one more time, with no success. Then she comes out of the bedroom into the sitting room where Peg is listening to the football match. "Peg, it's my turn. I'm either going mad or the world is. Would you come see which it is, please?"
"Hang on a mo, Susie, they're nearly done—there! Blast it, the Americans of all people. All right, what is it?"
Peg can't get Dog the Bear out of Harry's crib either. She gets the pinched look about her lips that reminds Sue of the bloody-minded woman she met years ago. "Well I'll be damned," she says softly.
Peg knows Sue's history, knows all about why they never had to worry about telling Sue's family, knows the stories Sue and her brothers and sister used to tell each other. Peg's got history, too. "But this isn't my line," she tells Sue over a few fingers of good scotch. "You and your fairy stories have anything helpful?"
Did she? Sue downs her scotch and brings out her secret sketchbook. "We both know what that was, then? We're both thinking it, it isn't just me?"
Peg shakes her head. "My dearest Queen Susan, that was either magic, or it was 'sufficiently advanced technology.'" They've both been rather fond of Clarke's work. "I've seen a number of things in my life that make me hesitant to rule either out."
Sue hands her the sketchbook.
It's full of doodles and diary entries—things she remembers about her reign and return, heraldry from court, names of foreign dignitaries. Once, not long before the four of them had gone back, she'd woken from a sound sleep in a panic because she'd remembered that they needed to send stores of tallow to the Red Dwarves. She'd written down the whole list and for whom each order was destined. It was only after she had the whole lot scribbled out in her exercise book that she realised she was plain Susan of England again, and nearly thirteen, not a grown queen at all. She tore the page from her book and shoved it into her sketchbook and there it stayed.
Peg leafs through, pausing here and there. She hesitates for a long time on Sue's portrait of Peter. He's in armor, helmet under one arm. He'd just got done sparring with Ed, she remembers. He'd flubbed it a bit, and Ed had got him a nice blow to the skull.
Peg closes the book and hands it back. "Not stories, then?" She's absolutely calm, and God, Sue loves her.
"No, not quite stories." Sue thinks about the magic she's known. It was a different sort, not this thoughtless displacement of matter. It was Good, and Evil. Her fingers find the letter inside the cover. A shiver runs down her spine.
"Do you think straight folk have to deal with this shit?" Peg asks.
The thing about life, Sue knows, is that it does go on. Regardless of circumstances, whether they be catastrophic or strange, life must continue to be lived. Their Harry is a remarkable child with unpredictable abilities. And yet they must still buy groceries and go to work and go about their lives. And then everything changed, she has often reflected, is the most untrue sentence ever written by authors of fantastical adventures.
One of the bizarrely normal things that happens is Arabella Figg and her cats. Sue and Peg both feel sorry for her, the poor old bird, with her frowsy appearance and nervous habit of meeting everything but one's eyes. She lives next door to the awful family that might have been Harry's if they hadn't intervened. She has a dizzying number of cats. "If she were a bit more unpleasant or stern, she might actually live up to the Midnight Moon Meetings," Peg is fond of saying. But the Figg house is at least externally tidy, with no hint of the cobwebs or creaking boards that might entice children looking for a thrill. It simply smells vaguely of old cabbage and overcooked rice on warmer days.
Sue and Peg have begun inviting her round for tea on occasion. She nervously accepts, and nervously attends, always clutching her handbag and constantly tugging one stocking straight. She seems equally charmed by and terrified of Harry.
"No children of your own, then, Mabel?" Peg asks her one day, passing a cucumber sandwich with the crusts trimmed off. Harry, in his chair at the corner of the table, gums a cucumber slice.
Arabella looks just past Peg with her habitual tremulous smile. "Never married, I'm afraid. And babies, well, they're awfully messy, aren't they?"
"Not like cats," Sue mutters into her tea. She has never been overly fond of house cats. She can't quite help but find their very existence disrespectful. Like little tame lions, she thinks, with an uncomfortable feeling. She hasn't been able to bring herself to have pets at all in her adult life.
In spite of her clear discomfort around Harry, Arabella continues to visit. Over time, she begins to emerge a bit from her shell. She's employed by a private institution somewhere in Scotland, they learn, to do some kind of research. She's very vague on the details and long on Latin, but Sue gets the impression it's something to do with some kind of plant. Solanaceae, or something like that. Tomatoes and potatoes and that sort of thing.
"Mine are very well behaved," Mabel says primly.
Sue and Peg have occasion to see for themselves how well-behaved Arabella's cats are later in the week. Peg finds one prowling their garden. "She's a pretty tabby," she tells Sue over the phone at lunch. "A bit bony, getting on in years, nicely aloof. What a cat ought to be. She and Harry don't get on."
"He'd like to play tug with her tail. She'd prefer that he refrain. She does let him get awfully close, though."
"Have you called Mabel? I don't like them out and about where they could get into the street."
Peg laughs. "I have. She made the most dreadful sound, like a mower backing over a rubber mouse. Said she'd be over directly. Oh, did Jill tell you she sold her house?"
Jill Turner and her husband Robert bought the blue house down the street a few months before Peg and Sue moved in. Robert's been ill, though.
"I thought their daughter was coming to help out?"
"She's moving them to a Facility."
"That's a shame." Sue will miss them. Jill attends church regularly with the kind of zeal usually only seen in Americans, but they're a nice couple anyway. "Did she say who bought it?"
"Young family with a baby, as it happens. Moving in at the end of the month."
"We'll bring something round." Sue makes a rather nice meat pie, when she can be bothered.
"Ouch, no, Harry, no pinching," says Peg.
"See you at home, love," says Sue.
"Oh, no, she's none of mine," says Mabel, when they ask her about the cat. The cat, unconcerned, washes its whiskers from atop the garden wall.
"Ah min," says Harry.
Harry is fascinated by the moving van. He sits up in Sue's arms and watches it backing into the driveway.
"Beep beep beep," says Peg.
"Mee mee mee," Harry agrees.
The woman, small and rotund with muddy brown hair, shoves a pram up the front steps with no help from her probable partner. He's standing idly next to the moving van. He's a slender man, with dark hair clipped close to his head. It makes his long features look even longer.
Sue thinks of Mrs. Macready. "I knew a housekeeper once, who said the Black Irish were full of temper and bile."
Peg grins. "The blond Irishman I knew certainly was."
Their new neighbor displays his temper in a cool, patronizing way. They can't hear what he says to the driver, but it's done impersonally, and the driver leaves without a tip.
"Bile," says Harry.
The couple introduce themselves as Iris and Reginald Polkiss, and their son Piers. Piers is about Harry's age, but much louder. Harry regards him with a mixture of interest and caution. Reginald stands over the patch of garden where his son is merrily tearing up the grass and scowls at the world.
Iris works as a realtor's receptionist in Woking. "Reg stays at home with Piers. We were ever so pleased to be able to afford this place—room for a bit of a garden round back, you know—and it's not too far for work."
"Good for you," Sue tells Reginald in surprise. He looks down his nose at her.
He's so young. Peg is clearly laughing at him, but Sue feels an upwelling of pity. He comes from money, she thinks, by the way he seems accustomed to giving orders, but he certainly isn't floating in it now. "Come by for dinner next week, won't you? The lads can play."
Iris and Reginald have a short staring contest, and he looks away first. "We'd love to," says Iris.
