Wolf's Moon, and as a small salute to one of my most favorite authors of children's books. You should perhaps better take the time and read it in advance, or you'll miss most of the "Aha" effect. *smiles* Those who did read Wolf's Moon will hopefully enjoy the answers to a few questions that weren't given in the "bigger" tale.
Thank you to rabidsamfan and clevertoad - as always.
Once upon a Hill Top
Phillip Stockton sat on the bench beside the back entrance of the most popular farm house of the entire Lake District, feeling utterly miserable.
He didn’t care about the copious white umbels of the huge wisteria, gently swaying in the mild summer breeze and the envy of his mother, who was a passionate gardener. He ignored the third group of visitors, leaving the house past him. Many of them would continue their walk along the vegetable beds and once again enter the gift shop, where they could buy the books about Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck, about Benjamin Bunny or Squirrel Nutkin. Phillip knew every single one of those, and the rest for good measure. Truthfully, he didn’t even need to visit the house anymore. He had grown up in the magical orbit of Hill Top Farm… a world which had been preserved in an abiding, idyllic past by the last will and testament of its creator.
He stared down at his sandals.
During the last four years, the time between July and September had been one of great joy for him: his summer holidays, their beginnings invariably celebrated with a visit to Miss Beatrix Potter’s famous house. Unlike his elder brother Diggory, Phillip had always been utterly spellbound by Miss Potter's sketched little animals, their gentle stories closely connected to the voice of his mother and grandmother and the dimmed lights of the nursery at bedtime.
He had wandered through the beautiful rooms of Hill Top like through a fairy tale, surrounded by the scent of ancient furniture and long burnt down fires in the hall. He marveled at Miss Potter’s well-worn clogs, waiting beside her spinning wheel for the woman who would never wear them again. He adored her doll’s house with the gypsum ham and fruits from The Tale Of The Two Bad Mice, and he absolutely coveted her beautiful, old four-poster bed. When he was seven, his Mum spent half a year of her spare time sewing a patchwork quilt for him that closely resembled the quilt on Miss Potter’s bed, and she gave it to him for Christmas. It had been one of his greatest treasures ever since, and Diggory had been kind enough not to laugh at him. Not until recently, at least.
The trouble had begun when the Tatterthwaites had moved to the Lake District six months ago, to take over the distinguished Applegarth Hotel in Windermere. Jeremiah Tatterthwaite, their only son, was a tall, pudgy bullock of a boy, his hair cut short and constantly stiffened by a generous amount of styling gel. His nose looked like a thick potato, his eyes were small and piercing. He never grew short of pocket money and quickly used it to bribe schoolmates he deemed worthy into loyal following. He was fourteen years old, same as Diggory, and he was also a huge fan of Manchester United, Diggory's favourite football team. To Phillip's dismay, Diggory had quickly become a part of Jeremiah's entourage.
Not that anyone called it that. Jeremiah hated his first name passionately - which was something Phillip could understand very well. Tatterthwaite alone was bad enough, but Tatterthwaite and Jeremiah together was a disaster. So Jeremiah insisted on being called "Jems”, and he immediately shortened Diggory to “Digs”. Phillip – who loved the Narnia-books by C.S. Lewis dearly and had always been thrilled to know that one of the characters shared the name with his brother – was openly disgusted. Things went rapidly downhill from there, and within weeks the amicable relationship between Diggory and Phillip cooled down to something that could only be described as an uneasy truce. It didn’t really help that "Jems" liked to push Phillip around - especially whenever he had the chance to meet the younger boy alone - that he mocked him and called him “that little fairy tale fairy”, after he caught Phillip re-reading The Tale of Samuel Whiskers one time.
Phillip tried to tell Diggory about it, but sadly enough he didn’t meet much understanding, let alone support. His elder brother – who had always tolerated Phillip’s dreamy nature with a kind of gruff fondness – decided to ignore the warning voice of conscience for the sake of glory. Diggory suddenly belonged to the most impressive clique of his grade, and now he avoided Phillip whenever possible.
One year more, Phillip thought miserably, and he would normally have left Primary School. But Windermere St. Anne's wouldn't give him the chance to escape “Jems” Tatterthwaite’s reign of terror; he was condemned to stay there until he was eighteen. Diggory seemed to be lost for what felt like an eternity, and Phillip was much too ashamed to turn to his teachers or parents and reveal the staggering magnitude of his humiliation.
He hated Jeremiah Tatterthwaite. And he wanted his brother back.
At this point Phillip suddenly discovered that he was about to burst into tears, and – imagining Jeremiah’s reaction – he angrily wiped his eyes with the seam of his chequered summer shirt.
And that was the moment when he found that he no longer sat alone on the bench.
Someone was sitting beside him… a tall, slender woman, clad in a white cotton blouse, a simple, dark blue skirt and reasonable walking shoes. Phillip had no idea how long she had already been there, and he was about to flee with a murmured excuse when a hand came into his field of vision. It was tanned, with long fingers, callused and reliable… a gardener’s hand, like his mother's. And it held out something to him - a big, clean handkerchief.
