The Witch of the Westmoreland
By Anne B. Walsh
As the sun sank below the horizon, the four Marauders set out, farewelled by Lily and Dumbledore (who had taken the revelation of the Animagus abilities of James, Sirius, and Peter as calmly as he did all things). Prongs the stag wore a simple leather saddle on his back, giving Remus some stability in his seat, with Padfoot the dog running along behind, ready to catch Remus should he fall. Above and ahead of them flew Peter, the holdall attached to his broom with the Marauders’ four bags and the tent inside it, along with something Lily had seen Dumbledore quietly adding.
Though why he thinks they’d need it, I have no idea...
She watched them disappear into the gathering twilight, idly stroking the frame of the small mirror James had given her with their last kiss. He carried the other himself, and had promised to give her a call every morning to let her know how things were going.
Here’s hoping they come back soon. Soon, and with Remus cured.
Tucking the mirror into a pocket, Lily turned to the Headmaster. "I wonder if I could slip into Hogwarts for a few hours?" she asked. "For some research on a personal project?"
"I think that might be possible." Dumbledore smiled. "Does it have anything to do with your friends’ quest, perchance?"
"It might. We weren’t sure."
"May I know more about it, then? I may be able to help…"
Talking quietly, the young witch and the old wizard made their way indoors.
The night fell into a dreamlike rhythm for Remus as he dozed against the supporting straps Dumbledore had added to the saddle. The easy beat of Prongs’ hooves, Padfoot’s snuffling breathing behind, Wormtail’s tuneless humming from above, all blended into a soporific soundtrack, and he watched with little surprise as the stars crossed the sky between blinks and the moon rose bright and half-round to his right. At one point, Peter flew directly across it, his cloak flaring out behind him, and Remus’ half-sleeping mind saw wings and talons and a cruel, pointed beak in the silhouette.
Though hawks eat rats, so I can’t imagine Peter would care for them. Still, he’s being our hawk-eye, up in the air to spot troubles, and do whatever wandwork we need until Sirius can get there…
He fell back into a doze as Wormtail’s shadow passed by him once more, and dreamed of a woman’s husky voice, singing to the strumming of a guitar. Snatches of words caught his ear: "…loud and cruel…cold and clear…hale and sound…" A flash of silver, a glimpse of blue, a flicker of brown, caught at his mind’s eye, as the singer danced to her own words and the playing of another, turning as she bade the knight of her song, spinning in a dizzy whirl for the joy of the night and the music. He felt as if he could have watched her forever.
I wonder who she is?
Prongs, Remus asleep on his back, slowed to a stop outside a ramshackle house. It was obviously a well-lived-in home, and just as obviously held up by magic. Padfoot halted a few paces back and retransformed into Sirius, Peter landing beside him. "What is it?" the shorter wizard asked, dismounting.
"That’s the Weasleys’ place. The Burrow, Dumbledore said they call it." Sirius grinned. "Have to get to know them at some point, I like their sense of humor. But where do we go from here?"
Peter pulled the scroll from the bag hanging on his broom, his hand brushing by patched fabric as he did. "Maybe there’s a clue in here," he said, unrolling it and holding it where Sirius could see it. Prongs backed up delicately, his ears twitching towards his friends. Remus sagged against his straps, snoring faintly.
"â€˜Passing by a place where there are males with red hair,’" Sirius read, pointing at the line. "Passing by... does that mean we should just keep going? How far?"
"We can’t go too much farther, if we’re only supposed to travel at night," Peter said, peering at the sky. "It’ll be dawn soon."
Prongs tossed his head, impatient with the discussion. Let’s get a move on, he seemed to be saying. You two haven’t got a bloody great weight on your back, and I do!
"Further north," murmured a sleepy voice. "North until the stars sink below the earth, and we hear our guide’s voice calling."
"Moony?" Sirius lifted his head to focus on his friend. "That you?"
"Have to hurry," Remus said indistinctly, shifting his position as though he were uncomfortable. "She’s waiting..."