Peg offers to help them with the moving, but this Reginald declines, Iris backing him up. "We don't have much," she laughs, "mostly baby things. I'm sure we don't have to tell you!"
It's only as they leave to walk back into their own house that Sue notices Reginald's left sleeve. He doesn't have one. His neat, button-front shirt is sewn straight up his left side. She wonders how he manages Piers alone at home with only one arm. Peg complains often enough, and she's got the use of both her arms and not nearly so sour a disposition.
"I suppose I'd be sour, too, though, if I were accustomed to luxury and found myself having to make do," she tells Peg that evening after Harry has gone to bed.
Peg is cutting potatoes while Sue balances their books. "Accustomed to luxury?"
"He's very stiff for someone with a working Woking wife."
Peg elbows her for the alliteration. "Maybe he's naturally stiff. Some are."
Sue shakes her head. "He's been to a boarding school, I'd bet. They leave a mark, some of them literally, even in these enlightened days."
"Hmm. Make all the excuses you like," says Peg, who has certainly seen her fair share of broken men. "I don't like him."
"He reminds me of Ed," says Sue.
Peg kisses her temple. "Very well, my dear. We shall rescue him from his own deplorable inclinations."
"And Iris seems nice," says Sue.
"And Harry would have someone to play with," says Sue.
Sue adds up all her numbers and finds that there are twelve pounds missing. She sighs and begins again.
Sue and Peg and Harry live in a two story house with a cupboard under the stairs. There are three bedrooms upstairs. One is in the process of being converted from a sewing room into a nursery, one is a guest room, and the third is where Sue and Peg sleep. Downstairs, the door opens onto the front hall. To the left is a small kitchen, to the right a sitting room. Behind the kitchen is a dining area with a door out to a little patio looking over the garden. The patio is right underneath the largest bedroom, and there's a tiny balcony that Sue likes to stand on in the middle of the night when Harry won't sleep.
She wraps them up well, as the weather's taken a turn towards chill and clear. Harry stops whimpering as soon as the fresh air hits his face.
"We can't very well have you sleep out here, can we?" Sue sits down on the chair she's taken to keeping against the rail for this very purpose.
Sometimes she sings to him, little hummed things with more memory to them than tune, but tonight they only sit. Harry looks up at the stars. She wonders if he can see them.
"I used to know different constellations, you know," she tells him. "I'll show you the book, someday." She wonders, sometimes, if Harry will get in to Narnia. "You'd make a wonderful king," she tells him. "Though I've gone off kings somewhat since I was a child. Peg would speak sternly to me for saying so. She does have a great fondness for the royalty. I suppose she must have known the Queen during the war. Well. I was a queen during the war, so where does that leave us, hmm?"
"Hmm," Harry grumbles. "Geesu."
"Queen Susan, yes, that was me."
They both fall silent and watch the stars for a while. It must be nearly one, although Sue hasn't heard the clock on the landing strike anything but the half-hour. The neighborhood is quiet.
Then, a door opens in the house next door and Mr. Polkiss steps out. Light floods out of the house around him, shading his face and illuminating his back. He shuts the door and sits on his own patio. There's a faint flare of light, and then a larger one as a candle is lit. He hunches over it with a notebook, or maybe some loose sheets of paper. He's writing something.
Sue is about to call down to him—writing one's thoughts down in the middle of the night when one is as lonely as she suspects Mr. Polkiss is never goes well—when there's a streak of movement at the edge of his garden. Sue blinks.
There's a woman standing there with a knife. Before Sue can sound the alarm, the strange woman is standing with her knife pointed straight at Mr. Polkiss. It's a strange way to hold a knife, and with a frisson of dread Sue realizes that it's not a knife at all. It's a wand.
She sits very, very still, remembering another terrible woman with a wand. There is no Lion here. Queen Susan would jump into action, rouse Peg, throw something. She doesn't have her bow. And there's Harry. She cannot risk losing Harry.
Below, Mr. Polkiss doesn't move. He says something to the woman, calmly, the vague murmur of his voice drifting up to the balcony where Sue is trying to convince herself to do something.
After a few more words, the woman waves her wand. Sue flinches, but Mr. Polkiss doesn't. There's a brief glow, but nothing else changes. The woman lowers her wand.
Sue takes a deep breath to call out, but the woman is gone again. Mr. Polkiss has gone back to writing as though nothing interesting has happened.
"Harry," says Sue, "what world is coming for you?"
The door behind them slides open. Peg steps out in her bare feet. "Want me to take him?" she mumbles, rubbing her face.
Sue hands him over. "I'll make us some tea."
That wakes Peg up. "It's one in the morning. What's happened?"
"Tea," Sue says firmly.
This is what they know:
- Harry is magical, in all of the usual ways that babies are magical, and also in this other way, the one that means he can make things happen just by wanting them. "I can't wait for puberty," Peg says.
- There is someone else who is also magical running around with a wand. This is a woman. Sue didn't get a very clear look at her, it being dark. "She was probably older than sixteen," she offers ruefully.
- Mr. Polkiss is aware that there is a magic woman about. It doesn't seem to bother him.
"He really just sat there?" Peg dumps five spoons of sugar into her tea and stirs absently. "Nerves of steel?"
Harry has fallen asleep in Peg's lap, face smashed against her arm.
Sue frowns. "I don't think so. He didn't seem surprised, really, and he didn't act threatened. Whatever he told her was enough to get her to back down." Ed was like that, both the first time he was a man and after, back in England again. He told Sue once that after what he'd done, nothing anyone thrust at him seemed that bad. I know who I am. I know what I am, he said. No insults or malevolent promises can touch what I've already thought inside my own head. Mr. Polkiss is like that, Sue thinks. She wonders what he can have done.
"I must say, our street has gotten awfully interesting in the last few months," says Peg.
"Of course we can never tell Greta and the others," Sue points out.
Peg snorts. "Can you imagine? Mary would die of bitterness. A baby boy with real magic!"
"You're just so blessed," Sue gushes, "we'd just love to come observe you and the magic changeling child."
"My arm's gone numb," Peg says. "Sue, what are we going to do?"
"Go to bed, I suppose. There's no more tea, and I have to open the shop tomorrow. But would you consider having Reginald and Polkiss round for tea while I'm out? See what you can dig up."
The yellow light over the sink casts deep shadows under Peg's eyes. She drains the last of her mug of lightly tea'd sugar. "Spying again, then? Well, one must keep one's hand in. Yes, I'll invite them round."
"Lovely," says Sue. "I'll offer Iris a ride in to town, or perhaps lunch together. One of them will let something slip, I'm sure." She's laying odds on Iris, but Peg is an awfully good listener. She has a way of giving a certain weight to a silence, and suddenly one finds oneself telling her one's whole life story.
"Divide and conquer. Right-o. Let me get this one squared away—up you come, my lad—and then to bed myself!"
"I'll be up directly. And Peg—"
Peg turns at the base of the stairs, arms full of drooping baby, face turned in a tired, warm smile.
"Thanks for doing this with me. I couldn't do it with anyone else, you know."
They throw kisses back and forth, and Peg goes up to bed.
Sue takes out the letter again, looks at the glittery purple signature and the phrase battle against evil. It's easy to fall into resentment and grief. It's easy to think that Lucy would be better at this. But it's an easy lie. Lu never liked subtlety. It was a skill Sue shared with Ed, that the other two approached only when they had to. Peter and Lucy were brilliant and fierce and so bright they'd blind you, but they were horrible at getting round someone who needed tact or coaxing. Sue lets herself imagine what Lucy would do in her place and laughs. "It's a good thing it's me, Lu," she says aloud to no one. "I don't think poor Mr. Polkiss would survive you."