He hadn’t even seen the woman’s face yet, and wondrously enough she didn’t speak. She didn’t ask him why he sat here on his own, she didn’t drill him about the whereabouts of his parents, or why he looked like a picture of misery. It felt incredibly soothing not to be interrogated in the typical grownup fashion, and so it was the easiest thing to do what he did: he accepted the handkerchief and heartily blew his nose.
“Thank you,” he whispered, and the crumpled-up piece of fabric was silently taken from him. Now he finally cast a glance on the face of his Good Samaritan. What he saw surprised him: judging after the garments she wore he had expected to see someone close in age to his Gran. But this woman was much younger… though not really young anymore, Phillip decided, still studying the features of the stranger beside him.
It was a clear face, angular and simple and not what he would have called pretty. But it looked trustworthy and kind, with slate blue eyes under beautifully curved brows, a long nose, full mouth and firm chin. Her hair was lovely, a warm hazelnut shade, interspersed with silver, braided and pinned up into a lavish crown. She placidly waited for him to finish his elaborate inspection before she finally spoke.
“Hello,” she said. “I guess I have to apologize.”
He gaped at her, more than a little confused. “Apologize?”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you." She smiled at him. “I had the distinct impression that you would have preferred to be left alone.”
“Oh.” Phillip blushed. “No, I… it’s okay, really.” He stared down at his hands. “It’s only that… my brother… I… I don’t know.”
“You have a brother?” She cocked her head. “That must be nice… I never had any siblings. I was an only child."
“My brother… Diggory… I used to like him. A lot.” Phillip swallowed. “But now… he doesn’t like me anymore. He constantly hangs about with Jems.”
“Jeremiah Tatterthwaite.” This came out with utter contempt, but it proved to be impossible for Phillip to dwell on his bitter revulsion when the woman suddenly began to laugh. It was a glorious laugh, liberating and highly infectious, and to his surprise Phillip found that he was laughing, too.
“Jeremiah Tatterthwaite?” The woman wiped her eyes. “That’s absolutely priceless. Poor little bloke.”
“He’s not poor, and he's not little,” Phillip retorted, sobering. “He's two heads taller than I am… and nearly a head taller than Diggory. And he’s mean.” A short pause. “Diggory likes him, though.”
“But you don’t.” It was a matter-of-fact statement.
“No.” Phillip spoke fiercely. “He… he always waits until I walk home from school alone. Every Wednesday while Diggory is in the Royal Yacht Club, with his sailing class. He laughs at me and calls me bad names, and he's stolen my backpack, twice. Last time he took The Hobbit out and dropped it into the lake.”
“The Hobbit?” The woman looked slightly alarmed. “And he dropped him into the lake?”
“Not him,” Phillip replied. “It. It’s a book. From the library. And now I’ll have to pay for it.”
“Aha.” The woman studied him, brow slightly furrowed. “Does your brother know about those… those attacks?”
“Yes.” It was barely more than a whisper. “I told him. But he wouldn’t listen.”
“And your parents don’t know either, I presume.”
“No.” Phillip’s heart sank. Now she would make the usual speech about the necessary trust in the wisdom of grownups in general and parents in particular.
But she surprised him.
“No wonder that you were so downcast earlier.” She sighed. “That’s really a nasty sort of mess. Well… I’ll try to figure something out. Is there any chance that you might meet… er... Master Jeremiah any time soon?”
“Ah…” His heart sank again. “Yes, I think. It’s Wednesday again. Normally Diggory wouldn’t be in the Yacht Club – because of the holidays – but they’re preparing a summer regatta. I wish I knew why Jems is always after me!” he suddenly blurted out. “I’ve never done him any harm!”
“Yes, I’m sure of that,” she said. “You know, it’s entirely possible that Jeremiah is simply jealous… because you have what he never had.”
“Jealous?” Phillip shook his head. “With his rich parents and the tons of pocket money?”
“Yes,” his strange companion gently agreed. “But he can’t buy himself a brother, can he? And instead of befriending you both, he decided to pay for Diggory’s friendship, just to be sure, and to bully you because that makes him feel stronger somehow. True friendship is something you have to learn, and I fear he never did.”
Phillip rubbed his nose. “I’m sorry… but I don't really know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t.” He heard that infectious laugh again. “Never mind… one day it will make sense. But until then you shouldn’t burden yourself with that sort of complicated claptrap.” She caught a fine curl gone astray and tucked it safely behind her ear. “Do you want to stay here? You know, I won’t take the tour through Miss Potter’s house today – I already did a few years ago – but I’d like to make a short visit in the gift shop. A very good friend of mine has a brand new daughter. She’ll soon be able to eat with a spoon, and I’d like to buy something for her.”
“Oh!” Phillip beamed at her, glad that the conversation had returned to a level where he was able to follow. “They have lovely things for little children. When I was very small, my Gran bought a bowl and mug for me, with Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny.” He lowered his voice. “I still have it. “
“Hidden away in some secret cupboard, I bet.” She smiled. “Sounds like a little girl might love it, too.”
“Do you want me to show you where they have the porcelain in the gift shop?” Phillip asked, suddenly anxious that this fascinating encounter should end too soon.
