Chapter 10: The Witching District

In which Holly is puzzled by magical pictures, Hermione does not stare at naked women, and Albus visits a mine.

“Almos’ there now,” said Hagrid. They had left the motorbike (now fully visible and firmly on the ground) at a motorbike parking bay, and were now walking down Charing Cross Road. It was a little crowded, but, thanks to Hagrid leading the way, people were giving them a wide berth. When Hagrid came walking down the pavement, people tended to be eager to give him space.

Holly, Ronnie, Dean and Hermione followed him closely, with Molly making up the rear to make certain nobody got lost. They had to walk rather briskly to keep up with Hagrid’s long steps, but they managed all right.

“Are you sure this is right?” said Hermione. She had woken up from her calm-weaved trance shortly after the motorbike had landed, and had seemed rather embarrassed about the entire ordeal. “I’ve been to Charing Cross Road with my parents lots of times, and I’ve never seen anything that looked like a witching district.”

“Ah, yeh wouldn’t,” said Hagrid. “Entrance to the District’s hidden, yeh won’ see it unless yeh know where ter look for it… ah, here we are!” he announced as they came to a halt.

Hermione blinked. “But… I’ve been to this book shop!” she said, looking at the large shop to her left, with all the books on display. “Several times! It’s a very nice book shop, they have quite a good selection of –”

“It’s not the book shop, dear,” said Molly. “There, next to it.”

The children looked… and there, nestled between the book shop and an almost as large record shop on the other side, was a small, darkly coloured, rather unimpressive-looking pub, which a grubby sign claimed was named The Leaky Cauldron. Holly couldn’t blame Hermione for not seeing it at first; she herself probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been pointed out to her. What’s more, she had a strange feeling that none of the people who bustled by could see it at all.

“We’re going to a pub?” said Dean.

“No, we’re going through a pub,” said Ronnie. “This is the way to the Witching District. It’s brilliant, you’ll love it!”

“Speaking of,” said Molly and looked sternly at Ronnie. “I hope you remember what we talked about, Veronica.”

“I won’t wander off on my own, I promise,” Ronnie sighed.

“All right then,” said Molly. “Come along, everybody!”

Holly had never been to a pub before, but she had seen enough television that she thought she knew approximately what to expect; lots of dark polished wood, a huge bar with hundreds of bottles stacked up behind it, and a lot of men sitting around, wearing tweed caps and drinking beer.

As she stepped inside just behind Ronnie, she found that The Leaky Cauldron at least partly met her expectations… there was indeed a huge bar and too many bottles to count, and both the bar and the tables placed around the barroom were dark polished wood. The slightly dimmed lights and shabby-looking walls also seemed to give off the right mood for what she thought of as a pub… but of course, there weren’t any men here, with or without tweed caps. Instead, the people who were seated by the bar and tables were all women… or rather, they were all witches.

Holly spent a fascinated few seconds taking in their appearances. The witches she’d caught glimpses of in Privet Drive when they were visiting Mr Dumbledore had mostly been dressed in Holly had thought was outrageous clothing… but leather corsets and tunics made out of leaves was nothing compared to what the witches wore here. Dresses that were clearly made out of paper, skin-tight black jumpsuits that only covered the left side of the body but left the right side bare, oversized hats that doubled as birdcages (with two real live canaries inside!)… one witch even had a shirt with a picture of her own face on it, a face that mimicked the movements and expressions on the woman’s real face exactly and created a somewhat disturbing confusion as to which face you were supposed to make eye contact with.

All the witches looked up as Hagrid entered. He’d had to crouch down in order to get through the door, but luckily the ceiling inside was tall enough that he could stand upright.  

“Mornin’, all,” he said, nodding to several of the witches. “Don’ mind us, jus’ passin’ through.”

“Hagrid,” a woman greeted; Holly guessed she had to be the barmaid. She didn’t seem overly thrilled to see Hagrid, but she looked curiously at Dean, Hermione and Holly. “Not stoppin’ fo’ a drink, then?”

“Not today, Tanya,” said Hagrid. “Meetin’ Albus out in Diagon Alley.”