She tucks the letter away and follows Peg upstairs.
Iris, over a lunch of dry sandwiches from a terrible place next to the White Rabbit, tells Sue an amazing story. Sue's almost certain she's lying.
"Who is Piers' father, then?" she asks.
"He died," Iris says blithely, without a trace of sadness. She catches Sue's expression. "No, don't, I didn't care for him at all. Reg is much kinder, and so attentive. And so good with Piers! Of course we couldn't stay in London, what with his family and all, so we moved out here. I do sometimes feel rather a—oh, I don't know, fallen woman. We're not married, you know. But my parents are past caring, and his would rather see me rotting in a grave somewhere, I suppose, so here we are."
Sue breaks off a piece of her sandwich, wondering if it will be easier to eat in pieces. It isn't. "Was he overseas?"
"What?" Iris, on the other hand, seems to be thoroughly enjoying her sandwich.
Sue shrugs her left arm. "None of my business, really, but Peg was in the service. Different war, of course."
"Oh yes," says Iris. "Very different. Not that—I didn't mean to say—oh dear," she subsides, crimson and horrified with the thought that she might inadvertently have called Margaret Carter old.
"Things have changed," Sue agrees mildly. "Africa, then? He doesn't look tan enough." She gives up on the sandwich and focuses on her tea.
"He doesn't like to talk about it," says Iris, which isn't an answer.
"It must be very hard for him, making such a life change."
Iris laughs. "Oh, it is. He barely knew what a refrigerator was when we started living together. But his—that is, he's a very good cook."
"We really must have you over for dinnner, then. How is Friday?"
Peg's experience is different, apparently. "We can add flying to our list of things that Harry can do," she tells Sue ruefully that evening. "He and Piers played very prettily on a blanket in the garden while Reginald and I talked. Well, I say talked. We sat in polite silence. I've never met anyone who could be so comfortable not saying a word. At any rate, there was a little garden snake, and Harry seemed quite taken with it. Reginald spotted it, though, and my gracious that man can move. One moment he was sitting in the chair next to me, like a particularly congenial stick, and the next he was snatching Piers up before he could do so much as cry. That startled Harry so much that he sneezed himself right into the air. Took us about half an hour to get him down again."
"What did Reginald say to that?" Sue asks. Harry is now sitting on her lap, showing no signs of flight whatsoever.
"That's the curious thing," says Peg. "He didn't. At the end he took a piece of peppermint out of his pocket to coax Harry down, but then he said they had to be getting home, and thanked me for having them, and invited us all to come round on Saturday. As though Harry'd done no more than spill a glass of milk."
"Why Ms. Carter, are your powers failing you?"
Harry blows a raspberry. Peg jabs him lightly in the belly. "That will be quite enough out of you, young man. He's a harder case than usual, I'll admit, but I'll have him yet."
The cat that Mabel Figgs swears up and down isn't hers jumps up on their kitchen casement window and shoves it open with her head. She's been doing that lately. Sue suspects Peg of sneaking her food.
"Ah min," says Harry, reaching for her.
"Gentle, Harry," Sue says absently, eying the cat. "You may get a chance before Saturday. I invited Iris for dinner Friday."
"Fie," says Harry.
"Yes you did, didn't you, my little pigeon." Peg bops him on the nose with one finger. He giggles. "You flew like a bird."
"Bird," says Harry. "Fie."
Sue smiles at them indulgently. "Do you think you can manage it now, Harry? I would love to see it."
Harry puts up his arms. "Fie," he demands.
Sue scoops him up and flies him around the room like a tiny airplane. He cackles with glee.
The cat, which Sue has privately been thinking of as Ahmin, seats herself primly beside the grate. It's not a modern electric fireplace. They did discuss getting one, but Sue remembers the grand hearths of Cair Paravel and feels about electric fires the way she feels about cats.
"We won't feed you, you know," she tells Ahmin. She has never quite broken her habit of speaking to animals as though they might respond. "You keep coming here, but we've nothing for a cat. I do hope Peg hasn't been sneaking you tuna."
"I would never," says Peg, which means she probably has.
Ahmin closes her eyes and purrs.
They have other things to worry about before Friday rolls around, however. It's Thursday, so Sue has the day off. The three of them are in the sitting room after lunch. Peg is chuckling over The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, although she claims it's offensively flippant. She and Sue both enjoyed listening to the radio series a few years back. Now Peg enjoys reading passages aloud to the two of them and laughing while she explains to Harry why he must never find something so irreverent amusing.
"…goes on to prove black is white…then is killed at the next zebra crossing," Peg reads. "Always look both ways, Harry, regardless of the existence of God."
And then there's an impatient rap at the door. "I do hope no one's come to knock our house down," Sue says, rising. They're not expecting anyone, and hardly anyone visits except Mabel. Certainly not in the middle of the day during the week. She opens the door.
The woman standing on the front step is thin, angular, and rather horsey around the face. She's in her early 30s, Sue thinks, and probably spent a good bit of her youth staring at public school girls and wishing for a distant and wealthy relative to die. Sue has been that type herself, so she's sympathetic.
She's also the woman at the end of the street, the one on whose doorstep Harry was left several months ago.
"…Hello," Sue says carefully. "What can I do for you, Mrs. …?"
The woman purses her already thin lips. "Dursley. Petunia Dursley. I— May I come in?"
Sue glances sideways at Peg and Harry. Peg, bless her, has set down the book but looks otherwise unruffled. Harry is watching, as always. "Yes, do come in. I'm Susan Pevensie, this is Margaret Carter, and this is—"
"Harry," Petunia Dursley chokes out, and stumbles inside. Alarmed, Sue catches her arm, but Petunia shakes her off. "Drat him, he looks like his father."
"Most babies do, you know," Peg puts in mildly. "I read somewhere it's a defense mechanism. To keep the brutes from harming them. The human race must survive our baser sex somehow."
"Your brother-in-law," says Sue. "Nothing of your sister, then?"
Petunia doesn't answer, but she and Harry are staring at each other with the same eyes. Sue has wondered whether Harry's eyes will turn brown to match his shock of black hair, but for the moment they are still the indistinct blue of infancy. The same blue as Petunia's.
"Tea?" Sue asks finally, and puts the kettle on in the kitchen without waiting for an answer. She contemplates taking her time about it, but she doesn't want to leave Peg and Harry alone with Mrs. Petunia Dursley.
"Lily had green eyes," says Petunia, when Sue returns.
"I'm terribly sorry for your loss," says Sue.
Petunia tears her gaze from Harry and gives herself a little shake. "Thank you. I— We fought, Lily and I. She made friends with the wrong sort, and then got herself killed, and I. We have a baby as well. Dudley. He was born first, just after Mum passed. And Harry was just a month later."
Sue nods. "We didn't know when his birthday was," she says. She's not sure what kind of conversation this is going to be, but she's damned if she's not going to be honest about it.
"July 31st," says Petunia. "We got an announcement card, anyway."
Peg stands to move closer to Sue, putting herself subtly between Harry and Petunia. "Where is your delightful son, Petunia?"
Petunia either ignores the sarcasm or doesn't notice. "Mrs. Figg's watching him. Usually he stays home with me, but I wanted to talk to you." She steals another glance at Harry. "He looks happy."