“You don’t have to go home?” She had got up from the bench and looked down at him. “It’s nearly time for lunch.”
“No.” He bit his lip. “I don’t have to go. I would like to help you find something nice. And…” He broke off, shuffling his feet in the grey gravel.
“I see.” She smiled at him, and when he raised his head, he caught a fleeting hint of sadness in the slate blue eyes, mixed with deep understanding. “It’s Wednesday, isn’t it? And Jeremiah the Hun might hide somewhere behind the bushes.”
“Yes.” It was an unspeakable relief that he didn’t constantly have to explain his worries to her. Suddenly it occurred to him that he didn’t even know who she was. He got up from the bench, too, collected his courage and reached out, the gesture as formal as he was able to manage.
“I’m Phillip,” he said. “Phillip Stockton. From Windermere.”
She took his hand in a firm grip and solemnly shook it.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Phillip Stockton from Windermere. My name is Ruta Seeker.”
Five minutes later they were in the gift shop. It was blissfully empty; one group of visitors had just channeled through the farm house, the rest had left the terrain of Hill Top for a lunch in the Tower Bank Arms or a – much cheaper – picnic on one of the meadows around Near Sawrey. Phillip’s new friend ambled along the romantically decorated shelves, displays and cabinets, filled with everything Miss Potter’s art could be plastered on. She discussed seriously with him whether to buy a porcelain mug and finally decided for a set of cup, bowl and plate with the images of Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. It was made of plastic (“Babies like to drop things,” Phillip pointed out, “and if you take these, at least she can't smash them.”), and after some consideration, Ruta Seeker added a fluffy baby jacket in pink. When her purchases were paid for and prettily wrapped – in Beatrix-Potter-paper, of course – she made one last round with Phillip through the garden.
“Impressive,” Mrs. Seeker remarked. “Philadelphus and foxglove, and even sweet cicely… I wonder if Miss Potter created all this herself?”
“She did,” Phillip answered, glad to share his knowledge with someone who was really interested. “She was a great gardener, and she collected all the saplings and seeds from her neighbours when she moved here, more than a hundred years ago. My Mum always says she’d die to have her knack for wisterias.”
Mrs. Seeker turned back, looking at the ample, white wisteria on the right side of the house with an approving eye.
“You are right, this one is a true gem,” she stated. “Does your mother have difficulties with hers?”
“It constantly sheds the leaves,” Phillip said, “and it won’t bloom as it should. But,” he hurried to add, “my Mum is a great gardener, too.”
“No doubt.” Ruta Seeker smiled at him. “And now, after this delightful little trip, I should walk you home. I guess we’ll have to take the ferry?”
Phillip nodded, consulting his watch. “We've just missed it, but there will be another one, in twenty minutes.”
“We don’t have to hurry, then,” she blithely said. “That gives me the chance to enjoy Lake Windermere just a while longer before I have to return home.”
“Home?” Phillip looked at her, filled with sudden curiosity. “Where do you come from?”
“I’m working at a school in Scotland, and I live in a small village, with my husband.”
She was married? Phillip blinked. She didn’t look like a married woman, and he shot a quick glance at her left hand. Yes, there actually was a ring, though not the traditional golden band he knew from the hands of his mother and her married sisters. It seemed to be made of silver, an intricate pattern of interwoven, slender leaves, lying around her finger like a graceful wreath. One single gem sat on top of the ring, showing a clear, translucent green. He raised his gaze to Ruta Seeker, and their eyes met. “Do you have children?”
“None of my own,” she said. “But that is the good thing if you work at a school, Phillip… enough children anyone could wish for.”
He still tried to sort her into his worldview. “Are you a teacher?”
“The assistant of a teacher,” she answered. “And the wife of a former teacher.” There was a mischievous glint in her eyes, as if she was silently enjoying a private joke… but somehow he didn’t feel excluded. They made their way past the Tower Bank Arms and down the road that led to Far Sawrey and the landing of the ferry, wandering side by side in companionable silence.
Within minutes Phillip could see the wide expanse of the lake, mirroring the clear blue of the summer sky. The ferry was a white spot on the opposite shore, and gulls circled over the rooftops of Bowness-on-Windermere. It was an idyllic image, and Phillip honestly enjoyed it… at least until he saw Jeremiah Tatterthwaite, walking up from the pier. The zippers of his leather jacket were flashing boastfully in the sunlight, and he came straight into their direction.
Phillip stopped dead in his tracks; he couldn’t breathe and without thinking grabbed for the sleeve of the woman beside him. Instead of his enemy’s name a stifled squeak came out of his mouth.
Mrs. Seeker shot him a short, sharp glance, and her reaction came incredibly fast. Phillip felt a strong hand around his upper arm, was hauled over the street and found himself in the shielding shadow of a slate canopy.
“That’s Master Jeremiah, isn’t it?” She spoke softly, close to his ear.
Phillip nodded mutely. At least he was lucky – “Jems” hadn’t yet noticed his favourite prey.
“What is he doing here?" Mrs. Seeker asked. “I can’t imagine him taking the tour through Hill Top. Can you?”