"Who?" said Sirius and Peter together, but Remus’ face had relaxed once more, and there was no response.
Prongs dug a hoof into the ground, snorting. Obviously he was all in favor of hurrying.
"Onwards it is." Sirius flexed his hands with a wince. "I’m not going to be able to hold my wand straight for days."
"Fabian said once he gets better performance on a broom when he thins the Cushioning Charm." Peter massaged the part of his anatomy most directly affected. "I never quite realized what that meant before tonight."
Sirius barked a laugh, transforming in the middle of it without changing the sound very much. Prongs leapt forward, and Padfoot bounded after him, Wormtail hastily mounting his broom and kicking off the ground to follow.
Remus came fully awake as an owl hooted. The first light of dawn was sending golden shoots across the sky, and he could hear a stream flowing somewhere nearby, but he was quite sure it was the owl that had awakened him.
And I’m also sure we should be following it. I’m not sure why I’m sure, but I am.
He tapped Prongs’ shoulder. "That way," he said, pointing, when the antlered head turned enough so that one incongruous hazel eye could focus on him. "We’re close now."
"We’d better be," Peter said from above, descending to Remus’ own level to fly beside Prongs. "I’m so tired I keep catching myself just before I fall off the broom."
Sirius turned human behind them. "Maybe we should’ve strapped you in too, Wormtail," he teased. "I can right now if you like..."
"You said you couldn’t even hold your wand straight."
"I can hold it straight enough for this."
"Stop it, you two," said Remus as Prongs passed over the crest of a hill. "I think I see where we’re going."
Peter turned to face front again, and his eyes widened. Sirius, coming to the top of the hill a few seconds later, let out a low whistle of amazement.
The house on the next hill north was slender, tall, and perfectly round, as though it were an inaccessible tower in a story. A small owl perched on its roof, eyeing the Marauders as they descended into the valley between the hills. Once there, Remus undid the buckle on his straps and pulled his leg over Prongs’ back, clenching his teeth against pain.
"I’ll be back when I know where we’re going next," he said, sliding to the ground. "You three see if you can’t get some rest while I’m gone."
"Hold up," Sirius objected. "We’re not letting you go alone!"
"I think I have to," said Remus. "I’m the one looking for help."
"But we’re looking for it with you!" Peter looked at Remus’ face and sighed, then pulled Remus’ bag from the holdall and extracted a bar of chocolate. "At least take this. You haven’t eaten."
"Yes, Mother," Remus teased, accepting the chocolate. "And don’t worry too much, Padfoot," he added to Sirius. "I’ll be in sight the whole time. If I collapse or get ambushed, you can rush in and rescue me. Otherwise, let me try and save my own life for once?"
And taking a bite of chocolate to give himself courage, Remus turned and started up the hill, aware every step of his friends’ eyes on his back and the owl’s eyes on his front. It was female, if he remembered his father’s lessons properly, and the only response he’d had to his approach so far was a slight fluffing of feathers.
Is she an Animagus too? Is she the one I’m supposed to ask for directions?
He stifled a smile. And here I thought men weren’t ever allowed to do that.
The little owl took wing, swooping down from the roof to what Remus could now see was a brightly-painted gate around a rather odd-looking garden. She perched there and watched him climb, and he felt it somehow incumbent on him to keep going even when his side began to burn and his legs to ache. He made it to the top without falling, but it was a near thing, and it was not only for show that he leaned on the gate beside the owl.
"So," he said to her. "Here I am."
"Yes, here you are," agreed a woman’s voice from nearby.
Remus hastily straightened up as a witch in white robes emerged from behind one of the gnarled trees which decorated the garden. She had long hair which was neither quite blonde nor quite brown, a bit like Remus’ own, and her eyes were a slate blue and rather wide, giving her a look of wonder.
"Here you are," she repeated, coming to the other side of the gate and stroking the head of the owlet. "But why have you come here? What is it you seek?"
