VIII – Unsociable Hours
“That’s creepy,” said Bury. “How in Merlin’s name are they doing it?” For the last mile every flower they’d passed had turned towards them. And most of the fields they passed were planted with oilseed rape, at this time of year a sea of yellow flowers.
“Damned if I know. There must be hundreds of thousands of plants being controlled there. It’s nothing we ever did in herbology.”
“I think the thestrals could manage another short flight. Do you want to try out-running whoever it is that’s doing this?”
“Not unless there’s somewhere unplottable we can land. I’ve no idea what the range of that spell is, and we can’t risk leading a bunch of Muggles to anything they shouldn’t see. What about your friends’ farm?”
“No; they just have the usual protective wards there, nothing special.”
“Those won’t hide us. Is there anywhere else around here?”
“Apart from the farm there’s sod all until we get much closer to Hogsmeade.”
“Okay. Let’s just try stopping for a minute. I want to see what the plants do. Pretend that you’re checking a hoof or something.”
“All right, let’s see.” Bury pulled on the reins and said “Whoa there, me beauties. Whoa!” The thestrals slowed to a gentle walk, and he added “Brake please.” Harry pulled the lever all the way back, as Bury flicked the reins again, and they stopped. Bury climbed down and put on a show of checking a hoof.
Around the hearse the flowers they’d already passed seemed to be losing their focus. “I think they’re sensing our movement,” Harry murmured. “Let’s try an experiment… Expecto Patronum!” Harry’s silvery stag Patronus materialised in the road ahead, and ran off to the North. Although it was clearly visible the flowers ignored it. Harry concentrated for a moment, and the Patronus vanished again.
“It must be vibration, or maybe noise.” Harry clapped his hands loudly. Again there was no response. “Vibration, I suppose. Okay, a silencing charm might help. You do the thestrals’ hooves; I’ll take care of the wheels.”
A couple of minutes later they were on the move again; this time the flowers seemed to ignore them. “We’ll have to take it fairly slow,” said Bury, “there’s no way an ordinary silencing spell will mask out galloping hooves.”
“We can’t risk going near that farm. Is there anywhere else around here we could shelter for a few hours?”
“I can’t think… hang on a moment…” he pored over the map “…if we take the next side-road on the left that might throw them off a bit. There’s a disused railway line crosses it about two miles further on, it was shut down in the fifties. The last time I came this way there was still a cottage for the crossing-keeper, and a big shed where they used to keep stuff for repairing the tracks, both a bit ruined. But it’s been years, it might all be gone now.”
“It’s worth a shot,” said Harry. “Whoever’s casting that spell probably can’t keep it up indefinitely. If we go to ground until it’s really dark, we might be able to get on without anyone noticing us. Thestrals can see in the dark, and so can we with the right spells.”
“I’ll have to charge time and a half for unsociable hours,” said Bury. “And I think we’re probably talking danger money too. Not safe driving around after dark.”
“You’ll have to discuss that with Aberforth, not me.”
“Fair enough.” Bury took the hearse around a gentle bend. It sloped downhill, and they could see the junction about half a mile ahead.
“Speed up a bit and take us past the junction, fast enough for the flowers to react to us, then slow down until the flowers stop tracking us and double back.”
“Good idea. We’d better give it a half mile or so or they’ll guess we doubled back.”
Twenty minutes later they reached the old railway. The cottage was still there, though part of the roof had fallen in, the shed still stood and seemed to be intact.
“Okay, you get the hearse and the thestrals into the shed, I’ll start putting up some protective enchantments.”
“Protect the cottage as well as the shed,” said Bury, “for all we know they’re trying to find you, not the hearse.”
“Don’t worry; I was planning to.”
“Very nice!” said Bury, coming into the cottage a few minutes later. “It looks like a total ruin now.” He put a basket of pies and bottles on the table, then dug into a pocket and put an already-burning oil lamp on the table. “Will anyone be able to see this from outside?”
“No chance. No light, no noise, I’ve even blocked our smell, just in case they’re using tracker dogs or something. Trust me, I’ve done this before.”
“Lovely. Now, this is the last of our fresh food, everything else is packets and cans. Might as well tuck in, if we’re going to be buggering about in the dark we’ll need a bit of energy. After that, let’s try to get a bit of sleep.”
They were an hour on their way, and had only seen one car on the road since they left the railway buildings. The driver must have noticed them to the extent of steering around them, but seemed to be unaware that there was anything odd about a hearse on country roads at eleven at night. They kept their speed down, hoping to make up for it in the morning when they were further away.
“I still can’t work out what spells they used on the flowers,” said Harry. “I’ve heard of wizards who could control swarms of bees, but that’s nothing by comparison. Bee swarms have a group mind anyway.”
“It’s probably dead simple once you know the trick. Maybe it’s something they came up with overseas. No telling what they teach ‘em at Durmstrang or Beauxbatons or Salem.”
“I doubt they teach anything that odd. The nearest I’ve seen was the hedges of the maze they made for the Triwizard Cup…” Harry felt an old pang of grief at the memory “…and that was tiny by comparison.”
There was a faint engine noise in the distance, slowly growing louder, and a glint of light appeared on the road a long way behind them. “Motor bike,” said Bury, “plenty of room for it to get by.”
A minute later the bike drove past at breakneck speed, its rider a fair-haired man wearing a leather coat and heavy black gauntlets. “Shouldn’t he be wearing a helmet?” said Harry. “I’m pretty sure that there’s a Muggle law about it.” Bury shrugged.
From somewhere ahead there was a squeal of brakes, then a loud crashing noise. Harry and Bury exchanged glances. A minute later, just past the next curve in the road, they saw the motorbike in a ditch, its rider lying on the road.
“Must have misjudged the turn,” said Harry. “We’d better stop, or he could be lying here all night.”
Bury gave him a sharp look, but stopped the hearse a few yards short of the body. In the sudden silence they heard a low moan, then “Bugger.”
“Are you all right?” said Harry.
“Think I’ve broken my leg,” said a faint voice.
“Let’s have a look,” said Harry, climbing down. The stranger lay on his back, swearing fluently. Harry bent over to take a closer look. He thought he could smell whisky.
“Got a fag?”
“Sorry,” said Harry, “I don’t smoke, and I think I can smell petrol anyway. Don’t want to start a fire.”
“Which leg is it?”
“This one.” Suddenly the stranger was in motion, his leg sweeping round to hook behind Harry’s ankles and knock him off his feet. Before he had time to react the stranger was somehow behind him, spinning him round so that he was between the stranger and the hearse, and pinning his wand arm behind his back. Harry twisted his head round, and saw a ridged face and yellow eyes. “We ‘aven’t been introduced yet. My name’s Spike – what’s yours?”
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