“I… I think he’s bored,” Phillip whispered, his stomach tightening to a desperate knot. “Diggory is in the Yacht Club, and Stu and Reg – his other favourite pals – aren't here. Stu's parents have taken him to some Greek island for the holidays, I believe, and Reg was sent to France, for a language course. His French is terribly lousy.”
“Quite believable,” Mrs. Seeker said. “Do you know the saying: ‘The devil’s got work for idle hands’?” She gave him a reassuring smile, though her eyes were completely serious. “You have a choice now, Phillip. You can play Hide and Seek with that little brute and perhaps escape him, at least this time. Or you allow me to help you teaching him a lesson.”
“A lesson?” Phillip stared at her; for the second time he had no idea what she was talking about. Something glistened at the edge of his field of vision… one of the zippers on “Jems”’ leather jacket. He passed them by, ambling idly towards Near Sawrey.
He felt Mrs. Seeker's hands on his shoulders. “A lesson, yes. You know, if I simply stay by your side now, he won’t dare to try anything. But as soon as I'll leave, he'll try to play his nasty games again - unless you work up the nerve to say something to your parents, which certainly would be the best thing to do.”
“I can’t,” Phillip whispered miserably. “I can’t.” Deep in his heart, a small voice urgently whispered that she was right, grownup or not, that he should finally stop being such a wimp… but he was frozen with fear and shame.
“I understand.” It seemed as if she really did; he could see no admonition, no impatience in her calm face. For a few moments she was silent, watching Jeremiah’s back; he turned his head to the left and the right, obviously looking for someone. For me, Phillip thought, he’s looking for me, and as soon as he’s got me…
And this was the moment when fate decided that Phillip’s luck was spent. Jems seemed to sense the gaze anxiously drilling into him from behind and turned around. His triumphant grin hit Phillip like a blow across his chest, and he gave a low moan of panic. What should he do now?
He completely forgot the reassuring presence of the woman beside him, he forgot her counsel, and every thought of a lesson they might teach Jeremiah Tatterthwaite together fled from his mind. It had been a fancy idea anyway… and the threat he already knew by heart was overwhelming.
He burst out from under the canopy and took to his heels. Down to the ferry, he desperately thought, there are cars and people… but this escape route was blocked by his enemy. Jeremiah was very fast, closing the distance between them with alarming speed. Phillip dodged the meaty fist aiming a haymaker at him, followed by the voice of Ruta Seeker directly behind him, angrily yelling at Jems: “What do you think you are doing!?” - and then Phillip shot around the bend into one of the narrow lanes leading out of the hamlet and ran like a scared rabbit.
After less than five minutes he had left the road and found himself on a grassy path full of loamy puddles, filled by the remnants of last night’s rain. Heartbeat thundering in his ears, he slowed down and for the first time dared to turn around.
He saw the two cottages framing the road and a high garden wall, overshadowed by a huge, massive oak. He discovered the top of a swing behind the wall, but no one was to be seen. Had he lost Jems? And where was Mrs. Seeker?
For a few seconds he basked in the imagined picture of his foe, arrested by the Constable of Far Sawrey and stuffed into a police car while Mrs. Seeker gave witness of his evil deeds. But then Jems stomped out of the road, puffing heavily, a delighted grin splitting his face when he got sight of his chosen victim.
She had forsaken him.
Disappointment burned in his throat like venom, and a resigned little voice deep in his heart whispered: You should have known better. Now simply stand still and get it over with.
Jeremiah seemed to sense that he was about to give up, and he approached him with slow, casual steps, determined to savour his victory.
“Hello, you bad egg,” he said, closing in and carefully avoiding the puddles, to protect his brand new Nike boots. “No one around to help Mommy’s little darling, eh?”
“Leave me alone,” Phillip whispered, fighting the tears welling up in his eyes. “Go away.”
“Go away,” Jems aped him, voice high and shrill, a cruel imitation of Phillip's all too obvious fear. “Go away, or I’ll call my big brother.” He leered. “Oh, but your big brother doesn’t give a shit, does he?” A few steps more and he would be within arm’s length. Phillip stiffened, head bowed and eyes closed, awaiting the first blow.
But instead of feeling the expected pain, he heard a loud splash and the voice of Jems, swearing wildly. He heroically risked a glance… and was rewarded by the marvellous sight of Jeremiah Tatterthwaite, lying lengthwise in a big puddle, his nose in the dirt.
He blinked, barely able to believe his luck. Jeremiah laboriously came to his feet again, spitting mud, shirt, jacket and jeans soaked and smeared.
“You’ve tripped me up!” he bellowed. “You bastard!”
Phillip fell back, stunned by the sudden change of circumstances. Jeremiah darted for him again, but once more the miracle happened; he seemed to fall over his feet and crashed down on the ground a second time, loamy water sloshing all over his massive form like a brown fountain.
Phillip hastily looked around, and for the split of a second he saw something flutter in the shadow of the oak beside the garden wall. Could that…?
“GOT YOU!” Jeremiah suddenly yelled, his voice heavy with malicious triumph, and his hand closed in a firm grip around Phillip’s ankle. Phillip screamed, stumbling and losing his balance, and then he lay flat on his back, blinking into the sky with dazed surprise. His ankle hurt terribly, and then the face of his enemy swam into his field of vision.