Remus took a moment to get his thoughts in order. This sounded like the sort of question he’d only have one chance to answer. "I seek healing," he said finally. "Or one who can tell me where healing can be found. I am under a curse which has no cure in the magic we know, so I seek one who knows other magic and might help me survive."
The witch nodded, as though this were only what she’d expected. "The path is still long," she said in a tone of warning. "You will be sorely tested, and the price for what you seek is high. But you seem determined. I will give you what you need from me." She smiled, looking over his shoulder. "You have much of what you need already, or close enough to it that it makes no difference. Treasure those who come this way with you, for without them, your quest would have been doomed from its beginning."
Remus bowed his head in acknowledgement, then listened as she began to speak again. Though her words seemed to make no sense, he stored them away in any case, reminding himself that the original scroll from Snape had made just as little sense when he’d first seen it.
And it led us here. To someone who seems to know what I’m talking about, and to be willing to help me. I suppose she could be a Death Eater plant, but why go to all this trouble just to get my hopes up?
For not even to himself could he deny that this quest had given him hope again.
"So?" said James through a mouthful of sausage when Remus returned. "What’s the verdict?"
"Don’t anyone get too comfortable," Remus warned, sitting down beside Peter and accepting the plate of sausages and charred bread his friend handed him. "We have to go again as soon as we’re done eating."
"What?" Sirius yelped. "We were up all night, and now you want us to keep going?"
"She said the path we have to take will only work if we’re tired." Remus bit a sausage in half.
"She’s having you on, Moony. Paths are there no matter what."
"Maybe not, Padfoot," said James thoughtfully. "Remember that one funny door at Hogwarts, up on the seventh floor, that would always disappear as soon as we got close to it? It was like it could tell that we wanted to know what it was, and it didn’t want us to know."
"At the risk of being obvious, Prongs, this isn’t Hogwarts."
"But it is a magical adventure," Peter put in. James and Sirius both looked at him, and he flushed, but went on. "Why can’t there be a path that can tell if we’re tired or fresh?"
"And as it’s my life we’re playing for," Remus said, swallowing his sausage, "I say we follow the directions exactly."
"It may be your life, but it’s my paws doing the walking!" Sirius held up his hands, which were starting to look rather battered. "And my legs, two of which, let me remind you, are not used to carrying my weight for this long! And this after I’d already had a full day out trainingâ€”"
"You can stay behind if you like, Padfoot," said James, taking a slurp of tea. "Hold down the fort here. Wait to hear how it all comes out."
"Like hell I will," Sirius shot back. "Marauders together, Marauders forever. Even if I do think you’re all Fwoopers."
"Go on, Moony," Peter urged. "What do we do once we’re on the path?"
"Follow it through the fog until we find a pass marked with a stone that looks like a church steeple. Through that we should be able to see an oxbow lake. You three have to stay behind there like you did here, until I call you." Remus held up a small object. "With this."
"Wow," said James, examining the carved horn Remus was holding up. "Is that meant to look like a lion?"
"I think so. It might even be enchanted to sound like one, but I haven’t tried it."
"Give it a go, then," said Sirius, draining his mug and cleaning it out with a casual flick of his wand. "Let’s hear what we’re supposed to come running to."
Remus looked tempted, but shook his head. "I think this is another one of those things that should only happen when it happens. No practice."
"We won’t have to wonder very much," Peter added. "It’ll be the loudest noise we hear. So when you blow the horn, then we have to come?"
"As fast as you can, she said, because we have to chase the witch down and catch her without hurting her if we want her help." Remus looked around at his friends. "She seemed to think you were funny for some reason, Wormtail, but she approves of us as possible witch-catchers. Apparently the only way it’s ever been done is with a group like oursâ€”and these are her words, not mineâ€”â€˜wise and clever, brave and true, for the one you seek values them all.’"