“Ah, well, he came throo here earlier,” said the barmaid, whose name was apparently Tanya, with a dismissive shrug. “Nar na time fo’ a drink. Both of ye… always in sich a hurry. Ye should learn tuh relax more.” She looked back at Holly, Dean and Hermione. “And who are the bairns? The redheed, I’ve seen around a few times, but these three are new.”

“Oh, we’re nobody,” said Dean hurriedly. “Just visiting.”

“Naebody?” Tanya repeated. “Well, I find that hard tuh believe. Handsome young bloke like yersel’. What coven are ye from?”

“We’re not –” Holly began, but was interrupted by Molly, who placed a hand on her shoulder.

“We really don’t have time to chat, dear,” she said, before she gently, but firmly began leading Holly through the room and towards the back door.

Confused at the sudden hurry, but deciding it was probably a good idea to play along, Holly tried to ignore the looks she was getting from several of the patrons as she was ushered out.

The back door led to what turned out to be a fairly large, but otherwise pretty unimpressive walled courtyard. There was a cobblestone ground, high brick walls, a couple of rubbish bins and a few sorry-looking potted plants that some witch had probably put there in the hope of making the place seem more welcoming.  

Molly gathered the four children in the centre of the courtyard and seemed to take a millisecond counting them to make certain they were all there. Then she looked to Holly and said, in a low voice: “I’m sorry, dear, I quite forgot to tell you this with everything that’s been going on… For now, we’re trying to keep it a secret that Dean is Muggle-born.”

Holly blinked. “Why? What’s wrong with being Muggle-born?”

“Nothing,” Molly assured her. “But Dean is a boy, and things are different for boys. Since boys are so rare in the witching world…” She paused, as if uncertain how to continue, and then finally settled on: “So let’s just try to keep it a secret for now, shall we?”

“Er… okay,” said Holly, a little nonplussed but starting to suspect that this was yet another ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ situation. “But won’t people guess when they realize he’s never been to the witching district before?”

“That shouldn’ be a problem,” said Hagrid gruffly. “Some o’ the more ol’-fashioned covens hardly ever let their sons leave the house before they’re of Hogwarts age.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed, just slightly. “Why not?”

“Because they’re scared of their boys getting into danger, of course!” said Ronnie sweetly. “Can’t have those precious rare boys wandering around where anything might happen to them, can they?”

Molly sighed. “It’s a little more complicated than that,” she said. “But this is hardly the time to go into details. We can’t stay here all day.” She reached into her sleeve and pulled out what was unmistakably a wand.

Holly forgot her questions about boys and Muggle-borns, and looked at the new wand in fascination. It was the first real wand she had seen other than her own, and it looked very different: It was lighter in colour, a couple of inches shorter, and where Holly’s wand had those characteristic knots and bumps on it, this wand was perfectly straight apart from an elaborately-carved handle.  

Molly lifted it up towards the brick wall and lightly tapped one of the bricks. Immediately, the brick vanished, leaving a hole in the wall… a hole which rapidly grew larger as more bricks shifted and faded away. Like a weird mix of a sliding puzzle and an automatic door, the wall parted to form an archway so large that even Hagrid would be able to walk upright through it.

And on the other side of the archway… was an entirely different world. There was no other way to describe it. What looked like a small village was stretching out in front of them, with a plethora of varied and colourful buildings, several of them so tall that they couldn’t possibly have been hidden from outside view.  Through the buildings, a wide but extremely crooked cobbled street twisted and zig-zagged as if whoever had designed the place had decided that walking in a straight line for more than a few metres at a time would be too boring.

All around were women – women of all shapes and sizes, dressed in outrageous clothes, or relatively normal-looking clothes – walking up and down the streets, moving from building to building or just standing around chatting; three women were riding on flying broomsticks, zooming through the air and landing on the roof of one of the buildings, where a flock of birds were startled and flew off.

“Well,” said Hagrid. “Welcome to the witching district! This here’s Diagon Alley, it’s the main street.”

“It’s amazing!” Holly wanted nothing more than to run down the street and immediately lose herself between all the shops and people and buildings, but she dutifully kept to the group as they began walking down the street, at a complete loss as to which direction she should look in.