"Thank you. We hope so. Have you come to take him back?"
Harry abruptly decides that he likes this new person and thrusts Dog the Bear out for her inspection. She's much too far away to notice, though, so he thrusts Dog the Bear again. This time the fuzzy black toy gently rises into the air and floats two feet off of the ground until it has reached Mrs. Dursley. Then it bumps to a stop next to her shoe.
There's a split second when Sue swears she sees Jadis' winter form in Petunia's eyes, but then they all blink. Dog the Bear tips over and doesn't move again. "No," says Petunia. She shudders. "I just wanted to see he was all right."
The kettle whistles.
"I won't stay." Petunia nods at them all stiffly, goes back to the door. Half-way out, with her hand on the knob, she says over her shoulder, "They'll take him back, you know. When he's eleven years old, they'll come for him."
And then she's gone.
Friday's a grey day, inclined to drizzle. Even the immaculately kept grass in the Dursley's front garden looks soggy and drab. Sue goes to work and comes home from work. The only color on the street is the rowan's bright berries, dripping listlessly next to the drive. Days like this one always make Narnia seem nearer, somehow, as though England is fading away and leaving behind memories brought to life again.
"Come in, Sue, nice weather for ducks!" Peg greets her at the door with a kiss and a towel for her shoes.
Sue sticks her umbrella in the stand. "Have you got the chicken done?"
"I have, and the peas, so don't fuss. Harry wanted to try them, so he's got four of them all over his face. Here, take the oven mitt, the timer's about to go—I'll go give him a wash. When are the Polkiss family coming?"
"I told them half past. They seem like the punctual sort, don't you think? Especially Reginald."
"Hmm," Peg hands her the oven mitt and goes off to move peas around on Harry's face.
There's a rap at the door just as Sue is taking the pudding out of the oven. She covers it to keep warm before greeting their guests.
"Do come in, please, let me take your jackets, I'll just hang them here." While she's brushing water off Iris's worn rain jacket and Reginald's immaculate mackintosh, she studies the pair of them from the corner of her eye. He is wearing another crisp button front shirt. His mackintosh is also missing the left sleeve. Where does he get his clothes tailored? Perhaps Sue's initial estimation of their wealth was inaccurate, and all of their money goes into his attire?
"Thank you, that's kind." Iris is carrying Piers, who struggles and bounces as soon as they're in the door.
"Peg, they're here! Harry got a bit messy; they'll be just a moment."
Piers makes a beeline for the table cloth. His mother scoops him up just as he's about to give it a good yank. "I sympathise," she says with feeling. Piers contents himself with grabbing a handful of her floral blouse instead, and trying to jam his hand inside. She flushes. "He wants milk. Sweetie, not now, it's almost dinner time."
"You can use the bedroom, if you like," Sue offers.
Iris looks at Reginald.
"Fine," he bites out.
"I don't have to," she says. "It's just—he'll keep trying, and—"
"It's fine," says Reginald.
After hesitating another instant—in which time Reginald's face gets a little stormy—Iris nods.
Susan leads her to the hallway. "It's just through here. Closed door at the back."
"Thanks. Reg gets nervous around new people." Iris gives an uncomfortable laugh. "I feel bad leaving him, only Piers…"
Sue pats her on the back. "We shan't eat him. You take care of your lad, and we'll have dinner when you come out."
Peg and Harry emerge as Sue passes the toilet. Peg raises her eyebrows. Sue opens her eyes wide and gives her a patently fake enthusiastic smile. Peg squeezes her shoulder with the hand not occupied with Harry. They all go back to the sitting room together.
Reginald sits stiffly in one of their least comfortable and most decorative chairs. His dark grey trousers are sharply pressed, giving him what Lucy used to call "knife shins." His shirt is snug, as though it's meant to be worn beneath a waistcoat.
"Your Iris is lovely," says Peg, because in addition to being a good listener she doesn't know how not to poke at people. Sue ramps up her plastic smile. Peg blithely ignores her. "I am so happy to get the chance to spend more time with her."
"Where did you meet?" Sue asks politely, trying to head off the tectonic force that is Margaret Carter.
"In the…service," Reginald says. "I was injured. She took care of me."
This is so precisely what Iris said, down to the tiny pause, that Sue sits up and takes notice. "Yes, in the service, she mentioned. In the north, somewhere, I believe she said?"
He twitches, just a bit. "London, actually. My family has a home there."
"You came out here to enjoy the commute, I expect?" Peg puts in. "Only joking—it's awfully nice not having a nine to five, isn't it? I love the chance to spend time with Harry." She tweaks his nose. He responds by blowing a bubble.
"Indeed," says Reginald. "Piers is acceptable."
Sue's eyebrows fly up at this. Acceptable?
Reginald stirs himself to be social. "What did you do, Madam Carter, before your retirement?"
Peg gives him a grin that shows all her teeth. "Security."
If she's hoping for a reaction, she is disappointed. Reginald nods. "And you, Madam Pevensie?"
Maybe it's the way he's almost looking down his aristocratic nose at her that makes Sue want to tell him to call her majesty. She draws herself up, straight as an arrow. "I have done many things in my life, Mr. Polkiss. At present, I am employed selling toys to children."
She rather expects him to sniff at her, but instead he relaxes enough to give a tiny smile.
"Do you find that amusing?" Peg, ever her knight in shining armor, asks him.
"Not at all. Madam Pevensie, you remind me of one of my more tolerable cousins."
At this point, Iris returns with Piers, and it's time for dinner.
Here is how dinner goes:
"May I serve you some chicken, Iris? Harry, those aren't for eating."
"Oh, thank you Sue, that looks—Piers, that's mummy's water—that looks wonderful."
"Reginald, would you pass down the peas? Thank you."
"Not on the table, Piers. Reg, tell them about what he did the other evening? In the garden?"
"Peas, Harry. They go in your mouth. Yum, yum!"
"You may tell it."
"Here, take Piers to wipe his face. It was so sweet—"
"Loo's just down the hall, the open door."
"—he saw that cat that comes around and wanted to feed her, so he piled up a bunch of sand and told her to come eat it. I swear the cat actually pretended to. I wish I'd had a picture of it."
Harry, deprived of peas, bangs on the table.
"Should we try him on some chicken, Sue?"
"No, it's too early. Your Piers is darling, Iris. What are you feeding him now? Harry still doesn't eat much solid food."
"More peas, Harry?"
There is a sudden, small pop, and the peas, the chicken, the plates, and the table all vanish.
When Reginald and a newly washed Piers return, Sue and Peg are trying to figure out how to get their table back. Iris, Sue notices, is startled, but not nearly as shocked as she should be. Reginald takes in the scene, and Iris takes Piers.
"Harry," she says, as though it explains everything. Perhaps it does.
"Does Piers make things happen, too?" Sue asks. Are all children like this, actually, and she just doesn't remember?
But Iris shakes her head. "No, not at all. He's entirely muggle, as far as I know."
"He's what?" asks Peg.
"Reg," says Iris.
Reginald sighs. "Creature."
There's another sudden pop, and then the ugliest beardless dwarf Sue has ever seen is standing in her living room, fixing all of them with a beady eye. Peg lets out a sound that might have been a shriek if it had more voice than air to it. Harry does shriek, but he's smiling hugely. He reaches for the little thing and burbles.