“There you are…” Jems grinned with cruel merriment. “I’ll tear you apart, you miserable, little…”
Something snapped in Phillip's mind, and anger shot up in his chest like lava in the vent of a volcano. Six months of bitter humiliation, Diggory’s cool indifference and his own constant fear of being beaten up finally sought for a valve, and Phillip took a deep breath.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!”
The words came out in a mighty roar. He caught a short glimpse of astonishment and disbelieving horror in Jems’ eyes… and then his foe's body rose into the air like some wooden puppet, arms and legs thrashing while he flew backwards and with a loud bang hit the ground once more.
Phillip sat up, gaping at the limp, motionless figure four yards away. His head was spinning crazily. He tried to grasp what had happened during the past few minutes, but that only made the dizziness worse, and so he gave up.
He knew that voice. He blinked slowly, and then he saw Mrs. Seeker, running towards him, hair and skirt fluttering. A fluttering skirt… where had he seen that fluttering skirt? With a swift motion she knelt down beside him.
“Phillip, are you hurt? – Phillip?”
“He… Jeremiah… I… “ His voice came from very far away, his mouth seemed to be filled with cotton wool. “He tripped over his feet,” he managed at last. "I didn't do anything! I didn't do anything!" And with that he finally burst into tears.
He was drawn into a loose embrace, burying his wet face against her blouse. She had a different scent than his Mum - not the reassuring aroma of vanilla and milk that always made him feel utterly at home, but the fresh, dulcet smell of roses and freshly mown grass. She didn’t fuss over him, didn’t murmur any soothing nonsense… she simply held him until the storm was over and he drew back, accepting her handkerchief for the second time that day. Phillip wiped his face.
“I didn't do anything!" he repeated. “I don’t know what happened. He ran after me, and he fell. Not once… twice. And then… and then he flew.”
She thoughtfully studied his face, her gaze very clear and sharp.
“Yes, indeed,” she said. “It was a very … impressive sight. In the future he’d better watch where he’s going… he’s a remarkably ham-handed little villain.” She smiled at him. “Or better ham-footed, in this case. Good for you, Phillip Stockton.”
Phillip felt the corners of his mouth curl to a shaky grin. Peering over her shoulder, he registered that Jeremiah stirred, sat up and slowly shook his head like some benumbed bull. Then he discovered Phillip, and his face contorted to an ugly grimace.
“You…” he growled. “You… you…”
He belatedly noticed that his chosen victim was not alone any longer, and now Mrs. Seeker turned around to him, calmly looking him up and down like some weird and rather unappetising species.
“Ah, Jeremiah…” she said, her voice soft and almost friendly. “Feeling better?”
“I… what did he… and who are you?” Jeremiah fell silent, eyeing her with a mixture of rage and unease. He was clearly not used to being caught in the act, let alone having to pay for his nasty pranks.
“I,” Mrs. Seeker said amicably, “am a grownup, and a witness to boot. Which makes your situation more than a little uncomfortable, my dear boy, for if you should bully Phillip any longer, I will get you seriously into trouble. Though I must say that he did a splendid job fighting you off.”
“Fight me off?!” Jems sputtered. “He hurt me! I don’t know what he did, but whatever it was, it made me shoot through the air like some bullet… and I bet I have broken something.” He spoke in a whining tone, but Ruta Seeker merely raised one eyebrow.
“I will try to sum this up, just to see more clearly,” she replied, her voice velvet-soft. “Here we have you, two heads taller than a boy who is tiny enough to be stuffed in the pockets of that show-off leather jacket of yours… and now you are trying to tell me that he attacked you, and that he was strong enough to launch you over a distance of four yards?”
She gave a low, mocking chuckle.
"I can imagine you - telling your pals about this incident, and how it was possible that Phillip Stockton dealt with you single-handed. They will be favourably impressed.”
Jeremiah opened his mouth and closed it again; Phillip thought that he looked like an exceptionally stupid fish out of water and bit back a laugh.
“Come on, get up and let us see if you are actually injured; and the next time you run across a meadow in Near Sawrey, you should mind the mouse holes. They have already sent more than one boy flying. And then you should go home and try to behave; there might always be someone around to watch what you are doing, and I'm not the only person who can make your life miserable if you continue going after children who are smaller and weaker than you are. Understood?”
She smiled at Jeremiah, but it was a less than pleasant smile; her gentle, blue eyes showed a sheen of steel.
They watched together how Jems struggled to his feet, unsuccessfully trying to brush off the dirt. A few careful steps showed that there was no broken leg or any other major injury, and after a last, stunned gaze in Ruta Seeker’s direction Jeremiah decided for a disorganized withdrawal. His expensive – and tragically ruined - Nike boots made squashing noises while he stomped down the loamy path and finally vanished out of sight.
It was Mrs. Seeker who broke the long silence that followed. Phillip met her eyes and saw that she viewed him attentively.
“Jeremiah the Hun is not hurt… except for his pride,” she said. “But you are. Let me have a look at your ankle, Phillip.”