Dean and Hermione looked just as awed as Holly felt, but Ronnie was taking it all in stride; she was clearly used to this place and was chatting up a storm as she pointed out all the various building and places.

Most of the buildings at Diagon Alley seemed to be shops. There were apothecaries where bubbling potions were on display in the windows. There were shops selling clothes, advertising “cobweb dresses, made from genuine Acromantula webs.” There were shops selling cauldrons and telescopes in all shapes and sizes. There were shops selling broomsticks, outside of which a group of teenage girls were having a lively discussion about whether the “Nimbus” or the “Cleansweep” was the best one.

One building had the name “The Quibbler” proudly displayed over it in large, multicoloured letters, and a glass showcase in which you could view the pages of today’s newspaper, evidently named The Quibbler.

Hagrid stopped for a moment by the showcase. “Can yeh hol’ on fer a few secs?,” he said. “Won’ be a moment. I didn’ have the time ter read the paper this mornin’, jus’ want to see the headlines, if anythin’ important’s goin’ on.”

“I do miss The Daily Prophet,” Molly sighed, looking over the newspaper pages on display. “The Lovegoods are wonderful people, but their approach to news is so… sensationalist.”

“Ah, Prophet was nothin’ more than a propaganda rag at the end,” Hagrid rumbled. “Leastways the Lovegoods don’ start hate campaigns agains’ people what are different.” He leaned down to look at the headlines. “Don’ seem like there’s much happenin’… oh, wait, they chose a new head o’ Merlin.”

Holly didn’t know what a “head of Merlin” was, but from context it sounded like a title or a job of some sort. Wait, hadn’t Ronnie said something about a “Merlin house” at Hogwarts? If there were different school houses, maybe each house had their own head teacher, someone who was responsible for the students at that particular house. Yes, that made sense.

She peered curiously at the paper… The Quibbler seemed to be quite the colourful newspaper, with bold headlines and large pictures, more The Sun than The Times. There were headlines like “ENTIRE MUGGLE SCHOOL PUT TO SLEEP; MINISTRY CLAIMS ACCIDENT” and “GILDEROY LOCKHART CHOSEN AS THE NEW HEAD OF MERLIN HOUSE – MINISTRY OFFICIAL TRANSFORMED INTO NEWT AS STUDENTS PROTEST DEPARTURE OF FILIUS FLITWICK.”

It definitely seemed like the witching world had more interesting news than the Muggle world. But even more interesting was the fact that the colourful photographs on the displayed pages seemed to be moving; she could have sworn that the picture of the handsome man under the GILDEROY LOCKHART headline made eye contact with her and gave her a roguish wink…

“Ronnie,” said Holly, grabbing the girl’s shoulder. “That picture is looking at me.”

“What?” Ronnie turned to look at the picture. “Oh, don’t mind him. Hey, you! Anyone ever tell you how handsome the back of your head looks?”

The man in the picture looked flattered, and immediately turned around to display the back of his head.

“Good,” said Ronnie. “Stay like that for a bit so we can admire the back of your neck, will you? There,” she said to Holly. “He’s not looking at you anymore.”

Holly opened and closed her mouth a couple of times as words utterly failed to escape. Finally, she managed: “Are all witch photos like that?!”

“Like what?” Ronnie looked puzzled.

Before Holly could decide on what to say, Hermione’s voice sounded: “Why’s there a ruin in the middle of the street?”

“That’s not a ruin, it’s a grove,” said Dean. “See all the trees?”

“Yes, but they’re growing on top of what’s obviously a ruin,” said Hermione. “White stone, see?”

Holly looked up ahead to see that the cobbled street parted to go around a cluster of tall, green trees… which, just as Hermione said, were growing on top of a ruin of white stone.  Parts of the ruin was covered in grass and colourful flowers, and Holly thought she could see some movement in between the trees…

“Oh, that’s Gringotts Grove,” said Ronnie. “It’s been like that since before I was born. Building used to be a bank, but the goblins blew it up.”

“Goblins?!” Dean and Hermione chorused.