"Master calls," says the beardless dwarf, bowing to Reginald. The whole body is droopy and thin. Long ears that look like pigs ears droop down over skinny shoulders. A long, pointed nose droops down over a long skinny chin. A long toga droops down over skinny legs.
"Recall dinner, Creature," says Reginald, as though ordering food at a restaurant.
Is it's name Creature? It's nothing like a dwarf, really, much too skinny. It bears a certain resemblance to a marshwiggle, now Sue comes to think of it. It's even got a marshwiggle's habitually sour expression. But she doesn't recall ever seeing a marshwiggle this short.
Whatever it is, it bows again, reaches up and snaps long bony fingers, and with yet another pop, produces the table, food, and chairs from thin air. It looks at the table with some distaste, then snaps again. Another few dishes appear on the table, the largest of which is a covered platter, the smallest of which is a dish of butter with flecks of herbs in it.
"Rude," Iris sniffs.
"Master's…friend…thinks Creature is rude. Creature must go iron—"
"No punishment, Creature." Reginald smooths the front of his shirt. "See that the nursery is ready for Master Piers at 8 o'clock. That will be all."
The thing bows again and winks out of existence.
Peg has one hand to her heart, the other gripping the back of Harry's chair with white knuckles. Sue gathers herself. It's one thing to know about magic, and quite another to experience it oneself. Even though the two of them have seen Harry's outbursts, and even though Peg has heard Sue's stories and read her notebook, there's nothing quite like actually seeing another magical creature to really bring home the impossible. Sue remembers hearing Mr. Beaver speak for the first time, and what a shock it was. Sue's seen wonders upon wonders, and she's feeling a bit shaky herself. Outside the dining room window, the tabby prowls through the garden in the dusk. Inside, the light over the table seems to cast strange shadows.
"You'll pardon us," she says. She pushes away her plate, no longer at all hungry. "We're rather new to all this. What manner of being was that?"
"A house elf," Reginald says.
Sue waits, but nothing else is forthcoming.
"What's a house elf, then?" Peg asks. There's a crease between her eyebrows, which means she's beginning to be angry.
Sue cuts in. "As I said, we have very little experience with this sort of thing. We've never heard of a house elf before."
Iris elbows Reginald. "His name is Kreacher—with a k—and he works for Reg."
Reginald nods stiffly. "A sort of…family servant."
"And he pops in and out like this often, does he?" says Peg.
"Yes," says Reginald. "He is a house elf."
"Oh, I honestly don't know why I take you anywhere Reg, you're hopeless. They're not regular muggles, you said so yourself. Harry's going to get a letter when he's eleven, same as you did."
When he's eleven years old, they'll come for him, Petunia Dursley said. Sue shivers. "What letter?"
After Iris does a bit of cajoling and more than a bit of translation, and Peg valiantly does not hit anyone in the face, Sue understands.
She understands, but she still doesn't like it.
It's like a fairy tale. Harry will grow in grace and beauty until he is eleven years of age, at which point he will vanish into a magical world for the majority of the next seven years. He may never return.
Reginald doesn't say much during this explanation, confining himself to nods or headshakes when Iris looks at him for confirmation of one point or another. Piers and Harry sit together on the floor, entranced by the fire Peg has in the grate.
"…and there are four houses," Iris is explaining. "There's loads of superstition about which one is best, but of course its a bit like football teams, isn't it? The one you like's the best, and the others are all rubbish, no matter how well they do."
Peg's getting a little threatening around the brows again, and anyway, Sue has a question. "Who was the woman?"
"What woman?" Iris asks, by all appearances genuinely confused.
Sue addresses herself to Reginald. "The woman who pointed a wand at you. Who was she, and is she coming for Harry, and what can we do to stop her?"
At this, Reginald startles all of them by barking out a laugh.
"What's so funny?" Sue demands.
Reginald tucks himself together. "I sincerely doubt that anyone living can stop her. Nor ought you to make the attempt. She will be your friend far more than she is mine." He looks different, after the laugh. A bit warmer. His posture is still achingly public-school-straight, but his mouth has relaxed into a line that's less pinched. Sue wants to reach out and smooth his hair from his forehead, as she used to Ed's.
"If she is in the habit of pointing wands at people, she's going to have to work for it," Sue says waspishly.
"So," says Peg. "Let me see if I have this right. Harry's a wizard, or will be. And this mystery woman's a wizard. And you're not one, Iris, and Sue's not one, and I'm not one. But Reginald, you are."
"I—" he says, and oh, the smile is gone. "I was. I am no longer."
"Bunch of muggles, us, just with a house elf," Iris says cheerfully. Reginald goes even stiffer, but says nothing. The house elf, she explains, is a sort of family servant. "Kreacher packed up and left with Reg when he—" she breaks off and rubs her side, where Reginald's elbow has just been.
"Let's not bore them with the domestic details," Reginald says. "Kreacher helps me look after Piers."
"And cooks," Iris puts in.
Reginald acknowledges this with a nod.
There's a rap on the door. Peg glances at the clock. "Oh, that'll be Mabel. I told her she could stop for a book. Won't be a moment." She squeezes Sue's shoulder as she passes.
The front door has a direct line of sight into the dining room, which is why Mabel and Reginald can lock eyes when Peg opens the door. In an instant, meek little Mabel is pushing Peg out of the way and rushing inside. She scoops up Harry, who burbles at her, and throws open the window to the back garden.
Several things happen at once. Peg, having used up all her self control earlier in the evening, catches up a chair and starts forward with it. Iris snatches Piers in one hand and grabs Reginald with the other. Sue stands up. The tabby cat leaps in through the open window and becomes the woman with the wand.
"Thank you, Miss Figg," she says, and waves her wand.
"Krea-" says Reginald, but his voice dies.
Heart in her throat, Sue steps forward. "I'll have Harry, please," she tells Arabella. She turns to the wizard woman, draws Queen Susan, Lady of Cair Paravel, around her like a cloak. "And I'll have an explanation. Please put down your wand. There will be none of that."
The wand, for one heart-stopping moment, points directly at Sue's throat, then wavers and drops a few scant inches, just above Harry's head. The woman behind the wand has hands steady as anything, but Sue can see her pulse going madly in her neck, and her eyes dart to each of them in turn. She's wearing a long set of court robes in dark green. Apart from her green tartan witch's hat, she could be a Narnian or Archenlander. She's got a strong chin and large eyes wide set over sharp, drawn features. She's in her mid forties. Her lips are pinched and her feet are set. Queen Susan has seen people at war before. This woman has been at war.
Sue lifts her chin. "You might start by introducing yourself," she says.
The woman glances as Reginald and family, then whips her wand into a complicated figure, stabs it toward the ground, and says something in Latin so bad Sue has a hard time following it. Show special something. Show man, perhaps.
A haze of pale blue light filters up around Reginald's mouth and throat, then fades. Sickly green light flashes briefly near Harry's head.
Peg has had enough. She swings the chair hard, knocking the woman on the back of the head and dropping her like a stone. Sue smooths Harry's hair back. He blinks at her, eyes wide, but seems otherwise unharmed. Reginald opens and shuts his mouth, but no sound emerges.
They remain in this tableau for a moment, and then Harry says, "Keesha."
With a now familiar pop, the house elf appears in their midst.
He takes in the scene and shakes his head. "Master Regulus has gotten himself into trouble again."