The ankle Jeremiah had grabbed was swollen to double size. Now that the danger was over, Phillip felt a throbbing pain in it, and he highly doubted that he would be able to walk… not down to the ferry and most certainly not through all of Bowness-on Windermere home to his house.
Mrs. Seeker whistled soundlessly through her teeth.
“Ouch.” She pulled the highly stressed handkerchief out of her pocket. “I think I might…” She turned away from him, seemingly to wet it in one of the puddles, and the ample folds of her dark blue skirt blocked his sight at her hands. A fluttering skirt… she had been there, under than oak. She had watched that strange and frightening fight that had been no fight at all… not really, at last. She had…
“Did you do that?” he blurted out.
She turned back to him, folding the handkerchief to a bandage. “Did I do what?”
“Did you make him trip… and fall… and… and fly?”
“How on earth should I have managed something like that?" she asked, wrapping the fabric tightly around the maltreated ankle. The effect was astonishing, to say the least… blissful coldness spread over and all through the bulge and made the piercing ache fade until it was nearly gone. “I was much too far behind. As I said before… we should thank your fate for Jeremiah Tatterthwaite’s clumsiness.”
Phillip was not really convinced, but the whole episode had shaken his universe enough to keep him from digging deeper. Right now he was simply relieved that she was there to care for him, and that she had been daunting enough to put his worst enemy to flight.
“I don’t know if I can walk,” he said, and then he remembered a detail from the little speech she had made for Jems. He narrowed his eyes and glared at her. “I know I’m two heads smaller than he is. But I am not tiny!”
“Of course not!” She laughed and helped him up from the damp grass. “I only said that to make the whole matter even more dramatic. It worked, didn’t it?”
"Yes." Phillip grinned and tried a first step; when the pain was not nearly as strong as feared, he courageously managed the second and third. The woman beside him didn't attempt to offer a helping hand, but at the same time Phillip was absolutely certain that she would not let him fall. He felt enormously thankful that he walked out of this enervating drama on his own two legs, and that she didn't embarrass him by mentioning his unmanly burst of tears.
Mrs. Seeker's bandage worked like one of the ice packs his mother used when Diggory came home with bruises from sailing or playing football. They made it without any critical incidents through Far Sawrey and to the ferry; the Mallard had just landed when they reached the pier. Phillip followed his new friend aboard, still keeping an eye out for the muddy and vengeful figure of his enemy, but Jeremiah didn't even show the tip of his nose.
A few minutes later they were in Bowness-on Windermere, and now Phillip took the lead and guided Mrs. Seeker through the familiar streets until they stood in front of his house.
"Thank you," he said, peering up at her, "for... everything."
"Never mind," she replied, smiling at him. "That was a fine adventure, Phillip. And I don't think Jeremiah will bother you any more."
He looked down at his bandaged ankle. She was right - it had been a fine adventure, and her participation had most certainly changed his fate. And now she would leave, and he would probably never see her again.
"Do you want your handkerchief back?" he murmured.
"Keep it for now," she said. "I have the distinct feeling that we haven't met for the last time, Phillip Stockton, and you may return it to me then."
He eyed her with surprise.
"How could we meet again?" he asked. "I've never been to Scotland before, and my Mum won't visit it for a holiday. She always says it's much too cold and rainy up there."
Ruta Seeker laughed.
"Oh, but we have sunshine, too... and a very nice summer so far, at least this year. If you ever get there, you will find out that it's a beautiful place."
She reached out, and for the second time that day they shook hands.
"Goodbye." He looked at her, trying to memorise her face as best as he could. Then he turned away, opened the garden gate and walked down the cobbled path. He rang the bell and heard the familiar steps of his mother approach... and when he looked back one last time, he saw that the spot beyond the garden wall where his new friend had stood only a minute ago was empty. Then the door opened.
Without thinking, he threw his arms around his mother's waist, rubbing his cheek against her soft lilac cardigan. She returned the embrace and kissed him on the top of his head, then she stepped back and with impeccable accuracy discovered the damaged ankle.
"My goodness, Phillip, what is that? Did you have an accident?"
"Oh, it's nothing," he reassured her. "I only tripped over my own feet, and a lady who was just visiting Hill Top loaned me her handkerchief."
"Come in," his mother said. "I will take care of that ankle, and you can have raisin cake and milk, if you want. That must have been a very nice lady."
Phillip followed her into the house, inhaling the familiar scents of fresh laundry, flowers and Mom's preparations for the upcoming dinner. Sausages and mashed potatoes - his favourite dish.
"Yes," he said, smiling fondly at her. "She's the nicest lady I've ever met."
Sunset came late to the Highlands, and at 11.00 p.m. the sky still kept a shimmer of daylight; the western horizon was bordered with gold and a faint paintbrush of crimson. Hogsmeade had gone to sleep, aside from a handful of wizards and witches leaving the Three Broomsticks and merrily chattering while they walked down the street.
The gardens of the village looked colorful and lush at this time of the year, but one - close to the end of the road winding out of Hogsmeade and towards the famous school - stood out, both in the opulence of flowers and the joyful ripeness of its fruits. A wooden sign beside the garden gate said "Kelpie Cottage".