“Yeah,” said Ronnie, as if this was a completely normal piece of information. “They used to run the bank, but then they joined Tom Riddle and blew the entire thing to bits. Lots of covens lost all their money. Now the dwarfs have taken over the job as bankers. Frankie-Mum says she misses the goblins ’cause they were more effective, but at least the dwarfs never blew up anything.”

“Goblins used to run the bank, and now dwarfs run it,” Hermione repeated, her tone somewhere between amazement and disbelief. “Goblins and dwarfs. Like in The Hobbit.”

“Er, maybe?” said Ronnie. “What’s a hobbit?”

“It’s a book I… never mind,” said Hermione.

“There are a lot more than goblins and dwarfs around,” said Holly, eager to share the meagre knowledge she had. “Mr Dumbledore told me about them… Centaurs and giants and elves and something called a Veela, and I saw a nymph today… I’m seeing one now!” she interrupted herself.

Newspaper, ruin and even goblins momentarily forgotten, the children looked up ahead. Between the trees of Gringotts Grove, the movement Holly had seen between the trees solidified and took on the shape of a woman, stepping out of the grove on bare feet. She was just as shapely and impossibly beautiful, and just as unselfconsciously naked, as the sky nymph Holly had seen earlier… but instead of the pale blue, her skin was mossy green, and the long hair that cascaded down her back looked almost like long, green leaves. She met their eyes, and then began waving, calling out something that Holly couldn’t hear, clearly trying to get their attention.

“She’s… naked,” said Hermione, unknowingly reflecting Holly’s immediate reaction to seeing a nymph for the first time. “Dean, don’t stare!”

“What?” said Dean. “I’m not staring, you’re staring!”

“I am not!” Hermione averted her eyes.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Ronnie, quite unconcerned. “That’s just Serissa, she’s supposed to be there. She tends to the trees and stuff. Hi, Serissa!” she called, waving back at the nymph.

Serissa smiled and called out again. This time Holly could hear her voice; it wasn’t very loud and had a curious undertone of rustling leaves… but she could just about make out the words “Over here!” Made a little more easily understandable by the fact that the nymph was also waving for them to come over to her.

Dean and Hermione looked a little uncertain about approaching a stark naked woman, but Hagrid who had finished browsing the headlines, spotted her and took the lead.

“All righ’ there, Serissa?” he said when they’d reached the grove. “Y’already know the Weasleys, but lemme introduce yeh to the other three: This is Dean, Hermione an’ –”

“Holly Potter of the Evans line,” said Serissa. Now that they were closer, the undertone of rustling leaves was clearer in her voice, bringing with it a sensation of a sunny summer day and a cooling breeze through the trees. She turned to Holly with a smile. “Of course. You’re early.”

“Er… early?” Holly repeated.

“Yes, I hadn’t expected to see you here at Gringotts Grove this soon,” said Serissa. “I’m glad to finally meet you, of course, but you’re not really supposed to enter the Grove before your eleventh birthday.”

“Is this some kind of destiny thing?” said Dean curiously. “Like, there was a prophecy that she would come here on her eleventh birthday, and then –”

Sarissa laughed, the feeling of sun and rustling leaves getting even more powerful. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “I just meant that there’s an age limit here. You’re not allowed inside the Grove until you’re eleven.”

“Oh.” Dean looked sheepish.

“Hagrid.” Serissa turned to him. “Albus said to tell you that he’ll be with you as soon as he can. He had to go down into the mines for a bit, but he trusted that you could show the children around the witching district in the meantime.”

“O’ course, but… he went down inter the mines?” Hagrid’s bushy eyebrows pulled downwards into a light frown. “Blimey, what’s goin’ on down there? The dwarfs don’ usually like ter have humans down in their mines unless it’s summat serious…”

“I don’t know,” Serissa admitted. “So it can’t be too close to the Grove. Probably miles underground.”

“Do you know everything that happens around the Grove?” Hermione’s curiosity had clearly overridden her awkwardness as talking to a naked lady.