"Sounds like she’d be a tough case for Sorting," said James. "Speaking of which..." He dipped his hand into the holdall and came up with a rather battered black object. "Does anyone have even an inkling why Dumbledore thought this would be useful?" Three shaking heads greeted him. "Thought not. And he’ll probably take it out of our hides if we lose it. Oh well." He tucked it away again. "Maybe we’ll find out when we get there. So what happens after we catch up to this witch of yours, Moony?"
"She’s not mine," Remus protested automatically. "And I don’t know. I assume she heals me, and we thank her and go home. Or she says she can’t help me, and we thank her and go home anyway."
"And you die," Peter said quietly.
Remus flinched. "I was trying not to think of that part," he said. "But yes. If she can’t or won’t help me..." He looked up at the sky, where the moon was still visible in the early morning blue. "Six days. Five, if this takes as long as I think it will. Not quite the life I’d hoped for."
"Which is why it won’t happen," James said, clapping Remus gently on the shoulder with his free hand. "We’ll find this witch and chase her downâ€”four legs are faster than two, she won’t get away from usâ€”and get her to fix you up, and then it’s back off home to keep on fighting old Moldymort."
Who might still kill us all in the end, but that’s not the point. The point is to get Remus through this, because if we don’t, if we just let him die without trying to help him, we’re no better than the ones we’re fighting against, and we aren’t that way.
I won’t let us be that way.
"Finish up, all," he said, setting a good example by taking a huge bite out of his last piece of toast. "The sooner we’re done, the tireder we’ll be when we start on this path."
The path, which Sirius secretly thought they could have found even if they hadn’t all been tired, followed the twists and bends of a river in a deep valley, and was indeed covered with fog. He reassumed his human form for the walk, as it facilitated pinching himself on the arm whenever he felt himself starting to doze.
Which is about once every five minutes. Though time seems funny here. I know we got on this path at sunrise, and I don’t think we could possibly have walked all dayâ€”though I’m worn down enough for itâ€”but here it is night again already...
Wormtail, high overhead, seemed to feel the drowsiness too, as his broom took odd little dives from time to time which broke off abruptly with gasps from its rider. Prongs was picking his way wearily through the clumps of ferns which grew thickly along the trail. Only Moony was alert, sitting straight in his saddle and peering ahead through the thick mist, as though he could see where they were going if he just paid good enough attention.
I suppose I’d be interested too, if I thought I was going to die if whatever we were headed to didn’t pan out. Or maybe not die, not in my case, but be stuck for a long time, possibly forever, not being able to do magic. Sirius pinched the inside of his elbow and hurried ahead to catch up with Prongs, who had got several yards ahead of him while he was daydreaming. What would that be like?
Setting his feet to keep pace with the stag, he let his mind wander. I’d probably have to stay at Headquarters, make sure no little Mortality Munchers got hold of me and tried to use me as bait for Prongs. He’d come running to rescue me if I were captured, I know he would, and Moony and Wormy wouldn’t stay home eitherâ€”Lily might even insist on getting a piece of the action, and wouldn’t that thrill Prongs to pieces, his precious Tiger Lily putting herself in danger because of me?
So I’d be stuck inside. Sirius made a face at the thought. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, at least not until other people showed up. People who were useful, who could do things that mattered. I could help them out while they were there, but then they’d leave, and I’d be alone again. Probably start drinking just to pass the time. And how long before I decided I’d find some way to fight even without my wand, and went out and got myself killed?
He shuddered. Think I’ll leave well enough alone, thanks. I’ve got my magic still, so do Prongs and Wormtail and Lily, and we might be able to save Moony if this mad little escapade works out. If it doesn’t... A furtive glance at the upright figure on Prongs’ back. He knew it was a war when he signed up for it. People die in wars. And he may not always show it, but he’s Gryffindor to the core. He’ll die with a smile on.
But deep in his heart, Sirius knew what a gaping hole in his life Remus’ absence would create, and the knowledge sent his shoulders back and his head up.
Moony’s not going to die, he vowed to himself. Not before me, at any rate.
The Marauders plodded wearily on.