Graham Thomas- and Cymbeline-roses climbed the garden wall and hung down over it, hiding the demure grey under a fragrant tapestry of yellow and creamy white. A huge herb bed brimmed over with lady's mantle, rosemary, sweet marjoram and sage, and countless strawberries shimmered red under the cool shadow of green foliage.
A man stood at the far end of the front garden, where a narrow, paved path led to a bow of wrought iron, completely overgrown with ivy. Beside that bow, rue sprawled like a thick carpet close to the wall of the house, the yellow flower umbels swaying on top of long, green stems. The man carefully collected some of the spatulate leaves into a small basket, humming under his breath while he probed each one between his fingertips.
His face was broad, regular and tanned by a long summer, the eyes sharp and of a bright, translucent grey. The prominent nose looked as if it had been broken long ago, an uneven counterpoint to the clearly drawn plains of brow and cheeks, but never distracting from the generous, sensual mouth. Thick hair fell down to his shoulders; from the distance, it still showed a reddish brown, but an increasing number of silver streaks painted it with the unmistakable pattern of age. The man obviously endured those signs with aplomb; his features spoke of self-assurance and at the same time of a grim humour, gained by many years that had not always been easy.
The garden gate creaked softly in its hinges and swung open; a woman came down the path. The man turned around, smiled and went to meet her, gathering her in a close embrace.
"You are late, my Herb of Grace," he said, the smile widening. "What kept you so long? Winky has been complaining for more than two hours that her chicken pie is ruined. She gets increasingly despotic with the years."
"I am really sorry," the woman said. "I had to make a short detour to London, to discuss a marginal matter with Mafalda Hopkirk."
"A marginal matter?" The man shook his head. "What have you done - made the sketches of Miss Potter move and tell their stories to the shocked Muggle audience while you walked by?"
The woman bit her lip, and suddenly she looked like a schoolgirl, called to the Headmaster because of a particularly brazen prank.
"I didn't even make it into her house this time," she said, "Instead I played knight in shining armour for a frightened boy who had been bullied by a schoolmate for months."
"You... wait a moment." The eyes of the man narrowed. "My dear Ruta, do I really have to remind you that there's a thing like the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy?"
"No, Stephen, of course not." Ruta Seeker removed an imaginary fuzz from her husband's lapel. "One might say that I simply... ignored it, for a very short span of time."
"You ignored it, hm?" Stephen Seeker gave a fatalistic sigh. "What a brilliant idea."
He took her arm.
"I would suggest that we go inside, to save Winky's dinner. Afterwards we can open a bottle of wine, and then I'd really like to hear the story about your newest... er... adventure."
One hour later most of the dinner was eaten, the nerves of the trustworthy house-elf were soothed and a carafe with red wine stood on the table in the living room of Kelpie Cottage. Thanks to the mild July air, the fireplace was empty, but candles cast an unruly, golden light on the faces of the two people sitting opposite of each other in two comfortable stuffed chairs.
Ruta had emptied her second glass of wine and finally reached the part of the story when she hurried after the panicking boy and his pursuer. She told Stephen how she'd seen Phillip turning back and finally giving in; she had hidden under the oak, casting the Leg- Locker Curse.
"I cast it twice," she said. "I cast it and removed it almost immediately."
"Clever," her husband remarked, turning the delicate stem of his glass between thumb and forefinger. "That way it looked as if that stupid little brute fell over his own feet."
"Which is exactly what Phillip thought afterwards." Ruta smiled weakly. "I gave an impressive speech, assuring Jeremiah Tatterthwaite that from now on he would never commit any of his ruthless deeds without being witnessed and severely punished. We watched his inglorious withdrawal together, and I accompanied Phillip home. I left the street in Windermere where he lives just in time to keep him from witnessing the owl with Mafalda's message landing on my shoulder."
Stephen Seeker gave a little snort.
"What did she write?"
"Oh... she told me most politely that she wanted to discuss my violation of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, paragraph thirteen - consisting of my most inappropriate and repeated use of the Leg-Locker Curse, followed by an even more inappropriate Stupefy against a Muggle boy, cast in the presence of yet another Muggle."
Her husband sat straight up in his chair.
"A Stupefy?" he said, his voice a sharp whisper. "Did I miss something?"
There was a sudden frost in the grey eyes, and coldness radiated from him like from the rigid slopes of a glacier. Ruta registered it with a certain fascination. Stephen Seeker's appearance and identity was like a marvellous tailored coat that grew more and more comfortable with the years... but the man wearing it was still able to skin his enemies alive with nothing more than a single look.
Not her, of course. She was not his enemy, and she had never been afraid of him, not even in his former shape.
"I told Mafalda what I told you, my dear, and she assured me that my use of the Leg-Locker Curse would be reckoned as a lesser... ah... misdoing."
"She must have grown soft with age," Stephen growled. "Or she knows what I am still missing. Where did that careless Stupefy disappear in her summation?"
"It didn't," Ruta gently replied. "Someone did cast that Stupefy Curse... but not me."
"Who..." Suddenly the tall body of Stephen Seeker relaxed back into the chair, and he laughed softly. "The boy?"