“Yes,” said Serissa simply. “And most of the immediate surroundings. It’s why I’m here to begin with, to keep an eye on the witching district. I have a decent idea of what’s going on in Diagon Alley, Carkitt Market, Horizont Alley and Hexagon Square.  Can’t do Knockturn Alley, though…”

“But you shouldn’t go there anyway, don’t even think about it, Ronnie,” said Ronnie, in the tone of someone who’s heard this particular sentence one times too many.

“Well, yeh shouldn’t,” said Hagrid. “Not a safe place for children, Knockturn Alley, ‘specially righ’ now. Jus’ saw in the paper that there migh’ be werewolves there.”

“It’s not even noon yet!” Ronnie protested. “Everyone knows werewolves aren’t dangerous during the day!”

“These werewolves are,” said Hagrid darkly. “Ever heard of Ulva Greyback?”

Holly hadn’t, but apparently the name was familiar to Ronnie, who suddenly seemed to have gone a shade or two paler. “Oh,” was all she said.

“S’alright, if she is in Knockturn Alley, she’s not gonna leave it, not when she knows Serissa’s on the watch an’ every single witch in the district would try ter hex her on sight,” said Hagrid. “An’ even if she was stupid enough ter try, she’d have ter get past me if she wanted ter get to you kids. If she remembers our las’ dance, she’ll think more’n twice ‘fore takin’ me on again. Nah, I reckon, long as we don’ go anywhere near Knockturn Alley, we’ll be fine.”

“Just stay where we can see you, all right?” said Molly. “Now come along… we still haven’t seen anything. There’s plenty to see here without getting near dangerous places, and then there’s the birthday gathering down at Rosa’s afterwards!”

“Who’s Ulva Greyback?” Holly whispered to Ronnie as they said goodbye to Serissa and began moving past the grove and down the street. “And Rosa?”

“Rosa’s is just a tea house,” said Ronnie. “Ulva Greyback’s Queen of the Werewolves. Nobody knows what her real name is, but everyone knows she’s bloody insane. Likes to kidnap little girls, turn them into werewolves and make them her slaves. S’probably why she’s queen in the first place, she made so many slaves that she got too powerful for the other werewolves to oppose. Didn’t know Hagrid had fought her, though!”

“Was she… was she with Tom Riddle?” Holly asked, remembering that Mr Dumbledore had mentioned werewolves as having joined Riddle’s terrorist movement.

“I think so,” said Ronnie, a little uncertainly. “Molly-Mum, was Ulva Greyback –”

“Let’s save this discussion for later, Veronica,” said Molly firmly. “Come along now; Holly, Dean and Hermione have never seen the witching district before. Help us show them around.”

The light from Albus’s wand swiped over the dead dwarf, causing shadows to dance on the stiff, staring face as light fell on the gaping wounds and half-torn off limbs.

Albus had seen many unpleasant things in his life; several years of trying to oppose and fight the worst wizard terrorist of all times, and several more years of being the private investigator that was unofficially called for when a case got too messy for the proper authorities, had rather desensitized him when it came to seeing dead bodies… but it wasn’t often he saw a corpse this mutilated and bloody. Whoever the murderer was, they hadn’t been satisfied with just killing the dwarf, they must have spent some time mangling the corpse as if it had somehow offended them.

Frowning slightly to himself, Albus and turned to Darach, who was standing beside him.

Humans were seldom allowed this deep down into a dwarf mine other than in exceptional circumstances, and while Albus had built up enough trust with the dwarfish community that they would allow him to come down here and investigate, they still insisted that he had to be accompanied by a dwarf at all times. Darach had been quite polite when he met Albus down at the entrance, but it wasn’t hard to read the stress and worry on his face.

“Ragmar Blackstrand,” said Darach. “Decent lad, had been working for us for about five years. Skilled miner, didn’t have any enemies that I ever knew of.”

“And you found him like this?” said Albus.

“On my inspection rounds this morning,” said Darach. “And before you say anything, I know this looks like a werewolf attack.”

“On the surface, definitely,” said Albus. “Not many creatures are this savage. And It would fit the rumours that Ulva Greyback has been seen in Knockturn Alley.”

“But it wasn’t Ulva Greyback. It wasn’t a werewolf at all.” Darach went on. The tone in his voice dared Albus to contradict him.

“And you’re certain about this.”