The woman's name is Minerva McGonagall, Iris tells them, still clutching Reginald's arm. Or Regulus, rather, as she also tells them. Whichever he is, he is still silenced. He sits stiffly upright in one of the dining chairs while Iris lays this out for Sue, Peg, and Harry. Peg has Mabel firmly by one arm, where she shivers and appears not the least bit contrite.
Sue keeps a wary eye on Kreacher. He has summoned, from somewhere, hot cocoa for all of them. Now he sniffs at Peg with all the grandeur of a duke and snaps his fingers. The chair she used to remove Miss McGonagall from the arena collects itself and trots humbly back to the corner from whence it came. The woman in question has been laid out on the sofa to recover, with Sue in possession of her wand. She didn't like to touch it, but it didn't so much as spark when she picked it up, and now it rests quietly in her hand.
"What did she do to Harry?" Peg asks Iris and Mabel. "And Reginald. Regulus. Whoever he is."
Mabel refuses to speak. Iris shakes her head. "I don't know the spells. Reg can't do them anymore, and he doesn't like to talk about it. Kreacher does nearly everything for us."
They all turn to the house elf. He hunches his bony shoulders and redoubles his cleaning efforts.
The surreality of the moment casts Sue adrift from her moorings. Sue who works at the White Rabbit and putters about with the local pagans isn't quite sufficient for the tasks at hand. "Kreacher," she says, falling back into that old way of speaking, "We are as in darkness. I pray you, enlighten us with speech, that we may know the world we face."
Of course now everyone stares at her, as if she's the strangest thing in the room. Except Kreacher, who glances at her sidelong and stops making her glasses and plates vanish off the table and reappear on the shelves. He turns to face her fully, gives a funny little bow too shallow to be truly respectful, and says, "The muggle woman has had good training." He waves the last of dinner away. His voice takes on an oily quality. "Kreacher is only a house elf, and does not know the ways of great wizards. Kreacher cannot even remove the silence spell from Master Regulus."
There is something odd going on here, Sue thinks with some hilarity. Beyond the undeniable dreamlike quality of recent events, there's something transpiring between Kreacher and Regulus that she doesn't quite understand. Regulus is giving Kreacher murderous glares. Kreacher twists his hands apologetically, but still manages to convey a certain triumphant air.
Iris clears things up. "He was told not to answer your questions," she says frankly. "But I think we're well past that, don't you, Reg?"
Regulus sniffs. He waves his hand for Kreacher to continue, but he doesn't look happy about it.
He can go hang, for all Sue cares, as long as they get some answers.
"The Professor has placed a silencing spell on Master Regulus," Kreacher tells them. "Master Harry is unharmed." Regulus twitches at this, as though he would speak if he could.
"What was the light?" Peg challenges.
"A spell for finding things out," says Kreacher. "The silencing spell on Master Regulus lit up blue. The light on Master Harry's head is not from the Professor, but from a different wand—the wand that gave him his scar."
Queen Susan notes that Kreacher, although his words and tone are neutral, is flexing his fingers into fists. She also notices Regulus falling completely still. Iris smooths a hand over his shoulder.
"Speak clearly," says Peg. "Is she our enemy? What does she want with Harry? What does she want with you? And what about you, Mabel? How are you mixed up in all this? Are you one of these wizard things too?"
Mabel turns her face away. Kreacher glances slyly at the woman on the couch. "She might be enemy or friend. She is in the service of a very powerful wizard: Albus Dumbledore. If he decides you are friends, friends you may be. If he decides you are enemies…"
I suspect that he, and you, may be in grave danger. "Albus Dumbledore," Sue repeats.
"He's the headmaster at the school," Iris puts in. "Regulus never got on with him—says he always favored the lions. Gryffindors. That's one of the houses."
"Lions," Peg says, scooting in close to Sue.
Sue tightens her grip on Miss McGonagall's wand. You may not return, the rumbling voice says in her memory. He was pretty firm on that count. This is not Narnian magic. The White Witch had a wand, but she wasn't Narnian. "What does Albus Dumbledore want with Harry?"
Kreacher folds his lips tight and refills Iris' mug.
Peg gives Mabel a jerk, as though she can shake the truth from her.
"There's a war," sighs Mabel. "There was a war, at any rate. Your Harry rather put an end to it."
There's the issue of what to do with the witch on their couch. Peg's found a bit of duct tape in the cupboard to do up her hands, and Sue's still got her wand. They've sent Iris and Piers home, but Regulus and Mabel are lurking about the sitting room. Regulus remains silent under the spell, and Mabel seems to be done talking as well. She's done her bit, anyhow, telling the whole story of the war and that nasty Lord Voldemort.
"We could put her in the guest room," Peg suggests.
It's past nine now. By all rights, Harry should be in bed, but Sue's not ready to put him down. She hold him in her lap across from Peg at the reappeared dining table. He keeps sleepily grabbing at the wand. "Not for you, love," Sue tells him, holding it out of reach. "Until what, then? Are we going to keep a pet witch forever?"
"Always wanted a cat," Peg jokes.
"No you haven't."
"No I haven't."
They've given Regulus a choice of books to read. He turns out to be a voracious reader, and is ploughing his way through The Book of Three. Mabel declined when they offered, instead sitting nervously in Peg's chair watching over McGonagall. They're both waiting for the witch to wake up.
"Do you think she'll take the spell off?" Sue asks.
"She will if she knows what's good for her. Sue, are you all right?"
"Not particularly, no. Are you?" In the years they've been together, she and Peg have always taken it in turn to be strong. They lean on one another when they must, and do the propping up when they can.
"Not a bit," Peg says cheerfully. "But it's rather exhilarating all the same. I'll make some tea, and when old McGonagall comes to, we'll do what we can. If it comes to it, we'll call the girls together."
Sue tries, and fails, to imagine Greta faced with real magic. Or, worse luck, one of the younger girls who fawn over the founders. It makes her laugh, as it's meant to.
Peg makes tea. Everyone gets a cup, even McGonagall, and by the time it's done, she's blinked awake enough to hold it in her taped-together hands.
"All right then?" Peg asks her.
"Got a bit of a headache," she says, clutching the mug like a lifeline. "I believe someone hit me."
Sue gives her points for calmness in the hands of the enemy. Are they the enemy? "That would be Peg, and she's very sorry," she says.
"I'm a little sorry," mutters Peg.
They called her Susan the Gentle, once. Gently, she says, "I do apologize for not having made introductions earlier. This is Margaret Carter. I believe you know Arabella, Regulus, and our Harry. My name is Susan Pevensie. We are at your disposal."
McGonagall purses her lips. She hasn't yet taken a single sip of tea. "You might return my wand."
Sue laughs. Gently. "My dear, you mustn't pretend to be foolish. You know what you are capable of, and we know what you are capable of. There's no need for dissemblance. This is a time for honesty and discussion. What do you want from us?"
McGonagall doesn't answer, but her eyes flick to Harry.
"Oh dear," says Sue. "He's not up for adoption, you know. He's ours. He's much happier here than where your Mister Dumbledore put him."
She's sinking into her role, but Peg jabs her with an elbow. "You're sounding a bit evil, Sue. Let me."
Sue blinks. McGonagall is rather more tense than she was a moment ago.
"You'll have to forgive Sue, she's British," Peg says with a wink that everyone in the room can see. "Here it is, then. We've got Harry and we intend to keep him. The family down the street's rubbish, can't believe you lot would consider leaving a baby with them. Doesn't inspire confidence, I must say. We'd like you to give our neighbor back his voice, only Mabel tells us that you don't get on, so if we give your wand back, you're just as likely to do worse." She pauses to allow for a response, but although McGonagall looks more relaxed, she doesn't take the opportunity. "Surely you must have some questions yourself."