"The boy, yes." Ruta's eyes were alight with the memory of the scene she had witnessed earlier that day. "Not deliberately, of course... he had no idea what he was doing. I was nearly forty yards away when that Jeremiah lad suddenly grabbed for his ankle. Phillip fell flat on his back, and I had great difficulties to aim properly. But then he yelled something - I am not entirely sure what it was, something like 'Go away!' or 'Let me be!' And the very next moment Master Jeremiah sailed backwards in a wide arch. It was a marvellous sight."
She reached out and felt his fingers, closing around her hand.
"Nearly four yards," she said. "He launched him nearly four yards. Not bad for someone without a wand."
"But with a good dose of rage and desperation in his heart," Stephen Seeker remarked thoughtfully. "And unformed magic often explodes in moments of danger."
"Your Phillip will undoubtedly be a remarkable wizard. I must say, I'm looking forward to meet him."
"Mafalda has written down my report," Ruta said. "Phillip's case will be examined, and I am certain that he will receive his letter some time next spring."
She rose from the chair and pulled her husband up with her.
"How about going to bed now?"
A slow smile spread on his face.
"Wonderful idea," he murmured. "I was just about to make the same suggestion."
A boy emerged from the shrunken group of nervous first year students and stumbled towards the low stool, sinking down on it with a sigh of relief. Filius Flitwick - who had taken over the placement of the Sorting Hat from the current Headmistress - stepped beside him, and a pair of frightened, brown eyes vanished beneath the worn-out flap.
A moment of deafening silence. Then...
The first table on the left gave a roaring cheer, and Phillip managed to walk in that direction, his knees wobbly. He slumped down beside another boy with an open, perky face who beamed at him. Phillip completely forgot to follow the rest of the sorting ceremony when he discovered that the hair of said boy had just turned from a reasonable hazelnut brown to a merry shade of green. He gaped at him with numb astonishment.
"Hello!" the boy said. "I'm Teddy Lupin." He interpreted Phillip's gaze correctly and made an apologetic gesture towards his grassy curls. "I'm a Metamorphmagus, you know."
"Aha," Phillip retorted, trying not to sound too stupid.
"I can change my looks anytime I want," Teddy Lupin explained, and a heavy burden rose from Phillip's heart when he understood that he was not being sneered at. Definitely no 'Jems'. He nearly missed that Teddy was now pelting him with questions.
"Are you a Muggle? Where do you come from? What did you think when you got your letter? What did your parents say?"
Phillip realized that he was completely unable to tell Teddy anything about the overwhelming turmoil of feelings that had crushed down on him and his family the day a big owl fluttered down on the roof of his mother's house in Windermere, carrying a sealed envelope. He was still unable to believe what had happened to him.
Again the boy seemed to understand.
"Never mind," he said, grinning at him. "You'll get used to it. All Muggle wizards do, after some time."
For the first time since he had entered the Great Hall, Phillip had a quiet moment to look around. A symphony of images flashed past his eyes - a silver snake on a field of green... a golden lion, raising his head from a pool of fiery scarlet... a bronze eagle, sailing trough a deep blue sky... a badger, resting on rich, yellow soil. The colors on banners and emblems surrounded him like a rainbow, a torrent of impressions, nearly too much to digest. He was incredibly thankful when Teddy nodded to the table where the teachers presided over the huge crowd of students.
"Look," he said, pointing at an elder woman with greying hair and a long, velvet robe made of a red and black tartan. "That is Minerva McGonagall, the Headmistress. And the man sitting beside her is Horace Slughorn, teacher for Potions. There's Hagrid - that giant who almost needs two chairs - and on the other side, that's Neville Longbottom. He's the teacher for Herbology. And next to Neville..."
He waved happily, and the woman between the giant and the Herbology teacher raised her hand and gave a short wave back. Phillip's gaze focused on her, and for the first time he stepped out of his swirling excitement and really saw one of the faces behind the teacher's table. The realisation hit him like a shock.
He knew her. That was...
"... Ruta Lupin. My aunt." Teddy said beside him. "No, Ruta Seeker. I always forget that she's married now."
Ruta Seeker slightly turned her head, and Phillip's eyes met hers. He held his breath, heart hammering wildly in his chest. She opened her mouth. Hello Phillip, her lips formed, I'm glad to see you.
They looked at each other, sharing a smile of pure joy.
Okay... Hill Top really exists, same as the Windermere St. Annes Boarding School and the Applegarth Hotel (most certainly with very nice and friendly owners...).
The child Ruta Seeker buys the set and the baby jacket for is Lily, Harry Potter's second child (who was born some time between July 2007 and August 2008, according to Harry Potter Wiki).
The name "Jeremiah Tatterthwaite" (that I spontaneously made up for Phillip's enemy) gave me a lot of amusement... and even more amusement after I had finished the tale and was looking for a good photograph of Hill Top's vegetable garden. I read Susan Denyer's fabulous book Beatrix Potter - At Home in the Lake District, and I found a short detail: When Miss Potter had just bought Hill Top, and while it was refurbished according to her wishes, she lived in Bell Green, as a boarding guest of the local smith's family. The man's name was Satterthwaite.