“You know almost as much about dwarfish security as any dwarf. You know as well as I do that there has never been a werewolf in a dwarf mine. Not even when that bastard Riddle was about.”

“That is true.”

“Someone wants us to think it’s a werewolf. They want to get under our skin.”

“Hmm.” Albus stroked his beard. “Not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, I suppose, but the question then becomes why.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Darach grimaced. “They want us to doubt ourselves. Start to wonder if the famous dwarfish security is really as airtight as we believe. I shouldn’t wonder if the goblins were behind this. Trying to discredit us in the eyes of the witches. They want their old position as bankers and money-keepers back. They think that if they can make the witches think that we dwarfs are incompetent –”

“The goblins pretty much severed their ties with the witches when they blew up the old bank,” said Albus. “They must know that there is no way they would trusted with that position again. Witches hold grudges as much as any goblin. Besides, if they wanted to discredit dwarfs in the eyes of witches, there would be easier ways.”

“I didn’t say they were smart,” Darach grumbled. “The worst part… well, the worst part apart from the fact that Ragmar is lying dead in a pool of his own blood… is that they are getting under our skin. Workers are starting to talk. They’re all on edge because there’s a killer around. Beginning to doubt the famous dwarfish security. Maybe a werewolf did get down into the mine, they say. Maybe it’s still here, waiting to attack. But that’s hogwash.”

“Hmm,” Albus repeated. He crouched down to examine the corpse a little closer. The light from his wand shone brighter.

“Ulva Greyback could never have come down here,” Darach went on, in a tone of voice that made it a little unclear whether he was trying to convince Albus or the workers or himself. “Security is too tight. You saw the levels of security you had to go through in order to get here. Not only the protective enchantments, but the guards.”

“They did seem very alert,” said Albus. Politely, he decided not to comment that it was fairly typical for guards to be at their most alert immediately after a crime had taken place.

“Exactly! Nobody could sneak in here, and Apparition is out. They could have dug their way in, I suppose, but we could have noticed the new tunnel. No… the goblins are behind this. Mark my words.”

Albus raised himself. “Much as I hate to contradict an expert on the matter,” he said, “I don’t believe this had anything to do with goblins. I do think you’re right that no werewolf came down here in the mines, but a goblin wouldn’t have been capable of doing this. I have seen this before… a particularly gruesome curse.”

Darach scowled, clearly not liking where this was going. “Look here, if you’re accusing the dwarfs of this mine of casting murderous magic on their colleagues –”

“Of course not,” said Albus. “No, this is a very rare curse. It’s called Urguet Discerpens, or the Triggered Tearing Curse. I’m not surprised if you haven’t heard of it,” he added at Darach’s puzzled look. “It’s thankfully very rare. A simple incantation, but I’ve only known a few individuals capable of casting that curse… and even fewer who were willing to.”

Triggered Tearing Curse? A curse that, what, tears people apart when it’s triggered?”

“More or less,” said Abus. “Most curses that witches cast are fairly instantaneous or at least quick-acting. They don’t want to give their victims a chance to cast a counter-curse, after all. But in the case of the Tearing Curse, the victim might walk around for hours or even days after the curse has been placed upon them, as if nothing was wrong. Until they happen to enter the situation that triggers the curse. Then, their bodies start to tear themselves apart… I trust I don’t need to go on.”

Darach shook his head and grimaced as he looked at the bloodied corpse. “What a way to die. But this means the murderer was never down here in the mine. They could be anywhere by now!”

“They could,” Albus agreed. “But I don’t think they are. I think I know exactly where to find them. Find her, I should say. Tell me, did Ragnar visit Knockturn Alley sometime during the last few days?”

“Hell if I know,” said Darach. “We don’t really care what our workers do in their spare time. I know the witches never let their blokes out of sight, but that’s not how we dwarfs do it, He could have, I suppose.”

“Well,” said Albus. “It pains me to say it… but I believe the person who killed Ragnar wanted it to be a message.”

“A message? Who for?”

“Me.” Albus put out the light of his wand. “I believe I need to visit Knockturn Alley. And I hope Holly can forgive me for being late to her birthday celebration.”

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