"He's a magic child," McGonagall says at last. "Are you quite sure you're prepared for that?"
"The Dursleys weren't," Sue puts in.
Peg tuts. "You've been watching us for ages. Have we bunged it up?"
McGonagall twitches. "Very well. You have done well. If he were any other child—" She breaks off suddenly, an expression of combined resignation and stubbornness creeping over her face. She continues slowly. "If he were any other child, this would be the perfect home. Albus won't like it. And there's Regulus Black to consider."
Peg slowly and deliberately goes to the bedroom and comes back with her Browning No. II. "There. Now. If Sue gives you your wand, you can take the spell off of him, and we can all have a good chat. If you try to do anything that isn't lifting the spell, well. I've got a gun, haven't I?"
Things get quite uncomfortable for a while after Peg brings out the gun. But once they've established that they are all on Harry's side, and cleaned up a bit of broken glass and a startled vole that used to be a section of mirror, the evening suddenly goes almost smoothly.
There is, as McGonagall has said, Regulus Black to consider. He's taciturn, even after the silencing spell has been removed. He has to show the professor a locket, and she does her diagnostic spell on it. This spell shows a dingy gray smog around the necklace, heavy with oozing particulate. Only after that does she relax, though Sue notices she keeps her wand close at hand. Peg hasn't abandoned her handgun either.
"Do put it away, Margaret; I'll think you're flirting and get jealous," Sue says, bouncing Harry.
Peg smiles at her tightly. "What can I say? I like a competent woman." She doesn't put it away, but her grip on it is no longer quite so firm.
They ply their guests with tea and Peg's good scotch—tea for Mabel, scotch for Regulus, both in one cup for McGonagall. This does more for the tentative peace than anything else has so far. No one gets sozzled, but there are no more confused rodents.
"I've left," Regulus says suddenly.
"Everyone thought you were dead," Mabel tells him.
Sue, Peg, and Harry watch this conversation as though it's a programme on the BBC. "Next he'll say something about his evil twin," Peg whispers.
"…more or less," says Regulus. "I don't keep up, how is my brother?"
Peg squeezed Sue's arm in delight.
"In Azkaban," McGonagall says.
"That's a jail," Mabel tells them.
Regulus laughs his queer, short laugh. "I'm a prophet," Peg hisses.
McGonagall isn't smiling, though, at all.
"Mother always said he would come to a bad end. What heinous crime did he commit?"
"I should have thought you, of all people, would know, Mister Black," McGonagall says. She looks more like a professor than she has all evening, stiff-backed with a studiously neutral expression.
Regulus pauses. He tugs on his shirt sleeve in the first nervous gesture Sue has seen. "I've left," he repeats. Then, "He wouldn't."
"He was their secret keeper." McGonagall pokes out her chin as she says this, like its a personal offense.
"He ran away from home to live with James," says Regulus. "He wouldn't."
Mabel breaks in, gently. "You left. Things change. People change."
"Why are you here, Mister Black?" McGonagall asks, to Sue's relief. This chatting is all very well, but it's nearly half-past ten, and Harry is finally, finally dozing on her shoulder. She wants to put him to bed, and she will in no way be doing so while all these people are in her house.
"I cannot speak of it," says Regulus.
McGonagall's lips twist.
"No," he forestalls. "I cannot. Kreacher!"
The house elf appears immediately. "Master has called Kreacher away from Master Piers, leaving him alone in the house," Kreacher notes.
Sue rather likes Kreacher.
"Iris is with him. The professor would like to know why I am here," Regulus tells him. "I have told her that I cannot speak of it."
The bow Kreacher offers McGonagall is even more perfunctory than the one he gave Sue. "Master has sworn an Unbreakable Vow," says Kreacher. The capital letters are audible, although Sue has no idea what they mean. "Kreacher bound him. He cannot speak of his task."
McGonagall scoffs. "Convenient," she says.
Regulus sets down his mug. "I have come to—" and then he chokes on his own voice and begins to turn red. His hand grasps at his throat. His eyes bulge.
McGonagall scoffs again, and again casts her diagnostic spell. A grim, purple-black cloud surrounds Regulus, brightest around his throat and his missing arm.
"Very well," says McGonagall. "Stop speaking."
Regulus stops trying to speak, gasps a few breaths. Kreacher glares at McGonagall.
"Can I get you something, Regulus?" Peg asks, all solicitation. "Hot water and lemon with a bit of honey?"
Now Kreacher is glaring at Peg. "Kreacher will take care of Master Regulus," he snaps, and vanishes again. He is not gone long, and when he returns, he has a tray full of delicate tea cups. He offers the tray first to Regulus, who takes a sip. Next is McGonagall, who waves her wand over the cups. There is no resulting light, so she also takes one
"Thank you, Kreacher," she says primly.
"It's quite safe, McGonagall tells the others. "Only honey and lemon."
"Kreacher," says Sue, because this has gone on quite long enough, "come here."
Regulus nods, and Kreacher approaches.
"Tell us, and tell us truly to the best of your ability: why have you and Master Regulus come here to this town?"
Kreacher studies her, his long droopy eyebrows casting shadows over his long droopy face. "Kreacher and Master Regulus are…looking for something," he says, carefully.
"Have you found it?" Sue asks.
"Yes," says Kreacher. "And no."
"Must your next step be taken tonight?"
"No. Master Regulus should rest. The muggles should not poke about in wizard things."
"I'm afraid it's much too late for that," says Sue. "Professor McGonagall, Regulus, Mabel. I suggest we meet again in the morning. We are all tired. Please go home. We will be happy to receive you after breakfast."
McGonagall hesitates, but at last everyone is leaving.
They keep Harry in their room with them that night, in his pram instead of his cot. Sue expects it to be one of his bad nights, but instead they all sleep straight through. She wakes to sunlight streaming in their window, simultaneously refreshed and anxious. Peg's Browning is on the night stand, a reminder of the situation in which they find themselves.
"I am absolutely too old for this," Peg mumbles beside her.
The temptation to remain in bed with the covers over her head is strong. Sue has always been stronger. She hauls herself up and peeks at Harry. He's awake, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling; the sun hits the garden in the morning and reflects in rippling patterns off of the birdbath into their room.
"Good morning, magic baby," Sue says.
Harry blinks at her. "Ahsu," he says, and smiles.
"We're in it now, aren't we? Aren't we? Let's get your nappy changed, and then Aunt Sue can show you her bow."
At this, Peg sits up. Her hair is mashed flat on one side of her head, sticking up on the other. Her night shift is twisted around, and she's got pillow marks joining the wrinkles near her eyes.
Sue brings Harry around and kisses Peg silly. "I wouldn't do this with anyone else, Peg," she says.
Peg winds her hands around the back of Sue's neck. "Lovely thing to wake up to," she says. "Your bow, Sue?"
Sue smiles. She can feel that it's a faint thing, liable to fly away at any moment. "Unstrung, at the moment. But I'd rather like it at hand today, somehow."
There is no one waiting for them in their back garden, not even a tabby cat. It's a quiet Saturday morning like any other. Peg stands watch at the door with her cup of tea while Sue and Harry fetch her bow from the shed. It's not a Narnian bow, of course. Nothing ever came with them out of Narnia but themselves and their memories. This is a recurve she bought in the fifties, after going to see Petronella de Wharton-Burr win the world championships in London in '48. She's taken good care of it, oiled it every six months without fail, kept it wrapped when it's not in use. She has a box of strings in her jewelry cabinet, each waxed and coiled inside a folded bit of paper. She practices on Sundays, usually, and every so often the Midnighters have a party and she brings it out to play at being Artemis.
Today she lays it out on a piece of canvas on the vanishing table from last night to half-string it, thinks better of it, and steps through it to wrench the ends around. Her shoulders relax as the string grows tense. This is as familiar as her own hand, more so even than Peg. Sue never feels more in control than when she's got her bow in hand.
Their first visitor of the day is not McGonagall, nor is it Regulus or Iris, nor even Mabel. Instead, Greta Scot comes around and raps at their door.
"You're never practicing on a Saturday, Sue," is what she says when Sue opens the door with her bow in hand.
"Greta," says Sue, glancing down the street. There is sign of neither cat nor Kreacher, nor indeed anyone else. "Come in. Have you had your tea?"
"Go on, then," says Greta, the shameless bint, so Sue slings her bow across her back and lets her in. They all sit together over a cuppa, like any other day, except that Peg and Sue are a bit on edge looking out for their other neighbors.
"I'll come straight to it," says Greta after one and a half cups of tea have been spent, along with the corresponding conversation about weather, bin day, and The State of Things. "My daughter's coming round the first of the year, and she wants the garden made over." She gives them a significant look.
Greta's daughter is an attorney in London. She has modern ideas about most things, which Sue rather approves of. However, she also has modern ideas about garden design. She's been at Greta for years to redo her bit, with great square blocks of cement and paved over paths.
"You want us to take over hosting," says Peg. They've known this was coming, of course. Greta's older than Peg, by a decade or so, and Sue doesn't blame her a bit for wanting to pass on this particular responsibility. Especially with the new younger girls coming in now.
"Let's not pretend," Greta says sharply. "You're the heirs apparent. Queen Margaret and Queen Susan, long may you reign."
Sue might have flinched at that, a month ago. Now she smiles.
Peg hesitates, visibly.
"Well if you've changed your mind," says Greta, frowning.
Sue breaks in. "We've been coming almost since the beginning, of course we'll do it." She pats Peg on the knee. It will be fine.
By some miracle, Greta is out of the house and no one particularly magical has yet appeared. The witch cat is nowhere to be seen. It isn't until nearly noon that they hear anything.
They've all gone into the garden. Harry is stomping around on the grass, occasionally falling over. He's about to tumble again, Sue can tell, between one step and another, when Kreacher appears just in front of him. Harry doesn't so much as blink, only grabs the house elf's shoulder and continues his determined path around a brick-ringed shrub.
Kreacher allows this indignity. He nods to Peg and Sue, raising an eyebrow at the strung bow at Sue's side. "Master Regulus sends his greetings. Perhaps you will join them for dinner on the hour."
Peg glances at her wristwatch. "We haven't got any other plans, have we, Sue?"
Sue nods back at Kreacher. "Our thanks. Please tell Regulus that we gratefully accept, and will arrive promptly."
Kreacher waits for Harry to let go before vanishing again, which Sue is beginning to think is indicative of a vast reservoir of soft-heartedness when it comes to Harry. It makes her feel quite warm toward Kreacher.
"Dinner," Peg repeats once he's gone. "They are posh, aren't they."
"Mmm, and a bit unmoored from time, I think," Sue agrees. "Come on, Harry. Let's get you changed into some less smudged trousers. And a new nappy as well, phew. Peg, would you get his bag?"
It feels more than a bit odd, to be walking down the street with a baby and a bow, but Sue's done odder things in her two lives. No one is out to see them, anyway.
The Polkiss house is excruciatingly normal on the outside. Petunia and her horrible husband would approve, Sue suspects. The instant Kreacher welcomes them in, however, it's clear that something is off. Peg bobs her head back outside one or two times to check that, yes, there is space inside where there is none outside. An entire extra room opens up next to the front door where there ought to only be a wall. Sue adds this to her internal list of The Way Harry's World Works.
Inside, it's easy to distinguish between Iris's furnishings and Regulus's. It's less obvious which choices were made by Regulus and which by Kreacher. The modern burnt-orange modular sofa: Iris. The claw-footed side table next to it: Sue suspects Kreacher. The towering glassed-in shelf of books: probably Regulus.
Kreacher eyes Sue's bow, more pointedly this time.
Sue eyes Kreacher.
"Welcome, welcome, thank you for coming," says Iris, coming down a small staircase that appears to, but probably does not, lead to the house next door. "There's a coat rack by the door, Kreacher would you take—thank you. I've just put Piers down for his nap, but he's been fussy, so I don't think he'll stay. Reg is in the dining room. I'll take them, Kreacher."
Kreacher gets all their jackets onto the rack, bows, and vanishes.
They all troop into the dining room. Iris makes no comment when Sue leans her bow against her chair. Regulus is already seated at the head of the table. Iris sits at the foot, Sue to Regulus' right with Peg across from her. There are two highchairs, but Peg pulls Harry onto her lap.
"Thank you for joining us," Regulus says stiffly. "There are things you should know."
"Maybe we can wait until after we've all eaten, Reg?" Iris smiles. "Otherwise we'll starve."
This makes the following meal agonizing, although the food is all delicious. It's all English food—or rather, it's all food of this world. There is more of what Lucy used to call "coozeen" on the table than Sue is used to. It's none of the newer, simple food that she and Peg have enjoyed on their occasional weekend trip to the continent, but the stuffier sort of dish she remembers from advertizements in her youth. There is beef with périgueux, buttery potatoes and asparagus, smoky sweet quail and pear and endive. Sue chooses the bean soup. Peg valiantly contains her wrinkled nose as she selects a bowl of turtle soup, offering a spoonful to Harry. He politely accepts, but most of it ends up on his face. He's more interested in watching Kreacher vanish and appear in different places around the table. He giggles and claps soup-stained hands together every time, which is fortunate, as the rest of them are oppressively silent.
Finally the last of the meal is cleared away. Kreacher brings out mille feuille with a dish of strawberries and cream. There's a delicately scented pot of tea, and a cup of very fine china in front of each of them. Sue's is painted at the bottom with red begonias and sage. She studies the pattern with mounting alarm.
"So," says Peg, "we've eaten. Thank you, it was very fancy. What should we know?"
Sue remembers fondly a time, when they first met, when Peg knew the meaning of the word delicacy.
Regulus declines a piece of mille feuille. "You are being watched. I think you know."
Sue nods. "The professor. MacGonagall. And her associate, Dumbledore."
He inclines his head. "They are deeply concerned with the location and status of your ward. Yesterday I was not yet certain why, but today I believe I understand. It will not be pleasant to hear, nor easy to tell."
"Because of your curse promise," says Peg, jiggling Harry a bit.
"Because of my vow, yes. Kreacher?"
Kreacher glances slantwise at each of them in turn. "Master Regulus is certain?"
Iris puts a hand out. Regulus touches it lightly. "I am certain."
Kreacher bows. With his signature pop, he vanishes and reappears holding a blackened, twisted locket. "Master Regulus is finding horcruxes."
Begonias: Beware, dark thoughts
Sage: Wisdom, immortality